Thursday 16 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop dissects the reception for 1917 (Sam Mendes, USA/UK, 2019)

Among the serious Oscar contenders, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is one of the last to find its way into cinemas.
It opened in the United States and Canada on Christmas Day, in Australia and the UK on 10thJanuary and is scheduled for release in another 24 countries by 23rdof January.
Countless preview screenings would have occurred before those release dates, including the 87 Golden Globe voters who gave it Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Director (Motion Picture) earlier this month.
It has received 10 nominations for the coming Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director; nine nominations for the BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Director and has won four of its eight nominations in the Critics Choice Awards, including Best Director.
On the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, at the time of writing, the film is currently running at 90% favourable for reviews (296) and 90% for audience votes (5060).
1917is clearly a big threat to the American filmmakers nominated in the Academy Awards Best Picture category – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Todd Phillips. It’s an American financed British film, that is, oh-so-British.
These are the days of dirty tricks campaigns for positioning and lobbying the Academy voters. Here’s hoping the following nonsense churned out by Richard Brody and Matthew Rozsa - given pride-of-place as the first two reviews featured on Rotten Tomatoes- aren’t part of that game.
Brody in The New Yorker opens his review with this paragraph:
The most vulgar special effect I saw last year…was in 1917, and depicted the death of a soldier in combat. The soldier is stabbed, and, as he bleeds out, his face is leached of pinkness and turns papery white just before he expires. The character’s death would have been as wrenching for viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely fell limp. Instead the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment picturesque – to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove, and that would have stood for the ineffable horror of the experience. Instead, rendered as a special effect, the character’s end becomes merely poignant – not terrifying or repulsive - making for a very tasteful death.”
Brody seems to be saying that writing about or orally describing blood draining from the face of a dying soldier is ok, but showing it in a film by a special effect is making the death “picturesque” “merely poignant” and “tasteful” instead of “terrifying or repulsive”. He thinks leaving the soldier’s appearance unaltered and having his body fall limp, would have been just as “wrenching for viewers”.
It’s an oddly distanced misunderstanding of the way cinema actually works, let alone the realism of a stabbing death. Things get worse as he opens his second paragraph:
That tastefulness [Mendes’ portrayal of the death] is the mark of the utter tastelessness of 1917…the simulacrum of…the so-called long take serves as a mask – a gross bit of earnest showmanship that both conceals and reflects the trickery and the cheap machinations of the script, the shallowness of the direction of the actors, and the brazenly superficial and emotion-dictating musical score.”
Not sure how a “so-called long take…conceals…the cheap machinations of the script” or even “the shallowness of the direction of the actors”. I would have thought it was just the opposite. Without quick-cut editing or the more-than-the-sum of-its-parts techniques of montage, a cheap script and poor direction of actors would be more exposed, not less, by long takes. In fact, I’m sure it would.
The Academy Awards crowd don’t think it’s a cheap script. They have nominated it for Best Original Screenplay. But what would they know?
And what would I know?  I’ve always - erroneously it appears - thought a major purpose of screen music was to underline the emotions in a scene. 
And then we have Matthew Rozsa at who opens with:
1917 is a movie that perfectly fits Donald Trump’s agenda, even if the filmmakers did not intend for that…as I watched it, I felt very uneasy, not for aesthetic reasons, but for moral ones.”
His argument goes: any film set during World War I “…has a responsibility to account for the horrors of nationalism, much as a film that takes place during the Civil War must deal with slavery, and one that occurs during World War II must acknowledge fascism…to do otherwise is to make war seem impersonal, like a natural disaster or a plague, rather than as an affliction caused by human beings – and for which people should be held accountable.”
Natural disasters are impersonal? Try telling that to any Australian living through our summer of infernos.
Rozsa’s argument is all very nice and “woke”, even though I would have thought making war impersonal was more applicable to the USA dropping atomic bombs on Japan from a great height or using satellite technology to watch, on screen, as drones destroy buildings, explode cars and kill people – just like a video game. At least in 1917, the stabbing of the soldier is personal, whatever Richard Brody might think.
Wagging fingers at British filmmakers for not politically explaining the origins of World War I the way Rozsa might wish, is, of course, the right of any critic. But perhaps those filmmakers aren’t as certain as he is. After all, even a renowned American Nobel Prize winner for Literature feels: “The First World War, it came and it went, the reason for fighting, I never did get.”
And Trump? I’ve re-read Rozsa’s piece a couple of times and still struggle with the Trump analogy. Something about Trump’s appeal to nationalism, Mendes not dealing with the nationalist origins of World War I and his film just presenting war-as-hell.  His leap to “1917is a movie that perfectly fits Donald Trump’s agenda” eludes me.
What would he have said about Apocalypse NowFull Metal Jacketand The Deer Hunter? They are “war-is-hell” films that completely failed to address America’s imperialist intervention in a Vietnamese Civil War that left 2 million civilians dead and 5 million sprayed with Agent Orange? And in the case of The Deer Hunter, a film that presented war-as-hell, but many felt was actually fascist. 
1917deserves better critical thinking than Brody or Rozsa can muster. There’s something artificial about the arguments they raise.

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