Shutter Island
Dennis Lehane, Laeta Kalogridis, and Martin Scorsese, 2010
#14, 2010 Skandies

I almost bailed on this one after the first hour because it looked like yet another exercise in using cinematic tricks to convey insanity and dreams. For a while it appeared to be a '50s-era version of Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio dreaming about his dead wife whom he can't let go, but it eventually settles into something more like The Game meets Fight Club. Kind of interesting to go back and rewatch the first few scenes and see all the little hints about what's what, but I think I've reached a saturation point where this kind of movie is concerned.

127 Hours
Aron Ralston, Simon Beaufoy, and Danny Boyle, 2010
#30, 2010 Skandies

Wrapping up my tour of the 2010 Skandie winners by jumping a good way down the list, I decided to watch 127 Hours, the movie based on the famous case of Aron Ralston, who in 2003 spent nearly a week with his right arm trapped between an 800-pound rock and the wall of a deep slot canyon; he survived by sawing off his own arm with a dull pocketknife. How do you make a movie (repeat: move-ie) about someone whose problem is that he can't move?

Some possibilities immediately leap to mind. You can cut to the search effort, which is kind of a yawn. You can jump around in time, showing the steps that led the protagonist into his predicament, or jump back even further and dig into his memories. It seems likely that someone dehydrated and on the verge of death would have hallucinations, and as I discussed way back in my article about Shutter Island, filmmakers sure do love hallucination scenes. The reason these possibilities immediately leapt to mind is that I'd seen them before in a movie with Neil Patrick Harris in it.

This was a TV movie called Snowbound, which dealt with a similar case of eyebrow-raising measures taken in the name of survival. In the early '90s, a couple named Jim and Jennifer Stolpa tried to pass through the Sierras on a seasonal road, and their truck got stuck in the snow. After waiting days in the truck for a rescue that never came, they packed up their infant son and tried to walk to what they thought was the nearest outpost of civilization, but ended up at a dead end in the middle of a frigid wilderness. Jennifer couldn't continue, so she holed up in a cave while Jim retraced their steps back to the truck and then walked fifty miles in below-freezing temperatures to the last town they'd passed through. A rescue squad followed his directions and reached his wife and child in time to save their lives — though both Jim and Jennifer lost large portions of their feet to frostbite. (At least they didn't have to chop off their feet themselves.)

But here's the thing. In Shutter Island, the main character has flashbacks to his past. He was there for the liberation of Dachau. He remembers piles of frozen bodies… participating in the massacre of the Nazi guards… watching an SS captain who'd botched his suicide attempt take an hour to die. Snowbound tries the same thing. The problem: the Stolpas were fresh out of San Lorenzo High School. When they try to think back on landmark events in their lives, what they come up with is prom. And much the same is true of Aron Ralston. His life flashes before his eyes, and it is somewhat lacking in epic sweep. A home movie from 1990 or so of his kid sister playing the piano. Banal vignettes from a brief relationship with a girl he seems never to have gotten to know very well; they break up at a Utah Jazz game. When he hallucinates, his mind conjures up television shows. I'm not saying that your life automatically lacks profundity unless you've borne firsthand witness to the Holocaust. I've read many books and seen many movies that have used the most mundane events to shed light on a character's hidden depths. But if Aron Ralston has any hidden depths, there's little in 127 Hours to suggest that the filmmakers know what they are.

There's really only one moment when the movie finds any more meaning in the Aron Ralston story than in a wolf gnawing off its leg to get out of a bear trap, and that is when Ralston muses that he chose this — that every action he has taken in his life has led him to being trapped by a rock at the bottom of a deep crack in the surface of the earth. Now, there are a few different ways to interpret this observation. One is fairly trivial. Go out some night and look up at a star. The light you see consists of photons that have traveled trillions of miles; depending on the star, they might have been in transit for hundreds of years. Every action you have taken in your life has made you the one whose retinas would be there to catch them. Which is cool… but not hugely meaningful. Another interpretation echoes the sentiment of the backlash that followed the initial reports of Ralston's story, when people started to point out, hey, isn't it pretty stupid to head into a dangerous wasteland alone without telling anyone where you're going? Trapped in the slot canyon, Ralston castigates himself for his recklessness, and the film seems to confirm that the importance of safe adventuring is indeed the big moral of the story, closing with some onscreen copy declaring that Ralston now always leaves a note when he goes climbing.

Originally I was going to conclude by asking this: isn't the danger the point? Note that Ralston's second claim to fame, after being the guy who hacked his own arm off with a stocking stuffer, is that he's the first person ever to climb all of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, solo, in winter. If he'd wanted to climb them as safely as possible, why not go with a bunch of other people, in the summer? Really, why climb them at all? People who do dangerous things, like climbing mountains, have been known to make the argument that, yes, it's risky, but so what, because everything is risky. "You can get killed crossing the street!" The obvious counterargument is that you generally cross the street because you need something that you can't get on your block and which is worth the minuscule chance that you won't make it to the opposite curb. The odds of being killed on any given mountain ascent are a lot higher — and there's nothing up there. Scenery? Somehow I doubt that the view from the summit of the 53rd mountain was markedly different from that of the previous 52. No, Ralston has said himself why he did and continues to do things that put his life in jeopardy:

         "I go out looking for adventure and risk, so I can feel alive."

So, my last point would have gone, this ultimately comes down to what I mentioned in a writeup of an earlier "trapped in a crack" movie: some people are wired to avoid risk, and others are wired to seek it out. The Hurt Locker touched on this theme: it's about a bomb defuser in Iraq whose brain's reward systems only function when he's one wrong wire away from getting blown into charred pulp. Viewed in this light, the message of 127 Hours basically translates to: "Hey, adrenaline junkies! When you deliberately seek out risk, make sure to minimize risk!" It's kind of incoherent.

But much of the point of doing these writeups is to force me to think things through, and as I was outlining this argument, I found that it wasn't very good. There are lots of reasons other than the thrill of danger that people might venture into the Canyonlands. You might want to get away from civilization for a while. You might want to go exploring, see new things in a more immediate way than through Google Maps. That was one of the reasons that last summer I took Elizabeth on a road trip through northern New Mexico, western Colorado, and eastern Utah. One of the places on my itinerary was, in fact, Canyonlands National Park — I wanted to see the Island in the Sky. We wound up skipping it because (a) it was starting to rain and (b) Elizabeth was kind of national parked out after our stops at Mesa Verde and Arches earlier in the day. At Arches, we had driven around, stopping at vista points to take pictures (e.g., this one), then hiked out for a bit along one of the trails. That turned out to be a losing move because we didn't see anything that was a dramatic improvement over the scenery from the automotive turnouts and it required physical exertion. Elizabeth was a little more put out by this than I was since she has a congenital disability that sometimes makes it difficult for her to walk very much, but I wasn't a huge fan either — I basically hate all exercise. When I was in my mid-20s I decided to get in shape, and people assured me that soon I would start to enjoy it, but after two solid years of working out I still loathed every minute of it. I have no idea how anyone could derive pleasure from, say, hauling oneself up a cliff face. Yet apparently many do, and not just because they get off on the possibility that they might fall to their deaths. So add that to the list.

I mentioned in last month's minutiae that my social media feeds are overrun with marathoners, and I got to thinking about how that might shed light on the question of what really led Ralston to get stuck in Blue John Canyon. Running 26 miles — like, in a row — strikes me as roughly the same sort of loony endeavor as climbing a 14,000-foot mountain… minus the chance that putting a foot wrong could send you toppling to your death. So, without those "I love danger!" circuits firing, what do these runners get out of putting themselves through agony and leaving a trail of lost toenails in order to get nowhere in particular? From what I've seen, there are two main answers:

One is a sense of accomplishment. It is satisfying to set oneself a goal, however arbitrary, and achieve it. I think I've mentioned that one reason I keep writing these articles is that I've been had certain projects on the back burner for fifteen years now with no end in sight, and it's nice to do something that I know I'll be able to finish. I have a limited window to get back to a few of these projects before my savings run out; part of the reason I took five months out of that window to finish Endless, Nameless was so I could finally say that I'd completed another big undertaking rather than just bringing it from 40% done to 65% or whatever. Of the many shelved interactive fiction pieces in various stages of development that I have lying around on my hard drive, it's actually the one that meant the least to me — but it seemed like the one I'd most likely be able to finish in the time I had available and thereby trigger that "you have achieved something!" reward center in my brain, so that's the one I picked. Of course, the thing about putting all your energy into making stuff is that, when you have achieved your goal, you have not only a sense of accomplishment but also the stuff you made. If your goal is to run around a lake… well, maybe that's why everyone writes Facebook posts about how far they ran that day. Those posts are their work product.

More seriously, I suspect that they would say that their work product is "a better me"; that the true accomplishment is not running around a lake or climbing a mountain, but becoming the sort of person who can run around a lake or climb a mountain. Here's what the real Aron Ralston once identified as the thing that gave him the most joy:

         "Pushing myself harder. Farther. Faster. Higher."

This isn't hard to understand; there's a real sense of achievement in passing a landmark and thinking, "Last month I conked out right around here, but now I could keep going for miles!" And there's an ego boost in looking at the couch potatoes around you and thinking, "And you wouldn't even make it that far!" It's a phenomenon not too far removed from that on display in Humpday, in which a couple of guys get caught in a contest to show who is less fazed by a challenge that, at the last moment, they acknowledge is "from Planet Moron" — neither wants to back down and reveal that they're not "hard" or "alpha" or whatever. Scaling a 14er or taking part in a triathlon, subjecting yourself to all kinds of suffering in order to prove, if only to yourself, what a badass you are, is just the physical version. In what is probably the most insightful moment in what is not a very insightful movie, Ralston sneers at himself for having gotten himself into this fix by trying to be "a big fuckin' hard hero" — i.e., he's now going to die, and thereby traumatize his family, in the name of an ego trip.

I can't help but speculate that there might be some evolutionary underpinnings here. Being motivated by a sense of accomplishment seems like it would have been a benefit back in the days when the things you were likely accomplishing were gathering food and building shelter, selecting for a neural architecture that would persist even into the present, when accomplishments tend to be more along the lines of "clearing a level in Angry Birds." Similarly, it seems like the principle of survival of the fittest would have selected for people whose reward centers are stimulated by making themselves "fit" — even if the ability to run twenty miles and thereby exhaust prey animals is no longer what constitutes an advantage in one's ability to survive and reproduce. (Most people I know support themselves by typing things. Their "fitness" is determined less by their cardiovascular capacity than by their possession of ten fingers.)

On the flip side, while I was doing research for this writeup I ran across an article that noted that chopping off his arm was the best thing that ever happened to Aron Ralston's income: as a motivational speaker, he now makes tens of thousands of dollars per appearance. You can guess the themes: you are extraordinary, you don't have the limits you think you do, etc. And I think that what may bug me about this sort of thing is that, when you translate it into the political realm, you get American exceptionalism. Our current practices are unsustainable? We've entered an era of limits? Basic economic and ecological principles apply as much to us as to the rest of the world? Nonsense! We're the Courage Wolf of nations! We bite off more than we can chew, then chew it! Obstacles are only things we haven't torn through yet! It seems to me that the Aron Ralston story should serve, not as a confirmation of this ideology, but a corrective to it. Can you behave recklessly, as if the limits of others didn't apply to you, without suffering adverse consequences? Not indefinitely! And the fact that Ralston survived his ordeal doesn't mean that everything worked out for the best. There's this notion out there that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Uh, no. Very often, what doesn't kill you… maims you.

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