February 4, 2011
Elements of visual and sound design including cinematography, editing, music and sound mix, whilst not necessarily always best used as compliments to the diegetic world (countless examples from Soviet Montage to underground experimenta and political found footage/ensemble films certainly support a counter-argument), it is most often the case that with Hollywood cinema these formal properties of a film act, albeit manipulatively, as a guide for audience reception (for more on this see Greg Smith’s chapter “The Mood Cue Approach to Filmic Emotion” in Film Structure and the Emotion System). And whilst I am not at all against cinema that pushes the boundaries of generic expectancy and indeed the formal economics of predictability that years of viewing have firmly impressed upon us (quite the contrary), I do find it difficult to appreciate the abrasive use of a film’s formal qualities when there is no apparent or at least positively affecting result in doing so. Danny Boyle has long been a director whose formal choices seem to me curious, if not superfluous, in this regard. His latest feature film, the much-anticipated 127 Hours (2010) is possibly the greatest example yet of how saturating formal technique is used to juxtapose the diegetic content of a film with disappointingly reductive results.
For a film about a man who gets stuck in a cave, his arm crushed under a firmly lodged boulder, it might seem a little odd that the opening credit sequence should show several images on a split screen where hoards of humans appear to heard themselves about like animals. Of course, this is a Hollywood film, so it isn’t long before these images are adequately explained as an insight into our protagonist’s view of the world. Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a man who prefers the company of the outdoors to others. Independent to the point of apparent neglect (he fails to tell anyone where it is that he’s going so that in the actual event something does happen to him, no one is able to even think about looking for him), Aron is as self-sufficient and individualist as they come. Suggesting with the split screen that our being surrounded by others does not necessarily forego fragmentation, Boyle sets up the film’s primary “message” and “concern” in a fairly standard and easily digestible manner.
After a few more establishing scenes where the stylistic choices add a sense of franticness to the film’s tonality, somewhat exploring human impact/interaction on/with natural spaces, our protagonist takes the inevitable plummet that will serve as the real life premise for the remainder of the film: with his arm crushed by a now firmly lodged boulder that came loose upon his free fall descent, Aron is condemned to the proverbial ’127 hours’ where survival and solace seem unlikely. Unfortunately, where Boyle could easily have constructed the rest of the film as a tense, even terrifyingly sublime exploration of one man’s true isolation, the use of flashback, hallucination and overwrought visual and aural additives often detract from the true severity of the focal situation. An initial panic communicated to the audience after his fateful fall, where one genuinely thinks the rest of the film could well be James Franco screaming in agony for near on a hundred minutes (something that would undoubtedly have been more terrifying and visceral to watch), Boyle employs popular music and fast paced camera movement with far too short ASLs (average shot length) to even come close to adequately communicating a sense of prolonged pain.
Though occasional lines of dialogue reconfirm the idea that stillness is an illusion and that movement is constant; “Everything is moving all the time” and “Everything just comes together”; the film itself is not so fortunate so as to benefit from the illusion of stillness which, sadly, detracts from its overall tension. And whilst the most critical sequence in the film does show how style and sound can increase visceral affect, it does so in isolation as it is the one sequence that actually builds to crescendo. Certainly the majority of the time that Ralston is onscreen would have been communicably improved by a slow build in tension and a sense of suture style claustrophobia, akin to the likes of last year’s Buried (2010) which successfully managed such a feat by never expanding upon or leaving the confines of the diegetic world.
Ending with Ralston relenting that he does in fact “need help”, the film re-confirms the idea that we all need others and that connections between humans is an imperative to every individual’s survival. Moreover, Boyle takes it a bit too far when he then goes on to end the film by pointing specifically to Ralston’s now wife and kids as if familial life were some sort of epiphanic salvation. In terms of making a truly horrific life-threatening and, no doubt life-altering, event into a piece of entertaining filmic fare, Boyle has succeeded but in terms of communicating any sense of true gravity of the situation or even the fascinating and compelling temporal dimension to his experience which even operates as the film’s title, Boyle remains dismissive and reduces the scope and terror to a mere cavalcade of visual and aural superfluouity. It’s not so much the case that Boyle preferences style over substance, rather that his use of style operates as an overwhelming distraction from audience access to substance, an active choice that I find far less palatable.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.