Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Desert island

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2001)

Cast Away is one of the more intriguing recent Hollywood films. If nothing else, it exhibits some mild audacity in the face of commercial expectations, primarily by devoting the greater part of its length to largely silent sequences, featuring a single actor, alone on a desert island. The castaway, Chuck Noland, is played by Tom Hanks, the only survivor from the crash of a Federal Express cargo plane. He spends four years alone, before setting out to sea on a raft. The film’s trailer, and just about all reviews of the movie, are pretty open about the fact that he makes it back to civilization – this isn’t a story of what, but of how.

Hanks’ third Oscar?

Hanks’ commitment to the role pays off in a physical transformation that’s quite moving at times. At the start, he effectively suppresses his mannerisms, sketching a driven, comfortably plump businessman who preaches the gospel of timeliness and tears himself away from Christmas dinner to do the company’s bidding. I’ve always thought that Al Pacino’s performance in The Godfather, from fresh-faced outsider at the start to dead-eyed Don at the end, marked one of the most chilling transformations in any film; Hanks almost matches that standard here. After the action leaps four years, Zemeckis provides a long close-up of Hanks eating a fish that he’s speared – his eyes don’t blink; they’re held steady by faded resignation, just staying alive, keeping on breathing, waiting. As I write, I don’t know whether Hanks won a third Oscar for this – but if he did, he deserved it more than the previous two.

I like the film, but I don’t think it’s as adventurous as some commentators have claimed. It’s around two and a half hours long, but it goes by in a flash. In an age when so many mundane offerings (like Hanks’ The Green Mile) plod on beyond the three-hour mark, I started wondering whether the film mightn’t have been even better if it were longer. I started thinking how stillness, repetition and silence paid off for Chantal Akerman in Jeanne Dielman (a 200-minute study of a housewife), for Andy Warhol, for Jacques Rivette in several films.

What Lies Beneath

Of course, when I say paid off, I’m speaking artistically rather than commercially. American films don’t show loneliness, boredom, repetition – that’s as good a reason as any why they generally don’t tell us much about the way we live. They communicate those states of being – if they’re necessary for the plot – through montages, or snatches of dialogue, or close-ups. Cast Away is no different in this regard. It doesn’t particularly make us feel the weight of Hanks’ four-year isolation. It telegraphs that state as American films always do. The scenes on the island are hardly lacking in incident – actually Zemeckis speeds along quite zippily from one pivotal incident (learning how to open a coconut, extracting a diseased tooth) to the next (learning how to make fire, catching a fish). We see Hanks talking about building a raft – the next thing we see, it’s all ready to go.

Bear in mind that the filming of Cast Away closed down for a year to accommodate Hanks’ physical transformation, and in the interim Zemeckis completed an entire separate movie – What Lies Beneath, released last summer. What Lies Beneath was hardly as ambitious a project as Cast Away, but it shares an unusually deliberate pace for a mainstream film, a certain structural adventurousness (most of the first half of What Lies Beneath is devoted to a plot that turns out to be a tease, and irrelevant to the film’s ultimate direction) and it’s unusually restrained and contemplative for a thriller. Consider the long sequence in which Michelle Pfeiffer lies paralyzed in her bathtub as the water level slowly rises – staged without background music, building considerable suspense from the fact of her stillness and inability to act.

For me, the comparison with What Lies Beneath is instructive regarding Cast Away’s limits. I don’t think the film is a radical departure from storytelling norms and techniques; it’s a variation on them, but positioned safely within accessible limits. For example, Zemeckis’ use of space and silence is unusually striking for a mainstream film, but it doesn’t have the transcendental quality of Antonioni, or even of David Lynch in The Straight Story. At times it comes close. It seemed to me that the film contained an intriguing recurring use of circular motifs – an overhead shot of the life raft, the fading light from Hanks’ flashlight as he falls asleep in a dark cave, followed by the sun streaming in through the entrance; girlfriend Helen Hunt’s picture inside an antique pocket watch; his friend Wilson (see below). But when Hanks is on a plane coming home after the rescue, we see a view of hundreds of fields below, the landscape divided into countless geometrically precise parcels – instantly and subtly conveying the disorientation that accompanies Hanks’ return to order. At the very end, Zemeckis simply allows the character to bask in the vastness of the American landscape and its attendant possibilities.

Return to the world

Many critics have found the material on either side of the desert island sequence lacking – too suffused in mainstream values and attitudes to do justice to the modest radicalism of the film’s centre. Personally though, I thought the closing stretch was well-judged in conveying Noland’s sense of the world to which he returns – sterile spaces, strange artificial noises and (in a scene no less acute for being an easy mark) a buffet table piled with barely appreciated food. When he’s reunited with Hunt, and neither has any reference point for how to behave, the scene convincingly charts the odd topography of their conversation. And Zemeckis’ elliptical approach to the storytelling (for example leaving out the rescue itself, or most of the detail about how Hanks reintegrates into the world) is always intriguing.

I also mentioned the film’s famous “co-star” – the volleyball that’s washed up on the island in a FedEx package, on which Hanks draws a face using his own blood and to whom he converses at increasing length as his exile lengthens. Called “Wilson,” the idea never becomes comic, largely because the face looks more ghoulish than cute. Zemeckis gets perilously close to anthropomorphism here though, through such devices as the wind or the waves nudging Wilson into a nod or shake. But like most everything else in the film, it holds together.

Ultimately, Cast Away succeeds substantially. It never seems like a mere stunt. Numerous aspects that might seem strained on paper (the character’s presumably symbolic surname of “Noland”; the irony of an efficiency-obsessed clockwatcher ending up with nothing but time on his hands) are dispatched deftly. I’ve argued above that the film could have been better, but the likes of Rivette and Antonioni would never have come even vaguely to mind if it weren’t as good as it is.

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