“THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE,” the famous forty-second chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, smuggles a mini-disquisition on whiteness into the elaborate racial narrative of the novel’s whole. Published in 1851, Melville’s book presents a picture of race just a few years before the US Civil War. The picture is thoroughly, tragically modern—such that, one hundred and seventy-odd years later, a fairly superficial treatment of its themes still lands with impossible weight. Which is to say that Wu Tsang’s new feature film, Moby Dick; or, The Whale, manages to maintain the novel’s nauseous sway between light and dark. For Melville’s narrator, the whiteness of the whale is true horror—the awful totality of color and light, and yet also its eerie absence. White and black, whale and sea, comprise twin aspects of one sublime. From the elegant reversal at story’s end, where the hunted claims vengeance on the hunters, to more philosophical slippages between difference that dire straits demand, the heterotopia of the Pequod is where hierarchies, food webs, chains of command, racial prejudice, and legal gradations of humanhood invert and convulse and intermingle.
Tsang’s film, with a script by Sophia Al-Maria, is billed as a silent movie, and it’s true that Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, Ahab, and the rest converse in intertitles. A live chamber orchestra performs Caroline Shaw and Andrew Yee’s score, complemented by creaking wood and rolling thunder. But the film also wears a contemporary frame: The mystic Sub-Sub Librarian, played by theorist Fred Moten, delivers a voice-over from an amphitheater of disheveled books. Moten, very much playing Moten, is the narrator of this tale, within which nests the myth of Moby-Dick—a kind of ur-text in Tsang’s vision. The white whale swims through a blackness that precedes creation, precedes the Word of Genesis (so says the Sub-Sub Librarian), and succeeds it, too. After the white whale destroys the black ship, Ishmael rises to the surface to tell Melville’s story while Pip (played as a child by Titilayo Adebayo), the cabin-boy driven mad by a naked encounter with the deep, sinks to tell Tsang’s, down and down into the blackness, at last discovering the first volume of their sub-sub library: a gold-embossed hardback edition of Moby-Dick.
What does Tsang’s dramatization do to Melville’s masterpiece? Mostly Sparknote its explorations of race, of labor, of nature violated. Mostly reify its queerness. The source material is a kind of cover story: As Ahab humors his thirst for revenge in the economic activity of whaling, Tsang uses the pretext of Moby Dick to indulge in lush, rippling choreography, cross-lighting, and seductive tableaux. Tsang’s adaptation derives its strength from the eroticism of film’s physicality. The pitching deck of the wooden whaler is evoked through the effects of early cinema: The camera tilts and the actors fling themselves stage left. Old film reels of the Nantucket docks bookend passages of high-test HD. There’s a lingering emphasis on the iron of the harpoon, the coil of the manila rope. The spruce and catgut and horsehair of the orchestra produce the simple chimes of Western musicality: minor to major to minor to major.
And the sailors’ bodies, too: They swab the deck in unison, spoon in their thin hammocks. The book’s well-worn opening words, “Call me Ishmael,” Tsang coyly reimagines as the answer to Ishmael’s “bosom friend” Queequod’s question the morning after a one-night stand. During a storm, the ship and officers and crew live or die as one body. When they kill a whale, they consume its body as one. The scenes of butchery are particularly fantastic, the oiled, muscled limbs of the dancers reaching into a petrochemical slurry of gel and glitter. Swiped on the upper eyelid, the whale’s blubber becomes the mystic’s mark borne by the Librarian. The cosmos of a hurricane, the whale’s bleeding spout, and the spiral-armed galaxy share a shape. Tsang’s treatment focuses on the connectedness of everything, and the fact that everything mostly consists of this connectedness, which is the void, which is blackness or Blackness. The two characters shown in isolation: the captain Ahab poring over charts in his madness, the Librarian in their study, are matter and antimatter both. The Librarian in his tesseract—timeless, genderless, or all-time and all-gender—delivers the film’s only monologue, passages from Melville and modern diegesis flecked with Motenesque asides: “Shiiiiiit.”
In this film’s understanding, cinema is an assembly-line of images. The hellfire of the whaling ship is a microcosm of the fossil-fired capitalism blooming back on land. Tsang revels in the whaling industry’s sexuality and consumption. In one memorable scene, young Pip, the cabin-boy-cum-Librarian, spots a modern oil derrick through their spyglass; blinking, they look again—and lo, it’s MOBY DICK, his sleek white body emitting spouts of rotoscoped glitter like the source of infinite fuel. The Whale of the title, and all whales, are the sea. From harvesting sperm whales to extinction to dredging up dead dinosaurs and poisoning the Gulf, the Arctic, the Mediterranean, the petrochemicals thinning mollusks’ shells and thickening the sunset . . . we (humans) are hunting the sea. Hunting the oceanic. The infinite itself. Trying to kill the mystery. The compulsion, which is Ahab’s, and Tsang’s, and ours, is inexhaustible.
Moby-Dick, or: The Whale will screen as part of the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27. Its premiere took place at The Shed in New York from April 15–17.