Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ragnarök, or Impressions of 127 Hours

I attended a student film festival while at college. The only movie I remember was called Ragnarök, and I'm not sure who the filmmakers were. The opening credits said it was inspired by the eponymous short story by Jorge Luis Borges. That story has never left me. It is a dream recalled by a narrator in which the Gods (Janus, Thoth, et al) re-emerge after a "centuries-long exile" in a university hall or auditorium. The audience - and narrator - are at first exalted that they have returned. Little by little they realize that the Gods lost their "human element" after centuries of "fugitive life" and were now little more than beasts. The audience members then took their heavy guns and "joyfully killed the Gods." The movie was not a telling of the story. To me, it was a meditation on the opening lines: "In our dreams (writes Coleridge) images represent the sensations we think they cause; we do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel"; and the closing lines: "...if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We...killed the Gods."

The movie opened with credits saying that an off-campus house the filmmakers lived in was experiencing an infestation of rats. They set up traps and filmed what happened. An unmoving camera was set with night-vision at a short height. A small creature with gleaming eyes appeared to the "oohs" and "ahs" of the crowd. We knew where the trap was set. The little rat scurried all over the floor. Looking for corners. Audience members were rooting for it. Talking to the screen, telling it where to go. Others were gasping, and saying "Oh no." Textbook lesson in suspense: We know something, potentially dangerous or incriminating, that the character does not. In this case, we know where the trap is located and the rat of course has no clue. This goes on for what feels like a long time but was not more than three minutes or so. We think the little guy has made it, but the rat begins to wander where it shouldn't, and then a loud clap resounds, making some people jump and exclaim their sorrow. You can see part of the tail on camera.

The film fades to black and another image appears, it shows an exquisite Maine scene: a long pier, water beneath and to the distance, some aquatic shrubs, and in the horizon a setting sun. Again, an unmoving camera likely set up on a pier post. This time the film feels like it was set to slow-motion, though I'm almost sure it was not. What seems like an eternity passes. As the audience saw the sun's steady descent, they began to fidget, looking at their cell phones, watches, whispering among themselves. Finally the sun set behind the horizon line, bathing the pier and ocean in soft butterlight, you could not ask for a more breathtaking image. The film slowly fades to black, and credits roll.

So what is this about? A rat and a sunset? What's the point? Let me answer these questions by asking another: What are we willing to sit through? This is how I see it. We are thrilled, scared, anxious, and altogether willing to see a rat possibly meet its end than we are to see an idyllic scene with the setting sun. When the possibility of death is removed and it becomes definite, we feel betrayed; we are shocked, hurt, and staggered. We identified with the defenseless, innocent rat, we were rooting for it, yes we wanted it to go through danger but we also wanted it to live. In a word, we were the rat. The dread, the fear, the pity, is about us too.

In Danny Boyle's
127 Hours, we are presented with the alternative: A) We know exactly what's going to happen, and B) The protagonist survives. However, we still feel the suspense. A lot of it has to do with Boyle's skill as a filmmaker and with James Franco's vivid performance. As with the rat, we identified with Franco's character, Aron Ralston. The same dread, fear, and pity we felt for the rat, we feel for Ralston, and we feel it for us too. For the rat and Ralston not to survive is a type of psychic death for the audience. We don't lament the death of the rat, we lament our own mortality. When Ralston perseveres by cutting off part of his arm to remove himself from under the boulder's grip, we rejoice but also cower, because we know, deep down or even lucidly, that we are very unlikely to do what he did. The rat dies, we tremble. Ralston survives, we tremble. You see, we create (or, in Borges's words, we dream) a rat, a film, a performance, a short story to explain the horror we feel. With fear in our being, that horror (echoes of Joseph Conrad) may be placated, but never overcome. The rat dies, we tremble. Overcome the fear of despair, the fear of death, then we vanquish the horror. Ralston overcame the fear. Does that we mean we can to? Ralston survives, we tremble.



Nikolai said...

i cant wait for 127 hours james franco is sick

Hiccup3000 said...

I Missed 127 hrs! had the choice between that and Black Swan last month and choose Black swan. It was good though.)