Thursday, November 25, 2010

127 Hours and Danny Boyle's visceral cinema

"Is it true you didn't tell anyone where you were going? .... Oops." (Aron Ralston to video camera in 127 Hours)


Time to make a declarative statement here.  Perhaps there can be an argument here, if one would like to have one, but it's mostly a thesis statement at this point with 127 Hours as a nerve center: Danny Boyle is  for my metaphorical sometimes-spent money the single most consistent director working with a visceral style in cinema.  What do I mean by this?  A few things.  First that Boyle as a filmmaker and just how he gravitates in the stories he finds to people in circumstances that are usually extraordinary.  No, not just extraordinary, but that his take on it, how he'll choose the actors and the music and the locations and how his (now most often) collaborator on camera Anthony Dod Mantle will shoot it with the lighting and compositions, makes it into another realm.  I'm reminded of one of Oliver Stone's quasi-pretentious-but-true comments that he looks to make "consciousness expansion" with his work.  If nothing else I can point to Boyle's work as having that kind of quality.

Another facet to his visceral cinema, in looking at substance, are the characters and how their circumstances are never grounded in the usual - or if they are, that's a problem.  People looking to get into something better in their life (Shallow Grave), or stuck (Trainspotting), or between a rock and a hard place (literally with 127 Hours and metaphorically up to a point in Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise), or with hope for something that should be just out of reach but is almost (or just) destiny (the two "million" movies, Millions and Slumdog Millionaire).

People in Boyle movies are losers and degenerates, murders and cut-throats, idiots and slackers, confident or just plain ol' fucked (see some of the peoples in Sunshine for more of that).  There are some forms of genre characters, namely in scripts by Alex Garland that mix and match science fiction and horror, but they feel raw and scathed by the forced around them, or trying to fight against such forces.  It's interesting to note as an aside Cillian Murphy is in both films (28 Days, Sunshine) and is a heroic figure but isn't seen as one in a big way, only in small things as a protagonist.  We feel for them, even in flawed Boyle works like The Beach, as their wants and desires and conflicts are made real by Boyle's style of camera and editing - everything is on edge, even in quiet moments or those that feel serene like the great big God-presence of the Sun.

This brings me to a third point, which is the nature of Boyle's films to be about, in one way or another, living the best or any way as honestly as possible, even if it's dishonest like with some of the characters in Trainspotting (what makes Sick Boy such a captivating character as he's a total bullshit artist?  well, he knows a lot about Sean Connery, hardly a substitute but you do what you can).  In situations that are dark, uncompromising and seemingly hopeless like with Aron Ralston or the different-fated brothers of Slumdog, there's a genuine quality of the drama.  With few exceptions, Boyle's cinema is sometimes fast and frenetic, what my Editing class in grad school calls "MTV Style" and what leads to the "feeling state" (must use quotes for that last one, holy shit that's a crappy term) in movies.

Yes, Boyle's films are fast and frenetic and surreal and absurd and raunchy and on the edge.  Sometimes it goes too far into fantasy (again, The Beach), or sometimes to a point that will split audiences as to if it's cool or just too-cool-for-school (A Life Less Ordinary).  But the intention is always the same to varying degrees: put the audience there, or try the best to, and have them identify with the characters, as fucked up and fragile or other-worldly or down-and-out as they might be.  Like Scorsese, where you feel like you could be close to or know a person like Jake LaMotta or Henry Hill or Howard Hughes or Jesus or Travis Bickle, the "feeling state" is intense, personal, volatile, sweet.  There's life, and there's some affirmation about it.  Boyle's words.

But yeah... 127 Hours.  Boyle's latest is one of his few features (and no, 28 Days Later doesn't count) that's based on a true story.  More to the point Boyle and his collaborators had extensive access to Aron Ralston and his material (i.e. his video camera) for this project.  It's about how Ralston in 2003 went rock-climbing out in Colorado's Blue Mountains and, since Ralston didn't tell anyone where he was going and was in a remote area of the mountains, was stuck after a boulder fell on his arm.  The boulder too large to lift off his arm (if anything chipping away at the spot his arm was at made it fall further), and with no one in ear-shot of his cries for help, Ralston was literally stuck with little water, little food, and his own mental faculties, which were good but limited by the intensity of the situation.

There's a lot of history down that canyon...

I have no idea what Ralston was really like in that situation.  Maybe he was braver, or maybe he was more frantic and panicked, as well all might be.  From the looks of the film, scripted by Simon Beaufoy and (a first for him with one of his own films) Boyle, he did all he could until the final solution had to be sought: cutting off his own arm and escaping back to civilization.  He chips at the stone.  He drinks his water carefully.  He films himself as a way of keeping sane and having a voice to the situation (or, at the least, as a clever cinematic-gimmick to speak to the audience through his speaking to himself and those-who-may-find-this-tape).  And he imagines things, and thinks back to things, and sees himself as a child and him and his sister as children.  You know.  Things we all might do if we were in such a situation.  Yeah...

Boyle's sense of visceral cinema hasn't reached this kind of intensity and unexpected humanity and pathos since Trainspotting.  Actually, it goes past those thrills and cinematic tricks to something more profound (though films carry a similar thread) which is the will to live.  What do we live for anyway?  For ourselves, perhaps, depending on our self worth.  Some of us may not think of ourselves very highly when it comes down to being honest.  Some of us may think too highly of ourselves, which conversely leads to things like suicide bombers who love themselves so much they can't wait till the afterlife.  But mostly those of us with a sense of reason live for others, or for others who we know will live for us.  While Renton uttered and expounded in the words "Choose Life", it was to a somewhat (or total) nihilistic undercurrent involving heroin addiction.  The ending to the movie is significant to its point of choosing life, and being another rat-fucker in the game of it all.

But Ralston, he wasn't a low-life nor someone facing an apocalypse or out in space or at the mercy of Indian gangsters.  In Boyle's cinema, he's something of an ordinary guy, relatively.  How much we feel for Ralston may depend on how much we could see ourselves doing something similarly stupid, leading to life-and-death circumstances.  If nothing else Boyle emphasizes past the extraordinary nature of his man and his perseverance to do what few of us could stomach to do what makes Ralston's life worth living.  Boyle's camera- as with his other films another character in how it views the character, the environment, the Earth, the critters, the ground, objects and the insides of things- is fearless.  It goes up close and takes the subjective point of view that, first of all, never makes things too boring (where will that lens go next, and where might it creep back into or peer at), and the pacing of Ralston's struggle is brisk but not so fast as to lose the little moments.  One of the most thrilling moments comes when Ralston drops his crappy pocket-knife behind a rock and has to reach to get it- with his stick, his shoe, anything.  Time can slow down, but never so long as to lose a chance for a heightened montage.

In a way, Boyle is one of the most ideal directors for a generation like mine.  He doesn't want the audience to lose track of what's going on, and so there's not often (save for sections of Sunshine and 28 Days Later and maybe Millions) where the editing is "slow" in the sense of like a 1970's movie - that is deliberate in the long length of shots on characters.  And yet at the same time his films aren't the form of junk food that a Michael Bay movie is: practically every shot for Boyle has matter and weight and substance, is thought out for the story and the method of experimenting with technology is an important part of it.  One sees that he tinkers with creating claustrophobia and oddly wide-spaced places in equal measure with a sometimes digital camera, but conversely tries to create wonderment (again, Sunshine) by going back to straight-up 35mm film.

In that sense of pushing the camera as the other character, 127 Hours is a triumph if nothing else as that.  I admired how Boyle mixed up visual grandeur with those very tight, almost constricting and painful, (extreme) close-ups, and then would mix-in flashes to a shot demonstrating the inside of something- a digital camera tape reeling up, the inside of a nerve or a bone in the flesh, a Gatorade bottle- with such a shot as starting on Ralston calling for help, climbing up out of the canyon, and showing the entire landscape of the mountain range.  If it calls back to anything it might be akin to Leone's contrasting close-ups and wide-shots of landscapes.  Hey, who is to say that Franco's face isn't a landscape unto itself.  After a while it's the only landscape that we are left with.  And what a one to have down there.

In all my praise of Boyle, I've neglected one more last-but-not-least aspect to the success of his film, past the inventive camera and perfectly frenetic and nervy/nervous editing and the intuitive use of music and songs, which is the actor at the center of it.  Not since McGregor have we gotten such a magnetic presence as with Franco.  But more crucially it's really his show.  As much as it's Boyle's chance to shine with creating a darkly fantastic state of reality with his camera, the film could fall apart of Franco isn't on it.  But he is.  His Aron is frank, funny, amiable, and then tender, stupid, scared, and finally when he does the horrible task he must do, relieved.  Franco channels a Ralston that has all those qualities and a certain something else.  We feel for him because he never gives up, or wants to give up, and we're there with him.  For how unlikely and foolish it was what he did, the existential weight is what counts, and the stakes are so high for this person.  

Franco is, to a point arguably, just as good a reason to see the movie than it is for Boyle's direction, for some maybe more-so.  His charisma is natural and amiable; he has star quality but it's not all out there like a Clooney or Pitt.  He's the kind of star that can afford to spend his spare time in seemingly-random classes Columbia University as a student(!)  But that same charm has the side of tragedy and sadness (one saw this latter part in a more subtle way in some scenes of Pineapple Express when his comic persona would shed his skin a little).  127 Hours is him at such a peak of powers.  His Ralston is painfully human and the sense of conflict he carries as an actor is shocking and revelatory.  He has a quality that is just right for Boyle; there's a scene where Aron, upon first light of day, is speaking at his video camera and it's as if he's talking on a TV talk show (audience canned laughter/applause hilariously included), and we see a chipper "self" introducing and interviewing the "other" Aron who explains his current state... then as the applause and laughter dies down Aron speaks at the camera with a message for his Mom.  

It's a moment that should be over the top, sentimental, sappy.  Franco's ironic sense of humor fits just right in for Ralston, and by proxy for Boyle's cinema of the visceral.  He's another in a long stretch of brilliant and fearless actors as a character in the director's films that, if there is any connecting theme or purpose to the material, depict what is the best and worst in us, sometimes at once and competing for dominance, and a striving for something more, better, to get to the next day.  Methods may be unsavory, criminal, out of this world or as simple as that of what children dream about.  Or it's the Aron Ralston story.  

And like other Boyle films this latest is at times discomfiting, hard to watch, and at the least harrowing.  People have been reported to have fainted from the shock of the big climactic so-it-has-to-go moment that is longer than a simple moment (it's lead up to after a few half-hearted tries by the character).  People also fainted during Jaws and Pulp Fiction.  Maybe this guy is on to something... just maybe...

and to close....

GRAPHIC NUDITY!  And by the beautiful Kelly MacDonald no less.   ;)

Adios, folks, and remember, Choose Life(TM)....

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