Monthly Archives: November 2013

Moby Dick (1956)

You really can’t put a book like Moby Dick on the screen. There’s no way to duplicate the experience of reading Melville’s words and being drawn into the ecstatic chaos and the terrifying poetry of his world. But John Huston was never one to shy away from a challenge, and in fact, he seems to have enjoyed taking on projects that tested him. If his version of Moby Dick isn’t completely successful, it’s still a beautiful and powerful adaptation that preserves much of what was most important in the book.

One of the problems in making a commercial film from Moby Dick is that it’s less a novel than a cosmic meditation on God, man and nature. There’s very little plot. At the beginning an innocent young man gets on a boat with a crazed captain in search of a white whale. At the end they find the whale, the boat is destroyed, and the young man is left floating in the middle of the ocean. In between, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, offers his musings on life, death, the ship, the sea, and endless ruminations on whales.

Huston hired Ray Bradbury, who at that point had never written a screenplay, to fashion a script from the book. While the two men had great admiration for the other’s talent, apparently they didn’t get along at all. The experience was a traumatic one for Bradbury, but for the most part Huston was very pleased with his work, and the finished product gave the director an admirable adaptation to start with.*

There are moments in the film that capture Melville beautifully, and one of them is the opening sequence where we see Richard Basehart as Ishmael, strolling through the countryside, following the course of the water as he makes his way to the shore. Basehart was the perfect choice for the central character. He keeps us with him all the way, Ishmael playing the fascinated witness to Ahab’s monstrous madness. Basehart is surrounded by a marvelous supporting cast. On his arrival in New Bedford, the young sailor is greeted by Stubb, and Harry Andrews plays the veteran seaman with a vigor that is both intimidating and ingratiating. Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah with a sober gravity and a heartfelt humility that serves as the perfect prologue to this story of a man who dares to defy God.

Many people have criticized Gregory Pack’s performance as Ahab. Huston defended Peck, and I have to say I side with the director, though with some reservations. I think Peck has all the steely resolve that Ahab should have, and he is convincingly commanding as the captain who seduces his crew into following him to the gates of hell. On the other hand, I feel that there’s a certain weight or depth that’s missing. I don’t know if I would say that Peck is miscast. The role must be incredibly difficult to play, and there are probably few actors who could really take it all the way.

Leo Genn and Gregory Peck

Leo Genn and Gregory Peck

Opposing Ahab is Starbuck, and Leo Genn plays the part with impressive conviction. Starbuck is the voice of morality, a humble man who believes that in doing their work the whalers are serving humanity and serving God. Genn does a fine job of portraying the chief mate’s conflicted feelings as he slowly realizes that the captain has no interest in anything except pursuing the white whale. Starbuck is a Quaker, but he is so deeply disturbed by his captain’s conduct that he finds himself contemplating mutiny, and eventually murder. It’s a striking performance that’s easy to overlook, because the actor is so completely immersed in the role.

Oswald Morris, the tremendously gifted cinematographer who shot the movie, says that Huston wanted to recreate the look of nineteenth century steel engravings. After extensive tests, Morris hit on the idea of desaturating the color image and adding a grey image over it. This approach imbues the film with a dark beauty, giving the sailors’ faces, the weathered boat, and the glowering sea a grim, storybook look. The score by Philip Sainton is good and supports the drama well, but it is the source music, the various songs sung by the crew and the townspeople, that bring us into this peculiar world of whaling towns, whaling boats and whaling men. There is the wild dance at the New Bedford inn, accompanied by a boisterous accordion. There is the solemn hymn sung by the church’s congregation as the prelude to Father Mapple’s sermon. And there is the ringing chant that the whalers shout out as they row steadily towards murder or death. This is the music that these people sing in celebration and in sorrow, the music that is woven into the fabric of their lives.

Huston does a magnificent job of portraying both the wonder and the terror that must have been inextricably intertwined on a nineteenth century whaling ship. The director was an adventurer himself, and was constantly searching for projects that would challenge him and challenge his audience. This didn’t always work out. It’s not easy to combine action with introspection, especially when you’re shooting on the ocean in bad weather and the budget is spiraling out of control. I feel like the final sequence, the whalers’ attack on Moby Dick and the murderous revenge he takes on them, goes by too quickly. Huston has written about the extreme difficulties that his crew had filming at sea, and it’s possible they couldn’t get all the footage they needed.

In the end it doesn’t matter whether Huston pulled it off completely. At its best the film is so rich and so powerful, so subtle and so complex, that it seems foolish to complain of its faults. Most commercial filmmaking is based on familiar formulas because it’s easier to turn a profit when you play it safe. Huston didn’t play it safe. He was always ready to take a chance, and often found himself out on a ledge, dancing on the brink. For an artist, that’s not a bad place to be.


Years later Bradbury wrote a short teleplay titled The Banshee, which is based on his stormy relationship with Huston. It’s both creepy and funny, and Peter O’Toole is devilishly perfect as the autocratic director, whose name happens to be John.

Support the Independents

On Saturday night I went out to the Nuart to see John Sayles’ new movie, Go for Sisters. It’s a moving story about a mother who goes to Mexico looking for her kidnapped son. She’s accompanied by a friend, a former addict who’s trying to get back on track, and the two of them join up with a former cop who helps them navigate the streets of Tijuana. As you would expect with Sayles, the screenplay is excellent, and the performances by LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross and Edward James Olmos are first rate. It’s a tough, tense little movie that really digs into the characters.

Edward James Olmos and LisaGay Hamilton

Edward James Olmos and LisaGay Hamilton

Sayles has been around since the seventies, shunning the bright lights and big bucks of Hollywood in order to do things his own way. He has doggedly pursued his goal of making honest movies, and as most independent filmmakers will tell you, this is always an uphill battle. After the movie was over, Sayles was joined by Hamilton and Olmos to take questions from the audience. During the session, Hamilton asked the audience to help get the word out, and that’s the reason for this post.

Go for Sisters is getting very limited distribution, and the filmmakers have very little money to promote their work. They need our support. They deserve our support. The link below will take you to the web site, where you can view a list of dates and locations. If you want to see a real movie about real people, check it out.

Go for Sisters

At Land (1944)

At Land by Maya DerenWe see the ocean. Waves cresting and breaking. The tide rolling across the shore. And then a woman lying on the sand. At first she seems to be unconscious. But her eyes open. She gazes at gulls flying overhead. A large, twisted chunk of driftwood lies nearby. She reaches for it, wraps her fingers around a broken branch, and starts to pull her body up….

This is the way Maya Deren’s At Land begins. A woman, played by the filmmaker, is left on the shore by the tide. The film follows her as she explores a world that is constantly shifting, constantly changing, where different realities seem to exist on intersecting planes. Climbing up the jagged driftwood, she suddenly finds herself peering down a long table in a huge dining room. The woman pulls herself onto the table and crawls slowly down it, while men and woman on either side talk and laugh, drink and smoke. They all seem completely unaware of her presence.

At the end of the table she discovers a chess board, and she is transfixed by the pieces as they move about. A pawn is taken, and rolls off the board. In the next shot we see the pawn floating in water that soon carries it tumbling over jutting stones. The woman follows, stepping seamlessly from the dinner party to a river in the wilderness. This might seem like a jarring leap, an absurd juxtaposition, if we were to view it from the same narrow window that we usually watch the world from. But Deren offers us a new window. The film flows naturally from one scene to the next because she’s following an inner logic. She creates her own reality, and invites us to experience it with her.

The woman keeps moving forward as the landscape continues to shift around her. As we follow her from the beach, to a dinner party, to a river, to a lonely road, we experience what she does. We see it all through her eyes. There is a story here, but not the kind we’re used to. We’ve been brought up with stories told in familiar terms, we’ve come to expect that stories will describe the world in a way that we can readily understand. But Deren discards all that, speaking to us with images instead of words. She leaves the world of rational explanation behind, instead relying on her intuition and asking us to do the same.

In some ways Deren’s movies are direct descendants of the avant-garde cinema of the twenties and thirties. Rich in symbolic references, charged with sexual tension, her work seems to be exploring the unconscious in the tradition of Germaine Dulac, Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel. But though Deren may have learned from these and others, her films are very much her own. In fact they’re some of the most intensely personal films I’ve ever seen. Her strange and startling images offer a vision of the world that is unique. In the history of cinema, there is no one else like her.

Deren’s fascination with dance is evident in At Land. This is a ballet and she is the central character. Whether she is walking or running, crawling or climbing, her body expresses what she’s feeling. Often she seems to be fearful, anxious, ill at ease. The woman’s journey brings her in contact with a number of different people, but she doesn’t connect with any of them. Walking along a path, she chats with a man, who is suddenly a different man, and then another different man. This last man walks ahead of her and disappears into a house, closing the door behind him. When she follows him she finds herself in a room with yet another man, lying in bed, covered with a sheet, staring at her. The woman stares back, watching him intently. The tension between the two of them is palpable. Later she returns to the beach, where she finds two women, a blonde and a brunette, playing a game of chess. She stands behind them, stroking the brunette’s hair. The three laugh, and for a moment it seems as though she’s at ease, enjoying their company. But it’s a ruse. As the chess players go on laughing, the woman reaches down and grabs a pawn, then runs off with her prize.

And as she runs off, we see that she is also standing with the chess players, the three of them regarding the figure running along the beach with curiosity. She is also watching herself from the edge of a cliff. She is also watching herself as she peers over the table. And she is also watching herself as she clings to the driftwood. These are the film’s final images. The woman regarding herself from multiple perspectives, looking on as she herself runs down the beach, leaving a trail of footprints in the sand, until she finally disappears into the distance.

To watch At Land now, click here.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

River Phoenix, waiting for a ride.

River Phoenix, waiting for a ride.

Gus Van Sant has made a lot of movies, and different kinds of movies. He’s had a few big commercial successes, but those aren’t the ones I like most. The films of his that have really moved me are the ones about the outsiders, the vagabonds, the wanderers. The people who don’t really understand the rules that the straight world plays by. Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant, and Last Days all deal with people who are living on the outskirts, sometimes on the edge. For one reason or another they can’t connect with the “normal” world, and in some cases they don’t even want to.

The first image we see in My Own Private Idaho is a young guy standing by a lonely road waiting for a ride. We hear crickets chirping. Birds chattering. The landscape is huge and beautiful and rolls all the way back to the horizon where it meets the sky. The guy, Mike, starts speaking to no one in particular. He talks about how he recognizes this road. He’s been on it before. He says it looks like a fucked-up face. Then he starts to tremble, and within seconds he has fallen down in the middle of the road, fast asleep.

Mike is a narcoleptic, which means he can fall asleep at any time with little warning. He’s also a hustler. He wanders around the northwest, hitting the cities, turning tricks at night and hanging out with friends during the day. Obviously, it could cause problems for a hustler if he’s prone to passing out when he’s with a client. At one point he has a seizure when he’s with an older woman. It seems she reminds him of his mother….

This rootless wanderer, a hustler in search of a home, is at the center of My Own Private Idaho. Mike is the classic Van Sant character. He wants to connect with the people around him, but he’s too innocent and too fragile to play their games. He sells his body for money, but he doesn’t know the facts of life. Van Sant builds this complex, rambling film around a young man who’s searching for some kind of perfect love. Mike hangs out with the hustlers in Portland, rides a motorcycle to see his brother in Idaho, and even takes a plane to Italy looking for that warm, nurturing embrace. But he’s looking for love in all the wrong places. He’s chasing a fantasy that only exists in his mind.

Mike thinks about his mom a lot. He has visions of her holding him, speaking to him softly, reassuring him. In his memory she’s an idealized figure, gentle, sweet, loving. From what we learn about Mike’s childhood, though, it was anything but ideal. Apparently his mother spent some time in an institution. He hasn’t seen her for years. Throughout the film Mike talks about wanting a home, a family. He feels lonely and lost. Really he just wants to be loved. Unfortunately, he ends up falling in love with Scott.

Scott is also a hustler, but not because he needs the money. His dad is a bigshot in Portland. The family is loaded. Scott could be living in the lap of luxury, but he likes living on the street, drifting around, doing drugs and pulling petty scams. He also likes the fact that his lifestyle is a slap in the face to his father’s straight world. When a city official shows up with a legion of cops to fetch the wayward youth home, Scott pretends to be having sex with Mike. He just wants to see the embarrassed looks on the squares’ faces. Scott revels in the crazy, messy world of the misfits who scrape to get by on the streets of Portland. He especially enjoys the company of an aging vagabond named Bob Pigeon, who he calls his true father. But this lowlife prince knows he’s slumming. He knows that in the end he’ll cut Bob loose, along with all his other hustler friends.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Van Sant has lifted this part of the story from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But there’s another layer here, because the relationship between Scott and Bob is actually based on Orson Welles’ adaptation of the play, Chimes at Midnight. Welles’ film essentially follows the structure of Henry IV, but there is a major change in emphasis. Where Shakespeare focussed on the prince’s transformation from roustabout to ruler, Welles’ drama is about the prince’s betrayal of his best friend, his “true father”, Falstaff. And this is the heart of Van Sant’s film, too. Mike and Bob both love Scott. They’re innocent enough to believe that he loves them, too. And he does, but only up to a point. When the time comes for him to take over his father’s role, he does it without hesitating. And there’s no place for his old friends in his new world.

There’s another thread running through the film, so subtle that it’s almost subliminal until the very end. A few of the characters, including Mike’s mother and brother, are seen wearing crosses. At first I wondered what this was about, because I couldn’t see anything explicitly Christian about the movie. But it all becomes clear at the funeral for Scott’s father. We see a group of people gathered in a cemetery, everyone dressed in their Sunday best, and the minister reading from the Gospel. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” There’s an accordion playing softly in the background, but it’s not part of the service for Scott’s father. We see that another funeral is taking place just a few hundred feet away, or maybe not so much a funeral as a wake. A group of Scott’s former friends are gathered around Bob’s casket, getting ready to lay him to rest. Their gathering starts out quietly, but soon becomes loud and raucous, with everybody screaming Bob’s name. The formal service for Scott’s rich father, one of those who laid up his treasures on earth, is dull, dreary, dead. The mad gathering to mourn Bob is made up of misfits and outcasts, loners and losers. The people Christ spoke for.

Van Sant knew exactly what he was doing when he cast River Phoenix as Mike, the young, clueless, drifter hustler. He seems to just be living in the moment, a pretty boy with innocent eyes, hanging on a street corner, waiting for a trick or a friend to come along. Keanu Reeves is excellent as Scott, a suave, smug rich kid who knows from the start that he’ll eventually cut all these people loose. And then there’s the great Udo Kier. As Hans he has an awkward charm, a winsome vulnerability, and he provides some of the film’s best comic moments. Kier is in a category all by himself. There’s no one else like him.

My Own Private Idaho has so many different layers that it’s hard to grasp them all. I get the sense that this was a very personal project for Van Sant, and that he poured everything he was thinking and feeling into it. It’s not a neat, tidy, linear film. It’s a sprawling, rambling epic. A poem in sounds and images. Van Sant shows us hustlers hanging in coffee shops, houses falling out of the sky, and the vast grandeur of the American northwest. The soundtrack is a lovely patchwork that weaves together America, the Beautiful, music from the Renaissance, and the Pogues. It also includes original material by Bill Stafford that echoes the melancholy beauty of decaying hotels and lonely roads. Van Sant is trying to say a lot in this film, and I really don’t care if it all fits together. This isn’t a movie you understand with your head. It’s a movie you feel in your heart.