Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beating a dead horse

Millions of horses died in the Great War. The image of those enormous and elegant, muscular and lithe bodies collapsing, terrified, cut up, scattered, tangled in wire, rotting across muddy European plains alongside the unfathomable numbers of human dead and dying is a very powerful, poignant one. It isn’t difficult to understand how storytellers would be drawn to it. I haven’t read Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, so I can’t attest as to whether or not it works on its own, but as adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, adapted into something that doesn’t feel much like a children’s movie (except that it feels naive and oversimplified), and adapted in such a manner that the horse is no longer the centre of the story (and instead fills that centre with corny stock characters), War Horse is astonishingly hollow, simultaneously mechanical and sentimental, faux-innocent, and thus secretly cynical. In short, it brings out the worst in Steven Spielberg, whose direction of actors has never been more leaden (he gets what I can only hope will be the worst, most strained and artificial performance the normally great Peter Mullan will ever give), whose camerawork has never felt more thoughtlessly money-coated (he seems to need a crane just to shoot inserts), and aesthetically droopy (there’s a closing day-for-dusk shot that has to be seen to believe how ugly it is). It may be the nadir of Spielberg regular John Williams’ long career of composing wildly over-animated scores; every time anyone so much as smirks it’s like E.T.’s flying past the moon.

Perhaps Spielberg felt that War Horse would be a return to past glories; after tackling Normandy, he could now sink his teeth into the Somme (from the Holocaust to The War of Worlds, nothing seems to charge the elder Spielberg’s batteries like colossal, senseless death counts). Indeed, Joey, the thoroughbred-turned-plow horse-turned-war horse, becomes something of a Private Ryan. Everything stops, literally, to tend to him. Brits and Germans meet in the middle of a corpse-strewn battlefield and band together to rescue Joey from a lonesome, slow demise. A field doctor stops attending to a glut of agonized wounded soldiers just to help Joey. At some point, the magical aura surrounding this horse and the way it prompts everyone to ignore all else becomes, arguably, kind of offensive.

It doesn’t help that the horse is just, you know, a horse. There’s nothing all that cinematic about him. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński have no special way of rendering him charismatic. I adore horses, but just sticking one in front of a camera doesn’t make me instantly teary-eyed; the fact is, their allure, the particular nature of their features, isn’t easily captured on film... But really, I’m just struggling to make sense of why War Horse is such a dud. I think rather than generalize or theorize I should just say that this is one of those pictures where, scene-by-scene, over the course of its grueling runtime, you’re sort of baffled by all the small, wrote, bad choices that slowly accumulate: the lame comic relief (a goose), the forced emotions, the speechy dialogue. Spielberg, so much more at home with lighter material (E.T., Catch Me If You Can), has gone to war once more, and this time he really got creamed.


Bunched Undies said...

Was going to take the Mother-in-law to this one Christmas Day...but maybe we'll all just stay home and - egad - talk.
Happy holidays JB and thanks for all your great writing. Your blog is appreciated.

JB said...

I am fairly certain that the intensity of my dislike for War Horse will probably prove to be unusual, so I hope you will forgive me if it turns out to be a great opportunity to connect with the mother in law. Otherwise, thanks for the kinds words, Bunchie, as always. And, you know, talk is highly underrated.

Paul Matwychuk said...

Just saw WAR HORSE last night, and it looks like we had dramatically different experiences with this film. I grouped it with two of this year's other big awards-season contenders, THE ARTIST and HUGO, movies that also purport to celebrate the joys of early cinema. But I think Spielberg's film is the most successful and authentic of the bunch... the one that most wholeheartedly attempts to capture the sweep and the elemental emotionality of '20s and '30s movie melodramas. This isn't a commentary on cinema, like HUGO or THE ARTIST; it *is* cinema, full of sweep and ambition and a kind of supersophisticated naivete that really worked for me. (Could have done without the John Williams score, though.)

JB said...

Well, Paul, I don't know what to tell you. Plenty of others seem to have had the same response as you, but for me there was nothing quite as dead up on screen last year as War Horse. The tone seems so confused, the acting so strangled and belaboured (Jeremy Invine was even worse than Mullan), so many little details just seem poorly judged. It seems to me like just about the worst thing Spielberg's ever done. (Of course I can count the Spielbergs that really work for me on one hand.) I didn't sense his heart in it, to be honest. He seemed distracted with exuding production value. Perhaps this thing about the elemental emotionality of the 20s and 30s you mentioned is, for me, part of the problem. War Horse is very much a 21st century movie, bloated, full of pomp, cluttered with indiscriminate techniques that would never have marred the eager but more resourceful best cinema of that earlier era (especially when it was silent, which goes a long way toward explaining the mythic allure of melodrama from that era, when faces and gestures were foremost and dialogue necessarily spare).

Was out of town and doing other things for much of the late fall and early winter, so I'm still catching up with a few bigger films of 2011. Just caught the monkey movie. Still haven't seen Hugo...

But anyway, happy new year!