Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At Maine's End

Posted By on Tue, Dec 4, 2007 at 9:46 PM

click to enlarge pirate.jpg

To talk about Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which is released on DVD today, I first want to describe how I met an actual pirate of the Caribbean in the remote worlds of Maine.

What happened was, on the first week of September I visited Camp Winnebago, a nearly 80-year-old lakeside summer camp in rural Maine, to attend and document the annual gathering of the Network of Ensemble Theatres, or NET. It’s a national service organization for ensemble theater companies, a loosely defined term that NET frequently uses to describe theaters for which the artists also serve as management. Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater is a NET member but sent no representatives to the Maine meeting.

I could go on and on about the issues facing NET, the meeting’s terrific workshops and live performances, and even the camp itself: Imagine the ideal kid’s summer camp in your head, and Camp Winnebago looks pretty much exactly like that. During the final night of the meeting, after sharing an outdoor lobster dinner (did I mention this was Maine?), I chatted with an attendee named Ova Saopeng. He belongs to TeAda Productions, a multidisciplinary company based in Santa Monica, Calif., and some of his work derives from his experiences as a Laotian-American. (He’s apparently not a big fan of TV’s most famous Laotian character, “King of the Hill’s” obnoxious Kahn Souphanousinphone.)

Saopeng and his raffish goatee looked vaguely familiar, and it turned out that I’d seen him before: He was in Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End. (Note: Some spoilers ahead.)

Although he had an extra role (or, to quote Ricky Gervais, a “background artist”) unhelpfully identified as “Pirate” on the Internet Movie Database, Saopeng was one of Chow Yun-Fat’s pirate crew, and spent a great deal of time on the Black Pearl set. There’s this scene in which Naomie Harris’ Tia Dalma reverts back to the sea-goddess Calypso and transforms into hundreds of crabs that swarm into the ocean. Then a gust of wind blows one pirate’s straw hat far up into the air – that’s Saopeng. Hey, I remembered that shot!

We chatted for a while about his experiences rubbing elbows with Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp, and I quizzed him about some things that bugged me about Pirates 3 – in general, that a movie of nearly three hours in length could leave plenty of unanswered questions. And it's not just me: The DVD booklet even includes nine “Top Questions Moviegoers Had About Pirates of the Caribbean." I was particularly curious about Calypso and Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose relationship seemed to have a ton of build-up but no payoff. For that matter, why did the film devote so much time to restoring Calypso’s godhood when the plot point had so little impact on the story? (Presumably Calypso created the spectacular maelstrom, a terrific special effect that may not have made any real difference in the final battle.) And why, at the finale, does a threatening armada of British warships leave for no apparent reason? The DVD’s two deleted scenes clarify little. So were there other scenes that director Gore Verbinski shot but cut to keep the film under three hours?

Not to Saopeng’s recollection. What was interesting about our discussion was the way he reviewed the scenes and discussed the film in terms of setting up and resolving the story arcs of the main characters. It reminded me of my interview earlier this year with Kyle Cooper, who designs movie title sequences: Both are screen artists who seem far removed from the duties of writing, directing, producing or acting in the lead roles, but still see their work as a form of storytelling. And it reminded me that even when you see a film that looks lazy and uninspired – like, say, another third chapter of a swashbuckling series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – it still represents the hard work of hundreds of people.

Revisiting At World's End on DVD affirms that whatever its flaws, laziness is not one of them. If anything, the film tries so hard to amuse and astonish, to offer so many memorable sights – including a city made out of wrecked pirate vessels, a ship sailing off the edge of the world, and Johnny Depp arguing with multiple copies of himself — that the strain starts to show. The making-of content on the DVD only serves to remind you of how much work was involved, and you feel vicariously exhausted.

I didn’t ask Saopeng why, since the film is about pirates of the Caribbean, and the Black Pearl is in Singapore at the beginning of the film, whether they sailed around Africa or South America, and how many months it took. There’s a difference between honest questions and unanswerable nitpicking.

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