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

Are You Not Entertained?

How many times a day do you seek to be entertained? It is elusive. It is dangerous. The rush of stimulus bombards us. The mob mentality of pop culture is easily distracting and much is nonsense. Yet, I love music and books and movies and have no intention of stopping my search for fine entertainment. Here continues a monthly series of the entertainment that has occupied my time, for better or worse.

MUSIC 

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Former member Don Felder, who complained about his place in the hierarchy as an Eagle, including this documentary from 2013 in which he co-starred, was a constant thorn in the side of Glenn Frey, but that’s only one element of the long, complicated marriage, divorce, and reconciliation of the 1970s band, The Eagles, explained by everyone in the band. The birth of classic rock stations erupted to carry their songs forward after The Eagles disbanded in 1980, and when they reunited in 1994 for their Hell Freezes Over tour, fans were ecstatic. Even if you don’t care for their harmonies or musicianship (Really?), I find it hard to think about the 1970s without them. In the 1980s, Glenn Frey and Don Henley pursued single careers, but I respect their work more as group members of The Eagles whose success and influence in the history of Rock and Roll are undeniable. We’ve all heard “Hotel California” probably 300 times, but when I’m alone in my car with the windows down, and the sun is thinking about setting, the guitar harmonies of Joe Walsh and Felder still resonate and transport me back to the pleasure and pain of younger days. I highly recommend it for those who know little about them, forgot a little, or have loved them for decades. RIP Glenn. What a collection of beloved celebrities who have passed in 2016!  5/5.

Winding_Stream

As an American history buff, I love social history, so what could be more fun than looking at our great-grandparents values and feelings through the lens of music? Therefore, The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music captured my imagination. Many are aware that Rock and Roll has been heavily influenced by Gospel and Country, which fused the chords and set the seeds to influence future giants like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and a host of British invaders who appreciated the musicianship and heartfelt songs. I can’t say I’m a big country music fan, but I respect its place, its singers, and I admire the pluck of “Big Daddy” Brinkley who created a national audience from a “border town of Del Rio, Texas, (and) set up a new radio station across the river in Mexico. With 500 kilowatts of broadcasting power, XERA was ten times as powerful as the biggest American stations, which were forced to live within the federal ceiling of 50 kilowatts. Its signal easily reached all forty-eight states, not to mention much of Canada, and within a few years spawned a slew of copycat border stations.” Read more about the Carter Family and XERA found here:  PBS.ORG, THE CARTER FAMILY

Or, rent and watch Beth Harrington‘s 2014 informative documentary.  4/5. 

Speaking of Documentaries…

People criticize the attention and profits made by the discovery of photographer, Vivian Maier. The questions raised in the 2014 documentary Finding Vivian Maier cannot compete with the woman and her captivating photography. There is a mystery surrounding this nanny-recluse who played a life-long game as a secret observer of people and treasure hoarder. When she died in 2009, obscure and alone in Chicago, director John Maloof and Charlie Siskel pulled the threads and discovered an amazing story about this 20th Century version of Emily Dickinson. Both were shy, atypical, prolific artists caught in the moment of creating poems and pictures than selling themselves. Posthumously, their art soared in popularity. In Vivian’s case, right or wrong, her work is admired around the world. It’s the complexity of Vivian that makes the documentary compelling. I disliked the directors filming themselves in the narrative. Their inclusion was offputting. The people who employed her and the children she nannied have warm as well as alarming stories that create a haunting portrayal of a very talented woman who was fiercely independent and bizarre. Would she mind the hoopla surrounding her work? She lives through her work as a ghost, garnering admiration without intimacy, and somehow I think she would like that.  4.5/5 

Check out her photography at http://www.vivianmaier.com

BOOKS 

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David McCullough‘s easy style is graceful, well-researched, and entertaining. He’s my go-to historian regarding all things U.S. History. The Wright Brothers(2015) continues Professor McCullough’s elite reputation for portraying the human side of famous Americans. Orville and Wilbur are two boys from Ohio who are armchair scholars and possessed a drive to achieve flight. Their family helped shape them. Their father was a minister and their sister a Latin teacher. They shared the same house, and they shared the trait of inquisitiveness. All were all productive and supportive. It’s the Wright Brothers who attain the fame and the patents. Their trials at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, surviving mosquito swarms, and wind storms while they practiced their contraptions was my favorite section. Once they flew, you would think the story was over. But their involvement with the French and the U.S. military adds depth to their plane story as it gave flight to the First World War. 4/5

TELEVISION 

Game of Thrones Seasons 1 – 4. 

(Spoilers) Now here’s  a guilty pleasure. I love the cinematography and the developed characters. I love the Magical Realism. Yay for Giants and three-eyed crows. Was I glad when Joffrey died? You bet. Was I troubled when Khaleesi frees the slaves only to chain up her dragons? Yep. Was I sad John Snow’s red-headed wildling died in battle? Yes!  If I had a broadsword would I stab Ramsey Bolton for torturing Theon? In a second. I will miss The Hound. Which character would I be in the series?  Gwendoline Christy’s Brienne of Tarth. I love everything about her.  Obviously, I’m hooked with the Medieval soap-opera which must find room to show a bum and boob in every episode. Thankfully, they have also included chunks of dialogue to develop the characters (i.e., brothers Jaime & Tyrion in the cell, bonding over the simpleton who beat the beetles). They all have good qualities and disgusting qualities which make them very human. Tyrion is an original character you don’t often get to see on television. His smarts and kindness and retribution are very interesting to watch. What’s there not to like? Probably the violence. And if you have something against boobs and buns. However, it’s more than a junior high video game. It’s wonderfully done with characters I care about and root for. Now on to season 5. Don’t tell me what happens. 4.5/5  

The Eccentric Eadweard Muybridge

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Canadian actor Michael Eklund (The Call) gives an outstanding performance as bizarre Gilded Age photographer, Eadweard Muybridge. Featured last weekend at the Jerome Film Festival, I discovered an Indie pearl; it was a sensual and visually stunning film directed and co-written by neophyte Kyle Rideout with strong cinematography by Tony Mirza, and a solid supporting acting ensemble including Sara Canning as Muybridge’s wife. The focus is Muybridge and how he comes to see the world and his attempts to capture movement. The naked body fascinated him as a subject of motion. His contraptions for capturing freeze-frame imaging are ingenious. His methods were unorthodox, and his passionate, strange personality alienated the conventional world. His notoriety comes from murdering his wife’s lover. Whether Eadweard is found guilty or innocent of justifiable homicide, I’ll leave for you to find out. The haunting last shot is one of the best closings I’ve seen in ages. 7/10

Last summer, I read Edward Ball’s The Inventor and the Tycoon(2013). The nonfiction account chronicled the unlikely relationship between railroad entrepreneur Leland Stanford, Muybridge, and Thomas Edison who refused to collaborate with Muybridge who suggested they combine Edison’s phonograph with Muybridge’s invention of the projector. Muybridge was the first man to use celluloid in motion pictures. His invention of the zoopraxicscope, a prototype projector was revolutionary. Edison will steal Eadweard’s process, update his projector, and show it at the 1893 World’s Fair competing with Muybridge’s outdated zoopraxicscope. It will make Edison more famous and secure the patent while Eadweard Muybridge will become forgotten.

inventorTycoon

Check out The New York Times article from January 2013 by Candice Millard for an interesting full review of The Inventor and the Tycoon

Documentary

An excellent way to learn about Eadweard Muybridge and his weird world is by watching the BBC hour-long documentary.

Eadweard Muybridge was foremost a photographer and considered by most as the “forefather of the cinema”. How freeze-frame photography and how motion pictures began is as interesting to me as the version we know today.

Have you read the book, seen the film, or watched the documentary? I recommend all three. 

 

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