Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Anything can happen; on The Impossible, luck, chance and perception

The final two images of J. A . Bayona’s The Impossible left me thinking long after the credits had rolled. The family at the centre is making its way from Thailand after a holiday which really did not go as planned. We move from inside the plane taking the family back home to an image of the wrecked shore then it cuts to a shot of the plane leaving Thailand, rendered miniscule made almost a dot against the backdrop of the blue-sea it's travelling over. The two images are not inherently unsettling, but within the film’s context it speaks volumes to what The Impossible is and what it is not. I don’t believe directors choose to include arbitrary things in their films, so I always look for meaning in what is present. It’s very telling that the tale of one family’s luck amidst a time of turmoil closes not with the potentially hopeful framing of the family at peace or not even the ambiguously teary face of our de facto heroine Maria Bennett (more on that later)….but instead on that wide shot of the impenetrable sea with the Bennett’s plane to the edge of the screen almost invisible. Bayona seems to be stressing the flimsiness of human inclination in the face of nature’s power and in that way it points to my favourite thing about The Impossible, the ineffable and fickle nature of luck and chance.
A constant complaint I’ve noticed reverberating in most of the (admittedly few) analyses of The Impossible I’ve read is the insufficiency of the Bennett’s story functioning as an effective microcosm of the Tsunami’s effect in Thailand. That complaint has been the tip of the iceberg regarding the more – reportedly – troubling aspect of the South-eastern Asian disaster being told to us through the lens of a white family. I’ll address the latter issue first. I was discussing the issue of race and cinema with all-round knowledgeable Jose Solis and I posed the question – would The Impossible be any better…any more profound if it featured a cast of non-white actors? As a non-white person myself I concur that there are important discussions to be had regarding the lack of effective roles for Black, Hispanic, Asian actors but I feel – unfalteringly so – that these necessary discussions are one step removed from the art created. Moreover, I feel sometimes films are only forced to be held accountable for things which have little, sometimes no, effect on the goodness of the art created.

Jose said:
“Films owe us nothing. Art owes us nothing. Would you go back in time and ask Bosch to make more paintings about heaven instead of concentrating on the horrors of hell? Would you ask Leni Riefenstahl not to make Triumph of the Will?”
I’ve believed this for some time even though sometimes it’s been mistaken for callousness. But, in the face of good or effective art I’ve been emphatic about art having no inherent moral debt to its audience. More specific to The Impossible, though, the film has been accused for white-washing the story of the original family Spanish family and Jose so curtly pointed out that Spanish persons are Caucasians too. I can’t explain away persons with legitimate issues with The Impossible but the race relations criticism emerges as a more problematic view of building something insidious on relatively benign land.

...the effect of the Bennett's as a window for the Tsunami disaster...
...Bayona's deft tricks with theme, and more...below the jump 

To address the other issue of the family’s experience as a window to the universality of the tragedy the way that the Bennett’s tragedy is so clearly not a true window of the Tsunami disaster only reinforces the things The Impossible suggests about luck and chance. One of the most effective shots of the film (curiously, another one which enforces the minuscule nature of man) observes Henry Bennett from the air as he searches for his family. He’s flanked on either side by body bags of dead persons. None are members of his family. Lucky…but only for him. In focusing on the Bennett’s, Bayona is not suggesting that they’re special, but only highlighting the arbitrariness of human life and endurance. That wide shot of the body bags and Henry is conflicting – where should our allegiance as an audience member lie? With the frantic Henry still serving or with the scores of body-bags in our sight? Henry cannot possibly stop to consider the plight of those around him. He’s looking for his family. Man’s quest for survival…it’s what keeps us alive but it’s a myopic things isn’t it? Call it a justification, or call it a sly mixing of form with plot but calling the film’s outlook narrow is not a negative for me. In one of the film’s most effective scenes (which I won’t spoil) an embrace on a country road cuts from the main players to a bus of children. Like the body bag scene we can’t help but hope for the success of our main players, but we conversely cannot ignore the unremitting misfortunes that abound.

The entire thrust of The Impossible de-emphasises any inkling of inherent specialness or importance of the protagonists. The fist shot, which repeats itself later in the film, is of a page of a book flying away from Maria Bennett - a moment so banal in its innocuous nature that it seems almost too random for Bayona to utilise as something of a plot-point some minutes later. But to miss the significance of that is, I think, to miss the themes behind the film. The random and fickle nature of the world we live in - the lack of any thing resembling rhyme or reasons in the machinations of things like destiny only emphasises the way that the world is removed from the inclinations of man. The film steeps a story of family within that uncaing world-canvas not to argue that hope will always prevail but to say hope can prevail...but when it it does, there is no reason to it.
As much as the film depends on the visual and technical team (Sánchez’s screenplay is fairly good, but not the film’s beacon) the decisive indication of its goodness rests on the shoulders of its able cast. The cast of bit players (Geraldine Chaplin for reasons I don’t understand devastates me in a single scene) and main characters (all of them good, but the unsung children are particularly effective) all do great work. The Impossible, like so many 2012 films, need to make a decisive impact on you emotionally to work and with only a few minutes to get know this family it becomes doubly hard on Watts and McGregor and company to make that connection. They both succeed inasmuch as Bayona is willing to let them and Watts in particular is given a specifically inscrutable character to play. But, the payoff, when it comes is worth it. Observe her in her final scene – the moment is preceded by a more conventionally “hopeful” reconciliation but as we see her face immediately after as Maria’s face moves through a wave of emotions she seems at a loss to match her fate with the situation she has been through. Like Bayona she seems to be asking…why me? It’s the beauty of the film, she doesn’t know. No one can.

The only emphatically bad thing about the film is that doggedly maddening score which seems to be separate from the story Bayona is telling.


I know The Impossible has not been effective for all, but did it work for you?


Squasher88 said...

I liked it too, apart from a few directing issues.

I agree with Jose, the casting issues people have with this movie are quite strange. Do people think Spanish=Latino?

The children in this film are phenomenal. I heard so much about Tom Holland, but the other 2 are ssooo great too! It really caught me off guard.

Suzy said...

I was disappointed with is film.

The technical side is excellent, the tsunami scenes are incredible but the script is poor.

The dialogue is clunky & I didn't feel they were a family, which is at the heart of the film.

The children were very good but the appearance of Geraldine Chaplin I thought was felt stuck on & contrived.

It was based on the experiences of a Spanish family & is a Spanish film so why not use Spanish actors?

CrazyCris said...

Suzy, I think they chose to switch the Spanish family to an Anglo-Saxon family and film it all in English so it would have more of an International impact because -sadly- a large part of the movie-going public around the world won't watch movies other than those that come out of Hollywood... and good luck getting people in the US (or the UK) to watch something with subtitles!

Other than the actors the film is 100% Spanish! (financing and all the talent behind the screen)

I for one loved this film! It moved me very deeply, and not just the Bennet family, but the scenes of the devastation around them. They're the hook that catches you, but you're drawn in by everything else...

Here was my take on it (months ago) if you're interested:
Movie Magic: The Impossible

Oh: and by definition Spaniards (and French and Italians and Portuguese etc.) ARE Latinos! Latin culture = originated in Rome... and got transported across the Atlantic.
But yeah, basically Spaniards are Caucasians so... it's one of the things that causes me to "make fun of" ethnic labels. :p

Anonymous said...

You know the number of films made ​​in Spain? And how many have you seen "Suzi"? I'll tell you, only this. Why? leave because English actors. The Anglo-Saxons are well, they think they know everything, and do not find out anything.

Suzy said...

I know why they used English speaking higher profile actors. It's just a shame they didn't use Spanish actors, perhaps for me it would've added authenticity to the role of the family which I thought was lacking. I