Monthly Archives: July 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

I haven’t posted in a while because I’m working on longer pieces on Donnie Darko and Nine Lives, so I figured I might as well throw together a quick, non-analytical piece on Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens.

I went into this movie expecting two hours of Daniel Craig and the inimitable Harrison Ford grumbling and riding around on horses, and that is exactly what I got.  It begins with Daniel Craig waking up the desert without any memory of who he is and what he’s doing there.  After an (unsuccessful) attempt to break his mysterious metal bracelet off with a rock, caveman-style, he saddles up and rides into the nearest town.  There, he runs afoul of both the law (Keith Carradine, or Lundy from Dexter) and the town money, played by the inimitable and dear-to-my-heart Harrison Ford.  Of course, before events can really progress, the aliens swoop in and start abducting people, as they are wont to do.  Thus, Mr. Craig and Mr. Ford must lead the town, and some neighboring Apaches and outlaws, in an expedition to save their friends and defeat the aliens.

Mr. Craig has no dialogue for the first ten minutes of the movie, but he does an excellent job creating humor just through body language and slight facial twitches.  I’ve never thought of Daniel Craig as a particularly funny actor, but he turns out to have great timing on the one-liners, and he manages to generate a number of laughs just through stone-faced beat-downs.  He and Mr. Ford make a wonderful pair, grumbling and glaring at each other under dirty cowboy hats.  Harrison Ford has developed a wonderful persona at this stage in his career – the crotchety older man with a secret heart – and he plays it to perfection here, putting on a brave and grumpy front, but still allowing flickers of sorrow to cross his face when his son is abducted.

One element of this film I was not expecting was the stellar supporting cast.  Sam Rockwell is always such a treat in supporting roles, and he plays the “doctor” with a great sense of humor and a dash of pathos as well.  Paul Dano has a wonderful, if rather brief, turn as Harrison Ford’s delinquent son, and I was very excited to see Kelvin from LOST as the sweet but tough preacher.  Finally, Adam Beach, playing Harrison Ford’s Native American ward, brings some dimension to the crotchety old man.

This brings me to the most problematic part of the film:  Olivia Wilde’s character.  Now, I am all for a hot chick running around with a gun around her waist and kicking ass with Daniel Craig.  I also love Olivia Wilde.  I do, however, have some issues with the revelation (SPOILER ALERT) that her character is an alien.  While it explains her anachronistic, too-clean physical appearance, it also means there are no human female characters in the film who are not victims.  She’s meant to be the cool sidekick, gun-toting girl who doesn’t need saving, but all of that faux-feminism is undermined by the fact that she is actually not a woman.  I may be accused of splitting hairs here, but it’s just something that struck me.  One of the attractions of big-budget films for me is reading the gender stereotypes and messages they create with such broad strokes.  In this film, the only actually female characters are: Daniel Craig’s lost love and Sam Rockwell’s Latina wife, both victims stolen by the aliens.  Hence, there are no strong women in this film.  The “woman” part of her is just a body, an empty vessel to be used and discarded at any time.

Again, this is just how I read it.  I’m not even going to get into the various implications of the Native American portrayal in the film.  Aside from these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed Cowboys & Aliens.  Harrison Ford only makes one film a year these days, so it’s great when he’s in a decent one.   Seeing the almost-70-year-old Ford running around with a gun, leaping from horseback and wisecracking the whole time is worth the price of admission.  As far as escapist entertainment goes, you could do worse than Cowboys & Aliens. 

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The Piano (1993)

“I have not spoken since I was six years old.  No one knows why – not even me…The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent.  That is because of my piano.”

These are some of the first lines of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), an evocative and original meditation on female subjectivity and sexuality.  Every time I watch it, I am dumbfounded at how Campion even thought of this story in the first place.  A mute 19th-century woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) is sent to the wilds of New Zealand to marry a man she has never met.  She brings along her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) and her treasured piano.

As she says in the aforementioned lines, she does not feel silent as long as she has her piano – it is her voice.  Throughout the movie, whenever she plays, the music seems to emerge from her body rather than her piano, and she never seems happier than when she plays.  The score is even made up entirely of piano, making the score a more active participant in the film than most – it is almost a voiceover itself.  Thus, Ada’s “voice” permeates the whole film.

The use of music as her voice is quite significant, as language is considered inherently patriarchal in feminist theory.  Language is often equated to agency, making those who speak or write well powerful in patriarchal society.  Ada has chosen to avoid patriarchal language completely.  Although her muteness is never explained, it is almost as if she realized that, as a woman, language would give her no power in this world, so she chose an entirely different mode of expression.  I love feminist works where the female characters find a language outside that of patriarchy; Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (2007) is one of my favorite examples.  The main character in that film tells her story through her pies.  Here, Ada tells it through music, and her mode of self-expression, though outside patriarchal language, exerts a power within it on those who hear her play.  As the old society matron says, “She does not play the way we do…”

The character most significantly affected by Ada’s music is George Baines (Harvey Keitel).  In a way, he too is an outsider to patriarchal society.  Although he uses bartering to gain financial and social power, he is unable to read and write.  He is not in possession of patriarchal language in its written form, so he is more able to relate to Ada’s wordless speech.  Ada’s relationship to Baines is characterized by unusual negotiations around her body and the piano.  He agrees to give her a key of the piano for each time she does what he says and shows him some of her body.  In this way, the piano comes to stand not only for her voice, but for her body as well.

In a social sense, Campion creates a duality between Baines/the Maoris/the outdoors and Stewart/the English/the domestic.  Both Ada and Flora negotiate between these two sides over the course of the film.  Campion uses many shots to highlight the idea of humanity versus nature – the piano in the surf, Flora’s seahorse in the sand, the wooden boards the settlers use to walk over the mud.  All of these images create a sense of humanity trying to assert itself in the wilds of New Zealand.  The Maoris themselves are an unusual presence, as the script never really delves into their individual characters or explains how we are supposed to feel about them.  Instead, there are moments in which the natives do not understand the settlers, and some in which they understand better than the English understand themselves.  Baines has aligned himself more with the Maoris and, over the course of the film, becomes closer and closer to them and allows them to live in his house.  In the end, when Ada leaves with Baines, it is the Maoris who escort them away.

Flora, Ada’s daughter, also negotiates between these two sides.  Although she mostly plays the role of witness, she eventually turns on her mother and betrays her affair to Stewart.  After the first time she does this, she begins to wear the angel wings she wore in the settlers’ play, signifying that she has officially aligned herself with the English side, and with Stewart.  After (SPOILER ALERT) Stewart chops off her mother’s finger and tells Baines to take Ada away, there is a shot of nameless hands moving the angel wings through water.  Flora has left their side, and is undergoing a cleansing re-alignment with her mother.

In the end, Ada undergoes a kind of split.  She almost allows herself to drown, going overboard with her piano, but then decides to fight and return to the surface.  “What a surprise!  My will has chosen life,” she narrates.  She then goes off to live a life of domesticity with Baines and Flora, complete with her metal finger and learning to speak.  We are not allowed to end on this happy picture, though.  Instead, she narrates that she dreams of her piano in its watery grave, and her there with it.  We fade out on an image of her dead under the sea, floating above her piano.  The last word we hear in the film is “silence.”  I read this is as Campion saying that, even though Ada is beginning to speak, she still has her own internal silence, her own internal life.  It is a dark ending, one that definitely makes you think, and I love Campion for not taking the easy way out.  It would have felt strange for a film with so much darkness to end on a scene of domestic bliss.  Instead, we are left with an eerie image of Ada and her piano residing peacefully and silently at the bottom of the sea.  As Ada narrates, “It is a strange lullaby, but it is mine.”

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