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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Who fêtes Gravity, not this masterpiece ?

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

12 January

A rating and review of All is Lost (2013)

99 = S : 16 / A : 17 / C : 16 / M : 16 / P : 16 / F : 17

S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel
9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

Less Homer than Beckettt, more Job than Ulysses

We may not formally know until before the closing credits, but Robert Redford in All is Lost (2013) is Our Man : in this, the film is deliberately not specific, because we know more the name of the yacht, the Virginia Jane, than that of its captain.

We see him as a resourceful man, but only after, and from eight days before, the note whose text we hear him read¹ – otherwise, he is a man of few words (and there is anyway no one to talk to, when his Mayday calls come to an abrupt end< because he is not the sort of person who verbalizes the solution that he is seeking to each of his problems. The consequence is that we have to watch him quite closely, because all in what he is doing may be a clue to his reasoning, whereas, if we do not concentrate in that way (and it isdemanding), all may be lost for construing the film – why is he fashioning that piece of wood, or deploying the life-raft ?

Contrast this with the parallel¹ drama of Gravity (2013), and space, unlike the ocean, scarcely seems silent at all, with Bullock who, when not trying to copy Houston in, is narrating her situation and despair, or even acting under the remote instruction of Clooney. Some want (rather pointlessly, as this is fiction, and may even be parable) to say that Redford should never have been there or not so ill equipped – maybe Redford is too silent and strong, but, in relief, she just seems even more unengagingly neurotic to have been let into space. (People want to read beyond the ikon and the other religious symbols displayed and infer some meta-narrative of heaven and earth, rebirth, or God knows what, but it is will hidden.)

Redford is where he is (although he geographically is not, and the quality of the light seemed to give this away), and that is just a given – why, when in this modern era, or for what reason, are at best alluded to in his note (whose text we cannot refer to). Compared with the technical failures of depiction that can be levelled at Gravity, I believe that those of All is Lost are slight unless one is of a sea-going disposition, and have scant bearing : Our Man could have been lowered onto the vessel by angels mid-ocean for all that I care whether he should be where and how he is.

I say this, because I am happy (‘happy’ is not the right word – I am actively engaged in wishing) to see what I am shown and not seek explanation as to why it is foolhardy or unlikely, because it is what it is. For it is not as if Redford’s character is the last one on earth who should not be where he is, or there how he is, as rescuers the world over will testify, whereas Gravity just sidesteps the question of whether Bullock’s character could not have been better trained and / or have better absorbed the right training and attitude in adversity, rookie or no – would someone who panicks so much ever be taken on by NASA as an astronaut?

Continuing the contrast, the same test of plausibility must be levelled at each situation and character : even if Our Man should not be where he is and how he is, he could have chosen his own destiny and simply set out, whereas Ryan Stone (Bullock) had to satisfy others that she had the right skills and the nerve to fly a mission. In my view, there is no chance that she would not have been weeded out an early stage.

She subsists on the level of standing for all of us, a sort of Everyperson. However, this is not an Assumption of The Blessed Virgin, so that she can intercede for all of us, but a bumbling person with a neurotic core, and the plot-line depends on the presence of weaknesses that would not be there. All is Lost shows a man reasoning his way through what faces him, and not without being disheartened unto death : no one else appears to be to blame for where we find him, though we all find ourselves in life somewhere from which prior circumstances and decisions (ours and / or those of others) brought us there…

Our Man may or may not represent us, but we identify with him (unless we are aggrieved seafarers who berate him as suggested), and it is the inhuman dumping / falling of a container, just as we duly see these behemoths not notice him, that, if not exactly creating his problems, compounds them. Is he a righteous man like Job and what happens him being given over to be tested ? Maybe, but we do not feel that he is a special man, given over to ill to see whether he curses God.

What befalls him also evokes Homer’s Odyssey (and in one of the themes of Alex Ebert’s music we have The Sirens brought to life, when he thinks of giving into alcohol and before he seems to become beset by them proper), but I think that the closer parallel is with Beckettt’s Job-like figure in his mime Act Without Words I, who is temptingly offered water that he cannot drink, shade that is withdrawn (Jonah 4 : 6 – 8 ?), and the like.

Finally, the male figure, despite being prodded to continue with further temptations with the game, just withdraws. Famously, Beckettt’s trilogy of novels** almost has as its motto the closing words of the third, You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, and the spirit of perseverance, though it ebbs and flows, is there in the resilience of Our Man’s responses to his situation. Towards the end, it is as if there is the same desire, which is somewhere in Kafka’s writing****, just to lie down in the snow, regardless of the risk and fall asleep.

As to Redford, it is only the white sideburns that discredit the idea that he is younger than 77, and all power to him, if he is rightly reported as being seen doing himself what his character did – the intense close-ups show him lined, but he is still every inch a star, and with commanding presence and conviction in his work. The arc of Our Man’s experience has those qualities brought to it, so that we cannot rest, scarcely drawing breath, whilst what faces him remains in the balance : No film, for me, has been (no real pun intended) as immersive as this one since Cell 211 (2009) at Cambridge Film Festival in 2010.


¹ Spoiler alert - from IMDb, this is the text of the note :

13th of July, 4:50 pm. I'm sorry... I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here... except for soul and body... that is, what's left of them... and a half-day's ration. It's inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I'm not sure... but it did. I fought 'til the end, I'm not sure what this worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all... I will miss you. I'm sorry.

² It is far lesser, despite its 11 nomination for BAFTA awards to this film’s one (for Sound)… - told this, a friend pithily opined Then they are shitheads.

³ Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable.

**** Also suggested in the texts of Müller that Schubert set for Winterreise (which has been badly translated as A Winter’s Journey) : with Winterreise, as with this film, one has the feeling that the degradations of the physical journey are parallel manifestations of a disintegration of the soul or psyche.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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