Friday, 20 September 2019

Kubism, Part 11:
The Shining (1980)

With a Napoleon-shaped bee still buzzing around in the Kubrick bonnet, it occurred to Big Stan that if he was ever going to get his dream project about the short dead dude off the ground, he was somehow going to have to make a metric fucktonne of money for a studio in order for them to finance it. Barry Lyndon had spectacularly failed to do this, so - much as he had once had the terrific wheeze to make the ultimate science fiction flick - The Kube expressed an interest in making a truly great, crowd-pleasing horror. Warner Brothers had already offered him both The Exorcist and Exorcist II, but neither tickled the Kubrick pickle. It wasn't until he read Stephen King's The Shining, about a psychologically flawed man whose assumption that he can regain control of his destiny is proven catastrophically optimistic, that Stan found his favourite boxes being ticked. So he packed his toothbrush, dug out his passport, realised he didn't need it because he was only going from St Albans to Elstree, and checked in for an extended stay at the Overlook Hotel. It's all inclusive, go mahoosive!
King was invited to submit a screenplay based on his novel, which he cheerfully did, and Stanley Kubrick cheerfully ignored it entirely and set to work on his own version, co-writing with novelist Diane Johnson. Swathes of backstory were jettisoned, along with King's preferred explanations for the somewhat unusual events that take place at the Overlook. Kubrick's filleting of so much exposition laid the ground work for the film's eventual reputation as a bafflingly ambiguous and inconclusive work of art open to a multitude of diverse interpretations, some of which are so insane they were gathered together into the even more unfathomable documentary Room 237, a film which ultimately proves only one theory beyond doubt: that it's possible to overthink these things.

Essentially, The Shining is the story of the Torrances, a family so fucked up that their very presence in a hotel causes it to shit out all manner of unpleasant business at them, including sexy naked ghost ladies that turn into cackling rotten hags, and vast amounts of blood that flow through the lift shafts in a haemophobic plumber's nightmare. Although even this is debatable: do the freaky psychic abilities of lil' Danny Torrance - and, to some extent, those of his dad Jack - awaken the sleeping terrors of the Overlook? Or does the hotel's gruesome history send Jack round the twist and strengthen Danny's powers? The truth is, it doesn't matter. It's a testament to The Shining's enigmatic aura that it's so frequently discussed and debated, but at the end of the day Stan's intention was simply, in his words, "to produce a sense of the uncanny". It's just a fucking great, enormously unsettling horror film. No answers are provided, only more questions; even the final shot just confuses things further. Kubrick gonna Kubrick.
The Shining is only Kubrick's second film not to feature a voiceover; instead, the Overlook's manager Stuart Ullman assumes the role of exposition dealer. He's doing exactly the same job as a non-diegetic narrator though, because none of the characters pay a blind bit of notice to anything he says. He's simply there to put the willies up the audience, with his casually tossed-off remarks about the hotel being built on an ancient Indian burial ground and former caretakers who turned out to be psychopathic axe murderers. His dialogue does offer the interested viewer a glimmer of potential meaning, however: those comments about the desecration of a Native American cemetery inform a reading about past crimes coming back to haunt us. Jack, who probably has more skeletons in his closet than just a brief dalliance with child abuse, bears the brunt of a karmaic retribution that combines his and his predecessor caretaker's indiscretions with those of capitalist white America. A failure to learn from past mistakes leads to their repetition, the result being an eternity spent in purgatory trying to clean up the mess. "You've always been the caretaker".

Kubrick loved to torture his lead characters, appalling examples of men that they are, and that failure of perceived masculinity gets a thorough going over from the Overlook's spectral staff. Jack's alcoholism (it's surely no coincidence that Stephen King gives his lead character the forenames Jack Daniel) appears in the form of genial barman Lloyd, who encourages him to "drink up, Mr Torrance". Meanwhile, waiter Delbert Grady - whose relationship to Charles Grady, the aforementioned family-chopper-upper, mutates a possible continuity error into yet another unsolvable mystery - represents Jack's capacity for domestic violence, urging him to "correct" his wife and son with chilling authority. If Jack brought his demons with him, the Overlook gave them uniforms and put them on the night shift.

And then there's the maze, that central motif that spirals out to trap the entire film in its winding, inescapable dead ends. Simultaneously representative of order and chaos, the maze is everywhere in The Shining: it's the hotel's corridors, its carpet design, the increasingly confused psyche in which Jack eventually loses himself forever. You can't swing an axe in critical analysis of The Shining without hitting an academic pointing out that the film itself is a maze, its apparently infinite outcomes and possibilities leading to endless, frequently pointless, conclusions. And yet none of them adequately explain how the Torrances got that mountain of luggage in their VW Beetle.
You can bang on all you like about how great a director Stanley Kubrick is, and indeed I appear to have done just that, but much of The Shining's success rests on the shoulders of its three lead actors. Danny Lloyd is alarmingly good as the equally cursed and blessed child, radiating mop-topped lovability while scaring the bejesus out of us with his delivery of the word "redrum" and his drooling fits of psychic botheration. Shelley Duvall went through sheer fucking hell at the hands of her single-minded, frequently cruel director to get to the point where she becomes the physical embodiment of fear, panic, exhaustion and terror all at once. Variety somewhat callously described Wendy Torrance as "a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric", which I think is a bit harsh. With her snooker ball eyes popping out of her Munch's-Scream skull she's equal parts sympathetic and annoying, because Kubrick would just love it if you sided with her bastard husband, even for one guilty second.

Lloyd and Duvall also provide the film's biggest scares, with their own unique terrified faces. Their slack-jawed, boggle-eyed, convulsive reactions to the smorgasbord of mind-fuckery going on around them (or, in Danny's case, inside his head) never fail to erect the hairs on the back of my neck, no matter how many times I peek at them from between my fingers. And then there's Jack Fuckin' Nicholson, going full Jack Fuckin' Nicholson for the entire running time in a performance that's literally impossible to imagine in anyone else's hands. The Shining is the film where Kubrick's habit of shooting millions of takes became big news, and you can see it in every shot of Nicholson going batshit crazy, his face contorting as if being tugged by invisible goblins, because he's done this scene eight hundred times now and he no longer possesses any grasp of long-forgotten concepts like reality and sanity. These are the strongest, most powerful performances in the Kubrick canon; only R Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket comes close.

Even those performances, though, need a canvas from which to leap out, and Stanley Kubrick weaves a mean cloth. The Overlook hotel, tiresomely but admittedly correctly described by just about everyone as "as much a character as the people within it", isn't your average haunted house. Almost every scene takes place in brightly lit rooms or blinding daylight; the hotel itself isn't remotely scary, unless you suffer from a crippling fear of beige. But Kubrick moves around it with sinister foreboding, employing the then new-fangled Steadicam to menacing effect. Those low, wide-angle tracking shots provide a new, weird way to capture the scene of the crime, arguably more effectively and certainly more innovatively than the hand-held POV shots favoured at the time by John Carpenter and Brian De Palma. It heightens the fear of what's round the corner, and with good reason once you know what awaits you there.
Despite all this technical and creative wonder, The Shining did not prove to be the film that would help Kubrick get Napoleon made. Contemporary audiences familiar with the novel were disappointed and confused, and criticisms came thick and fast. Mostly thick, to be fair, not least from Stephen King, who got the bang hump with his vision being so efficiently and masterfully perfected. "I think [Kubrick] wants to hurt people with this movie," King complained, before ironically producing a rival TV miniseries based on his book that is literally painful to watch. Kubrick was nominated for Worst Director in the inaugural Golden Raspberry awards, immediately marking the Razzies out as the awards equivalent of Armond White: tediously contrarian and staggeringly irrelevant.

History, of course, has judged them all, and found the naysayers to be a forgotten clump of potato-brained numpties. The Shining is a hypnotic, blood-curdling masterpiece that crawls under my skin and slowly picks my nerves apart until I can barely take it. And yet every viewing feels like it could all end differently: watch closely and you'll spot a surprising number of shots inside the Overlook where there's a clearly signposted exit, yet none of the characters seem to even see them, let alone choose to use them. Even we choose to ignore them. The Torrances could escape at any time, but they don't, and thank God. We don't want them to leave. We want them to stay there, for ever, and ever, and ever.

Join me again soon for more Kubism with Full Metal Jacket, or I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck. Thanks!

Part 12: Full Metal Jacket 

Friday, 16 August 2019

Kubism, Part 10:
Barry Lyndon (1975)

Having spent years fruitlessly dicking around with his doomed film about Napoleon, Stanley Kubrick found himself perched atop an impressive - but frustratingly useless - mountain of research relating to 18th century Europe. Scrabbling around for a chance to utilise all this material, Stan landed upon an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray which, conveniently, would also allow him to indulge one of his favourite preoccupations: musing on the corrosive effects of flawed masculinity. And lo, another Kubrickian protagonist of dubious moral fibre was born. His name, somewhat incongruously, was Barry.

To be truthful, Barry Lyndon begins life as Redmond Barry, Esq. of Barryville, Ireland, and the first part of his story (as told by Stanley Kubrick) concerns the means by which he acquires the style and title of Barry Lyndon. It's the eventful rise of a likeable dimwit from the muck of an Irish farmyard to the polished brass of Euro-aristocracy through blind luck (good and bad), ruthless ambition and barefaced dishonesty. The second part contains an account of the misfortunes and disasters which befall Barry Lyndon, most of which are wickedly satisfying to behold given his earlier behaviour, but because this is Kubrick you're never quite left in peace to form a one-sided opinion. What's inarguable, though, is that - like Humbert Humbert, Alex DeLarge and others who preceded and succeeded him in the Kubrick canon - Barry is a man, and not a particularly good one at that.
In a crowded field, Barry Lyndon opens with a strong contender for Kubrick's best voiceover. Michael Hordern's droll, amiable tones narrate proceedings with a detached amusement, as if he's reading you a whimsical bedtime story - which is, of course, exactly what this is: a cautionary fable, warning of the consequences of low morals and high wigs. Kubo ditched the novel's first-person narration because by his very nature Barry would have been an unreliable narrator, and Stan didn't want the disparity between Barry's words and actions to tip his film too far into comedy. It's a shame, because Barry Lyndon could do with a few more lols, but then Kubrick's only other comedy was Dr. Strangelove, and personally I can do without any more of that.

After his dad is killed in a duel "over the purchase of some horses", we meet the young Barry at the beginning of an odyssey which will see him collect a series of replacement father figures of varying suitability. Barry Senior is never referred to again, Kubrick avoiding pinning Barry Junior's psychological faults on anything as trite as the loss of a father at an early age. But that death echoes through the film in the duels Barry fights himself, as well as in further unexpectedly tragic consequences of equine commerce.
Another potential source of Barry's future problems is next up: his first love Nora, around whom he is hopelessly inexperienced. Little wonder that she throws him over for rubber-faced Captain Reggie Perrin of the British Army, igniting in Barry a raging jealousy of all soldiers and a general disdain for women. Again, Kubrick doesn't want to explicitly blame anything on Nora's actions - like A Clockwork Orange's Alex, Barry must be allowed to make his own life choices, only this time we're denied the relentless point-of-view shots that might lead us to sympathise with the protagonist. Kubrick's camera generally maintains a stately distance from its subjects here, avoiding the tools of melodrama but stoking the fires of critics who accuse him of a dispassionate coldness.

So off Barry goes, joining the British Army, then the Prussian Army, then becoming a spy, then a double agent, then hooking up with a fellow Irish con artist and blagging his way into the upper classes with a winning cocktail of blarney and balls. At various stages, matters of honour are settled by ritual, civilised violence - duels by pistols, swords, or fists - and Kubrick lavishes attention on these scenes. It's partly through a desire to show the comic absurdity of such polite barbarism, but the effect is to reinforce the toxic nature of what passes for "gentlemanly" behaviour in Barry's world. His repeated successes in these arenas serve only to top up his bravado, but the law of averages suggests that each successive duel carries less guarantee of him walking away from the next in one piece.
By the end of Part I, Barry has philandered, bounded and cadded his way into the heart of Lady Lyndon not out of love, but out of a desire for the entitlement that a union with her would bring. "Determined never to fall again from the rank of a gentleman" (in the achingly ironic words of the narrator), Barry gets everything he wanted. Not for the first time, though, Kubrick warns us of the dangers of over-reaching: Barry's success at class migration is as short-lived as almost all of Stan's protagonists' attempts to control their own destiny. Years later Barry is stuck in a loveless marriage, with an arch-nemesis for a stepson and a son he genuinely cares for, but with whom he frequently (and, in the end, tragically) overcompensates for his own lack of paternal love. His failings as a man catch up with him, but that trademark Kubrickian ambiguity refuses to let you enjoy his fate too much.

Kubrick takes his sweet time telling Barry's story, the running time gently nudging into a fourth hour, and another regular, infuriating criticism is that the film is as static as the landscapes of Gainsborough and Constable which it so often emulates. But that is to reject the opportunity Kubrick gives you to drool over some of the most gorgeous cinematography since, well, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Barry Lyndon boasts stunning outdoor shots that deserve to be held for hours at a time, as well as dreamy interiors famously lit only by candles and shot with lenses specially designed by NASA, presumably left over from Kubrick's faked moon landings. That shallow depth of field and those long, slow zooms are things of heart-soaring beauty, but even in its uglier moments Barry Lyndon is pure art: there's more than a touch of Hogarth in the tableau of Barry slumped in an alcoholic stupor when fate comes claiming satisfaction.
The dialogue, too, is to die for: if the Coen Brothers made a period dramedy set in 18th century England, they'd be hard pressed to write dialogue as lip-smacking and ear-licking as, for example, this from the aforementioned scene, delivered over forty languorous seconds by Barry's victimised stepson:

Mister Redmond Barry. The last occasion on which we met, you wantonly caused me injury and dishonour, in such a manner, and to such an extent, no gentleman can willingly suffer without demanding satisfaction, however much time intervenes. I have now come to claim that satisfaction.
Perhaps Barry Lyndon's defining legacy is that, over forty years after its release and nearly two and a half centuries after it's set, it's as relevant as ever. As long as there are venal, narcissistic, dangerously ambitious liars willing to worm their way to the highest status despite being catastrophically unsuitable for that status, there will always be the luck of Barry Lyndon waiting to put them back in their place. Maybe the last word should go to the spectacularly-monikered George Savage Fitz-Boodle, the fictional editor of Barry's memoirs in Thackeray's novel:
"The moral of the story [is] that worldly success is by no means the consequence of virtue; that if it is effected honestly sometimes, it is attained by selfishness and roguery still oftener; and that our anger at seeing rascals prosper and good men frequently unlucky, is founded on a gross and unreasonable idea of what good fortune really is."

Next time on Kubism, come play with us at the Overlook Hotel! 5% discount on room 237, no reason.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Domino: De Palma's latest is a pizza shit

It probably escaped your notice, but a new Brian De Palma film was released the other day. That's right: a fresh cut from the director of Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables just bypassed UK cinemas entirely, immediately becoming just one more pathetic tear in the ocean of home entertainment. It's a sad state of affairs when the new movie from the director who launched the Mission: Impossible franchise gets less publicity than, say, animated kiddie-distracter The Queen's Corgi (tagline: "For Dog's Sake!"), but that's the position in which De Palma currently finds himself.

Of course it doesn't help that since so memorably dangling Tom Cruise from the ceiling of a CIA data vault in 1996, De Palma has made six quite rubbish and therefore largely ignored films; nor does it help that the production of Domino was so comically torturous that Bri himself has virtually disowned it. So it should come as little surprise, even to those of us crossing everything in the hope that this might have been his big return to form, that Domino is a strong contender for both the worst Brian De Palma film and the worst film of 2019 (Godzilla: King Of The Monsters notwithstanding). It might even be the worst film to be called Domino, and that's really saying something.
De Palma's Domino is a mentally challenged Eurothriller bafflingly set in 2020 Denmark (which looks suspiciously like 2019 Denmark), where everyone has Danish names but most people speak English with American accents for reasons never adequately explained. Jaime Lannister off of Game Of Thrones is a plain-clothes cop with no discernible personality, who inadvertently gets his partner killed in an early scene that - as is mandatory for Brian De Palma - references Alfred Hitchcock, specifically the rooftop chases of Vertigo and To Catch A Thief. You can just about make out De Palma having some fun at this point: a slow zoom-in to a gun on a table is justifiably laden with portent, and it's not long before the trusty split diopter is busted out in almost heartwarming memory of the director's halcyon days.

But where Vertigo's opening had inestimably grave repercussions for its protagonist's psychological wellbeing, Domino's is merely the fart that heralds the impending stench of a limp story about a terrorist plot in which Jaime Lannister off of Game Of Thrones gets accidentally and tediously involved. Having more or less shrugged off his responsibility for his partner's death as if it happens fairly regularly (which, given his apparent incompetence, is entirely likely), Jaime Lannister off of Game Of Thrones hooks up with fellow cop Melisandre off of Game Of Thrones. The pair struggle in vain to make sense of an asinine script while being occasionally distracted by CIA wonk Guy Pearce, the only actor who seems to grasp the full horror of his predicament and who therefore overcompensates by doing a funny accent to keep himself awake.
Reminiscent of early seasons of 24 in its indefensibly racist decision to make all its terrorists people of colour and all but one of its people of colour terrorists, Domino's general air of bad taste reaches as far as its scenes of actual terrorism. You get the feeling that a point is desperately trying to be made about terrorism's relationship with the media by showing the footage from the terrorists' phone cameras as they commit their atrocities, to which end De Palma finds a disturbingly self-referential new way to employ his beloved split-screen effect. But it's carried out with all the nuance of a cheap panto and pales in comparison with, say, this year's Vox Lux, which was an infinitely more thoughtful take on the idea.

Its confused message lost somewhere in a brutal, presumably studio-ordained edit, Domino has nothing left in its arsenal, and what remains is an embarrassingly amateur collection of examples of how not to make a compelling thriller. De Palma's long-time composer Pino Donaggio turns his well-worn Bernard Herrmann dial up to eleven, regardless of what's happening on screen (again, probably the fault of a hacked edit), characters frequently succeed by accident or make forehead-slappingly idiotic choices, and - after a Belgian airport security guard quite understandably confiscates Jaime Lannister off of Game Of Thrones' gun - Melisandre off of Game Of Thrones delivers the line "Forget it - it's Brussels" with such a straight face you wonder if she's wearing prosthetics to cover her uncontrollable smirk.
A drawn-out, dialogue-free climax (which echoes Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, natch) threatens to briefly lift the quality needle off zero, but you're never more than a minute or so away from another eye-rolling groaner. It's hard to say it, but it's probably time to accept that the heyday of De Palma's career is long behind him, his heightened sense of camp, innovative direction and aching self-reflexivity mere memories to treasure while politely ignoring his current ramblings. Quit now Brian, for dog's sake.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Kubism, Part 9:
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick didn't have much time for heroes. You can probably count the number of traditionally heroic characters in his films on the fingers of one hand, and still have two fingers left to stick up to the world. Davey Gordon in Killer's Kiss goes out of his way to save his neighbour from a B-movie crime lord, Paths Of Glory's Colonel Dax moves heaven and earth to bring some semblance of humanity to World War I, and Spartacus is basically sexy Jesus, but that's about it. Everyone else is awful: the Kubrickian rogues' gallery boasts thieves, paedophiles, lunatics, incompetent politicians, murderous computers, wife-and-child-abusers, psychotic drill sergeants and Tom Cruise. Yet for some reason we like them even though we know they're twats, and we like watching them being twats. It's that dichotomy that Kubrick explores in A Clockwork Orange, with easily the most reprehensible protagonist of his entire canon. Apart from Tom Cruise.
Alex DeLarge is a smug, selfish shit who rules over his gang of dim-witted pals with a big stick and even bigger false eyelashes. After a long day spent tolchocking tramps, rival gangs and weird couples in retro-futuristic houses, Alex’s droogs turn on him. They abandon him to the police after he beats a woman to death with a big fat ceramic cock, and in prison he is subjected to a government-approved, chemically-enhanced form of behavioural therapy - known as The Ludovico Technique - to "cure" him of his criminal tendencies. Alex is released back into society as a law-abiding citizen, but when his past crimes violently catch up with him and he finds himself the victim, the authorities decide it was a bit mean to force him to be good, so let him be bad again. "What do you think about that?", asks Stanley Kubrick. Not literally, you understand. Subtext, innit.

So let’s not fuck about here. Alex is an actual rapist and an actual murderer: easily the best/worst example of the flawed masculinity with which Kubrick was so fascinated. He commits his crimes for fun and without remorse, and you would need to be the shittiest kind of anus not to feel at least a little uncomfortable watching him indulging in his beloved ultraviolence. So why would we identify with him at all? Well for a start, Alex - as indelibly stamped into pop culture by the jackboot of Malcolm McDowell's ebullient, irrepressible performance - is impossible to take your glazzies off. He's a clever, charismatic leader in an iconic costume who does what he wants, when he wants. He puts the id into idol for anyone who wishes they could just skip school, fuck a couple of girls in the style of Benny Hill and get into some scrapes with the lads if only it weren't for that bloody interfering super-ego.
To further muddy the psychological waters, Kubrick seems to be having as much fun directing the violence as he wants us to have watching it: he exuberantly operates the handheld camera himself in the phallus-based attack, shoots the gang fight with Hollywood-style panache, and lingers for an inordinate amount of time on the films' many naked women, most of whom are in the process of being horribly violated. He encourages you to laugh, despite yourself, at the irony of Alex singing a Gene Kelly show tune while beating people up, and at the comical, giant todger wielded as a murder weapon. Perhaps it all looks like a tremendous jape because we're seeing the world through Alex's eyes (literally, with the amount of POV shots we're forced into); certainly the continuous voiceover from "your friend and humble narrator" leaves us in little doubt that Kubrick wants us to sympathise with Alex's plight.

Tapping into our psyches a little deeper than we might be prepared to admit in order to get us to identify with Alex is crucial for Kubrick, because it then allows him to pose the central question of both the film and Anthony Burgess' book, on which it's based: to what extent is corrective punishment - specifically, behavioural conditioning - a successful method of reducing criminal behaviour? And by extension, how much state control is too much? (We’ve come a long way since Fear And Desire’s message that war is, like, totally bad, man.) If we hadn’t grown to "like" Alex there’d be no question of ever sympathising with him, but Kubrick has us by the moral yarbles now.

It’s this form of state control, Kubrick and Burgess argue, that’s as much a violation as anything Alex visited upon his victims. The Ludovico Technique doesn’t erase Alex’s ultraviolent urges, it just stops him acting on them; his soul is left tortured, torn between emotional desire and the physical inability to realise those desires."When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man," claims Alex's prison chaplain, and Kubrick reiterated the point, saying: "It is necessary for man to have the choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human - a clockwork orange." Post-Ludovico, Alex returns home to find his parents have not only replaced him with a lodger who's a better man (and son) than Alex ever was, but they've also got rid of his pet snake: a metaphorical castration on top of everything else.
The counter-argument, as represented by Mr. Alexander - the writer whose wife Alex raped - is pretty much "nope, fuck him, he deserves everything he gets." And there’s no denying that despite all the work that went into building sympathy for Alex, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in watching him get his comeuppance at the hands of the tramp, his droogs and Mr Alexander, all of whom felt his wrath earlier in the film. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick weighs the film more towards his side of the argument’s favour, but it’s to his credit that he poses the question at all, regardless of partiality.

So we're left with an impossible choice (of which, ironically, we'd probably rather be deprived): libertarianism that allows people the freedom to be selfish pricks, or totalitarianism that denies free will entirely and turns us all into mechanical citrus fruit. Neither option seems especially palatable, and A Clockwork Orange doesn’t seem interested in exploring a sensible middle ground: Kubrickologist David Hughes bemoans the film’s absence of apparently radical notions like education and rehabilitation. The only conclusion, then, is oh dear the world is fucked, and there's nothing we can do about it. It's the most pessimistic Kubrick's been since, ooh, two films ago, and a universe away from the arguably hopeful climax of 2001 just three years earlier. But it does make Clockwork one of the most fascinating of Kubrick's films to dissect and discuss; a moral and psychological conundrum to rival 2001's metaphysical and philosophical one.
Of course it doesn't hurt that A Clockwork Orange is one of the most stylish and evocative films ever made, thanks to Kubrick's unique vision. His famous one-point perspective shots are everywhere, with wide-angle lenses leading us down inescapable corridors and tunnels in formal counterpoint to the narrative themes of freedom of choice. It's also his sauciest so far, with almost everyone owning pornographic art, and contains the first appearances in his filmography of f-bombs. Kubrick even steps into a self-reflexive mode you'd imagine unthinkable from someone apparently not prone to such frivolity: the soundtrack album to 2001 can be seen in one scene, and there are shots of Alex that are almost indistinguishable from that film's equally instinct-driven apes.

The complete package is a deceptively dense and thought-provoking eyegasm that locks your lids open and bombards them with paradoxical images of modernism and futurism, anarchy and conformity, and crime and punishment. In a time of western social and cultural upheaval, it capitalised on an increasing fear of youth culture but did little to quell those fears. No wonder, then, that it cemented Kubrick's reputation as an unpredictable, controversial, innovative and experimental filmmaker out there making no appy polly loggies, and no wonder that he then - in the ultimate expression of free will - went and made a three-hour-long, almost catatonically sedate, whimsical period drama set in 18th century Ireland. The absolute bolshy yarbles on that chelloveck.

Join me again on Kubism for Barry Lyndon, in which I will spend c.1000 words investigating whether anyone in the mid-18th century was actually called Barry.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Kubism, Part 8:
2OO1: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Dr. Strangelove had failed to successfully treat Stanley Kubrick's nuclear itch. The ointment of satire clearly wasn't strong enough to clear up Stan's rash of pessimism regarding the human race's inevitable freefall into self-destruction; stronger medication was required. Perhaps drawing on his abandoned idea of a framing device for Strangelove in which aliens passed pitiful judgement on mankind's stupidity, Kubrick filled a syringe with ideas about a cosmic intelligence leading humanity to existential perfection, plunged it into his veins and pumped himself full of sci-fi serum. The result was even more successful, if you can believe such a thing, than the metaphor that has infected this paragraph. The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the greatest film ever made.
People talk about the transformative power of 2001, and with good reason. It certainly transformed me when I first saw it at Telford UCI in 1994: where once squatted an uneducated apeman who thought James Bond films were the pinnacle of filmic achievement, there now hovered a glowing Star Child of profound movie wisdom, suddenly aware of the vastness of cinema's potential. I had transcended the boundaries of mediocrity and made the leap to the next stage of human evolution, which is something very few people can say about an evening in Telford.

Stanley Kubrick was transformed too, taking new approaches to many of his usual filmmaking techniques. Having worked from adaptations of novels for all but his first two features, he now sat down to bash out an original story with the help of British science fiction writer and general egghead Arthur C Clarke. He embraced colour film for the first time (he'd had no choice with Spartacus, having taken over directing it after shooting had begun), abandoned his usual, dialogue-heavy screenplay style and even - albeit at the last minute - ditched a lengthy voiceover. There's a small irony in the fact that the first Kubrick film not to feature an omniscient narrator is the one about all-seeing, all-knowing beings guiding us to a better understanding.

In place of the usual expository waffle is a twenty-minute prologue on the planet of the apes (spoiler: it was Earth all along), in which prehistoric man-monkeys live more or less peacefully with a bunch of tapirs, eating, sleeping and engaging in the odd territorial squabble over a casual drink. When they wake up one morning to discover that Alien Santa's been and left them a large, black cuboid, they gawp at it in confusion, hesitantly reach out to touch it, and their fate as the eventual dominant species on the planet is sealed. I for one would be interested to know how things would have gone if the tapirs had got to the monolith first, but Stanley Kubrick, it seems, was sadly not.
This sequence is introduced with the intertitle "The Dawn Of Man", leading you to believe that the hairy hominid phase was us at our most primitive, before we invented tools, weapons, digital watches and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. The next sequence is all spacey and futuristic with zero gravity toilets and velcro shoes, but look closely: there hasn't been another intertitle, and there won't be until after a bunch of ape descendants have gathered round another large, black cuboid on the moon, gawped at it in confusion and hesitantly reached out to touch it. The gist seems to be that despite all we’ve accomplished over the millennia (even Rumours), man is still dawning. Even in the Space Age we're just as backward and clueless as when we used to pick fleas off each other, except now when we discover something that challenges the very meaning of our existence, the first thing we do is take a selfie with it.

This bit of man's dawn sure is stunning though. Marvel at this Cinematic Universe, because space has never been represented on film with as much cosmic elegance as it is here: you could sit and watch planets float by and spacecraft drift past for hours. 2001's circular visual motif (planets, space stations, eyes, psychotic computer interfaces) is enhanced by its musical equivalent, the waltz, and Johann Strauss II could not have asked for a better video for his biggest hit. Kubrick signals his revolutionary use of music by removing all diegetic sound while Strauss, Ligeti, Khachaturian and the other Strauss do their thing, cutting his hypnotic images for as long as the pieces need to play out. The absence of dialogue allows Kubrick to bust out the visual storytelling he's been developing since he was a photojournalist, and 2001 arguably represents the zenith of that talent.
While casually tossing off accurate predictions about the future, like iPads, Skype calls and toddlers demanding phones for their birthdays (as well as less accurate ones, like BBC 12), Kubrick reinforces his theory that we’re not much further down the evolutionary road than we were four million years ago. Like our flea-picking predecessors we're still doing a lot of eating and sleeping, and a confrontation between American and Russian delegates on Space Station V is nothing more or less than a territorial squabble over a casual drink. But from beneath this anthropological pessism creeps something unexpected: 2001 is rarely - if ever - described as a horror, but its edgy sense of unease, teased earlier by the disturbing, unexplained appearance of the monolith, really starts to burrow under the skin at this point. It's not quite the merciless assault on your nerves that Kubrick would wreak with The Shining, but it's a not-too-distant ancestor of it.

US Astronautics Agent Dr Heywood Floyd's friendly but perfunctory chit-chat with his Russian counterpart (Reggei Perrinov) assumes a sinister air when he's questioned about mysterious goings-on at the Clavius moon base. Floyd's long, uncomfortable pauses and subtle shift in demeanour are the first clues to 2001's disquieting subplot about secret missions and paranoid self-preservation. It's a red herring in many ways, because a bureaucratic cover-up pales into insignificance next to the deconstruction and subsequent rebirth of humanity that comes later, but that anxious feeling never goes away. Later on Kubrick leans harder into psychological horror, not least when Floyd and his pals are investigating the moon monolith to the nightmarish, dissonant wailings of György Ligeti's Requiem. I can't imagine what Ligeti thought his music would be good for before Stanley Kubrick used it to put multiple willies up his audience; did he intend it to be played at the end of dinner parties when guests just wouldn't leave?

That scene is crowned by the uncomfortably shrill sound of the monolith's burglar alarm going off, and the very real possibility that Floyd and co are dying horribly from exposure to it, so it comes as some relief when we suddenly cut to 2001's second intertitle: "Jupiter Mission - 18 Months Later". The dawn of man is apparently over; time for him to haul his newly-woke ass out of the prehistoric bed and into the evolutionary shower. Don't forget to wash Uranus!
The USS Discovery One sails by like a single astronomical spermatozoa, which is an infinitely better and cleverer visual metaphor than anything from Dr. Strangelove, especially given its eventual role in the creation of new life. We meet astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, perhaps the least charismatic characters in a film full of soulless blanks. Frank can't even crack a smile when he gets a birthday video message from his parents, the miserable bugger: it's as if technology and modern living has left mankind emotionally stunted, hahaha imagine that. Fortunately they're accompanied on their mission by onboard computer HAL 9000, or 'Hal' to his mates / victims. Hal is deliberately the most emotionally rich personality in the entire film, and his calm, reassuring voice is a sign that everything is going to be just fine from now on. Just a moment... just a moment...

As it turns out, Hal is in fact dangerously paranoid, or completely mad, or straight up evil. Arthur C Clarke's novelisation confirms that he wigs out because he can't deal with lying to Dave and Frank about their mission, but Kubrick leaves it typically Stan-biguous, as if perhaps Hal might just be confused that there's a BBC 12. (I'm pretty sure Kubrick didn't invent the use of a news report as exposition, but he certainly pulls it off here given that it's now one of the laziest clichés in cinema.) Whatever Hal's beef is, his discovery that Frank and Dave plan to pull his plug is a blood-curdling scene. The cut from a close up of the mens' lips to Hal's unblinking eye is a chilling example of the Kuleshov effect: I swear I can see stone cold panic and boiling rage in that unblinking yellow pupil.

We're barely back in our seats, post-intermission, before Kubrick assails us with Hal's deeply unsettling attack on Frank. The pod silently turning in space, followed by those jump cuts into Hal's eye, are more pure horror, executed with eerie simplicity and heightened by the fear of what it might be like to asphyxiate in deep space. Anyone playing Kubrick Bingo can cross off "Man's plans violently undone by something he thought he was in total control of", and if you haven't already you may as well scribble out "Man discovers his own insignificance in the cosmic scale of things" too. The alien intelligence drags Dave through a psychotropic fallopian tube (still shots of his contorted face providing more spine-chilling dread) into the comfortable womb of a plush but incongruously decorated hotel room, where he undergoes unnervingly-soundtracked rapid physical development before being squeezed out into space, newly reborn as Human 2.0. The film is over but the questions have only just begun, the first of which is invariably "what the fuck?"
The answer, obviously, is irrelevant. 2001's magic lies in its indefinability, the wilful ambiguity that comes from its unconventional, insanely bold storytelling. It's a cosmological conundrum wrapped in an evolutionary enigma, tied up with a bonkers bow. Clarke explained a lot of it in his novel, but why would you want that? To quote Kubrick, casually and characteristically throwing shade at his writing partner's endeavours whether he meant to or not, "The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalise or analyse it." 2001 is all about the feel of the experience, drowning you in aural and visual wonder while confronting you with the deepest ideas about nothing less than the entire past, present and future of human existence. The decision to make it creepy as fuck adds another dimension to the experience, but also reflects our fear of progress: dragging ourselves out of the primordial soup must have been terrifying, and there's no reason why any further self-improvement should be any less distressing a process.

"Its origin and purpose [are] still a total mystery", Heywood Floyd tells Dave Bowman in the film's final words. He's referring to the monolith on the moon, but almost since 2001's release people have been using that line to describe the film itself, as if it appeared from nowhere and has no clear meaning. Maybe the latter is partly true, but there's plenty of information out there detailing the movie's genesis. However it's after watching that ending, in which each of Bowman's developmental leaps is preceded by him gazing at his advanced self until, finally, the Star Child he becomes turns and stares out of the screen at us, that I find the film's first words more appropriate and optimistic: "Here you are."

Next time on Kubism we chew on A Clockwork Orange, breaking our teeth on its cogs, springs and gears before taking it back to the greengrocer's for a full refund.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home:
Peter Parker's Eurothwip


True believers rejoice: we are currently living in a golden age of Spider-Man. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 may have achieved the status of best superhero film ever in a recent highly-respected and influential poll, but that film was something of a one-off. We now find ourselves in the privileged position of being gifted five great films featuring Spidey since 2016's Captain America: Civil War, and it brings me unparalleled joy to report that the sixth extends that purple patch: Spider-Man: Far From Home is a ruddy blast from start to finish - and, indeed, beyond the finish.
Far From Home finds our hormone-addled hero Peter Parker (Tom Holland, as winningly lovable as ever) on a school trip to Europe, struggling to lock lips with the sassy af MJ (Zendaya, who gets to push her character slightly further than 'amusingly sardonic' this time). This unfortunate cock-blocking is due to the interference of a) fellow student Brad, a rival for MJ's affections, and b) a colossal threat to the existence of the planet which can only be addressed by Spider-Man. (Suspiciously, the remaining Avengers are tied up with other plot-convenient activities which are becoming less convincing to explain away with each standalone MCU entry.) So far, so classic Spidey - that balance between saving the world and getting on with being a teenager is maintained and respected here as part of Spider-lore.

But in the wider context of the MCU, Peter faces other problems. His mentor and father figure Tony Stark has inconveniently done an Uncle Ben on him, and he now finds himself in the spotlight (somewhat improbably, tbh) as the most likely replacement for Iron Man as Avenger-in-Chief. Having spent most of Spider-Man: Homecoming pestering Stark to let him join the supergang, Peter now finds himself totally unprepared for that responsibility. Metaphors for adulthood, anyone?
A possible Iron Man substitute for both Peter and a hero-hungry public appears in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal's Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio, who rocks up in a daft costume with a fishbowl on his head when Peter needs him most - during a breathless set-piece in Venice which, while spectacular, invokes troubling memories of Spider-Man 3's Sandman in its creature design. But if there's one thing I've learned about the MCU, it's that if you think something looks amiss, it's usually for a reason.

What follows is a typically classy, top-tier Marvelgasm that's as charming, funny and thrilling as you'd hope. Post-Endgame, and as the apparent final film of the MCU's Phase Three, Far From Home has a lot of super-plates to spin: positive and negative aspects of Tony Stark's legacy are raised, Spider-Man's role within the Avengers is a constant source of anxiety (an impatient Nick Fury providing little help), and the small matter of half the universe's population suddenly emerging from thin air after five years in "the blip" (as it's described in a hilarious early exposition dump) is casually but successfully glossed over.

But writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers and director Jon Watts never forget that this is, first and foremost, a Spider-Man film, and everything that makes the character unique - his age, his naivety, his awkwardness, his science smarts and his arachno-powers - serve the plot. Peter's relationships with MJ and Beck drive the film, and it's in these moments that the character of Peter Parker is allowed to breathe as much as Steve Rogers and Tony Stark were.
Amongst the deliberately hackneyed European road trip tropes (Venice = canals and St Mark's Square; Holland = windmills and tulip farms; London = Tower Bridge, red buses and black cabs), Far From Home boasts a smattering of clever fake-outs and twists, an extended psychedelic sequence that seems constructed to rival the kaleidoscopic visuals of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and a couple of welcome motifs. The idea that knuckling down and using your brain is less impressive to a slack-jawed public than brightly costumed superheroes is toyed with, and in the era of fake news we get a lot of manipulation of the truth by dark forces, a theme which looks set to be expanded upon in future Spider-instalments.

The only gripe I have here is a strong whiff of character motivation pinched almost wholesale from an earlier MCU film, posing the very real threat that Marvel might just be running out of ideas, but any concerns are blindsided by the amount of sheer, eye-popping craft and value for money on display. Whatever direction the MCU heads in next, it's apparent from Far From Home's air-punchingly wonderful mid-credits scene that Spidey's future looks set to remain as respectful but irreverent as we've seen over his last six crowd-pleasing movies. Long may the golden age of Spider-Man continue.

Friday, 28 June 2019

For no one (except Ed Sheeran fans)

I can't imagine how much time, effort and money went into securing the rights to The Beatles' music for its use in Danny Boyle's Yesterday. I'm picturing Paul McCartney sitting on a solid gold throne, perched on a balcony made of the purest crystal, jutting out from a mansion constructed entirely from £50 notes stuck together with glue made from the boiled remains of history's finest thoroughbred horses, glancing up from his latest bank statement and shouting down to a begging-on-their-knees Boyle and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner to come back when they've added a few more zeroes to their offer. That almost certainly happened, so let's assume that a considerable amount of time, effort and money was expended before McCartney finally got bored and said he believed in Yesterday.

It's a shame, then, that the film that resulted from that deal is nowhere near good enough to justify that effort and cost, and nor is it worthy of being the one film that gets to use some of the most important music ever written and recorded. Yesterday is a wasted opportunity: an entire album's worth of filler, predictable beats and, most upsettingly, an inordinate amount of Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran

The premise sounds like it came to writer Richard Curtis while he was on the bog, at which point he immediately plopped out a script with less thought for the potential of his idea than how he was going to get his male hero to overcome a series of improbable obstacles in order to have sex with an impossibly hot woman. The gist is that hapless musician Jack (the enormously likeable Himesh Patel, easily the film's MVP) is unaffected by a mysterious global event that wipes The Beatles' music off the face of the earth. As the only person left who remembers the Fab Four, he proceeds - with a little help from his friend Ed Sheeran - to make a career out of playing their songs to an awestruck public who've never heard anything like them.

So first things first, this mysterious global event is complete bollocks. The film's marketing claims that "Everyone in the world has forgotten The Beatles", but that's not what's happened - all their records have literally vanished, there's no mention of them on the internet, and bands who've been influenced by them don't seem to exist. It's more like a parallel universe where Lennon and McCartney never met, although it's a fucking cruel universe that wipes Oasis from existence but still permits Ed Sheeran to peddle his staggeringly bland, clearly Beatles-influenced wares to an undiscerning audience. Of course none of this should matter: nobody cares how Bill Murray got stuck in a time loop in Groundhog Day. But the difference is that the rest of Groundhog Day is brilliant, so it's irrelevant. Yesterday's plot is so uninspired and plodding that your mind inevitably wanders back to its point of origin to work out how all this tedium was allowed to happen in the first place.
Ed Sheeran

But let's put that aside for now (even though it is demonstrably impossible to do so), and concentrate on Yesterday's biggest flaw. It sets up a world without The Beatles' music, then introduces that music via a solo guitarist in 2019, which is clearly a very different cultural landscape to the early 1960s when rock 'n' roll was in its infancy. Predictably, everyone immediately thinks the music is the greatest thing since Ed Sheeran, and Jack achieves his dream of global superstardom. But could that happen? What's that music building on; what came before it, given that it wasn't there to inspire so much of the last half-century of music? Do the songs stand up so well by themselves that anyone could play them and make them hits? The film seems to think so, but what does that say for John, Paul, George and Ringo, whose excess of personality, tireless enthusiasm and hit movies pushed their product to even bigger audiences? And which is more important: the performer or the songs? Do people love the music because they love Jack, or do they love Jack because they love the music?

Yesterday's answer to all of this and more is: couldn't give a shit mate, but keep watching and Tamwar off of EastEnders might get his end away with Lily James, weeeyyyy!! It's a catastrophic missed chance to entertainingly investigate what made The Beatles The Beatles, and that seems unforgivable when the path Curtis and Boyle choose is a humdrum romcom. A hrumcdrom. The film we get doesn't even need to have been about The Beatles' music at all; the songs are just a series of catchy hooks on which to hang yet another of Richard Curtis' mediocre wish-fulfilment fantasies. And not only that but Jack's versions of them are, without exception, awful. They've been engineered to appeal to Ed Sheeran's fanbase, and as such made me contort my face into Picasso versions of myself whenever I heard one. It's telling that at the screening I attended, most of the audience sat through the credits, presumably because it was the first time in two hours we'd been allowed to hear a Beatles song played by The Beatles, and man it felt good.
Ed Sheeran

There's plenty more to complain about: much that occurs in the final act is unbelievable, even in the film's own fantasy framework, but on the off chance you ignore everything I've said up to this point and go and watch Yesterday, I won't spoil the terrible, patronising, offensive ending for you. I should also probably remark on its non-rubbish elements, the most obvious of which is Kate McKinnon's caustic, brutally honest record label exec. McKinnon is perfect in the role, but that's probably because it's basically the kind of one-note SNL character she can toss off in her sleep. Like all of us, she deserved better. But she does provide some laughs, and the film is occasionally quite funny, even if it does like to undercut all its serious scenes with a goofy payoff as if it's part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The success of a music-oriented film can usually be judged on whether, immediately after watching it, you want to head straight to a record shop (a physical building where you can touch, hold and buy objects that contain music) or, more likely, a streaming app of your choice, to investigate that music further. As flawed as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are, they still resulted in me increasing my vinyl collection despite having almost no room to do so. But Yesterday actively made me less interested in listening to The Beatles: maybe it's because I was never a massive fan in the first place (although the same could be said about Elton John), but I worry that the reaction of anyone whose first exposure to The Beatles is through this film will be to wonder what all the fuss is about, and stick Ed Sheeran on instead.