I watched Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film, Wild, the other night and it has passed the test of what a good film should do: it has stayed with me. The first Vallée film I saw was Dallas Buyers Club last year, and I remember being blown away by Matthew McConaughey’s performance and a little bothered by the pacing of the film. Why can’t a scene last longer than 20 seconds? I thought. And this pace held throughout, from beginning to end, like a rapid-fire picture book whose characters only come to life when the pages are fluttered. While watching Wild, I realized that my slight contempt for this style was due to the fact that it was new to me. I was used to scenes developing slowly, characters moving across a shot like in theater, dialogue taking its time, emotions coming to a boil and holding us in rapt attention. Of course, the further back in time you go in the history of film, the longer and more drawn-out the shots are, until you get to the very beginning.
In the early 1900s, just when film was being born, movies were 10-15 minutes long, and were made up of short cuts, not long, drawn-out scenes. This was because time was of the essence, and the technique was a consequence of directors being forced to be as economical as possible. On top of that, films were silent, and therefore did not have the luxury of dialogue to explain the action: it had to be shown as quickly and efficiently as possible. This could be seen in the films of D. W. Griffith. The genius of Griffith was that he innately understood both the possibilities and the restrictions of film as a medium. “Griffith soon came to realize that the basic articulations of cinematic storytelling [were] not scenes, but rather individual shots.” (1) Vallée goes back to film’s roots to give us individual shots that fix a place in our mind: our hero’s struggle on the ground with an enormous backpack, symbolic of the weight of her pain, which gradually gets lighter during her journey; her first encounter with a man, who happens to be naked — ironic, we learn, because of her struggles with impulsive sex — yet the shot’s Edenic quality is baptismally soothing, a chance for her to start over in this area; her defiant throwing away of shoes that she has outgrown, and opting for the humble alternative of duck-taped sandals; her encounter with an old fox, who limps away, and her yelling “Come back!”; an angelic child whose song finally gives her permission to privately grieve.
What is remarkable about Vallée’s technique, I realized, is that it is the same technique used by the mind in regards to memory. We do not remember scenes from our past. We remember our past the same way we remember our dreams: as individual shots. This was what Proust wrote about in Swann’s Way: that as human beings we are artists because we must, as a rule, recreate our past by filling in the empty spaces. Anyone who tells a story verbatim, detail for detail, with the utmost accuracy exactly as the events occurred, will still subtly change those details each time he tells it. In that way the story is dynamic and alive, because it changes over time. If nature is an artist, time is its medium.
And so, when I think back to classics like Key Largo (1948), I remember long, drawn-out scenes with lots of dialogue that was surely splendid, but whose words I cannot recall. I remember a hurricane, a drunk woman getting cut off, and Bogey killing the villain by shooting him through a hatch in the roof of a boat. That is all I remember. The problem with a film like Key Largo is that it is not conscious of its own medium. A film is not a play, and it is certainly not a novel. It communicates in a multitude of ways, which makes it unique — through images, words, and sounds — but its primary mode of conveying an idea is always the image. Dialogue and music should only enhance the image, not replace it or act as a substitute for it. (Think of Kubrick’s use of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey: the magnitude of sound and image coalesce.)
Vallée seems to understand the primary importance of the individual shot, and his film Wild succeeds on this level. It is especially appropriate given the synopsis of the film, which involves a woman hiking over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail in order to emotionally cleanse herself from her past, her sins, her grief. The simplicity of the plot renders Vallée’s fast-paced, quick-cut technique all the more effective, giving it a refreshing tightness and focus. In addition, his weaving of flashbacks through cross-cuts brings us even closer to our hero because she is feeling those memories at the same time she is hiking the trail. In fact, she is re-feeling them and, as a result, releasing them. We, as viewers, get to witness what that looks like for her. Thus this imbrication of images is the correct way to visually communicate this particular story. Vallée sacrifices fancy dialogue in favor of the concrete image. Interestingly, he also understands the way in which we get our information today — quick shots (Instagram), abbreviated conversations (text message) — and uses this to his advantage in a way that he knows audiences will respond to and absorb. He knows our attention span is short, he knows we are restless.
My instinctive mistrust of this fast-paced, short-cut technique was based on my own yearning for the familiar. I wanted a scene, not a shot. Or at least one longer than 20 seconds. But Wild is a film about letting go, not about the intricacies of starting new relationships. It clocks in at 115 minutes, but felt like an hour, though days later it still seemed like I’d been on a long, transformational journey. Which, of course, I had. After all, life is not a series of scenes, but a series of moments, too quick to achieve permanence. As quickly as those moments come, they are gone. Then they exist in our minds, a kaleidoscope of images — some of which we hold on to, many of which we lose, and some of which, we let go.