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December 05, 2003

"Master and Commander"

Dear Friedrich --

Have you caught Master and Commander? The Wife and I found it well worth traveling to a movie theater to see. It's a stirring, large-scale naval adventure picture, but it's also an unusual and thoughtful one.

Critics and bloggers have written about the film well and helpfully, so I'll skip going into reviewer mode. It strikes me, though, that a few things have been missing from the conversation about the film, although it's possible that I've simply missed that part of the conversation.

What hit me first about the film wasn't the cannonballs or storms, impressive as they were. It was the way that Peter Weir, who co-wrote the script and directed, focused on how complex an operation managing, and living on, one of those old sailing ships was; he emphasizes food, drinking water, chores, repairs, and the sheer, baffling quantity of ropes, pulleys, canvases, spars and whatsits. The grog-swilling ho-ho-ho moments are separated by long stretches of grunt-work. (I mean this as praise.)

The other thing that hit me about the film -- something I found a lot more interesting -- was the way the film treated the topic of manhood. The film deals with the question of becoming a man as if it's discussing the process of entering an honorable trade; it sees manhood as something mysterious yet as something that needs to be achieved.

I'll riff a bit on the questions the film raises: What does it mean to be a man? Since we're all scared little boys inside, where do we find the wherewithal to rise to the occasion? How do we find it again and again, over and over? How to contend if we come up short? And what does it mean to command, and to obey?

Authority. Respect. Compassion. Fear. Loyalty: deep-down guy stuff, and treated with some dignity -- which was, for my money, what made the film a surprisingly moving experience. A rare experience, too, these days: how often are guy concerns paid this kind of respect? On TV, Dad's a bumbling fool. Movie heroes are wisecracking action-dude cartoons. In lit-fiction, guy-guys are paunchy, drunk and divorced, symbols of America's fall from grace.

I sometimes feel sorry for American boys. Do you? The images of masculinity the culture offers seem to suggest that there's no such thing as a decent adult man; there are only superannuated overgrown boys, some of them successes and some of them failures. Manhood on a human scale is seen as a myth or a joke, never a desirable possibility. (Here's a good Roger Scruton meditation on modern manhood.)

I don't want to make too much of this. I enjoyed the film a lot and was touched by it, but it wasn't instantly one of my faves. Still, it's striking to be reminded of how seldom these inner-guy dramas -- Am I man enough for that? Do I dare? And if I fail, then what? -- are presented sympathetically these days.

The film (and probably Patrick O'Brian, who I haven't read but who wrote the novels the film is based on) splits protagonist duty between the unstoppably virile captain played by Russell Crowe, and the intellectual-hippie naturalist/ship's doctor, played by Paul Bettany. It's a smart move; it's enjoyable to see both these cases get made, as well as to feel your sympathies moving back and forth between the two men. You understand both their points of view -- and that's OK, that's as it should be.

I confess that I kept wishing someone like Charlton Heston had been in the Russell Crowe role, not that the world is awash with male actors who carry around traditional male grandeur, and who might be able to take it an extra couple of steps into the scary and the near-psychotic too. In these big-budget action movies, Russell Crowe to me is always a small man pretending to be a big --

Here The Wife interrupted me. "Don't you dare speak ill of Russell Crowe," she said.

"But can't you see that he isn't the real thing?" I said. "He's always trying to live up to some silly idea of manhood."

"I don't care," she said. "These days, a girl's gotta settle for what she can get."

Well, there's no arguing with that. Have you ever seen Crowe in his early, pre-American roles, by the way? He was slim and responsive -- quite a different creature than the rollicking, fleshy, boozing, Roaring Boy he's transformed himself into since. I enjoyed his sensitive work in Jocelyn Moorhouse's terrific small Kiwi [oops -- James Russell points out that the movie is in fact Australian] picture "Proof" (not yet available on DVD), a film about a blind photographer. Hey, a blind photographer: Maureen, are you reading?

The film has attracted good audiences, but it was very expensive to produce and is unlikely to make its money back. Felix Salmon and Terry Teachout try to puzzle out what this might mean moviebiz-wise, here. The challenge of making studio pictures for adults isn't that adults don't enjoy watching movies. They do. It's that adults are getting less and less likely to go see them in movie theaters.

Here's Gibbon Burke's page of links to everything Patrick O'Brian.



posted by Michael at December 5, 2003


Gotta agree with your wife! (And I'll take Russell over Charlton any day!).

Posted by: annette on December 5, 2003 7:03 PM

I read the Hornblower books as a child and tried one of the Patrick O'Brian books as well, but I just wish everyone would stop with the plagarizing of the life of Horatio Nelson. Let's do a bio-pic of the guy and be done with it. The problem, one suspects, is that Hollywood thinks he was just too wild and crazy to be believable, I guess. As I recall, after having decided that the only way to get ahead in the world (being without friends in high places) was to become a hero, Nelson stuck with that strategy. At one point, put in an impossible situation because of British trade laws, a fellow captain commiserated with him: "Nelson, I have to say I pity you." Nelson recoiled, rose up to his 5' 6" height, and replied: "Sir, in six months I will not have your pity, but your envy." He also went into action in the battle of the Nile (an action that effectively cut off Napoleon in Egypt) yelling, "A peerage or Westminster Cathedral." (That is, either he would win and receive a peerage, or he would be killed and get a state funeral. In short, a win-win situation for him.)

I'm not ignoring the fact that without significant intelligence, cunning, etc., Nelson would have been a disaster as a leader, but he represents some sort of end-point of human character; I can't imagine him being exceeded on his own terms.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 5, 2003 7:23 PM

>> Have you ever seen Crowe in his early, pre-American roles, by the way? …I enjoyed his sensitive work in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s terrific small Kiwi picture "Proof" (not yet available on DVD), a film about a blind photographer. A blind photographer? Maureen, are you reading?

Yes I have seen “Proof” and – believe it or not – Jacek and I enacted it two years ago in Katowice, Poland as an experimental art project. “Proof,” as I’m sure you know, concerns “a blind man who takes photographs as proof that the world he hears and touches is the same one that other people see.” Jacek was fascinated when I described this film, and wanted to document his own early life as a university student and general layabout in Katowice. I provided the camera and we roamed the streets together until we reached a number of his old haunts. I would point him in the general direction, but he would take the photo himself, relying upon air currents, ambient sound, and his own vivid internal memories of these locations. After a number of intensive photography weekends, we developed the photos. It was great fun – I described the photos to him as he labeled each in braille. As you might imagine, this project raised many eyebrows on the streets of Katowice.

By the way, I spent the day with this guy (from a press release):
“Did you ever feel like touching one of Vincent Van Gogh's incredibly textural paintings or petting the animals in Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom? Blind museum audiences now have an opportunity to explore these paintings by touching specially created copies of “Portrait of Camille” by Van Gogh and “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Hicks. These extraordinary touchable interpretations of art are the work of Street Thoma. A sculptor, artist, and architectural scale model builder, Thoma does his Touchable Interpretation of Art work for museums throughout the country, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Getty Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Currently, Thoma is working on a touchable interpretation of Jan Van Eyck's St. Francis.”

He is incredible and amazing. And now I shall let the topic of blindness sleep. I am becoming a one-trick pony, I fear.

Posted by: Maureen on December 5, 2003 7:54 PM

Jocelyn Moorhouse's terrific small Kiwi picture "Proof"

Ahem. I know there's a fine line between Australia and New Zealand, to the point where some people can't tell the difference, but that's no reason to go about ascribing Proof to the New Zealand film industry. :) I must say I don't remember Russell in it as much as Hugo Weaving, though; when I saw it Russell was yet to begin his international ascendancy. I also recommend Romper Stomper and The Sum of Us for anyone wondering what Russell was doing before he became lost to Hollywood. (Trivia: Russell Crowe went to the same high school as me, albeit 15 years earlier.)

Posted by: James Russell on December 6, 2003 3:46 AM


"I just wish everyone would stop with the plagarizing of the life of Horatio Nelson."

Jack Aubrey's not based on Horatio Nelson; he's based on Thomas Cochrane (as was Hornblower, I believe).


" who might be able to take it an extra couple of steps into the scary and the near-psychotic too. "

But Jack Aubrey's not supposed to be scary and near-psychotic. I've never seen Russell Crowe in anything else (I don't get out to the movies, much) but I thought he captured Jack Aubrey pretty well. There were a couple of silly moments, but mostly he was on target.

"The film (and probably Patrick O'Brian, who I haven't read but who wrote the novels the film is based on) splits protagonist duty between the unstoppably virile captain played by Russell Crowe, and the intellectual-hippie naturalist/ship's doctor, played by Paul Bettany."

Indeed they do; in terms of viewpoint sections, the doctor comes out ahead. Something to know about the "intellectual-hippie" doctor--Trinity College, Dublin, was a dangerous place in those days, when the doctor would have been in school. Stephen Maturin is a crack shot with a dueling pistol, and quite skilled with the sword, and has "been out" dueling numerous times.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 6, 2003 11:31 AM

Hey, it's all Down Under to me.

Funny, I really remembered "Proof" as being Kiwi. Middle-aged Alzheimer's strikes again. Thanks for the correction. Did you enjoy the movie?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2003 11:33 AM


the meditation on manhood you linked was very interesting.

The concept of being a gentleman is something completely forgotten these days from what I see and something we have been trying to teach both our kids, male and female. It follows that the female part is being a lady which in my
experience with older women is not so much about weakness and ineptitude in the world as about dignity and grace. In my view, only manly men make good gentlemen and only strong women become real ladies.

You are right that the media doesnt give boys many images of the kind of men I'd like my daughter to marry. It's even worse for girls and images of real adult women who dont need either strident voices or a come hither look to be heard.

Posted by: Deb on December 6, 2003 11:45 AM

Here, here to Deb. But I would allow one more quality: the ability of gentlemen to actually appreciate a true lady, and vice versa. I think we've done such a poor job in this country of creating whole people, that we don't appreciate these creatures when they do appear.And that becomes self-reinforcing: young women become ditzes because it's what young men seem to want, men are "dark" or "rude" or "complex" or "arrogant" because it's what young women seem to want. And the sorry beat goes on.

Posted by: annette on December 6, 2003 12:08 PM

And hear, hear (or is it here, here?) to both of you. Must be odd and kind of awful being a kid these days and having so few images of attractive and honorable adulthood to try modeling yourself on. Must be odd, and a big challenge, raising kids in that environment too.

Will -- Thanks for the info about the books, which I should get around to sometime. I remember David Mamet writing that he likes O'Brian's novels as much as anything being written these days. Same with you? I made the crack about the psychotic quality of the captain (commander? whatever) obviously not based on the book. But as the movie plays the tensions between the two guys, it seemed that we're meant to take the captain as, at the very least, an obsessive -- a potentially frightening character. (Just as we're meant to take the doctor as effective and decent but possibly a little ... languid or something.) I didn't think Crowe nailed that slightly maniacal side of the Captain (at least the movie's captain, if not the novels') very well. Did you? Crowe's certainly talented, but he always seems to miss the mark when he aims at "ferocity." He just doesn't seem to have it in him to call on, IMHO. But obviously lots of people disagree with me on that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2003 12:16 PM

I stand corrected on the matter of Thomas Cochrane. (Although, to be fair, one or two of the adventures of both Hornblower and Aubrey have fairly close analogues to specific feats of Nelson; I think it's possible that Forester and O'Brian both may have poached some of their episodes from Nelson as well as Cochrane.) In any event, the era obviously encouraged a sort of hyper-masculine, risk-taking type, from Napoleon himself to Nelson to Cochrane, etc. I wonder exactly what was at work there.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 6, 2003 12:18 PM


I find your comments about how Aubrey and Maturin are characterized to be fascinating.

The thing is, Aubrey's not an obsessive. In the movie he is, chasing the privateer into the Pacific when his orders sent him only as far as Brazil; but it's one of those little niggling things that didn't ring true for me that I've discounted because they got so much else right. If it doesn't ring true, it's because the rest of the time Crowe is playing Aubrey as he is in the books.

As for Maturin being...languid. In fact, he's rather hot tempered and hot blooded, and in no way a fop; he's inclined to be absent-minded, especially about his dress, though they didn't show that particularly. A good bit of the series is about his on-again/off-again romance with a particularly fiery young woman, a cousin of Aubrey's wife. He's a very different kind of man than Aubrey--he's no sailor, at any time--but he's brave, intelligent, and just as honorable. He's also a spy, which the movie didn't go into.

And yes, you really should read the books; they've been my favorites for years.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 6, 2003 8:42 PM

Thanks for the fascinating info, Will.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 7, 2003 1:37 AM

Michael --
In an amazing example of serendipity, I heard yesterday on Steve Post's "No Show" on WNYC a perfect example of what you are writing about in terms of how to learn to be manly. A folk singer whose name I don't remember was on tape describing his time in the Merchant Marine with Woody Guthrie in WWII. He said, in effect: "Woody taught me how to be brave". The ship was under attack & depth charges were going off. This guy was going to go on deck, the safest place to be. He met Woody going down the ladder with his guitar. There were scared troops in the hold & Woody (joined by the narrator) played his guitar & got them singing. The example was a wonderful song about how Hitler, Mussolini & Stalin would be brought low. Maybe apocrophal, but how apposite.

Posted by: susan on December 7, 2003 12:49 PM

Oh, read the books. I'm now in the midst of re-reading the whole series of 20, and appreciating anew the depth of the characters, the layers of plot, the beauty beauty *beauty* of the language. Read the books.

Anyway, Aubrey's one of the most appealing characters I've run across in a long long time. No movie could capture the depth that 20 books can convey. One detail: you know how Aubrey and Maturin play string duets together. They've been doing this forever and they both enjoy it immensely. In book 15 (or is it 16?) they're ashore, staying at Aubrey's home, and Stephen awakens late at night to overhear Jack playing his violin to himself, and he realizes that Jack's a far better violinist than he knew -- Jack holds back when they play together so that Stephen, whose hands were damaged by torture when he was captured once years ago, never feels inadequate in their duets.

And this sensitive friend is also a ferocious warrior, a loving husband and a fool for women ashore, a hard-drinking country squire and an astronomer who grinds his own lenses for his observatory ashore. And loves bad puns.

Maturin's not only a hotblooded duellist but also a coldblooded spy -- when he finally gets two of his enemy spies killed, how does he dispose of the bodies? He cheerfully dissects them.

Read the books, read the books, read the books.

Posted by: ANR on December 8, 2003 11:16 AM

I just finished my third time through the Aubrey-Maturin series; I believe the series to be one of the most engaging and thought-provoking works of fiction of the last century. The movie was well-done and I thought Crowe was a believable, if somewhat simplified, Jack Aubrey.

I've had mixed success attempting to introduce people to the O'Brian series, which might be more accurately thought of as one very long novel. People find the nautical jargon off-putting, but it doesn't take long to learn enough of the language to make the reading enjoyable. If any of you have yet to attempt the series I recommend starting with the third volume, HMS Surprise. It's faster-moving than the first two, plus you get to read the very affecting scene in which Stephen Maturin operates on himself.

What raises these novels above the nautical genre category (exemplified by the Hornblower books) is the Austen-like depictions of universal human nature. It may come as a surprise to some that Jane Austen greatly affected O'Brian's approach to fiction.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on December 10, 2003 4:22 AM

I'm late, as usual. What can I say? I'm not a journalist; it takes me a while to think and write. I've responded to this post here.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on December 14, 2003 5:20 PM

I assume Helen Thomas is referring to the current President's father when she says "Bush." But saying "Ike" would probably make her senile dementia even more obvious.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:24 PM

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