In the last month I’ve not really been in any decent kind of employment, having seen my last temp position come to an end in September, I’ve had a few bits here and there to see me through so it’s not all bad. I had an interview for a job I really liked the sound off. Then after pulling up at home after a day at the studio I received a phone call, I hadn’t got the job, losing out to someone working in the industry. I can’t argue with that. Leaving me deflated really, so near yet so far. I needed something to pick me up after that blow last night.
My first viewing of The Martian (2015) I certainly enjoyed it but was left frustrated and confused at Ridley Scott’s change of creative direction.
“It just doesn’t fit with the rest of Scott’s films thought which has me scratching my head at times. Maybe he’s taking a new direction or just taking a break before he goes back in for more Blade Runner and the Prometheus which should keep him going for the next few years. Is this his Trance (2013) as Danny Boyle has done before getting back on it.”
This I couldn’t settle for a few years, just taking it as a successful blip in his long world building career of films. Now I’m starting to see it as part of a larger picture of his work in a new light and also a really big and simple reason – because he can and wanted to so he did. He has the power and if he wants to make such a film, why not. He doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed into a particular category of filmmaker because I say so, if anything I’m probably in the minority of film fans to have held this opinion. If anything I now see The Martian for something rather different. Not just a nice uplifting distraction from my own problems, although that does help. I just sat down and waited to be entertained by a film that once left me well entertained but baffled.
Thankfully I’m no longer baffled, that’s the first thing I should mention. Allowing me to just accept this future where N.A.S.A. had finally reached the planet Mars and were half-way through a 5 mission – the Aires program that would be exploring the red planet in more detailed over it’s unspecified lifetime. We are thrown into a team lead by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) that are out in orange space suits in the endless desert that is Mars. What appears be just another Sol – space day on Mars, routine repairs, samples and maintenance are underway. Nothing out of the ordinary there with a team that clearly get on well, we hear banter between them over the radio. Little do we know there’s going to be little conversation on the planet for much longer. An awful reminder of the dangers of life is space is heading their way, a storm that none of them can stand. A decision’s made to abandon the project and base and evacuate to the Aires in orbit above. It’s a race against time to get on the planet’s surface where they can make an earlier than planned trip home.
Well 5 out of the 6 can make it home, left in the storm; Mark Watney (Matt Damon) thought to be dead after being hit by flying debris, how could anyone survive that? Well they underestimate the spacesuit and the power of blood clotting – science in action. Science really is at the forefront of this film. Not in the mind-bending way that has you scratching your head in Interstellar (2014), leaving your blown away by what you’ve just been told, accept only on surface level. Here in The Martian it’s brought down to earth (if you pardon the pun) so we can all understand what’s going on throughout the film. Watney being a botanist put his expertise into action, doing his best to extend his stay on the planet. Digging into the food stores to find potatoes that he hopes to cultivate more from. But how on a planet that doesn’t support life (ignoring the then recent news of the discovery of water locked away under the surface). Converting one of the main spaces in the base into a greenhouse, constructing his own method of producing water (something to do with the engines) and using human waste as a basis for compost to grow his own crop. It’s an inventive method that might not be so far off where fiction might soon be fact, it’s thinking on your feet in action.
What I can still standby is what makes this film work, which was and still is the star power of Damon who has really become one of the most reliable lead actors around today. his charisma alone could hold this film together if you cut this down to a one man piece, just seeing how he survives on the planet. How he copes mentally with the isolation and not giving up on the his ideas and the communication with Johnson Space Centre, Houston that allow him to progress. However if it was just him alone we would lose a massive chunk of what this film is about. The combined endeavour of all involved in getting one guy home who the world once thought to be dead. We wouldn’t have the Aires 4 team coming to terms with the news that their friend and colleague who they believed to dead is in fact still alive. The combination of these 3 locations build up a more rounded picture of a rescue attempt as it grows out of shock and discovery before becoming an international effort of ideas and ingenuity to rescue one man.
Tonally I was originally put off by the unusually upbeat pace of the film from all locations. Damon’s video diary of his time on Mars and his growing distaste for disco music. Ultimately it reflects or reflected the upbeat feeling of the time it was made, we didn’t have Brexit or Trump or all the other disasters that now are hanging over us. It shows that if we think positively we can achieve anything. Even N.A.S.A can bend and flex it’s own rules at times when the cost of leaving a man is unthinkable to write off. Leaving me with one real criticism, the blatant product placement at times from Sony, which is part and parcel of modern film funding, get a sponsor here and there and you find the odd product on the screen for their troubles. Overall I feel far better about this film. It doesn’t have to be dark a dreary to be a Ridley Scott film, we have a whole other world created for us, a credible future that appears to be in reach, if only we believe it to be.
With the loss of dialogue, a very conscious decision by the makers of the film, there naturally becomes a massive reliance on the audio to carry more of the plot. Traditionally audio is split up into 3 tracks – Dialogue, Sound effects and the Soundtrack.
“The soundtrack of any film…tends to condition an audiences response to it, sound principally creates the mood and atmosphere of a film, and also it’s pace and emphasis, but, most importantly, also creates a vocabulary by which the visual codes of the film are understood.”
Understanding Animation – Paul Wells – Pg. 97
Sound is a vital component of animation adding more depth and understanding to the images and the narrative, allowing the audience to engage with a film. Naturally we take for granted the sounds around us, helps our awareness of our surroundings and situation. The additional an extra layer to the visuals we process.
“Moreover, visuals are not always subtle-note the overly obvious miming of silent film-and words are not necessarily blatant…Engagement is called for whether one is interpreting action or speech, visual images or dialogue.”
Overhearing Dialogue – Sarah Kozloff – Pg. 11
However to rely solely on dialogue doesn’t mean we can’t understand a narrative without dialogue. Silent films relied upon title cards and the actor’s performances to convey emotions and move the plot forward. Today it’s very rare to silent or near silent films. One example is Robert Redford’s All is Lost (2013); the lack of dialogue was actually a draw for the actor who explains in this clip.
Silent film has had something of resurgence in mainstream film in 2011. With The Artist and Hugo. The Artist a loving homage to silent film that celebrates classic Hollywood. Whilst Hugo by Martin Scorsese is his tribute to early film, set in France, we meet an older Georges Méliès, who in the film is running a Toy store at a train station. It’s also a film that speaks about the importance of film preservation, something, which is very important to the director.
What they are really doing to attempting to re-energise a love for silent film.
“…Hugo and The Artist are only the most visible instances of a broader impulses to make silent cinema “new” at various moments in film and media history…”
New Silent Cinema – edited by Paul Flaig and Katherine Groo – Pg. 2
“…a father’s infidelity leads to his son’s all too literal emasculation, as the same actress plays both vengeful mother and wanton mistress, as the genital transplants pile up…”
Back in the U.S. Gus Van Sant‘s Gerry (2002) places two men into a salt desert, where they try to retrace their steps back to the car. Very minimal dialogue, there are long stretches where it’s just Matt Damon and Casey Affleck looking over the landscape.
More recently we have The Revenant (2015) the true-life story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose scene are almost dialogue free. Focusing on his struggle with nature, his own torn body and his anger to seek out revenge for being left for dead.
I ended the talk with a longer show reel, which is the best way to explore and understand the power of contemporary silent and minimal dialogue in film.
Now if Westerns have taught me anything, you don’t start out into Death Valley with no supplies or transport, it earned that name for a reason, The barren hill, the classic tumbleweed, the sage grass, the desert and the salt flats. Now If they had a horse or even a car, a canister/bottle or two of water and a compass, or even a phone we wouldn’t get lost in the first place. All of which form the single location for Gerry (2002) with a minimal cast of Casey Affleck and Matt Damon, I can’t believe this film is already 14 years old, however much these two actors have aged since it’s release the film still feels fresh. I really am getting into my minimal films at the moment which I can only say is a great thing to be finding right now.
How much like fellow blogger Dan I feel this is definitely not a mainstream film for a number of reasons which actually today make this film all the more relevant today. Sadly it more than likely wouldn’t be made today, even with two bankable actors, too risky, no built-in audience, maybe an independent might fund or distribute it? It’s not a blockbuster, or a film with much of a plot which most audiences crave, with no conventional beginning, middle and ending they switch off, Which is fair enough, its audience expectation when it comes to film narrative, there’s practically no structure apart from two guys (named Gerry) who drive to Death Valley to find something, only to quickly reconsider and turn back, unwittingly getting lost as soon as they turn around.
If anything the plot of the film is more a reflection of life, which has no conventional narrative apart from being born and dying, the rest is unwritten really. If you ask anybody who could have written the screenplay to their lives you really would be waiting a long time for an answer, they are so unique to us all, they are un-writable. Leaving Gus Van Sant with a simple an very open narrative for this unconventional film that places two much unknown men (both Gerry) who begin with so much confidence to get out of the valley in no time at all.
I soon became frustrated as they only went a few hundred metres into the valley somehow go deeper in. Instead of just turning around they go way off into the unknown of the valley. If you think about it, if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have a film. The director has pushed them out there and they have to find their way back at any cost. It’s like Van Sant was out of shot, directed them with a gesture to go in another direction, sending these two friends to potential death.
They take in all the iconic and previously filmed locations in the valley, we really are lost in the wilderness. They have nothing but the clothes on their back and some fire-making skills that keep them alive for the course of the film. Thoughts of survival can only take them so far before thirst, hunger and ultimately confusion take over. All composed through powerful yet minimal cinematography that places these two men against nature. Like two cowboys without their horses to aid them. Space is really played with to its fullest, as we are held back from them at times, taking in what is going on around them. The landscapes treated like alien world which is even filmed from all possible angles. The car journey is almost silent, what begins as a road trip becomes a need to return to civilisation. There is also minimal dialogue, kept to only the essential lines needed to push the film forward. All cliché yet vital to their situation, as if every other filmed version has informed their dialogue. There’s a scene where they are walking close to the camera that follows them, heads moving up and down almost like horses being ridden, focusing on the horses alone, in this case the two men as they are struggling to remain conscious and focused.
The film however remains focused throughout the short running time, how long can really follow two lost men for two hours before the locations are filmed. We don’t learn much about these two men who fallout with each and make up before the film’s end which left me frustrated and lost. Whilst at the same time rewarded by an ending that is as open as the film itself that allows you to consider what is going on. Your glad of the ending that is an open as the film, giving you a resolution that could be as honest as the films journey or a state of delirium as they both lose consciousness or even death. When a film is that open an audience can take whatever they want from it. The visual contents won’t change, however their meaning is open to interpretation, what more do you want in a film?
I’ve said it before when I saw The Train (1964) after seeing The Monuments Men (2014), the same applies to Local Hero (1983) after seeing Promised Land (2012). Each pairing of films sharing the same basic themes. It just so happens that Burt Lancaster is in the better and Matt Damon is in the not so-good films. Just an observation as both are capable actors. I think it comes down to the writing on both scores. So with observations out of the way, why was the superior earlier film of Local Hero far better than Promised Land?
Both have an environmental message to get across, one oil, the other gas through fracking. Big corporations send out men to hopefully negotiate the sale of all the necessary land to make the plans come to fruition. Local Hero is far softer on the message front when Mac (Peter Riegert) is sent to a Scottish coastal town to buy up town and surrounding land. Whilst in Promised Land it’s Steve Butler (Matt Damon) who has to persuade a more savvy farming town to sell up and move on. You have to also consider that there is very little mention of environmental issues in the earlier film. There is discussion of how the land could potentially be used, to research marine life with Marina (Jenny Seagrove) who also acts as an intelligent love interest for Mac’s colleague love-struck Oldsen (Peter Capaldi). It’s not really shared with the small fishing village who think their ship has finally come in. Made during the time of another recession, the smell of money is not something to be sniffed at.
If anything Local Hero is played more for laughs and gentle ones at that, it’s a small community who are practically cut-off from the world. Whilst in farming America there is a far stronger tone of environmentalism going on. Families have previously been affected by Fracking so will take a harder stance against an outsider coming in and wanting to buy up the land and possible pollute it, killing livestock. Fracking is still a very young technique which doesn’t have the security of Oil drilling pumped on or off-shore, its assumed to be safe (for the most part). Also looking at the two strangers who enter into their respective towns. One comes to want to stay, even with all the negotiating that goes on with Urquhart (Denis Lawson) who wants the money, knowing what it means for everyone. Unlike Butler who puts on a front, wanting to get in and out as quick as possible. He does develop and conscience unlike his colleague (Frances McDormand) who see this as just another job doing what she believes to be done in order to secure the land. A harder person unlike Butler.
It’s a harder sell overall for the community and for the audience, I came away not really caring for anyone. Whereas in Local Hero you get to know the people who populate this town, it’s very provincial, an old world community which we have less and less off. You want to spend more time with these characters. Even when we meet the stumbling block at the end, the beach which is owned by Ben (Fulton Mackay) who holds the message, he doesn’t preach, open to discussion, his age makes it harder to negotiate with. He even offers to take a pound for every grain of sand in his hand. He’s not bothered by the money, he know the land in away that the others don’t care about, they’re blinded by money. Not they that they’re blinded by Felix Happer’s (Burt Lancaster) money, they aren’t even made out to be the bad guys, wanting a better life for themselves. Moving back to retired teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who uses his knowledge as a weapon against Butler and the town gets behind Frank.
We have progressed since the early 80’s in terms of how we discuss environmental issues, we have become more sophisticated as an audience. Our knowledge of the subject has increased, of course there will always be the odd horror story which we do have to accept. But at the heart of these two films you must have heart to engage with the audience, something we have, even at the top of Local Hero in Lancaster who by the stage in his career is in a minimal role really. However his enigmatic presence is felt throughout the film. He’s a man who has his faults, his interest in the stars, in short he’s human. Whilst in Promised Land it’s just about getting the job done or get fired. There’s no room for any manuever there, it’s so corporate that we are left cold. The oil man in Lancaster talks very little about his business, even willing to get his hands dirty. However its all down to Mac who as much as he wants to do his job, he’s won over from the big city for the country life that he had seen as so alien, he’s awoken to know what he wants in life, has he reached the same point as his boss, without the freedom to go out and grab it just yet, trapped by his job and obligations. It’s a film of understanding one another, to be open to change in your life, even when it may come in the form of a corporation.