How I Learned to Stop Being Pedantic

dr-strangelove-theredlist

Tracking shot of B-52 in mid-air refuel. Soundtrack lilts “Try a Little Tenderness.” Refueling nozzle gently breaks away from recieving aircraft.

Quote from the script of Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB.

Tsk, tsk, Mr. Kubrick. It’s I before E *except* after C.

Perfectionist my ass!

(What somewhat spoils the joke is that this so-called “screenplay” reads like a transcription of the action onscreen, rather than something prepared earlier. And it doesn’t contain the deleted pie fight scene, but it DOES refer halfheartedly to visual gags added by Peter Sellers on set which don’t have any business appearing in a shooting script. So who knows who typed this up? I hate it when a perfectly good Kubrick joke doesn’t hold up.)

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20 Responses to “How I Learned to Stop Being Pedantic”

  1. No he was not a “perfectionist.” He continual takes and retakes prove that for Stanley cinematic style and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder were one and the same.

  2. a fortiori, literally ANY film starring Peter Sellers involves improvisation. One wonders what Kiss Me Stupid would have been like had Sellers not had his heart attack.

    I’d venture that Billy Wilder would have been the one to have had the heart attack!

  3. I’d love to see a detailed piece from Vecchiali about Kubrick. (Saying this as a sort of ex-Kubrick-fanboy interested in more critical opinions on the man’s work.)

  4. Usually people just say they don’t like the acting, which is their right, but hardly an objective value. Or they don’t like what they see as misanthropy. It would be interesting to find an opponent coming at it from some other angle.

  5. Any chance that the script you read is a cutting continuity? As for his being “a terrible director,” that’s only half the time, and occasionally in half the movie. While PATHS OF GLORY, BARRY LYNDON, and DR. STANGELOVE are close to perfect, the others, possibly excepting LOLITA have about as many warts as glories. Forty years later, I still haven’t warmed to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, though I keep trying. THE SHINING drives me nuts. Haven’t seen EYES WIDE SHUT—or had the slightest desire— since its release. For a decidedly unsympathetic view of Kubrick, you can have a look at Pauline Kael’s reviews. I don’t recall her liking anything he did.

  6. Kael thought Kubrick was too enamoured of Alex in Clockwork Orange and she did useful work citing the changes from the book. Every change Kubrick made makes him less horrible and more exotic and his crimes more photogenic and more likely to be centred on nubile women.

    Having said that, I don’t find her other points compelling. The acting IS big and grotesque, but that doesn’t make it “terrible” (her word as well as Vecchiali’s) in my book.

  7. James S Says:

    I personally hate it when I buy a published screenplay, and it turns out to be either the cutting continuity, or basically a transcript of the final cut with descriptions written by some anonymous guy (eg. All of Woody Allen’s published screenplays) I guess it was useful for scholars before videotape (though a poor substitute) But it’s so much more interesting to see how the writer creates a scene. It’s almost an art in itself

    The screenplays of Preston Sturges were wonderful because they not only had Sturges idiosyncratic directions, but also his notes and changes.

    I recently bought two different published scripts of If…. One was a very nice but airless cutting continuity, but the other, dubbed “a story” has the deleted scenes, as well as characters’ unfilmmable thoughts, and conveyed the atmosphere far better.

  8. I was looking at some translated Antonioni scripts today, which seemed to have quite a bit of only sort-of filmable material.

    I would argue that scripting IS an art form, and describing clearly and evoctively the action is a skill, and writing good action is more important than dialogue. People forget that action is scripted (though often then handed to a second-unit director and a stunt co-ordinator and revised out of recognition).

    Currently writing a pared-down version of a script so that a highly successful writer will read it, since he dislikes purple prose and novelistic detail. Not sure how successfuly I will be at transforming sub-Mervyn Peake into sub-Dashiell Hammett, but it’s worth a go.

  9. My main problem with CLOCKWORK, admittedly, is that having read the book before I saw the movie, I found Alex to be much faster and funnier than he is in the film. Kubrick might have (justifiably) felt that he had to slow down the dialogue to that it would be comprehensible to the uninitiated. But that choice skews the whole enterprise away from Burgess’s antic, seductive vision. As for Kael, she just threw her knee-jerk reactions to things out there, and the devil take the hindmost. I’ve always thought she was a better writer than a critic. Her reasoning (if you can call it that) can be so looney that it’s easy to dismiss her dismissals and hard to embrace her praise.

  10. One of my screenwriting teachers at NYU, Jackie Park had a couple of pages of a Kubrick Clockwork Orange draft she’d been given by Terry Southern, who was also in the film department at that time, at least according to the catalogue. She also had corresponding pages of the same CO scene (the attack on Patrick Magee and his wife) written by Southern, although I don’t remember whether Southern had written them as an exercise for his class or had been seriously at work on it. I remember that Southern’s pages had standard formatting, “INT. DAY—WRITER’S STUDIO. Medium Shot” and so forth. Kubrick’s pages completely eschewed this:

    They huddle at the window and watch the people inside.

    The writer sits typing.

    Alex presses the doorbell.

    I have no idea how far along the screenplay was when this was typed (if indeed it was a screenplay and not a treatment, although I’m sure she said Southern had insisted it was a screenplay) or whether Kubrick switched to standard formatting at some point, but I remember the progressively indented lines, with lots of white space between them, and how shockingly easy it was to tell what we were supposed to be seeing and hearing.

    I also remember the end of Southern’s version, where the Patrick Magee character discovers his wife playing with blocks or something “…smiling vacantly, like a child” or words to that effect. Huh.

    I apologize for not stealing all these pages, but I’m reasonably sure someone must have if she continued showing them to her students until she retired 30 years later.

  11. Kubrick’s script has been published. He indents description and lets dialogue spread out, based on his theory that standard formatting encourages the reader to skip the wrong bits.

    Southern owned the rights at one point and tried to interest Kubrick. I think Ken Russell and the Rolling Stones were also approached. So I’m sure he did write a draft.

    I was surprised by Kubes’ slow pace — a zippy novella becomes 140 minutes. And I think speed might actually aid comprehension since it’s the surrounding context that makes the strange words possible to interpret. “Making up our rassoodocks what to do.” The more normal the delivery the stronger the context.

  12. Your point on speed is well taken, and points to an serious problem: the unsuitability of the material to Kubrick’s approach.

  13. I don’t know if it’s absolutely unsuitable, but it certainly becomes a different animal in his hands.

  14. henryholland666 Says:

    “But that choice skews the whole enterprise away from Burgess’s antic, seductive vision”

    But isn’t the history of movies chock full of examples of where the writer and/or director aren’t faithful to the book? How many books have been chopped to bits or parts that readers love are left out because it doesn’t translate to a movie setting, different scenes/characters are conflated, nothing much beyond the title are left in a script etc.?

    A Kubrick example would be “The Shining”, which I love. Stephen King was quite vocal after Kubrick’s movie was released about him basically just using the “man goes insane in a remote winter location and tries to slaughter his family” premise. He then oversaw a mini-series which was faithful to the books, it proved that Kubrick was right, it was as boring as watching paint dry. King later begrudgingly accepted that Kubrick might have known what he was doing after all. Imagine that! :-)

    As much of a Kubrick fanboy as I am, though, I have the same problem with “A Clockwork Orange” as I do with “Full Metal Jacket”: after Alex is left bloody on the doorstep by his traitorous droogs and Private Pyle notes that he IS in a world of shit, I pretty much lose interest in the rest of it. That’s still a step up from “Lolita” and “Eyes Wide Shut” which I don’t like at all.

  15. Kubrick would challenge his screenwriters to come up with sentences he couldn’t film. He believed anything was filmable. But by the time some of his books were on film, they didn’t really resemble the books, even if they were largely “faithful” as regards incident and dialogue.

    The Shining is pretty faithful really, but invents some incidents and changes the ending. Lolita and Clockwork Orange are extremely faithful but tonally they’re not the same at all.

    Everybody noted at the time that Eyes WIde Shut was better in training than it was in Nam. Though watched on its own, I find the Nam stuff very impressive. It just can’t live up to the bruising experience of all that yelling in the first sequence.

    Clockwork Orange is forced to slow down when Alex is imprisoned, and struggles to get moving again, but I think there are still great bits afterwards.

  16. henryholland666 Says:

    “Everybody noted at the time that Eyes WIde Shut was better in training than it was in Nam”

    If only that dull film had some scenes set in Vietnam! You meant “Full Metal Jacket”, of course.

  17. Ha! Sleepy brain — not had my coffee yet. If Tom Cruise suddenly turned into his Ron Kovick character and flew to Nam, it might improve that one, but I’m not sure.

  18. I think it might have helped the second half of Full Metal Jacket had it actually been shot somewhere vaguely tropical, instead of (where was it?) London’s Docklands with imported palm trees. The light is all wrong and it never convinces me for a second – just looks like a bunch of actors playing make-believe.

    I have similar problems with the second half of Lolita, which never convinces me that they’re travelling around America. And Sellers is horribly miscast, though Mason is tremendous.

    I don’t care for Kubrick at all, mostly because of his vile treatment of female characters, especially in Clockwork Orange (he’s enjoying filming that rape scene just a little too much, don’t you think?) and The Shining, where his bullying of Shelley Duvall is well documented. He reduces the character of the cook to a joke with a bad punchline, inserted (I suspect) purely to piss off the book’s fans.

  19. The Isle of Dogs doubling for Viet Nam never bothered me tremendously, though I agree it’s not convincing. And later parts of Lolita feature some absolutely archetypally English suburban landscapes, astonishing to see in a film pretending to be American.

    i love Sellers in it, though. Arguably wrong for the film, but worth it.

    Kubrick certainly seems to have been indulging his more obnoxious sexual fantasies in Clockwork Orange, fantasies which had been lurking since Fear and Desire.

    This problem is less blatant than in the films of, say, Michael Winner, since Kubrick is supposed to be taking us into Alex’s mind and showing us the pleasure he takes in violence. But there’s still an intangible divide between that and the author joining in, a divide which Burgess respects and Kubrick doesn’t. Burgess, using prose, has a slightly easier task keeping himself at one remove, I think. And he’s probably a good deal less enthusiastic about that kind of stuff anyway.

    I understand the narrative reason behind killing Scatman Crothers — if he shows up and rescues them, it’s very predictable. His showing up and immediately getting killed makes the audience wonder how Wendy and Danny can possibly escape. The point of his arrival becomes to deliver a snowcat.

    The disposability of black characters in Hollywood films was certainly a big problem then, and The Shining unfortunately falls in with that trend.

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