Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Battle to the Death

This excerpt from the draft of Forever Voyaging, my book on Herman Melville, takes on the three-day epic battle that concludes the classic novel Moby-Dick. There's a lot of work yet to do on it, but here's an example of what I'm trying to do. I hope it is enjoyed.....

IT IS A DISSERVICE to those among us who many not have read Moby-Dick to lay out everything that occurs in those three days of combat. Although I do find it hard to imagine that someone would read the current book, the one you hold, without having experienced the wonder of the novel in question. However, I must allow for the possibility that this unorthodox reader exists, and thus proceed without revealing too much. After all, Melville has already told the story better than I can.

Nonetheless, in each of the three days that conclude Moby-Dick, something astonishing happens that must be experienced to be fully understood. And Melville, to his eternal credit, draws the reader into those experiences as skillfully as anyone ever has.

The first day begins the hunt without a trace of caution or hesitation. As soon as Moby Dick is seen spouting above the surface, an epic contest ensues.

Suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw … the glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.

With this amazing but terrifying image, Melville quickly establishes the tone for the entire hunt. It is unquestionably a fight to the death – someone will not survive the contest. Right from Day One, Ahab leads from the front, we notice, since he is himself standing in the small boat that Moby Dick is coming up under as depicted above. As soon as the White Whale was sighted, Ahab ordered the boats dropped, and assumed his place in the lead vessel, taking the fight straight to his enemy.

The second time I read Moby-Dick, I tried to picture myself in what amounts to little more than a rowboat alongside Captain Ahab, peering over the side, and seeing that huge white leviathan’s open jaws ascending straight out of the dark waters to drag me to my fate. I don’t know what I would have done, but it almost certainly would not have been what Ahab does in the novel by way of response. From this first direct encounter until the end of the third day, Ahab provides indisputable evidence of both his outright insanity and his extraordinary courage.

When Moby Dick finally emerges from below with his jaws gaping, he immediately brings them down across the middle of the skiff and cleaves the entire thing into two separate parts in one massive bite. But even while he is doing so, Ahab physically apprehends the whale’s lower jaw with his bare hands and attempts in vain to prevent the whale from cutting the vessel in two. Needless to say his efforts to protect the boat fail, and in the process Ahab loses the wooden leg that replaced the original limb he had lost to Moby Dick in the first place.

Ahab has proven his mettle right away, and the crew witnesses his fearlessness. But they also take note of his obsession, which, it is becoming increasingly clear, will certainly lead to their own violent deaths. Once again Starbuck – who may have thought of himself as the voice of the other men, or the voice of basic reason, or both – attempts to get Ahab to recognize the grave danger he is carelessly courting in his quest to defeat Moby Dick by identifying the cloven boat as an “omen.” Ahab dismisses this notion right away with disdain, and even a kind of machismo:

Omen? Omen? … if the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint …. Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth; nor gods nor men his neighbors.

Starbuck must certainly understand with these words that his own battle, to expose to Ahab the fatal folly of his obsession, has been lost. Ahab forges on without any thought of reversal. Before the next morning dawns he has ordered the ship’s carpenter to fashion for him another wooden leg from the very planks of the boat Moby Dick has destroyed.

Moby Dick vanishes as the sun sets on the first day, but Ahab is sure the whale will not go far, and so the crew follows after him with the remaining boats. Sure enough, on the morning of the second day, he is seen breaking the surface in the near distance. Ahab immediately renews the fight, declaring, “Breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick. Thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!” One has their doubts that Ahab has gotten a whole lot of sleep in the intervening night, but he seems to be drawing his maniacal strength from some nether, unfathomable source.

Then, on the second day but before they actually fall into combat again, Melville depicts a phenomenon that sailed right past me the first time I read the novel – or at least I had little memory of it. But the second time it struck me with full force how unbelievable this action alone must have been to observe. What happens is that Moby Dick, presumably in a show of force, draws near the Pequod and its boats while beneath the surface, and then he “breaches.”

Breaching, as described in the novel, is when the whale leaps “salmon-like to heaven” out of the water. Melville’s choice of language here is helpful, because most of us have probably seen still or moving images (if not in person) of that particular fish jumping up out of a river as the rapids rush downhill over rocks. The whole fish comes up out of the foam, and for a moment we are graced by the beauty and wonder of its muscular, shimmering form thrashing through the air in a manner that almost has the feel of a performance rather than of a raw display of nature. Then, in the next instant, the fish has dived back into the rapids and is gone on the rest of its journey.

The same leap is executed by Moby Dick on day two of this great hunt, right next to the Pequod and all of its men. What is so amazing and terrifying about this war-dance? The reader need only remember this: a male sperm whale averages about sixty feet in length and weighs between forty and sixty tons. Again, when you place yourself inside one of these small boats chasing after the whale, or standing on the deck of the Pequod, the full impact of this demonstration begins to dawn on you.

This is one of those cases where a classic work of literature, or work of art in general, pays a significant return to the reader (or consumer) who is willing to make an investment of imagination in the work. When people say that a great novel gives back to the reader what they put into it, the comment refers to moments like this one. You have to apply yourself in order to visualize the sheer astonishment of a massive white sperm whale, with its brow wrinkled and its form pincushioned with steel harpoons trailing blood-slickened hemp threads, leaping with unbridled force out of the great blue sea. But after you have done so, the image is seared into your mind forevermore.

If there was any need of a kind of turning point in my second reading of Moby-Dick’s final drama, this moment, and the onscreen visual it generated in my mind’s eye, was that occasion for me. Although I was all in with Moby-Dick before, for numerous reasons that I have been seeking to put into words in the last two chapters, from this point on I was utterly swept away by the sheer momentum of the duel being played out between Captain Ahab and the white whale. Before the second day has seen the red curtain descend upon it, Moby Dick has launched another offensive, again dashing its “broad forehead” against Ahab’s small boat, sending it “turning over and over” through the open air.

In a contest with these stakes, the crazed and God-bothered Captain Ahab (“Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm?” he asks of no one in Chapter 132, “The Symphony”) understands clearly the critical nature of the third day. Indeed, on the evening of the second day of the hunt, Ahab prophesies with terrifying assuredness, “Two days he has floated – tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more, – but only to spout his last.”

Here the reader may well congratulate himself or herself – after all this build-up, here they finally are, about to pay witness to this final end. And I can only say further that this last day of battle seems to play out exactly in the way that it must. Indeed, Melville crafts this ultimate clash in such a way that the reader coming into it for the first time – finally arriving at the actual moment on day three that decides once and for all who wins this duel, man or whale – understands and fully accepts, as soon as that moment is reached, that it was, is, and even always shall be, the only possible way for such a contest to conclude.

One gets the feeling from these chapters that Melville was a conduit for some greater, far more comprehensive human story, being inscribed through his calloused hands. This intangible sense one encounters while reading the novel is what really elevates Moby-Dick. To agree that this occurs in the novel, or to even stipulate its possibility, is to grasp that an artist in the correct moment can harness powers far beyond normal human capability. In my understanding, this is achieved only through the Grace of God. But I also believe a writer cannot arrive at a moment like this by accident, or with any ease whatsoever. He must labor towards it his entire life, from infancy. Thus, he who accomplishes such a thing earns it.

Again: here does Moby Dick himself, expressed in the stunning power of a gift with language manfully harnessed and directed, thrust himself into battle one last time, against Ahab, the Pequod, and its entire crew:

Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled.

Here, finally – following that crushing blow against himself, his men, and his ship – does Ahab rise up in his small boat with harpoon poised, stare straight into the very eye of his enemy, and give Moby Dick everything he can muster:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and curses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

I plan to return to these stirring final words of Melville’s legendary creation once more before this book is complete. But for now I hope I have made myself plain about the power of Moby-Dick – simply by providing samples of Melville’s astonishing words. This epic stand-off is a battle like no other inside a uniquely American masterpiece that can never be replicated or imitated.

Moby-Dick leaves a reader to breathlessly inquire of him or herself: when the real contest arrives for me, when my life reaches its most critical crucible, will I have the courage to stand up and greet it the way Captain Ahab does, come what might? Will I have the strength to “give up the spear?”

(c) 2011 by Jude Joseph Lovell

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Duke Altum's Best Films of the Year - 2010 (with one cheat)

Here are the best movies I saw this past year, along with one cheat (a TV show) because it truly deserves to be listed among any accounting of my favorite viewing experiences of 2010. In fact, if I had to choose the single most valuable viewing experience that I had this year, it would definitely be watching through the entire series of The Wire. Hands down.

But now, on to the list, which is written out here in no particular order:


Mother, directed by Bong-Joon Ho (2009)

What it’s about: A mother who lives alone with her mentally disabled adult son goes to great extreme lengths to defend his innocence when he is charged with the murder of a local teenage girl. The police take the path of least resistance by pinning the crime on him, as he was witnessed with the girl earlier in the evening – but his mother, whose relationship with her boy is complicated (to put it mildly), is fanatically determined to take justice into her own hands.

Why it made the list: Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) makes films of impeccable artistry and is a master of mixing moods – in most of his movies you will be horrified or tense in one scene, and then laughing at the slapstick-style comedy in the next. All of that applies here, but what really makes this one memorable is its portrayal of fierce, bordering on unhealthy, maternal love and loyalty, brought to life with gut-wrenching power in the superb and unsettling lead performance by the popular Korean TV actress Hye-Ja Kim. She owns every frame of this movie, including the brilliant and unforgettable bookend scenes. It’s probably my performance of the year (for the ones I’ve seen).

What surprised/stayed with me: The aforementioned ‘bookend’ – first and last – scenes of this movie, which I shouldn’t describe for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but are baffling, beautiful and boldly enigmatic all at the same time. Wide open to interpretation, but presented with Bong Joon-Ho’s inimitable technical skills and visual inventiveness.

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik (2010)

What it’s about: A harsh, gripping thriller set in the rural Ozarks, in which a teenage girl is determined to find her missing father (deeply in debt and involved in dealing and cooking meth) and bring him to court in order to keep her family’s home from being confiscated. She must contend with both the local law, looking for her runaway Dad, and her even more menacing and insular family who will stop at nothing to keep his activities secret – even from a blood relative.

Why it made the list: For a relatively young and obscure director, it’s amazing how well made, atmospheric and tense this movie is from start to finish. Filmed on location using many local residents without formal acting training, this movie reeks of authenticity and sustains a slow-boiling sense of danger throughout. It also boasts superb acting, especially from relative unknown Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role and the magnificent character actor John Hawkes, who embodies intimidation and menace as her strung-out, dangerously volatile (and yet weirdly empathetic) uncle Teardrop.

What surprised/stayed with me: The dark beauty of the setting, combined with the unshakable sense of bad, bad things lurking just underneath the surface in every shot of this film. We’re not talking light comedy here, but if you appreciate natural cinematography and sustained atmosphere in a movie, and enjoy noir-type thrillers, add Winter’s Bone to your list as soon as you can.

Monsters, directed by Gareth Edwards (2010)

What it’s about: A satellite that was sent out by the U.S. to investigate possible life forms in a distant corner of space has crashed back to Earth, “infecting” a huge portion of Central America with large, tentacled aliens that no one knows quite how to handle. But that’s just the backdrop to a surprisingly intimate and realistic (given the sci-fi trappings, and marketing, of the film!?) love story between a young woman stranded in the infected zone, and the freelance photographer who has been hired by her wealthy father to find and bring her back home.

Why it made the list: It ain’t for the title, which is spectacularly misleading – although there are some impressive digital effects on display here and there, and a stunning climactic sequence involving two of the alien creatures communicating on some level with one another. What I admire most about this movie is its originality and the boldness of its (first-time!) director to flout convention and make what is in essence a quiet, meditative relationship movie with inventive science fiction elements thrown into the mix. It’s an unusual combination that some would find off-putting, but that I found fresh and interesting.

What surprised/stayed with me: The ending is beautiful to look at but incredibly enigmatic and open to various interpretations – the kind of ending you’re thinking and debating about for a long time afterwards, which I always find impressive in a film. Also, you have to give Gareth Edwards a lot of credit for not only directing, but also writing the story and creating all of the special effects on his own laptop – none of which he had ever done before. It’s a hugely impressive achievement for this DIY filmmaker.

Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino (2009)

What it’s about: Basically, the assassination of Adolf Hitler as imagined by the sui generis, film-saturated mind of Quentin Tarantino. A group of Jewish-American soldiers, using Apache warrior techniques and led by a blood-crazed Tennessee redneck, go “hunting Nazis” in Germany, while Hitler’s personally assigned “Jew Hunter” SS officer pursues his own grisly mandate. Meanwhile, a young woman whose family was murdered by said SS officer concocts an ingenious revenge plot of her own, involving the movie theater she owns and operates.

Why it made the list: There’s a TON to admire about this film, not the least of which are its stunning cinematic flair, totally original combination of genres and plot elements (which could only come from one human being alive right now) and a superb performance from Christoph Waltz as the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa (believe the hype – this guy is incredible from the moment he steps on screen). But what I love most about it is the uninhibited imaginative brio and love of cinema that permeates every single frame of this wild, exuberant, overstuffed film. Tarantino ain’t subtle (though his dialog and camera movements can be surprisingly sophisticated – the first scene is a graduate course in slowly building tension to an almost unbearable level), but his films are full of raucous energy and spilling over with invention – and in that regard, I found myself tipping my hat despite myself at his hilariously cheeky last line: “This might just be my masterpiece.” Sounds ridiculously arrogant, but when you see it in context, you can’t help but laugh… and, I have to say, marvel.

What surprised/stayed with me: The incredibly skillful filmmaking throughout (especially in key scenes, such as the justly famous beginning in the farmhouse or the “bar scene”) and the emotion of the girl Shosanna’s subplot, both of which can be easily overshadowed by the wild gunplay, cinematic verve and towering figure of Hans Landa. Also, Brad Pitt’s purposely cartoonish performance as Lt. Aldo Rayne, which drew fire from some critics but I found to be pitch-perfect in its absurd comedy and exaggeration.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird, directed by Kim Ji-woon (2008)

What it’s about: Take the plot of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and transplant it to Manchuria somewhere around the 1930’s (vaguely), and you’ve got Kim Ji-Woon’s rip-roaring take on spaghetti westerns. Involves Koreans, Chinese and Japanese goons all in a chase to find a lost treasure and eliminate those who might aspire to find it first.

Why it made the list: It seemed impossible for any movie I saw this year to be even more over-the-top, ambitious and visually insane than Tarantino’s, but this one might just be the one! Some of the action sequences in this movie are among the craziest (in a good way) I have ever seen, and how people and/or animals weren’t seriously maimed in the making I really have no idea. The camera literally swoops (at times) through scenes in this movie like a panicked bird, trying to find a way to safety amidst the utter and explosive chaos. In short, this is the movie to show to the most seasoned action movie fan you can think of, and exclaim, “See if you can find anything that tops this!!”

What surprised/stayed with me: Besides the jaw-dropping, “I can’t believe I just saw that” quality of virtually every action sequence in this film, what surprises is that many of the actors, especially those playing “The Bad” and “The Weird,” deliver memorable and hilariously over-the-top performances that really add to the movie. They look like they are having a blast, which is just another layer of fun heaped on to this thoroughly enjoyable, immensely entertaining “kimchee Western.”

Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen (2008)

What it’s about: The final days of the imprisonment of Bobby Sands and his fellow Irish patriots, including their infamous hunger strike, are depicted in this totally uncompromising, brutal and yet beautifully shot film made by the British visual artist Steve McQueen.

Why it made the list: I’ll say right off that this one is a really tough watch. It does not flinch – ever – in its depiction of human violence and cruelty, whether it be that of the British prison guards towards the Irish rebels they see as no better than vermin, or that of an Irish terrorist gunning down a British official in the middle of a flowered parlor in a nursing home. But if you can make it through the beatings and feces smearing of the first third, you should – because the second act, a long scene of dialog between Sands (a stunning Michael Fassbender) and his priest (Liam Cunningham, holding his own) shot all in one take, is an amazing tour de force of acting. And the last third, in which Sands slowly starves to death, is the visual equivalent of a dream-like trance, filmed with great beauty and almost no dialog at all. If you appreciate the craft of moviemaking, you will find plenty to admire in Hunger.

What surprised/stayed with me: Everyone who’s seen this comments on it, but it’s that second act – the long scene of dialog back and forth that feels like you’re watching a stage play. It’s a fascinating verbal sparring match between Sands and his priest about the morality of dying for a cause, and whether it will ultimately mean anything. It sounds boring when written about on paper but you are glued to the screen when it plays out. It’s a brilliant one-act play sandwiched between a searing prison drama and a visual poem about dying. Bring the popcorn!!

A Serious Man, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2009)

What it’s about: A modern retelling of the Job story (in a way), in which a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor and family man in 1960’s suburban Minnesota searches for meaning and significance in his life, while various personal calamities (his wife leaving him for another, more “Able man”; a student trying to bribe him; his brother living out of his family room) tempt him to despair and hopelessness.

Why it made the list: One of two Coen Brothers films that made the list, actually… I suppose it goes without saying that their films are always flawlessly made. Now whether you like the stories they tell is something else, but technically and artistically their movies are always fabulous. No exception here. For me this movie is a fascinating, and in some ways surprisingly personal, expression of some very deep and poignant philosophical theme… what makes a life valuable? What is the point of suffering? Is there any meaning to anything that happens to us, or are we just supposed to simply do our best with whatever comes our way? Yes, the main character suffers a lot and the ending is furiously enigmatic. But it’s also hilarious throughout – and you didn’t expect pat answers or tidy endings from the Coens, did you?

What surprised/stayed with me: This one’s easy for anyone who’s seen the movie – how about that opening scene? The way the Jewish folk tale (incredibly, one born of their own imaginations and not simply lifted from Yiddish lore!) perfectly presents and mirrors the themes of the film that follows it, and yet exists in a completely different time and context, is pure genius. Gives the entire film a metaphysical layer that you’re reminded of again in the final, baffling shot… these bookend scenes left me scratching my head for days.

House (Hausu), directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)

What it’s about: Wow… how to describe this one. A gaggle of schoolgirls go to visit one of their aunts, who lives alone in the country in a strange, old house. To say that the house is possessed, and that weird things ensue, would be an understatement of staggering proportions.

Why it made the list: Easy – it’s in a class entirely by itself. There is no way to describe or prepare anyone for what this movie throws at you, which is everything (and it goes without saying that none of it makes a shred of sense). A surreal experimental horror-comedy with splashes of Italian giallo, Sam Raimi-style effects and pure Japanese weirdness thrown into the stew, this movie is probably for die-hard genre film fans only… but if you enjoy crazy, slap-sticky horror and relish the challenge to watch something totally indescribable, you will get a real kick out of house. Pianos that eat their players and disembodied heads flying around on their own (oh, and biting characters on the arse) are just some of whacked-out visuals you will be treated to in the delightful family film House!

What surprised/stayed with me: The visual style, which is totally wild and a hell of a lot of fun. You’re not watching a movie like this to be intellectually challenged or deeply moved – you want to see what kind of weird imagery Obayashi is able to stir up. And on that score, trust me, the director of TV commercials delivers in truckloads. You’re not going to forget a lot of the images in this film, and it all looks glorious in saturated color and bizarre animation. Criterion restored it for a reason – has to be seen to be appreciated!

True Grit, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2010)

What it’s about: A 13-year-old girl hires a crusty, drink-sodden U.S. Marshall rumored to have “true grit” to help her hunt down the man who shot and killed her father in 19th-century Arkansas. Along the way they enlist the help of a young, brash “Texas Ranger” who has been tracking the same varmint (“ineffectually,” as our heroine points out) and get entangled with a ruthless band of thieves.

Why it made the list: The last film I saw on this list (chronologically) is also one of the best. The Coen Brothers bring their usual sure and detail-oriented directorial acumen to this faithful, pitch-perfect adaptation of the underappreciated Western thriller (with a deeply moral heart) by Charles Portis. The screenplay beautifully preserves the strange, entertaining mix of austerity and humor in Portis’ original language, and also manages to add moments of wit and physical comedy that make it feel like a Coens film. Part adventure, part revenge story and part coming of age tale, this exciting and heartfelt paean to the great Westerns of the past feels both nostalgic and wholly original at the same time. (It’s also superbly acted across the board, from large parts to small – but one can’t help but single out newcomer Hailee Steinfeld for more than holding her own among the likes of Bridges, Damon and Brolin.)

What surprised/stayed with me: One could say, as many critics unfairly have, that what surprises about this movie is that it has heart… but I’ve seen Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou, and I already know they can bring a lot of feeling to their films (though when I see their occasional misfire like Burn After Reading, I can certainly appreciate the charge). What really surprised me in this movie was Matt Damon’s funny, refreshingly against-type performance. He brings a LOT of humor, and some poignant humanity, into a film that could have been pretty grim without it. Many people, myself included, wondered about how he would play in a movie like this, but I am happy to report that he elevates the film with his charm and ability to find the nuances of a character.

The Wire (entire series), created by David Simon (2002-2008)

What it’s about: The drug trade in the city of Baltimore, and how it affects every layer and substrata of the once-proud city’s broken and bedraggled institutions… from the street, to the ports, the schools, law enforcement, and the hallowed halls (and shady dealings) of City Hall.

Why it made the list: Man, I literally do not know how to praise this magnificent, superbly-written TV series. To start, I’ll just say it’s easily the best show and best writing I’ve ever seen on TV, by about a hundred miles. It’s got a HUGE ensemble cast and – I KNOW I’ve never been able to say this before – there is literally not one weak link in it, no matter how small the part. It’s no accident this series has spawned full-length courses at universities like Tufts and Harvard and been compared not to other TV shows, but to the novels of Dickens and Zola. It is intellectually stimulating, emotionally devastating and morally challenging. It will stay with you long after you’ve finished the final episode.

What surprised/stayed with me: What truly surprised me about The Wire is how far its characters, from so many diverse professions and backgrounds, got under my skin. Whether they’re “freelance” thieves and drug-lord killers or cops compromised by politics and the crushing demands of their low-paying jobs on their family lives, you really live with these characters and want to see them better themselves somehow… though the rock they are trying to move is of truly Sysiphusian proportions. Last word: FIND A WAY TO WATCH THIS SERIES NOW, if you haven’t!!

Honorable Mentions:

Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos; Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer; Simon Pegg/Jessica Hynes/Edgar Wright’s Spaced (TV series); Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity; Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale; Chan-wook Park’s Thirst; Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century; Lee Unkrich (Pixar)’s Toy Story 3; Christopher Nolan’s Inception