One Shot

Recently I’ve had the immense pleasure of experiencing a movie all over again. Sometimes you watch a movie and you’re not fully capable of grasping its essence, so you move on, you categorize it, you label it or worse yet, you rate it on a scale from 1 to 5 or from 1 to 10 and that’s it, you’re done. Case closed. This is what almost happened to me after the first viewing of Michael Cimino’s best picture winner of 1978, The Deer Hunter. This was a movie,  which after my first time watching it I categorized under ”Good but not that great – Far too long – Overrated – Uneventful.” Well, here I am writing this down on my computer: seeing The Deer Hunter‘s beautiful restoration in 4K on the big screen at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute might just be the single most impactful cinematic experience I’ve had so far, in all these years of movie watching. What the big screen helped me to see was the richness of the detail, the resounding echo of certain themes presented across all three acts and the emotional kick certain scenes hold, an aspect that is hard to notice once your point of view is limited to the box-like dimensions of most home screens. What The Deer Hunter shows is that when you are allowed to fully exploit the power of cinema across all sections (sound, visuals, storytelling, music, acting) you can indeed paint a canvas not only of a time and place, but of a general mindset as well, the mindset of a tribe, a village, a city and even a nation across a large fraction of time.

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”Give this man a drink!” says Michael, pointing at a war veteran.

Numerous reviews and discussions have been written and raised regarding the best picture winner that sparked a lot of controversy with its brutal scenes displaying the use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War for the first time since the war had ended a few years prior to the making of this movie. What I want to dedicate this post to is the development of character arc in this three-hour epic, something very few films nowadays are able to achieve due to numerous reasons, but above all 1) bad writing 2) constant constraints on the studio’s part. Because in order to do something similar to what The Deer Hunter does so brilliantly, you need good writing and artistic freedom; you need to be able to push through rules and regulations and exploit the cinematic form to its fullest potential to be able to tell a story that is fleshed out, emotional and important.

First of all, a lot has been said about The Deer Hunter and a lot of times it has been labeled as a war movie. But it’s not. The Deer Hunter, similarly to  Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), another personal favorite of mine, is a film about men in war, about what happens when you place human beings (NOT KILLING MACHINES) in a war-torn environment. In order to do this, The Deer Hunter uses the three-act approach that has been used for centuries in novels, short stories and plays. The three-act structure in The Deer Hunter is as follows: The Wedding – Vietnam – The Return. This allows the film to present key characters in their own world, then shake this very same world to its core, and place the characters back into it to see what this change brought to their lives, what their next step is, what their reality has turned into. The opening wedding chapter, although disliked by many due to its length (over 55 minutes!), is the key component to this three-hour puzzle. Through it not only do we realize that most of the story will take place in rural America, where steel mining is the only career path a man can take, but that this story will concern a particular community of people, namely Russian Orthodox immigrants, a community where characters are familiar with each other, where friends are like brothers and where marriage is for life. In this community people are born, live and die together, and the relationships that are made are made because there is no escaping this harsh difficult reality; in order to survive you need your neighbor, your local pastor and your local gym teacher. Our protagonists are tied to this small world for the rest of their lives as this is the only world they know, and the only world where they truly feel like they belong. The wedding sequence, aside from the wedding itself, concerns the departure of the three friends (Michael, Nick and Stevie) to Vietnam, and how the entire community experiences this proud moment together. The possibility of death is never mentioned by the members of this community. The only instance where we are faced with the alienated reality of Vietnam and a foreshadowing of what is about to come is when the three friends encounter a veteran who just returned from service and happened to stumble into the first bar on the street. When Michael (Robert De Niro) asks the veteran; ”Well, what’s it like over there?” the only response he gets from the veteran is ”Fuck it.” ”Fuck it” without a doubt is the phrase that encapsulates the fate of the three friends and more importantly, their experience of having to point of a loaded gun to their heads for the simple amusement of their captors.

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Love it while you have it.

After having established the friendships, love interests and their aspirations in the wedding chapter, The Deer Hunter places its characters straight into hell. There is no rise and fall scenario in this film. There is simply the introduction of a traumatic event and its aftermath.  The prelude to this chapter, however, takes place high in the mountains, where the group of friends go on a deer hunting escapade. In this brief sequence, De Niro’s character, the most experienced hunter, takes pleasure in squeezing the trigger and firing the deadly weapon. The act of shooting still holds a sacred meaning to him; to shoot a deer not only does it mean you’re a good shot – it also means you’re a man, capable of respecting the beauty of the animal before you with what he describes as ”One shot. That’s it,” and continues, ”A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” Killing a deer is an act that must be swift, clean and professional. Yet the death that Michael and his friends will experience from up close in Vietnam is anything but all these things; it’s dirty, pointless, lacking honor or respect. It’s what it is. Fuck it.

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Squeezing the trigger soon turns into…

Here is the most surprising aspect of The Deer Hunter – the actual war is shown for the briefest of moments (actual gunfire and combat take up only 15-20 minutes of runtime) as the film is completely aware of what the focus of the story should be on – the emotional state of the characters, not their physical actions. The return is in a sense the lowest of points for each character involved – it is the culmination of trauma, the clash with the old, familiar world and the inability to shake this trauma off and embrace the old, familiar world again. Christopher Walken’s character of Nick is the one protagonist whose trauma is so strong he does not dare look back – soon enough the only reality he can embrace is the reality where his life is worth a few hundred grand, depending on whether he gets lucky enough and the chamber in the gun turns out to be empty. As in most PTSD cases, Nick is simply unfit to live a normal life. There is no balance in Russian roulette, there’s only two extremes – either you live another day, or you blow your brains out and someone makes a lot of money on your death – this is the only line Nick is able to walk. Meanwhile, De Niro’s Michael, the toughest of the bunch, is, on the other hand, the only character fit enough to be able to face his old world. Unfortunately, this world, as loud and colorful as it was during the wedding celebration, upon Michael’s return has turned silent. The friends are there, Linda (Meryl Streep) is also there, just as emotionally broken as Michael, the city and the steel mill are there, and yet it’s quiet. It is a world that has lost connection with Michael, whose traumatic encounter with the war has set him apart from the rest of the society he once was a proud member of. Michael, a young man who once enjoyed himself working hard in the mill, drinking at the bar with friends and fellow workers, dancing with girls at local ceremonies and hunting deer like a professional, is now unable to squeeze the trigger decisively – with the deer staring right at him, the action of killing this majestic animal has lost all sense; it’s barbaric, it’s empty and meaningless. Thus, The Deer Hunter becomes a three-act film about being hopeful and proud, and having this hope and pride violently taken away, and being left on your own, with an alien world as your home.

Fuck it.

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…madness.
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David Lynch once said;

“I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.”

These words ring incredibly true since since most audiences want their films to be straightforward, accessible, easy enough to understand, simple enough to accompany their hot nachos with cheese sauce dripping all over the floor. Is that really what movies are for? To make things simple? Some, of course, yes. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed with the family, the girlfriend, boyfriend; movies with loud explosions, witty dialogue, packed with action and a smart plot, something along the lines of the Lethal Weapon series, The Nice Guys, RockyThe Wolf of Wall Street, etc. The second category is the one that demands a viewer’s full immersion; a complete dedication to the viewing experience. The director of the film needs you to get sucked into the world of the film he or she are presenting to you. Otherwise it’s pointless. David Lynch is one of them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. But above all, Terrence Malick is one of them. And his latest film, Song to Song, starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, is the ultimate piece of evidence to this statement.

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Are you ready for the adventure?

Malick, a wealthy biologist and oilman, as well as one of the most introvert film directors that have ever walked the earth, presented the movie himself at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Yes, a man who has been avoiding cameras, award shows and interviews for the past 40 years finally emerged on the surface of an indie film festival to present his latest movie about love. What this could mean is that Song to Song holds something special, not only for the audience, but for the director himself. What could be the reason for this? As I watched the film a few nights ago, I realized how Malick’s incredibly intricate take on life really is. We know and love him for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, his most accessible works that proved he had enough skill to go from making indie road movies to making large-scale war epics in a span of 20 years. But then something happened and Malick went from seeing directing movies as a hobby more than anything else to dishing out a film every 2-3 years, (3 in the last year and a half!) and doing this by using a very alienated style of filmmaking that has been perceived by most audiences as a ‘pretentious, slow, plotless bore.’

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You have to be ready, because Malick doesn’t let up.

Song to Song may not be his most accessible film. It isn’t. But it has the same emotional kick that The Tree of Life had, the last film that saw Malick be up for an Academy Award in 2011, and that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups lacked.  What makes it stand out from the rest of his improvised, slow, meandering epics, is that it manages to portray life, and people dealing with it, in an extremely honest and heartbreaking manner. While The Tree of Life focused on the concept of family, and successfully so, and while To the Wonder  and Knight of Cups dealt with very little, in fact remaining an unfocused artsy mess, Song to Song talks about the concept of love using all the tools Malick’s collected over the years of experience. Love is not easy to capture on camera. Most love stories don’t succeed in delivering the right message. Aside from La La Land, there’s not a love story that I can think of worth considering in the last couple of years. Then along comes Malick and his bold vision of love makes you realize how great the cinematic medium can be at times.

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Malick and Lubezki at their finest.

Here, Malick delivers the oldest, most well known story in the book: a love triangle, two good friends, a musician (Ryan Gosling) and a music producer (Michael Fassbender) falling in love with the same girl (Rooney Mara). What at first seems like the usual snooze-fest of falsified emotions for the screen, soon turns into a compelling character study that uses time, as per Malick’s tradition, to tell the story the right way – the only way. Malick, similarly to what Lynch said, does not want the viewer to understand what happens on the silver screen. He wants the viewer to imagine what happens, and he does this by telling what could have been the most linear story out there in a way most filmmakers would not dare to. Song to Song works like a music playlist turned on ‘shuffle mode’.  It jumps from song to song, from album to album, changing melodies, moods and tones. It plays with different emotions at different times, and all of this is never meant to reach an end, just like a playlist set on ‘repeat’. At first, we meet the characters, who introduce themselves by looking devastated, shell shocked, victims of something that has happened not so long ago. Again, we are not meant to understand, we are meant imagine what song has just finished playing and what song is about to come on next. We cannot predict it. We can only imagine. And that is how this film develops from that point on.

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Who are we, really?

Soon, the two friends get into an argument and two different women appear alongside Rooney Mara’s character. One is broken and self-destructive (Natalie Portman’s character), the other one is mature and experienced enough to know when it’s time to go away (Cate Blanchett’s character). Malick shapes these relationships like Polaroid snapshots; quick, unfocused snapshots that serve as a temporary time capsule. As viewers, we witness specific moments in each relationship; the first kiss, the first argument, the first disconnection and the first realization of how things really are. All of these moments mean nothing on their own, just like snapshots. But once Malick puts them together, creates a photo album out of them, that’s when it all comes around like a strong tide rushing in to blow over the sand. It is only then that we start seeing the bigger picture, and that is, Malick’s incredibly unique take on life.

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A simple love story.

With the help of one of the greatest living cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick uses his camera like a spy. We get the chance to go through empty hallways, enter concert stages and observe our protagonists from a safe distance. Every now and then, the camera pushes in close, almost in a threatening manner, in order for us to get a better look at what our characters really think and feel, which leads me to my next point about Malick’s take on life. Most people act as if his characters (especially Ben Affleck’s from To the Wonder and Christian Bale’s from Knight of Cups) are nothing but empty, shallow cartoon characters with paper-thin background and paper-thin everything. In some cases it may seem so. But in Song to Song we get the complete opposite. Only a fool could not read the facial expressions of our protagonists. The voice-over, a vital element of every single Malick film, does not mean a thing in this case – it is useless. Song to Song plays out like a silent movie accompanied by two elements – music (ranging from hard rock to classical, hip-hop to religious chants) and character’s close-ups. In the rare instances we get to be close to each character, we get a slice of honest, clear emotions. Malick does, in fact, bring the best out of his cast. Mara plays her usual innocent-looking self but this time, cuts deeper than usual. Same goes for the rest of the players. They are like songs. They hit different notes at different times their interpretation varies based on time and their presentation. Take Fassbender’s character, for example. He’s the greedy producer, the wealthy jackass who got rich thanks to other people’s talent. At times we interpret his greed as mean-spirited, evil and crooked, as he snorts lines of coke, goes from party to party and mistreats people around him. And yet, at times his character’s greed is presented as a method of self-defense against loneliness, alienation and disappointment. His only weapon. His only way of being. Like life, Fassbender’s character is a messy, off-beat song that never quite reaches a stable melody. It never sounds the same way.

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A hand – threatening and gentle at the same time.

Going from location to location, moving across time and space, across desert landscapes, city streets and beautiful sunsets, Song to Song injects life into a simple love story that could have been the biggest misfire in Malick’s career. We get to observe characters that are intricate and real. Some are too broken to be repaired, like Natalie Portman’s character, who cannot cope with the weight of life and a newly-found love. Others wish they could turn back the clock, like Rooney Mara’s character, who acts like a little girl, afraid of what can possibly await her on the next turn. The two friends never clash with their emotions. Like in life, there is a certain understanding right below the surface that never allows them to express themselves explicitly face-to-face. They are trapped. And that’s partly the beauty of how this story is told. Don’t let IMDb’s 5.8 rating fool you. This is a movie that has the ability to speak by being silent. Whereas other directors would have inserted unnecessary dialogue, Malick remains silent, letting the camerawork, the music and the actors do the work. It is not a masterpiece but it is an experience. It treats life head-on and does not let up for a second. Most importantly, it never tries to understand itself. It simply is. Like life. Like the next song on a playlist.

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Let it sweep you off your feet.