06 August, 2009

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

So here's the thing.

One of the difficulties with going to the movies is that, all too often, it can be difficult to separate out the knowledge that we take in and just assess the film on the basis of what we actually see on screen. Instead, we find ourselves viewing the film through the prism of what we expected to see.

I had that problem when I went to see the new John Woo film, Red Cliff (see the trailer here). The film is based on a true story of a famous Chinese battle from the early 3rd century AD, in which Cao Cao, Prime Minister to the Emperor, led the Imperial Army to destroy a number of rebel warlords trying to set themselves up as rulers over the southern regions. The film version was impressive, huge, epic, with extraordinary battle scenes, exceptional cinematography, and just a great experience on the Embassy screen.

The problem is, going into the film, I knew that it was released in China in two parts, nearly five hours long in total. However, in the international version being shown at the festival it had been cut down to just 148 minutes. That means literally half the film had been cut. And you can't cut a film in half just by trimming out minor subplots. You need to start cutting into core character and plot moments.

And knowing that fact, it became all too easy to look for signs of that editing. The film opens with clumsily inserted narration (in English). Now that's fine, many films open with some sort of narration or on-screen scroll to provide vital scene-setting information, particularly with films like this that require an understanding of the complex political context that led to the central conflict. What's less common is when, ten minutes later, the film cuts to the other side and we again get voiceover narration providing new information about the characters that we're now seeing. At that point it feels very much like they're using the narration to cover over explanatory scenes that were cut from this version. Similarly, core characters are introduced to us with on-screen titles identifying them - an understandable device, since most of these characters are introduced to us in the heat of battle where there is no time to actually establish who these people are. However, it again felt like a clumsy device to accommodate the elimination of, I assume, pre-battle scenes that would introduce us to the characters in a more elegant manner. It also felt very much like those editing the film (understandably) prioritised the spectacle of the battle sequences over the smaller character moments, so it felt like the central characters were very thin sketches, without the level of detail and realism that I assume was in the original version.

But worst of all were a number of dialogue scenes that felt like they had been trimmed to the bone. These weren't conversations, these were individual statements, maybe 6 or 8 sentences in total in some cases, pieced together to get across the point of the conversation in the shortest possible time. In the most frustrating examples, they would actually fade away from the person speaking to show, say, a closeup of the rain outside dripping off the roof or a hand preparing tea, before fading back to the scene, often to the exact same shot as before, as the same person starts speaking the next sentence. It was a strange device, very dissimilar to the editing in the rest of the film, that to be honest seemed to add almost a dreamlike unreal feel to some important scenes that was just distracting. The only reason I can come up with for that type of editing is that they cut several sentences between each line of dialogue, but the fade away was needed to disguise the otherwise obvious cut in a single shot.

Now, I do need to emphasise, I've not seen the full version, and all this is just conjecture. For all I know, these scenes could be exactly the same in the complete film. But the film really felt like it had been awkwardly edited to cut its running time. And I found that frustrating.

Which was a shame, because despite these flaws I really did enjoy the film. His Hollywood output (Face/Off excepted) doesn't really show it, but John Woo is one of the great action directors, and in Red Cliff he seems determined to prove his reputation is deserved. It's a common complaint that modern action films are shot and edited, all quick cuts and rapid camera movement, in a way that makes action sequences incomprehensible. While that's not normally an issue that bothers me, it's still nice to watch a film where the director actually allows time to show what's actually going on. In the midst of giant battlefields, the viewer is always aware of the wider battle context and the various one-on-one conflicts the individual characters are involved in.

Plus, as someone unaware of the history of the Battle of Red Cliff, it was a nice surprise to see that the battles were ultimately won, not by superior numbers of warriors, but by considered tactics and outthinking the opposition. Although we get glimpses of the various plans, it's never clear until each individual battle what they are planning, which leads to some thrilling reveals (In one scene, one side has to steal 100,000 arrows from the other side, and the reveal of the actual plan as it is being executed may be one of my favourite film moments of the year.)

Yet in some ways, the film occasionally overdoes the "winning by outthinking" aspect - especially since Woo has claimed the film to be a more realistic account of the battle than some of the fanciful romances written about it. In one of the most frustrating scenes, one character is able to predict, almost to the second, the moment the winds will change direction. Either the ancient Chinese had some spectacular weather knowledge long-since lost to modern meteorologists, or the film is just being silly. But despite such small problems, as well as my larger issues about the editing of the shortened version, I really enjoyed this film, and hope to be able to see the complete version one day.

One of the things that makes the screening of the shortened Red Cliff so frustrating is that I can't help feeling that they should have been able to show the whole thing. After all, they managed to show the complete Che (see the trailer here), and that's only half an hour shorter.

As you can probably guess, the film tells the story of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the iconic revolutionary who played a pivotal role in the Cuban revolution and bringing Castro to power, before going to Bolivia and dying while leading a failed revolution in that country. The film is excellent, and Benicio del Toro in the title role manages to be even better than I was expecting (and I was expecting a lot). Steven Soderbergh manages to balance the huge spectacle of big battle scenes with the smaller character moments, and reminds us just why he is one of the more important and talented American directors working today.

But in writing this post, the more interesting thing to write about is not that it's a great film (suffice it to say it is). The thing I found really fascinating was the way the film was made.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but Che is not actually a four-and-a-half-hour film. It's actually two films, each running about 130 to 135 minutes, which were screened back-to-back with an intermission. The first film, which according to the credits is just called "Che: Part One" but which has acquired the sub-title "The Argentine" in its promotion, tells the story of Che meeting Castro and fighting in the Cuban revolution. At the end of that film, they've won, and Cuba is in their hands. "Che: Part Two", also known by the sub-title "Guerrilla", opens several years later, with Che resigning his ministerial positions and sneaking into Bolivia to try to lead the revolution there. As you can tell, each of these is a very self-contained story. Indeed, the title character is the only person to appear in both films, they have very different settings, and each film is clearly designed to be able to be viewed and provide a satisfying cinematic experience in and of itself.

But what I found fascinating is the extent to which they are seperate experiences. Soderbergh knew that the film would have its general release in the two parts, and so clearly approached each film as separate films rather than one part of a whole, considering the story of each film and filming it in the best way to tell the story. And this means that there are huge differences between the films. Part One has a framing device, where we see black-and-white footage of Che giving an interview about the revolution during his visit to New York to speak to the UN. Part Two contains no such device. The effect of this is significant - even if you can forget what we know about Guevara, the framing device in Part One gives us the safety of knowing he survives the Cuban revolution, and its absence in Part Two makes the events more immediate and more unsafe, since we don't have any in-film certainty about whether Guevara will survive (which, obviously, he doesn't).

But it's not just framing devices and storytelling techniques, or the lack of, that show the differences in the film. The very visual styles of the film vary wildly. Part One is very fluid, very smooth in the camera movements, clearly making good use of dolly tracks and the steadicam. Meanwhile the film's visuals are extremely rich and colourful. Whether in the forests or towns of Cuba, the picture is lush and beautiful. The whole film feels bold and confident. But right from the start of Part Two, it changes. Much of the film feels like it was shot handheld, almost shakycam, where even in still shots the camera is subtly moving and bobbing up and down. Meanwhile, the image is stark, washed-out. It all leaves the viewer on edge, never at ease, perfectly suited for a film in which the title character finds himself in a situation spiralling out of his control.

And there's even more. The most surprising difference was that there was a change in aspect ratio between the films. The first film was shot in the wider 2.40:1 ratio of films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. This means that the image has space, has a cinematic scope to it. But when we arrive at Part Two, the image changes to a 1.85:1 ratio. Now, this change wouldn't be quite as effective in your typical multiplex cinema or at home on DVD, where the screen has a constant width and the second film would, if anything, appear larger than the first. But on a constant-height screen like that at the Embassy, where the sides press in to create the smaller image, the change is very noticeable. The second film doesn't have the space of the first, screen compositions become tighter, giving the feel of the forces pressing in on Guevara. All these elements combine to give us two films that are stylistically completely unrelated, unlike in almost any aspect, and each creative decision is made solely for the benefit of the specific film that it relates to, Part One or Part Two, without making any concessions to the whole.

And yet, it's not like these films are unrelated. They were filmed back to back (although I believe Part Two was actually filmed first), and they were always conceived as being one whole. And despite the drastic stylistic changes between the two parts, it clearly works much better as one 265-minute film. It's a richer experience. With the first film fresh in your mind, the second film isn't just a sequel, but a natural continuation of the story. Watching the two together, it's obvious how Che approaches the revolution in Bolivia with many of the same tactics that worked for him in Cuba, and we can therefore consider what the differences are that allowed them to work in Cuba, but fail in Bolivia. And each film is necessary to provide counterpoint and clarify the other - Che almost seems superhuman in the first film, impervious to harm, and so the second film is needed to make him real. And so much of the second film rests on Che's reputation, a reputation that is largely unearned in Part Two and relies entirely on an awareness of the events in Part One.

The final image of Part Two, and thus the film, proves how much these films depend on being seen as one single movie experience. As we see Che's dead body (sorry about the spoiler), the film fades to a wordless scene of Che on a boat, looking at a couple of people. If you were to watch Che Part Two as a film by itself, that image would be meaningless to you, because the scene is a flashback to the first film, and the people he's looking at don't even appear in the second film. The scene only really holds meaning to a viewer that has watched both films.

So it's a fascinating film. Soderbergh managed quite successfully to make a two-part film where each of its parts is a satisfying experience in and of itself, and yet as a whole make a rich enveloping experience far beyond that of the component parts. I'm glad I saw the complete version, but in any form, this is possibly one of the most essential films of the year.

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