Rather than hide my narcissism, I’m going to try to keep up a blog. Hopefully this will turn me into a more interesting person by encouraging me to leave the house once in a while so that I have something to write about. Or, if not, hopefully it will make me a better liar about the “things” I “do.” Either way, I win.
A couple of weeks ago I saw Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried at the Fox Theatre. As a neighbourhood, the Beaches has a lot of things going for it, despite being a haven for middle aged property flippers and a hot spot for slow walkers who unironically cite “long walks on the beach” as a personal interest. The Fox is way up there on the list of things that would up my property value here if I owned property. There’s nothing like a 45 second walk in your finest ripped flannel and sweatpants to the local one-screen movie theatre to turn a crappy day awesome. Kick off your shoes, claim a row for yourself, buy a bag of popcorn for dinner: perfect.
Buried is a close-to real-time account of a hostage situation in Iraq. Paul Conroy is an American truck driver who wakes up in a wooden coffin, buried alive for ransom with a lighter, a BlackBerry and a few bars of cell reception. The 94 minute film follows his attempt to stay alive and get himself rescued.
The promos for this film hyped it as incredibly Hitchcockian, which is what was on my mind while I was watching it. (this also meant that Ned Schantz was on my mind, but when isn’t he?) While I think it’s a very valid comparison to draw, it’s was a major departure from one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes that offered much more interesting cultural insights to me. The film’s premise is a scenario Hitchcock would have been proud of. Claustrophobia is a theme found throughout his repertoire and, at least from a physical standpoint, Paul’s situation doesn’t really get more claustrophobic. But when Hitchcock does claustrophobia it isn’t just about locking someone in a small space: Hitchcock’s claustrophobia is often profoundly social. Social norms, family units, and mothers (naturally) impose heavily upon the freewill of Hitchcockian protagonists: for example, Joan Fontaine’s unnamed character in Rebecca deals with hysteria-inducing levels of social claustrophobia, despite having living quarters that are pretty damn vast. In contrast, and despite his physical confinement, Buried is a story about a man who is very much alone.
Watching Buried called to mind a 1955 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Breakdown. Joseph Cotten plays a cutthroat businessman who begins the episode by firing a long-time employee over the phone (dick), then gets his comeuppance when his car breaks down in the jungle and he wakes up paralyzed. Unable to move, passersby assume he’s dead. Cotten’s character is looted for his clothes, and it’s not until moments before the episode ends when his body is being shipped away as a corpse and he starts crying (wait, could “breakdown” have a double meaning?? Masculinity and cars…linked??) that someone realizes he’s alive and, we assume, he gets help.
Joseph Cotten’s predicament mirrors Paul’s in more than just a lack of physical mobility. For both men, communication is a matter of life and death, and it’s not an easy task: for the first man, he’s surrounded by people but is incapable of speaking to them; for the second, he has the tools to speak but there’s often no one there to listen, and when he is able to connect we’re forced to question the value of the connections he makes.
When you’re talking Hitchcock, the conversation often brings up the MacGuffin (bear with me for a moment, I promise the analysis isn’t as superficial as it appears). According to Wikipedia, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but, as to what that object specifically is, he declared, “the audience doesn’t care.” I’ve always understood the MacGuffin as the thing that starts the story, the trigger for a break of the iterative that makes narrative possible and, by ensuring a narrative exists, allows for an exploration of the ideas that are actually important. In Buried, the BlackBerry is the obvious MacGuffin – by extension, the escape is a less literal MacGuffin, given that the BlackBerry exists to make escape possible. These are the things we don’t actually care about. Remember (and now I’m paraphrasing a theorist whose name escapes me) all narratives are ultimately self defeating: the pleasure we get from stories is from storytelling itself, and yet all stories are doomed to end. All of this is to say that, if the BlackBerry/the escape/the end of the film is the MacGuffin, then the real focus of the film is his situation as it unfolds. Which is to say the point of this film, and its analytical value to me, is the experience of being alone is a world defined by electronic, bureaucratic, and inherently distant relationships.
Paul Conroy is trapped in a box to show how truly alone he is. Despite the constant affirmations of “I’m Paul Conroy, I’m an American truck driver,” the character is little more than a series of phone numbers, identification numbers, anxiety pills and disconnected relationships (and in fact, Paul isn’t the truck driver he thought he was: his company fired him and didn’t inform him until after he was taken hostage). His personal relationships are with answering machines and disembodied voices, mitigated by a BlackBerry that doesn’t belong to him and that, for the better part of the movie, doesn’t speak his language.
It’s significant that Paul is left with a BlackBerry, rather than a crappy flip phone like mine. BlackBerry is a brand image of success and professionalism that people buy into across class, race and gender lines. In many ways, the BlackBerry is the Grey Flannel Suit of the 21st century (to drop a reference to an essay I was assigned while studying Hitchcock but never actually read). The smart phone generally, and the BlackBerry specifically, has become the homogenizing symbol of middle class self-worth and, by extension, the ultimate identity negation. Like Mark White, a fellow victim of box-burying hostage-taking, Paul Conroy is nothing more than a name in a box, just like so many other people whose BlackBerry acts as an initial signifier of their “identity” to observers who aren’t inclined to take the time to know them. To what extent is this an identity (or a lack) imposed upon Paul by his captors, and to what extent did it define his pre-boxed life?
Amazingly, and so appropriately, Paul’s cell phone signal and battery life outlast him (spoiler alert: he totally dies). Ned Schantz loved to lecture about the links between film and death, about how we film death, about film as death, etc. He taught us that the credit sequence often serves as a bridge between the feeling of loss (the death) we experience at the end of a film, and the necessary return to the real world (one of the reasons that music is often central to the close of a film). Buried drives this point home in a major way. The majority of the audience I saw it with stuck around to read the names of people that we have absolutely no reason to know, yet who we care desperately about: we want to know who was involved, we want to know there were people involved, that a community can exist despite Cortés’ pessimistic scenario.
The assumption at the end of the film is that many people have been taken hostage and buried alive – and have died alone in boxes. As an audience, we strive to find a sense of purpose in this gloomy reality: like Paul Conroy, we’re impossibly optimistic given a hopeless, up-and-down rollercoaster of a narrative that ends at the absolute bottom. Despite this, we strive to stay connected, if only electronically; we constantly broadcast our situations to find help and hope, and share our stories with whoever wants to listen. (sometimes, we even blog…)
Which is to say: I appreciate this film for providing the appropriate subject matter to start a blog with the primary goal of keeping in touch with a diaspora of friends, while keeping myself entertained at the same time. I’d definitely recommend watching it: even if you don’t want to put any thought into its implications, it’s an entertaining piece of cinema.
I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re epileptic, though. Flickering Zippos aren’t easy on the eyes.