Archive for Kubrick

Colour Me Kiarostami

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2017 by dcairns

(Watching Iranian films is useful for reasons other than the purely cinematic. I think a lot of us don’t really see inhabitants of Muslim countries as being people just like us. When you see the movies, you realise they are.)

This is the ending of CLOSE-UP, more or less. Spoiler alert!

Abbas Kiarostami’s film tells the true story of a poor man who impersonates film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, working his way into the bosom of a family by claiming he wants to film in their house and cast their grown-up kids in his forthcoming film, HOUSE OF THE SPIDERS. Not a very flattering title. Remarkably, Kiarostami is able to get all the participants in this weird and creepy true-life tale to play themselves. Even the real Makhmalbaf turns up at the end.

The whole time I was watching this, I was wondering if the “Bogus Makhmalbaf” is telling the truth when he says he carried out this fraud as a way of getting vicariously involved in cinema, which he loved, and because it gave him, for the first time in his life, a sense of AUTHORITY. I wondered if he was perhaps attracted to one or other of the young siblings. “Was it the sex thing? Was in the old sex thing, Archie?” asked Arthur Hill in PETULIA. The movie doesn’t challenge the excuses given, but we do have space to make up our own stories.

At the end of the film, Bogus M is released from his short prison sentence, meets the Real M (who toyed with fiction and truth in his own film, A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE), and goes to apologise to the family he conned.

He buzzes the door and says his name. Silence. They do know his real name, but I guess they’re not used to hearing it from him?

So he says, “Makhmalbaf,” to remind them. Silence again. Possibly that wasn’t the right thing to say, if he’s meant to be a reformed character.

Then Real Makhmalbaf steps forward and says “Makhmalbaf” into the intercom and this time the door is opened. He said it with much more AUTHORITY.

Kubrick, of course, also had an impersonator, and this also became the subject of a film, COLOUR ME KUBRICK. To make a round trilogy, we really ought to dig up another story about a celebrity impersonator fixating on an arthouse filmmaker with a K in his name. If no such story exists yet, who can we have impersonated in order to make it true? Best not be Toback.

(Is it OK to begin a blog post with a parenthesis? Oh well, too late now.)

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Room 237 1/2

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2017 by dcairns

What’s THE SHINING about? Is it a puzzle with no answer, a labyrinth without a centre, a sentence stuck on repeat?

When I first saw the film, underage at the school film society (but film societies aren’t subject to the BBFC), we all “got a good scare” (as Kubrick said he wanted) — there were persons of a nervous disposition, teenage girls for instance, and it rubbed off on all of us. But then we were all furious at the ending, which didn’t make any bloody sense.

I like that now. At 17, one’s negative capability isn’t fully developed so things are supposed to make sense. I think the irrationality of the film, which is more extreme than 2001’s non-verbal sense of the numinous and unaccountable, probably does derive from King’s novel. King’s stuff never makes total sense, does it? I think because he’s maybe a little lazy or easily satisfied when it comes to plotting. But Kubrick certainly was after a disturbing quality that would result precisely from things not making sense. How did Jack Torrence end up in that 1921 photo? Had he always been the caretaker? How does that work, when the person telling him that used to be the caretaker?

The film actually spends half an hour at the start explaining everything — how to look after a hotel in winter, how the isolation can get to you, how a previous caretaker went nuts — and how things can leave a trace of themselves, and how a person with a psychic gift can detect that trace. But it can’t hurt you.

Over the course of act II and III, most everything Stuart Ullman, the Overlook Hotel manager, tells us turns out to be true, barring some confusion about the caretaker’s name. Delbert or Charles Grady? Delbert isn’t a typical English name, you know, and Grady turns out to be English. (Torrence also calls him Jeevesy, and Grady really does phrase things like Wodehouse’s immortal manservant.) Even though Kubrick shot a deleted ending in which Ullman turns out to be in league with the Overlook.

But what the reliable and sympathetic Mr. Halloran (Scatman Crothers) tells us turns out NOT to be true. He’s outlined what is called The Stone Tape Theory, based on Nigel Kneale’s superb TV play: ghosts are like psychic echoes of emotionally charged events. They have no will of their own, they only repeat the actions from their lives, and they can’t hurt you. This theory, concocted for fictional purposes, seems to describe really well most ghost encounters described by real people.

Unfortunately it turns out to be a really bad description of what goes on at the Overlook.

Stephen King has really committed the sin of double voodoo in his story. You’re only supposed to have one aberrant concept per story, but he has both ghosts and telepathy. But he makes this OK by tying them together: only people with “the shining” can see these traces of past events. This makes the story seem to be set in our world with only one additional element for us to swallow, so the story goes down easily. And by the time it turns out there are at least TWO aberrant concepts at play, it’s too late. We’re deep in the maze.

Halloran’s Stone Tape starts decaying when Jack starts talking to Lloyd the bartender, but we take Lloyd to be kind of an imaginary character at first. Maybe not even a ghost. He’s an odd kind of ghost, anyway, serving drinks. We may note that some of his banter has a Mephistophelean cadence to it.

Meanwhile, SOMEBODY unlocks Room 237 and Danny is apparently attacked by “a crazy woman” inside. It’s significant that we don’t see this attack, even though we soon after see the woman — the question of ghosts being able to interact with humans and with corporeal objects is kind of left open.

The headfuck is when Grady lets Jack out of the walk-in storage locker. A ghost has turned a key. At the Portobello High School film society, my friend in the next seat went “WHAT??” at this point. Grady spilling advocaat over Torrence is one thing, nothing is really affected, but this makes him a physical presence in our world, with a will of his own. I guess he could still be a projection of Torrence’s ego, but he’s a telekinetically able-bodied one, if that’s the case. Triple or quadruple voodoo.

Despite appearances, maybe it really IS a great party — read on…

Finally, in the third act, Wendy starts seeing all kinds of Overlook inhabitants. Wendy has been, arguably, the least psychically perceptive character, but even she gets it now. (How rare is the shining ability? Four out of five major living characters in this movie seem to have it.) King speculates that all mothers can shine a little, but Kubrick is having none of this pseudo-progressive sentimentality. The Overlook comes to life in the winter, and when it’s in full flush, even a dope like Wendy can’t miss what’s up.

The entertaining doc ROOM 237 offers a series of fun crackpot theories about what the film really means. In a way, the Indian one is the one most supported by the film. The hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, and we somehow know that’s to blame for everything. POLTERGEIST, released two years later, somehow makes us accept that all the crazy stuff is happening because the house is built on a former graveyard. And we just go with it. But anyway, “built on an Indian burial ground” has become this joke in the culture signifying something that is clearly cursed and no good, and it’s a pretty good joke if you think about it because, if you think about it, wasn’t the whole United States built on an Indian burial ground?

Yet the evil lurking in the Overlook doesn’t have anything to do with Native American mythology. And it seems to espouse a very white male privileged attitude. Chauvinistic, racist. And when you die in the Overlook, you don’t go to the Happy Hunting Ground. You go to a New Year’s July 4th party in 1921. But it seems like this is maybe a kind of pocket universe, existing eternally within the Overlook. And people get recruited into it when they die there. That makes me feel awful for Mr. Halloran. Because the idea seems to be that this is a nostalgic vision of a time when the white male was king. Although Grady ended up as a waiter and Torrence, despite his tuxedo and grin in the film’s final image, is apparently still going to be caretaker, only without his wife to do all the work.

Like all afterlifes (afterlives? technically better but sounds wrong) it’s very hard to visualise, even if that’s a photo of it at the end of the film.

Here’s what I think is going on. As in King’s Pet Sematery, the Indian burial ground thing is a signifier for a powerful spiritual site full of energy that white people don’t know how to channel. This energy starts to affect Danny, Jack and finally Wendy when they move in and are left alone with it. Jack proves to be the most vulnerable, and the energy creates images and character’s drawn from Jack’s mind — if he hadn’t known about Charles Grady the caretaker he would never have hallucinated Delbert Grady the waiter.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he tells us that the environment Dave Bowman finds himself in — visualised in the movie as Louis Quinze interiors with an illuminated floor — has been created by the unseen aliens from Dave’s memories. When he gets some chicken from the refrigerator, it proves tasteless, the ersatz ghost of chicken, because the aliens have just gone by a memory of chicken’s appearance.

I think Kubrick has returned to this promising idea. The Indian burial ground energy — probably nothing to do with Indians, originally, something in the very mountain itself which was detected by the Indians and treated with due deference — works on Jack, with mayhem as its object. It uses imagery drawn from his mind to twist him to violence, and when he dies, it transplants him into that world of fantasy, forever, ‘n’ ever, ever.

And in that fantasy it is New Year’s Eve July 4th, 1921, always, because Jack’s dream is to write the great American novel (which he will call All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy). Or at any rate, to be the great American novelist. The one who writes and drinks and parties and is celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, right?

The Beautiful and the Damned

Shining Through

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by dcairns

The nice people at Park Circus gave us free tickets to see THE SHINING at the plush Vue Omni, so we HAD to go. Years since we saw it on the big screen, maybe decades. I think Kubrick would have liked to cleanness of the digital projection, so that his film looks ageless and pristine. He wouldn’t have liked the way the exit sign spilt light onto the screen. I know they have to have them, but a bit of masking could at least keep the eerie green glow from seeping onto the picture.

But otherwise this was excellent. I don’t know whether Kubrick would have liked the short documentary — WORK & PLAY — it has some terrific interviews and behind-the-scenes images I’d never seen before, so *I* liked it, but even I wondered if I wanted to precede the viewing of the movie with images revealing how, for instance, the sky behind the vast Overlook exterior set is a big blue backing. I suddenly felt the little ridge of rocks here was a bit unconvincing, when it had never bothered me before.

The doc also seems to have digitally messed about with its film clips, making the blacks crunchier. The film had never looked like this to me before, and I hoped that wasn’t what the screening would look like. Not that it was bad, but it was a striking change. But the screening was fine — the colours looked like they’d always looked. So I don’t know what was going on in the doc. But Stanley wouldn’t have approved.

I went in wondering if I’d see anything new in the film, or find anything to say about it.  Maybe I’d USED UP Kubrick’s horrorshow in some way? No such thing. From the very start, the bigger images let my eye swoop off into the Rocky Mountains, the landscapes drawing me in and exerting a lot more power than they ever did on TV.

Critics at the time complained that Jack Nicholson was too weird at the beginning, which I guess is true. It forces him to go more over the top later. But it’s clearly Kubrick’s intention that every scene in his horror movie should be strange and disturbing — look what he’s doing with the music. I think the most problematic scene may be the car journey.

Jack is doing a number of things here that contribute to the creepiness of Jack Torrence, husband, father and writer. One of them is clearly fine: he’s concentrating on the road. Actors in driving scenes often pay too little heed to what’s in front of them, straining to establish eye contact with their costars. Jack’s fixed gaze makes him seem less warm and paternal, but on the other hand less likely to kill everyone by plunging into a ravine. Then he also plays the early part of the scene a bit annoyed, a driving dad being pestered by questions. That’s a way of making the scene human and not just a bunch of information, but I’m not sure it’s needed. And then there’s his wicked grin, a favourite part of the Jack arsenal which got to be overused pretty soon.

But all of these elements might have seemed borderline natural if not for the ominous electronic drone Kubes lays over the whole scene — either Rachel Elkin or Wendy Carlos, I guess. If one could somehow remove it, we might get something more like a charming family discussion. Of cannibalism.

Amazing noises here!

Nicholson’s performance has come in for a lot of stick. Personally, I enjoy it, and I think that’s the point. Let’s look at Kubrick’s process ~

PRIZZI’S HONOR was made just five years after THE SHINING and its director, John Huston, said that most of the takes in it were take one, and this was mainly due to Jack, who was always prepared and always good right off the bat. But in THE SHINING, Kubrick shot dozens of takes of everything. Partly this is just OCD, or else an anxiety that if he stops trying, he might miss the greatness that was awaiting him just one take, or a hundred takes, down the line. Partly a curiosity about what will happen to the actors’ performances after so many repetitions. In Nicholson’s case, he seems to have resorted to lots of crazy stunt acting, jut to keep himself entertained. And clearly Kubrick liked the extreme stuff and used as much of it as possible.

The result may be “a style of acting beyond naturalism” as Nicholson called it, or it may be, that as Clive James remarked, “the style of acting beyond naturalism is called ham.” But it’s very DETAILED ham. Some of it is just face-pulling, but I like the drunk stuff, particularly the deeply stupid look of cunning Nicholson adopts when being told something by his ghost buddies. You know when you make some innocuous remark to a drunk person and they try to look WISE, as if you’ve said something really fucking profound? I don’t know what’s behind that kind of an act, but Jack does it beautifully.

Then there are the shots where he just looks like a dirty old woman.

Co-writer (and Dashiell Hammett biographer) Diane Johnson noted that Kubrick was particularly good at writing dialogue for Mr. Torrence. Controlling Dad. And I would say that the film is actually really good at documenting shitty male behaviour and attitudes. A friend of mine even found himself using a line from it when arguing with his girlfriend, years ago. He was horrified. I was kind of uncomfortable this time when I recognized elements of my own grumpier behaviour. Not the crazed axe-murdering, I stress.

 

I’ve been using my old fullscreen DVD for framegrabs because it’s the only director-approved version, hilariously enough. Kubes was a late adopter of widescreen versions. Admittedly, the boxy Academy ratio framing is kind of cute. But the wider image gives more dynamism to camera movement (enhanced peripheral vision) so Danny’s wild ride is much more exciting wide (and big). The CAMERA WALK sign struck me as an amusing description of the Steadicam shot itself.

I always wondered how they did the maze shot from above — which feels like Jack’s POV as he looks at the model maze — and then I learned that they just shipped their fake maze to the forecourt of a huge tower block and shot down in it from the roof. Amazing! And it explains why the overhead view doesn’t have the grassy verges or the park benches, and why the ground is cement white rather than gravel grey. Kubes was certainly bold to cut directly from one to the other, though…

 

And there’s more vanishing furniture in this movie, of course. When David Bowie was recording in his Berlin period, he was cracking up a bit and imagined the furniture was moving around the room. That struck me as creepy. And there’s a story by crazy Frenchman Guy de Maupassant about discovering that furniture is always doing this, when we’re not looking.

So, was this deliberate? It’s the first time we’d seen the film since seeing ROOM 237 where this very strange continuity error is pointed out. Having never noticed it before, now of course we can’t help but spot it. And the effect is in fact quite eerie, particularly since you can’t believe it’s a mistake Kubrick would allow. So he must have wanted it, right?

Jan Harlan, in saying that ROOM 237 is all nonsense, would seem to be saying that the above is simply a mistake. But can we believe Kubrick never noticed it, or was too lazy to reshoot it, or had a resistance to reshooting things? So this, and probably some of the cutting discontinuities of Overlook space, must be part of his plan to imbue the hotel with malign animation. Right?

Lloyd the barman is out of his gourd in THE BOY AND THE PIRATES.

Is Jack getting drunk on spirit liquor? Ghost booze? Lloyd the barman pours him a drink but neither Lloyd nor the glass are present when Wendy charges in. At any rate, he sure starts looking seedy and there are scenes where Torrence seems drunk on whatever ectoplasmic brew Lloyd is serving up.

It’s funny when Jack goes to investigate the crazy lady in the bathroom. He goes in, tense, scared. And then he finds a crazy lady in the bathroom. But she’s naked and hot, so he’s happy! A really stupid smirk creeps onto his grizzled visage, like he’s a three stooge or something. “Ah-hur-hur, the crazy lady who tried to strangle my son is nekkid!” So, Jack is dumb. And he never does any actual caretaking. And I kind of doubt that book of his is going to be a big seller, either.

Maybe Stephen King doesn’t like the movie because he already created a character who was a really unflattering portrait of himself at a certain time in his life. And then Kubrick made the guy even worse. Kind of a personal insult, though unintended I’m sure.

The missing scene — Jack leaves Room 237 in absolute panic. But when he gets back to Wendy, he’s all calm and has a cover story prepared. I’m really curious what happened to him on the way back. Fiona thinks he just cooled down and reasoned that as he doesn’t want to leave the hotel, ever, he’d better make a convincing case that nothing is up. I think it would take another intervention by the hotel — maybe a few nerve-settling drinks from Lloyd — to get Jack this rational and steady, and to set him on this course.

You know, I guess it IS a great party, at that.

Kubrick seems to have had an unshakeable faith that people wearing full-face masks can perform oral sex. We see this again in the orgy scenes of EYES WIDE SHUT. But Stanley, Sterling Hayden may have been able to do it while wearing a clown mask in THE KILLING, but that was a rubber mask. Flexible mouth-hole is key. And the ape-men in 2001 had hinged jaws. Nothing they demonstrated really counts here. You’re just wrong. Perfectionist my ass.

The two bits that scare Fiona are Jack getting a wee skelf on his hand — it’s small-scale enough to relatable — and Scatman Crothers arriving at the hotel and walking into an unlucky fate. She felt that, being a psychic, he really ought to have sussed the situation out better than to just wander in shouting “Hello?” I was wondering how much the scene owes to Martin Balsam’s demise in PSYCHO. In terms of shots, nothing. It’s just a similar kind of scene. It’s a change from the book which I think is thoroughly defensible. We like Scatman/Halloran, so his death hurts, but that’s the kind of death horror movies should have. The film would be really depressing if Danny or Wendy died, but poor Scatman is that unfortunate combination of likable and disposable.

Plus, I think if he just showed up and rescued Wendy and Danny, it would be kind of dull.

Oh, poor Shelley Duvall is really good, isn’t she? Kubrick seems to have decided he doesn’t want the audience to be very sympathetic to her — so we side with her, but we’re not encouraged to feel real warmth. Danny is lovely. We like him. Kubrick seems to have decided that any woman who stayed with Jack must be a dope, and even though she looks after the hotel, saves her son’s life, and her only mistake is sticking with Jack who hurt Danny once by accident and used to drink too much, he doesn’t let us feel too much in the way of admiration.

In my book, Wendy is a heroic character. And it’s not a bad idea to emphasise her weakness, since it makes her victory all the more heroic. But you sense Kubrick’s withdrawal, his distance from her. Whereas we know he likes little Danny, who is smart, brave, resourceful, curious…

The film played beautifully, I thought. I was never anticipating the next scenes, bored with the one in front of me, despite having seen it many times. Fiona doesn’t think it’s scary, apart from those two bits, but then she doesn’t think it’s a horror film, either. I’m not sure what she means by that. I think it’s a Kubrick horror movie…

After the screening, Fiona saw a fellow audience member doing a really good impression of Shelley’s distressed run. Respect.