At Sea (2007)
Peter Hutton’s hour-long At Sea (2007), voted the best avant-garde film of the decade by Film Comment, draws upon the director’s city portraits, landscape films and at-sea sketches, the last of which is informed by his decade-long experience as a marine merchant. The first section of At Sea, set in an advanced South Korean shipyard, showcases the assembly of a container ship. We witness monstrous machine components moving about slowly and rhythmically as they give birth to the vessel, making it seem as though we have been prodded into the maternity ward of a futuristic machine-hospital. (At times, we are not sure if it is the machines or the camera that is moving.) Arguably, the camera is in awe of these machines framed against the sky. Hutton employs two types of visual schemas – an intricate, crisscrossing array of verticals and horizontals (of the structures and the machines) and large, blank spaces (created by the ship’s surface and the sky) – which, often, reside in the same shot, resulting in unbalanced compositions that suggest both the vastness and the complexity of the man-made objects that we are looking at. We also see the workers working on and within the machinery, not only dwarfed by these behemoths but also assimilated into them. Even though they appear to be at the mercy of these metallic monsters, we know that they are in control of these machines. Even if one prefers to read it as a critique of dehumanization of labour, one can’t help but trace a sense of fascination and artistic pride about mankind’s ability to construct such enormous, complex objects. This unsettling mix of political criticism and scientific veneration is exemplified by the penultimate shot of the section in which executives, officials and captains sit in front of the finished product for a photograph. As such, they have nothing to do with the construction of the ship, but as members of a scientific project, their pride is justified.
In the most rewarding, middle segment, which lends the film its name, we are on a cargo ship in the middle of a sea. We observe both the sea and the crates aboard at different weather conditions and at various times of the day. Few films set on a ship convey such an exact sense of being in the ocean as this section. The gently bobbing camera which also suggests the speed of the ship (In one shot, we see the water alternately rising above the rails of a deck and hiding from our view) and the weather that registers its nature on the lens of the camera (as raindrops gather on the viewing surface, the rigid crates appear as if they are melting away) evoke both the romance and the fatigue of living for days together over deep waters. In one extended rearview shot, we see the agitated water at the ship’s wake move towards the horizon, where it appears to freeze to stillness, just like how a sea journey etches itself in memory. The use of a tripod here is highly ironic in how the instability of the camera is facilitated by it being coupled to the sway of the vessel. The compositional patterns in this segment echo the first – horizontal bars on the deck cross the vertical motion of the raindrops creating a visual grid like the architectures of the opening section; the geometrically fragmented, variegated set of crates juxtaposed with the monolithic, monochromatic texture of the sea and the occasional mist – facilitating an aesthetic continuity across the sections.
Also in common with the previous passage is the disturbing mixture of poetic inspiration and materialist inquiry that the images invoke. Even if one is enraptured by the beauty of the sea, one also keeps wondering what these crates contain, where are they coming from and where they are going, not unlike the feeling when we observe the goods trains traversing the screen in James Benning’s RR (2008). Such a comparison to Benning’s cinema doesn’t seem gratuitous because At Sea exhibits the same sensitivity to minor changes in landscape, shadows and light and the same affinity to locate major visual changes alongside gradual, barely perceptible ones in the same shot. (The tension between the dynamic and the nearly-static exists throughout Hutton’s imagery.) Most importantly, this central section of the film portrays a world in a permanent state of flux. Shape-shifting and transition become underlying principles – this middle section as a converter working on two contrasting ends of the ‘narrative’, transport of goods as a prime mover enabling globalization, sea journey as a transitional period between two stable periods and the sea as a turbulent passage way between two worlds – and is typified by the travelling shot of the sea water at night that looks like an abstract painting in motion, with its thick, dark strokes interspersed with impressionistic stipples of light. The image also recalls the opening shot of Film Socialism (2010) in how the dark waters are made to look like crude oil and in how water is equated to money (respectively as a metonym for seaway capitalism and a metaphor for public commodity).
The concluding part of the film is set in a scrap yard in Bangladesh, where discarded ships from other countries are torn down manually using the most archaic of methods. A squalid, post-apocalyptic space, it is the hell to the heaven and purgatory of the previous two segments. We observe kids playing football amidst the mess and silhouetted figures lurching towards decrepit ship parts for a hard day’s labour. The awe of the South Korean section makes way for total repulsion and scientific marveling, for political investigation. The visual patterning of crossing lines and juxtaposed surfaces carries over into this segment as well, but talking about style in this particular segment becomes rather dangerous. Like Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005), which covered a ship wrecking yard in Pakistan in one of its passages, the third section of Hutton’s film walks a tight rope between ethics and aesthetics. This section of At Sea is neither as detailed nor as visceral as the former, but it shows the moral restraint that Glawogger’s work sometimes neglects. There is no obvious aesthetization of menial labour here, no soaring music to guide us; just a sober documentation of the appalling working conditions. The stylization is subdued and it derives its merit mostly from the continuity and meaning that the overall placement of section within the film’s structure provides. That is why the sudden shift to B/W in the segment is a little troubling, even if it never comes across as objectionable. This shift appears to take us back in time – to the nascent days of cinematography where passersby stare curiously into the camera – as does the transition from the advanced shipyard to the medieval wrecking grounds.
Hutton knows that sound in film can potentially gloss over critical questions and inconsistencies and make the viewer complacent. Like most of his earlier films, At Sea contains no sound and the whole responsibility of communication falls upon the visuals. This helps the audience distance itself emotionally from what it is watching and engage with the questions and ideas that the film prompts. Although this achievement comes at the heavy handicap of having no soundscape, Hutton’s choice not only aids the audience achieve true alienation from the work, but also comes across as highly ethical in the way it attenuates the realist aspect of the film (and all its concomitant issues). However, At Sea is not devoid of sensual pleasures. The mid-section, specifically, is rich with images marked by a poetic outlook. For instance, the protracted shot of the sunset, seeming as though a giant ball of fire is plunging from the sky into the sea, and the image of the sea bathed in moonlight, evoking a sense of the infinite and the unknown, directly convey the romance of sailing, which no doubt inform many of Hutton’s films. The film opens with a quote by Joseph Conrad: “A man who is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea…” The idea of sea journey as a dream, a shape-shifting psycho-space, finds its echo in the hypnotic images of the second section of the film.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of At Sea is how it absorbs given tenets from narrative cinema and transforms them for particular end uses. I’m thinking specifically of the three-act structure, which the director himself describes, in generic terms, as the “birth, life and death” of a container ship. (The fictionalized nature of Hutton’s film is revealed right there, for we are made to believe that the film is a story of one ship, while we see a different ship in each section). Like narrative cinema, the first act bears a strong, antithetical relationship with the last act: construction/destruction of the ship, glory/shame of our civilization, birth/death of the vessel, rigid structures/boggy seaside, smooth movements/total stasis, advanced automated engineering/prehistoric manual methods, photographing of achievement/ photographing of distress and, most notably, the triumph/failure of global capitalism. This association becomes a strong indictment if we consider, like narrative cinema, that the first act is the cause of existence of the third. This collocation raises the same question as does Workingman’s Death: Where is the worker in the modern world? Both the opening and the closing sections attempt to answer this question. The structuring of At Sea helps unveil what is hidden in each of the segments considered separately: workers across the world connected with each other, without their immediate knowledge, by larger, imperceptible forces. The second act, then, comes across as both redundant in terms of end result and absolutely critical in terms of thematics and meaning. Without it, not only will the film come across as crudely polemical, but will also cease to be a work as connected to personal experience as it now is. It is the middle section, most of all, which prevents the reduction of the film to any simple political or philosophical statement. The dissonant feelings and ideas that it generates contribute to the holistic richness of the film. It is here that we are, truly, at sea.