1917 and the Aesthetic Dichotomy of the One Shot Film
One’s subjective experience of the world is essentially a one shot film. There are elements of editing—i.e. when we sleep or blink, but for the most part we experience life in one continuous handheld shot (truthfully, editing of our lives is done through our memories but we shall leave this notion for now). Yes, there is often some bad camerawork; the focus puller might not be on set for the first hour of the day or so, but we make do. Sunglasses may just be considered cheap ND filters, and so on.
But the key difference between the human eye and the camera is the servitude of the eye to the brain. The eye itself is a reproductive organ (as in its function is to reproduce images), but its partnership with the brain dictates that it have a filtering function rather than a creative one. Meaning that the eyes’ functions are to showcase “reality” in order for the brain to filter in only the information that is useful to us, and filter out the noise. This function can sometimes be done in a conscious and knowing manner (as when we are looking for something in particular) or a subconscious and unknowing manner (when something simply catches our eye).
Contrastingly, the camera is subservient to the director, and everything that the camera records is done with deliberate intent on the part of the filmmaker. As the audience, we see only what the director wants us to see and nothing else; the frame is to be considered as a whole. When a filmmaker decides to make a film a one shot film, they have to make difficult decisions on the cinematic language of the film. This is precisely where the aesthetic and experiential dichotomy of one shot films emerges, particularly showcased by the case of 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes).
The whole essence of the decision to shoot the film as visually one shot is based on the idea of immersion. Mendes wanted to show a war story in real time in order for the audience to experience a sequence of events in war as they would play out for the protagonists. In doing so, the film successfully showcases how life in war can go from terror, to tenderness to solitude, to regret, to laughter, to melancholy, to exhilaration and everything in between at any given moment. But the form of the film seemed more disruptive than immersive to me.
In an interview with Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, Mendes said of the language: “It’s challenging to keep it from becoming repetitive. Even though, as you say, it’s sticking with one or two characters, ultimately the film is constantly shifting your relationship with them, and so the point of view isn’t always subjective. Sometimes you see them, but don’t see what they see. Sometimes you see what they see before they do. Sometimes it’s very intimate and very subjective; sometimes it’s very objective, and you see them quite small in a big landscape.
So, there’s a dance between the camera and the characters and the landscapes, all three of which are moving all the time. That [cinematic] language was something that [cinematographer] Roger Deakins and I really worked hard to kind of develop.”
This dance is exactly what I found disturbing. I believe that once the decision to make a one shot film is made, whether the film is going to be told from a subjective or objective viewpoint should be fixed. As there was a back and forth, I found myself getting confused. Should I be experiencing this film as a comrade in battle, in the trenches along with them, or should I be experiencing it as a spectator of war, with the camera as a narrator? Yes, I did lose myself within the film during multiple sequences, but I would have to reorient myself whenever a jarring change of perspective took place.
Roger Deakins has stated that he wanted to use a camera and lenses on this project that represented the world as close to how we perceive it ourselves. Mendes and him were clear that the movement should generally be smooth and not jerky. Here itself is a contradiction. Our perception of the world is often jerky, despite our internal mental stabilization system. Perception during war would be even jerkier and more haphazard for the participants.
The movement of the camera in 1917 is almost always smooth and objective; we glide over a body of water and through barbed wire, almost as in free-cam mode of a video game. The camera booms and pans to direct our attention with authorial intent. It is this back and forth between objective and subjective points of view that appears jarring. Sharp pans and focus pulls attempting to showcase subjective viewpoints of characters call attention to the camera itself and distract from the otherwise lucid, objective narratorial camera. Even in moments of tremendous chaos, the camera retains its fluid nature.
The objective and fluid camera complements the literary nature of the narrative. But the pulp fiction war novel narrative itself is the biggest issue of the film. The screenplay just does not hold up and the dialogue feels like something out of a first person shooter. This, combined with the movement of the camera makes the whole movie feel like an extended video game cutscene, with all the fun gameplay moments cut out. Certain moments of subjective POVs tease us with what could’ve happened had Mendes treated the camera as an extension of the characters themselves, rather than a separate entity. A subjective viewpoint combined with a better screenplay could’ve elevated 1917 from the realm of popular cinema to art.
Ultimately, none of this seems to make an impact on the actual reception of the film. Most critics and audiences liked the film (89% of critics and 88% of audiences on Rotten Tomatoes). This disconnect between theory, practice, and perception is a plague to film industries around the world. While theorists and some critics might look at 1917 on a formal and aesthetic level, i.e. truly considering the impact of form and language on experience, most viewers think nothing of the sort.
Until we marry theory and practice, and promote visual literacy amongst audiences, cinema will broadly continue to be regarded as an entertaining medium rather than an educative one. Most viewers will walk into movie theaters like the ignorant tourist in a museum—look at a masterpiece by someone like Picasso and think “Oh it’s beautiful!” or “I don’t like it,” rather than “I see what it is trying to say,” and “I think this is what it means,” and “I can use this to live a richer life.”