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Glory at Sea : "I try and think about how this storm and all these people dyin' was all a part of God's plan. But mostly, I just stare up through the water hopin' I can have one last look at them."
February 17, 2010 3:14 AM   Subscribe

2008's "Glory at Sea" [.mov] [vimeo] [youtube] is an extaordinary 25-minute short film in which a group of mourners and a man spat from the depths of Hades build a boat from the debris of New Orleans to rescue their lost loved ones trapped beneath the sea.

Via Wholphin [previously] and released by Court13 — filmmaker Benh Zeitlin (interviewed here) has made an indelible mark with this film. As one reviewer puts it, "Every once in a rare, long while, a film appears with such a sweeping gust of rejuvenation that it has the power to restore not only one’s faith in cinema but in humanity as a whole."

And yet while stories swirl around it — from the filmmaker's near-fatal accident on his way to its premiere, to its soundtrack being repurposed by everyone from Barack Obama to Google Chrome — the film itself has largely remained unseen.
posted by churl (13 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well done, a beautiful failure. The theme of loss, of giving up, is quite pervasive in this story.

The scenes of drinking, burning, and revelry are the nihilistic sort of celebration, partying because there is nothing else to do, and nothing left to lose. Abandoning themselves to the current, on a hastily constructed vessel (seemingly alluding to the precariousness of NOLA before the hurricane?) is either innocent hopefulness or a delusional suicide.

The religious leader seems powerless to do anything but grieve, and attempt to console; for all the talk of God's will and God's actions, his representative in the community is impotent.

I am fascinated by this kind of ending, that to me has a haze of nihilism hovering around the positivity. Taken literally, it is a happy ending, a reunion. Metaphorically I find myself seeing something a bit more troubling, where the story seems to provide comfort by trivializing lived experience. This is no more horrific than any other metaphysics.

I am reminded that I do not understand this kind of disaster - that I have no sense of what destruction on this scale is like. Failed attempts to make sense of it, like this one, make me wonder if anyone really can.
posted by idiopath at 8:23 AM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


This was beautiful. I don't really know what to say.

... nihilistic sort of celebration, partying because there is nothing else to do ...

Maybe partially a reference to traditional Cajun funerals which involve a marching band?

"I believe somebody must be dead, I believe I hear that trombone-phone"
- introduction to Dead Man Stomp by Jelly Roll Morton

Anyway, thanks for this, churl.
posted by nangar at 8:52 AM on February 17, 2010


Lyrical, uplifting and depressing as hell, all wrapped up in a beautiful 25 minutes. Thanks!
posted by letitrain at 8:57 AM on February 17, 2010


had me at spaghetti helmet.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:24 PM on February 17, 2010


also if you like the production design (i know i sure did) scope the photos of robert and shaina parke-harrison. they're amazing, and i'm pretty sure they were a big inspiration here.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:27 PM on February 17, 2010


nathancaswell: "scope the photos of robert and shaina parke-harrison"

Wow, a G-rated Joel-Peter Witkin (warning - real human body parts, beastiality, corpses, naked bodies, sex, birth defects, etc).
posted by idiopath at 8:48 PM on February 17, 2010


Wow, a G-rated Joel-Peter Witkin

I see very little in common here... how are they similar again? There is no handmade arcane technology whatsoever in the photographs you linked. Nor are there reoccurring characters. This looks more like Jan Saudek to me.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:00 PM on February 17, 2010


Oh those Saudek photos are really NSFW, so don't click unless you want to see big naked hand painted vulva.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:04 PM on February 17, 2010


The similarity I see is the dreamlike posed tableaux with a limited color palate (Jan Saudek is blatantly referencing Witkin). If you know of a photographer before Witkin working with stylistically posed dream imagery / surreal scenes, I would be fascinated to hear about it actually.
posted by idiopath at 9:15 PM on February 17, 2010


On spending more time looking - the parke-harrison photos share a color palate, faux-archaic style of focus and framing, and anti-naturalistic posing of people and objects with witkin's work. In fact the main differences I see are witkin's juvenile obsession with shock value and their less skilled execution.
posted by idiopath at 9:26 PM on February 17, 2010


Yeah I googled some more Witkin and see where you're drawing parallels... this one and this one in particular compositionally, the use of a matte painting, blending 2d and 3d elements...
posted by nathancaswell at 9:33 PM on February 17, 2010


Looking up more about parke-harrison - he studied fine art at the school where witkin teaches, so I am thinking stylistic similarities are quite a bit more than coincidence.
posted by idiopath at 9:36 PM on February 17, 2010


Fascinating insights, idiopath, thank you. Interestingly I think your response to the piece is in a lot of ways the exact opposite of the linked review -- which I think speaks to the scope of the film. So when I contrast some parts of my interpretation to yours I hope it doesn't sound like I'm disagreeing with you at all. This movie just absolutely kicked the shit out of me -- I've rewatched it a dozen times or more -- and I'm bursting to talk more about it.

> The scenes of drinking, burning, and revelry are the nihilistic sort of celebration, partying because there is nothing else to do, and nothing left to lose. Abandoning themselves to the current, on a hastily constructed vessel (seemingly alluding to the precariousness of NOLA before the hurricane?) is either innocent hopefulness or a delusional suicide.

Yeah, the drinking is constant from the moment they decide to set sail. They drink when they're in the doldrums, and they drink when there's work to do (getting the wheel-less car to the boat) and they've decided to make a parade out of it. I think this is a quintessentially New Orleans thing.

It's also that nobody's ever very far from the water; from the get-go the whole thing feels waterlogged, like the movie is in a constant state of near-drowning, and the drinking tied into that feeling for me. But I think the revelry and the music and the parade was because there was suddenly a glimmer of hope, and it was time to get down to the hard work of pursuing it. Getting smashed and playing music and burning torches is part of reclaiming their identity. Even the scene where they're watching the fireworks, from the bed and the bathtub respectively, I felt them pondering the possibilities of the unknown into which they sailed -- whether good or bad, but at least containing possibilities -- not wallowing in despair. I think they knew it was either innocent hopefulness or a delusional suicide, they just didn't know which yet.

There's no question New Orleans was in a precarious position before, but the whole movie seems firmly placed post-Katrina, and the vessel was as rickety and tenuous as the hope that carried them forward.


> The religious leader seems powerless to do anything but grieve, and attempt to console; for all the talk of God's will and God's actions, his representative in the community is impotent.

Yes. I feel like I could write a ten-page essay on just the religious arc.

I think one key to this is in the last narrated words before the title frame (about 3:00 in), as the 'punk' drags himself out of the ocean: "When his body washed up on the shore, they thought he was some type of devil. They said it was a sign; God was mad, and things was only gonna get worse." And there's a scene with the reverend a little later in; when the flock walks out on his sermon he's talking about how a widespread loss of life is God's punishment for sin.

I think this is deliberately reflective of the response to Katrina from some religious corners -- Pat Robertson and his ilk blaming the victims for living in a city of sin and rejecting God's protection. Yet the reverend in this story is, to me, a totally sympathetic character, acting in good faith. He doesn't want to blame the survivors just to make them feel worse, but because he wants to help them come to terms with the hurricane as God's punishment for a wicked world. "Things is only gonna get worse."

And because this is unsatisfying, a major narrative thread is this community's crisis of faith. Redemption comes from unexpected places sometimes, and the boat was a leap of faith. They're following a "devil" -- who in some ways reflects New Orleans' Voodoo underground -- in a moment when the only thing their religious institution could offer was guilt. "God is gonna sink this ship." And that's why it's important for the final line in the film to be -- in answer to why the boat sinks in exactly the right place -- "God did it."

But at the same time, I felt the crux of the Christianity arc wasn't its failure to provide answers, but the scene with the reverend mounting the burned-but-still-intact cross on the boat -- the entire church was burned away and only the coremost symbol was left, and they carried that, along with all the other blessed items -- the bed, the bathtub, the car, the dozens of pieces of memorabilia -- with them to the end.


> I am fascinated by this kind of ending, that to me has a haze of nihilism hovering around the positivity. Taken literally, it is a happy ending, a reunion. Metaphorically I find myself seeing something a bit more troubling, where the story seems to provide comfort by trivializing lived experience. This is no more horrific than any other metaphysics.

I am fascinated by this kind of ending as well. I think I know what you mean by "trivializing lived experience." But when your love for another person feels greater than your love for life itself, what happens when that person is taken from you?

The movie doesn't give us a literal answer, the way that, say, Romeo and Juliet does; at the end it gets away with reuniting the living and the dead. But it sets the rules at the beginning and doesn't break them -- it's an allegory, and I think an incredible and nuanced one -- and the ending is completely earned.

Christ, sorry to go on so long! I'll surrender the podium.
posted by churl at 4:15 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


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