Friday, July 11, 2014

Another Old Man in a Boat

A sailor went to sea sea sea
To see what he could see see see
But all that he could see see see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea sea sea.

Among the odd things about All Is Lost is that it has made it to TV already.  It was on the Epix Channel last week and I recorded it with the DVR.  Since watching The Old Man and the Sea recently and blogging about it I had wanted to see this Robert Redford movie.  Yet I was surprised to find it on TV so soon after it appeared in theaters.  Something like this happened to Lincoln as well. 

The economics of second degree price discrimination, which explains why flying coach is a worse experience than it would be if there weren't first class, suggests a longer lag between when a good film appears in theaters and when it shows up on TV, lest there be more viewers like me who opt out of the theater showing entirely and wait to watch it at home (now on a reasonably big flat screen with a pretty good sound system).  What I gather from this outcome is that while the film had some critical acclaim it didn't do that well in the box office and can't compete that way with the latest Batman or Transformers or whatever comic book as movie that will bring in a mass audience, for diversion if not edification. 

Given that, one wonders if Hollywood will continue to make old guy movies.  (Crazy Heart is another one of those.)  Around the time I wrote my review, I was the under the impression that Hollywood was appealing to aging baby boomers about their own mortality, as the secondary theme of many movies, because it's an issue that's crept from the subconscious and made its way into our everyday thinking.  Maybe these themes are better suited for TV series than they are for feature length films, especially if most of the potential viewers are like me cheapskates and won't go to the theater for ordinary entertainment.  But if Breaking Bad is any indicator, the need to attract a general audience ultimately trumps a focus on personal mortality.  The protagonist's cancer, which coupled with the hospital bills served as his original motivation for taking the path that he did, conveniently went into remission and subsequently stopped serving as motivation.  While the schoolteacher as godfather has some visceral appeal, especially for anyone who has taught and been frustrated by the bureaucracy that "supports" teaching, ultimately I found that more absurd than sustaining and as a result never watched the last season.

Much of this I'm thinking before I watch even a minute of All Is Lost.  It makes me, perhaps, less predisposed to the film.  I'm not really sure on that.  I mention it here because somebody who reads my review, below, will ask whether I'm being fair.  In the interest of fairness, it's a good idea to get one's biases out ahead of time.

* * * * *

Sailing has a romantic lure, for some, not for me.  I've never felt that itch, but I do know several people who have.  The Robert Redford character in All Is Lost clearly had the itch.  But unlike in The Old Man and the Sea, it did not come as means to make one's livelihood.  Rather it is a rich man's diversion.  Redford is in a modern, very well equipped sailboat doing what a wealthy recluse would do.  This is the setup at the start of the movie.  I found it plausible.  While I'm not wealthy, I find an increasing desire to be off on my own with my own thoughts.  I'm unsure whether this is a consequence of aging, or rather a consequence of being male while aging, or still if my introversion has become more prominent as I've gotten older.  In any event, that much of the film made sense.

The boat is in the middle of the Indian Ocean and that part of the story I was unable to gauge for plausibility.  Why be so far away from land?  Why be so far away from the U.S.?  The viewer never gets answers to these questions.  At a practical level these answers are irrelevant.  They matter only insofar as they speak to the character and motivation of the person Robert Redford is playing.  We're not given any insight into that at the beginning.  It made some of the struggle that follows very odd to me.  Did the character fundamentally need the struggle to give him purpose?  Or was the struggle entirely outside the game plan?

After watching the film I went to the Internet looking for reviews, as I often do after watching a movie.  I found this piece from Slate, which focuses on the film's ending.  (I will get to that at the conclusion to my essay.)  Near the end of the piece there is something on Redford's own motivation.

But just because you don’t know for sure whether it’s the lady or the tiger or whether the cat is dead or not does not mean the ending has no meaning. Robert Redford was, I think, getting at the meaning of the ending—or at least what it means to him—in his recent interview with The New York Times. In the interview, he says that he lives by his favorite T.S. Eliot line, from Four Quartets: “There is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” In another part of the interview, he echoes that idea: “To me, it was always to climb up the hill,” he says, “Not standing at the top.”

Reading this I felt cheated by the start of the movie, not the end.  Would there have been any hill to climb had the boat not collided with the shipping container?  One would suppose not.  There would have been solitude but no fight for one's life.  Redford may have been speaking more about why he made the movie than his character's role in it.  Yet there is a puzzle in how things play out after the collision.  Had we in the audience been in the shoes of the character, would we have done likewise?  Again, the plausibility issue emerges.

Now I will show my ignorance about sailing.  Would one be in no particular radio contact with other sailing vessels?  This is a necessary piece of the story.  Otherwise, once the accident had occurred the character would have called for help and help would have arrived in time.  Ultimately this is attempted but it is not the first priority, which is to do something about water leaking into the boat.  The character may have been rational in taking self-preservation steps but may not have been wise in the choice of sequencing of those steps.  After taking on much water the radio ultimately works only intermittently or not at all.  If the character could have foreseen this outcome then radioing for help would have happened before trying to fix the hole in the boat.

The story makes the most sense if storms on the Indian Ocean at that time of year are a rare thing.  The patchwork fix job the character does would hold under mild weather but surely not while a storm rages.  A terrible storm does come and ultimately the boat sinks, with the character escaping to a life raft. 

The essence of the film is not about this sort of decision making but rather about the character's struggles, both in the boat and then in the life raft.  For the most part the character is composed and fully engaged in these activities.  There is no sense of desperation while in the boat.  There is only taking the next necessary step or sleeping for a while because the strain from the effort is exhausting.  This is the best part of the movie.

Then, soon before the boat sinks and after the character has made various preparations, he engages in some personal grooming and shaves.  I found this an odd act in itself and it bothered me for much of the part on the lifeboat.  It is perfectly understandable that the character would opt for some means to refresh himself.  Yet he didn't or couldn't change clothes.  Given that, why shave?  Further, and while the rest of Redford's appearance credibly showed he was a weathered old man, even after a day and more on the lifeboat his face featured no stubble.  I was keyed to look for it by the shaving scene, but it never materialized.  If this was a deliberate act of film making, then I didn't get it.  It created discord in me. On the one hand he was fighting for his life.  On the other hand he seemed still in his comfortable rich man's existence.

I marvel at how they film scenes with a person under water.  I can't hold my breath for very long and know I'd get panicky if submerged for longer than is my comfort zone.  Redford is under water a lot during the film.  He gets tossed off the boat and later off the life raft, yet seems calm and self-possessed while this happens.  Near the end of the film he starts a fire in the life raft in an effort to signal to another boat that is nearby and that shines a light.  He is unsure whether the fire is big enough to be seen from afar so he keeps feeding it until the life raft itself catches fire.  Given that he knows he is near the end, this desperate act itself is rational.  It is the last card in his hand to play.

Thereafter what happens in the film is necessary to give it closure.  Yet I didn't have a satisfied feeling when the movie ended, not because The Lady or the Tiger issue that is raised in the Slate piece, but because of all that came before, which was far less than satisfying.

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