Saturday, August 01, 2009

Great Acid Movies #1: 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?"

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, shipmates. 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 an ambivalent 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.

The key scene is Ahab's slow as molasses and twice as dark speech to Starbuck about how he hunts not just a dumb brute "that acted out of instinct" but "look here, 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. Tis 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." Seeing him say that, in a vicious hooded Kubrick dead-eyed stare close-up, makes the tripping whiskey heart sing with intrepid excitement and shout "yeah!" 

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! And singing as you do it, "oh you kings and hoses / blow down your blood red roses!"

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, an Elijah whose babbling prophecies carry an acid shiver as ancient and true; and an Ahab that doesn't bellow so much as twist with every word, the way one speaks when acid has tinged their blood with so much electric current they wind up in body like a watch chain around a pole. When he finally appears he 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 Lincoln gone-wrong patina. 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 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 calming 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 to port, but swim upwards to the bottom of Davy Jones' locker, I can feel the pull in my blood like a magnet. That's psychedelic shamanism at its finest, shipmates! To your flagons, then, for the full measure of grog --it's hot as Satan's hoof!


  1. I have not seen this adaptation of Moby Dick, though I remember the TV movie with the kid from E.T. and the captain of the (next generation) Enterprise as the captain of the Pequod.

    I read the book when I was 14 and skipped over all the segues, irritated that the book would not stick to its interesting narrative about Ahab & the whale. When I re-read it at 22, I loved it all the more FOR the segues, the wild streams-of-consciousness in which it couldn't decide if it was a history of whaling, a metaphysical treatise, a collection of shaggy-dog sea tales, or a fictional novel.

    I'm wondering if you think this random quality plus the intensity and the cosmic musings make the book a great acid book - or if reading on acid proves a bit too much for the mind...

  2. Shakespeare and Melville are both heavy acid writers... it's the twisted poetry of their age -- the pre-Industrial dehumanization sense of becoming archetypal in the collective myth...

    I can't imagine Patrick Stewart ever capturing that, however. He's the type to bring order and decency to the wildness of Moby Dick.

    Reading it on acid, hmmm, can't answer that... I imagine one wouldn't get very far in before the symbols slithered meaninglessly off the page.

  3. I love this film, maybe because it's one of the first I ever saw in a theater. The White Whale is overwhelming on the big screen. Especially if you're six years old!

    One possible reason why Peck in Moby Dick might remind you of Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood - they were both channeling John Huston.

  4. Interesting... I think the day before you posted this I revisited Moby Dick with a mind to write up an entirely different, although not un-complementary, post of my own, a radical rereading of the film. Stay tuned. I mean, if you wanna. You don't hafta.

  5. I absolutely love this film. This is Peck's masterpiece.


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