January 19, 2014

All is lost: a film without a character

Who is the central character of All is lost- the recent film starring Robert Redford? I think almost everyone will say that the central character is Redford's man, played outstandingly by the Hollywood veteran. He is the only human being who appears in the film. We watch his face for an hour and a half as his boat is blown hither and thither by the storms of the pacific, as his hopes rise and fall, as he learns to cope with the disasters that continually effect him. We watch him as he responds to the problems that come upon him. We watch him when he writes home a last letter, watch him as he exclaims in a swear word even Mary Whitehouse might have allowed, 'fuck', watch him as he battles to stay alive. So he must be the central character, the psychological presence that defines the film.

If so, then he is a pretty odd character. Character means choice. I am who I am because I chose to eat satsumas rather than grapes, prefer Leeds United to Manchester United, like talking about politics. Do you notice something about those three things: they are all positive choices. I am not forced into any of them. Freedom is in a sense a condition of character because its the space in which character can evolve- that's why Auden's lines about a 'million boots' in line make us cringe- human beings have become mechanisms. In all is lost, Redford's man doesn't make a single decision: all his decisions are merely expedients to survive- they are the decision of a man to cling on to an overhanging rock when teetering on the brink of a drop. They don't offer anything that we can comprehend in terms of character: you can't say anything about what this character loves or likes- you can say he is a fighter and he endures- you cannot say though why he fights or endures.

Equally the thing he fights does not have a character. Nature threatens Redford but there is no sense that it cares. The film moves us away from comforting myths of providence: there are no reasons for Redford to suffer and we can't invent any because we know nothing of him. Nature just is. It buffets him with waves and rewards him with sunshine. Sharks look at him with a greedy eye. Fish pass underneath him, without curiosity. The man is abandoned as the film makes clear against the vastness of the great Pacific ocean and the ocean has no interest in whether he survives or not. If Redford is reacting, he is reacting against forces he does not understand or control- against forces who have no ultimate goal as far as he is concerned at all. He is alone against them because they do not share any companionship with him at all. In that sense Redford's fight is characterless because he cannot respond save by resisting.

I am unsurprised that the Oscar academy didn't know what to do with this picture: Redford's performance is monumental and he deserves the best actor as much as the other nominees (I hasten to add I've only seen American Hustle of the other films) but its not a performance which is easy to categorise or understand. Redford only has a couple of lines of dialogue. The film has no easy message- it isn't about the environment nor the triumph of the human spirit. If anything its about the lack of location of that spirit, the strangeness of the world and its lack of recognition of these hairless bipeds within it. That's a hard message to give an oscar to, but its a rewarding insight into our condition.

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