The James Clayton Column: “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!”

Stuck in a tricky situation? As ever, Hollywood has the answer, as James explains…

Spoiler warning: If you’ve not seen 127 Hours, you might want to check back once you have.

Sometimes in life you find yourself in sticky situations. I’m not talking about getting treacle in your eye or ending up glued to the toilet seat. I mean dilemma scenarios where tough choices have to be made and where none of the options seem easy or appealing.

Movies are made out of these traumatic moments and I suppose the way you act when the sticky situations come might ultimately boil down to your filmic preferences. If you watch a lot of fluffball chick flicks, for example, you’re liable to respond with a lot of hysterical “Oh my God!” screeching before going out and buying some shoes to make yourself feel better.

If you like über-macho gun-totin’ action movies, you may pick up power tools (or heavy weaponry, if you’re hardcore and have connections) and unleash carnage until all the conundrums are blasted, smoked and absolutely wasted.

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If you’re a fan of the Coen Brothers, however, you may get visions of Ulysses Everett T. McGill and find yourself uttering the line, “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!”

With the exception of the Dude (because he always abides), looking to the lead characters of the Coens’ movies probably isn’t helpful when you’re in a pickle. It’s not inspiring watching Barton Fink fail to break his writer’s block and crack that wrestling screenplay. Larry Gopnik of A Serious Man finds his midlife crisis going from worse to bad on biblical levels, no matter what he does or whichever rabbi he turns to. Deal with dilemmas in the style of the imbecile ensembles in Raising Arizona, Fargo and Burn After Reading and you’re most likely to end up in jail or die in blackly comic fashion.

I want to focus on Soggy Bottom Boy Everett McGill, though, because he’s outstanding in the Coen Pantheon of Farcical Fools. I think it’s the vanity of George Clooney’s character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? that marks him out as he and his brothers somehow scrape through  all the trouble around them, “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!” repeated over and over.

He lives in the desperation of the 1930s Deep South during the Great Depression. He’s escaping the chain gang and is forced to flee floods, sirens and the lynch-happy local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, through it all, his chief concern is probably his hairdo.

His outrage at not being able to get his preferred pomade – “I don’t want Fop, goddammit! I’m a Dapper Dan man!” – and the “My hair!” exclamations say it all. Everett’s priorities are all askew and his obsession with keeping his coiffure in pleasantly-odoured order renders him more bona fide idiot rather than American Odysseus. Real heroes do not wear hairnets.

A wise person once told me, “You can’t fix a broken leg with a haircut.” I guess, by extension, you can’t fix a broken leg with Dapper Dan hair jelly either, unless it’s magic or a completely different product that’s been mislabelled and packaged in the wrong can.

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Altogether, I came to reflect on that piece of excellent advice and the need for practical solutions in the face of “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!” dilemmas after watching 127 Hours.

The whole premise of the Danny Boyle’s latest film is a tight spot. Outdoors enthusiast, Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), gets trapped in a narrow canyon, his right arm stuck beneath a fallen, wedged boulder. He can’t move, he’s all alone in the Utah wilderness and no one knows he’s stuck there. Ralston recognises that his predicament is pretty hopeless and is aware that survival is a race against time.

Fortunately, Ralston is a proactive guy and sets about doing what he can to try and get free. Even if he can’t shift the rock and is doomed to perish in isolation, he’s not going to die without putting up a spirited effort.

Accepting that he’s lost his arm but resolved not to lose it emotionally, our protagonist turns to his limited resources and does what he can. Ralston rigs up a pulley system to try and lift the rock, records messages on a video camera and rations out his water supply with incredible composure, considering the circumstances.

The more irrational power of his imagination also helps when hallucinations and flashbacks pass the time and neutralise the loneliness. It’s more enjoyable recalling happy family gatherings and visualising cool parties with cold beer, women and an inflatable Scooby Doo than contemplating your imminent demise nonstop for five days. Whatever helps take away the bitter taste of your own mortality and the urine you’ve been reduced to drinking in order not to dehydrate, dream on that.

Yet, the memories and enforced life examination are never going to move the boulder that’s imprisoned him in Bluejohn Canyon. Thinking on inflatable cartoon dogs and perhaps asking the timeless question “What would Scooby Doo?” isn’t constructive either. (We all know that Velma is the real brains of the crack troop of meddling kids riding the Mystery Machine.)

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The only way out is to remove himself from the rock and that means cutting off his right arm. He wants to live, and having held off long enough, the canyoneer summons up the courage, picks up his blunt knife and performs surgery on himself.

It’s messy and, no doubt, painful beyond comprehension but – damn! – Ralston does the seemingly inconceivable, makes the amputation, extricates himself and in the end survives. From the blood and bleakness he emerges injured but exultant into sunlight and a shiny, optimistic future of opportunity, elated, having snatched victory from the closing chasm of death.

Inspiring and incisive, the moral is this: when you’re caught ‘Between A Rock And A Hard Place‘ (the name of Ralston’s autobiography) you have to make hard choices. Sometimes the available options are brutal and unpleasant. Sometimes the solution is hard, uncomfortable and painful. Nevertheless, as highlighted in intense fashion by 127 Hours, if it’s the only way out, then it’s got to be taken.

You’re in a tight spot, so pull yourself together, quit daydreaming about Scooby Doo and quibbling about the condition of your hair. You can only evade the inevitable for so long and you’ll ultimately never get out of the sticky situation, so get hacking on the real solution, as repulsive and unnerving as that may be.

So, damn, you’re in a tight spot? Think on the blood-stained figure of James Franco stumbling triumphantly out of Bluejohn Canyon, find inner strength and cut yourself free (literally).

James’ previous column can be found here.

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