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Short Takes On Film
Ben Nyce | Via Latina


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Two strong films – both about survival – have been playing in San Diego. All Is Lost is probably the strongest, based on its astonishing visuals. It is directed by J. C. Chandor who made the excellent Margin Call, and stars Robert Redford in a virtually wordless performance. We are not told the Redford character’s name, nor any details about his life. He is “the man” trying to keep his 40-foot yacht afloat after it is hulled by a floating cargo container in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
The camera relentlessly watches as he improvises various repairs. We’re right next to him as he resourcefully fights a losing battle. What will he do to shore up the leaking hull? How can he right the overturned inflatable life raft, or somehow get the waist deep water out of the yacht’s cabin? His resourcefulness is in the American grain. Chandor’s camera gives us the full sweep of his isolation in the wide sea. A savage storm overturns the boat and we see him and the boat rolling under water. High shots show him at the top of the mast, or groping underwater in the cabin to retrieve cans of food or necessary tools. Shots from deep below the boat show shark circling or schools of smaller fish curious about the vessel. The film drenches us in the ocean. It doesn’t feel at all as if it were shot in the studio, though the cabin sequences surely were.

But the film’s most unusual feature is its wordlessness. We don’t hear the man ruminating in voice-over; we don’t hear him groan in exhaustion. He doesn’t pray or beseech. He’s strong, silent, isolated – like many heroes in American westerns. Redford’s minimalism is perfect for the part. What a work-out the film must have been for him.


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In 12 Years A Slave directed by Steve McQueen an educated, skilled, free northern black man is subjected to unremitting brutality when he is sold into slavery. Fantasies of gracious plantation life, with happy black nannies and cheerfully compliant cotton pickers singing all the day are demolished. Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is beaten into submissive servitude by a vicious small plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps has his pickers’ baskets weighed after each day and short pickers are routinely whipped at the post. The whippings are vivid and hard to watch. This isn’t violence as entertainment a la Tarantino. On one occasion Solomon is left hanging by his neck for several hours, his feet barely touching the ground. Other slaves go about their business nearby, seemingly indifferent to his plight. The threat of terror permeates this life. When he’s had enough liquor Epps gets his slaves up in the middle of the night and has them “dance” to Solomon’s violin playing. Solomon survives by obeying “Master Epps” but his spirit is unbroken. He doesn’t give up hope that eventually he will be free. The full barbarity of the African-American slave experience is powerfully presented. It’s a subject that, with the exception of Roots 35 years ago, has been largely avoided.

Nyce taught literature and film at USD. He authored “Satyajit Ray” and “Scorsese Up Close.” Check the Del Mar Library at 755-1666 for availability of films discussed in this column.



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