Friday, December 18, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

From the Small to the Large
"I Think That's Rather a Personal Question, Sir!"

There was a fly in the theater where I saw In the Heart of the Sea, walking across the the glass and buzzing around the right image of the 3-D projection source, attracted to the most prominent light in the darkened theater.

And, just to let you know how I thought the film was going, I swear to God, it took me 30 minutes before I realized it wasn't an unfortunate directorial choice by director Ron Howard. For some reason, the director and his DP Anthony Dod Mantle (who did Howard's Rush and a lot of Danny Boyle films) decide—whether to lend some verisimilitude or just create any kind of 3-D effect—to shoot through...anything, whether it be ropes, glass, porch stakes, underwater (which doesn't work too well in 3-D), water-droplets on the lens—anything except show the image we, the audience, are SUPPOSED to be looking at and focusing on. You spend a good portion of the movie wanting to brush away the obstructions, dab away the moisture, anything, just to be able to see what's going on. Granted, there are places—like a depicted storm at sea that wracks the good ship Essex—where you can't make heads or tails out of anything, so sporadic is the shot choice and so erratic the editing. One senses that Howard is trying to keep us from seeing something that will pull us out of the movie (a suspicion enhanced by the aspect ratio of the film, which looks to be almost "old" television monitor shaped). Or, he did what he could and got a little lost in the post-production, something he's never been guilty of in the past.
There is no CGI here, but...MAN, that ROPE is distracting.
This is all stuff one should not be thinking about in the (you would think) compelling story of the actual events that inspired a young Herman Melville to write "Moby Dick." You don't see a pissed-off whale junking a sailing ship in revenge every day, and the fictional product of the event certainly does make for a thrilling story, hence its reputation as THE great American novel. The reality is not as florid, does not so much evoke God and God-metaphors, and there is no Ahab in reality, but one realizes that Melville put him in there as an avatar of greed.
Whale's eye view of the Essex
It would just be nice to SEE it, rather than wondering why the assistant director didn't do his job and (you know) clear the space between the camera and what it is allegedly photographing...especially considering it's set in 1820 and the thing is CGI'd to the horizon and that stuff's expensive to make, especially in the background of ropes and things.
Anyway, Howard has this brilliant idea for shooting everything through a key-hole in this one, like he had a quirk for putting super-imposed graphics in everything after A Beautiful Mind. Howard can be a good director—Splash, Apollo 13, Parenthood—but he has a tendency to not trust an audience to figure things out, or understand subtleties. He has to tell the audience everything, and if there's a doubt, he re-iterates it for the folks who were out buying popcorn and the taco tray. For instance, the marketing of the movie says "this is not 'Moby Dick,' but the true story that inspired it." Good enough. That's a good story. But Howard frames it with Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) going to the house of the last survivor of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson) to tell him the story, and then ends it with Melville at home writing in long-hand "Moby Dick, or The Whale...Call me Ishmael" just in case we don't get it, or might be disappointed if we didn't have that first line of the book thrown in. He's an i-dotter and t-crosser, then underlines it. 
Essex's view of a whale-eye
One of my favorite critics, Richard Jameson, has a wonderful way of describing it: "Ron Howard makes movies that watch themselves," which (I humbly presume) means he doesn't need an audience, doesn't regard them when making movies, because he doesn't trust them enough to bring anything to the experience. Imagine him an actor—not hard, as it was his original field—who stands before an audience and reads a piece straight through, without regard to the audience's reactions. No waiting for laughter. No beats to let something sink in. Nothing. Talking over any response or appreciation. It's his movie, and he lumbers on without pause, without a moment for public feedback, appreciative or derisive. So, there's no nuance, no ambiguity. The project is a film-making project without regard to the film-watching experience. If someone's going into town, he has them say, "I'm going into town now," and then cuts to the wagon going down the road with the town in the background. He is a director of very simple mathematics, but that doesn't always equal entertainment. 
For one thing, it deprives an audience of discovery and ownership, where brain-flashes and memories come from. He will never make a classic film that pushes the art-form, or moves an audience to places they might not have considered before. There will be no masterpiece from him (although his paint-by-numbers work is pretty good) that makes the leap from illusion to evocation. He will never make you see the world in new ways after one of his movies. You will only see things as he wants you to see it. "Moby Dick" made you suspect that the whale was an evocation of Fate and God's Uncaring Wrath. In the Heart of the Sea is about a big whale that caused a lot of whalers a lot of trouble. 

And there's nothing "inspired" about it.

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