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The Perfect Storm**

It is October, 1991. A disgruntled captain of a fishing boat ported in Gloster, Massachusetts, Billy Tyne (George Clooney) frustrated by a run of bad luck returns to sea in hopes of a better catch, goes far afield of his usual fishing grounds, makes a huge haul, and on the way home encounters the product of several converging hurricane force storms. Such was the simple but enthralling saga which provided the subject for Sebastian Junger's phenomenal bestseller, and, in turn the plot of this movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot). It is easy to imagine how once upon a time this factually based story could have supplied the plot for a modestly budgeted 1.33 black and white production that would have gripped audiences. But this being the year 2000, Petersen and his collaborators, unwilling to take any risks, have inflated a straightforward seafaring yarn up to the imperial dimensions of GladiatorThe Perfect Storm is far from perfect, but it is a perfectly constructed device for making money, and it almost perfectly illustrates everything that is wrong with American movies these days.

The film has a more or less tripartite structure, opening with a leisurely exposition which introduces us to the captain, his best hand Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), who is having difficulties weaning himself from the sea and settling down with his girlfriend, Christina Cotter (Diane Lane), other crew members, and an assortment of colorful local  types. But this is only a prelude to the main part of the action, marked by such incidents as a shark flopping on deck and a fisherman getting pulled overboard when a hook tears into his hand, even before Tyne's boat, the Andrea Gail, runs into the titular storm. 

This middle section takes up most of the film and culminates in a tragic outcome for the crew as well as a Coast Guard flyer who has tried to help them. It is followed by a final elegiac sequence memorializing the victims, ending with a shot of the names of the crew on a plaque that records the names of all the Gloster residents fallen to the sea since the 1600's. Although the movie doesn't lack for action once the Andrea Gail sets out on its fatal voyage, watching The Perfect Storm is like visiting a theme park personally designed and supervised by Richard Wagner--even the execrably boomy, overwrought musical score by James Horner features as many brass flourishes as the Ring tetralogy--a park with armed guards posted at every exit to make sure no one escapes without having toured the entire attraction.

Although The Perfect Storm is far better job of filmmaking than Gladiator, Petersen's aquatic adventure is just as pumped up to the max as Ridley Scott's Roman holiday. Once the storm really breaks loose in all its fury, the movie inundates the viewer with an unending deluge of special effects shots of boiling seas, towering waves, and titanic sheets of water raining down upon the Andrea Gail's bridge. Many of these shots are quite impressive considered individually--in particular, the movie's pièce de résistance, the enormous wave that capsizes and finishes off the fishing boat--but rapidly cut together and stretched out over what seems an interminable period of time, they leave the viewer feeling as waterlogged as the victims of the storm, and just as disoriented. If The Perfect Storm were interrupted halfway through its length, the lights in the theater brought up, and the audience asked to recount what had been taking place on screen the instant before, I wonder how many of them would be able to supply the correct answer? What good are spellbinding effects shots when they carry any semblance of dramatic continuity along with them down to the bottom of the deep? 

It would be an understatement to describe this as overkill, but unlike Gladiator's gratuitous excess, the screen equivalent of panem et circenses, The Perfect Storm's is ruthlessly calculated down to the final millisecond of running time. Nothing in this hermetically sealed creation has been left to mere chance--least pardonably, the final exequies, which Petersen milks for all they are worth far more shamelessly than a John Ford or Frank Capra at his most maudlin. In spite of of the film's wheezy pretense at telling a "human interest" story about sailors lost at sea, Petersen's principal interest is in using a natural catastrophe as a pretext for subjecting the audience to the same beating the captain and crew are taking at the hands of the storm--and he leaves no cinematic stone unturned in order to achieve this end. At this rate, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® will soon have to institute a new Oscar® category for the film making the most obnoxious use of the pathetic fallacy.  

The Perfect Storm's main credits are preceded by the declaration "Based on a True Story," affixed to the film like a certificate of authenticity attached to a rare artifact. Much has been made in print of the speed with which The Perfect Storm eclipsed its rival, The Patriot, at the box office, but far more significant, in my opinion, is the way its release fortuitously coincides with the obscene success of the CBS "reality" series The Survivor. According to an article by Brian Lowry and Greg Braxton in The Los Angeles Times Calendar for 6/13/00, Mark Burnett, the show's producer, has coined the word "dramality" to describe his creation, a repellently muddy sounding neologism--may its inventor choke on it--which may involuntarily suggest more about the fatal blurring of the boundaries between "drama" and "reality" than Burnett had ever intended. 

Like every other cultural manifestation of advanced industrial capitalism, this one has two sides. On the one hand, the preference for what is "real" over what has been merely "artistically" --and by implication artificially--produced bears witness to the atrophying of the imagination under the pressure of marketing forces that have brought forth since the end of  World War II a standardization of life guaranteed to make any overtly totalitarian regime green with envy. On the other hand, productions like Survivor and The Perfect Storm, the byproduct of a technology audiences can only vaguely comprehend if at all, have the apotropaic function of keeping alive the belief that somewhere out there islands of "real" life continue to exist, somewhere over the increasingly monochromatic rainbow of digitalized America.

The Perfect Storm exploits this dichotomy for all that it's worth. What is the numbing barrage of special effects but a heavy dose of undigested "reality," filmmaking reduced to unadulterated physical sensation? But the film equally reinforces its claim to "reality" by means of its drama. The extended opening has less the motivation of simply introducing the main characters as in a traditional motion picture than it does that of demonstrating that these sailors are "real" men who are unshaven like "real" men, who drink like "real" men, swear like "real" men, fornicate like "real" men, etc.--presumably in contrast to a television weather reporter who nearly gloats over the prospect of a natural disaster and has what looks like a vampire doll on top of his computer monitor. 

In the manner of certain kinds of old time travelogues, The Perfect Storm engages in the anthropological fallacy of presenting its characters as if they were the vanishing specimens of "real" humanity, happily preserved in a backwater of Massachusetts. The greatest of all documentary filmmakers, Robert Flaherty, cannot wholly escape the charge of having portrayed the inhabitants of more or less archaic cultures as if they were the vestiges of a Promethean state of the human race. But if Flaherty was a great director and a Rousseauistic visionary, Wolfgang Petersen is no great director--at least judged by his work up to now--and certainly no visionary. In a masterpiece like Man of Aran (1934), describing the lives of peasants who eke out a miserable living from the sea on remote islands off the coast of Ireland--a movie which would still be a masterpiece if Flaherty had shot it on a studio sound stage--the simplicity of the story and the means used to tell it are one. What makes it great is not "reality" but the aesthetic limitations Flaherty imposed upon himself by refusing the facile resources of commercial film production--a highly modernist concept which belies the superficial and ideologically dubious primitivism to which this kind of documentary enterprise could easily lend itself.

But what can be said about a movie that peddles "reality" while in hock up to its ears to sophisticated computer technology? Like Gladiator, The Perfect Storm is not a "bad" movie. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Mary Mastrantonio--as Linda Greenlaw, the lady skipper of another fishing boat--all give competent performances, as do the actors who play the other crew members of the Andrea Gail. Nor should I overlook the important contribution of the visual effects supervisor, Stefan Fangmeier. What in fact makes the experience of watching a movie like this far more profoundly depressing than the experience of watching a certifiably bad movie like Michael Almereyda's Hamlet is subsequently reflecting on how much talent, time, and money has gone into its fabrication. The horrible thing is that The Perfect Storm by current standards is a better than average motion picture, and one that deserves all of its hard earned dollars. But it is also aesthetically depraved and ideologically corrupt, a gadget  whose wheels and cogs whir away noiselessly without the least sign of intelligence. Only a grandiose machine like the one imagined by Franz Kafka in The Penal Colony could foresee and will its own destruction, but The Perfect Storm's motor is driven by a false dream of immortality, the perpetual motion of capital.

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