In the tradition of Triumph of the Will, the early Oscar contender 127 Hours splits cinematic space into discrete zones—one for a resolute hero looming in close-up, the other for faraway, cheering masses—mediated only by a sublime void. The void in this case is the unpopulated immensity of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The masses are you, me and everyone else in the movie theater (assuming we follow the on-screen promptings—such as images of crowds at sports events—and burst on cue into applause). As for the real-life hero (admittedly a much nicer guy than Hitler), he is Aron Ralston, who in 2003 went hiking alone in Canyonlands, accidentally got pinned deep inside a tunnel of wind-eroded rock and at last freed himself, on the sixth day, by cutting off his right forearm just below the elbow.
Ralston has given his account of this ordeal in the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. For purposes of emotional uplift, his story has now been rewritten by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (the team responsible for Slumdog Millionaire) and directed with Riefenstahlian brio by Boyle, with the actor of the moment, James Franco, taking the role of Ralston.
This is a film of challenges: for Franco, who had to put himself through agony, fear, delirium, fatigue and berserker abandon, while remaining immobilized and at all times likable; for Boyle, who needed to open up a story that was locked in a narrow, all-but-sunless rift in the earth; and for viewers, who know that the price of a ticket buys a front-row seat to an amputation. That’s the whole point of watching 127 Hours. Just as Ralston survived his blood-and-iron experience to emerge a better man, so are you invited to endure this moralized Petit Guignol and come out tingling with admiration for the human spirit—or, to be more accurate, the spirit of one very determined man.
The fictionalized Ralston delivers the moral directly, through lines he speaks to himself and the audience. He should not have gone hiking solo without notifying anyone. He should not have prided himself on being the self-reliant strongman. But narrative arcs speak louder than words, and this arc tells you to stand up and cheer, because Ralston is the superman of self-reliance. As for those friends and family members in whom he should have confided: who are they, anyhow? Flashbacks and fantasies show you a father and mother with no distinguishing characteristics, a past girlfriend of impeccably pretty blondness, a younger sister from the younger-sister factory. Did Ralston know these figures, or did he just glimpse them while leafing through a magazine? Impossible to say. The sole relationship the movie successfully establishes for him is the one with himself, or rather with the video camera on which he records his trials. A fit protagonist for a Danny Boyle film: someone who knows everything about capturing images and nothing about people.
Something is missing in the sublime void of 127 Hours. To identify it, you need only watch another current movie about the foolhardy adventures that some men undertake, and the physical sufferings they overcome: Jackass 3D. No one has yet called this picture an Oscar contender; but it is most likely the ultimate achievement of the lucrative documentary series, dedicated to proving that obscene and violent practical jokes are funniest when they’re self-inflicted.
Despite The Nation‘s history of reporting about warfare, torture, lynching and rape, I hesitate to describe in these pages the shenanigans perpetrated in Jackass 3D. It’s enough to say that the movie matches 127 Hours in both its fascination with bodily fluids and its belief that the natural world exists to serve as a testing ground. With regard to the first trait, Jackass is perhaps the first 3D movie to excite the audience not only by illusionistically hurling objects out of the screen but also by directing a stream into it. As for the second trait, Jackass 3D includes potentially fatal encounters with several buffaloes, a bull, a donkey, bees, scorpions, an unamused ram and a rooting pig. What the pig is rooting for, and where the treat is located, I need not discuss. The point is, the cast members approach wildlife as if it were not wild and then howl with pain—and laughter—when nature behaves like itself.
"Well, what did you think was gonna happen?" asks one Jackass prankster of another, after his buddy has undergone the latest predictable disaster. Perhaps someone might have put the same question to Aron Ralston. But nobody’s around to talk to him until very late in 127 Hours—and then these other people serve merely as support personnel, not interlocutors. The cast members of Jackass 3D, by contrast, constitute a society. It might not be a society to which you would want to belong; but it’s a very companionable one, where people share their willful idiocy, cheer themselves on as a group and roar with appreciation at one another’s injuries.
Let me be clear: I am neither urging you to spend your money on Jackass 3D nor trying to dissuade you from seeing 127 Hours. The first picture you might not sit through even for free, while the second you would recognize as a notable feat of filmmaking. But, to phrase it differently, 127 Hours is a stunt movie, just like Jackass 3D. Both take stunts as their subject matter and were made as stunts in themselves. An evocative word, that. Nobody is sure of its etymology, but people speculate that it comes from the German Stunde, meaning an hour or a lesson.
If I had to choose between stunts, I’d say I learned more from my time with the jackasses.
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Clint Eastwood has long been interested in ghosts and revenants of the avenging kind, as you may see from Pale Rider, Hang ‘Em High and even Unforgiven. From certain broad hints in Mystic River and Gran Torino, you may also guess that Eastwood is not much interested in the consolations of religion. So it’s not surprising that when he set himself to make Hereafter, a movie about intimations of a nondenominational, do-gooder ghost world, the only parts that turned out to be convincing were the eruptions of violence and the sly dirty jokes.
The opening eruption, which leaves the rest of the movie limp in its wake, is a special-effects extravaganza, in which a tsunami roars across a tropical resort island, sweeping a visiting French journalist (Cécile de France) to her temporary death. The flood is vivid, detailed, tactile and unforgettable. So too is the journalist’s recovery, which involves vomiting perhaps a quart of water. So much the worse, then, for her brief intervening glimpse of the Beyond: a cloudy, color-drained nonplace streaked with dark, out-of-focus figures.
Though it’s a perfect yawn, this myopic’s afterlife disturbs and obsesses the journalist. It also holds sway—a vague, cloudy sway—over a lonely, sensitive but hunky factory worker in San Francisco played by Matt Damon (once again cast as the ordinary guy with extraordinary powers). He is, reluctantly, a spirit medium, who establishes a "connection" whenever he touches someone’s hand. The slightest brush of the fingertips will white out the screen and start those blurred people chattering, as they do when he flirts with a comely new acquaintance (Bryce Dallas Howard) and lets her get too close. The inevitable question—which I assume the roguish Eastwood meant to raise—is whether Hereafter would turn into the last reel of Ghostbusters if this guy ever had sex.
Unfortunately, the answer is no. As Peter Morgan’s screenplay labors to bring the factory worker together with the journalist—and with a solemn-faced schoolboy in London, who is off on a spook hunt of his own—the ghosts of Hereafter prove to be unfailingly helpful and sincere (you’d think nobody but Canadians ever died), while the mortals’ world resolves into post-tsunami tidiness. Medical conferences take place outdoors with the Alps as background. Editorial meetings require floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the Eiffel Tower. Welfare caseworkers are kind and efficient (something novel in an Eastwood movie), and factory layoffs provide a wonderful opportunity for personal growth.
A movie that began with smashing turmoil ends in a flood of niceness. This flood has now been completed by an outpouring of uncritical praise for Hereafter. It seems as if Eastwood is so venerable that his films are simply assumed to be good, especially when the shadow of his mortality falls over them. I, too, admire America’s last classical moviemaker. But just because I want to see him alive and active doesn’t mean I can pretend that Hereafter is anything but dead.
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Short Takes: It’s no Norma Rae, but if you’ve been longing for a rousing movie about women factory workers standing up for their rights, Made in Dagenham is coming to the theaters. Based on the experiences of Rita O’Grady and 186 others at the huge Ford plant that once operated in Dagenham, England, the film dramatizes how these women went on strike in 1968 (against the wishes of their union leaders, and in many cases their husbands) and eventually won legislation guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. The script’s exposition, by William Ivory, might as well have been written on picket signs, and the work behind the camera by Nigel Cole is an object lesson in why directors matter (compare the perfect professionalism of Sally Hawkins as Cole’s Rita with her brilliance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky). Made in Dagenham could have been a lot better; but it’s good to have it here at all.
From Estonia, once the front line of ideological struggle between the Soviet bloc and the West, comes Disco and Atomic War, an absurdist documentary by Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma about growing up as fans of forbidden Finnish television. The Finnish broadcast towers, you see, used to beam Dallas and Knight Rider across the gulf to Tallinn, so that impressionable Estonian youths became corrupted by images of fast cars, free-flowing whiskey and slinky cocktail gowns—this, despite the Soviets’ vigorous efforts to block the signal and despite the impossibility of buying an Estonian television set capable of receiving the frequency. (There was a brisk black market in homemade converters.) Kilmi and Aarma tell this true story through a mixture of the actual (archival footage and interviews) and the fanciful (composite stories, fictional re-enactments and very, very cheap animations). I believe, though I’m not sure, that the interview with a walrus-mustached Estonian inventor is real. Dissatisfied with conventional television antennas, which did not perform well when concealed indoors, he devised a more powerful antenna using a mercury thermometer. It worked fine, except that it jammed his neighbors’ sets and also the telemetry system at a nearby missile base, which led to some tense moments that have inspired the film’s title. Disco and Atomic War will begin a theatrical run on November 12 at Cinema Village in New York, followed by a national release.
Middletown, the six-part documentary series produced by Peter Davis in the early 1980s, has been issued for the first time on DVD, in a box set from Icarus Films, and is now available for leisurely, concentrated study of some unchanging realities in American life. Inspired by Robert and Helen Lynd’s 1929 book of the same title, and filmed in Muncie, Indiana, where the Lynds conducted their work, Davis’s Middletown looks closely, sympathetically and unsparingly at people engaged in politics (The Campaign, directed by Tom Cohen), sports (The Big Game, directed by E.J. Vaughn), churchgoing (Community of Praise, directed by Richard Leacock and Marisa Silver), work (Family Business, directed by Tom Cohen), an impending marriage (Second Time Around, directed by Davis and John Lindley) and high school life (Seventeen, directed by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines). What does it add up to? "A single word not only binds but flows like a rushing stream through all six films," Davis writes in his essay for the DVD release. "It is a peculiarly American word that seems to apply to us as it would not if a similar study were made in Italy, China or even among our cultural progenitors in the British Isles. The word is wanting." Trust me: you want Middletown.