Deja Vu and Watching Movies

I find myself becoming less and less receptive towards films in that “love-letter to cinema” genre that set themselves within the film industry. It’s a much more impressive, interesting feat to capture the magic of cinema through its relation towards other aspects of life — films like Deja Vu that feature the nature of spectatorship through farflung and broader, albeit more tangentially connected activities feel less lazy, even if they are less fascinated altogether with our relationships with the medium. If anything, they feel truer, discarding the intellectual objectives of “meta” filmmaking in order to more genuinely evoke the feelings that they applaud cinema for being able to evoke.

Deja Vu — a cinephile wet dream in how it imbues media and images with the capabilities for actual revisionism through time travel. The first layer of this movie, the present, is literally people sitting around screens devoted to observing, filmed with an utmost dynamism and visual panache. The rest of its themes are a bit more cursory or didactic (or flat-out ballsy): surveillence culture is complicated indiscriminately and the morality thereof is mentioned but then ignored, and the terrorist is a white male wannabe soldier clamoring on about the death of patriotism, but this is all already plenty thematic deference for what is ostensibly an action-crime-thriller.

Tony Scott does more, and directs with a sentimentality that contradicts the more mechanical, conceptually sci-fi aspects of the film. Nolan comparisons make sense, but the biggest difference is in Scott’s messiness. The characters and relationships in Nolan films are all clean-chiseled puzzle pieces, but Scott makes room for a subtle romance, and creates characters that actually feel desparate in their rawness as they push beyond their capabilities. Here we see love as the fourth dimension, eight years before Nolan discovers emotion in Interstellar.

The romance between Denzel Washington’s Doug Carlin and Paula Patton’s Claire Kuchever is never forced; their first meeting — Claire dead and horribly mutated and disfigured on a metal slab — puts Claire at a disadvantage, and makes a potential relationship feel unlikely. We ultimately fall for them the same way that Doug falls for Claire — through a screen, as he begins to watch moments from her life in realtime. In an early scene, Claire’s father hands a stack of photographs of her to Doug, who rebuts: “It’s really not necessary.”

“I need her to matter to you.”

This is cinema! Transcendently romantic, setting passions aflame for characters dead, stuck in the past, or fictional — Doug Carlin is the ideal spectator. The same applies to Scott’s action: the car chase through time, of which I couldn’t even begin to describe in logical terms, mirrors the audience’s reaction watching these two layers of action occur simultaneously but also independently. It’s action experienced vicariously through other characters — adrenaline transitively felt.

The more cliche, genre moments in the first act before Doug discovers this time-bending superpower are offset by Washington’s confident detachment from scene. The secret government tech is bad-ass enough on its own, but also manages to bridge the strained sense of alienation between the characters and the inciting incident. The final title card of the film reveals its motive of honoring the “strength and enduring spirit of the people of New Orleans,” emphasizing once more the empathetic nature of the cinema.

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