In the Heart of the Sea

Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) Man vs. Nature

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK  specializes in U.S. maritime history and combines his engrossing story-telling sensibilities with fine research. In 2000, his nonfiction National Book Award Winner, In the Heart of the Sea, inspired the 2010 PBS documentary Into the Deep directed by Ric Burns and narrated by Willem Dafoe. Next came the recent 2015 Ron Howard film, In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, and Cillian Murphy. Of course, Herman Melville wrote the classic Man vs. Nature classic, Moby Dick, in 1851 about Captain Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the mighty Sperm whale. All four versions of the sinking of the whaleship Essex combine the history of Nantucket and the Romanticism between the sailor and the sea and his ship. All versions are worthy ways of spending your time and will enhance your knowledge of Colonial America.

The History 

The 50 by 30 mile stretch of land off Cape Cod became the heart of the whaling industry from approximately 1620-1865. Until the advent of kerosene, the highest quality oil used to make wax candles and light lanterns were from the rendered oil of whales. Dug out from the bulbous head of the Sperm whale, the Spermaceti oil could fill 34 barrels and was most valuable. At first, the Wampanoag and Nantucketers stripped and boiled the blubber from the drift whales which had been stranded on shore. Over the years, sailors ventured further off the coast to deeper waters and discovered pools of Sperm whales. It evolved into a two hundred year industry and sailors became more than hunters. The ships became floating factories for processing and storing the oil. They became merchants and explorers, too. For one to five years, sailors set off on voyages in search of whales to fill the empty barrels lying on the belly of their ships. From Nantucket, the Westerlies pushed them toward South America. They rounded Cape Horn and floated up the coast of Chile to the Galapagos Islands and kicked out into the expansive Pacific Ocean in search of the migratory pools of Sperm whales. According to scholars on the PBS documentary, Into the Sea, “By 1775, 360 whaling boats went out to hunt the whale; 15 came from Nantucket. Fifty percent of the profit of exports in New England came from the whaling industry.” I don’t think it can be stressed enough how important the whaling industry solidified the economic success of the burgeoning northern colonies. Consider that the South had cash crops (tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton) while the North had whales. It is interesting to consider that both regional ends vanquished mammals for their economic success – whales in the north and slave labor in the south. 

New Bedford Whaling Museum, Harpooning the Whale

The Romance

The culture of a sailor and his life onboard a ship was a mixture of extremes. Boredom, while waiting to spot the whale. Then,  “Thar she blows!” followed by the rambunctious attack with harpoons aimed for the lungs, the pull and the stabbing, the gross “flurry” as the whale drowns in her own blood, the shout from the crew, “Chimney’s afire!” and then the three-day processing of peeling off the blubber, melting of blubber, the furnaces stoked and the smells and the slime of oil glistening the faces of the sailors as if they labored in the pits of Hell. Ghastly.

Remember to factor in the religious temperament of the 17th and 18th-century colonist whose explanation of the workings of the world were inextricable with the Bible and Divine Providence. That is, the sailor, the captain, and her ship were “vessels of exoticism, traveling around the globe in the pursuit of conquering the Leviathan, a sea monster from the Old Testament.” The whale was considered evil; man’s conquering was a noble feat. Surviving a voyage was an adventure for the crew and the officers; it defined manhood. The beauty and wildness of nature attracted the sailor. The horizon blended water and sky into a location of unearthliness. There was no time or place. Out in the Pacific Ocean–it must feel to what astronauts feel out in space–one is a speck, surrounded by infinity, overwhelmed with fear and awesomeness.

The Film 

After watching the film five times, I am in admiration of Ron Howard. He followed Nathanial Philbrick’s book with the attention to detail that mirrored the historical climate from the book. The true voyage of 1820 combined an unnatural pairing of the first mate, Owen Chase, (Chris Hemsworth) the “fishy” second-in-command whose natural instincts and assertiveness commanded the respect of the crew, while Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was more a “social” leader, seeking suggestions, and thereby perceived too passive.

Where Ron Howard might have lost a few critics and fans for lulls in the action was the overarching narration of the telling of the story from the perspective of an older Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who was a cabin boy during the sinking of the Essex and the 90 days lost out at sea. Fighting the shame and guilt of sins committed staying alive, Nickerson is paid by a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) to share the survival story and strange actions of the angry 85-foot Sperm whale, Moby Dick, who “stove” the Essex.

By including this line of narration, Howard blends the history of the story with the American Romantic classic, Moby Dick. Philbrick’s book centers on the recently discovered diary from the 1990s of the cabin-boy, Nickerson, to add a fresh twist to the long staple, Owen Chase’s account of the disaster, written months after the 1820 disaster. Howard respects this and gives life to the orphan boy who found himself at 13 on the voyage of a lifetime.

Ron Howard is criticized for his sappy interjections in an otherwise interesting plot. It’s his Achilles Heel. In this case, while devoting his film to a logical, realistic account, he incorporates the Man vs. Nature elements of the novel Moby Dick by bestowing anthropomorphic qualities to the whale. It’s the climax of the film, so I can’t specifically say, but it is the flaw of the film for me that brings my rating down a notch. I will hint at it: when man and beast come eye to eye, they come to an understanding.

In Nathaniel Philbrick‘s account, the whale struck the ship and was never seen again. The film version embellishes the history by embracing Melville’s book. Those that love Herman Melville and the personifications found in the literature would not have issues with the personification of the whale in the film. If you want a realistic account of events, the climax might feel far-fetched. Does it work? You tell me.  4/5.

American Experience: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World DVD 

Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford (eds). (2001). Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. A Norton

     Critical Edition. Second Edition, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

     ISBN 9780393972832

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex., 2001. Print. 

ISBN-10: 0141001828  ISBN-13: 9780141001821

Film Spotlight: Denial

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Guest Review: DENIAL (2016) by Cinemusefilms 

The nature of truth and the power to manipulate it have long been contentious themes in history and cinema. The outstanding film Denial (2016) resonates loudly in today’s post-truth world where power is often used to create alternate realities. It is a film that portrays denialism as a dangerous and perverse form of moral corruption, something that may be contained but can never be eliminated.

The story is based on the celebrated 1996 legal case fought between eminent academic Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust Studies, and David Irving, a historian of Nazi Germany. A book published by Lipstadt (Rachael Weisz) accuses Irving (Timothy Spall) of being a Holocaust denier and falsifier of history, and Irving sues for defamation. In the British justice system, the burden of proof is on the accused so Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust did happen to establish that Irving is a liar. She engages a top legal team led by senior barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) who insists that neither Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors should present testimony against Irving because of his history of promoting himself by humiliating victims. Lipstadt and her lawyers visit Auschwitz to gather evidence of the existence of gas chambers but the bulk of the story is played out on the legal battlefield at court.

Modern audiences are desensitised to the atrocities of war. It is glorified in movies and video games and feeds the entertainment and amusement industry. Today’s filmmakers struggle to find ways of remembering the Holocaust without alienating viewers. The extraordinary Son of Saul (2016) takes audiences right into the flames, whereas Denial (2016) explores the moral issues in a courtroom. In reality, this was a high-stakes legal battle that could have potentially delegitimised the entire history of the Holocaust. It is an outstanding achievement that this film can capture the tension and the burden of moral responsibility carried by the Lipstadt legal team.

The casting and characterisation in this film are brilliant. Rachael Weisz’s American brashness presents a stark cultural contrast with the conservative traditions of British justice. She convincingly portrays a principled academic and scholar of truth, showing restrained emotion beneath her loathing for Irving’s anti-Semitism. Tom Wilkinson gives a masterful portrait of wisdom and conviction, while Timothy Spall plays Irving with subdued Satanic malice. The other support cast makes up a strong ensemble. The narrative unfolds at a sweeping pace and the script is both intelligent and instructive in the legal nuance of courtroom manoeuvers. The footage of Auschwitz is emotionally harrowing and the film treats its subject matter with utmost reverence.

If you want light entertainment, do not see this film. It is for audiences prepared to confront the dark side of humanity as well as those interested in the intricacies and triumphs of the British legal system. But more than that, it’s an essay on the nature of truth in history and it exposes the moral abhorrence of those who manipulate facts to suit their prejudices It is also a warning that manipulators of truth will always be among us. 4/5

Director: Mick Jackson

Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall

Thanks, RICHARD, for contributing to my blog today! 

L13FC: U.S. Civil War Films

cindylucky13banner-1Welcome guests, and my co-host Pete from England, who has a genre passion for the U.S. Civil War. “I claim to have seen almost all of them during my 64 years such as Buster Keaton’s The General(1926), Gone With The Wind (1939), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne leading the Union to victory, in the 1959 epic.” Those are some popular ones, but Pete’s knowledge about this genre is impressive. Ask him anything.

Pete and I talked about how we should approach the subject. What makes a great war movie? Is it the accurate reenactments like Gettysburg (1993)? Is it the band of brothers who provide an insight into the situation like Glory (1989)?  Perhaps it’s the personal stories of those caught up in the crossfire? Maybe the most memorable Civil War stories include all of these elements.

 Pete says: 

Ang Lee might not be your first choice to direct a film about the American Civil War, but his wonderfully sensitive film Ride With the Devil (1999) emerged as one of my favourites of the genre. Instead of focusing on one major battle, or concentrating on the issues of racism, slavery, or state’s rights, it looked at a totally different part of the war, the bitter border conflict between Kansas and Missouri, neighbouring states on different sides of the conflict.

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Tobey Maguire grew up to give a surprisingly good performance, as the young Confederate who soon becomes disillusioned with the pointless killings, and just wants to get away to a quiet life. British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a memorable turn as the villain of the piece, all smouldering gaze, and hate in his eyes. This group of Confederate raiders, known as Bushwhackers, fight against the neighbouring Union sympathisers in Kansas, nicknamed Jayhawkers. They hide out during harsh winters, and use the support of friendly local people to give them shelter, and bring them food. Yet they constantly argue amongst themselves, diverse characters wanting to lead the group down different paths. The action sequences are few and far between, but all the more convincing for that.

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When they decide to join the notorious Confederate officer William Quantrill, he leads them on his fateful raid into Kansas, to attack the Union town of Lawrence. Here Lee really gets to flex his directorial muscles, with panoramic shots of the epic battle in which 200 civilians and soldiers were massacred by the victorious Confederates, and intense scenes that follow in the aftermath.

This may not be the first Civil War film you think of, but it is undoubtedly one of the best.

 Cindy’s Thoughts:

I’m still jealous of author Charles Frazier whose debut novel about the Civil War was a literary sensation in 1997. Cold Mountain was successful because it had something in it for everyone. Civil War battle scenes; complexity in the plot with the allusions to Homer’s, The Odyssey;  and the universal themes of survival, loneliness, and love. The novel contained a kaleidoscope of quirky characters. Then came the movie version in 2003. What a sensory treat!

The assembled cast was a dream team: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, and Ethan Suplee. While everyone did their part well, I was most impressed by Renee Zellweger who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance as Ruby. Add the period details of the 1860s, the rolling hills of an Appalachian setting, the distinctive bluegrass sound intrinsic to the culture, and the changing seasons to film–what could be better than to film the black and white of winter on the mountain ledge with black crows and black coats approaching around the bend?–it sure aided the director, Anthony Minghella, to create a cinematic masterpiece.

 Eccentric characters intersect the lives of two lovelorn protagonists Ada and Inman played by Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Ada is a young Charleston socialite and companion to her dying father. Educated beyond the expected norm, her life is free to pursue reading, needlework, drawing, and the piano. When her father dies, she is left to fend for herself on the 300-acre farm. Enter Ruby, a forceful young wildcat the neighbor hires to aid Ada in the running of the farm. Ruby is the opposite of Ada. Uneducated, self-reliant, and assertive, she is a perfect foil to Ada. The two become a dynamic duo, a feminine force of efficiency.

Inman is a wounded deserter after surviving the Battle of Petersburg. He walks for hundreds of miles to return to Cold Mountain, NC, back to Ada. Along the way, he meets philosophers and oracles. A blind man imparts wisdom. An old hag surrounded by her herd of goats rescues Inman and nourishes him back to health. What makes the movie outstanding are the guest performances by powerful actors. Each vignette showcases an ethical dilemma. Take Natalie Portman’s character who appears as a single parent whose baby is dying. Alone in her cabin, she faces invasion and rape. She is completely convincing and her situation is heart-wrenching. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of his best roles as a decrepit preacher whose lustful passions get him into a lot of trouble. He’s the comic relief showing the absurdity of man. He’s hysterical.

What’s your favorite Civil War film? What’s an image or scene that has stayed with your over the years? 

The Lucky 13 Film Club: 1930s British Female Protagonists

 

WELCOME to the discussion this month as we feature three period films set in 1930s Britain. They share comedic elements, great costumes, and illustrate the economic relationship between the classes. Thanks to my friend Ruth at FLIXCHATTER, who agreed to co-host.
Ruth’s observations 
It seems that I have a fascination with the English class system and films/series about the upper crust world of nobility and their servants are in vogue again thanks to Downton Abbey. But perhaps there’s always an interest in such topic, as Upstairs/Downstairs series was popular in the 70s and remade again in 2010. Gosford Park is one of the most famous cinematic study of the class system in the 1930s, but with an Agatha Christie mystery thrown in. Julian Fellowes (the mastermind behind Downton Abbey) won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
The cast alone makes it a MUST see for me, with the who’s who of British cinema: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, etc.  It seems that no English class system story is ever complete without Maggie Smith as what else, an upper class snob of course. 
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The first time I saw this film over a decade ago, all of the class system stuff went over my head. I only remembered the costumes and set pieces, but this time around I focused more in the story and the relationships of the characters. The film is more about the servant/master relationship than an actual plot, so the murder mystery is more of a red herring plot device in the story. Over the course of a weekend, we watch the interaction between the upper and servants class, there’s really no real protagonists or villains, just people across class dynamics. It’s as if we, the audience is eavesdropping on a weekend gathering, as the film drifts into one conversation to the next. The most interesting character is that of Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who holds a big secret and came to work at Gosford Park with a certain agenda. 
MissPettigrew_costumes
As for Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the film is focused on a pair of servant and employer, Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) and Miss Lafosse (Amy Adams). The very thing that separate them, the wide financial gap and class structure between them, is what also brings them together. Miss Pettigrew ends up becoming Lafosse’s confidante and personal friend which gave her access into the exclusive and private world of high society. The romance involving the two main characters also stretch across class and financial hierarchy, as one of Lafosse’s suitors is a penniless pianist (Lee Pace) and Miss Pettigrew is drawn by a successful fashion designer who’s in a tumultuous relationship with a snobbish fashion maven.
Besides the class structure theme and that it takes place in a short period of time, what these two films have in common is the beautiful 30s costumes and the fun use of 30s music. It also has two gorgeous actors in English accent singing at the piano: Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park and Lee Pace in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. 
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Cindy’s thoughts 
Being Julia:
Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) is the ingénue whose ambitions to become a star has her hopping from bed to bed like a crowned piece on a checkerboard. Her sneeze scene during rehearsals is masterful. So, too, is the underrated Juliet Stevenson as Evie, Julia’s personal everything–maid, confidant, and bouncer. Sir Michael Gambon is the deceased mentor-director-tyrant who follows Julia around like a Shakespearean ghost. He is the voice of reason and provides the Oscar Wilde wit. Wiser than his parents, pensive Tom Sturridge plays the son Roger, and Jeremy Irons is the dull husband who manages Julia’s temper tantrums.
Being Julia feels like a revived version of All About Eve (1950) combined with the absurdity of a Billy Wilder comedy. It is filled within the shell of a play-within-a play and mounded with a meringue of stock characters and clichés.  You’d be tempted to write off the film and declare it a muddled mess. I suggest it’s a well-acted farce. 
Roger to Julia: You have a performance for everybody. I don’t think you really exist.
Julia is the performer who never leaves the stage. Neither do many of the characters from the three films. Gosford Park, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Being Julia represent women and men such as Henry Denton, the male ingénue in Gosford Park, or Tom Fennel from Being Julia who present a facade to their audience while hiding behind their insecurities or ambitions. Sex is their payment for protection or advancement.
What is important to performers like Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is to maintain the semblance of Britishness. With Julia, her blue-collared background is a topic of gossip. Henry Denton is American practicing to be Scottish. Homeless Miss Pettigrew pretends to be a social secretary. The theme of appearance verses reality creates comical ironies via bad accents or class jumping. The luscious costumes worn in the three films function as armors of deceit and shape their personas. These characters bumbling through their deceptions are entertaining to watch. The annoying voices and melodramatic posing given by Annette Bening and Amy Adams are necessary. Playing foils, Frances McDormand and Kelly MacDonald give breath to their characters; they offer the normality to sustain the plot and provide comedic contrasts.
Since a misstep of impropriety had adverse economic effects, such as the situation Elsie (Emily Watson) discovered in Gosford Park when she spoke out of turn as a servant, with a culture devoted to behaving well or else, who didn’t wear a mask to hide their true selves? How ironic then, that sex, a most indelicate act for a non-married woman in the 1930s, for ingénues like Delysia Lafosse  or Avice Crichton, sex is a way to ensure power and economic freedom. For Julia, who attained stardom, she clings to her position and knows her desirability is the key to her success. For a young man like Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) to desire her sexually, sex affirms Julia’s sense of identity. It might also explain why snobby Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), sitting at the top of the British social class, finds actors and the entertainment industry disreputable. Of course, Constance is acting, too, for she is broke and her lifestyle is in peril. She’s too old to confirm her position by sexual means; she must rely on the compassion of her brother who administers her allowance. Begging in fur and jewels. Irony, indeed.
Sex plays a large role in the three films–what are your thoughts on it?  Which of the three films did you like the most?  Do you see any interesting revelations about culture? What do you think of the functionality of costumes or how contrasts and irony create wit?  0001-60259980

Lucky 13 Film Club: The Revenant

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Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio

I am ready. Tom at http://www.digitalshortbread.com is ready. The Revenant is January’s topic on the 13th and everyone is welcome. I have daydreamed that Leonardo DiCaprio has called method actor and friend, Daniel Day-Lewis, to ask him about how to win that elusive Oscar. We have all heard the stories of DDL’s intense strategies to become the character. So Leo has eaten and climbed into raw carcasses, shivered in the cold, and been mauled by the bear. Some movie buffs like me are wondering if his dedication to the role will pay off. Add to the mystique of the film like director Alejandro González Iñárritu love for the tracking shot (Will he win 2 years in a row?) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (him, too) filming in natural light with the Arri Alexa 65 camera. Check out this interesting article by Matt Giles in Popular Science found  HERE.  The trailers alone assure me I will be dazzled by the natural setting. Filmed in Alberta Canada and Argentina? Yes, it will be a beautiful film but will the screenplay written by Mark Smith & EGI be solid?

I’ve read Michael Punke’s account of Hugh Glass, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, and the movie adaptation has an added subplot of Glass losing a son, thereby creating the motivation behind the revenge. This usually incites objections from purists who don’t like their history altered. Movies and books telling the same story are two texts, two different art mediums; I believe “based on a true story” means “swallow this with tablespoon of salt.”  As long as the historical climate is realistic, the merging of facts with fiction is a delicate balance of inspiration stressed by the author’s personal preferences. 

I recommend you check out this interview of Leo, go see the movie, and drop by on the 13th to add your opinion of this year’s surefire contender during award season. Thanks, Tom, for co-hosting this month’s discussion. 0001-60259980

The Revenant and History

Punke's novel is a page-turner
Punke’s novel is a page-turner

Michael Punke’s historical novel, The Revenant, is a true page-turner accurately depicting the historical climate of 1822 on the American frontier and the Missouri River. It highlights the true account of frontiersman, Hugh Glass. In preparation for seeing the film with a limited release on December 25 and a wide release date of January 8, it is the January topic for the Lucky 13 Film Club. Would you be interested to volunteer as a guest conversation opener about an aspect of this film?

Before watching the film, I wanted to read the book. The prose of the grizzly attack is gripping as the bear slashes Glass’s throat, nearly scalps him, and leaves gashes on his back which become infected with maggots. This is the debut novel from international trade lawyer, Michael Punke, and his descriptions are impressive.

DiCaprio as Hugh Glass
DiCaprio as Hugh Glass

Abandoned by fellow crew-mates, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass sets out and crawls 350 miles to regroup at a fort before setting out to seek his vengeance. From the trailer, it looks like the script will include Glass’s lost son and this motivation propels Glass as avenger. I’ve never had a problem with film adaptations taking liberties. They are two separate texts I critique independently. I do recommend the book; it’s a quick, satisfying read. 4.8 out of 5

With Tom Hardy playing the antagonist Fitzgerald and Alejandro G. Iñárritu directing, the trailers suggest a realistic approach to the cinematography and has me itching to see it on the widescreen. You can read more about the film including watching the trailers found HERE.

History

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In September, strong storms rolled through our Arizona valley. We live on top of a hill and when the lightning struck, the water pump blew and in spite of surge protectors, all our electronic components fried. A decade of pictures, the manuscript of my first novel, and all my files were gone. Yesterday, three bolts hit our hill. Yes, history repeated itself in a matter of a month and destroyed all that we had replaced.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were roughing-it in Colorado, camping. When the frost dampened our tent, and we shivered inside our heavy sleeping bags, and the coyotes started howling right next to us, I felt vulnerable and exposed and wished next time to stay in a lodge because I missed the comforts of home. Last week, our landlords informed us they were selling the house, and we needed to vacate the premises as soon as possible.

I study and teach history for a living. And what it has taught me about the present is how temporary life is. Our relationships alter, our jobs and goals change. Dreams pursued are either squelched, missed or acquired. We humans are in a constant state of transition. Whatever we build, crumbles. Whatever we think we own, evaporates. Stuff is just stuff. Ready or not, time marches on.

Survival stories like The Revenant remind me how easy I have it today than in 1822; to complain about my “bad luck” seems ludicrous. Books and films of history remind me how noble our ancestors were. How they survived despite the odds or how tragic their deaths. I don’t have maggots crawling out of my back after being pulverized by a Grizzly. This sounds disparate, but it helps cool the sting when I am standing in line to buy another computer and television.

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