MOVIE DIARY 2018! Can you feel that? The year is beginning to wind down, and I think after this there will only be two more posts on our beloved blog about movies. I hope your holiday season is going well! This week I’ve got my friend, Jamison Hermann! Jamison has possibly written the most on-brand entry in MOVIE DIARY 2018 special guest history, you’re gonna love it.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: JAMISON HERMANN
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva, 1982
Listen. I had to read a bunch of Freudian shit in college, and most of what I learned was that Freud was full of shit and anyone that pays too much attention to Freud is probably also full of shit.
But. Julia Kristeva was on to something with her abjection stuff. It’s possible to experience both disgust and joy when we’re confronted with things that challenge our sense of distinction between self and other, between subject and object. For Kristeva the ur-example was the corpse, the non-person person that we can’t look away from but really probably shouldn’t embrace. Yet only by acknowledging the physical reality of death can we reassure ourselves of the validity of our own life.
Which brings us of course to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Peter Weir directed and co-wrote this drama set on board an English naval vessel in 1805. The screenplay is cobbled together from Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels about the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, and lost 8 of them to the third Lord of the Rings movie, which is honestly hilarious. Ebert loved it. This schmuck fact-checked it for the New York Times and got half his boat facts wrong. John Roderick recently did a podcast episode about it.
If you’re interested in the play-by-play, check out Ebert’s review. I want to dig in to the ways the film goes about establishing identity - how the characters build up categories and separate themselves within them, how they police and transgress the boundaries between self and other, between officer and sailor, between French and English, between alive and dead.
There are obvious (and productive!) comparisons to be made between Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, but I think it’d be more interesting to skip past them and go straight to the supporting characters that fill out the ship’s complement.
Let’s start with Hollom. As a 30-year-old midshipman, he’s already a misfit in the ship’s org chart. (The other men of his rank are teenagers.) The film takes pains to show us just how bad Hollom is at being an officer. At one point a sailor lists out loud all the different times Hollom has done a bad job. But his clearest transgression is when he starts singing along with the crew in a chorus of “Spanish Ladies.” The sailors all grow quiet and glare at him; Stephen notes the quality of Hollom’s voice, and Jack mutters a derisive “indeed” before storming off. Officers, we are led to understand, are not meant to sing alongside enlisted men.
Hollom’s singing voice is not the issue - rather, it’s his failure to comprehend the roles and ranks of the men on board the Surprise, combined with his inability to play his own role convincingly. As the film progresses it becomes abundantly clear that Hollom is stuck in a system that he doesn’t understand on a visceral level.
His anxiety mounts as the crew turns against him. Soon Hollom has a panic attack in the forecastle, comforted only by his fellow midshipman Blakeney. He eventually throws himself into the sea clutching a cannonball, staring back up at Blakeney and the Surprise as he sinks further and further below the surface.
Hollom’s suicide is not so much an individual choice as it is an inevitable result of the ratcheting of social pressure from crew and officers alike, simmering nearly to open violence, forcing him to play a role he’s constitutionally incapable of playing. “Sailors can abide a great deal, but not a Jonah,” says Jack. The men of the ship are willing to be blatantly disobedient and suffer lashings in return, in order to force this boundary-crosser from their midst. Through this violence - first the lashing, then Hollom’s death - order is restored, and the righteousness of the seaman-officer divide is reified once more.
Blakeney (pictured) comes through as a sort of foil to Hollom. Where Hollom is out of place in whatever situation he finds himself, Blakeney easily adapts to each new challenge the Surprise throws his way. Where Hollom is rigid and filled with self-doubt, Blakeney is malleable, curious, comfortable in his own vulnerability.
He’s much younger than Hollom, but holds the same rank; clearly he has a future in the navy, unlike the older midshipman. Blakeney seems to instinctively grasp the interpersonal etiquette that Hollom finds incomprehensible, allowing him to hold his own in dialogue with his captain Jack, the civilian doctor Stephen, even able seaman Awkward Davies. (You really gotta read through the names on the cast page, it won’t disappoint.)
Flitting between roles on board the ship, Blakeney is able to use his own boundary-crossing identity as a way to build relationships and open doors to new paths in life, new ways of being. Instead of provoking anxiety, his transgressions result in recognition - that the sharp delineations we trace around identity may be quite a bit fuzzier than we thought, and that there might be
If Hollom represents a characterization of the abject, a disgusting yet engrossing that’s completely out of keeping with the established order, then Blakeney transcends abjection to achieve something of the sublime. Like the abject, the sublime cannot be quantified or contained or often even named, but through catharsis it transforms the unknown into something added, as Kristeva says - something “that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy–fascination.”
There’s so much more to talk about here - the boat/not-a-boat-ness of the mizzen t’gallant mast trailing in the sea and Jack’s imposition of order through the chopping of its braces; Jack and Stephen’s shouting match in which Stephen professes a fondness for mutineers; the French captain’s corpse gag following the final battle scene.
But throughout the film, through cannon fire and gale force winds and silver-dollar brain surgery, over and over again we crash into the boundaries of identity, like a ship’s bow smashing through so many swells. To paraphrase Ayesha Siddiqi, every identity implies the violence of its maintenance. To make some men officers, others have to be flogged; to keep the seamen in line some officers have to jump overboard. To affirm our identities is to acknowledge their messiness, their amorphousness, their place in relation to our fellow human beings. The trick is to do this in a way that inspires trust, rather than anxiety. And as Master and Commander shows, the easiest way to get someone to trust you is to have your right arm amputated on board an English warship in the Napoleonic era.
Jamison Hermann is a video producer and terminally online person living in Brooklyn, NY. At one point he earned a bachelor’s degree in film studies. At various other points he sailed on tall ships. You can follow him or yell at him at @jhermann.
A perfect movie. It’s perfect. It’s enchanting, how do you not fall in love with this iconic New York winter movie? Moonstruck is about love and superstition and the big stupid mess it makes of everything and how love is always worth the mess it makes. The performances are so lively and idiosyncratic. Everyone is good in this. Cher (CHER), Danny Aiello, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, everyone. It’s a movie where you get the sense that every character has something going on, that they’re all living their own rich interior lives. Every character says exactly how they’re feeling. There’s no subtext. Emotions are writ large, like the operas that Nicolas Cage’s Ronny Cammareri love so much. Moonstruck is opera. It’s big and loud and obvious and overpowering (all strengths), but there’s this tenderness to it that’s both sweet and melancholy, and ultimately uplifting.
Um, I loved this. Whit Stillman writes these characters’ dialogue in this sort of hyper-literary reality that I think would be so insufferable if it weren’t so funny. I feel like all of his characters are exaggerated reflections of me and some of my friends and every time I watch one of his movies I am laughing constantly but I also feel like I am getting totally roasted. Like his movies always leave me with this moment of self reflection where I think to myself, “Fuck do I sound like that when I’m talking about books or whatever bullshit?” I don’t know, I feel like maybe that kind of thing isn’t for everyone, and I’ll admit it took some time to get used to the rhythms of conversation, but once I was in there, I felt fully immersed in this world of Christmas vacation and debutante balls in New York. One thing I think was pretty interesting is that it’s implied through the movie that all of these characters have other, better friends at their fancy liberal arts colleges. These people (with the exception of newcomer and fish out of water Tom) are only hanging out because it’s winter break, they’re home from college, and going to debutante balls and after parties is the only thing to do for a college kid coming home to New York’s upper east side. The whole debutante ball scene has kind of thrown these people into a familiar group with a familiar setting and a familiar set of circumstances for hanging out. The second there’s an opportunity to hang out outside of this setting everyone becomes a flake with an excuse or somewhere else to be, and I loved that as a look on the idea of circumstantial friendships. I don’t know if that “says something” about youth or time or class or whatever, but it’s fun to see something like this that isn’t done through the lens of like a summer camp or something.
I’ve seen this one a few times now, and I think what really struck me this time around was how beautifully shot it is. I’m thinking particularly about the scene where Carol is driving Therese to her home outside the city and Carol switches on the radio and “You Belong To Me” plays as they enter the tunnel. The light is so beautiful in that scene. I love how the lights of the tunnel reflect over Carol’s car windows and how they play over the faces of Carol and Therese. I love the sort of muted, underwater sound of the song and the way we see little bits and pieces of the details inside the car — Carol’s fur coat, the steering wheel, Carol’s gloved hand reaching for the radio switch, Carol’s eyes, her lips, then her whole face slowly coming into focus. It’s like watching Therese mentally noting all of these little details so that she can remember this moment later. The entire scene plays like a beautiful memory, and looking back on it, it feels like maybe we’re seeing in this moment how Therese will remember Carol forever.
The Apartment (1960)
I love this movie, but whenever I watch it it’s like I can feel my blood boiling every time CC Baxter doesn’t stand up for himself and establish some work/life boundaries. He’s meant to be put-on and sympathetic, I guess, and it’s a testament to the skill of Jack Lemmon that he can show us that, but every time I think about it, I feel like shaking him! What’s worse is that his bosses who are so blatantly taking advantage of him are all just a bunch of nobody executives in some faceless insurance business, drunk on the little bit of power and the large sense of entitlement that they have. Like, in the grand scheme of things, who are these people?? They’re nobodies who do nothing but take advantage of the people around them. Nobody outside that building knows who these jerks are, they’re worthless. Worse still is that Baxter bends over backwards for them at the expense of his personal life and relationships, for what? To be like them? To be a piece of shit nobody parasite who uses everyone around him? Disgusting and relatable.