Generally speaking, I divide non-documentary films into three types. There are plot driven films where story takes precedence over character. There are portrait films where an examination of a character or setting or some other abstract idea is more important than story. And then there are weird art house films where neither are important and its all about crazy, nonsensical symbolism (ala Eraserhead). Generally speaking, even the portrait films have something akin to a story with some sense of advancement to further their character development or world building. Of course, every now and then you’ll get a film that is all portrait and practically no story. Fellini’s La Strada springs to mind. I just watched another such film that painted an intimate and often beautiful portrait while simultaneously being one of the dullest and slowest films I’ve watched for this blog. While it is hard for me to describe why I exactly I enjoyed the film, 1987?s The Whales of August is a delightful gem of a film that despite containing little story was a confusingly delightful bit of cinema.
The Whales of August is a look at a day and a half in the life of two sisters who are both in their 80?s. Sarah (Lillian Gish) and Libby (Bette Davis) return every year to a beautiful house on the Maine coastline where they await the return of the whales. Libby is now blind and a grumpy, cantankerous old coot to begin with and Sarah has taken up the responsibility of taking care of her. Sarah, despite being old (Lillian Gish was actually in her 90?s when she made the film), is still full of life with a desire to make changes in the life she has. Throughout their day, they receive visits from their friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) as well as their plumber George (Harry Carey, Jr.) and a potential suitor for Sarah named Mr. Maranov (the legendary Vincent Price). That’s really the entire plot of the film in a nutshell.
The real draw of this film for me is Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. I mentioned that Lillian Gish was 91 when she made this movie, but I never doubted her performance for one second of the film. Bette Davis was 79 and had suffered a stroke before making the film, but I definitely get why she is one of the most powerful women in the history of Hollywood. Vincent Price is one of my favorite old-time Hollywood actors. There’s something about the way he makes every word that comes out of his mouth sound so distinct and important. It could also be my deep love of Edward Scissorhands and how I always think of that classic film when I hear his voice. Lillian Gish was simply fantastic in this part. It’s definitely one of the best performances that I’ve seen from an actress that is this old. It’s really a testament to everyone’s acting ability that they could make the ridiculously unrealistic dialogue in the film sound natural.
This movie is so not for everyone. Literally nothing happens in the entire film except for a bunch of old people sitting around and talking, and they’re not even talking about things that are particularly important. It’s one of the slowest films I’ve watched for this blog. However, it’s a beautifully intimate look at what it’s like to have reached that age and how you either choose to continue living, escape into the past, or simultaneously celebrate both. I don’t know why I enjoyed this film. All of my better instincts tell me that this is sentimental drivel, yet I felt really compelled by it. There was something genuine about the film that had it lacked that genuineness, the film would have failed and miserably. However, there’s something je ne sais pas about the film that makes it transcend its awkward dialogue, lack of a story, and relative inaccessibility for anyone that isn’t an octogenarian.
Final Score: B