Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Men in Tight Spots

By  · Published on November 9th, 2010

Editor’s Note: Normally it’s Landon Palmer hustling your brain through the mental gymnastics of popular culture and film theory, but he’s grading papers or something, so Cole Abaius is taking the reigns to drop kick your mind (instead of completely blowing it). Check back next week for the brilliance if you survive the completely adequate.

It’s dark. Not the kind of dark where you strain to make out figures in the near distance or the kind of dark that sends a thrill through you in a movie theater. It’s the kind of darkness that your eyes never adjust to because there’s no light, and there never will be.

I’m at the bottom of a cave near the small town of Bustamante, Mexico, and after passing graffiti from the 19th century, my friends and I have all decided to turn off our headlamps before heading into the grand hall. With the lights gone, the cool of the room becomes more tangible, and the walls begin to creep inward.

Fortunately, this seems to be the latest trend in movie-making: shoving someone into the solitary confinement of life threatening danger, and seeing if they can work their way out.

No One Can Hear You Scream

Adrien Brody has just wrapped on a film called Wrecked that sees him playing a man who wakes up in a ravine, surrounded by what’s left of his vehicle. His legs are trapped, there seems to be a body in the trunk, and the radio is blathering on about a recent bank robbery. If the core concept sounds familiar, it should.

James Franco finds himself trapped in betweena boulder and a hard place in 127 Hours. Ryan Reynolds finds himself buried alive in the creatively titled Buried. Sam Rockwell finds himself marooned in/on the Moon.

Not all of these films are filled in the same way, but at their hearts, they see a man alone and trapped. Some just get more breathing room than others. All the same, they evoke the fears of loneliness, claustrophobia (which is apparently not the fear of Santa Claus), and death that are at the core of our humanity. They instantly put us in the coffin or climbing shoes of the lone hero and force the question of survival on us as an audience.

Of course a modern, pre-trend example of something near this style is Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Sure, he has that huge island to walk around on (and he makes a new, inflatable best friend), but he’s still trapped and isolated. We only get to see the truth of his being when he’s faced with the end of his existence.

This example lacks the immediacy of the new breed, though. At a certain point, Hanks’s character Chuck Noland (along with the viewer) resigns himself to his fate and begins living in a new way. That slowly-driving-him-insane luxury isn’t afforded to Paul Conroy and his oxygen-deprived coffin in Buried or Aron Ralston’s lack of water in 127 Hours. As with most things at our modern cinematic table, the stakes have been raised exponentially.

There isn’t a huge body of examples of lone characters dealing with isolation in quite the same way. 2001 springs to mind immediately, but it’s far more common to see immobilized small groups and duos. Hitchcock did it with Lifeboat and managed to explore claustrophobia alongside the sea-sickness of spending an indefinite amount of time on a small inflatable raft (that Chuck Noland would have drawn a face on and bonded with) in the open ocean. Speaking of which, Open Water ditched the boat and a few characters, and delivered a pre-cursor for the horror-esque treatment that Buried sees. There’s the confinement of prison in films like Papillon, the grave situations of spelunking in The Descent, and the I-can’t-find-my-child-even-though-I’m-on-a-fast-moving-vehicle fear of The Lady Vanishes and The Lady Vanishes 2: Flightplan Edition. We’ve been shoved into U-boats, mathematically complex cubes, and into old farmhouses with zombies clamoring to get in.

In all of those situations, we’ve had to deal with isolation, the mental effect it has, and the strident fear of the world folding in on us. However, nothing in our cultural history has given as many direct explorations of trapped singular characters as what we’re seeing now.

5–7% of the World’s Population

According to “Phobias: A Handbook of Theory, Research, and Treatment,” only 5–7% of the population suffer from Claustrophobia. So why is the trend so popular? Why does it exist at all?

For one, it’s important to remember that the trend is still untested. The films are still being made, and so far Buried and 127 Hours have received strong critical praise, but neither have been blockbusters. Thus, the young trend says little about us as viewers. In fact, it’s probably more likely that the 5–7% are people that absolutely won’t be going to see these films. Still, there’s a moderately large group out there that is fascinated by seeing grown men in very small spaces.

The most interesting thing about the rise of this trend is that it comes on the heels of discussion about the failure of the modern movie star. Movies like Valentine’s Day are making mass amounts of money with 21-person ensemble casts while big name stars of the recent past are struggling to bring in the coin like they used to. That’s no good if you’re an actor trying to make a mark. The solution? “Reynolds did that one thing where he’s in the ground the whole time. Find me something like that.”

Isolation is clearly bucking the safety in numbers trend, but it seems to fall directly along the lines of another. I know we’re not calling it torture porn anymore, but these films usually involve the intense experience of watching a single person suffer over an entire run time. The news stories of people fainting and losing their bodily fluids during 127 Hours might be greatly exaggerated (and full of spoilers), but the synopsis says it all. So does the title. The people who collectively paid $12 million worldwide to see Buried went to go see a human being shoved into a coffin for a few hours. Torture is popular, and these films fit somewhere along that spectrum.

If pro-active actors or a pre-existing pleasure of pain aren’t the driving forces of the trend, it might also be because of the cost. It’s still significant, but placing an actor in a small area is considerably cheaper than including CGI robots. Even though 127 Hours clocked in at $30 million, the core concept is not one that naturally necessitates huge numbers. If not cost, though, it might also be the allure of challenge for the director. Or the speed of shooting. Who knows.

As with most trends, there’s no real answer as to why it’s blossoming from the warm bosom of the film world. We only know for sure that it’s not going away (Alfonso Cuaron is also planning to give some actress the cold, lonely shoulder of space with Gravity) and that it’s an emerging trend that’s character based. It has nothing to do with capes or super powers. It doesn’t have a graphic novel fan base. It doesn’t require films from the 80s in order to exist.

Here in our midst is a pattern of filmmaking that focuses on an actor’s ability in crafting a complete human being. Character studies are becoming popular again, and that’s something to be noted in this remake-crazed, plastic toy adaptation time. At the very least, it’s a light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel.

Escape from that cave of ignorance and enjoy the dancing flame-cast shadows of more Culture Warrior

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