That Obscure Spartacus of Desire

Events have been conspiring against me, as Hamlet would say (in one of those tiresome modern translations my wife purchases for her students).  I did catch That Obscure Object of Desire before Netflix lost the rights to it, then I laid aside three hours to watch Spartacus Friday night. Hey, the IMDb says it’s only two hours, 41 minutes long, that’s plenty of time! Except that, oopsie, what I have is the restored Blu-Ray, which weighs in at three hours, 18 minutes – but it is not a slog by any means.

First things first: That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Bunuel’s last film. I find myself once again stymied by Bunuel. I’m glad I saw Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie first, as, in a way, it prepared me. Just as the title characters in that earlier film never quite get their meal, Desire‘s protagonist – once again, the wonderful Fernando Rey – will never commiserate his relationship with Conchita, a pretty Spanish girl easily twenty-five years his junior. The reasons why become increasingly odd, an escalation over the course of months, maybe years, with Rey always trying to use his wealth to close the deal.

The most famous device employed in Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina – both beautiful in different ways. A lot of brain time gets spent trying to figure out what each actress represents, and they frequently switch within the same scene. Apparently Maria Schneider was going the play the role, alone, but quit – some say simply announcing that she couldn’t play the role the way Bunuel wanted it, some say after a horrendous fight. Some also say, quoting from Bunuel’s memoirs, that he hired one actress on the spot to re-shoot the footage Schneider had already shot, and the other actress later, which doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense; another quote from his book claims he was getting drunk at a bar and trying to figure out how to salvage his movie when the idea of using two actresses hit him.

In all, this confusion and duality of legends is really of a piece with the movie. Rey is relating the tale of his doomed relationship to his traveling companions on a train, which doubtless makes this the very definition of an Unreliable Narrator. Or possibly not, as it has to be said that Rey never has a clue as to what makes Conchita tick, and therefore, neither do we; she seems as mutable as the status of which actress is to play her at any given moment. In that way, I’m going to say that Bunuel has absolutely nailed the befuddlement of any male who has ever said or done the wrong thing and has no clue why it was the wrong thing.  And, like many a man before and since, he is too busy – or too stupid – keeping his eye on the prize to try to figure anything out. He doesn’t want marriage, he wants a mistress, he wants sex. And he always seems this close

Which is grossly simplifying and glossing over much more. Bunuel doesn’t make popcorn movies. He makes movies that engage on many levels, and you must pay attention, if only to see what will astound and confound you next.

And then there is Spartacus.

Ah, Spartacus. No obscure symbolism here. Well, not on the level of Bunuel, anyway. Straightforward, glorious story of the Third Servile War, with some historic jiggery-pokery by Howard Fast in his novel and Dalton Trumbo in his screenplay. Legend has it that Kirk Douglas was royally peeved by not getting the title role in Ben-Hur, and Spartacus was going to by-God show them, producing the movie himself through his Bryna Productions. That’s a big chip to be carrying on your shoulder, and it wasn’t long before Douglas fired the first director, Anthony Mann – apparently the only footage Mann shot that’s still in the finished picture is at the very beginning, in the salt mines. Douglas remembered that guy who directed him before, and that movie turned out pretty well. Stanley Kubrick, and Paths of Glory.

I suppose that could have been a case of Be Careful What You Wish For for Kubrick; he’s at the helm of a big Hollywood picture, but he has no real control. He’s a hired gun, and he doesn’t like it. There were apparently many fractious discussions between Kubrick and Douglas, with Douglas generally getting his way. And the astounding thing is, none of that is on the screen. This is a good, solid movie, still standing head and shoulders above most of the comparatively turgid movies that came out in the Epic Cycle of the 60s. It’s a testament to both men’s ultimate professionalism that this is the case.

Can we all just agree that Charles Laughton owns any movie he's in and just get on with our lives?

Yet I still can’t get over the feeling that it would have been better had Kubrick had more control; there is a scattered quality throughout the narrative, as if the story gets bored with one set of characters and moves quickly from the gladiators to the senate, and then thinks nah, that was a bad idea, and moves back again. Apparently, the high-power stars were re-writing the script daily, to emphasize their own roles. Again, all hail to Kubrick and editor Robert Lawrence for making the movie as cohesive as it is. And what stars! The sort of actors you could likely leave to their own devices, if need be – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov… Olivier and Laughton were said to hate each other, which Kubrick put to good use. The scenes between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons), once freed of the gladiator school, feel a little too plastic, too self-consciously Hollywood… at least until the last time we see them together, and, just as in their early scenes, some genuine emotions show.

There is a lot of exceptional detail in the settings, which I’m going to mark on the Kubrick side; and probably my favorite scene takes place before the ultimate battle, as Spartacus’ slave army faces the approaching Roman legions, the masses of men changing formations as they approach the line, preparing for battle, the sun shining off shields. That ain’t CGI, baby, that’s a ton of extras, and it is breathtaking. It’s practically in real-time, with only cuts to Spartacus and Olivier as Crassus on their respective rises, watching the battle lines form. I am put in mind of people bitching about how 2001 is boring because it’s so slooow and waaaaah why can’t something blow up. Phooey on them. Like I said, breathtaking, and in this instance, tension-building in the extreme.

I literally hadn’t seen Spartacus since the mid-60s, and then it was on TV. I remembered only two scenes from it: the Gladiator Instructor painting Spartacus’ body to demonstrate the Quick Kill, Cripple, and Slow Kill zones, and the end, which I thought royally sucked because the hero died. Nowadays, of course, I can see and appreciate more than that. I know now that Howard Fast started writing his novel while he was jailed for refusing to give names to the House UnAmerican Activities Commission, and that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was still on their blacklist when shooting started; when Crassus starts waving around papers that contain “names of all enemies of the state” there’s a certain bitter, dark resonance to it.

There’s a ton of good stuff in Spartacus; there’s a reason the Criterion Collection once put it out on DVD. The fact that at this remove I can detect the lack of the director’s touch should not deter anyone from seeking it out. As I said, tremendous cast, good story, high production values. Like anything thus far in the Stanley Kubrick Project, I feel quite confident recommending it.

Next up: Lolita about which I have heard some… not-encouraging things. Never seen it, but it does have the look of Kubrick going in exactly the opposite direction from Spartacus as far as he could. Whether or not this is a good thing, we shall see.

I do try to keep an open mind.

5 Comments

  1. […] Spartacus had left me wanting more Hollywood epics, if only for comparison’s sake, so it was lucky for […]

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed Spartacus; I was never bored for a moment.

    As for, “If Kubrick had had full control…” –well, I don’t know. His films tend to be cold, cerebral, and this story needed to be told on a human level. Would it have been better? Worse? Perhaps on some Counter-Earth they know the answer.

    • Well, I enjoyed Spartacus, too, but I’m finding that the criticism of Kubrick as “cold” isn’t necessarily true; Paths of Glory, for instance, had tremendous humanity. I will give you that the man was a profound cynic (he can show me a thing or three about darkness), but Spartacus feels very much like a Hollywood product, artificial. There are scenes where genuine emotion shine through, but they’re overcome by an inconsistency in the final product. It’s good, but I think it could have been much better. Honestly, I would like to visit that Counter-Earth and see Anthony Mann’s version of the movie.

      • That might entail a visit from Len Wein’s ‘Libriarian’ but it would be an interesting contrast. Remember. again, that Paths of Glory was a Hollywood construct. There is no perfect view. Heck, even the director’s cut of “Forever Evil” was. um, found not as good as the studio cut. By some of us, anyway.

  3. […] movie setting? The best I can think of is Rashomon, but that’s an ill fit at best. I suppose That Obscure Object of Desire comes […]


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