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Moviegoer’s Choice

A delightful evening spent watching a man amputate his arm?

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Say it’s a Saturday night this fall, and your average movie-goer has a choice of staying home and trying to whittle away at the 18 episodes of Breaking Bad he has on his DVR but has never actually watched, or going out to the movies—which will cost him and his beloved at least $70 between tickets and popcorn and soda and a babysitter. So what might he see? Among the most highly anticipated movies of the season is one in which a man has to cut off his own arm with a knife; one in which a group of escapees from Stalin’s gulag have to walk from Siberia to India in the dead of winter; and another in which a man wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin in which he stays through the course of the film.

Moviegoer’s Choice

Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

Now, there are very good reasons to see these films. The one about the man who cuts off his own arm, 127 Hours, is the first movie by Danny Boyle following Slumdog Millionaire, a masterpiece that also made $400 million at the box office and won eight Oscars. The second, The Way Back, is the work of another exemplary director, Peter Weir, whose films include Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Master and Commander. And the third, Buried, stars Ryan Reynolds, who has proved himself one of the most attractive and engaging leading men of our time.

And yet consider our average movie-
goer. He probably saw Slumdog Millionaire in one form or another and loved it, as who didn’t? He’s seen two or three Peter Weir movies even if he didn’t know they were Peter Weir movies, but the poster will remind him. And he will likely respond to an image of Ryan Reynolds’s face, which he knows from Van Wilder or The Proposal, even though he might not actually know Reynolds’s name. But will he have any desire whatever to witness a self-amputation? Or men starving and freezing for months? Or someone trapped in the most claustrophobic and desperate condition imaginable?

Such films are part of a peculiar subgenre: the “human endurance” genre. Often based on true stories, as 127 Hours and The Way Back are, these movies offer portraits of ordinary people forced to live (or die) through
grueling physical experiences that push them to the very limits of existence. Such stories have been a staple of literature for centuries; think of Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, which was itself based in part on the story of a shipwrecked sailor named Alexander Selkirk. The thought of being shipwrecked for 28 years, as Daniel Defoe imagined his Crusoe, must have been as terrifying in the 18th century as the prospect of being marooned on a spacecraft would be to us today.

In the past few decades, these physical human horror stories have become a staple of the bestseller list, beginning with Alive, Piers Paul Reid’s 1974 account of an Andean plane crash whose survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. It was followed over time by Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s tale of a Mount Everest climb gone very bad, and The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger’s story of a fishing boat that got crosswise of a nor’easter.

The conundrum for our average moviegoer is that the better these movies are—which is to say, the more accurately and vividly they capture the experience of having one’s arm pinned under a rock or being without shelter through a Siberian winter or being trapped in a coffin—the worse they will be to watch. But if they attempt to mitigate the horror, they will instantly seem false. The film version of The Perfect Storm is the ideal negative case in point, as it features an absurd ending in which George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg bob around in the ocean laughing about what a great time they had trying to save their boat as they drown.

The ability to withstand conditions that would overwhelm ordinary people is the key to all cultural portraits of heroism, from David slaying Goliath to Odysseus surviving Scylla and Charybdis to Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to the astronauts. But in the past few decades, there’s been something of a change: These stories are told about people who really aren’t heroes in the same sense, as they are not enduring their suffering for any reason other than rotten fortune, and have no grand goal in any case. Their tales dwell on the most gruesome and clinical aspects of the challenges that cruel fate has set for them.

Whether these movies thrive or fail at the box office is less important, of course, than whether they are successful works of popular art. But without giving these characters transcendent purpose other than mere survival, as the endurance genre has failed to do in our time, these films will simply be an endurance test of their own. And really, one might as well stay at home on the couch rather than live through it.


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