From Defoe to the East India Company, Horatio Hornblower to Admiral Nelson, the British Empire had saltwater in its veins; Ezra Pound spied in the Old English poem The Seafarer “the English national chemical.” The United States, not so much. The Fifth Fleet is no joke, nor is Moby-Dick. But if US global power has a place in the national imagination, it does not reside at sea, where every previous lord of the world system “over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.” America’s national chemical features a covalent bond of automobile and uranium compounded with banker.
And yet three of Hollywood’s prestige offerings, the kind that open festivals and inaugurate Oscar season, are prodigiously maritime: All Is Lost, Captain Phillips and Gravity, a displaced story of shipwreck and drift. The latter two have already featured in these pages in Stuart Klawans’s eloquent measure of their cinematographic and narrative stakes. But—what’s up with all the boats?
The overlap is far more precise than boats, and more noticeable. Each film has its own particulars and interests; one need not discard them to recognize how forcefully each offers up for our identification a singular white body, in a lifeboat, on the cusp of death.
Two are weathered, a bit decrepit. Those are the men. Sandra Bullock is preternaturally fit; Hollywood is no country for old women. What these three share most decisively is their triangulation of national archetypes: Redford’s “Our Man,” the consummate Californian; Hanks’s Phillips, the flinty, competent New Englander; Bullock’s Ryan Stone (she may as well be named “Apple Pie”), once a capable Midwestern mom, sailing not to Byzantium but to Illinois.
These types summon not just any America but mid-20th-century Americana, without reference to the non-Caucasian—a vision that was kitsch even in its youth. It is a vision from beyond the cinémathèque, ideological to the core. Here, it does a certain work: it summons a racialized vision of American power and security wherein the unbearable whiteness stands for the lost moment of unsurpassed productive and military power, as if one were the truth of the other. Once upon a time, we had happy days. We were safe in the suburbs, mighty on the roads, a mood captured best by the Brit Gary Numan: “Here in my car I feel safest of all.” Now we are creased, tired, old. That empire is besieged, adrift—at sea—hemmed in by pirates and jetsam.
Each movie sets this national allegory in its own constructed world. Two telltale objects manage nonetheless to slip from one story to the next: the shipping container and China. They go together. The uncertain rise of China as world economic power, at once threat to the declining US empire and potential savior of global capitalism, rests on its capacity for making and distributing low-cost consumer goods overseas. The hustle and flow of international circulation into which Phillips’s Maersk Alabama is pitched, hauling the multimodal freight boxes that have radicalized global supply chains, is now a space of anxiety, and pirates are its literal and figurative embodiment. (The role of Danish company Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping concern, in any negotiations, and its arrangement with the US military, go entirely unmentioned, a hole punched in the narrative.)
All Is Lost takes up the allegory of empire more directly: the beautiful white yacht gets its own hole punched by a stray shipping container loaded with cut-rate Chinese sneakers (director J.C. Chandor last made the best film to date explicitly engaging the onset of the financial crisis, Margin Call). Gravity consolidates the allegory ruthlessly. Like Redford’s craft, the vessel now literally representing the United States is wracked by circulating junk. How to escape? Let’s try the vessel of advanced industrial nations in coalition! Also a bust. Only one option left, one way out of this total predicament, if we can just stop grieving for the lost time when we were whole: the vessel of China.
Bestride these tales stands The Forgotten Space, the final film of the incomparable American artist Allan Sekula (who died in August) with Noël Burch. “The sea is forgotten until disaster strikes,” runs the tagline. But the disaster through which we float is the shipwreck of capital. Global supply chains have driven down labor costs even as automation has displaced legions of laborers. As profits have faded in manufacture and industrial production, US and global money has sought gains in ever faster, ever leaner circulation.
Increasingly, this is where that abstract war we call “the economy” conducts its combat: out of sight, almost out of mind. The maritime returns with a vengeance.
The less productive the factories at home, the more desperately firms shave the costs of bringing goods to market. One might outcompete another, just as someone might get rich in a zero-sum financial trade—but the economy cannot be in this regard repaired. Nothing left but bread and circulation. Unemployed dockers huddle dejectedly next to unused warehouses.
These films seem to be trying to conjure the experience of this strange catastrophe. The hull is stove in, the ship gone dark. An era has ended in ruin. Nothing has risen to take its place. We can feel the drift, feel it as tension, fear, exhaustion. We are in the lifeboat, lost, weightless, uniquely vulnerable to the elements…. we who ruled the world.
And still one can grasp the renewed seduction of the sea, the setting for so many adventures of escape—the sea that portends also a total transformation, not just a translation of empires but an escape from the dull disaster of capital entire, from “this dead life on loan and / On land.”