Moby Dick (#110 of 8)

Draw, Write, Love Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

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Draw, Write, Love: Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
Draw, Write, Love: Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life

Ulli Lust is an Austrian cartoonist who lives and works in Berlin and who published in 2009 a long, thick, graphic novel memoir about hitchhiking through Italy as a teenager in the 1980s. It won awards in Germany, was translated to French, and then won awards in France. Fantagraphics Books has just translated it to English under the title Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, and it’s going to win more awards here, too. It’s a memoir that avoids being self-centered, petty, naïve, or boring, and, like On the Road meets The Diary of Anaïs Nin meets The Innocents Abroad, it’s spontaneous, sexual, and both cynically and internationally adventurous. It’s also further proof that the graphic novel is going to dethrone the novel as the 21st century’s preferred form for telling a story—in print—that’s dense and serious and artful and long.

A good way to think about Today Is the Last Day is as a kind of anti-Eat, Pray, Love. Both books are the confessions of a girl/woman who’s restless and frustrated and looking for life, and who leaves home in order to find it, but whereas Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir is a breezy, yuppie fairy tale told in the service of the ego of its author, Today Is the Last Day is bohemian and brutal and frequently reads like a traveler’s nightmare. The teenaged Ulli, the book’s hero, crosses illegally into Italy, wanders around with just a sleeping bag (no money, no passport, no change of clothes), and is raped by strangers, betrayed by her friend, injected with heroin, harassed by mafiosos, and arrested by the police. But despite and amid all that, she gets to sneak into a Clash concert, camp out on the beach, pick wild strawberries, and sleep for a night in the Fontana del Pincio in Rome. All of which is to say that she gets to experience, for a few months, what it’s like to live outside that protective, pacifying, Matrix-like bubble that an affluent and well-ordered society encases its citizens in, layer by layer, from birth until death—whereas Eat, Pray, Love is basically what it feels like to travel through Italy, India, and Indonesia while deeply, stupidly, ensconced within that bubble.

Big Fish to Fry: Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Playwrights Horizons

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Big Fish to Fry: Samuel D. Hunter’s <em>The Whale</em> at Playwrights Horizons
Big Fish to Fry: Samuel D. Hunter’s <em>The Whale</em> at Playwrights Horizons

On my grade school’s trip to an aquarium, I couldn’t understand how the whale didn’t sink from its own weight. I feel the same about Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale. The writing, design, even the lead actor are wrapped in heavy layers, both literal and symbolic. The play opens with 600-pound Charlie suffering what seems to be a heart attack, and then things take a turn for the worse: Barring some massive turnaround, Charlie’s got less than a week to live. Somehow, though, Davis McCallum’s production remains buoyant. This Whale floats.

As the days tick down through thick and not so thin, we wade through allusions to Moby Dick and Jonah, and every scene break brings sounds of crashing waves. But this is far from a crushing bore. Undercurrents of dry humor and wry emotion keep things bubbling along. The aforementioned cardiac episode occurs while Charlie’s watching Internet porn and fending off a visit from a door-to-door Mormon. One’s heart may sink a bit when the young Elder appears. Many of them have been knocking on stage doors these days and that’s far from the only common trope in use here. Charlie’s main goal is reconnecting with Ellie, the teenaged daughter he hasn’t seen since he came out of the closet when she was a toddler. We’ve seen countless family-reconciliation plays and lots of closed-off girls like Ellie, but even when The Whale wanders into heavily fished waters, it still comes up with fresh revelations and bracing truths.

Altered States Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations

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Altered States: Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations
Altered States: Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations

Did you know that, as a way to celebrate his 32nd birthday, the neurologist Oliver Sacks took an oversized syringe out of his parents’ medicine cabinet, filled it with morphine, pumped it into his veins, and then curled up in bed and proceeded to hallucinate for 12 straight hours, seeing on the sleeve of his nightshirt a finely detailed, three-dimensional reenactment of the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt, complete with soldiers, pipers, and caparisoned horses?

If this anecdote is any way intriguing to you, either because it deals vividly with the topic of altered states of mind or because it reveals something rather curious and personal about a prominent public intellectual (one who’s been both portrayed and caricatured cinematically by Robin Williams and Bill Murray), then you should check out the newest book by the good doctor Sacks.

Hallucinations is meant to be a sort of psychic safari, “an anthology of hallucinations,” as Sacks describes it. It’s a survey of the many elaborate things that people see, hear, smell, taste, and touch that no one else around them would be able to corroborate or to verify, the kind of phantasmal sensations a person can have due to epilepsy, solitary confinement, migraine headaches, psychedelic drugs, brain damage, limb amputation, and emotional trauma, among other destabilizing circumstances.

Far from Home Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

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Far from Home: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Far from Home: Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

A question for the history of the graphic novel: Will anyone ever write a cartoon equivalent of Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Will there ever be a cartoonist who in his or her real life does a bunch of dangerous and exciting stuff, such as work on a whaling ship, pilot a river boat, or fight in a war, and who then sublimates those experiences via the imagination into a work of fiction that’s vivid and dense and spiritually substantial? More specifically, will there ever be a cartoonist who can combine with his or her comics all that you get in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin (the audacity, the action, the energetic globetrotting) with all that you get in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (the disappointment, the ambiguity, the baroque psychology)?

Guy Delisle’s new Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is a nonfictional graphic novel about being far away from home in an occasionally dangerous and precarious and confusing place. It’s about living for a year in Israel while trying to be a husband, a father, and an itinerant cartoonist. Insofar as it’s a memoir, Jerusalem is low-key and humorous, and brings to mind Ross McElwee’s documentary Sherman’s March. Insofar as it’s a travelogue, Jerusalem is inquisitive and observant, and brings to mind another doc: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. As a whole, the book is both enjoyable and instructive; it makes you chuckle and grin, and it makes you feel like a more informed, concerned citizen of the world.

Cliffs Notes Bergman: The Atlantic Theater Company’s Through a Glass Darkly

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Cliffs Notes Bergman: The Atlantic Theater Company’s <em>Through a Glass Darkly</em>
Cliffs Notes Bergman: The Atlantic Theater Company’s <em>Through a Glass Darkly</em>

If you’ve never seen the film Through a Glass Darkly, then there’s a fighting chance you might like Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic masterpiece, the great director’s starting point in a trilogy of soul-wrenching 1960s films that tackle God’s relationship—or lack thereof—to humanity. But if you have set eyes and ears on Bergman’s carefully crafted images and words, then experiencing Worton’s ham-fisted take on the original is as emotionally satisfying as reading a Cliffs Notes version of Moby Dick.

Which is not to say that adapting Through a Glass Darkly for the stage was a bad idea; in bringing to the screen what was essentially a psychologically fraught chamber play, Bergman, who also wrote the film, always acknowledged a creative debt to the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg. Certainly, taking Bergman’s minimal characters and haunting island setting from celluloid to three dimensions was not a ready-made feat, but with some clever tweaking it could have been a worthwhile effort. Unfortunately, however, Worton and director David Leveaux fall far short of worthwhile, instead achieving an undesirable sort of artistic alchemy, where they turn movie gold into theatrical straw.

5 for the Day: Wish List

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5 for the Day: Wish List
5 for the Day: Wish List

Lead illustration by Peet Gelderblom. These films are not in production, except in my imagination.

1. Moby Dick. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Mel Gibson as Ahab, Ben Foster as Ishmael, Rudy Youngblood as Starbuck and Ian Holm as Father Mapple. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Edited by Anne V. Coates. Score by Eliot Goldenthal.

The reclusive director follows up his long-awaited Fountain of Youth project with the ultimate nautical adventure, and does not disappoint. Herman Melville’s supposedly unfilmable novel—which stymied John Huston, among other would-be adapters—gets the cosmic, ruminative treatment in this three-hour CinemaScope epic, which alternates quicksilver, free-associative montages with the most surprisingly conventional and exciting action scenes Malick has ever directed. As Ahab—arguably the role he was born to play—Mel Gibson gives a surprisingly restrained performance, resisting the natural inclination to play the character as Long John Silver on crack. Gibson instead directs his intensity inward, a decision that lends Ahab a lordly detachment and icy, inscrutable anger reminiscent of mid-period Laurence Olivier; the performance is aided immeasurably by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, which often hides Ahab’s eyes in Rembrandt pools of torchlit blackness or, in daylight scenes, in the sliver of shadow cast by the brim of his cap. Throughout there are curious but distinctly Malickian changes—including the casting of Apocalypto star Rudy Youngblood as a Starbuck who’s actually a combination of the characters of Starbuck and Queequeg, with Maori tattoos and a habit of meditating on deck at the same time every day, even during storms.

Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One
Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

The following is the first half of a two-part article by Jeremiah Kipp, a critic and reporter whose work has appeared in Fangoria, Filmmaker Magazine, Slant Magazine and other publications. He previously interviewed movie critic Charles Taylor for The House Next Door.

In 1999, film critic Godfrey Cheshire [left] wrote a compelling two-part essay for New York Press entitled “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” The article considered the transition from celluloid to digital technology within movie theaters, and the repercussions that would have on cinema as an art form. Predicated on the belief that the viewer responds differently to televised or digital images than film images, Cheshire expressed ambivalence and curiosity about that changeover.

To frame his argument, Cheshire provided definitions for terms normally considered interchangeable: “Film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refer to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art.” Film and cinema, to Cheshire, are vitally linked, and that once film is removed, what is left may vaguely look the same for a short time, but that essentially video leads to the “overthrow of film by television—which is what this [shift] amounts to—will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics…The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let’s take one thing at a time.” The article has been reprinted all over the world, and was made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art. It remains a valuable reference point for filmmakers, journalists and cinephiles.

But Cheshire himself admitted, “When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land.” The technological and cultural landscape has changed rapidly since the publication of his article in ways Cheshire did not anticipate. Digital technology has accelerated the DVD revolution and the resurgence of documentaries. The Internet has affected how film criticism is digested by the public, and has fostered reactionary grassroots support among bloggers. Amidst these and other changes emerge new questions about film, movies and entertainment—as well as a few ironic surprises. Since leaving New York Press, Cheshire has continued writing film reviews for the North Carolina alternative weekly The Independent. But this self-professed “videophobe” is wrapping up production on a first-person documentary—shot on digital. It focuses on his family and their Southern plantation, which has been their homestead since 1739. In addition to his directorial debut, Cheshire has written two narrative screenplays and recently taught a course on the history of film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cheshire was open to discussing how the changing times broadened his interests in film and filmmaking, as well as looking back on his landmark essay. The death of film and the decay of cinema led to the rise of video and new technologies. Amidst these transitions, Cheshire has managed to keep himself on the front lines—in more ways than one.