Saturday, February 26, 2011

Vast Empty Spaces in "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea"

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea was a simple, well-shot, well-paced movie with a lot of big ideas going on under the surface -- just the type of movie I like, although I must admit, this one was a bit grim and tragic to really make for an enjoyable Friday night. It's adapted from a book by Japanese author Yukio Mishima, and it stars Kris Kristofferson, who was also by far the most convincing actor in the cast. If nothing else, you can watch it to be dreamily captivated by the endless sea-scapes and ancient pastures of England.

You can also watch it for the sense of longing and frustrated desire that permeates the whole film, and that allows us to understand why the children in this gray world are so hollow and spiritually impoverished. It's both a celebration of hope and a warning about its dangers, a call to dissolution into the vast silent emptiness of the sea and a warning against making impossible spiritual demands of oneself and one's idols, who, in the end, are mere human beings, just like all of us.

The "call to dissolution" is a rather zen theme, expressed every time a character gazes out into the ocean and waxes poetic about the romantic call of the waves. Jim feels it, and has already worked through it; now Jonathan is feeling it, and he is placing misguided faith in Jim to stay true to its pursuit. The ocean is the silent, echoic, empty spiritual resonance that flows through all of us, the Platonic world of forms, the Kantian noumenal world, the free, open space of unbound existence. Jim says the sea is always changing, and once he left the grounded world of earth and society, he began to feel like he didn't belong anywhere. This is because he left the world of the body and entered a vast spiritual outland where things of the flesh aren't welcome.

The empty, transcendent world of the sea contrasts sharply with the corrupt, corporeal world that the chief has created for his schoolboy friends. In this world, all purpose flows from the physical nature of things, and we are all bodies, first and foremost. He finds the "true nature" of each being in its heart, the literal physical organ, and he sees every beings true nature as flowing from its physical form, its anatomical makeup, the bitter, earthbound "perfect order of things" (which is not a spiritual order in any way, because the Chief is spiritually dead and rotting).

There's something rather Catch-22 about the whole exercise. The Chief, like Yossarian, has realized that "man is matter," and he's concluded that morality, hope, transcendence, etc. are just inventions by "grown-ups" (i.e. society) to control peoples' behavior and keep the weak under the thumbs of the strong. He's a uniquely Nietzschian character in this regard, and even fascist, because his base materialism has led him to a different sort of purism... the purism of tyrants and libertines, of self-righteous cruelty and entitlement. So he departs from Yossarian's sympathetic pragmatism (sort of anti-social, but still benign) and becomes nihilistic, believing in nothing but himself, and others only to the extent that they serve him.

Of course, you could read mountains of oedipal subtexts in this film, as Jonathan turns his boyhood gaze upon his widowed mother. This is one possible explanation for Jonathan's unreasonable philosophical expectations for Jim: he wants Jim to be a symbol of all the higher ideals that imbue a strong father figure, and when Jim opts to return to land and get married, Johnathan sees it as a sort of castration. The subsequent murder of the father is Jonathan's pathalogical act of retribution.

Have I made this movie seem a bit heavy? Yeah, it's a little heavy, not much of a party movie at all. But the tone is truly unique, and for all its disturbing twists, it's also a very calm, introspective film with a lot of gorgeous scenery and moments of sublime transcendence. If you're looking for something serious to watch leading up to the Oscars, it wouldn't be a bad one to see, and it's on Netflix Instant. Go check it out.

No comments: