How I spent my Summer – Books and Movies and a Play

Have you seen the white whale? Aye, and the pure devil he was. Oh, what fun! I finished reading Moby Dick. Oh, scoff if you like, but I love Herman Melville. A friend of mine once observed that Moby Dick was really a biology/environmental treatise about whales. True. It is also a significant sociological study of the whaling tradition. If you take away all of Melville’s writing about whales and whaling in general, and just left the tale about Moby Dick, you’d have a novella at best. The Ahab story is about the all-consuming nature of Ahab’s need for revenge, wrapped in a religious fanaticism that makes Ahab believe that he and only he can and should be allowed to deal a death blow to the devil that is the white whale.

It is easy to understand why scholars study this work for a lifetime. The text is layered with meaning. Not being a bible scholar, or even a bible reader, I could not follow all of the biblical references. The love story between Ishmael and Queequeg is probably my favorite part of the book. I call it a love story because at one point, as they share a room in Nantucket waiting for a boat, Ishmael describes their talking in bed like a husband and wife. He really loved that tattooed madman with the goofy idol for a God.

The ultimate lesson is that fanaticism can only lead to destruction. In the case of Ahab, he destroyed everyone around him but not the white whale, the angel of death, and not Ishmael who is saved by Queequeg’s coffin.

Moving on to a documentary “The Act of Killing” is an unblinking study of the baseness of human nature. A group of Indonesian men acted as a death squad killing “communists” during a more brutal time in Indonesia’s history in the 1960’s and 1970’s.   The filmmaker discovered that this militia was so proud of their killing exploits, and they were so well-known and admired in their thuggery, that the men were willing to talk openly about their acts of killing.

The men claim to have based many of their methods on the movies. Almost as an homage to old gangster films, the movie director gets them to reenact some of their favorite moments of death. Demonstrations of the more simple acts of murder like cutting off a guy’s head with wire, to the more dramatic such as the reenactment of the burning of a village including random killing of the villagers, some rapes, and small children crying hysterically as they watched, brought these men back to their days of glory.

At one point, the men are interviewed on a television talk show where they proudly proclaim they protected the country from these subversives. It is hard to know who they were actually killing but the audience clapped and cheered as they told how many dozens of men they had killed for the sake of their country. In fact, it becomes clear that these men were a gang of thugs, enforcers who liked being in control.

Probably the most redeeming moment is when, Angwar—the focus of the movie and the best known killer of them all—comes to regret what he did. As he reenact, as he relives, he looks back at first with pride. Then he seems to crack. When he plays one of the victims in a reenactment, he becomes unnerved and at that moment comes to understand what it must have been like to be on the other side of the knife. He seems to comprehend, uncomfortably so, that it was wrong. During these reenactments they learn that they killed the father of one of their extras. Angwar listens to the young man cry as he tells of his father’s murder. Importantly, he seems to realize that he has lived with the horror of his actions for years without allowing himself to feel the humanity of it. He has been so proud of himself for being the best assassin the country has seen. By the end he comes to understand what he did was truly evil. In the last frame, he walks off and we hear no more.

It is a tough movie to watch but if you can stomach it, the study of what humans are capable of is stunning. This movie will stay with me for a very long time.

We have also been watching the Ip Man trilogy. Ip Man is considered to be the greatest martial artist in China. He practiced a form that was not well known and he had to prove himself. In the first movie he takes on the Japanese invaders. In the second movie he has moved to Hong Kong and he takes on the Brits. At the end of the movie, a young student shows up at his school. It is Bruce Lee. We are trying to pace and we have not yet seen the third.

Thanks to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” I have come to appreciate martial arts movies. If you want to see a beautiful movie, try “The Grandmaster.” Gorgeous in detail and cinematography, it is an epic drama about Ip Man. Not all martial arts movies are as good as these two examples, and certainly the Ip Man trilogy is not in at this level of sophistication. But the action is interesting, certainly far better than any Hollywood blow ‘em up car crash movies and if the movie is well made, it can be beautiful to watch.

On a lighter note, we watched “Celestine and Ernest,” the animated movie about a mouse and a bear. It was a simply adorable, feel good movie.

We also got out to the theater to see the play “Avenue Q” at Olney Theater. Hilarious. A musical with muppets controlled by actors and those muppets go where no muppet has gone before. A story about a neighborhood (read Sesame Street) and life for a guy and girl just out of school and how they fall in love. The story line and lyrics were pretty hysterical and oddly familiar. Bawdy, goofy, yet very insightful. I wondered about it. Yep, just as I thought—created by the same guy who wrote “Book of Mormon,” which if you have not seen it, what are you waiting for?


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