Note: This post contains spoilers for both Doctor Strange and A Man Escaped.
Last week, I wrote a post which examined how the concept of affect, as given in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, pertains to art. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the purpose of art is to create sensations and build monuments which perpetuate a struggle. Today, I want to compare and contrast two films – A Man Escaped (1956) and Doctor Strange (2016) – by writing about my experience of watching these films. In this way I hope to try and explore the ways that these films might have affected my body. I understand that this exercise is, from the beginning, doomed to failure. Affect is pre-subjective, so attempting to look at the results of affect through subjective experience. Thus, this would be an ill-fated project from the start. With that acknowledged, I’d like to begin on this project, exploring where it might bring us.
These two films have nothing to do with one another. Doctor Strange was released this year, with a budget of approximately $165 million, is a superhero film starring Hollywood regulars Bennedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, Tilda Swinton as his mentor “The Ancient One” and Mads Mikkelson (who is undoubtedly never going to match up to his role as Hannibal) as his foe Kaecilius. In the film, Doctor Strange – a pretentious neurosurgeon turned time and material bending sorcerer – who must tap into his mythical abilities in order to save the world. It was released, to much fanfare, in IMAX and 3D. The film features state of the art surrealistic computer generated effects which allow it to create mythical and futuristic realities full of mind blowing images of radiant and bright colours. A Man Escaped, on the other had, is a 1956 war drama starring François Leterrier as the main character Le Lietenant Fontaine, a french soldier in a Nazi war camp after being captured for blowing up a bridge. It was filmed in black and white, and the majority of the film takes place on two or three sets: Fontaine’s room, the stairwell and hallway outside of his room, and the place where the prisoners wash themselves. The film centres around Fontaine’s planning and attempt to break out of prison.
Doctor Strange is a film full of movements and speeds. The opening sequence is a prime example of this. This scene, which ranks among the films finest, features tightly choreographed combat combined with the mystical and surrealistic bending of reality. In this scene the Ancient One and Kaecillus fight over an object stolen from the Ancient One’s library. The fusion of elements lead to the characters battling on the streets of a city, while bending the rules of reality. It leads to a spectacular scene, full of stunning imagery. The whole thing is aided on by a pretty stereotypical blockbuster hollywood soundtrack, featuring epic music and combat sound.
Another scene of spectacular nature occurs when Strange first arrives in Nepal. After a car accident leaves his hands incapable of performing surgery, Strange spends all of his money attempting to fix his hands. Desperate and without much hope, Strange spends his last dollars travelling to Nepal to seek healing. When he arrives, the ancient one shows him the power of her magic, hurdling Strange through a visual tour de force of other dimensions and worlds of a multiplicity of colour and hallucinatory-esque design.Doctor Strange featured spectacular elements, effects, and sounds. In addition to the visuals the film contains witty dialogue, plot, and an exceptional soundtrack. The film blasts the audience through its story, until we reach the end, which relies on a clever maneuver of temporal manipulation. All of this I found quite entertaining, and yet, upon the closure of the film, I didn’t have a desire for more. I had enjoyed the film. I thought that it was one of the better Marvel films that I have seen. Yet, I didn’t feel that same draw, that same energy, that I had felt in A Man Escaped.
While Doctor Strange is a film of movements and speeds, A Man Escaped is a film of a stationary nature. A Man Escaped begins with Lt. Fontaine in a car beside a handcuffed man. As the car drives, Fontaine continuously glances at the door handle, hoping to escape. Eventually, at a stop, he opens the door and runs, but is tracked down by the Nazi officers. After this initial sequence, most of the film takes place at the Nazi prison where Fontaine is detained. Much of the plot focuses on Fontaine’s plan to escape, which is intensified when he learns that he will soon be put to death for blowing up a bridge. This plotting and planning all takes place in his cell and once-a-day cleaning break with other prisoners. While the film doesn’t present stunning visuals, action or movement, the suspense was able to draw me into the film. I felt myself actually frightened for Fontaine, and worrying that he was going to be caught. I honestly wasn’t sure whether the escape would be successful or not – whether he would be seen and have to run, whether his plans would be thwarted by and officer seeing his chiseling away at the door – and I found myself thoroughly drawn into the narrative.
When the film was over, I found myself desiring more. The film ends with Fontaine and his young partner, Jost, scaling the walls of the prison and escaping into the French countryside. What I desired was more. I wanted to know what happened next. Would the Germans capture the two escapees, would they go their own ways, would they find safe passage? The film didn’t end on a cliff hanger – the two men were able to safely get away from the prison – and yet, I desired more of the film. This desire did not come about on a conscious level, I can only think that the film – through the score, acting, script, or what have you – must have interacted with my body in ways that shaped my desire for more. Despite the stationary nature of the film – even large parts of their escape consist of playing a waiting game on the roof of the prison – it was able to affect my desire.
I think that a large part of this was the soundtrack of the film, which heavily features the Kyrie of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. This music draws one into its rhythms in order to help portray the overall feel of the film. If you have some time, I recommend giving it a listen. Close your eyes and let the music seep into you. Let the melancholic rhythms and voices touch and affect you.
As the song flows over one feels a slight melancholic hopefulness which burrows and affects us, allowing the song to shift us from being to becoming. This enables us to be drawn into the experience of Fontaine. Shaping our becomings and our desires at pre-intellectual levels. This song, along with the pace, acting, and overall arch of the film allow one to be drawn into the setting, film and era. They produce a desire for struggle – a struggle akin to the one that Fontaine performs while scaling and traversing the walls of the prison.
There are a couple of reasons I can see for the difference in feeling that were produced in me while watching the two films. A Man Escaped is a classic which is heavily aided by the aforementioned masterpiece of Mozart’s Great Mass in C-minor. This music, combined with the tension of Fontaine’s escape builds beautifully towards its end. A Man Escaped does an exceptional job of bringing the audience towards the climax of the film. It completely emerges the audience within a single act, with a single purpose. The entire film works towards Fontaine’s attempt at escape. The music, acting, story, setting and everything else strive towards this climax, this end. The film is teleological in the sense that it is always moving towards some end – though the audience is never sure if that end is tragic or hopeful for Fontaine.
Doctor Strange, because of its role in a larger universe, has the responsibility of creating a full origin story for the character, which leaves the film a bit more disjointed in its overall arch. It needed to establish multiple characters within a grander narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which extends far beyond the individual film. Furthermore, the purpose of this film is simply to entertain. Storytelling, at points, almost comes secondary to the effects and grand gestures. The purpose isn’t to draw one into the universe, but to show one the universe as a spectacle. In A Man Escaped, the audience is already fully immersed in the universe of the film – it is our universe, our reality. Doctor Strange must first establish its universe before attempting to immerse its audience.
This isn’t to say that Doctor Strange is a poor film. I quite enjoyed it. It is simply to say that A Man Escaped was a more successful film at bringing me into the world of the character and establishing desire within me.