Search and Rescue: Or Why I’m Drawn to Films About Surviving Nature, Torture, and Mars

Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons

  • Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
  • Black Sea  (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
  • Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
  • Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
  • The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
  • Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
  • The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
  • No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

And in 2016:

  • The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.

The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.

Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?

Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Who is Laura Lamont?

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesEmma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures charts the transformation of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, into one of the starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Using Jennifer Jones’s biography as a springboard, Straub writes of a woman who juggles multiple identities throughout her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, and actress. In fact, the book is divided into twelve chapters whose titles encapsulate the roles she plays. Opening the novel in 1929, “Cherry,” at once suggesting the ripe potential of her later life’s work and the lost grandeur of Chekhov’s last play, details the special circumstances of her childhood spent behind the scenes and on the floorboards of her parents’ barn-house theater. Nine years pass between the suicide of Elsa’s older, beloved and beautiful sister Hildy and her escape from Door County with stranger-cum-costar-cum-husband Gordon Pitts. Within a few years after their arrival in Los Angeles, Gordon signs a contract to be a bit player at Gardner Brothers, and Elsa’s own acting ambitions take a backseat to her familial responsibilities. In the second chapter, “Laura Lamont,” studio executive (and Gordon’s boss) Irving Green flirts with Elsa at a wrap party and rechristens her “Laura Lamont,” telling her that, provided she loses thirty pounds once she gives birth to her (second) child, she is pretty enough to be a star. And so our heroine now sets her mind on becoming the star she always wanted to be.

Straub is a deft storyteller, and structuring her fictional biography according to the highlights of Laura Lamont’s life and career excises the fat of the more uneventful, prosaic moments of a character’s story. However, after reading all 304 pages of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, the titular protagonist still remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps this is intentional. We read as Elsa/Laura struggles to define herself, mainly as her new glamorous identity fails to wipe the slate clean. She can’t face up to her mother, who resents Elsa for leaving Door County, seemingly forgetting who she is. Laura is haunted by past traumas, such as her sister’s suicide, and, years after she has divorced Gordon and married the studio’s number two, Irving Green, her first husband becomes a drunkard, a drug addict, a costly thorn in her side. The role that she chooses to most define her is that of mother. More pages are devoted to Laura’s dedication to and admiration of her three children: Clara and Florence, from her first marriage, and Irving Jr. This isn’t objectionable, of course, but as a film scholar and historian, I was more interested in how Straub represented Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub's Laura Lamont.
Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont.

Just as it is unreasonable for a film critic to judge a motion picture against the film s/he would like to have seen, it is not fair of me to judge Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures as lacking an in-depth exposé of Hollywood goings-on from the perspective of one star—or cog in the machine. Besides, as Straub told Jacki Lyden in 2012 on NPR’s All Things Considered, “I made sure to stay away actually from Jennifer Jones’ biography ’cause I didn’t want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.” However, just as I really enjoyed Farran Smith Nehme’s engagement with the archival preservation of forgotten silent films in her recent novel Missing Reels, the characterizations of Hollywood and its myriad players in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures really delighted me. For example, when Laura starts at Gardner Brothers, whose company name recalls that of the real-life Warner Bros. but whose physical location more accurately resembles that of Paramount, she begins cutting a rug in a string of comedies with her red-haired friend Ginger Hedges. Years later, after Ginger becomes a big star in comedy, rival studio Triumph Pictures poaches her, and she later goes on to head the studio while producing and starring on a successful television sitcom with her husband. It should come as no surprise that Lucille Ball inspired the character Ginger. Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones’s first husband, does not end up as ignobly as Gordon Pitts does. At least the real-life actor, who also died young, can claim an illustrious career with the likes of BataanStrangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.

The Song of BernadetteWhen the hardcover’s opening book-flap describes Irving Green as Laura’s “great love,” I recognized that the character must be a stand-in for David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones’s second husband. Selznick produced such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and The Portrait of Jennie, the last two of which starred his wife Jones (neé Phylis Lee Isley). Before striking out on his own, Selznick worked at MGM, Paramount, and RKO. While the novel does not present Irving as an independent producer like Selznick, it does show that his decision to put Laura in more serious roles, in romantic, historical epics, eventually nabs her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jennifer Jones won her first and only Oscar right out of the gate, for her leading role in The Song of Bernadette. In crafting Laura Lamont’s backstory, Straub cleverly keeps the religious theme of Jones’s film when she writes that Laura won for her performance as a nun in Farewell, My Sister, a film whose script somewhat imitates her relationship with Hildy. Unfortunately, I found the description of Laura and Irving’s relationship lacking in intensity. Although married for years, before his untimely death from a prolonged heart-related illness, I never really understood the lovers’ mutual fascination. Irving is repeatedly described as short, slight, balding, and regrettably, Jewish, as if that is enough to characterize someone. Sure, power is an aphrodisiac, but outside of his unexamined devotion to Laura and her children, I fail to see how he is appealing. He isn’t given any thought-provoking dialogue or much to do at all, really. He mainly just sweeps her off her feet, seeing someone else in Elsa Emerson, a brunette rather than a blonde. Laura herself is a bit of a simpleton, especially when it comes to interacting with her growing children. And Laura’s relationship with her young black maid, Harriet, reads too much like one Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh had with Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel on-screen. Since we glimpse Laura mostly in her private life, it is difficult for me to imagine the character as a glamorous starlet. She mainly just upholds the Grand Narrative of the Hollywood Dream Factory: she did as she was told, read her lines, and was happy if the bosses were happy.

Coming off the heels of her beloved father’s death, Irving’s death further pushes Laura into decline. Deep in debt, she abuses anti-anxiety medication, falls into an intractable despair, and eventually attempts suicide. She gradually makes a full recovery and adjusts to a new life out of the limelight. Chapter eleven, “The Shopgirl,” recalls silent film star Louise Brooks’s biography rather than Jennifer Jones’s: the former actress died in 1985, destitute and purportedly a salesgirl in a department store. Meanwhile, in 1975 and now a grandmother, Laura supports herself as a shop assistant for dressmaker-to-the-stars Edna (clearly inspired by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was also the model for the scene-stealing Edna Mode in The Incredibles). The novel ends where it began: in the theater. In 1980, the newly rediscovered Laura Lamont makes her Broadway debut in The Royal Family, the same play that she performed with Gordon Pitts before they married and skedaddled to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom shining in their eyes. I can’t deny that the final scene is poignant. Her children reunite in New York to see Laura on opening night, but when I closed the book on her life, I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted more from it.

News Clip: What Possessed People to See The Possession?

It’s true, I haven’t been to the movies in over three weeks, since my birthday on August 11th. And even then, just choosing something to see was difficult to do. It’s been a really crappy summer for movies (I don’t care what you say; superhero/comic book movies are boring), so let’s hope the year improves as studios start rolling out their prestige pictures, their awards bait. But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I would like to comment on the overnight success of The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012), which is all set to win the Labor Day weekend box office—with an unimaginative title and poster to boot. According to Pamela McClintock of The Hollywood Reporter, Lionsgate estimates that the exorcism film-story will bring in $21.3 million for the mini major, making the movie the second highest grossing Labor Day weekend box office winner ever recorded on the books (in inflated dollars, of course).

That a horror film, even during summer (or the last days of it), can scrounge up so much money isn’t surprising (McClintock reminds us that 2007’s Halloween, directed by Rob Zombie, currently holds the record for the biggest box office overhaul for any Labor Day weekend with $30.6 million in tickets sold). I’m just wondering why audiences have, for lack of a better word, “flocked” to see this film. Admittedly, I am biased against pictures that revolve around exorcisms (and, while we’re at it, horror films in general) and would never in a million years pay to see this in the theater, but I read Bilge Ebiri’s review of The Possession, anyway. You can click to read it yourself; he doesn’t spoil anything. And that’s exactly the point: you can’t spoil what happens in any of these formulaic movies. As Ebiri notes, “Demon-possession movies are now so ubiquitous that we don’t really expect any dramatically new shocks from them.” Granted, he seems to have liked this one more than he was expecting to, for dramatic reasons that have little to with the scary, climatic scenes.

This being a think piece that aims to ask questions about genre and audience appeal, I still want to know why The Possession is on track to actually exceed studios’ expectations. Is it because there’s really nothing else out there worth seeing? That can’t be, for Mike Birbiglia won’t stop tweeting about all the dozens of Q&As he’s hosting around the country for his directorial debut Sleepwalk with Me (2012). Is it because, for a change, The Possession centers not on a Catholic-tinged Satan overtaking a family’s young daughter but on an ancient Jewish demon entering the same kind of girl? A premise, it should be noted, that isn’t alienating Hispanic viewers as Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo predicted it would. (McClintock reports, “The film also is over-indexing in Hispanic Catholic markets.”) Is it because Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae musician, plays the exorcist? (I know that alone would draw my brother in.) If it’s not quite clear, I am being facetious. I know why horror movies, no matter how generic they are, are so “ubiquitous” (to borrow Ebiri’s term) and wildly popular. In short: they’re cheap to produce (not too many stars demanding hefty paychecks), and they reliably offer the spectator a sort of interactive thrill ride, complete with jumps in seats, shouts at the screen, and peeks at the screen through fingers laced across faces. In fact, it’s these kinds of conventions that ensure the genre’s popularity, and word-of-mouth has a lot to do with it (this is undoubtedly the case for The Possession, too).

Besides, Sam Raimi produced it. For the horror fan, that might lend it some credibility. More pertinently, however, I wonder what the appeal of this particular film is for the young women who went to see it. McClintock writes that the audience this weekend is mostly female: “[Women] made up 59 percent of the audience, while 54 percent of those buying tickets were younger than 25.” Which means the production company’s marketing strategy that McClintock alludes to (ie. targeting girls and young women) has paid off handsomely. Is it typical for exorcism movies to be marketed toward this demographic? I really have no idea what the advertising campaign consists of, and McClintock doesn’t clue me in, but I am curious about this. For horror films have, historically speaking, been either geared toward young men or toward neither sex in particular (once studios realized women like these kinds of scares, too!). Though I haven’t seen it, I understand that Jennifer’s Body (2009), as devised by screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama, was supposed to be a feminist-inflicted mash-up between demon possession movies and slasher flicks. I guess I should see it to find out why this film tried to reach a diverse audience—but especially women, I would think—and failed. Wait, don’t tell me. It probably has to do with Megan Fox, right?

Why I’m Not Seeing The Dark Knight Rises This Weekend

This being a movie blog, I thought it necessary to address the mass shooting that took place Thursday night at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) in suburban Denver, Colorado. A lone twenty-four-year-old gunman named James Holmes shot and killed twelve people, wounding at least 58 others, including people as young as only a few months old. In the rush of news updates, these estimates are subject to change, and soon I suspect we’ll learn more about the movie-going victims.*

My nightly ritual consists of watching ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and each news program dedicated last night’s episode to coverage of the horrific event and its aftermath. They were both hard to watch for a number of reasons, chief among them the featured amateur cellphone video of blood-soaked people exiting the multiplex and the repetition of terrifying eyewitness accounts. Tears welled up in my eyes, and sometimes I angrily shouted at the TV. Why did you bring your little children to a midnight movie screening? Why this movie in particular? I feel ashamed for so harshly judging people I don’t know personally, and I am thankful that Holmes’s attack didn’t produce even more casualties. I also couldn’t help but wonder, how could his mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, reportedly say, upon first hearing that her son has been arrested, that the authorities indeed have the right man? She possibly knew he was capable of such an atrocity and never thought to alert anyone that her son is a potential threat to society?

It has been widely reported that Holmes either dyed his hair red or wore a red wig to mimic Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), that he even announced—to the unassuming crowd watching the movie in Theater 9 before he started gunning people down and/or to the arresting police officers—that he was The Joker. Again, we won’t know the truth behind these details as everyone is still corroborating testimonials and processing exactly what happened. So it remains unclear what the relationship is between this hotly anticipated movie and Holmes’s intentions to massacre people. I agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote yesterday in The New York Times that Holmes more likely perpetrated his deadly actions in order to garner fame, infamy, or some twisted recognition rather than act out a movie-inspired fantasy. Seeing how the TV news media responded, devoting whole programs to “Tragedy in Colorado: Movie Theater Massacre,” makes me cringe, too. They’re just giving him what he wants, and they’re sensationalizing, I thought.

But I know one thing for sure, and it took me a while to make this realization: I won’t be going to see The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, and in fact, I’m not sure when I will feel comfortable going to the theater to do so.

I’m not a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy; his movies are long, pretentious, and moralizing. However, I had thought I was going to see it because, as I have previously stated, I am interested in what people go to see. I do want to be part of a larger conversation. How could I justify standing on the sidelines, lambasting so-called mainstream audiences’ tastes in movies, if I don’t watch them, too, to form my own informed opinions? (The Dark Knight Rise‘s first controversy this week involved movie aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes having to shut down their comments section because fans who hadn’t even seen the film yet were bullying or threatening film critics who published negative reviews.) A dear friend of mine tried unsuccessfully to convince me to go to a midnight screening; I had no desire to see a 164-minute-long movie at that hour in a packed, claustrophobic theater. Besides, I told him, so many special screenings are sold-out or nearly sold-out, making it more difficult to secure tickets. Despite the Colorado tragedy, the movie has grossed over $30 million from midnight screenings alone, and it remains to be seen how its grosses will eventually be made public since its distributor, Warner Bros., and other movie studios have pledged not to report the numbers out of respect for the victims and their families.

The main reason I’m not going to see the movie is because I think it will be too traumatic an experience. I cannot imagine what the people in Theater 9 have gone through, but I am certain that I won’t be able to concentrate on the film unspooling on-screen because I will be thinking about how all those innocent people eagerly attended a movie they’d been waiting months—maybe years—to see, at first perplexed that one cinemagoer seemed to perform a movie stunt tie-in at the front until it became clear what his true intentions were. I echo the film director’s sentiment, released as a public statement: “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” I have even written a short essay about my love of going to the movies, getting lost in the dark amid celluloid shadows and strangers. The piece is for a humor writing contest, and I have yet to submit it. I’m a little apprehensive to turn it in without mentioning what happened in Colorado, even if my memories of movie-going are overwhelmingly positive—funny even—and have nothing to do with the violence of the theater.

Truth is, I don’t know when I will be ready to go to the theater to see any movie. It’s all still so raw.

Some have expressed concern that this will negatively impact The Movies (Rebecca Macatee of E! Online is already labeling the newest Batman sequel a “would-be blockbuster,” given what’s transpired). I don’t think most people who have really wanted to see The Dark Knight Rises will stay away. All the power to them, I say. We cannot let one crazed man’s fatal attacks deter us from doing the things we love. We cannot live our lives in fear, to paraphrase Barry Otto in Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992). We should pressure President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to address the issue of gun control while on the campaign trail, as their tepid expressions of sorrow and compassion are not enough. (Their track records on the issue are not comforting if we’re looking for change, either.)

When it comes to Hollywood and cinema more generally, I do hope that studios, producers, and filmmakers reflect on their storytelling practices and recognize that they could make some changes, too, beyond re-editing the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and yanking TV spots and trailers for it and the upcoming Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer, 2012), which features a scene involving men powering machine guns through a movie screen, firing on the audience. I am not blaming anyone for what happened in Theater 9 other than James Holmes, but the fact that violence is so permissible in movies, often glamorized or sensationalized, is a cultural problem. Many of us have become anesthetized to graphic representations of violence, accustomed to watching people, buildings, cities, and even the world blow up on-screen. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of us know that this is not real, but there are those who might fetishize these images and seek to replicate them in the real world because the consequences of violence are barely ever the subject of sustained cinematic inquiry. One recent example of this more desirable filmic exploration comes to mind, though: Lynne Ramsay’s stark, impressionistic portrait of a mother coming to terms with the attack her teenage son perpetrated at school in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). It is a challenging, beautiful movie, and I guarantee it will stick with you. If more films addressed the viscerality and destructiveness of violence, perhaps they would remind us all that it is never cool, never something we should wish to emulate.

* The New York Times has just published (circa 10.30 pm on Saturday, July 21st ) the names of the twelve victims as well as the first in-depth attempt to get a handle on James Holmes’s character.