A Wilderness of Elsewheres – Dead Slow Ahead
One thing all films have in common is the power to take perception elsewhere… memory becomes a wilderness of elsewheres.
– Robert Smithson / A Cinematic Atopia
The elsewheres of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead are the high seas, inhuman ports of call, the industrial corridors, engine rooms and vast metal cargo holds of the bulk carrier freighter Fair Lady. Echoey deep creaks, the ping of radar, wind battering metal and the dull low thrum of engines turning. This ship is taking me elsewhere. Into that sort of limbo, where men keep busy watching and waiting. Nothing much to do. Always ready. When a problem does happen you only got one bucket to move a ton of grain. There’s always the horizon. Steady. Disconcerting. This boat is traveling on a horizon of its own. You just can’t see it from where you stand on the deck or from the porthole of the galley. The horizon’s always elsewhere. Out there.
Out there. Somewhere in some cinematic future now. With a history of films that fit into some cinematic future past. I think of Waterworld. That big old tanker filled with not just the detritus, but the waste of humanity. A floating pen of criminality, plying the high seas of a flooded planet. Who ever thought Kevin Costner would be so prescient? Or the big metaphor of Mohammad Rasoulof’s Iron Island. Spaceship Earth becomes lifeboat Earth. A place where the survivors cannibalize the very craft on which they struggle and are simultaneously coddled and exploited by Captain Nemat, the man in control.
There’s a whole history of ship bound cinema. All those Atlantic crossings, romantic, farcical (the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business), tragic (Titanic, the Negulesco version) blend into one giant escape of jilted lovers leaving from New York to Europe on luxury liners and immigrants coming to the New World, tired, hungry and poor to become American success stories.
But the numbing and awesome reality of absurd commerce and the monstrousness of the world of capital is where Dead Slow Ahead lives. Gigantic cranes dump gigantic shovelfuls of coal under glaring lights. The huge hulk of the Fair Lady is the main character in the first act (?) of Dead Slow Ahead. All cold and metal. Impassive in her fairness. The few humans scuttling about in her iron chambers stare impassively at the horizon or do some sorts of unexplained activities, sweating and servicing her in some perfunctorily erotic way.
The only real drama is when water comes charging into a hold, threatening the cargo of wheat. When it’s contained, the drama ends, the work begins. One bucket. A huge puddle of still water. And a pile of wheat, huge by most means, dwarfed by the scale of the hold it’s in. Sisyphus on the waves. The absurdity of the task, of the work itself, is undercut by the cold impassive metal beauty and scale of the surroundings.
By the third act, the men become players, or rather, pawns in the relentless trajectory of wherever this ship is going. It’s constantly moving, but seemingly going nowhere.
The men call wives and mothers. Disembodies voices not knowing what to say, remembering yeah, Happy New Year, I love you, I miss you. The still steel ribbing, the bulkheads, silently witnessing their barely human interactions. These men seem stuck in this oppressive world. They’re trying to express just a little bit of their diminishing humanity. The connection stops. The phone goes dead.
All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air
With one enormous chair
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?
But for the workers (or are they passengers?) of this Fair Lady, there is no escape, no fantasizing about some loverly elsewheres. There’s only the continuing movement, the endless duties, the long distance longing that fills up their existences as the ship of the world continues in its relentless and unstoppable journey.