Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010)
‘Every Second Counts’

“I’m a big believer that we are all bound together,” begins Danny Boyle, his tentative response to an audience question at last night’s Q & A at the B.F.I. Southbank. “Not in a hippie way, but it’s why we live in cities, why we don’t go and live in monkish isolation, and I believe those forces … connect and protect us all.” In the humble auditorium of N.F.T.1, the reverence generally accorded to Boyle as one of the finest British filmmakers of the last quarter century held firm. His latest project, 127 Hours, reworks canyoneer Aron Ralston’s world famous story of self-rescue in the Utah desert with a spin that points up not just the director’s enthusiasm for playing with form and style, but his own personal alacrity. I’ve seen Boyle a couple of times at these events, and in each he has suited the occasion, flattening out any prudish British reserve which hangs over in his audience after a screening, and with confidence involving one and all in the general conversation. Joined by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson, he discussed 127 Hours’ strong social and to a lesser degree political themes, his collaboration with Indian musician A. R. Rahman, and tantalisingly his belief that camera operation as a skill is more critical than lighting in the service of meaning. Typically for Boyle, whereas cinematographic lighting (akin to a symbolic act) produces one effect in the filmgoer, the camera’s function is to probe, and to question, and to respond with an actor; in fashioning a cinema that is “obsessive” and so wedded to human experience almost in terms of physical proximity he aims to capture some of the mechanisms of thought and perhaps the spontaneity of feeling.

His film, opening in Aron’s apartment but set almost exclusively thereafter in the dreaded Canyonlands National Park, begins with a slideshow of images. Marathon runners baking in the sun, a packed thousand-seater stadium, crowded escalators, and commuters filing onto already teeming subways; the film keeps at hand these and other unbearable public scenarios as references for civilisation and humanity, civilisation as a comfortably remote army of bodies, the throng which we all struggle to get out from under. Meanwhile, in a foreshadowing of what’s to come the protagonist hastily fills his water bottle at the kitchen sink while Free Blood sing “Never Hear Surf Music Again” on the soundtrack. So begins Danny Boyle’s biographical misadventure, which lays bare the extent of Aron Ralston’s five-day ordeal in the isolated Blue John canyon, starved, dehydrated, and pinned to the wall by an immovable 800lb boulder. As the weekend passes, Aron’s many escape attempts fail, he aborts one amputation, and his psychological condition worsens. Using a digital camera, he films his deterioration in a series of daily recordings which become increasingly apologetic. Heartbroken and his supplies depleted, Aron finally accepts his fate. On his fifth day, suffering from an intense fever as well as frequent prophetic hallucinations, he amputates his arm below the elbow in a surgical operation which lasts a little under an hour. Weakened from the stresses of his ordeal, he fashions a makeshift sling for his arm, crawls out of the canyon, rappels down a 60-foot wall, and hikes five miles through the desert until he's spotted. In the company of three fellow hikers he issues a personal plea for help, and is flown by helicopter to Allen Memorial Hospital.

By Boyle’s own frank admission, James Franco’s Aron is “a bit of a tosser.” He finds bliss in silence and emptiness, goes out of his way in fact to engage with it, then runs roughshod over the Canyonlands terrain by cycle and on foot, brain and heart we presume dulled to the aesthetic pleasures both of freedom and adventure; his brain is instead caught up in the sensory overload of physical adventure and (so the diegesis infers) the patterns of musical experience stirred by the pounding in his earphones. The setting is wonderful, the light above all incredible, but its enchantments, though clearly once within his comprehension, seem secondary to the pursuits that amuse/awaken him; he may well have fled the city but operates still on its highly reflexive level, organising data, scheduling his runs, substituting city noise for mp3s. The division of the screen into a split-panel frame spells out this message (after enough repetition of this technique the multi-purpose frame assumes the characteristics of a digital interface, like a screen displaying only open web browsers, each one recycling and streaming relevant information for an over-consumptive mind); but it also distorts the horizontal photographic image, it thins out the landscape, coercing our eye into tracing something that is, for a while, idiosyncratic and behavioural.

With this Boyle illuminates a point: frivolity, mischief, arrogance, self-interest are pure character. That arrogance is an American speciality particularly is a little unhelpful and old-fashioned as a viewpoint, but it is one that Boyle has certainly considered and probably welcomes in any commentary. His personal suggestion that Aron’s story is quintessentially American, and Aron the quintessential American, is on the other hand a right and an earnest point but one that’s hard to warm to. Boyle sees in Aron’s story an allegory for U.S. foreign policy, and his thesis is that the film highlights the danger of a global superpower turning its back on collaboration to enforce more fiercely a policy of bourgeois individualism/egotism. His comment at the previous evening’s Q & A that “It’s only when America embraces the whole world, when it sees outside [its own borders] that it’s a magnificent country—as it is, as it can be,” sounds like a well rehearsed line, and although the linking of his argument to the current “showdown” in the U.S. between the Republicans, backed by Tea Party drones, and the Democrats amused both the panel and audience, the point was left respectfully hanging.

That the film works so well is due largely to the resourcefulness of Aron himself and an almost inscrutable performance from Franco. This is a hero (Boyle calls him a “superhero” in a nod to the press attention which Aron’s story garnered internationally) who can fashion a tourniquet from a hydration pack and rig his ropes and climbing gear to winch a boulder, but who has no idea how punishing and difficult life already is without either a support network, or (because he is lucky enough) some family, to look out for him.

As Aron, sporting the same blue cap, crimson T-shirt and silver earphones familiar from the canyoneer’s own photographs, James Franco gives a real sense of how this man’s independence and confidence in himself is suddenly shot by the embarrassment of his mistake, the look of stranded relief in his eyes rarely betraying full despair in his most intimate scenes—only loss, of pride and of self-image. This is an excellent performance. Whenever scenes call for a personal address to camera (and there are many) the DeNiro-esque veneer (present in that supercilious stare) slips away, and a real sense of shared amusement with his (imagined) audience shines through. It just seems a pity Boyle’s film can’t adopt a more conciliatory, and hence settled, tone. Accepting that audience empathy with Aron’s predicament is very much a given from the outset, Beaufoy’s script (co-written with the director) leads to an appreciation of a banal “epiphany,” which authorises the self-amputation, via a collection of memory fragments: sentimental (and I felt unnecessary) distractions which overcompensate for the fixed setting and the story’s swing towards existentialism.

Thus, the film becomes a skein of phantasms and illusions, memories and visions, a cat’s cradle almost for the seemingly endless games played on common reality by hallucination as Aron’s health deteriorates further. This descent into fantasy, illusion and delusion seems entirely consistent with the Boyle oeuvre; the real-time horror of Aron’s flash-flood fantasy, for instance, a pivotal sequence conjuring memories of an ex lover brought on by his sheer thirst for water, recalls the agony of Renton’s detoxification scene in Trainspotting (1996, UK), the tracing of Rana’s fingers over Aron’s skin as they lay in bed together just as powerful as the encroaching baby that looms over Renton’s deathbed. But whereas that film’s fantasy sequences take us to the savage depths of Renton’s subconscious, as do Richard’s hyperactive videogame hallucinations in The Beach (2000, USA/UK), in this Aron’s flights of fancy are allied to the things he envisages in a state of calm, reflection, detachment, etc.; they are closer in style and tone therefore to the closing dazzling moments of Sunshine (2007, UK/USA)—the single moment in fact prior to the unimaginable solar event, which that film selects (to quote Lessing in his Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) for “immutable permanence from art.” For a long time I held in my memory a lasting image of this sequence which was unlike anything I’ve seen since on repeat viewings of the film; unrealised onscreen, but acted on, extended, and completed in memory, it resembled the fleeting moment as described by Lessing. Like many works of contemporary Hollywood which offer a glimpse of what it must be like to move, at least photographically, closer towards the mind (and hence to our acts of memory), the visions and “episodes”-cum-epiphanies of 127 Hours are strictly formal by comparison, comprising that is of slightly obvious common experiences (remembering a past event) shared via the traditional language of cinema. Though well observed and offering I imagine for some powerful emotional identification with Aron at his (spiritually) strongest point, the film’s recourse to warm, fluffy images offers disappointingly little support for Boyle’s stated aim which is to unlearn the laws and ideas associated with classical cinema by frequently testing genre models. He captures I think the timelessness of memory well, the abrupt and transient appearance of visions equally so—but in truth these comments and others like it are pleasantries which help us to move beyond or simply overlook the political challenge which Boyle has set himself. So I’m reminded of a passage from The Alchemy of the Eye, quoting Gilbert-Lecomte: “the Himalayas can appear in the stone of a ring, a train can turn around a man’s head, a posse in the Far West and the swell of the sea occur on a sleeper’s pillow … a drama is played out on a blackened fingernail.”
7 January, 2011


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