Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Stanley Kubrick's first, best and last

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for its 50th anniversary re-release last Wednesday night, and I’ve been dying to tell you about it. But I’ve held off until today for reasons I’ll explain presently.

See, I’ve ended up focusing on the films of another auteur in the month of July, in addition to Agnes Varda, who I wrote up here as part of my Audient Auteurs series. It was totally unplanned, but once it started to take on momentum I decided to make a thing of it.

That’s right, I’ve just watched my third Stanley Kubrick film of July, and as it happens, I’ve got differing levels of familiarity with all three. The first I had never seen. The second I had seen three times before. The third, once before.

I don’t think I’m going to try to tell you how they all relate to each other or to Kubrick’s career, but let’s see how we go. At the very least, they make a logical series to discuss, as they happened to have been his first film, his last film, and the one I now believe is his best.

I watched them chronologically, so let’s take them in that order here as well.

Fear and Desire (1953)

If I said I wouldn’t explore Kubrickian themes and how these movies relate to his body of work on the whole, well, I lied a little bit. It’s almost impossible not to see Fear and Desire as a rough draft for Paths of Glory (only four years later), and it wrestles with a subject that was still with him even 34 years later for Full Metal Jacket (1987). But I didn’t know that going in. I only knew the title, and was familiar with it only as one of the early works of Stanley Kubrick that I hadn’t seen (which also include The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, now his only remaining feature-length films I haven’t seen).

I say “feature length,” but in fact the running time was what made it stand out from literally about 30 movies I had out from the library. It’s only 62 minutes long, so short that it almost made me wonder whether I should disqualify it from the various lists I keep of feature films I’ve seen. Informally I think of a modern feature as running at least 70 minutes. I make exceptions for silent movie greats, some of which are only 45 minutes (such as Sherlock Jr.). But Kubrick’s feature debut was long into the sound era, so I did hem and haw about it a bit. Ultimately I allowed it, and besides, it let me watch a movie on a night when I was otherwise too tired.

I liked the movie fine, I guess, but I was glad enough to only be in its presence for 60 minutes. Its action is purposely symbolic, as a narrator at the beginning advises us:

"There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind."

Linguistically elegant stuff, but it did put me on warning that it would seem more like an exercise in philosophy than a movie. That's kind of the case. The soldiers grapple with various ethical and logistical dilemmas related to being downed behind enemy lines, which include how and whether to attack the enemy (they do) and how to handle the civilians (not very well). Some of it is probably better than I give it credit for, but it's fairly raw, and I was distracted by the really noticeable ADR. I did find it interesting that the film features a very young Paul Mazursky, but he is the most bizarre character in that he kind of goes crazy (without any real antecedent to that insanity) and takes it out via perverse behavior directed toward a local girl they capture. 

I gave it three stars, but more on the strength of its historical significance as the place Kubrick got his start than any real affection I feel for the movie.

Affection was not a problem with my second movie though ...

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I've recounted previously my history with this movie, which dates back to when I was a young child and saw it in the theater on a re-release (and hated it). So I won't go into that here. I will say that while most people greeted this 50th anniversary re-release as an opportunity to "finally" see 2001 on a big screen, for me, it was my third such viewing.

But it was my first on the big screen since I started to love the movie. Ironically, my love for the movie started to click on my first small-screen viewing. My increasing maturity likely had a lot more to do with my feelings toward it than the size of the screen. In 2013, two days after my 40th birthday, I finally "got" 2001, and came around to the consensus that it's a masterpiece.

It took this viewing for me to decide it's one of my top 20 of all time.

My Flickchart rankings don't reflect that yet, so don't scan my top 20 to the right of this page. I'm not in the habit of re-ranking movies after my most recent viewing. (Recency bias and all that.) But when 2001 comes up naturally, it stands a very good chance of defeating movies that are very, very high on my chart.

What changed this time?

I don't necessarily think it was the "blacker blacks" of Christopher Nolan's restored 70 mm print, nor the great venue (the Sun in Yarraville), which included a welcome from the projectionist, and a pre-movie featurette on how the theater outfitted itself for 70 mm to play The Hateful Eight (a movie it still plays on the 8th of every month at 8 p.m.). Those things helped. But actually, my first impression of the restored print was that I didn't get what the fuss was about. I suppose I'd need a side-by-side comparison with my other viewings to really see the difference, which of course is impossible. But one of those was on a massive screen in Champaign, IL for the 2001 Ebertfest, so this might not even been my most glorious exposure to the film.

What I did get was, well, everything else. What amazed me was how much I'd forgotten about the film in only five years since I last saw it. I forgot, for example, that David Bowman makes a trip out in space to pick up the corpse of Frank Poole, in the ultimate sign of the irrational humanity that separates man from a machine like H.A.L., and that Bowman has to blow himself through the airlock to get back inside the ship. I figured blowing through airlocks was strictly the stuff of Alien movies.

But my really miraculous revelation on this viewing was how tight the movie is, in terms of its actual plotting. Sure, the film is sprinkled with five- to seven-minute essays on things like the spinning of spaceships, the ins and outs of eating and customer service in space, monkeys learning how to murder and men losing their minds while caught in colorful wormholes. But the actual story moves very fast when the screen time is actually devoted to plot. For example, you barely have time to get to know Frank, Dave and H.A.L. before their relationship reaches a crisis point, and it pretty much bowls forward at a breakneck pace from there.

And what I got big time in this viewing was how much this movie puts you in the shoes of its characters. It's not just Heywood Floyd as a rookie space traveler or Frank and Dave trapped by a psychopathic computer. One of the film's most visceral moments was the literally deafening shriek of the signal sent out from the monolith on the moon toward Jupiter that ends Floyd's sequence. It was physically uncomfortable to listen to it for those 15 or 20 seconds, which felt like an eternity. I can't imagine the sound didn't disturb patrons in adjoining theaters.

Anyway, I sat there, shivering with exaltation as I watched it. I have more to say, but I may be discussing this in a podcast next week and will leave it until then.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Kubrick didn't make it to 2001 himself -- he died in 1999, just after Eyes Wide Shut was completed. In fact, the final project he was working on -- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which I am also due to rewatch -- did make it to 2001, in the hands of Steven Spielberg. But Shut was Kubrick's last official gig as director, so it's kind of a shame it wasn't better.

That's what 1999 me thought, anyway. I remember seeing it at the theater that was a block from my apartment in New York, which is also where the film is set. And there was a lot of shrugging and "so what?"ing going on. It was supposed to be this scandalous movie about infidelity and bizarre sexual rituals enacted by rich men, but I found the sex kind of the opposite of titillating (which was probably Kubrick's point).

The movie I rented from the library this time, and watched Sunday night, seemed to have been without one of the things that left mouths flapping at the time the movie was released. In order to tone it down and get an R rating, additional cloaked figures were digitally inserted over the people as they were having sex, to prevent us from seeing quite so much thrusting and convulsing. It doesn't surprise me that a BluRay release would not have those, as no one cares about ratings anymore once a movie is on video. But instead of feeling like I got to look behind a curtain that had not previously been accessible to me, I kind of shrugged and ho-hummed again.

I was not distracted by another criticism I heard at the time that stuck with me, unaccountably, which was that you couldn't believe that these were real New York City streets because of how sparsely populated they were. In fact, I was struck by what a dumb observation that was by whichever critic groused about it. If this was a set, which I seem to remember it might have been, all the better. If Stanley Kubrick wants to stylize New York City for his own thematic reasons, that's well within his rights, and more power to him.

It's just that the thematic reasons didn't strike me as much. I didn't feel the paranoia you're supposed to feel in this movie, nor did I feel that Tom Cruise's character was guilty of some big betrayal of his wife that causes him to break down in tears at the end. When he goes to the Fidelio party, it's not to have sex with someone, as far as I can tell -- it's just perverse curiosity. And sure he also does have an unconsummated dalliance with a prostitute, but again, it's unconsummated. I almost feel like she's more guilty for practically fucking that guy on the dance floor (that scene was charged with erotic tension like no other scene in the film, and kind of reminded me of Naomi Watts' audition in Mulholland Drive, though that would not come for two more years). She admits thinking about having sex with that sailor as well. I don't want you to think I'm taking the man's side, but I just don't understand what all the fuss is about as neither of them is really guilty of anything.

Eyes Wide Shut shares an approximate running time and languid pacing with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the similarities end there. While the latter has excellent justification for all its, shall we say, flights of fancy, Eyes Wide Shut is legitimately slow, and it expends whole chunks of its narrative on diversions that are useless. For example, the whole bit involving Bill Harford's rental of his costume from the costume shop could lift right out and nothing would be lost. There are two scenes, in fact, involving Rade Serbedzija and Leelee Sobieski, and I am at a loss to explain the value or significance of either of them. Slowing things down significantly is the weird speed of Nicole Kidman's line deliveries, which bothered me then and still does now.

I did notice, perhaps for the first time, an interesting detail about this period of Tom Cruise's career. In the space of two years he starred in both the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and a remake of the movie Abre Los Ojos, which translates to Open Your Eyes. That of course is Vanilla Sky, a personal favorite.

As I said before, I don't have an overarching theory about these movies or their relationships to Kubrick's career -- as far as I can tell, his interest in space and his interest in sexual perversion both do not have a corollary elsewhere in his career. And while I enjoyed two of these movies less than I was hoping to, well, 2001 has now eclipsed A Clockwork Orange as my favorite Kubrick film. I think when I rewatch Paths of Glory one of these days it may jump up there too.

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