Have you read Moby-Dick? I’ve certainly tried. But, like many students, high schoolers, and people with a passing interest in tackling the classics, it would be fair to say that I’ve never been able to make it through Herman Melville’s masterwork. It’s a notoriously dense text, with lots of digressive moments of description of the in’s and out’s ye olde whaling business, caked into the thematically rich story of Ishmael chasing the great white whale. It is a text that is, of course, beloved and heralded as a stone-cold classic of American literature, regularly featuring on High School syllabuses, with kids struggling every year to connect with it.
That struggle to connect to the text is what has inspired this documentary from filmmaker Mark Blumberg. Back in High School, he flunked his American Literature class when he failed to connect/finish Moby-Dick and produce a decent book report from it. Years later, now a filmmaker and having finished the book, he reconnects with his High School teacher and promises her that his new film will act as a belated attempt to complete his High School book report.
That is at least the intention he originally sets out with. What develops is an exploration of the culture surrounding Moby-Dick, the relationship it continues to have with students, as well as a look at any personal relationship with reading. What also develops is an examination of the filmmaker himself, and what results is a film that is almost as meandering as the book it focuses on. What seems to begin as quite a fun means of expressing an often frustrating relationship with something that is widely considered to be a culturally significant item quickly becomes a very pretentious and tedious exercise to endure.
It is always interesting to see how documentaries can develop and change in front of your eyes from their initial intent. But with The Act of Reading, so many of the diversions and distracted segue’s simply don’t make much sense. It soon becomes clear that Blumberg is very much trying to mirror his experience making the film to Melville’s own experience writing Moby-Dick. Instead of that seeming meaningful and insightful to his take on the text, it ends up coming across a little arrogant, particularly as he throws the camera on some very personal discussions with family members that feel far too exploitative, and far too tenuous to the subject at hand, to be considered an insightful or an organic component into his own experience of reading Melville’s text.
The film is always at its strongest when Blumberg himself is removed from the narrative. Whenever the documentary goes into the kind of fan culture surrounding Moby-Dick (it touches on a marathon reading that takes place every year), to the effect living with the text has on the descendants of Melville, it becomes a more engaging feature about the kind of cultural footprint the novel has had. It is certainly more interesting than when it approaches areas of philosophical and scientific thought surrounding the very act of reading itself, as those moments are often simply left to experts spouting information, with the film doing little to actively engage with the ideas expressed. But when it goes into some of the more stranger relationships associated with Moby-Dick it intrigues, even if it never quite seems to know when it’s on to a good thing.
The film is at its strongest however when focusing on an 11th Grade class who are being taught Moby-Dick. The kids all have a variety of wild reactions, as their sweet, caring and passionate teacher does her best to get their minds engaged with the 165-year-old text. This is when the film is at its most charming, as we witness frustration, anger, and genuine intellectual curiosity from the students. But in the grand scheme of the documentary itself, it becomes just another component of an experience that spreads itself too thin by exploring far too many tedious dead ends, with the sense that Blumberg doesn’t have quite enough self-awareness to make the more egocentric moments feel like an organic part of the experience.
The Act of Reading is a film that touches on a number of intriguing ideas surrounding our relationship not just with literature, but with any art form. Sadly, it can never settle into a groove, as it meanders and jumps back and forth from tangents that vary in regards to how compelling or worthwhile they feel. As a result, it is a final book report that never engages as a whole as it has far too many self-indulgent tangents that rob the film of the universal message that lies at the heart of its strongest ideas. It is an undisciplined piece of work that struggles to know which avenues to explore and when to pull back, leading to an often frustrating and tedious experience.
Dir: Mark Blumberg
Prd: Mark Blumberg
DOP: Caleb B. Kuntz
Music: Nathan Felix
Runtime: 87 minutes
The Act of Reading is available on-demand now