Sunday, June 3, 2012

Steven Spielberg, film historian

Echoing "Night of the Hunter"?
Written reactions to Steven Spielberg's film version of War Horse (2011) is virtually a litmus test of each writer's film history knowledge.  Youngsters who think Titanic is a classic old-timey movie dismiss the film as sentimental slop, riddled with cliche and overstatement.  A few recognized some quotes from Gone With The Wind, usually misattributing the palette and compositions of the film to Victor Fleming, the named director.  But Fleming essentially directed the actors.  The look of the film was designed from top to bottom by William Cameron Menzies with the collaboration of cinematographers Ernst Haller and Fleming's favorite, Lee Garmes.  These would be the source of the oversaturated colors behind near-silhouetted figures as in, for instance the final shot of War Horse.

But Gone With The Wind is just the beginning.  War Horse draws from the work of David Lean (who Spielberg evoked brilliantly in Empire of the Sun) but also other epic filmmakers of the 1950s George Stevens and Fred Zinnemann.  But it also goes straight back to Lewis Milestone (specifically All Quiet On The Western Front), and silent filmmakers F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage and especially King Vidor, director of The Big Parade and The Crowd as well as the 1956 War and Peace.  Spielberg does not do DVD commentaries (a sensible position), but I would love a commentary by really knowledgeable film scholar who could annotate the sources, whether overt or sub rosa.

Which is not to say that the film is pasted together from film references like a Brian DePalma movie.  Spielberg has thoroughly absorbed this vocabulary, like an author deliberately writing in an archaic style.  With all the fuss about last year's The Artist, I would love to see Spielberg make a substantially silent film--I think he is the director most qualified in the world to express himself in that challenging and classical form.  The exquisite no-man's-land sequence, designed by Rick Carter, would not be out of place in an epic of the mid-1920s, and the dialogue (with a German fluent in English) might have played even better on title cards than being heard.

Which is not to say that Mr. Spielberg doesn't know how to use a soundtrack.  For one thing, John Williams has written his best score in many years, although, he, like Spielberg, is creating in a borrowed idiom.  In this case it is the work of early 20th century British composers such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Bax, Walton, Britten and Grainger.  Again, there is no actual plagiarism, but the full immersion in a particular language.

Non-musical sound plays a part in one of the three-shots in this film that I would nominate for all-time greats in film history.  That is the moment when two young German deserters have been discovered and are being shot on the spot at late dusk or early evening.  The camera suddenly jumps from the base of the windmill in which the boys have been ensconced to high in the air, just the other side of the windmill's sails.  The boys are lined up with their backs to us.  The officer calls "Fire" and at that very instant a windmill sail obscures our view.  We hear the gunshot and the sail has passed revealing the bodies strewn on the ground.

Earlier in the movie there is a shot that would have made Eisenstein weep in recognition of a brother filmmaker.  The British are making an insane, under-manned, under-weaponed charge on a German encampment.  (The sequence begins with a brilliant shot of the officers mounting amid tall grass that obscures  the horses.)  At first, the Brits seem to be triumphant until they reach the end of the open field and the edge of the adjacent wood.  There the Germans have hidden their automatic guns, with which they proceed to demolish the British cavalry.  But we never see the falls.  We see the moment of recognition on the cavalry officers' faces that they have made a devastating miscalculation.  Then we see riderless horses leaping over and past the German guns.  Back to the mounted charge.  Back to the empty horses.  The audience puts those two shots together with that beautiful mathematics of film editing:  (Shot of mounted officers charging PLUS shot of riderless horses leaping past machine guns EQUALS officers falling dead from their horses.)

My next is a throwaway, but it simply demonstrates that Spielberg breathes the syntax of film.  It is an establishing shot of a person entering the stable in which the title character, Joey has been hidden.  We see the person first as a large, dark, convex reflection.  Then we realize it is a reflection in Joey's eye.  It is not only an inventive way to open a sequence, but it reminds us that the film is really about Joey and that we are always viewing the world through Joey's eyes.  All of this work, I have to presume, is executed with the superb collaboration of Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer since Schindler's List.

We knew that Spielberg is great with young actors and he has done his usual sterling work with Jeremy Irvine as Joey's faithful friend Albert and most especially with Celine Buckman as Emilie, the beautiful and tragic young protector of Joey.  But one must add to this the evocative "acting" of the horses playing Joey and Topthorn.  Be it the work of handlers and experts, Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn have put the shots together so as to simulate acting that is more convincing than many a so-called human actor.

The climactic reunion between Albert and Joey is most frequently acted as ridiculous, sentimental, implausible.  Again, this demonstrates an ignorance of this classical mode of storytelling.  It is not meant to be journalism, nor is it meant to be startling or surprising.  The mechanics of the scene were carefully put in place in the first act (my wife and I remarked to each other that the particular device would doubtless return in Act III).  The genre is closer to fable or legend than to film realism.  That is not an accident -- it is a choice.

Not only is War Horse one of the best World War I films I have ever seen, making it clear what a price nearly every person in Europe paid for that bit of insanity: I would list it as one of Spielberg's five best films, with Empire of the Sun, Jaws, Munich and Duel.  Yes, it's a perverse list, but hey, this is my blog.  Make your own list on your own blog.

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