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Bears Don’t Live on Deserted Islands: My Analysis of “Swiss Army Man” [Spoiler Warning]

8 Jul

For my birthday, we went to an Independent theater and saw the Sundance Film, “Swiss Army Man.”  Let’s just get all talking/jokes about farting out of the way now–that’s not really the central theme of the movie–or this blog.  When you’re watching this movie, you have to “buy in” very early or you’ll hate it.  The film is like one of the whimsical paintings I like, but in a film format.  The reality is altered/fanciful, the shots are jerky, the characters (one is a literally dead guy) in their own little world where physics and time aren’t invited.  You could watch the entire film, and just feel like it was a random string of crazy events.  BUT after much thought, I found a linear plot and meaning.

The supporting evidence:

-When Hank first sees the body, and rides him out in the ocean, then the film cuts back to him with his face on the sandy beach.  Is it a new beach?  Is he somehow back at the same beach?

-random garbage appears in the place–all the time.  Everywhere they are.  I know the ocean has trash, but THIS MUCH???

-Hank looks scruffy as if he’s been in this deserted place for a long time.  His beard is long and he’s dirty.  Yet, he has no survival skills.  He doesn’t know how to make tools to hunt or fish with and he eats bad berries so he doesn’t have a good grip of foraging.  How has he survived this long without having any skills?

-toward the middle of the film, a (grizzly?) bear attacks.  Where is this place where a tropical white sand beach is attached to the woods?

-they travel, travel, travel and end up in the love interest’s back yard

-there are space/time descrepencies regarding the island, such as at the end when Hank is back in society, they are both in the yard with other people, then everyone runs through the forest, but finally everyone is back at the beach.  and Manny goes back to the ocean.

-After Hank is discovered, he rides the body down one hill behind her back yard–and there are his crafts and trash-projects!  He has been right behind her house the whole time-creeper.

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Given these factors, I decided there is no physical island in the movie at all.  And that fact changes the whole movie doesn’t it?  We’re not just in suspended disbelief–this is a perspective story.  Hank’s POV.  The island is a metaphor for how Hank feels/Hank’s thoughts.  He is on a self-imposed deserted island because he feels weird/lonely/stigmatized by society.  This is a movie like the 6th Sense or Memento–we are watching through the lense of whatever mental illness (anxiety/depression, love-obsessed stalker, anti-social personality, skitzophrenia???) Hank has.

Let’s re-examine the above factors:

-When Hank first sees the body, and rides him out in the ocean, then the film cuts back to him with his face on the sandy beach.  Is it a new beach?  Is he somehow back at the same beach?

*Hank was in the middle of committing suicide when the film opens, and he sees a dead body.  A lot of people with mental illness are at risk for suicide.  Seeing the dead body, somehow gives Hank something else to think about other then how he feels.  The body makes him interested in something so he changes his mind about suicide.  Then, as Hank’s mind settles a little, and he doesn’t feel so alone, we see Hank “leaving the deserted island” via the body.  But there is no real personal connection between Hank and this body (yet) so the exit off the island is brief and Hank wakes up back on his deserted island, isolated the way it all started.

-random garbage appears where Hank is

*I won’t go into the more obvious symbolism of trash in the movie, but I’ll talk about how the trash proves location.  At the end, Sarah recognizes her own diary in Hank’s belongings/crafts.  It’s the same diary she happened to be writing in when Hank took the pic of her on the bus.  It shows that Hank has been behind her house, squirreling away her trash the whole time.  All the crafts and stuff are made from her trash!  And that has a more creepy/sinister vibe.

-toward the middle of the film, a (grizzly?) bear attacks

*I don’t know everything about bears, but I’m pretty sure they never live on tropical deserted islands.  This was the primary reason I “got” the film.  The terrain in this deserted changes from beginning to end of the film.  We start out at white sand beaches, go through the forest, over bodies of water, hear a road, then we’re in a back yard.  If all Hank had to do was walk, then why was he so desperate to commit suicide at the beginning?  Also, I wouldn’t think you’d make the effort to kill yourself in a deserted island situation–nature would do it for you.  You’d soon starve, or dehydrate.  If you were desperate on an island, and no longer cared if you lived or died, wouldn’t you just make some sort of last ditch heroic effort to get back to people?

-Hank looks scruffy as if he’s been in this deserted place for a long time.  His beard is long and he’s dirty.  Yet, he has no survival skills.  He doesn’t know how to make tools to hunt or fish with and he eats bad berries so he doesn’t have a good grip of foraging.  How has he survived this long without having any skills?

*Really, Hank didn’t have to know survival skills because the desertion was in his head.  He was physically camping near Sarah’s house and scrounging in her garbage.  Which is why Cheetos and alcohol make it to the deserted place, when in reality it would be implausible for one of those items, and probably impossible to get enough trash to literally survive upon.  Also, the beard.  In the beginning, on the island, Hank’s beard is long and scruffy.  As he and Manny open up and gain a camaraderie–Hank is clean-shaven.  Yet we are never shown how.  I think the hair is part of feeling like an outcast hermit so when he has someone else, Hank no longer feels like that and the symbol of being outcast hermit also just disappears.

-they travel, travel, travel and end up in the love interest’s back yard

and

-there are space/time dependencies regarding the island, such as at the end when Hank is back in society, they are both in the yard with other people, then everyone runs through the forest, but finally everyone is back at the beach.  and Manny goes back to the ocean.

*You start to notice that the more intimacy that is gained between the dead body and Hank, the less deserted the island becomes (we go from isolated white sand beach, to forest, to water, see bears, hear cars, and finally see a little girl in a back yard).  The entire film is about these two buddies traveling back to society.  It takes the whole time!  Yet, at the end, Hank rides Manny’s body out of Sarah’s yard, down one hill, through some water and he’s back on the white sand beach.  It shows how Hank started out in self-imposed isolation in his mind (but physically camping behind Sarah’s house), then as he found an ally, left that isolated place his mind had created.  The more they talk, the more secrets come into the open, and the more comfortable Hank gets with being “other/weird.”  His mind is now a forest.  Not quite the isolation or loneliness of a deserted island, but still removed from society.  Then, Hank and Manny are best friends and understand each other.  Hank’s mind has reintegrated with society and he will take a chance and talk to Sarah.  But then, he sees his father, who is ashamed.  He sees Sarah is alarmed, and the world is a scary place again where Hank is the weird one.  All the progress he made with Manny recedes and his mind takes him back out of the yard, through the forest, on the isolated white beach.  And with the exit of Manny into the ocean–to an altered reality.  It’s (the physical location is actually inside Hank’s own mind) cemented when we see the change in Hank’s father demeanor.  When Hank’s mind is back in reality (he is physically and mentally in a yard) his father leans against the truck–ashamed at what has happened and who his son is.  But when Manny goes back into the ocean, and hank is arrested the father smiles.  It’s because Hank’s mind has gone back to his safe place, and in it Hank can fantasize his father is happy and proud of him–because it’s not reality anymore.  Hank is free of societal restrictions on the island/in the ocean fantasy.

-After Hank is discovered, he rides the body down one hill behind her back yard–and there are his crafts and trash-projects!  He has been right behind her house the whole time-creeper.

*This is the biggest clue the audience is given to Hank’s mind/physical body being different.  When we watch the movie, yes everything is strange, but the shows, and crafts, books, and reenactments are normalized.  We aren’t repulsed by any of it, because we bought in.  When we are out of Hank’s head at the end, and see the same items through the lens of Sarah’s perspective, the crafts and trinkets suddenly look garish and creepy.  She realizes he’s back there doing weird stuff with her garbage.  She knows some random stranger saw her on the bus, took a cell phone pic, found out where she lives, and is now camping there are doing strange projects with her garbage.  She looks horrified.

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So even though I, also, sat in that theater and said, “What the fuck?”  as the lights came back on–I liked the movie.  The more I thought about it, and discussed the plot after the movie, the more it made sense.  And when it made sense, it suddenly had a linear plot that was more likable than that string of random happenings.  I like a movie you have to think about.  And Swiss Army Man has no shortage of metaphor’s, symbols, and discrepancies to make the audience do just that.  I recommend you give it a chance and watch the film–just do me a favor and stop with all the fart jokes.

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Rich Hill: Sundance Was Wrong

2 Oct

I don’t think the documentary deserves the film festival’s grand prize.

I found the film to be overwrought and overly dramatic. A one-sided portrayal that preferred a melancholy look even during happy times.

I watch documentaries ALL the time–it’s my favorite genre, actually.  So it’s not like I just don’t get it.  But I almost turned this one off before the halfway point.  Nothing was happening.  We looked into lives, but there was no further analysis or explanation.  I figured the reviews and forums would note the same thing–but to my great surprise–people seem to love it.  And the one review (A) that wasn’t glowing, got a bunch of hostile comments (B).  Saying that the author of that piece was pretentious, and didn’t understand small towns.

I feel like the bleak story is garnering praise, not because the film is accurate, but because the middle and upper class urban audiences watching it feel guilty.  The viewer feels guilty about living amongst more people, having more, and thus getting a greater advantage in life.  What viewers don’t understand, is money doesn’t mean happiness.  And yes, there might be more opportunity for people with means, but it doesn’t mean having to aquiense to a dreamless, disenfranchised exsistance you can’t crawl out of.  Some people are happy, even in poverty, because they have family and nature and traditions.  There aspirations may not be the same as the affluent, but people in poverty aren’t as dire day-to-day as this film presents–there IS some real happiness.  Kids don’t remember presents or not having the latest brand name jacket–they remember LOVE.  It’s no accident the “good” kid in the film has both a mother and father.  Audiences are mistakingly saying the movie is a good one, not because it is, but because they feel the need to acknowledge small-town, poverty-stricken America.  Which IS important.  But that doesn’t make this a good film.

And don’t get me wrong–the story of poverty (and the stories about and by marginalized groups) are important to tell.  But the ACCURATE stories.  It’s not doing anybody any good to skew the facts in either direction.  We need to hear about, and understand these concepts, but in a manner which leaves the subjects dignity.  This film may aim to provide empathy, but you actually leave the film judging.  Why can’t Independence Day fireworks BE authentically happy?

I am from a small town, and there was joy.  Sure, I didn’t have access to AP classes, cultural events, or big corporate jobs, but my community is not suicidal because of it.  I think a real weakness in this movie is  how it took away their subjects decency–under the auspices of being candid, empathetic, and non-judgmental.  Instead of taking about what Apache’s mom does for work, how many hours, what struggles she may have to face–the camera scanned the filthy walls, and trash on the floor.  Also, this film may have shown what were supposed to be happy moments, but did so in a way as to make the happiness less-than.  The melancholy feel was pervasive throughout the hour and a half.  This one-sided film neglected to mention the teachers, the sports, the churches that are certainly predominant in rural America.  There ARE people trying to make a difference in these kids’ lives, and it’s a shame that the film-makers were so busy trying to show the misery they neglected the heroes.

I currently live under the poverty line, am on food stamps, and go without many things.  I live the mango scene almost daily–EBT does not buy over-priced produce that has a short shelf-life.  You have to buy Grocery Outlet sodium-infused cheap foods to make the money last.  But this doesn’t make life unlivable and depressing as this film would have you believe.  It does not mean you’re starving and hurting on a daily basis.  Poverty alone, does not equal total hopelessness, as “Rich Hill” purports.

I also can criticize the film because I lived in Missouri for 6 years (C).  So it’s not like I don’t know–as commentors were saying on the other critical review of the film.  I loved Missouri, actually.  And I’ve lived in Dayton, Nevada, Reno, Seattle, Spokane, and Salt Lake City, so I have places to compare it to.  Missouri is often made out to be this horrid Bible-Belt place where renecks spend every moment they’re not in church hunting or doing meth.  And this film helps play into those stereotypes.  Choosing Missouri as the location for a poverty film is cliche.  There are rednecks and losers in every state and city.  Missouri is not inherently poverty-stricken, or uneducated.  Like any place else, there are poor, trashy people, criminals, and hooligans, churchy people, and hunters.  But there are also scholars, progressives, and winners there.  This film would have you believe Missouri is squirrel-eatin’ country folk who caint do right.  It’s an unbalanced assessment.

The hugest weakness of the film, is the fact it gives no overarching commentary.  I don’t mean, they should tell us their opinions or make the movie biased, but information and context would make the film better (D).  I want to see a map of where Rill Hill is located in Missouri.  It should be stated or inferred that there is no way to make money because of location, it’s in the hotbed of meth, or it used to be a gold mine, but is now a ghost town.  Location would give the viewer an idea of WHY.  I want some context as to HOW the town has no jobs and adults have seemingly given up (or had no hope in the first place).  I want to know the population size, employment statistics, at the very least, an explanation about how the town named “Rich” Hill became so desperate.  I also wanted to know if the profiled families are the worst of it, or if this is the common way for people to live in this town.  The film offers none of that.  Only bleak long shots of toys strewn in yards, dirty walls, and foul-mouthed youth.

In the end, I accuse this of being an exploitation film, little better than The Kardashians.  Though the subjects of the film are at the opposite end of the spectrum, they are still being portrayed in a one-sided overly dramatic and frivolous light.  And that’s not fair.

(A)

Rich Hill

In his essay from the late 1940s entitled “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” literary theorist Lionel Trilling stated that “pleasure in cruelty is licensed by moral indignation,” and would go on to claim the middle class as the group of people where such a strange aesthetic relationship often takes hold, designating moral indignation as their “favorite emotion.” Rich Hill exists in this space. Detailing the lives of three separate, impoverished teen boys living in Rich Hill, Missouri, directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos allow their camera to probe and linger in spaces of disorder and grime, but without any discernible purpose other than gaining access to lower-class spaces—another popular pleasure created through middle-class distance. Rich Hill is poverty porn, examining lower-class spaces with pity as its operative mode and engendering little more than a means for viewers to leave the film acknowledging its sadness.

The film, which won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, unsuccessfully attempts to transform its subjects’ circumstances into lyrical lament a la David Gordon Green or Terrence Malick. However, Palermo and Tragos don’t have an eye for it; beneath aimless tracking shots of dilapidated buildings and an indistinct, almost temp-track melancholic score, the boyhood struggles of Andrew, Appachey, and Harley remain at arms length, primarily because the filmmakers confuse access with insight. That access amounts to “boys-will-be-boys” moments of cursing out the TV while playing video games, applying far too much cologne, and sleeping in Playboy Bunny bed sheets, juxtaposed with more aggressive behavior, such as when Harley bluntly explains his thoughts on sexual violence: “I got strong feelings about rape; I’m against it,” and concludes by stating that he would like to murder rapists. It becomes clear that Palermo and Tragos include his views to set up a later revelation: that Harley was raped by his stepfather as a child.

Child rape is a questionable “payoff” in any film, but remains consistent with Palermo and Tragos’s undiscerning insistence of revealing the depths of sorrow afflicting these lives—or it reveals their banal manipulation tactics and cognizance of what will outrage the middle-class viewers bound to see their film. They also feature lines from their subjects like “It feels good to have the bills paid for once” or “Me and my mom used to listen to this song before she got locked up” with little more in mind than piling on the pitiful sorrow. Of course, an entire socioeconomic stratosphere exists outside these communities, but Rich Hill makes no mention of it; it’s too busy wandering in and out of its simplistic aesthetic register, juxtaposing fireworks with arm wrestling and any other number of forced metaphors (wilted leaves barely hanging to trees in the wind is perhaps the most risible). Missing is the joyful peculiarity found in Louis Malle’s God’s Country and the devastating ethnographic urgency of Martin Bell’s Streetwise. Near the beginning of the film, a train chugs through the small town. The far-reaching grasp of industrialized expansion may have arrived in Rich Hill, but purpose or insight into this dynamic have eluded Palermo and Tragos’s grasp.

http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/rich-hill

(B) comments:

  • You are far too pretentious to critique this documentary.

    Speaking as someone who grew up poor in the foster care system, it was refreshing to see a story that wasn’t sugar coated and didn’t have a happy ending. Your critique exposes just how narrow minded, callous and pompous you are. What a whimsical little fairy tale world you must have grown up in, where magical pumpkins were a plenty and any hardship or strife was manufactured purely for the sake of drama. If only we were all as privileged as you.

    Wow….have you ever lived or been to rural America? That seems to be the issue with your review. Maybe, they didn’t convey the message enough for those of life of privilege? The documentary was right on for REAL America…be happy your life took a different path..It is ugly and unfortunately..REAL

    http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/rich-hill

    (C)  Comments that prove my points:

    • I’m looking forward to seeing this film, but not because I believe it will be a good film. I’m curious to see exactly how inaccurately this town, one that I have lived near for over 20 years and have family live there, is portrayed.

      The film makers told the community that this would be a celebration of small town life. Instead, they chose to take the three saddest stories they could find and sensationalize their plight. Two of the youths in the film no longer live in Rich Hill and continue their transient ways as many families in their situation do. They are not a product of the town, but instead found their way there, stayed for only a short time, then left.

      The community has been following the press releases related to this film for many months. All of them are very similar: comparing Rich Hill to a third-world country and making outlandish claims such as the people are disconnected from the world and that the local school has the best jobs in the area. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though I will admit that the town resembles nothing like New York, Los Angeles, or Sundance (and I am thankful for that!)

      As I said, I do plan to see this film for as cheaply as I possibly can. I refuse to line the dishonest film makers’ pockets any more than they already are. I truly hope that this “documentary” dies a quick death as many festival films do.

      I will not see this “film”, nor will I give it another thought after I am through typing this. I grew up in Rich Hill and I am thankful I did, some of my best memories take me back there, and I will cherish those memories until the day I die. I do not live there now, but another small town in fly over country and I go back and visit Rich Hill when I can. At one time in my life I had the privilege to be an active duty U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA and I was able to witness for myself just how “glamorous” certain parts of “The City of Angels” are. After reading the review, It seems to me that maybe these Hollywood “elites” should focus their lens on the third world, dirt-water areas of The Greater LA Metropolitan Area (especially Hollywood). You see, while I may have grown up in small town America, I have visited and sometimes lived in the big cities of America and around the world and you can find these stories any and every where you go.

    •  

      Snobbish filmmakers from California go to rural Missouri to make a reality film about poor people.

      This makes me sick.

      http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/rich-hill-sundance-review-673217

      (D)

‘Rich Hill’ review: Successes can’t hide film’s shortfalls

Updated 7:19 pm, Thursday, August 21, 2014

Documentary. Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. (Not rated. 91 minutes.)

“Rich Hill,” a melancholic, impressionistic portrait of three impoverished youths in small-town Missouri, is both ambitious and unambitious.

What makes this elegy worth watching is the unfettered access to Andrew, Appachey and Harley, teenagers who are dealing with a hardscrabble existence in which role models are nowhere in sight. Throughout the film, we marvel at how directors Tracy Droz Tragos and cousin Andrew Droz Palermo capture the kids and their interactions with their families – it’s all very natural.

The cinematography is so beautiful, and the score so hypnotic, that the project threatens to come off as an exercise in trailer park porn (for the record, there are no trailer parks in sight, but you get the point).

Even though these talented directors for the most part walk a fine line between glorifying poverty and making a statement about small-town life, they fall short in providing context for the boys’ problems and in explaining why it’s so tough for them to find help. This is a big-picture topic, and we have big-picture questions.

Do the boys or their families reach out for assistance? Is there any aid available? Any mentor programs? Do people around them care? Are there a lot of poor kids like this in town? We don’t know – and we don’t see the boys or their families in many meaningful interactions with the outside world.

After the first five minutes or so, we figure out that these kids’ prospects are grim, and most of the subsequent scenes say the same thing, even though they are exquisitely filmed and edited.

As it stands, “Rich Hill” is a poetic statement about the sadness of rural poverty. It could have been a lot more.

Jacob’s Ladder

7 Feb

I think the movie was going for some sort of “Sixth Sense” reveal, but ultimately tried to cram to much in to get a full effect. It tried something, but missed the mark by going in too many directions.

PTSD, biological warfare, paranoia, flashbacks, one family & a random girlfriend, a hospital torture scene, post office job, subway craziness, monsters, angelic chiropractor, and a dead child. That’s too many loose ends for one movie. It doesn’t pack a punch, send me into analysis, or make me think–it made me schizophrenic. Did the plots of 5 movies get jumbled together?  Did the writer/direction have a plan for this?

I think the people that liked this were pretentious–and automatically assume SMART people get it. All I see is poor story telling, and nothing substantial to grab onto. Mulholland Drive–that is a puzzle that can be solved with attention to detail and some analysis. This one = fragmented garbage.

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