Summer Movie #11 (Kubrick Film Festival #5) – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964): It is impossible for me to come up with much to say about this that hasn’t been better said by other people. It isn’t many movies that can be said to define the tone of an era, but this so perfectly captures the insanity of the Cold War that it has that sort of definitive nature. I guess what strikes me most strongly is that behind the over-the-top caricatures and comedy are scene that are chillingly real. Except for a couple of minor lines, everything in the B-52 is played absolutely straight. The scenes there and in the assault on the airbase (the exteriors, not what happens in Ripper’s office) are shot with handheld cameras (something you don’t see much of in Kubrick’s work) and film that looks like newsreel footage which gives them an ultra-realistic feeling (again, Kubrick is not Goddard – he has a completely different esthetic). I think that is one of the key’s to the movie’s success as a piece of art – the comedy is grounded in a horrible reality. It isn’t just the subject matter that is “black”. I was also interested to learn that George C. Scott was, in essence, tricked into playing his role in so over-the-top a fashion. Kubrick encouraged him to be outrageous for “practice” takes which he promised he would never use – and then used them. Kubrick always seemed very comfortable with manipulating his actors in any way he felt added to the film. Many of his actors (such as Scott) never forgave him for how he got the results he wanted. There is a useful debate to be had here about the ethics of all of this. Still, as far as the end product – Brilliant.
Summer Movie #12 (Kubrick Film Festival #6) – 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968): Probably unsurprisingly, this is the first Kubrick film I had any real experiences with (I vaguely remember seeing “Dr. Strangelove” on TV – at least I remember seeing Slim Pickens riding the bomb – but I was too young for it to have any real impression beyond that). My personal experiences with this movie seem to parallel its cultural history. When I first saw it, I was a kid who loved “Star Trek” and watched anything with a spaceship in it (neither of those things has really changed) and I had no frame of reference for this – so I rejected it. It was slow, boring, made no sense. There is a story that Rock Hudson (I believe) walked out of the premiere saying “Could someone tell me what the hell that was about?” That summed up my initial reaction. I loved the spacecraft – and that was it. Then I came back to it older and with some understanding of film and was mesmerized by it – as I have been ever since. I think it is Kubrick’s most obviously experimental film – he is trying to create an entirely visual and auditory experience. The narrative, and especially the dialogue, is secondary to the experience of watching and hearing the rest of the movie. Hence, attempts to “explain what it means” are doomed to failure. Kubrick never liked talking about his work in those terms at any point, but even less so here. He once said something to the effect that had Leonardo Da Vinci written “she’s smiling because she is keeping a secret from her lover” at the bottom of the Mona Lisa, it would have destroyed the experience of seeing it. Same thing. Still, that doesn’t mean the viewer shouldn’t try to interpret it, it just means that Kubrick shouldn’t, and so he didn’t. Like any great work of art, I see different things each time I encounter this movie. This time, like with the other films I’ve seen so far this time, I keep coming back to themes of human ineffectuality in the face of larger force. In “The Killers” it was how the elaborate plans of the criminals were destroyed by human weaknesses and sheer chance. In “Paths of Glory” it was how the war rolled over everything before it. Even “Spartacus” shows a powerful man who succeeds in destroying his enemies, but can’t destroy what they stand for. In “Lolita” Humbert is driven to his destruction by his urges and fears despite desperate attempts to control Lolita and his relationship with her. In “Dr. Strangelove” the whole world is destroyed by the machinery it built but couldn’t control. Here, we have the story of human evolution driven by an unknowable force (fate?) represented by the monolith. What humans do in response is to throw their bones up in the air – until they stay there. Confronted with the monolith, the humans on the moon are as mystified and unable to control the forces there as the australopithecines at the beginning of the movie – and David Bowman is reshaped by it without his own volition at the end. In between we see that when Man tries to make God in his own image (HAL) that image carries all of man’s flaws. One last, minor, thing – I had noted earlier that Gareth Edwards used one of the Ligeti scores in “Godzilla” that Kubrick used to such memorable effect here – and the result was the best scene in that movie, to my mind. That can’t be an accident. Brilliant – maybe even transcendent.
Summer Movies #s 13 & 14 (Insomnia Special) – The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986) & The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973): I really enjoy “The Mission” as a drama, but it is worth noting that the Jesuits did not resist the transfer of the Reductions that led to the Guarani War, nor did any fight on the side of the Guarani or remain with them after the transfer. The actual fighting is less a depiction of the Guarani War than of events over a hundred years before. People in reality are frequently less inspirational than in screenplays. “The Day of the Jackal” is one of my all-time favorite films. It is a suspenseful movie despite the fact that you already know the outcome (given that DeGaulle was not assassinated, the plot is going to fail). I’ve not seen the 1997 movie “The Jackal” which I understand has no similarity to the original movie at all. Director Fred Zinnemann successfully fought the studio to make sure the titles were different and author of the original novel Frederick Forsyth refused to allow his name to be used.
Summer Movie #15 – Restoration (Michael Hoffman, 1995): I’ve been on a bit of a period-piece binge of late and this has been sitting on my Netflix queue for awhile. I’d actually seen large portions of it on cable, but I never watched the whole thing beginning to end. Now I have. Despite a wonderful cast (Robert Downey, Jr., Sam Neill, Polly Walker, David Thewlis, a woefully underused Ian McKellan… uh, and a miscast Meg Ryan), this thing just didn’t work for me. When it tries to be comic it feels flat and uninteresting. When it tries to be dramatic, it is sentimental (to the point of cliche) and manipulative. The only character in the movie I felt anything for was Lulu, the king’s spaniel. Mixing comedy and drama is hard, and I just don’t think it worked here. It is, however, quite beautiful. The art design and costuming won Academy Awards, and seemingly deservedly so. Certainly the designers did their research and there was a solid depiction of Stuart-era London here. Unfortunately, that was all there was.
Summer Movie #16 – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013): This is the first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies that I didn’t see in a theater. That wasn’t intentional – I just screwed up making plans, but still – that wouldn’t have happened with the LotR movies. Much like the first Hobbit film, I liked this movie, but I didn’t love it. It is well-made, well-acted, and looks beautiful – but something is just missing in these for me. I was repeatedly moved to tears by the first movies – tears of sorrow and of joy. Neither of the Hobbit films has had any such impact on me. I honestly don’t know if it is them or me. As I think I wrote after the first one; when I walked out of all three of the LotR movies, my first thought was “I want to go right back in there and see that again – now!” I just don’t feel that way about these movies at all.
Summer Movie #17 – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013): Here is another movie I had intended to catch in the theater and just didn’t for various reasons. I thought the first of these movies was okay, but was still just a fairly ordinary Scifi actioner with two bright spots – Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson. I like this one better. I thought all of the characters were more interesting here than in the first one with one major exception. I don’t care much for Donald Sutherland’s turn as President Snow. He isn’t very menacing in this and the air of decadence that surrounds the character in the books is wholly missing. I’m not sure if this is a failure of writing or acting – or both – but I don’t think it is working. Overall, I thought this one was more worthwhile than the first, but I still didn’t think it was great. Also, on a completely personal note, I can never forgive the director, Francis Lawrence, for the horrible 2005 adaptation of “Constantine”.
Summer Movie #18 (Kubrick Film Festival #7) – A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971): This was the first Kubrick movie I saw when I was old enough to have some idea of what it meant, and it had a profound influence on me. It made me ask myself a question that my upbringing had never prepared me for – can there be any morality in the absence of choice? Because this film was, along with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch”, seen as one of the films that began the aestheticisation of violence in movies, I think many people don’t ever see beyond that. I don’t think Alex is ever meant to be “sympathetic” – I think he is meant to be a charming monster. The thing is that he is a monster in a monstrous world. That is one of the thing I admire about this movie – there is no easy answer about good guys or bad guys here. Nor do I agree that the violence is either excessive or gratuitous – I think it all comes back to the fact that this is Alex’s story about himself. He sees violence as beautiful, so the violence looks beautiful. There is a lot of violence, but the vast majority is either done by Alex or at his instigation – it is everything about him. He is violent and then violence is practiced upon him. All of this, though, is to set up the next level – the story about morality and free will. Alex is a monster who is conditioned to not act like a monster. He stops being violent because he has no choice. Is that redemption? Both Burgess and Kubrick say no, but then they part company. Burgess evidently believed there was redemption out there for Alex – seen in the “final chapter” that wasn’t in the early American versions of the book – which was the one Kubrick used for the adaptation. Even upon hearing about it, though, Kubrick left it out – of course. He doesn’t believe Alex can redeem himself and that echoes this theme I keep seeing in these movies about the limitation of human will and human choice. The state can’t make Alex a “good person” by force, and Alex can’t be anything except what he is – a charming monster. Visually the film is precise (in its camerawork and editing) and beautiful. As a story it is disturbing and though-provoking. Brilliant.
Summer Movie #19 (Kubrick Film Festival #8) – Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975): I first saw this movie on HBO and, much like my initial reaction to “2001”, I didn’t like it. Again like “2001” my experience echoed that of most film critics – I initially hated it and later came to love it (of course, I was a teenager and they were supposed to be pros and stuff). I believe that, despite the very different subject matter, this movie and “2001” are more similar than not. In both cases the story isn’t in the dialogue, it is in the images. The big difference here is that the actors are a much more significant contributor to those images in “Barry Lyndon” than in “2001”. If you aren’t prepared it seems slow – well it is slow. This is really a three hour painting. Kubrick was always precise in blocking his shots and camera movement, but here the camera is often still, or only moving in graceful slow pivots. The cinematography is full of lush colors and liberal use of natural lighting. For this movie, Kubrick famously experimented with ultra-fast lenses developed by NASA for the Moon missions in an attempt to minimize his use of electrical lighting. The result is a movie filled with shots that look like a Baroque painting. These techniques have become fairly common in later “costume dramas” so that it is easy not to realize how innovative they were at the time. This sort of work is probably why Martin Scorsese calls this his favorite Kubrick film. Watch this and then watch “The Age of Innocence” and the influence will stand out (although I think Kubrick did a better job – shocking, I know, that I’d be expressing a preference for Kubrick – of creating delicate tension without it feeling like the movie just wasn’t moving at all). I think it is remarkable that it took many people decades to realize the level of this achievement. I think another element that led some (including me) to dislike the film is that the story refuses to be a Hollywood costume drama. It isn’t a biopic, it isn’t a morality tale, it isn’t a romance, and it isn’t a “bawdy romp”. Barry, like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”, is a charming monster. His monstrous nature, though, is less about his violence than his nearly complete selfishness. Still, Kubrick won’t just let him be a simple villain. He is victimized by the economic, social, and political structures of the world he is part of and his downfall at the end is, to a certain extent, the victory of that system in crushing an upstart. We can see in his rise and fall the struggle of “Spartacus” but to much more self-serving ends. But like Spartacus, he loses. Again, I think we can see a story here about the inability of a single person to completely change the world – the opposite of the heroic film mythology so beloved of Hollywood… and of most movie fans. Brilliant.
Summer Movie #20 – Swashbuckler (James Goldstone, 1976): I watched this movie many times on HBO back in the late 1970s. It is one of those attempts by a studio to revive one of its past glories and so features every trope and cliche the swashbuckler movie ever showed. It is a competent but not very original contribution by a director with a varied filmography that included the 1972 James Garner vehicle “They Only Kill Their Masters” and the on-air pilot for the original Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. The most notable thing about this is the cast. Robert Shaw, a year off of “Jaws”, and a young and fierce James Earl Jones lead the cast and make this movie watchable by the evident pleasure they are having chewing the scenery. Genvieve Bujold plays the feisty nobleman’s daughter and Shaw’s love interest. The movie also features a young Anjelica Huston as the evil Governor’s mistress (credited only as the “Woman of Dark Visage”), a young Beau Bridges as the bumbling commander of the guard, and Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder (best remembered as Baron Samedi from “Live and Let Die” and the 7-Up “uncola” commercials) as a sort of assassin. Also present are a host of familiar faces from the 1970s, most notably Avery Schreiber, an actor whose career is inexplicable in modern terms. Peter Boyle plays the evil governor. As always he is good at what he does, but to my mind was wrong for this role. The governor is presented as this decadent, even foppish, but still deadly character. Boyle just doesn’t fit the part despite his skill. I see this as another example of how mainstream Hollywood just couldn’t quite seem to figure out what to do with him. Nothing in the story or film-making is surprising or unusual. If you enjoy swashbuckler movies just for being what they are – as I do – you’ll enjoy it. If the genre holds no inherent appeal for you, I’d avoid this.