It’s hard to stop myself from looking at this year’s lineup of Oscar nominations for best film and not put them into a Blake Snyder type of list:
American Dude with an FBI problem
Tom Hanks Dude with a boat problem
White Dude with a drug problem
Future Dude with a girl problem
Old Dude with a mental problem
Black Dude with a freedom problem
Rich Dude with a money problem
Oh, and a girl who gets lost in space, and a mom looking for her son.
But what worried me most, was that the films I have seen so far were so well-produced, the acting so remarkable, the concept so intriguing, that it took a while for me to notice that the story wasn’t all there.
Yesterday, at the three-quarter mark of Captain Phillips, I paused the film and asked my teen son how he thought the movie would end. Having been on a couple film sets with me, he has more interest than your average film viewer. He thought the story would end with Tom Hanks getting back to his family. My hope was that the two “captains” would understand something more about each other that transcended the two sides of the fence each had to play.
But, alas, the theme of this movie was not to find home, or to see yourself in someone else. The theme here seemed to be, Don’t mess with America’s Navy. Did the American Captain learn anything about the man who nearly killed him to survive? Neither did we. Although it was a gripping film, in the end, nothing in me changed.
And that’s the difference between a good story and real life: there has to be a cathartic change in the viewer.
Same with 12 Years a Slave: At the end, did we learn more than what we already knew about the abuses of slavers? Possibly, in blood-spraying detail. But there was no cathartic moment. I’m sure my son was glad to see that Solomon finally makes his way home to his family, but that was relief. Catharsis needs more than emotion—it needs a ground-shifting change that shakes its way right off the screen and into your soul.
What I am missing in these films is something more than just the release of emotions that torturous scenes allow for. I’m already used to feeling emotion; I want more than that. And maybe that’s what makes these films (mostly) dude problems; they need to feel the brutality of whippings and rapes and total degradation that was a part of our American past. Perhaps the making of the film, 12 Years a Slave was a cathartic experience for the producers, director, crew. Watching it was not. Watching it put us in Solomon’s story, from which there was little chance for salvation or transcendence.
I felt the moment he walked in the door, unbelieving he made it home, was when the real story began. How did he adjust to living with his family after so much had happened? Did he flinch when someone touched his back? What was it like to write with a pen and paper? Could his marriage have survived? What did the trauma do to him and what did he do about that?
In Captain Philips, what if Hanks actually began to understand the reasons behind why Muse (the Somali pirate captain) was attacking the ship? What did happen to the $6 million Muse claims to have made from a Greek ship the year before? What if Phillips saw the truth about the pirates, and saw that perhaps he, himself, had something to do with why his company’s ship was attacked? If there had been just that extra internal digging into character, even if all the other events happened in the same way, how much more impressive would Hank’s shock and trauma have been? If he knew, in the end, he was in some way partly responsible for the dire situation of African countries, wouldn’t that have been more powerful than just his crying for his own skin?
Of course, it may be more difficult to adjust story lines and characters in what is meant to be a cinematic retelling of a true story, but, hey, this is Hollywood. We don’t have to stick to the truth.
I also watched Cave Digger, a made-in-New-Mexico short documentary up for an Oscar. Old Dude with a wheelbarrow problem. Yet, this film was different in its story.
“Ra” creates awesome spaces with his hands in the compacted sandstone we all have dug in. Driven to stop working for patrons who inevitably withdraw funds before the artist feels his work is completed, Ra decides to give up creating for someone else and embarks on a new, ambitious cave in a clay medium. The scary disaster that follows teaches him a life lesson, and he moves forward with a new, changed attitude, yet all the guts we have learned are his character’s traits.
The theme of Cave Digger? The balance of life and art and sand is precarious.
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Watch Cave Digger at Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/9849
New York Post article on how true Captain Phillips was: http://nypost.com/2013/10/13/crew-members-deny-captain-phillips-heroism/
Read the electronic edition of 12 Years a Slave: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/northup/northup.html