Thursday, January 23, 2014

The ocean is a desert with its life underground


Robert Redford dies for a hundred minutes.  It's decent.

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
With Robert Redford and Scott Witherell (Our Man)

Spoiler alert: mild, but goes to severe with more than adequate warning

A beloved elder statesman of the silver screen does not drink his own urine in this picture.  Advantage: Waterworld.

This isn't a very fair comparison to make.  All Is Lost is a far more sober-minded movie (my God how sober-minded).  It's arguably better, too, I suppose; it's shorter, anyway.  Unfortunately, by necessity, it will not be the last unfair comparison I shall make.

That's because All Is Lost is essentially Gravity, shorn of almost everything that made Gravity really special.  What remains is its scenario: a human being is stranded in an environment that by definition is unsuited for human life, bereft of the technology that permitted humans to even get there in first place, let alone survive it.  That human then stares death right in its implacable fucking face.

Just look at him grimace with determination!

More specifically, All Is Lost is the story of how Robert Redford and his stunt double went out on a boat.  This boat's hull is breached by an object that might be a metaphor, but remains completely undeveloped as such.  The boat eventually sinks.  Robert Redford's stunt double nobly goes down with the ship.  Robert Redford, meanwhile, waits in a life raft to either die, or to survive the trial of eight days with hardly any food or water, alone on the open seas.

Take that, capitalist running dog?

I would have awarded the movie many extra points if Robert Redford was credited bluntly as "Robert Redford," but sadly this is not the case, as Chandor instead insists that the unnamed rich guy on a $500,000 furnished yacht, who went out into the middle of the Indian Ocean for the solitude, is "Our Man."  I assume this is meant to signify that he represents the human condition.  He doesn't; class and generational issues aside, "my" man would say "fuck" more than once.

And, yes, it is impossible not to make fun of the fact that a stuntman is "Our Man" during an appreciable fraction of the time while that boat still floats.  This is not because I need Robert Redford to risk injury, but because of the demands this places upon the production.  The scenes on the boat are stunt heavy, including a sequence where Our Man climbs the mast and defiantly keeps his head down and face invisible in any medium shot, and a scene that must have been awesome on paper where Our Man does his best Lionel Richie impression on his capsizing boat, but which is filmed in a half dozen takes at least.  I've read that, in fact, Redford did do a lot of his own stunts.  I can confirm that the guy can swim, but if that was him clambering up the mast, then I am flummoxed as to why that sequence is shot and cut remotely the way it is.

Because, frankly, the scenes on the boat are edited to shit.  Or rather, the scenes on the boat, the other boat, and the other boat, which are all meant to be one boat and are pieced together through extremely primitive movie magic.  And even all this would be fine because it was unavoidable; but then there are the edits that exist for no obvious reason whatsoever, other than to very awkwardly compress time.  (The oddest part of the above-linked article is when producer Neal Dodson chides other movies for being "cutty."  A longlongishtake of Redford eating a can of beans is not really significant.  And I did like that shot, but it does not mean that Lost isn't "cutty.")

What the hell else are you going to eat your beans with?

They say that you don't notice editing unless it's really good or really bad.  As part of my ongoing self-education, I try to notice editing all the time; but a child could see the seams in Lost's first forty minutes, and they're not only incredibly distracting, but genuinely off-putting.  I really, really do hate to be this unmerciful, but when such a salient counterpoint as Gravity exists, and can't not exist in my mind, it is impossible not to make the necessarily brutal comparison between the five second takes and unrecognizable action in the first phase of Lost and the simply epochal takes of Cuaron's hyper-real space odyssey.

However, I was happy when the boat finally sank and Our Man no longer had to climb shit, fall on shit, or do shit that a 70 year old could not do without reasonable accommodation, because at this point the choppy editing settles down, Chandor finds his motifunderwater shots of the raftand the film becomes more beautiful and at times no less than strikingly beautiful as a result.

Lost featured two cinematographers, and Peter Zuccaranihandling the underwater portionscaptures the movie's most breathtaking imagery from beneath the waves.  The other, air-breathing cinematographer, Frank DeMarco, is fine.  (In seriousness, given the limitations he was working under, he does a perfectly creditable job.)

Now, with that out of the way, I must describe Robert Redford.  All Is Lost comes now on home video after its vanishingly limited 2013 theatrical release, surrounded by a halo of critical super-praise, no small amount of it for its leading man, and it was probably a mistake for me to listen to it.  For Redford, unfortunately, gives a non-powerhouse, sort of non-performance as Our Man.

On one hand, this is a good thing.  He does at length come off as a human being rather than an actor on a fake ocean, although his star power informs his role throughout, and this is basically exactly what you want.  Our Man is, if not alone in this world, then alienated from it, and Redford does make me believe in this aspect of his character through his largely silent performance.

On the other hand, he is fearsomely, almost comically stoic about all this facing death business.  Perhaps I'm the weird one: in situations of both solitude and privacy, and compulsively in times of stress, I talk to myself in a conversation between inner and outer monologue.  Weird or not, I suspect that that would have been the more novel, and far more interesting, conceit, given that talkies have been a going concern for even longer than Robert Redford's been alive.  The lack of verbal reaction in Lost is not just bracing but occasionally seems forced.  Excepting an attempt to make radio contact and an appropriately melodramatic monologue at the beginninga reading of his message in a bottle, written at his lowest psychological ebbRedford says but one more audible word in the whole movie.

That word is, as alluded to above, "fuck"; and if it is not the worst possible read of this word, it is also not the ideal rendition of "fuck," given the situation.

I'd love to run an experiment where people have never seen the movie are given an audio clip of this scene, and asked to imagine what's happening in it.

Did you talk to the little red-headed girl, Robert?  Or is all lost?

There is, however, another "fuck" in All Is Lost; it's just not audible.  It's the whole first forty minutes, and it's used as a verb, in the phrase "fuck you, audience."

Bound up in the silence of Redford's performance is how damned distancing everything in the first phase of Lost is. For a movie that, in theory, is attempting to involve you viscerally in Our Man's experience, Lost is challenging to a degree that most movies are not, and for good reason.

I think I want to, because I think I should, like this, lest I come off as hating art or something.  But as often as it does imply the long horror of painfully sliding out of existence, there are also many sequences where I simply had no idea what the hell was going on.  Partly this is because of the editing, but mostly it's because watching Lost demands either a working knowledge of sailing technique, or a zen-like commitment to experiencing that technique without understanding a lick of it.  Yes, I take it on faith that Our Man knows how to sail.  He emphatically does not know that there is anyone watching him that might not.  And Chandor, who does know, simply does not care.

Intellectually, I actually appreciate the hell out of All Is Lost, but, especially in the first forty minutes, it's as emotionally flat as the sea it's set on, a dry procedural about a silent man with no past and almost no personality repairing his boat in the most obfuscated way possible in a visual medium.  I think that's an anchorI think that's the boat's radio that for some reason is not waterproofI guess it takes a really, really, really long time to paint glue and paste shit over a holeit seems like a design flaw that the pump can be destroyed by flooding, but does not have a manual lever—why are you sixty-five feet in the air, Robert Redford?!  I was not aware that this was a research assignment.

Once again, it takes a turn for the better on the raft, where everything that happens can be readily parsed even by the uninitiated.  He's fishing.  He's using a sextant to navigate his way into a shipping lane.  He's using flares to try to get attention.  He's being freaked out by sharks.  He's getting potable water in an ingenious way.  He's sad.  It's so much better than the time we spent on his stupid boat.

Good riddance to a bad movie.

"Fuck" aside, the last hour is decisively good; and it's thrilling indeed to watch a clever man with keen survival skills and an iron will nonetheless slowly starve and thirst to death on a raft, and think quietly on his sins as he does so.

I cannot call the film itself great or even very good; but in the end, the movie really does hedge toward excellence.  For that is when, let's say, Our Man does what is necessary.  And to the extent that I do solidly recommend All Is Lost, it is upon the strength of its last shot most of all.

Score: 6/10

That's it for this week's show, kids!  Tune in next time to find out whether Robert Redford lives or dies!

Severe spoilers to follow

I dearly hope that you don't need to know that, because, unless you are convinced this is a straight-up documentary, I am afraid you never shall.  Since it's necessary to tell you that All Is Lost has an ambiguous ending, and since "ambiguous" in the context of All Is Lost can mean nothing else, I trust you'll understand that my hand was forced.

Our Man is basically about to die.  He's been passed by two container ships already, neither one of whom have stopped because Captain Phillips is wise to perfidious Somali traps.  Now Our Man spots a final distant light on the horizon.  He first reaches for his last flare, but out of a sublime combination of desperation and cold logic, instead he takes his maps, his notebook, and the plastic jug he's turned into a desalination box, and creates a huge fire, which soon and semi-deliberately spreads to his plastic raft.  The scene gives us All Is Lost's most singularly gorgeous shot, courtesy Zuccarani's scubacam, an image of the blazing raft and the cool light of the full moon from far beneath the surface:

No, no, I've seen this before!  The rift aliens just want hydrogen!

The light of the conflagration reaches from horizon to horizon, unmistakablethat is, if anyone is watching at all.  To get away from the flames, he jumps in the water, and weak from hunger, thirst, and the heroic efforts of eight days, begins to sink.

Then, salvation comes, and this is the film's last shot:

Oh, sorry.  This is the film's last shot:

And, like I said, I love this last shot.

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