Gilbey on Film: Accidental beauty

We shouldn't think films are ever born fully-formed.

Whenever the filmmaking process is divided into percentages (1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration, that sort of thing), it's surprising that such factors as luck or necessity are excluded altogether from the equation. There's a fantasy, one to which I am highly susceptible, that everything which ends up on screen was always meant to be there. Blame it on auteur theory, or simply a child-like faith in the miracle of movies, but there it is.

Occasions when this has not been the case tend to be filed away as freak exceptions. -- think of the devastating final shots of Roman Polanski's The Ghost and Mike Leigh's Naked, both of which were invented on the hoof after shooting had begun. (In fact, Leigh always adheres to this process, as he explained to Amy Raphael in her excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh: "[T]here's a big difference between the sort of ideas you have before you start shooting a film and what sort of creative process goes on when you've shot 99 per cent of the film, your cinematic juices are flowing and you've got the hang of the film you're making.")

But it was helpful this year on two separate occasions to have myself disabused of the whimsical notion that a film is ever born fully-formed. In these instances, my eyes were opened by two female directors, Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold. (Quite coincidentally, both had just shot their newest movies in the old-fashioned and almost-defunct 4:3 aspect ratio, which produces a square rather than rectangular frame.) Back in March, I met Reichardt to discuss her stark western Meek's Cutoff. One of the most contentious parts of this deliberately intense and slow-moving film was its elliptical ending, which leaves the audience to speculate on what might lie in store for the parched, desperate characters trudging along the Oregon Trail. The enigmatic final shots are so integral to the film's mysteries that I was surprised to learn that a different ending had been planned right up to the day of shooting. Reichardt told me:

The film actually ends a little differently than the script. The sun went down before we got our final shot on the last day, and I came back home without an ending to the movie, which is really devastating. I had to rearrange it in my mind. We didn't have the money to go back out there with all the actors and the animals and the wagons, so it had to become something other than what it was designed to be. I have this little prayer I say, where I tell myself that the lack of means is somehow working in my favour. Often it's true, and it can lead you some place good. In this case, it led me to an ending which was more suited to the film.

You have to be malleable. When I'm making a film, I want the script to be as far along as possible. But then all through scouting locations, the script is constantly changing to fit the places where things will happen. Then the actors come along. Things you've imagined being said in a certain way come out of their mouths sounding completely different, and I don't have a lot of rehearsal time so you have to adjust to that. If you knew how it was all going to be, then it wouldn't be such an interesting process. You read about Hitchcock, and how he said that shooting was boring because you knew everything that was going to happen, but then he wasn't working with our kind of budget or locations. I'm a big planner but it's still important to be open to whatever the day offers you when you're there.

I got an even greater surprise last month when I met Andrea Arnold (whose new version of Wuthering Heights I review in the next issue of the NS). I commended her on a particular moment in her 2006 debut, Red Road, which I consider to be one of the most imaginatively suggestive shots in recent cinema: a CCTV operator trains her camera on a suspicious-looking man who darts suddenly into the long grass on a stretch of waste ground, only for a lean fox to emerge a few seconds later from the other side of the undergrowth, creeping across the deserted road and vanishing into the night. The intimation, of course, is that a metamorphosis of some kind has occurred. I may actually have gasped when I saw that in a cinema for the first time, and I think I gasped again when Arnold revealed to me that the shot was entirely unplanned and fortuitous:

It was an accident; it's not like we had a fox there in the grass, ready to be released! When you're making a film, you often get less than you expect because what you start out with in your heart is such a pure thing, and the obstacles during production can be so immense and brutal. But, every now and then, you get so much more than you could ever have imagined. And the shot with the fox was one of those moments. To see it come out of the grass -- it was such a pure moment. I was delighted! I knew it was going in the film, no matter what. And I'd already written into the script the scene where the characters hear the fox noises later on. If you live in London, as I do, then you hear those awful noises all the time; it's just the strangest sound, like babies being murdered, and I wanted that in the film. The CCTV footage was shot before everything else, and it all just tied in beautifully. When that happens, you're, like, [she raises her eyes heavenwards] 'Thank you!' You feel like you've been given a big present.

And so do we, sitting gobsmacked in the stalls.

"Meek's Cutoff" and "Red Road" are available both on DVD. "Wuthering Heights" is released in cinemas on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump