For many Americans ``Moby Dick'' was no more than a prescribed high school reading assignment . . . and then, perhaps, a disappointing movie about a white whale not nearly as scary as the shark in ``Jaws.'' Herman Melville, the author of ``Moby Dick,'' might have seemed a peculiar sort of fellow, obsessed with whaling data and odd seafaring people. The book has often been narrowly categorized as recommended reading for young people.
Well, ``Moby Dick'' is universally recognized as a classic for all ages, and its self-educated author as one of the most mysteriously complex giants of American letters. The documentary Herman Melville: Damned in Paradise (PBS, Wednesday, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) may well prove to be nearly as much a classic as the book and author it so brilliantly illuminates.
Narrated by John Huston (who directed the aforementioned movie) and partly reenacted by Academy Award- winner F. Murray Abraham as Melville, this film was directed, written, produced, and photographed mostly by Robert Squier, a unique and dedicated artist himself. Mr. Squier has accomplished an inspired film about a writer and his writing which manages to combine the song of poetry and the zing of adventure with the shock of psychological recognition.
But ``Damned in Paradise'' is not merely a labor of love; it is a probing and incisive study of how a man and his work interact with the environment, physical and emotional. Utilizing real locations, top literary scholars, and a delicate sense of time and place with a minimal amount of reenactment, Mr. Squier's film records the paradoxes in Melville's life, his sense of hopelessness, his disgust with brutality, his agonizing search for religion, his intellectual resolve, his determination to survive personal disasters.
Melville, according to Squier, was ``a seeker, not a finder.'' And as Melville scholar Jay Leyda says on camera: ``He made books out of his terrors and problems.'' From the very first scene in which the camera plays a kind of spirit of Melville, jumping ship in the Marquesa Islands, fighting his way through the jungles and encountering the ferocious Typees, the film utilizes people who understand and admire this 19th-century author-adventurer to create a vivid literary portrait. It develops naturally, almost like a photographic print submerged in a chemical solution in a darkroom gradually taking shape and emerging as a sharp likeness.
Mr. Squier doesn't do it the easy way, however, which would be in strict chronological order. He makes us a participant in Melville's early adventures, which led to books, then pops back to earlier periods in Liverpool, zooming from there to the intellectual and emotional growth of Melville for the rest of his life. If it all sounds complicated, be assured, it is not. What is always on screen are superbly photographed segments of Melville's places in the heart and mind as well as on the map.
You'll find yourself at times envying Melville, pitying Melville, hating Melville, loving Melville, but always feeling you are beginning to understand the elusive man. All of this through the literary alchemy of Robert Squier, who manages with his cross-discipline combination of scholarship and entertainment to bring into focus an unordinary man who lived an extraodinary life and wrote books which add depth and texture to the lives of his readers.
The ultimate tribute to ``Herman Melville: Damned in Paradise'': Many viewers will be inspired to read or reread such novels as ``Typee,'' ``Omoo,'' ``Billy Budd,'' and, of course, ``Moby Dick.'' A chat with Robert D. Squier
The two hats which Robert Squier wears are symbolized by his two corporations -- the Communications Company and the Film Company.
The Robert Squier of the Communications Company, a political consulting firm, has recently worked on the campaigns of such political figures as Sens. Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Paul Simon, Albert Gore Jr., and Frank Lautenberg. And he is a regular political commentator on ``The Today Show'' on NBC.
The Robert Squier of the Film Company, a not-for-profit corporation which makes films about America, served as executive producer for ``Power and Prejudice in America,'' which aired on PBS in 1984, and directed the recent prizewinning film, ``William Faulkner: A Life on Paper.''
As a political consultant, he says, ``I design a strategy for my clients and then help them execute it on TV and radio.''
That is obviously a well-paying service, so is the notoriously expensive cultural filmmaking a philanthropy?
Mr. Squier smiles a winning Robert Redford grin: ``Well, it's true I don't take a salary from the Film Company, because much of the funding comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and that's money from the public. But I do the films because I have to do them. At high school I was exposed to literature by two inspired teachers, and at the University of Minnesota I studied with Profs. Jay Vogelbaum and Alan Tate, who inspired me, too. I became enamored of American literature and knew I had not done my homework well enough. Doing projects like Faulkner and Melville is my way of going back to school and doing it properly. It's the kind of thing you wish you had time to do in college.''
Are there more such projects planned for the future?
``There's Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tom Wolfe as a three-part series. And then, maybe, Robert Penn Warren.'' Mr. Squier is also contemplating a film about painter Robert Rauschenberg, based upon the book ``Off the Wall,'' by Calvin Tomkins. ``The book uses Rauschenberg as kind of prism reflecting that whole 1960s era.''
He is very proud that ``everything you see in the film, you can trust as to its accuracy. Even in the scene in Liverpool, those are the actual stones Melville walked on, and the ancient trail and the black pool in the Pacific are the same trail and pool Melville described.''
Has making the film over a five-year period resulted in any personal revelations for Robert Squier?
``It was a wonderful excuse to immerse myself in someone like Melville for three or four years. I learned he had a wonderful sense of humor in the midst of a very tough life. And he dealt with big philosophical issues. Working on the film gave me a much clearer sense of the Victorian mind -- Melville as well as many other Victorians were not afraid of deep questions.''
Mr. Squier gets so much satisfaction from making the cultural films, might not politics seem trivial by comparison? An emphatic ``No'': ``I find enormous satisfaction in my political work. If you can help put somebody like Gore into the Senate and have the sense that he will go as far as he wants in politics, you feel rewarded. Remember, I don't do political campaigns for people whose personal philosphy differs too much from my own.
``Then again,'' he says, frowning to himself, ``it is true that when I make a film on Faulkner or Melville, I believe that film will be around for a long time, and it will affect how people feel about their culture, maybe even longer than the politicians you work for will affect the political system.
``I guess I really enjoy both. One feeds the other. It's not merely doing one to finance the other, because if that were the case, I'd pay myself for the films and do less of the political stuff. I could make a good enough living. . . . I live very modestly in a 1915 farmhouse in Virginia. But I enjoy doing both.''
If Robert Squier were forced to choose between politics and filmmaking, which would it be?
He shakes his head slowly. ``I'd probably not do either, retire to my farm and grow grapes. I simply cannot answer that question. I've finally figured out a way to live the life I want -- balancing both the political and the cultural work.''
What would make ``Herman Melville: Damned in Paradise'' a success as far as Robert Squier is concerned?
``I can tell you what would make me feel I failed -- if there is one person who sees the film and believes he doesn't have to read the books anymore. I'd be crushed. My fantasy is that on the 16th of May there will not be a copy of `Moby Dick' left on the shelves of any bookstore in America.''