The Perfect Storm

by Wentai Xiao

 

Although it sold north of $300M off a $100M budget, nobody really liked Wolfgang Petersen's film The Perfect Storm (2000), based on a well-liked novel of the same title by Sebastian Junger. Its reviews (Metacritic 59/100; Rotten Tomatoes 47/100) are commonly resolved that the movie lacks both character and plot, and differ only in the extent to which they find its "special effects" to make up for either or both. Here, it once might have been possible to have a discussion about the capacity of form generally to make up for content, or whether and how movies can exert a special pressure upon the question of form vs. content, rather than simply service it as an object over which differences in the exertion of such pressure entirely comprise differences in movie-making results. But there were no conditions for such a thing in 2000, nor are there now--indeed, this is why I am as qualified to write this review as those that find themselves in the happy situation of being paid to write reviews (because that is all we mean by "expert," right?). 

Instead, whenever a movie does well at the box office but does not exhibit already agreed upon categories of meaning, its critics whip out a ready-made solution: that "mass audiences" were seduced by the movie's "special effects." Indeed, for critics, "special effects" has become code word for "mass audiences." It should be obvious that such an exercise entirely excuses critics of the labor of critiquing, or at the very least, ascribing more, not less, critical interest to those blockbusters that cannot be accounted for by the old dependable interpretive stances. And as in the world of movies we come upon the impotent excuse of "special effects," so in the world of music, we find what critics describe as "dance music." For in both cases, the critic ascribes to "mass audiences" an experiential anatomy which responds to but does not register—let alone recognize—this stimulative sight or that stimulative sound, and so the eye is stirred, the ear is prickled, and the leg begins to shake at the knee. 

And when a movie is reduced to "special effects" or a song to "dance music," what happens to their audiences, but that they are reduced to sense? But if movies, songs, and audiences could really be reduced like this, would not an honest critic admit that at best he is a good gastronomist and at worst a bad gastronomist, tasked with assessing how this dish or that drink stimulates a particular organ of the consumer's body?

The Perfect Storm is one such movie and Batman vs. Superman (2016; Budget $200M / Box Office $800M+; Metacritic 44/100) is another more recent example. And we find in between these 16 years many terribly reviewed box office successes, e.g. Pacific Rim (2013; $190M / $411M; 64/100), Hancock (2008; $150M / $624M; 49/100), The Day After Tomorrow (2004; $125M / $544M; 47/100), Transformers (2007; $150M / $710M; 61/100). On every such occasion, you will find the "special effects" excuse indefensibly trotted out for show. Meanwhile, blockbusters exhibiting categories of meaning confirmed in the past are critically rewarded, e.g. Forrest Gump (1994; $55M / $670M; 82/100), Avatar (2009; $230M / $2.8B; 83/100), Up (2009; $175M / $730M; 88/100), and Finding Nemo (2003; $94M / $930M; 90/100). The problem with these movies is not only that they affirm what is already agreed upon and thus offer their audiences nothing new; it is that the very survival of what is already agreed upon depends upon a consensus lack of clarification. As such, these movies deepen the old comfortable untruths. 

This article takes up The Perfect Storm as one example of a movie that was both commercially successful and critically resisted. We will try to understand what its audience stumbled upon but what its critics missed, or, rather, what the movie stumbled upon but what nobody articulated well. 

There are three parts to The Perfect Storm: the introduction of characters, the exposition of plot, and the composition of setting. And because the three parts fall in that order, its critics were unable to recognize the first two for what they are, and were compelled to conclude that the whole film should be evaluated on the degree to which they service the third as its means. Hence, the middle class critic premier Roger Ebert writes of the first third, "We learn about the economic pressures of the swordfishing industry, we meet the crew members and their women, we learn a little of their stories, and then the film is about the ship, the storm and the people waiting in port for news" (2000). For him, the whole thing could have been the third thing were it not for the masses demanding the first and second things, i.e. money, women, and "onboard conflict" to justify its "special effects." Thus the conclusion of his review: "We know intellectually [intellectually? what the hell does that even mean?] that we're viewing special effects.... This is not important.... It's possible to criticize the sketchy characters, but pointless. The movie is about the appalling experience of fighting for your life in a small boat in a big storm. If that is what you want to see, you will see it done here about as well as it can be done." What a load of lazy thinking! And with what self-satisfaction it is done. 

Let us turn to how Roger Ebert understands the movies' introduction of its characters. He writes, "The crew members of the Andrea Gail are a job lot of basic movie types. We count Capt. Billy Tyne (George Clooney), whose pride has been stung because his catch has fallen behind this season. His crew includes Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), who is in love with divorced mom Diane Lane; Murph (John C. Reilly), whose seafaring life has led to a friendly but sad separation from his wife and son; Bugsy (John Hawkes), the sort of character who gets overlooked in crowds; Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), a Jamaican who has ventured into northern waters for the paycheck, and a last-minute addition, Sully (William Fichtner). He and Murph don't like each other. Why not? Jealousy over Murph's wife, the movie says. To provide the plot with onboard conflict is my guess." And so it goes. 

Leaving aside for the moment how lazy and disingenuous it is for a critic to accuse a movie of lazy and disingenuous insertion of "onboard conflict" (and where it should occur it surely must be shown, not stated!), we first focus on the character of Billy Tyne. Roger Ebert's bit about Billy Tyne comes from a conversation he has with Bob Brown, the owner of the swordboat, the Andrea Gail, after she and several others dock in Gloucester at the end of the North Atlantic season (late October). Billy Tyne and Linda Greenlaw, captain of a second swordboat also owned by Brown, report the gross amount of fish they have caught. Linda reports a score which Brown describes agreeably as, "my kind of numbers." Of Billy Tyne, on the other hand, he says, "didn't hit very hard, did you? You know, we all have our slumps, but aren't you overdue to break out of yours?" Billy is immediately affected.    

After the swordfish from each boat are weighed, and the ledger settled, the crews fall out before Brown to receive their pay. Brown continues to harangue Billy Tyne, promising him, "If you can't make her pay, I'll find somebody who can." He is referring, of course, to the capital of which he seems to be the sole provider in Gloucester: the Andrea Gail, the primary site of conflict in the movie. Capital as embodied by the Andrea Gail comprises the only means by which the crew's skills, knowledge, and determination can be employed in valuable production. And Brown is right: only above a certain break-even level of return does such production outpace the rate of depreciation suffered by the swordboat. Below this level, it makes more sense for Brown to sell the Andrea Gail, costing the men their income and their jobs. They need the Andrea Gail to work, to live. But their relationship with the boat is fraught with contradiction. For it is because of a technical detail of the boat—the giving out of the ice machine—that the crew is pressed to drive into the storm, and moreover it is because of a structural detail of the boat that everyone except Bobby Shatford becomes trapped below-deck and drowned. The third portion of the movie is anything but mere "special effects" interspersed with the cries of frantic men, for the setting is not comprised of the conditions of the ocean, but rather the manifold contradictions of the Andrea Gail. That is, between the men and the weather there stands the Andrea Gail, and as such it is through her that the former interacts with the latter. It's been a long time since grade school, but I think the definition of setting is still 'where the action takes place.' Only a critic could miss the fact that the setting of the movie is the Andrea Gail. 

But for now, our focus remains on the two conversations between Brown and Billy Tyne. The second round of Brown's haranguing, after the bookkeeping, triggers a strong response: Billy promises his boss vengefully, "I'm going to bring you more fish than you ever dreamed of." That is, after Brown threatens Billy with unemployment unless Billy brings in more fish, Billy threatens Brown with... bringing in more fish. The promises both reflect one another and speak past one another. This is a compressed moment of characterization that Roger Ebert glances over as learning about the "economic pressures of the swordfishing industry." He completely fails to appreciate the questions raised by the introduction of these "economic pressures," particularly: what do they imply about the story that unfolds? One could argue that Brown is responsible for the death of the crew ("if you can't make her pay"). In this case, the movie is about the struggle of workers against their conditions of work—the weather—in disastrous combination with economic compulsion imposed from above by Brown, the owner of capital. This seems supported by the little smile on Brown's face after Billy Tyne tells him he will take on greater risk to catch bigger fish, for as long as Billy Tyne brings the Andrea Gail back to harbor, "more fish than you ever dreamed of" means a larger profit, holding constant Brown's share and the variable costs of production, i.e., bait, equipment, food for the crew. Under this interpretation, the ensuing struggle of the crew with the storm is totally victimized, with the members of the crew reduced to mere objects of domination from above. The only "takeaway", if you will, from this interpretation, is a certain appreciation-frustration, really-with respect to the wastefulness of the men's struggle to survive. What was it all for? This interpretative stance crudely answers, Bob Brown's wallet.  

However, the above interpretation does not hold water. For during the second exchange between Brown and Billy Tyne, the owner of the boat explicitly instructs the captain of the boat not to put himself or his crew in danger, because, very simply, Brown does not wish to lose an enormous capital outlay, his Andrea Gail. Indeed, in most situations, including this one, it is not economically rational for a capitalist to encourage his workers to take the kinds of risks that would destroy the value of his capital. Besides, the notion that capitalists actually think about "profit" and "life" in explicit trade-off terms is absurd and an exercise of caricature we seem to have inherited from "class" analysis of art, which not by accident once carried out the wholesale suppression of art in China. There isn't much to suggest that beyond the demands of his role, Brown is anything worse than a little insensitive; hence, we assume that like any decent person he would prefer his crew to live. “Class" analysis of art not only reduces workers to mere objects of domination, but boogey-mans the capitalist as something other than a mere man who, for as long as he can or needs to, personifies the will to expand value. One simply cannot have it this way and get interesting characters at all. 

If not, then, the combination of the conditions of work with the economic compulsions of work, if not bad weather and Brown, what or who is to blame for the terrible outcomes and losses? Let us return to the exchange between Brown and Billy Tyne. Recall that it is Billy Tyne that insists he will go out past the Grand Banks to prove to Brown that he is capable of finding and catching bigger fish. And as we have already seen, it is Brown that protests this idea. One begins to reason, then, that the crew might have died to affirm the ideals of swordfishing: the old bravery, the intelligent exercise of physical skill, the opportunities for fraternity which forcibly arise when a group of men are singularly confronted with disaster. Put otherwise, that these men did not die for Brown's wallet, but in an inter-generationally meaningful struggle that brings dignity to the lives of swordfishing men. This is what I will call a romantic interpretation of the movie in contradistinction with “class” analysis. 

Indeed, the opening shot of the movie-the names of those "lost at sea" since the 17th century displayed on the Gloucester City Hall walls-in combination with the scenes aboard the Andrea Gail in the lead up to the storm appear to support the romantic stance. This comprises the plot of the movie. The first rounds of fishing yield smaller and smaller fish and the crew, discouraged by their catch and exhausted by the difficulties they have already encountered—a shark on deck, Murph falling over board—brings Billy Tyne below and tells him they want to go home. The "class" stance would applaud this sentiment. However, Billy Tyne tells the crew they are behaving like "little boys." He says bitterly, "This is the moment of truth; this is where they separate the men from the boys. How about it? Are you Gloucestermen?" and shares with them his plan to venture far east of the Grand Banks to the Flemish Cap. One of the men responds: "Yeah, we're Gloucestermen, but why go all the way to the Flemish Cap to prove it?" to which Billy Tyne replies, "Because that's where the fish are." For the romantic, this is precisely the moment for the movie to engage in a big "hurrah" all around. Why should it not be, if the stance were tenable that the crew dies not for Brown's wallet but for some vague morality of swordfishing. But we do not get any such "hurrah". Instead the exhausted men bitterly agree to Billy Tyne's plan and the scene is cut right there. 

The second opportunity for a big "hurrah" occurs after the ice machine breaks, forcing the crew to decide between steaming through an impending storm to bring fresh catch into Gloucester and waiting out the weather, letting their dearly won Flemish Cap lot rot. It is indeed revealed that the crew pulled north of 60,000 pounds off the Flemish Cap, three times the amount they fished off the Grand Banks. Billy Tyne shows them the weather fax he has received and suggests,"Or we say the hell with it, and drive right through it." Here there arises another opportunity to pay genuine homage to the ethic of swordfishing; yet, the men tentatively mutter, "it's a lot of fish," and "it's a lot of money," and we watch Billy Tyne nod and order them to prepare the vessel for return to Gloucester. And then the scene is over, and the romantic is unsatisfied. 

Thus, neither the "class" nor the romantic interpretative stances are granted much credibility by the movie. And it is precisely this discipline that makes The Perfect Storm a good movie: it poses a question rather than affirm an already agreed upon stance—for one will find that in this world there are innumerable unscrupulous classists and romantics (although that's a bit redundant) ready to hop on board interchangeably with either. If a movie affirms an already agreed upon stance, it has offered its audience nothing new. For The Perfect Storm, the question of what they died for is kept hanging in the balance. 

It is no small feat for a movie's writers, directors, and actors to resist the temptation to directly answer the question. Yet, it is these movies that suffer most under the anemia of the critics.  

For who are "Gloucestermen" after all? What does such an identity imply? That some men, due to the conditions of their birth, were born to drown below the decks of inadequately equipped ships? Were born to catch big fish for the owners of fisheries or die trying? The concession of dignity to any line of work cannot but essentially condemn its workers to their fate. 

And what is the fate of these Gloucestermen, now that they have proven they are indeed Gloucestermen? The third part of the movie is where combat occurs. The setting—outside the Andrea Gail, the water, the sky, the rain, and inside her, the wheel, the kitchen, the bunk beds, the television set—is the source, the site, and the content of this combat. There are actually only two combat scenes in the movie: Andrea Gail vs. the first wave and Andrea Gail vs. the second. The former combat scene ends with a very brief reprieve. The amazing thing about it is that it is believable: even as everyone in the audience has seen the movie cover prior to the movie, even as they know there's a fifty foot wave the Andrea Gail will scale vertically at some point but not just yet, the precise knowledge of nature which Billy Tyne musters to dealing with the first wave in comparison to the broad unthinking motion of the northeast seas is of such contrast that we believe it must have had an effect. With Bobby's help, he turns the Andrea Gail parallel to the first wave to absorb its impact on her side. And this is where the second combat scene is vital, for it thrusts plainly upon us the deeply uncomfortable thought that the first turn might as well not have happened at all.

The boat capsizes. Billy and Bobby crouch together a foot above the water beneath the upturned floor of the wheel. The broken window means that unlike the others, they can get out of the sinking ship. But without a raft, without life jackets, without any means of communication, they apprehend that they are as doomed as the rest of the crew. Bobby turns to Billy and says, "We made the right call—we had to try!" Billy barely responds, so Bobby tries again: "Hey! It was a hell of a fight though—huh, huh?" And Billy finally looks at Bobby, finally comprehends the consequences of his complete moral influence over Bobby. Bobby has been won over to his ethic. He opens his mouth and one almost wishes he would manage: "You fool, you followed me, now you will die, and you still believe what I told you, tell me, how was it the right call, how was it worth anything, why did we have to try, what did this get you, what did this get anybody, anybody?" Instead, Billy urges Bobby to get out of the window although he does not follow. Is it courage? Is it the old virtue of a captain remaining with his ship? Do we still believe in those things in the year 2000? (Did we ever?). For what does Billy Tyne bring Bobby? What does Billy Tyne bring Murph, Sully, Bugsy, Alfred Pierre? The moral consistency of Billy Tyne means a deeply wasteful loss of life for the men of the Andrea Gail and their families back in Gloucester. 

When Captain Greenlaw sees the crew restocking the Andrea Gail before setting off on their second round, she teases Billy Tyne: "There you go, flaunting your work ethic," to which he replies, "I don't have a work ethic. I just have work." Does the crew die for a work ethic or for work? The question is one of the gap between the means of life and how that means through middle class morality takes on the form of ends. But we have shown that this is not a movie about the loss of life for the ends of life, which redeems such a loss. Nor is it a movie merely about the loss of life through the means of life, which offers a view of domination as entirely from above, under which struggle from below is pitied and senseless. It is a movie about the loss of life through the means of life mediated by a morality that takes those means to be ends. Put otherwise, it is not the rogue wave that kills the crew of the Andrea Gail. Nor is it Bob Brown that kills the crew of the Andrea Gail. The perfect storm is not the compulsion workers face by the conditions of their work in disastrous combination with the demands made by the capitalist. The perfect storm is the combination of those external compulsions rendered conscious by those that work: it is Billy Tyne that kills the crew of the Andrea Gail. What he means for workers is far more deadly than what could ever be done to them by the capitalist or the storm. Billy Tyne shows us that the question is far from being whether or not workers should be led or left to lead themselves;-workers are already being led. The problem is only that it is done by the likes of Billy Tyne! So it goes: down with the likes of Billy Tyne!  

But the "fix" will not be found in ideas nor debates over ideas about work. Before he sets out, Billy Tyne tells Linda Greenlaw that the fact of her success in swordfishing proves her love for it, her sharing in his moral conception of their work. He is probably right. Would a worker who conceives of himself as "just a worker" and admits no pretension to the ethics of his work be good at what Billy and Linda do? Or is there is incremental daring, intuition, and passion economically required of the swordboat captain due to the many surprises he confronts as a matter of fact of the nature of his work? Economic compulsion may necessarily give rise to social forms adequate to sustaining its practice, even if for a short time, and if not Billy Tyne's brand, something else separate but equal to it. 

As the water level rises within the Andrea Gail, the crew trapped below deck have no time to do what we have done, and ask about the reasons for which they will have died. The speed of the water does not allow for it. Murphy manages to get out, "This will be hard on my little boy," but Bugsy, standing beside him, has no time to respond before they are both submerged. Sully stands alone knee-deep in the rising water, terrified and unable to speak. Alfred Pierre pounds upon the door, and then stops pounding. There is no hurrah for the romantic, nor anger for the classist. There is no satisfying reason offered in these last moments for why these lives have come to an end, and that is why this movie offers something new. 

I recently heard the Governor of New Mexico tell GOP members and sympathizers in New York that the question of America, the question of freedom, the question of opportunity, all "hang in the balance." I should think she is right. The problem is not only that there are not enough movies which like The Perfect Storm aesthetically express that which "hangs in the balance," but that if any movie should stumble upon doing so, the critics will be the last to notice, and the most surprised if first informed.

 

Citations:

Roger Ebert, "The Perfect Storm Movie Review (2000)," June 30, 2000. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-perfect-storm-2000.

The Perfect Storm (2000), directed by Wolfgang Petersen (2007; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video), DVD. 

Image pulled from: https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0901-Spring-2009/Shot-to-Remember-A-Perfect-Storm.aspx

 

Image from The Perfect Storm. 

Image from The Perfect Storm