14 January, 2011

127 Hours


(aka geeking out on nature, experiences of sacredness, screenwriting and visual storytelling technique, phenomenology of perception, film as an empathic and synesthetic medium, et cetera)

Ever since October, when i noticed advance publicity for Danny Boyle's new film, i was determined to see it. Between "Slumdog Millionaire" and the new film's soundtrack (featuring A.R. Rahman and Sigur Ros), and story (closely based on climber Aron Ralston's autobiographic account "Between a Rock and a Hard Place"), i was sold; the trailer alone made me choke up. I figure that to truly experience a film, one has to see it in the medium it was designed for; story gains power from size, and a protagonist's actions have a keener impact on the silver screen than the LCD. (Maybe images on small screens are so ubiquitous they've lost their "magic", while the big screen remains a more singular experience?) So, having missed its two-week run an hour from home, i went all the way to Boston to catch it, still clinging tenaciously in limited release ten weeks after it opened.

(Here's the U.S. trailer. The international trailer is better, but includes almost exclusively material from the first twenty minutes of the film.)

Chronicling the five days Ralston (played by James Franco) spent with his arm trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall, the film faced an interesting challenge: like Ralston, once trapped, the story doesn't have much room to move.

In screenwriting terms, a film can draw energy from any of three sources of conflict: intrapersonal (vs. oneself, which is particularly tough to dramatize), interpersonal, and extrapersonal (vs. 'nature' or society). These three feed and accentuate each other - for example, interpersonal events can be either an antecedent or consequence of a character's internal conflict. In "127 Hours", antagonism supplied by the elements - the boulder which trapped him, the danger of hypothermia,  lack of water, flash floods, et cetera - serves to punctuate Ralston's intrapersonal battle. And, since for the majority of the story Ralston is alone, his ordeal is punctuated by fantasy and memory sequences allowing short forays into the more familiar interpersonal realm. A slot-canyon flash flood cuts to Ralston standing at his ex-girlfriend's door in a soaking downpour; images blurred by water on the lens blur the distinction between Ralston's actual state pinned beneath a flood and his rising tide of memories. This is one of several sequences which help stoke Ralston's internal conflict. Yet compared to similar films in which nature and the elements figure prominently, the challenge here is that, even more than "Into the Wild" (where a backstory unfolding in parallel supplies interpersonal motives for McCandless's flight from society) or the more documentary "Touching the Void" (about a climber who has to cut his incommunicative partner's line in order to himself survive), Ralston's story relies far more heavily on interior experience. 

One of the joys of Tom Ford's "A Single Man" was its stream-of-consciousness style, a difficult thing to pull off well. While Boyle's film failed to master that technique as naturally, a partial stream-of-consciousness approach served to visualize objects normally unnoticed, expanding the viewer's traditional quasi-omniscient perspective as often as it windowed the protagonist's mind. Using techniques from the horror genre in novel ways, recurring images and extreme close-ups - particularly camera angles depicting the inside of a nalgene bottle or camelbak siphon - foreshadowed the growing threat of dehydration and the physical revulsion of drinking one's own urine. Other sequences underscored the immensity of Canyonlands in relation to one trapped hiker. (One of the best was a mind's-eye sequence running in extreme fast-forward from Ralston's eye to an orange soda in the cooler in his truck 17.3 miles away.) 

Ultimately, the challenge Boyle faced in tackling "man vs. boulder" was the need to work with subtler material. Heartbreak, betrayal, anger, and romantic affection are familiar ground; we're accustomed to resonating with them. Abstract experience and physiological states are tougher to communicate. How do you convey feelings of insignificance? Thirst? What about a sense of wonder, of contemplating the meaning of your own mortality, feeling your place in the universe? Of truly relishing fifteen minutes of sunlight? Can a visual medium adequately convey the sensory experience of dry lips, or the smoothness of sandstone beneath your fingers? What about the resonance of another living creature's presence? 

One bit of film trivia regards a raven that routinely passed over the slot canyon. It might be an artifact of my own experiences with ravens - long hours alone in a Christmas tree field, hearing their language of croaks, and the wind through their feathers in moments of perfect silence; it may be a function of reading Bernd Heinrich's works and recognizing in the raven manifestations of mind, of a kindred intelligence. Whatever the case, the bird's first appearance on screen was an arresting moment. Due to Aron Ralston's script feedback, however, his closest encounter with the bird is omitted; more precisely, in the film, the bird is replaced by an inflatable Scooby-Doo.

I can understand the choice - to replace an image which became nearly sacred to Ralston, an image of the only psychically resonant being with whom he shared that ordeal, with a more mundane, profane one. (I am tempted to write "sentient being", though that term is arguable from either side: some might deny ravens are sentient, while others would extend sentience to include all beings - including the ants, flies, and lizard that appear his slot canyon.) All i can say is that being aware of this visual "euphemism" changes the meaning of the scene, perhaps of the text as a whole, and increases its power. 

Another principal challenge of retelling Ralston's story is lack of surprise. When i mentioned planning to travel to Boston for the film, a friend remarked that "you know what happens." With Ralston's ordeal and minor fame a recent matter, and chronicled in a well-known book, Boyle knew he was telling the story of "the trapped climber who amputates his own arm." Big surprise. Film buzz focused instead on a single question: could viewers handle the grisly climax or not? 

There's little danger of spoiling the ending by saying i winced when Ralston deliberately breaks his ulna and radius, then uses the smallest blade on his multi-tool to tear away forearm flesh until he can free himself. I would argue that even more than the Normandy landing in Speilberg's "Saving Private Ryan", the amputation scene in "127 Hours" was difficult to watch because the gore depicted was more personal and inescapable. Contrasting the two scenes' positions in the arc of their film is also notable.

As screenwriter Amnon Buchbinder puts it, the protagonist serves as a "driver's seat" for the audience, and the power of a film often depends on how fully the audience can occupy that seat and agonize (or exult) with their onscreen surrogate. If a film fully engages our capacity for empathic experience - literally, to experience something happening to another - the onscreen action may become almost immediate. (Think for a second about what immediate means, and the paradox that implies. Despite the presence of mediating factors - actors, director, and the myriad media technologies employed in filmmaking - film is capable of transcending these and communicating experiences with a sense of immediacy, of putting us in the driver's seat.)

One potentially powerful tool at the filmmaker's disposal is synaesthesia. In "The Spell of the Sensuous" (a meditation on the phenomenology language and embodied perceptual experience), David Abrams defines synaesthesia as the fusion of sensory pathways (typically considered separate from each other) in a single embodied experience. With two senses, sight and sound, engaged, can a filmmaker trigger other senses to join the ride? Remembering childhood trips to the Mugar Omni theater at Boston's Museum of Science tells me yes. At least on that enveloping imax screen, the right camera motion could produce the same kinesthetic leap of your stomach as a quick drop on a roller coaster. (Again, screen size amplifies the film's sensory impact.) And it is notable that Boyle spends much of "127 Hours" playing with synaesthesia: as Ralston's hands run across the smooth sandstone, do you, in some subtle way, find your sense of touch engaged by the image?

So back to the climactic moment, as blood-soaked but determined Ralston gouges away his own flesh. Averting my eyes didn't hack it. Stabs of distorted electric guitar provided a sucker-punch. Sound, remember, is a form of touch; it can be painful. Boyle succeeded in activating not only empathy, but also my damnable autonomic nervous system. I had to leave the theater momentarily.

Despite this, no, because of it, the film was worthwhile. It isn't often that a film appealing particularly to the "Outside" and "Backpacker" magazine audience hits theaters, and the limited release of "127 hours" proves why. It's risky for an artist to invest commercial success and the financial and creative liberty it at times commands into a more experimental and personally resonant work, but i'm grateful Boyle did. Yes, the film has weak moments; especially the scene when Ralston is first trapped (before the story gathers emotional momentum), feels too re-enacted. By contrast, a scene where Franco outright nails a dialogue between a mocking imaginary talk show host and repentant, reflective Ralston shimmers with the odd juxtaposition of comic acting and grave realisation. Boyle alternates between third-person perspective and Ralston's own camcorder image, an odd act of self-observation, accentuating the scene.  

Making art implies an encounter between content and form; Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that real style consists of a failure of content to fit within established form and the unique compromises an artist makes in the attempt of expression. Marrying pop-film sensibilities and art-film experimentation, Boyle is establishing a rather interesting style indeed.

Many thanks to Daniel Rosensweig for a couch to crash on and company to see the film with! I'd also like to acknowledge the influence of a semester at Bilkent University - namely classes with Mahmut Mutman and Genevieve Appleton - along with Eric Gallandt's skepticism and Marcus Collado's extracurricular reading, in making this a particularly rich movie-watching experience.