Sunday, June 08, 2014

The old man and the big fish

The TMC channel aired The Old Man and the Sea yesterday.  I recorded it on the DVR for later viewing.  I wasted a good chunk of the late afternoon on the "pre-game" fanfare for the Belmont Stakes.  The race itself was kind of disappointing.  Afterward I needed a pick-me-up and then a bit of dinner.  I watched the movie in the early evening.  It was captivating.

Spencer Tracy was born in 1900 and the movie was released in 1958.  In other words, he was middle aged by current standards.  Yet he was very credible as the old man.  (Art Carney in Harry and Tonto is another performance where a middle aged guy convincingly plays a much older person.)    Part of that was how Tracy appears.  His tuft of white hair was a signature part of his performances in his later years.  He supplemented this by having a stubble of beard throughout the film.  His skin looked weathered, perhaps from being outside in the wind and the sun, but maybe also a byproduct of his alcoholism.

The other part was his manner  and on this I'd like to elaborate a bit because I share some of these mannerisms.  The essence of the movie is that after 80+ days of not catching a fish, he hooks this huge marlin and then, painstakingly, lures the marlin in so that he can ultimately kill the fish with a harpoon.  This takes the better part of three days and is an enormous struggle. He has no fishing rod.  He just uses lures at the end of long ropes.  He reels in the rope with his hands.  He wears no gloves.  In struggling with the fish, his hands become raw and start to bleed.  He wraps the rope around his back for leverage, but there is still enormous stress on his hands.  After a while, his left hand starts to cramp up and it becomes useless.

I experienced such hand cramps, which came particularly pronounced when I was doing physical therapy for rotator cuff repair.  My brother, an MD, suggested taking a multivitamin.  I've done that since and it has helped.  My guess is that Hemingway, who wrote the book, must have also experienced such hand cramps.  I've not yet read a biography of Hemingway, but might do so in the not too distant future.  In the meantime, my conjecture is that great novelists have this ability to take bits and pieces from their personal lives and integrate those elements into the stories they tell, finding the universal in the particular.

The old man spends much of the movie in dialog with himself.  He refers to himself in the third person.  At other times he talks to the fish.  There actually is only a little of this sort of thing in the movie.  Most of the time Tracy is reading straight from what the viewer must think is Hemingway's prose, with that sound track combined with the video of him fishing.  Then there are snips of him actually talking in the boat.  I found this extremely effective as a method.  It showed that this old man valued his own counsel and had to talk everything out to get it straight in his head.  This, too, seemed a universal to me.

The story is tragic.  He puts enormous exertion into what amounts to be a fool's errand.  The old man refers to his boat as a skiff.  It is not very big and he can't possibly bring the fish onto the boat after it has been caught, so instead he ties it to the side of the boat so it can float along as he brings the boat in.  Once the marlin has been harpooned, however, the wound sends out a stream of blood that is a signal to all predators in the area, sharks in particular, that there is good feeding nearby.  The sharks come and attack the big fish.  He tries to fight them off and succeeds in part the first time.  But he has gone so far out in the ocean to catch the fish that a second wave of sharks comes and this time they demolish the rest of the fish, so that when he returns to shore all that is left is the head and a long bony spine.

All of us have idealism and from time to time let that get the better of our good judgment.  But as we mature we develop a better balance between the pragmatic and the idealistic.  Old men, particularly those who have had a run of bad luck, may lose this balance.  They need one more big score to validate themselves and show they've still got it.  By aiming too high, they can end up with nothing.

This is a remarkably simple story, yet it is rich with feeling, and for me also something of a mirror.  I'm one year older than Tracy was when that movie came out. 

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