War Horse

War Horse

Movie watching can never be the same after the doubleheader of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, his first animated film, and his live-action War Horse. Each film upgrades the way our imaginations construct the world, the way we see ourselves in the digital age. All art devotees should recognize the history being made.

Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter from Belgian author Hergé’s cartoon storybooks, and Joey, the young stallion traversing World War I-era Europe as in the hit Broadway stage play, both emerge from the childhood reveries that often start Spielberg’s fictions. These imaginary protagonists go through large-scale comic and dramatic escapades that not only span the breadth of human experience but apotheosize it.

In the language of pop immediacy, Tintin and Joey’s stories are immersive—a term for the right-now gratification encouraged by both digital media and the exhausted cultural legacy recently eulogized in Godard’s Film Socialisme. Tintin’s childhood curiosity and resourcefulness and Joey’s natural grace and endurance are captivating on so many levels that the usual terms of film appreciation hardly apply. This may be key to why many critics underappreciate Spielberg; they react conventionally to these unconventional films and are bewildered by Spielberg’s refinement, precision, piquancy and vision.

Perhaps the best way to understand the achievement of these two revolutionary films is to realize that they do nothing “new.” Their revolution is in Spielberg’s technique—very familiar after almost 40 years of popular and profound entertainment—but now with a new impetus and subtler depth. As a modernist filmmaker, he turns Tintin into a commentary on traditional genre expectation and pushes beyond it, toward the personal feelings about history and legend that are stirred by fantastic exploits and imaginative catharsis.

In War Horse, Joey is at the center of the historical events that define what came to be known as modernity—eternal class struggles intensified by war that level all our ambitions and vulnerabilities, whether English, German, French—or American. (It purifies global human values, as Denis Villeneve’s Incendies also showed.)

Embarking on digital anime methods, Spielberg has answered the need to reconceive the pleasure to be had from the adventure genre and war movie—The Adventures of Tintin is state of the art, War Horse is commemoration. Both are prophecy.

For Spielberg, entertainment equals enlightenment. Not realizing that, critics take Tintin’s on-screen miracles for granted. There’s too much for ordinary critics to look at, starting with the opening scene of Tintin having his portrait made at a street fair: “I think I have captured something of your likeness,” he is told by a painter. When we see it, it is, of course, a Hergé drawing—now a caricature of a cartoon.

From that image onward, Spielberg toys with ways of seeing. Lenses, binoculars, window reflections, magnifying glasses and mirrors pop up everywhere (clever self-consciousness in the script by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat).

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin

A less thoughtful filmmaker, such as co-producer Peter Jackson, would settle for telling Tintin’s story (maybe even making it as convoluted as the awful Lord of the Rings trilogy, which set back the intellectual development of digital fantasy). But Spielberg continues the modernist ethic of heightening viewer awareness. Intrepid Tintin becomes our digital-age surrogate, reenacting chase movie traditions like River Pheonix in The Last Crusade (the basis of the credit sequence’s silhouette overture) but at waterslide velocity.

This is far beyond the hackneyed talk of dreams in Scorsese’s banal film school lecture, Hugo—Spielberg believes in cinema as kinetics, prioritizing movement, not antiquated “cinephilia.”

As ultimate cinema, The Adventures of Tintin features the bliss of camera movement. A sequence in Tintin’s apartment where the model ship he purchased at that opening street fair becomes the object of an action-ballet burglary has ingenious slapstick speed. It was Hitchcock who famously exclaimed, “Spielberg doesn’t think in terms of a proscenium”; Tintin’s P.O.V. is positively gyroscopic. The images are always vertiginous, as when sailors slip-slide in their bunks or pet shop canaries circle a man’s head after he falls.

This wittily stylized activity evokes how we dream. As we watch, we live the history of cinema and animation just as spectacularly as André Bazin theorized our recognition of nature and experience in photographic realism.

Tintin advances the motion capture technology that Robert Zemeckis has fumbled with for years (hideous faces in The Polar Express, Halloween expressiveness in Monster House). The improvement allows animation to affect cinematic realism (unlike Scorsese’s out-of-scale CGI) but as aestheticized dream play.

Spielberg’s narrative escalates when Tintin, seeking the secret of the Unicorn model ship, encounters drunken Captain Haddock and learns the ship’s history. In Haddock’s meta-narrative, legend segues into visions, then flashbacks, and vice versa. These endlessly inventive transitions (a ship in a desert mirage morphs onto roiling seas) salute David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as well as Roman Polanski’s Pirates (the latter particularly in Haddock’s Walter Matthau-countenance and bluster).

Yet, Spielberg’s sensibility controls the fable’s crescendo—the friendly confidences that Haddock, Tintin and his white terrier Snowy share recall the emotional connections to history and family in Catch Me if You Can and The Last Crusade. Haddock chronicles a legendary competition between his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, and the pirate Red Rackham that ties the Unicorn to three lost scrolls and leads to even more awesome spectacle.

Spielberg shows lyrical inspiration: an amazing sea battle where one pirate vessel swings on the mast of another ship, leaping from churning waters to aerial sparring. Nothing in Pirates of the Caribbean compares. Mere fancifulness is heightened in favor of centrifugal force. These vectors are repeated in a later joust between gigantic cranes that surpasses the dynamism of Michael Bay’s Transformers 3.

Chief among Tintin’s climaxes is an extended chase sequence that may be the greatest in movie history; it juggles characters, narrative strands and those scrolls, plus Snowy and a mischievous falcon, and stretches across the screen. This ribbon of hurtling delight recalls Temple of Doom but with clearer, brighter imagery. Spielberg uses 3-D width, not just background-foreground depth, which is more than practitioner James Cameron ever conceived of and closer to Paul W.S. Anderson’s panoramas in Resident Evil: AfterLife and The Three Musketeers.

Scorsese’s sad, dull use of 3-D in Hugo just seems part of contemporary Hollywood’s techno hoodwink to sucker family audiences and intimidate cineastes. But Spielberg utilizes the gimmick as an occasion for reexamining cinematic imagery. Confronting Hergé’s Tintin rendering with his own green-screen Tintin startlingly brings together 20th- and 21st-century modes. Ready or not, the double image of cartoon and 3-D Tintin propels us forward.

If 3-D is ever to be an acceptable narrative technology, it will have to unlock viewers’ imaginations, as in Zack Snyder’s The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga‘hoole, and not blatantly repeat the primitive “realism” of early movie hucksters, which Scorsese unhelpfully romanticizes. Neither Wim Wenders’ Pina nor Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, recent exercises in 3-D documentary realism, were as good as their fictional predecessors, Altman’s The Company or the 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth. Tintin’s cartoon mode defies Wenders’ and Herzog’s banal gimmickry (which is why it will also work in 2-D, offering as much carnival delight as Temple of Doom and 1941).

Tintin’s 21st-century artistry redeems our corrupted taste for narrative and spectacle—it’s the best kind of restoration. This rediscovery inspired the aesthetic behind Spielberg’s follow-up project: War Horse looks like a cinematic version of an illuminated manuscript. Its cavalcade of human longing and suffering during World War I has an uncanny spiritual tow, thanks to the way cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s glowing frames combine storybook and Hollywood epic grandeur.

Joey, the horse bought at auction by a struggling farmer, becomes a surrogate for young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), whose attachment and faithfulness are tested when Joey is taken into service by the British army and on the continent becomes part of the lives of two German brothers, a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and anonymous soldiers on the battlefield.

Anyone who takes for granted the emotions elicited in War Horse fools themself to think they’re slogging through clichés. The human emotions reflected in Joey’s sojourn are purified to a spiritual essence. There is an uncorrupted, presexual belief in human potential in this series of tales.

The critic Dennis Delrogh insightfully caught Joey’s resemblance to the African slave’s travails in the criminally neglected Amistad. Indeed, War Horse views Western “civilization” from an indentured soul’s distance (same as in The Color Purple) that is almost prelapsarian—not just anti-war but wartime seen with honest, not idyllic, moral complexity.

The first battle scene brilliantly confronts us with the horror of undefended Germans attacked by brutal Brits; the unexpected shock is matched by the poetic startlement of riderless horses seen leaping over machine guns. This image is as haunting as Griffith’s seminal “War’s Peace” in The Birth of a Nation, capturing the irony in ritualized killing.

Spielberg uses Joey’s story to achieve the equivalent of an outsider’s unbiased detachment, fair to the tragedy and beauty of worldly experience. This richness derives from concentrating narrative skill with popular perceptual needs. It shames the shallow view of war (and Germans and violence and love) that Tarantino disgraced in Inglourious Basterds. QT’s nihilistic revisionism negated the humane values previously held in wartime narratives.

Spielberg challenges such cynicism while encouraging viewers to recover their basic emotional responses. QT wants audiences to enjoy killing and vengeance—the folly of the post-Vietnam unengaged, anti-military sensibility. Spielberg steps back from that and resurrects the profundity of war service.

What he learned from the research for and reactions to Saving Private Ryan causes him to practice the same scrupulousness as earlier generations of war vet artists, from John Ford to Kurosawa. The result produces either catharsis or the confusion felt by those who have grown comfortable with cynicism and are inured to the beauty that comes through Kaminski’s supernal images.

Spielberg’s flaming sunsets are more referential than QT’s film geek echoes; they evoke Gone With the Wind romanticism but with the same modernist sentiments as Coppola’s The Outsiders and Téchiné’s French Provincial, films that use the movies’ past to articulate a contemporary longing. It’s the height of sophistication, achieving complex expression with phenomenal simplicity.

Spielberg has arrived at David Lean/John Ford’s visual grandiloquence and emotional clarity—greatness is at his fingertips, but it’s also the result of artistic integrity. Every sequence in War Horse may seem summary because its episodes—whether of Albert and his family or various civilians and soldiers, including Tom Hiddleston as the figure of sacrificial British rectitude—suggest a parable on anguished human aspiration and arrive at their point with stunning elegance.

This is especially true of Joey’s wild attempt at escape, enmeshing himself in trench wire. An extended metaphor for the terror and absurdity of No Man’s Land, it eschews warfare but symbolizes tormented flesh and anxious spirit—Joey as one of God’s noble creatures. It is a sequence of sustained agape, the stark animal-equals-soul image suggests the full range of torture, enslavement, cruelty and finally—breathtakingly—hope through mankind’s humility.

War movies inherently memorialize, but Spielberg uses his gift for action to capture frenzy plus its moral implications. The scene goes beyond mere genre filmmaking but also brings us back to reflect on genre and what styles and methods of storytelling mean to modern consciousness.

War Horse has a different kind of resonance than The Adventures of Tintin, but it isn’t necessarily better. Each is an experiment that could only be possible after the distillation practiced in The Adventures of Tintin. Spielberg’s reconsideration of cinema aesthetics allows him to refine the cinematic image; to create, as critic Robert Storr said of Gerhard Richter, “works of art that attempt—and I believe succeed—in fundamentally repositioning the viewer in relation to…the 20th century’s running narrative of utopianism and despair.”

Tintin and War Horse range between utopianism and despair through comedy and drama, but it’s important to note how their nearly abstract visual styles address our changing perception of the moving image narrative.

Only dullards would misunderstand these visions as either trivial or clichéd. By altering the imagery of his Indiana Jones cycle and stylizing Hollywood’s pictographic classicism, Spielberg uses cinema “in a way which is both extremely personal, even idiosyncratic, and extremely pointed, even polemical…verging on the abstract,” to quote Peter Wollen, also writing about Richter’s paintings-based-on-photographs.

In the digital era, our basic assumptions about movies have changed with the methods of their exhibition and consumption. Movies won’t be the same—we know that from the way critics settled for the shoddy look of the Iron Man and Harry Potter flicks, The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris and others that have no visual quality to speak of. Movies as we knew them are over; today’s increasing artifice concedes to digital, but Spielberg finds the perfect expression of new imagining.