I mean no disrespect to Sam Mendes when I say I saw 1917 as purely a “technical” achievement. I kept going: Wow! Wow! Wow! By now, long-take movies are their own little sub-genre, and long-take wartime scenes are their own little sub-trope – you only have to recall the Dunkirk stretch from Joe Wright’s Atonement or the single-shot sequences in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. And yet, 1917 – despite its utterly basic storyline – is special. For one, the decision to shoot the whole film in one (apparently) seamless take – the cinematographer is Roger Deakins – doesn’t come across as a gimmick. Or to use Alfred Hitchcock’s word, a “stunt”.
While speaking about Rope (1948) in the book of interviews with François Truffaut, the Master revealed why he shot the film – his first in Technicolor – in a series of unbroken takes: because the story itself takes place without a break. “It starts at 7:30 and finishes about 9:15, and I got this crazy idea of saying, ‘Well, maybe if I could do it in one shot, the whole film…’ When I look back, of course, it’s quite nonsensical and unreal, because I was breaking all my own tradition of using film, in the cutting of film, to tell a story.”
Now, let’s examine the word “unreal” – because that’s the exact opposite of how Alejandro González Iñárritu looked at his single-take film Birdman. He told Variety, that “we live our lives with no editing. From the time we open our eyes, we live in a Steadicam form, and the only editing is when we talk about our lives or remember things. So I wanted this character to be submerged in that inescapable reality, and the audience has to live these desperate three days alongside him”. This is the very definition of “real” – so why does Hitchcock call the single-take technique “unreal”?
Because Iñárritu’s definition, if applied in its most literal sense, could extend to every character, every film. As Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out”. Editing is the thing that shapes events, narratives, life itself. Submit yourself to a thought exercise with the shower murder in Psycho. At the time, of course, you could not show a naked woman being stabbed to death. Graphic nudity was by itself frowned upon, and when the scene involves graphic violence as well, you had to find a workaround. The result was one of Hitchcock’s most legendary stretches of editing, one that “hacks” away at footage the way the poor woman is hacked to death.
Now, imagine the same scene shot in a single take. I can’t. For me, the scene is about, say, the dissolve / match-cut from the bathtub drain to the murdered woman’s eye – an effect that can only be obtained through editing. This may not be real-life “reality” – but I prefer this version, this cinematic “reality”. Because cinema isn’t real. The more you try to convince me that something is actually happening on screen – through, say, the single take – the more I am convinced that it is “unreal”. Because I am no longer invisibly immersed in the film. The craft is too obvious. The film, thus, becomes purely a “technical” achievement.
I’m talking about Rope as well as 1917. I admire the hell out of both these films, but they exist at a remove – despite the fact that the single-take moving camera doesn’t come across as a cheap gimmick. Usually, the “reason” for the camera to move is one of the following. (1) You are following the character as he/she moves. (2) You are following the character’s thoughts, as they drift away. (3) You want to reveal something that’s outside the frame (or hidden someplace inside in the frame). (4) You want to focus on something (say, you want to “isolate” one of the many characters in a room by zooming in on him/her). I’m sure you can think of other reasons, but generally speaking, this is the drill – otherwise, you are just “showing off” with the camera.
The constantly roving camera in 1917 checks all these boxes and then some – and it keeps finding ways to make the jaw drop. (I mean, that waterfall scene!) And yet, compare the (“unedited”) plane-crash sequence here with the (“edited”) crop-duster plane sequence from North by Northwest. Mendes has to clumsily foreshadow the plane crash by showing a dogfight in the sky, and because of the single-take nature, you expect something dramatic to happen with these planes. Hitchcock, on the other hand, is able to toy with us because of the freedom that editing gives him. He can afford to make the crop-duster a speck in the sky, of no apparent significance at first. He can put us in Cary Grant’s shoes, not knowing where or when the attack is going to happen.
To reject editing, I feel, is to reject the notion of “realism”. (I’m talking about mainstream storytelling, as opposed to something art-house and experimental like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark.) Yes, Iñárritu’s version of “realism” is how life unfolds, but without the skilful manipulations of editing, we don’t get as immersed in the story unfolding on screen – and this immersion is what makes things feel “real” in a movie. The five-minute tracking shot in Atonement becomes more “real” and “immersive” to me than all of 1917, because it follows the protagonist and “sees” what he “sees”, and thus gives us a sense of what it must have been like on that beach.
László Nemes’s Son of Saul is another great example of a cinematographic “gimmick” pulling us into – instead of away from – the film. The story is set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, during World War II – it follows the protagonist’s (Saul) attempts to give a traditional Jewish burial to a boy who’s been gassed to death. There may be a panoramic shot or two – say, the out-of-focus visual of a massive pyre of bodies being burnt. Otherwise, the camera is merely inches from Saul: sometimes in front of him (so we are looking at him), sometimes to his side (so his face is in profile), but mostly behind him (so the back of his neck fills the screen).
It’s a revolutionary technique, and the effect is claustrophobia. You feel as though you are literally there, with Saul. In one harrowing stretch, as Saul swims across a river, we seem to be in the water with him, feeling his breath as he gasps for air. And due to the closeness of the camera, there is a constant sense of discovery. A wide shot may have given us information that Saul does not yet have (say, about the layout of the place, or an SS officer who lies in wait) – but now, we discover things with Saul. What he sees, we see— and only up to a distance. The rest is out of focus. The result is the antithesis of a Schindler’s List, the micro instead of the macro.
But in 1917, I kept seeing the “choreography” – which is undoubtedly dazzling. I repeat: this is a film that should be seen. But despite its strengths, it feels like a collection of set pieces instead of one organic journey. I kept “sensing” Mendes and Deakins more than I sensed the protagonist. Take another technological marvel, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, with its lengthy single-take opening shot. But afterwards, you get edits. You get shots of varying lengths that aren’t just about “choreography”. You see the film and the jaw drops. You also feel it, and the heart swells. There isn’t one stretch in 1917 that makes us feel the horrors of war the way the two massive battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan do, the way the psycho finale of Apocalypse Now does, the way even the musings in The Thin Red Line do. Sam Mendes has pulled off a remarkable technical coup, but his film might have been even more remarkable had he, more often, simply yelled “cut”.