I’m utterly engrossed in the film 1917, but I also need a pee. I wait for a quiet moment and dash across the cinema.
Where am I?
Emotionally I’m in the trenches. But I can see the low lights and dingy carpets of a modern cinema. But it could be anywhere: Romania? England? The USA?
I run across the vast carpeted interior of the cinema, en route to the loo, avoiding German snipers. There’s nobody around, all the popcorn stands and ticket-inspection posts are abandoned. What’s going on?
Within minutes I’m back in my seat, not watching the film but actually in it.
I’ve never seen anything like 1917. I don’t remember being so emotionally sucked into a story, a narrative, a war. I feel like I’m there. I can feel a powerful sense of alienation from everything around me (where am I?) and also a curious mental numbness that enables us to go on, despite a lack of food and water and everything considered normal; and accept the fact that I might be killed at any moment.
I’m with Lance Corporal Schofield as he pushes his way through No-Man’s-Land, past rotting bodies, barbed wires, massive craters and booby traps, to deliver his urgent message. I feel his angry sense of injustice as his comrade (Lance Corporal Blake) was killed by a German pilot they had just pulled from a burning plane; his trauma at having to strangle a German boy; his fear as he runs from endless snipers; his bewilderment at still being alive; and his desperate energy to get through at all costs, a force of blind will that, by the end, was the only thing keeping him upright.
How do you come down from an experience like that? I don’t mean the main character in the film, played by the brilliant George Mackay, or the millions of troops who must have been traumatised by the experience — I have no idea how they coped — I’m talking about myself. How can I return to normal after going through an experience like this?
It’s only gradually dawning on me where I am.
I’m on the street, it’s night-time but what are those bright lights and skyscrapers? Those lights aren’t coming from flares and fires. Why am I walking so fast? Gradually I wrench myself back to my senses and realise that I’m in downtown Seattle, in the north east of the USA, thousands of miles from France and over 100 years apart in time. How can this be happening to me?
Since emerging from 1917, blinking and bewildered like someone who’s been dropped on earth from a different planet, I realise that I must write these impressions down in order to process it.
So I do something I don’t remember doing before: start writing immediately, at midnight, as soon as I get back to my hostel, which is located in Seattle’s Chinatown and is called American Hotel. I’m sharing a room with a businessman from Alabama, a roughneck (that’s a real job description, in construction) and a Taiwanese student of political science, who studies in San Francisco. They’re all asleep by the time I go to bed.
The morning after
Now it’s the next day and I must finish this article and go and see Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, as well as the city’s symbol: a flying saucer thing suspended by two massive two pronged forks. I think it was used as a backdrop in the first Men in Black film. Hopefully it will stop raining.
You could compare 1917 to the recent film Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, another British director who, like Sam Mendes, director of 1917, made his reputation in America. But Dunkirk fades into nothingness when compared to 1917; like a Star Wars movie, it has some great action scenes but I don’t connect on an emotional level, I certainly don’t feel I’m there with the main characters, and I must suspend belief, stop the processes of logic telling me this isn’t how it would have happened. The problem with Dunkirk, and most films come to think of it, is that the focus is on many characters and I don’t connect with any of them as I did with the main man in 1917.
Before going to bed last night I watched some YouTube videos about 1917, and this helped me to put it into some sort of intellectual perspective. I also realised that what makes this film great is the fact that they keep the story really simple, focused on just two characters, one of whom gets stabbed and dies; so it’s really just about one character: Lance Corporal Schofield, played by George Mackay, a cockney with a Scottish name.
I hear a lot of twaddle about “story” being the basis of any great film. They also use this word in advertising and claim that most ads have some sort of story; but they use the word in such a general way that anything can be a story.
While filmmakers know that a good story is essential, they also have to worry about so many other things — actors, budgets, locations, sets, special effects, audiences — that the story can often become secondary. I don’t think it’s intentional but, when the story is about lots of different people, and it gets clever and convoluted, I think it becomes inevitable.
As a viewer, my emotional focus gets dissipated by so much complexity, so many characters; and while I might be entertained I certainly will not feel that I am there with them, on the ground, in the mud. All through virtually every film I’ve seen I’m aware of the fact that I’m an outside observer sitting in a darkened cinema; I don’t remember having a complete loss of where I am before..
I will conclude this article with some words from the director of 1917. I found this inspiring quote on a webpage about his co-scriptwriter, a Scottish woman with the rather English name of Krysty Wilson-Cairns:
“Stories are nothing,” says Sam Mendes, “unless unless you are emotionally engaged.
“You want an engagement with two characters for which you are given very little exposition. You don’t really know who they are…
“The one-shot technique allows you to, I think, to live with them and breathe every breath…
“That feeling of never seeing further than the characters, always being trapped in their immediate environment — that was a very important part of why we decided to shoot in this way.”
This is all gold-dust to me as I am in the process of becoming a storyteller, a writer of fiction. The experience of watching 1917 has set a new emotional goal for me — to tell stories compellingly — and also given me insight into how to go about it.
Now I must do something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before: go and see the film again. Tonight.