a belated finale NYFF moment with your host, Nathaniel R
Before the world premiere of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk the great director Ang Lee appeared and asked the crowd at the NYFF screening to "keep an open mind." He was speaking about the new technology he used to shoot the 3D movie about a Texas soldier named Billy Lynn (played by talented newcomer Joe Alwyn) on leave from Iraq who is used as a patriotic prop at a football game's halftime show. The movie is shot in 4K (much higher clarity than usual) with a "revolutionary" 140 frames per second as opposed to the standard for decades upon decades now which is 24. As a cinephile without much technical savvy and who doesn't get too caught up in aspect ratios or film stocks or whatnot, I thought "no problem, Ang!" I always attend movies with eyes wide open and the mind ready to join the party should the movie engage it.
Unfortunately as soon as the movie began I felt as distant toward everything onscreen as I feel when talk turns too technical; I'm there for the art of cinema, the pleasure of acting, and the skill of storytelling and as long as they're there, who cares what equipment was used to deliver it?! I've come to stomach 3D glasses though they're one barrier between myself and the screen that I'd prefer were thrown in the fire, but as it turns out high speed frame rate is one "advance" that is an absolute backtrack and the only technological advance I've ever seen that had me thinking "if this is the future of cinema I'll lose the obsession for movies in no time." I've never felt less engaged with an Ang Lee movie, continually pulled out of it by this process which curiously makes everything flat, small, and cheap even though you're supposed to feel "immersed" and it's incredibly expensive. There's material in the film -- Alwyn's wet eyed closeups, a few savvy if obvious political notes, and the dehumanizing spectacle of the halftime show itself -- that is far more appealing in theory and in brief moments than the movie ever makes room for due to the odd "reality" presented. Supposedly high frame rate is much closer to how our eyes actually see but it's rather like looking at a shallow stage play without the electricity of live theater and with weirdly unsatisfying "acting" apart from the leading man who seems to be existing rather than performing. There's not a single shot in the movie that wouldn't have been more beautiful and inviting and emotionally satisfying in 2D with 24 frames per second. We go to the movies for heightened pleasure not for recreation of actual reality. Actual reality is outside the theater doors and free of charge and less beautiful and carefully constructed and emotionally direct than the best movies and stories always are.
As someone with a deep love for Ang Lee who has made at least five films which the world would be a significantly less wonderful place without (Brokeback Mountain, Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Lust Caution, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) I felt like weeping for this techno-turn which has so distracted this great humanist storyteller from his chief skill set. Life of Pi was, despite the Oscar, one of his least engaging efforts and Billy Lynn is even less interesting to look at and sit with. Deep love for Ang Lee demands that I give the film one more shot but I'll try to see it in a less awful format... ironically and ideally the kind of format that's the furthest possible from Ang Lee's intent that I can find. Will any theaters be showing this at a smaller frame rate and in 2D?
Initial Grade: The content C ???; the high speed frame rate / 3D: F
Oscar Chances: Tough to say. Only two movies can apparently show this in its full intended format which is a format that is a crime against the cinema. So perhaps if people see it in more appealing traditional ways, they'll like it? I cannot say. But at the moment, I can't imagine major Oscar play unless the wider swath of Hollywood REALLY wants to inflict this new and gross technology upon us.