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Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Kubrick’

Hindsight is a curious and not always reliable beast. I was at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in London the other weekend and it only confirms, as though that were needed, his status as one of the most revered film directors in history – one of those handful of people who have been able to combine enormous commercial success with the most exacting artistic standards. After watching a film like 2001 or Barry Lyndon, it’s impossible to conceive of a Kubrick who wasn’t quite certain of his art, or just finding his way behind the camera. You just expect piece after piece of majestic, formal brilliance.

And then Former Next Desk Colleague offered to lend me The Killing, Kubrick’s 1956 movie and the one widely considered to be his mainstream debut. Would you recognise it as a Kubrick movie were his name not in the credits? Probably not, but if you put any two or three of his later movies together and show them to someone not familiar with films, they would be unlikely to instantly recognise them as the work of the same artist.

The film opens with black-and-white, documentary-style footage of a racetrack, over which the credits roll, accompanied by some strident music. It soon becomes clear that we are in a film noir, and one which is being executed with a high degree of formal and technical confidence: the story is told out of chronological order, with some scenes overlapping and being shown from different perspectives. The actual story is simple enough: veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is planning one last big job before he retires (it’s a bit of an old chestnut, but never mind), and to this end he is putting together a team of people to help him rob the racetrack of $2 million (back in 1956, $2 million was probably a lot more than $2 million, too). Amongst those in on the scheme are a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), one of the track bartenders (Joe Sawyer), and an unhappily married teller (Elisha Cook Jr).

Naturally, things are never going to go completely to plan in this sort of film and the first problem is that George, the teller, just has to go and tell his wife (Marie Windsor) that he is onto a good thing and will soon have a lot more money. Clay attempts to warn her off, but she persists in telling her lover (Vince Edward), in the hopes that they can somehow help themselves to more than just George’s share of the money. Unaware of all this, Clay continues his preparation for the heist, which include hiring a couple of other men to create diversions for him – a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey). The plan has multiple stages and relies heavily on precise timing. Given the rather variable quality of the men on his team, can Johnny Clay get away with it?

Well, obviously this is a genre movie – or several different flavours of genre movie, to be precise. Most obviously it’s a heist movie, and sticks relatively close to the formula of introducing the different members of the gang and establishing their special contributions to the undertaking – although Kubrick avoids the scene where the planner runs through exactly what’s supposed to happen in the course of the robbery, preferring to let the viewer find out as it’s going on. It is also unmistakably a kind of film noir – while much of the film takes place in broad daylight, and there isn’t much in the way of visual stylisation, there is certainly a deeply amoral, cynical tone to the story, even perhaps shading over into existential angst as the film nears its conclusion.

Acting honours go Hayden, who is commandingly cool as Johnny Clay, but also to Cook and Windsor as the deeply unhappy couple whose failing relationship turns out to be central to the unravelling plot. I understand that Marie Windsor’s career was apparently impacted by her sheer height, meaning that most Hollywood leads were reluctant to appear with her; well, she is well-cast here with the diminutive Elisha Cook, although you do wonder just how these two got together in the first place.

However, it is the taut and efficient way the story is told which really makes the film distinctive. This is a very good genre movie, but even so you would struggle to recognise that the director would go to be quite as feted as Kubrick eventually was, and there are certainly points which you suspect a more experienced Stanley Kubrick might have handled a little more deftly – the terse voice-over establishing the chronology of the film is a little bit on the nose, and there’s also arguably an issue with Kwariani’s thickly-accented delivery making his lines unintelligible (shades of Tor Johnson in Plan Nine from Outer Space). Still, he makes for an effective heavy (this was Kwariani’s only film – apparently he died, some years later, after single-handedly taking on five much younger men in a street fight).

The film has a slightly slow start, but once the characters are established and the preparations for the heist are under way, it becomes a completely involving thriller, and a deservedly influential one. You can detect elements of The Killing in films as apparently different as Logan Lucky (another tale of a complicated heist at a racetrack), while I’m pretty sure the rubber mask Heath Ledger wears during the opening robbery in The Dark Knight is a homage to the one worn by Sterling Hayden in this film. The most obvious beneficiary, however, is Reservoir Dogs, another cut-up tale of a robbery which goes badly awry amidst mistrust between the thieves, concluding with a significant body-count.

Some would hail Tarantino as a director in Kubrick’s league, although I am not one of them. Once again I find myself obliged to say that while this may be one of Kubrick’s minor works, it is still a film most directors would be extremely proud of. The structure of the script we can certainly credit Kubrick for, even though the dialogue was apparently the work of one Jim Thompson, a crime novelist, and the deftness of the camerawork and cinematography is also clearly down to him. Hindsight is a untrustworthy and deceptive thing, but you would be forgiven for concluding that Kubrick began in the same way he continued: this is a superior, classy movie.

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Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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The Phoenix (one of our local non-multiplexes) ran a short season of Stanley Kubrick films last summer, comprising (if memory serves) 2001, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and The Shining – a quintet which, for the most part, should remind any sensible viewer of just why Kubrick is revered as one of the greatest directors ever to fake the moon landings – sorry, I meant to say ‘draw breath’. That said, missing from the run (which otherwise included nearly every film Kubrick made between 1960 and 1980) was A Clockwork Orange, originally released in 1971.

I suppose this is not really surprising when one considers that this is a film with a history of not appearing, having been withdrawn from UK cinemas in 1973 and not issued for home entertainment purposes at Kubrick’s own request, after he received threats because of it. When I was at university in the mid 1990s it still had that cachet of being an illegal, transgressive piece of art: bootleg copies were on sale next to those of Reservoir Dogs (likewise unavailable on legitimate VHS at the time). I distinctly recall that even a TV documentary about A Clockwork Orange was subject to a legal challenge and withdrawn by the makers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this very remarkable film is that it still retains most of its power to shock and disturb. It is back in UK cinemas at the moment and the screening I attended did not feature the usual card from the BBFC, presaging the start of the film. Instead, the crimson field of the opening titles smashed into view unheralded, accompanied by the disquieting radiophonic howl of the opening music. What follows the opening credits is one of the most vivid sequences in all of modern cinema, as we accompany teenager Alex (Malcolm McDowell) on a typical night out. That sounds fairly mundane, but in fact we are plunged into what is essentially a kind of bacchanal of violence: verbal, physical, sexual, motorised and musical. The near-future stylings of the film and the Russian-influenced argot of Alex and his droog gang-members are just alienating enough to make the film compellingly strange rather than repulsive, but it is a close thing, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way that Kubrick’s direction and McDowell’s charisma conspire to make Alex a borderline-attractive antihero rather than the vicious monster we should probably perceive him as.

Of course, there is also his love of classical music, especially Beethoven, which is about as close as Alex gets to having a redeeming feature. Ironically, it is this, coupled to his own arrogance, which leads to Alex’s comeuppance – such as it is. Turned on by his droogs and finally nabbed by the police, Alex is sent to prison. It is here, a few years into a long prison term, that he first hears of the Ludovico technique – a method of rehabilitating prisoners and turning them into model citizens. Eagerly he volunteers, not quite realising what he is letting himself in for…

Sitting by my desk at work is a small but chunky volume listing the 101 greatest science fiction films (or something like that), and, sure enough, A Clockwork Orange features in it. It always seems to me this is one of those films which only just scrapes over the line – it is arguably set in one of those ten-minutes-into-the-future dystopias, the awful fashions and calculatedly tasteless art instantly evoking an exaggerated version of the 1970s. But the Ludovico technique is certainly the stuff of science fiction, allowing the film to address big questions of what it means to truly be a human being. The film’s thesis has been much articulated, almost to the point of overfamiliarity: by removing a person’s ability to make genuine moral choices and compelling them to exist in a state of petrified timidity, have you honestly made them ‘good’? The film’s energy and technique keeps the question interesting, although it departs significantly from Anthony Burgess’ novel by omitting the epilogue, in which an older Alex reflects on the excesses of his youth. The book’s conclusion appears to be that young men are naturally and inherently prone to violent misbehaviour, but they eventually grow out of it. (One should point out that Kubrick claimed only to have read the American edition of the novel, from which the final chapter was cut on the grounds it was unconvincing and unrealistic.)

Kubrick, naturally, is also interested in the Ludovico technique as a comment on the nature of cinema itself: the treatment room looks very like a cinema itself, with Alex strapped into his seat, literally a captive audience, unable to look away as scenes of violence play out before him. Some of these bear a striking resemblance to scenes from the film itself, which has to be a consciously self-reflexive touch. Thanks to the treatment, Alex is ultimately repelled and literally nauseated by what he sees – perhaps Kubrick is challenging the audience to compare their own responses to the violence that permeates his film.

Apart from this one plot device and a few scenes at the beginning, A Clockwork Orange feels strikingly non-futuristic when one watches it now. This is not to say it is a realistic or naturalistic film, of course: it most closely resembles a kind of parable or twisted allegory. There is something undeniably grotesque and over-the-top about every major character and the way they are performed – apart from Alex himself, there is the probation officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), the chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), the chief guard (Michael Bates), the minister (Anthony Sharp) and the writer whom Alex brutalises (Patrick Magee). These latter two serve another aspect of the film, which is its commentary, and indeed satire, of social and political attitudes. This is not light or even particularly funny satire: it is as savage and scathing as anything else in the film. On the other hand, Kubrick is scrupulously even-handed, treating both the authoritarian government and the supposedly progressive liberals with equal contempt, one side being happy to dehumanise their own citizens in the pursuit of good publicity, the other showing no concern for human life, as long as they can gain political advantage. (No wonder senior politicians have always seemed to be a bit wary of A Clockwork Orange: when the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe was asked to contribute to a documentary about it, around the time of the film’s re-release in 2000, she agreed on the proviso that she didn’t actually have to watch it.)

Its depiction of useless, self-interested politicians and violent, knife-wielding youth gangs are only two of the ways in which A Clockwork Orange feels as relevant today as it doubtless did nearly fifty years ago. But then this is a film about the biggest and most important of ideas: how we want to live as a society, and treat one another; just what is involved in being a good citizen; what is the essential nature of a human being? And it manages to do so with unforgettable visual style and a memorable musical score. At this point in his career, Kubrick made making masterpieces look very easy indeed.

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For a very long time, it was almost axiomatic that you could likely go your whole life without ever coming across a decent Stephen King adaptation; opinions were divided as to whether this was down to some inherently hard-to-reproduce quality in the man’s massively popular doorstep-novels, or simply because he was just really unlucky in his adaptors. People don’t seem to go on about this quite so much anymore, though this surely isn’t because there’s been a sudden spike in the quality of the films involved – maybe everyone’s expectations are lower. Or it may be because at least a couple of movies based on King have achieved a certain kind of critical respect – The Shawshank Redemption was regularly topping polls as one of the most popular films in the world, not that long ago, while the consensus with regard to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has also become markedly more favourable since the movie’s 1980 release.

This is a movie which King himself seems to have a rather ambivalent attitude about, once observing that Kubrick was just a bit too much of a cerebral rationalist to be able to come to grips with a story of the supernatural (which is what he wrote). Whether The Shining is a movie about supernatural events is just one of the many questions clustering densely about it; the real issue, if you ask me, is the extent to which Kubrick intended the film to provoke quite as much debate as it has done.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a struggling writer, who as the film starts agrees to take the post of winter caretaker at the beautiful but very isolated Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado. The job will mean being effectively cut off from civilisation for five months, but Jack rationalises this as giving him a good opportunity to get stuck into writing his new novel. He is bringing along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd); there are suggestions of past tensions in the family, not to mention that Danny seems to have some rather unusual faculties of his own.

The hotel’s head chef Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is quick to spot this, telling Danny that they share something called ‘the shining’, a psychic ability. Unfortunately, according to Hallorann the hotel itself has a similar sort of supernatural sentience, one perhaps shaped by – or responsible for – some rather traumatic and bloody events that have occurred there in the past. (The fact it was built on an Indian burial ground may also have something to do with it.)

Well, the family moves in, and initially all seems well: Jack works on his book, Danny plays in the hotel, and Wendy… does stuff too (King’s complaint that Kubrick reduces the character to a weak and irritating non-entity does seem to me to be justified). But soon it becomes apparent that other forces may be at work: Danny has terrifying visions, while Jack begins to find himself losing control of his anger and resentment towards his family, and perhaps even coming unstuck in time…

We should probably begin by addressing the question of whether The Shining is, indeed, one of the most terrifying horror movies ever made. I can only give my own personal opinion on this one, but I would have to say no – I find it to be a curious and rather mesmerising film, but not actually particularly scary (indeed, a couple of moments presumably intended to shock are actually quite funny). The film has the same kind of extremely measured and calculated quality as Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, which is admittedly very atmospheric but unlikely to generate much in the way of thrills or scares.

I am not sure that Kubrick’s decision to make the film quite so carefully ambiguous really works, either – it is never made entirely clear what exactly is going on. With the exception of a couple of events (one of them admittedly quite a key one, the release of Jack from the store room), there is no clear-cut evidence that supernatural forces are at work in the hotel – people could just be having hallucinations brought on by a psychological breakdown (although there does seem to be some reality to Hallorann and Danny’s ‘shining’ abilities). Even if one accepts that the malevolent ghosts of the hotel do have some kind of objective existence, the nature of their interest in Jack is never completely explained – Kubrick himself, in a rare moment when he was in the explanatory vein, suggested that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a former inhabitant of the hotel they were seeking to ‘reclaim’, but there’s not much evidence for this on screen.

Nor is the beginning of Torrance’s descent into madness really established: one minute he’s enjoying long lie-ins, and being generally mild-mannered and pleasant with his family, the next he’s staring out of the window at them with apparently murderous intent. Apparently a scene depicting Torrance discovering some old clippings about the hotel’s history and apparently being inspired by them, thus establishing the connection between man and place, was written but cut by Kubrick. I suppose this is also the place to comment on the wisdom of casting Jack Nicholson in this key role – he certainly gives a bravura performance, especially as the film goes on, but – given Nicholson’s general screen persona and acting style – it’s hardly a surprise when the character goes mad, nor does he particularly seem to fight it.

Then again, Torrance’s going crazy is one thing that everyone watching The Shining can agree upon. There is not much else, for the film is filled with curious little examples of what are either deliberate contradictions or simple continuity errors – the name of the previous caretaker is different on the two occasions it is mentioned, for instance, while furniture appears and disappears mid-scene. The interior lay-out of the hotel makes no topographical sense (there are impossibly large rooms and windows where no windows can exist). Kubrick seems to make such a point of certain elements of the film – for instance, Duvall spends most of it wearing clothes of the same colours, while there are unusually lengthy dissolves between scenes – that you can’t help thinking it must all mean something, that there is some kind of Shining code, which – once cracked – will allow you to figure out what the film is really about.

Then again, I recently watched Room 237, and I’m probably being influenced by it: this is the documentary that gave a number of especially dedicated Shining-watchers an opportunity to put forward their various wildly diverse and utterly irreconcilable theories about the film. Odd as it may seem, I’m not sure there is a particular interpretation of this film which is the ‘correct’ one – the point of it seems to be suggestive and ambiguous, without ever allowing the viewer the luxury of genuine certainty. You can see how that might potentially produce a genuinely unsettling and disturbing horror film, but The Shining is not it (for me, at least) – this is a substantial film (in every sense), but only in terms of its impressionistic power to mesmerise.

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We have apparently lived through some sort of mini-Golden Age of the Documentary Feature – don’t tell me you missed it! – with films like Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim, Man on Wire, and The Imposter all drawing serious attention from audiences not usually noted for their interest in non-fictitious times. Given this embarrassment of riches, it’s not really surprising that the odd really interesting film managed to sneak through without getting the profile it possibly deserved.

I’m thinking at the moment of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which came out in 2012. On reflection, perhaps it’s understandable that this is a film with more niche appeal – most of the ones mentioned at the top of the review were based around taking a fascinating but little-known true story and bringing it to life for a new audience. Room 237 is not this kind of film. This is a film for, let’s be honest, movie nerds, and people who are interested in movie nerdery.

 

There have been lots of good movies made about the making of other movies, some semi-fictional, some not. Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (in which Jack Nicholson moves himself and his family into an isolated hotel for the winter and comes down with the hammiest case of writer’s block in movie history). It is not, however, a film about the making of The Shining. It is a film in which various obscure movie nerds give their opinions as to what was going through Stanley Kubrick’s head when he was making The Shining.

Now, I have to be honest and admit the following: I’ve only ever seen The Shining once, over twenty years ago, and it’s one of those films I came away from wondering what all the fuss was about – it was curious, engaging, obviously made by someone with a very particular storytelling sensibility – but it wasn’t, you know, particularly frightening, which is surely the sine qua non of any self-respecting horror film (which, being based on an early Stephen King novel, this surely is).

Not knowing The Shining particularly well makes watching Room 237 (the title is drawn from a key location in the story) a rather curious experience. I have no particularly strongly-held beliefs about what this film is secretly about. I am not even sure I subscribe to the view that it even contains a secret message of any kind. However, Room 237 is populated by people who are absolutely certain that beneath its tale of psychological breakdown and (possibly) malevolent spectres, Kubrick had a very particular message that he wanted to send to the audience. The really weird thing is that none of them can agree on what it is.

One contributor is utterly convinced that the film is an allegory for the near-genocide of Native Americans by colonists to America (evidence: dialogue about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, the presence of Native American art throughout the film, a particular brand of tinned good being prominently featured). Then along comes someone else and reveals it is actually about the Nazi holocaust (evidence: Nicholson uses a certain brand of typewriter, a particular number is a motif in the script, and there is a suggestive dissolve between two scenes at one point). But it turns out they’re both wrong, because here comes a third commentator who reveals the whole story has some kind of connection of the legend of the Minotaur (evidence: a poster sort of looks a bit like a minotaur, there’s a couple of mazes in the story, and Nicholson looks a bit like a bull at one point).

Possibly the best-known thesis given an airing here is that of Jay Weidner, who argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded admission of his role in the faking of the Apollo moon landings (for which 2001: A Space Odyssey was basically the cover story). Like all his colleagues, Weidner is obviously sincere and obviously completely certain that what he is saying is true: the message is coded into almost every significant element of the movie, and also some things that are apparently insignificant (the pattern of the hotel carpet is apparently a dead giveaway). All the changes between the novel of The Shining and the film (which apparently ticked off author Stephen King so royally) are there solely to facilitate the film’s secret message.

The rabbit hole starts to yawn wide. It’s clear that Weidner not only thinks that the faked Apollo moon landings are connected to The Shining – he thinks that in a very crucial sense, it’s impossible to make sense of and really understand the film unless you approach it with this in mind. Which, of course, can’t be the case, because it is also obviously about the Holocaust, genocide, the legend of the Minotaur, and various other things.

At least these theories are based on a relatively conventional viewing of the movie. One person featured in Room 237 has gone to the trouble of carefully watching the movie and making maps of the hotel, in the process discovering that, architecturally, the place can’t exist – there are windows where no window can possibly be, for instance, and rooms overlap with each other. Was this a creative choice by Kubrick to indicate the Overlook somehow exists beyond conventional space? Or just dud continuity? Someone else has actually spent time watching two versions of The Shining playing simultaneously, one of them backwards, and discovered various apparently significant consonances. Does he honestly believe Kubrick did this intentionally, in the expectation anyone would watch the film this way?

Sometimes there really is an intentional subtext to a movie that can be uncovered by looking at it a little more closely: to choose a very obvious example, the original Dawn of the Dead works on two levels, as a brilliantly-accomplished action-horror movie and as a darkly funny satire on consumerism. But if you look too closely at a movie, there’s a danger you start to see things that just aren’t intentional. Not every prop and piece of set dressing is intended to send a message to the canny viewer. The fact that so many people have spent so many hours examining The Shining and come away with such widely disparate conclusions is surely proof that there can’t be one correct interpretation of the film. Their beliefs tell us little about Kubrick or his film, but a lot about them.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Most of Room 237 is composed of extracts from The Shining (some scenes are repeated multiple times), along with clips from other Kubrick movies and a few others (Capricorn One makes a not entirely surprising appearance, for example, as does An American Werewolf in London), and you do come away with a fuller appreciation of Kubrick’s visual sense, if nothing else. The man made very beautiful, occasionally very enigmatic films. Room 237 is about obsession, but it’s also about loving movies – even if it is just a bit too much. A curious but very engaging film.

 

 

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Sunday is Kubrick day at the Phoenix, at the moment, with a whole bunch of the great man’s films showing – presumably to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Apart from the famously cryptic SF movie, they have also shown Dr Strangelove and Spartacus (even though Kubrick himself virtually disowned it), with The Shining due to come in a week or so. This Sunday, however, it was the turn of Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. This is one of his movies with less mainstream appeal, which may explain the comparatively low turn-out for the screening (the fact it was a blazingly sunny day with England playing an easy World Cup fixture may also have had an effect on attendance).

This was also the film which arrived in cinemas, 43 years ago, accompanied by a letter from the director giving projectionists extremely detailed guidance as to how the film should be shown. ‘An infinite amount of care was given to the look of Barry Lyndon,’ Kubrick begins, ‘…all of this work is now in your hands.’ He goes on to give notes on aspect ratio, reel changeover specifics, how many foot lamberts should be on the screen (15-18, apparently), and even what music to play during the intermission. Given all this, it was slightly ironic that our screening of Barry Lyndon should be preceded by several appearances in the cinema from a somewhat sheepish member of the Phoenix’s staff, giving us updates on a ‘projection hitch’, which apparently necessitated a phone call to head office and a complete reboot of the digital projector (somewhere Mark Kermode was screaming ‘Wouldn’t have happened in 35 mil!’, to say nothing of the baleful psychic emanations doubtless coming from Kubrick’s region of the afterlife). The film eventually got underway nearly thirty minutes late, although – given the film’s somewhat challenging reputation – sitting patiently in the cinema waiting for something to happen was possibly quite good preparation for the experience of actually watching Barry Lyndon.

Based on a somewhat obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon is essentially a costume drama. Ryan O’Neal plays Redmond Barry, a young man born to a modest family in English-occupied Ireland. Over the course of a number of years, he becomes a duellist, fugitive from justice, soldier for several nations during the Seven Years War, deserter, spy, gambler and swordsman. Eventually he marries into money, in the form of the landed widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), and attempts to secure prosperity for his heirs by procuring a title for himself, but his efforts do not go as planned and it all eventually results in failure and disgrace.

Kubrick was famously one of those rare directors who was able to combine mass audience appeal with critical acclaim – the closest modern equivalent we have is Christopher Nolan, I would suggest – which probably explains why Barry Lyndon is generally perceived as his great flop, not quite making twice its budget (the criterion for success, by modern standards at least). It rarely shows up on TV, and is absent from the Kubrick box set on sale at my local DVD store, which includes all his other films from the sixties and seventies except Spartacus.

Hence, presumably, that challenging reputation. ‘Stupefyingly dull,’ according to one critic; ‘like going through the Prado without lunch,’ in the words of Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg. Well, I’m not sure I would agree with all of that, but I can certainly see where people quailing at the three-hour-plus running time are coming from. This is not a conventional film; it is not even a conventional costume drama. Kubrick’s intention seems to have been to replicate as closely as possible the tone and structure of the eighteenth century novel, not to mention the visual style of art from this period. (Needless to say, this being a Stanley Kubrick movie, it is soundtracked by various impeccably-selected pieces of classical and traditional music.)

The first half of the film is a picaresque meander across Europe, with many disconnected incidents and episodes; some of these are romantic, some comic, some tragic, some thrilling – but the tone throughout remains restrained, even muted. Perhaps this was a choice dictated by the needs of dramatic unity, for the second half of the film, concerning Barry Lyndon’s strained domestic situation and ultimate decline, is much darker and feels much better-fitted to the tone. The action is admittedly slow, with much of the exposition handled by Michael Hordern’s wry, omniscient narrator, but you sense that the look and feel of the thing was at least as important to the director than the actual storyline. So figures pick their way across rolling landscapes, massed ranks of soldiers resplendent in bright uniforms march towards the camera, lavish scenes of dining or gambling are dwelt upon… (Barry Lyndon’s great technical innovation was apparently the creation of lenses allowing scenes to be filmed solely by candlelight, which apparently possessed the lowest f-stop in history. I mention this because it sounds interesting, not because I have any idea what it means.) The plot frequently pauses while the camera dwells upon a tableau composed and framed like a painting; Kubrick’s signature move on this film is the long, slow pull-back on an almost totally static scene (when he abruptly switches to using a hand-held camera at one point, the effect is genuinely jarring).

Given all this, does it really matter that Ryan O’Neal is, um, not terribly good in the central role? Barry Lyndon himself is ultimately a bit of a berk, but O’Neal turns him into a cipher, someone that things happen around, rather than to. This is a particular problem in the second half of the film, which dwells much more on his personal problems and tragedies. I have to say I think it does make a difference: the lacuna at the heart of the film, where the central performance should by rights be, may be one of the main reasons it can seem so inaccessible and chilly.

In any case, I found the film quite mesmerising to watch, and only started glancing at my watch once the presentation entered its fourth hour. Regardless of what you think of the whole, the film is made up of a series of vivid moments and scenes – the extraordinary lyrical delicacy of the hunt-the-ribbon scene, Leonard Rossiter’s spectacular dancing, the brawl between the soldiers (it’s amusing to see that Pat Roach was being beaten up by Ryan O’Neal long before Harrison Ford, Sean Connery or Arnold Schwarzenegger got in on the act), Barry’s encounter with the lonely German woman Lieschen (Diana Koerner) – it goes on. And on and on. And then on some more. The film is worth watching for this alone, to say nothing of the string of cherishable cameos from actors like Rossiter, Hardy Kruger, Andre Morell, Simon Magee and Frank Middlemass.

In the end I almost get the sense that it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else says about Barry Lyndon: you may be depressed by it, repelled by it, bored into a coma, or moved to a fit of swooning joy – the film will grind over you in its stately, imperious way regardless of your actual opinion. In this sense it is Kubrick at his most magisterially impressive, even if for once he seems to be making a film solely for himself, as a rigorous formal exercise, rather than as a piece actually intended for a paying audience. I think this is still a great film, but whatever you think of it, you will be dealing with it on Kubrick’s terms, not yours.

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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table. almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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