Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Danny Boyle's dilemma

How did they ever make a movie of this?
I suppose one could direct the story of 127 Hours as one of superhuman fortitude, or as a tragedy (a man forced to pay a premium in order to sustain his intense passion for something), or as one with a great deal of inherent irony. Boyle chooses the third; he had to choose the third: it is the only manner in which 127 Hours can exist as an entertaining feature film and not as an affecting short or a depressing (even sinister) short feature (as it would, if he were to make the first or the second choices). 

Boyle looks for opportunities in Aron Rolston’s tale to evoke in the audience a situation of ironic comparison – between the nature of their own immediate existence (plush, air-conditioned, spacious, pop-corn laden) with the canyoneer’s (confined, unheeded, famished).  And it is safe irony all through – the audience has the privilege of the foreknowledge of a character’s tragedy – they are in on the enormous joke all the time, so even as Rolston is stuck in the canyon, we get to survey the entire National Park through helicopter shots, or as he struggles to move an inch, we can simply lift ourselves out of the canyon on a crane. As he casually strolls to the location of his captivation (the canyon), the film becomes a series of shots that feature his right hand – through which we are reminded of the eventual amputation, and thus, made to smile nervously at the sheer irony of our potency as prophets in the life of our wholly unaware protagonist. Even more viciously, in the very first second of his five-day adventure, as the boulder incarcerates his right hand against the wall of the canyon, a title card is superimposed over the film – ‘127 Hours’ – you know, he doesn’t. Such gratuitous peddling of irony could be a yield of Boyle’s traditional love for superficial entertainment, but also his attendance of the first duty of a filmmaker as he understands it: to tell a good story. Strangely enough, the only factor that acts as a counterpoint to the complete immorality of his method is the audience’s foreknowledge of the character’s eventual escape: cinema often permits its audience to extract cheap thrills from a tragedy if they know that everything turned out well in the end.

However, it is not enough for Boyle to make Rolston feel gratified for his own life pre-tragedy, but wants to induce a similar gratitude in the audience – therefore, it is imperative that he arranges a common set of memories (or desires) for both Rolston and us to counterpoint the claustrophobic scenery of Rolston’s situation – he achieves it through the use of imagery from traditional advertising – imagery that belongs to us all. So Rolston’s memories of his family are substituted by the image of a ‘happy family’ like a cheap American car or board game ad might show it –  family on a sofa shot frontally in a lawn; a montage of images from cola ads proxies in/informs us of his thirst. He even has the average blonde lover to reminisce about – purely by reducing his past to a typical level does Boyle generalize it to the entire audience. 

127 Hours oscillates between these two methods of engagement with its audience: evoking the irony (almost Brechtian) inherent in their foreknowledge of the protagonist’s situation without ever implicating them for it, and somehow also making us ‘feel’ what he is feeling. That is because Boyle is, in varying qualities, a cynical sadist and a hopeful humanist. In the case of this film, unlike in Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire, a bit more of the former than the latter.

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