I’ve only recently, as an English teacher, become familiar with the idea of “author’s intent.” For some reason, I never had to learn this phrase until nowish. Questions like “What was the intended message” and “How did the author get the reader to find his meaning” always sort of seemed beside the point to me. A text can try to guide you towards one meaning, but ideally, it should not either fail or succeed. A good book or film creates a wide scale between failure and success and questions its own merit throughout.
That said, I found 127 Hours almost transparent in its “author’s intent” and yet for me, it failed to make its meaning, but I liked it anyway. What I mean is, although this film’s “message” was clearly bookending the film in an obvious, overstated way, the message I took away from this grotesque, horrifying experience was clearly different from the intended one, and yet completely satisfying.
The film starts with a three-way split screen montage of typical crowds (sports fans, stockbrokers, mall-goers) and a song about what makes the human race different from animals. It ends with similarly-styled scenes and real-life updates, and so, we know: humans, family, reliance on others is important. Man is not an island. If you get trapped under a rock you will need the help of, or at least the trust in others. I’m still not convinced of this.
James Franco has won me back in this role because he is such a dork and I totally buy it, which seems almost impossible, now that I think about it. The techniques of the opening scenes help this characterization along. We see him taking pictures of himself, joyfully talking to a video camera and wiping out on his mountain bike (freeze frames, picture-in-picture, and nineties-Mountain-Dew-commercial-style action shots, coupled with a silly party soundtrack). Franco’s Aron Ralston‘s interactions with the few other characters in this film are delightfully embarrassing, and his imagined party scenes are even better (“Mountain Dew? Don’t mind if I do” was perfectly placed and somehow felt at once self-referencing, self-deprecating, and self-aggrandizing).
Then, of course, he cuts off his own arm. I was was basically hyperventilating when this was going on. A few people walked out before this scene but I don’t think anyone walked out during it. The “author’s intent” was probably to glue us to our seats, but also to align us with a character and to teach us about the human condition and to inspire us, etc.
I felt a lot, but I did not feel inspired. I felt sick, and sad, and shocked, and sympathetic, but I felt no empathy, and I felt no understanding. I cannot relate this experience to any other, and I cannot connect this supreme perseverance with a need to trust others. In fact, this scene made me think about animal behavior. What makes humans different from other animals is that we are not only survival-oriented, but pleasure seeking. Aron Ralston goes from seeking extreme pleasure to seeking only survival.
He imagines his family and what could one day be his legacy, which is another version of survival. When we see Aron’s parents and sister smiling at him from his mind, these are the most out-of-place parts of the film. Instead of understanding that Aron needed to believe in humanity in order to free himself from a fallen rock in a desolate canyon, I realized that humanity has nothing to do with one person’s survival, and a willingness to cut off your own arm has a lot to do with what makes someone way different than me. I’m pretty sure I’d rather die than do that. I wouldn’t even want to act it out.
So, what the author intended for me to see, I didn’t see. But I loved this movie. It made me feel like shit. Here is what I learned: The movie-going experience is itself sadistic, and this experience made me feel like both a sadist and a masochist, which was great. I laughed at the dorkiness of this character and relished the acute accuracy of his portrayal. I liked him because he was so far removed from my world. I could see his realistic otherness. I smiled at his social cluelessness, and then was put back into place when he physically suffered and I had to watch. The movie let me know that I’d made my bed and I’d have to lie in it. This discipline felt natural and pleasant.
The arm cutting scene was three minutes long. In real life, Aron most likely took forty minutes to detach himself from the rock that imprisoned him for five days. The insignificant pain I endured while watching the portrayal of a type of pain I will most likely never have to endure was weighted only because I already felt so insignificant as a person. Watching this scene is pleasurable because it is painful. So now I felt masochism replacing sadism, but barely, since I had a hard time getting through it. And I felt so very not brave, but somehow okay with that, and I felt relief, which made me feel worse, etc: Layers of the reward/punishment model of viewing self-mutilation.
So, I’m sure my evaluation of this movie is pretty specific to my own experience, which better proves that an “author’s intent” is essentially of little importance. In fact, Danny Boyle’s movies always have this effect on me (Trainspotting romanticizes heroin, 28 Days Later describes what I love about zombie movies instead creating a new variation on the theme, The Beach is awesomely, frantically unoriginal). After watching 127 Hours (which, in case it wasn’t clear, I highly recommend), instead of feeling more connected to the web of humanity in which I live, I felt isolated and selfish, an island of a person, floating from one fiction to the next.