Friday, May 18, 2012

Director's Spotlight #7.9: Ridley Scott's 1492

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 21 (D+)

Can Ridley Scott not tell the difference between a good script and a bad one? Considering that he oscillates from the highs of Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma & Louise to dreck like Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, it isn’t an unreasonable assumption. Scott doesn’t sound like a bad pick to direct a movie about Christopher Columbus- his first film, The Duellists, is a terrific period movie, and Scott had always wanted to do a film about the divisive historical figure. There’s plenty of ripe territory to deal with there- obsession, ambition, mortality, racism, genocide, history. It’s unfortunate, then, that 1492 does it so badly.

Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) is a man of great ambition, and he solicits nobleman Gabriel Sanchez (Armand Assante) and Queen Isabella I of Spain (Sigourney Weaver) for funds to travel. He gets it, and he sets off across the sea, “discovers” the Americas (plenty of people went there first, but that’s not relevant to the film), and starts a New World. But relations with the natives are shaky, particularly when sadistic officer Adrian de Marchena (Michael Wincott) forces them to look for gold. Columbus makes his mark on history, but not without losing his status and prestige first.

Well, let’s get the good out of the way first: this being a Ridley Scott film, it looks fantastic. Scott brings his expressionistic lighting touches and striking use of smoke and water on film to the fray. It’s enough to make his longtime influence Orson Welles proud. His painterly style still recalls Kubrick, but he puts the film on such a grand scope that it recalls David Lean and Akira Kurosawa’s epics Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai. Scott’s jungle photography, meanwhile, is clearly influenced by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. God willing, Scott was making another movie about where madness and ambition intersect. It just didn’t work out.

Scott’s use of design was always terrific, and accordingly, the film’s period bric-a-brac all looks and sound realistic. It looks almost as if Scott picked out the exact cups and found the exact ships that Columbus might have used and restored them exceptionally. The film’s period detail is all incredible, as is the tactility of the grime and dirt within the woods of the Americas. It’s clear that Scott has a magnificent researcher on his hands in Roselyne Bosch. It’s unfortunate that “good researcher” and “good screenwriter” do not go hand-in-hand.

1492 gets off to a rough start with a clunky opening that seems to go on forever. Scott establishes the period of the Spanish Inquisition that surrounds Columbus, but there’s never a sense of how it relates to him or what the significance is. Scott and Bosch also include uninteresting details such as: Columbus’ sons and wife, how long it took for him to get the funding he needed, and how he believed the Earth was round (which was widely believed in educated circles at the time anyway, but whatever). The pacing isn’t just slow in a Ridley Scott way: it’s laborious and dryly historical. The whole build up for Columbus’ journey takes nearly forty minutes of screen time. The actual journey detailing the difficult and hopeless days on the sea? Twenty minutes, with little build up to the talks of mutiny and certainly no build-up to the characters finally reaching land. Their first trip in America takes another twenty uninvolving minutes, and at this point it’s not too hard to guess that the movie has its head in the wrong place.

It doesn’t help that the film, while no doubt impeccably researched, chooses to whitewash Columbus’ genocide of Americans as “the other guys did it”. History can certainly be played around with in film, but what’s the purpose of this? It’s possible, and far more interesting, to establish Columbus as an ambitious man while also portraying him as a flawed character beyond “he was ambitious”. What did his ambition entail? How did it affect the way he treated others. Painting an easy and uninteresting villain in Wincott (pointlessly sadistic nobleman) and making Columbus argue that natives should be treated the same as nobles isn’t just inaccurate, it’s pointless, and it undercuts the film’s drama.

Depardieu, to his credit, does what he can with the material. His character isn’t really Columbus, but Depardieu embodies his character as an enlightened man of great ambition and a certain amount of sensitivity. His actions are believable. His casting is not. Scott insisted on Depardieu for Columbus, and while he’s certainly a great actor, he’s a conspicuously French actor playing an Italian character speaking English with a  thick French accent that’s often hard to understand. It doesn’t help that he’s given so many speeches.

The film focuses so much on the political reasons behind Columbus’ journey and how the journey affected his family that it loses track of the main story. Who are these people? What was their motivation? Should I care about any of them (only an icy Weaver makes an impression as Queen Isabella). The film posits that Columbus is a man of ambition, but it doesn’t understand the depths of his ambition or of his obsession, nor does it satisfactorily grapple with his desire for historical immortality. Shame, considering how these are key themes in Scott’s work. By the time it reaches the chaotic, often goofy finale (one scene mirrors the “life flashing before his eyes” scene in The Duellists, only it’s stupid), the film is completely lost. It’s a tedious disappointment, and one of the worst films of Scott’s career. The film is notoriously difficult to locate on video or DVD. There’s a reason.

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