Hollywood builds on the dark dreams of obsession

January 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "Lorenzo's Oil," an obsessed mother risks her own nervous breakdown in confronting medical authorities and ultimately triumphs over conventional wisdom by finding a way to stop the progress of a disabling disease in her severly afflicted child. tating a cure for her own severely afflicted child.

In "Damage," a prominent politician on the very cusp of greatness meets his son's fiancee and embarks upon a sexual obsession that ultimately destroys his life.

In "Body of Evidence," a young woman is put on trial for her life because her sex life is obsessional: It moves her into dark regions of sadomasochism and the mixing of pleasure and pain.

In other words, for Hollywood, it's just another day at the office.

The point here is that obsessional states of being -- sexual and nonsexual alike -- have been a Hollywood staple since at least World War II. It's a concern that cuts across genres and ages. While the high point of obsessional filmmaking was probably the great era of film noir from 1948 until about 1955, as early as "Citizen Kane" (1940) it was a subject for filmmakers. It even appears in such disparate genres as westerns, such as John Ford's "The Searchers," in which the hero is an obsessive; and milquetoasty comedies, such as "How to Marry a Millionaire," in which Lauren Bacall sells everything to catch a boy with the big bucks.

Our first obsessives, of course, were the Puritans. Sex-haunted, they built a culture on repressing the need to acknowledge the flesh. Their greatest novelist's greatest work -- "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne -- was about a guilt-crazed minister and his object of obscure desire, who was punished by wearing the inscription A for Adulteress on her starched frock. But I have a feeling that their secret dramas are still being played out on the American screen: The dilemma between repressing and giving in to the sexual impulse is at the root of a great many obsessional movies today, particularly "Basic Instinct" and "Body Evidence." Sharon Stone and Madonna may be Hester Prynne's revenge.

But obsession need not be only carnal. Indeed, the greatest and possibly most influential of American obsessives seemed not to have a hormone anywhere in the twisted ruin of his body; it may have been that the searing passage of near death by drowning and near death by maiming burned out his sexual impulses. It may be, further, that the destruction or repression of these impulses was what drove him so fiercely on his twisted yet still resonant odyssey of revenge.

I speak, of course, of Herman Melville's Captain Ahab. Now there's a sick puppy; mortally offended by the blow dealt him by a great dumb beast of nature, he personifies his thirst for vengeance until it ruins his life and drives him to madness. It's a monstrous delusion: To hate a whale, even a vast and white one, is like hating the sun or the ocean; it exists beyond human permission and largely beyond the realm of human influence. It is indifferent, gravely irritating to narcissists like Ahab. And if it kills you, it does so not out of malice but out of brute impulse. To personify it -- Ahab's sin -- is to yield to one's own inner devils. Ahab doesn't hate the whale, he hates the part of him that was terrified by the whale. It's his own evil he wants to expunge, not the whale's.

Curiously, "Moby Dick" has pretty much resisted filmmaking, as if its furies are too vast for even the most impressive of all storytelling media. A clunky silent version featured John Drew Barrymore back in the '20s; in remote memory is an orthodox screen-classics version as directed by John Huston in the mid-'50s: Gregory Peck made a sedate Ahab and minor pretty-boy stars like Richard Basehart (as Ishmael) didn't help much. Literature having gotten so boring to filmmakers of today, it's unlikely that any of the younger boys will have a shot at this greatest of all American novels, even if, with computer imaging, the technical effects necessary to make such a feat both impressive and financially feasible are now available. Steven Spielberg, phone Herman Melville's agent.

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