Call Us IshmaelReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 07/01/19 22:05:04
(Worth A Look)
The thesis of David Shaerf’s swift, engaging documentary 'Call Us Ishmael' is simple: Herman Melville’s gigantic, narratively skimpy, intolerable, beloved Great American Novel 'Moby-Dick' has the power to turn some of its readers into Ahabs, pursuing the white whale of the book.The movie isn’t titled Call Us Ahab, though, so Shaerf seems to speak for a gentler, more productive mode of obsession, and a less threatening way for the reader to be drawn in by the work. Instead of being maimed and then ultimately pulled into the deep, the readers seen in the film are, like Ishmael, taken along for a ride, a ride that sometimes usurps months or years of their creative lives — and for some, the ride hasn’t ended and possibly won’t.
Take, for example, the yearly ritual at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which since 1995 has hosted the Moby-Dick Marathon. People get up and read aloud sequentially from the book until the entire book has been heard. It usually takes about 25 hours. Can you imagine dozens of people sitting, standing, reading, listening, lying about in sleeping bags, for better than a day, with any other book? Well, they do — this past May, UCLA’s annual Marathon Reading tackled The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels. But, of course, UCLA’s inaugural marathon dealt with, yep, Moby-Dick — a year after the Whaling Museum started it. Anyway, Call Us Ishmael is about five minutes old when it shows some footage from the Moby-Dick Marathon.
From there, Shaerf moves on to various artists who’ve been inspired by the novel, and that’s what most of the rest of the movie addresses. Shaerf has the same story as many others: he tried it under duress in school, loathed it, went back to it years later, got hooked. First of all, this very thing is why I have never believed in summer-reading lists for high school, even though the selection has opened up to popular youth novels in the last decade or two. A teenager is not ready to assimilate what Melville is doing — I don’t care how smart and mature the teenager is. You need some life and loss and pain under your belt to appreciate a lot of literature, and in the case of a stark raving weird novel like Moby-Dick you need the patience and the willingness to submit to someone else’s overpowering vision for a while, with no clear narrative carrots on a stick.
But the familiar story of someone who bounces off of Moby-Dick, spends ten, twenty, thirty, forty years away, and then for some reason is lured back to it and now rises to it — we hear that again and again in Call Us Ishmael. The artists Shaerf talks to are usually interesting, sometimes a little abashed by talking about how completely the book subsumed their lives. Matt Kish gets a lot of time, possibly because he did art for the movie and its marketing; he discusses his book Moby-Dick in Pictures, wherein he made a piece of art for each page of Melville. The project took Kish a year and a half (and we see his bemused girlfriend remembering the long process); another artist in the film, Frank Stella, took a decade and a half to complete his journey with the book. We see art students who responded to the work in various ways; we see musicians (Patrick Shea, Laurie Anderson) who recorded literal or allusive songs about it.
The only medium Moby-Dick has never fully stuck to is the very medium Shaerf works in, and he covers that a bit. The most famous adaptation was, of course, John Huston’s 1956 effort, whose reception was mixed. It’s a fine strong Huston movie but it doesn’t really convey Melville, only his plot, which isn’t the book’s strong point. There have been several film versions; my ironic favorite might be the 1930 attempt (with John Barrymore), which doesn’t even pretend to be faithful to the story (Ahab reunites with his true love Joan Bennett at the end, and Ishmael doesn’t figure into it at all). Two made-for-TV whacks at the material (with Patrick Stewart and William Hurt as mad Ahab, respectively) came and went without much notice. If there were to be a point to another film adaptation today, it would need to be a $250 million monstrosity in IMAX, with Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement to give us his Ahab, under the direction of Spielberg, bringing his catalog nearly full circle. (As it is, Jaws is probably about as close to a pure-cinema riff on some Moby-Dick elements as we’re going to get.)
Ultimately, Call Us Ishmael allows that the book is so many things to so many people — and maybe it speaks most clearly to those with a touch of obsession — because it seems to encompass everything. All those passages about whaling aren’t just “about whaling” — you’re getting an immersive education in the society, economy, and even ecology of the world it sets up. It gives you the bare bones of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee says is necessary for a story — an object of desire, and someone who desires it — but then surrounds it with flesh made of anecdote and cetology. The thing is insane and difficult and, for those in this film, rewarding and inspiring. But is the book really ever done with them?'Call Us Ishmael' tells the compelling and, when you think about it, frightening story of a literary classic that acts like the monster under the bed, grabbing readers’ ankles and pulling them into its hot close darkness. Ayuh, there goes another one.
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