Review: 127 Hours (2010)

I’m relieved to report that 127 Hours, a very pleasant movie about mountain climber Aron Ralston quite literally giving up his right arm, cuts straight to the point. The early moments see director Danny Boyle slashing the screen, De Palma-style, into three partitions. Our introduction to Ralston (played by James Franco) involves a spastic man fumbling about for his Swiss Army knife (with the camera staying inside Ralston’s cabinets, much as it will later inhabit the inside of Ralston’s water bottle, where we will see the inside of James Franco’s throat, which is quite possibly an image that is more disturbing than the bloody hackwork to come), surreal shots of cyclists shooting past Ralston’s car in the dead of night, and James Franco leaping across canyons like some video game character unaware of real world physics.

At the risk of shortening my flourishes, Danny Boyle’s latest movie is a cut above Sean Penn’s Into the Wild – in part because, unlike Penn, Boyle has a rapier wit. He stabs at the regrettable inconvenience of getting one’s arm caught by a boulder from several points, approaching it as a laughably common Gordian knot, a psychotropic experience, and a wounding nightmare. But these methodical slashes into the predicament also inspire astonishing momentum. Like David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Boyle’s camera enter the very body itself. Like the final moments of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Boyle blurs out the soundtrack with distorted tones as Ralston has the nerve to feel his nerves as he saws away to the bitter end. I can also report that Boyle even has the balls to quietly broach the subject of how Ralston will jerk off without his dependable right palm. But I don’t want to give Boyle’s hand away here.

It helps that James Franco has the chops for the part, imbuing his Ralston with a crazy edge. This lacerating insanity comes in handy when Ralston slices through the last of his rational equanimity, concocting a radio show (with a laugh track added to the film) to pass the time when he’s not guzzling down his own piss. But it also slays at the truth: Ralston is a solitary man. (“You’re going to be so lonely,” says a prophetic ex-girlfriend as Ralston relives a lost relationship from the comfort of a shitty situation.) Our hero has driven himself to his sticky predicament because he didn’t bother to tell anyone where he was going. That has to hurt. And even though we know that Ralston will be saved in the nick of time, Franco arms his performance with enough ambiguity so that we wonder what torments are stabbing away inside, when we aren’t subjected to intriguing hallucinations of family and friends watching the proceedings unfold from a comfortable couch (much like the audience!).

One never feels strongarmed by this approach, although some audiences have reportedly fainted because they expected a shot of morphine or something. They are wrong. For Boyle has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. A raven always flies over the cliff at the early morning hour. For a brief period, even Scooby-Doo serves as an way to greet the possibilities of living with open arms.

I was almost determined to cut my losses just before the blood spurted, but, thankfully, the moment is almost anticlimactic when it arrives. I appreciated the way in which Boyle had caught me redhanded in my anticipation.

The upshot is that this is a bloody good movie – a handy reminder of the creature comforts we take for granted. Should I ever lose my hand, like Ralston, I’ll stay a betting man in the great game of life.

The Bat Segundo Show: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #279.

Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and reports indicate that he is loved, in turn, by the actor James Franco.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Evading the pomp and circumstance of cultural taxonomies.

Author: Carl Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Celine Dion and incompatible tastes, Elliott Smith, the questioning of canonical knowledge, Paul Valery’s concept of taste composed of a thousand distastes, TV on the Radio, choosing sides when dismissing trash, defying the stereotypes of Celine Dion fans, snobbish record store clerks and zealous fans, anti-snobbery, false dichotomies and cultural advantage, culture and existing power structures, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the Internet and the music industry, fans and cultural capital, Immanuel Kant and “common sense,” cultural consensus, the Beatles, questioning Wilson’s party criteria, middlebrow aesthetes in newspapers, separating the person from the artist, the relationship between vituperative feelings and meeting people, the celebrity-industrial complex, Dion’s 2005 appearance on Larry King, whether or not Larry King mocks his guests, judging a person on a handful of eccentricities, whether it’s possible to see the “real” Celine Dion, reinforcing celebrity image, whether or not personal information about an artist can affect your opinion about the art, Michael Jackson, “classic” vs. contemporary pop culture, the expiration date of scorn, that damn song from Titanic, Celine Dion in Vegas, music and emotional frames of reference, the problems with the word “social” being applied to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, the problems with “hip,” coolness and judgment, the Mountain Goats, the perceived “hipness” of alt-music boosters, authenticity, “keeping it real,” and civil disagreement.

(Note: Video excerpt forthcoming.)


wilson2Correspondent: But look at the Beatles and Elvis. I mean, this would seem to me to confirm the ideal conditions. It would be very difficult to find someone who is a music lover who hates the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elvis. I mean, there’s a fairly common consensus. Even if you don’t love them, you can at least appreciate the achievement of these bands that just went in and likewise captured the popular consensus. And this is a little bit different from Celine Dion.

Wilson: It is.

Correspondent: In which there’s an artistic criteria likewise being applied. So how do you separate this?

Wilson: I mean, it’s different than Celine Dion. And it’s different than Stockhausen. Right? So look at them as poles of a spectrum and the Beatles and Elvis as being somewhere in the center of that spectrum. By the end of the book, there’s a whole essay at the end of the book about taste and different ways of thinking about it and criticism. And the thing, that at the end of this whole process of immersing myself into a different taste world than my own, was that where those big aesthetic disagreements arise, my tendency at this point is to suspect that really it’s a problem of terms. That people are arguing on a different set of assumptions than one another, but that their conclusions are perhaps equally valid. But that doesn’t mean that I think now that Celine Dion and the Beatles are equals. And it would be a whole other sort of chapter of this exploration to figure out where to find some kind of more objective set of measurements for greatness. But if you’re using populism and anti-populism hand in hand, what you do find with people like Elvis and the Beatles, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles — you know, they kind of win all of those contests. I’m not saying everything’s the same.

Correspondent: Then what accounts for the aberrative impulse for Celine Dion then?

Wilson: I think that there are things that are confirmed both by elite opinion and populist opinion. And in those cases, it’s kind of good to think, “Oh, well, whichever direction you come from, this gets through the gates.” What explains what doesn’t get through one set of gates and what doesn’t get through another set of gates. And so the book is more concerned with aesthetic disagreement than aesthetic agreement. And it’s a question of when we have these fights. When you’re at a party and somebody’s saying, “This is great,” and you’re saying, “This is terrible,” what are you really talking about? And my suspicion is that you’re talking about something that has more of a deeply autobiographical root than it has any connection to some objective set of markers. But that’s not to say that there might not be works of art that are more profound and universal than others.

Correspondent: But see, Carl, this is where I’m going to have to disagree with you. Because you’re applying a criteria here where if I go to a party to express a particular opinion about music, I’m immediately going to focus in on Celine Dion and absolutely damn her to the skies. When, in fact, in my case, I have not actually thought about Celine Dion in any serious capacity until I read your book. I mean, I largely ignored her. So this is why I’m a little suspicious. I mean, I hear where you’re coming from. But I’m a little suspicious of how you’re applying such a broad brush to how we have tastes and how we express those tastes at parties.

Wilson: Well, it might just be that Celine’s not the best example for you. But maybe Whitney Houston is a good example for you. I think there’s a whole category…

Correspondent: I ignore her too!

Wilson: But that just, to me, speaks to the aesthetic world that you live in — it’s well cordoned off enough from places where you might have to deal with that. But, I mean, the places where I use as examples in setting this up is, in the media, the people who are representatives of our tribe. You know, the aesthetes. Which are middlebrow aesthetes in terms of who’s writing a column in the newspaper. Celine is a very favorite whipping boy.

Correspondent: Whipping boy. Have you looked at her lately?

(Photo credit: David Waldman)

BSS #279: Carl Wilson (Download MP3)

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