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

Masochism

Georgia O'Keefe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930
Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

There’s a secret spot in the brain, an endorphin-rich place many humans try to enter. It is a dangerous location dividing two sides of psychological states: drive and fortitude on the sunny side and the murky, ruinous side of masochism and martyrdom. Whether you are a writer or reader or observer of films, these characters who are on a quest for the ultimate mental escape, catch us, and pull us along for the ride. They have something to share about the human condition. Will they triumph or will they fall? The pleasure/pain principle is human nature’s most fascinating oxymoron. Some live it; almost all of us are entertained by it.

The Artist  
Natalie Portman, The Black Swan, 2010
Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, 2010

I admire the performing arts. The symmetry, the composition, and the spectacular lengths artists make it look and sound effortless garners awe. What’s the price an artist will pay to be the best? The rigors of practice and the dedicated focus to be perfect requires an atypical lifestyle where time and schedule are aligned for one purpose–to exist only for art. The Black Swan is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. The stress Nina Sayers struggles with as she strives to be perfect is an example of masochism. How does she achieve perfection? She has to let go of her bodily self and transcend to that secret spot where she becomes the black swan, Odile, and is no longer Nina, the good white swan, Odette.  Darren Aronofsky told a similar story–opposite societal arena–starring Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). Both films depict the extent to which an artist will transcend to the art form they worship.

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014) is a tale about the sadomasochistic relationship of character Miles Teller and his mentor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won the Oscar as his manipulative old-school instructor. Miles needed the task-master to push him to greatness. He couldn’t be the next Buddy Rich without the abuse. By the end of the story, the boy transcends into a man and the power struggle shifts to an exciting conclusion. The dynamic duo and the gorgeous jazz easily made Whiplash one of my favorite films of the year.

Transcendence via Sex
Lars Von Trier, 1996,  Breaking the Waves
Lars von Trier, 1996, Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996) is an odd film set in Scotland starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård. Bess is Calvinist and pure of heart while Jan is an atheist oil-rigger. Her love for her husband extends to great limits most of us wouldn’t venture, for he becomes incapacitated and wants her to have sex with others and describe the details to keep their union whole. Her devout relationship with God affects her rationale, and she concedes, convinced it is God’s will to cure Jan. Bess eventually overcomes her repulsion with lovers and transcends to the special spot via sex to a symbolic state of purity by martyrdom. Visionary director Lars von Trier incorporated ten rules in his Dogme 95. The remote Scottish landscape is ancient and stimulating and perfect extension to the film. You can learn more about Lars von Trier’s technique HERE.

Dangerous Jobs 
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathy Bigelow, 2008.
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008.

The threat of imminent death causes an adrenaline surge to create the complete escape. This altered state is foreign to normalcy. War puts you in that heightened state seen in films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.  How ironic that only when faced with death, do some people feel alive.  

LEOs and FF/EMTs
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

The ER nurse or doctor. The ambulance driver. The firefighter, and the police officer. Surrounded by the threat of death to others and themselves requires control and steady hands. The exposure releases the chemical surge and the instinct for survival kicks in; they are in the zone. They commit to a lifestyle that few of us could stomach. These heroes are in a voluntary, dangerous career, and they take the abuse. It’s their identity.

The Athlete 

Similar to the skater, the dancer, and the musician, the focus to excel and perfect their sport requires one visit the sweet spot in the brain. Extreme sports, extreme results.

The Actor 

What about the craft of the actor? How far will an actor go to alter their state of being? There are few actors who come to mind who are willing to transform their bodies for the sake of their art, but Christian Bale probably does it better than anyone.

Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?

History in Films: Cinderella Man

Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005) starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti creates an accurate historical climate of the U.S. Depression from the 1930s while telling the amazing story of James R. Braddock, the Bulldog of Bergen, the pride of New Jersey, the hero to his kids and the champion of his wife’s heart. Too sentimental, too contrived, too romantic to believe?

The Cinematography

The use of lights give strength to the palette of the film.

The flash of a reporter’s camera, the bulb humming behind the radio box and the  x-ray shots to show when Jimmy Braddock is hit in the ribs makes you feel the punch. The snapping of the lights allows the camera to freeze-frame the hit and allow the reaction of it to sink in. It’s a nice contrast to the swinging, fast-paced camera action in the ring during fights.

My favorite cinegraphic shot of the film, hats off to Ron Howard, for showing the MSG bowl with the NYC skyline above the ring.

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The Madison Square Garden Bowl located in Queens was constructed in 1935 and demolished in 1945. It was an outdoor venue for prize-fight boxing matches like the comeback champ, James Braddock vs. Max Baer on June 15, 1935.

I really liked the National Geographic documentary about the real Jimmy Braddock. If you want more of the man behind the movie try this:

The Radio

In sports films, a common ploy is to have an announcer commentating on the action, summing up, reviewing, and forecasting events. I find the technique mundane; it drops the realism of the narrative down a few notches for me. It’s that cardinal rule in writing–show don’t tell. However, I’m willing to forgive Ron Howard in this film because the radio and the radio announcer’s voice and inflection were perfect as a depression era prop. The radio glued American society together as a national identity. Here was the source for entertainment and news.

In the film, the children huddle on cellar steps to hear the broadcast of the fight; the priest sets up his radio on the altar for the congregation to listen to the fight. Believe it or not, that scene was a realistic gesture on the part of the parish priest who communed with his parishioners and shared the luxury item with those less fortunate during the depression. Another nice touch–Mae was always frying up the bologna to eat. A common food staple.

Paul Giamatti as the energetic second and manager, Joe Gould, was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role. He swings from soft and tender to fiery and bombastic all the while, sympathizing and oozing fraternal love.

Craig Bierko who plays Max Baer (Max Baer’s son, Jr., was the actor who played Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies) was perfect in the role as the swaggering star too concerned with his own persona as heavyweight champ than to worry about a fight with the washed up old man, Jimmy Braddock.

Underdog stories are a sure-fire way to pull on the heartstrings. This one is better than most because it reinforces the love for family and the love for one’s mate. Without Mae’s support, played convincingly by Renée Zellweger, Braddock’s world tumbles. Braddock is not just a fighter from New Jersey, he is a hero who represented the Hoover notion, the psychology of “Rugged Individualism”. Work hard and stay determined and you shall overcome. You know the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The Depression wiped out life savings overnight delivering sucker punches to millions.

Braddock would rather fight back adversity in the ring where he can see what he’s up against. Lines for the soup kitchens, lines for relief money, mustering pennies to pay the electric bill to keep the kids warm, scrambling for a shift to work–all fears and challenges of one-quarter of the U.S. population during the Depression from 1929 to our entrance into WWII.

The story of James Braddock is too good to be true. The themes of family and love and perseverance makes it a great feel-good film. The best part about this film? James Braddock was really that guy portrayed by Russell Crowe. A man of integrity, devoted to family and community, hard-working, loyal, and after his stint with boxing, started his own longshoremen company, bought a house with Mae and lived out the rest of their lives together in it. He served in WWII honorably and everyone loved him. It’s a swell movie showcasing a swell guy. I never tire watching it.

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