Blog Post

The Gannet of Thought

Tags: 
Old English, Film

("Gannet", Plate 326 of Birds of America by John James Audubon, via Wikimedia Commons)

Stories of voyage are also stories of loss; this is why the Old English poem The Seafarer feels elegiac. In a column for The Nation, Joshua Clover considers (through allusions to The Seafarer) what kinds of losses the current crop of voyage movies are marking. Posing the question "What's up with all the boats?" he triangulates three Hollywood movies about misadventures in elements high and deep. All is Lost, Captain Phillips, and Gravity, he suggests, together track "the shipwreck of capital." These films, along with Sekula's The Forgotten Space, register the anxious realization of overwhelming losses of power, money, security. I think that two of these movies reveal anxiety about another kind of loss as well, one that is related to what Clover points out but that may have other implications as well. In a crushing, constraining way, Gravity and Captain Phillips show us that the cerebral, imaginative dimension of voyage is also lost. Voyage can sometimes be motivated by things other than the desire for knowledge, especially if its end is to claim and colonize. But I think that even as recently as the 1990s, we could still discern a heroism in the intellectual project of journey, the force of curiosity and philosophy. Now, in Gravity and Captain Phillips, that is gone; ideational content has vanished like a gull over the water.

In order to make this point, I'd like to set Gravity and Captain Phillips in dialogue with two other movies. One, Apollo 13 (1995), is old by the standards of popular cultural criticism. The other is preoccupied with oldness within the context of its boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before narrative: last year's Kon Tiki, based on Thor Heyerdahl's 1948 account of his expedition. Some connecting vectors are obvious: Tom Hanks, space disasters, capsules with striped parachutes like the one in I Dream of Jeanie, cranky men on a tiny boat, the dire calculation of a landing trajectory. Others are perhaps less self-evident, like the fact that the director of Kon Tiki cited Apollo 13 as a major structural influence.

In different ways, Apollo 13 and Kon Tiki celebrate the cerebral dimension of exploration. I think it's hard not to experience geeky Mission Control as the real hero of Apollo 13, especially when they have to jerry-rig square filters to fit in round holes using spaceship detritus dumped on the table before them (a scene iconic enough for The Big Bang Theory to parody). Showing Gary Sinise puzzle out a solution in a Houston flight simulator also effectively conveys that those guys on the ground are dreamy, brainy heroes. Even Kevin Bacon does some math in the shuttle. Intelligence of various kinds plays an important role in the viewer's experience of the mission. When Hanks' Jim Lovell has to captain the ship safely to earth, we get the sense that he is simply drawing on reserves of high competence that he had throughout the movie; he was a thoughtful guy to begin with. We know this from the way he uses his thumb to blot out the moon and then the earth, symbolic gestures that may seem ham-fisted right now but turn out, I will suggest, to be exquisitely lyrical compared to later galactic disquisitions. Kon Tiki wears its conceptual investments even more brightly on its sleeve because Thor Heyerdahl was, in fact, testing Theories. There was the the big diffusionist one, of course. My father tells me that his own dissertation adviser was an "anti-diffusion fanatic" who debated Heyerdahl's ideas energetically. But there were so many other interesting concepts at work on that voyage, too! New historicism! Historical phenomenology! Reenactment theory! Heyerdahl anticipated those paradigms when he built his pre-Colombian raft replica, questioning constantly what concessions to modernity he could and could not make. I think the recent film made all this evident in a suggestive, dextrous way.

Viewed in this light. Gravity and Captain Phillips depict a rushing evacuation of intellect into the void. Sandra Bullock sure looks fantastic in the movie, but she is Tom Buchanan-like in her ruthless health and stupidity, her too-easily restored comfort in her own body. When confronted by the awesome oblivion of space, Bullock wields no philosophical thumb; in fact, she can't muster much that's more incisive than howling like a dog. Her character's outburst makes Hal's stark performance of "Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do" in the ethereal loneliness seem Pindaric by comparison. And consider Hanks' Lovell against his Captain Phillips. Unlike Lovell, quippy and quick from the get-go, Phillips becomes preternaturally ingenious only after the pirates board. Before that he's the unimaginative company man, following regulations and giving his crew the hairy eyeball for prolonging their coffee break. It isn't a priority to be thinky on that voyage until necessary.

This is not to say that we are all becoming stupider any more than it is to say that Gravity and Captain Phillips are stupid movies. Rather, it is quite likely that both these movies are aware of and even drawing attention to an intellectual emptiness that they might themselves lament. Indeed, Gravity makes much of the contrast between the canniness of its special effects and the inanity of its movie star dialogue. But it seems too simple to say that the genius now lies in the representation rather than the voyage. Instead, I think that these four movies form a Bermuda quadrangle that reminds us of what it's possible to lose. In coping with shipwreck, we mustn't choose instead the landlocked state the Seafarer disparages, or be the man unable to know what voyage means, where it takes the gannet of thought.

Seeta Chaganti's picture
Associate Professor

Seeta Chaganti is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at UC Davis, where she has taught since 2001. The author of a monograph and numerous articles, as well as the editor of an essay collection, she specializes in medieval poetry and material culture and is currently completing a book on dance and poetic form in the late Middle Ages. She began blogging on the relationship between medieval and contemporary culture on the Stanford Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies website (http://cmems.stanford.edu/people/seeta-chaganti) and continues to post on this topic for Arcade.