There are stories that need to be read and there are stories that need to be viewed. There are stories better told through written words on a page, and stories best suited for the screen. Of course, some overlap, some are appropriate for either medium, but there are certain stories that can reach a whole new depth when the creator chooses the correct canvas to paint it on.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a story built for the screen.
Why? I’ll tell you, but first, an example: Atonement is an outstanding film directed by Joe Wright and adapted for the screen from an equally-impressive novel by Ian McEwan. There’s a scene in both the novel and the film where the main character, Briony—a nurse during World War II—tends to a wounded soldier moments before his death. She has never met him before, but she’s keeping him company until he breathes his last breath. In the book, we are given the character’s inner thoughts. I remember reading the moment when the boy, confused and incoherent, asks if she loves him and she says yes with the accompanying explanation, “No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die.” A simple, seeming inconsequential thought, but this passage stuck with me as a reader. It amplified the entire scene. It gave it even more weight than a scene with a dying soldier would on its own. And although the movie did employ the use of narration at times, there was no narration in this scene. We’re asked to watch Briony watching a man die and we, as viewers, are supposed to come up with our own ideas of what must be going through her mind. In the novel, we don’t have to ask—we just know. Would I have assumed she’d reach the same realization about his family at that moment on my own? Maybe not. Do I need it to appreciate the scene? No. But that moment alone was what made it memorable for me. This particular scene functioned better in the novel than it did on the screen because the event is so emotionally charged that the character is thinking multiple thoughts at once. We need and want to know Briony’s specific thoughts. We need to be steered in the right direction or else risk not imagining her thinking what the author intended us to.
Eleanor Rigby, on the other hand, is a character entirely shut off. Her “disappearance” is both literal and metaphoric. She is emotionally withdrawn. Film works best for her story because she doesn’t want to share what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even know what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even want to talk. She’s pure evasion. We’re better clued into her inner turmoil by watching her, not by hearing what’s in her head. Her thoughts are intentionally sparse which is why her story is so well suited for the screen. We gain more access to her by watching her because she’s unwilling and incapable of giving us anything more.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (directed by Ned Benson) follows the lives of a married couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose relationship has just lost the final thread it was hanging from. Once blissfully in love, things have taken a turn for the worst—Eleanor has disappeared and Conor is desperate to find her and fix the relationship in whatever way he can. We, as the audience, are intentionally kept in the dark. We know something major happened to propel the downward spiral, but we don’t know what—mostly because both characters refuse to talk (or think) about whatever it is that went horribly wrong.
Eleanor is all about avoiding. She moves back home to live with her parents following a failed suicide attempt and we learn very early in that she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is that made her jump from that bridge. She wants to escape. She’s disappeared not only literally from her old life, but inside her head as well. The number one rule of storytelling is that each character has to change. They need to progress, they need to start at one place and end up somewhere else. The filmmakers know that in order for us, as the audience, to see Eleanor’s growth and progression we need to be treated just like everyone else in her life who try to help her but can’t. We need to be in the dark. We need to try to find clarity and fail. We need to feel we’re making headway and then hit a dead end. We need to feel just as helpless as she does in order to understand her journey. For that reason, the filmmakers intentionally and artistically keep us in the dark. We have no idea what Eleanor’s thinking. And it’s awesome.
This approach to storytelling is what makes this film fascinating. Eleanor won’t give us her interior thoughts, she refuses therapy sessions, she doesn’t want to talk, she avoids any situation that may make her discuss what happened. To heal, she needs to just exist. We have to feel aimless with her, but we also have to feel a slight progression. We have to feel her getting out of her hole. But she can’t tell us anything to give us any clues that she is progressing because that’s her whole problem—that she can’t pinpoint her pain or her recovery. We have to watch her struggle, but we also have to see her evolution. So we’re left to map her progress in different ways—in brilliant subtle cues. Slowly, we get more and more details. We learn that she lost a son and that this is what set her off, this is what she can’t recover from. We gain insight not from what she speaks, but from how she interacts with her nephew, the telling glance at a photograph she spots hidden away in a closet, what she chooses to tell her equally-damaged professor (Viola Davis), and what she does the few times she willingly pops back into Conor’s life. It’s slow and it’s calculated, but every small action she makes deftly shows us where she is at mentally.
The story is impeccably underwritten in the very best way. You feel smart when you watch this film, you feel like you’re in on the secret, like you solved the puzzle and it’s because the filmmakers trust that the audience is clever enough to read their subtle cues without needing Eleanor to have one major outburst, or one telling therapy session that will articulate everything we need to know. They force us to do the analytical work. We don’t need all the fluff. Eleanor isn’t about the fluff. She’s real. She’s passive, but she’s actively passive and we just need to wait it out with her.
The beautiful realization you come to when watching this film is that healing is not always about talking. It’s not always about doing. Sometimes, it’s just about time. Sometimes, it’s just about waiting it out. There is no recipe for grief. Eleanor never really comes right out and shares her story, her struggle. She talks to no one. She listens to Professor Friedman and that seems to help her more than anything, but Friedman has no idea what she’s actually going through. The only one she talks to is Conor and perhaps that’s because she doesn’t have to share much with him—he knows the details without her having to communicate because the loss was theirs together. She admits to her father when she refuses the therapy he’s set up for her, “I don’t want a reminder that something is wrong” and she tries constantly to avoid any such reminder. So she floats. She meanders. She doesn’t know how to fix herself. We don’t know what she needs either, but we watch as she gradually is able to pull herself out of her funk. She needed to disappear, she needed to just exist. And ever so slowly, ever so subtly, and ever so seamlessly we’re left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’s through the worst of it.
And for the viewer, that progress is more than enough.
I was the little girl who at six or seven years old sat in the bleacher seats at SeaWorld with a neon pink fanny pack strapped to my waist, disposable camera in my hand (wind, wind, click. Wind, wind, click), sunburned shoulders, and a grin on my face almost as wide as the tails of the creatures I was gazing at. Wide-eyed and entranced, I’d watch the sea life in awe—the funny-faced beluga whales, the laughing dolphins, the clowning sea lions. I loved the splash, the spectacle, the enormity of the animals, but most of all I loved the killer whales.
Free Willy was my first favorite movie. In the film, the bad guys after Willy were cruel, diabolical, and villainous. Not like SeaWorld. SeaWorld was different. SeaWorld whales were happy, right?
One of those happy whales I saw as a seven-year-old at the Orlando SeaWorld clutching my Shamu doll was Tilikum. Tilikum—the biggest whale. Tilikum—the biggest splash. Little did I know that Tilikum was also a bullied, soon to be three-time murderer. That part was kept hidden. His smile, size, and tongue sticking out sold a lot of Shamu dolls and there in the spotlight Tilikum stayed.
Now, Tilikum has a new role to add to his résumé— unconventional star of the summer’s eeriest murder documentary, but in this case, the tables are turned. Tilikum, the murdering whale, is not the sinister villain cloaked in black dishing out poisonous apples. SeaWorld is. And instead of apples, they give out Shamu dolls, splashes, and smiles on seven-year-olds’ faces unaware of the horror that looms behind the curtain.
Luckily, we have Gabriela Cowperthwaite to do the unveiling. In her documentary, Blackfish, she tells the tale of Tilikum’s life in captivity—from baby, to bullied, to murderer—all the while condemning money-hungry SeaWorld for its total lack of ethics and value of life for both the whales they hunt, buy, and raise, as well as their trainers who blindly trust they’re doing what’s best for the beautiful creatures they love. What Cowperthwaite achieves with her film will take your breath away as it shocks you. Let’s just say if I knew where my Shamu doll was I’d lock it up out of shame for owning it, for giving SeaWorld a shred of my parent’s money, and for feeding the fire that SeaWorld has successfully swept under the rug again and again—until now.
Cowperthwaite’s argument is sound and well evidenced. Focusing on the trainers who’ve dedicated their lives to the killer whales, the film starts with them. For each, the story is the same—they were enthralled with the majesty of the whales at a young age, were determined to become whale trainers, and quickly found to their delight that the job required little education or training. A winning personality and the ability to swim fast being the only real requirements for the job.
For sympathy, and to immediately place the audience on the side of the trainers, Cowperthwaite pulls real emotion from the interviewees—lots of tears, lots of shock and awe at what they’d been manipulated to do, and lots of worry for the whales they’ve left behind.
This sympathy method is used throughout—countless instances of experts crying at what they saw and what they did for SeaWorld. It’s an effective ploy and for the most part Cowperthwaite doesn’t abuse the tactic—the events really are that emotional and that jarring. With or without a crying expert, it’s hard to see what was done to these whales and trainers without becoming emotionally invested yourself. Cowperthwaite piles on the facts and instances supporting her claim that SeaWorld has no value for life and will do anything for money and to maintain their shiny image. It just so happens that the majority of the people interviewed are sobbing through their walk down memory lane.
Rounding out her evidence, Cowperthwaite speaks to whale experts who insist that in nature killer whales live longer, gentler lives. Their dorsal fins stand tall in the wild. In the wild, they live the life spans of humans. In the wild, they can flee. Cowperthwaite juxtaposes these facts with images of bubbly SeaWorld trainers wrongly insisting again and again, to crowds of SeaWorld patrons, that 25-35 years is the average life span for the killer whales and that they live longer in captivity. Bold faced lies.
What Cowperthwaite gently is able to imply is why any whale might snap. Of course we can’t ask Tilikum what led him to kill, but we see his holding cell. We see the bleeding welts on his skin from the bullying whales. We see where the whales spend their nights and many hours of the day. Of course, a whale would snap. Each and every day doing redundant tricks for some dead fish only to be locked in a cell at night with a bunch of other misfit whales—not their kin, separated from their families like a bunch of orphans? Wouldn’t you snap? Cowperthwaite’s interviewees mention again and again that Tilikum was “frustrated”, one even suggests that he’s “psychotic” but Cowperthwaite knows she can’t prove these facts, so she simply shows us images of the conditions and allows the audience to infer for themselves.
For the assertions Cowperthwaite can prove, she layers on countless evidence like the cheese, sauce, noodle pattern when cooking lasagna. Cowperthwaite has court documents from the OSHA lawsuit following the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, graphics, flow charts, ironic SeaWorld commercials, and varying news reports on each SeaWorld tragedy depicting how quickly and swiftly SeaWorld would scramble to cover up any incident.
Cowperthwaite’s claim? These accidents were not trainer error as reported. These accidents were not the whales’ faults either, but a result of the extreme conditions both the whales and the trainers were subjected to in order to make a buck.
This layering of evidence creates a reaction in the audience. Three times during the film, the audience in the theater I was in had audible reactions. Once with laughter at the ridiculous claim of one of the interviewees who insisted, passionately, that he couldn’t fathom a world without a SeaWorld-type park. Once with giggles and whispers when, in Cowperthwaite’s procreation section highlighting the monetary value of Tilikum’s sperm, a trainer clutches a whale’s penis like a fire hose. And finally with sighs and silent tears when a trainer recounts the reaction of a mother whale crying out in frequencies they had never heard, desperately trying to reach her baby for hours and hours that SeaWorld had just stolen from her and shipped to another park.
My only major fault with the film is when Cowperthwaite takes the emotion too far, when she loses confidence in the sound argument she has. Yes, we’re invested. Yes, we believe you that SeaWorld sucks. Yes, you got us with the crying mama whale. In an unnecessary aside, the film meanders to another venue—Loro Parque in Spain—SeaWorld’s backwash of a marine-park complete with a cheaper, dirtier grounds and less skilled trainers. There we are told Alexis Martinez’s story by his fiancé and his mother. Alexis is brutally killed by one of the whales shortly after becoming a trainer and quickly rising up the ranks. It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t be downplayed, but Cowperthwaite uses it to rattle the audience even more, make us more emotional, and therefore cause us to plunge deeper into hating SeaWorld. His fiancé and mother describe receiving calls that there was an accident at the park and recount being led into the room to view his body with extravagant adjectives and details between tears. Does the trauma of this event make the fact that a whale killed him and the park tried to make light of it any more true? Do we need the drawn out tale of walking towards his body, of the brutal condition of his chest and limbs? They’re trying to make us cry. We feel for the family of course, but making us feel sadder and therefore hate SeaWorld more is the film’s one cheap ploy. You already had us with the facts. We don’t need more sadness drilled into us to win us over.
Cowperthwaite wasn’t confident enough in what she had or she would have omitted that scene. She should trust what she has; her case is resolute. Still, there’s no arguing against her passion for the subject. Her documentary doesn’t do anything stylistically innovative. The infographs are strictly graphics plastered on the screen. There’s nothing too ground-breaking with the editing or even the format. We go from interview to interview to tears, interview to interview to tears, but the film doesn’t need all those bells and whistles in order to make a convincing argument. The subject is strong enough to carry this important film.
Cowperthwaite effectively guarantees that SeaWorld’s PR team is going to have to resort to extreme measures to win back the droves of patrons who will likely choose another park to go to this summer. Maybe the seven-year-olds won’t be amazed at the enormity of the animals they watch leaping into the air, maybe Cowperthwaite has ruined that experience for many of us, but she’s creating better lives for the trainers who love the animals and for the killer whales themselves whose lives can be so much bigger than a couple hundred square feet tank. Thanks to Cowperthwaite, we know when we clutch our tiny Shamu dolls exactly what we’re paying for. And the truth shouldn’t sit well with anyone by the time the credits roll.