by Lucy Leitner
From the seafood buffet at Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaska Grille to the “White Whale” drink on the event menu to co-producer April Gustafson’s aquamarine hair, the premiere of Ahab was an immersion into the sea. The only part of the ocean missing was, thankfully, the smell.
Ahab director/writer/producer Brian Holton said he wanted to do something different. He did. Both in terms of the premiere as a singular event and the film itself. Holton’s reimagining of Moby Dick moves from the sea to the land and makes the white whale a black man.
Most impressively, Holton managed to extrapolate the eternal theme of the futility of vengeance from the 500+ page novel and condense it into a 21-minute short film. To someone like me — who believes that molasses is too slow at any time of year, who only has the patience to get through the whistling intro to Guns N’ Roses “Patience” because of an unfortunate fanaticism when it comes to Axl Rose, who shares Sammy Hagar’s feelings towards state-mandated speed limits — this is the greatest thing ever.
Ahab is not a fast-forward dance remix of the Herman Melville classic — it is a reinvention.
This is Moby Dick for the Twitter generation.
The Ahab of Holton’s film (Sean McCollum) grew up in the impoverished “Docks” of Pittsburgh. He had two options — crime or fish. He chose the former and has risen to the top of his gang, the Black Hand, in which he uses “fish” as messengers. But then there’s the vile, chilling Levi, his white whale, who is shown only in violent flashbacks to, as Holton says, maximize his ominous impact
“I’ll cut his throat and spill his blood for everyone to see,” Ahab says.
The restaurant setting introduced some acoustic difficulties, as did admittedly intoxicated attendees who attempt to insinuate themselves into blog posts by talking through the film, so I was only able to catch much of the dialogue upon second viewing in my apartment. However, like any instance of sensory depravation, this inability to hear thrust more of my attention on the visual aspects of the film and I found myself typing “really cool shot of…” several times. These range from dangerous femme fatale strutting through a warehouse to Tarantino-esque music, to an overexposed shot of a cane-using Ahab, to a quick dialogue-free scene of Gustafson as Ahab’s ex-wife, Elizabeth, dolled up as a post-modern gangster moll/raver chick that you know would be an eccentric villain more dangerous than Levi in an extended version.
Holton cleverly incorporates aquatic metaphors into the dialogue in a manner that makes sense in context without being overly obvious. His substitution of a simple “set sail” for “get going” is a subtle homage to the source work and just smart screenwriting.
Holton transformed the thriving, trendy Lawrenceville into the crime-ridden “Docks” while still incorporating Pittsburgh’s unique eccentricities, like Atlantic and Pacific streets. He uses the slum setting to tackle not only the futility and destructive nature of vengeance in general, but how it applies to current urban crime and the pointlessness of gang warfare.
Ahab is a short film with intentional ambiguity and certain aspects that Holton leaves up to the viewer’s interpretation. I will admit that I did not understand some of Ahab, but I also neglected to turn on my headlights when I left the premiere and was not aware of this until the police informed me, so take that observation as you will. However, whether or not there is a loquacious, drunk dude next to you who thinks he’s making hilarious jokes about batteries, Ahab deserves multiple views.
It is not a linear story, which adds to the artsy experimental quality of the film. It could easily be longer. And Holton intends it to be so, as he will release an extended cut on DVD in July.
The voice-over narration is reminiscent of 1990s crime films of the post-Reservoir Dogs epoch in which non-linear formats, clever dialogue, and an eclectic ensemble cast were en vogue. By introducing all these interesting minor characters, like The Ocean “who will cook you dinner, then slit your throat,” Holton positions Ahab for a feature film adaptation.
“It’s a dense novel with a lot of layers,” Holton said during a Q&A session after the screening. “I could shoot Moby Dick forever.”
And that is what makes Moby Dick a classic, why its epic length and Byron Leftwich pacing enable it to still be required reading in this ADHD era. Its themes are eternal. It doesn’t matter if there is no sea and the object of the obsession is a white whale or a black dude. Vengeance, whether served hot or cold, is a dish that will ultimately destroy its chef. Let’s just hope that chef is not Luke Wholey because even to a non-seafood fan, that buffet looked pretty fantastic.
An extended cut of Ahab will be available on DVD in July.
Holton is planning a screening with a download party for the full soundtrack.
Keep following Hollyburgh for updates on Holton and Gustafson’s adventures within the national whaling community.
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