Pop Culture Ephemera
- Herman Melville – Moby Dick or, The Whale (1851) (Harper & Brothers): “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” Referred to as “The Great American Novel” by many, this was a poorly reviewed book in its time and was out of print by the end of the century. And then the long road back started. Today, it has one of the most well known first lines and is referenced in all areas of pop culture and most amazing to me, the references are understood by people who have never read the book. There are movies as various as direct adaptations (see below), changing the setting to current and future times and direct influences (see the second half of Jaws and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). There are television shows, restaurants, and snacks influenced by the book that more often than not shorthand the story to a big whale and an obsessive Captain. Based loosely upon a story of a real whale from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Melville combines the Transcendentalism theories of Emerson and Thoreau with a vast knowledge of Biblical stories, the Muslim tradition (hence the name Ishmael), and the works of Shakespeare. One of the better reviews called this book one long Shakespeare soliloquy.
- I may still be too close to having just finished the book to have a well-formed opinion. It’s a little much. It’s a linear story of the quest for the white whale that will then take a break for 30 pages to talk about how whales are drawn by artists or how the harpoons are sharpened. Ishmael is an intelligent narrator, or is he? It’s beautifully written and has bouts of humor but it’s boring. Not in a way that it doesn’t say interesting things but that it says interesting things that you just don’t find yourself caring about. I can see why most people never finish the book. The book itself is “the whale”; it’s huge and mostly unknown and the rewarding parts are very small compared to the size. I’m really glad I made it through but I will forgive you for sailing on past.
- Tom & Jerry – “Dicky Moe” (Directed by Gene Deitch) (1962): Tom is kidnapped and taken aboard the Komquot by a Captain obsessed with finding the whale Dicky Moe. The majority of the cartoon turns into a normal “Tom chasing Jerry around the ship and having bad things befall him” story. The art design and the whale portrayal are just beautifully done. Enough credit isn’t given to the art of the Tom & Jerry cartoons from this era.
- Futurama – “Mobius Dick” (S.8 E.8) (2011): “We’ll make it. Or die trying.” The second appearance of Moby Dick references in the show is more closely related to the book. Leela becomes consumed with killing the Fourth Dimension White Whale, Mobius Dick. The story is fun but only hits upon pretty well-known tropes of the book, as you might expect. The Mobius of the whale is his looping intestines that they get caught inside of. It’s more of what I would expect of a current parody of the book.
- MC Lars – “Ahab” (2006) (from The Graduate): “Pride met fate, this Captain got dissed.” – MC Lars. There seriously isn’t a better three and a half minute summary of the novel than this song. “Call it idiot pride . . . my main tragic flaw.” Color me super impressed with a song from 17 years ago that I didn’t know about until YouTube spied in on my other searches. I love this Nerdcore Hip Hop movement and these clever rhymes are a great illustration of how it works best. Clever and fun. “Ship’s got a hole. Plug it up.”
- Moby Dick (1956) (Directed by John Huston): “He did not feel the wind, or smell the salt air. He only stood, staring at the horizon, with the marks of some inner crucifixion and woe deep in his face.” – Ishmael. Over a hundred years after publication, the stars seemed to align for a film adaptation. Directed by the brilliant John Huston with a script written by the hand of skilled writer, Ray Bradbury, Gregory Peck stars as Captain Ahab and Richard Basehart plays our narrator, Ishmael. It’s impossible to capture the sheer details of the whales and ship that a reader is aware of while reading the book. Bradbury captures actual language from the novel and Huston directs a film so dark that I only realized half way through that it was in color. Much like the book, it was decried upon release and has found new appreciation in more recent times. The biggest criticism was of Peck as Ahab. Ahab is 58 years old in the book and Peck is not yet 40 here but I think he still captures the religious fever of an obsession for the whale by the Captain. This has influenced generations to read the book as Ahab’s story, as Ishmael quickly becomes only an observer and we lose his voice. This is definitely a good replacement of reading the book for the average person (Warning: it won’t serve you well, English Majors, if you are trying to write a paper).
- The Whale (2022) (Directed by Darren Aronofsky): “I need to know that I have done one right thing with my life!” – Charlie. The description of the plot of this film does it very little justice. An obese, recluse, English teacher tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. It would be easy to imagine Charlie (Brendan Fraser) as the titular leviathan of the film. This is a Darren Aronofsky film, so the explanation won’t be that simple. In essence, Charlie is our Captain Ahab. He has lived a cursed life and his singular focus as he approaches the end of his life. His daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, Stranger Things), is our version of the white whale if we continue the metaphor. She doesn’t feel love for her father and does everything she can to sink his hope for reconciliation, even to the point of risking his death. The references to Moby Dick within the film are mere winks to the metaphor. The film addresses many religious themes and the homosexual overtones of the book that often go overlooked. The adaptation of the play is obvious in the mostly single apartment setting that starts to have the claustrophobia of the Pequod. The literary metaphors only serve to give the film a richer depth. It is a superb film and one of my favorites of 2022.
Best of the Rest
- Artist Wu Tsang has taken a few artistic looks at the Melville saga that can be seen at art museum installations around the world. One version is a film that imagines the story from the eyes of Moby Dick. There is another film that celebrates the queer elements of Melville’s story. I would enjoy seeing some of the dance interpretations of the novel. This just serves to prove the influence the book has had on our culture when it is inspiring artists over 170 years later.
- The largest gathering of Fin Whales (second only in size to the Blue Whale) previously was 300 whales. Last year, the cruise ship, National Geographic’s Endurance, saw roughly 1000 of them. It might be just a coincidence or the gathering could be a great sign of the recovery of the Fin Whales. It will take years to know the future of these leviathans.
- Is the lesson of Moby Dick that you can’t take revenge on an animal? No. Homer pretty much nails it.
Sunday Morning Tuneage Flashback
- On the Sunday Morning Tuneage of 9/23/2007, temps were back in the 90s for the week and Chrisiian’s football team won with an interception by him. I ranked Heat (1995) as my #92 most favorite film. That ranking hasn’t aged well for me. I would have fully supported this as a television series as Mann envisioned it. Rest In Peace to Tom Sizemore who has a nice role in this film. I think it sits in a weird place of needing to be either much shorter or much longer. There was new television like The Simpsons, Prison Break, and Boston Legal. My highlight of the week was Ken Burns’ The War. The most exciting development of the week was the release finally of a film on DVD that had been missing.
- Alligator (1980) (Directed by Lewis Teague): “How about cats? I got plenty of cats. I also got a parrot I’d like to get rid of.” – Gutchel. Written by John Sayles, this Jaws-influenced horror is well remembered by us fans of ’80s horror films. A pet alligator, Ramon, flushed down the toilet when he was young has been feasting on dogs injected with growth hormones. As he starts to eat up humans, it’s up to Detective David Madison (Robert Forster) to team up with herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) to solve the murders. Ramon makes a great Moby Dick but Det. Madison is a decidedly less obsessed Captain Ahab. The movie owes much to the popularity of Jaws which itself pulled from the Moby Dick tradition. The overgrown animal genre will always draw comparisons to the killer leviathan. The film is an excellent example of wearing your influences on your sleeve and still producing a hugely entertaining movie.
1973 in Review
- In 1973, Australia releases a stamp of a Killer Whale hunting seals.
- January. The Happy Little Whale by Kenneth Norris is published by Golden Books.
- March. The March 1973 issue of National Geographic includes a story on the last U.S. whale hunters.
What the Hell Did I Put in My Mouth?
These are not new. The cracker company that eventually became Stauffer’s was formed just seven years after Moby Dick was published. Their obvious competitor is Pepperidge Farms’ Goldfish Crackers. There isn’t even a competition. The whale crackers are more crunchy, a better mix of salt to cracker ratio and the cheddar flavor is more natural. And look at that surfing whale on the cover! Moby doesn’t surf.
Starbuck’s Pistachio Cream Cold Brew
It was originally going to be called “Cargo House” or “Pequod” but ended up being named after Captain Ahab’s First Mate. This is a great addition to the menu but it doesn’t hit you with a pistachio taste upfront. There’s a vanilla syrup taste and a hint of cinnamon with a pistachio aftertaste. The cold brew is refreshing and you can’t go wrong with this option.
I will submit Pequod’s for my current favorite Chicago Pizza joint based upon my visit there last Fall. A wonderful atmosphere, quaint dining area, and wonderful pizza with amazing crust and pepperoni. For me, it’s Buddy’s Pizza in Detroit and Pequod’s Pizza in Chicago.
“There is wisdom that is woe, so welcome to my life
It was fine until Moby scarred me like a knife
Towards thee I sail, thou unconquering whale
To stab my spear into your white tail” – MC Lars