“Call me Ishmael” — the narrator’s first utterance in Moby-Dick — is perhaps the best-known opening line in American literature. But Herman Melville’s immense 1851 novel doesn’t actually begin that way, even if the myth of it does. First comes an etymology of the word “whale,” declared to be the work of a “late consumptive usher to a grammar school”; next, Melville introduces the findings of the eminently enigmatic “sub-sub-librarian,” a “poor devil” who has compiled scores of disparate extracts on whales culled from sources as varied as the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, parliamentary arguments, newspaper reports, and folk songs. Plot is the tip of the iceberg in Melville’s account of a monomaniacal sea captain hell-bent on avenging himself against the cetacean that robbed him of a leg, regardless of the ruination of himself and his motley crew. From the outset, the book is sprawling, winding, and polymorphic, inviting a multitude of sociopolitical, philosophical, theological, metaphysical, and moral readings.
A fresh, abbreviated adaptation has arrived by way of MOBY DICK; or, The Whale, a new feature-length “silent” film from director Wu Tsang and Moved by the Motion, the fluid artistic collective that Tsang launched with performance artist Tosh Basco (boychild) in 2016. (In the film, Basco beautifully plays the part of Queequeg, a harpooner from a fictional South Sea island with the mystery of the world tattooed on his back.) A leviathanic undertaking, with a team and production budget to match, the project received support from the Schauspielhaus Zürich, LUMA Foundation, Superblue, TBA21—Academy, HARTWIG ART FOUNDATION, the Shed, DE SINGEL, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. As the film, whose US premiere was at the Shed in New York on April 15–17, continues its world tour, related video installations are on view in the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale.
Adopting a technique historically used by silent films to stand in for spoken dialogue, MOBY DICK deploys intertitles. A musical composition by Caroline Shaw and Andrew Yee, with Asma Maroof, played by a live orchestra seated just beneath the screen, summons the orchestral accompaniment offered by early movie palaces. Even the campy overacting of the crew — which today takes on a queer valence — harks back to early American silent film, when overdoing it was a means of emoting sans sound. Tsang also deploys the early, if not quite silent-era, cinematic technique of rear projection. After a night spent in the same bed, Ishmael and Queequeg, whose implicit homoerotic relationship in the book is amplified in Tsang’s film, share a moment of queer, interracial, Marxist intimacy in front of a sepia-toned projection of a Nantucket town square; Queequeg declares tenderly: “Not you, not me. All, we.” Aboard the Pequod, a rear-projected sky meets an ersatz ocean projected by a cutting-edge virtual reality game engine, a muddying of time’s waters that underscores the film’s interpolation of past and present.
MOBY DICK evokes the immense, mystical depths opened by intertextuality and discourse — you can always tunnel deeper — with intermittent narration by the sub-sub-librarian. Played by the bespectacled critical theorist and poet Fred Moten, who dons layered shell necklaces and shimmering green eyeshadow made from spermaceti, he delivers commentary from his subterranean cave of books. His words, the backbone of Sophia Al-Maria’s incisive script, are sometimes lifted directly from the novel. “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” the sub-sub-librarian says, quoting Melville’s fascinating chapter on the terror of whiteness that once led Toni Morrison to theorize: “if [the white whale] is as much its adjective as it is its noun, we can consider the possibility that Melville’s ‘truth’ was his recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology.” For a moment, the whale’s immense eye rises to the surface; then the water runs red. Picturing the ecocide that a violently extractive ideology of whiteness produces, the vermilion water portends Moby Dick’s imminent death while echoing an earlier prediction from a shoreline prophetess, updated for our ecologically destructive times: “The sea will run red with daemon algae.” (She also mentions burnt earth, poisoned air, thinned shells, and belly-up fish.)
On some occasions, the underground librarian’s words invert or subvert the original text: “the whale created god,” Moten solemnly intones, riffing on Melville’s line “God created great whales,” itself taken from the Book of Genesis. The sub-sub also appropriates Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James’s 1953 analysis of the novel, infusing the film with the Black Radical Tradition, to whose lineage Moten himself belongs. In Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, James compares Captain Ahab’s totalitarian vision — his abstract monomaniacal Plan — to that of the Nazis as well as modern industrial capitalists who “will waste human and material resources on an unprecedented scale” to “build factories and power stations larger than all others which have been built.” The film cuts to the gold doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the ship’s mast as a reward for the man who spots Moby Dick.
Tsang frames the ship as a factory, which many whaling ships were at the time; their murderous efficiency quickly brought numerous whale species to the brink of extinction. On the Pequod, harpooned whales are systematically objectified and disassembled — the crew slices into a gray tarp stretched across a whale-sized metal skeleton — and subsequently transformed into cubes of glimmering blubber that roll out on a supply line. Evoking commodity fetishism as well as queer desire, sensual close-ups portray the hands of lower-ranking crew members squeezing the blubber into liquid form and boiling it in huge vats so it can be sold as a product. As in the book, which explores labor relations and hierarchies at length, one crew member nearly dies in the dangerous process of converting the whale into a commodity but is saved by Queequeg, who almost perishes himself from the abysmal working conditions.
In Melville’s novel, Ahab is the crew member who eventually spots Moby Dick. In Tsang’s film, it is Pip — the young Black cabin boy who loses his mind after being left alone at sea, a foil to Ahab in his race and class as well as the tenor of his madness — who spies the radioactive white whale through his telescope. The chase that follows is largely abstract. The crew gazes, horrified, at a whirlpool of blood; a school of fish form parentheticals in a crimson expanse; the red water heaves. We know how this story ends: Ahab, his ship, and his crew go down with the whale. “Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” Melville writes. Some 171 years later, the sea isn’t just rolling, of course; it’s also rising.
Ishmael, who uses Queequeg’s unutilized coffin as a buoy, is the only crew member who survives to tell the tale. But in Tsang’s vision, Pip also lives on. As Ishmael rises, Pip sinks down past blooms of fluorescing jellyfish into a cosmic void that evokes the whale’s great eye. The sublime imagery pictures Melville’s description of little Pip’s descent into madness:
He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought which to reason is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels the uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
When Pip at last touches down, he finds himself in a subterranean cavern with a single copy of Moby-Dick and a jar of glittery eyeshadow. He is our young sub-sub-librarian, prepared to paint a picture of a society so nonsensical that refusal to play by its rules is the only sane response.
MOBY DICK; or, The Whale premiered at Schauspielhaus Zürich on March 12, with subsequent presentations at The Shed in New York on April 15–17, Teatro Goldoni in Venice on April 20, and De Singel in Antwerp on April 22. The film will next be presented at Holland Festival in Amsterdam on June 18, followed by a presentation at LUMA in Arles July 9–10. Versions of the project are also on view in the Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet As It’s Kept in New York until September 5 and the Biennale Arte 2020: The Milk of Dreams in Venice until November 27.