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Chasing Ghosts: David Grann’s The White Darkness

Grann not only conveys something of Antarctica’s haunted landscape, but also the boundless awe that it occasioned in Henry Worsley.

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Chasing Ghosts: David Grann’s The White Darkness

There’s a ghostly quality to much of David Grann’s nonfiction. It manifests variously, trailing annihilations both concrete and abstract. He’s written about seekers who became phantasmal figures, to differing extents, in the lives of their loved ones. In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, he details a murderous conspiracy that targeted the Osage Nation in the early 20th century. In his New Yorker essay “Trial by Fire,” he reports on a man who, after being placed on death row through flimsy evidence, sensed “that his life was slowly being erased.” And there’s also, among other examples, “A Murder Foretold,” Grann’s piece about a Guatemalan lawyer’s response to the murder of his fiancé and her father. We learn that the lawyer pored over surveillance footage of the moments preceding the crime. At one point, he longingly “touched the television screen—she was there but not there.”

That gesture is faintly echoed in Grann’s latest book, The White Darkness. In 2003, Henry Worsley, the book’s subject, traveled to the gravesite of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. Upon arriving, he extended his hand toward the tombstone. Worsley, who served in the British army and completed two tours with the Special Air Service, regarded Shackleton as a hero. In order to reach the gravesite, he traveled to the far shores of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. And he would, in the years that followed, travel farther still. In 2008, after much preparation, he began his first expedition across Antarctica. And he later decided to attempt two more.

The book mainly focuses on the first and third journeys, which were inspired by Shackleton’s own Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century. Grann, then, is again relating a story that’s animated by absence. Ghostliness emanates easily in this account, not only through the hallowed gravesites, but also the expeditionary trappings and lodgings that have borne the passage of a century. It emanates, too, through the descriptions of Worsley’s efforts. In that respect, the book is a record of a life lost to profound ambition. Worsley died in 2016, shortly after failing to singlehandedly complete the same trans-Antarctica crossing that once eluded Shackleton.

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The inspirations and perils of hero worship are thoughtfully probed by Grann. And Worsley’s wife and children figure significantly in the book, establishing much of its poignancy. In addition, Grann culls from the literature on early polar exploration, placing Worsley’s struggles within the context of his luminaries. What’s more, Grann’s reliably limpid prose is set alongside numerous photographs, many of which provide haunting views into Shackleton and Worsley’s respective quests. This enhances an already compelling depiction of Antarctica, whose hazards are revealed in scenes drawn from the history of the continent. We read about, for instance, the amputation of five toes; an explorer who wandered from camp and never returned; and a Manchurian pony that was swallowed by a deep crevasse. Such details bear out the sinister implications of the book’s title, which, among other meanings, suggests an inversion of the white light that’s associated with the imagined threshold of the afterlife.

While Antartica has a small population of researchers and laborers, Worsley’s story mostly pertains to the more desolate areas of the continent. And there’s a purgatorial quality to his expeditions. Grann indicates as much when he compares Worsley’s experience on the Titan Dome to being “trapped in an infinite beyond.” He later notes that each time the icy ground broke open, Worsley “leaned over and glimpsed the underworld—a chute swirling into darkness.” Worsley, following ghosts both ancestral and heroic, wound up in a frozen desert that can turn the steeliest adventurers into living phantoms—or do away with them entirely. At one point, Grann describes Worsley’s companions through a litany of physical horrors: “Their skin clung to their skulls and their eyes were sunken; they had wild beards and untamed hair that gleamed with ice.” In the book’s context, these aspects are less a denigration of Antarctica than a recognition of its power. As Worsley notes during his last expedition, “Trespassers will be punished.”

Grann, though, is just as attentive to the land’s magnificence. During the first expedition, Worsley and his two companions fell into stretches of silence as they trudged across the Ross Ice Shelf. It’s noted that one of the men, Henry Adams, amplified the mood by listening to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on his iPod. This is one of the book’s small, evocative details. It ignites the imagination by suggesting that the grandeur of the continent finds a correlate in the sublimities of Russian Orthodox choral music. Grann shares many such elements of what Adams calls “the spirituality of the Antarctic.” In doing so, he not only conveys something of Antarctica’s haunted landscape, but also the boundless awe that it occasioned in Worsley.

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David Grann’s The White Darkness is now available from Doubleday.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

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As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

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Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

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Should Win: First Man

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