Tuesday, 14 January 2014

All Is Lost: The Eight Ages Of Cap'n Bob

Batten down the hatches, there's a metaphor blowing in

Hopefully by now you've seen All Is Lost, a perfectly reasonable film starring Robert Redford as a wrinkly, sea-bound equivalent of Sandra Bullock in Gravity. If not, why not give it a whizz? It's the tenth-best film I saw at last year's London Film Festival, and only nine films in existence can honestly say they come with a higher recommendation than that.

That said, it is lacking something. It's the tale of a man in a boat who, through sheer circumstance, has to fight for survival against the elements. Maybe he succeeds, maybe he doesn't: the ending's fairly ambiguous - or at least it was to me. But perhaps I needed that ambiguity, because everything I'd seen in the preceding 100 minutes just seemed too... straightforward. We learn nothing about Redford's character (which is, frankly, a preferable approach to Bullock's crowbarred and clich├ęd dead kid backstory), so All Is Lost becomes purely a conflict between man and nature. Nothing wrong with that as such, but I needed more. I just couldn't believe someone would make a film like that and not have something else to say.

And so it was that, mid-way through the film, I began to see a metaphor emerge, along the vague lines that the entire story was an allegory of a human life from conception to death and possibly beyond. Whether it was writer / director JC Chandor's intention to imply subliminal meaning, I don't know. I haven't bothered to find out, because if it wasn't then the film really is just about a man on a boat and I'll be disappointed. I'm pretty sure the metaphor I had in mind wasn't planned though, for two reasons: one, it falls apart like a child's fib under the lightest of scrutiny, and two, when I outlined it to The Shiznit's Ali Gray in a post-screening chat he looked at me as if I was speaking Hindi and then laughed at me. It's fair to say the idea hadn't occurred to him.

But more on that guy later; allow me to outline my hypothesis. As I say, it's idiotic and incomplete, but bear with me. Also, be warned: this bit contains spoilers up the wazzoo.

The Eight Ages Of Cap'n Bob

1. Conception
Cap'n Bob's journey across the ocean / existence, at least as far as we're concerned, begins with penetration. A large, firm container forcibly inserts itself into the fragile outer skin of his boat (the Virginia Jean, which, er, sounds a bit like 'vagina'), spilling its load. Shortly afterwards, Cap'n Bob emerges from his vessel and our protagonist's story begins. So far, so "seriously?", I know, but stay with me. And don't forget that the chances of any given sperm fertilising an egg are astronomical; probably about the same as a container crashing into your boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

2. The plain sailing of youth
I seem to remember an early stretch of All Is Lost in which nothing much happened. It was just like the carefree days of childhood, or something. Alternatively I may have nodded off.
3. Direction and education
We all need direction in our formative years, and Cap'n Bob is no exception. He attempts to find his by fixing the navigation systems on his boat, while simultaneously schooling himself by reading about celestial navigation.

4. Adolescence
What's that on the horizon? Why, it's The Tempest Of Puberty! Things are about to get stormy, and everything is going to change. There'll be lots of tossing, which is a cheap joke on my part for which I apologise, but basically Cap'n Bob's about to enter a maelstrom from which he can only hope to emerge stronger and better prepared for whatever the future has in store.
5. Leaving home
When Cap'n Bob's first home becomes unsuitable for his needs (because it's basically matchsticks), it's time for him to move out to a smaller, cramped abode where he lives off meagre food rations and drinks the juice from baked bean cans. This is a time of survival, when he must fend for himself: if only he could find another human being to help him face a cruel world and wash his underpants.

6. A need to belong
Cap'n Bob masters a skill: he learns to operate a sextant. With this he aims to propel himself towards international shipping lanes, a blatant (i.e. tenuous) metaphor for business and the constantly-moving stream that is working life. Only by joining in can Bob hope to live like everyone else. Heh, "Bob hope". But wait! There are sharks in the water, predators who want to bring him down for their own selfish reasons. Welcome to adulthood.
7. Failure
Cap'n Bob's grand plan fails for reasons both within and beyond his control, so he writes a letter. This is clearly representative of the part of life where we fuck everything up and start a blog because nobody will listen to me us.

8. Senility and death
Like an old man losing control of his faculties and behaving in an increasingly irrational manner, Cap'n Bob rather stupidly sets fire to his own life raft. Death comes for him, and while he struggles against it for as long as he can, eventually he gives up. In the film's final moments, he's either saved or drowned, depending on how full or empty your glass is. Personally I think he's hanging up his sou'wester in Davy Jones' Locker.

So there you have it. Shakespeare proposed the seven ages of man; I went one better. IN YOUR FACE, 'THE BARD'! I fully expect and deserve ridicule for it, but let's be honest: films are as much about what we bring to them as they are about what they bring to us. Ali liked All Is Lost and didn't need to endow it with a load of subtext in order to enjoy it, and that's fine. I found it lacking, so filled in the blanks for myself - I didn't do it deliberately, my brain just went looking for more than it could see and found stuff that may or may not be there.

I forget the point I was trying to make. Maybe you can make one up and retroactively apply it to this post yourself.

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