Keira Knightley and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007).
The droll verbosities and narrative languors of the Pirates films (especially the last two) are not, as one might assume, out of sync with the relentless action sequences and special effects. This contrast is in fact the most successful gesture made by the series, a shrewdly calculated alienation device that will gratify enough of an otherwise uninterested audience to make up for the truly alienated contingent, a good portion of whom are too young at any rate to walk out of the theater unescorted. The least ethical thing about the films, in fact, is that the younger audience is so heavily targeted in the first place, considering the nightmarishly realistic quality of some of the violence: children are hanged, women are shot in the face, villages explode. Young viewers in the theater I was in were visibly disturbed.
Taken together, as indeed they were filmed together, the previous film (Dead Man's Chest) and this one form a single cinematic epic, complete with the requisite machinery: a controlling goddess, ocean voyages, great battles, monsters, trip to the underworld, catalogs of troops, the hero's nostos or return, etc. But this epic also strains toward the conditions of mock epic, its allegorical elements constantly redirected from the standard themes of heroism, virtue, love, and so forth, toward a weakly-conceived, self-reflexive acknowledgment of the franchise's roots in a corporate theme-park ride. The backwardness of this derivation is perhaps the most interesting thing about the concept: its novelty lies precisely in the fact that the ride spawned the story rather than the other way around, and the convincingness of the backtracking invention almost works against it. How many viewers of the current generation even know or care about this paradox? It's the boomers in the audience who laugh when the dog brings out the keys.
For the mock-epic approach to bear full fruit, there has to be a further deformation of the amusement-park trope, and we see faint glimmers of such a tendency in the Pirates films' half-hearted gestures toward political commentary--the inclusion of history in small doses, the imperialist East India Company being the bad guys and all, their chief villain proclaiming that "the immaterial is now immaterial" and that betrayal "is just good business." Disney's complicity in this capitalist history remains (surprise) underexplored, beyond some highly suggestive dreamwork in the form of reduplicated Johnny Depps and the aforementioned conspicuities of animatronic derivation.
All this said, did I enjoy it? Alas, yes. I am trying hard to convince myself that one major plot development involving Keira Knightley is a sly Kathy Acker allusion. I applaud the shameless casting of Keith Richards as Captain Teague. Like everyone else in the universe, I am defenseless against the addled charm of Depp's witty Jack. There is one shamefully inept moment, however, which comes at the very end of the film, after all the credits have rolled, and which I have to believe was added at the insistence of studio hacks: a moment which is not only saccharine and flat, but which serves to ruin any sense of romantic tension the closing moments of the story might have created. It suggests--and this may be a foregone conclusion for many--that there is no point in further sequels.
Labels: Gore Verbinski