Thursday, February 24, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Surely the longest of long shots for the “Best Picture” Oscar is “127 Hours.” Yeah, this is the movie where a man cuts off his own arm. Let’s get that out of the way. James Franco plays a rugged young adventurist who goes rock climbing alone, falls, and dislodges a rock. The rock traps his arm between it and a hard place. As time and water run out, Aron Ralston (true story, left) realizes that the only way to survive is to cut off his arm. And so he does.

That’s the plot of “127 Hours,” which took two minutes to write. What’s left to talk about? 

This is one of those old-fashioned man-against-the-elements dramas, except that Franco/Ralston is confined in a single spot for all but 15 minutes of the film—with a 10-minute run-up and 5-minute denouement. Virtually all of the drama takes place in his head and heart, and by hour 48 or so, these are filled with hallucinations, premonitions, deep regret, and a fundamental drive for life. Which alone makes “127 Hours” a remarkable piece of film-making. It could easily have been made by one of those crazy Europeans of the 1960s—Goddard, Antonioni, Bergman—and left us scratching our heads: what the heck was that about? What it’s about is obvious.

“127 Hours” is about our mad, modern condition in a world without God, although surely the filmmakers would never say so. They would say it’s about the triumph of the human spirit—which of course it is too. But the spirit buoyed by what? What tools does the spirit employ in its hour of need?

Prayer has no place in Ralston/Franco’s armamentarium. The movie tells us with an ironic early image that he could have used not prayer but his Swiss Army Knife, which he failed to find while groping on a shelf before leaving home on the adventure that changed his life. The movie also tells us that we would be better off if we stayed connected with each other more often, especially with our parents. Most moving of the 94 minutes that actually constitute “127 Hours” are those in which the trapped man uses a hand-held videocam to record messages to his parents. He’s sorry that he did not pick up his mother’s early-morning phone call, instead letting it go through to voice-mail; if he had done so, someone might know where he is.

Instead, his lone companion is a raven, who flies over his crevasse at 8:15 each morning, until the final day when even the raven disappears—or else is subsumed in the hallucinations that now surround him. If you wait for that final day, and scene, when Ralston/Franco finally does the thing you’ve heard he does, you’ll be disappointed. There’s not much to it, except blood.

It’s getting to that moment that this movie is about. Solitary adventurists, dislodged from true community or communion, we ripped, carb-loading, free-spirited, unmoored modern men plunge along on our trail bikes, rappelling madly down rock faces until—smack—reality hits us in the face. And when that happens, as it will for us all, even you and me, brother, what tools will we find ourselves carrying?

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