Archive for Clockwork Orange

An Odyssey in Bits: Dr. Smyslov, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Squirt

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2019 by dcairns

Complicated bit now. We’re moving through Kubrick’s 2001 in sort-of chapters. This one contains several sub-sections.

First, Kubes chops into The Blue Danube at an opportune moment, so the transition to the interior of the Big Space Wheel is neat yet abrupt. The grinding sound of the rotating chamber that introduces William Sylvester’s Heywood Floyd to the wheel’s security atrium helps as aural interruption. There’s another of those pretty stewardess types (Maggie London) in the room with him (it’s not quite an airlock, something like an elevator that doesn’t go up or down, just around… a revolving door you can sit down in), and then another (Canadian Chela Matthison) at the sort-of customs desk.

Floyd meets a faceless functionary, Miller, who has something to do with security, bland pleasantries are exchanged, blandly. The first dialogue of the film, discounting ape-grunts, is arguably the noiseless lip-flap of the characters in the TV show Floyd is sleeping through on his shuttle trip, but these encounters offer the first audible speech and it makes about the same impression.“Here you are, sir.” “See you on the way back.” “We haven’t seen you up here for a long time.” “Very nice to see you again.” “Did you have a pleasant flight, sir?” “Sorry I’m late.” “You’re looking great.” “It’s nice to have you back.” “Did you have a good flight?”

Let’s assume this is all deliberately dull. Science fiction writers believed for a long time that their stories should feature rather bland, standard-issue characters without distracting quirks, so that the strange situations could stand out by contrast and there would be a grounding in what they’d probably insist on calling “normalcy.” This was a false good idea, because boring cut-outs don’t help make a story credible. But there’s more to that going on in 2001. The functionaries we meet here are rather dull men and women doing, what are to them, dull, everyday things. The astronauts, later, embody what the filmmakers’ and actors’ research told them, accurately, astronauts would be like: flat and not very emotional. You don’t want hand-flapping hysterics piloting your interplanetary craft, you want Neil Armstrong.

There are two characters called Miller in this film. Which gives you an idea of the deliberate blandness. This one is played by Kevin Scott, whose immediately previous film credit was THE COOL MIKADO for Michael Winner. “I like to work with the best actors in the world,” said Kubrick. Worth repeating that every so often as we watch this film. But Kev is fine here, exactly right for what’s called for.Good to see that the Dutch are prominently represented in space travel.

I like the weird garbled stuff Floyd is forced to say by the security screen woman (Judy Keirn, who plays an actual stewardess in her only other film, Sidney Lumet’s THE DEADLY AFFAIR) for his voice print identification: destination, nationality, full name, surname first. So he has to say “Moon. American. Floyd. Heywood R.” Which is certainly the best line of the film so far.Then Floyd says he has to make a couple of phone calls, but in fact makes one: he tries to speak to his wife but gets Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, playing his daughter, Squirt. Is it an issue that she has an English accent, despite Heywood being a yank who lives in America? I don’t mind it: she’s so cute and the conversation has such a realistic awkwardness — the authentic feeling of talking to a distracted child via technology — and we can easily invent an explanation. Mrs. Floyd must be English, they must have lived there until recently…What IS a mistake is that the camera filming Squirt is able to pan right to keep her in frame during her hilarious and random postural contortions. A videophone wouldn’t do that, and if it had some motion-sensor capacity to do so, it would look more automated than Kubes’ spontaneous movement. But I guess he couldn’t bear to have a misframed daughter disappearing out of shot in his space epic. And the scene appears to have been filmed casually in the Kubrick home so it hasn’t had the rigorous thought put into it that you’d expect from S.K.

Vivian Kubrick later joined the Church of Scientology (I blame Tom and to a lesser extent Nicole) and is now completely estranged from her family. Horrible.Leaving the phone booth having been billed $1.70, which I guess was a lot of money in 1968, Floyd is ambushed by the Russians. It seems foolish of station security man Miller to have let HRF out of his sight like that, but maybe they actually WANTED this encounter to take place — because Floyd proceeds to bamboozle the Russkis, refusing to confirm the cover story his own people have leaked out, thereby making them think this story must be true. (To conceal the discovery of an alien artifact at the Tycho Clavius base on the moon, they’ve concocted a false tale of infection and quarantine.)

This scene features two actors who don’t quite fit the film’s pattern of nondescript performance. Margaret Tyzack would return in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, her plummy English solicitude acquiring a sinister edge. And Leonard Rossiter would nearly capsize BARRY LYNDON with the comic flamboyance of his performance. Here, he’s Dr. Andrei Smyslov, pumping Floyd for info as they all sit around on their comfy ’60s space chairs.

We should previously have praised Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer for their production design, and it’s a bit crap that I focus on them here where the design is noticable in a partially negative way. The curve of the floor, indicating that we’re inside that big wheel we saw floating in space, is fantastic. And the contrast of the white white set with the red furniture is really beautiful. But of course within ten years the chairs dated it. But then a little later we could appreciate how attractive they were, and by the time the year 2001 rolled round for real they seemed perfectly plausible space furniture.

This sequence, so soon after one of the great cuts of film history, contains the worst cut in 2001 ~

A jolting jounce inwards, not far enough to feel like a meaningful change, with a jarring continuity glitch in Rossiter’s stance. OK, not quite as bad as my frame-grabs suggest. And they make William Sylvester’s head-turn the focus, and preserve the continuity of movement there. But it’s the small size of the reframing that makes the whole cut ugly. Perfectionist, my ass!

This scene also has some beautiful pausing. If Harold Pinter was writing it, he wouldn’t even put “(a pause)”, he’d go all out and put “(a silence)”, indicating that the actors should really go for maximum discomfort. The seeds of THE SHINING’s creepy conversations are sown here.

Our latest two podcasts have a science fiction theme:

SPACE MADNESS

LET’S GET SMALL

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An Odyssey in Bits: The Fantasy Department

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2019 by dcairns

A spacecraft floats/falls through frame and at the exact moment we realise were going to lose it from view, the big blue balloon of Planet World drifts into view to replace it.

A series of different satellites and vehicles are picked up, as Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube begins, not without controversy, to play. Here’s Quincy Jones:

“But you can’t get too cute with that sort of thing. I was really bugged by the over use of Strauss waltzes in 2001. That would have been OK as a one-liner, but it bugged me when it developed into the main theme. I knew that Frank Cordell had written Mahler variations for a year and a half for that picture, and they threw it all out. Then Alex North came in and wrote about six reels, and everything he did was thrown out too. I’m sure that between them, those two composers came up with something a lot hipper and a lot more appropriate for a picture that important than what we finally saw. Kubrick had already made that kind of musical point in Dr. Strangelove with “Try a Little Tenderness.” I personally think 2001 is too important a film for this kind of cute musical self-indulgence.” 

Leaving aside the inaccuracies — there’s only one Strauss waltz in the movie and it isn’t the main theme, except of the two sequences it’s used for — does Jones have a point? I doubt anybody today has a problem with the use of library music here. Jones seems concerned that it’s too cheap-sounding for an “important” film.Kubrick’s treatment of his two composers was awful: Cordell was put to work with practically no instructions, whereas North only found out his score had been cast aside in favour of the temp track when he attended the premiere. Imagine sitting there and hearing Also Sprach coming up instead of your close-but-no-cigar title theme. And then thinking, “Oh well, he’ll have used the rest of it.” And then along comes Ligeti. And then The Blue fucking Danube. And on and on until, only after three hours can you be sure that your entire score has been binned. Ouch.

However, I think Kubrick was correct to prefer the Strauss and quite right to say those who had a problem with it were being affected by the associations the piece had for them: ball gowns and tuxedos and waltzing. Whereas he was merely trying to evoke “grace in turning,” which is what the music seems to do. Certainly putting it up over shots of the actual Danube, as Duvivier does in THE GREAT WALTZ, isn’t nearly so effective. Did Jones also object to Clouzot’s use of it in THE WAGES OF FEAR, where it partly accompanies a dance, and partly a truck lumbering homewards?The first spacecraft we see are a bit 2D: they move like photographic cut-outs. But then the big wheel space station hoves into shot and its rotary motion, and the shadows cast over itself by its spokes and ring give it a majestic sense of solidity.

The Pan American spaceliner reminds us that corporations will always let us down: like the neon Atari ads in BLADE RUNNER, they date the thing, although modern audiences probably haven’t even heard of PanAm so they won’t care. The bestest shot in the whole space ballet is when we, out of nothing more than sheer joie de vivre, we fly BETWEEN the rings of the space station. It’s not any of the five normally accepted motivations for camera movement, it’s just WHEE! And maybe making the camera behave like a spaceship. It never flies into position and stops in this sequence. Sometimes it observes from a sort of geostationary point, sometimes it sails past or towards or around the action. It’s a proper zero-gravity camera.This docking bay is VERY Death Star, isn’t it? About the only design trait Lucas’s film shares with Kubrick’s. Love the little windows, all showing, Escher-fashion, different gravities (because the station creates gravity by centrifugal force, and the docking bay is in the hub, gravity is pulling outwards in all directions.

Meet Dr. Heywood Floyd! He’s asleep at the moment but you might as well meet him now as he doesn’t get much more interesting when he’s awake. “I like to work with the best actors in the world,” Kubrick told Michel Ciment, so naturally he got the guy from GORGO and DEVIL DOLL. An American who happened to be a UK resident. But I’m OK with him. W.S. always seems both matter-of-fact and chummy, which suits the character of a space spook, a government guy and scientist. One of the bureaucrats ultimately responsible for HAL’s nervous breakdown, though the movie doesn’t make that clear.The floating pen is such a neat effect: it’s stuck to a big rotating pane of glass in front of the camera, and the stewardess gives it a very slight twist to detach it.

I don’t so much dig how the lines of seats are sunken either side of the central aisle, like a slave galley. Makes me fear that stewardess Edwina Carroll Heather Downham might step on his drifting hand with her grip shoe. Or trip over him and go literally flying.

But I guess the seats being in trenches is an excuse for the low angle showing off the grip shoes.Edwina Heather is very attractive: a flashback to those days when all airline stewardesses were young and pretty, to distract the anxious hetero male passenger, via her pulchritude, from his fear of a fiery death. As one lot of pretty girls retired to get married, the airline could replace them with new, younger models. No more.

TV screens. In-flight movies, shot specially for this movie, and computer read-outs, all running on 16mm. Here’s an extract from John Baxter’s Kubrick bio ~

‘He called me and Ivor Powell into his office one day on 2001,” recalls Andrew Birkin. “He had all these international model directories, and he’d gone through them, marking up all these girls.’

“‘We could get them in,’ he said, ‘for an audition.’

Birkin and Powell looked blank. ‘For what?’

‘We could always say we have to shoot one of those 16mm docking sequences,’ Kubrick mused. (The films of sports and news that appeared on TV screens in the PanAm shuttle sequences were all back-projected 16mm.)

‘But it was all a fantasy,’ Birkin says, ‘He never did it. He also had an obsession about meeting Julie Christie. He was always trying to work out some sort of scheme whereby he could audition her. I knew her a little, and I said, “I’m sure she’d come up if you just called her.” But he didn’t want to do that. It all had to go through the Fantasy Department.’

That’s kind of sweet, or as sweet as casting couch ambitions can be said to get. We could guess from EYES WIDE SHUT that fantasies of adultery were a part of Stanley’s very successful second marriage.The auditions for CLOCKWORK ORANGE don’t sound so sweet.

 

The Look 3: McDowell Toasts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2016 by dcairns

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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.)

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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.