Popular culture ages faster than non-refrigerated cheese. In this age where directors no longer make films so much as they helm franchises, it is fair to ask whether summer blockbusters can still make the transition from weekly “most awesome movie of all time” to timeless cultural icon.
Let’s set aside the art vs. entertainment distinction for a second. I’m asking whether or not the quality of entertainment has deteriorated. It’s always been possible, I would argue, to know one is making entertainment and still care about quality. When a film manages to do both, it can be more than simply appreciated; it can be beloved.
What I Said Then
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was my favorite film of 2003. In calling it so, I said:
Go ahead and scoff (as if you need my permission), but remember when movies were fun? Johnny Depp’s show-stopping performance highlights a film that has snappy dialogue, appealing characters (even the villains), and great stunts. Above all, however, it has an infectious, fearless joy. I saw it twice in the theater and once on DVD, and I’ve been surprised by how rich the story-line is. Rated PG-13 for action violence, it is also a movie whose appeal crosses generations and tastes. Is it Citizen Kane? Of course not. But when was the last time you rewatched Forrest Gump, Driving Miss Daisy, or some other commercial film masquerading as art that won the golden statuette? Pirates is probably the most satisfying adventure film since Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in a year lacking an all-time classic, that is enough.
What I Say Now
Pirates never achieved the status of Raiders, even though the latter film shares with Pirates the fact that it, too, spawned a series of sequels ranging from the disappointing to the shockingly bad. The deterioration of the franchise as a whole seems plausible as a contributor to the diminished reputation of its flagship but insufficient as a complete explanation. It’s equally possible to conjecture that since Steven Spielberg, unlike Gore Verbinski, has other hits to bolster his reputation, his good films look like the norm and his bad films like unfortunate exceptions.
Having seen three Pirates sequels and, more recently, a Lone Ranger remake, I had more or less resigned myself on sitting down to watch Black Pearl again to have to eat my words. I had even begun outlining a retrospective review about the development of tastes and judgment.
But then I watched it and found myself caught up all over again. I really enjoyed it, both as a piece of nostalgia and an opportunity to notice new things. The first noticeable pleasure was that of remembering and reciting lines that have become part of my personal (or my circle of friends’ corporate) shorthand: “They’re more like…guidelines” (which is not an exact quote, I know); “I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically”; and, of course, “There are a lot of long words in there, Miss.”
That pleasure was strong enough that I half wondered if the actors and directors stayed together over time but the writers changed, explaining the failure of sequels to generate nearly the same amount of pleasure. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are credited with the screenplay (others with the “story”), but their writing hands are all over the sequels as well, so the deterioration is a team effort.
Plus, there are other pleasures in The Curse of the Black Pearl besides the dialogue. Depp’s work here, I would argue, is better than it is in the sequels not just because it was new at the time but also because, having more to work with, he supports the movie rather than mugs it. His delivery of “interesting” when Jack Sparrow finds out the curse is real shows that despite the bumbling persona mask, Sparrow is a complex and intelligent character. (He becomes less so as the series evolves and the mannerisms become ends in themselves.)
I also enjoyed some of the gender reversals between Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). People think of Pearl as the film that vaulted Depp into superstardom, but if one compares Knightley’s work before and after it seems apparent that she was the one who parlayed the film’s success into a broader and more interesting range of roles, in part because she showed she could participate in the story as opposed to merely standing and looking decorative.
I’ll probably never win over the skeptics, and that’s okay, but ten years later, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is still my favorite film from 2003. The esteemed films of that year were ones that either did not wear well (Kill Bill: Volume 1; Mystic River; The House of Sand and Fog, Monster) or were ones I did not much connect with to start with (Lost in Translation; Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; Dogville; Big Fish). In retrospect, the one film that I would rank higher than it is The Son, which I didn’t actually see until a few years later.