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 had to invent seals?"
Not only does this admittedly weird anecdote deal with man's sense of purposelessness in the universe, it's got sharks in it. And man never feels he's lost his purpose when he's battling leviathans at sea... hunting the symbol of that double-crossing man-eating God himself in single-minded vengeance, 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, 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, but 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 and a psych ward full of dosed pirates.
People say that Peck--38 at the time--was too young to play Ahab, that it should have been Orson Welles. I say thee, nay, Peck is perfect. Orson's presence is felt all through the film via his spellbinding oration in the church scene anyway. Peck emerges as the dark shadowed self to Orson: 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). As a preacher with one sermon, Welles' bravado is contained and thus more powerful; Peck manages to be self-contained on ship, and to inspire loyalty and fervor where Welles would likely inspire only eye rolls.
By the time Ahab emerges from his cabin the crew are too far out at sea to have the spiritual guiding light of Welles' preacher save them. They're in an alien landscape of endless water, a truly stirring metaphor for the wild inner landscape of the unconscious, over which Ahab rules like the darkened animus... a New Bedford Charles Manson.
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.
The peak comes after weeks at sea with no sign of him, 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!") Suddenly you are for Ahab 100%. You feel spiritually aligned for the first time in your life. 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 dreamt of doing, but thought was wrong; but at sea a captain cannot be wrong.
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 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!