This is one of my film appraisals on the heartwarming THE WHALES OF AUGUST that I had originally written for my WATTPAD collection A LETTERED SOUL. I reckoned this was a good time to share it here as well.
The whole circuitry of birth and death , it has a certain pull and push, we all will agree; the tug of war that specifically sides with accumulated wisdom about life at different stages. A pattern ensues: the quest for survival, a dreamer’s concoction in youth, then the practical imitations of its spirits and great achievements of the thirties and forties, following which the permanent collection of future’s silver moons strikes the fifties and the bed of mortality is cleaned and pruned for taking nimble steps at the next ultimate ascension. The grand sixties is the real test, the sedate cloth from which our fabric is cut to discard all frills and be measured in its appropriate shape. Beyond this decade, we arrive at the grand central station which prods childhood to become our other half again and the loss of vigor in movements and physical strength joins our carriage. Vitality is almost never to be forsaken then and the pendulum swings from one memory to another ,to share repositories of all years spent with our feet on earth’s transient theater . In this new essay, I have the privilege of looking at the pivot of mortality and living life to the hilt through the cinematic panorama of age in THE WHALES OF AUGUST(1987). One can never be an authority on the experiences that old age bring but I believe cinema and literature give us the impetus to draw from our observations and nurture private imaginings of our own passage through time and our legacies and identify that youth, as inimitable and glamorous as it is, will extend itself to be the accompaniment of wiser years. Both are wont to be contemplated upon , sometimes in extremes and mostly as natural crowns of a lifetime. In this essay, the authority of experience guides my verbal interplay. For which young person has not thought about life half a century later and which elderly individual has not restored a glint in the eye for the forgotten spring of her/ his prime? You see , life offers us all a mirror image and THE WHALES OF AUGUST, based on the play by David Berry( who tackles the screenplay too) is a beautiful token of the longevity of our existence, with its attendance of perils and pleasurable apexes.
Since the fountainhead of birth and death has sprinkled markers for our engagement with life’s flip side, I have to share some interesting aspects here. THE WHALES OF AUGUST released in 1987, few years before I was brought into this world and at the juncture where it was the final work for its illustrious core team of artistic beacons. These include BETTE DAVIS, LILLIAN GISH, ANN SOTHERN, VINCENT PRICE and director LINDSAY ANDERSON. All screen legends left earthly realm soon after filming this almost preceding ode to their mortal swansongs. You see, it’s a precious circle where you never know when the past and present will come together seamlessly as a familiar unit. I had already seen this enduring work two years back and it remained with me. On a second viewing yesterday, it made a permanent home in my mind and I realized it had come to my notice three decades later from its original timeline here in 2017. So this meeting of the twain and perspectives on life and age had to be covered by this young man. It’s like telepathy of shared interests. I realized human concerns are universally befitting for any age and timeline . The feeling of walking in someone else’s shoes doesn’t remain a highbrow concept alone . After all, we only have to climb the upward spiral in terms of age and health and a work like this produces serene waves of empathy for assimilating both worlds in lieu of avoiding such a delicate frame of mind. In my previous essay too, I had mentioned about exercising understanding for the aged vis-a-vis Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? also starring Bette Davis and this intertextual strain enhances my written output. Likewise, the idea of spaces literally inhabiting our personal bonds becomes of utmost primacy here as the tale is set in the sea-side bounty of Maine, USA. The summer home of two elderly sisters Sarah( Lillian Gish) and Libby( Bette Davis) is their pivot and the perfect openness around it is the natural envelope of energy and zest they need to be surrounded by after seeing the rough and tumble of adulthood. It’s a home in every sense and a sanctuary and refuge for them, almost like a second skin. They have retreated to this quiet utopia for half their lives and for them home is a symbol and metaphor for permanence accorded to bonds and a collective celebration of lifetime. Now the sober filmmaking technique adapted here doesn’t spell out these things but when a work possesses an inner life and has implicit images with lingering meanings, writing becomes a pursuit of ease and beauty. Emotions and associations are formed and add wonderfully to its overall effect. Another universal point is the bond of co-dependence that both sisters have maintained throughout, to the point that it is indispensible by this stage. The ritual of companionship with friends, kindred presents a portrait of unity as fresh as the first tryst, as it had been in its novelty all those years ago. The positive afterglow has persisted for them for close to a century. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the interpersonal complexities settled for the grist of negative psychological co-dependence and politics of fame and sibling rivalry were commandeered by central motif of fear. In The Whales of August, the urban space is traded for the simple verdure of dotage in Maine. Both are private documents of individuals with a spare cast of characters but the difference here is that fear of any approaching tide appertaining to age finds reversal and renewal in the restrained ideas of hope.
HARRY CAREY JR. who is in the film.
The film begins with the sepia toned past recollection of the sisters and their lifelong friend Tisha going to the edge of the land with excitement to watch the annual sight of whales emerging out of the sea and this practice has stayed with them. Again the sighting of whales is a link to their mortality and a symbol and metaphor of the habits and occurrences that define us. The affinity to nature has been their residue for valuing the long journey they have set into motion. It is this hope for looking at these whales that has remained unbroken. Also still water of the sea shore has the solitude that corresponds with these people. Silence and the comfort and luxury of solitude are their constant allies. Their personal selves have fused with their environment and it has been charmingly photographed by Mike Fash. Based on the play by the same name, the delicate intimacy of shared interactions prevail here and the screenplay is the king. The opening scenes find Sarah pruning flowers, her friend Mr. Maranov( Vincent Price) going for fishing and the now blind Libby starting the day with her invocation of her sister’s name. Sarah is the substitute for her lost vision and the support system she relies on for her diurnal pulse. She is her embodiment and extension and this is the security that blood relations preserve forever. The little squeak in Libby’s voice when she calls her attests to that trust and the childlike cadence is a beautiful reminder that in old age, there is a regeneration towards childhood and its innocent frisson. So basically our earliest mouldings of character and relationships outlast us. These are adults in the most heightened pivots of their life but their faith in the network of humanity broached through the years is reassuring . Space and time as regards their twin constituents follow them and a symphonic ease is in their little moments. Sarah is a self-sufficient woman as she manages the chores herself and takes care of Libby. I found it winsome when she pointed out about a little bit of dust always settling inside while dusting, a commonplace trait with every person who oversees the ins and outs of a home and Libby’s reaction, ” busy, busy, always busy”, a child-like laconic quality in her words and manner of saying it even when said with a straight face. She has to depend on her sister because she cannot see but that has not dimmed her austere nature and opinionated self which the imperious brilliance of Davis fleshes out with realism. She had specialised in this style in her best works, a woman and individual who didn’t have to smell roses to navigate murky improvisations of fate and was never reliant on others’ shoulders. She is a tough nut to crack and feels that they are too old to install a picture window in this picturesque home. Surely, that would give it a Monet-esque view, as I felt. As perhaps the older sibling, she keeps her decisive vote over others. She is a glorious petulant angel. The deep, immersive store of filial and conjugal love is revived and reopened as she talks about both of them living past the age their mother survived, they reminisce about their husbands, one of whom was lost in the War and in a moment of difference divide the share of fifteen years each that they had entrusted to each other’s care and fulfillment, apart from their own established family. There is an innocent normalcy to this conversation and when they rest their cases in terms of the equal time invested, a lifetime of mutual bonhomie informs us that no little argument can foil their respect for other’s selfless contributions. Gish, the first lady of cinema, who revolutionized screen acting in the silent cinema heydays( also featuring in D.W Griffith’s early classic The Birth of a Nation) has her eternally animated eyes to convey herself. She is a symbol of the grace that dotage bestows on us. In fact both ladies, though different in temperament, have the grace to look back, accept flawed insincerities down to the present time and be sympathetic towards others.
The splendid simplicity of the plot and these personages tell us that they may be aged larks and though age may bring with it certain physical limitations, essentially we are never short of our desires and hopes and nothing is as monumental as the essence of life. Cue the poise of Mr. Maranov( Vincent Price) who comes from an antiquated ancestry in erstwhile Europe and talks candidly about his independent initiation into the real world away from his legacy. A picture of humility and good natured charm, he makes us fall in love with him even as an anchor in terms of a home is missing from his life and much as he’s adrift and lonely, he is a joyful presence to reckon with. We are never too old for attraction and Maranov is shown to be the object of affections of both Sarah and the cherubic Tisha Doughty( Ann Sothern who earned an Oscar nomination for her sterling part). She is the opposite of reserved and even though arthiritis has bogged her down, she has a certain nimble quality to her and a joie de vivre. Watch how she beams in his presence and her affectionate looks exchanged . She picks berries with the same enthusiasm as she interacts with the sisters and her customary place in their hearts and hearth is one for the ages .
Her first name reminds me of the Indian word Trishna meaning desire and her surname lives up to its significance. She has the desire to live life in fine fettle.. She only sheds few tears when she divulges about being denied her driving license and in turn her independence is momentarily breached and its a nice comic touch that melds with her perfectly capable resolve. There is also the zealously positive Joshua( Harry Carey Jr.) who tends to their plumbing and carpentry and is a source for wit and unassuming dynamics , attempting to convince Libby about getting the picture window and taking pride in his yen for labour when he could have retired to a static continuum. He is also hailed as the noisiest man ever but even in his unrefined ways, he endears as a dear friend and confidante. So when Libby finally lets go of her upright obstinacy and asks him to make the picture window, the smile of eternal promise is shared by him and her sister. They are the same in their innate humanity now as they may have been of yore in their prime. For me, this unchanging, transcendental ideal was reflected in the scene where Libby strokes her face with a lock of her dead husband’s hair and Sarah brings in her marriage anniversary with the ring of
“truth and passion” she and her husband( who perished in the war) had made their mission. Nearly fifty years after his death, she internalizes his influence on her and their destiny. Even as Maranov calls himself the last cavalier and the two sisters go to see the whales and in their absence makes Libby say, “you can never tell”, moments after Sarah refuses to put their house for sale, THE WHALES OF AUGUST becomes a 90 minute poem on a full life lived with sincerity and restraint. The sombre musical score by Alan Price and Derek Wadsworth has a beauty of purpose while the editing by Nicolas Gaster keeps the subdued momentum going. Sea, clock and old photographs are used well to strike a chord by Anderson. They are artifacts of a still throbbing interior landscape and this work becomes an essay on the prevailing voice of reason that carries on its tale as long as the Maker gifts us life. A COMPLETE, BOUNTIFUL LIFE. That’s the impact of this once in a lifetime experience for all ages. We all have to be there and we might as well be graceful and guileless about our later years.
# THE WHALES OF AUGUST is easily available on Youtube. So watch this gem. The concept of home is of value here and home is shaped by loved ones. A corollary of this is the movie Ladies in Lavender toplining Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as two elderly sisters in a coastal provenance who rescue a young man( Daniel Bruhl) and connect with him deeply. Dench’s portrayal of unattainable love and thwarted desires is a masterclass in itself.