Bully Beef

There are some big spoilers further down.

To the Vue Ocean Terminal with its good cheap prices and recliner seats, to see a bunch of car commercials (the Peugeot one unusually inept for this day and age) and 1917, the fabled long take WWI epic from Sam Mendes.

Now, I haven’t watched a Mendes film since AMERICAN BEAUTY. I’ve half-watched his James Bonds. It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, I had some problems with AB but I thought aspects of it were good and he stole from the best (that BIGGER THAN LIFE shot). I just had too many precodes and giallos and 70s scifi movies to watch to find room for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The one that would have been interesting for comparison purposes is JARHEAD, I guess.

What drew me this time was the long take conceit, and folks saying you had to see it on the big screen. Possibly true — I might have drifted off as I did with SPECTRE if this had been at home.

Here’s the thing — the behind-the-scenes ads tried to sell this as an actual single take, which you could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be. But it doesn’t even PRETEND to be a single take — we cut to black around the midpoint when our hero is knocked unconscious, and fade up hours later. I could have asked for my money back at that point, couldn’t I?

(I did actually take my seat thinking, Wouldn’t it be funny if, like ROPE, this had one or more absolutely blatant cuts in it? Well, we never cut directly from one image to another but we do go to black and change scenes, so it ain’t continuous.)

The next two questions I had to satisfy were whether the long take thing was effective, and whether the joins were skillfully managed. I feel like you can sense something off about some of the fast pans in THE REVENANT, a feeling that digital jiggery-pokery is being worked to tie separate images together. Would this be like that?

No, in fact. This is more like in ROPE when John Dahl walks into the camera, blocks the lens, and then walks away again. Ridiculous. I mean, it’s not quite like that, the image isn’t totally obscured, but Roger Deakins’ camera goes wandering around people and objects and lets them more or less occlude the image and a digital join is effected, and I was very conscious that the camera had no reason to be circling back there other than to make that join easy to manage.

But the first question is the key one: what effect does the long take have? Is it immersive or distracting? That may depend on how shot-conscious you are, and that in turn may be effected by how convinced you are by everything.

JARHEAD was written by a veteran and I gather it succeeds in terms of convincing detail, both environmental and behavioral. Obviously WWI is much further away historically than the Gulf War, which is where research comes in I guess. And talent. This film is written by Sam Mendes, who is not a writer, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns who I imagine must be a distant relative of mine.

I think, on a positive note, the film shows that the walk-and-talk shot can be sustained without loss of interest almost indefinitely. With continuous movement, there may not be something new to look at every second, but there’s always GOING to be, and we sense that.

On the other hand, I’m very picky when it comes to realism. Seeing soldiers pissing against a wall, it made me wonder how long the protagonist was going to go without relieving himself. When he gives away his canteen to a needy civilian, I was skeptical, especially seeing the milk bottle in the background into which he could easily have decanted its contents. How long is it going to take the army to issue you a new unbreakable bottle, Lance Corporal? And do you realise you can be court-martialled for losing army property?

The test of the single-take (or, in this case, two-take) illusion should be, does it make the film better? I’m fairly sure this movie could have done its job better as a series of long takes, using cuts for dramatic effect and thus obviating the need for transforming the hero into a CGI puppet when he goes over a waterfall, or having boulders pass through frame close to camera, from behind which he will emerge in a totally different position.

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Oh, but there are guest stars! I didn’t feel it while watching, but afterwards I came to think of these bits as the cut scenes in a video game — a sort of First World War second person shooter. The only actor to make a real impression on me, besides our protags, was the ever-tricksy Andrew Scott, who seizes on his single character trait like a ravening terrier and worries it to death, but he brings the entertainment and isn’t around long enough to wear out his welcome. He’s very funny and arguably wrong for the film but I’ll take what fun I can get, thanks.

Some good things: effective use of offscreen space, some non-white characters, very beautiful night scenes.

But I think the film makes some peculiar choices which fly in the face of its own aesthetic. The wall-to-wall music — my impression was it coated around a third of the film — gets in the way of any “realistic” or “immersive” approach. Music is good for many things, but it doesn’t make things more REALISTIC. I would love to have heard what some of the film’s evocatively ravaged landscapes sounded like, without Thomas Newman’s very modern score.

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When we meet a French civilian, she gets subtitles, which I found EXTRAORDINARY. If we’re meant to be sharing the experience of our protag, who doesn’t speak much French but helpfully speaks aloud his translations of the words he understands, how are subs going to help put us in his boots? (This film is really anxious for us to understand everything — when we enter the German trenches and somebody finds a brazier with still-hot ash, he helpfully remarks, “Not long gone.”)

That French civilian is initially afraid of our hero, but she relaxes when he explains that he’s British. Because we’re the good guys. Now, it’s not impossible that this might happen, I suppose. But if I were a French civilian, especially a young woman, I’d probably be a bit nervous of ANY lone soldier, whatever their country of origin. And I think it would make a more dramatic and convincing scene if the hero had to PROVE he meant no harm.

But the film is very committed to its goodies-baddies binary. One protag is stabbed to death by a German pilot he’s just rescued from a burning plane. Odd behaviour from the pilot, I have to say. The film’s frame of reference — follow two, then one, British soldiers, staying close — means it has limited opportunities to humanize the enemy. The rigor with which it rejects those opportunities is jawdropping.

It’s fine that the protags are pissed off that the Germans have left tripwires and explosives in their path, and killed the livestock and chopped down the cherry trees. We don’t need our characters to be even-handed about things.

The only other German we “meet” is the young soldier our hero throttles. First he claps a hand over the guy’s mouth and tells him to stay quiet. But when he un-gags the guy, he calls for help (he doesn’t get any subtitles though). What an absolute swine.

I *think* the subsequent strangulation was intended, along with the Hun’s youth, to make us think about how horrible hand-to-hand murder must be, but it’s staged in silhouette with another German pottering about obliviously in the background, so the primary emotion is suspense — we’re hoping our man doesn’t get caught. We’re rooting for him to soundlessly asphyxiate this Hun.

In the end, you’ll be glad to know, our chap successfully extinguishes life in his opponent AND delivers his message in time to stop the futile attack (because in WWI, it’s important to know, futile attacks were called off um lemme think for a second NO) AND thus saves the life of his friend’s brother. Apart from Benedict Cumberbatch being a bit grumpy, and his friend being dead, it’s all been a ripping success.

I had my doubts about this war but do you know, I think everything’s going to be fine.

14 Responses to “Bully Beef”

  1. “Odd behaviour from the pilot, I have to say.”

    Yeah, I’d been giving the film the benefit of doubt up until then, even wondering if it was going to be the film that would change my mind about Sam Mendes. I quite liked the early scenes in No Man’s Land, with the mud and craters and all – but the grievously-injured-but-irredeemably-evil German pilot definitively lost me. (And did the Germans really booby-trap their bunkers? Wouldn’t they have had better things to do?) It gave up any pretence of being a harrowing, realistic immersive experience reflecting the reality of war, and became a third-rate melodrama. Sam Mendes strikes again!

    Of course, it will probably end up with Oscars galore, so what do I know. (Also, I would like to hear what you think of Revolutionary Road, which I found unbelievably clunky and awful, though have yet to meet anyone who agrees with me. Mendes is like the poster child for makers of Films For People Who Don’t Really Like Films.)

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Very good review DC. You may want to look up wsws.org’s “A technological Step Forward: several ideological and artistic steps back.” Since you mention subtitles and know the work of Helmut Kautner have you seen his 1954 “The Last Bridge ” with Maria Schell as a German nurse captured by Yugoslav partisans whose speech is not subtitled thus contributing to the alienation and confusion surrounding her?n

  3. Mark Fuller Says:

    Agree entirely. On the realism front, and I would need to rewatch it to be absolutely certain, at no point after the leaving of the first trench does Our Hero reload his rifle. That magazine only carries five rounds, and I’m 90% sure he poops off more than that. But I’m more worried about the portrayal of the German fighters; have we really reverted to Boy’s Own Adventures where we have to annihilate The Damned Boche ???

  4. I’m not really sure it IS a technological step forward, since fake long takes have been done, and genuine single-shot movies have been done. It’s certainly a leap back in time to 1917-era attitudes.

    About the only explanation I can think of for the psycho flier is MAYBE this was a story Mendes got from his granddad. But if so, he could still offer some kind of balance. What a film to offer up at this political moment.

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, Correct again on the technological aspect since the wsws.org. people are often not fully versed in cinematic developments but I would say that most audiences (and popular reviewers) would think this is something new oblivious of what has been tried in the past, that Russian director who did the long-take film about the Hermitage being the most recent examplel.

  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    George is adorable as always. But a few year back he was in a far superior war film . The enemy in that case was of course Margaret Thatcher

  7. I always have trouble taking the wsws people seriously, despite sympathising with their politics. It reminds me of a parody of a muscle mag that featured film reviews but they judged every film on how much bodybuilding it included. Citizen Kane was dismissed as “weedy.”

    I picked up a heist thriller called Victoria which purports to be a one-shot film, more recent than Russian Ark. I should take the great leap and actually watch it.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes DC, but not entirely, though their failure to understand Samuel Fuller films and the perennial Clint/Loach bashing does war on one after a while. However, they published a decent obituary on Tony Garnett despite his association with Loach.

    However, they do have more respect for Welles and Kane than your muscle mag.

  9. The recent-ish (2015) neo-noir “Too Late” with John Hawkes was filmed in 5 22-minute shots, which I didn’t realize until I went to the Wikipedia page to look up something else. Since I didn’t notice it, I didn’t find it distracting, although there were a couple of moments when I wondered why they were going with a pretty clunky camera move rather than reverse angle or something. The 5 sequences are not shown in chronological order (segments 3 and 4 are actually first and last, for instance). I liked it but maybe a little too much energy went into working out the formal problems. Still– Robert Forster! Joanna Cassidy!

  10. Sounds interesting, and 35mm too. You can’t buy it, apparently, but it’s on Amazon Prime…

  11. ehrenstein47 Says:

    My favorite long take film is “Gare du Nord” Jean Rouch’s episode in “Paris vu par” (1965) It has an opening establishing shot and then we’re inside a flat where Nadine (frequent non-pro Rouch star) is having an argument with her husband (Barbet Schroeder) . He was a handsome Sports God when she married him but now he’s begun to lose his looks (as far as she’s concerned) and he’s bored with her life. So she storms out of the apartment, gets into the elevator (where Rouch cleverly hides a cut) and walks into the street. Crossing a bridge a handsome stranger comes up to her and promises everything she was just complaining about not having if she’ll run away with him. Nadine hesitates, thinks a nanosecond and then says no. His response is to jump over the bridge and throw himself onto the railway tracks below Rouch then cuts to the last show which is the camera rapidly pulling away from Nadine’s horrified face to take in the scene from a distance.

  12. ,,,proving, perhaps, that one of the great benefits of a long take is the dramatic impact of the cut at the end of it.

  13. bensondonald Says:

    Re the canteen: During WWII, Bill Mauldin did a drawing of Willie and Joe standing amidst twisted hardware as a British soldier commented “You Yankees leave a messy battlefield.” He took some heat for it, explaining in a book later that the British, necessarily stingy and and protective about every piece of equipment. were stunned that Americans could seemingly shrug off a lost rifle or wrecked vehicle.

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