Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1999)

13. Eyes Wide Shut

Following “Full Metal Jacket,” Stanley Kubrick developed the reputation of a recluse. Though relatively prolific throughout the early years of his career, his output had slowed during the seventies and eighties. By the dawn of the nineties, Kubrick would take an extended hiatus from directing. His reputation would grown in his absence. By the time “Eyes Wide Shut” rolled into production, it was his first film in twelve years. It would also be his last, as the director died six days after delivering his final cut to the studio. Kubrick would generate controversy even after his death. There was debate over whether the theatrical version of “Eyes Wide Shut” truly represented the director's vision. The sexual content spurned discussion. The film would attract a lot of tabloid gossip, due to starring the then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. All of this, combined with the mysterious advertising campaign, would make “Eyes Wide Shut” the most talked about film of the year.

Dr. Bill Harford thinks he has a happy life. He's been married for nine years to this faithful wife, Alice, and they have a seven year old daughter together, Helena. While at the party of a mutual friend, a man propositions Alice. Bill, meanwhile, is nearly seduced by two young women. The next night, Alice tells Bill about a time she nearly cheated on him. The conversation unnerves him and he immediately decides to seek out anonymous sex. After several failed attempts, Bill winds up at a secluded mansion in upstate New York. Inside, a secret sect organizes strange sexual rituals. After Bill is caught, he becomes increasingly concerned about the apparent cult's involvement in his life.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's novel, “Dream Story,” the location switched from 1920s Vienna to turn-of-the-millennium Manhattan. Kubrick had been considering adapting the book since the sixties. It's unlikely that the censorship laws of that time would've allowed Kubrick to make the film he envisioned: a serious motion picture about sex, desire, and commitment. The married couple at the center of “Eyes Wide Shut” naively believe themselves to be happy. After Bill realizes his wife isn't sexually satisfied with him, his world shatters apart. Yet both Bill and Alice are pulled back and forth throughout the story, by their need for sexual satisfaction and the vow of fidelity that took to each other. When Bill is about to have sex with a prostitute, a phone call from his wife disturbs his mood. By the end, the two reaffirm their love for each other by deciding to have sex. Yet the actual act of love making is always kept off-screen, the story's structure mirroring the character's inability to find carnal release.

Fantasy plays a key role throughout the film. Alice's desire for the handsome naval officer is experienced solely through fantasy. After hearing this, Bill is haunted by images of his wife and this stranger having sex. Fittingly, “Eyes Wide Shut” captures the tone of a dream. Kubrick employs his trademark deliberate pacing and still direction to create a somewhat surreal atmosphere. Throughout the film, the characters often enter altered states of mind. Alice drinks too much wine. At the same party, a model nearly O.D.'s on a speedball. Later, Alice smokes some pot. Similarly, the film lulls the viewer into a hypnotized state. Bill's misadventures take place over the course of one night, also much like a dream. Surreal events – like an Asian man in a speedo suddenly appearing or the strange outfit a street walker wears – peppers the film. Through these efforts and more, the film grasp the feeling of a dreaming state.

At least, the first half does. The second half reveals the harsh light of day. The erotic rituals give way to accusations of murder and abduction. The prostitute he nearly slept with is revealed as HIV-positive. The sexually charged, nearly comical episode in the costume shop becomes a prelude to a father selling his daughter into prostitution. Bill finds the dead body of another woman he desired. In the waking hours, orgasmic fantasies give way to harsh truths. Lastly, all of Bill's fears about the secret society are flatly dismissed with simple exposition. Because, in real life, there are no omniscient secret orders, no sex magicks, no Illuminati. The dream is over and Bill must face the non-whimsical facts of reality. Appropriately, Kubrick's direction is more stately, more focused in the film's second half.

Throughout his career, Stanley Kubrick's films explored themes of toxic masculinity. An obsession apparent even in “Fear and Desire” reaches its conclusion in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Bill Harford is stymied by the revelation his wife sexually desires other men. He immediately uses this as an excuse to pursue an extra-martial affair, notably after a group of fratboys question his masculinity. After his night of near encounters, he attempts numerous anonymous hook-ups. Each time, he assumes the woman is entirely willing, including one he just met. Instead of being consumed by his macho need for conquest, like Redmond Barry or General Ripper, Bill matures. He tearfully admits his indiscretions to his wife, exposing his vulnerability. He gets over his insecurity about his wife's fantasies. In some ways, it's fitting that “Eyes Wide Shut” would be Kubrick's final film. It shows the natural destination of themes the director had been working with for decades.

“The Shining” would prove to be Kubrick's only true horror film but he flirted with the genre throughout his career. “Eyes Wide Shut,” undoubtedly, has an unnerving atmosphere similar to Kubrick's horror masterpiece. This is most clear in the masked ritual, the film's key sequence. Kubrick captures a sense of decadence and unease in this scene. Strange music, vaguely resembling religious chants, fill the soundtrack. Catholic ceremonies are mimicked and perhaps mocked, in the service of an elaborate sex party. A couple copulate atop a man's back, still, masked people watching, unmoving. Kubrick often assumes a first person perspective in these scenes, making us observers to these strange erotic games. This emphasizes the dream-like element but also makes us feel like intruders on something forbidden, something we shouldn't be seeing. (Which happens to also describe Cruise's character.) Following these arcane acts, a sense of paranoia often occupies the film, such as when Bill believes he's being followed, making “Eyes Wide Shut” feel as much like a nightmare as a dream.

The internet being what it is, “Eyes Wide Shut” has been accused by the tin foil hat crowd of being Kubrick's expose on the Illuminati. Supposedly, the proverbial THEY had him killed for revealing too much. These dingbats are right about one thing: “Eyes Wide Shut” is rift with symbols. The film is set around Christmas. The warmth of Christmas lights glow in nearly every scene... Save for the sequence inside the secret society's mansion. This marks the mansion as a place without the familial glow of both the real world, a world closer to Bill's respectable “waking” life. Rainbows are another repeatedly referenced symbol. The girls in the beginning promise to take Bill where the rainbow ends. Later, Bill visits a costume shop named the Rainbow. The Christmas lights are often in a rainbow pattern as well, making the secret mansion the fabled place where the rainbow ends. As in, a fairy tale place without light or connection to the rest of the world. This ties in with Bill's wife being named Alice, as in “Alice in Wonderland.” Suitably, she is rarely far away from a mirror or reflective surface. Looking glasses, if you will. They even put one on the poster.

The most relevant symbol in “Eyes Wide Shut” are masks. Everyone at the mysterious orgy wear masks, protecting their identity and allowing them to commit any debauched act, free of scrutiny. Bill wears a mask of sorts too, projecting the face of a happily married man, satisfied with his life. The costume shop scene is fraught with uneasy energy, Bill becoming nervous as he acquires a literal mask above his metaphorical one. When the same masks he wore at the mansion appears in his apartment, he breaks down, realizing he can no longer masks his secret life from his family life. Masks are potent omens in other ways. When the same model Bill helped save earlier offers to take his place at the mansion, she's led away by a man in a plague doctor mask, a vision associated with death.

Kubrick was encouraged to cast a major star “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is why it stars Tom Cruise. This was an interesting time in his career. Before refocusing himself entirely on his crowd-pleasing franchise roles, he made several films that experimented with his public image. Such as this one, “Magnolia,” “Vanilla Skies,” and “Collateral.” Though unlikely on the surface, Cruise is actually perfect for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Cruise's movie star smile and perfectly crafted public persona seems to be a mask of sorts too. His action hero pedigree is also fitting for a film about a man tackling with the fallout of his macho ways. Cruise's performance captures a man barely containing his emotional turmoil, led down some very strange paths by his sexual desire. His breakdown at the film's end feels earned, Cruise letting his movie star mask crack a little.

If I remember correctly, it seems like “Eyes Wide Shut” was often overshadowed by the tabloid obsession with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. That the actual married couple would play a married couple in the film made that, perhaps, unavoidable. Kidman's performance is even more emotional wrought than Cruise's. From the opening minutes, she projects vulnerability, appearing nude in the first scene and using a toilet soon afterwards. The scene where she gets high and confronts Bill makes it clear that her accusations are born of hurt feelings. Her outpour of emotion when discussing her feelings for the naval officer, or a dream that mirrors Bill's time at the mansion, are raw and touching. Kidman's performance is honest and thorny, a powerful display of her abilities.

Part of the reason why “Eyes Wide Shut” is such an effectively eerie experience is the music. Jocelyn Pook's score is primarily punctuated by singular, pounding piano keys, stressing the unease the characters feel. This sinister quality is most on display during the masked ball, during a piece of music composed of thumping drums, death-rattling strings, and actual religious chants played in reverse. The same scene features an India-inspired piece of music, adding an exotic, otherworldly feeling to this place. The throbbing bass to that music never lets the audience forget how foreboding this location is. Often, a longing series of strings are incorporated, pointing towards the film's theme of unsatisfied desire. Kubrick also, naturally, utilizes many classical cues. He also throws a surprising pop song into the film, Chris Isaak's “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” plays under an early scene, setting up the film's horny atmosphere. The song is then abruptly cut off, giving the audience metaphorical blue balls before things even really get rolling.

Upon release, some wondered if “Eyes Wide Shut” could be called a true Stanley Kubrick film. Considering Kubrick was known to edit and reedit his films, even after their initial releases, it does seem likely that he would've tinkered with “Eyes Wide Shut” more if he had lived longer. In this sense, “Eyes Wide Shut” could be called an unfinished film. Still, if “Eyes Wide Shut” is unfinished film, it's a brilliant unfinished film. Kubrick would conclude his career with a deeply beguiling film, as mysterious and immersive as anything else he made, a powerful and unnerving experience worthy of study and consideration. There couldn't be a more fitting closing note on his legendary career. [Grade: A]

Stanley Kubrick's career has had an interesting afterlife. It's well known that what was meant to be Kubrick's next film, a science-fiction children's movie, would be completed by Steven Spielberg as "A.I." More recently, it was announced that Kubrick's unrealized script about Napoleon is being re-imagine as a mini-series for HBO. Other unfilmed scripts of Kubrick's have been optioned but have yet to surface. It's clear that the precise, beguiling, multifaceted films of Stanley Kubrick will remain a point of discussion and fascination for years to come.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1987)

12. Full Metal Jacket

In the early eighties, there was a sudden wave of films about the Vietnam War. It seems enough time had past that America could look past the psychic scars the war left on the country and start examining why that conflict turned out the way it did. After “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Platoon,” but before “Hamburger Hill” and “84 Charlie MoPic,” came “Full Metal Jacket.” It was another project of Kubrick's that rose out of failure. He originally met with writer Michael Herr to create a film a long simmering film about the Holocaust. Instead, the conversation turned towards the Vietnam War. The two decided to adapt Gustav Hasford's novel, “The Short-Timers.”  It would become another critical success for the director and remains one of the most iconic films about the Vietnam War.

Private James T. Davis, one of many new recruits, is sent off to Parris Island, South Carolina for basic training. He sarcastically states his desire to become a killer. There, he undergoes a brutal training regiment from a sadistic drill sergeant, Sgt. Hartman. He is nicknamed Pvt. Joker. A particular target of Hartman's abuse is Private Lawrence, who is cruelly nicknamed Gomer Pyle. Hartman's cruel words and actions break Lawrence down, who murders the drill sergeant before killing himself. Following this disaster, Davis ships off for Vietnam. Working as a war correspond, he witnesses the cruelty and violence firsthand. And, in time, he achieves his goal of becoming a killer.

Warfare is a topic Kubrick has revisited many times over his career. “Full Metal Jacket's” focus is more keen than the war time settings of “Fear and Desire,” “Spartacus,” or “Barry Lyndon.” “Paths of Glory” was more focused on criticizing the mechanism of war. “Full Metal Jacket,” however, is all about the dehumanizing process soldiers go through. The film begins with a montage of the characters having their heads shaved, stripping their individuality away. After arriving in basic training, Hartman gives each of the recruits humiliating nicknames. He frequently emphasizes that they are now property of the U.S. Marine Corps. The goal of the military is to turn normal people into heartless killing machine, to strip away their empathy for other humans. “Full Metal Jacket” is keenly focused on the cruelty of this process, showing how the brutality of war begins at home.

At the center of this thesis is Pvt. Lawrence, henceforth known as Pvt. Pyle. Vincent D'onofrio's doughy appearance makes him stand out among the other soldiers. Immediately, Hartman starts abusing the boy, choking him out within minutes of meeting him. He is repeatedly humiliated, forced to march in his underwear, sit aside and suck his thumb, or chew a doughnut in the middle of the room. This is in addition to the constant vitriol Hartman spews at him. This behavior even turns the other recruits against the boy, who beat him with bars of soap in a particularly harrowing scene. However, the corps succeeds in stripping away Pyle's humanity. It succeeds a little too well, turning Pyle into an unhinged murderer. There's no room for vulnerability, no basic humanity, in the military. And that can have devastating effects, even before anyone sees combat.

Of course, there's a slight problem with the film's first half, which undermines Kubrick's point a little. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman is supposed to be a despicable villain. He technically is but he's also the most entertaining, memorable character in the film. The part would take R. Lee Ermey from a career as a technical advisory and bit part actor to an icon of military films. Kubrick allowed Ermey to improvise, quite unusual for the exacting filmmaker, so most of  Hartman's screeds are Ermey's own. There's no doubt that the creatively profane verbiage is frequently hilarious. The character may be one of cinema's biggest assholes, a racist and a bully, but Ermey's unique ways with words made him an audience favorite. Ermey provides the film with a propulsive energy that it never quite recovers after he exits the story.

Ermey ends up being the start of the show but Matthew Modine, as Pvt. Joker, is still a solid lead. From his earliest scene, Modine emphasizes the character's youthful sarcasm and cynicism. Joker may be “in the shit” but he often greets these scenarios with bitter humor. He often jokes about becoming a killer. Yet Joker doesn't honestly mean this, as he's one of the few people to be sympathetic to Pyle. Even after going overseas, he displays more humanity to his other soldiers and combatants than those around him. It's only in the final scene where Joker finally becomes a killer, an act which weighs heavily on his mind. Modine is extremely good in the role, utilizing his youthful energy and wit perfectly.

Over his last four films, Kubrick had push the technical precision of his direction to its breaking point, sometimes to the determent of the stories. “Full Metal Jacket” shows the director loosening up in some ways. The stillness is mixed more freely with movement, building off “The Shining's” Steadicam shots. The constant speed of the marching and training sequence propels the whole film forward, even into the more conversation-based second half. Kubrick also employs his old documentary-style during the wartime sequences, adding some gritty realism. Kubrick saves his trademark chilly detachment for key moments. Such as the sequence where Pyle finally cracks, where his stare shows a crystal clear, chilling psychosis. It's clear that Kubrick didn't leave his mastery creeping unease at the Overlook Hotel.

A common criticism has dogged “Full Metal Jacket” since it came out: The second half isn't as interesting as the first. It's true that pop culture has seemingly forgotten everything in the film outside the basic training sequences. The second half of the film, the scenes actually set in Vietnam, do suffer from an episodic format. Pvt. Joker leaps from location, leaving the newspaper office after its attacked. Encounters with enemy soldiers, prostitutes, documentary filmmakers, and graves of dead bodies follow. While it's true that these scenes lack the drive and focus of the first half, they remain interesting. The episodic format is seemingly intentional, giving us bits and pieces of life in the battlefield. It's not like wartime, or real life for that matter, has a coherent narrative flow. “Full Metal Jacket's” second half accurately reflects the day-to-day anxiety a solider must feel.

It might wander a bit in its second half but “Full Metal Jacket” finds itself again by the time it reaches its chilling climax. The final episode of the film concerns Joker and the other men pinned down by a Vietcong sniper. Kubrick saves the most graphic violence of the film for this sequence. Whole bloody chunks are blown out of the men, flying through the air, by the sniper's bullets. Kubrick employs slow motion in these scenes, emphasizing the men's agony. In this moment, the cruelty and brutality of war is magnified. The sudden sounds of the bullets firing, often blowing men away unexpectedly, makes this a fierce, intense scene. It provides a proper climax for the somewhat ramshackle second half of the film.

The nature of the sniper is important to understand how the film fits into Kubrick's overall career. Once again, the director returns to the ugliness of masculinity run among. Sgt. Hartman directly links killing with sex. He frequently references sex. He makes the men give their rifles female names, referring to them as their girlfriends. In one notable sequences, he compares the purpose of the gun and the purpose of the penis. Once they're on the field, the men continue to talk about sex, directly correlating the act of war with the act of the masculine conquering the feminine. Let's return to that sniper, who is revealed to be a teenage girl. That a young girl could ruthlessly kill three full grown men is a subversion, and therefore disruption, of the soldier's macho status as cold-blooded killers. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon” and “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” saw Kubrick criticizing and dismantling toxic masculinity before that phrase was even invented.

Modine, Ermey, and D'onofrio dominate the film but the supporting cast is full of other notable actors. Arliss Howard appears as Pvt. “Cowboy,” the only real friend Joker makes during basic training. The characters have an amusing rapport and Howard makes the character memorable despite his small role. Adam Baldwin appears as an especially gung-ho soldier, nicknamed Animal Mother. Baldwin would go on to a solid career and it's easy to see why, as he's impressive in the part, swaggering in a way that's slightly unhinged. Lastly, Peter Edmund appears as Pvt. “Snowball” and is memorably strictly because of how amusing his wide-eyed scream is.

Kubrick displays the same attention to detail to this film's late sixties/early seventies setting as he did to the Napoleonic Europe setting in “Barry Lyndon.” If that film allow Kubrick to indulge his love of classical music, he deploys period pop music as often here. Johnnie Wright's “Hello Vietnam” is effectively utilized in the opening scene. The purity of the Dixie Cups' “Chapel of Love” is ironically played while a prostitute courts two soldiers. “Wooly Bully” and “Surfin' Bird” show up memorably in two separate montage, providing the upbeat pop songs contrasting against the carnage of war. The Rolling Stones' “Paint It Black” also work well over the end credits. (Weirdly, the movie would also spawn a hit single. “Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor)” would mix sound bites from the film with rap and rock music. It went to number two on the U.K. pop charts.)

Despite receiving universal acclaim, “Full Metal Jacket” would get widely snubbed at the Academy Awards. It only received one nomination, in the Adapted Screenplay category. It was yet another example of the Academy barely acknowledging Kubrick. All that aside, “Full Metal Jacket” would quickly become an iconic war film, its image of a sadistic drill sergeant being ripped off by many other movies and TV shows. Despite some serious flaws, it's yet another masterpiece from the legendary director. [Grade: A]      

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1980)

11. The Shining

Following the box office disappointment and mixed critical response to “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick was determined to make a commercial film. With this prospect in mind, he chose to make a movie in that most nakedly commercial of all genres: The horror film. He selected Stephen King’s “The Shining” as his source material. “The Shining” initially received mixed reviews from critics, including from King himself. Of course, now “The Shining” is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, if not the greatest. By bringing his technical perfectionism to the ghost story, Kubrick created once of the most foreboding films ever made.

Struggling writer Jack Torrance agrees to take the position of winter watchmen at the Overlook Hotel, rooming with his wife Wendy and his young son Danny through the off-season. Isolated in the Colorado mountains, the hotel is soon surrounded by walls of snow and ice. Jack and his family are trapped inside the Overlook. And the Overlook has demons. Danny, who occasionally displays telepathic abilities, knows this. Doc Hollaran, the hotel chief who can also “shine,” knows this. Jack discovers this, the Overlook's spirits encouraging him to indulge in his alcoholism. Soon, the ghosts are also driving Jack to attack his family.

From its opening minutes, “The Shining” is ominous. As Jack’s VW Beetle drives towards the Overlook Hotel, a helicopter shot flies behind him, as if some ominous force is watching him. The film’s title slowly rise over the picturesque scenery, perverting the natural setting with their presence. Wendy Carlos’ unnerving score drones on, a funeral dirge for deaths that haven’t occurred yet. Even before the main characters get to the hotel, there’s something deeply wrong. The viewer feels an immediate apprehension that never lets up. “The Shining” is a college course in what tone can do for a horror film. Just with music and camera movement, “The Shining” instantly makes the watcher uncomfortable.

In order to get the most out of the uncanny, the ordinary must be established first. “The Shining” makes use of documentary style title cards, ascertaining the day of the week, location, or passage of time. Many early scenes are devoted to characters sitting and talking: Jack’s job interview, Wendy discreet conversation with the doctor, Danny and Halloran’s conversation. “The Shining’s” stillness roots it in the real world. Once we understand that stationary worldliness, Kubrick immediately disrupts it with the roaming Steadicam shots. The famous shots of Danny’s big wheel riding through the hotel continues the opening’s sense of an ever-watching, otherworldly force. It also builds a nervous energy inside the Overlook’s walls, further putting the audience ill at ease. Tricks like these subtly upset without the viewer even realizing it at first.

As subversive as “The Shining” is, the film isn’t above just throwing freaky shit around. Part of the film’s enduring pop culture appeal is its collection of startling horror imagery. Reportedly, Kubrick studied “Eraserhead” while making “The Shining.” Both films seem to understand the power of an indelible image, of crossing nightmarish dream logic into the land of the waking. Which is how we got “The Shining” most famous moments. The elevator opening its doors, to release a flood of blood. Two spooky girls appearing to Danny, their gorily cut up bodies flashing before our eyes. A man with a bloody face, complementing us on a fine party. This is Stanley Kubrick’s idea of a traditional haunted house movie. Once we get a room full of cobweb covered skeletons, it even feels like the director is joking around, tossing out every attempt to be scary as possible.

Yet there’s also something else in the air at the Overlook Hotel. In one of the few themes directly carried over from Stephen King’s book, the excesses and obscenities of the rich haunt the hotel. The spectre of 1920s partiers bring with them an unseemly decadence. “The Shining” is especially obsessed with deviant sexuality. Inside Room 237, the sexually alluring siren turns into a leprous old crone, who cackles insanely. Wendy gets a split-second glimpse at some fur suit assisted oral sex. These images make us uncomfortable, especially when placed inside the context of a traditional narrative. That’s why they’re here.

But all the ghosts in the world ultimately don’t matter because evil is a man. Stephen King’s main contention with Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which he never misses an opportunity to bring up, is that the director couldn’t grasp the otherworldly evil of the Overlook. This is because King’s superstitious spooks and born bad buildings didn’t interest the director. Instead, Kubrick draws upon a more grounded anxiety. Early on, Wendy shares a story about Jack hurting Danny while in an alcoholic rage. When passing his father in a bedroom, Danny uncomfortably sits on his father’s lap. Their conversation seems to imply that the father may hurt the boy. The father soon has a nightmare about murdering his wife and child. After the woman in Room 237 attacks Danny, Wendy quickly blames Jack. The truth is the spirits in the Overlook don’t have to do much to drive Jack mad. Because he already wants to kill Wendy and Danny, subconsciously. Kubrick’s film exploits the creeping suspicion, the lingering fear, that every parent secretly hates their child.

Stephen King has also criticized the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence. King wanted an every-man actor like Jon Voight or Christopher Reeves. He feared that Nicholson’s Torrence would be threatening from the beginning. He was right. Jack is obviously crazy, right from the start. During the drive up to the hotel, you can tell he already resents his wife and child. This creates a slowly boiling tension, as the audience waits for Jack to snap. Torrence’s frustrated creative process only further aggravates his simmering homicidal tendencies. By the time he picks up a fire axe, Nicholson has been driven into a sweaty, wild mania. In his final scene, he screams like a madman, sounding more animal then human. Nicholson even sneaks some humor into the part, via the widely parodied Ed McManhon’s impersonation or whispered insistence to be handed a bat.

Upon release in 1980, “The Shining” was actually nominated for two Golden Raspberries, Kubrick for directing and Shelley Duvall for acting. Aside from showing how clueless that organization is, it also puts on display another of the film’s then criticized elements. Duvall was pushed to the point of madness by Kubrick’s tyrannical direction. He constructed a hostile film set environment, in order to get as high-strung a performance from her as possible.  The end result is perfect for “The Shining.” Duvall’s stringbean frame and squeaky voice makes her seem as vulnerable as possible. The story puts Wendy Torrence through the wringer, reducing her to screamed pleas for help. It’s one of the most helpless portrayals of a woman in any horror film, showing a person gripped by total terror. There’s no glamour to Duvall’s performance, any movie star gleam torn away to expose pure human insecurity.

It’s a famous anecdote. Danny Lloyd, who plays the young Danny Torrence, did not know he was starring in a horror movie. Lloyd was all of six years old at the time. Befitting an actor that young, Lloyd’s performance is totally raw. When voicing the imaginary friend Tony, he shrieks in a screechy whisper. When reacting to the terror around him, his face bends in wide eyed shock. It’s less a performance then a kid simply acting like a kid. This is nicely pointed out when Lloyd has scenes alongside Scatman Crothers, a performer with fifty-five years of experience. Despite Halloran being another of King’s undistinguished magical negro parts, Crothers projects a genuine warmth towards Danny and Wendy. Amusingly, the film’s unnerving tone doesn’t dissuade even during Danny and Halloran’s scenes of “shining” together. It’s just another element of how wrong the hotel’s environment is.

Because of “The Shining’s” high profile in pop culture, and because it was directed by the most studied American director of all time, many different readings of the film exist. There’s so many that an entirely separate film exist to discuss them. Some of these theories are more creditable then others, their topics ranging from moon landings, the Holocaust, or hidden sexual or mythical symbolism. However, one subtextual thread does seem to run through the film. The Overlook is supposedly built on an Indian burial ground, the settlers having fought off Indians. The interior of the hotel is decorated with kitschy versions of Indian art. When Halloran races towards the Overlook, the ghosts refer to him with a racial slur. As opposed to the book, Jack murders the black man. Both of the murderous caretakers we meet are male, attacking their wives. The negative energy that the Overlook feeds on is pointedly aggressive, masculine, and white.

Kubrick’s drive to unnerve the audience extends even to the structure of the Overlook. As others have pointed, the interior architecture of the Overlook makes no sense. Doorways, windows, rooms, and hallways are places that they shouldn’t be. It’s totally subconscious, as you don’t even notice it until it’s pointed out. This is just one of the many ambiguities purposely bred into the film. The exact nature of the haunting is unknown, as how much influence the ghosts have on the real world vary from scene to scene. And then there’s that ending, which continues to generate debate. Jack is either adsorbed by the Overlook or has always been a part of it. The point is clear. “The Shining” never wants you to be sure of what’s happening.

Like everything else Stanley Kubrick has directed, “The Shining” has been endlessly picked apart. As impossible as it is for any one film to earn the title, “The Shining” is certainly a viable candidate for best horror film ever made. Its technical construction, the way the entire movie is built to unnerve and disturb, is practically unrivaled. The acting, music, and direction are all top notch. Practically every aspect of the film has become iconic. Yet even apart from the hype, “The Shining” remains a masterpiece, an impressive exercise in how to give your viewing audience the creeps. [Grade: A]

Friday, August 25, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1975)

10. Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick's dream project was a film about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. He became interested in Napoleon following “2001” and spent many years researching and preparing to make a movie on the subject. However, the failure of 1970's “Waterloo” would ultimately scuttle Kubrick's plans. He initially planned to instead adapt William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, “Vanity Fair.” This idea would also be prematurely halted, after an announcement of a television mini-series of the book. Kubrick would then funnel his research into Napoleonic Europe into an adaption of another Thackeray novel, “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.” The resulting film may very well be Kubrick's most challenging work, a three-hour epic which received a frosty reception initially but whose reputation has only grown over the decades.

In 1750s Ireland, Redmond Barry lives a simple life with his mother. As a teenager, he falls in love with his cousin. When she instead expresses feelings for a British captain, Barry challenges the man to a duel. Apparently shooting the man dead, Redmond flees his town. He ends up enlisting in the British army, currently fighting the Seven Years War. Over Barry's adventures, he attempts to desert to Prussia, saves a captain, is sent to spy on and instead befriends an Irish Chevalier, and becomes a professional gambler. It's through this last venture that Redmond catches the eye of Countess Lyndon. The two marry, Barry taking her last name and ascending to the rank of nobility. However, his troubles are far from over.

It's often been said that “Barry Lyndon” was shot entirely with natural light, foregoing traditional electronic lighting altogether. This isn't entirely true but many scenes of the film were, indeed, shot by candlelight. Kubrick intended to re-create the time period as accurately as possible, leading to candlelit interior scenes that softly glow with an amber color. These are far from the only scene that featured a rich color pallet. Every frame in “Barry Lyndon” looks like a painting. The gorgeous sweeping shots of the crisp countryside or castles in a landscape are designed to resemble period paintings. Kubrick provides his trademark precision and perfectionism to creating as beautiful a film as possible. He largely succeeded. “Barry Lyndon” is a feast for the eyes.

In fact, Kubrick is so focused on creating beautiful images, he seems to loose track of the human element. The distant quality seen in “2001” returns with a vengeance. The characters in the film are often reduced to distant figures in a wide landscape. The statement that Kubrick watches his character like a scientist watches protozoa under a microscope has never been truer. His approach is nonadjacent and dispassionate. As men are gunned down on the battlefield, they fall to the side while other soldiers move on. It's rare that anyone stops to help an injured solider. Much of the movie unfolds like this, the audience rarely approaching the cast members as they go through the story.

Adding to this detachment is the novel-like approach to the story. Thackeray's book was written in the first-person, from Barry's perspective. Kubrick, instead, gives this role to an omniscient narrator. Any insight we get into the characters is from this perspective, an on-high position looking down on all the events as they on-fold. Michael Hordern provides the vocal and they are, typically, extremely dry. Sometimes, Hordern's narrator trails off, such as when a minor character dies and his obituary is read, which further emphasizes how little the humans mean in the story's vast narrative. Also adding to this novel-like approach is the chapter breaks throughout the film, the story broken into two halves like the book that proceeded it.

As you might've guessed, this approach does not make for the most involving film. If “2001: A Space Odyssey” was deliberately paced, “Barry Lyndon” is so slow that it feels like it barely moves at time. The events progress on without much momentum, the story at times feeling aimless. The sluggish pacing is combined with a daunting three hour and five minute run time. So “Barry Lyndon” is asking a lot of its audience and, at times, its gorgeous photography and intimately recreated period details do not seem to justify such an extensive length and slow pace.

Thackeray's novel, which fell squarely into the picaresque genre, is widely regarded as one of the earliest literary examples of an anti-hero. Redmon Barry, at first, is motivated primarily by his own selfish wants. After falling in love with his cousin, he antagonizes and eventually duels the man that would guarantee her family continued comfortable wealth. After joining the army, he eventually decides to desert, disinterested in serving for so long and risking death. He lies his way into the Prussian army and continues to lie until he gets caught. Though Barry only acts in his own self-interest, there is admittedly something likable about the guy. He's a rogue, bucking traditional rules in pursuit of wealth and success.

At least, he is likable up to a certain point. Half-way through the film, any redeeming quality Barry has is lost. He seduces the Countess strictly because he wants her money. He abuses her son, using any excuse to whip the boy. He openly cheats on his wife, sleeping with maids and other random women. He takes advantage of the Countess' wealth, spending extravagantly on frivolities. At this point, Barry has graduated from likable rake to full-blown cad. This makes an already slow film even harder to relate to. The only humanizing quality Barry receives during the film's second half is his devotion to his son, which is a story that ends tragically. This turn makes an already difficult to watch film even harder to relate with.

Kubrick only got the film bankrolled by agreeing to let an A-lister star. (Supposedly, Richard Harris was his original pick.) Ultimately, the choice came down to Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neil. When Redford became unavailable, O'Neil got the part. At the time of production, O'Neil was coming off the massive success of “Love Story.” This, it turns out, was the only time O'Neil was considered a bankable star, as he quickly fell from the public eye. O'Neal's performance is as stuffy as the film around him. He works well, embodying Barry as a young rake and later a rich asshole. Ultimately, it's a hard performance to read, O'Neal and Kubrick keeping the title character at arm's length.

The film does see Kubrick revisiting themes that interest him. In “Dr. Strangelove” and “A Clockwork Orange,” he tackled the absurdity of the masculine desire for violence. Similar thoughts are bouncing around inside “Barry Lyndon.” Barry's adventure begins with sexual desire and his libido. His inability to be faithful to his wife eventually leads to his downfall. When he first meets the Countess, she is married to a rich count in a wheelchair that clearly can't please her. By the story's end, Barry has lost a leg, walking with clutches. So Barry meets a similar fate as the man he dethroned, symbolically castrated, his desire for sex and power being his own undoing. (And then there's the stuff involving the two seemingly homosexual soldiers Barry spies on and his one true friend in the story, which repeatedly asks to kiss him. Read into that all you want.)

That's one example of the sense of dramatic irony in the story. Another is the reoccurring duels. The film begins with a duel, Barry's father dying in one before he's even born. Barry's journey begins with a duel, shooting the Captain and later discovering that the entire thing had been staged. The story climaxes with a duel, Barry shooting at his own step-son, who insists on continuing the duel despite being obviously nervous, despite his stepfather allowing him an out. That Barry falls to the same fate as his dad, that he is looses a duel to a tenacious young man, suggests all of these events are happening in a cycle. A man has a thirst for power, becomes complacent in his victory, and is then dethrone by a younger man who wants it more. And so history goes on.

The presentation of “Barry Lyndon” is so stately and still that the occasional emotional outburst startles the viewer. Probably the best example of this is when Redmond becomes so enraged with his step-son, that he violently beats him in a crowded room. Suddenly, Kubrick's distant direction comes alive, moving through the chaotic conflict with the character. Later, Barry is reduced to tears by his son's unexpected death. This too is another island of emotional content in a distant, cold film.

“Barry Lyndon” was not the commercial success Warner Bros. hoped for when they agreed to produce Kubrick's next film. Why the studio would ever expect a film this slow, this long, this difficult to be a box office success, I don't know. Of course, as with everything Kubrick has done, “Barry Lyndon” would be reevaluated in time. It's a favorite of many film scholars and considered one of the greatest films ever made by some. That's an enthusiasm I can't share. “Barry Lyndon” is gorgeous, a technical marvel, but ultimately much too cold to be worth watching more than once. [Grade: C+]

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1971)

9. A Clockwork Orange

Now, Stanley Kubrick is widely regarded as one of the greatest visionaries in all of cinema. In his life time, his films received a far more polarizing reaction. None of his films generated a level of controversy like “A Clockwork Orange” did. While some immediately recognized the film's brilliance, others were critical of its transgressive content. Making a unrepentant sociopath the story's anti-hero offended some. The movie's violence was especially controversial. After a few copycat crimes in the U.K., Kubrick withdrew the movie from circulation himself. Forty-six years later, the movie has not lost its ability to generate debate.

Alex DeLarge is not your usual teenager. In a crumbling future London, he leads a gang of teenage delinquents. At night, they roam the city, stealing, beating, raping, and creating as much chaos as possible. During the day, Alex stays home from school, ignores his apathetic parents, and relishes the music of his idol, Ludwig van Beethoven.  Alex's fun is soon to end. His gang betrays him, leaving him at the home of a woman he just murdered. Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. When he hears that an experimental new treatment leads to an early release, he leaps at it. The treatment conditions Alex's body to respond to any violence with intense sickness. Soon, he's a free man but his free will has been stolen from him.

The political and social intention of “A Clockwork Orange” is evident in the film and has been discussed so much over the years that there's no need to go too deeply into it. Alex is a psychopathic monster of the highest degrade, an unleashed id that steals, murders, beats, and rapes as it suits him. But “A Clockwork Orange” is ultimately more critical of a government that attempts to steal the individual's free will, stating that mankind should be allowed to be evil over having no choice at all. This is stated in the film itself, as the prison's chaplain more-or-less spells things out for the viewer. Yet Kubrick's focus on the brutal punishment Alex receives after his treatment allows a larger theme to emerge. DeLarge delivering carnage on random people is awful. So is the government robbing him of his freedom of choice. The film applies the anti-war concept Kubrick has explored in his earlier films to society in general, concluding that all violence – from the individual, from the state, regardless of ideology – is abhorrent.

“A Clockwork Orange” also sees Kubrick exploring other elements of the science-fiction genre. “2001” showed an orderly, very clean future. The quasi-futuristic setting of “A Clockwork Orange” is the complete opposite. The cities are filthy. Criminals and the homeless walk the streets. The fashion trends are gaudy, such as unflatteringly tight spandex and garish colored hair.  Tinny electronic music is often heard on the radio. It's a vulgar, run-down world. And it's nearly recognizable as our own. The world of “A Clockwork Orange” is a muddier reflection of our Earth, a science fiction future that only slightly exaggerates the problems that already exist.

All of Kubrick's films have cult followings to some degree, due to his influences and critical standing. Yet “A Clockwork Orange” seems to connect most passionately with the most people. You can attribute this following to a few elements: Its dark humor, deeper readings, and clueless teenagers missing the point. Overall, I think the film's visual touches are what attract people the most. The costume design has become rightly iconic. Alex's press-on eyelash, bowler hat, white suspenders, and codpiece are immediately recognizable. The buildings and interior rooms on display suggest a future setting while still seeming plausible. The Korovo Milk Bar is a unique set that lingers in the viewer's mind. Lastly, the Natsat dialect Alex and his droogs speak has garnered a following of its own. These touches not only affect the viewer but further sell the film's setting as fully thought-out and formed.

On his ninth motion picture, Stanley Kubrick's visual design has practically reached a point of parody. The film's visuals are constructed down to the tiniest detail, showing the filmmaker's upmost precision. Individual shots have become iconic. Such as the opening slow pan off of Alex's face, sitting in the milk bar. Or the droogs walking down the alley towards the old man, their silhouettes framed by a blue light. The often triangular framing of the shots subtly suggest the razor-sharp focus of the filmmaking. Less discussed is the looser shots Kubrick also incorporates. Such as the camera shifting around Alex attacking the author's wife or the cat lady, the camera bobbing over the character's shoulders. These moments establish the anarchic energy of the protagonist in a world that is cold to anyone's suffering.

The film's “ultra-violence” was a source of controversy at the time of release but strikes a modern viewer as surprisingly tame. The way the boys beat the homeless man, smash a rival gang through chairs or windows, or the slow-motion clubbing Alex delivers to his droogs are certainly brutal and ferocious. Yet gorier movies had existed before and would certainly flood theaters afterwards. I suspect it was not the beatings and slashings that upset moral guardians so much in 1971. Instead, the film's nihilistic atmosphere was more disconcerting. There is no moral safe zone in “A Clockwork Orange.” Alex DeLarge is the most despicable delinquent possible and he's the story's de-facto hero. The government performs unethical experiments on prisoners and suppresses political discontent. Every authority figure is clueless, hollow, or equally corrupt. This is a hopeless, vicious world and not one easily shaken off.

The movie's sexual violence was especially discussed at the time. The beating and rape of the author and his wife is still an unflinchingly intense sequence. “Singin' in the Rain” would forever be connected with this act of cinematic transgression, the song pinpointing Alex's complete lack of empathy. Recalling “Dr. Strangelove,” Kubrick peppers the film with phallic symbolism. Aside from the obvious stuff – like the codpiece – any elongated object drips with connotations. Alex's cane features a testicular shaped handle. He wears a mask with a phallic nose during the home invasion. He has a pet snake, which is killed while he's in prison, suggesting his psychic castration. By the time Alex is literally clobbering a woman to death with a penis sculpture, the intention is clear. The teenage protagonist is a raging, unfettered gonad, representing all the evils of human machismo, unleashed and unpoliced.

As I said above, at least a portion of “A Clockwork Orange's” fan base is composed of people who don't pick up on the film's clear anti-violence themes and get vicarious thrills out of Alex's bad behavior. That Kubrick isn't outwardly judgmental of the villain protagonist, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions, might've contributed to this. Yet it seems Anthony Burgess and Kubrick foresaw people misreading the text. While in prison, Alex is forced to read the Bible. He enjoys the scenes of sex and gore in the Old Testament, imagining himself whipping Christ and killing philistines. Imagine that: A teenager only noticing the surface details of a story and completely ignoring an obvious moral lesson. Teenagers liable to idolize Alex DeLarge as a cool dude will probably miss that criticism but Kubrick was clearly aware of the likelihood of that audience emerging.

That scene is one example of the dark humor the director uses to temper the story's more extreme elements. Alex's smart-ass reactions to his parole officer or the various prison officials are clearly meant to lighten the mood, depending on how you feel about the lead character. A genuinely funny moment is when the protagonist falls face-first, suddenly, into a plate of spaghetti. There's also something goofy and amusing about the sequence of Alex having sex with two girls, in sped-up footage, set to the William Tell Overture. (That's one of the few major changes from the book, where both girls are only ten years old and are drugged beforehand.) “A Clockwork Orange” doesn't provide the hilarity of “Dr. Strangelove,” which would probably be deeply inappropriate given the material, but there are some laughs here.

I don't know if audiences were meant to like Alex exactly, though we're clearly meant to emphasize with him to a certain degree. Yet Malcolm McDowell's performance is so charismatic that you have to admit the character is at least interesting. You can see why his droogs are so loyal to him. McDowell makes the character's humor evident, even if his actions are indefensible. His often sarcastic narration adds to that humor. McDowell's big blue eyes hide a cold indifference to other people. There's something fascinating about the contrast between his artistic love of Beethoven and the casual ways he beats and rapes others. It's no wonder that McDowell would become a cult star, still incredibly busy and bringing his unique presence to countless films today.

Building so much of “A Clockwork Orange” around classical music creates an interesting contrast with “2001.” The lush, orchestral arrangements of classical music in that film makes the often electronic versions of Beethoven and Rossini seem vulgar in comparison. This is intentional, commenting on the despair of the future setting and coarseness of Alex's personality. Of course, the music from Wendy Carlos and others would become iconic in their own right. Carlos' bleeping and blooping variations on the well-known pieces have an interesting energy in their right, halting and leaping in odd directions.

You don't need me to tell you that “A Clockwork Orange” is still a vital, darkly humorous, powerful, and intense motion picture. It's infamy has made it one of Kubrick's most discussed works, maybe only dwarfed by “2001” in that regard. The film is a challenging masterpiece, raising questions about the value of morality while forcing viewers to question their own assumptions. The meticulous performances, set designs, direction, and music only adds to the film's reputation as one of the great director's greatest efforts. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1968)

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey

“2001: A Space Odyssey” occupies a rare place in pop culture history. It's frequently regarded as one of the best films ever made, easily topping most lists devoted to the greatest science-fiction films. The film has been referenced and parodied more times than anyone could count. As a young movie fan interested in science fiction, I had read a lot about the film before ever seeing it. This was the film that made me understand who Stanley Kubrick was. When I finally sat down to watch perhaps the greatest sci-fi epic ever, my initial reaction was boredom, frustration, and bafflement. I didn't get it, simply put. Over the years, I've revisited the film a few times, my estimation of it rising every time.

In the early centuries of the human race, ape-like proto-humans cower in caves. Until a mysterious monolith appears to them, allowing the apes to leap forward on the evolutionary ladder. Millions of years later, man has reached the stars. A similar monolith has been uncovered on the moon, producing a screeching sound in the astronaut's ears. A few months later, the Discovery One leaves on a mission to the moons of Jupiter. The computer aboard the ship, HAL 9000, has been given conflicting orders. As a result, he turns on the human crew, murdering them one by one. Dr. Bowman, the only survivor, must make it to Jupiter alone. There, he uncovers the mysterious creators of the featureless monoliths.

Following the release of “Dr. Strangelove,” Kubrick became interested in making a science fiction film. He sought to make a sci-fi movie that would be taken seriously by critics, that would elevate the genre, rising above its pulpy roots. This would be a movie whose goals were no less ambitious than tracking the evolution of the entire human race. Kubrick would team with Arthur C. Clarke, creating a plausible future. The ray guns, robots, faster-than-lights, and outrageous aliens of other sci-fi films were not found here. Instead, we see a space without sound or gravity and realistic cosmic travel. The real year 2001 didn't quite live up to this film's vision. We didn't have artificial intelligence, commercial space travel, or discovered unknowable alien monoliths. However, compared to the usual excesses of the genre, “2001” was an incredibly realistic, grounded sci-fi story whose ideas are just as huge as its special effects.

And it's really, really slow. The pacing problems evident in “Lolita” have grown into a real problem with Kubrick. With “2001,” the director sought to create a primarily visual experience. There's minimal dialogue and many long scenes. Yet this approach also makes the movie seem incredibly distant. The audience often seems as far away from the events of the film as the monoliths are from humanity. At times, the movie feels less like a flowing narrative and more like an extended experiment. The result is a movie that feels much longer than its already extensive 142 minute run time. “2001” is undeniably a great film and it is also, undeniably, ponderously paced.

Perhaps “2001” is most impressive as a technical achievement. The film's special effects were unlike anything people had seen in 1968. Nearly fifty years later, they still hold up extremely well. Douglas Trumbull and the rest of the film's team would essentially birth the modern age of special effects. The model work is incredibly detailed and realistic looking. Down to the tiniest aspect, everything serves a purpose. Moreover, the way the models are shot are incredibly impressive. The camera moves around them like an elegant ballet, brilliantly suggesting movement and their place in space. Using elaborate camera tricks, people and objects moving around a zero gravity environment look completely real. There's a reason those conspiracy theories about Kubrick faking the moon landing refuse to go away. “2001” looks real.

The director also continues to experiment with narrative structure. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001” is essentially split up into three parts: The opening sequence devoted to proto-man's first encounter with the monolith, the segment detailing the discovery of a monolith on the moon, and finally the doomed Jupiter mission. However, this presents challenges of its own. While “Dr. Strangelove” evenly separated its run time among three different locations, “2001” presents three more-or-less unrelated stories. The decision contributes to the detached feeling. The unknowable alien monoliths are the only through-line in a story that crosses the boundaries of time and space. This choice also doesn't help the slow pacing. The main point of the story, the Jupiter mission, doesn't begin until nearly an hour in.

If Kubrick perfected his style with “Dr. Strangelove,” he applies that same perfection to an even wider canvas in “2001.” The director is unwavering in his documentary style approach. There are many long shots, displaying characters walking from one location to another. The humans often appear as bit players in a large landscape, as if recorded by a far-off cameraman. Even the Dawn of Man scenes feel captured from actual events, contributing to the film's overall realistic tone. Kubrick's camerawork is often incredibly still, moving slowly and steadily. This, combined with the minimal use of dialogue, creates a somewhat eerie feeling. Yet the film is also characterized by movement. A sudden edit of a tapir crashing to the ground or the balletic way the spaceship scenes are shot show that every move Kubrick made was precise and planned.

The movie's scientific approach is most apparent in its human characters. Which is to say, they barely exist. The human cast members are seemingly interchangeable. We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd in the moon sequence. We spend some time with him, seeing him communicating with his earthbound daughter. Yet these scenes exist less to develop Dr. Floyd and more to show off the movie's futuristic setting. Floyd exits the film soon enough, replaced by David Bowman. The actors, William Sylvester and Keir Dullea, even look a little alike. We learn almost nothing about either man's interests, life, or goals. They are simply pawns, designed to move the story along. It's not even that bad performers are involved. Dullea gives Bowman some personable touches and Gary Lockwood's Dr. Poole is also vaguely humanistic. Kubrick is interested in the grand themes and the technical minutia, not the people. This is yet another reason why “2001” can be a slow watch.

This was obviously intentional on the director's behalf. Emphasizing the thinness of the human cast is the status of the film's one truly captivating character. You know who I'm talking about. HAL 9000 would become the prototype for dozens of mad supercomputers. His calm, nearly monotone voice would be widely imitated, as would his logical disregard for human life. Despite this, HAL is a compelling character. He shows a subtle humor. He expresses confusion to the events around him, a surprising humanity creeping into that cold voice. The exact reason why he turns on the Discovery One crew is kept vague, in keeping with Kubrick's mysterious tone. Yet his descent into madness seems all too understandable. Most chilling, HAL's death is oddly touching. He expresses fear at the thought of dying and slips into a child-like state, almost like a form of senility, before the end. HAL may be a computer but he's ultimately the closest thing “2001” has to a human heart.

Which may, indeed, be the point. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is directly concerned with the definition of humanity. In its opening minutes, the ape-like proto-humans do not resemble men. After interacting with the monolith, discovering that a bone that be used as a club, their body language becomes more expressive, more human-like. The brilliant way Kubrick connects the ape-men to modern man, via that widely reference transition, shows how far humanity has come. Yet the chilly people of the future seem to lack the animal instinct of their ancestors. Enter HAL, a computer that acts more human than the humans that built him. And all this behavior is contrasted with the barely understood aliens, beings so far above humanity that they can't even be comprehended. Does HAL's fear of death make him human? Does the role of violence in the film – the apes bludgeoning each other with bones, HAL turning on the astronauts, Bowman murdering HAL by pulling his mind apart – connect the characters in a common humanity? The final scene shows Bowman seemingly transcending humanity, further addressing the film's central question. By tracking the evolution of humanity, from the soil to the stars, Kubrick finds himself wondering what humanity even means.

The only element of “2001” that has been referenced more than “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” is its soundtrack. After this movie, Richard Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra” would always be associated with sudden revelations of greatness or massively important change. The use of classical music furthers “2001's” feeling of an elaborate documentary. Yet the contrast between the beauty of the music and the cold, mechanical world adds some warmth to these images. When played against the Blue Danube Waltz, the shuttles and stations moving through space become a ballet. The elegance of the music is certainly a release from the throbbing, inhuman soundscape. The brain-piercing hum of the monolith or the utter silence of space characterizes many scenes, further emphasizing the film's eerie atmosphere.

As I said, my very first viewing of “2001: A Space Odyssey” was characterized by boredom and bafflement. The boredom came from the movie's first 132 minutes. The bafflement came from its last ten. Simply put: What the hell is up with that ending? The narrative intent is widely known now. Dr. Bowman passes through a star gate and is abducted and observed by the same aliens that built the monolith. Knowing this now, the scene reads a little differently. The flashing lights, extreme iris close-ups, and swirling colors are an admittedly fascinating depiction of transcending dimensions. The film's final images – Bowman appearing in an opulent bedroom – stand out against the sterile, scientific setting of the rest of the film. In its extended last act, Kubrick overturns the standards of time and space, pushing its themes past human understanding. Which is equal parts brilliant and, yes, baffling.

Ultimately, it's impossible to deny the power of “2001.” The film's ambitions are so far reaching, that the viewer must truly admire what the movie is trying to do. The special effects were groundbreaking and are still impressive. Kubrick and Clarke set out to make the greatest science fiction film ever made and, by many accounts, they succeeded. It's a difficult watch, long and dry, with a story that is equally tedious and incomprehensible. Yet the images and use of music have endured over the decades, still influencing new films and filmmakers to this day. It's never going to be my favorite Kubrick film but it is undeniably brilliant. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1964)

7. Dr. Strangelove 
or: How I Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Throughout the sixties, the Cold War threatened to get hot several times. Tensions were running high. The nuclear arms race showed no sign of slowing down. Many feared that the world was teetering on the edge of complete destruction. Pop culture reflected these fears. Two separated novels, “Red Alert” and “Fail Safe,” both presented dramatic scenarios where a nuclear war breaks out. Stanley Kubrick read “Red Alert” and became interested in adapting it. As he worked on the screenplay, absurdities in the premise kept jumping out to him. Over time, the hyper grim thriller “Red Alert” developed into “Dr. Strangelove,” a comedy of previously unseen darkness. An absurdist satire about the all-too-plausible end of the world might seem like an unlikely premise but resulted in an immediate critical success. I'm far from alone in this opinion that “Dr. Strangelove” must be one of the best comedies ever made.

It's the height of the Cold War and someone has done the unthinkable. Jack D. Ripper, an American air force general, has come to believe that a Communist conspiracy is taking over the country. He concocts a plan to incite nuclear war. He sends the secret codes to a bomber flying near Russia. The pilots intend to deliver the apocalyptic payload. Deep beneath the Pentagon, the President and his top men hope to undo Ripper's plans before it results in mutually assured destruction. Once the Russia ambassador assures them the Soviets have a Doomsday Bomb – an apocalyptic nuke that will destroy the world and will be automatically triggered by an attack on Soviet land – it becomes a race against time. This, however, is easier said than done because everyone involved is very, very nervous.

“Paths of Glory” was so effective as an anti-war movie because it hinged about the inherent inhumanity of warfare. “Dr. Strangelove” is equally effective by pointing out the absurdity. The film zeroes in on how the Cold War was a massive, elaborate dick measuring contest between two superpowers. The film is rife with sexual symbolism. It begins with the phallic image of an airplane's fuel pump, continuing on to a mid-air coitus of plugs inserted into openings. Next, we meet a scantily clad woman and the unfulfilled sexual desires between her and her lover. Later, we learn that General Ripper instigated this war to protect his precious bodily fluids. That this insight came to him during an unfulfilling sexual act. The film concludes with Major Kong riding a phallic-shaped nuke down to an explosive detonation, screaming all the while. The last scene is men discussing the possibilities of repopulating the Earth. The names – Strangelove, Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper – drip with connotations. Pornographic magazines pop up in the movie's margins. Phallic imagery – guns, cigars, bombs, even bald heads – reoccur throughout. “Dr. Strangelove” makes the point that international war is tied up with sexual frustration. That the cause of all conflict is geopolitical blue balls.

“Dr. Strangelove's” satire also works so well by zeroing in on the smaller details in such a situation. Even as the planet hurdles towards complete annihilation, it's impossible for men to let go of petty rivalries. Turgidson and the Russian ambassador, famously, fight in the war room because Turgidson fears espionage. In the film's final moments, we discover he was right to be concerned. What benefit would photographs of the big board do after the world is destroyed? The planet isn't even devastated before Turgidson and other military officials start to go on about a mine shaft gap between America and Russia. This further feeds into the film's thesis that global actions like war are rooted in petty, humiliating, human foibles.

“Dr. Strangelove” also sees Stanley Kubrick perfecting his visual style. If anyone asked me what a Kubrick film looked like, I would point them towards this one. The director's calm but fluid camerawork takes dominance here. We frequently move between static shots of men talking, the film slowly moving into the spaces around them. Close-ups on faces make up much of the film. The notorious Kubrick Stare finally emerges, in the form of General Ripper's madly starring face, his cigar extending from his mouth, erect. Shadows are used extensively, the players often silhouetted across darkened backgrounds. The titular doctor often appears, partially shrouded in darkness. As controlled as “Dr. Strangelove's” visual palette is, Kubrick's background in documentaries also become apparent. The scenes of soldiers fighting around Ripper's office, before a billboard that ironically says “Peace is Our Business,” feel like real war-time newsreel, providing a gritty, on-the-ground feel. All these elements combine to make the ideal Kubrick presentation, which the director would continue to pursue throughout the rest of his career.

Scripting wise, “Dr. Strangelove” presented a tricky task. The film's narrative is split in three. Captain Mandrakes' attempt to communicate with General Ripper occupies one part of the run time while the conflict in the war room, where President Muffley and his aides attempt to decipher the situation, occupies another. Finally, the scenes set aboard the bomber plane, of the men flying a nuke into Soviet territory, ties the separate threads together. The editing in the film is excellent, cutting between these three scenarios in clean, precise ways. This manages to build tension, showing us one series of events influencing another across the globe. The script is beautifully balanced. The film's construction follows that elegant form.

Telephones feature prominently on many of “Dr. Strangelove's” movie posters. This is fitting, as large sections of the movie are devoted to tense phone calls. One of the film's greatest comedic moments happens when President Muffley calls up the Soviet Prime Minister. What follows is a masterclass in one-man comedy, as Peter Sellers hilariously plays a milquetoast politician attempting to explain to his drunk rival that nuclear war is imminent. The way Muffley attempts to soften the blow, or how childish his reactions are, further point to the absurdity within international conflicts. It's notable that, in a film filled with images of frustrated sexuality and orgasmic explosions, President Muffley comes off as totally impotent and asexual. He's a perfectly hilarious but utterly spineless politician.

Peter Sellers liked playing dress-up and assuming multiple identities. His characters' habit of role-playing was distracting in “Lolita.” In “Strangelove,” Sellers' multiple characters show different comedic strategies. President Muffley is a somewhat child-like buffoon, woefully unprepared for the responsibilities thrust upon him. Captain Mandrake is an increasingly nervous fellow, paired up with a succession of increasingly dryer straight men. Sellers' perfects the baffled reaction as a comedic device after listening to an utterly committed Sterling Hayden spout off insane nonsense about fluoridation and precious bodily fluids. After Hayden suddenly exits the film, Mandrake faces off against the hilariously literal “Bat” Guano, a soldier who is a little too by the book. Sellers' befuddled reaction to some obstruction is a highlight of the film, one of its most reliably hilarious antics.

Lastly, Dr. Strangelove represents the film as its most unabashedly silly. Everything about Strangelove is weird or goofy. His German accent is uproariously exaggerated. His name is funny, as is his original German moniker. The clenched, strangled way he croaks all his dialogue is off-kilter in the best way. By the end, Sellers goes for full-blown physical comedy. His failing attempts to control an arm with its own minds produced laughter even in the other cast members, who a sharp-eyed viewer can spot cracking up. Strangelove's not-so-secret Nazi tendencies is not only a comment on the former Nazi scientists who were employed in American science sectors but also a sly criticism of the fascism inherent in all government. Strangelove's final shouts of “Mein Fuhrer!” is the perfect comedic non-sequitur to conclude the film on. Each of Sellers' characters are delightful comedic creations.

Not all the laughs belong to Sellers' three-pronged performance. It's a well known anecdote that George C. Scott disliked his performance in the final film. Scott would perform scenes two ways: In a ridiculous way and a more serious way. Kubrick assuring him that the latter would be used but the director had no intention of keeping that promise. Regardless of what Scott thought, his performance as Buck Turgidson is one for the history books. The character blusters through all of his scenes, commending the strength of the air crew that will bring about the end of the world. This is Buck's usual reaction, a doubling down on macho bullshit no matter how severe the situation gets. Scott's physicality is commendable, the actor turning a simple stumble into a delightful full-body roll. It's a brilliant display of buffoonery from one of America's most craggy character actors.

In the third part of “Dr. Strangelove's” triptych narrative, you can most see its roots as a serious thriller. The sequences above the bomber plane are mostly played entirely straight. The men are going about their mission, determined to see things through. Kubrick's camera gently roams around the tight spaces of the plane, emphasizing the tension of the scenario. Normally, it would be a pretty intense sequence... Except for small things that push the scenes towards comedy. Such as Slim Pickens' deeply goofy performance. Rumor has it that Pickens thought he was making a drama but his acting is so wildly silly, a full-blown cartoon character introduced into a serious situation. Especially since the other members of the bomber team, including a very young James Earl Jones, play things entirely straight.

Pretty much every element of “Dr. Strangelove” is precisely constructed. The set design is legendary. The war room set – its circle of lines, round table, and big board – would go on to influence real world politics. The musical score, meanwhile, never lets on that the film is supposed to be a comedy.  Natural sound is utilized in many scenes. Laurie Johnson's soundtrack features a terse rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” during the scenes devoted to the air crew. Of course, mention must be made of the closing montage of nuclear annihilation set to Vera Lynn's “We'll Meet Again.” It's a hilariously poetic note to take things out on, the music providing an ironic contrast to the apocalyptic images.

You probably already know that “Fail Safe,” the rival nuclear apocalypse novel, also got made into a movie. By all accounts, it's a good film. However, I've never seen it. Truthfully, considering how many times I've watched “Dr. Strangelove,” how ingrained its gags and dialogue has become in my mind, I wonder if I'd even be able to take “Fail Safe” seriously. “Dr. Strangelove” has been one of my favorite films for years, as it still makes me laugh incredibly hard every time I watch it. Considering the grim films Kubrick would soon specialize in, it's interesting that he would also direct one of the funniest comedies of all time. [Grade: A+]