All Is Lost (2013)
Where has irony gone?
In the Golden Age of American cinema in the 1970s, irony was a crucial, edifying staple. Movies had substance and bite.
All Is Lost is tellingly representative of what movies have become today.
All Is Lost has no irony and little substance. It is nearly wordless. It's sound and fury signifying very little.
When they started, Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson were the embodiments of irony and alienation. Nicholson was flashy; Redford subdued. Both portrayed anti-heroes - Redford portrayed hollow men.
Perhaps a lot of Redford's early success was due to director Michael Ritchie, who directed him in Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972). Both films had deft scripts. The screenplay of The Candidate by Jeremy Larner won the Oscar for Story and Screenplay.
In 1973 Redford made the plunge into movie stardom. The Way We Were, directed by Sydney Pollack with whom he did seven movies, transformed Redford into a full-fledged movie star. In The Way We Were, Redford left the shallows of hollow characters for the shallows of movie stardom.
Redford has had a monumental career. Almost everyone of a certain age has some relationship with Redford's image. My wife Judy has been a long-time member of the Robert Redford Fan Club, which Redford recently ended.
I was invited to Redford's ranch when Jeremiah Johnson (1972) was being promoted. I went to London on vacation instead. I had a fine time, but I do have a pang of regret. I wish I had gone to the ranch.
What's an aging actor to do? It's been a long time since Redford worked with a literate script. Most of his recent films have had potboiler screenplays. Maybe it was time to do a film with few words. Language is primarily absent in All Is Lost. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the ballast.
Language is almost irrelevant in most modern movies. The last bastion of language in movies today is the documentary. Maybe that's why the present is the Golden Age of the documentary. Many of the best movies of 2013 are documentaries. They still care about language.
All Is Lost is spare, elemental, and "pure." At least it tries to be - for a while.
I think I came across the two-line script for All Is Lost:
"Water is everywhere. A lot of water."
In All Is Lost, Redford returns to simplicity, but this simplicity has no irony. Redford portrays a nameless sailor on the Indian Ocean whose sailboat is damaged when it strikes a large cargo container that is afloat. For eight days, in isolation he struggles against the elements and his failing boat. As the sailboat begins to sink, he takes refuge on a lifeboat.
Twice huge cargo ships - seemingly unmanned - pass his desperate attempts to hail a cab. He is alone without anyone to talk to. He has no HAL, no Wilson, no nothing.
Just Redford peering blankly, mopping, bailing, spitting, drinking, eating, sleeping. Andy Warhol meet Robert Redford. But Redford does jump and wave wildly. Chuck Jones meet Robert Redford.
Where's Santiago when we need him? If Peter Benchley was able to channel Melville in Jaws (1975), I guess J.C. Chandor, writer and director of All Is Lost, can use Hemingway. But businessmen, such as Redford, have to compromise.
What is perhaps the film's greatest compromise is its deus ex machina ending. It actually flirts with irony, but hokum intrudes. At least, it's "pure" hokum.
The ending is not exactly independent. In fact, it's Hollywood at its most comfortable. Commerciality will win out. Audiences will find comfort. It's The Old Businessman and the Sea.
All Is Lost could be a metaphor for the artist's life. Those damned sharks. But it lacks the terrible irony of Hemingway's classic.
One of the apogees of Redford's star image was in The Horse Whisperer (1997), in which he starred and directed. Redford had himself photographed in a halo of adoring light. There are no halos in All Is Lost. This time Redford even has white sideburns.
Also, for a simple film, the "other crew" listed at the end credits is a veritable multitude. They dwarf the fishes.
I think I've probably invested most hope in the potential of two actors more than any others near the start of their careers. Redford and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin, 2004). Both were young brave actors.
When did Redford become the male Sandra Bullock?
Finally 80 minutes into All Is Lost, Redford grabs his head and yells, "Fuck." Sandra Bullock, match that.
Maybe I'm being unfair to All Is Lost. But I'm a critic, and a critic doesn't have to be fair.