How realistic was the possibility of being swallowed alive by a whale? Assuming that Disney's Monstro was the first whale you ever saw, either real or fictional …
Philip Hoare in Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2008), his fascinating and maybe even Sebaldian study of whaling culture, its harbours and sites and histories, its novel -- Moby-Dick -- and the huge shift, in much less than a century, in our perception of whales (once terrifying, now almost cuddly): "Such stories would persist, from the whale that gulped down Pinocchio, to George Orwell’s Coming up for Air, in which the narrator recalls his Edwardian father reading of ‘the chap … who was swallowed by a whale in the Red Sea and taken out three days later, alive but bleached white by the whale’s gastric juice’, adding that ‘he turns up in the Sunday papers about once in three years’."
The American Museum of Natural History’s “positively horrifying set-piece of a life size sperm whale doing battle with a giant squid” gave Noah Baumbach’s divorce black comedy The Squid and the Whale (2005) its title. The teenage son of divorcing parents finds meaning or comfort or just something sadly relevant in this image of two monsters from the deep locked in eternal combat.
In 1952, Hoare reports, a 70-foot fin whale was caught off Trondheim, Norway, and preserved on a 100-foot lorry, which toured Europe, Africa and Japan “appearing in such unlikely places as Barnsley, Yorkshire, before ending up in exile in Belgium. It was a scenario reminiscent of the Hungarian film, The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), in which a travelling leviathan creates psychic upset in a Cold War-era town and becomes an allegory for totalitarianism – ‘Some say it has nothing to do with it, some say it is behind everything’ – just as the Czech poet Miroslav Holub imagined,
There is a serious shortage of whales.
And yet, in some towns,
whaling flotillas drive along the streets,
so big that the water is too small for them."
But Bela Tarr would never be so straight-forward as to say that his whale is an allegory for this, that or the other. Eg, in Senses of Cinema:
The object is an enormous stuffed whale, making rounds in villages as part of a small circus. When I asked Bela Tarr what the whale meant for him, he answered, "I don't really like talking about individual things in my films." I was reduced to asking him how he built the whale, "It was a lot of iron, some plastic. We had a scientist girl come in to design it."
In the Senses of Cinema piece, a comparison is made with the “sea monster” washed up on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita, also a blank screen for whatever morbid preoccupation you want to project onto it.
Roped to this ersatz whale, Gregory Peck nearly drowned as Huston insisted on take after take of Ahab’s final moments. But it is only now, watching the movie again, that I see something shockingly real in these scenes. Intercut with sequences acted out in a studio tank – betrayed by the wrong-sized waves and an anatomically lurid, back-projected sky which turns Gregory Peck’s Ahab into a kind of pantomime demon king – Huston inserts footage of sperm whales being hunted off Madeira. Here his film comes closest to the truth, in the mortal spout of dying whales, the gushing crimson fountains. It is an unforgettable, Hemingway-like gesture; only instead of a dying bull, it is the world’s greatest predator that perishes, publicly, as advertised, on screen. -- Philip Hoare on John Huston’s Moby-Dick (1956).
But now that whaling is mostly finished, you get whales in stories revealing the better sides of our natures. Free Willy (1993) is not covered by Hoare but one of its prophets, the 60s celebrity killer whale Namu, is cited as an “emblem of a new age”. The failed Jaws rip-off Orca (1977) merely showed that no one wanted to be scared of whales anymore. By the time you get to Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002), whales are – in my own prose from way back then – “elemental and beautifully unknowable”.
Whales got portentous both in movies and in life for Niki Caro. As she did publicity for Whale Rider, she told journalists about seeing whale strandings and wondering what kind of omen they were.
The young woman is Caro herself on the day she accepted Whale Rider as a film project and immediately heard of a whale dead on the sand near her beach house. "We've been haunted by whale strandings throughout this film process," she explains. "On the day we announced the film, two whales came into the bay (at Auckland), circled twice, and left. All the Maori people immediately said, 'Oh, you're blessed.'" Sitting in her Auckland kitchen, I study the photograph and I'm impressed.It’s odd that Philip Hoare doesn’t talk about Whale Rider, the Witi Ihimaera novel it was adapted from, or the Ngati Porou legend of Paikea that inspired both, as the whales definitely got to him too. Inevitably, he goes swimming with whales near the end of his book. The sea's cosmic blackness is womb-like. He has already told us his mother has died, largely to set up this big moment of whale mysticism:
After she consulted Maori friends, sure the whale stranding was a bad omen, Caro learned that traditionally "it was great luck to have a whale stranded like that - it meant that people got meat, oil, bone for weapons." Lucky, that, because the whales have kept on coming.
Coinciding with the film's release in New Zealand, a mass of whales were stranded on its remote Stewart Island. When I saw Caro and her producer, Linda Goldstein Knowlton in San Francisco on the day of her San Francisco International Film Festival screening this past spring, she mentioned a story on a big whale stranding in the Florida Keys (where a whale also was stranded at the time of her Sundance showing.) Some have escaped; some have died. By now, Caro is spooked: "Ask them to stop now, please. I know it's a good sign, but ask them to stop."
From sheer fear the moment turned into something else. I realised that this was a female. A great mother hanging before me, intensely alive. For all her disinterest, it seemed there was an invisible umbilical between us. Mammal to mammal; her huge greyness, my unmothered paleness. Lost and found. Another orphan.
I could not believe that something so big could be so silent. Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant, and yet not quite. Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness …