That headline isn’t hyperbole. There’s one sequence in this film, way at the end, which should be shown in film classes right along Welles and Scorsese from now on. It’s an amazing technical achievement, but you don’t even notice that, because it is such an amazing artistic achievement at the same time. (Very very long and detailed SPOILER review here)
Years and years ago when I was in high school, I watched a documentary on the Enigma project during WWII. Alan Turing didn’t show up until over an hour in. We had an hour of talking heads about how smart everyone involved was, and stories of late night discoveries and problems solved and heroism and all of that. And we got to see by just spending time with the people talking in interviews how very smart they were, how witty and quick thinking. And after all of this time getting to know the very very smart people involved, Alan Turing is first mentioned. And one of our regular interviewees, who had been working on the project for ages by the time Turing showed up and had his own history of brilliant discoveries said, “You know the difference between genius and just smart? With just smart, they say something and you think ‘yeah, on a good day, I probably could have had the same idea’. With genius, you think “‘No one else would ever have had that thought.'”
All of that is a long lead-up to say that this movie is one of those “no one else would ever have had that thought” experiences. I watch something by Yash Chopra or even Aditya Chopra, and definitely Karan Johar, even Raj Kapoor, and I think “Okay, if I had spent my whole life thinking and training on films, and got plenty of sleep and had coffee and just generally it was a good day, I could probably have managed some of this film.” Not all of it, all 4 of those directors have a good 50% of any film that is pure genius and no one else could do it. But then I watch something by Guru Dutt and I think “No one else in the history of the world has ever and will ever make anything this beautiful again.”
That’s what this movie is. One of those “no one else in the history of the world” kind of experiences. The plot doesn’t matter (although I’ll be putting up another post at some point that goes into detail about that), it’s the images, the sounds, the way it is all put together. I have never heard a soundtrack like this that integrates the foley work right into the songs. Okay, MAYBE parts of Atonement, but that’s another “no one before or since” kind of movie. And it’s still not on the same level as this one.
(Hear the typewriter?)
I’ve definitely never seen editing like this, or framing like this, or a cast of characters like this. Before I watched the film, I saw something about how it hd 86 unknown actors and I thought “that can’t be right, how can there even be 86 speaking parts?” And there are! And each part is a distinctive separate character! And then it all comes together with that one ending sequence that belongs in every film class from now on.
When you are in a film class and the teacher needs to teach you how to understand camera movements while watching a movie, there are 2 sequences they show you. First they show you the famous opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil, the one that goes on for over 3 minutes and crosses a national border. That teaches you about how complicated it was to have people moving back and forth, the achievement of just blocking it out in one unbroken take with all those moving parts and extras and dialogue and everything else.
And then they show you the famous steadicam shot from Goodfellas and talk about how the steadicam technology changed things and how you feel you are part of the group as the camera moves seamlessly in and out of the group.
And maybe, if you have a very modern and with it teacher, they also talk about Russian Ark and the impossible unbroken 96 minute steadicam shot. And Atonement again, with the Dunkirk sequence. And then if they are feeling goofy, they show the training sequence from Rocky, because that’s just good fun. Oh, and also so we can see how the steadicam adjusts when it goes up the steps.
The thing about all of those movies above is that they have a lot of people involved, but they don’t have a lot of characters involved. The camera has to weave in and out among extras who have one line of dialogue, always keeping itself firmly focused on our protagonists. But in this movie, there’s a higher level to it.
The Touch of Evil tracking shot is to show how our innocent couple is in the middle of this complex world. The Goodfellas tracking shot is to show how our main characters are the kings of this world. Russian Ark is to show us a whole world, in which we are the protragonists. Atonement is to show us Hell. And Rocky, well, that’s to show us that he’s “Gonna Fly Now”!
But the shot at the end of this movie, that’s something new. That’s to show us how everybody in this movie is one unbroken chain, weaving in and out of each other’s lives, now one taking the lead, now the other, now a group branching off, meeting up again, leaving, moving backward, moving forward. It’s life, it’s community, it’s the world. And it’s all there in front of us, like we are God, suddenly able to see the larger pattern in these seemingly random movements, how every little gesture and moment affects someone else who affects someone else who affects someone else, who comes back and affects us again and it goes on and on into infinity.
Until, finally, there is the moment when everything stops. And becomes one, unified and frozen.
That is the moment the whole film is leading up to. Because this whole film is in the past, a story we are being told. And this is the ending of his story, how everything that happened, everyone that touched his life or was touched by it, came together for one moment of pure connection. And then it was over and life moved on.
Welles, Scorsese, they were technical geniuses. But Lijo Jose Pellissery, he achieved something technically impossible and then said “Yes, but what is the meaning of it all?” And that feeling, that sense of connection and destiny, that’s what I don’t think anyone before or since will ever be able to achieve again.