127 HOURS, by Scottish director Danny Boyle, plays on themes that have resonated throughout his filmography. Through manipulating our experience of Aaron’s ordeal, Boyle reminds us of the same unsettling truths that can be seen throughout his body of work, mostly revolving around the frailty of human life and civilization in the face of disaster. Boyle regularly creates high-concept storylines that force his audience to appreciate the joy of being alive while at the same time showing them the brutality and messy ugliness that is inherent in being human. He forces his audience to consider their relationship to the natural, external world – while at the same time maintaining a focus on the tormented inner stories of his characters.
28 DAYS LATER showed survival as a function of the individual against the feral/primal pack, questioning the cost and staying power of civilization in the face of brutality and disease, but again it was the most harrowing moments (a drop of infected blood falling into a father’s eye, a young girl urged to take heavy narcotics so she’d pass out before being gang-raped by military survivors, to name just two) that brought out their protagonists’ desire to maintain civilization at all costs.
With 127 HOURS, Boyle puts away the macro lens and zooms in on the individual who survives in the face of physical and environmental challenges most Westerners are unlikely to face (short of the impending Zombie apocalypse, of course). Visual foreshadowing – for those who’ve read spoilers – is a bit heavy-handed, but Boyle uses moments that shine a light on human endurance (such as a terrifying and majestic moment Aaron spends showing two female hikers he’s encountered how they can take “the cool way” to their destination) to remind the audience that while Aaron is an experienced climber in peak physical condition, even he is no match for the limitless majesty of nature. A seemingly throw-away line from the two girls he meets – “I don’t think we figured in his day at all” – echoes in the mind of the viewer as Aaron ponders how all the moments in his life have led to his dilemma – and yet Boyle and Franco bring Aaron’s hubris into self-acknowledged focus as he reminds us of how “hard” a hero he feels himself to be, and recognizes that his foolhardiness may end up costing him his life. Aaron’s self-reflective tendencies mark him firmly as a member of the millennial generation, conversant with psychology and comfortable with self-analysis and meta-textual references to his situation through the medium of video. But he is also a thinker – an effective and disciplined one.
After a brief series of panicked actions, Aaron takes hold of himself – and starts his 127 hours of captivity by assessing his resources and formulating a logical, executable plan. It becomes easy to see how one could, if one were in his position, wildly overestimate one’s own capabilities and ability to function on one’s own in the wilderness.
As a filmmaker, Danny Boyle has a gift for appreciation of landscape and timing, and the ability to convey a profound sense of being in the grip of events that dwarf the emotions and events of single human life, and yet in environmentally-dependent works like 127 HOURS and SUNSHINE, it is impossible to appreciate 127 HOURS without a nod to the Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle (who has worked with Boyle on previous films including MILLIONS, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 28 DAYS LATER, etc., etc., etc – and his ability to make the audience come away from the film feeling profoundly humbled by the majesty and incomparably magnificent power of the natural world. The landscapes of the American Southwest are Boyle’s canvas in 127 HOURS, and he taps into a primal side of the SUNSHINE premise when we hear Aaron record his loving appreciation of the limited sunlight that shines on him each day of his ordeal. Through this and other moments, Boyle illustrates the deep emotional connection a living being can have with the planet that simultaneously gives them life and at the same time threatens to take it away.
About a week prior to seeing 127 HOURS, I was in the audience of a show called HELLO HI THERE at P.S. 122 in the East Village. Juxtaposing the two pieces has proven to be extremely thought-provoking; for those who have not yet experienced it, a brief review of HELLO HI THERE’s thematic concerns – and my own thoughts about the production – follows:
The idea of Annie Dorsen’s HELLO HI THERE (clips available here intrigued me from the beginning – a “post-human” theater production where robots talked to one another in a live performance that varied from night to night. The idea is loosely framed along the notion of the Turing Test, and practically it means that the 50-minute duration of the piece (I hesitate to call it a “play,” as there was no element of motion; an installation might be a more accurate word) is spent watching two laptop computers and a television monitor, having a discussion framed by the Chomsky/Foucault debates on language and the nature of intelligence.
It might seem weird that I was interested in seeing this – and despite my interest in A.I., I might have given it a pass had the conceiver-director not been Dorsen…cowriter of the Broadway hit (and subsequent Spike Lee joint) PASSING STRANGE. As I understand the process, she filled the “Chatbots”’ data banks with quotes from great historic literature, including the Bible, Shakespeare, and more…then gave the two chatbots the ability to continue the conversation themselves. Associations and verbal connections gave birth to what, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be a genuine conversation.
The result was a surprisingly human piece – surprising because of how quickly it became possible to regard the two chatbots as – if not performers, in the traditional sense – at least as entities in their own right – even as I caught myself realizing that the ability to pass a rudimentary juxtaposition of concepts off as conversation doesn’t necessarily equate to real thought. This meant the entire production was a kind of Rorsaarch test – you walk away with the ideas (Dorsen) has communicated through the chatbots, but any emphasis on the tone or pacing of the reading is your own.
But is this “post-human theater”? In my opinion, not really. The qualitative creative decisions are still being made by a human intelligence. To me, the term “post-human” indicates more of a lack of human input. Yes, Dorsen has “programmed” this production; but if she weren’t there, the chatbots wouldn’t have performed on their own. What does this mean in terms of actually producing post-human entertainment? (I can’t find the article now, but I read something a while ago about how a substantial portion of Britney Spears’ twitter followers are actually bots, which adds a new dimension to this discussion…or would if I could find the article.)
While HELLO HI THERE asks us to consider the limits of what we know as life and of our definition of creativity as a function of organic, intelligent life, while 127 HOURS shows us that for some, the limits of human endurance, resolve and the drive to survive are further away than one might think.
As directors, both Dorsen and Boyle ask us to compare our human intelligence and experience with non-human ones. Franco is a far more evocative actor than either of the chatbots. For now, at least – the “computer” of the human brain is far more able to convey the subtle terror of being truly alone in the world – and the joy of discovering or deciding to continue trying to survive in the face of this discovery.
When 127 HOURS is “performed,” there is no human agent in the room – and no deviation from the script. Could it be called “post-human” entertainment? Then again, the film relies heavily on technology both in its narrative structure and in the physical delivery of the medium to its audience – consider, for a moment, whether the medium is actually the message? As evocative as Franco’s finished performance is, it is not a single theatrical production – it’s a number of takes stitched together in an editing room, and the events unfolding on screen are manipulated, down to the color coding on the pixels, in order to provoke a desired reaction from the brains of the audience – the human “computer.” So have we already reached a point where a different definition of post-human entertainment is available for common consumption?
I was emotionally moved by HELLO HI THERE, but given that its database mechanism is ultimately finite, able to output only what is put into it, can it really be called “post-human”? Or does that question betray a bias toward artwork created by organic life forms? If an elephant picks up a paintbrush, I regard that as art…shouldn’t a computer capable of stitching together a conversation I am still reflecting on over a week later be afforded the same courtesy? Or is it ridiculous to even think of “courtesy” when it comes to a database constructed by a human being?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but my Magic 8 Ball is capable of pulling situationally-appropriate responses out when I ask it questions. Just because (Dorsen)’s 8-balls have millions and millions of potential responses, should I succumb to the tantalizing illusion that there is intent inherent in the words and phrases they exchange? Or is my assessment of the connections and intent in my own mind no more meaningful than a database recognizing keywords, a huge wet computer sloshing gently back and forth in a shallow bath of spinal/cranial fluid? Is a piece of artwork post-human because of the
generative creativity expressed in its being completed, or is it post-human simply because no human beings happen to be performing live material on stage?
If HELLO HI THERE demonstrates the multiple ways (sometimes literally, as in the points where the chatbots got trapped in a repeating loop of two lines, over and over again) that computers may navigate a variety of changing options, 127 HOURS demonstrates resilient and tenacious qualities of the human spirit, and the creativity that comes with being stuck in a single set of circumstances, knowing your time is running out. One piece makes us question our relationship to computers and machinery, and the other reminds us of the nature of our relationship to the external world. In their own ways, each of the two productions will leave you considering what it means, in our potentially-post-human world, to be alive.