Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of nikoretro.
I am deeply susceptible to weekend movie marathons on cable channels. I can lose an entire day watching Frodo and Sam head to Mount Doom and Aragorn get around to being comfortable being King in between commercial breaks. As someone who reads quickly, and who frequently multi-tasks while watching television or movies, I’m often happy to dive into the same art multiple times, knowing that while I have a high comprehension rate, I’ll probably find something new each time. And so, on a lazy weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find my Saturday night plans made for me, in the form of a Pirates of the Caribbean marathon.
I’d forgotten how much fun the movies are. They’re wildly inconsistent in quality, especially as the double-crosses and the plot twists mount,. But Gore Verbinski and the writers do an impressive job of creating plot arcs, starting the series with Elizabeth Swann singing a “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and ending it with her son singing the same thing, and having Jack Sparrow enter Port Royal on one boat not befitting his ambition, and giving him the means to leave on a similarly unworthy vessel. The sheer number of extremely good actors slumming it in what is basically broad entertainment is marvelous. One of the great tragedies of our moviegoing times, I think, is that we think big, enthusiastic, popular popcorn flicks are not the proper place for the serious actors of our era. (There are some exceptions, like Sigourney Weaver, for which thank goodness for James Cameron for seeing her action-heroine potential.) Folks like John Turturro or John Voight will turn up, winking and mugging, at the edges of the Transformers franchise, but the business is left to the likes of Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf, with predictable results. How much better is it to have a big, juicy, special-effects picture where Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy and Johnny Depp are all strutting their not-inconsiderable stuff, having fun, and giving us a gift while doing it?
And the movies deserve a lot of credit for establishing the enormous bankability of Johnny Depp’s delightful brand of weirdness. If anything, I think the series’ singular flaw is in backing off from the sexual menace Depp projects in the first movie, when he wants Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), and she’s unable to admit that she wants anyone (including Orlando Bloom and Depp) for a great deal of the flick. By the third movie, the sexual chemistry between Depp and Knightley’s been reduced to a joke, partially in the services of the plot (Jack Sparrow goes slightly mad, she winds up with the blacksmith’s apprentice-turned-immortal-pirate captain), but not really excusably. If Elizabeth can go from proper colonial lady to pirate queen, why can’t she take up with Jack Sparrow?
There’s something nice about the fact that Depp and Rush’s characters will be perpetually chasing after each other, grappling for possession of the Black Pearl. And it might actually work for subsequent movies, if Jack hadn’t been reduced to something of a hallucinating cliche: at the end of the third movie, he’s back on a dock with a dinghy instead of a true ship making allusions to penis size. It’s meant to be a return to where he started, but somehow, Sparrow’s arrival in Port Royal on the mast of a sinking boat had a hell of a lot more dignity and style. But by the end of the series, all the serious emotional energy has shifted to Knightley and Bloom, who can’t exactly bear the freight of it. For movies that make the (factually dubious but in certain scenes emotionally compelling) case that piracy represented a kind of freedom, it’s unfortunate to reduce the leading pirate so much at the end. If he decided not to come back for subsequent movies, I could hardly blame him.