Archive for December, 2010

Danny Boyle: through hell unto the light

Posted in Sermons on December 12, 2010 by nicholasnordlinger

The other day I accidentally locked my bag and jacket in a windowless room (one of those doors that can lock without a key) and so in a moment of naive ambition I squeezed my arm through the slanted wooden slats of the air vent at the bottom of the door, which ended up functioning much like one of the traps from Saw II. I managed to reach up and unlock the door from the inside, but due to the slant of the vent’s slats it was a much harder outward pull than an inward entry (like a chinese finger trap, sorta.) Stuck up to my shoulder and with the angry slats compressing my muscle and bone I entered a state of animal panic, leaned back, planted my feet against the door and wrenched backwards. Eventually my arm began to slip in measured jerks, and each time I could feel the thin wood skinning me gently. I endured a pain I would not have tolerated in a less anxious state, and, finally, when my arm came completely free and I looked down to see it badly bruised and red with such terse exfoliation (as well as some deep splinters) my first thought was “damn, I should go see that new Danny Boyle movie.”

this guy

And so I found myself chilling in the back of the 420 G Street theater sipping a Bock Bier and watching my fellow PALY alum cut through a nerve strip with a swiss army knife. Indeed Boyle’s newest film, 127 Hours, is an intense, disturbing, and triumphant piece, carried almost entirely by James Franco’s grand performance. What could have very well been a stale, boring film was instead gripping and involving.

But more than just noticing the obvious strengths of the film, I finally settled in my long-growing belief that Danny Boyle, like the Coen Brothers or Darren Arnofsky (both of whom, in a similar breakdown, shall be the subjects of later blogs), is essentially making the same film over and over, seeing how many different ways his brand of story can be told.

I will save what I believe the story skeletons for the Coens and Arnofsky for their respective blogs, but briefly, the story Danny Boyle tells reapeatedly is one of characters who suffers through hellish circumstances kept afloat only by their fierce determination and fantastical, fetishized goals/dreams. Most often these dreams experience a sort of internal betrayal, and extended suffering is brought about as a reflection of the fetish (hope placed in the wrong places, dreams aimed in the wrong direction.) There are many opportunities for our heroes to resign themselves, to give in to the sure-death that is so ready to swallow them, and often we, the audience, hypothesize that this is the course we would take. Still, we view the characters’s almost superhuman ambition to validate their fetishized goals, to overcome their infernal lots, and, in the end, in an orgasm of their defining mettle, they break free from the suffering, they achieve the goals that have kept them so motivated against all odds.

Understand that I am not saying this in a negative way. I am not calling Danny Boyle unoriginal, for each time he retells this one story he does so in a strikingly original and different way. In fact, if anything, Mr. Boyle can be credited for his eclectic filmography. However, whether we be in space or at the bottom of a canyon, hooked on junk in Scotland or poor and orphaned in India, we’re suffering and conquering the same way.

As the down on his luck, accidental kidnapper Robert Lewis (portrayed by Ewan MacGregor) says, describing a dream of his set on an imaginary game show called Perfect Love, in Boyle’s early romantic comedy A Life Less Ordinary “It’s just a dream. I don’t think the fact that it’s a gameshow has any relevance it merely indicates my cultural origins. I mean were I a tribesman in the Kalahari, for instance, the location would

A Life Less Ordinary

undoubtedly have been different. But I think the theme is universal.” So it is with all of Boyle’s films, different in the details, the same at the roots.

Now lets run through some of the basic aspects of Boyle’s story  as they are portrayed differently in different films (and yet the same.)

Here there be spoilers:

Heroes become obsessed with a fetishized idea. In Shallow Grave it’s wealth and security (which compounds itself, need upon need), in Trainspotting it’s an idealized version of complacent and responsible consumer existence (Renton spends the whole film mired in the slog of heroin, dreaming of making that one leap out of it where he can {and he’s somewhat sarcastic about this though it remains his motivation] “choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers” etc. This echoes all the way to the end when he assures us “I’m going to be just like you.”) in A Life Less Ordinary it’s to be treated as a human being instead of a slave, (Robert literally fights a robot that replaces his job and loses, when he realizes this won’t work he starts a tepid “romance” with the bourgeois, eventually joining it) in The Beach it’s a completely Orientalized (see Said) concept of what purity is (tourists who want to break free from the sickness of mainstream tourism, paying even with death and pain for the secrecy of their Beach away from all others) in 28 Days Later it is the fixation with life before the infection (pre-zombies) when such a world will never return (Selena mentions that the day before the Television and radio stopped broadcasting there were reports of infections in Paris and New York, but nothing more was heard on the subject, Jim pleads “what is the government doing about all this?” to which he recieves the obvious reply “there is no government.” He struggles against this notion desperately, can’t come to terms with it “of course there’s a government, there’s always a government they’re in a bunker, or in a plane…”

“no there is no government”)


28 Days Later

in Slumdog Millionaire Jamal fetishizes a girl he saw only once and makes her a symbol of transcending poverty, in Millions the dream is to become a saint, or to acheive a childlike concept of what sainthood is, in Sunshine the dream is to save a dying world much the same way that in 127 Hours the dream is to save the greater self at the cost of a part of the self. Might we say it is the same struggle? In Sunshine Capa is willing to cut himself off (die) to save the greater humanity. Is he perhaps humanity’s arm, and is all of Ralston sans his left arm the same “greater humanity” that Capa (and the rest of the Icarus 2 crew) dies for?


Sunshine (my personal favorite Boyle film)

Most often the suffering the characters are forced to endure is a result of their goal/fetish, or an aspect/representation of it, betraying them. Jim dreams desperately about the return of civilization, but is assured that there is no government, no police, no army. Still he holds on to the dream, spots planes in the sky, grows hopeful, but when he finally meets the army, still existing in small numbers, his hope is quickly done away with as they set about trying to rape his female companions.

Richard  in the The Beach and Ralston in 127 Hours are both betrayed by their own reckless wanderlust. Ralston, in particular, is betrayed by a boulder he trust for support, and once under its terminal weight he meditates in his delirium how “this boulder has been waiting here for me all its life, since it was a meteor, hundreds of years ago, we were destined to meet” (i’m paraphrasing), demonstrating that the boulder is symbolic of his eternal fetish, and that it is, as stated, this fetish that has betrayed him, just as it is the beach and all that its virginal seclusion entails (the loss of humanity in the deaths caused by neglect etc.) that eventually betrays all of its residents, and Richard’s dream goes to ashes.

Notice that hallucination is an element of every single Boyle film. Literally every single one. Characters jeopardized by their own delusion. And each


of them is terrfied of their own delusion, just like the fear in Damien’s eyes when his brother tells him “you’re just a fucking looney” in Millions.

Please don’t say that Anthony.”

Boyle’s films are also built on various scenes of intense suffering and delieverance from said suffering through pure will. Mace basks in spaceship coolant and yet manages to survive just long enough to warn Capa, Jamal dives straight into shit and wades through it just to get an autograph just as Renton dives into shit and swims through it just to get his heroin, Ralston drinks his own urine, Selena and Hannah take Valium in preparation for the rape-to-come etc.

Though the suffering in Boyle’s films is portrayed in many different ways it is essentially always brought on by the goal/fetish, and the two contrast each other repeatedly slap at each other, hope then despair then hope then despair, constantly reenforcing one another until, usually, the hope is validated. Now this may seem very general, in fact this model can be applied to most stories, (paricularly Dante’s Inferno, wherein he must descend progressively deeper into Hell to find his love Beatrice) but Boyle’s heroes’s near deistic drives, motivated by goals that seems absolutely unattainable, pure fantasy due to the hero’s circumstances, but that is actually achieved in the hero’s climax, a moment of such strong intention and action that they break narrative causality, that they create their own reality, that they trascend humanity, is actually rather specific. It is a reinterpretation of the Deus Ex Machina technique so that our human hero (flaws and all) fills said classic theatrical device’s role of Deus.


Slumdog Millionaire

And so let us discuss the Orgasm of Ambition, the moment of apotheosis.

The arm comes off, in a jolting shot, an ecstasy of intention and then suddenly, distanced, alientated, Ralston looks on his now foreign limb, lodged still in the rock that had trapped him, but he separate. He emerges from the canyon unto the blinding light, like Capa, like Damien, as Richard stares down the gun barrel the light sihnes out from Robert’s wounds , Renton snatches the suitcase, quiet eyes on Spud as he slinks through the door, the flag laid out for the helicoptor to see, Jamal answers “Irimas”, Ralston sips water from a stagnant well, happier than all hell, dead atop the floorboards, still sputtering in blood, the ultimate shallow grave.

In A Life Less Ordinary we see Deus Ex Machina employed in it’s most obvious form as the angel Gabriel (portrayed as an ornery office worker in heaven) literally calls God and asks him step in and save our hero. As a bullet cuts through Robert’s chest a divine light shines from out his exit wound, he is unaffected, and so it is with all our heroes, though the Deus is not so obvious but rather hidden in their ambition.

The end sequences of The Beach and of 28 Days Later whereas the leads both enter into a fierce, rogue animal state, use their hazardous environment as a weapon, and employ guerilla tactics to outdo the men with the guns, are extremely similar, but a crucial difference lies in the placement of

The Beach

the betrayal. For Richard the betrayal comes at the final moment of his Heart Of Darkness

28 Days Later

inspired descent, when he witnesses the slaughter of one of the ignorant tourists and loses his animal coldness (suddenly sheds tears) whereas for Jim the betrayal has already come, it is in fact the inspiration for his sudden, furtive aggression, in it he demonstrates the Orgasm of Ambition and recognizes the flaw in his dream, whereas Richard’s moment of roguehood is the fetishe’s final stand. Richard’s true Orgasm of Ambition, which, is when he finally puts away the fear of death and stares down the barrel of Sal’s gun, tells her to “go ahead and shoot,” knowing that with his death (or even the prospect of his death) the dangerous, delusional, and Orientalized fantasy of the beach will finally show its true face.

Now, most Boyle films have outwardly happy endings, sometimes glibly so (The Beach, for instance, seems uncharacteristically joyous at the end, something I consider a major flaw of the film) but whether or not the internal fetish delusion is resolved splits through about 50/50. I know it’s hard to call, but in my opinion in the films Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, Trainspotting, Millions and Slumdog Millionaire the Orgasm of Ambition actually drives the heroes deeper into the fetish, whereas in The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and 127 Hours the Orgasm of Ambition breaks the heroes free from the fetish. Now perception is truth right, so if the heroes believe themselves free what’s the difference? Nothing really, but I believe that this is the one place in Boyle’s filmography where we see a deep-rooted contrast in how the formula plays out.

Boyle refuses to be defined by a single genre. Horror, action, comedy, and drama all make up his repertoire. He’s not a perfect filmmaker, some of his films have serious flaws, others are strikingly masterful, all of them have something worthwhile and overall I’m very interested in what he’s up to next.  Do not necessarily consider him bound by the formula I have described. I’m sure that there are flaws in my analysis as it is heavily reliant upon auteur-theory, but I can’t help seeing this pattern, it has grown firm in my mind with each successive film of his I’ve seen.



We’re getting muddled down in words now, so lets keep it simple. Here’s a chart that draws said cross section on a very elementary level. Notice recurring symbols and motifs.

Shallow Grave Trainspotting A Life Less Ordinary The Beach 28 Days Later Millions Sunshine Slumdog Millionaire 127 Hours
Goal/Fetish Leisure, security Complacency/ Consumer-centric normalcy Consumer-centric normalcy/ to join the bourgeois Wanderlust/ Orientalized purity Normalcy, civilization, order Sainthood To restart the sun, to save humanity To escape poverty/ to join the bourgeois Wanderlust/ to survive
Fetishized Object Bag of Money Heroin/ Bag of Money Girl he barely knows/ Bag of Money The Beach/ Girl he barely knows Government and government institutions/ civilization Bag of Money The second payload (Icarus 2)/ the sun itself Girl he barely knows/ Bag of Money The boulder (both as support and then as conquerer)
Object Betrayal Wicked men come looking for the money/ It brings out the worst in people Heroin leads to the death of friends and babies, withdrawal, social failure Wicked angels come looking for the girl/ Violence ensues The secrecy necessary for the beach’s “purity” causes multiple deaths, pain, and madness Government has collapsed/ When they finally meet a government institution (the army) they are exploited Wicked men come looking for the money/ It brings out the worst in people Multiple spaceship problems/ The sun itself kills many/ the idolatry of the sun motivates their enemy as well The boulder does not support him/ the boulder traps him/ his reckless wanderlust traps him
Hallucination The dead man The dead baby Himself as wealthy, Dead Jaffy, The way things used to be, family Saints Faces of the last crew Memories Memories, family, younger self,  rainstorm
Orgasm of Ambition Murder of bad men and then of friends Steals the money, cue blinding white light Survives the shot, transcends humanity, channels God (Deus Ex Machina), cue blinding white light Stares down the barrel, faces death so that the orientalized dream may die Goes rogue, uses the zombies to help him slaughter the army, cue blinding white light Uses money to help install clean water program somewhere in Africa Several self-sacrifices, particularly the last one where he rides the Icarus 2 into the sun with him on it Beats the game show (answers Irimias) Cuts his arm off, breaks free
Millions Sunshine Slumdog Millionaire 127 Hours
Goal/ Fetish Sainthood To restart the sun/ to save humanity To escape poverty/ to join the bourgeois Wanderlust/ Survival
Fetishized Object Bag of Money The second payload (Icarus 2)/ The sun itself His brother/ Girl he barely knows/ Bag of Money The boulder (first as support then as conqueror)
Object Betrayal Wicked men come looking for the money/ It brings out the worst in people Multiple spaceship problems/ The sun itself kills many/ the idolatry of the sun motivates their enemy as well His brother consistently betrays/ brother takes the girl/ he is tortured because of his success The boulder does not support him/ the boulder traps him/ his reckless wanderlust traps him
Hallucination Various Saints Faces of the last Icarus crew Memories Memories, family, younger self,  rainstorm
Orgasm of Ambition Uses money to help install clean water program somewhere in Africa, cue blinding white light Drives the Icarus 2 into the sun, cue blinding white light Beats the game show (answers Irimias), cue blinding white light Cuts his arm off, breaks free, cue blinding white light