Cinema: Bloody Acquaintanceship

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"The slack jaw with the triangular splayed teeth, then the dark eye, impenetrable and empty as the eye of God . . . a silent thing of merciless serenity."

Thus Peter Matthiessen in his book Blue Meridian, The Search for the Great White Shark. Even Matthiessen's narrative power pales before the documentary film based on his chronicle of the hunt. In the book, he follows the obsessive quest of Peter Gimbel, department-store-heir-turned-adventurer, in the last unexplored regions of the earth. The chronicler is a fine natural historian, but at times his subject makes any words inadequate. In Blue Water, White Death, it is the camera that achieves what prose approximates. In the waters of Ceylon, Madagascar and the Mozambique Channel, and in the intemperate shoals off South Africa, a group of unarmed hunters seek an acquaintance with the great white shark. The fish—twice as tall as a man, heavier than a ton—is no ordinary killer. One 18th century writer reported that "in the belly of one was found a human corpse entire, which is far from incredible, considering their vast greediness after human flesh."

This time, the human flesh proves poor bait; Gimbel and his crew ply beneath three oceans without success. But even the failures are captivating. Divers hitch rides on sea turtles; monumental schools of twitching fish gather and separate at every sudden plane of light. The water is like heavy blue air in which natural law is suspended. Time seems liquid, depth and risk meaningless—until Gimbel surfaces too quickly and doubles over with the bends. Above sea level, the film itself wears gills, fins and horns. It is amateurish and even a bit silly, with crises boyishly re-enacted by Gimbel ("I got the liver scared out of me!").

The quarry is finally lured with tubs of whale blood off the Australian reef. In the last reel, the prep-school Ahab finally spots his béte blanche, and both drama and cinema achieve an almost hallucinatory suspense. The crew is lowered in barred aluminum cages. The sharks, at first floating like malignant dirigibles, suddenly bash the metal in rage and frustration. It is more than a cinematic high. It is a justifiable anthropomorphism, a juxtaposition of hunter and hunted that Melville, or for that matter Moby-Dick, would have savored.

Stefan Kanfer