FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

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Jack Sparrow is a dying breed...

In keeping with the "find yourself" stuff I was talking about in my review of PotC 2, I wanted to get obnoxiously philosophical with the current popcorn flick.

It will, in fact, involve spoilers, so I'll cut it (though the title of this post has been in every trailer and commercial, so it's not a spoiler in itself).

Early on, Lord Cutler Beckett tells Will that "Jack Sparrow is a dying breed." I have to paraphrase the next line, because I saw the movie on Sunday and I need at least two viewings before my super-tape-recorder memory kicks in. ;P Basically, his position is that the borders of the world have closed and there's no longer a place for people like Jack, and that he has to either settle into a the world as it is or die.

So PotC is Tolkienesque. Who knew? Poor Orlando Bloom has been typecast in fantasy movies with quasi-archaist philosophies.

First, I loved that moment. It was the first actually emotional moment in the movie, because it hit the truth of what Jack Sparrow is, the way his speech about freedom did in the first movie. Jack isn't actually a character--that's obvious--Jack is an archetype, an image of an idea. That's why it doesn't matter that pirates are not actually good. The movies themselves are clear on this concept. Barbossa is a pirate. But Jack? Not so much a pirate except in having stolen a ship at one point. He's the image of a pirate. Good sailor, good swordsman, hangs out in Tortuga, not bound by the conventions of society. A free man... a dying breed.

What Beckett says, I think, strikes a chord in nearly anyone who has been given the old, "You are obsolete; upgrade or die" speech. Upgrade, in every case, means, "Do it the way I think it should be done, and if you have any feelings about it, repress them or it proves you're a troglodyte." Otherwise known as, "Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated."

There's something in the human spirit that rebels against this. It's not necessarily an anti-authoritarian impulse--some of the most dreadfully conformist people out there also insist that they hate authority in all of its forms and demonstrate this by tattoing themselves just like all of their friends, and some people who utterly love knowing which is the right fork to use and wouldn't dream of wearing white shoes after Labor Day aren't about to go along with someone telling them that smart people are eating with two knives these days, or let Donatella Versace tell them that white is the new black for winter clothing. It's not about exterior poses; it's about actually knowing who you are and what's important to you, even if it's important in a trivial way.

Jack Sparrow is offered a choice--death or a position in the East India Company. The EIC is definitely not presented as great good guys here, but more to the point, it is portrayed as one of these "This is the wave of the future; deal with it or just go somewhere and die" companies--it's dull and unmagical; even Beckett's search for the heart of Davy Jones is purely pragmatic and greedy. It's a mirror of the Flying Dutchman itself--people gradually losing their humanity as they are pressed into service after being forced to choose between life on someone else's terms and death on their own. The person who offers that choice--the opportunity to live--is, in neither case, presented as a good guy. Davy Jones is a devil figure, Beckett a greedy little usurper who tries to steal Weatherby Swann's influence and power as well as trying to buy off both Jack and Will (and succeeding in buying off Norrington). But no matter how bad they are, it's clear that the choice belongs to the person choosing. It's just a crappy selection of options, because there is no option of living on one's own terms and choosing one's own priorities. Jack makes some lousy choices in the course of PotC2, but none of them involve the choice of enslaving himself. (One, nastily, involves the choice of enslaving Will... but then Will turns that into his own choice, because he knows perfectly well what Jack is doing, and chooses to act honorably... certainly the kind of old fashioned, self-aware choice that is being denied by Davy Jones and Beckett. Through the dice game, Bootstrap is also given an opportunity to at least try to do the right thing.)

Why do I call this Tolkienesque? This is from my favorite of all essays, "On Fairy Stories," by the Professor himself:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which "Escape" is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it...

For a trifling instance: not to mention (indeed not to parade) electric street-lamps of mass-produced pattern in your tale is Escape (in that sense). But it may, almost certainly does, proceed from a considered disgust for so typical a product of the Robot Age, that combines elaboration and ingenuity of means with ugliness, and (often) with inferiority of result. These lamps may be excluded from the tale simply because they are bad lamps; and it is possible that one of the lessons to be learnt from the story is the realization of this fact. But out comes the big stick: "Electric lamps have come to stay," they say. Long ago Chesterton truly remarked that, as soon as he heard that anything "had come to stay," he knew that it would be very soon replaced—indeed regarded as pitiably obsolete and shabby. "The march of Science, its tempo quickened by the needs of war, goes inexorably on ... making some things obsolete, and foreshadowing new developments in the utilization of electricity": an advertisement. This says the same thing only more menacingly. The electric street-lamp may indeed be ignored, simply because it is so insignificant and transient. Fairy-stories, at any rate, have many more permanent and fundamental things to talk about. Lightning, for example. The escapist is not so subservient to the whims of evanescent fashion as these opponents. He does not make things (which it may be quite rational to regard as bad) his masters or his gods by worshipping them as inevitable, even "inexorable." And his opponents, so easily contemptuous, have no guarantee that he will stop there: he might rouse men to pull down the street-lamps. Escapism has another and even wickeder face: Reaction.

It's in light of this that I think the magical elements of PotC take on a more interesting dimension--Jack's world isn't just the world of pirates (in fact, it's hardly the world of pirates at all; pirates are, in reality, despicable creatures, not icons of personal freedom). Jack's world is a world whose margins have not all been neatly sealed up, where mysteries still wait, where things count in a way that they don't in the carefully ledgered world of the East India Company. That this is a dangerous world is a given--neither the curse on the Aztec gold nor the cursed crew of the Dutchman is exactly a symbol of safety. Then again, fairy tales are always dangerous, which is why so very many people loathe them. The person with his mind on the eternal isn't quite as likely to go along with the current fad. (As evidenced nicely in the scene where the religious sailor turns down Davy Jones's offer--he's killed immediately, but having a look at Jones's crew, one can't exactly say he got the worse deal.)

I guess that's enough for now.
Tags: movie reviews

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