Good Time Johnny
by Marianna Martin
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Dir. Gore Verbinski, U.S., Disney
Despite producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s grand CGI delusions, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, subtitled Curse of the Black Pearl, was (here’s a no-brainer) all about Johnny Depp’s mesmerizing, disturbing sexiness as Captain Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack was the ultimate personification of the strange behavioral mannerisms, forceful charisma, and gender ambiguity that make Depp one of our most peculiar and tantalizing male stars. To compare Depp’s curriculum vita with an appropriate peer, one must look to Marlene Dietrich rather than Tom Hanks. And indeed, he is most like Dietrich, or Garbo, or any gender-performative diva in this role than in any other. Wielding his “compass that doesn’t point north” like a compact mirror, the strange self-absorption of Jack absorbs the viewer as well, and draws the gaze completely in any shot, for both parties on and off-screen. But Jack is neither “a gay pirate,” nor simply an effeminate one. Jack’s orientation and bearing are best described by the watchword “pirate.” He is a man acutely aware of image and reputation, and, at the end of the day, really lusts only after his ship. He makes anxious references to Will’s (Orlando Bloom) genetalia, insisting on his theory that Will is a eunuch, and doesn’t try very hard at all past “keeping up appearances” to take advantage of Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) when they are alone together. Indeed, the young lovers’ hetero-normativity served primarily to emphasize the profound otherness of Jack in his total lack of real interest in either pretty young thing.
And thus it is a costly gamble to start the second film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, with the wedding of these young lovers. The first question that comes to mind is not, “Where is Will, and has he truly left Elizabeth at the altar?” or “Why is Elizabeth waiting in the rain past the departure of every last guest?” but, “Where is Jack, and when can we see him?” Sadly, this is the tone set for rest of the film. It is always raining, or it is nighttime, or both, and characters who were secondary or even tertiary in the previous film are left to log expository dialogue explaining a narrative that never quite knits. I don’t make great demands of the plotting of a summer blockbuster, being frequently content with that which merely flirts with plausibility, but over the course of these two-plus hours, the more things were explained, the more bewildered I became. Rowboats take characters from one action tableau to the next, and the viewer can ride along much like in the Disney theme-park attraction that was recently changed to better resemble its film realization.
Here, one can recognize a strange bid by director Verbinski to insert “auteurial” touches—apparently random shots and compositions are reprised from the first film, almost exactly. Revisiting these shots begins to take on a sort of wistful quality, a kind of “remember the first film and how much fun we were having without the unbearable bladder pressure?” Simply put, between a misguided desire to give the young lovers more depth and ambiguity of character, and a “more is better” approach to the action sequences, the elements that made the first film so pleasurable are left awash and drowning in a sea of production value. Indeed, as one character intones ominously, “What bodes ill for Jack Sparrow bodes ill for us all.” Jack’s presence in a now-crowded plot is fleeting—the excitement of spotting him and enjoying his peculiarity gives way to a heightened sense of how much less interesting the long stretches without him seem. The swordfights and buccaneering set pieces are fun, and well executed, but there are so many of them that one gets a disheartening feeling that poor Will is out to earn his Pirate Scouts merit badges in one week (even the coveted “slide down a sail using your knife” one). At least Orlando Bloom has the consolation of reaching the ranks of the “so pretty, we must hurt them” at last. If Davey Jones’s quiveringly erect tentacles are any indication, then watching Bloom take a lashing elicits the kind of pleasure that allowed us to finally get sick of Jude Law last year. Keira Knightley’s spirited Elizabeth is in the film so much, yet has so little to do (other than pout), that her tantrum over the men’s swashbuckling behavior, late in the film, seems like an actress revolt. Not surprisingly, it falls on completely deaf ears.
There is still great pleasure to be had in the way Jack swishes and swashes his way through the film, at one point producing with a flourish a cage and the line, “Look, an undead monkey!” But Jack’s self-aware weirdness does not burn as brightly in front of this cluttered backdrop. The first film succeeded by virtue of its pure melodramatic attributes: the innocent, virtuous young lovers, the jealous suitor, the villain Barbossa putting the young virgin in danger in his merciless machinations, and what early serial star Pearl White called “the weenie,” a.k.a., a desired object that gets passed around a lot to drive the action. No one’s motivations were very complicated, there were ample signs pointing to the intentions and moral status of all the players, and thus the sole exception to that—Jack—stood out markedly and excitingly. The second film appears almost as though Jack has contaminated the insular melodramatic world of the first film through some sort of contagion, and though some of the rules still apply (multiple “weenies” are in frantic circulation), too much havoc is wrought by “the good” discovering that they are capable of behaving like “the bad.” This would be interesting indeed if handled more deftly—but it’s all a bit muddy, and no sense of intent communicates. Jack bouncing up and down, singing “I’ve got a jar of dirt” in a taunting tone is one of the few moments in which he reasserts himself, but unfortunately most of the time, those around are too busy with their own moral crises to give him as much attention. Their loss, and ours.
I reserve judgment on this installment until the final episode is released—such is the life of the blockbuster in these post Matrix and Lord of the Rings days. I am still not entirely without hope that this installment is simply biding its time and that the payoff will be big and glorious (and involve Keith Richards!), but only time will tell. In the meantime, we’d best find the rum, and sing songs of old, about when Jack was the only show in town.