1917 Sam Mendes (UK 2019) George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman
viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 14 Jan 2020; Ticket: £10.75
Mendes ‘1917’ is a ‘Quest’ movie. ‘1917’ uses the war as plausible backdrop against which this simple motif can be played out. In the course of the movie, ‘the questors – the protagonists’ must move through multiple zones, overcome a number of different obstacles and pass a series of ‘tests’. In this sense ‘1917’s’ structure form and story line give testament to the ever closer alignment of the games and movie industry. Games beget movies, movies beget games.
‘1917’ as a movie adds nothing to our emotional or psychic understanding of this war in particular or any war in general. Mendes’ films in a fashion similar to a James Bond movie, is simply about completing the course.
The significant formal feature of ‘1917’ is the extent to which it makes little use of traditional film montage language. In ‘1917’ all the editing has been subsumed into the camera movement. ‘1917’s’ through the lens editing comprises: tight shots, wide shots, two shots, close-ups etc. all achieved through the camera choreography. Traditional film language uses all of these types of shots but adds a temporal and spacial value to these types of shots by the manner in which they are spliced together. Cuts sometimes serving different purposes and sequences of cuts, montage, creating micro psychic statements endemic to the film’s expressive purpose. Edits and montage creating illusion of temporal continuity, atemporal continuity, discontinuity and manipulating psychological connections. The direction of traditional camera movement also exploits uncertainty about what the view the camera itself represents (privileged viewer, narrator, another player, a zombie etc). Insecurity about the shifts in camera perspective are easily manipulated to create tensions in both action and horror films. Editing and montage have the capacity to regulate a film’s rhythm and tempo creating a logic of internal tensions and tension resolutions that are built into the scenarios.
Mendes camera is more like a faithful dog. It follows and skirts around the protagonists. The perspective is to some extent loosely based on the type of framing prevalent in electronic games. But one key perspective is missing from ‘1917’: this is the shot that represents the ‘point of view’. Given the nature of the situation, two men, beset by danger on every side, on a quest to deliver a message, the omission of the camera shot that represents point of view, that induces us to see what they see, affects the delivery of tensions in Mendes’ movie. There is surprisingly little tension in the scenario: tension is replaced by spectacle. The plane that crashes, the burning village, the ordeal by water: these are spectacularly resolved and designed to overwhelm the audience with the experience of immersion. But of course the actual experience of two such men on a mission such as supposed by the script would have been mediated by excruciating tension, mediated by what they see and every step they take, a potential mis-step. Mendes in ‘1917’ is stripping out the psychologic reality of war time missions, and replacing it with an evocation of the hallucinogenic state of mind.
The ‘1917’ camera in holding to its spacial continuity line of following and skirting, lends the film a one dimensional relationship with the passing of time. Thinking about Clouzot’s ‘Wages of Fear’ which in some ways has a similar quest theme, the weight of the passage of time is built into the editing. The movement of the camera through the zones, through the men in the cabs of the trucks, through the trials of the road, are edited to build time as a physical element with its own markers into the scenario. In ‘1917’ time seems to dissolve into the spacial displacements and arrangements of the film. Despite the illusion of continuity, the spaces of ‘1917’ merge into each other, becoming one fluid geopyschic experience. With the language of the film predicated on space, time takes on a secondary function, loses touch with the markers of its passage, despite the time-based urgency of the mission.
One thing to remark in the film is the spoken language, the scripted words. In the script there seemed to be two linguistic codes at work. Language usage particular to the 1917 era, a more formal restrained expression of feeling, intermixed with today’s contemporary speech with its regular articulation of an expletive such as ‘fuck’. Interesting that the more restrained verbal mode of the setting was much more effective as an expressive device to describe the on going disaster than the full on emotive cascade more genearally employed today.