Saturday, August 01, 2009
Great Acid Movies #29: MOBY DICK (1956)
Here's an old existentialist shark hunter "joke:" an existentialist dies and goes to heaven and he's all excited to ask god why humans exist. "To feed the sharks!" Is God's taciturn reply. The man replied, aghast "But god! We're hardly ever even in the water anymore!" To which God replies, "You hightailed it out of there as soon as you found out. Why do you think I created seals?"
Not only does this joke deal with man's sense of purposelessness in the universe, it's got sharks. And man never feels he's lost his purpose when he's battling leviathans at sea, be they giant sharks, squids, whales, or sea serpents... the leviathan is made in God's real image and likeness, so hunting this double-crossing man-eating God stand-in with single-minded vengeance (for creating us just to be shark food) is a true "if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him" spiritual path. All of which is why John Huston's MOBY DICK is such a good acid film. Like Huston's other acid-ready films (such as UNDER THE VOLCANO) there's no psychedelic drugs in it, but it comes from an age of writing when great minds were just more open to seeing God in the nature around them, rather than adopting the cold, clinically cynical attitude of today's scientific-minded writers. And Huston's just naturally dosed, which is also known as being a badass to the bone, to the point you don't even have to prove it. Melville also is just such a badass and my guess is that in his day their bread had ergot in it.
Just look at that top picture, tied to the whale and still stabbing at it furiously! That's what tripping's like, sometimes, being lashed to a giant white whale and just trying to remember to take a deep breath every time you go under, and keep calm, keep stabbing, and know deep down only your own hell-bent fury will see you through. That's how you surf the psychedelic tidal waves, Shipmates! Stabbing all the way!
With Dick you got everything: a tattooed giant as your friend, the born-tripping Orson Welles in a white beard giving a rousing lecture in full poetic nautispeak, and an Ahab that comes off like Abe Lincoln crossed with Colonel Kurz lording it over a psych ward full of schizophrenic pirates.
People say that Peck--38 at the time--was too young to play Ahab, that it should have been Welles, instead. I say thee, nay. Peck is perfect; his stovepipe hat and beard giving him a trippy Abe Lincoln echo--a Lincoln gone-wrong. And Orson's presence is felt all through the film via his spellbinding oration in the church scene anyway, allowing Peck to emerge as the dark shadowed self to Orson's resonant rev: skeletal where Orson's robust; evil where Orson is good, etc. (check Orson's ham enunciation as Ahab in his Mercury Broadcast of Moby Dick here). Welles' bravado is contained and thus more powerful given only one scene. Plus, Peck uses his natural charisma, his Atticus Finch oratory. to inspire loyalty and fervor, where Welles would likely inspire only eye rolls (on the radio show he sounds hammy, adopting an "Argh, matey!"-style pirate accent).
A key scene that shows off Peck's genius is when Ahab finally emerges from his quarters and gets out and stalks around the bridge before the assembled crew, poetically ranting against the white whale and nailing a gold doubloon to the mast - the reward for the one who first spots Moby Dick ("He's white I say!") I always feel ready to die for Ahab 100%. in these scenes, even if I'm mercilessly sober. At last, here is the true meaning of Christmas, an ancient dark messiah who wants to stalk up the chimney and crucify Santa Clause on the TV antennae, just like you always dreamed of doing, but thought was wrong; but, at sea, a captain cannot be wrong.
And there was Pip, Dear Pip the cabin boy. And Starbuck, whose courage was like any other commodity on the ship, there when needed but not to be foolishly squandered.
For me this is Peck at his finest. Frankly, I didn't know he had it in him. He was perfect in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD but that kind of remote patriarchal decency was hung on him like an albatross. Here on the Pequod, in that crazy black stove pipe hat and beard, his eyes wild with endorphin-activating old testament energy, he's the closest thing yet I'd seen to a living mythic American wild man archetype, that is, until Daniel Day Lewis showed up as Bill the Butcher, and later Daniel Plainview. When I hear Ahab ask who will follow him after Moby Dick, "to his death!" I invariably jump up and cheer, going insane just like Queequeg. Even though I know full well the Pequod won't come back, I can feel the pull in my blood like a magnet. That's psychedelic shamanism at its finest, shipmates! To your flagons!