Deja vu, 2006
Part I: Some Self-Promotion By Way of A Personal Introduction
I often use these (semi-)weekly write-ups to discuss – almost exclusively – what I find intriguing about the form of a film, avoiding discussion of plot, acting, or narrative. The Naked Spur piece was really about the square frame. The only way I could find to interact with Sweetie was via its language of cuts and spatial relationships. Comparing Larry Clark to Michael Snow in the Wassup Rockers piece may have been pushing it, but I was refreshed and impressed by the formalism of a film that seemed at first glance to be so loosey-goosey. And last week, I may have been asking too much of Casino Royale when I hoped for its central poker scene to play the way Chantal Akerman would have shot it.
But a pleasant surprise occurred at the Kips Bay theater last week when I saw Déjà Vu, a film for which (arguably) expectations should not rise too high. While Tony Scott’s latest lark doesn’t exactly go after any subversive challenging of audience expectation, it has a fascinating way of playing with its own devices. While some critics are impressed solely by its surprising central conceit – it drops time travel into its conventional thriller narrative with blustering gusto – the often deft handling of the narrative and its relationship to Scott’s bombastic aesthetic brings the film close to achieving an integrated use of the medium, the kind I’ve been trying to detect in movies as varied as Miami Vice and A Nos Amours.
Part II: A Locust Swarm of Cameras Gives Way to Fascinating Details
We know from the preview, the poster, and the name of the director that shortly after we sit down for Déjà Vu, something is going to blow up. The feeling of imminence accelerates as hundreds of extras gather to board a ferry, all of them acting too anonymously not to be cadavers after the opening credits. The post-Katrina New Orleans setting is pushed to the fore to give the film a readymade feeling of immediacy. To gain more of the currency of feeling current, Navy boys are boarding, evoking the audience’s fervent (if also uneasy) support of our young troops as of late. It’s an effective cinema synecdoche, as a small piece of the culture – a Hollywood action-thriller – starts to represent something huge about the culture: our nascent sense of vulnerability to nature and terrorists.
Talk about coverage: a routine march onto a little bitty boat swirls, slows, and stomps from as many angles as the studio had cameras (and helicopters), presenting the procession of faceless prey onto the sea vessel from as many angles as possible. It’s Hollywood convention but also an energetic patchwork of disparate sounds and images, played at different speeds with deep contrast and saturation, that has its own kind of elegance when executed by director Scott, one of the style’s originators.
Sure enough, the boat blows up. In the wake of the wreckage, Denzel Washington arrives and suddenly all the cameras know where to turn. Washington’s formidable presence is not as much buttressed by admiring lenses as heightened into stratospheres of universal importance by the way Scott shoots the suave savior of the scene. Again, something huge and intangible (disaster and its meaning) is transformed into something concrete and immediate as Scott uses the same semi-circle swirls to orbit Denzel as he did the catastrophic explosion that blew all the extras to bits a few minutes previous. And again, the vast is collapsed into minutiae, as the movie turns an admiring eye toward Washington’s attention to tiny details that will help him solve the crime.
Part III: Things Get Time-Trippy; Simplifications & Formalist Surprises
In another sort of synecdoche, the plot is put into motion by the relationship of a fragment to a whole: after the explosion, Washington gets wind of a seemingly unrelated incident, the murder of a young woman who was not aboard the boat, that will lead him to the terrorist who had too much of a blast at Mardi Gras. During his initial investigation, in a moment of noteworthy weirdness, Washington puts his finger on the dead woman’s mouth and then puts the finger between his own lips, in a kind of reverse make-out. Shortly thereafter, he’s enlisted into a covert special-ops unit that uses a surveillance system called Snow White, which they claim can render realistic playback of any place they choose at a forward-moving fixed point in time four days previous. It isn’t far into Washington’s first session sitting in that something seems too good, too complete, for Snow White to be mere recorded surveillance.
What they’re really watching is a live, parallel time line that they could reach out to touch and alter if they weren’t terrified of what it would cause. It is here that Déjà Vu – in a bold, unhesitant stroke – rearranges itself around the premise of time travel as investigation. A satisfying scene ensues when Washington figures out that Snow White is not simple surveillance and breaks the fourth wall between the surveyors and the surveyed. Admittedly, the ramifications of his realization are delineated with easy metaphors (time travel is like folding a piece of paper in half), and the technicians argue a Time Travel for Dummies version of their disagreements over the possibilities of their endeavor. However, engaging subtextual commentary comes from the composition. Their debate takes place in front of a screen that displays wall-size blowups of the subjects whose lives they could retroactively alter with their dealings. The images of the past they’re projecting onto the screen dominate the frame, the marionettes dwarfing the puppeteers. The intricacies of the scene of simplistic dialogue are heightened by the visuals, and in this way Scott makes a fine game of pontificating Déjà Vu’s riskier plot points.
In another formalistically integrated scene, standard car chase goes conceptual as Scott finds a way to go split-screen: as Washington races down a freeway, the four-days-ago image plays out alongside the present-time image. But it’s not an imposition of two separate frames, as you might expect, but a kinetic composition that foregrounds a small screen that Washington is using to see the past while the present-moment image takes up the rest of the frame, about the size of half the windshield.
The car chase is maniacal, as Washington’s Hummer barrels down the wrong lane of the busy expressway. He’ll stop at nothing, we’re being told, because he’s taking the case personally. He’s trying to carve a little convenient purpose out of a world he’s finding harder to believe has meaning. It’s explained in shorthand, of course (“somethin’ spiritual”), but his tentative conviction that a small victory might integrate a world view reflects that relationship of fragment to whole that Scott’s aesthetic highlights in the very first scene. Similar is the way that Snow White can rapidly zoom from vast aerial shot of a city to intimate close up of an individual. Déjà Vu plays out along character and narrative axes that mirror and bend to each other, making the picture – even as it devolves into bland “get the bad guy, then the girl” histrionics – one that manages to move forward on a number of levels simultaneously, like the separate strands of time drawn with a Sharpie by one of Snow White’s engineers. And the fact that Washington performed reverse-time make-out with the victim (finger to her lips to his mouth) serves Déjà Vu’s structural acrobatics. He’ll effectively revive the woman by moving backwards in time the same way he reversed their kiss on the autopsy table, which arranges the emotional plane along the same axis as the time-reversing narrative one. In this way, Déjà Vu starts to look – as you look backwards – like a movie that’s playing with the problems it sets up for itself, even if its conventional simplifying won’t allow it to solve them.
Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Bill Marsilii, Terry Rossio