The Affliction Of Genius: Stanley Kubrick, Filmmakers & Pop Labels
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/23/02
Like all of
us I have my pet peeves. 1 of my most irksome is the gratuitous bandying about
of the word genius. 1st off, I believe individuals may
possess ‘a genius’ for some particular task, but I’ve never met anyone
whom I would apply that label to. The word, itself, carries a patina of luck
& ease- as if someone who is excellent at something is that way without any
effort on their part. Part of my aversion to the word, & my preference for
the adjective ‘great’ is because a # of times over the years I have had
people come up to me, usually at after a poetry reading, & declaim me such.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been flattered that my work has moved some people
to such a degree as to bestow that label my way- especially the few times it was
bestowed by comely young females- however, knowing the 1000s of hours I’ve
spent reading & writing poetry I’ve always felt that shortchanged my work
ethic. Also, the term genius carries with it the often accurate
stereotype of a socially challenged & introverted nebbish with assorted
emotional problems. That I’m not, although my encounters with self-styled
geniuses seems to fit that bill.
The most noted episode I can recall was in the early 1990s when a cousin of mine, who was a member of Minnesota’s Mensa Society, invited me to join. So I went 1 night with her & met a room full of wackos. A tall, striking (but slightly off, if you get my drift) blond named Jana, in her mid-30s, came up to me & said she liked my turtleneck shirt. She asked if she could rub her hands on my chest (& the shirt). Hoping it a prelude to a possible sexual encounter I had no qualms. After about 3 minutes of rubbing my chest Jana seemed satisfied, smiled, thanked me, & walked away. That was it. There were also an assortment of nerds, geeks, sci fi fanatics, chess theorists, assorted pocket protector-wearing freaks, but the only other Mensans that stood out that night, & whom I recall now, were a pair of geeks playing some Civil War board game. A violent argument broke out- not over Blue-Grey, nor slavery-anti-slavery lines, but over who was the greater Confederate military leader: Stonewall Jackson or Nathan Bedford Forrest? As the 2 tussled & others broke them up they retreated to opposite ends of the room. I was really wanting to leave this den of dipshits, but my cousin insisted I take home a test to mail in & at least see what percentile I scored in. A 98th percentile score was needed. Reluctantly, & only to mollify my cousin, I took home the test, took it, & mailed it in. Of the 100-120 questions I found most a breeze. But there were 12-15 questions I simply disagreed with the premise of. I knew the answer the test wanted, but also knew I could not, in good conscience, reply that way. As example was a question where you would be shown 4 geometric shapes & asked which 1 did not belong: an equilateral triangle, a square, a heptagon, & a circle. The correct answer the test wanted was the circle- because most folk think a circle has no sides, while the others do. But I thought the triangle the most unbelonging since it was the least circular- & a circle has infinite sides- not none. In truth, both answers are defensible- but the test wanted the ‘popular’ answer most would recognize- not a legitimate answer. I answered the triangle knowing I would be scored wrong, but also knowing I was right. Subsequently my dozen or so knowingly wrong (but ultimately correct) answers placed me in only the 93rd percentile. I was not Mensa material, although I doubt most Mensans would have even questioned the validity of the questions asked. Tellingly, the test was copyrighted in 1969, when intelligence was considered a much more rote & measurable quality. My own creativity & ability to see farther & deeper than Joe Average, in essence, worked against me. Yet, those with more straight-forward & rote knowledge capacity (& a smaller ability or purview) were/are rewarded. Oddly, when 1 thinks of how the term genius is applied it is rarely used to describe those with straight-forward Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit-type knowledge, but rather those in the arts & sciences who make active use of creativity in their endeavors.
This returns to my idea that there are 3 types of basic human intelligence (in ascending order of complexity): the Functionary- that thing basic IQ tests measure; the Creationary- that which only 1% or less of the population has, but most artists have, which allows them to see further than Functionary thinkers (& sort of Functionary2); & the Visionary- that which only a small percentage of the creative/artistic types have, but allows them even further insights (sort of Creationary2 or Functionary3). The Mensans, despite their lofty IQs, were definitely definitively Functionary. A simplistic IQ test just cannot get a grasp around the more complex natures of the Creationary & Visionary intellects. But, if 1 were to equate the term genius with 1 of these intellects, the obvious choice is the Visionary. It is the most difficult of the 3 & there are far fewer Visionary intellects than Creationary or Functionary.
But I digress….Back to my views on the word genius itself. I find it so often used (or misused) that it lacks any real value any longer. Athletes are somehow geniuses: Michael Jordan is a genius because his good genes allowed him to shoot a basketball better than most? Alex Rodriguez is a genius because he can hit a baseball so well? Even funnier are the celebrities upon whom the term is gifted: Steven Spielberg is a genius because he foists Lowest Common Denominator films down our throats, & the bulk of us swallow. Eminem, or any other sundry rapper, is a genius because they can weave some deft rhymes here & there? Oprah Winfrey is a media genius, because she made a billion dollars preying on the inane & weak-minded who were desperate for their 15 minutes on her tv show? Please! I doubt, in 50 or 100 years any of these individuals will be remembered at all. 1 of the tests of what most would call genius is the recognition of such by society as it catches up with those Visionary. In other words, those who are truly great at something become beacons which pull forth the lesser lights who are drawn to them, & even as they are passed their lights still remind.
Of all the
arts out there in this world, I think the 1s that best accommodate the Visionary
mindset are filmmaking & poetry. An odd duo, you muse? Not really- I think
these are the 2 freest art forms. In all of writing poetry can do the most with
the least- grammar & narrative understructure are not necessary, & more
can occur in a line or 2 of great poetry than in 3 or 4 chapters of prose
fiction. Film, likewise, has far more going for it than any of the other visual
arts because its visuals change constantly, & because it can meld with good
writing. Both forms imbue the artist with what any artist not-so-secretly
desires: God-like powers over the cosmos their art contains. &, especially
in recent filmmaking, technology has freed the art even more so in its pursuit
Now, I am not a film critic- merely a lay aficionado; & I’ve little knowledge of foreign films [REPEAT AFTER ME! DUB THE FUCKING FILMS IF YOU WANT AN AMERICAN AUDIENCE! Film is a visual medium & time spent reading subtitles distracts from the visuals! OK?]. But, I am quite well-versed in filmic Americana- from the silent era through the Universal monsters era through the inane musicals of the 1940s, the sci fi flicks of the 50s, & up to today’s current blockbuster inanities. While there are a # of promising young filmmakers who have appeared in the last decade- from Todd Solondz to Christopher Nolan, & some big names from the past & present- from D.W. Griffith to John Ford, & up through Robert Altman & Francis Ford Copolla. But, there are only a few American filmmakers I would bestow the label great (or genius if you will) upon: Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, & the best of them all: Stanley Kubrick. Terrence Malick has not made enough films & Oliver Stone has been too hit & miss- but they’re close. Yet, of that quartet the word genius has most persistently clung to SK- in large part due to his hermitic lifestyle & the association of that sort of wackiness with genius. Yes, OW reminded all who cared to listen that not only was he a genius, but that rarest of geniuses- a child prodigy, but his dissipative lifestyle made his claims in age almost a self-taunt. WA has been called a comic genius now & then but few have essayed genius onto MS.
Let me briefly run through the other 3 filmmakers before I get to SK. OW’s Citizen Kane is now almost universally hailed as the greatest film ever made in America, if not the world. Its portrayal of William Randolph Hearst, its use of special effects, & its highly effective narrative style which ends in the conflagration of Kane’s beloved Rosebud, are all hallmarks of filmic excellence which have influenced many over the years. But other of his films produced greatness in varying- & sometimes extraordinary- degrees. The Magnificent Ambersons has always stood in Kane’s shadow- but it is a good film in its own right. His spare & surreal, cash-strapped adaptations of MacBeth & Othello have golden moments. Mr. Arkadin, while in may ways a rehash of Kane, has moments of brilliant Postmodernism in it. Touch Of Evil is an utter masterpiece- rarely has the night been used to such chilling effect. Throw out the last minute of his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial & you have an almost perfect film. Anthony Perkins is at his best as the befuddled, yet determined everyman Joseph K. Yes, even better than as Norman Bates! That, after Ambersons OW put together these films on shoe-string budgets & filming them piecemeal over several years, makes them all the more praiseworthy. But 2 films from OW’s directorial oeuvre are often overlooked- his post-WW2 tale of a G-Man hunting down an escaped Nazi (OW’s Franz Kindler) in a sleepy Connecticut college town: The Stranger, & the 1949 classic The Third Man. Yes, I know technically, the film’s director is credited as Carol Reed. But, most film historians recognize Reed as a dependable but lackluster filmmaker- TTM stands head & shoulders above the rest. That the film stars OW, + OW running buddy Joseph Cotton, has the famed Ferris Wheel speech by Harry Lime (the character played by OW), & has a # of shots that are straight from the OW playbook, as well as a script (including the famous ending) with OW’s fingerprints seemingly all over it, has led most to believe the ‘blackballed in America’ OW ghost-directed most, if not all, of the British film, & Reed graciously allowed his name to be stamped on the project.
Let me now briefly state the similarities & differences between the 4 great Orson Welles films: CK, TTM, TOE, & TT. All 4 films have towering central characters marvelously played by OW (the 1st 3) & Anthony Perkins. But, all 4 films approach time in a different manner. Charles Foster Kane’s life story spans his whole life, & is told from mostly 2nd & 3rd person POV’s- & even an impersonal newsreel. Harry Lime is a phantom for the 1st 2/3s of TTM- even his girlfriend confuses Lime’s best pal Holly Martins (the Joseph Cotten character) with him- she always calls Holly Harry. & the tale plays out over the course of perhaps a week or 2. TOE follows the emotional, professional, & mortal unraveling of a corrupt police chief – Hank Quinlan (played by OW)- in a small Texas town. It occurs over the course of only a few days. TT, however, follows Joseph K over an unremarked upon amount of time. It could be days, weeks, or even months. We are divorced from any logical sense of the outside (or real) world. All 4 films are black & white, & make incredibly effective use of that medium. All 4 films’ main characters end up dead. But, the overriding quality of these films is that they all have a Wellesian persona- these films are almost as if from OW’s own inner psyche. All combine tragedy with an almost glib acceptance of it.
I touched upon Woody Allen in a previous essay so I will only briefly reiterate some points. WA is the greatest screenwriter in contemporary American film- & not just in a comic vein, for his 3 ‘serious’ dramatic films: Interiors, September, & especially Another Woman, reach poetic & dramatic heights equal to that of the greatest playwrights. & in such seriocomic pieces as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Hannah And Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes And Misdemeanors, & Husbands And Wives, he melds humor & drama with the results every bit the equal of the greatest of novels. But, perhaps, the best that can be said of WA is how even his ‘lesser films’- the early comic farces of the 60s & 70s, & the recent comedies of the 90s & 00s- reveal depths missed upon 1st viewing, & absent in virtually all mainstream films today. But the root of WA’s greatness, as both screenwriter & filmmaker, I believe lies in his nonpareil ear for both casual & emotionally intelligent conversation- & more importantly believable- O, how T.S. Eliot would be Objectively Correlating WA’s scripts!
The last filmic great I wanna touch upon before delving into SK, is Martin Scorsese. His oeuvre stands far above such contemporary pop schlockmeisters as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, or Ron Howard. His early gritty films have a kinetic quality admixed with a raw feel that draws you in to the world created quite effectively. 1967’s debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door? & 1973’s Mean Streets are both milestone films. The former for MS, himself, & the latter for American film. Although MS was the film to launch both MS, the director, & Robert De Niro’s critically praised acting career, both it & its predecessor are most notable for the performances of Harvey Keitel. HK plays J.R., a straight-laced Catholic boy from an impoverished background in the 1st film. He falls for an intelligent college girl. But his inability to get over the fact that she was raped several years earlier heralds MS’s lifelong filmic pursuit of both the causes & consequences of faith. MS, the film, however, is a helluva ride. Nearly 30 years later its still ‘real feel’ contrasts markedly with the über-urban hipness of more recent films that try to depict grit as a Gap tv commercial, larded with super-suave characters & homeboyish stereotypes. RDN garnered raves as the psychotic & self-destructive Johnny Boy, but HK’s Charley is the real star of the film- the scene where his & Johnny Boy’s fight causes Charley’s lover (& Johnny Boy’s cousin) to fall in to an epileptic seizure, is 1 of the best scenes, to convey human kindness & callousness, ever filmed. MS has been stereotyped as never rising above the goombah school of filmic storytelling- but MS, the film, is the pinnacle of goombah filmmaking. Likewise, Taxi Driver is 1 of the greatest films ever made. RDN’s Travis Bickle makes his Johnny Boy look like a model of mental stability. Yet, how many of us know a Travis, without knowing it? The last decade or 2’s worth of school & Post Office shootings seem to have proven MS prescient in recognizing the destructive mushroom effect that mere loneliness can inflict on a psyche. Never has loneliness been portrayed more poetically on the film screen than when, after taking the brown-nosing ice princess campaign worker Betsy (portrayed by Cybill Shepherd- correct spell?) to a porno film she walks out on, he attempts to call her later. We see him at a payphone in the shitty hallway of a tenement, querying why she won’t accept his flowers, & we only hear his end of the conversation. We can tell she’s giving him the brush-off, & even though we can barely discern a quiver in his speaking voice, the camera then pans away from TB & straight out the hallway, to the lighted world, where life is good. Moments like this define greatness in the art of film. The deliciously perverse ending, where TB is lionized in the press & Betsy seemingly returns to him, is likewise a great ending, & eerily prescient of the media’s power over disseminating information.
The next great film by MS was his 1980 character study of boxer Jake La Motta- former middleweight champion of the world: Raging Bull. Never has there been a better portrait of male impotence. JL is the poster boy for all the male impotencies, save for the sexual. There are many great scenes in the film: JL’s 1st glimpse of his future, then underage, wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) kicking her great gams through pool water, a bloated aging JL writhing in his prison cell, the surreal fight scenes (especially against the Sugar Ray Robinson character, where a beaten, bloodied, pulpy JL triumphantly declares Sugar Ray never knocked him down), the 1st filmic ‘Joe Pesci’ moment where he (as JL’s little brother Joey) assaults a mobster eyeing JL’s wife, & the later scene where Joey is savaged by JL who thinks he was fucking around with his wife. But, in a sense, these are standard filmic moments raised to high art by the direction & the actors’ performances. The absolute nub of the film, however, is distilled in a brief moment where the 2 La Motta boys are in JL’s apartment, & Joey is taping JL’s fists. JL laments on the size of his hands. At 1st, Joey doesn’t get it. But in a moment of almost unconscious self-recognition JL sums up his life by bemoaning the fact that the relative smallness of his hands means he will never be bigger, never be a heavyweight, never be able to fight heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, nor beat him & be THE BEST. This little understated scene is the equivalent to the hallway scene in TD. The look in RDN’s eyes & the motion of his hands, as JL, is not only an example of great acting- but the decision to leave such a relatively benign scene in amidst the turmoiled structure of the rest of the character’s life, & film, is evidence of filmic greatness.
MS went in a different direction in his next film, The King Of Comedy- or, rather, he dealt with the same general topic (frustration) in a toatally different way. RDN again stars as wannabe comic Rupert Pupkin. Pupkin is a nebbishy, unfunny schlub who has taken to stalking late night tv talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). After being snubbed a lot, he decides to kidnap Jerry as a bargaining chip to get his 15 minutes on Jerry’s show. He is aided by a psychotic female pal, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who is even more delusional. The scheme works, RP gets his late night shot, gets arrested, gets famous for his crime, & becomes a highly-paid commodity. Yet, MS is so deliberate in his direction that this eternally frustrated man’s persona inhabits the film. At the height of his triumph, when his appearance is broadcast, an arrested RP watches the show from an eatery where his former girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) works, in an attempt to impress her. Yet, the camera never shows us RP’s performance on the tube. We are frustrated & have no release nor satisfaction. This brilliant character study- every bit the equal of Raging Bull, with a character- RP- every bit the equal of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle- not too surprisingly bombed critically & financially. People hate the unexpected approaches to filmmaking. Yet RP is a far more dangerous character than Travis- there are more RPs than TBs, & while a TB showed he was willing (if not longing) to give in & roll over to the evil about him, RP literally WILL NOT be snuffed. He is a force to be dealt with- albeit a negative force.
The mid-80s saw 2 films which showed off different sides of the MS persona- yet, both were intimately tied to the ideal of faith. In After Hours the modern plugged-in life is skewered in a Kafkan tale of a word processor (yes, they were people/occupations in the 1980s) Paul (Griffin Dunne) whose simple desire to get laid leads him through death, art, vengeance, & other escapades. That he arrives relatively unharmed at his office the next morning is a delightfully seriocomic justification of faith (in something- in ____ it’s just in the old chestnut, This too shall pass!). A few years later The Last Temptation Of Christ caused major protests worldwide over its vision of Jesus Christ as a man full of passions & contradictions. The film had moments of grandeur & silliness (Harvey Keitel as a Brooklynese Judas Iscariot) but is a fine film overall. The last decade or so has seen ups & downs for MS- but 2 films stand out: 1990’s Goodfellas, a return- of sorts- to the goombahvian roots of Mean Streets, except far more polished & even more intriguing; & 1997’s (or 1998’s?) Kundun, a tale about the boyhood of the young Dalai Lama. Both films follow lead characters who are exiled: Goodfella’s Henry Hill (Ray Liotta ), who has to enter the Federal Witness Protection program, & Kundun’s DL, who is ordered to leave his Tibetan homeland by the invading forces of Red China. HH is damned for too little (or no) faith, while the DL is damned for too much faith. That MS has so provocatively explored this 1 issue in so many films & scenes, & so well & so freshly, is testament to his place in this pantheon of American filmmaking.
Let us now
turn to the titular center of this essay: Stanley Kubrick. While held up &
out as the American exemplar of genius in film, SK has had notable
detractors & criticisms. The bulk center on the ‘supposed’ emotional
austerity of the typical SK character. Also, SK’s films have been
routinely criticized upon their release, only to have many a red-faced critic go
back 5 or 10 years later & admit they were long. This, alone, give powerful
testimony to SK’s greatness- especially in the Visionary quotient.
Before I go on to a film-by-film critique let 1st expound a little on
these 2 most persistent & notable qualities about SK’s work, & its
I think the charge of emotional austerity is off-base & influenced by the overwhelming pop cultural impact of 3 consecutive films SK made: 1964’s Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb)- a model of black comedic perfection that (save for the technology used) is every bit as cogent as the time it was made; 1968’s pristine 2001: A Space Odyssey- still the most realistic & nonpareil sci fi film ever made, whose ending still is unrivaled, despite decades of special effects improvement; & A Clockwork Orange- with its world surfeited with sadists of all stripes, & thankful of that fact. But a closer look reveals 2 important points: 1) the 3 films mentioned are far less austere than though, & 2) the rest of SK’s oeuvre brims with the vivacity & life of its characters. Let’s take on the charges against these 3 films.
The boiled-down basic charge against DS is a sense of outrage at how could anyone actually make fun of nuclear annihilation? Anyone who would must be soulless, &- by extension- so should the characters. Well, these are not characters but caricatures. Scene after scene lays this out- the most telling possibly being when Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley red phones the Russian Premier Kissof, & argues with him over who’s sorrier about their impending mutual nuclear annihilation. But, while caricatures are not the ideal vehicles to transmit raw, unfettered, positive emotions, they are the perfect vehicle to transmit raw, unfettered, negative emotions: General Jack D. Ripper’s (the brilliant Sterling Hayden) paranoid rant over fluoridation of American drinking water; the unquestioning stolidity of Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) in his refusal to help Sellers’ Group Captain Lionel Mandrake character smash open a Coke machine needed for the change to keep a payphone call to the White House from being disconnected; General Buck Turgidson’s (the outstanding George C. Scott) admonition of President Muffley’s reluctance to endorse the first strike, followed by his assurances than only 10- 20 million people, at most, will be killed; the Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky’s admission of the decision to delay announcement of their Doomsday Machine due to political maneuvering; or Dr. Strangelove’s (Sellers, again) sexual fantasy-inspired vision of the post-Apocalyptic world’s need for men to engage in extensive copulation. No horror film, no slasher flick, no documentary study of assorted world evils, has ever so essentially distilled so many of the sundry forms of evil (pure & diluted) as this black & white hour & a ˝ masterpiece of satire. For those SETI enthusiasts wary of potential invading hordes from outer space I suggest- beam this film non-stop 24/7/365 & we can rest easy that our solar system will be quarantined for centuries to come!
As for 2001, the charge is there is no real emotion. I say WRONG- the great emotion there is only heightened by its infrequent appearance. The ape clans’ war reveals the 1st human flush with powers that are new- toolmaking & deathbringing! As for pathos- very few scenes can match the supplicating HAL 9000 in its plaintive, & increasingly insane, ramblings to Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) as he bit-by-bit destroys the supercomputer’s mind. But, most of all the film is about transcendence of things- including just raw emotion. The film clearly charts the move away from emotion, yet it is not an arc nor parabola that is traced, but a circle. When the Starchild comes back from the beyond & orbits Earth we intuit that part of transcendence is not just leaving things (worldly or otherwise) behind, but gaining the ability to take them with us. This is what I get from the deific Starchild’s gaze toward its homeworld- a desire not so much to return as to summon.
In ACO the charge is that its barbarism is almost sanitary. That style trumps substance- especially psychologically. Again, I think the charges fail. Like DS, ACO is a marvel at revealing the worst in human emotions. People mistake the bounty of negative human emotion for the absence of ANY emotion. Although far too old to portray a teenager Malcolm McDowell’s Little Alex is virtually ALL emotion over intellect. He acts out of the momentary need/desire to fill what is missing in his life, not out of a coherent set of goals to better his life. As for why other characters are seemingly shorn of positive emotion? Well, the critics seem to have missed a VERY LARGE boat. The tale, both novel & film, is told solely from Alex’s POV. We are in the hands of a master deceiver- even of self. We should trust little of what’s conveyed to us. Now, it might be valid to critique this film (or SK’s whole oeuvre) on why he seems to choose such disaffecting characters, characters who seem (at 1st blush) to be antipathetic to emotion- but that’s a wholly different argument than arguing SK’s characters or films LACK emotion. Alex is a cauldron of emotion, perhaps, because of his seemingly pathological need to not invest others with it- thereby he has no qualms in committing rape while singing Singin’ In The Rain. ACO, thereby, is Alex’s mind & for it to be effective it has to totally absorb that aspect of his persona. There are many other examples in the film which I could point to, but the point is made.
Let me now address the charge of emotional austerity in the rest of SK’s canon. It is of interest to note that SK’s films appeared in 5 decades, with each decade seeing a slow decrease in his productivity & an increase in his perfectionism. It is startling to remark on the fact that no one has pointed out the obvious about this so-called genius of film: that is were his excellence a gift from the gods he would probably been alot more productive. SK was noted for shooting even the most minor scenes over & over until they were perfect, or at least worked very well. This perfectionism alone should dispel the ease of genius myth. More tellingly it should reinforce the belief that genius, or greatness, is really the intersection of persistence & insight. Genius, unfortunately, implies waiting for something beyond to give Muse- greatness, however, is unequivocally borne of the sweat of toil. Greatness is, in my opinion, the better (& more apt) description.
Here’s a decade by decade chart of SK’s films:
Fear And Desire, Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Paths Of Glory
Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon
The Shining, Full Metal Jacket
Eyes Wide Shut
film, 1953’s Fear And Desire, is a war film I’ve never seen, so I
will take a pass. Film #2 was 1955’s Killer’s Kiss. In it a worn out
pug, Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera) falls in love with the girl in the
apartment directly across an alley, in Manhattan, from his. Told in flashback,
the film intriguingly weaves a taut tale in this film barely over an hour long.
The 2 reunite at the end of the film, but the film’s brevity actually enhances
the reunion (as we’ve not waited so long). The film is loaded with imagery
that would define SK’s vision over the rest of his filmic life- particularly a
dream sequence shot in negative, a chase over Manhattan rooftops, & a
bizarre fight finale between the boxer & the mobster who kidnaps his girl
in, of all places, a mannekin factory/warehouse. Save for the film noir realism
this could easily have been an extended Twilight Zone episode. This film
is a gem that, oddly, SK disinherited from his canon. Why? Probably because its
roughness did not match his later standards, & also because the reunion
scene contained what SK would probably define as emotional sap- although
to the objective viewer nearly ˝ a century later the end feels far more genuine
& emotional than most filmic reunions. Nonetheless, it’s a film worth
seeing in its own right, as well a precursor to future greatness. Its evocation
of 1950s New York City is far more apt & powerful than all of the films
coming out of Hollywood at the same time.
1956’s The Killing is an excellent film in the film noir tradition. Sterling Hayden plays a crook, Johnny Clay, who looks to score by ripping off a racetrack- thus the title (to make a killing/fortune, etc.), which does not directly refer to just murder, although there is bloodshed. After a series of meetings & personal revelations we arrive at the heist. It is successful. Johnny decides to flee by airplane. He watches as his suitcase, filled with the dough, falls off a dolly as it’s being brought out to the plane. It opens & wads of bills are blown away by the plane’s propeller, & into the night. The look in Johnny’s eyes, as all his dreams for the future float away, is devastating. SH’s acting at this point is a marvel of restraint. He heads off with his girl into the darkening future. The whole film crescendos for that moment of emotion in the eyes. despite being a con, we have grown to understand Johnny’s desire to better his life is not so different from Joe Average’s. We hurt when his dough blows away, because we all have had such dreams die swiftly. The title of the film then takes on a 3rd meaning- & this 1 is the most cogent: it is about the killing of human dreams & hopes. A powerful film that should be watched again & again. This film is all about emotion. The bravura camera work, & developing SK stylistic nuances, are mere icing on this cake.
The next year saw SK’s 1st foray into artistic greatness. Paths Of Glory is often cited as an anti-war film, although- in truth- it is both a war & anti-war film. It is probably the most emotionally powerful film in the SK canon- & an awesome achievement. At just under an hour & ˝ the film gains from its leanness & lack of extraneous story & moralizing. The story is based upon a real life incident in WW1, where French generals ordered an attack, upon a German stronghold called The Anthill, that was virtually assured of failure. The soldiers recognize it as a suicide mission. But the generals order the attack onward &, in fact, order underlings to fire on their own troops to get them moving forward. Many troops die, others turn back ˝-way, & others are so pinned down they cannot even leave the bunker. A Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) has led the failed charge, despite protests to his superiors- especially 1 General Mireau (George Macready)- the hot dogging general out to impress his own boss back at military headquarters- the Paris-ensconced General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). Mireau is the 1 who orders an underling to fire on his own troops. The underling’s refusal sticks in Mireau’s craw. Afterwards, Mireau wants to execute 100 men for cowardice. Broulard convinces him that 3 men will be just fine, for publicity purposes. Dax protests & pleads to defend the 3 men, as he had been a brilliant civilian lawyer. The 3 men are chosen for different reasons: 1 because his superior called him a low class coward, another by bad luck of drawn lots, & a 3rd because his superior, whom he had damning information on the unnecessary death of another soldier, decided to exact revenge upon him. The insane callusness of the French military leaders is shown most aptly in the kangaroo military trial Dax has to operate in. Evidence is thrown out, disallowed, told it has no relevance- even if true. KD’s performance is a simmer of moral indignation. The military tribunal is revealed as nothing but a heartless star chamber of little men. The men will be executed. As they await death there is some great humor, as the prisoners eat their last meal & get a little drunk. 1 of the condemned bemoans the fact that a fly buzzing in their jail cell will be alive the next day, yet they won’t. How fair is that?, he wails. Another of the condemned swats the fly dead & consoles that the 1st prisoner is now better off than the fly. My god, how can anyone watching that scene- in the midst of the film’s portrait of mass perversion- ever accuse SK of emotional austerity? The 1st prisoner then loses control when a priest comes to console them. He tries to attack the priest, who in his service to the French military is committing a double act of hypocrisy, but the 3rd condemned knocks him out & breaks his jaw. Through the night medics try to prevent him from dying, just so he can be tied to a stretcher & shot the next morning! Dax gets the 1st bits of his vengeance against the cowards by forcing the officer, who selected the prisoner who had damning information on him, to be the man who blindfolds the 3 men & ask them of their last requests/statements. The men are shot. Back at HQ the 2 Generals- Mireau & Broulard celebrate the public execution as galvanizing the French public to support the war effort. Dax enters, & joins the 2 men. He reveals that he has sworn testimony from several men that Mireau, while accusing & executing his underlings for cowardice, actually ordered French soldiers to fire on their own countrymen. Mireau wails outrage that a true patriot like himself is being blackmailed to resign. Broulard, meanwhile, having expected all along to allow Mireau to take the fall for him, is unmoved. Mireau storms out & Broulard congratulates Dax on what he saw as brilliant gamesmanship & politicking. He offers Dax Mireau’s command. Dax is shocked that Broulard thinks that he was merely using this execution to advance his career. He wants no part of Mireau’s command, denounces Broulard as a ‘degenerate, sadistic old man’, storms out, & plans to reveal the whole sordid affair. Broulard is disappointed that Dax does things on principle, & not self-aggrandizement. KD’s performance, as Dax, in his scintillating rebuke to the Generals, is 1 of the most powerful moments in all of film, & rings as true today in its indictment of all power structures- be they military, governmental, or corporate. That anyone could say SK’s films lack a ‘human element’ is mind-boggling. especially, when at film’s end, Dax comes upon his surviving men at a bar where a captured German girl is forced to sing a folk song in German. At 1st the hardened French killers hoot & deride her nationality & sex. But as her warbling song quiets the men 1-by-1, their communal humanness settles over the bar. Dax, from outside looking in, tells an underling to give his men a few more minutes’ R&R. This film, chock with pure human evil, ends on the smallest of human kindnesses- to let some things be. That it was made during the narcotized Eisenhowerian 1950s only adds to its visionary luster. Bravissimo!
The 1960s was
the decade SK became a household word. 1960’s Spartacus was a film he
took over midway through production after Kirk Douglas, the film’s producer,
fell out with the original director. He hired SK after their financial &
artistic triumph with Paths Of Glory. While SK later disavowed the film
as not being really his, it is an excellent film, notable for being absent the
biblical baggage of other sword & sandal epics of the time, & for
convincing SK of the need for ‘total control’ of the filmic process. Too
many clashes with KD & studio heads drained & frustrated him to too high
a degree. This 3+ hour epic told the tale of a slave rebellion in ancient Rome.
The rebel leader, Spartacus (KD), eventually is defeated & killed in the
end. That this complex tale, filled with emotion, was disowned by SK, further
fed into the notion that he loathed emotion of all kinds. Nonetheless it’s
aptness to the growing American Civil Rights struggles, as well as global
anti-colonialism, was timed well. That it was a star-studded blockbuster
[including Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony
Curtis, & others) helped convince financial backers that SK was a worthy
investment that could be granted the artistic & financial autonomy he
2 years later SK’s 1st ‘totally SK’ film was released. It was his adaptation of the novel that caused a scandal a few years earlier: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Nabokov adapted his own novel for the screenplay & some of the salaciousness is toned down. Basically, it is the tale of a pedophile, Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a professor who obsesses over his stepdaughter named Lolita Haze (Sue Lyon, who like the later Malcolm McDowell in ACO, is too old to be convincing in the part- this possibly a nod to the prevailing mores of the era). His obsession to own this teenager (whose name Lo Haze, could be a play on words as to how she fogs HH’s life & reason) drives her mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters- in an eerie parallel to her earlier character who remarries an evil man in The Night Of The Hunter) to an early death. But, HH has a rival pedophile to deal with- Clare Quilty (the astounding Peter Sellers)- whom Lo leaves him for. The blow drives HH to hunt down the now wedded & pregnant Lolita. Forsaken by her, he extracts revenge upon CQ- by hunting him down, & shooting him cold-bloodedly. At 2 & ˝ hours the film is far too long, but again- even in its watered-down version- this film (perhaps SK’s weakest) is brimming with emotion- albeit of the negative kind. It may well be that critics have mistaken SK’s penchant for accenting negative emotion for a lack of emotion- or they just would prefer to call his oeuvre emotionless, rather than chock with the mal in human feeling. Good performances are given by both Sellers, in various incarnations as the game playing CQ- out to best his perverse rival, & JM- who as HH- reveals pain in all its perversities. At times he is a cunning manipulator, at other times an incensed amoralist, but the scene where he tries to convinced the knocked-up Lo to come away with him, only to be rejected, yet still give his obsession money, is a wonderful example of a totally pathetic character. If pathos is not emotion, then what is? Vision again is evident in this film. 1 can only wonder how SK would have handled the material had he done it 20 years later.
But nothing could have prepared the SK fan for the subversions of 1964’s Dr. Strangelove; especially the sexual aspects. It was as if SK (& co-screenwriter Terry Southern who adapted the serious novel Red Alert) was making up for the neutering he had to do to get Lolita made, that he loaded the film full of references to sex & other bodily functions- from the characters names to the visuals. The film opens with 2 military planes refueling in mid air via a hose. The film closes with Major T. J. ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens- named for the greatest of great apes- the sexually profuse gorilla- & its most well-known luminary) virtually doggy-humping an atom bomb (itself quite phallic) as it falls to doom the Earth. Peter Sellers’ retinue of characters also brim with double entendre: Group (as in orgy?) Captain Lionel (King of the Beasts) Mandrake (a phallic-looking root with supposed sexual benefits); President (the most powerful position in the world) Merkin Muffley (both names sexual references to female genitalia); & Dr. Strangelove (hinting at all sorts of perversions?). Others include George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson (a buck is a male stud animal in many species, & turgid means swollen or bloated- c’mon, need I elaborate?), Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper (after the noted 19th Century sexual fiend & serial killer), Keenan Wynn’s Colonel Bat Guano (literally A Nugget of Bat Shit, but also implying the sexual aspects of a vampire), the unseen Premier Kissof (as in ‘kiss off’/’kiss my ass’- a sexually-derived term), & Peter Bull’s Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky (after the famed sexually deviant Marquis de Sade- from whence comes the term sadism). At just over an hour & a ˝ this taut & hilarious film is 1 of the greatest films ever made. SK’s decision to portray the utter insanity of nuclear folly in this fashion is brilliant- compared with contemporary Doomsday films (& even the outstanding The Manchurian Candidate) DS has lost none of its bite. The idea of a small group of men deciding their, & the world’s, ultimate fate is, indeed, timeless- think of all the gods of ages past. To approach it in such a satirical form is Vision at its most elemental. Imagine trying to coax, in a serious version, the recommendation of General Turgidson to order a total strike 1st! There is no way we could sympathize with such a character. Yet, in satire, the character is almost pathetically lovable- like a big dumb dog that needs caring after- especially after Ambassador de Sadesky tries to take photos of the War Room, sub rosa, & is thwarted by Turgidson, who then ends up with the Ambassador on his lap & a rebuke from President Muffley that he’s shocked the 2 men would dare to fight in the sacrosanct War Room! Emotion pervades the film- but it is the emotion of release: the exhale. Most deep emotion makes us suck in our breath- be it in appreciating love or horror, fear or anger. This film subverts the natural tendencies of most films- therefore, perhaps even in an unconscious manner, critics damned what they could not intuit as merely lacking any emotion at all. The fact that the film seems to openly mock the false emotions of its out-of-touch governmental leaders, of course, did not help in allaying the charge of emotional austerity.
Neither did SK’s next film, 1968’s sci fi magnumopus 2001: A Space Odyssey. This co-creation between SK & sci fi literary giant Arthur C. Clarke, who adapted an earlier short story of his called The Sentinel. Both men worked on the film & novel versions of the book, with each copping full credit in their respective fields. This almost 2˝ hour film has been panned for being dull & lifeless, as well as praised for being absorbing, with an unforgettable end. The film broke new ground in its use of musical scoring & special effects. The music of Richard Strauss, Johan Strauss, Aram Khachaturian, & GyorgyLigeti are some of the most indelible musical touchnotes in film history. The special effects team, led by Douglas Trumbull, produced a realism of effects that has yet to be surpassed decades later in this computronic age- recall that you hear none of the Star Wars-type blasts, explosions &/or any sounds in 2001 because space is a vacuum, & silent. The film is divided into 4 distinct parts. The 1st 20 or so minutes follows a band of man-apes millions of years ago, on a veldt of some sort. No intelligible language is uttered. They are warring with another clan over a watering hole, & seem to be getting the worst of it. 1 day a giant black monolith appears in the 1st clan’s midst. 1 of the man-apes (Moonwatcher- known only via the credits, not within the film) dispels the fear that grips his clan. He approaches the monolith. Some communion, of sorts, occurs & the bold man-ape is changed. The next time his clan wars with their rivals over the watering hole they are driven back. But the bold man-ape picks up the bones of a dead animal & crushes the skull of an interloper from the rivals. He has learned to use tools, he has learned to control aspects of his life he never could, he has learned he can murder. In a fit of ecstasy he pounds & pounds a pile of bones, whoops, & celebratorily tosses his bone tool into the air. It changes into a floating space station in about the year 1999 or 2000 (since the later space trip takes place 18 months later- & we assume it is 2001 then, then this must be 1999 or 2000). Part 2 begins.
But part 1 is a milestone in filmic history- image, metaphor, & gesture are the only sustaining narrative techniques. Rarely are such risks taken in independent low budget films- but for a major film like this to do so is & was unheard of. This is a hallmark of greatness (or genius, if you insist)- the willingness to risk failure- &, indeed, some callow critics ascribed failure to this film- even though upon rewatching it, years later, they admitted their initial misjudgments; a recurring theme in SK criticism. Part 2 follows the head of a space program as he is summoned to a moonbase. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is out to investigate the unearthing (or unmooning?) of an ancient black monolith not unlike the one which eons earlier sent the Doctor’s ancestors hurtling toward humanity. Upon inspection the monolith lets out a deafening signal toward the planet Jupiter. Part 2 ends. Again, vision comes in to play- here we see the marvels of man’s ‘supposed’ near future- travel to the moon as luxurious as a jet flight.
Part 3 is the meat of the tale. We meet the 3 primary characters of the film: the 2 astronauts who are not in deep sleep with the rest of their 3 snoozing crewmates- Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) & Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood)- & the onboard supercomputer that controls all the daily aspects of running the Discovery spaceship on its mission to the planet Jupiter: the HAL 9000 (voice by Douglas Rain). All seems well as the trio become media stars back on Earth. The routine in the ship seems calm & efficient. Then, a report of a minor malfunction in an antenna on the outside of the ship seems to set HAL on a course for murder. The report turns out to be wrong- did HAL err or lie? Either way he will have to be brought offline & fixed. The astronauts worry that the possible malfunction (something HAL boasts has never occurred in a 9000 series) will mean they must carry out the mission by themselves. The 2 men go in a space pod to discuss their plans away from HAL’s prying ubiquity on the main ship. But HAL reads their lips & panics that he will be disconnected. On going outside the ship to repair the malfunction HAL severs Poole’s oxygen line & the astronaut dies. HAL reports the ‘accident’ to Bowman, who dashes to a pod to retrieve Poole’s body. HAL then turns off life support for the 3 hybernating crew members. Bowman retrieves Poole’s body & attempts to re-enter the ship. HAL refuses entry, reveals that he knows the duo planned to unplug him, & says that Dave, who forgot his helmet in the rush to retrieve Poole, will not be able to re-enter without it. With siliconic abruptness HAL declares any further conversation with Bowman serves no purpose. Frustrated, a determined Bowman does make it inside the ship. A panicking HAL, realizing his existence is nearing an end, tries to bargain for his existence- to no avail. Bowman slowly disconnects HAL’s circuits & the supercomputer, in a surprising poignance, loses his mind & reverts to an infantile state. With HAL done for Bowman accidentally taps in to a pre-recorded message that reveals the true mission of the ship- to find out what the moon monolith was contacting. Part 3 ends. But, what a Vision- this spare narrative almost becomes an anti-narrative, & then becomes a very strong narrative again. Not since the demise of silent films had a film been so dependent on every little action having significance. A lot more emotion is conveyed in the steely-eyed grit of a locked-out Bowman than in many a thrillers’ hero’s & heroines’s more outlandish reactions. HAL, oddly, is the most well-rounded & developed character. This particular fact has also led to SK being perceived as misanthropic or inhuman; & his films (of which this 1 is by far his most well-known & influential) being almost emotionally automatonic- if not austere. But, what other film has ever allowed its most well-rounded figure be something other than human? Perhaps the old Rin Tin Tin silent films; but that’s a stretch.
Part 4 of the film is the most indelible. A 15 or so minute descent by Bowman, in his space pod, into a giant monolith. Psychadelic lights, weird imagery, negatively exposed scenes, & then the parlor scene. After his descent Bowman, still in space suit, sees an older version of himself eating a meal in a Spartan, well-lighted, & whitely bright apartment (or parlor). The older Bowman turns & the younger man is gone. The older Bowman then gives way to an even older version, now- literally- breathing his last breaths. He points to the black monolith in the center of the room. Fade in to the Starchild hovering above the Earth. The symbolism is overflowing & there are many things to read in to it. As I said earlier, I believe it represents a call for humans to transcend & achieve things beyond that which was thought possible. Regardless, the film is a true epic. It is also a Visionary work in every sense- a mark of pure greatness.
The 1970s saw SK remain just ahead of the world- still in the near-future
of A Clockwork Orange (1971), which he adapted from the renowned
dystopian novel of Anthony Burgess. The 1st ˝ of the tale is about
the psychopathic ‘Little’ Alex deLarge’s criminal tendencies, cruelties,
& 3 droogs: his pals Georgey, Dim, & Pete. Malcolm McDowell is brilliant
(however miscast age-wise) as Alex. Their life consists of hanging around their
slums, beating tramps, raping women, rumbling with other miscreants (such as
Alex’s enemy Billy-Boy), thievery, drug abuse, arguing amongst themselves,
&- at least in Alex’s case- orgies with multiple sex partners. The turning
point of the film occurs when, 1 night, Alex & Co. decide to bust in to
several house. Alex ends up murdering 1 woman & he & the boys rape
another in front of her invalid husband, while singing Singin’ In The Rain.
Alex’s droogs turn on him when they hear the cops coming, as they had had
enough of his bullying. Alex is caught & sent to prison for murder. Months
pass & Alex volunteers for a parole program. The catch is, though, he must
be forced to go the Ludovico treatment- basically a nonstop violence
deprogramming battery, including being strapped into a chair, with eyes pried
open, & forced to watch all forms of depravity until even the slightest
violent act sickens him. After being made to grovel in public by a sadistic
psychiatrist Alex is paroled. Now, he is the 1 in constant fear of
victimization. 1st his parents reject him, then the bum he beats gets
his fellow tramps to assault Alex, then his old mates (now corrupt coppers) beat
him senseless & drop him in the woods, where he stumbles upon the house of
the paralytic man whose wife he had raped. The man & his assistant take pity
on Alex until the paralytic realizes Alex is the man who raped his wife (who
subsequently committed suicide). He plots to drive Alex insane & likewise
commit suicide. Alex attempts it, but survives & is hospitalized. His
suicide attempt, however, has political repercussions for the government that
sanctioned the dread Ludovico treatment. 1 of the top government Ministers
visits Alex for a bit of publicity & offers Alex an easy life if he only
remains quiet about the treatment. A seemingly reborn, & Ludovico-less, Alex
smiles- the evil has returned, only it’s subtler & far more potent.
This film is also well over 2 hours long, but is so packed it flies by. The Vision displayed here by Kubrick is insight in to the human condition. The monstrous Alex is only a monster within the bounds with which he CAN be a monster. 1st society is apathetic to the impoverishment where his kind live. His evil grows. Then society ‘castrates’ him & takes away his ‘free will’- the masses damn the individual. Then, on that failing, society re-allows the evil to surface, only as long as Alex accepts the rules by which he can indulge that evil. But even in Alex there is some good- a love for show tunes & Beethoven (or ‘Ludwig van’). & in the supposedly ‘good’ there is evil- the sadistic doctors & the twisted paralytic.
1975’s Barry Lyndon, adapted by SK from the William Makepeace Thackeray novel, is a lush- but somewhat plodding 3+ hour- film. In my view it is his least successful film all around- the basic story is about a gold-digging 18th Century wannabe who marries the widow of a nobleman, & then sets about domineering her & her son (Lord Bullingdon- played by Leon Vitali, who would become SK’s personal assistant until his death in 1999), who grows up to loathe him. I won’t detail the story because it’s not really interesting Classical music abounds- Bach to Mozart to Vivaldi & more- & the flat visual style mimics a lot of the portrait painting of the era. It is a wonderful visual treat. Despite being disappointing drama the whole tale is about Ryan O’Neal’s Redmond Barry-cum-Barry Lyndon character’s search to fill his hollow shell of a person. Barry is not really evil, as much as pathetic. The whole film is driven by his emotion of frustration. In a sense, this film is SK’s answer to MS’s Raging Bull: minus the physical violence this film is about male impotence & inadequacy. Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) is a studied portrait in repression. Unfortunately impotence & repression are not good for drama- the film is more a study than a narrative. Yet to deny it is chock with emotion is silly. It’s simply not emotions people like to deal with that the film is based upon. Despite my not personally liking the film, I cannot help but admire the utter inward insistence of SK’s psychological probing, especially set against the rote world the story unfolds in. Vision is sometimes a constant gnawing.
In 1980 SK continued his approach into the mind with an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining. King fans tend to loathe SK’s filmic taste. I’ve not read the book so can, & will, deal only with the film. The film is easily the best of King’s novels done on film. Its basic premise is how madness distorts reality. The most noted trick SK uses in this film is time distortion. At the start of the film are short scenes which take place over long periods of time. At film’s end short periods of time take very long (by filmic standards- almost to real time at the end).
Jack Nicholson plays pulp writer Jack Torrance, who takes a winter job at
a Rocky Mountain Inn called The Overlook Hotel. He & his family will live
there till spring as the caretakers. The solitude will help Jack in his writing.
His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) & son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are all alone as
winter settles in. The hotel has a history of murder & madness- as well as
supposed hauntings. Eventually Jack gives in to hallucinations- or are they
ghosts? He gets increasingly violent. Danny has visions & can see things
normal folk cannot- he can ‘Shine’, just like Halloran (Scatman Crothers)-
an Overlook employee who recognizes Danny’s gift is like his. Eventually Jack
snaps, attempts to murder his family, murders Halloran, & ends up dying of
exposure in the hedgerow maze outside the hotel. Yet, again, the charge of
inemotion is leveled- the work shows an almost antiseptic approach to madness.
Nonsense, again- SK simply focuses on negative emotions. Jack is a welter of
negative emotions- pull a dozen or so out of your hat & he’s got it! Wendy
is all fear & longing- for peace mostly. Danny is repression. Add in
Jack’s disdain for his son & you have an emotional powderkeg- I think
critics resented that there was no real explosion- the fuse sort of slowly
snuffs itself out. This film gives no real release to the viewer- in a way it is
SK’s counterpart to MS’s The King Of Comedy. Frustration is the
dominant emotion- but people don’t like to acknowledge that- either in their
lives nor their art- & especially in a nearly 2˝ hour film.
7 years later SK returned to his earlier fascination with war. Full Metal Jacket, adapted from the novel The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford, follows a bunch of Vietnam-era recruits from their basic training on Parris Island to their eventual siege of the Vietnamese city of Hue. The film opens with all the boys being made alike by shaving their heads of hair. We then enter the barracks of 1 of the great film ‘characters’ ever conceived: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (former real-life Parris Island dill Seargeant Lee Ermey)- a foul-mouthed, profanely creative whipass little man who gets off on berating his ‘maggots’/recruits. Hartman declares that all of them are scum, regardless of their backgrounds. The film indulges in this dehumanization of the characters by either not revealing the recruits’ real names, or not thinking them important enough to tell us. The main recruits we follow are a skinny, wiseass called Private Joker (Mathew Modine), a fat, dumb recruit called Private Gomer Pyle (after the tv show & character of that name- played by Vincent D’Onofrio), Joker’s pal from Texas, Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard), & a black recruit called Private Snowball (Peter Edmund). The 1st ˝ of the 2 hour film follows the recruits as they bond. Hartman especially lights into the sadsack Pyle. Pyle suffers assorted humiliations at Hartman’s command- such as sucking his thumb with his pants at his ankles as the recruits jog, namecalling as he fails physical tests, but worst of all when he sneaks a jelly doughnut into his locker. He’s forced to eat it as the other recruits are forced to do pushups. Joker is told to take Pyle under his wing. The barrack tolerates Pyle until Hartman commands that he, Joker, & the other recruits have failed to shape up Pyle. From now on, whenever Pyle fails the other recruits will suffer. After a few punishments the other recruits viciously assault Pyle as he sleeps in his bunk. They pin him down with a blanker, cover his moth with a rag, & pelt him over & over with soap bars wrapped in towels. Pyle is in agony. When his turn comes to get vengeance on Pyle, Joker hesitates- then gives in as Cowboy & the others egg him on. This particular scene is key- it defines the whole film, & war. The coming together of many to do wrong to another for the merest of transgressions- in Pyle’s case just inadequacy. After the assault Pyle is different. He has a new look in his eye. He is obsessed with guns & violence. He becomes a great marksman & even Hartman commends him. Graduation is at hand for the trained killers. All, including Pyle, have made it. Tomorrow they graduate & ship out. Joker is assigned to Stars & Stripes- the military newspaper. That night he pulls guard duty & comes across Pyle in the latrine. He is loading his rifle. Joker tells him to calm down, calls for Sergeant Hartman. The whole barracks is aroused. Hartman enters & orders the deranged Pyle to drop his rifle. Pyle glowers as Hartman fearlessly approaches him. Pyle shoots Hartman, sits on the john, sticks the barrel of the rifle in his mouth, & splatters his skull against the bathroom tile. Joker is horrified. The film’s 1st ˝ is over. What a tunnel we have been led through. The last ˝ of the film is a sickly light in itself, but this ˝ is the most vividly recalled. We get full view on the twisted human notions of loyalty & accomplishment. The defining emotion is turmoil or conflict- basically Pyle’s after the assault, & Joker’s with authority- be it Hartman’s or that of his peers who urge him to assault Pyle with the soap bars.
We next find ourselves ‘in-country’. A bored Joker has spent months covering nothing but propaganda events. He & his pal Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) bemoan their life. Then we find out it’s 1968. The Tet Offensive occurs. Joker & Rafterman are sent out into the field to follow some troops ordered to counter-attack the city of Hue. Here, Joker is reunited with his old pal Cowboy. He also meets a couple more recruits- an older genial black soldier nicknamed 8-Ball (Dorian Harewood), & a hulking, ferocious young white soldeier called Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). The GI’s whore & fight together. At Hue the squad leader is killed & Cowboy is left in charge as they try to clear a city & burned out building. A sniper strikes & maims 8-Ball, then kills Cowboy. Animal Mother leads the charge into the building & guns down the sniper. It is a young girl- she begs to be shot & put out of her misery. Joker kills her- his 1st kill. Fadeout as the recruits head off into the distance singing the theme song from the tv show, The Mickey Mouse Club.
Unlike other great war films as Apocalypse Now, or The Thin Red Line- or even his own Paths Of Glory, SK shows only the darker, more automatonic side of war. All the emotions that come through are violent- hate, anger, even the loyalty. This vision of war as theater reaches its climax in a film crew’s staging of soldiers’ replies to the camera as it passes by. The replies are forced, stilted, & scripted- yet perfectly attuned to the film’s ethos- which SK wanted all along.
A dozen years passed before SK’s final- & lone 1990s film, Eyes
Wide Shut, came out. The 2 & ˝ hour+ film was adapted by SK from Arthur
Schnitzler’s novel Traumnovelle (literally Dream Novel). By 1999
SK was considered passé in some circles- his work emotionless & larded with
pointless symbolism. But most critics had acknowledged that the Visionary
nature of SK’s art almost mandated a ‘waiting period’ before final
assessment. This polarized view of the man & his art was aptly displayed in
the public & critical reaction to EWS. Some found the mega-hyped film a
disappointment- its ad campaign offered stark sex scenes & ‘adult’
content. But the film really was adult- not ‘adult’. Others thought the film
long & dull. However, the film contains probably the best performance ever
by superstar Tom Cruise- his leaden acting style is perfectly attuned with his
zomboid character. He plays wealthy Dr. Bill Harford. He has a gorgeous, loving
wife Alice (then real life wife Nicole Kidman), & a beautiful daughter. All
is well until 1 night the couple attends a Christmas party at a mansion of a
wealthy colleague & friend, Victor Ziegler (Sidney Pollack), who screws a
bimbo, who then overdoses. BH takes care of her & Ziegler owes him a debt.
Alice flirts with an oleaginous Eurotrash type after BH flirts with some
gorgeous models. The next night the couple have sex, smoke a joint, & talk
of ‘deep’ things. AH recalls an unrequited lust for a military man she
glimpsed a few years earlier. BH is stunned at the depth of AH’s desire, &
hurt. Later, he goes to see an old pal who plays music in bars & finds out
he makes big money playing for wealthy orgiasts. BH gets the info, but it is a
masquerade affair. He needs a costume & wakes up a store owner. He rents a
costume after it is discovered that the shop owner’s daughter (the nymphettish
Leelee Sobieski) has been ‘entertaining’ 2 Japanese businessmen. She makes
eyes at BH, as her furious father chides the 2 old perverts. Throughout the film
BH is viewed as a ‘sex object’: by the nymphette, the addled daughter of a
deceased wealthy client, some gay-bashing thugs who hoot & whistle at the
‘pretty boy’, the models, a prostitute he befriends- who gets AIDS, a woman
at the orgy who dies (BH thinks for his sake), & a gay hotel clerk who leers
BH arrives at party, gives the password he copped from his old pal, & is led through a wild scene of decadent orgying. Leering old satyrs in masks, & a few younger studs, are openly copulating with tall, gorgeous, & masked supermodel types. BH is found out to be an intruder. He is summoned before a star chamber. He is ordered to reveal himself by removing his mask. He does. He must pay a penalty for intruding. A friendly woman, who previously was attracted to BH, says wants him spared & will give her life for his. The star chamber agrees. BH is ordered to leave, never return, & forget anything ever happened. The next day he returns the suit & the shop owner is now openly pimping his daughter- even to BH. But, BH has lost the mask he wore to the orgy. The prostitute he nearly slept with has gotten her AIDS diagnosis. His old pal has been beaten up & escorted from his hotel by 2 men. Worst of all, BH is being followed. He picks up a paper & reads that a young woman- fitting the description of the girl who saved him at the orgy- is dead. BH rushes to the morgue. He cannot be sure whether the corpse is or is not her. He confronts Ziegler- who was at the orgy, after 1st returning to the mansion & being ordered away. Ziegler tells BH to forget what happened. The dead girl OD’d- just like the girl he was fucking at the Christmas party. He warns BH that ‘powerful’ people were there & it’s best to put this all to rest. BH starts to think it may all have been a delusion. He returns home to confess his escapades & jealousy over Alice’s revelation of her unrequited lust. As she is sleeping he notices the mask he lost at the orgy is on his pillow next to her- was it real, or a dream? He confesses & later we see the couple shopping at a department store. Things have changed between them- perhaps for the better.
Long after 1990s sex comedies as Pretty Woman or Sleepless In Seattle are forgotten this film will be seen as a visionary tour de force of the decade’s ethos. 1st off, few critics even noted that the bulk of the film is basically BH’s dream. Doubtless this is because it lacks the blurry time-distorting special effects of most dream sequences. Without these obvious markers it has not been taken that way. This is also precisely why EWS is the most effective dream film ever made- 1 is never quite sure what is the real & what is the dream. That BH is also the object of so many people’s sexual desire is also an obvious revelation of standard male wish fulfillment: to be desired & fetishized over. Other evidence is how unreal & un-New York the city streets of Manhattan are- of course, EWS was filmed in England, but that does not matter in the world of the film. Leave it to a Visionary to challenge the bounds of the real & the imaginary in this manner. This also, by virtue of its narrative/dramatic format, tends to distort the emotions in the film- yet the bulk of the film (BH’s dream) is triggered by virtue of his extreme emotional reaction to his wife’d heartfelt & emotional admission of lust. This is not conveying a ‘human connection’? Like hell!
Let me wrap up this essay with adding another aspect of why I feel SK has
never gotten his due as a filmmaker, great artist, Visionary, &- as
the layety prefer- genius (although they have buried him with false
layers of the term). SK’s film’s acknowledge within themselves that they are
films & NOT portrayals of true-to-life people & things-
note how self-aware of artifice so many of SK’s characters seem to be. Think
of the knowing, melodramatic, poseur glaring eyes of such characters as General
Jack D. Ripper, Moonwatcher (& even HAL’s unblinkingness), the Starchild,
Little Alex, Jack Torrance, & Private Pyle. Think of such moments as Dr.
Strangelove’s uncontrollable prosthetic arm, the whole symbolic descent into
the infinite by Dave Bowman, Alex’s rape-rendition of Singin’ In The Rain,
Jack Torrance’s ax laden ‘Here’s Johnny!’, the choreographed bebop
reactions of the filmed soldiers in Vietnam or the rendition of The Mickey
Mouse Club theme song, & the whole milieu of EWS. It’s as if SK is
daring his audience to not find the real connections in an artifice (film),
rather to find those moments of seeming artifice, in his films, which connect to
the seeming artifices in our real existences. In true Visionary fashion SK,
again, is constantly challenging his audience to think, participate, & be
aware. Most folk go to films to relax- SK’s films are hard to do that with.
This is another reason they have never been Spielbergian blockbusters- they
force their audiences to become better, more interactive, & discerning,
viewers. SK’s artifices serve his narrative, whereas most film’s artifices
point out narrative weaknesses by their very revelation.
It is all these aspects of the Visionary that make SK’s films not only Great Art, but Important Art. The demarcation of this difference is not just semantic. Great Art is art which is technically excellent, moves an audience profoundly in some way, has some influence in its genre (& perhaps beyond), says something that has eternal & universal worth (sometimes including current events), & has that ineffable bit of magic. Not all Great Art is Important Art- in that it has influence beyond its genre- & makes a pop or non-pop cultural impact. The defining hallmark of Important Art is that it says something primarily for the time it was produced, & often has lasting impact. The Beatnik movement, in literature, & the Abstract Expressionism & Pop Art painting schools, of the mid-20th Century are signature examples of undeniably Important Art that few would reconcile as Great Art.
As for critics- 1 must remember that film critics are essentially pop- whereas poetry critics, as example, are not. This basic difference means that film critics actually have an audience bigger than what could fit into a Volkswagen Beetle. They have a constituency & cannot go on off into lofty airs of self-masturbatory ecstasy. They cannot consistently damn the good nor praise the crap the way a poetry critic can because too many people will complain to the film critic’s editor. There is accountability- they have a bit of responsibility to their readers because a consistent clamor of dissatisfaction from the public could result in the critic’s being fired. Also, a film critic is more independent than a poetry critic- they are not wannabe filmmakers the way poetry critics are wannabe poets. Another aspect of accountability that is obvious re: film is- did you ever notice that bad films’ blurbs inevitably have raves from critics you never heard of, usually from obscure sources?
Nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind that SK is a Great & Important filmmaker & artist. Few artists have had his Visionary qualities, fewer attempted to convey the sides of humanity that he did in the ways he did, any claims of ‘emotional austerity’ are really the failings of critics who refused to recognize an oeuvre fraught with emotions generally not dealt with by other filmmakers- as well being a highly intellectualized sort of emotion. More than about any other filmmaker I can think of SK has suffered from this- the afflictions & weaknesses of others which prevent their recognition of his artistic greatness. Even those who do see that greatness tend to distance themselves from it by slapping the word genius over it, & letting it stew. True greatness is at its root difference- & that is the reason people (overwhelmingly average) shy away from any hints of it. That is the real affliction- fear- whatever you call it, even genius.
Return to Bylines Cinemension