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Monday, June 11, 2007

Gigantic Pleiotropy: Pirates of the Caribbean, at World's End

Once again, my cinematic gratification was greatly delayed with regard to a certain pirate, who, I have it on good authority, happens to be the nicest pirate in the world. And once again, there was worry, especially when blondeheroine, possibly the only person in the world, besides yours truly who really loved the second film with few reservations seemed to be finding herself highly reservation-ful on the love for At World's End front. But to tell the truth, Spidey 3 made me resigned to the melancholy world of reserved love.

First of all, I would like to know what crack they were smoking when they put together the trailer reel for the Digital Projection version. Transformers? Ok, I get that (and I only just realized now that the extremely pretty and highly charming Josh Duhamel is in it). Golden Compass, ditto, and the movie actually looks pretty cool. But I have to call shennanigans on the fact that the Bratz movie even exists, let alone appears on the pre-Pirates trailer.

Anyway, on to the movie and my sadly reserved love for it. I did love it because it was my much-needed fix for the world, the characters, and the story. I did love it, because it has moments of real brilliance—moments that at least match and in some cases exceed the spark of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, because the franchise has legs and the characters are known quantities. But in the package with my fix, holding together those moments of brilliance, there's a lot of talky, not very coherent nonsense and a sadly large number of wasted opportunities.

One of the best things about the Pirates franchise is that it was— unexpectedly, I gather—a genre defier. It was fantasy, it was action, it was romance, it was a kiddie movie, but those making it didn't necessarily know that until the crazy, drunken cat was out of the bag. Thus, there were no real problems in satisfying none in trying to please all. But with that strength, the franchise inherited a problem: You came to expect a lot more from the movies than you would have it had just been a better-than-average popcorn-fuelled summer blockbuster.

For what it's worth, I think Spider-Man 3 has the same problems. You care what Mary Jane knows and doesn't know, because you want to know why she does what she does. Compare this to, let's just say the X-Men franchise. If you start asking "why" about pretty much anything in these, you're going to be a very sad and distracted movie goer.

So At World's End has the "why" problem, and it's particularly ill-suited to deal with that problem. There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of whys. Many are inherited from Dead Man's Chest, which I was largely able to enjoy at the time because I was happily ensconced in Empire Strikes Back mode. But there are also many that are introduced by the convoluted script of AWE itself. And if you'll bear with me, I'm bound to get convoluted myself as I explore some of those convolutions.

Everybody—or at least everybody who goes to see movies like Pirates—loves a frontier, and this franchise has them in stock: Of course there is the literal frontier of colonial civilization/commerce and piracy. But there are also a number of interesting metaphorical frontiers: Elizabeth and Will stand between youth and adulthood (and gender and class roles), Jack and the Pearl's crew between life and undeath (and bondage and freedom), and circling back around again to the crossroads between literal and metaphorical frontiers (and mixed metaphors and outright linguistic abuse), each of the characters is poised to determine whether the conflict between the civilized and the piratical will be a pathetic last rebellion or a true revolution. It's downright diabolically historical.

At World's End begins with a promising, if somewhat surprising, conceptual crane shot. (And wow, was the opening sequence a bizarre juxtaposition to the superkiddy trailers!) Whereas the opening scenes of the first two movies are personal introductions to our characters, AWE shows us the fate of the oppressed masses. It's possibly a little over the top. Those being led to the gallows could easily have formed the cast of a Benetton ad, for example, and the reading of the rights that had been suspended in the name of Homeland Securitythe greater colonial good might have been a bit on the nose. But still, the message is clear that the swashbuckling shennaningans, the disrupted arranged marriages, and all the dabbling in the supernatural that has gone on up until now has mattered and that AWE will take place on a larger canvas.

Except that the canvas then shrinks pretty radically right away as we head to . . . Singapore? You know how sometimes you're completely freaking amazed to find that a scene from a movie or show you love, a scene that really manages to convey a tremendously exotic feeling of space, was shot in the director's parents' spare bathroom or something? Singapore was almost entirely, but not quite, unlike that. I may be the stupidest person alive, but I quite honestly did not know whether I was supposed to believe that they were all actually in Singapore or this was . . . like . . . the Caribbean "Little Singapore" or what. All I know is that it felt like Walt Disney Presents Singapore, and while Walt Disney can present some damned cool things, the Singapore theme park ride is just not cool enough to contain Chow Yun-Fat. (Not that anything is cool enough to contain Chow Yun-Fat, but at least make an effort, people.)

It's right here that the why problems begin. Why are they in Singapore, if they are, in fact, in Singapore? Oh, ok, I think they're here so (a) Will can steal yoga mats containing the directions to world's end and (b) Barbossa and Elizabeth can ask Sao Feng nicely for a ship and a crew. Hello? Pirates? Is there a reason we've suddenly decided to start asking nicely? Oh! Ok, we're introducing the Phlebotenum in Jar C about the call to the 9 Pirate Lords! Carry on, then! I am all about and have infinite patience for a well-turned Phlebotenum in Jar C, and I love the sound of the 9 Pirate Lords!

If I were feeling cranky at this stage of the game, I might have suggested that you spend a wee bit more time on the dialogue and exposition here, and perhaps a bit less on the "yes, we get it, Elizabeth is armed to the teats" gag and a lot less on the "let's look up Elizabeth's kimono, har har! Oh noz it's a fat guy!" gag. But I was not even close to cranky at this point, despite their feeble attempts to make Chow Yun-Fat unattractive by giving him a few scars and some skanky fingernails.

But what's this? Sao Feng is in league with Cutler Beckett. Um . . . WHY? Well, we'll never know, will we, because all 14 minutes of Chow Yun-Fat's screen time are spent shunting between short-haul commuter ships for business meetings and, oh joy, a rape attempt crossed with a wacky case of mistaken identity! In terms of indirect answers to this great big WHY we are given (a) Elizabeth's off-hand implication that Sao Feng is just a sackless coward (wow, is that the most woeful miscasting EVAR if we're supposed to believe that) and (b) some completely unexplained (in their defense, it really is inexplicable) reason that Sao Feng is the only person in this or any other universe who does not know that Tia Dalma = Calypso = Davy Jones' lost love. This places him, on the intelligence scale, somewhere below the first organic molecules to evolve.

Literally at World's End, we run into a bunch of logistical whys tangled up with motivational whys. Why has it not occurred to anyone to ask the hard questions about how, exactly, they are getting to the land of the dead? And does neither Will nor Elizabeth wonder why Barbossa is suddenly so hot to get Jack back? Certainly I can buy that their individual narcissism, guilt, and insecurity keeps them from discussing with one another why each of them wants him back so badly, but really, it doesn't occur to them, even after Barbossa and Jack immediately start sniping over who's captain, to ask? What's that? 9 Pirate Lords you say? Well, ok . . . but you know, I'm starting to wonder how this plan is going to play out, and I think you all should be wondering, too.

After the movie, M raised some objections to the Jack in the Land of the Dead scenes. Specifically, he felt that the multi!Jack gag was just much goofier than they'd intended it to be. Kelly raises related objections to this. Immediately afterward, in my free-floating sea of dissatisfaction, multi!Jack didn't make the cut of things that were bothering me, especially because those scenes in the hell that is Utah were among the most visually stunning in the movie.

More than that, I think I was so relieved to finally see Jack after a talky series of scenes of uneven quality that I wasn't inclined to quibble. (Also, let's be honest about the shallow: There is no bad in many, many Johnny Depps.) Furthermore, I thought the later mini!Jacks as "shoulder angel and shoulder devil" worked pretty well, but I'm willing to admit that some explanation—any explanation—of why the characters were doing what they were doing was so welcome by that point that my standards may have been unusually low. Upon further reflection, the multi!Jack thing figures into one of the biggest why problems in the movie: What's driving Jack?

This is a pretty crucial issue. In fact, one might argue that it's the most crucial in all the movies. He's the man with the compass that points to the heart's desire. And when last seen, either Jack's heart, Jack's compass, or both were on the fritz. In the first movie, Jack's motivation is fairly simple: He wants the Pearl. His being undead is such a nonissue that it's not even clear he knew that the curse affected him as well as the rest of the crew.

In the second movie, a lot of attention is shifted to the compass. Cutler Beckett wants it badly (more badly than the Pearl), and it is churning out most distressing and ambiguous messages for both Jack and Elizabeth. Superficially, it seems that Jack doesn't want to die, which is rather unsatisfying, especially because that is explained in some of the more convoluted dialogue in Dead Man's Chest:

Bootstrap Bill: I'm sure you haven't forgotten your agreement. 13 years as captain of the Black Pearl in exchange for a lifetime [poor choice of words in this case, innit? ­ Ed.] on his ship, the Flying Dutchman. Time's up.
Jack: The Dutchman already has a captain, so there's no need for me.
Turner: Then it's the locker for you. Jones' Leviathan will find you and drag the Pearl back to the depths - and you along with it.

But no worries. Tia Dalma (from whom, we learn, Jack obtained the compass in the first place) tells us that Jack's more complicated than that:

Tia Dalma: The Compass you bartered from me. It cannot lead you to dis?
Jack: Maybe. Why?
Tia Dalma: Ayeee... Jack Sparrow does not know what he wants! Or... do know, but are loathe to claim it as your own. Your key go to a chest, and it is what lay inside the chest you seek, don't it?

The convoluted dialogue is then complicated by convoluted action in the final confrontation with the Kraken. Jack rows away, leaving the Pearl and her crew to his fate. At the time, I felt certain that Elizabeth was being exceptionally stupid when she sees this and seethes "Coward." It seemed to me that Jack was actually trying to draw the Kraken away from the Pearl. After all, Elizabeth herself chains him to the mast because the Kraken is after him, not the ship. But whatever. When in doubt, go with the Supernatural State of the Union: Tia Dalma tells us that Jack knows what he wants, but is afraid to claim it. I take that as Dead Man's Chest asking the audience us for a little patience and assuring us that the franchise is not going to whiz Captain Jack down its leg.

Except that At World's End seems to do exactly that. Maybe. It's hard to tell. Because I don't know why about a lot of things. Here are a few:

  • From Dead Man's Chest:

    1. Is the whole of Jack's bargain with Davy Jones faithfully told by Bootstrap Bill?
    2. Is Davy Jones just a company man, irritated that Jack is trying not to pay up, or is there something personal between Davy and Jack that is motivating Davy?

      • Another way of putting this: How is Davy compelled to carry out his duties? Does he suffer when he doesn't?
      • Is the way in which he's compelled likely to make him want 100 souls to Jack's 1, or is this really just a sloppy plot device to make us believe that, no really, Jack is just a coward without honor?

  • Things get even murkier in At World's End:

    1. What, exactly, is Davy's job? Ushering the souls of those who died at sea to the land of the dead, I guess, but why do some float freely under water, whereas others are in boats?
    2. What's the big down side of Davy not doing the job? Is this a Reaper Man scenario in which we're going to be overrun with dead people? I mean, I'm all about others having a peaceful afterlife, but isn't that a little esoteric a worry for this particular time, place, and cast of characters?
    3. What does Jack's stint in the land of the dead actually mean?

      • Is this his judgement, undeferred by 100 years on the Dutchman or Is this fate specifically the result of trying to cheat Davy Jones?
      • If this is just what will happen to Jack when he dies, is this his inevitable judgement, with no possibility for redemption (which would make almost all of Dead Man's Chest, the Phlebotenum of how the compass works, and so on, completely uninteresting)?
      • If it's a specific punishment for cheating Jones, rather than something definitely awaiting him when he dies, why is his fear of death so all consuming that he's willing to be the butt monkey of fate/karma/Calypso/whomever as the Dutchman's captain? After all, one of the few intelligent things that Will says in Dead Man's Chest: "Somehow I doubt Jack will consider employment the same as being free" That's definitely reinforced by how powerless Davy Jones is to dictate policy on board the Dutchman once Cutler Beckett has his heart.

So we don't know where Jack's personal story is going, we don't know a lot about the Davy Jones/Dutchman mythology, and we know precious little about the larger cosmology and conceptions of the afterlife. I was looking for another interview with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the one that supposedly contains clarification about the curse laid on the Dutchman's captain), and I found this one. I suppose it has some relevance that Calypso's liberation is supposed to mark the expiration date on all these immortality deals, but it doesn't do much in the way of helping me understand Jack's motives or abject fear of death.

And just when I'm starting to get my cranky on about all of this, enter Former Governor Swann in one of the baffling rowboats. It's rare that I don't like the performance that Jonathan Pryce gives, and this scene wasn't particularly an exception. I also thought that Kiera Knightley pulled off some actual emotion here. (I'm sorry, I love Elizabeth the character, but Knightley is just not much of an actress, and this is especially apparent in this movie.) But, excuse me, he can't be retrieved because he's at peace? Well! How very nice for the man who sat by while Cutler Beckett rounded up and hanged men women and children. I'm so glad he'll be enjoying whatever comes next. Jack apparently missed the memo indicating that a smug sense of self-righteousness will get you a good afterlife.

I'm reminded (as I almost always am) of a bit from Daddy Long-Legs:

Speaking of Heaven--do you remember Mr. Kellogg that I told you about last summer?--the minister of the little white church at the Corners. Well, the poor old soul is dead--last winter of pneumonia. I went half a dozen times to hear him preach and got very well acquainted with his theology. He believed to the end exactly the same things he started with. It seems to me that a man who can think straight along for forty-seven years without changing a single idea ought to be kept in a cabinet as a curiosity. I hope he is enjoying his harp and golden crown; he was so perfectly sure of finding them!

If we take Jack's character arc as the most important in the franchise, the stories of Will and Elizabeth are close seconds. Or at least they should be, and both of the first two movies did a great deal to make them more than just the typical sappy romantic leads. At World's End, in contrast, takes its toll on them. Again this is largely because we never really get insight into why they do much of anything.

Take Elizabeth, for example: In Dead Man's Chest, her overt motive is reunion with Will. She threatens Cutler Beckett at gunpoint, she "haunts" a ship, and is prepared to steal the letters of marque intended for Jack to save Will. And I think she really does love Will, but a part of her—the frontier part of her, the postcolonial part of her—wonders if that will be enough to live a life on. (And would she be as beloved a heroine as she is if she didn't wonder if a childhood sweetheart makes the best life-long companion or even if finding that life-long companion should be her primary goal?) Conveniently, her Will-centric quest just happens to lead her on a merry chase on the high seas. And as Jack tells her:
One word love: curiosity. You long for freedom. You long to do what you want to do because you want it. To act on selfish impulse. You want to see what it's like. One day, you won't be able to resist.

And the compass seems to back Jack up, pointing as it does to either Jack, the Pearl, or the sea itself.

The Elizabeth At World's End is . . . well . . . weird. She's wracked with guilt at what she's done to Jack, and well she should be: However practical, necessary, and in service of the greater good it was to save the lives of Will and the Pearl's crew by sacrificing Jack, thinking practically, compromising to do what is necessary is well outside the archetype for the female and the romantic lead and firmly into "Pirate!" territory. Part of why that worked so well in Dead Man's Chest was that Will seemed, still, to be working from the Good Guy handbook. In the beginning of At World's End, I was able to buy that Elizabeth is genuinely terrified that in saving Will (and the rest of the crew), she might have become unworthy of him.

But it's a long time before we see Elizabeth and Will together in At World's End. By the time they do have their scene together below decks on the way to rescue Jack, several layers of the good kind of ambiguity seem to be gone. Will at the end of Dead Man's Chest has a lot of shit going on: He feels compelled to free his father from a hopelessly complex mythological servitude; he's wanted by the local colonial government for failing to make good on his deal with Cutler Beckett; he's just seen the woman he loves passionately kissing a man he believes has sacrificed himself to save them all. Will's motives to save Jack could have been multilayered and interesting indeed.

Instead, Will seems to be sulkily unitasking his way through the story. There is no indication that Will considers Jack a friend. Once Elizabeth confesses, there's no need for him to think of Jack as at all honorable or a good man or even the love of his love's life (and the Will of the first two movies could have been maddeningly honorable enough to want to save Jack for Elizabeth's sake). In fact, there seems to be no reason at all that he would want to save Jack, he just needs the Pearl.

In fact, a lot of why Jack gets saved seems to center around the Pearl. Don't get me wrong, the Pearl is a fine, fine ship. Black sails, very stylish and all that. But if Will just wants the ship, and Barbossa just wants the ship (plus Jack's Piece of Eight), and Tia Dalma just wants the Piece of Eight, Jack very well might ask if no one came to rescue him just because they missed him. There's very little reason at all that anyone needs Jack Sparrow himself, and lord knows he's a chaos player. I'm the last person in the world to underrate Captain Jack's fine, fine assets, but given that everyone has a reason to hate him and no one seems to think he's good for much, wouldn't life be simpler if they just sailed back to the land of the living on the Pearl with Jack's mortal remains (the most likely location for his Piece of Eight) in storage?

For a good long while, I held out hope based on the 9 Pirate Lords angle. Surely, I thought, the Court of the Brethren doo dah hickey thingy would reveal something grand and exciting about the 9 Pirate Lords, because when anyone could be bothered to remember that the song had been sung and the Lords were being compelled to answer The Call (when they weren't taking time out to broker back room deals, sort their sock drawers, etc.), they were pretty intent that this Court should not convene. The PR machine for the Brethren Court can plan my castle onslaught any day. Sweet jeebus, what a let down: Our 9 Pirate Lords would have felt right at home on C-Span. Their options: Stand and fight (Elizabeth's position, backed up by Jack whose sudden, inexplicable ambition is to captain the Dutchman) or free Calypso (Barbossa's preference).

Now, let's look at Barbossa and his why for a moment. Seriously. Why is he intent on liberating Calypso? Why is he so brain-damaged as to think she is not going to bust a cap in their collective pirate-y asses for binding her in the first place? Why, once he feels certain that he knows which piece of Jack's bling is the Piece of Eight (and, just as with Jack rowing away from the Pearl mid-Kraken attack, I was sure that the Piece of Eight was not going to be what we thought it was), does he not just kill Jack? Why, even, does he particularly care about the life of pirates, writ large? Is Calypso's liberation part of the terms of his resurrection? Maybe. The moderately cool scene between Barbossa and Tia Dalma on the deck of the Pearl makes that a viable interpretation, but it's by no means a certainty. And even if it is part of the terms, what good is being alive if Cutler Beckett will hang you tomorrow, even assuming you don't have rampage-y goddess all up in your face? Overall, Barbossa just seems to have been nipping from the same brain-damaging bottle that got to Sao Feng.

The 9 Pirate Lords are nearly as baffling, but that's at least excused by the fact that we've never heard of them before in our whole born lives. The fact that they're fighting, the fact that they're double-crossing, the fact that they couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery . . . well, I guess that's all good for some comedy in the short-term. But why are they so bloody bound by the code? Believe me, I hate to be hard on the code gag, because Keith Richards was unexpectedly good as the code keeper, but really, didn't we play out the gag that it's "more guidelines" in the first movie? Why, barring supernatural threats keeping them to it, should the 9 Pirate Lords be bound by it?

And even accepting that it is simply so that they will unwaveringly act according to the code, they just . . . don't. It would almost have been better if the whole Pirate Armada, save the Pearl and, ultimately, the Dutchman had turned and fled before the battle, rather than having them do nothing at all except cheer for a victory in which they had no part. (And, really, neither the Pearl nor the Dutchman plays a particularly decisive role in that battle. It's all about Cutler Beckett suddenly wetting himself.)

I'd be lying if I said that the battle being a complete anticlimax was not disappointing to me in and of itself. It was. I was promised 9 Pirate Lords and 9 Pirate Lords is what I wanted to see. But perhaps if the real climax of the film hadn't been so completely anticlimactic I would have been less cranky about being cruelly deprived of pirate lords.

Let's see, we have a silly, drawn-out wedding during the heat of battle . And, dude that came out of nowhere, given that, really, Elizabeth and WIll had been treating each other like they really could have used some Axe Snake Gel. We have admittedly cool fighting between Jack and Davy Jones, but it's over the chest, about which I'm still quite unsure, given my failure to buy captainship of the Dutchman as Jack's heart's desire. And that thoroughly compromises what, I guess, was supposed to be Jack's noblest gesture: sacrificing his chance at (enslaved, fishy-smelling) immortality so that Will might live to ruin Elizabeth's life.

And at last, we turn to the biggest, honkingest disappointment in the movie. Kel pretty neatly encapsulates what's wrong with what the writers and Verbinski seemed to think was the big, romantic ending. In the interview to which I linked above, Ted Elliott says:
Ted Elliott: We have never been shy about the fact that Elizabeth is the protagonist of the overarching story. It's been fun to think of the movies as kind of books of a larger novel. In Dead Man's Chest, we were actually telling a story that Will was the main character and that Elizabeth was the main character and that Jack was the main character—in a very non-traditional type of structure. In At World's End, everybody who ever told me that Jack's the main character will finally go, OK, Elizabeth is the main character, but it's always been her story. Always.

I am positively staggered by that assertion, given the ending for her.

Now, since the release of the movie, the writers have clarified some things. Or they've said some more things that I assume they meant to be clarifying. Beginning with the curse of the Captain of the Dutchman: Apparently, the Captain can set foot on land once every 10 years (or so long as he has a handy bucket of sea water—but I guess the newly minted Mrs. Turner is too good to fuck in salt water) to be with his true love. The choice of the phrase "every 10 years" is somewhat confusing, given that there is supposedly a cut scene explaining that Davy would have been freed from his curse if Calypso had been there to meet him as his true love. By extension, when Will returns to be greeted by Elizabeth and their son, he is free of the curse. We won't ask what happens, then, to all the souls who die at sea, because we didn't really know in the first place. So, really, how important can it be?

Um, writers . . . I kind of beg of you not to help you. First of all, if you thought that this scene was unimportant enough to land on the cutting room floor, that says to me that a woman sacrificing her entire life for a handful of days filled with nookie so her lad can remain immortal is about the same as a woman—hell a human being—being either in love enough or, oh, I don't know, human enough to wait 10 years to free her lad's immortal soul. That's pretty fucked up right there.

Second of all, what about this issue of 10 years of true love? How does one make that happen? I means, seriously, if it means staying chaste for 10 years, I suppose I could pull that off if it meant saving someone's immortal soul. (This, of course, requires suspension of disbelief regarding souls and the immortality thereof on my part, but I'm still thinking I could amuse myself for the period of 10 years if it were that important.) But does being "faithful" = true love? If there's one thing that's sure not to make love stay, I'd say it's 10 years before the vibrator.

Of course, I have some issues with what, exactly, 10 years of chastity proves, and I object to unfavorable comparison that springs to mind between Elizabeth/Tia Dalma and Fy's Dog (in all seriousness, I fucking hate that Futurama scene, even if it does have the "Professor! Lava! Hot!" dialogue). And if it's really Elizabeth's story, why not have her killed and captaining the Dutchman whilst Will knits and constructs a widow's walk? How about that, hmmm?

If the revelation of this cut scene clarifying the curse is meant to make me feel better (and, in fairness, I can find neither the original wording or context, only the assertions about it, secondhand), it fails to do so entirely. In fact, I think having that scene in there would have done even more damage to what was otherwise a heart-breakingly lovely scene between Naomie Harris and Bill Nighy when Tia Dalma is in the brig. Of course, the amazing, disappearing, wordlessly howlingly, gigantified, utterly-without-effect Calypso damages absolutely everything about Davy, Tia Dalma, and Calypso, so perhaps I'm just being hyperbolic about the casual attitude toward the curse.

I'd really steered clear of information about At World's End for the last year. I rarely want to know. But in looking back, even just a little bit now, it seems clear that the movie basically had no script while they were eagerly filming enough scenes in the Bahamas to cover two films. I guess there's some credit that At World's End still rises to be an entertaining popcorn movie. I had fun while I was watching it. I laughed at times. I appreciated a number of the more beautiful shots and stunning FX. But it never took me out of myself, and I'd gotten pretty used to that during the first two.

You shouldn't have spoiled me, boys.

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