The road goes ever on and on: one-shotting 1917

A lot has been written about 1917 already, Sam Mendes’ latest movie and his first non-Bond film in years. I won’t be offering a full-blown review; I liked the film, though I think it’s better as a technical achievement than as storytelling, and in terms of the latter I don’t think it does anything particularly new or different compared to many other films about the First World War. However, I don’t think its form can be dismissed just as a gimmick – doing so strikes me as, well, silly, because there is clearly a purpose to the one-shot structure. Whether this purpose is fulfilled successfully or not, that’s a different discussion, and reviewers as much as general audiences seem to disagree on whether Mendes’ presentation benefits the material.

Myself, I’m torn on the matter. I’m not one of the people who hate movies filmed in one long take, or those that use technical trickery to achieve the appearance of one long shot. The technique can work, it can provide an energy and a sense of immediacy that is highly effective. I wasn’t a huge fan of Erik Poppe’s U – July 22 (about the 2011 massacre on the Norwegian island of Utøya), but that was for different reasons, as its technique and especially its single-take cinematography were undoubtedly an asset. I also have a, shall we say “ambivalent”, relationship with the 2002 film Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov, but again, the cinematography works. It’s fiendishly difficult to pull off a good one-shot film that makes such a marked cinematographical choice feel essential, but that in itself is not a good reason not to try.

Admittedly, it is very different to make a one-shot film set in a single, albeit large, building like the Hermitage and one that evokes the Western front by depicting two opposing trench systems, the No Man’s Land in between, a bombed, burning French town, a stretch of river including a waterfall and a nearby forest. The sheer logistics of Mendes’ shoot with his occasional collaborator Roger Deakins must have been staggering, even if the film wasn’t actually made in one shot but only (‘only’, he says!) made to look like it.

Paradoxically, I liked the effect best when I was least aware of the technique. For much of the film, I was drawn in by the sense of immediacy, and I am certain that some, indeed much of this was in no small part due to the lack of visible cuts. There were times, though when I was very much aware of what Mendes and Deakins were doing, and those moments always put me in mind of the film as a technical effort first and foremost: I’d be thinking not of the characters and what they were going through but of where the camera was placed, how they achieved a certain effect without the crew or equipment being revealed by accident, I’d wonder which parts of the screen were actually computer-generated or -enhanced rather than being physically there.

I felt this most keenly during the first dozen minutes of the film. 1917 starts with the camera close to its main characters as they are commanded to report to the general who then sends them on their quest. For a long time, the two leads walk towards the camera, entering the British trenches from a nearby field, and as the camera pulls back to give them space we’re always aware of where the characters started off and how much space they’ve traversed. Whether it was meant as such or not, the beginning and especially the focus it puts on the whole distance covered by the characters and the space in between felt to me like the film showing off: look at what we can do these days. Look at how impressive this is – “this” being the logistical and technical feat. It was only later, when the camera’s relation to the characters relaxes, that I myself was able to relax and get into the film as storytelling.

Would the film have had the same effect if it had used more conventional cinematography and editing? Would a 1917 with various cuts be as noteworthy and memorable as the version we have that is made to look like a single take (almost) in its entirety? That’s an impossible question to answer fairly, but as I’ve mentioned, while the technique benefited much of the film, for me it did foreground its own status as a technical or technological artefact. Possibly, if Mendes had been more selective in his use of the one-shot technique, using it perhaps for long stretches but not for the entire movie, I would have come away liking the film better. But then, would the movie be as memorable? Even if I think it’s a good film, do the things it has to offer distinguish it sufficiently? 1917 is in the running for several of this year’s Academy Awards, but even if it receives an Oscar for Best Motion Picture or Best Achievement in Directing, what will people remember it for in ten years’ time?

In the end, though, I find my own thoughts on 1917 faintly frustrating. I’m left wondering what the film would have been like, and how I would have liked it, if it was a different film – but you can’t disentangle 1917 from its form and structure. Like any other film, it stands and falls based on what it does, not on what it could have done differently. For me, the one-shot technique was a mixed blessing in this case. It didn’t always work for me, it bothered me some of the time – but for the rest of it, 1917 worked, it affected me. Not in spite of how this particular sausage of mud and blood was made, more likely than not, but because of it.

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