Sunday, January 12, 2020

1917: Combating the Enemy of Art

Spoilers for 1917 within.

The absence of limitations is the enemy of art." ~ Orson Welles

Don't worry film fans, 1917 doesn't attempt to rewrite filmmaking. Filmmakers aren't going to collectively abandon the film language known as editing now because of what Sam Mendes achieved without it. 1917 abides by the rule of art in a classical, and appropriately old-fashioned way; challenging itself to experiment beyond what's been done before, but always pursuing one goal: to be good art.

The challenge of art comes from limitation. Sometimes set by budget or studio constraints; sometimes like with 1917, set by the artist himself. Mendes set a LOT of limitations: a real-time story, one continuous shot, must always move forward, no exposition, and who knows what else. Then the art comes by working around those limitations -- those self-imposed rules -- to do exactly the same thing that every film should: to tell a story in a way that is entertaining and meaningful to an audience. Many movies can't do that, even with no limitations.

That limitation breeds creativity used to be common knowledge; now it seems more forgotten by the moment.

So, if you MUST keep your camera constantly in the story, but also need the story to appear on camera in a way that conveys decipherable and meaningful character, arcs, and plot progression -- in a way that measures up to your standard -- then you must, through your artistic creativity, devise a way. If you story requires, for example, to show a character interact with item that is significant, and in the next moment show the expression of another character's face, and without that item and that expression the story would be incomplete, then you must work through the limitations barring the way; you must arrive at, and then implement, a solution.

If the solution works, and it conveys the desired aspect, but doesn't convey it as broadly or extensively as could have been done without the limitation that made it a challenge in the first place, does that mean that the work is a failure? No. That is precisely what makes it art.

If I decided to draw a sunflower and set the limitation that it must be on white paper and only use the medium of black ink to make it, no one would criticize me for not making the sunflower yellow. So it is with 1917. No exposition was allowed as part of the limitation, and it took place in only 2 hours of time. To say it's lacking because the characters are slight and we don't know much about their history is to completely ignore the whole premise of the work. My sunflower should be judged on the elements of the sunflower that I CAN include -- the shape and details of it and whether you see a sunflower when you look at it. So why are so many people determined to judge 1917 as if it were a film with cuts and plenty of space and time within the plot for explaining every facet of the characters to the audience?

Unfortunately, it comes from a popular state of mind in the film industry and what they try to make audiences believe makes a good movie. Many don't buy into it and that gives me hope, but I recall a baffling tweet from Rotten Tomatoes that popped up just before the "live action" remake of The Lion King hit theaters. They showed the simplistic cartoon animation of the original side by side with the photo-realistic CGI animation, and captioned it along the lines of: "Look how far animation has come." Anyone with half a brain can see the faulty logic there. Just because it looks more like real life doesn't mean it's in any way an improvement.

The idea behind that erroneous tweet is that the more photo-realistic work is the most impressive. The better. This stems from a broader idea in blockbuster filmmaking; that More is More. The more a film can show you, the better it is. Does Robert Downey Jr.'s character Tony Stark have a backstory that influences his actions in a story, but it happened to him when he was young? Normally, that would be a natural limitation that would require a creative get-around. But with digital de-aging technology, Captain America: Civil War had no such limitation to deal with. In Rise of Skywalker, the same technology allowed a scene between young Luke and Leia to be shown. Was that movie better for it?

Most egregiously you can see this mindset come from films like Avengers: Endgame, where nothing is impossible because technology and money removed all limitations from the film's path. We are told that Endgame is the pinnacle of filmmaking because it's the biggest, least limited, most everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film ever made. And the scattered clamors for it to win Oscars for its unimpeded efforts indicate that the idea is taking hold.

Sam Mendes rejects the idea of More is More in his film 1917.  Technology has removed so much natural limitation, that instead he had to choose to be limited, thus creating a need for his creative skills. He sets an incredible amount of limitations on himself, to the point where the audience is baffled to understand how he thought it was at all a surmountable task. He is clearly an artist who loves a challenge. Everything he does in this film is to tell his story as effectively as possible in his chosen medium -- or limitations -- of one continuous shot and real time with no exposition sneaking in. He made it hard on himself. The result is that we cannot see anything removed from the two characters of Blake and Schofield. The plot cannot be revealed except within their sight, so the plot must be simple. And we cannot be told complex backstories, so the foundations of their characters must be simple.

But is the simple idea that Blake wants to complete the task given to him because he loves his brother -- his family -- not compelling because it's simple? Is the contrasting but equally simple idea that Schofield is reluctant to go because he loves his family too carry no meaning? And then when he has no choice but to continue on -- to honor his comrade's wishes despite his fear for himself -- what about that is lacking in character depth or motivation? Do we need to know who waits for him at home to see his longing to be with them? Do we only care if he lives or dies because we want the film to have a happy ending, or do we connect with his will to survive on a fundamental, simple, human level?

Simple does not equal bad or lacking unless you buy into the idea that More is More.

In essence, do 1917's limitations make it lesser, or do they merely make it simpler? I argue the latter. That the plot is simple doesn't remove any of the embedded urgency or importance. In fact, the immersive filming style does nothing but enhance the tension and sense of passing time. And the characters are slight -- or at least shown slightly -- but they are potent; far from empty, and undeniably genuine.

Because of the limitation of time and camera, a great deal of creative get-around is applied to express and develop character through details. Remember how, after escaping the bunker where Blake saves his life, Schofield takes a tin out of his breast pocket and shakily opens it to peek inside? In a More is More movie, he could have easily started bawling and telling Blake about his mother, wife, and daughter, and how he misses them and wants to go home to them. But besides it not making sense for either the situation or the character, that would have been lazy storytelling.

The movie not only conveys Schofield's wants and fears to us wordlessly, it does it in a way that is more creatively engaging than is possible by merely saying it outright. The instant we see how much he values the contents of that tin, we want to know what's in it, and then pay attention to learn more. If he had told it all in a quick expository explanation, it would have lost its meaning and the end of the film would have felt shallow. Instead it was poetic. And all because of the film's extreme limitations.

So, I come to these conclusions:

Limitation does breed creativity. Working around limitations in creative ways can bring simplicity, but simplicity in itself isn't a bad thing; if done right, the impact remains. And it's the impact of the information, not the amount of information that is valuable.

More is not more. When it comes to art, less truly is more.

Artists who constrain the medium of their work, challenge themselves, and hold themselves to ostensibly unachievable standards are the only hope for the continued artistry of filmmaking.

And 1917 is a gorgeous work of art. Thanks for reading.


  1. "It's the impact of the information, not the amount of information that is valuable."

    Fantastic piece. Loved reading it.

  2. I love it. It is really well written with the film it self. Even though I never seen it before my mind was racing to The Navy Seal Team. But when you mentioned Star Wars scene of Luke and Leia I assumed you were talking about when they swing over the bridge after Luke blasted the control panel? About the sun flower I know that the painting will be beyond beautiful and lovely