Sunday, January 9, 2011
In the late, lamented Arrested Development, there’s a running gag involving a one-armed man employed by the father to impart valuable life lessons upon his children. Typically, these lessons would take the form of some sort of elaborately staged scenario in which the children’s fecklessness would cause the one-armed man to lose his prosthetic limb in a mess of fake blood and real screams. Then, menacingly, he would crawl towards the traumatized children to utter today’s instruction. Say, for example, “Always leave a note.”
I thought of this while watching 127 Hours. Partly because it was a fun way to pass the time while watching Danny Boyle’s latest film, but also because 127 Hours happens to be another story about a one-armed man who wants to teach us to always leave a note. The difference is that Arrested Development is smart and hilarious, while 127 Hours is stupidly sincere in its desire to promote responsible social behaviour through staged dismemberment.
Based on a real person, Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a free-spirited outdoorsman who spends his weekends exploring canyons. On this particular trip, he encounters a couple of lost girls, shows them some nifty caverns, then amicably parts ways as he heads out exploring on his own, only to slip into a crevasse, his arm pinned by a boulder. As the days tick by, his arm begins to rot, water runs low, and he agonizes over his foolishness in not telling anyone where he went. You see? Always leave a note.
This being a true story, we know we’re heading towards the inevitable scene where Ralston must cut off his own arm to escape. But to get there, we must first survive five days’ worth of cinematic flash-bang distractions. As a purveyor of sensations, Boyle is ill suited to a story built around immobility. He films from every possible angle in the crevasse, throws in flashbacks and memories, hallucinations and visions. Essentially, he does everything possible to keep the audience from sharing Ralston’s sense of confinement. This is the story of a man stuck in a hole in a ground, and it’s more kinetic than an action film.
The obtrusive style overwhelms the rest of the film. Much as I like James Franco as an actor, he can’t really compensate for Danny Boyle at his most Boyle-ish. For instance, Boyle imposing a distracting laugh track and applause mars a showcase scene like the one where Ralston acts out a fake radio interview for his video camera, playing himself, interviewer, and caller all at once. Never mind the fact that a good performer doesn't need the director running interference for him—since when do radio morning shows have studio audiences?
Apparently, the prospect of even briefly giving the film over to someone else’s performance is too much for the vain director to bear, which is a pity for the rest of us who must suffer Boyle’s ego. Franco tries to construct a skewed portrait here, a Ralston who remains self-effacing and bemused even in moments of despair, but his window of opportunity is slammed shut by the director’s meddling style. Otherwise, Franco never has much of a chance. Do you think even Brando could do much if he had to spend most of his screen time grimacing at a rock?
Okay, Franco doesn’t just grimace at the rock. He also thanks it, tenderly and sincerely, for teaching him the true meaning of Christmas or friendship or whatever (Franco deserves an Oscar only—ONLY—for thanking the rock without gagging or otherwise betraying any other involuntary reflex against the taste of such shit on one’s tongue). If not for this accident, he might never have realized that he needs to let other people into his life. And so, after chopping off his arm with a dull multi-tool, he takes a moment to express his gratitude to the rock for this valuable life lesson.
In Arrested Development, the children weren’t exactly happy with their father’s manipulative, dishonest teaching methods, which were rather excessive for the meager wisdom they produced. So why thank the rock? Maybe it’s just me, but I happen to think permanent disfigurement is a large toll for a rather small lesson. Is it even necessary to the film’s meaning that Ralston address the thing? No, of course not—it’s pure gratuitous emotion. The whole film is a lesson all right, but one of excess, right down to those distracting trick shots that take us inside Ralston’s camera or show us the inside of his straw or the view from the bottom of his water bottle while he’s drinking. Clearly anxious about his story’s simplicity, Boyle compensates with all manner of indiscriminate filmmaking.
Consider: why show the water’s perspective? Is this story about the water? Is this a tragedy about some water in a blue bottle? I mean, really. We see the water get swallowed up (the hero suffers his first setback, trapped by a giant ogre), pissed out later (the hero makes his bold escape, transformed by the ordeal), only to be swallowed up again when Ralston resorts to urine drinking (oh, the cruel vagaries of fate! Alas, sob, farewell! Curtains, applause, etc.). Why should anyone possess such close knowledge of the dramatic arc of this guy’s bodily fluids? Just what the hell kind of story is Boyle trying to tell here, anyway?
I realize there’s a certain tradition to be upheld: survival stories typically have that squirm-inducing aspect where the trapped hero is forced to do something completely disgusting that he would never do under normal circumstances. Indeed, that’s part of their appeal, whether or not we care to admit it. Sure, we want to see a person cope with the most difficult challenges the world can throw at them, but we also want to see the limits of the body, all the icky realities that lie just beyond a couple of days without showering. Deep down, all of these stories really aim to answer one question: if I really had to, could I _________? That blank can be filled with anything from “drink my own urine” to “chop off my arm” to “eat an entire rugby team from Uruguay.” The rest, as Boyle so ably proves, is noise.