The Flounder

The Flounder

Long before I’d gone to a theater and lashed myself to a seat, I formed two expectations about The Perfect Storm.


Long before I’d gone to a theater and lashed myself to a seat, I formed two expectations about The Perfect Storm. First, because Wolfgang Petersen was the director, I figured that someone–me, probably–would soon call this movie Das Fishing Boot. Second, and for the same reason, I assumed the production would be unfailingly professional.

I prefer fallible professionalism. But with Petersen, we’re dealing with someone like Roland Emmerich (The Patriot), Dominic Sena (Gone in Sixty Seconds) or Ridley Scott (Gladiator): a director who can be trusted with a couple of stars, a multitudinous special-effects team and a budget higher than the gross domestic product of Dominica. There’s nothing authorial about Petersen. Given a script that’s strong and a star who is a dominating force, he’ll keep his personality out of the way and deliver In the Line of Fire. But if the script happens to be crap and the star an amiable check-collector, he’ll still keep out of the way, so that Air Force One may come unimpeded into the world.

Like his fellow boys of summer, Petersen is reliable rather than responsible, packaging the goods for whichever ad hoc conglomerate he serves. For The Perfect Storm, the bosses were Warner Bros. Pictures, presenting a Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production in association with Radiant Productions. Petersen’s membership in the latter enterprise seems to have made no difference in his performance; he behaves as an obedient employee even toward himself. In the era of the studio system, a John Ford or a Howard Hawks turned producer so he could answer on his own for his picture’s merits. But in today’s anarcho-capitalist Hollywood, when a Petersen (Emmerich, Sena, Scott) takes credit as a producer, it’s as if he’d joined a board of directors as a nonvoting member.

With Petersen at the helm, The Perfect Storm successfully meets all corporate expectations, including that of its title. You want bad weather? You’ve got it. For the first hour, a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, captained by George Clooney, sails farther and farther out to sea in search of a catch, while a TV meteorologist in Boston (Christopher McDonald) gets more and more excited about what he sees on the radar. For the second hour, everybody on ship gets waterlogged, as Clooney tries to sail back to harbor. That’s it; that’s the whole movie. The only surprise–the only aspect of the production I did not anticipate–was the degree to which Petersen’s own professionalism would become the theme.

To be more precise, the theme is manly competence, as presented in two different modes: working stiff and military. Clooney and his crew represent the first variety–fishermen who are routinely insulted by their shipowner and kept in line with threats of unemployment (whether they work as a captain, like Clooney, or a novice seaman, like Mark Wahlberg) but who nevertheless take pride in calling themselves Gloucestermen.

That the name comes with its own code of conduct is evident from the film’s opening shots: scenes of workaday life in Gloucester and of the town’s memorial to fishermen who died at sea. We are shown a community and a way of life–assuming that such things can be conveyed in brief, golden-toned images, which dissolve one into another to the accompaniment of textbook music. (I’d guess the composer, James Horner, was taught from Copland for Dummies.) The town is made to seem so small–the people, so caught up in one another’s business–that you’re astonished when a fisherman finds someone new to chat up in the dockside bar. Is she really a stranger? Or did the grog make them both forget she was his first wife?

No matter. Like everyone else in this picture, the horny sailor’s got folkways and duties to fulfill; and so, the next morning, he ships out under Clooney, whose thickly forested jaw, kohl-rimmed eyes and pissed-off manner mark him as one mean sonofabitch. Till this point in his career, Clooney has specialized in playing hotheads; but he’s never before seemed a bully. He’s been more of the satirical rogue, who butts heads only when romantic idealism demands it (or when he can take advantage of a situation). But here, all Clooney needs to complete the characterization is a peg leg and a thing for white whales. Nobody would cross this guy in a good mood; and this, too, is supposed to be a part of the ethos, as you can see from the grudging respect he’s shown.

It’s only at the midpoint of the film, when Clooney informs his crew of the storm blowing up, that he relents from Ahabism. He presents alternatives, or seems to. Should the crew set anchor and wait out the danger, at the expense of letting their catch rot? Or should they risk sailing back through homicidal seas? He appears to be conducting a poll; but by this point in the movie, you know there can be only one choice for these characters. “We’re Gloucestermen,” they say and brace for the worst.

Should you imagine that The Perfect Storm is questioning this manly code, or showing the limits of its usefulness, I would ask you to consider the parallel story and its contrasting version of professionalism. The true heroes of the movie are members of a Coast Guard rescue team: guys who are so uniformly brave and efficient that you can’t tell one from the other. Granted, it’s dark and raining throughout their scenes, and everybody’s wearing a helmet. But when men swoop into a movie in a helicopter, out of nowhere, perform as if they were integrated parts of a machine and lack any distinguishing features except for the occasional mustache, I say they’re not characters but incarnations of military valor. Here they come, to save a hurricane-tossed boat off the coast of Bermuda. The skipper, an incarnation of amateurism and civilian foppery, is Bob Gunton, done up in a ridiculous yachtsman’s cap. The crew, who have to mutiny before they can radio for help, are Cherry Jones and Karen Allen: one great actress and one used-to-be star, given nothing to do but get slogged by buckets of water and scream “Mayday!” into a microphone. Tough, selfless, well-trained men save lives; women cower and looked awed.

And should you imagine that The Perfect Storm proposes other possibilities for women, I would ask you to consider the role given to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who confirms the film’s stereotypes by embodying their false exception. There are no bad reasons for putting Mastrantonio into a movie. But even she can do only so much, when cast as a highly successful fishing boat captain who would prefer to retire to Maine and bear George Clooney’s children. Yes, she can do a man’s job–but she’d rather not. Her true role is to worry for Clooney and his crew, just like all the other women of Gloucester.

How perverse is this movie? I will observe that deep-sea fishing crews and Coast Guard rescue teams are still predominantly staffed by men; but most jobs today are accomplished perfectly well without testicles. Steelworkers, carpenters, farmers–even the directors of blockbuster summer movies–can all be women. So, by insisting that professionalism is a matter of having balls the size of cantaloupes, The Perfect Storm not only resexualizes the world of work but oversexualizes it. This isn’t a gendered division of labor–it’s pornography.

You may want to know that the film’s much-publicized composite shots and computer-generated storm images are in fact quite convincing. Big deal.

* * *

Screening schedule: If you can get to the New York Video Festival, showing at Lincoln Center July 21-27, I would strongly recommend your taking a look at Trent Harris’s Beaver Trilogy, a work that’s as strange and rare as a fire-dwelling salamander.

Part one is a half-hour documentary, which Harris seems to have put together while working as a news cameraman. A chance encounter with a young man outside a Salt Lake City television station led Harris to the small town of Beaver, Utah, where the would-be entertainer (self-described as “the Rich Little of Beaver”) was appearing in a talent show at the high school. His act, performed with many protestations of his fundamental and undying masculinity: an impersonation of Olivia Newton-John.

This part of Beaver Trilogy, shot in 1980, feels uncomfortably like a peep show, in which you, as citified hipster, get to laugh at the small-town closet case. All well and good–because in 1981, Harris shot the second part of the trilogy: a half-hour fiction, with the young Sean Penn in the lead. This video uncannily reproduces the events of the documentary; at the same time, it opens them up, to show you the jeering, pot-smoking newsman who came to Beaver hoping to record something “funny as hell,” no matter the consequences for his subject.

Part three, shot in 1985, expands and alters the fiction in its turn, in part by casting Crispin Glover in the lead. Penn found something intense and bottled-up in the outwardly goofy character. Glover makes him ingenuous; you’d think he was walking around town butt-naked. At the same time, part three builds up more of a sense of a little society, to show you how the character tries to fit in and how thoroughly, scandalously, he doesn’t.

For information on the New York Video Festival, phone (212) 875-5600, or visit

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