13 January 2020

The Pink Feather Of History

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Imagine a world in which we could be conscripted into war. Horrible, isn't it? I get the hump when my phone has the balls to tell me that it considers itself to be “sufficiently charged” and so you can imagine how I'd feel about being ordered to plunge a knife into a German's throat. I'm not even against violence either, to be honest with you. I'm not going to kill for any nationalistic bullshit but if I'm at the cinema and a group of kids start taking selfies then my first basic urge is to run along their row with a fucking chainsaw. But war? Like actual war? Fuck that. Especially now that we have social media. Back in the day, we'd join up because we believed in king and country and all of that bollocks. But Twitter is like the masked magician where the magic of politics is concerned. Whether it's sawing a woman in half or starting a war, I guess things just seem less special when you've seen what goes on behind the scenes. The Second World War is taught to death in our schools but I don't remember the first world war coming up that much. Wikipedia's opening gambit on how that war started is, “the causes of World War 1 remain controversial”, and even the BBC's revision page begins with, “historians disagree about what caused the First World War”. If it happened these days I reckon it'd be pretty simple to find out the cause. Just wait for any two world leaders to change their relationship status to, “it's complicated” and then simply DM them, “u ok hun?”, whilst stocking up on fucking tinned food. 

Director Sam Mendes is now in the small number of modern directors to tackle a film set during this first world war with his latest 1917. I'm not sure why 1917 is so specific a year for this film though? Why couldn't it have been set in 1916 for example? I don't know is the answer. But I do know which four-digit code I'll be typing in if I ever manage to steal Sam Mendes's fucking credit card. This film is one long and impressive tracking shot though that charts the journey of two soldiers as they adventure behind enemy lines and with a message that could save thousands if they're able to deliver it. It's one shot too? Did I mention that? So impressive. How do they make a two-hour movie without the camera cutting once? I mean I've heard Mendes repeatedly mention that it's only one shot in interviews. It's part of the advertising of this movie. One-shot. Wow. It's mind-blowing really. Or it would be if it actually fucking was one shot. I'm not even being an arse-hole about this either. I'm aware that most movies that claim to consist entirely of a single take are really multiple shots that have been cleverly edited together. I couldn't give a shit about that. Fine. Whatever. But this film does have a fucking cut in it. About halfway through the story one of our heroes is shot at and knocked out causing a hard cut to black. When we return to the story a significant amount of time has passed and the camera is in a completely different position to how it was left. So unless it was me that blacked the fuck out.. and with the amount of cheese in my daily diet, I'm not denying that's a possibility... how the fuck does that still count as one shot? No wonder we still haven't figured out how this fucking war started when some of us still can't seem to count to fucking two. 

But does this technique of being two... not one... shots long actually work for the movie? There's a German film called Victoria from a few years ago that does consist of one shot and that I would argue is one of the most immersive movies that I've ever experienced. They even did it the hardcore way of actually being one-shot long too and not the multiple shots cleverly stitched together. Damn those Germans are so efficient. There's no denying though that long takes are often just used by filmmakers to show off how brilliant they are. Mendes did a pretty long take himself during the opening sequence of his previous film Spectre which I suspect was mostly just to show off. I've even read accusations aimed at 1917 that claim this gimmick has turned the horror of war into a roller-coaster experience, which I completely get. The way the camera jerks and glides about does have the feel of a rickety old ghost train about it but without the added smell of a couple of teenagers fingering each other on a carriage further back. Well. Depending on which cinema you're in a suppose. For the most part, though I do think that this technique does work quite well here. Or at least it does in terms of creating suspense and tension. It's almost like your subconscious is waiting for the cut which adds to the anxiety of waiting for the main characters to get shot at or whatever danger it is that they're trying to avoid. The only issue is in knowing that the film is actually multiple shots that have been stitched together you end up getting distracted and treating it like a depressed young emo by trying to spot where the cuts might be. 

I don't know how well these two single takes will work for the film over time. Will everything still be tense on second viewing and you know when the bullet will be fired? Or will it now just consist of ten-minute sequences in which we watch people creep tediously slowly through the mud like a drunk Bill Oddie on his way to do some birdwatching? I guess we'll find out. But I suspect the film will survive regardless because of the work of three other people involved. Thomas Newman's score is fucking incredible and adds such a sense of dread that if you played it as the soundtrack to a porno then I think I'd end up gripping so hard that I'd pop my dick. And not in a good way. Roger Deakins cinematography is as mind-blowing as ever with every frame of this movie being as good as any art that you could hang on your wall. Sure, I say that as somebody who has a painting of the Hulk having a piss at a urinal on my wall but I still mean it as a compliment. George MacKay is also brilliant as the central character and essentially our avatar throughout. He's a good-looking guy but he's got a face that looks so haunted that I feel he needs an Exorcist more than a make-up artist. He looks like an old painting of an abused medieval lord that we'll one day discover was bricked up in a secret room and starved to death. Actually. I wrote that as a joke but now I'm half remembering that did happen to him in one of his other films. Either way, it works here too. I have no clue how MacKay achieves this dead-eyed look of horror but I suspect it requires him staring into a magic mirror and at a reflection of his own worst nightmares before each take.

People might not be able to specifically agree on the exact causes of the first world war but the consensus seems to be that a rise in nationalism played a huge part. This would be particularly worrying right now if it wasn't for the fact that I know a nuke will burn my flesh off before anybody decides I should have to go and fight. Ah, the comforting security of the skin melting bomb. 1917's main message might be in condemning the pointlessness of war. Like The Charge Of The Light Brigade, it's about the futility of men being told to run towards certain death in the name of their country. But like all war movies, 1917 also falls into the genre's primary trap of glorifying the actions of all involved. Do I think that 1917 is a good film? Yes. Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it worth seeing? Sure. But in the book Jarhead that Mendes himself then went on to adapt into a film, there's a section in which we're told, “war films are all pro-war films no matter what there intended message”, “the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty”, and “filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his first real fuck”. As such there's a chance that by failing to outright condemning nationalism or even look at the cause of how this chaos all started 1917 has unintentionally added to the idea that there's a glory to war. To continue the Jarhead author Anthony Swofford's analogy, 1917 is two hours of slow but intense edging that culminates in such a massive spaffing explosion that no matter what you're politics are I'm sure that you'll leave exhausted but satisfied. Thanks for reading, motherfuckers, and see you next time. 

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