On Friday, in a fit of cinematic excess, I saw two films – first, Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty, controversial Zero Dark Thirty, followed by Ang Lee’s joyous adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The two films, although tonally and visually at opposite ends of the spectrum, share several characteristics. Both are long: they clear two hours apiece, and Zero Dark Thirty pushes for three. More significantly, both are long films despite the fact that their source material would seem, superficially at least, better suited for a considerably shorter film.
The reason for this is that both films are, on paper at least, largely based around waiting, stasis and inaction, and the consequences of these states. Zero Dark Thirty, with the exception of the masterful opening and the tense final set-piece, is essentially a drawn-out build up to a long-awaited burst of action – that which comes when Jessica Chastain’s Maya finally sees her plan to track down Osama Bin Laden slot into place. Life of Pi has an ostensibly similar structure: the middle section of the film, which makes up the majority of its running time, centres around Pi trying to survive, physically, mentally and emotionally, while he drifts aimlessly at sea. Interestingly, Yann Martel himself believed Life of Pi to be ‘unfilmable’ when he wrote it. Certainly, neither film seems like it should work as a successful blockbuster, and one could be forgiven for thinking that either or both might have flopped, sliding into obscurity as interesting but inherently flawed experiments in filmmaking, or niche cult oddities in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky’s punishingly long and uneventful Stalker.
Yet while Life of Pi was a beautiful, uplifting piece of cinema, Zero Dark Thirty was almost depressingly mundane, dreary and run-of-the-mill. This is largely down to the fact that Ang Lee understands something fundamental about film that Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t, that the medium is less about telling stories in a pure, realistic form than playing around with the way we see things. Because it’s a visual medium, film lives or dies on how it looks, and establishing strong, visual aesthetic is ultimately what makes a film successful. It’s not a problem for Life of Pi that the narrative meanders, because Ang Lee makes visuals central to the film. Scenes in which Pi performs mundane tasks at sea, or simply lies contemplating his inert situation, work because they are unabashedly beautiful. When we see Pi and Richard Parker floating on a gorgeous night sky reflected in the sea, or when we’re presented with a kaleidoscopic panoply of marine life, shimmering across the screen, it doesn’t matter in the slightest that nothing is really happening. The reason the scene exists is the way it looks, not the action.
Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, makes no attempt to establish a strong visual style: it simply adopts the slick, clinical aesthetic that is de rigueur in any vaguely military film of the past decade. Events take place in a flat, matter of fact manner, which is fine if these events are exciting, interesting or compelling (take Inception or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Unfortunately, Zero Dark Thirty has very little to fall back on: the characterisation is thin, the dialogue tedious, and the painstaking gathering of evidence is much less interesting than Bigelow seems to think.
This isn’t to say that filmmaking should be style-over-substance – style has to go with good writing, as it does in Life of Pi. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is awful because the butchery done to Alan Moore’s original work far outweighs the good things he does visually. Rather, people place far too little importance on the visuals of a film – which is why ‘it’s really good visually’ is often said about films in a tone of surprise, as if the film in question is doing something out of the ordinary – when they are far and away the most important thing.
PHOTO/ Walter Lim, Turntherightcorner, Curt Goering