Discovering a Famous Seafaring Scene in Calatrava’s Pavilion

Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion from the South. Photo by davehearse’s photostream

“He rises!” — Gregory Peck, as Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby-Dick*

MILWAUKEE — There are very few buildings in the world to which Ahab’s phrase could be applied, after a building “rises” as a construction project. But the fateful utterance befits Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion for the Milwaukee Art Museum almost every noon, when the extraordinary building’s signature brise soleil  sunscreen wings rise and open, to perpetual wonder.

I have seen the structure close-up frequently on bike trips to the building this summer, and I realized that the season is a perfect time for fresh appreciation of an architectural masterpiece for our times.

After all, in summer the public travels past, through and underneath the amazingly dynamic structure, as sunlight and lake water highlight its glories of profile, depth and presence. Thousands of visitors also come to the lakefront festival grounds just south of the museum, for the world’s largest music festival Summerfest, and Milwaukee’s array of ethnic festivals.

Calatrava’s design “evolved into a very challenging building, full of curves requiring painstaking custom work and features that had never before been made for building,” writes Cheryl Kent in her book Santiago Calatrava: Milwaukee Art Museum Quadracci Pavilion. It is an audacious balance of sculpture and architecture, engineering and symbolic power.

Because, as Kent suggests, the pavilion transcends the conventional category of a mere building, it invites the perceptual imagination to take a voyage with it — part of the reason why it is such a perfect building to house creative art. This building seems to breathe with life, to a degree matched only to designs by Frank Gehry, perhaps the only other contemporary architect to rival Calatrava now with superstar status among the general public.

But what spurred my blog posting was the sight of the Calatrava from the Southerly perspective, as I turn my bike around to head back north toward my home in Riverwest. I saw something in the building I hadn’t noticed before, a relationship between the facets of its major features that sprang to life in a work already rich in symbolic resonance.

This vantage point allowed the tallest part of the structure to make metaphorical sense. Behind the pavilion’s main structure stands the great diagonally pitched pole, which secures long suspension cables for the pedestrian bridge, from the downtown to the pavilion entrance. As I look, the severely leaning pole evokes the main mast of a sinking ship. Accordingly the lower white sides of the main structure resemble the hull of a ship with flaring stern and bow.

Kent has termed the very front of the pavilion facing the lake, as “a cantilevered ‘prow’ that draws visitors inexorably with the sensational view of Lake Michigan.”

But what famously sinking ship do we think of? The Pequod, of course, captained by the monomaniacal Ahab, who led his entire crew, save one, to doom. And the ship is sinking, of course, because of the explosive monster that surges up triumphantly just ahead of the tottering mast, after having rammed it.

The more you look at this building, in this sense, the more whale-like it becomes, especially the area beneath the long horizontal “ship deck” railing. This lower configuration is a widely flaring section with buttresses supporting a balcony that shades large lower windows. The whole darker form resembles the horizontal shape of a captured whale — to almost exact scale and proportion – hooked up alongside a whaler to be stripped to its skeleton for its blubber, and the prized spermaceti, in the case of Moby Dick’s sperm whale species (see photo at top).

So, upwards we go to the climactic moment, where the brise soleil calls for a slight imaginative leap to extend the whale metaphor. But as the rising wings move skyward one can envision the long, white wing-like fins of the humpback whale, captured in a time-lapse sequence on film. Just below the wings, the brise soleil’s impossibly long blue-green windows fall from the central backbone like the sea itself, cascading off the body of the breaching whale.

If one still questions the aptness of this creaturely metaphor, consider the most obvious alternative. The wing-like brise soleil is often compared to a giant bird, but no bird of this scale ever existed, whereas the building’s proportions do come close to those of a whale, or no other creature.

And the unconvinced should step inside the building where its cetological qualities expand like a giant inhaling ribcage. The bone-white flying buttresses that curve over the long hallways extending along outside the east and west lengths of the Quadracci Pavilion’s galleries and gift shop resemble the ribs of only one creature, that of a whale.

One of the long butressed hallways outside the galleries of the pavilion. This photo and the one below are by Mary Ann Sullivan c 2002

So in these hallways and in the main foyer, one gets a Jonah-like sense of being inside of a whale. Standing in the cavernous 90-foot-high Windhover Hall and peering up, one seems to witness — from within — a mighty whale breaching skyward.

Windhover Hall, the pavilion’s foyer.

As Kent notes, descriptive nomenclature sprang up among those working on the construction project to identify pieces in the building: they need certain parts of the ‘wishbone,’ the  ‘fishbowl,’ and the ‘hammerhead…’” So allusions to organic aquatic forms arose even during the construction. One can easily imagine the architect playing with aquatic symbols as he designed his masterpiece to overlook one of the Great   Lakes. Calatrava appears to have extended this creation into the vast and profound legacy of what many consider the Great American Novel, and a great allegorical story of America.

Given all this, a good idea for an art exhibit here would be a gathering of the profusion of visual art that has been inspired by Moby-Dick. In fact, the catalog already exists: Elizabeth A. Schultz’s masterful Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-century American Art.

The coffee-table sized book delineates illustrations for notable editions of Moby-Dick, including those of Rockwell Kent, Boardman Robinson and Barry Moser; the surprising array of abstract expressionist paintings and sculptures including work of Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Theodore Stamos, Paul Jenkins, and Frank Stella; narrative and realistic representations of Moby-Dick by artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert del Tredici, Maurice Sendak and Robert Indiana; various political cartoonists and arguably today’s most prominent and controversial sculptor, Richard Serra, who created in 1986 a whale-shaped and sized steel work titled Call Me Ishmael.

Given the often-long lead time for curating and scheduling major exhibits, a good target date for such an exhibit might be 2019, which would be the 160th anniversary of Melville’s visit to Milwaukee, when he delivered a lecture on life in the South Seas on Feb 25, 1859, based on his adventurers as a whaler.

Which leads us back to the actual ocean of Melville’s imagination. Recall this blog’s epigraph. The phrase “he rises” does not appear in the original Moby-Dick text during the climax of the long-awaited confrontation with White Whale. It was written for the 1957 screenplay version, by director John Huston and writer Ray Bradbury. In Melville’s book, the boat crew together beats Ahab to the call:

“’There she breaches! there she breaches!’ was the cry, as in his immeasurable bravados the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven.”

Santiago Calatrava’s architectural bravado seems worthy of Melville’s description.


The Deadly Attack of the Smart Phone Zombies


I ended my last posting with a heartfelt paean to the newest generation of American citizens in their 20s. Even if this may seem like a critique of that same generation, I write with the greatest respect for their potential and intelligence. But I’m compelled by a deep concern about a technological force that seems to have this generation in its grip.

I call it The Deadly Attack of the Smart Phone Zombies.

Trying hard to be cool urban hipsters? Or are they devolving into smart-phone zombies? You decide. Courtesy: Shutterstock.

You may recall the classic zombie B movie Night of the Living Dead, where all the decomposed humans who’ve come back to life wander around looking for human flesh. But they are pathetic monsters, in fact — easily eluded or out-run, and whatever intelligence they may have once possessed is shrunk down to their one fixation. But because of that fixation they are relentless — their only power — to kill and feast on human flesh.

In this case, the obvious intoxicating fixation is a darkly gleaming toy in the left hand.  The statistics are horrifying and seemingly improbable regarding its physical dangers(see below), not to mention the social problems. These seemingly innocuous zombies do kill. The notion that someone would be typing a message to someone while driving a car in traffic is so absurd as to be instantly thrown out of a screenwriting brainstorm for The Twilight Zone.

It’s because the people in The Twilight Zone are usually hyper-aware and all too sensitive to the strange goings-on and impossible situations that are closing in on them.

Not these people. And most of them are in their 20s and that’s what troubles and saddens me because it’s clearly a matter of cultural conformity and peer pressure. If you’re not texting or tweeting or adding Facebook friends, you’re just not with it.

Well, the reason you’re not might because you’re dead, if not a real zombie well on its way back to the grave.

Here are three incidents I witnessed today:

1. I went out biking and as I turned onto the pathway that leads to the main East side Milwaukee bike trail to the lakefront I approached a young mother with a toddler. She noticed me and instinctively shooed her youngster over to the right side. I always admire good maternal instinct. Imagine my shock when as soon as her son was safe she began meandering diagonally right into my bike’s pathway, her head down and re-engrossed in the zombie box. I had to break and she finally came to, and almost looked up.

2. I arrived at the aesthetic destination of each of my three times a week bikerides — the splendor of the Milwaukee harbor skyline highlighted by Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee art museum, a wondrously expansive work of sculptural-architectural engineering (more on that next time). A lovely 19th century style schooner drifted across the the bay and of course the birds delight — singing, swooping and skimming, and fanny-flashing ducks diving comically for fish, the surf lapping against the rocks, the elegant expanse of the Hoan Bridge and the humble yet amiably striking Milwaukee skyline. It all beckons the senses.

And yet, at the very moment where this whole scene unfolds before a pausing biker’s eyes, a young woman biker had stopped and instead of beholding the beauty, she had her head down in her zombie box pose. Apparently this was her reward for her exercise. Hel-lo??

3. On my way back, I’m on the very same pathway where I encountered the zombie mother, I now approached a young couple strolling ahead. I slowed down and coasted toward them until the man turns and sees me and steps aside. The zombie smart phone woman is oblivious. I’m forced to come to a complete stop.

I think the guy said excuse me. The woman was walking with the man totally engrossed in her zombie box. This was obviously not a romantic couple. Still, if I were him I would be insulted. I would say, “Roommate, if you walk out into the traffic on Locust and kill yourself, don’t blame me.”

These three instances all happened on one bike ride today, July 24, 2012. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not truly a Luddite. I have my own cell phone and I like to check my e-mail and add friends to my Facebook page — at home. I don’t have a problem with people walking down the street talking on the basic cell phone – much. I’ve even mixed my bike rides a few times with listening to Playaway’s utra-portable books on digital, but I’m not visually distraced. And Skype is mighty cool – at home or at Starbuck’s.

Part of the problem is that many in our society may be becoming addicted to virtual reality. We think we’re really connected but there’s a metaphysical disjunct between true reality and really always being virtually connected. And it seems clear it is a psychological addiction. I’m no doctor, but the best practical definition of addiction still comes from good old AA, and I learned about this because I was a member of Al-Anon, the offshoot support group for affected family members of alcoholics and drug addicts. I was once the husband of a bi-polar alcoholic — who is now dead. An addiction is a compulsive behavior which forces a person to lose control of their life — to where “our lives become unmanageable.”

If your awareness of your moment in the present shrinks to where you are risking lives and safety, your life is becoming unmanageable. You’re moving into zombieland. You are missing out on life, the proverbial flowers in front of your nose.

According to a June 2012 Mobile Mindset Study that extrapolates its results to the entire country, about 60% of us (particularly those 18-34) can’t go for more than one hour without checking our phones for messages, getting online, or whatnot. Addicts are classically in denial so they don’t realize how insidious the force is, especially because the addiction initially seems a great empowerment, and here’s where the devil lies in the weeds or more precisely, in the details.

This is an addiction to minute detail, to all the tiny bells and whistles crammed into that little electronic palm Oz — the games, gizmos, the blue horses, old Friends episodes, ads up the wazoo, and endless fleeting conversations and gossiping going on between fellow zombies hither and yon.

They think they’re smart, cool and connected. Perhaps they are connected and importantly so at times. And there’s no denying the value of cell phones in emergencies. But they do look and behave like social zombies. Or perhaps like lemmings who lost their herd wriggling heedlessly to death in the sea. Or they resemble a ponderous beast of burden, who walk around with their heads down, trying to blot out the dullness, misery and pain of their existence. Those are inherently sad creatures but for very different reasons than the behavior I’m discussing.

And yet, could it be that we humans are trying to compensate for the dullness, misery and pain of our existence? That life might indeed feel as constricted as a beast of burden — if I am addicted to my tiny little talking toy in my fist. We all grow bored with the same toy, no matter how engrossing, after a while and yet if we are addicted, it may lead us into a kind of living hell that we cannot admit because after all we’re cool.

We might keep on doing it until we might eventually crash into each other in our cars while texting each other. The police officer pulls the phone from my death grip and reads on the tiny screen: “Hey dude, want to go see ‘Waiting for God–.’ ”

Okay, I’ve pushed this thing to a dramatic absurdity, a scenario I hope Samuel Beckett would appreciate. But here are the statistics. The National Safety Council estimates at least 28% of all traffic crashes – or at least 1.6 million crashes each year – involve drivers using cell phones and texting. NSC estimates that 1.4 million crashes each year involve drivers using cell phones and a minimum of 200,000 additional crashes each year involve drivers who are texting. The announcement came on the one-year anniversary of NSC’s call for a ban on all cell phone use and texting while driving.

“We now know that at least 1.6 million crashes involve drivers using cell phones and texting,” said Janet Froetscher, president & CEO of the National Safety Council. “We know that cell phone use is a very risky distraction and texting is even higher risk. We now know that cell phone use is a factor in many more crashes than texting. The main reason is that millions more drivers use cell phones than text,” she said. “That is why we need to address both texting and cell phone use on our roads.” 1

So this is not just my rant. “For the smart-phone users, they’re totally, constantly engaged with the private sphere, and it’s reducing the basic roles of public space,” Tali Hatuka, who heads the Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design at Tel Aviv University, lamented to The Atlantic magazine. She sees technology’s darker side, as did Norman Mailer, who once pronounced unequivocably that technology is the devil’s playground.

“This is not a good thing,” Hatuka continues. “The public sphere plays an important role in our communities: it’s where we observe and learn to interact with people who are different from us, or, as academics put it, it’s where we come to know ‘the other.’”

In their surveys, Hatuka and colleague Eran Toch also asked questions about what people remembered of the public spaces they’d visited just 10 minutes earlier: what did those places and the people there look like? Smart-phone users couldn’t remember much at all; in effect, they weren’t paying attention in the first place. This suggests, Hatuka says, that the ubiquitous smart phone may even degrade the way we recognize, memorize and move through cities. We will lose many of these benefits when we’re one day all walking around thumbing our Twitter feeds, The Atlantic reporter wrote.

Okay I’m a baby boomer and I know people still mock us for being potheads. But if we diminish our brains in any manner by smoking pot we also expand other parts of our minds with the stuff and potentially, for millions of others needlessly suffering, herb helps with chronic pain. And most cannabis smokers do it privately in our home threatening no one, except perhaps themselves, only if they abuse the drug.

I mean, we boomers came up with Cheech and Chong movies, man! We know we’re goofs when we’re high and giddy out in public. But the pot joke is ours — on us — man, and by now as old as dirt.

How old is it?

“That’s so 20 seconds ago.”

Yep, that’s the historical sense “smart phone” manufacturers are providing in their sales pitches: “That’s so 20 seconds ago!” — the ultimate in smart phone-chic inanity.

Laugh track cue?


Don’t get me wrong, please. I’m not trying to play a generation gap card here because again — I have the highest regard for the 20s generation, probably because they remind me of my generation, of our idealism and our seemingly limitless change-the-world potential, much of which we squandered, or fell prey to cultural backlash. We are still trying to right our wrongs and all the rest of those perpetrated by corrupted Western civilization, in our small — or ambitious — and hopefully wiser ways.

But that’s why I don’t want to see the young citizens I teach make mistakes like we made, because I love these young people, I really do. If they make mistakes that means I may very well be mistaken in my own teaching — especially if I don’t speak up like this. But they’re aware of the problem, to some degree.

Last year, one of my Marquette University freshman English composition and rhetoric students did an eloquent presentation on this very subject, telling of a popular, charismatic high school friend who was gruesomely killed because someone was texting while driving, an extremely powerful testament. The student, a tall, striking blonde, finished on the edge of tears. The classroom was deathly still and then broke into a warm applause. Full of pride, I really wanted to hug her, but I probably would’ve gotten arrested.

As Milwaukee’s renowned comic writer, secret saxophonist and philosopher Art Kumbalek says, “Man oh manischewitz what a world, ain’a?”


1 “We now know that at least 1.6 million crashes involve drivers using cell phones and texting,” said Janet Froetscher, president & CEO of the National Safety Council. “We know that cell phone use is a very risky distraction and texting is even higher risk. We now know that cell phone use is a factor in many more crashes than texting. The main reason is that millions more drivers use cell phones than text,” she said. “That is why we need to address both texting and cell phone use on our roads.”




Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” endures a modern-day “Shock Corridor.”

Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen confronts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) about his role in a woman’s death.

Anna Paquin blisters the screen in Margaret in one of the most amazing roles by an actress in a recent memory. She’s a 17-year-old named Lisa Cohen, of deeply questioning intelligence trapped in a vice between forsaken justice and don’t-make-waves conventions. Is it any wonder she’s driven to a virtual primal-scream state? What fuels her internal cauldron is a philosophical question: Can the pure but troubled heart of a teenage girl provide a cue for humanity to reconstruct its legal system so that justice rather than money are served?

That question lurks close to the core of screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan’s stunningly ambitious character drama. It has such a compressed emotional and intellectual fervor that I ended up with a slight headache, and yet I wanted to wrap my head around it for so many reasons.

My entryway came surprisingly the next day when I happened to watch film maverick Sam Fuller’s daring 1963 film of social commentary Shock Corridor on TCM.

I doubt Lonergan had this connection in mind but bear with me as we travel into the anguished interiors of Lisa’s mind. She’s a heroine and rightfully and righteously so. Both Paquin’s Lisa and Constance Towers, as Cathy, the female lead in Shock Corridor, appear to be each filmmaker’s voice for social justice, crying in in the wilderness of cynical greed and compromised justice that society has engulfed itself in.

And in both characters, the voice is embodied in a peculiarly sexualized persona which lends deeply Freudian or at least psychological tension to their messages to themselves as well.

In Fuller’s film, Cathy is the stripper girlfriend of Johnny Barrett, the scheming reporter trying to fake his way into a mental ward so that he can write an exposé story and win a Pulitzer Prize. Cathy’s a literate wit who despises Johnny effort to “earn a journalistic halo on the cover of LIFE magazine.” She continues: “Dickens didn’t put Oliver Twist on the couch because he was hungry…Hamlet was made for Freud, not you!”’ She’s personally afraid the “whole Jeckyll-and-Hyde business will backfire and make a psycho out of me.”

In Lonergan’s film, smart Lisa has a little bit of an on-the-edge Hamlet in her, which makes her such a fascinating and loaded character.

She witnesses a horrible death when a pedestrian, played by Allison Janney, grotesquely loses a leg under a bus and bleeds to death in her arms. Lisa feels partly responsible because she distracted the bus driver by selfishly trying to ask him — through the closed bus door — where he got his cowboy hat, as the bus accelerates from a stop.

She first tells police the pedestrian tried to cross against the red light, thus exonerating the bus driver from any guilt. But she can’t live with herself and goes to the police later to change her testimony. Lying hidden in the bloody gutter is a larger case against him and the New York public transit system.

But Lisa’s pressurized, lonely struggle for justice and to safeguard the public spurs her to extreme behavior. She lashes out excessively in a classroom discussion over what was worse — the 9/11 attackers or America’s warring response to it. And her sexuality seems in the grip of her crisis. She rashly calls an unsuspecting friend and asks him to come over and deflower her virginity. Later, with her desperation over the case intensifying, she seduces her exceedingly understanding math teacher (she’s a lousy math student) played by Matt Damon, a confused mixture of fraternal rectitude and mealy-mouthed obsequiousness.

Matt Damon, a sympathetic high school math teacher, meets with his troubled student Lisa Cohen in this scene from Margaret. photos courtesy:

He’s fascinated by this intelligent and torn young woman, whose sexuality throughout is encased in a quivering need for love and understanding — and for a sense of her place in an adult world that goes by rules and conventions that chill her soul. She senses that the math teacher is sensitive enough to understand her.

Lonergan — whose superb but comparatively modest You Can Count on Me revealed his gift for character portrayal, convincingly quirky dialog and a staunch faith in family — shows how deep he can delve in Margaret. Two stars from the earlier film return: Mark Ruffalo cowers and cringes soulfully as the bus driver and Matthew Broderick, Lisa’s  English teacher, reads her class a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem (below) that mirror’s Lisa’s experience. Lonergan read the poem on a recent Fresh Air radio show and named his film after the poem’s character Margaret (but didn’t name his lead character after Margaret, a confusing decision.)

And the director relieves the psychological intensity with cinematic interludes of New York cityscape, including an astonishing shot of a car-choked Manhattan street seen from high above at night. The endless caravan of lights seems to penetrate to the unfathomable depths of Lisa’s darkened soul. The light down there can’t be fully extinguished.

After considerable anguish and doubt she does the right thing — reporting the facts of the incident correctly, but unlike Hamlet she does not have the lethal power for an avenging justice.

I’m not suggesting Lisa is a candidate for a mental institution like the one graphically depicted in Fuller’s film. But the film suggests how close she, and perhaps any one of us may come to a kind of madness — especially if we face harsh systemic realities honestly in a world feeding on delusion and denial.

Her behavior continues unpredictably right to the end of film, but her persistence burns eloquently. And her need for love stretches desperately across the gulf between her and her mother, an off-Broadway stage actress absorbed in her career.

This much exposition seems necessary for this complex film, yet if we pull back and reflect, Lisa’s footsteps lead her into an inner version of the shock corridor of the Fuller film. Here’s where the two films’ fearless exploration of sexuality, complicity and various types of guilt intersect.

After the reporter in Corridor gains admission to the asylum his seductive girlfriend haunts his dreams and conscience. I won’t do justice to Fuller’s tersely incisive and frightening film about how tricky mental delusion can be in anyone. My real subject is Lisa’s tight-rope walk over insanity or deliverance — over the pit where the light of love and justice seems never to reach.

Margaret also gets you thinking about the anonymous, secret millions of dollars that are now turning our democratic election process into a stealth game of attack ads and other byproducts of a corrupted system. Or about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno milking the university for millions in a secret exit deal — exploiting the intense pressure of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Say it ain’t so, Joe, even from your grave.

This remarkable young character also made me think of my recent freshman English composition students at Marquette University. They consistently stunned me with the zeal and passion of their involvement in selected social issues, virtually to a person. These were sensitive, smart and engaged young citizens hardly any older than Margaret. Is it too much to say they may be our damaged democracy’s only hope? I think we must heed and treasure them when they burn brightly as precious jewels of moral brilliance, lighting our way through the darkness of the present.

p.s. after viewing Margaret again in November 2017, I could add a number of comments about this rich work of art.  But I’ll only note how brilliantly real Lonergan’s dialog is. It never sounds written, rather the deep, impulsive utterances of uncertain souls often stumbling against each other verbally, exposing their insecurities and pain. Finally, the borderline verbal chaos melts into a deep, primal hug between Lisa (Margaret) and her heretofore-disconnected actor-mother. This whole tale is pretty operatic. So Lonergan declares art as the spiritual bridge — a simpatico scene mother and daughter are watching from Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann.

After reading the Hopkins poem below, see this blog link for an interactive survey of connections between the poem and the Lonergan film: Interactive blog for Hopkins poem from “Margaret.”

Spring and Fall   By Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove   unleaving?
Leáves, líke the   things of man, you
With your fresh   thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart   grows older
It will come to such   sights colder
By and by, nor spare   a sigh
Though worlds of   wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll   weep and know why.
Now no matter,   child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre   the same.
Nor mouth had, no   nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of,   ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man   was born for,
It is Margaret you   mourn for.

A Gust of Cooling Emily Dickinson


My early morning felt graced with my feline’s Egyptian profile at my right hand and Emily’s gurgling verse in my left, and — could it be? — a cool breeze o’er all.

So this:

These Fevered Days — to take them to the Forest

 Where Waters cool around the mosses crawl —

And shade is all that devastates the stillness

Seems it sometimes this would be all —  

— Emily Dickinson c. 1878


Will the Wolf Survive — or Attack? Examining “The Grey” Controversy

Dermot Mulrony (glasses) and Liam Neeson (to his right) are two of the oil-riggers trying to survive Alaskan wilderness and a pack of wolves after a plane crash in The Grey.  Courtesy Rotten Tomatoes staff

Against tough odds, Joe Carnahan’s film The Grey infiltrates the titular haze of its frigid, blizzard-ridden environment to penetrate the human heart. The title also alludes to the grey wolf, a beautiful creature that is also the world’s most notorious predator canine, justifiably or not.

I don’t normally search out number-one box office hits, especially violent ones, but this one impressed me deeply, so my reference to the director is also a nod to Andrew Sarris, the recently deceased critic whose auteur theory helped moviegoers understand films as the creation of a director-as-artist. And at a time when the current top-grossing movie is about a foul-mouthed teddy bear, we might gain better bearings with a film  exquisitely photographed and superbly acted under often-ruthless conditions in British Columbia.

Perhaps I needed a wintry film to psychically cool me amid this sultry summer. Man, this did the trick. I felt sympathetic frostbite, even in our 90-ish° weather. But I was also very curious about how the film would depict wolves — its nominal heavies. It turns out more rabid wolf lovers than me* object to this movie. There’s an organized protest against the film, including a Boycott-The Grey Facebook page.

The page cites the seemingly compelling statistic that only one human has been killed by a wolf since 1888. The page goes on to say that the film’s “completely fictional” depiction of wolf behavior encourages “ignorant people to think it’s a good thing to kill all the wild wolves” because of the depiction here of wolves whose behavior is largely computer-generated.

So what happens in the movie? Well, Liam Neeson as John Ottway and a plane full of fellow oil riggers crash into the Alaskan wilderness. As Ottway — who knows wolves as a poacher — explains, they have accidentally ended up very close to the wolves’ den. These wolves will aggressively, and it turns out relentlessly, defend their den.

“We are interlopers,” Ottway says.

The film does not encourage the killing of wolves that I can see. “I don’t think the film will make people fear wolves, but I’d like to make them respect wolves and, by extension, nature itself more,” writer/director Carnahan told the Greenspace blog at the Los Angeles Times. “I’d like the movie to remind people that we’re just visitors here.”

I question his former point, but agree with the latter two. Neeson the poacher does shoot one wolf in the beginning, but we see him walking up to the creature, crouching and placing a tender hand on it as it dies. He is clearly conflicted about his poaching and is actually suicidal — his wife has left him and his self-esteem is now stuck on the bottom of his boots.

Yet he knows how dangerous a wolf can be — when protecting its territory. Wolves usually give up chases after 1–2 km (0.62–1.3 mi), though one wolf was recorded to chase a deer for 21 km (13 mi). But their territorial protection is very real. So the chase by the wolves in the film is plausible.

Yet, Daniel MacNulty, a wildlife-ecology professor at Utah State University asserts in a National Geographic interview that Ottway’s assertion that wolves will attack anything that comes near their den, and “are the only animal that will seek revenge.” is “nonsense.”

Whales clearly have seeked revenge against whalers. These men are facing a serious wolf pack, and MacNulty’s “nonsense” comment unintentionally evokes Melville’s comment on another animal well capable of killing men: “I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense.”

So do wolves attack humans or not?

Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary, in a recent paper wrote:Wolves attack people. These initial attacks are clumsy, as the wolves have not yet learned how to take down efficiently the new prey…Persons attacked can often escape… But mature, courageous man may beat off or strangulate an attacking wolf. However, against a wolf pack there is no defense and even two able and armed men may be killed. Wolves as pack hunters are so capable a predator that they may take down black bears, even grizzly bears.”

Today, “territorial threats and starvation are likely the two chief reasons for wolf attacks,” but some researchers posit that wild wolves can, in fact, begin to explore humans as prey under certain other conditions, Geist writes.

And despite the claims of Facebook’s The Grey-boycott page, Geist writes of 21 reported fatal wolf attacks since 2000. Most have been in rural Russia, but recent attacks also include one wolf-related death in Saskatchewan, Canada, and one in Alaska — the 2010 mauling death of teacher Candice Berner, who was out jogging near Chignik Lake, Alaska. Thousands of Europeans were killed by wolves between the 1500s and 1800s, when rabies was far more prevalent.

Historically, North American settlers’ guns have made wolves wary of humans.

The men in this film are without any guns, Ottway’s rifle having been ruined in the crash (He fails to think of bringing it anyway as a visual threat or a club, a small plot flaw). Meanwhile, the core territory of a grey wolf pack is on average 14 square miles, so you begin to sense the dilemma of these men. Do you stick by the downed airplane with its partial shelter and likely radar location of search parties, or do you flee from the wolf territory?

[What ensued was the best wilderness survival film I’ve seen in many years. The Grey cuts to the human experience on the icy edge of existence with brutal force, and stunning and telling detail. Note one scene’s blood icicles from above – the plane crashed and capsized… It gradually and persistently won me over. And the wolf attacks scenes, though shocking in their suddenness, did not seem gratuitously graphic, given how raw and immediate such attacks often apparently are. It’s a well-earned but, I think, an honest R-rated film.

And the portrayal of wolves has complexity. In Earth Island Journal, James William Gibson comments that the opening scenes “portray the oil company town as a modern hell, the men as brawling drunks and assorted losers (‘men unfit for mankind’ in Ottway’s voice over narration) and the attacking wolves as possibly morally superior…On another occasion, one of the survivors kills a wolf and the group roasts and eats it. In a fit, he then cuts the wolf’s head off and throws it into the woods, declaring, ‘You’re not the animals. We’re the animals.’ No one openly disputes him.”

That character is John Diaz, a bristly ex-con played by Frank Grillo, who resists Neeson’s characteristically gruff, self-righteous bossiness. It’s almost a satirical commentary on Neeson’s typical alpha-male style, which is tempered here by the actor’s distinct intelligence and sensitivity.

At one point, Ottway recalls a poem written by Irish father: “Once more into the fray. / Into the last good fight I’ll ever see./ Live or die on this day./Live or die on this day.”

This is ultimately a story of men enduring hardship together and becoming more human for it, especially as they struggle to survive their fear, and often horribly forbidding weather, not to mention the wolves.

The director says he tried to convey the wolves not as monsters but “as a fact of, and therefore a force of, nature.” They attack with uncannily swiftness and in one scene appear as a group of electric eyes hovering in the darkness.

Ottway speaks of human ego and hubris and says, “Nature will always impose its nature on us.”

And consider it from the wolves’ point of view. I huge flying metal monster crashes and explodes near their den – a “territorial threat.”  About seven humans emerge from it, some injured and bleeding. The wolves smell this, and come after the men, in instinctively aggressive self-defense.

I buy this, even though I believe also that wolf attacks are very rare. So the real problem is not a film like this, if you watch it all the way through and acknowledge its philosophical aspects and its human story. The problem is reactionary politicians trying to undermine a long-sought re-population of wolves. For the first time ever, Congress may legislatively remove protections for an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, reports the Center for Biological Diversity. Several bills have been introduced removing protections for wolves.

Wolves have seen tremendous recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes. But the job of recovery is not yet complete. With removal of protections, Wyoming would allow wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state and both Montana and Idaho would dramatically reduce wolf numbers.

This threat brings me back to another aspect of The Grey, the wolf howls. Their cries are uncannily powerful, strangely musical and poignant. And they are an acoustic force of nature. Wolf howls can under certain conditions be heard from distances of up to 50 square miles.

The soul-bracing wolf cry can penetrate the grey shield of human indifference. It would be a travesty to begin a regressive killing of such intelligent, highly social creatures with their wondrously profound call of the wild.

* I am a strong nature advocate, a Defenders of Wildlife member, the kind who’s truly touched by a recent birthday gift of a tree being planted in my honor in a National Forest. Thanks, Ann and Richard.


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