Friday, 25 October 2019

Kubism, Part 12:
Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Having exhausted all the major movie genres except westerns, pornography and Bond films (omg just imagine), Stanley Kubrick returned to his old stomping ground - the war movie - for what would be his penultimate feature. He'd bungled the genre in Fear And Desire, nailed it in Paths Of Glory, bathed and oiled it in Spartacus and pulled its pants down to make it look silly in Dr. Strangelove, but in the two decades that followed, war had changed. Vietnam had been and never really gone, still hanging over baby boomers like a cloud of Agent Orange, its toxic effects never truly dissipating. Stan wasn't that interested in making a film about the Vietnam War itself, but saw the conflict as a chance to examine the nature of war and what it does to young men. If flawed masculinity was one of Kubrick's favourite supervillains, here was an opportunity to tell one of its many possible origin stories.
Full Metal Jacket wastes no time in making its point, opening with a production line of docile, floppy-haired kids barely old enough to drink, getting their heads shaved in a ritualistic stripping of identity and individuality. Only two of them show any sign of emotion: one (Matthew Modine) looks pretty hacked off about losing his luxurious locks, while another (Vincent D'Onofrio) sports the kind of dopey smile that suggests he has literally no idea what he's getting himself into. A cringingly unironic, pro-war, country and western song plays over the scene: the first in a playlist of unmistakable Americana that never lets you forget which country did all this to its own children.

A quick shot of discarded hair lying on a barbershop floor, like the corpses of youth and innocence, brings the none-too-subtle prologue to an end and gives way to Part One of Full Metal Jacket: forty-five minutes of flawless Kubrickian absurdity as horrible as it is hilarious. R Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is an unforgettable creation, unleashing what Kubrickologist Thomas Allen Nelson gloriously describes as "a cascade of vituperation" upon his Marine recruits at the Parris Island boot camp in an attempt to toughen them up. Smooth, deliberate camera moves and single-point-perspective shots frame Hartman's merciless deconstruction of humanity with mechanical detachment, as if each scene is part of an automated process designed to turn the raw meat of the recruits into identical sausages of death.
One sausage, however, is a little fatter than the rest: D'Onofrio's Leonard Lawrence, aka Private Pyle. (Hartman's assignation of nicknames is another in his arsenal of weapons designed to eliminate identity.) The tension between Hartman and Pyle is undoubtedly the film's most impactful achievement; its legacy is splashed all over Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, and I refuse to believe the writers of Grange Hill didn't watch Full Metal Jacket several times before turning Mr Bronson loose on Danny Kendall. Pyle's treatment is horrendous to watch, but Kubrick needles you with the idea that it's an entirely necessary and justifiable way of creating remorseless killing machines. What he may not have intended is that in the context of his own filmography, it's hard not to see Kubrick himself in Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, psychologically torturing Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining in order to shape the perfect performance. What this says about Stan is best left to the shrinks, but if it's a legitimate reading then the final confrontation between Hartman and Pyle translates as what qualified psychoanalysts would call 'some fucked-up shit'.

Pyle's transformation into the ultimate weapon is slower than that of his fellow recruits, most of whom signal their early willingness to become monsters when they administer the soap-in-a-sock "blanket party" treatment that's some distance from most people's idea of the kind of party you can have under a blanket. But it's here that we see Modine's James Davis, aka Private Joker, as the only recruit harbouring any vestiges of humanity; his visible guilt over his own actions shows that he's actually the one furthest from Hartman's ideal Marine. It's going to take a lot more for Joker to realise the stone cold killer within himself.
Kubrick wraps up Part One so formidably and conclusively that you can't imagine where the story could possibly go next, and before long you get the impression that Stan himself isn't entirely sure either. Where the Hartman / Pyle dynamic created a self-contained, laser-focused, brutally unforgiving but riotously entertaining descent into madness, Part Two is a messier affair. As we follow Joker into Vietnam and actual combat, Kubo occasionally lets the film get away from him, and it suffers from the gear change. Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket gets left behind, spattered up the wall of a Parris Island latrine, and what remains is a perfectly serviceable but dramatically inferior Vietnam flick that, if you squint, could just as easily be Platoon, or Apocalypse Now, or Casualties Of War.

That's not to say there's nothing of value in Part Two: there is, it's just surrounded by a lot of repetitive scenes of Marines being the pricks they were trained to be, which gets a little wearing after a while. The idea that war is absurd and everyone involved in it is at varying stages of insanity is pretty clear, from the likes of 'Animal Mother' (a spiritual brother in arms to Aliens' Colonial Marine Corporal Hicks) and the kill-crazy door gunner, to the Colonel who seems to honestly believe that "inside every gook there is an American trying to get out". Kubrick even goes on to have Joker spell out his ideas about "the duality of man, the Jungian thing," as if his peace sign badge was too subtle a pointer to the madness of war. But what this is all leading to is the film's driving theme, and another of Kubrick's favourites: the conflicts within us, and what it takes for men to unleash the monsters within themselves.
Full Metal Jacket's final half-hour is devoted to a single scene in which Joker witnesses enough horror to finally awaken the sleeping killer inside him. At its climax, Kubrick stays on a close up of Joker for a full seventy seconds while we watch all his posturing and blustering denial drain away from his face. In slow motion we see him become the thing he was taught to be, the thing he's resisted all along; finally succumbing to Hartman's training, Joker claims his first kill. And just like Private Pyle's, it's accompanied by a kind of suicide, as Joker completes the process that began in a Parris Island barber's and destroys any remaining traces of his former self.

The theme of duality is also served by the scenes paralleled across the film's two parts: Joker being given responsibility for a fellow Marine (Pyle in Part One, Rafterman in Part Two); Pyle proving himself as a talented marksman in Part One, Part Two's Vietnamese sniper providing a mirror image; the body horror of Part One's blanket party echoed and magnified in the slo-mo bullet hits of Part Two's sniper attack. And what is Full Metal Jacket but the story of two men who take different paths to the same destination, neither of whom were born to kill (despite Joker's helmet graffiti claiming otherwise) but trained to go to war in the name of peace?

Obviously there's some terrific filmmaking going on here: the modified Steadicam, embedded in the platoon as they approach the sniper, drags us along for the ride, and the transformation of Beckton Gasworks into the rubble of Vietnam's Huế by bunging in a few palm trees and wafting a bit of smoke around is representative of Kubrick's signature ingenuity, even if - whisper it - he never quite gets the light right. But the biggest problem is the contrast between the film's primary protagonists. Despite this being Matthew Modine's eighth film but only Vincent D'Onofrio's first, the former is left standing in the latter's dust. Much of the dramatic weight of the climax is lost simply because Modine's blankness, while no doubt intentional, can't compete with the thunderous madness of D'Onofrio's batshit stare.
In an eerie epilogue, the Marines trudge back to base singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song in an uncanny last shot that sees a platoon that had been whittled down to a handful of troops suddenly number thirty-odd. The burning buildings against which they're silhouetted invite you to see them as ghosts, trapped in infernal torment forever, desperate to recapture their lost youth. You wish the film could have recovered the energy of its earlier vigour too, but it wasn't to be. Still, never mind: Stanley Kubrick's not even sixty yet, I bet he's got years of great filmmaking and loads of better movies ahead of him!

Join me again soon in a secret location for an orgy of... well, orgies, in Eyes Wide Shut! Careful where you park your bike.

Part 13: Eyes Wide Shut 

Monday, 14 October 2019

LFF 2019: The Irishman

The Irishman is the second film that could truly be classed as 'late Scorsese'. Like Silence before it, but a bazillion miles away from The Wolf Of Wall Street before that, Marty's latest is an understated piece that sees him in contemplative mood. It's a return to the worlds of Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino that he's become most famous for (despite making over 20 other, non-mob-related movies), but he's not remotely interested in repeating himself. Where those films boiled over with youthful energy, The Irishman is a more meditative affair. As its protagonist looks back on a life of crime, its director looks back on a life of crime drama; whether either of them truly find closure is as ambiguous as you'd expect.
We're introduced to Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran in the first of two framing devices. Parked in his wheelchair in a care home for the elderly in around 2000, he reminisces on a fateful road trip he took in 1975. This becomes the jumping-off point for an epic, decade-spanning riffle through the bloodstained pages of his life: a personal journey through American crime and politics in the mid-late 20th century. A not-entirely-honest trucker in the late 1950s, Sheeran's willingness to circumvent the rules brings him to the attention of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, reluctantly coming out of retirement for one last hit). Bufalino hires Sheeran as muscle for various unpleasant jobs, eventually lending his services to truckers' union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and his relationships with both men form the bulk of the narrative.

You'll have noticed some big names there, and it's a genuine delight to see all this Hollywood royalty turning out such great work. De Niro surprises as an initially somewhat naive gopher with a gun; possessing none of the authority of GoodFellas' Jimmy Conway or Casino's Ace Rothstein, Sheeran comes across as a blunt instrument wielded by the mob. Desensitised to violence after a tour of duty in Italy in the Second World War, he's happy to do as he's told regardless of the mounting cost to his soul: "Like the army, you follow orders, you get rewarded." De Niro still convinces as a raging bull when necessary, but he conveys the sense that Sheeran's survival has more to do with his unswerving loyalty than any wiseguy acumen. He also does The Robert De Niro Face for pretty much the entire running time, and that is a gift.

Al Pacino, meanwhile, pulls up just short of Full Pacino, and there's some fun to be had wondering how much Scorsese had to reign him in. But it's Joe Pesci who provides the most by giving the least: withered and creased, even when de-aged with CGI, he plays Bufalino with a softly spoken, authoritative menace that never needs to go near his trademark levels of madness. He and Scorsese know you've seen what he's capable of, and trust you to keep that at the back of your mind while he calmly, but terrifyingly, mediates and negotiates.
The Irishman blends new and old school Scorsese, as each of his successive films does. Violence is still a key motif, but in line with the mood, it's less glamorous, clumsier and over quicker than in previous films. Gunshots crack where they used to thunder, and those fountains of blood are reduced to brief, murky spatters. Execution-style killing just ain't what it used to be. Marty still delights and surprises with his trademark flashes of brilliance, though: low-level hoods are each introduced with a caption detailing their eventual method and time of demise (1980 was clearly a bad year for bad guys), swooping crane shots pull you right into the centre of the drama, and that obsession with detail is still there. When Sheeran explains that the best chilli dogs are made by steaming them in beer (recalling GoodFellas' sliced onions), it's with the same weight as the decision-making process by which he chooses the right gun for a hit (recalling Taxi Driver's Easy Andy). And then there are those wonderfully obscure terms whose meanings you have to infer yourself: "I heard you paint houses" and "Going to Australia" have very little to do with interior design or Antipodean holidays, and "It is what it is" carries considerably more threat when muttered by a gimlet-eyed Joe Pesci.

There are, of course, two elephants in the room, one of which is an extremely long elephant, and the other of which has been made to look like a younger elephant with CGI trickery. At a bladder-bothering 209 minutes, The Irishman could probably survive a minor trim. But it genuinely doesn't feel like three and a half hours; Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are by now the dons of keeping an audience interested for lengthy periods of time, and you won't notice your joints have seized up until the credits roll. That said, the colossal running time and the film's home on Netflix are not unconnected, so there's always the opportunity to spread out a viewing over several sessions if you're a total monster. The digital de-ageing, meanwhile, is barely worth mentioning simply because it's so good you hardly notice it beyond its first appearance, so let's dismiss that elephant too.
If the film suffers, it's from a lack of exposition that Scorsese deliberately withholds. Events are presented as the memories of an old man, so it's understandable that you might have to play catch-up on a few occasions, but there are relationships and motivations going on here that I struggled to follow as thoroughly as I'd have liked. A hefty chunk of the third hour left me frustrated because I genuinely didn't know what conflict characters were trying to resolve. Again, though, maybe that's what Netflix is for. But it won't be able to do anything about the glaring lack of any decent female roles; one of Sheeran's four daughters is the only woman to play an important part in the story, and Scorsese opts to give her the bare minimum of dialogue, even when her adult self is played by an actress of Anna Paquin's talent.

In the final reckoning, The Irishman is a sober rumination on loyalty and legacy. Like Henry Hill at the climax of GoodFellas, Sheeran's choices lead him to a lonely fate where all he can do is reflect on what he's lost, which amounts to pretty much everything, and his reaction to that is characteristically downbeat. He did it his way, but there's no Sex Pistols on the soundtrack to suggest any of it was worth it. I wish I'd been more moved by that than I was, but there's enough in The Irishman to tempt me back for another 209 minutes, and maybe then I can get fully on board with Late Scorsese.

Friday, 11 October 2019

LFF 2019: Knives Out

If Kenneth Branagh's do-over of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express has ushered in a new age of whodunnits, then all power to him. I haven't seen that film, because despite somehow avoiding spoilers for an 83-year-old story for my entire life, someone who shall remain nameless ruined the end for me in the kitchen at work, yeah thanks CATHY. Fortunately even she couldn't spoil Knives Out for me because she wasn't at the LFF screening of it this week, but I was, so guess who's going to have a fun, movie-ruining chat in the kitchen next week? That's right, better bring your fucking earplugs on Monday Cathy, my chatty friend!

Anyway. Cathy excluded, most of you should be able to make it to Knives Out without some twat spoiling it for you, what with it being an original story by its director Rian Johnson. Turns out Johnson's talents range all the way from triggering Star Wars incels to crafting sharply-observed, brain-twisting murder-mysteries with a killer cast including one Daniel Wroughton Craig, who hasn't had this much fun on screen since he played a stormtrooper in The Force Awakens. For this alone, we must thank Johnson with all our hearts.
Craig plays master detective and "last of the gentleman sleuths" (it's such a shame that one so rarely gets the chance to use the word 'sleuth' in everyday conversation) Benoit Blanc, hired to ferret out the killer of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an 85-year-old multi-millionaire crime novelist and head of the dysfunctional Thrombey family. DC is having a ruddy ball here, losing himself in an accent you could coat chicken with and serve at a Cajun restaurant. I find it fascinating that in all of Craig's non-Bond film roles since Skyfall (to be fair, there've only been four, including The Force Awakens), he's gone for American accents, and two of those have been from the southern states. It's almost as if he's trying to push himself as far away from Bond as possible for some reason.

But Johnson has also assembled an incredible roster of suspects for Blanc to Poirot at until they blab. Jamie Lee Curtis is the hard-ass matriarch, Don Johnson her philandering husband, Chris Evans their arrogant son. Michael Shannon plays against type as Thrombey's pitiful youngest child, Toni Collette is his hippy-dippy sister-in-law and Lakeith Stanfield is an easy-going but none-too-effective cop. Meanwhile Ana de Armas, almost certainly destined to be one of Bond's cock-warmers in the forthcoming 007 film, whatever it's called, plays Thrombey's immigrant nurse. Even M Emmett Walsh rocks up at one point, providing the film's biggest surprise: he's still alive! It's a star-studded cast in keeping with the Agatha Christie adaptations of old - and new, thanks to Ken - and it's a delight to watch them play off each other.
Naturally every character has a potential motive for bumping off the old man, and these are explored in a slickly-written and edited opening barrage of interviews between Stanfield's plod and the family. Johnson twists and weaves back and forth through his story's timeline, sometimes slipping the audience a little more information than the characters, sometimes vice versa. It's enough to keep you on your toes, and enough to make you boggle at what the wall of Post-It notes in his writer's room must have looked like. And Johnson remembers to slip plenty of gags into his film's cracks, not least of which is Blanc's baffling "doughnut hole" speech, which I could happily listen to on a loop for days.

There's a welcome, if a little thin, seam of political commentary running through proceedings: one scene sees a family discussion stop just short of them all donning MAGA caps, and it's enough to make you realise that what's going on here is a mild critique of inherited wealth, white privilege and anti-immigration sentiment. It's a grace note more than anything, never threatening to overwhelm the entertainment, but a little more of that kind of thing wouldn't have gone amiss. What we get instead is hard to complain about: two hours of solidly crafted, cleverly plotted fun. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed by the big reveal, but that's fine because I'm sure Knives Out is merely the first in a series of Benoit Blanc mysteries. After all, surely Daniel Craig is looking for a new franchise right about now?

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

LFF 2019: Jojo Rabbit

Got to be honest guys, Taika Waititi has never really set my world on fire. I like where he's coming from, and I enjoy most of his stuff (the best of it is still Flight Of The Conchords), but I've always felt that some of the jokes have been flubbed, or the storytelling has lacked a little complexity. Jojo Rabbit suffers from the same issues, but to a lesser extent, and while it's not flawless it is my favourite of Waititi's movies, and also the film I've enjoyed the most out of all the films I've seen at the London Film Festival so far (I have seen four).
It's the arse end of WWII and 10-year-old Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davies, adorable) is a new recruit in the Hitler Youth. The cult of Hitler (compared smartly with Beatlemania under the title sequence) has indoctrinated Jojo so deeply that the Führer is his imaginary friend, played as an avuncular manchild by Waititi himself. Jojo's mum Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, adorable), however, is less keen on the whole genocide of the Jews thing, and when Jojo discovers that she's Anne Franked a 17-year-old girl (Thomasin McKenzie, adorable) inside their house, his tiny mind is addled by conflicting loyalties.

And that's it really: you can probably guess how it all ends up, so it's left to Waititi to spin his own brand of comedy out of what could, quite easily, be a straight-faced drama. It probably takes a good hour for his film to get to the point where it fulfils its potential, spending a lot of time expecting you to laugh at people like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant simply because they are Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant. Fortunately Davies is engaging enough to carry the film without becoming annoying, and Johansson and McKenzie ground the drama while Sam Rockwell effortlessly provides the laughs in his few short scenes.
Waititi sets his film in a picture-postcard version of 1940s Germany, and characters talk in a decidedly 21st century vernacular for the most part. The obvious artifice renders the comedy fairly light and inoffensive, despite the claims that it's an "anti-hate satire"; there's not much in the way of satire going on, but there are still plenty of lols and a small amount of getting something in your eye to be had. It could do better at the whole "don't hate people just because they're different, you DICK" thing, and it could poke the "Nazis really are fucking idiots" hornets' nest a little more viciously, but Jojo Rabbit is well-intentioned and likeable enough to provide a solid 108 minutes' entertainment.

Monday, 7 October 2019

LFF 2019: The Lighthouse

A man takes a job maintaining an old building in a remote, isolated location in order to get away from his past. One of his predecessors, he discovers, went mad and killed himself. Human company is extremely limited and generally annoying. While there, he begins to lose his mind; nightmares seep into waking life until he isn't sure what's real any more. At some point, someone is chased by a limping crackpot wielding a massive axe. Welcome to The Lighthouse, the movie that could have legitimately been called 'The Shining' after more than just its titular glorified lightbulb.

OK, that's probably a little unfair: The Lighthouse is very much its own thing. In fact it's unforgettably unique, looking and sounding like something dredged from the depths of an aged sailor's worst memories. The monochrome photography is gorgeous, and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio ramps up the claustrophobia faced by the characters in their tiny corner of the world. While it's a visual and aural wonder, though, it left me pretty much unmoved, which is why my mind kept wandering off to the Overlook Hotel, as well as to the Bodega Bay of The Birds, thanks to some (admittedly excellent) seagull-based antagonism.
It's the late 19th century, somewhere on America's northeastern coast. Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the reluctant lighthouse keeper's assistant; Willem Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the grizzly, amusingly flatulent "wickie" - the guy responsible for looking after the light - for whom the term "salty sea-dog" seems to have been invented. While Wake fiercely guards his glowing mistress, Winslow is left with the menial, literally shitty jobs, and dreams of sexy, scary mermaids. Ostensibly there on a four-week stint, the two men bicker, fight, become pals, get drunk, argue a bit more, drink a lot more and then everything goes completely batshit crazy and you'd better be ready for it.

Director Robert Eggers piles on the menace with his mise en scene: the light station feels like a living thing whose eternal clanking and honking competes with Mark Korven's buzzing, droning score to see which can keep you the most unsettled. The mood is occasionally lightened by Wake's voluble anus or the pesky gulls said to harbour the spirits of sailors taken by the sea, but by and large this is a doom-laden psychodrama in which nothing can be taken at face value and which is destined to inspire any number of interpretations. (The final shot offers some clue as to where Eggers might be coming from, especially in conjunction with one of equally numerous readings of the aforementioned Kubrickian horror.)
But while certain images and sounds will stay with me for some time (again, Farty Bill leaves his mark), I was never as transported, freaked out or even interested as I felt the film wanted me to be. Like Eggers' The Witch before it, The Lighthouse has some memorable elements, but generally feels too unfocused to truly resonate. Its repetitive nature is necessary but a little wearing, and a lot of the exposition gets lost in Willem Dafoe's beard before it makes it out of the speakers. Full marks for audio-visual assault and battery but I'm afraid for me, lighthouse-based mentalism peaked with Round The Twist.

Friday, 4 October 2019

LFF 2019: The King

I may have reached the limit of my David Michôd fanboying. Animal Kingdom (2010) is still a scuzzily great crime drama, and The Rover (2014) is an underrated dystopian nightmare about where humanity is heading (to Hell, in a wheeled, overflowing commode). War Machine (2017), however, was a cultural atrocity; an actual abuse of my human rights. Nevertheless I stood by Michôd, and looked forward to The King: an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts III and Henry V. I like those plays a lot, and hoped Michôd might make as good a fist of them as his countryman Justin Kurzel did of Macbeth.

Needless to say: don't panic, Kenneth Branagh. As you were, Laurence Olivier's corpse. Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton have taken the bones of Shakespeare's plots but stripped them of his mesmerising language, to the point where they could justifiably argue that this isn't a Shakespeare adaptation at all. Their dialogue is prosaic and literal, which would almost be excusable in any non-Shakespeare-related film. But if you're going to unceremoniously dump lines like that one about the band of brothers, and that other one about once more unto the etc etc, well, you really need to come up with some decent alternatives. And having both Henrys IV and V say "fuck" doesn't count.

But let's give Michôd and Edgerton the benefit of the doubt and approach The King as a non-Shakespearey historical drama. How do they change the game? How do they add something new? How do they appeal to Generation Netflix, who are footing the budget? The answer lies in the willowy figure of Timothée Chalamet, a perfectly good actor whose ginormous fanbase is somehow as improbable as his cheekbones. Chalamet is our Hal, the rebellious prince who'd rather get royally cunted on a nightly basis with his pal-slash-tragic-father-figure Falstaff than assume the role he was literally born for. The King is already off to a wobbly start: Chalamet looks a little too clean-living for the debauchery we're meant to believe he's undertaking, and while Edgerton's not-unjustifiable retooling of Falstaff as an avuncular military tactician makes more sense than Shakespeare's sack-soaked old windbag, it deprives the character of much of his personality.
"Oh, you don't like my haircut? Well how about you get a HEADCUT? (off)"

Inevitably, Hal is required to step up and take the throne after an incident in which he heroically saves the lives of his hated father's soldiers but indirectly gets his brother (also hated) killed. Families, eh? Cuh. Now comes the interesting bit, but only if you're British: despite an indecorous past which clearly marks him out as entirely unsuitable for the role, Hal assumes the highest political office in the land, where he is advised by self-serving lickspittles. He immediately embarks on a potentially disastrous European venture driven by a public who are unreasonably fearful of foreigners; you can tell his heart's not in it but you can't argue with the will of the people, can you? At this point the allegories run dry, but I'm sure if we wait another week or two another one will become apparent.

So now lil' Timmy Chalamet is a beloved leader of men and a great warrior, and he is equally miscast as both. Sure, Hal is meant to be an unlikely king, but Chalamet is just a little too young, too slight and too pretty; his presence comes across as more of a marketing tool than a logical creative choice. He's not bad, he's just the wrong king - I'd happily believe him as Shakespeare's weak and naive Henry VI, and I'm sure he could sink his teeth into the dastardly doings of Richard III. What's more, Hal's crown puts so much pressure on his brain that where yesterday he would avoid war at all costs, today he's desperate to do what his father couldn't: beat the shit out of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys across the Channel in a big fuck-off war.

By this point the film has been trundling on for quite some time without much of any interest coming to pass, and it's been doing so with such painful earnestness that even Falstaff, the de facto comic relief, has barely cracked a smile. There has been a great deal of talking though, which is all well and good, but what we could really do with - to quote another King - is a little less conversation, a little more action.
"All zis aggravation ain't satisfactionin' moi"

And that's when Robert Pattinson appears to liven things up with his Tommy Wiseau laugh and his Inspector Clouseau accent. He's the Dauphin of France, the King's son, and The King's pantomime villain. Chalamet is visibly furious at Pattinson's attempts to steal the show from under him, and understandably declares war. The Battle of Agincourt is the film's only skirmish, which smacks of budgetary necessity, and while it's coherently shot and cut (which is more than can be said for most movie battles), it's exactly the same as every other medieval clash you've ever seen, right down to the slow motion brutality soundtracked by ethereal music. And then, as if to hammer the final nail into its own coffin, The King - which has so far been so po-faced it could pass for a Teletubby - opts for wildly misjudged slapstick, of all things, at a crucial moment.

In Michôd's defence, his film does look good: his camera adores Chalamet, as they all do, and he composes a beautiful night-time trebuchet attack on a French castle. Also his and Edgerton's deviation from what we must wankily refer to as "the text" allows him to ditch Hal's unbearable wooing of Kate, his newly acquired French missus, in favour of giving her a small but important last-reel role in a movie that's otherwise a near-total sausagefest. But it's not enough to erase the sheer unremarkableness of the preceding two hours, and the crucial underlying themes of destiny and family - along with my long-held stanning of David Michôd - are lost somewhere in the vasty fields of France.

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.

Please join me again soon for more Kubism with Full Metal Jacket, or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-fuck you. Thanks!

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.