Anyone can be a terrible cook, and one’s identity does not forecast their skill with a cast iron pan, but from my anecdotal evidence straight men aged 18 to 24 are some of our nation’s worst culinary offenders. It’s not for lack of effort (though, sometimes, it is). It’s more that men can become so confident they possess an above-average level of competence at an activity they’re, objectively speaking, just okay at, or maybe even sub-okay. This overconfidence is exemplified by the concept of a “boy dinner,” which maybe no one uses outside Twitter but with which I recently became enamored. A boy dinner is best defined as an technically edible original recipe born of desperation, ingenuity, and lack of resources, considered delicious and even impressive by its maker and abjectly disgusting by most anyone else.
Here’s an example, provided by an anonymous coworker: “One time in college I made dinner for a girl I was seeing, which consisted of making spaghetti, then heating up one of those microwavable bags of broccoli that you buy in the frozen foods section, then putting room-temperature alfredo sauce on the pasta and mixing it with the broccoli, hoping the heat of the broccoli and the pasta itself would warm the sauce. I was VERY proud of this, and she was not impressed.”
I thought about boy dinners when I was watching 1917, the apparent frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar in a year larded with Academy bait: inventive period pieces (Little Women), star-studded reflections on the movies (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood), self-referential epics by cinematic masters (The Irishman), and self-serious character studies that can be lazily applied to current events (Joker). More than these movies, though, the way 1917 is told asks for a reaction of “oh, wow” whether or not the viewer feels anything at all, and even if they’re a little grossed out by the attempted manipulation. Set in World War I, 1917 is crafted from several continuous shots spliced together to give the impression that the whole movie comprises two extended takes. It’s a technically impressive feat used to paper an emotionally thin narrative about two British soldiers in World War I racing across enemy lines to deliver a lifesaving message, though that isn’t supposed to matter. Director Sam Mendes and his team have made this thing for you; please be impressed.
This “fun to look at, not that interesting to think about” tension falls in line with 1917’s most common comparison: video games. The visual references are obvious: The camera often follows the two protagonists, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and his partner Tom Blake Dean-Charles Chapman) from the back, a familiar third-person perspective for anyone who’s played an action game like Gears of War or God of War, as they move through the types of exhaustively detailed battlefields whose photorealism was, until recently, only achievable in a game. Plenty of directors have ably captured the visual beauties and horrors of war, but Mendes’s innovation is to show us everything at once without pause, the way you can control a video game camera to swirl around your character as you march through some beautiful, horrible environment. I was more personally amused by the number of philosophically profound conversations that seem to emerge fully formed as the characters move from point A to B, a narrative trick any gamer who’s spent time traversing the large spaces of games like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption will recognize.
That gamelike psychological streamlining isn’t just emblematic of the characters, but the entire movie’s approach to World War I. Mendes’s script presumes the audience understands who is fighting and why. The Germans are uniformly depicted as evil and conniving, save for one faint acknowledgement they may have families, too. The British commanding officers, all of whom are portrayed by recognizable actors (Colin Firth, the hot priest from Fleabag, Benedict Cumberbatch) aren’t characters, but points of view spouting their different theories about war, and why we do or don’t fight them. In particular, the hot priest from Fleabag (Andrew Scott) feels like a stand-in for any cynical outsider pointing out that war is mostly banal: He smugly remarks that he expects the soldiers to die immediately, and it’s a pointed victory when they do not.
Still, for all its patriotic overtones and low regard for cynical outsiders, 1917 is not quite a piece of war propaganda. (I know it’s hard to depict war without making it look cool, but there’s a vast gap between “wow, gorgeous explosions” and “I should definitely do/vote for this” on the audience’s behalf.) Soldiers die, and it is awful to watch them die, and the camera’s gratuitous lingering on a blown-apart limb or maggot-ridden body reminds us of the physical cost of war, an aestheticizing of the horrific that occasionally shades into exploitation.
But while Mendes had his personal reasons for focusing on World War I — his grandfather was a veteran who only late in his life regaled the young Mendes with his harrowing experiences — it’s notable that he had to go back to one of the last “righteous” wars fought by the West in order to depict this self-evident heroism and sacrifice, as opposed to any war waged in the last 40 years. Other, semi-recent Best Picture war movie winners were situated in the problematic Iraq (The Hurt Locker) and Vietnam (Platoon, The Deer Hunter) wars, where they depicted soldiers as pretty much impossibly fucked up by what they saw and did during combat. (Comparatively, in 1917, Schofield is told “it doesn’t do any good to dwell” by an officer when he’s clearly shaken up by a shocking and visceral death he’s just witnessed. Technically true, but again not that interesting.) Our wars today are still problematic, and less suited to the simplified narrative he’s telling.
And so we circle back to the video-game thing, which critics have saluted for its entertainment value or dinged for its thinness. Sorry to put on my nuance glasses, but I think both sides are true. 1917 is definitely entertaining, though my caveat here is that I am both a boy and a gamer, the audience most likely to respond affirmatively. It’s also definitely empty, but that’s sort of the point: the first, obvious reaction (war is bad and these men are brave for pushing past their human feelings to fight it) are all it’s going for, and on those terms, it succeeds. This duality is a feature, not a bug, because a good way to keep your audience following along is by mimicking an art form that demands your attention, even if what you’re doing isn’t all that novel or absorbing.
Any mild progress the Academy makes in awarding a movie not about how white people are good (yay, Moonlight!) is almost immediately followed by a revanchist slide toward the tastes of the past (boo, Green Book!).
One of the common complaints of the vile Gamergate movement was that gamers just wanted to have fun, without having to think about anything deep. They could learn about racism or sexism on their own time; they did not want their paradigms challenged as they loaded up another war game, ready to kill Nazis. They did not want politics in their games, even if this non-political approach definitely coded as conservative.
Those people were idiots, but here they can be a little happy, because 1917 is this video game almost exactly. There’s one woman, who acts as a damsel-in-distress before disappearing entirely; it features a few non-white faces (including one who even gets a speaking part), but is still mostly populated by white men, who perform all these great deeds. Of course, that was just the demographic reality of the British army during World War I... but that’s convenient as well, another creative decision that lets Mendes tell his story without any complaint. That’s just how World War I was, after all — an defense that doubles as the entire movie’s ethos. It’s a lot of shooting and running with a smidge of reflection, set against those gorgeously panoramic backdrops of the war-torn countryside, starring white men who are literally supposed to remind you of your grandfather.
And that is enough, as far as the Academy is concerned. For all the public agitation pushing Oscar voters toward nominating and rewarding a more diverse body of movies, the silent majority of Academy members (who still trend old and white, meaning they likely remember the exact person 1917 is about) appear to be comfortable in continuing to vote for the same types of movies that always win — biopics, shallow race parables, and war epics confirming their antiquated sensibilities. Any mild progress the Academy makes in awarding a movie not about how white people are good (yay, Moonlight!) is almost immediately followed by a revanchist slide toward the tastes of the past (boo, Green Book!). So here is 1917’s real victory: it fuses new technology with old themes into something that feels timeless and evocative, while asking us to clap. I’m almost impressed, before I remember I’m really not.