Friday, January 22, 2016

A Grammatical Grimoire

[Warning: I'm about to get all English-major up in here, so if you couldn't care less about grammar and punctuation, I suggest you get out now.]


It's always bothered me that "proper" style in English, according to unassailable sources such as the Purdue OWL and Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, is to place commas inside of quotation-marks, even when a comma was not present in the quoted text.

Using Hamlet's famous utterance as an example, here are a few "wrong" ways to quote a sentence...

  • "Alas, poor Yorick!" exclaimed Prince Hamlet.
  • "Alas, poor Yorick", exclaimed Prince Hamlet.
  • "Alas, poor Yorick" exclaimed Prince Hamlet. 

...and the "right" way:

  • "Alas, poor Yorick," exclaimed Prince Hamlet. 

Note that the original sentence ("Alas, poor Yorick!") ends with an exclamation-point, not a comma. The sentence must be altered in order to make it fit with accepted citation style, and I've always taken exception to this rule.

It strikes me as strange, perhaps even a little dishonest, that style requires us to add punctuation where none existed in the original text. Granted, it's not a serious alteration to change a period or an exclamation-point to a comma, but it is a change nonetheless.

OK, Fry, you have a point. But hear me out!

Quotation marks are supposed to signify a direct quotation, to tell the reader that the text quoted therein appears exactly as it appeared in the original source: word-for-word, letter-for letter, and character-for-character. Normally, even capitalization cannot be changed without making it clear that something in the text has been altered from its original form. For instance:

  • "[P]oor Yorick," as Hamlet calls him, was his late father's court-jester.

If we're not even supposed to change the capitalization of a single letter in any text we quote, then how can we justify changing where and whether the sentence appears to end? Not every sentence needs to be quoted from start to finish, but for people who are so anal-retentive about correctness and uniformity, it's very strange that English teachers are not just allowing, but commanding us to misquote our sources.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

PROMETHEA, Volume 1


PROMETHEA, VOLUME 1 (issues 1-6)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Charles Vess

Imagine a living story, penned and refined repeatedly and made flesh over the centuries by a long string of mortal "vessels," armed with the cleverness of Hermes and the wisdom of Thoth, and a bitchin' energy-caduceus for good measure: you now have a pretty accurate portrait of Promethea, the titular heroine of this extra-weird title from Alan Moore.

I'll admit that I was a little afraid (and reasonably so, I think) that Promethea was going to be little more than pseudo-mythological cheesecake. But somehow, despite having a male writer, a male artist, and wearing a bronze mid-thigh skirt and shoulder-baring bustier, Promethea feels like a legitimate icon of Mystical Femenine Strength. As Princess Diana of Themyscira has proven time and time again, a woman's taste in clothing is irrelevant to her ability to bust heads and kick asses, and I'm sorry I initially judged this particular book by its cover.

...though this alternate cover by Alex Ross IS pretty awesome-looking.

The story begins in Alexandria, Egypt, in 411 A.D. An old magician senses that a mob of religious extremists is coming to murder him. He tells his young daughter Promethea to flee into the desert, promising that "all my love and all my gods shall be about thee as a mantle." He then confronts the mob, and proceeds to use the Jedi Mind Trick to compel the mob to kill him. (lolwhut?) Who is this man, and why does he use his magic to seal his own doom? These questions remain tantalizingly unanswered during the first volume, but they do a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the tale. Right from the get-go, the author establishes that he is not going to spoon-feed us all of the answers; we're going to need to work for it.

Next, the narrative jumps ahead by about 1,600 years to New York city, just before the turn of the millennium. Sophie Bangs is a college student writing a term paper on Promethea, a character who seems to reappear in folklore and literature over the centuries, sometimes flowing from the pens of authors who could not possibly have been familiar with her previous incarnations. As is often the case with college students who investigate the supernatural, Sophie is soon swept up in a strange new world: one of ancient conspiracies, Goetic demons, Hermetic sorcery, Greco-Egyptian mysticism, living stories, a parallel universe composed of human thought and imagination, and at least one tearful, catchphrase-spouting gorilla.

Strangely, this panel makes perfect sense when read in context.



Not only does PROMETHEA, VOLUME 1 pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, I'm pretty sure it actually fails the Reverse Bechdel Test: there's more than one male character in this book, but all of their conversations are solely about Promethea/Sophie and her various female helpers.

Moore can get metaphysical at times, even mystical, but it never feels like he's preaching; we're free to ignore this strange new worldview, or incorporate it into our paradigm, as we see fit. For instance: at one point, a previous incarnation of Prometha takes our heroine aside to show her the different layers/levels of reality, progressing from solid matter to emotions to thought and reason to the soul and beyond. In the hands of a less-talented author, this kind of unabashed philosophizing would come off as preachy (or worse, goofy New Age mumbo-jumbo). But under Moore's skilled direction, it gains real literary heft. It doesn't feel like he's talking to the reader, we're just watching one incarnation of Promethea speaking with another, free from proselytizing on the author's part.


One of my favorite parts of PROMETHEA was the highly unorthodox layouts of the panels; I was particularly fond of the two-page spread in issue six which played out across the "panes" of the wings of a Mayan butterfly god. They're not space-efficient, but they make the reader constantly aware of the graphic nature of the tale, and they emphasize how Sophie's worldview is changing in dramatic and unexpected ways. And it's kind of cool that the artist is confident enough that he feels he doesn't need to use every square inch of space to tell the story, that he's willing to "take his time," so to speak.

Overall, PROMETHEA is a fascinating read for anyone with interest in literature, magic, and all things mystical. 18th-century poetry, trench-lore of WWI, pulp magazines of the 1920s, even "Little Nemo in Slumberland" all contribute to Promethea's constituent body of modern folklore; there's something here for everyone to enjoy. And of course, it's absolutely delicious to read. Most writers would struggle to meld such wildly different genres and formats into one narrative, but under Moore's guidance it seems only natural that these seemingly-disparate threads of story would be woven together into a cohesive whole.

This tale is deliciously weird, and I can't wait to find out where it goes next. Stay tuned for more info, Dear Reader; all my love and all my gods be as a mantle about thee.

You go, girl!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

[Video Game Review] Journey

journey screenshot

Journey, © 2012 Thatgamecompany

This game almost makes me wish I smoked, because I think I need a cigarette after playing it.

The best word I can think of to describe Journey is "exquisite": in terms of design, visuals, music, playability, length, fun factor, and overall gestalt. I haven't really been part of the video gaming scene since I finished college, but this might be the most beautiful game I've ever played (and I mean that in more than just a graphical sense).

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Journey has truly spiritual dimensions. It feels like an interactive parable from one of the world's great religions, one about the human soul, life and death, friendship, and the rewards which flow from striving towards something greater than oneself, even at great personal cost. This game has a lot of depth for something you can finish in under three hours.

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that I can even really say that Journey is a game at all, at least in the traditional sense. It's impossible to take damage (the worst that can happen is losing a bit of your "scarf"; the longer it gets, the farther you can jump), there's no time limit, and the "puzzles" are very simplistic. There is no loss condition, and basically nothing to do except move forward. Despite this, there were moments, deep in the bowels of some ancient ruin, being pursued by unstoppable, flying serpent-guardians made of stone, where I was truly afraid, despite knowing for a fact that there was nothing they could do to hurt or kill me, even in-game.

Thatgamecompany is renowned for not simply releasing action-oriented titles, but interactive works of art, which are specifically designed to provoke emotional responses in players. I would say that Journey achieves this goal in spectacular fashion.

You'll grow far more attached to this nameless, faceless avatar than you would expect.

The game opens on a vast and endless desert, with the player's non-gendered avatar sitting in the sand. It stands, and after a brief, wordless tutorial on how to manipulate the camera, the player is left to decide which way to go. That's it: no half-hour unskippable opening cinematic, no backstory, no text, no voice-over, no nothing. I found it deeply refreshing to simply be thrust into the game-world and allowed to make my own decisions about where to go and what to do.

Since the only moving thing in this featureless world of sand is a flapping "scarf" atop a nearby dune, the player will most likely decide to move towards that. As you crest the dune, the camera pulls back to simultaneously reveal a shining mountaintop in the impossibly-far distance, and a stunning panoramic vista of ancient sand-choked ruins. The word "Journey" fades into view above the mountaintop, and you realize that the developers have just gotten you to willingly walk right into the title-screen without even realizing that you were playing right along. Journey is full of moments like this, where gameplay and game-design work together, instead of at cross-purposes. Sometimes the camera-work was so smooth that it was hard to tell whether I was playing a game or directing a movie.

Another thing that I loved is that there's zero dialogue in this game. No text, no narration, no spoken dialogue, not even a HUD. Asides from the aforementioned title-screen and the end credits, Journey is a game totally devoid of linguistic content. Just like in real life, there's nothing blinking in the corner of your vision to distract you from what you're seeing and doing, which has the effect of keeping the player in the here-and-now, rather than distracted how many points they've got left or have earned so far. This game isn't about winning, it's about... well, the journey.

And what a journey it is.

When this vista opened up, I was literally struck dumb in the middle of a sentence; all I could do was stare in awe.

This game will take you over sand and under the sea and through the earth and up, up, up into the very highest reaches of the stratosphere. You'll run, leap, fly, swim, and even sneak your way through a world which feels simultaneously solid and otherworldly, plausible and fantastic. You'll feel wonder, foreboding, fear, sorrow, and even the tender concern for a beloved traveling companion.

You might even make a friend along the way: about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that I suddenly had a companion, a second figure identical to myself. Like me, it seemed unable to talk, but we could "sing" to each other (if you can call it that; it's really more like a pulse of white light accompanied by a tone and a glowing glyph). Since singing and touching refilled each other's jump-power, we stuck close together whenever possible. By the end, I was surprised at how emotionally attached I got to my nameless, faceless "buddy", even if s/he couldn't communicate with me in any linguistic sense (kind of like the Companion Cube from Portal).

"I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam."

Journey is full of genuinely touching moments, despite not having a single word of written nor spoken dialogue. It's packed from beginning to end with a sense of wonder and exploration, of mind-blowing revelations and stunning, silencing vistas which emerge without warning. The desert (indeed, the entire game) reminded me of trekking over Sleeping Bear Dunes as a child: you never know what you're going to see when you crest the next rise, but it's sure to blow you away.

Friday, September 25, 2015

[Book Review] A Detroit Anthology

rbc_det_cover_v3_c
A Detroit Anthology (2014)
Edited by Anna Clark
Featuring essays, photographs, art, and poetry by Grace Lee Boggs, John Carlisle, Desiree Cooper, dream hampton, Steve Hughes, Jamaal May, Tracie McMillan, Marsha Music, Shaka Senghor, Thomas J. Sugrue, and many others.

Named a Notable Book of 2015 by The Library of Michigan


"I see a bunch of regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems just like everyone else. Which is why I wholeheartedly believe that Detroit will be just fine."
—"We Love Detroit; Even If You Don't," by Aaron Foley

Despite having lived adjacent to the Motor City for virtually all of my formative years, I realized recently that I knew next to nothing about Detroit. Sure, I'd been to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village on field trips, and I had been to Greektown many times with my family, but I was ashamed and a little dismayed to realize that even in my late twenties I still knew almost nothing about the city's history or culture. It never even occurred to me to ask why the city seemed so empty and blighted; as a kid, I just assumed that all major cities consisted of central hubs ringed by miles of empty structures and blight.

So I've taken it upon myself to start learning more about the Motor City and its geography, history, culture, and people. After a quick crash-course in local history (I highly recommend Scott Martelle's Detroit: A Biography for a handy overview of the city's three centuries of colorful existence), I decided to launch right into discovering what it's like to actually live in a city which most Americans view with a complex mixture of disgust, pity, and fear.

Right from the Introduction, the editor remarks that "[e]ven local writers often pen stories that are meant to explain Detroit to those who live elsewhere." This is not one of those books: it's full of art by Detroiters, about Detroit and for Detroit(ers).

Not all of the entries are stories, either. There seems to be a roughly-even split between prose, poetry, and black-and-white photography. I was glad to see, however, that this is not a coffee-table anthology of schadenfreude-laced ruin porn; with the exception of two mandatory shots of the G.A.R. Building and a certain baroque parking garage, there are no images of abandoned structures in this anthology. What the editor chooses to focus on instead is the 713,000 residents who still call Detroit their home, and are living with the fallout from all those highly-photogenic ruins. This is not a rose-colored view of a city on the rebound, but it doesn't wallow in loss either. There are a few shots of the poor and the homeless, yes, but there are a far greater number of shots of everyday Detroiters doing everyday things, like fishing on Belle Isle, tending community gardens, children blowing bubbles at Hart Plaza, people waiting for buses, and one particularly delightful image of a twentysomething electronica fan doing what appears to be the Twist at an outdoor music festival, opposite a small girl in a sundress who is zealously imitating his dance moves. In short: the normality which can still be found in what is arguably one of the least-normal cities in America.

I'll admit I'm not much of a poet, or a critic thereof, and as a result much of the poetry in this anthology left me more confused than moved. I'm willing to chalk this up to unfamiliarity with the form, though quite a few of them left an impression on me. Some of them left me more with a vague sense of emotion formed by a string of seemingly disconnected words (most of them negative), though several (such as "Infernal" by Tyehimba Jess and "what you'd find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school (detroit, michigan)" by francine j. harris [name in lowercase by choice]) were quite profoundly moving.

For me, as a writer who works primarily in prose, the main point of this anthology was the narratives about living in (or surviving) Detroit. Some of these stories are funny. Most are poignant and sad. Many are shocking, or angry and defiant. All of them are true and, by virtue of that truth, incredibly raw. Take for instance "The Imam I Knew", in which Omar Syed Mahmood recounts a side of the now-infamous Imam Luqman which the papers failed to mention: a man who was willing to dig into his own family's winter food-budget so that other families in his flock would not go hungry during Ramadan. In "The Fixer" by John Carlisle, one man runs an unregistered lawnmower-repair business out of a parking lot next to the abandoned shop he hopes to buy someday, waiting patiently for the day when it will go into tax lien and he can snap it up, and watching helplessly as scrappers dismantle the property which he does not yet own.

Reading this anthology will give you a picture of Detroit which is often glossed over in mainstream media, which is replete with head-shaking, finger-wagging sermons about the death of the American Dream, as embodied by the Motor City. A Detroit Anthology reminds us that the city is still very much alive, thank-you-very-much, and to mourn it while it still lives is a disservice to all the human beings who are still trying to make their way in a city which the rest of the world has already written-off. This anthology seeks to un-write, to rewrite that dismissal, and show that the city's motto is just as relevant and necessary and true as it's ever been: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus ("We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes").

Monday, September 21, 2015


A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Director/Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh

The very first line line of spoken dialogue in this movie comes from a young boy, asking "Can I have some money?" Which is highly appropriate, because the director took mine. Or rather, she would have, if I had followed my initial impulse to see it in theaters instead of waiting for it to be available at the library. If I'd wasted both an evening and my money I would be quite put out, but since as it turned out I only lost 99 minutes I can't be too upset with myself.

I could easily imagine shots from A Girl Walks Home being used as the backdrop for an episode of a prime-time family sitcom. You know the episode: the wife wants to go see the new art-house film at the Historic Downtown Theatre, but her blue-collar husband doesn't like foreign movies. But not wanting to appear uncultured or xenophobic, he pays for their tickets anyway, and we get to watch him squirm in his chair as his every fear is proven right and made painfully, inescapably real. It could almost be funny, except the only genuinely funny thing in this entire movie is one brief shot of a young female vampire riding a skateboard while wearing a chador.

Whee.

It feels almost like the director was trying to collect every negative stereotype of foreign films in one place. For starters, Girl is an ultra-low-budget affair, and filmed entirely in black-and-white. There are subtitles (the dialogue is all in Farsi, even though it was filmed in California). All the characters are either shallow assholes, depressed and listless, slowly losing their youth, drowning in existential ennui, dying of terminal illnesses, or already dead. The scenery is all rusting industrial complexes, deserted city streets, or squalid apartments. Not a single person in this movie is enjoying themselves, not even the vampire.

Dialogue is delivered laconically, in one- or two-word statements interspersed with several seconds of painfully awkward silence to space them out. At one point, the leading male ("Arash") makes out with the titular girl in her subterranean apartment (to the lively tune of Death by The White Lies), but the director manages to make three actions (the girl puts on a record, turns around, then they make out) take what I think was the entire five minutes that the song lasts. I get that one of the participants in this makeout session has literally all the time in the world, but there is just no way that any teenage boy could delay gratification for that long. It feels like the director found what she knew, just knew was the absolute perfect song to go with this scene, but she didn't have enough dialogue to fill  the scene and couldn't afford to bay the band to shorten it, so she just told her actors to do everything with excruciating slowness to kill time, so their actions sync up with the song.

While it's true that many real-life conversations do contain a lot more silence that we realize, the reason movies are interesting is because they cut that stuff out: they condense life into a faster-paced, better-edited version of itself.

Despite the agonizing length of this movie, almost none of that time is used to fill us in on the backstory or to give context. Near the end of the very first, scene, Arash walks past what appears to be a drainage ditch full of human bodies. This is never explained, mentioned, or commented-upon by any of the characters, not even news or radio anchors heard in passing. Except for one shot in Act III where there are a larger number of bodies in the same ditch, and one additional body is being tossed unceremoniously into it.

Girl is full of non-sequiturs, loose ends, and the unexplained. For example, the transition between Acts II and III is a two-minute sequence of a drag queen in a black cowboy-shirt ballroom dancing with a Mylar balloon in an empty, abandoned courtyard. Just like the ditch-full-of-bodies from earlier, this is also never explained, commented-upon or explored, and the drag queen is never seen or alluded to again.


This was your cue to run, bro, not to erotically stick your finger in her mouth. What did you think was going to happen?

The posters and flyers all billed this movie as "[t]he first Iranian Vampire Western ever made," but being filmed in California, even the dusty part, does not a Western make. Girl does not exist within the milieu of the Western genre; if Girl is a Western, then so is Bad Santa, which at least is set in Phoenix, AZ and featured a bank robbery (of sorts). I suspect the director was afraid that people wouldn't pay to see an Iranian-American vampire movie, so she tacked-on "Western" in a bid to make people curious and sell more tickets. And I suppose it worked, after a fashion, since I got suckered into watching it.

I went into this movie thinking that I might broaden my horizons a little, but all I got out of it was a powerful aversion to art-house films. Which is not quite the learning experience I had in mind.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Hipster Vampires of Detroit


Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Loki, Jadis the White Witch, Jane Eyre, Chekov, and Mr. Ollivander

This movie was not what I expected. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Still not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The plot runs something like this: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician and aesthete living a solitary existence in an old house in Detroit that he got on the cheap, supporting his art and music habits by composing indie rock records and selling them to record companies through a human middleman named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is unaware that his sort-of-mentor, sort-of-friend is really a vampire. Bored to undeath with the endless stupidity of "the zombies" (mortals) and a general crushing sense of ennui, Adam considers killing himself with a specially-made .38 caliber bullet made from ultra-dense cocobolo wood. But before he can muster the will to end his undeath, he gets a video call from his vampire "wife", Eve, who's been unliving it up in Tangiers with her old friend and mentor Christopher Marlowe (played delightfully by John Hurt), who as it turns out really did write all of Shakespeare's plays.

Eve, fearing that her semi-estranged husband needs some cheering-up, catches a redeye to Detroit, and Adam gives her a grand tour of the ruins of Detroit: lots of weed-choked fields, coyote-haunted ruins, empty streets and houses, and of course the Michigan Theatre (a movie-palace-turned-parking-garage), the old Packard Plant, and all the favored haunts of urbexers and ruin-pornographers alike. Maybe this stuff is still news to people outside the Midwest, but for me, living so close to Detroit, it just comes off as trite. News flash: Detroit isn't a ghost town there are still 700,000 people living in there right now. It's easy and terribly romantic to write it off as a lost cause, but that's pretty demeaning to the people who actually live there. It's like unironically posting "RIP Native Americans" in your tumblr feed: they're still very much alive, thank you very much, and they resent the assumption that their struggle to survive is over.

Which brings me to another problem I had with this movie: like Gran Torino before it, Lovers is yet another movie set in Detroit (a city where 80% of residents are black) which features virtually no black people. The one black man in this movie is a medical technologist, so the film gets points for not giving in to easy stereotypes. But besides that guy, I think there's one black extra in the whole movie; that is the full extent of their representation onscreen. Clearly, since the director must have been to Detroit in order to film this thing, the only explanation is that he (or the studio) isn't interested in portraying Detroit accurately.

Anyway, getting back to the summary: Eve shows up and Adam shows her around, and they talk and philosophize and opine about just how tragic it is that the zombies can't be as wise and good and refined and civilized as they are. Adam seems to cheer up for a while under Eve's influence, but their reverie is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Ava, Eve's "teenage" sister from LA, who shows up uninvited in their house one night, asking if she can crash on their couch and eat their "food".

Mia Wasikowska is spot-on with her portrayal of Ava as a bratty, self-absorbed teenie-bopper who either can't read anger in other people's voices and faces, or else has complete faith that pouting and begging will get her out of trouble when said people inevitably explode at her. The character is grating, but that's definitely intentional here, since she's practically the only character who induces change at all: without her, Adam and Eve would probably spend the whole movie lounging around, listening to indie music on vinyl, and drinking type O negative out of crystal absinthe-glasses. Their existence is stable and comfortable, if a bit dull: Ava throws a wrench into all that.

The main reason I tuned in was for the promise of a vampire movie set in Detroit. With its wide-open spaces, appalling murder rate, spotty law enforcement, and large numbers of streetlights that just don't work, Detroit seemed like the kind of place where vampires would run wild.

But Hiddleston's Adam and Swinton's Eve are anything but wild: they're refined, elegant creatures who've had centuries to cultivate perfect taste in music, literature, and even science. They're epicures and philosophers who, instead of spending their (un)lives on the Eternal Hunt, drink sparingly and spend most of their free time creating art. Definitely an interesting take on the standard vampire, a creature ruled by its passions, but I was kinda hoping to see the undead going completely apeshit in the D.

This movie is definitely not for everyone; I don't think it was for me, personally. At least, not more than once. But it was certainly interesting to see vampires as something other than villains or protagonists in an action, horror, or action/horror movie. It was interesting to think of them as people with houses, careers, long-distance relationships, and in-laws they can't stand. But that's part of why I watch movies about vampires in the first place: I want to be entertained with tales of Gothic horror and gratuitous bloodletting.

If you're into indie music and sadness and being too tragically hip for this world, these are definitely your vampires. But I think my palette has been thoroughly cleansed, and I'm ready to get back on the vampire-as-monster bandwagon, thanks.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

[Movie Review] Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick (1956)
Director: John Huston
Starring: Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, Orson Welles
Screenplay: Ray Bradbury

For years I've been getting suggestions from authors whom I greatly respect and admire that Herman Melville's epic masterpiece Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a tale which is worthy of that nebulous and ill-defined distinction of being a "Great American Novel". I had never really given the book much thought, and never seriously considered reading it, until I realized that the recommendations were really starting to pile up: once I realized that this book had been recommended by no less than Nicholas Meyer, Mike Carey, even the astonishingly-talented Ray Bradbury, I decided I really had to see what all the fuss was about.

But I'm a man of limited means, so I thought I would rent the movie from my local library before committing to the novel. After all, that thing is HUGE! You might even say it's a whale of a tale.

"Haunting" is the best word that I can think of to describe this film. I think I finally understand why people keep reading the book, despite its forbidding size: the tale of Ahab and his mad, all-consuming quest for revenge has a way of gripping the mind. I keep finding myself thinking about this story and its characters, even several weeks after watching this film for the first time.

(Oh yeah, I guess there are spoilers ahead. Even though I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations on spoilers expired a long time ago.)

I'm sure you're all familiar with the basic outline of the story, even if you've never read it or seen the movie: Captain Ahab is maimed in an ill-fated encounter with an unusually large and intelligent white sperm-whale named Moby Dick, and spends the rest of his life (as well as his ship and the lives of his crew) in a Quixotic, suicidal quest to take his revenge against the monster who took his leg and scarred his face. Sure, there's all that stuff about Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck and all the rest, but make no mistake: Ahab is the real star here, even if it's the White Whale who gets the title.

Peck gives a commanding, sonorous performance as the crazed-but-brilliant Captain Ahab, master of the whaling ship Pequod. He's a bit more handsome than I expected Ahab to look, but Peck's Ahab is scarred more deeply inside than out. Ahab is not just a gibbering madman, though: he is an accomplished leader of men, an experienced sea-captain, and possessed of a brilliant analytical mind.


Orson Welles gives an unexpected cameo as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon (on the subject of Jonah and the Whale, of course) which closes out the first act. Watching Welles transition smoothly from glowering intensity to thundering rage to pious tenderness is a fascinating study in emotional nuance from a master actor; do not skip this scene, however you might feel about listening to sermons.

As I watched, I was struck by the diversity of the Pequod's crew: in an era where segregation of the races was still enforced by law in many parts of the world, the crew of the Pequod includes Irishmen, Africans, New Englanders, Native Americans, African-Americans, and even a Polynesian Islander. The tasks assigned to various crewmen do not seem to hinge on race (though it's worth noting that the captain and all three of his mates are white), and race is not a barrier to promotion. After demonstrating his considerable skill with a harpoon, Queequeg is immediately recruited to the Pequod with a whopping sixtieth part of the voyage's profits (compared to Ishmael's measly three-hundredth).

Bradbury's screenplay is axiom-dense. It seems like every other line is some sort of pithy maxim that could easily spark hours of book-club conversations and classroom debates:
  • "Better a sober cannibal [for a bedfellow] than a drunken Christian." ~Ishmael
  • "Captain Ahab did not name himself. .Sign the paper now, and wrong him not because he happens to have a wicked name." ~Bildad
  • "Captains can't break the law. They is the law, as far as I'm concerned." ~Flask


Moby-Dick is actually a very philosophical film, despite the blue-collar setting. Lots of thought-provoking dialogue on the nature of Man, the sea and man's place upon it, what rights (if any) one man may hold over another), the extent of obedience and duty to one's captain, and whether it is moral to seek revenge against an unthinking animal. As First Mate Starbuck warns his captain, "To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct... is blasphemous." There's a lot of deep thought here, and (at least initially) the viewer might even feel some sympathy with Ahab's desire for what he sees as justice, when he explains why he acts as he does:
Look ye, Starbuck... all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me. He heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. It is the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate. The malignant thing that has plagued and frightened Man since time began. The thing that mauls and mutilates our race... not killing us outright, but letting us live on... with half a heart and half a lung.
But over the course of the film, we come to have less and less sympathy with Ahab, as it becomes clear just how many people he's willing to take down with him. Besides risking his own life and (remaining) limbs, he risks his ship, the Pequod, which he does not own; the financial well-being of all the New Bedford families who depend on this voyage's success for their sustenance; the lives of his crewmen, and the wages they bring home to their own families; and even (some might argue) his very soul.

In the course of his quest, Ahab encounters other captains who have had their own run-ins with Moby-Dick. Captain Boomer, who lost his hand to the whale (an even greater blow to a seaman than the loss of a leg!), makes jokes about his hook ("Better than flesh and blood! Like her so much, I've a mind to have me other arm cut off,") and professes that he is simply grateful to be alive after such a harrowing encounter. Ahab, of course, refuses to hear the wisdom of these words, and plunges on. The second captain, Gardiner, has suffered an even more terrible loss than either Ahab or Boomer, though not to his own body: his twelve-year-old son was killed by the whale, and the body was lost overboard. Gardiner begs Ahab to stay and help him search for his son's body, but Ahab, throwing Christian charity aside, and continues in his quest.


Sadly, unlike the acting, the script, and pretty much everything else about this movie, the whales of Moby Dick are merely "passable" at best. The first whale-chase was convincing enough that I, having never seen real whales up close, briefly wondered whether they might be real. But the illusion only remains convincing because all we see of the fleeing whales are their humps: as soon as I understood that that was all the prop-makers had built, and this was all of them we were going to see, it became a little harder to suspend my disbelief. When the White Whale himself breaches for the first time, it is instantly clear that he's a puppet, and not an especially convincing one. To be fair, this was 1956, and filmmakers were fairly limited by the technology of their day, but it was still something of an anticlimax that the main antagonist looked so fake.

Despite its technological shortcomings, Moby Dick is absolutely worth your time and attention. If you've ever wondered whether the book is any good, but been scared off by its tremendous size and "SERIOUS BUSINESS" reputation, then this film is the next best thing. Your knowledge of this tale will impress the hell out of your friends at parties, and Peck's crazed, throat-shredding screaming of Ahab's final lines - some of the best last words ever penned - is worth the price of admission alone.
"Ye damned whale! From hell's heart I stab at thee! For hate's sake... I spit my last breath at thee...thou damned whale!"