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In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea

This film begins by baiting you that the whalers upon the Essex did something so egregious by eating fellow dead crew members, that they maybe deserved to be eternally shamed by it. But the experience of the film is that cannibalism was almost an exploration of the amount of leeway, the permission—what one might theoretically in fact thereafter get away with—granted one when one pulls back from doing the one thing truly punishment-worthy. Truly punishment-worthy, is the unwillingness to backdown from the pretension that there may actually be no limits to how much humanity might claim for themselves out of nature. You can come close, real close, to this pretension, but if you're actually willing to go all the way then Nature will ultimately wake up, reveal just how sized She actually is, and squash your ass.

The setting is New England, the 1820s. The whaling industry is full-bloom confidence, and is indispensable to the obvious prosperity of New England coastal towns. What is commanding, is New England fishing prosperity. What mostly aren't, are the whales themselves. Yes, driving a killing blow into one is still such a significant feat that those who do so wear emblems of their kill, which draws awe from newbies, yet to do so. But if one is to liken them to legendary knights who comport teeth and scales from dragons they've slain, you'd have to do so with an image of each and every one of these dragons having been done in while sleeping, so all it took was the bravery required to approach and plunge down upon a creature, singularly larger than your whole company of knights. Effectively, though it is the strongest, largest whales which are hunted, for their containing the most oil, whales are as easy to kill as are herbivores wired to let their oldest and weakest be caught out. They don't turn as a herd and wage war, as might perhaps rhinos or bison; they run away like a streak of zebras or gazelles, leaving any of those harpoon-struck to slowly fade back and satiate the killers with the treasure hoard in their carcasses. 

It's a feat to come to the point where you are really able to convince yourself that things so massive are in fact so really not part of the possible disasters involved in a whaling expedition, that they really don't need to be factored in in insurance, but the New England industry is clearly there. In their minds, the stupendous, largest-animals-ever-to-have-existed—whales—are cotton to be picked—which they actually are. The sea is a much rougher turf than any cotton field—and the film shows what inadequate seamanship might do to even a large ship, if it gets matched up against a powerful storm—but even this this educated, superstition-mostly-now-lacking, New England mercantile society, has grown weary of fretting: the truth is, what the sea is not is something one needs to be wise to never disrespect, some place which at its deepest or most distant parts might present Man with the void, but something eminently transverseable—an ice-skating rink upon which might glide, one ice-skate cladden girl from one "port" to the next.  

To the current mindset of the film's director, Ron Howard, human beings like this are at the sure edge of a precipice. What they have done is become sufficiently arrogant and wantonly dangerous, that Nature, who has until now largely ignored them, has decided it's time to make the effort to shuffle its continent-wide shoulders, turn its country-sized head, reveal itself as actually one, very sentient, unitary being, and begin the long heft up of its arms into space, so to commence plunging this whole sea-faring culture into shallow, widespread paste. How he shows this in the film, is to have the largest whale ever to be hunted, suddenly develop the inclination that widespread, would have prevented the existence of the whaling industry. Once struck by a harpoon, it doesn't expend all its energy in some futile attempt at retreat, but rather turns about, and commits itself to becoming a one hundred ton torpedo. No nineteenth-century ship was built to take this, and suddenly, ostensibly, the industry is back as if matching matchstick structures against the heft of something real. To see it all crunched apart, would require only for the initial harpoon-hefter to decide, despite what he'd now seen, to go for another attempt at a killing strike. 

This, he doesn't do. He pulls back, and the whale returns to his herd. And for this—mostly gifts! Yes, he's got to return back to New England, not only without any whale oil but sans half his crew and the whole of his ship. But the film dramatizes this as an opportunity to confront a town afraid of what his news what might mean for their industry, with the will to tell the truth nonetheless. It gifts the whaler with a new career—one where he now gets to be the captain rather than the perpetual man-in-line, and in a industry outside whaling, which, the film exults in revealing, was doomed for quick replacement, as oil had now been discovered in the ground—imagine that!

Yes, there’s still the matter of their eating other people—but this too gets readily patched up as actually something that speaks for these men; speaks for their being better prepared rather than more morally suspect than most. They were, after all, carvers of flesh; this they were accustomed to and experienced at. And they merely extended their skill and, momentarily, the metaphor of butchery, so they could survive and get back to their wives and children, who would be lost without them. To have failed to have done so would have been to waste the practical skills God had given practical men, simply to seem prettier. 


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