The Look 3: McDowell Toasts


Since Donald Benson helpfully mentioned the starchild/space baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to answer that cool gaze.

I like it when films join up like that. Just think, if Kubrick had made NAPOLEON in 1970 as originally planned, this wouldn’t have happened, or not so neatly.

The film’s aren’t as directly successive, but it’s kind of neat the way Fred Gwynne finds some chewing gum stuck under his balcony railing in Bertolucci’s LA LUNA — Marlon Brando’s last act in  LAST TANGO IN PARIS was to stick his gum under Maria Schneider’s railing (and no, that’s not a euphemism for something beastly).

But back to this look. As Kubrick’s camera withdraws from closeup, via a zoom and a dolly back, Malcolm raises his glass to the audience. The next day, after seeing the rushes, Kubes rushed up to him and congratulated him on that detail. He hadn’t noticed. Despite the fact that he was operating the camera himself.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. A camera operator, during a moving shot, tends to concentrate on the edges of the frame more than the subject, checking the composition is working and that no unwelcome boom mic or tracks or, god forbid, crewmembers, have come into shot. This is why Harrison Ford was displeased to find Ridley Scott handholding the camera in BLADE RUNNER — he knew the director wouldn’t be watching his performance. (But Richard Lester speaks of his great pleasure at precisely the act of watching a great performance being delivered into the lens, while operating — but Lester would tend to operate on the wide shot, which wouldn’t require him to adjust so much for movement, leaving most of his great brain free to watch and assess the acting.)


In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler.


7 Responses to “The Look 3: McDowell Toasts”

  1. Malcolm McDowell’s “look” was born in If… Specifically the look on his face when he confronts the upper-classman who were about to thrash him. Lindsay Anderson told him so the moment he saw it — and of course he was absolutely right. Kubrick saw it and he was off an running — albeit in quite a different direction than Lindsay.

  2. I loved Anderson’s dismissal of Clockwork Orange, “It’s not a humanist film in any sense,” and McDowell’s defense: “But Lindsay, *I* am the human element in the film!”

  3. I had a sudden vision of a Kubrickland next to the Harry Potter streets at the Universal theme parks. The milk bar, of course. A 2001 simulator ride. A Cirque de Soleil show based on Eyes Wide Shut. The Dr. Strangelove falling nuke ride. Barry Lyndon’s candle shoppe. A hotel where room service hacks through your door with an axe. Goofy Roman soldiers who get everybody yelling “I AM SPARTACUS!” The Paths of Glory audience participation show (will YOU be chosen?). And in a twist on Disney’s Princess boutiques, a boutique where adult women are made into Lolita.

    Okay, it’s late.

  4. Another good one is David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” which ends with Anne Bancroft’s face disappearing into stars.
    One film & 10,000 fictional years later “Dune” opens with Virginia Madsen’s face emerging from stars.

    This is one of Dune’s periodic reminders that this is actually a David Lynch film. The following scene has Jose Ferrer converse with the baby from Eraserhead, all grown up

    A friend once told me “If a film opens with a shot of the stars & it’s not science fiction, then it’s probably going to be good. Shows the director has some perspective”
    Night of the Hunter, A Matter of Life & Death were his examples

  5. The stars return, still slowly zooming past, in The Straight Story.

    It’s not just perspective, it’s (1) a willingness to take the trouble to feature things that can’t easily be photographed and (2) the imagination to include things which don’t directly affect the story (if it’s not science fiction).

    No Kubrick theme park would be complete without the crap version of Robot Wars in AI, and the arena could double up for Spartacusian gladiator contests. The Killer’s Kiss warehouse fight may be the most popular attraction, though.

  6. Ending with stars is also good. I’m thinking of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, where the stars are not part of the sf premise. No face in the stars, though.

  7. Thank God! The spiritual nature of the VO, combined with the stars, is enough in this case. What an astonishing ending.

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