Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lessons in Filmmaking #2: The White Whale

Phew, been a while since a serious post from me, sorry y'all. Been a bit busy, but I'm back. What follows might make a good companion piece to my essay about what it means to adapt the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Lessons in Filmmaking #2:
The White Whale

I've been thinking a lot about adaptation lately. It's a tricky process to shepherd a piece of art across mediums, often a very personal and mutative one. What happens when a filmmaker adapts a literary work at its worst can resemble a child's timid book report, and at its best it can ennoble and strengthen the original work.

My mind's on this for a few reasons, but mostly because I just watched the 1930 John Barrymore version of Moby Dick. This film is a bit notorious in the annals of adaptation because it's about as far removed from Herman Melville's original characters, themes, and content as possible.

The story of the movie is a bit complicated, so best to start with the beginning - in 1926, John Barrymore, at the height of his career, four years after playing Hamlet and the same year as Don Juan, starred in a silent loose adaptation of Moby Dick called The Sea Beast. Really all they took from Melville's work was the concept of a big whale taking a man's leg - the bulk of it is a land-bound love triangle playing on Barrymore's reputation as a great romantic leading man. It's most famous for The Big Kiss when Barrymore's Ahab kisses the leading lady Dolores Costello so intensely she briefly passes out.

The Sea Beast was a smash - how could it not be? Barrymore macking like a pro, and all. With the rise of sound cinema, by the early 1930s there was a bit of a land rush to remake sound era hits, particularly those a literary pedigree since, hey, the actors could talk now! Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, got an update in the classic 1931 Rouben Mamoulian version, and Greta Garbo's 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation Love was remade in 1935 under the original title Anna Karenina.

The Sea Beast has a similar progeny - its 1930 remake Moby Dick, like Love/Karenina, reverted to the original novel's title and retained the leading actor John Barrymore. The director, however, changed from 1926's Millard Webb to 1930's Lloyd Bacon, a solid workingman director with a strong sense of pacing and an aptitude for all genres.

I find the very existence of 1930's Moby Dick fascinating and kind of revealing. It's not actually Moby Dick at all. Like the '26 version, it famously changes the ending of the story to allow Ahab to kill Moby Dick and return to his love1. This is the most famous and obvious change, but far from the only or even most egregious one. We spend a firm forty minutes on land before taking to whaling, and the actual hunt for Moby Dick that constitutes the novel is less than twenty minutes, almost exactly one quarter of the film's 80 minute running time. That means that a firm 75% of this film is an original work. It's sort of an alternate Moby Dick, one which takes some character sketches and plot mechanics and weaves its own story from that. There's a pretty clear tip-off that we're in for a kind of mutant alternate Moby Dick in the opening credits.

The first shot is that hoary shot that opened so many classic-era Hollywood adaptations, a close up of the source novel being opened:

And we take a peek inside Herman Melville's book:

But what is this? Look, if Moby Dick is famous for anything, it's famous for the opening sentence. "Call me Ishmael," everybody knows it. Children know it, for god's sake, even the comic book version knows enough to include that:

Instead we have some boy's adventure story opening with no relation at all to Melville. And as it turns out, Ishmael - the protagonist and narrator of the novel - never appears in this film. The background is dotted with recognizable figures from the original - first mate Starbuck, the gruff Stubb (name altered to Stubbs), Father Mapple, and a surprisingly faithful version of Elijah all pop their heads in. Queequeg's role grows - he takes over much of Starbuck's duties as Ahab's confidante, and the religious customs we get a sense of in the novel became a source of complex concern in the film.

But Ishmael, our Ishmael, never arrives. His life and personality are stolen, in fact, by Ahab. Ahab, not Ishmael, grows close with the cannibal/prince/harpooner Queequeg. Ahab, not Ishmael, wanders Nantucket as a young and spirited man. Lloyd Bacon has condensed and muddled things. We no longer have old intractable Ahab and young poetic Ishmael, we have a whole new character, one with the light heart of Ishmael and the thunderous rage of Ahab. Ish-hab.

But real ride-or-die Melville fans will have raised their eyebrow even before seeing Ishmael's opening line gone, because "Moby Dick or The White Whale" is not the full title of Melville's work, it's really "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale." I can accept the loss of the hyphen and punctuation as the streamlined 20th century's tamping down of the talky 19th century2, but the film's addition of the word "White" strikes me. Moby Dick is famously white, so there's pretty unassailable logic in referring to him as such in the title - it's not simply The Man in the Flannel Suit, after all - but! and this is a big but: 

The Moby Dick of Lloyd Bacon's film is not a white whale.

It kind of blew my mind when I realized it. I think they only verbally refer to him as "white" once, but it's a distant yell from a watchman, easy to miss. The whiteness of the whale is very much de-emphasized from the novel.  In this opening sequence we leaf a bit through the pages of the book, and in a chunk of garbled Reader's Digest Melville we're told that the whale has only a "white forehead" and "white hump."

One of the great debates of the text is whether Moby Dick is pure white or mottled white, and to that end one of the amazing proto-modernist touches of the text is that the animal seems only to grow whiter the more Ahab thinks and speaks of it. By the novel's end, Moby Dick is a burning, all-pervading, impossible white. But it's the opposite in this film. We start out with "the white whale" in the first paragraph of the prologue, get to patches of white in the second, and by the time we actually meet the thing... well, see for yourself:

I suspect there's a practical reason for this alteration. Moby Dick is often called unadaptable, and I want all y'all to remember that word because I'm going to return to it. One reason for its supposed unadaptability is the technical hassle of creating a giant white whale thrashing about the ocean. Just watch the making of Jaws to get a sense of the problems of working with models in water. Jaws could barely get made in 1975 with a 25 foot shark, the sheer magnitude of the task of creating a boat-sized whale in 1930 is staggering.

So when the white whale shows up a somewhat prosaic gray, I shook it off with the assumption that they had surrendered the coloring to match the prop whale with stock footage of real live sperm whales. But that didn't happen. There's a brief shot of a real whale's tail as it dives, but that's it, and that's hardly worth the change.

But then Ahab kills Moby Dick, and in the film's final minute we're shown a shocking, anatomical montage of the whale's shorn skin hauled on deck and sliced up. We linger in particular on this shot:

Was Moby Dick turned grey to match this shot? It seems like the only logical answer - even if they were working with old models from another production, there's no reason they couldn't repaint them. This shot is the only unmalleable element in the entire whale hunt sequence.

In the novel, the whale's color is a powerful and constant metaphor for Ahab's all-consuming vengeance, but Ahab is not really consumed by vengeance in this film. His great anguish comes not from the act of losing his leg to the whale but from his fiance's supposed rejection of him (long story involving a sinister brother trying to get in it). So therefore, the act of killing Moby Dick is about reestablishing his masculinity in this film, as opposed to the all consuming "for hate's sake" suicide spiral it is in the novel. Cutting up the whale, conquering it totally to the very flesh, is supremely important. Lloyd Bacon's whale hunt was a bullfight, and John Barrymore's Ahab (often showing off his raw athleticism) was the matador.

It ain't Melville, but really - what is? The Sea Beast was a swooning melodrama, this 1930 update is sort of an Alexander Korda-ish historical comedy romance (it reminds me a lot of Korda's Rembrandt, which also had a habit of fudging the source). 

Elsewhere, Moby Dick has been adapted with more care paid to the framework of the text. The 1956 John Huston-directed, Ray Bradbury-scripted version was the first "respectful" crack at the story. Ishmael is back in place, there are no added romantic entanglements, and the whale is both white and alive at the end. It's as it should be, but it just doesn't work. It captures the mechanics of the plot and the whale boat scenes are well done, but there's none of the grandeur, camaraderie, or beauty of the text. It's literal, like a high school Macbeth. Even moments like this:

which for the most part retain the text verbatim, lack all lyricism because it's treated with stilted precision. My favorite part of the film is one of the few original touches, when Ahab's dead body gets tangled and lashed to the whale's. That lone digression from the text revealed a lot of potential that the film failed to capitalize on. 

In all candor, though Huston's Moby Dick is better Melville, Lloyd Bacon's is better cinema. It's a good showcase for Barrymore's stuntwork and natural charm. It recasts the story as one of man's triumph over nature, which sort of an arrogant 1930s thing to do, but it's honest with itself and it's not hard to latch onto. 

The same complaint I have with Huston's film can be leveled at the 1998 Franc Roddam Moby Dick minseries, which hosts great performances from the likes of Patrick Stewart and Bruce Spence but fails to find its own rhythm and heart.

The standout of Huston's film is Father Mapple as played by Orson Welles, who himself adapted the play to the stage with 1955's two-act play Moby Dick - Rehearsed. The play documents a theater company's rehearsal of a Moby Dick show, improvising props and slowly getting into character. It's a solid piece. I adapted it myself in college, but I was dissatisfied with the pacing and rewrote much of the first act. The result was credited as "John D'Amico's revision of Orson Welles's adaptation of Herman Melville's novel." Melville's text was the center of the show, but there was another story overlaid on it. It was not Moby Dick, it was something else entirely. It was the chronicle of my love for Moby Dick and for Orson Welles, and of Orson Welles's love for theater and for Melville. There was a lot at work in it. 

But Moby Dick - Rehearsed is great Moby Dick, despite how far it flies from the text. Welles has a knack for adapting the core of a story rather than the simple dull machinations of its plot. Watch his take on one of the more lyrical passages. In one minute he pierces farther into the sad, proud heart of Ahab than any take I've ever seen:

Closer at least to my Ahab, that is.

To my eyes, the truest film adaptation of Moby Dick is an adaptation of another novel: Jaws. That sounds glib, but I'm being serious. Quint's complicated pride, skill, anger, and magnetism reach deep into Ahab, much deeper than the mannered unapproachability of Huston's film or the entirely different Ish-hab of Lloyd Bacon's. Chief Brody's lovable straight man is also the best take on Ishmael I could imagine. It's hardly a cinematic role, but with the skill of Spielberg and Scheider, his idiosyncrasies rise to the surface and he never feels like a mere cypher for the author. Peter Benchley's novel is pretty bad, Spielberg elevates it by paring it down to its best elements and marrying it with Melville, Hitchcock and a host of other influences, turning all that ore into something new and fresh, something deeply beautiful and irreducibly cinematic.

Actually there's a pretty sizable tradition of almost-Moby Dick cinema, with some heavy hitters like The Wrath of Khan and The Bedford Incident. I've always thought the best movie never made was Moby Dick as a crime thriller with Klaus Kinski as Ahab and Toshiro Mifune as the whale. Even Wagon Train took a crack at the story in its season two opener "Around the Horn." In a weird turn of events, there's even a 2007 French film called Capitaine Achab about the life of Ahab that can probably be called a remake of The Sea Beast instead of an adaptation of Moby Dick.

For an unadaptable story, this one gets adapted a lot. And yet, unlike Melville's novella Billy Budd which received a definitive and traditional3 adaptation in 1962 that every version hence has emulated, each Moby Dick is different from the last.

But, then, it is unadaptable! We're talking about Star Trek and killer sharks and love triangles and just about everything except what's contained in Melville's book. Why is that? It can't be length. Gone with the Wind got a definitive home-run of an adaptation, and at 418,053 words to Moby Dick's 206,052, you could theoretically fit two great Moby Dick movies inside Gone with the Wind. 

So what it is about Moby Dick?

There are no women in it, first of all. And it's all set on a boat about the size of a city bus. Our heroes are traveling the globe stabbing and hacking the most majestic creature on earth. They speak in odd slang. The racial politics are complex and uncomfortable. You have to shoot at sea. Everybody dies at the end. Yet it is one of the most enduring works of art in the world, with arguably the most compelling male role except for Hamlet, and a name that to this day commands instant attention and enduring awe and admiration. A complicated state of affairs has made Moby Dick both an attractive and terrifying prospect for a filmmaker, so each film is something of a minefield run, dodging the perils and trying to land surefooted in the triumphs of the text. Each film, therefore, takes a different path, and a good many of them blow up somewhere along the way.

But more than that, it seems to me that adapting Moby Dick is more like adapting something like The Waste Land than Gone with the Wind. Mood is often of absolute primacy. Mood is so essential that the novel (which in its way is an adaptation of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner4") begins with ten pages of quotes about whales, sort of a scrapbook of legends, stories, and factual accounts that serve as raw material for Melville's tale. Many lines from these quotations work their way into Ishmael's story.

A filmmaker of worth has some incredible raw material to work with here. There are passages of extraordinary ferocity and horror - at one point we hear of sharks that "viciously snapped like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own disembowelments; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound," and passages of perfect serenity: "An intense copper calm, like a universal yellow lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless leaves upon the sea." The whole gamut of the human experience is in this text. Many have failed to capture it, some have succeeded. The ones who have succeeded most enduringly - Welles, Spielberg, Nicholas Meyer, Paul Stanley have succeeded by isolating the elements of the work that speak most profoundly to them, by nurturing the union between the novel and their heart.

I think there's a lesson in filmmaking in that.

Ahab's wife is only ever addressed obliquely in the text - most powerfully in Chapter 132 - The Symphony ("I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck"), but she seems to be a figure of constant interest. There's a novel about her travels in the 19th century which I haven't yet read and would love to get opinions on. 

2 "Moby-Dick" with a hyphen is so unconventional Melville doesn't even do it inside the text - Chapter 41 is titled "Moby Dick."

3 Traditional but, like most films based on Melville, the homoeroticism was toned down as much as possible.

4 Sole survivor of a nautical disaster recounts how a sailer's  obsession with a mystical white animal cursed and killed the crew.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Battle

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
dir. Mervyn LeRoy & Busby Berkeley

War and Peace (1968)
dir. Sergei Bondarchuk

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Edgar Ulmer's rare masterpiece The Naked Dawn is on youtube. Don't hesitate to watch this! It's what gave Truffaut the confidence to make Jules and Jim and it's a hell of a powerful picture in its own right.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Enormous Comedy of Being Outraged

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
dir. Clyde Bruckman

You have mentioned you might write on the aesthetics of outrage as a topic.

Yes, the aesthetics of being outraged. But I don’t mean being outraged in that other sense, you know, that sort of postsixties phenomenon. I mean in the sense in which Macbeth is increasingly outraged. What fascinates me is that we so intensely sympathize with a successful or strong representation of someone in the process of being outraged, and I want to know why. I suppose it’s ultimately that we’re outraged at mortality, and it is impossible not to sympathize with that.

This is a topic that would somehow include W. C. Fields.

Oh yes, certainly, since I think his great power is that he perpetually demonstrates the enormous comedy of being outraged. I have never recovered from the first time I saw the W. C. Fields short, The Fatal Glass of Beer. It represents for me still the high point of cinema, surpassing even Groucho’s Duck Soup. Have you seen The Fatal Glass of Beer? I don’t think I have the critical powers to describe it. Throughout much of it, W. C. Fields is strumming a zither and singing a song about the demise of his unfortunate son, who expires because of a fatal glass of beer that college boys persuade the abstaining youth to drink. He then insults a Salvation Army lassie, herself a reformed high-kicker in the chorus line, and she stuns him with a single high kick. But to describe it in this way is to say that Macbeth is about an ambitious man who murders the King.

- Harold Bloom for The Paris Review

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Choice

Mor. Let’s see once more this saying grav’d in gold:
Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.Why, that’s the lady: all the world desires her;
But here an angel in a golden bed
Lies all within. Deliver me the key:
Here do I choose, and thrive I as I may!

Por. There, take it, prince; and if my form lie there,
Then I am yours. [He unlocks the golden casket.

Mor. O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll. I’ll read the writing.
All that glisters is not gold; 
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms infold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.

Cold, indeed; and labour lost:
Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!
Portia, adieu. I have too griev’d a heart
To take a tedious leave: thus losers part. [Exit with his Train. Flourish of Cornets.

The Merchant of Venice (1600)
William Shakespeare

ELSA chooses a cup—a solid gold, emerald encrusted goblet. DONOVAN instantly takes it from her.  

Oh, yes. It's more beautiful than I'd ever imagined. This certainly is the cup of the King of Kings.

His skin turns brown and leathery and stretches across his bones until it splits. His skeletal hands reach for ELSA's throat, choking her. INDY rushes forward and pushes DONOVAN away. As he falls he BODY BREAKS INTO FLAMES, then SHATTERS AGAINST THE WALL. 

He chose...poorly.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
written by Jeffrey Boam, Tom Stoppard, George Lucas, & Menno Meyjes
I started this thing today:

Just literary lines I like.

The Shark

Watson and the Shark (1778)
John Singleton Copley

Man of Aran (1934)
dir. Robert Flaherty

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Good work Universal marketing dept., make the movie with probably the most expansive crossover fanbase of any action film ever made look like some poindexter childish nerd crap that's only of use to 14 year old virgins or 35 year old virgins.

Good work.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Plane

Casablanca (1942)
dir. Michael Curtiz

Wayne's World (1992)
dir. Penelope Spheeris

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

If anyone's interested, I got my Amazing Transparent Man commentary on mp3. Those of you into Podcastin', here's your link. Thanks to the fine folks at Alcohollywood for their hosting!

Download file

The Crossing

Ti Watches a Hippopotamus Hunt (circa 2450 B.C.)

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851)
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I can't get a screencap yet, but the necktie in Don's "Jumping Off Place" drawing in Mad Men tonight reminded me very much of another doodle he did:


Roger Ebert

Bigas Luna

Les Blank

What a week.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Amazing Transparent Man Commentary

Writing hurts my fingers so I talked about The Amazing Transparent Man for an hour. Enjoy the first of hopefully many ShotContext audio commentaries!

In all honesty I think this is the most informative thing I've done, and sometime tomorrow I'll try and get an MP3 up.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Crash

The Simpsons "Das Bus" (1998)
dir. Pete Michels

Inception (2010)
dir. Christopher Nolan

The Phone Call

The Human Voice (1967)
dir. Ted Kotcheff

The Appointment (1969)
dir. Sidney Lumet

The Blood Splattered Face

Carrie (1976)
dir. Brian De Palma

Suspiria (1977)
dir. Dario Argento

another from Alex Watkins

The Story of J.C.

Crucifixion with Lanzen Bite of the captain Longinus (1450?)
Fra Angelico

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
dir. James Cameron

Can't believe I didn't think of this. Great catch by Alex Watkins.

The Revenge Beating

Blue Collar (1978)
dir. Paul Schrader

Office Space (1998)
dir. Mike Judge

from TrixRabbi, who adds:

Both scenes involve workers taking revenge on a piece of machinery that constantly breaks down, a soda machine in Blue Collar and the fax machine in Office Space. It's also notable that both films are about a trio of tired, bottom-level workers who hatch a plan to rob their workplace.

The Hunting Trip

The Andy Griffith Show (1960)
created by Arthur Stander

There Will Be Blood (2007)
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

from oshuaj

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Last Woman on Earth

The Last Woman on Earth is not one of my favorite films. It's not even my favorite Roger Corman film - how could it be, in a world in which The Intruder exists?

But! This 1960 much-maligned cheap-o horror film about three people alone in the world is, in a very real way, one of the most important movies in my life.

In 2010, I made a movie. It was about two men and one women who wake up one day to find New York City totally deserted. With no clues to understand their situation, a creeping paranoia overwhelmed them all, especially Roger, the odd man out of their trio.

I think it's a pretty good little movie. It's rough as hell and a bit too dark and close-hearted to be a crowd pleaser, but I'm proud of what I did.

I was inspired by a lot of things - the isolation I saw many of my friends slipping into, the deserted feeling you get in certain areas of the Bronx which were built for foot traffic that never came, and of course, about a billion movies from Target Earth! to 28 Days Later. There's a whole genre dealing in isolation anxiety and I think even the great ones get it wrong sometimes. They compromise, add extra characters for the climax, or linger on explanations nobody wants to hear.

One film stood above the rest - The Last Woman on Earth.

Scripted by Robert Towne, who a decade later would pen the uncompromising Chinatown, and shot on location in Puerto Rico alongside two other Roger Corman films (he had just learned about their tax incentives), it's the story of a pushy businessman, his wife, and their lawyer sharing a villa after "something"temporarily burns all the oxygen out of the atmosphere, killing everyone else on the planet. The film's explanation of what happened is ingenious, caustic, and dismissive: "an act of God or bigger and better bombs, what does it matter?"

That cynicism is at the film's core. There's a worn-out vibe to it all, tropical lounging and unresolved tension over the growing impossibility of their living situation. The end of the world narrows the world to a love triangle. I find that biting and beautiful.

I saw The Last Woman on Earth for the first time in early high school, and the contrast between the beauty of the world and the ugliness within us really struck me. Its visibly low budget and unabashed willingness to exist despite that, hit me the way punk hits teeangers. This film, as much as any, as much as Detour, sparked my interest in low budget DIY film.

The Towne script has a lot of meat on its bones, more than many realize, I think. It predicted a lot of the Cold War malaise that would define the sixties - the patriarch lashes out when his "system" breaks down and his money loses its allure - and there are some strong character beats. We even open at a cockfight, a fitting symbol for everything that comes next.

Anyway, I think it's a film very much worth the watch, and the reason I bring it up is because I just learned now that this movie that I've seen a half a dozen times over ten years was made in color. This is a bit of a surprise because Corman's other Puerto Rico films (Battle of Blood Island and Creature from the Haunted Sea) are both black and white. I guess he splurged on this one.

See all the public domain DVD manufacturers are struck from a black and white print because it was the highest quality image available. The colors on this surviving color print have faded and faded harshly. So for a decade or so I watched it in black and white, blissfully unaware that that wasn't the intention. Feels like a throwback to my parent's generation watching stuff like The Fly on their little black and white TVs.

I just got wind of the color version on YouTube, though, so for the first time in years I sat down to watch one of the Movies Of My Life, to use Truffaut's term. The movie itself was better than I remembered. It's heavy handed and the musical score is unambitious as is often the case with Corman, but it's really brisk and acerbic and, man I borrowed a whole lot from it huh?.

The color added a lot. I could distinguish the faces better. In color, the age difference between the men is much more apparent. In the black and white print the men are both just white blurs with black hair. It also feels warmer now, there's a real tropical langour that was present in the old print in word but not in image. The faded nature of the print helped in this regard, actually, because the colors faded unevenly and the green of the leaves pops.

I feel like I've rediscovered this film, like it had more in store for me than I ever knew. Movies are pretty great sometimes, aren't they? Just another chapter in the weird history of unrestored cinema. Movie fans often talk about how much we'd love to "watch something again for the first time." I just did!

If you're interested, y'all can watch the b/w version here:

and the color version here: