So a new Pirates movie has hit, and in the spirit of my previous in-depth analysis, I thought I'd come to this one with some critical observations, as well. I was struck by... I don't know, by the sort of indescribable character of this movie. Try to describe the plot. You can't. Try to describe the themes or the core relationships. You can't. It was sort of overwhelming.
Obviously this has caused a wide array of critical reactions. Richard Schickel gives the film a reasonable characterization, although he didn't seem entertained by his findings: "They're everywhere, these not-so-merry miscreants — in Singapore, in Antarctica, on a desert island, in a secret pirate cove, riding mid-ocean waterfalls (very odd, that bit), exchanging broadsides while being whirled about in a maelstrom. It is very exhausting, and it makes no sense whatsoever." Here you have a good idea of the impression people got from At Worlds End... strange and incoherent, engaging in its eccentricity, but generally unfathomable.
There's something weird that shows up in these reviews, though... when they reject the movie for its strangeness, these reviewers also snark cynically at the public approval the film is bound to receive. Schickel ends his review by suggesting that "some close variant" of his Pirates III criticism "could be written week-in, week-out every summer movie season." Similarly, and even more cynically, Frank Swietek of ONE GUY'S OPINION says Pirates III "will doubtless repeat the inexplicable boxoffice success of its predecessor—testimony to the lemming-like proclivity of today’s audiences not only to rush to even the worst retreads but in some cases to do so repeatedly." Damn! Such contempt!
But what are we really critiquing here? Seriously... was it too confusing for the critics? In the work of some filmmakers, we see ambiguity and lack of resolution as assets. In the case of a Disney movie, have we no option but to recast them as "confusion" and "lack of focus" and to reject them as failures? Critics need to work out their demands... you can't judge a movie negatively for being weird, incoherent, and dense, and at the same time, criticize it for being another piece of meaningless Hollywood trilogy fluff.
Deep in the writhing mass of special effects and half-realized on-screen relationships, there was something really fascinating going on in Pirates III. It was Gore Verbinsky's cinema freak-out, a desperate, unbridled flash of filmmaking, something... how do I put it...
Yeah, David Lynch. Anyone who attacks this movie as being too weird or incoherent can go chew on that name for a while. Mulholland Dr. was a tweaky roller-coaster of a film, and it shared a lot of creative and stylistic techniques with Pirates III: unexplained reappearances of characters, strained and shifting loyalties and relationships, and recurrent motifs that were hard to pin down to a particular significance.
There are a few specific elements that made me think of Mulholland Drive as I was watching Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End.
First, Jack Sparrow's on-screen delerium was very Lynchian. He spent whole chunks of the movie interacting with himself, and frequently murdering other versions of himself. Two of them were little shoulder-mounted Jacks, like the old couple in Mulholland Drive who were shrunk to the size of a rodent. Others were alternate-reality versions, Jack Sparrows that laid eggs, Jacks that had been assimilated by the Flying Dutchman, Jacks who were into bestiality. There was no good reason for this tendency... just a lingering postmodern sense of the surreal and absurd, giving us reason to ask: just whose head are we wandering around in here?
Second, the recurrent theme of the crabs was like something from David Lynch. Mulholand Drive also had a few themes that kept coming back into the narrative, like the little box with the key, and these frequently had no clear symbolic significance or obvious associations. There are a number of ways they could fit into the narrative... they could represent something abstract, like deliverance, or they could represent the call of the sea to Jack. They seemed to be metamorphic presences, turning into objects and people and disappearing back into the environment again. They were never capitalized on or made clear... they just showed up and established their surreal presence, and then vanished again.
The mad, forgetful Bootstrap Bill was another strange, surrealist character figure, particularly in the scene were Elizabeth finds him on the Dutchman. He's pathetic and imprisoned in his own uncertainty, caught between mindless loyalty to Davey and futile, misguided hope in his son. Being part of the ship has made him tragic and amnesiac, able to repeat a conversaion as if he's having it for the first time, and it establishes his character as a unique, unpredictable force, both emotionally and narratively. In this sense, he shares a kinship with Mulholland Dr.'s Diane Selwyn, who first appears as a distraught, disturbed, and emotionally crippled actress at a low-point in her career.
There's also the sick anatomy stuff that keeps kicking us gently in the face. The scene where Jack's doppelganger licks his own brain is priceless. The death-by-tentacle lobotomy is pretty brilliant, too. These are the signature scenes of a filmmaker who REALLY wants our attention.
I'm not going to sit here and say I liked Pirates III because it was, like a Lynch Film, a profound, avant-garde piece of art cinema or a masterpiece of surrealist post-modern narrative. But it did share something with Lynch: it was an explosive, ecstatic act of filmmaking, almost childlike in its lack of inhibition.
This is the maelstrom... take it as it is: a mad cinema freakout that none of us could have expected from Gore Verbinsky, hard to follow, but insanely engaging on a dramatic and aesthetic level. Don't hold back, Gore. I'm right behind you.