The Whole Wide World

The road I walk, I walk alone.

Robert E. Howard created some of the most memorable characters in fiction; most famously Conan the Cimmerian, a barbarian unsoiled by the weaknesses of civilization. I wrote in dept about Conan here, and when I’d heard there was a biographical film based on Howard’s life, a romance of all things, I had to watch it. It helped that Vincent D’Onofrio, that intense actor who gave us Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket, played Howard himself. And Renée Zellweger plays Novalyne Price Ellis, a schoolteacher who had a brief friendship and romance with the author, and was perhaps the only person who walked alongside him, on the road he professed to walk alone.

A morose, ungainly misfit among men”

Based upon Ellis’s memoir, “One Who Walked Alone,” it captures small town Texas life in 1933
when Novalyne, a new schoolteacher, arrives in town. She lives at a boarding house for single women, but is rather plucky for a woman of the time. When she hears that a published writer, a bachelor of her age, lives in town she finds a way to meet him. And he’s quite unlike any man she’s met before. The pulp writer is a boisterous dreamer, a big handsome poet of strong convictions and little care of who thinks what about him.
At first, this appeals to Novalyne and they have a sort of courtship; but as he opens up to her, she seems the deeply pained man inside. Howard was an incredible prolific writer and filled volumes with his tales of Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn hammering away at his typewriter long into the night; at pennies a word, he made thousands… to pay for his mother’s medical bills. She had tuberculosis, and Howard was writing for her life. Early on in the film, we see the spell that mother holds over son, and how inside Howard is still a vulnerable little boy whose had a sickly mom since childhood, and will do anything to save her.
When Novalyne calls the house, since Howard doesn’t seek her out for a second date, his mother just says he’s too busy, and never gives him messages. Finally Novalyne goes to the house, and hears him reciting to himself as he types away. It’s a fine role for Zellweger, famous for later becoming Bridget Jones, and she’s utterly believable as a fiery Texas woman who refuses the fetters society places on her. She sees a kindred spirit in Bob, who has no use for civilization; Conan is constantly described as more animal than man, lean and hungry, not made lazy, dull and weak by civilized conveniences. Howard often forwent a fedora for a sombrero, finding it more practical; but we get the feeling he’s goading people on, wanting them to laugh, so he can give them a piece of his mind.

All men can go to hell!
We are, every damn one of us!

He admires her seeking him out, and while he is as unsocialized as his hero, showing up for a date under-dressed, and taking her to see films like Captain Blood, they manage a courtship of kindred spirits. He’s trapped by his mother’s rigid hold on him, her sickness making her impossble to deny, and Novalyne by her sex. But while Howard demands loyalty, he doesn’t expect her to behave any preconceived way. They quarrel and test each other; he lends her a risque book, to see how inhibited she is, and she refuses to be bullied by his facade, and shows him that he can’t scare her off.
oward’s life is a sad story, and Dan Ireland’s film manages to make a difficult man engrossing to watch. When he describes his tales to Novalyne, the background darkens and sounds of swordplay echo all around. He could come off as ridiculous, but he doesn’t. That’s to D’Onofrio’s credit as well, making him more than an overgrown boy with escapist fantasies, but a writer capable of building entire mythologies in his head and putting them to paper in a shorter time than it took Tolkien to sharpen his pencil. Howard’s worlds were more raw, and hardly as detailed, but just as alive. And while “troubled” puts it lightly, D’Onofrio’s Howard is certainly appealing enough to make the passionate kisses he and Novalyne share believable.
In the end, Novalyne was able to shake off the fetters of society and went to LSU where she taught for many years. Howard was never able to break the bonds his mother had on him, and when he learned that her disease was terminal, he took his own life. But for a short time he created some of the most memorable “yarns,” as he called them, ever written, and got to share some time with a woman who could stand up to his Conan-size temper. Perhaps she influenced his character of Valeria, the fiery swordswoman with an even sharper tongue.

Open Water – The Real Story

This may be old news, a movie that came out five years ago, based on people who died in ’98; I popped it in my queue after vacationing in Hawaii. We didn’t go scuba diving, but we snorkeled. I also popped in Joe Versus the Volcano, and had no intentions of leaping into lava.

Open Water is an effective existential horror film. It’s not Jaws, though sharks certainly appear. It’s about a busy couple who take a spontaneous vacation, and go on a diving trip. It has no shaky-cam but still feels like vacation footage- claustrophobic and centered on them, as they relax and mess around in their hotel room. It plays with our expectations a little; they go out on the dive, and the boat crew is adamant about safety regulations, butting heads with an arrogant Aussie who forgot his mask but demands a dive.

Even we forget about the couple, Susan and Daniel, who stick to themselves and could be anybody. The boat crew readies to leave, miscounts the number of people… and leaves them alone in a reef where sharks are known to feed.

They rise and think they drifted, and wait for one of the two boats they see in the distance to realize they’re missing, and come pick them up. Typical entitled tourists, but aren’t we all? The underlying question is, what would you do? I had a high school pal named Fred who’d say that. Usually when pointing at a babe in spandex, and preceded by “If she got nekked right now…”

“What would you do?”

(Well, Fred, she does get naked in the prologue.)
The mounting sense of dread comes when the speck-size boats disappear over the horizon, and we’re reminded just how unimportant our lives are to the world and strangers, and how easily we could be forgotten. It comes from imagining a long, drawn out death spanning hours or days, adrift at sea with monsters below and an infinity of emptiness all around you.

Now imagine that this was loosely based on the true story of two LSU grads who just came back from 4 years of volunteering for the Peace Corps, and rewarded themselves with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Imagine they paid hundreds of dollars to be ferried out there with a group of 20 people, none of whom realized they were left behind, not even the crew who were responsible for counting them.

Pretty horrible, huh? Now think that when they got back, the shuttle bus operator told the crew they were missing, but nothing was done. Not until two days later, when they cleaned the boat and found their wallets. A massive search operation was mounted, but because the area they were in, “Fish City,” is cruised nightly by tiger sharks, no remains or clues were ever found. (Lesson: don’t dive on a Sunday.)

Their parents had their day in court. The dive industry in Australia is a $50 million a year business and brings much-needed economy to some towns. The boat owner was acquitted of manslaughter, even though it took him 2 days to report them missing. According to the article linked above, they even claimed that the couple faked their own death, to “start over.” Classy!

The industry likes to compare how few diving deaths Australia has, and how safe diving is compared to getting struck by lightning. The fact is, there’s a simple solution to the moronic tragedy of leaving people in shark-infested waters: Write their fucking names down and do a roll call instead of counting people. What pissed me off about this article where the industry shill cries about possible losses is that he doesn’t talk about any improvements to procedures by members of the dive industry.

I won’t ruin the movie for you, but let’s just say that no helicopter swooped in to save the Lonergans, either. Open Water may not be about them, but it drives home the horror they must have felt. Some may find it boring, but I have a deep and abiding respect for the immensity of the ocean. I like to joke, “I ain’t afraid of heights, I’m afraid of depths!” If you fall off a building, you’ve got 10 exciting seconds to live. Out at sea… you’ve got a lot of waiting for that hideous undersea creature to start nibbling on you.

The movie is filmed completed without CG effects. They used shark experts constantly feeding the animals tuna to keep them from attacking anybody. You see them incredibly close to the actors or stunt doubles. Sharks are scary, but the sense of helplessness and regret is what overwhelms you here. Ebert compared it to the mountain-climbing documentary, Into the Void, which will appeal to those with fear of heights. If you’re agoraphobic, this is the one for you. After this movie, If you’re ever in a situation like this, you’ll be dropping the scuba tanks and swimming after those far-away boats, hollering the whole time.

What would you do?