Monthly Archives: October 2013

Matters of Gravity


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Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but three movies released in the past couple of weeks – all high-profile studio films and so far box office winners and definite Oscar nominees – all seem to be about the same thing. In Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, J.C. Chandon’s All Is Lost, and Alfonzo Cuarón’s Gravity,  someone is cut off from the rest of the world, and takes shelter in a womb-like refuge from hostile elements that strip away all their connections to the outside world. The ordeal forces these characters to draw on their inner strength and rediscover their essence, and in doing so, they are reborn.

Are these films tapping into some current kink in the collective unconscious? Or are they just cashing in on the universal appeal of claustrophobia and motion sickness?

Motion sickness doesn’t figure much in Captain Phillips, a recreation of the real-life 2009 hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates, though a lot of time is spent bobbing about in high seas. Instead, it exploits our fear of starving, khat-addicted, zombie-like third-worlders with AK-47’s coming to kidnap us and grab their share of the bounty of the West. That’s the situation the captain of the title, a Yankee from Vermont  played by Tom Hanks with an erratic accent reminiscent of the Pepperidge Farm man in the TV commercials, will find himself in. He already has a premonition that something bad is going to happen as he drives to the airport to take the flight to Dakar where he’ll assume command of his vessel, the Maersk Alabama.

Meanwhile, an ocean and a continent away in a fishing village in Somalia, a similar situation unfolds. Minions of a local warlord show up and order Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who is terrific; Best Supporting Actor nominee maybe?), a scrawny fisherman turned pirate, to get off his ass and snatch another big ship so they can demand millions in ransom. Begrudgingly (Muse probably has a bad feeling about things, too), he enlists a ragtag crew of desperately poor men (watch out for the big mean guy with the scar!) and sets out in a frail skiff to track down and land a 500 foot behemoth and its 3,000 tons of cargo, kind of like an African Ahab after a mechanized Great White Whale.

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We all know how this ends, but maybe not what it means – at least according to Greengrass, whose previous films about geopolitical inequity and conflict range from Bloody Sunday (2002)  to United 93 (2006),to The Bourne Identity 2004).  As might be expected, his new film dutifully critiques the disparity between rich and poor that leads to such tragic confrontations. These pirates may scare the hell out of us, but  aren’t they just victims themselves, the road kill of globalism whose only way of living the dream is at the expense of nice guys like Phillips? And Phillips, after all, is not all that different from them, just another working stiff who has to answer to a boss.

So we feel bad for the pirates. Nonetheless, everyone rejoices when Navy Seals show up and blow their brains out. And so I would say that as a political parable, Captain Phillips is kind of ambivalent, with two ideological impulses cancelling each other out.

Instead of being political, then, Captain Phillips, like All Is Lost and Gravity, is existential. All three films tap into the state of mind of felt by people faced with the prospect of catastrophic loss brought about by causes beyond their control. Confronted by this fear, they recover their true selves. But this occurs only after an ordeal that has stripped them of everything that has defined their lives, uncovering the indomitable spirit beneath.

For Captain Phillips, that means he first loses his authority, as Muse climbs on board with his three followers and declares, “I am the Captain.”  No longer in command (and it is clear from their interactions before the hijacking that Phillips wasn’t exactly a crew favorite) the deposed Captain must draw on those basic, traditionally masculine virtues of rationality, sang-froid, and self-sacrifice. In short, he becomes the Tom Hanks we all know and love from such roles as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Vulnerable, decent, level-headed, and when it matters most, utterly courageous.

But is it enough?  After he loses his ship, he then loses his freedom, and may well lose his life. The pirates drag him from into a lifeboat – an enclosed, womb-like vessel

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– and head out to sea. As the situation deteriorates and the pirates get desperate (we warned you about the guy with the scar!) Phillips jots down a farewell note to his family, cutting off the last tie that binds him to the world beyond. But having reached that extremity, he is pulled from the lifeboat covered with blood, courtesy of the miraculous intercession of SEAL Team Six.

Meanwhile, things are not looking so rosy in All Is Lost.  “All is lost,” Robert Redford intones at the very beginning of the film, reciting in voiceover a farewell letter he has written, put in a bottle, and thrown into the ocean. Like Captain Phillips when he scribbled a similar note, Redford’s character (referred to in the press notes as “Our Man” – a variation on Everyman?) has reached the end. The film then flashes back to the beginning and retraces the events that led to this situation.

Like Captain Phillips,” All Is Lost also involves cargo ships, except in this case the hero is not on board with these symbols of mass consumption and international capitalism, but is their victim. One of these behemoths has apparently lost a container en-route, and the bus-sized metal box has drifted into Our Man’s yacht, the Virginia Jean, rupturing the hull. A prolonged battle for survival reminiscent of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” follows, as Our Man resourcefully struggles to overcome every new ordeal (rendered in fascinating detail; you keep wondering what life-saving tool the guy will come up with next).

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But with each new crisis he also loses more of his possessions – both material items and personal belongings – that preserve his identity and link him with the human world. And as with Phillips, this attrition reduces Our Man to his core being – a beleaguered soul determined to survive.

His initial patching of the hull succeeds at first, but subsequent storms undo his work, forcing Our Man to abandon ship and take refuge in an inflatable life raft – a vessel much like the one in Captain Phillips.

gogo Alt_Robert Redford in All is Lost

He navigates the tiny craft into the shipping lanes, where, like Muse and his tiny skiff, he tries to waylay passing container ships, the cause of all his problems in the first place. But lacking an attention getting device such as an AK-47 (a flare gun has no effect), he is ignored by the towering hulks, which seem devoid of any human presence. By the end he has lost everything, and sinks into the sea, until he too is rescued by a near miraculous intervention, even if it is only imaginary.

Which brings us to Gravity, number one at the box office for the second week in a row and, perhaps not coincidentally, the least political film in the group (though a stickler might complain about its compliance with gender stereotypes). Once again, our hero gets cut off from the rest of the world, but instead of pirates or cargo ships being to blame, it’s those darn Russians who, for whatever nefarious warmongering reasons, have blown up an old military satellite, setting off a chain reaction of blasted orbiters. The debris storm rips by at mindboggling speed and in utter silence into the path of astronauts Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Kowalski (George Clooney), who are tending to an ailing Hubble telescope. The lethal space junk shreds the shuttle, not to mention their fellow astronauts, and sends Stone adrift, her umbilical cord to the mother ship severed.

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And so Stone goes through the now familiar drill of losing touch with all that connects her to her old life (not just Kowalski and Houston but also her grief for a dead child — a perfunctory, button-pushing attempt to establish a backstory) and in so doing discovers her inner resources – the resilient, resourceful, independent identity she didn’t know she had. Well, not entirely independent, as Kowalski

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– here the disembodied male superego that grounds Stone’s flighty femaleness – walks her through the various procedures via radio contact. Again, the protagonist is ensconced in a vessel  and  even assumes a fetal position to make sure everyone gets the point.

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And after a stunning last minute reprieve from certain death (ah, the miracle of oxygen deprivation), Stone, too is reborn, and like Phillips and Our Man, emerges from the sea of troubles renewed.

So, once again audiences are taken to the brink, they learn to “let it go” (the phrase repeated in Gravity), learn that “everything is going to be all right,” (the somewhat ironic refrain in Captain Phillips) even though, as in All Is Lost, it looks like all is lost.

And what does this mean? Are people flocking to these films because they are scared, feel cut off from and ignored by those who are controlling their lives, and are looking for either their own resources or some deus ex machina to save them?

Probably. Also, they are really good movies.

Just a couple of closing notes on the many films that Gravity resembles. Two in particular, both of which explore similar themes with darker conclusions: 2001, though with Bullock as the space baby and Clooney as the monolith; and Alien with Bullock as Ripley (there is a scene with Stone in her skivvies manning a spacecraft that must be an allusion)

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and Clooney as the alien, but a benevolent one.

And, a final caveat: if someone says they are going to “talk with the elders,” don’t believe them.

Expended families


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The movies have always relied on screwed-up families for stories, but I can’t remember seeing as many on that subject as I have recently. They make “The Family,” adroitly discussed below by Henry, look well adjusted. And not just mainstream, genre, or Hollywoodish movies, like “You’re Next, “Prisoners,” “A Single Shot,” and “Baggage Claim.” but also Indie films like “Mother of George” and “We Are What We Are.” So is the nuclear family undergoing a crisis these days? Probably, but when isn’t it?  But I think the prevalence of such movies reflects a crisis experienced by society at large, of which the family is the smallest unit, a microcosm of what’s going wrong in general.

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These kinds of extrapolations always get me in trouble with people who deny such close connections between real life and the world on the screen. After all, these films are developed sometimes years in advance of their release. Are the filmmakers psychic, then, and can predict what the hot issues will in the future? And then, of course, there’s the usual– “it’s only a movie.”

But how does one account for the fact that both “Prisoners” and “A Single Shot” open and close with nearly identical scenes? Both begin with the protagonist hunkered down in a wintry forest with a rifle, setting up a shot on a deer.

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Both end with the protagonist trapped in a deep pit, literally or figuratively, of his own making. I think what transpires between these two scenes can be read as a commentary on the audience’s subconscious anxieties about domestic security in general, about what threatens it, what should be done to protect it, and what the moral ramifications of such measures might be.

In both films the father either initiates or exacerbates the threat to his family by his macho behavior In “A Single Shot,” the protagonist John Moon (Sam Rockwell), a marginal recluse type with survivalist tendencies, finds himself in a moral dilemma after the title discharge, and his poor judgment, driven by greed and a desperate need to restore his broken family, directs him to action that not only compromises him morally but also makes the situation worse.

In “Prisoners,” on the other hand, the pater familias Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) lives in a more upscale middle class neighborhood. But he also has the makings of a militiaman, what with his basement stockpile of goods and ammo in preparation for some apocalyptic social breakdown. Unlike Moon, he does not actually initiate the crisis – the kidnapping of his and a neighbor’s daughter  – but he certainly doesn’t improve the situation by resorting to extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation of the chief suspect

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(i.e., he chains him to a radiator and beats the shit out of him to get him to talk).

“A Single Shot,” seems to suggest the notion that, like Moon, America is responsible for its own troubles, having instigated terrorist assaults through their own indiscretions in foreign policy. And in “Prisoners,” the subtext suggests that though the US does not bear any responsibility for the woes inflicted on them by outside evil-doers, it can be faulted for its poorly thought out, heavy-handed response, which seems only to have made matters  worse.

Whether these subtexts were intended, or even exist, seems moot at this point. They did not resonate with audiences. “Prisoners” has grossed to date about $49 million, but since it cost $46 million to make and who knows how many millions to promote and market, it hasn’t been a winner. As for “A Single Shot,” it made around $16, 000 bucks, which might cover catering costs.

Perhaps the two movies got stiffed by audiences because they both engage in the never popular practice of male-bashing and discrediting the patriarchal roots of American society. In which case “Prisoners” gets a raw deal, because [and this involves really major spoilers] the ultimate culprit proves to be that archetypical bad guy, the wicked matriarch. Yes, behind every bad or mixed-up man is an evil woman.

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“Prisoners” doesn’t reveal the gender of the real culprit until near the end.  But a couple of the other films mentioned above don’t beat around the bush, but put the blame on a woman from the get-go.

In Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George,”

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set in a sumptuously rendered Nigerian community in Brooklyn, a woman fails to bear a child for the easy-going restaurant owner  who brought her over from Africa for that purpose. Though it’s clear that the husband is shooting blanks, his termagant mother badgers the wife, subjecting her to potions and charms and finally insisting that she commit an act that is duplicitous, but  effective. To the mother-in-law’s credit, however, she is nominally acting in the service of a male-dominated system.

In David E. Talbert’s “Baggage Claim,” another woman, a flight attendant named Montana (Paula Patton, whose appeal escapes me), 

is berated by mom for  failing her gender responsibility of getting married, settling down, and having kids. She takes drastic measures to get with the program, but the situation is made more urgent when her younger sister gets engaged. So Montana sets off to revisit her various exes across the country (though not, and perhaps this was intended ironically, in Montana) to see if maybe she overlooked something the first time around, and come up with her own beau when the wedding takes place in 30 days.  Kind of like Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers,”  except offensive and stupid.

What a surprise when  Montana realizes that you don’t need a man to define who you are, unless you mean Mr. Right, who turns out to be right under her nose!  As for mom, sure she was a tyrant (and a bit of a castrating man-eater, as she has been married and divorced six times) determined to destroy  her daughters’ lives, but she had the best intentions at heart.  Plus, she’s family. So, hugs all around. Even Djimon Hounsou’s billionaire hotelier – who is inexplicably smitten with Montana and wants to underwrite her freedom and pretty much her every desire but will not marry her

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– has to admit that all turns out for the best.

And it turned out pretty well at the box office, as the film ended up grossing $16 million, or about twice what it cost to make. So maybe the state of the family is not so bad after all.


Cinema of the Ants

There were only two possible outcomes for Luc Besson’s The Family: either it was going to be bad or Besson was going to direct his first good live-action feature (I haven’t seen his animated work). Well, Besson hasn’t broken any creative ground and his latest is bad in the usual way, with flurries of incoherent action interrupted by clock-watching dialogue scenes. You could say that the replacement of his usual pseudo-philosophizing by comic back-and-forth is a step in the right direction, except for the fact that Besson doesn’t have much of a sense of verbal humor.

Obviously cast for their associations with gangster movies, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer (sometimes people forget 1983’s Scarface and 1988’s Married to the Mob) play a married couple who, with their two teenaged children, relocate to Normandy under the federal witness protection program after dad turns mafia snitch. It’s a hallmark of how much the family resorts to criminal ways that the government has run out of U.S. locations in which to squirrel them away.

The plot follows the family’s interactions with Besson’s take on the “insufferable” local French and then shifts to the mafia’s eventually successful attempts to track down and murder the “protected” Americans.

Besson takes what, for him, is unusual care in depicting peripheral characters, primarily locals (some of whom are relatively nice) but also the family’s bodyguards. One might almost think that Besson has awoken to the human potential of his typically flattened supporting casts.

As it turns out, though, Besson is just setting these folks to be slaughtered in the most graphically violent ways imaginable, often at just the moments they are expressing their inherent humanity. Besson has found that what for him is a more agreeable way of expressing his directorial control: Sadism.

Sadism has been a running, if minor, strand of European cinema practically since its birth. Bunuel, who explored it and expressed it, found it woven throughout the human condition. Michael Haneke hides his under a gloss of artistic “objectivity” and thus turns it into middle-class “art.” Besson just seems to enjoy it. Gesturing towards the humanity of the bodies on screen makes him all the more gleeful when he shatters those bodies into blood, bone, and flesh.

He takes the view of the man on the tower looking down at ant-sized people and, rather than imagining, actually tosses something off the roof for the sake of amusement. Luc Besson is not an auteur; he has neither the eloquence nor the preoccupations to stake that claim. But he has created a cinema, the Cinema of the Ants.

–Henry Sheehan