Sunday, September 02, 2007

Jack and John Company or No, Pirates 3 Didn't Suck

Once in a while I remember why I still read Harper's Magazine. Sometimes it's the Index. Sometimes it's the articles. Once in a while it's a quote that skewers the truth. Long time back they had a roundtable about horror, movies and good writing and why the last two are so seldom found together. The panel tried to figure out how to make a movie out of Poe's The Telltale Heart. I hardly remember what they came up with, some sort of erotic/psychological thriller. But there was one deathless line. Robert Bloch said "It was a black day in Hollywood when producers discovered Roman numerals."

For the most part he was right. Sequels usually suck festering warthog hemorrhoids. That's why we were so surprised when three sequels - Spiderman II, Shrek II and Pirates of the Caribbean II - were all so good. We were looking forward to seeing the final installments but were prepared to be disappointed.

"Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed."

Spiderman III was lame, dog lame. The final (oh Lord I hope it's final) installment of Shrek tried to retread old jokes, play it safe and do everything safely by formula. It was set to be a Family Friendly Summer Blockbuster. And it did make a lot of money. Our low expectations were barely met, and we didn't quite feel ripped-off at three bucks a head.

With all the bad press that Pirates 3 got we weren't about to see it for full price. So we waited until it was playing at the Bagdad Theater.

For those of you not lucky enough to live in the North Wet the Bagdad is one of the McMenamin Brothers' chain. They pretty much started the brewpub revolution in this part of the country and have expanded from a couple pubs to hotels, old-style ballrooms with sprung floors, event locations, a winery and all sorts of other wonderful things. They specialize in taking old properties and converting them into really fun funky places. The Baghdad was a decrepit theater in the Hawthorne district. They added a bar and put in a cigar/pool/port bar around the corner. They also converted a lot of the seats into real chairs and sofas and ripped out a bunch of the rows to make room for tables. You can have beer and a pizza while you watch a second run movie.

So armed with cider, Hammerhead Ale and a couple pepperoni slices we saw Pirates of the Caribbean III. We weren't expecting much. They'd already hit the three greatest monsters in the second movie - Davy Jones, the Flying Dutchman and the Kraken. What was left? Oh well, at the worst we'd get to see Keith Richards playing a decrepit, broken down drunken pirate outlaw. Definitely character acting for him, and barely a stretch.

I can see why a lot of people didn't like it. It wasn't a clever roller coaster like the other two. It was pretty damned grim. The pacing wasn't quite off. The dialog wasn't inspired. And the end just plain isn't going to satisfy people who want a light-hearted wrap-up where the Boy and Girl live happily ever after and everyone ends up singing happy songs. It's not that kind of Disney movie. In fact I think Disney might just have gotten a little bit of its soul back in the post-Eisner era.

That's the real thing that I think bothered a lot of people about this film. It goes against the grain. The movie opens with endless lines of wretches being hanged. As they march to the gallows an Officer is reading out an edict. There's a State of Emergency. The following rights are modified: The right of habeas corpus. Suspended. The right to assemble. Suspended. The right to trial by jury. Suspended. The right to an attorney. Suspended. For anyone convicted of piracy or anyone associated with a convicted pirate the penalty is to be hanged by the neck until dead. Little children not tall enough to reach the noose are thoughtfully stood on barrels so they can be hanged with the rest.

You don't have to be a wild-eyed revolutionary to get the message there.

And the Authority isn't even the British Crown. It's John Company, the E.I.C., one of the first and greatest of the multinationals with its own fleets, its own armies and no responsibility to anything but its bottom line. The pirates are the terrorists. Many of them are swarthy Orientals. They stand against the Company and against an Authority that controls the terrible power of the Sea Itself.

This is not a politically correct or even personally safe position to hold these days. The people taking away civil liberties are the villains. They all look alike with their uniforms and pale skins. The Corporation, Holy Avatar and Chosen of the Sacred Market (Laaa!) is evil. Every single evil-doer is a White Male Anglo-Saxon Capitalist. The Company honors no agreements. As its representative Beckett says "It's nothing personal. It's just good business."

A bunch of swarthy outlaws who cause terror including Frenchmen, Ay-rabs, armed Negroes *shudder* and Chinese are the Good Guys. They represent all the races of Man and include women in positions of power. They include the wretched of the Earth. They represent freedom. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are brave. Some are treacherous. The pirates quarrel. Get a bunch of them together, and a fight breaks out. "That's politics," quips Jack Sparrow. But when it comes down to it they all obey the Pirate Code to which they all signed on. They stand for freedom. The leader leads so with the consent of the electors and is first into battle rather than hiding in an undisclosed safe location.

Corporate rule is bad. Freedom is good. Those who stand against authority are the heroes. People can have flaws and still be heroic if they do what is right when the chips are down. And there are worse things than dying if you're doing what you really believe is right. These are not popular sentiments today. Our entire media machine and the political tenor of the day stands for submission to authority, mistrust of democratic institutions, the union of political and corporate power and the abandonment of all rights including habeas corpus, assembly, association, trial by jury and the right to an attorney, so that an English-speaking elite will make us feel safe from the dark-skinned Other.

Nope. The media people just aren't going to like this one.

And it doesn't have a Disney ending. The Boy doesn't quite get the Girl. They'll live ever after but probably not happily. His job is necessary, even sacred. But it's lonely, unpleasant and one he was never really cut out for. She has to do what the wives of sailors have always done which is wait and keep his heart safe.The man best suited for immortality sailing the seas gives it up. All the major characters betray each other, lie, and do bad things for what they consider good reasons. And nobody gets away unhurt. It makes for better drama and a much fuller story than we'd expected. It certainly isn't formula. It doesn't give the audience what it expects from a Disney flick. But it just might be the most subversive even courageous thing to come out of the Magic Kingdom in a long time.

And Keith Richards has hella stage presence as Captain Teach.

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