Archive for Michael Herr

An Odyssey in Bits: White White White is the Color of our Carpet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2019 by dcairns

Or: MISS CARTILEGE REGRETS.Blink! Dave Bowman blinks his way back into normal Metrocolor. And finds all his computer systems have gone offline.Well, they would, wouldn’t they? What follows is… strange. Dave’s accelerated aging starts immediately, though because he’s such an unforthcoming lead, we never find out how he feels about it or if he even is aware of it. And he progresses through this sequence in an odd way, repeatedly seeing himself in an older form… our focus then shifts to the new (older) version, who looks around and allows us to see that the previous Dave has vanished… What’s most interesting here is that there’s no way to make rational sense of it. If Dave at least got out of his spacesuit before the wrinkling set in, if one of his close encounters with himself wasn’t an over-the-shoulder, so that we can see two Daves at once. My memory of seeing this for the first time is that I was so creeped out I completely missed the starchild. My eleven-year-old brain just shut down.

We jump right in on Middle-aged Dave, straight down the eyeline, 1-2-3. A lot like the jumps in on HAL’s cyclopean eye when he’s about to kill Frank Poole. Make of that what you will.

The creative continuity errors of THE SHINING are in action here, and not just in the way the protag’s age and number keep changing. In an uncanny pre-echo of the way the Overlook Hotel’s furniture shuffles around when we’re not looking, the chairs visible from the pod’s window, which appear to flank the bathroom door, keep dancing about, thus:I know it’s a different angle, but the chairs are either the equidistant from the door or they aren’t. Perfectionist my ass.

Then Dave’s pod vanishes which is a creative continuity violation in itself, I guess.

Dave checks out the bathroom. Bathrooms are important in Kubrick’s work. It’s surprising, on the whole, that BARRY LYNDON pays so little attention to the lavatory activities of its historic period, but we do see one bathtub in use.Scary noises: I believe part of Georgi Ligeti’s lawsuit against the film was based on his objection to the filmmakers tampering with his tunes. But if that’s in reference to the creepy, echoing laughter/voices heard in the white room, I think it falls within the parameters of a movie sound mix, just as the propulsive, low-end rumble that undergirds Bowman’s trip through those tunnels of light qualifies as FX, not score. Thought admittedly the use of Ligeti polyphony kind of blurs the line between diegetic and non. But that’s the composer’s fault, isn’t it, for writing such weird, messed-up music.

Are we to take it that the reverberant chatter we hear IS laughter? An excited audience at an alien zoo, watching poor Dave age through one-way walls? “Look, how hilarious, he’s going bald and wrinkly!” If that’s the aliens’ sense of humour, I might be inclined to agee with the conclusion of Spalding Gray, after he interviewed a lot of alien abductees:: these aliens really don’t seem to have ou best interests at heart. Even though they are ultimately going to transform Dave into a celestial foetus in a radiant bubble — and who wouldn’t want that? — their methods seem low on sympathy. The bedside manner is wanting.

From Middle-aged Dave’s POV we track around to look back into the dining/bedroom and see — Dave. But (viewing through virgin eyes) we don’t know it’s Older Dave (made up as Dick Van Dyke). We may assume that Dave is finally about to meet the mastermind responsible for all this. It would be just like a mastermind to appear by magic, unconcernedly munching on his dinner while the fellow he’s been toying with creeps up behind him.

So when Older Dave approaches, investigating a curious feeling that someone’s watching him (we are, and the aliens presumably are, but Middle-Aged Dave has vanished, as if catching sight of your older self immediately erases you. That must be what happened to Young Dave, and his little pod too. Older Dave returns to his dinner, the first apparently real food anyone in this movie has enjoyed since that delicious tapir flesh in the stone age. In fact, it’s been synthesised by his alien keepers, using memories drawn from his dreams, according to Kubrick and Clarke’s interviews and novels. (Back on Earth, is Dave a French duke living in a rococo lightbox?) As I believe Heywood Floyd remarked earlier on the subject of space chow, “They” are getting better at it all the time.

Then Older Dave knocks over his glass, which seems to be merely a device to allow him to notice Very Old Indeed Dave in bed, apparently dying. Noticing Very Old Indeed Dave erases Older Dave, so he never gets to finish his grub.Very Old Indeed Dave’s vision of the monolith standing at the foot of his bed like a doctor or undertaker is clearly a vision of Death. Like the three wooden posts we track towards in PATHS OF GLORY’s execution scene. And, in one sense, 2001 IS Kubrick’s most optimistic film, because for Dave, alone of all mankind, Death is not final. Kubrick was about to get into quoting himself: I think the first striking in-joke is the 2001 soundtrack album visible in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. And the high angle from over the bed-bound Dave is much like that the POV Alex near the end of CLOCKWORK: the giant speakers wheeled in to cheer him up with a but of Ludwig Van have to be a direct joke on the monolith’s appearance here. And so we have to take the later film as a kind of rebuttal, I think, not of 2001’s meaning and purpose, more of the hippy-dippy positivity that flower power audiences attributed to 2001. I never understood Michael Herr’s overjoyed reaction reported in his memoir Kubrick. I mean, I get a lot of joy from 2001 but it’s more about awe at the beauty and mystery and the filmmaking and the ideas than at any idea that the movie is reassuring us that Everything’s Going To Be Alright. Pauline Kael’s outraged review, which I would sum up as “How dare he make a film about space? I HATE space!”, actually describe the film better: cold and desolate, dry and ironic, pessimistic at heart — but engagingly CURIOUS, which she gave it no credit for, being proudly incurious herself. I quite like crackpot theories: Rob Ager’s ideas sometimes drift off beyond what can be taken from the movie in question, but his suggestion that the monolith is a Cinerama screen turned on its side is very pleasing: so the origin and purpose of the monolith are the same as those of the film it appears in: to educate and advance our evolution. Of course, many of the TV and computer monitors in the film are also designed to fit within and echo the widescreen frame (long before widescreen TV was a thing —  and Kubrick was a 16:9 skeptic, it appears, since he released his first DVDs in 4:3 — apart from 2001, which got the correct treatment). But just because some of the 2.35:1 objects in the film are shaped that way just for our viewing pleasure, does not mean the monolith has been designed to echo the frame only to look nice.

The clincher is the way Kubrick tracks (and zooms?) INTO the monolith so that the black vertical “screen” swallows the wide, largely white one, like we’re entering a new movie.

Which, in a way, we are. Maybe I need one more installment of this series to do justice to Kubrick and Clarke’s happy ending…

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Afghan Stan

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2008 by dcairns

Voodoo Child

So, Edinburgh is playing host to Reel Afghanistan, the first festival of Afghan cinema and culture in the U.K. As part of this, filmmaker Richard Stanley gave a talk at my place of work, Edinburgh College of Art.

Jolly entertaining it was too!

Stanley’s horror movie career began when his script for HARDWARE fell into the hands of Palace Pictures while he was in Afghanistan filming the Mujahideen in the Afghan Civil War, using a couple of wind-up 16mm Bolex cameras (it’s a beautiful camera that doesn’t need electricity — I used it to shoot CLARIMONDE, while, more famously, Richard Lester used it to shoot THE RUNNING JUMPING STANDING STILL FILM). While the film company was trying to contact him to sign a deal on his cyberpunk splatterfest, he was attempting to transport his injured cameraman to hospital from the Hindu Kush.

‘It turned out he had exactly the kind of serious injury you want to have — his nerves were severed in his legs so he wasn’t in any pain, but none of his major blood vessels had been damaged. It was a miracle he got the use of his legs back though. We reached the hospital and my memory of it is like something out of GONE WITH THE WIND, with the stretchers spilling out of the building. That’s where I got the phone call and it was like, “Where the fuck have you fucking been?” and I was in a strange state because I’d been living with these very religious people so I was really offended by this language.

‘To get me to come back to the U.K., because I wanted to stay in Afghanistan to look for the third member of our team, who was still missing, they had to get an ex-girlfriend of mine to call me up and say she wanted me back. Then, because they weren’t sure how I would react when I found out this wasn’t true, they hired a private security firm to be there when she told me, so I got back to my flat and there were four strange men in the lounge listening to my records.’

Lust in the Dust

After HARDWARE was an unexpected hit (an $800,000 film that apparently made 70 mill) a respected British producer apparently abducted Stanley’s Afghan footage from the lab and threatened to burn the negative unless he signed away the rights to his follow-up, DUST DEVIL. After Palace Pictures went bust, Stanley ran up a $100,000 debt buying up the film materials and producing a single print of his director’s cut.

The debt was wiped out when Stanley was hired for, then fired from THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU.

‘What happened was that New Line finally read the script. The head of development had been away on pregnancy leave and didn’t read it until we were starting to shoot it. And yes, it had animal sex, and animals on drugs. And it was very expensive to fire me because I hadn’t done anything wrong. On other films I had done terrible things and it didn’t matter because they wanted me to make the movie.

Fractal skull

‘Like, on HARDWARE, I was in a strange mental state making it so soon after Afghanistan, and I got into a fight with this bloke, nothing to do with the film, about PROPERTY. He was hitting me and I hit him back and he went flying and hit his head on the mantelpiece. He was lying there and moving a little, and I didn’t know whether to call an ambulance or attempt to dispose of the body. So I called the production and they sent somebody who took him away, no problem. I didn’t ask after him but apparently he came out of his coma and was fine.’

So — returning to MOREAU — Stanley was fired and John Frankenheimer came aboard. Stanley had signed a contract saying he wouldn’t come within X miles of the location or have any contact with the crew, but camping out near the Australian location one night he saw lights, and found some crew members. ‘So I came back as a dog.’ That is to say, sympathetic crew-members loaned him a dog mask and he played a background monster (visible hamming it up in at least one scene) so he could watch as Frankenheimer and teams of new writers dismantled the script which had already been written by Stanley, re-written at great expense by Michael Herr and then re-re-written by Walon Green.

Eventually Stanley didn’t even need his dog disguise because all of the crew who knew him had been fired, and Frankenheimer had never met him. ‘He was a bad, bad man,’ said Stanley of the once-great director of SECONDS and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. ‘I don’t know what had happened to him in the years since he made those films…’ (Twenty years of alcoholism is part of the answer.) ‘He told people in Hollywood that Fairuza Balk was an intravenous drug user, which wasn’t true. She was probably seventeen at that time, and when he should have been in loco parentis, he was trying to destroy her. We were so happy when he died. It isn’t right to be that way, you should have respect for the dead, but we were dancing with joy.’

I read an interview with MOREAU star David Thewlis years ago where he said, ‘I hated, hated, hated the director,’ meaning Frankenheimer.

It’s a film that seems to attract stories. I once chatted to a New Line executive — I think he was about 14 — whose girlfriend had been involved in the shoot. He claimed to have seen weird rushes: Brando had it in his contract that the director wasn’t to interfere with his performance at all, and after Stanley’s departure he sabotaged the film. They would turn the camera on and he’d PAUSE until the film ran out. Ten minute pauses. Or else he’d goof around and do silly stuff. Some of this may be in the finished film. Certainly Brando plays an entire scene with an ice bucket on his head.

The Steel Helmet

What else is in the film:

Val Kilmer forgets his lines, laughs, and wanders out of shot.

Nelson de la Rosa, the smallest man in the world puts his feet up on the dinner table and Brando interrupts his own dramatic speech to gently say, “No no no.” For the rest of the scene the smallest man in the world can be seen shaking in helpless mirth.

David Thewliss has a fight with some very strong mice.

Fiona once met one of the writers brought in to reconfigure the movie after Stanley’s departure. He said, ‘I TOLD them the mice wouldn’t work.’

It seems unkind to suggest that the dogman’s-breakfast MOREAU is actually more fun that Stanley’s own, more personal and unified projects… but Brando had a way of making bad films fascinating (he could also mess up perfectly good films).  

Mini-Me

Austin Powers fans can be grateful to the film for giving us Mini-Me. When Mike Myers saw the tiny Nelson de la Rosa playing a toy piano on top of a grand piano played by an identically-dressed Marlon Brando, he said, ‘I have got to do something with this because that is the craziest thing I have ever seen.’

And Frankenheimer, that bad bad man, always expressed confidence that, “one day,” the film would be seen as “some kind of classic.”