I’ll just be another voice joining what appears to be a chorus of voices in saying that the latest installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise was a gross disappointment.
I am a complete and total movie snob. It’s pretty hard to get me to go see a film, much less say that I thought it was good. Occasionally (twice) I have been proven mistaken: “Anchorman” and “Pirates: Blah Blah Black Pearl”.
The movie disappoints on multiple levels, but let’s go with my primary concern, the storytelling angle. Isn’t this really the reason we go to the movies, to be amused by a good yarn (as a Neil Stephenson character would say)?
There were some compelling character points established in the first film.
What will nascent feminist Elizabeth make of herself in these early Georgian times?
What will Will, slightly more in touch with the ambiguous spectrum of right / wrong, piracy / heroism make of himself?
What sort of pickles will Depp’s (Captain!) Jack Sparrow get himself into ( and how many people will he let hang / not let hang in his place to get back out? )
Around these questions there were some great scenes:
The “Black Pearl represents freedom” dialog between Jack and Elizabeth on the rum-runners' island
The “you can accept your father was a good man and a pirate” or not dialog between Jack and Will
By acting as the existential interlocutor in these scenarios, how is the interlocutor changed (multiple scenes)
So we should expect to see some writing advance these characters.
How has Elizabeth grown more free. The Kierkergaardian or Nietzschean questions follow: in light of this absolute freedom, is she scared by it, is she frightened? How does the isolation of being ahead of her time weigh her down? If pushed into a moment of using her absolute freedom to damn / forgive, can she bear the weight of absolute agency?)
How has Will grown to accept the moral ambiguity of who his father was? Will he believe his life must follow a deterministic model: who his father is, is who he was? Has will become a true pirate? It’s an opportunity to become a Jack Sparrow, or a British captain - or shall he synthesize something new out of those roles (verily, be an American, in essence)
Jack’s existence is not to evolve, but to be surprised by the evolution. The cosmic trickster finding an amusing side-effect of his alchemy, he has changed by being the alchemist. Where are these subtle and sly changes (Depp surely has the chops to pull them off, and did in Pirates 1)
At the end of Pirates II, Elizabeth is, uh, still tempestuous and daring ( no growth ), Will is a slightly more sly Boy Scout with French Cuffs ( no real growth ), and Jack is still Jack, but…well…no change.
So all of the great personal development threads were given short shrift. So, what were they supplanted with?
Here’s Redcoat marines securing a beachhead
Here’s writs of arrest for Our Heroes
Here’s the Black Pearl
Here’s a long side-track about some cannibals
Here’s Davey Jones ( Bill Nighy doesn’t bring quite the relish that Geoffry Rush brought to Barbossa, but still, may have been my favorite character)
Here’s Jones' submersible ship The Flying Dutchman in all its crustacean glory
In fact, there’s pretty much a 3-ring circus (Port Royal, The Dutchman, and the Pearl) that scenes are cut between over and over again, but with no real coherent thread or purpose. In fact the movie is an exhausting 2 hours and 24 minutes of spectacle not storytelling and you can’t count on those slack-asses in Hollywood to be able to discern the difference between those two.
In fact the most entertaining characters are two characters formerly in the employ of the undead Captain Barbossa, Ragetti and Pintel. The former you’ll recall as “the guy who has a wooden eye that was used to slapstick effect.” Much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” we find them meta-narrating the questions the audience might have.
Question asked: “What’s in Davey Jones' chest?” Ragetti answered: “The dichotomy of good and evil?”
This made that philosophy degree-holder in me howl.
And its that same degree-holder that was forced, sadly, to think upon Baudrillard who made the point that as the masses begin to see the play of images and spectacle as the basis for all experience, they lose the relationship they had to the narrative of which they as audience and of which the spectacles were once part.
I think that what Baudrillard feared for the world has definitely happened in this movie, spectacles are meant to be part of a narrative, not to be the narrative itself.
Just as a quick point, let me hit you up with some big images.
A beautiful house burns
A beautiful girl receives notice her husband is dead
A girl under threat of rape and robbery kills an errant soldier
Thousands of soldiers are dead / dying / diseased
A child dies riding horseback
A beautiful woman is left by her handsome husband
Spectacles to be sure, but do they have any meaning outside of “The tragic and tepestuous existence of Scarlett O'Hara”? No. This is something that directors and producers of yesteryear understood: spectacle can only be used to serve to pit the characters against big challenges that will help them grow. In each of those moments below, what do we learn about Scarlett?
The Illiad is not Teukros' arrow flying wide of Hector, the sulking of Akhilles, Odysseyus' reluctance (good instinct, big O) to leave; it’s the pursuit of the face that launched a thousand ships, the pursuit of Helen!
Ben-Hur is not the chariot scene, it’s that bad-ass who mastered that spectacle’s search for meaning now that all sensory experience is dulled, and his meeting of God the Son.
The Ten Commandments is not the parting of the Red Sea, it’s the bitter cat and mouse established by Yul Brenner and Charleton Heston. It’s the beautiful and solemn counterweight of Brenner placing his dead son in the impotent arms of Anubis.
Outside of narrative, spectacle is simply exhausting ( Baudrillard also tangentially predicts this, a fatigue of spectacle and to the extent that spectacle is existence in the modern world, a sickness of life itself ). Imagine the highlight scenes of great movies all stitched together for 2 hours and 24 minutes and you would, effectively, have the same wearying, dizzying, vertiginous, non-entertainment, soul-sapping, boredom that Pirates II delivers, une grande malaise spirituelle
Atlanta Burns, ET goes home, Jaws swallows Quint, Stay Puft trounces Manhattan, King Kong falls from the Empire State Building, the Red Sea Parts, “Luke, I’m your father”….There’s some n-th clip at which point you’d become so desensitized to swimming in a sea of celluloid spectacle that you’d simply grow bored, and then tired.
But not just tired was I at the end, I was angry; and I’ve discerned the reason.
Above I laid out some key dichotomies for these characters. The question for our heroes is THE question. THE BIG QUESTION of existence itself, and, just like the real world around us, instead of turning off the TV and writing down who we would like to be, or instead of actually talking to our partner and finding the most tender yearning parts of their heart, or instead of writing that novel, or picking up that dusty guitar, or writing that symphony, sonnet, or great program, or sitting quietly in za-zen we let ourselves get distracted by a purely nonsensical spectacle.
This movie as a successor to Pirates I has conveyed the essence of existential disappointment. Pirates II fails just the same way the High School Varsity star’s life fails as he greets people at Wal-Mart, it fails like the ballerina whose eating disorder ruined her career as she thought it would help, it fails like the 10th plastic surgeon’s visit in pursuit of the failed ideal of perfection, it fails with the bitter sadness of a thousand lives led in quiet desperation.
Pirates I led us to ask the great spiritual questions of all time, and Pirates II distracted us from finding those answers. I, for one, am angry about it. The fact that both of the movies are being made simultaneously indicates to me that these most important questions will be ignored - and so I’m not expecting much for the second film.
….save a whole lot of spectacle.