DiCaprio Dreams of Tarkovsky Films

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Sometime ago, I caught Birdman on home video, having missed it on the big screen. I have a knack for missing out on Alejandro Innaritu’s films in the cinema. Most recently, I almost lost the race to catch The Revenant, but with the film having won some Oscars, the cinemas here gave it an extended run, as they’re wont to do with Oscar winners.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because Innaritu’s films have never captured my imagination so much to make me feel a need to follow his development as a filmmaker. But Birdman had what sounded like an interesting premise to me, coupled with the fact that everyone was making a big noise about its one-take style.

While I wasn’t bored when watching Birdman – mainly courtesy of Michael Keaton’s very watchable performance – I wasn’t exactly wowed by it either. The film is so much convoluted by style that its substance was pretty much lost on me. And the one-take trick feels very much like a con, because it’s done with hidden transitions. In contrast, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark was a real one-take wonder, to the extent that the cameraman ended up with back problems.

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But why did Innaritu feel a need to have Birdman conveyed in “one take”? The only reason I can think of is that Innaritu wants to capture the immediacy of a stage play, the theatricality of theatre. But then, film is not theatre.

The director explained it himself that he did it that way because “we live our lives with no editing.” Ya, sure, but we don’t live our lives with ellipses either.

He further explained that he wanted to “submerge the protagonist in an ‘inescapable reality’ and take the audience with him.” But that is like using the shaky cam to create false excitement. One can still “submerge the protagonist in an inescapable reality” just by conventional means of storytelling, which makes Birdman‘s “one-take” a mere gimmick.

The Revenant, however, is a much better film, even though I also wasn’t wowed by it. But it’s watchable entertainment. Yet it’s beset by one big, inescapable problem.

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The Revenant also employs a few one-take scenes, but they’re more like special effects than anything else. That would be fine, except that Innaritu seems to be a huge fan of Russian filmmakers and their style. Someone had already made a video comparing the shots in The Revenant with those in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. I saw that video first before I got a chance to see The Revenant. My first thought, and I suspect like many others, was that this was just nitpicking.

Then, I saw the film for myself, after gruelling journeys by train into the heart of the city to the only place where there was an afternoon screening, I came away feeling rather disturbed that almost every dream or memory sequence (or every single one of them, if my memory serves me correctly) is derived from a Tarkovsky film. Not only that, the extreme close-ups throughout almost the whole film reminded me of Aleksei German’s powerful use of them in Hard to be a God (2013). Now, it’s tenuous and hardly worth the while to try and connect the dots here. Suffice it to say, the fact that I could not completely attribute the look and mood of The Revenant to Innaritu’s capabilities perturbed me and more than perplexed me. The powerful sense of place in Tarkovsky’s films was born of his understanding and love of the different kinds of available, natural light, most significantly employed and witnessed in The Mirror (1975). To me, that’s what contributed most to that film’s dreamy, gossamer overlay.

The Revenant was also shot with available light, and very clearly, Tarkovsky’s influence is very strong here.

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All that aside, The Revenant is an entertaining film about a man hellbent on revenge. It’s really a Dances with Wolves replay of someone who has “gone native”. The fictionalised version of Hugh Glass, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a man caught between two worlds – the brutal white conquerors who pillage the land and the native defenders who live in harmony with it. This is courtesy of his taking a Native American wife who bore him a son. This character’s unique position in the story is a golden opportunity for a special perspective on the dynamics of that era, yet all Innaritu gives us are heavy-handed speeches like the one by the native warrior Elk Dog as he negotiates with the frontiersmen: “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.”

In the end what we have is just an entertaining revenge film with a highly effective turn by Tom Hardy as an opportunistic and selfish emblem of the new frontier, turning against everyone around him for a quick gain. I wonder what happened when everyone’s attention was not on Hardy’s worthy performance but more on DiCaprio’s snorting, grunting expressions of pain and suffering, and his dreams of Tarkovsky’s cinematography.

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One due credit though, to Innaritu – his choice of music. In both Birdman and The Revenant, he has shown good taste and judgement in his selection of the right musicians for the job. Although the latter had more than one composer at work, the standout and most recognisable score was by Ryuichi Sakamoto that lends a substantial amount of emotions to carry the film. Birdman, meanwhile, benefits from the affecting solo drum score by Antonio Sanchez who has recorded and toured with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny (and whom I’d met when Metheny played Singapore in 2005; Sanchez was rather quiet and shy, quite the opposite of his spirited playing).

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