"La morale, c'est le travelling," Jean-Luc Godard remarked: "Tracking shots are a question of morality" - and if you don't know what he meant, try watching the first five minutes or so of Déjà Vu.
The scene is New Orleans - "Katrina only made us stronger", proclaims a banner - on the Fourth of July. Happy people are crowding on to a ferry - sailors in pressed white uniforms (the director Tony Scott has loved those white uniforms, ever since Top Gun), children, mothers. The camera tracks over them, dipping in and out of slow motion to add emotional emphasis, lingering over a smiling child being held aloft by her mother, and then a little girl crying as her doll tumbles with an ominous lack of haste into the water: you can feel your thumbs pricking.
And sure enough, shortly afterwards, the ferry is torn apart by a vast fireball, and flaming bodies are flung into the water - beneath the surface, lit by blue sunlight and orange flames, people become suddenly, unexpectedly graceful as they struggle towards the air. Back on shore, the camera pans over the crowd again, but this time it is pausing on faces frozen in grief and shock.
There are several reasons why this strikes me as mildly immoral: one is the quite blatant way the film relies for emotional response on the audience's memories of September 11 and of Hurricane Katrina (later on, the film makes reference to Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the federal building at Oklahoma City, completing a hat-trick of tasteless references to traumas in recent American history).
But it's also about the way the camera moves. Film of a crowd being happy, or a crowd being sad, could easily be democratic: look, it might say, these are people just like you, with the same feelings you have. But this camera doesn't get close enough to express any real interest or curiosity, doesn't pause long enough to allow people individuality: instead, this crowd is generic; their feelings only interest Scott as a way of cueing the audience's feelings.
And so what's established in the first five minutes, apart from the basic plot, is that this is a tart of a film, ready to tell you whatever it thinks you want to hear. The impression isn't dispelled as the plot deepens, or at any rate fuddles. Denzel Washington plays an agent investigating the bombing - for that is what it was - who is talent-spotted and co-opted by a top-secret team of Feds and scientists headed by Val Kilmer. They have what they claim is a satellite observation system that, in conjunction with cutting-edge computing technology, allows them to reconstruct a vision of the past, even using infrared to peer through walls - with the constraint that they can only see things four days and six hours old. But Denzel soon spots that this is a cover story: it turns out that Kilmer's boffins have actually found a way of opening wormholes that allow them to look back into the past.
As it happens, this particular time technology is perfectly suited to Scott's filming style. The wormhole - suspended, somebody mentions in passing, in a gravity field - can swoop and crash-zoom in just the way Scott's cameras always can.
This is complicated, even granted some of the lamest pseudo-science-speak ever committed to celluloid; but what really complicates things is that their only lead to the bomber is a beautiful young woman whose corpse was found shortly before the explosion. Denzel starts watching her in the hope of finding clues, but pretty soon he's watching her for his own satisfaction. She's beautiful, single, kind to animals and even prays before she goes to bed at night - perfect. Yes, it's that old film noir standby, the detective in love with the dead woman.
But if we can see her alive on the monitor, can she be dead? "Is she alive or is she dead?" Denzel demands. "Life, like time or space, is not just a local phenomenon," blusters a boffin.
What if Denzel can go back in time and save her? "You cannot change the past," the scientist rails: "It is physically impossible." But Denzel spots the flaw: "What if there's more than physics?"
At this point, you realise just how impossibly tarty this film is: the calculation here is, blatantly, that the scientifically literate, vaguely rational demographic just isn't as significant as the religious/ spiritual demographic.
So, plausibility cast aside, Denzel sets off on his journey into the past. Can he change history, save all those lives and get the girl? Here I have to admit that, for all the words I'm wasting on it, this is one of those films that has already reviewed itself with painful accuracy in the title: you really have seen all this before - in Back to the Future, Time Cop (Jean-Claude Van Damme's finest hour, for what it's worth), Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, The Terminator and pretty much every other time-travel film Hollywood ever made. But at least those predecessors didn't take themselves this seriously, or try to manipulate the audience's feelings this way. Turns out there's an ethical dimension to this, too: la morale, c'est le time-travelling.
Considered purely as an action flick it has its moments, particularly a sequence in which Washington, wearing special goggles, causes mayhem by zooming the wrong way down the freeway chasing a four-day-old image of the bomber's car; driving with one eye on the past. The idea and execution are clever enough to make me think this was the germ of the whole film.
Washington is always an attractive actor, though the fact that he's now on his third film with Scott makes me begin to doubt him. Kilmer is wasted in what's virtually a cameo, but I feel more sorry for Paula Patton, who plays beautiful dead woman, and who only just got out alive from the wreckage of Idlewild, the one where the musicians from OutKast played Thirties gangsters. If only I could go back in time and save her career.
Alongside Godard on tracking shots, you might want to consider Oscar Wilde on colour schemes: in his essay "Pen, Pencil and Poison", he suggested that the murderous leanings of the artist and poisoner Alfred Wainewright could be detected from a shade of green he used in his engravings. These things don't always work - Scott has rather a good sense of colour - but I think of Wilde when I see The Wizard of Oz, now re-released in a scrubbed-up print and with colour schemes more lurid than ever.
On a personal note, I'm pleased to see that, 35 years on from the initial trauma, I am able to look on the hideous flying monkeys with something like equanimity, so all that therapy wasn't wasted. But I still find it repellent, aesthetically - with the baroque curlicues on the Munchkins' hair and shoes, the squeaky voices, the horrible Tellytubby architecture - and morally, with its keep-the-proles-in- their-place message.
When I was a child, the Cowardly Lion used to seem like a pure spot of comedy among all this murk; now, even he seems to fit into the tweeness. And tell me; what is this supposed thing about gay men and The Wizard of Oz? Judy Garland as gay icon I can accept, but we're talking about the later Judy, tragic and self-aware, not the improbably full-voiced, full-busted Lolita on view here. Still, the songs are good.Reuse content