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

IMO: Alone in the Crowd

 

Have you spent a length of time in a completely foreign environment with strangers? 

Here’s a paradox — feeling alone in the crowd. I am naturally an introvert. Yet, several times in my adult life, I’ve thrown myself into situations where I’m alone with strangers away from home. It’s painful for me to stand in a crowd and make small talk. Surrounded by strangers, it’s painful to work as a team. Worse is trying to find a seat in a dining room and be a good conversationalist with strangers. My natural instinct is to take flight and take my meal anywhere else. After an 8 hour shift of working around others, all I want is to be alone. But what to do? For it is painful for me to eat in a restaurant by myself. I find it hard to go to a movie, a bar or public event by myself. Surviving in the group dynamic for a week or months or years is a life skill I’ve practiced for decades. Whether spoiled in luxury or in dubious settings, anxiety accompanies me throughout and threatens to shut me down. So why do I do it?

 

Work Vacations 

For 8 days, this past June, I went to Tampa, Florida to grade AP US History essays. Away from my routines and loved ones, I sat at an assigned table grading. Two breaks and a lunch later, we were free to head back to the hotel. We were assigned a roommate, and I prayed she wouldn’t have sleep apnea. There was a lot of free time to explore and eat out if we chose. Visit the local museums or soak in the hotel hot tub on the fifth floor, I’d consider this a work-vacation.

Academic Vacations 

Once in 1995, I spent weeks in Dorset County, England studying Thomas Hardy. For three English graduate hours, I was surrounded by a Thomas Hardy scholar and sixteen other college students who enrolled in the class to read six novels, a book of poetry, and live in Southern England. The evenings were free for pints and discussions. This was more of a vacation than a chore. Reading, writing, and discussing books is like blogging about movies. It was emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO

The other academic environment was an all immersion German graduate class in beautiful Taos, New Mexico, run by the University of New Mexico. With 40 other students, we stayed in the ski resort condominium and our roommates and the class vowed to speak only Deutsch. For three weeks we went to class, ate together, and studied in our rooms.  A discussion panel or a German film was shown in the evening. It was a painful three weeks. I muddled through with good grades and credit. Surrounded by others who spoke better Deutsch than I and listening to philosophical seminars in German was daunting. I couldn’t wait to get home.

Educational Traveling 

 

It might seem strange to consider traveling across the globe with a group you’ve never met before. Maybe you know one or two people–the travel buddy, me the facilitator, or other students. Yet, you are sharing an experience. They bring their perceptions to the discussions and you share what you found interesting. Inevitably, you begin discussions and develop surprising friendships.

 

Everyone is on their best behavior as we share the hotels, the famous sites, the excursions, and the food. With my trips, there is free time built into the itinerary so one can simply stop, sit, have a glass of wine or coffee, and people watch. Evenings are free to pursue preferences. Some like to crash and hang out in the hotel. Older couples go out and check out the stores and bars. Every time we return home, couples, grandparents, parents, students, and I marvel at the adventure. Forgotten is the plane ride, the hot temperatures, the rain, or the grumpy traveler on the train. I always look forward to next year’s adventure. I feel blessed I’ve been able to escort people far, far away.

The Military 

In 1981, I joined the U.S. Navy after graduating high school and was sent to Orlando, Florida to boot camp for eight weeks. Other than my first trip to London and the countryside while in high school, it was the first time I had voluntarily separated myself from family and friends. Oh the calisthenics, the screaming by company commanders and never-ending marching and standing at parade rest! I survived and was pretty proud of myself. Off then to San Diego, California to an “A” school to learn how to be a Radioman which means how to establish ship shore communications. I specialized in the teletypewriter and learned how to read tape. While there, I was asked where I wanted to be stationed. I said anywhere in the United Kingdom. I was stationed at the Northern tip of  SCOTLAND  and lived up there for three years in the early 1980s.

Why do I do it? I try to get out of my comfort zone. I’m no fool–these opportunities I’ve described were gifts. I knew the trips would be worth the discomfort of my social anxiety because I thought of them as adventures. Despite fears and loneliness, in each experience, there were strangers who turned into friends. Only when I push myself out of my comfort zone is when I accomplish anything in my life. It would be so easy to be a recluse and shrink in all ways a person can by avoiding my fellow man.

I have an assignment at school where I’m mentoring a neophyte teacher. He told me that Arizona State University rewards mentors by granting them college hours. So what did I do? I looked and sure enough, there’s a summer total immersion program in German at their sister-city in a part of Germany I’ve never been to before. I know it will be painful. I know I will feel lonely. I know I will crave the comfort of my own surroundings, but how can I resist the adventure of gathering with a group of strangers and practicing the German language even if I’m not very good at it?

How about you? When have you been alone in the crowd? 

L13FC: The Criteria of the Film Critic

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club. I am happy to introduce this month’s co-host, Australian film critic, Richard. He writes high-quality reviews, so check out his blog at Cinemusefilms.  It’s great to hear from one and all, so add to the conversation. This month’s topic is the criteria we consider when we review a film. How do you rate a film?

Richard’s thoughts: 

Criticism here does not mean being critical. It means applying critical faculties in evaluating something. Most bloggers offer critical commentary of some sort and everyone is influenced by gender, age, ethnicity, class, politics and cultural taste. In other words, we all have biases.

There are millions of film critics chatting away in one endless conversation about what they like or don’t like about films. Most are describing film plots and their subjective responses. None are right or wrong, but if you want some degree of arms-length objectivity, having transparent and self-aware criteria is helpful. Mine are contestable but they are flexible and make sense to me. They are:

Narrative: the way story elements are connected

Cinematography: how/what the camera shows

Emotion: how we feel about what we see

Overall significance

The only film I’ve rated 5 out of 5 is Son of Saul, but I don’t want to see it again. Here’s my review:

Son of Saul (2015)

I gave La La Land (2016) four out of five stars and will happily see it again.

La La Land (2016)

One is a harrowing masterpiece, the other pure entertainment. Where criteria meets biases, you get opinions. How do you evaluate a film?

‘Nope…1443 bloggers have already panned it.’

Cindy’s ideas: 

Highly rated films for me are beautiful. I lean toward aesthetics and connect it to cinematography. If you hold the camera straight at a breathtaking location, are you really a good cinematographer? Or, take a cinematographer into the ghetto; can he or she flush out the beauty by using symmetry and sound and colors such as West Side Story?

Emotion is a fine qualifier, and what do I throw into that box? A great score, the chemistry between the characters, and the emotions felt by me.  The dialogue. If the dialogue is weak, the film never rises high in my estimation. And yet, there are fine films with little dialogue. (Castaway comes to mind.) Because I’m a writer, the narration is paramount to my subconscious criteria.  A great narrative has all the parts –a strong beginning, conflict, complex characters, a climax. I find films that have a slow beginning or middle or end will take a dip in my evaluation. Or, a film seems to have forgotten the story and included too many scenes or not enough. So balance is important to me. I believe a bad film should not be rated highly. Objective, unbiased eyes should watch a film. That’s tough. I agree with Richard that our biases and prejudices shape our responses to a film. Criteria become important. What are yours?

A 5/5 film for me? Here’s one:

Thank you, Richard! Would you like to lead a discussion you are passionate about? Let’s figure out a topic together and select a month that works for you. It’s easy and fun. Email me with your idea:  cbruchman@yahoo.com. 

Five Shots: Plateau Sunset

1. Campfire at the edge

The plateau at the edge of the Sycamore Canyon, Arizona is a ridge line with a 360 view. The Northeastern view is comprised of the outlying Red Rocks bordering Sedona. Looking Southwest, the sun sets over Mingus Mountain. It has become over recent years a favorite spot for us to relax and star gaze without light pollution or crowds. Last night our family went out on the plateau to catch the meteor shower. We weren’t disappointed. Before the light show, the clouds entertained us. Here are some shots from last night.

2. Sea Horses
3. Rainbow Fingers
4. Big Sky
5. Vista to the Red Rocks
6. Yellow Glow

Which one do you like best?

Best Performances In Film By A Leading Lady

Early this morning on a walk, I started thinking about the best performances by an actress of all time. My first choice was Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz because it is the singular performance seen more times by me than any other. But let’s face it, Dorothy had that whining, shrill voice that made it hard to listen to, so while it’s one of my favorite films, did she give one of the best performances by a leading lady?

There are hundreds of solid acting performances. But I’ve noticed the BEST performances incorporate that something extra. I am wowed by the performance of an actress who does more than say her lines. For example, in one performance, she might sing (Sorry, Judy, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is magnificent, isn’t it?) or dance, play an instrument or speak a foreign language. She might embody the innocence of youth and exude the wisdom of old age in one performance. She might portray multiple personalities or switch genders. Maybe she captured the essence of a historical figure superbly. It takes a great script to allow her to impress on multiple levels. Sometimes, her personality comes forward with few words. Always, you don’t see the actress, you see the character.  Inspired by blogger ALEX RAPHAEL and his game of guessing by image, do you recognize the film and actress?

This list is subjective and in no particular order. 

ONE
TWO
THREE
FOUR
FIVE
SIX
SEVEN
EIGHT
NINE
TEN
ELEVEN
TWELVE

ONE. Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria (1957)    What a spitball of moods and vivacity.

TWO. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013)   The best of her best which is saying a lot.

THREE. Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)   Totally convincing.

FOUR. Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)    Her descent into madness was convincing.

FIVE. Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968)  A queen with multiplicity.

SIX. Natalie Portman in The Black Swan (2010) Who else could have danced that?

SEVEN. Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (2004) Who else could have fought/acted like that?

EIGHT. Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993) Without a word she was a fierce, complex character.

NINE. Liza Minnelli Cabaret (1972) Act, sing, dance. Exuberance defined.

TEN. Kate Winslet in The Reader (2008) beauty, ugly, cold. She did it.

ELEVEN. Meryl Streep in Sophies Choice (1982) The languages and sensitivity. A ghost.

TWELVE.  Salma Hayek in Frida Kahlo (2002) Passionate and complex. A total transformation.

 

Who is your BEST PERFORMANCE by a LEADING LADY? (not supporting. That’s coming….) 

 

Five Shots: Clouds on the Rim

Some of our visiting family have never been to Eastern Arizona. Most people assume Arizona looks like the Phoenix landscape.  90 miles north, the Mogollon Rim is one of my favorite spots in this diverse state. Arizona ranks 6th in size among the 50 states. The total area of Arizona is 114,000 sq mi (295,260 sq km), of which land takes up 113,508 sq mi (293,986 sq km) and inland water 492 sq mi (1,274 sq km).  Here are some shots I took kayaking and hiking around the rim. The clouds were colossal. Which photo do you like best?

Bright Blue Sky
Kayaking on Woods Canyon Lake
Soft Reflection
Shore Line
Creeping Clouds
Far Side of the Lake
At the Edge
The Mogollon Rim

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