Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 = Iraq war metaphor

I'm fascinated by how even the most banal of Hollywood movies provide insight into contemporary thought, especially in the political realm. While we're in the midst of the Iraq War, it's difficult to now imagine the myriad of ways it impacts our collective psyches and our art.

When I saw the Sam Peckinpah western The Wild Bunch in college, I was struck by how different the cinematic style was from older westerns. Even in period pieces, present-day morals and stylistic gestures shine through. (This includes bafflingly contemporary hairstyles and fashion for women, but that's another post altogether.) In 1930s-50s westerns a la John Wayne, the heroes and the villains were clearly defined. Even the fighting was orderly, with the different camps maintaining a physical separation. Think of the showdowns on dirt roads and the different colored outfits of the goodies and the baddies. Well, The Wild Bunch was a big, bloody mess. The fight scenes were huge and chaotic, and no character could claim the upper moral hand. It was difficult to keep track of who was who and why they were killing each other. I turned to my friend and said, "I bet you this movie was made during the Vietnam War." Turns out it was, in 1969, when in the real world the goodies and baddies weren't so clear.

Fast forward to 2007 and the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. There are, in my estimation, five camps competing for victory with occasionally overlapping allegiances: the East India Trading Company 'wigged out' officers, the Sparrow brigade, Captain Hector Barbossa aka Geoffrey Rush, the squid-faced dude (Davy Jones) and his alien-looking fish squad, and the Singaporean crew. This level of specificity even glosses over a few other shifting alliances. How the hell are we supposed to know who to root for, when squid guy and the Brits are allied, and Sparrow and Barbossa fight side by side? Seriously it's one of the most confusing and convoluted plots I've ever... attempted to follow and I've seen a few art films in my day. But couldn't these five camps just as easily be the Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, Al-Qaeda, and the US forces? Oh excuse me, for that last one, I mean the "Coalition of the Willing."

I'm curious to know how political and cultural historians will look back at this period in time and whether they'd agree with this analogy. Maybe Chow Yun-Fat's crew is a stand-in for Al-Qaeda, and Sparrow and Barbossa are competing fundamentalist imams. Perhaps that also means that Elizabeth's sniveling rejected suitor is General Petraeus, who is willing to make a deal with the devil to keep other (presumably more evil) forces at bay. Or maybe Disney couldn't find any good screenwriters who could make a coherent narrative and it's just another crappy movie.

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