Chained for Life (2018)

Posted August 18, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, drama, one of the year's best

chained_for_life_still A little while back, Scarlett Johansson took some heat for wanting to play a transgender character. The controversy came on the heels of earlier heat attached to Johansson playing a formerly Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s tone-deaf response, which she later walked back, was “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal,” summoning an image of her as a pomeranian or as the title role in The Giving Tree. Yes, an actor can conceivably play anything, but should they? There are transgender actors, Japanese actors, not yet any tree actors, and they have enough trouble breaking through without cisgender white hetero actors enacting their experiences for plaudits and awards.

This goes double for disabled actors, and Chained for Life, written and directed by Aaron Schimberg, is an attempt to address their specific challenge as actors who are also disabled. Schimberg, himself born with a facial deformity, has lived and thought through the experiences of his characters, starting with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who has been hired to play a misunderstood-monster type opposite a blind character who falls in love with him. The movie within the movie is meant to be stupid, and many of the abled cast and crew say insensitive things (the script reflects Johansson’s remarks despite having been written long before she made them; her attitude is many things but not uncommon).

Pearson, who you may have seen opposite (ha!) Johansson in Under the Skin, lives with neurofibromatosis, and tumors pull and push his features out of alignment. His character Rosenthal says that he scares kids and animals, but I thought his face looked gentle — he looks kind, not monstrous. Sometimes his elongated jaw and full lips recall Fred Gwynne’s elegant mug. He speaks, with some effort but with precision, in a quiet English accent, though he gets his voice up in a roar when filming an argument in the movie within the movie. Rosenthal’s leading lady is Mabel (Jess Weixler), who plays the aforementioned blind woman. Mabel is the one who says, early on, to a reporter, “We’re all blind in some respect, aren’t we?” Well, no, Mabel, we don’t all have to contend with literal lack of sight and all the societal/political indifference, negligence, and downright violence associated with it. The movie knows this and doesn’t want to punish her for her entitled actor’s jargon — it wants to educate her, and eventually she comes to an understanding of disability that’s at least sharper than she had before.

Titled in a left-handed salute to the 1952 film of the same name starring the conjoined Hilton twins, Chained for Life brings in a group of actors with physical differences to play patients in a pompous melodrama about a surgeon who performs operations to make disfigured people “normal.” The director is an abusive jerk with a German accent — there’s some speculation on the set that he isn’t even German — called only Herr Director, strongly played by Charlie Korsmo in his first movie in 20 years (his last was 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait, as the drunk kid who sings “Paradise City”). The performances in general are incisive, with the insecure Weixler playing deftly off the witty Pearson, who carries himself in a way that makes the case for disabled actors playing disabled characters all by itself. He simply speaks, gestures, and stands in a fashion that almost no abled actor (Daniel Day-Lewis may be the exception; most everyone else gets a side-eye these days, rightly so) could duplicate without having lived that life year after year.

It’s a fine movie, though sometimes it tests our patience with scenes in which we have to watch actors try and try again to nail a take. The film is as much about Schimberg’s chosen medium as about disfigurement and its discontents. I get the sense that Schimberg’s script consciously diverged from any clichés (he says he’s seen and mostly disliked every film he’s seen about deformity), including the one where Mabel and Rosenthal end up together. The final shot, over which the end credits appear, is one of shared, neutral-faced community — the disfigured, the tall and short, the conjoined, the folks of indeterminate gender, all sitting in the back of a moving bus. This feels right. Rosenthal doesn’t need to have his life validated by becoming part of the pretty-face world. He has his people, and they understand each other, and Mabel, however well-intentioned, can’t be on the ride with them.

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The Abyss

Posted August 4, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, one of the year's best, science fiction, underrated

the abyssAfter all these years — it turns 30 on August 9 — James Cameron’s The Abyss remains the most intense movie I have ever seen. Cameron is never happy unless he has a thousand plates spinning, each threatening our heroes and the very existence of human life itself, and the threat grinds on in mega-sequence after mega-sequence until we stagger out half-dead, played out, winded. The attitude here, if not the aesthetic (which owes more to Moebius), is clearly heir to the macho clenched-teeth posturing of Bronze Age Marvel comics — the adventures drawn by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema, where the gods themselves whale on each other inside a live volcano in eruption, or inside an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, or something. This is Clenched Teeth: The Movie. It runs, in the director’s cut, two hours and fifty-one minutes, and there are maybe a few seconds of downtime. Six, possibly seven. The rest is showdowns and light shows and drowning horrors and phosphorescent aliens.

This all might sound as though I don’t honor The Abyss. I do. From a distance, mainly in memory. Going through it, actually watching it, can be an endurance test. By about the two-hour mark, when things look bleak for oil-rig engineer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the rig’s big dog and her estranged hubby Ed Harris is screaming himself hoarse for her to “FIGHT! FIIIIIGHT!” you might rub your temples and mutter “Jesus Christ, there’s almost another hour of this?” Ed Harris’ head explodes or threatens to explode about 27 times in this movie, by the way. I can imagine a lot of fist-holes in the walls of his dressing room on the set, if he had one. Famously, Harris offered the following to a Premiere reporter, probably through clenched teeth: “I’m not talking about The Abyss. And I never will.”

Michael Biehn is also on hand, clenching until he cracks several molars, as a Navy SEAL who is along for the mission (the oil rig is commanded to go find a sunken sub) and soon develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which is another good name for this movie. Helpfully, Cameron has a few characters sit around and discuss the symptoms so we can recognize them in Biehn later. This is a film with a million Chekhov’s things — Chekhov’s wedding ring, Chekhov’s “hammer,” Chekhov’s hand tremor, Chekhov’s pink liquid that people can somehow breathe. A rat is dunked in this liquid and held under, for real, until it respirates the stuff. I never really bought this — for use on humans with human-sized lungs, anyway — and I don’t buy it now; we don’t seem to be much closer to people regularly chugging air than we were 30 years ago. For a long time I thought The Abyss was meant to be slightly futuristic for this reason, but I guess the film’s events are set in 1988, when we were having problems with Russia. Gee.

Those problems furnish one of the many moving parts that heat up the film’s sense of urgency. We seem to be on the brink of nuclear war (started because we think the Russians sank the sub), and the alien race, Cameron’s deus ex machina, intervenes to save us from ourselves. This point was muted in the half-hour-shorter cut that saw release in American theaters, but it’s all there in Cameron’s version. He was really, really concerned about the bomb back in the ‘80s, until finally in Terminator 2 he threw up his hands and showed us what nuclear holocaust would look like. Cameron put himself and Ed Harris and us through all this just to deliver the homely message: All you need is love. Seriously, the aliens are about to flush us down the toilet — before we destroy the planet that they share with us — but their hands are stayed by Harris’ heartfelt goodbye text to his wife. Like Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard, Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth and falls in love with her blue-collar man anew. This sort of thing was in the air we breathed in the late ‘80s.

The Abyss has major flaws, but is still, and probably for that very reason, the closest Cameron has come to his blunt-force, beef-stew, crap-dialogue version of art. Terminator 2 may be the most pristine example of his overbearing aesthetic, but The Abyss sees him reaching for the stars — and not the stars above but the stars below the waves. And, man, does he ever maintain a crisis pitch for almost the complete running time, while Alan Silvestri’s score shrieks and ejaculates or a children’s choir sings to sell maximum awe. Cameron tightens the screws until their heads are stripped. The movie expresses extreme anxiety, claustrophobia, things catching on fire while submerged, mini-subs imploding in deep dark water with a crescendo of heavy bubbles. Cameron taps into something of the national mood at the end of the Reagan era, yearning for the past, afraid of the future, letting the present slip by. At the end, Ed Harris emerges from the abyss, looking beatific, enlightened. He has seen a superior race, and he knows it loves us. He will no longer clench nor scream. The Abyss is nutty as hell but almost as unguarded as a diary entry. Its intensity is genuinely felt and earned.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Posted July 28, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best, tarantino

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will be described by some as his best and some as his worst, and both camps will have valid points. They may even both be right. All art is self-indulgent to some extent, but Tarantino really treats himself this time. It’s an elegiac film, a salute to a dead era in its death throes, and it’s a bit more melancholy than you might expect from this puckish filmmaker. It deals with real-world events freely and perhaps with even more abandon than did Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The movie, like most of Tarantino’s others, is drunk on movies — the famous Wilhelm scream is heard before the film is more than a minute old. Yet a powerful mood gathers in its prolonged takes and protracted scenes, an atmosphere of hope and despair co-existing in an America about as bitterly divided as the current one. Ultimately, OUATIH shakes out as an epic tone poem about dreams fed by violence and envy and credulity.

The sun-dappled yet decaying milieu of 1969 Hollywood — a year that saw the rivalry of two very different cowboys, John Wayne in the PG-rated True Grit and Jon Voight in the X-rated Midnight Cowboy — is lovingly realized by Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Partly, OUATIH is a buddy movie about on-his-uppers TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are loosely based on Burt Reynolds and his stuntman friend (and future director) Hal Needham; if Rick’s career arc is to copy Reynolds’, he might end up making one comeback after another that eventually dribbles to indifference, from which Rick might emerge again, and so on. But all that is outside the movie’s scope; Rick is still in his Navajo Joe phase, and hasn’t yet had his Deliverance or his Smokey and the Bandit. These men, who love each other, talk late into the night and watch Rick on TV together; this bromance, anchored by DiCaprio’s portrait of insecurity and Pitt’s more relaxed self-assurance, enables some of the gentlest drama Tarantino has attempted and possibly ever will again.

The story of these two has-beens parallels that of an up-and-comer, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who in our world was butchered, along with four others, by disciples of Charles Manson in the house she shared with the then-absent Roman Polanski. I don’t think Polanski even gets any (audible) lines, and Tate doesn’t get much more to say. She doesn’t really interest Tarantino as anything more than an example of movie-love and innocence imperiled. Never a feminist, though really only a masculinist on aesthetic grounds, Tarantino plays rough-house games with reality and with our expectations. He plays with our dread in ways that will bother some morally, and not entirely wrongly, either. What is he going to make us look at? In the end, he gets his bloodbath, and one can’t help noticing that the brutality against female characters is focused on, lingered on, more conspicuously than that of male characters.

Add the (ambiguous) fate of a nagging harpy in a flashback and you say, Does Tarantino hate women? Maybe not, but in a tone poem tone is everything. In scene after scene, Brad Pitt tools along in his powder-blue 1960 Karmann Ghia, down what one has no choice but to call a “painstakingly recreated” Hollywood Boulevard, the wind catching his radiant head of hair. The feel of these scenes is different from the ones where Tate is driving around town, finally pausing to watch herself in a theater playing The Wrecking Crew. I don’t think Tarantino is malicious towards women, just oblivious to their inner lives. He only has eyes for Rick and Cliff, and all the legends or near-legends he fills the margins with, and all the details and obsessively correct set design. We don’t have so many filmmakers working at this level of craft and physical verisimilitude — and who have the budget to do so, from anyone but Amazon or Netflix — that we can afford to throw Tarantino under the bus.

OUATIH may or may not spark debates about whether Tarantino is a good person (my take: he is exactly what he has always been; take that to mean whatever you want it to), but one thing beyond debate is that he’s a master. The film woolgathers and gives us scenes that seem extraneous, like establishing at length how well-trained Cliff’s dog is, but turn out not to be — and then it tightens the screws. The last half hour or so is a bravura symphony of dread and tension and release, and it simply wouldn’t be as effective were it not preceded by two hours of anecdotes punctuated by every fetish Tarantino has. It’s the donut you get after the sermon Tarantino preaches from the pulpit of his Church of Cinema. But the sermon, digressive and compassionate towards the outmoded male feeling his loss of big-dick energy, shows Tarantino at a different pitch from the revisionist pulpster who made Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. As in Jackie Brown — which has gradually been gaining favor as many viewers’ best-ranked Tarantino film — our most visible movie geek uses movie geekdom to tell a story about human defeats and disappointments. The fact is that OUATIH may be Tarantino’s most problematic film, but it’s also full of wonderful moments that wouldn’t otherwise or elsewhere be possible.

The Reflecting Skin

Posted July 21, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult, one of the year's best, underrated

reflecting skinI have been waiting for years to talk at length about The Reflecting Skin, one of my favorite movies few people have seen. Since it’s making its American Blu-ray debut in a couple of weeks (along with a new DVD), the time seems ripe. This is the feature directing debut of Philip Ridley, only 24 when he made it, and it unfolds in a distinct dream-logic world. The setting is the American midwest circa the 1950s (post-WWII, anyway), but the film exists aside from time and place. Roger Ebert’s much-quoted, accurate assessment goes like so: “It’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it.”

Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), “nearly nine,” is a borderline monstrous little boy, though with a sensitivity that indicates redemption is possible (though perhaps not probable). We meet him when he and two of his friends are committing a particularly grotesque form of cruelty to animals, a detail that seems partly indebted to the kids burning a scorpion alive in The Wild Bunch and partly to Ridley fighting a fever and falling asleep, bathed in sick-sweat, in front of a TV playing The Fool Killer or Night of the Hunter while a paperback of Faulkner rests tented over his chest. The movie is suffused with a febrile, half-articulated aesthetic of American gothic — vampires and dead babies and maimed sheriffs and grinning hairless werewolves in a Cadillac.

A mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who calls herself Dolphin Blue lives nearby, and Seth becomes convinced that she’s a bloodsucker and that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), just returned from a stint in the Army, is about to be seduced and drained by her. Meanwhile, Seth’s gruesome and unhappy mother (Sheila Moore) resents her life with his father (Duncan Fraser), who reeks of the gasoline he pumps out in front of the house. All the adults have secrets, perhaps none more so than Cameron, who has seen what atomic bombs do — he has a photo in his wallet of a Japanese baby whose skin “got all silver and shiny. Just like a mirror. You could see your face in it.” This image is preceded by Seth’s ghastly discovery in a hayloft, a discovery he takes to be the angel of his friend Eben. Eben was kidnapped and murdered, most likely by the strange, suspiciously amiable hoodlums in the Cadillac. People keep disappearing, not just kids. 

The Reflecting Skin will enrapture those attuned to its wheatfield surrealism and repel, violently, everyone else. Upon its release almost thirty years ago it attracted unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch, but these days it seems sui generis. Ridley, sadly, hasn’t done much in films since (though he has kept his hand in creatively with books, paintings and plays). 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon (with one of Brendan Fraser’s finest unseen performances) and 2009’s Heartless are about it for those who want to see more Ridley cinema. But at least he batted three for three (though Heartless, while fine, is the weak link of the three). For some, the early lead performance by Viggo Mortensen (who also shows up in Darkly Noon) will be a draw; the then-31-year-old weighs in with a cloaked, edgy turn later elaborated on in Sean Penn’s essential The Indian Runner.

Mortensen fits right into the curdled nostalgia of the piece. Truly, though, the film is held together by young Jeremy Cooper. I think he’s the reason we don’t hate Seth after his first scene. Seth is in pain, and as we see more and more of his grim home life we can understand why, even if he doesn’t. The movie’s title, as I said, is given a literal explication, but it’s also a metaphor for how, when we look at others, we just see weird reflections of ourselves, or of our expectations or prejudices. So people are vampires or perverts, or they go around calling themselves sinners, or they just go around killing children — either in a Cadillac or in a United States military aircraft. A lot of The Reflecting Skin has to do with toxic masculinity — though that wasn’t a concept back in 1990 and definitely not at the time of the film’s setting. Almost every scene is creepy or morbid or painful or all three. The people, out there in the beauty of the unnamed pastoral country, are damned from birth. The whispering landscape crawls with demons, and the angels are fishy-smelling, maggoty corpses. The vision of hell is forceful and complete.

Pet Sematary (2019)

Posted July 14, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

pet-semataryStephen King’s Pet Sematary has now had two whacks at film adaptation — one in 1989 and one this year (well, three if you count the sequel to the ’89 film). It may be that, through no fault of the respective filmmaking teams or the medium itself, King’s book is just one of those novels that resist translation. For me, it remains perhaps the closest thing in King’s catalog to a “serious work”; he approaches his greatest fear, that one of his children will die, in a sidewise manner that recalls the way Kurt Vonnegut took the traumatic material of his own World War II experience and made it easier to engage with as an author by way of genre tropes (in Vonnegut’s case, the nonlinear story and space-alien digressions of Slaughterhouse-Five).

King’s story is animated by dread and grief — the kind of powerful, deranging grief that will drive a mourning parent to do anything, anything, to make the agony stop. That sort of impact is nearly impossible to replicate in a film that also has to make room for plot and character detail and Saturday-night seat-jump scares for teenagers. Pet Sematary exists most effectively on the page, where it can enter the mind, the bloodstream, the soul with minimal interference. There are just too many factors, mostly having to do with maintaining an extremely demanding tonal balance, that make any attempt to realize it in another medium little more than a riff, a brief visit to a house of horrors instead of moving in and living with them.

I can say that Pet Sematary ’19 is better-acted than its predecessor thirty years ago. Fred Gwynne was fine and avuncular as old Jud Crandall, the son of Maine who introduces our protagonists to the Monkey’s Paw terror of the true “pet sematary,” but most of the other cast members were instantly forgettable. Here we have Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed, Amy Seimetz as his death-haunted wife Rachel, and a terrific young actress named Jeté Laurence as their nine-year-old daughter Ellie. These three do as well as they can in the somewhat degraded context of a mass-market horror movie, and then there’s John Lithgow, sometimes seeming off in his own film, as the new Jud, sickened and aged by decades of guilt and grief.

The new directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) and screenwriter (Jeff Buhler) don’t hesitate to alter King’s original story to make it work as a movie. I applaud this: Many of the best films based on King (including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) take large liberties with the source. So I won’t get into a book-movie comparison of events, except to note that the new film avoids the ’89 film’s biggest tonal blooper, the visual of a toddler happily walking around waving a scalpel. The workaround here is far more plausible and facilitates some chilling “came back wrong” acting. The problem is that the newly imagined climax goes back to the well, so to speak, once too often. (The original scripted ending is much subtler and sadder; it can be seen on DVD and streaming.)

I’ll also say that the new film gives a bit more time to King’s conception of the pet sematary beyond the deadfall as a sour-soiled, godforsaken place ruled by the Wendigo, which feeds on people’s grief and compels them to feed it their dead. But at one hour and forty-one minutes it can only do so much. As in 1989, Rachel’s fearful memories of her stricken sister Zelda amount only to red meat thrown (in the worst bad taste, too) at the grumbling, impatient carnivores the film studio assumes the horror audience is. Pet Sematary ’19 has left me with a strong urge to revisit the novel, with all its hints of ghastly afterlife and irrational fear: “He realized he was afraid, simply, stupidly afraid, the way you are afraid when a cloud suddenly sails across the sun and somewhere you hear a ticking sound you can’t account for.” What’s missing from any film version is that ticking sound, the dread and terror of strangeness invading a bright afternoon for a moment, and then disappearing but taking something near and dear along with it. What’s missing is the poetry of nightmare.

Nightmare Cinema

Posted July 7, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

Nightmare-cinema-The-thing-in-the-woods Only about three percent of you will be with me on this, but the uneven horror anthology Nightmare Cinema made me sad. Why? It’s the first movie that director Joe Dante has made since 1976 in which busy character actor Dick Miller does not appear — Miller passed on earlier this year at age 90. Belinda Balaski, another Dante semi-regular, does turn up here, but it’s not quite the same. Anyway, Dante is one of five directors who provide the movies-within-the-movie shown in a mysterious theater presided over by “The Projectionist” (Mickey Rourke).

We lead with “The Thing in the Woods” (by writer/director Alejandro Brugues), which starts off as a slasher yarn and gradually flips the script; what seems as though it’s going to be yet another case of an incel gone psycho breaks from that path amusingly. It’s fun, though possibly only fun for horror junkies, who may not mind that this segment — setting the tone for the other four — is surprisingly gory and graphic for a movie with the once-restrictive R rating. There are many slasher flicks from the ‘80s that would have loved the latitude given to this film’s mutilations and exploding heads and flying body parts.

Dante’s “Mirari” is next up, about a young woman (Zarah Mahler) who agrees to plastic surgery to remove her facial scars before her wedding to a rich dude. Dante keeps the shocks and suspense popping, and Richard Christian Matheson’s script has a certain malevolent wit, but something’s missing — maybe an explanation of why the story ends up where it does. The segment seems like more of a paranoid riff than anything else. It, too, is fun, though. Again, I missed the avuncular presence of the great Dick Miller, unless he’s in a photo somewhere I didn’t spot.

And that’s about it for Creepshow-esque fun. Story number three, named “Mashit” (ma-sheet) after its central demon, is kind of awful. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train), it takes place inside a religious boarding school whose young students soon become hosts to abomination. Other than a ludicrous desktop tryst between the (otherwise heroic) priest and nun in charge of the school, the segment takes itself brutally seriously, with rather chintzy music that made me think this was supposed to be a tribute to the demonic cinema of Lamberto Bava. It’s certainly colorful enough, but if I want bright hues, demons, sacrilege, and fun, I’ll go to Richard Griffin.

We proceed to the black-and-white “This Way to Egress,” directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night) from a script by him and Lawrence Connolly based on Connolly’s short story. It’s not fun, but it’s effective, with a top-drawer performance by Elizabeth Reaser as a mother who may be going insane. Cinematographer Jo Willems does sharp, detailed work, and I admired the craft of the piece without ultimately finding it very satisfying; as with most of the other tales here, its ending is something of a fizzle.

Last and least interesting is “Dead,” helmed by Mick Garris, that terminally uninspired journeyman who hitched his wagon to Stephen King 27 years ago and has coasted since. Garris has always been more of a fan and arranger of projects anyway — Nightmare Cinema is more or less his baby, and he produced the Masters of Horror series back in the mid-oughts. This story, like the one before it, is buoyed by a strong lead performance, by  Faly Rakotohavana as a boy who nearly dies and finds himself able to see the spirits of the recently dead in the hospital where he’s recuperating. Its debt to The Sixth Sense aside, it’s predictable especially when the psycho who put the kid in the hospital comes looking for him. Annabeth Gish scores some creepy moments as the boy’s mom.

The problem with the stories in most horror anthologies is that they can’t all be gems — not on the level of Creepshow or even Trick ‘R Treat, and certainly not Dead of Night. However much we want Nightmare Cinema to be a rollicking slice of throwback horror, it only lands sporadic punches. It was a pleasure to see Dante working again (he’s kept his hand in on TV since his last feature, Burying the Ex, five years ago), and there are enjoyable bits throughout, but by and large this is the sort of mildly entertaining thing that’s best for a slow, rainy Sunday. And the unifying figure of The Projectionist is so sketchily drawn (and wearily enacted by a bored Rourke), I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Nightmare Cinema 2.

Call Us Ishmael

Posted June 30, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 2.29.09 PM 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.