Monday, September 10, 2007

Deep Water

If film existed for no other purpose than to provide a good story, then Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's documentary Deep Water (now playing at the Angelika Film Center) would certainly fulfill its mandate. But, even if we were to (rightly) demand more from the cinematic medium, the sheer force of the film's extraordinary narrative would still prove utterly compelling. Despite the picture's dearth of psychological insight into its primary subjects (the one sequence where a mental probing of the lead character is attempted is more muddled than revealing) and its rather indifferent visual conception (much of the film is devoted to archival footage shot on grainy 16mm by people more concerned with historical documentation than aesthetics), the briskly paced narrative of a British solo yacht race around the world makes for such good storytelling as to render the film's deficiencies largely dispensable.

In 1967, following the first solo aquatic circumnavigation of the globe by Francis Chichester, The Sunday Times sponsored a race hoping to produce the first solo non-stop voyage (Chicester's voyage was not continuous) around the world. Of the nine contestants who registered, only Donald Crowhurst lacked significant sailing experience, but he was so determined to compete that he staked his house on his ability to complete the race in order to secure the necessary financing. But, off the coast of Brazil, making terrible time, and with his boat taking on water, a state that would make sailing around the approaching Cape of Good Hope impossible, he was forced to develop a new strategy. If he turned back, he would be financially ruined but, if he continued, his boat would certainly sink. So, while resting comfortably off the South American coast, he began to report false coordinates, suggesting an impressive progress, and fraudulently positioned himself as a leading contender in the race. Meanwhile, all he had to do was wait for his competition to approach his actual position on their return trip, and then turn around himself and complete the race.

The film makes periodic attempts to understand Crowhurst's psychological positioning but, since the filmmakers' source materials are confined to his log book and interviews with the other principals involved (all of whom stayed on land), a multi-layered understanding of the picture's subject proves to be beyond the directors' capabilities. Still, even if it cannot offer us any true insight into Crowhurst's mental states (no one will mistake the film for a Herzogian portrait of monomania), the picture's psychological speculation adds an appealing spice to the narrative. For example, when Crowhurst hovers off the Brazilian coast waiting for his moment to rejoin the race, the filmmakers fill the screen with a seascape designed to suggest the infinity of the oceanic expanse, while a voice on the soundtrack muses on the hopelessness one would inevitably experience in a setting of such utter isolation. The narration suggests that for the other contestants, the challenges of the race provided an ample measure of distraction but, for the immobile Crowhurst, the calm he experienced led him on to madness. This description of the calm, coupled with a somewhat indifferent visual correlative, may lack the power of Herman Melville's far more evocative (and thorough) description of the same phenomenon in his novel Mardi (where he describes it as "a state of existence where existence itself seems suspended"), but it provides the viewer with some feeling for the subject's potential mentality under the anomalous conditions.

Crowhurst's madness is expressed most explicitly in a late sequence where he nears the end of the race, seemingly in easy reach of victory but, driven mad by the sea and unwilling to face the inevitable official scrutiny that would certainly unmask his fraud, abandons his ship and commits suicide. Osmond and Rothwell are forced here to rely heavily on Crowhurst's journal entries, the only resource available to them in documenting this segment of the narrative. As the narrator excerpts passages from the journal, the filmmakers alternate manipulated footage of Crowhurst's handwriting highlighted, colored and projected onto the screen's foreground with footage of stormy seas and reversed (negative) images of Crowhurst, both attempts to introduce visual interest to a segment where the only narrative resource is the written word and to find a visual approximation of their subject's madness. While these visual gimmicks ultimately add nothing to our understanding of Crowhurst's precarious mental state, the actual words of the journal prove at least somewhat more illuminating. They show a man obsessed with his place in the universe (he refers to himself as a "cosmic being"), the struggle between god and the devil and the nature of truth. Although a picture (however superficial) emerges of a man forced by his isolation in the most despairing of natural surroundings to confront his own precarious place in existence and ultimately finding himself unequal to the task, we are given little more than this hint at his inaccessible mental world. Certainly, this is not the fault of the filmmakers, who make effective use of all the materials available to them to produce as comprehensive a portrait of Crowhurst as possible under the circumstances. That they were unable to offer any real insights into their subject may be the result of a dearth of available resources, but, in the end, it leaves them with an enthralling, well told narrative and, ultimately, little else besides.

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