Friday, January 21, 2011

Oscarbation: Waterboarding James Franco for 127 Hours

Posted By and on Fri, Jan 21, 2011 at 9:42 AM

127 Hours
Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out what sorts of movies Academy members are watching while they trek across the desert. This week they spend 127 Hours with handsome performance artist James Franco.

Hey Sutton, you know what I saw in 127 Hours? An Iraq War allegory! The crazy part is I'm totally serious. I mean, c'mon, it takes place in a desert, in April 2003 (roughly six weeks after George Bush Jr.'s invasion of Iraq began) and is basically a story about American arrogance getting its due: like Donald Rumsfeld and Christopher McCandless, Ralston totally underestimates a foreign power (nature), and receives cruel comeuppance in return (for what he calls his "supreme selfishness.") It's like a microcosmic form of the battering America is still taking over in the Middle East. I also got the sense that the filmmakers were suggesting that the reason the U.S. can't win the War on Terror is because it doesn't have the balls to cut off its own arm? (Its residents won't even drive their cars less!) Anyway, you could see Ralston's story as a triumph of the human spirit, I guess, but as a battle against Nature it's a pretty Pyrrhic victory, eh?

(Looks up "Pyrrhic.") Uh, yeah Stewart, 127 Hours sure was a victory that came at a devastating cost to the victor! The Iraq allegory hadn't occurred to me, but I like it (and the Academy probably will too!). The scenes in which Ralston dazedly huddles with his head in his bag must be Abu Ghraib allusions, then, and his dream of a torrential rainstorm was about waterboarding, right? I was going to stick with the more elemental Man Vs. Nature scenario, in which Ralston is very briefly humbled by his experience (stumbling back after finally severing his arm, he mumbles "Thank you" to the rock), before returning to his stubborn, solitary, recreational pioneer ways (Rescuer 1: "Don't you want to rest?" Ralston: "I gotta keep going!"). What I couldn't stop thinking about was this weird yuppie habit of cyborg-hiking that Ralston takes to quasi-spiritual heights, where nature is best experienced to a playlist of hard rock, with live commentary spoken into a digital video camera and punctuated by the occasional still photo. (Just imagine if this had happened six years later—Ralston would've live-tweeted the whole thing!) Wasn't this movie really about class, Henry; about how when you take away the expensive climbing gear, digital devices and performance art degrees, we're all just flesh, blood and bone?

Learn your classics, Sutton. But, ok, let's be reasonable and walk this back from Iraq to nature (though I think I'll bypass class, if that's all right). While watching the movie (and reading your last response), I was thinking about something the artist Fred Tomaselli told you once: "We have such a distorted relationship to the environment...our idea of reconnecting with nature is going on a hike dressed like cyborgs...It's only after we'd killed everything, after we tamed the wilderness, that nature became part of the national narrative with people like Thoreau and Emerson; before that the forest"—or, desert!—"was a terrifying place." I guess that's really what 127 Hours is about. Like Into the Wild, which I alluded to before, it's about stripping the romance from the outdoors, reimbuing it with its proper menace—that is, reestablishing the Supremacy of Nature. Ralston can try to awesomfy the outdoors with mp3s and digicams all he wants, but he loses an arm, and almost dies, all because of one stupid, measly rock that no sequence of ones and zeroes can destroy. From his ordeal, Ralston gains new perspective about his life, learning to be nicer to that girl he wasn't nice to, friendlier with his co-workers, and to answer his mom's phone calls more often. But what he really needs to learn is a new perspective on the true awesomeness of nature. I think my favorite moment in the movie was the pullback shot from a close-up on Franco in his crevice (right after he gets stuck) to the enormity of the landscape around him, in which he's more insignificant than a single star in the night sky.

Yeah, that pull-back aerial shot was pretty amazing. I suppose we should talk about the elaborately choreographed cinematography and split-screen editing that tried so hard to add superfluous dynamism to this story of an adrenaline-rushing dude pinned in a crevice. That seemed like a pretty fundamental misunderstanding, on Danny Boyle's part, of what makes this story so compelling: Ralston's enforced stillness. And, just like Boyle stubbornly applied his brand of frenetic filmmaking to a narrative about being stuck, I don't agree that Ralston gains any kind of perspective. Not to go into too deep a postmodern reading of 127 Hours, but Ralston's thirst for adventure is completely contingent on his technophilic narcissism: the ability to contain his experiences of nature within digital recording devices for his own viewing pleasure. He only ups and amputates himself after his camera runs out of battery power and his self-documentation comes to an end. And then, before stumbling to safety, he photographs his rock and severed arm, assimilating the ordeal into his slideshow of extreme adventures. He remains a cyborg to the end (even gaining a prosthetic ice pick arm in the closing "where are they now" montage). But what I really wanted to talk about was the film's Western subtext, underlined in Ralston's repeated references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Doesn't the man-against-nature theme draw heavily on tired cowboy movie tropes?

I guess the problem is that Boyle's just following Ralston's lead, then. I wish that enforced stillness won Oscars, though, instead of a slot in the NYFF and a bottom-rung place on snooty critics' Top 10 lists. But what Boyle's forced dynamism signaled loudest was that this story just wasn't a good fit for a movie. You could gussy it up in lessons-learned cliches (which I'm sure Ralston's book-length account does, too) and water-bottle POV shots so that it's not boring: if Oscars voters won't tolerate one thing, it'd be boringness. But as a result 127 Hours feels empty (note the copious product placements even though Ralston's trapped in the desert, from the refreshing bottle of Gatorade he fantasizes about in his car to the close-up of his Capital One credit card as he empties his pockets). The movie reminded me of Bridge on the River Kwai (and, unsavorily, of United 93): movies centered on one epic event—here, the self-amputation (auto-be-arming?)—that, really, just bide their time until that climax. Everything that precedes it is filler, and then the relatively brief, gory process itself, once it arrives, is distastefully fetishized. Lose-lose-lose, Ben. Sometimes a story is better served by staying untold.

Henry, to put on my Jesse Hassenger hat for a moment, I'm not sure that there's much point in complaining that a movie whose title very clearly implies a 127-hour countdown is biding its time until the climax. That's like complaining because 127 Hours isn't a real-time, Warholian, five-day endurance test. That aside, the film of which I'm most reminded is Phone Booth, which, to be fair, benefits from a little more action surrounding its trapped protag. But the challenge of rendering the very un-cinematic subject of a star stuck in a small space into something fun, and maybe even good, certainly has a unique appeal. I doubt that challenge will entertain Academy members enough to earn Boyle and Franco any hardware, though. Certainly the latter will get a well-earned acting nom, and the film will probably sneak into the expanded Best Picture field, but otherwise, Henry, what chance does a movie about a self-absorbed youngster really have with Oscar-voting olds? Oh, right.

Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Franco), Best Director (Danny Boyle), Best Score (A.R. Rahman), Best Cinematography (Enrique Chediak, Anthony Dod Mantle), Best Editing (Jon Harris), Best Adapted Screenplay (Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufroy, from a book by Aaron Ralston).

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