Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Three films that rock the narrative boat

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Captain Phillips (2013)

His work on a couple of Jason Bourne films aside, British director Paul Greengrass is noted for creating harrowingly realistic films based on true stories, including Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006). These movies are characterized by a distinctive “documentary” style – complete with queasy camerawork and unscripted dialogue – that induces the feeling that we’re witnessing actual events unfold.

Greengrass takes this approach in Captain Phillips, which tells the tale of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama cargo freighter as it sailed through the Indian Ocean under the command of American seaman Richard Phillips.

The film offers no shortage of drama, which in typical Greengrass style is steadily ramped up as the minutes tick by until the tension is almost unbearable. But the story is no mere thriller; it also delves into questions about American hegemony and the effects of exclusion from an increasingly integrated global economy.

Like many films “based on a true story”, Captain Phillips was criticized for failing to adhere to “the facts”. Among the detractors were several Maersk Alabama crewmembers who contended that Phillips, contrary to his onscreen portrayal, was less hero and more irresponsible egomaniac when it came to dealing with piracy.

These concerns are of questionable relevance. As Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Killing Fields (1984) producer David Putnam once said, “What’s important is ‘the truth’ [the filmmakers] are trying to get to with the movie – the big truth, not the little truth. And sometimes in order to enhance the big truth, you may have to change things.”

Captain Phillips is, after all, a dramatic film and not a documentary. Exceptional directors like Greengrass understand that they are obligated to plunge into the authentic heart of the story, even if it does mean straying from reality.

Life of Pi (2012)

While Captain Phillips uses cinematic interpretation to portray real-world events, Ang Lee’s visually lush Life of Pi makes questions of fact versus fiction integral to the story itself. Protagonist Pi Patel, an Indian living in Canada, has a tale to tell that is so extraordinary it can make those who hear it “believe in God”. He is the sole human survivor of a mid-Pacific ship sinking, and he winds up on a lifeboat with a menagerie of animals that die off one by one until only he and a tiger named Rickard Parker are left alive.

Their journey of survival has a hallucinatory quality, including nights drifting though luminous waters and an encounter with a carnivorous island. During the ordeal Pi writes in his journal, “Everything is mixed up and fragmented. Can’t tell daydreams, night dreams from reality anymore.” At the same time he comments that “words are all I have left to hang on to”, hinting that narrating the fragmented dreams has become more important than reality itself.

After making landfall, Pi is questioned about the ship’s sinking by Japanese insurance investigators. They are unsatisfied with his account and demand “a simple story for our report … a story we can all believe” – in other words, journalism.

Pi obliges with “a story without things you’ve never seen before, without surprises” in which the lifeboat is occupied not by animals but by a cannibal cook who kills a sailor and then stabs Pi’s mother to death. In retaliation, Pi murders the cook. Neither tale explains what caused the ship to sink, and no one can prove which one is true. While the straightforward account with the cook seems more “real”, the one with the tiger makes for a better, deeper, more thought-provoking narrative.

And what about “God”? Simple reportage might be useful for showing what’s “out there” in the real world, but it is trumped by intricate literary storytelling in teaching about what dwells in the heart, which is home to faith in the unseen and to those peculiar dreams that infuse the world with a sense of enchantment.

Noah (2014)

If Life of Pi is concerned with storytelling, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is about interpretation. Background: Adam and Eve get the boot from the Garden of Eden, their son Cain kills brother Abel, and their third son, Seth, headlines a branch of the family tree that eventually leads to Noah, by which time most of mankind, in its depravity, has been blacklisted by The Creator, who decides to drown everyone except Noah and his family. They are tasked with building a boat on which they and a bunch of animals will survive the flood.

Skip ahead seven millennia, and along comes Aronofsky, who decides to make a film that delves into the question of how mere mortals might understand, or misunderstand, the miraculous. It begins when Noah dreams of an ocean filled with the corpses of men. He thinks The Creator has revealed plans to destroy the world, and a subsequent vision of animals swimming up to a huge ark provides Noah with an action plan.

Thus the ark-building begins. Everything goes swimmingly until Noah ventures into a nearby camp to find wives for his sons. There he witnesses the wickedness of the descendants of Cain and meets his own doppelganger, who reveals the sin dwelling deep within Noah. He reads this apparition as a message from The Creator that “mankind must end … Creation will be left alone, safe and beautiful”. This prompts him to plot the murder of human twins born on the ark, a step into madness he is reluctant to take.

“Tell me I don’t need to do this,” Noah beseeches the sky. The silent clouds merely reflect his own propensity for obedience back at him: The Creator’s lack of response means the children must die. Even so, he can’t bring himself to plunge the knife, and the twins live.

Have the ark-builders failed to carry out The Creator’s edict? At first Noah believes so, but Ila, the mother of the twins, thinks the choice about whether to save humanity was put into Noah’s hands “because [The Creator] put it there”. Noah’s “test”, according to her interpretation, was learning to how to balance justice with mercy. Thus saved, humanity has been gifted a second chance to redeem itself – or to fail The Creator all over again.

This article was originally published in the May 29-June 4 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

Blog.3 films

Written by latefornowhere

June 5, 2015 at 1:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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