Monday, December 6, 2010

Why 127 Hours Felt Like 130

Some time ago a friend of mine saw Aron Ralston speak at a business function.    He told me that it was the most inspirational talk he’d ever heard.

Ralston — as everyone knows by now — is the young man who became pinned by a boulder during a misfortunate solo hike and used an all-purpose tool to cut off his right arm below the elbow in order to escape.  It was an act of astonishing courage, the kind of thing that prompts normal people to pause in their daily routines when they first hear about it, to reflect for a moment on the human capacity for survival, and to wonder whether we ourselves would have the chops to do what this man did in extremis.

So why did the feature film 127 Hours, which tells this story, fall so flat for me?

I think it’s because writer-director Danny Boyle’s script fails to build a lasting connection between Ralston and his audience.

We spend most of the movie in close visual proximity to Ralston (played well by James Franco), watching him suffer in close-up.  We sympathize, but the film never achieves the sense of intimacy required to go beyond sympathy.  In this story we look upon the hero from afar, as we do upon a spectacle: a striptease or a freak show or an ugly car crash.  There but for the grace of God go we, perhaps, but we pass by — with only a brief pause and without deep reflection.

As told by Boyle, all that carries this story forward is our anticipation of the act of self-inflicted violence that we know will come, the gory act upon which, ultimately, most of us look with eyes averted, the act that sets Aron Ralston apart from the herd.

But that’s the problem.  He’s not one of us; he’s an oddball, the perpetrator of an admirable (or, at least, amazing) act, but one with little resonance. 127 Hours moves us in shallow ways, as witnesses to pain, isolation, and abandonment to the elements, which lead in turn to acts of progressive desperation.  But we don't feel these acts — we're just watching.

How do we manage to stay so detached from a script derived from an experience that — when told live in a room — moves people to great admiration?

I think the film never rises above spectacle because it delves into no human relationships beyond the most casual connections between Ralston and his family, between Ralston and the wife he’s yet to meet, between Ralston and two strangers with whom he went for a swim hours before the accident.  None of these people becomes a rounded person in this story because none but Ralston is seen making decisions that reveal character.

The movie lacks human relationships almost entirely and therefore ultimately lacks the human insights that Aron Ralston presumably delivers in person during motivational speaking engagements.

As a writer, this movie has me thinking of the distinction between sympathy and empathy, which is the distinction between shallowness and depth, between telling and showing, between spectacle and art.

There’s so little for our hearts to grab onto in 127 Hours, nothing beyond our pre-programmed species affiliation.  Does the fact that we’re fellow humans conjure sympathy?  Sure.  But sympathy (from the Greek: “with feeling”) is never deeply earned.  It always comes cheap because we bestow it from a distance.

Many of us know individuals who demonstrate sympathy — perhaps reaching for the checkbook when they hear a sad story or making the obligatory condolence call or even crying their pro forma tears.  Yet these same people never come to understand why others make different choices than they or arrive at different sets of values.

Empathy (“in feeling”) presents another matter because it touches us not just on the surface but within.

Whose job is it to help people turn their sympathy to empathy?  It is the job of the artist, of course, because empathy is the great project of all art.  Art, when it succeeds, carries us beyond pity to insights that change our way of looking at ourselves and other human beings.

In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith puts the artist's distinction well.  Writing of her friend and lover, the great photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, she says: “Robert trusted in the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object or a work of art, and thus influence the outer world.”

It’s that influence over the outside world that 127 Hours fails to achieve.

Perhaps Ralston, admittedly self-absorbed, really doesn’t have relationships with fellow human beings that would evince an empathetic response from an audience sitting in a cinema.  But I doubt that.

More likely, Boyle latched onto the wrong thing here, the easy thing.  The hook was always there for this story — the hook any publicist would see — but the barb is missing, the part that sticks with you, the part it's the artist's job to provide.

So for all his talent this writer-director inadvertently demonstrates to other creators a basic element of story craft: exactly what might have happened in real life matters less than how you tell it.