Monday, January 9, 2012

Garden of Darkened Souls: Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides

There is a prophecy in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides that a one-legged man will kill Blackbeard (Ian McShane) which prompts him to seek out the Fountain of Youth to prolong his life; the problem is, there are several "one-legged" men in the film and Blackbeard is one of them: Blackbeard dies by his own hand because he drinks the wrong cup. Hero Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is close to becoming a one-legged man himself and it is the keen writing abilities of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who have penned all four Pirates films) which provides audiences with a glimpse at why Jack Sparrow is doomed but why he can be truly heroic. 
The key to understanding the film is the scene of Jack Sparrow on top of the carriages. In great art, there are micro-cosmos: one part accurately reflects the greater part in a manner allowing us greater understanding of the whole if we can unlock the smaller part. Attempting an escape from the British soldiers, Jack is clinging to the banners lining the street (pictured below) and falls, landing inside the carriage of a society lady (Judi Dench); Sparrow kisses her neck and then exits, having stolen her diamond erring. Continuing the chase, Jack walks atop the passing carriages, then gets into a coal cart, sits fire to the street and makes it to The Captain's Daughter tavern where a British soldier calls him a dirty pirate and, before firing on Jack, he's saved by his dad, Captain Teague (Keith Richards).
Captain Jack Sparrow atop one of the carriages.
This is what the film is all about. Jack has fallen, it's not just about his soul not being in a state of grace, but he's starting to realize he can't keep holding onto the pirate's life much longer (the banner that he's precariously balanced upon until he slips; the life at sea, to which he has been clinging, has been taken over by the British Navy, verified by Barbossa switching to the winning side). His previous conversation with Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) about the "sands" of time running out for pirates is not only fuels his understanding, but his own conclusions he has arrived at previously.
Barbossa in full regalia. Later, on his British ship, he will be having lunch and pours whiskey (or something like it) into an English tea cup and drinks the liquor; the importance of this imagery demonstrates for us that, like the tea cup, Barbossa can disguise his real self in the delicacies of English society, but inside, he hasn't changed (the whiskey).Throughout the film, he has a "greenish" hue in his face, including his eyebrows and beard, denoting the state of his "rotting." Why does Barbossa wear the wig? Hair symbolizes the state of our thoughts, so the false hair of the wig illustrates the "decorous thoughts" Barbossa attempts to make a part of him (at least for the sake of appearances until he can get another pirate ship).
Back to the top-of-the-carriage sequence. Sparrow uses the banner as a "rope" and effortlessly swings into the open window of the society lady's carriage; without a word, Sparrow uses his charm to please the lady (Judi Dench) while stealing her large diamond erring. The open window signifies the window of  "reflection" and the carriage is the vehicle that will provide Sparrow that reflection (the Fountain of Youth) and the society lady symbolizes Angelica (Penelope Cruz) because Angelica has heard the good news of repentance and salvation which is her wealth (her faith wins out over her father several times, so that is her wealth and power) which puts her "above" all the others because of her faith that puts her closer to heaven (whereas the others are most likely hell bound).
"Hurry Papa, or we'll miss the hanging!" a little girl says as she drags her father by the hand. "It's not a hanging, it's a trial, the hanging doesn't come until this afternoon," which well-illustrates for us what the worth is of a trial where everyone all ready knows the outcome. "Joshamee Gibbs, the crime of which you have been found guilty of is being innocent of being Jack Sparrow," so, in other words, it takes a lot of words of saying that as long as a man not be Jack Sparrow, he's innocent. But what does that say of the man who IS Jack Sparrow? What's important is that Jack Sparrow is his own judge at his "own" trial and even Jack Sparrow knows a guilty verdict is necessary; "guilty" for what is still open for question, but it is the experience of "hell" Jack Sparrow has in At World's End (where there are a whole bunch of Jack Sparrows on the same ship) which prompts him to search for the Fountain of Youth so, not dying, he won't have to go to hell. This situation has changed by the end of the film.
What is most important about the erring, is that Sparrow swallows it as he is atop the carriage. We never see Sparrow "passing" the large erring or it re-appearing somewhere in the story, so it becomes a part of him. As the viewer watches the action, Sparrow "balances" himself between two coaches which is what Depp always does: balances two opposing forces in his life. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, Sparrow balanced the English and the interests of Barbossa to get the Pearl back (and he does so in the others as well, making sure he will come out in the lead). Sparrow is able to keep up this balancing act until he lands face down on a coffin.
Keith Richards as Captain Teague, Jack's father.
The coffin, obviously, is Sparrow's encounter with death, and I think this refers to the jumping off of the cliff so he can go in search of the ship of Ponce de Leon (and of which he makes such a big deal). The reason I think it's this scene and not another (such as the British soldier about to shoot him in front of the tavern) is because Sparrow asks the zombie quartermaster if he jumps if he will survive; Blackbeard's trial of the loaded pistols, trying to trick Sparrow into jumping of forgoing Angelica's life is what makes Sparrow realize his genuine feelings for her; he would rather jump than allow Angelica, and this "face-to-face" encounter with death is what permits Sparrow to see his own true face, the one who loves Angelica.
What this escape scene from King George's palace demonstrates is firstly, how caught up in world affairs Sparrow is, "There should be a 'Captain' in there somewhere," which counters nicely with the rattling off of all of King George's titles (so, compared to King George, Sparrow has a feeble title indeed, but he is more concerned that respect be shown to himself than that he should show respect to the king). The plotting out of his escape route, the perfectly placed napkin, holding the cords of the chandelier, the well-placed cream-puff, all demonstrate Sparrow's intelligence, and, simultaneously, how ill-used his intelligence is (we can juxtapose this against, for example, Sherlock Holmes, who would make an excellent criminal if he were so inclined, but chooses to serve justice instead). When Sparrow escapes and takes the cream puff with him, the next item he "eats" is the diamond erring from the society lady in the carriage, so the cream puff and the erring are at odds with each other in his digestive system and, ultimately, he choose the erring (rather, what it symbolizes). In this scene, however, the cream puff atop the chandelier illustrates for us the state of Jack's soul: the chandelier should represent for Jack a state of enlightenment and illumination, an end of itself, but instead, the state of enlightenment is used only to feed his appetites. Then why does Jack walk all over the table with all the food on it? Those foods, at the level of the table, symbolize the types of food the King and Barbossa want, the appetites of society (wealth, station, approbation, etc.) and Jack "walks over all those," but there's a "sweetness" above all that he wants: eternal life so he doesn't die and go back to hell where he had to put up with himself (At World's End).
After he gets up from the coffin, he steps onto a board held by two men, i.e., the platform for his "standing" that Barbossa and Blackbeard will provide for him at the Fountain of Youth by their fight (this has to do with Sparrow not being a one-legged man in the story). Then he steps on the hat of a man, again, the hat (like hair) can symbolize the thoughts, so the crushing of the thought of a man to advance his own self will be what Sparrow does in letting Blackbeard think he's drinking from the chalice that will save his life rather than take it. Sparrow then jumps onto a coal wagon and the British firing a gun at the lantern sets the coal in the bed of the wagon on fire, which spills out onto the street. At this point, because there is all ready a man in the wagon (dressed in black and wearing spectacles), and Sparrow takes the reins from him, this alludes to future events when Jack Sparrow will be saved by "his father."
Outside the court house where the trial of "Jack Sparrow" takes place and spectators gather, buying "pirate puppets" and "swords." The pirate puppets are the same as the "voodoo doll" of Jack. What's the importance of it? A voodoo doll is about control, and that's what a puppet is, something over which you have control, as Blackbeard "controls" the rigging on the ships (more on this below). So when you know what controls someone, i.e., that Sparrow's love for the Pearl is what drives him forward, one has complete control over them as if they were a doll. The quartermaster throwing the doll of Jack over the edge before he jumps is liberating for Jack because then, no one can control him again; however, because, at the end of the film, Jack and Gibbs have seemingly gone back to their old ways, (to retrieve the Pearl) that is why the doll of Jack washes back up onto the shore where Angelica is; in once again seeking out the world, someone can use the world against Sparrow.
When Sparrow enters the Captain's Daughter tavern (and I won't spend time going into the nuances of that name now), he confronts Scrum and wants to know who has been impersonating him and this is when we meet Angelica. The ensuing fight sequence invokes the same device used in Kevin Costner's 1991 adventure Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when Marion and Robin fight. What's important, though, is that Angelica tells Sparrow that he's the only pirate she thought she could impersonate and get away with; why? I don't think it is, as Angelica contests, that Sparrow was the man who corrupted her; the convent helped her to overcome part of herself (I'll discuss this more when we get to her being abandoned on the island) but, being the daughter of Blackbeard, the inner pirate of Angelica is covered with a veneer of piety and faith, but Sparrow is right, she was all ready corrupted.
Why is Angelica always speaking in Spanish? Spanish, correlated with the Catholic faith and the faith in which she was raised in the convent, is "the language of God" in this film, so when she begins speaking in Spanish, Sparrow can't understand her because he doesn't understand the language of faith and this is a effective way of conveying that.
So why could she get away with impersonating Sparrow? There is more good (relatively speaking) in Sparrow than in the other pirates, so her "goodness" wouldn't be too out of place if she pretended to be Sparrow as if, contriariwise, she pretended to be Blackbeard or Barbossa, who are both quite bad. So, theoretically, Angelica is the opposite of the zombies who help to man Blackbeard's ship, however, we need to discuss them and the mermaids if we are going to truly understand the complex dynamics taking place in this story.
One of the many zombies on board the Queen Ann's Revenge.
In October, when we were examining the monsters of art, literature and film, I posted My Favorite Zombie: Night Of the Living Dead and my other favorite zombie, Being-Unto-Death: Carnival Of Souls. There are two unique traits identifying zombies apart from other monsters: they cannot see their reflections and they eat the flesh of the living. Other, cultural specific traits exist, such as in Haiti where it is believed that giving a zombie salt will return it to its grave. However, it's the philosophical identification of the zombie which makes it of primary value because, ultimately, that's what Sparrow is trying to avoid becoming: the walking dead. Why? again, it's about someone else being able to control you (zombies are always dominated by a force stronger than themselves, and it's not so much that the force is stronger than the zombie, but that the zombie is so weak).
One of two zombies in On Stranger Tides. The scar tissue on his facial features is very interesting, as well as the chin piercing, but it's the half-closed right eye and his open, yellow eye that best conveys to us his zombiefied state. The eyes are the windows of the soul, and since yellow is not a naturally occurring eye color, we can deduce that there is something artificial about this person; usually, yellow/gold denotes royalty and dignity, but, in negative terms, it communicates a degree of severe sickness (think of jaundice), namely, failure to recognize one's dignity in the manifestation of our free will, i.e., by not exercising our free will, being dominated by others and wanting to be dominated by others or things, we become zombies.
It's the quartermaster from whom came the prophecy that Blackbeard would be killed by a one-legged man. The irony is, the one-legged man is a man who has only one leg in life upon which to stand (philosophically, not physically speaking) so there is Barbossa, Blackbeard himself, Angelica and even Philip the cleric (Sam Claflin, who is Prince William in the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman). Barbossa is a one-legged man because the  legs/feet represent our will, and the will guiding Barbossa is revenge against Blackbeard and the repressed desire to get back to the pirate's way of life where he is most comfortable.
Queen Anne's Revenge. According to Sparrow, Blackbeard had been be-headed and swam back to his ship; why? Blackbeard "lost his head" to something, it might have been a woman (Angelica's mother, for example) or it might have been his hatred for the British, etc., but his swimming back to the boat lets us know that, as the "goody-goodies" as Sparrow calls the elect and blessed who will gain heaven as their eternal home, after Blackbeard's death, his went to his home, the ship. While Sparrow tells Angelica hopefully that, in giving up his life for her, her father was saved, it's pretty obvious that Blackbeard didn't give it up for her; if Blackbeard had been capable of making that act of love, giving up his life for her, instead of asking her to give up her life for him (which she was willing to do), Blackbeard would have been saved by that act of self-less love, and it's because Sparrow makes that act of selfless love twice within the film that he knows about it from experience so he tries to "coach" Blackbeard to give life to Angelica instead of keeping it for himself.
Blackbeard is a one-legged because his will is guided by life and "being" Blackbeard, a role (even facade) that he becomes so attached to he can't let go of it to fulfill another role: fatherhood. This is maybe the reason Captain Teague (Keith Richardson) makes anther appearance as Sparrow's father, to show Teague giving Sparrow advice and warning, trying to protect him from dangers and help him on his way instead of using his child to his own advantage.
Blackbeard in his captains cabin. The reason Blackbeard can control the "rigging" on ships and the ships themselves is because that is what controls him. He has done so well at becoming "the pirate all other pirates fear" that he has nothing else inside of him but that, piracy, and what is the most important thing to a pirate? Their ship. In this way, the Queen Ann's Revenge is Blackbeard's voodoo doll, because the headpiece (I forget the proper name of the decoration on the bow, excuse me) is a skeleton, which is an apt portrait of Blackbeard: the dead. There is a question in Christianity: why does God permit evil? The answer is, so that evil may run its full course and show how evil it is. Blackbeard making it to the Fountain of Youth, and Sparrow being able to get the chalices and enough of the water, and the tear, to present the chance for Blackbeard to show that he was actually a caring man after all, is allowing the fullness of Blackbeard's pathetic nature as a human to be revealed in not wanting to die for his daughter, the only good thing he had accomplished in life, by his own admission.
How is Philip one-legged? He is a man of faith, but he has no reason strengthening his faith. Faith must be strengthened by the intellect so that one may be able to discern, that is why God made a gift of the intellect to us. Philip himself says that mermaids were those dark creatures not allowed upon the Ark of Noah and so represent the old ways of sin. Philip, deceived by Syrena's beauty, cannot strengthen himself with his intellect which proves to be as weak as Sparrow's faith. When, towards the end, Syrena takes Philip down into her mermaid's lair with her, he's doomed, and that will probably be a strong part of the story in Pirates 5 and or 6.
It's not by accident that she's in a glass coffin, because she's dead, she has no access to the life of grace. When the lid is opened so she can get air, Philip slips his Bible under the lid, keeping a gap so air can get in, but in reality, it's the opposite: Philip has left a gap within himself so Syrena (which means "enchanter" in Greek) can get inside him, and she does. The saving which Syrena tells Philip she can offer him is every bit as pagan as the Fountain of Youth the Catholic Spanish destroy. Just as the Sirens of Greek mythology lured men to their doom, so, too, does Syrena.
And this deviant female behavior shows us why Angelica has only one leg.
Actually, it's more like she has two, half-legs to stand on.
She's faithful, to a point, but she's also a pirate, past a certain point. She's good at pretending to be daddy's little girl, but she also likes the power of being first mate on the Queen Anne's Revenge. The problem Angelica faces is becoming like the mermaids: vicious, male-eating "water-vampires." If Angelica succumbs to this fate, she is just as lost as Philip, the cleric she saved from physical death, only so that he could become lost at the bottom of the sea.
"If you had a sister and a dog, I'd chose the dog," Sparrow says as he leaves Angelica on a deserted island (although you can see the mountainscape of another island in the background against the horizon). Why does Sparrow abandon her on the island? It's the best thing he can do for her. She claims that he ruined her just before she was to take her vows at the convent, and taking her to this island is like putting her back in the convent: there is solitude and no temptation to sin. After the credits, the water washes up on the island, and Angelica has removed her outer clothing, her "pirate's wear," and this is a great sign: she's repenting and undoing what a pirate's life has done. Then the voodoo doll of Sparrow washes up, she takes it and smiles, and we know she has suddenly undone all the good the solitude has done and she's going back to her pagan ways. This is the third act of love which Sparrow makes in the film (the first two are discussed below): Angelica will be stranded on the island just enough to meditate upon the way she's been living and want to return to the convent when the passing ship does come for her; it just so happens that Sparrow has too much faith in her, and maybe if he turned over a new leaf himself, it would bode better for Angelica.
Whereas At World's End demonstrated for us that Jack Sparrow does not like who he is and doesn't want to go to is eternal punishment, On Stranger Tides, demonstrates that those lessons have been remembered and carried over in the story, even acting as the impetus for his decisions and that he is (slowly) working towards that state of grace, conversion which all great characters must achieve in art (and not just religious conversion). The zombies, one-legged men, the Fountain of Youth and the mermaids, all faithfully work to illustrate those things working against Jack Sparrow's faith and eventual salvation. But, the parable of the man who found a large pearl in a field and sold everything to buy the field, isn't applicable to Jack Sparrow, not yet, because he's still willing to sell everything for the "Pearl in a bottle."
The first act of love which Sparrow makes in On Stranger Tides, isn't saving Gibbs (he needs his first-mate so that's not selfless), rather, it's when Blackbeard attempts to catch a live mermaid and Sparrow goes to the top of the lighthouse and burns it up, jumping into the water below; he did that solely to save the others because the mermaids were getting the upper hand and the crew would have been lost (compared to Barbossa who lets his men and ship be destroyed by them); "Did everyone see that because I will not be doing it again," but he does. The second act of love is when Sparrow is scared to death of jumping that cliff but, when Angelica is determined to do it, he pushes her out of the way and takes it upon himself to do. Both times, Sparrow faced almost certain death, and both times he not only lived, but came out stronger for it. However, on the Queen Anne's Revenge, when he has incited mutiny and he tells Blackbeard, "I can name fingers and point names," he hangs upside-down because of his act of cowardice.