Posts Tagged ‘moby dick’

Some Kind of Monster

Recently my wife and I happened across the last forty minutes or so of the Encore mini-series version of Moby-Dick with Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and John Hurt as Ahab. This was the first I’d heard of this newest version and certainly I watched as I always watch these things: possessed by something like disgust and horror (plus, I’ve never watched Ethan Hawke without wanting to punch him in the face).  This trailer seems to confirm my initial impressions (I don’t think I’m capable of watching the entire mini-series): that this version is about Ethan Hawke’s tug of war with John Hurt’s obsession plus some action and some adventure and some period costumes and some guy with mutton chops playing the role of Ishmael. From what I’ve seen, it is another fairly literal translation of the novel onto the screen with some alterations made to appease Hawke’s ego.

And according to this review from the NY Daily News “For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the film lingers on the genteel life Ahab has built on Nantucket, heart of the whaling industry in 1850.Whaling captains were royalty then and Ahab lives accordingly. This is no ruffian who slouches around until he can climb on a boat and go kill something. Hurt’s Ahab is a man of culture and refinement. He lives in a grand, tastefully appointed house. He eats good food, drinks good wine and enjoys relaxing in his library with a good book. He has an obviously caring wife, Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson) and all the money he needs to live out a comfortable life.”

To me, these seem like perfectly reasonable additions to add background depth to Ahab’s character (even if I disagree with them). In general, I’m in favor of any adaptation that bends from the source material and creates its own logic and reality. If this were, say, Pride and Prejudice I would see nothing offensive in any of this. However, Moby Dick is not a perfectly reasonable book. It is not about period costumes and mutton chops. Moby Dick is a novel written in full fever. It is a little bit insane, in parts, and all parts are written by a writer of high ambition.

I’ve been on a Metallica kick these last few weeks. I have no idea why, but every so often “The Call of Ktulu” calls to me. Anyhow, I’ve been listening to the entire output, but the album that I come back to, and enjoy the most, is the much derided St. Anger, best described as a 75 minute bludgeoning although it is probably most commonly called “laughably bad.”   The 2004 documentary of the recording of this album, Some Kind of Monster, shows a petty, desperate, emotionally strained group of musicians with enormous egos and thin skins who spend as much time in group therapy as they spend recording the album. Most seem to use this documentary to illustrate the reasons why the album is bad. To me, it sort of explains why it sounds so good. To me the album sounds furious and unhinged and frustrated and confused but it also sounds like a band of great talent going all out to make a really good record. There’s something about this coupling of insanity and uncertainty and talent and ambition that, for me at least, makes a really nice sound. At the least, I suggest giving this youtube clip of Frantic a listen. I may be the only person who like this record.

Anyhow, for me, this is what all film versions of Moby-Dick are missing–the unhinged ambition and risk taking and fearlessness. This brings to mind an article (I’ve since misplaced where or when it was from) about Werner Herzog’s Hollywood adventure/ rescue film Rescue Dawn. While making the film the Hollywood crew and producers were horrified by Herzog’s approach–considering him no better than an amateur in his methods. Not surprisingly, Rescue Dawn is a very safe, button-down movie compared to Herzog’s non-fiction take, the slightly unhinged and risk taking Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Dawn only works when Herzog’s madness peeps through, fleetingly, here and there. Give me madness and ambition and risk taking over professional and safe and well done any day.

Certainly, as critics of his day were glad to point out, Melville’s great novels from Moby Dick on were not “well made” in many aspects. Potentially major characters and plot points are introduced and then forgotten, inconsistencies abound in the point of view and in the plots (to the extent that there are plots). And a few even accused him of having gone insane.

I’ve often said that Moby Dick should be made into a film–I’m all for our greatest literatures being translated into other mediums. But it would take a filmmaker of a certain greatness and madness to pull it off. At times I’ve thought the Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic (probably the film closest in spirit to the true Moby Dick) is just weird and ambitious and fearless enough to pull it off. Other times its clear that the Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia would make a masterpiece. What do you think?


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I’ve recently been reading the Dalkey Archive’s edition of Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Evil. It has been several years since I read any poetry, but I am enjoying this book, its discussions and ideas and references–particularly those references to works of literary fiction.

Svendsen’s thesis, basically stated, is that the concept of evil continues to have merit in our own time, that it is a persistent problem, and it is our duty as living beings to understand, acknowledge, and combat ‘evil.’ The first part of the book functions as an overview of the different philosophies regarding evil and goodness in the universe and how those philosophies have evolved over time. The next section largely discusses the Holocaust and the impact Holocaust studies have had on the concept of evil, in particular the so-called Banality of Evil and the idea of Stupid Evil.

Svendsen mentions, in the early course of the book, such diverse writers as Milton (whose Satan, Svendenson reminds us, became a hero for Romantics like William Blake as a sort of ‘freedom fighter’), Poe, Keats, Camus, Melville (whose villian Claggart hated Billy Budd simply for Billy’s sublime goodness), Dostoevsky, Thomas Harris, and Bret Easton Ellis.

It seems to me much of the fictional evil discussed in this book, at least those novels of the mid to late 20th century, are of the sort Poe first innovated, the lone maniac, the psychotic, the serial killer. Of these characters most likely Hannibal Lector is the most fascinating and the most important, although I would be hard pressed to call the works of Thomas Harris “literary.”

Another author who deals almost entirely with concepts of evil, Stephen King, goes entirely unnoticed by Svendsen (probably to his credit). King, in his way, (along with other horror novelists, perhaps) seems to continue the tradition of Milton, who could imagine the embodiment of some absolute evil. An embodied evil along the lines of Satan. Although I have not read The Stand or It in 18, 19 years, I still recall those books as vast and ambitious in their themes–more so than most literary fiction since the early part of the 20th century, perhaps.

Indeed, when I think of “evil” in the literary novel I tend to first think of the vast novels of Hugo, Dostoevsky, Melville, and Balzac before I think of Poe’s maniacs or even Hawthorne and his cute symbolism. Stephen King clearly is far from the class of a Dostoevsky, but he may deserve some nod of credit for approaching the idea of evil from something other than the psychological portrait of some lone maniac. Or, he may not. It may be that King’s ideas and themes are slight and outdated and worth only the pleasure they give the Sunday afternoon reader.

It seems to me the only other author of mid-late 20th century novels who approached the idea of Evil with such gusto and ambition was Norman Mailer (although it also seems that William S. Burroughs did it the best).

Perhaps this has something to do with Mailer’s pursuit of writing a book as fine as Moby Dick (a noble, futile pursuit, if you ask me) since, to my mind, Moby Dick deals with the theme of evil in many of its manifestations–the vengeful and fanatical, the ambitious and self-serving, the blind and the stupid and the faithful and the obedient, and those who are willing to question, but lack the courage to go any further. To me it is these evils we see on display each night on the news or on the internet and it is these evils we read about in our Holocaust literature and in our Civil War literature. And it is partly for this that I find Melville’s novel not simply the greatest evocation of evil and ambition this side of Shakespeare and Aeschylus, but the finest novel.

Now, these ideas are clearly not yet focused on my part, but Svendsen’s book has me thinking and wondering:

Has he left out any great authors on the topic of evil? I have not read any novels about the Holocaust, for instance–should these be included along side Primo Levi and the works of philosophers?

Who are the finest contemporary literary writers on the theme of evil? Brian Evenson, for one, comes to mind immediately.

What are the greatest (or your favorite) works concerning the idea of evil?

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