Glory At Sea

I’m always asking my dad how that boat knew to go down right there, right over us. He laughs and says, ‘God did it.’

Glory at Sea (2008) is a 25-minute short film about a rag-tag group of survivors of a terrible storm who together build a boat and sail out in search of the loved-ones they have lost. It is never explained why they think their children, lovers and friends are still alive; yet they simply steadfastly believe it to be true. The boat they construct is simultaneously grand and woefully inadequate to the task of sea travel; yet sail it intrepidly into the sea they do. Hurricane Katrina is not referenced by the film, yet it haunts its fabric; one need not know that the film was conceived and shot in New Orleans to feel the weight of the tragedy in its every frame. Before reading on, I would suggest that the reader watches the film here: it will be a brief but glorious use of your time.

I take Glory at Sea to be metamodern simply in the sense that it embodies one of the discourse’s many strands: a contemporary form of Romantic Irony – what Schlegel called “the eternal oscillation between enthusiasm and irony”. This is a feature that we can see reappearing in different forms in a significant number of recent movies, and one which I shall be returning to on this blog.

This sensibility emerges most obviously in Glory at Sea’s central premise. Like Bas Jan Ader’s fateful journey to sea whilst In Search of the Miraculous, the characters’ voyage seems a doomed act of misplaced heroism – one that moves us because we acknowledge the likelihood of its failure (“That supposed to be some type of boat? You gonna die!”). Unlike that earlier journey, however, this one actually achieves the eventual moment of transcendence that was its purpose to seek. In this sense, the film tells “some type of” traditional adventure narrative. Yet there are a number of ways in which this particular narrative is made to seem Romantic rather than classically heroic.

The film clearly invokes myth, yet it is not itself mythic. Frank Kermode once wrote that “fictions can degenerate into myths when they are not consciously held to be fictive”, and in this sense Glory at Sea is very much concerned to create fiction rather than myth. Its ultimate nonsensical (though beautiful) supernatural plot contrivance, combined with its inescapable invocation of the terrible reality of Katrina, mark the film brazenly as wish-fulfillment, its resolution a utopia in the true sense.

The film is narrated by a child, lending it a sense of naïveté. Yet, unlike films or novels in which a child’s narration puts an ironically sweet gloss upon events which we know in reality to be horrific, the unnamed narrator of Glory at Sea is not exactly unreliable: indeed, the voice of a nearly-drowned child seems the perfect conduit for a story that comes this close to tragedy, yet is also this Romantically committed to the eventual achievement of the sublime. That we are told the tale by a child makes us expect an irony that never finally comes – an impulse that colours much of the film. The score, for instance, is too grand, too emotive, too much (as acknowledged by the moment of crashing crescendo that abruptly accompanies the film’s title); yet the film never encourages us to take it as parody, or even pastiche, but rather as a sincere enactment of a convention we might usually fear to take sincerely. This is one answer to the question of how to make art after postmodernism: acknowledge the very real possibility for postmodern skepticism, yet never fully indulge it – make the unreliable, against our better judgment, feel reliable.

The film exudes an incongruous and valiant optimism right down to the very level of its production. Rather like the boat that its characters construct, this is a low-budget short that acts as if it believed itself to be a multi-million-dollar epic. However, as with the best metamodern art – and as in the film’s own narrative – this disjunction between aspiration and the means of its achievement leads not to failure, but rather to a kind of positively-qualified success. Of course, it can never quite be the full-scale adventure movie it seems to believe itself capable of being; yet what it can be – what it finally is – is no less inspiring because of this. Indeed, the very audacity of the endeavour becomes its own justification. It does not acknowledge its failure by, say, presenting itself as merely a fraction of an unrealised totality (like, for example, the 1978 cartoon adaption of The Lord of the Rings, which breaks off mid-story because its makers had no budget to continue): instead it somehow manages to make a miniaturised instance of a genre which should surely by its very nature reject miniaturisation into something that feels ecstatically complete, whole, finished. It also – in a move that acts to further distinguish it from the postmodern – convinces us that such qualities are not things about which we should be inherently suspicious.

Partly because of its length, the film’s narrative inevitably does not quite have the ability to fully motivate and justify the kinds of feelings it aims to elicit in us. As a result, the emotional responses Glory at Sea engenders – because it nevertheless is indeed, to this viewer at least, deeply affecting – can at first sight seem too easy: purely the result of well-chosen musical cues and judiciously-employed archetypes. To answer this potential criticism I would suggest firstly that its deep sense of dedication to its stated project goes a long way towards counteracting our wariness of having been manipulated. However, I would also offer that, if the film still does to some extent appear to trade in unearned sentiment, then this is a part of its meaning.

If the cinematic and fictional conventions it uses move us instinctively – rather than, perhaps, ‘organically’ – then this is perhaps because, responsibly employed, they deserve to. The musical score that rises to suggest a struggle against adversity, the close-up of two people in love kissing, the crowd-shot showing a community coming together for a shared purpose: these can certainly be used cynically, but they also contain within them the kernel of something noble. Glory at Sea is able to remind us of this precisely because its short length and resultantly distilled conventions make these devices appear at once constructed and defiantly evocative of a truth we still desire to believe in. It is important that we sense that the potential for irony is there, but it is also important that it is ultimately rejected. No amount of learned cynicism about happy endings has the power to prevent us from being moved by that final montage of embracing, desperately loving, bodies.

Video: Benh Zeitlin, Glory At Sea, via Court 13 on Vimeo.

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