25 May 2007

Pirates, Boardrooms, Two Capt. Jacks, and Dubious Thighs (A Non-Review of Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End)

Saw the big new Pirates movie last night. It was what it was. The good moments outweigh the sluggishly turgid moments, in my opinion. The ability to create visuals has vastly superseded the capacity to turn out comprehensive and coherent plots it would seem. If you focus on plot and coherence, than this wasn't a film you'd enjoy. If instead you revel in surreal visual treats, truly odd moments and cinematic spectacle, then you might find yourself won over by this mess.

About those dubious thighs, at some point during this film, supposedly the leg of Keira Knightly is displayed. I have strong doubts as to whether or not the leg in question has ever been attached to the rest of Keira's body. Whoever possesses said leg, has truly a stunning set of gams, and seems to have allowed a hamburger or two pass through her palate (and let it stay in her stomach long enough to be processed). The rest of Keira looks too angular and sharp to still have a leg that looks so delicious.

About those two Capt. Jacks. This movie has far more than two Capt. Jacks. In one of the more surreal touches in the film, Jack would conference with himself on a regular basis, but those aren't the multiple Jacks I'm talking about. The two Jacks are Jack Shaftoe and Jack Sparrow. The Pirate films and the Baroque Cycle trod similar ground. Both examine the end of one system and the beginning of another. Both Jacks are insane, but inspired. There's a huge difference in the quality of writing between Stephenson's cycle and the mess of influences and thoughts that comprise the Pirate scripts. Part of the difference is between the visual and the written. If you were to try and film the Baroque Cycle, it would be a mess, a glorious mess, but a mess nevertheless. The only way to do something like that justice would be a limited run Anime style series that goes on for 60-70 half hour episodes. You could probably tell the tale in about 35 hours and keep it interesting, plus animation would suit the settings better than live action, and many adult aimed Anime is as complex, byzantine, contemplative and digressive as what Neal Stephenson writes. But that's a different topic all together.

About the ending of one system and the beginning of another. That's one thing that the Pirate films gets exactly 180 degrees wrong. They suggest throughout the last two films that the East India Trading Company represents an encroaching (and malevolent) modernity while piracy represents a waning (and romantic) past. But the opposite is true. The old style mercantile system is what began to fall apart in the late 18th and early 19th century. Large state sponsored and controlled monopolies on trading routes were being dashed by improving technologies and fiercely darwinistic entrepreneurship. Pirates are the forerunners to today's "captain's of industry", not the petty bureaucrats who ran the state backed monopolies. Pirates were ruthlessly capitalistic, innovative, and would fit in more easily in a modern boardroom than any East Indian Trading Company big wig would. There's a boardroom scene in the latest Pirate film, they don't call it a boardroom, of course, but takeaway the swords and guns, and it's perfectly recognizable as being thoroughly modern.

Why do these effects driven pictures lack coherence lately? I think the answer lies in how they are constructed. Each action set piece is worked on by dozens if not hundreds of techs working for months on their little section of film. They get input from the director as they go, but by and large each big effects laden sequence is a little fiefdom all its own. As these sequences come together I suspect that the original narrative intent for including these sequences or for the particular beats and moments included in these bits gets lost. The lead effects people show off a new trick here, a nice innovation there, and pretty soon the sequence no longer precisely resembles what was intended, and doesn't mesh well with the original narrative. The director is then faced with a quandary. Lose months of work from dozens of techs, or tack on some extra exposition that makes these sequences fit into the overall narrative better. Well multiply that problem and solution over a dozen or so sequences and you end up with a bloated mess that can't be reduced, and can't be trimmed to a runtime of less than 2.5 hours.

People flock to these pictures (myself included, and yes, I'll see Transformers no matter how stupid it is, the eye candy aspect of that film is irresistible) as they are, and visuals transcend language so these films do massive business world wide. But they might do even better if they held the runtimes down and tried to tell simpler tales more effectively.

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