“Yeah, I liked it, but…”
“Okay, so it wasn’t necessarily good, but…”
You know, my brother once told me that nothing someone says before the word “but” really counts.
Okay, I don’t necessarily believe with Benjen Stark on that one, but I think the “but” is an important word, especially in the world of the subjective.
I started pondering this topic on Saturday evening. I had just walked out of a showing of In the Heart of the Sea with my father, and while we both enjoyed the film, we had our own small critiques about it. Yes, we were far likely kinder than most of the critics, and it makes me miss Roger Ebert even more, because that man my personal review/critique-hero. I loved reading his reviews, even when I didn’t always agree with them.
It’s taken some time for me to articulate why exactly I liked his reviews, and I think I have to chalk it up to the “but”-factor. Basically, whenever he reviewed a film, it was: a) in the context of what he thought the film was trying to accomplish; b) the film as art; and c) the film as entertainment.
I think we often get caught up in one of those three elements to the detriment of the other two when thinking about whether or not we “liked” a film or a book or any other type of media, and whether or not we’re actively considering why we do this. Personally, I think it’s a pretty simple answer: when you stop to consider all of those things, you might end up feeling rather conflicted or convoluted. Not always the case, mind, but certainly (in my own experience) the general rule.
Which means I’m sure you’re wondering: what does this have to do with In the Heart of the Sea?
Okay, let me drop a short review of In the Heart of the Sea for you, utilizing those three elements I mentioned previously.
a) “the context of what I think the film is trying to accomplish”
So what is this film trying to accomplish — what is the point of this film? I suppose that, like its source material of the same name, In the Heart of the Sea is attempting to tell the story of the men of the whaleship Essex; to put you in their shoes as are stove by a seriously pissed off bull sperm whale many thousands of nautical miles from land and as they resort to some extreme measures in order to survive. It is a tale of human endurance versus nature.
In that regard, In the Heart of the Sea does this quite well: the men get down to scarily-thin frames; we don’t see, but know that they resort to cannibalism as either their comrades die or, in one case, draw lots in order to kill one to save several; there is more than one moment where we see the men versus the raw power of nature, whether it be storms, whales, or the doldrums.
But I would say it’s only about 80% successful.
Why is that, you may ask? Well, perhaps it’s just me, but I would have wished some more time in the script had been spent on the whaling industry or, at the very least, on what it was like to be on a whaling ship. There’s a scene where the crew is summoned to practice getting into their whaling boats and such, and that’s a scene that could have been extended: I actually would have liked to have seen that practice round in full. Show me more of the crew interacting, of really getting to know each other.
What would that achieve? It would achieve the manipulation of my emotions to further buy into the camaraderie of these characters, would have shown me the ones that might have tension — beyond Cpt. Pollard and Chase, which is already shown well enough — and, overall, give me a better sense of the crew before the whale attack that spurs on the bulk of the film. I need to care about these men as both individuals and as a crew; I need to really feel what has been lost in the course of the decisions these men are forced to make.
b) the film as art
The visuals and the photography are gorgeous.
No, really, that’s it. Moving on…
c) the film as entertainment
This is a surprisingly quiet film — meaning that there aren’t that many big action set-pieces, there’s not a ton of snappy dialogue, and it’s not moving at a breakneck speed. In the Heart of the Sea takes its time with its story and doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is: a tale of survival and then self-forgiveness.
I, personally, found the film entertaining because I wanted to know the story. But if you’re going in to see man battle a whale…sorry, dude, this isn’t Moby Dick — close, but no cigar. That being said, can I acknowledge that the film might be a little too slow, a little too quiet? Sure, and I direct you back up to point (a), where I made the comment about seeing more of the whaling ship and the crew prior to the major turning point with the whale attack. Perhaps this would add more to its “entertainment value”, perhaps not; but I don’t think it would have necessarily hurt it.
Reviewing is a tricky thing: it’s an inherently subjective medium, but you want to be able to explain yourself in a way that’s almost objective. The ultimate conundrum: reconciling logos with pathos in order to maintain one’s own ethos.
Perhaps this is why I’m glad I have a minor form of ADHD: when I see a film or read a book, my brain is always active, always working in the background of things and dissecting what I come across. It’s not something I can “turn off” or even necessarily ignore — frankly, I’m not even sure I’d want to. Because of this strange little brain of mine, I’m afforded the opportunity to explain my gut reactions with a knowledge-base that comes from years of study, practice, and my own personal analytical skills.
I suppose now, dear reader, you’re wondering what the point was to all of this discussion?
It’s self-awareness. It’s being able to articulate the “why” and not just the “what” — it’s about adding a “because” to your “but.” I try very hard to do this, even when I’m being overwhelmingly negative or positive in reaction to something, because it is important to be able to articulate one’s reasoning, not only for the person who listens, but for the person who speaks.
gnothi seauton – know thyself