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Jack Sparrow is a dying breed... - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
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.

I feel a bit...: thoughtful thoughtful

17 comments or Leave a comment
izhilzha From: izhilzha Date: July 12th, 2006 09:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
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.)

Yes, yes, yes. I loved that scene. I sat there thinking, "Did I just see that? In *this* film?" It's kind of horrid, but also a moment of triumphant defiance; I wanted to stand up and shout, because that guy knew something the others didn't, and it gave him his freedom even when it looked as if it had been taken away. Gave me a "thrill" as Anne Shirley would say.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 12th, 2006 09:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I know--I was actually shocked to see it, and even glad that it was a "throwaway moment," just taken for granted. That was... staggeringly daring, actually. I tread so carefully around religion when I write, because I'm terrified of offending someone's sensibilities, but, bam--that was just right out there.
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sreya From: sreya Date: July 13th, 2006 12:16 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, it didn't particularly hit me at the theater, but it's been slowly dawning on me that there was a lot of daring use of religion in PotC, and very often in throwaway moments, which is I think why it's so successful. And there were small leadups even to the scene with Davy Jones - for instance, the two comic Pirates arguing over the Bible, and their comments about salvage/salvation. Much like most of the Narnia series, you can take it as humorous shallow moments, or as something meaning much more.

Dang, now I want to go see it again just so I can pay more attention with this stuff in mind. Or find a script.
angua9 From: angua9 Date: July 13th, 2006 04:16 am (UTC) (Link)
A couple of observations on this point:

- Both Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the screenwriters) are outspoken about their disbelief in religion - and that's putting it mildly. I think it might be an "only Nixon can go to China" kind of thing.

- I just saw this wonderful exchange on their website:

Questioner: Before summoning the Kraken to take out Will and the merchant ship, Davy Jones recites something that sound much like a poem (some sort of verse) as the men work the Kraken Capstan ;-). I'm wondering if it was indeed a poem and if so is it an original in the script or taken from an "actual" work?"

Terry Rossio: the Bible.

Loved the commentary on filling in the blank spaces of the map! It's a powerful theme for me: not only the issue of personal freedom, but how much wild beauty the world contains. Electric streetlamps are useful, but they have no mystery or magic.

had to delete utterly wrong icon!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 13th, 2006 05:33 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it might be an "only Nixon can go to China" kind of thing.

In a lot of ways, I think it is. We religious people--well, those of us who admit it--may well tread too carefully around our symbols and items, and therefore fail to use them to full effect. Joss Whedon is the same thing--an outspokenly angry atheist who uses religious imagery better than most overtly religious producers out there.

Of course, my inclination is to believe the art more than the stuff that comes out of someone's mouth when he's trying to explain himself, but that's neither here nor there, as it's not my business or my interest to psychoanalyze other writers.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 12th, 2006 11:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
("The Professor" is a nickname reserved for Neil Peart... :))

Uh... no. Other people may be called the Professor, but Professor Tolkien (Oxford, linguistics) is The Professor.
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: July 13th, 2006 12:31 am (UTC) (Link)
a person whose journal I read is collecting PotC2 reactions - may I post a link to yours?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 13th, 2006 12:32 am (UTC) (Link)
prettyveela From: prettyveela Date: July 13th, 2006 02:20 am (UTC) (Link)
May I ask what journal? I'd love to read other people's reactions to the movie. :)
prettyveela From: prettyveela Date: July 13th, 2006 02:20 am (UTC) (Link)
This was a lovely review. :)
tunxeh From: tunxeh Date: July 13th, 2006 04:03 am (UTC) (Link)
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.

Very nicely observed!

Davy Jones is a devil figure

I think he's explicitly called the devil at least once within the movie.

Which means, I think, that if we're going to dichotomize real people vs archetypes, Tia Dalma is also over there on the side of the archetypes with DJ and Jack. But Elizabeth is trying to persuade Jack that there's still a real person left in him...
sinister_beauty From: sinister_beauty Date: July 13th, 2006 07:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Very very interesting. I like your concept of Jack as an image of an idea, rather than a character.
akashasheiress From: akashasheiress Date: July 13th, 2006 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very good analysis (and I'm saying this as someone who has gotten the ''Upgrade or die''-vibe several times)!
gryffin23 From: gryffin23 Date: July 17th, 2006 02:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Just in terms of frivolous Tolkien comparison, when my boyfriend and I watched this, at the point with that prison with the coffins, he leaned over to me and whispered "Hey, when did Mordor move to the Caribbean?"
17 comments or Leave a comment