Archive for Pauline Kael

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…

Zero is the Loneliest Number

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2018 by dcairns

I love the weird diminishing array of phones. And the lack of nose room for DeNiro — it creates an imbalance that eventually helps justify the camera taking off on its own, tracking right in a way completely unmotivated by onscreen movement, a move which “corrects” the composition — and then keeps going, like an automaton, into nothingness.

If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to keep delving into TAXI DRIVER.

When Martin Scorsese came to o a Q&A in Edinburgh, preceding the release of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986, the teenage me, who had only recently discovered his work, was in attendance, and my hand shot up when the call went out for questions from the floor. There’s usually an awkward pause when such a request is made, so if you sit at the front (desirable for movies, essential for personal appearances), and you DO have a question, this is the time to ask it.

Scorsese had been talking frankly about his career, the current scene in Hollywood (“The studios like to be able to look out their office windows and see what’s going on, and their offices are in San Francisco, so if the films can be set in San Francisco, they like that. Like the new STAR TREK is set in San Francisco. Really. They go back in time. And they save the whales. No, really!”) and the recent collapse of the original planned version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Aidan Quinn was already losing weight for it…”)

I asked about Travis’s phone call to Betsy in TAXI DRIVER, and you can read most of Scorsese’s answer in Scorsese on Scorsese ~

“That was the first shot I thought of for the film, and it was the last I filmed. I liked it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.”

I had mentioned in my question that some critics had objected to the shot — as I recall, Kael was one — on those grounds. I had found the shot mysterious, since tracking away from your subject and staring at an empty space seems counter-intuitive. It reminds me now of Mike Hodges’ reasoning for pulling away from a tragic moment in THE TERMINAL MAN. “It’s too painful!” He tries to give the character some privacy. And “the Americans,” he says, couldn’t understand this at all. The Hollywood system is to push in on the emotion. That’s why Kael flinched at it, and why teenage me found it mysterious.

But Hodges’ approach, and even more so Scorsese’s, produces the appropriate emotion in an indirect, discreet way. What’s more lonely than Travis on the phone to Betsy, hopelessly failing to get through to her on a clear line? That empty corridor leading out into night and the city, which he will finally walk down.

655321

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2015 by dcairns

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Malcolm McDowall’s character in CLOCKWORK ORANGE is known during the film’s middle act as Prisoner 655321, but as he enters prison he gives his name as Alexander De Large, same as in Anthony Burgess’ novel. But when he’s released from the stripy hole, the papers give his name as Alex Burgess. I was just remarking on this evidence of Kubrick’s perfectionism having marked (and strange) limits, when the film cuts to his dad, played by Philip Stone, who suffered a similar gnomic nomenclature in THE SHINING (he’s either Charles or Delbert Grady, depending on who’s talking).

Such peculiar slips aside, this is probably the most seventies sci-fi film of them all, its look playing like a kind of caricature of the fabulous ugliness of British hair, fashion, architecture, interior design and speech in that dark decade. The BLADE RUNNER idea of “retro-fitting” had not been invented yet, so movie visions of the future tended to work on the assumption that our dystopias will consist of all-new clothes and architecture and furniture. Ridley Scott’s team visualised the truth: the future will have all of our crap, only older and more broken-down and badly repaired. (The big exception to old stuff not surviving into movie futures is the Statue of Liberty at the end of PLANET OF THE APES).

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Speaking of apes, Fiona pointed out how this image recalls the primordial tribes of 2001. And then the soundtrack album of 2001 turns up in the record store Alex attends to pick up Gillian Hills and friend for a threesome (having presumably seen Hills’ threesome in BLOW-UP.) “Kubrick didn’t go in for in-jokes, did he?” Oh, but he did! Fiona has never seen EYES WIDE SHUT…

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I first saw CLOCKWORK ORANGE during the period when Kubrick had withdrawn it in the UK, on a fourth generation VHS dupe, with attendant fuzziness and flaring colours that bled off their subjects in shimmering auras. Then, on a college trip to Paris, I saw it in the cinema that played it non-stop, and it looked a lot better, although a splice robbed it of its final line, which was a real pain. (Terry Southern’s idea, floated in his novel Blue Movie, of a site-specific movie, made by a Kubrick-like master filmmaker, which you would have to travel to see, making it a kind of tourist attraction, had come true, at least for me — my main motivation in visiting Paris was to see this film.)

The film did not inspire me to any acts of criminal behaviour, though I may have tried to talk like Patrick Magee afterwards (“Trrry the WIIIINE.”

Random thoughts —

The novel is short and seems to me FAST, though I guess that depends on your reading speed. Having to look up the nadsat dialect words, or else strain to remember the last time they were used, does slow you down, but I always felt the prose demanded a certain celerity. Kubrick’s pacing is… well, deliberate would be a polite word. It seems to loosen up in the final stretch, somehow — McDowell even seems to be improvising in the scene where he’s psychologically tested with a caption contest, which had Fiona in hysterics. She’d forgotten what a funny film it is, if you can take it.

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“Cabbages… knickers… it hasn’t got a… a beak!”

SHOULD you take it? There are multiple issues at stake. Firstly, the written word becomes something quite different when visualised. Even Ken Russell said that the word must be censored by the artist when he films it. Mad Ken was mooted to direct CLOCKWORK ORANGE with Terry Southern on script and the Rolling Stones as stars — if he had, it would probably still be banned. Everywhere.

It’s pretty clear from John Baxter’s flawed but informative Kubrick bio that the director was treating the movie as an opportunity to ogle naked girls. The sexual violence has a role in the story, but is obviously important to the filmmaker for other reasons. Adrienne Corri initially declined the role of Mrs. Alexander because Kubrick was getting applicants to de-bra in his office while he trained a video camera on them. She made it clear that wasn’t on. “But Adrienne, suppose we don’t like the tits?” “Tough.”

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(The two became quite friendly. She gave him red socks as a present, her costume when last seen in the film.)

Kubrick also got Cheryl Grunwald to mime being raped as her audition, a fairly pointless exercise that seems more like power-play than legitimate creative process (auditioning for DEATH WISH, Jeff Goldblum had to rape a chair. He got the part). Oh, and the scene Kubrick gave his rapees was very much like the encounter between the girl and the soldiers in FEAR AND DESIRE, suggesting that his violent fantasies were of a long-standing nature and informed earlier work.

If the director’s intentions aren’t pure, does it matter? Pauline Kael thought so. She pointed out that the relatively few alterations to the novel all had the effect of making Alex a more appealing character. She was right, but the matter bears further consideration. Kubrick could clearly have gone further — Alex is, by any reasonable estimation, a monster. But his crimes are photogenic — he beats up ugly people and rapes attractive, nubile women, not the other way around. Kubrick admitted that the character’s frankness with the reader/viewer made him appealing, in the same way that Richard III is appealing — a scheming dissimulator who flatters us by taking us into his confidence.

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Let’s look at the changes. Firstly, all the underage girls are now older — the “weepy young devotchka” in the casino is a spectacularly buxom adult, and the girls Alex picks up in the record store may not have been assigned a specific, clearly-identifiable age, but if Kubrick had wanted us to accept them as schoolies he needn’t have cast Gillian Hills, who we might remember from another threesome in BLOW UP, or even further back in BEAT GIRL. Kubrick was probably bit concerned about what he could legally show, a little concerned about getting typecast after LOLITA, keen to avoid making the viewer reflect on how old Malcolm McDowell is supposed to be, and he wanted to photograph spectacularly buxom adults.

I believe Kubrick when he says he cut the prison murder for reasons of length. I think the prison scenes drag a little — the story loses forward momentum until Alex can get into the Ludovico Institute, and the scenes are played very slow indeed — arguably to emphasize the stultifying environment and as a dramatic gear shift after the savage opening. I think Kael is wrong to suggest this omission softens Alex, who has already killed a woman in furtherance of theft on top of all his other crimes. As I recall from reading the book, the additional killing didn’t make me like Alex less — I already despised him on a moral level and enjoyed his voice on an aesthetic one.

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Kael gets into the fine detail of it when she points out that Kubes breaks his own rules, departing from the first-person narrative to show the casino devotchka getting stripped by the rival gang BEFORE Alex has arrived on the scene. Kubrick is filming something because he wants to film it, not because it’s a legitimate part of the story. But a defense is quite possible here (although yes, I think Kubrick is salacious). The scene is shot from the vantage point Alex will have when we see him. He introduces the action with voice-over setting the scene. And then he is revealed, stepping from the shadows, having apparently been watching for at least a few seconds.

(Kael doesn’t mention a scene Kubrick invented, showing the Cat Lady phoning the police, another moment not shared by Alex, who isn’t in the building and very importantly does not know the millicents are on their way. This seems to indicate that for all his obcomp meticulousness, Kubes wasn’t that bothered about the purity of the first-person or “closed” narrative.)

I always felt the opening of the casino scene was problematic, though. Or “evil,” might be a better word. The ensuing gang fight is incredibly dynamic in a western brawl way, snazzily cut to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, but the opening, a scene of sexual sadism, interacts with the music in a teasing, smirking way — it’s quite justifiable as a rendering of Alex’s view of this kind of cruelty, but I can’t bring myself to admire it. The music, the voyeurism, the sexually mature victim, can all be explained, but in combination they add up to something exploitative.

The highly fetishized assault on Adrienne Corri is another thing, simultaneously a stunning coup de cinema, an assault on the audience in fact, and a fairly indefensible piece of art-porn/rape-porn. Worth pointing out, though, that just as Burgess identifies himself with the male victim (both are authors of a book called A Clockwork Orange), Kubrick seems to put himself in the place of Alex’s prey. I’m sure Patrick Magee is typing on one of Kubrick’s favourite typewriters. And the cat lady, like Kubrick, lives in a big house full of pets with paintings by Christiane Kubrick on the walls, just like the great Stanley K. Whether the film encourages this kind of reflection isn’t certain: Kubrick deleted the novel’s explanation of the title, which means viewers must accept the phrase as an abstract concept, meaningful for whatever sensations it arouses rather than as a sensible bit of language, and in some ways we may be meant to do the same for the film itself. Kubrick seems divided as to whether the movie is a pure sensory onslaught or a film of ideas, and the tension shows. Which is not to say the tension is a bad thing.

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Burgess’s story seems to suggest that a criminal might be forcibly turned off violence by giving them drugs and showing them films (although it’s uncertain if he literally believed this or just used it as an allegorical device to explore free will). It seems to me the drug used is based on apomorphine, which William S. Burroughs took to help him kick his heroin habit, and which was also used in aversion therapy for homosexuals seeking (or being forced to seek) a “cure” for their orientation. Kubrick’s refusal to engage with the media left a disgruntled Burgess to appear on every TV discussion under the sun, arguing that audiences seeing films (and possibly taking drugs) could NOT be accidentally conditioned to become criminals.

(Burgess later admitted he disliked the film, and no wonder — he wrote the book after his wife was gang raped, and to see that turned into a pervy fantasy by the director must have been rather painful. I don’t know what catharsis he achieved by adopting an assailant’s viewpoint in his novel, but he made it enjoyable as a literary stunt, not as sado-smut.)

Kubrick’s suggestion to Michel Ciment that films MIGHT affect audiences, but only in the same way as a dream might, strikes me as sensible. A well-balanced person does not commit a violent act in response to a dream, though C.G Jung reportedly packed in sculpture as a profession and became an analyst after a dream about being in Liverpool. Whereas I have actually been in Liverpool, twice, and did NOT become an analyst — except of movies, I guess.