The Stanley Kubrick Project: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Somehow, somewhere in there, I watched Eyes Wide Shut and didn’t write about it. Certainly an ignoble end to one of my more ambitious projects this year: watching all of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, in order.  The reasons for this are many, and most do not have anything to do with the movie itself. The ones that do, are, primarily: I hadn’t heard good things about it, and I am not a fan of Tom Cruise.

Eyes_Wide_Shut-867433280-largeWell, the first image you’re going to see in Eyes Wide Shut is a nude Nicole Kidman, which should let you know what kind of a movie you are in for. For some reason, a naked woman in the opening shot for Student Teachers signals exploitation; in the opening moments of a Stanley Kubrick movie, it presages art. It probably has something to do with the lighting.

Cruise is successful Manhattan doctor Bill Harford and Kidman his wife, Alice. They’re preparing to go to a Christmas party held by one of Harford’s patients, a fabulously wealthy man played by another film director, Sydney Pollack. Bill and Alice, being young, beautiful people, are hit on by various sexual scavengers during the party. Afterwards, in a marijuana-fueled confrontation (Alice has that strain of pot that makes you aggressive, which I must admit is something I’ve never encountered), Alice is a little too frank about a fantasy she once had about a naval officer. This shakes Harford to his core, and in the next twelve hours, he is accosted by a recently dead patient’s daughter who claims to love him, nearly has an assignation with a prostitute, and finally ends up at a mansion in the middle of nowhere, a masked interloper in a bizarre Hellfire Club-type evening of debauchery, filled with naked women and others all similarly masked.

1347922021_5-eyes-wide-shut_660_371It’s this gathering that forms the center of our story, and the aftermath provides the remainder of the film. Discovered and ejected from the gathering, his life apparently saved by a woman willing to sacrifice herself in his stead, Harford attempts to piece together what exactly happened. Unable to admit to his wife what he did the night before, he also finds each of the brief, unfulfilled relationships of that evening terminated and unavailable. His paranoia becomes a feverish thing, as he becomes aware of a tough-looking individual following him. Finally, in a scene that is remarkably stolid for a Kubrick film, Sydney Pollack explains everything to him, and it’s not quite as weird or evil as we or Harford suspected.

In a fit of contrition, Harford admits everything to Alice, and the final scenes, in which the Harford take their daughter Christmas shopping, is actually a small masterpiece of acting. There is a lot of room between Bill and Alice, as they follow their child through the hectic store; their minds are obviously anywhere else than where they are, physically, at the moment. There is a note of rapprochement before the final fade, at least.

Eyes Wide Shut is taken from a novella called Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, basically, dream story. Cruise really does move through the story as if it were a dream, frequently surprised, confused, often trying to extricate himself from events unfolding around him, and when he does initiate a situation, instead of having it thrust upon him – by hurriedly putting together a disguise and catching a cab into the super-wealthy wilderness – he pays a hefty price, suddenly finding himself in the weirdest Hitchcock movie ever made.

Kidman-EyesWideShut_653In all, it’s intriguing, if not especially fulfilling, watching Eyes Wide Shut unfold. The increasing unreality of Harford’s situation finally washed away in the overly-bright ultra-consumerism of a Christmas Macy’s. Seeing Cruise walk the night streets of a New York which we know – just because we know Kubrick – is really somewhere in England. The sudden, unheralded appearances of Alan Cumming and Fay Masterson. And the fact that I didn’t really mind Tom Cruise in this, at all (even if I find it dismaying that a well-to-do doctor drinks Budweiser, for God’s sake). Also, I like Nicole Kidman in eyeglasses, surprise, surprise.

And the fact that the very last word said in the last Kubrick movie, ever, is “Fuck”… well, dark humorist and cynic that he was, I’m sure that makes Kubrick chuckle occasionally in Movie Maker Heaven.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Full Metal Jacket

When I was a younger man… still-in-college young, God’s Gift To Theater young… word came down the pike that Stanley Kubrick was searching for young men for his next movie.  That news hit the drama department like a rock in a pond, which is to say there was a brief amount of activity, which gradually faded away. You were required to send in a tape, and in a small college in the wilds of Texas, there weren’t a lot of resources for that, not at the dawn of the 80s, anyway. Besides, none of us had an agent, and I had done enough writing at that point to know what a “slush pile” was, and what happened to most of the manuscripts/resumes that wound up in one.

Just as well, knowing what I know about Full Metal Jacket these days.

It seems there were two great spurts of Vietnam movies, first in the late 70s, then another later in the 80s. In the 70s, the country was still a little psycho about the subject, and the result was Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and the relatively restrained Boys in Company C. In the 80s you had First Blood Part Two: Rambo, the Oscar winner for Best Picture Platoon, and once again, apparently arriving late to deliver an appropriate coda, Stanley Kubrick and Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen all of these, so much so that they all tend to blur into one huge swamp of tropes and setpieces, into one huge movie with a hell of a running time… but I find the scenes that really stick out for me come from Kubrick and Coppola.

There are a lot of similarities between The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket, which doesn’t help my befuddled brain, but at least a scene involving soccer was cut from Full Metal, so I can still clutch at that difference. Both movies start at boot camp, where highly-trained drill instructors wear down, tear down and build soldiers; that which can be broken must be broken tout d’suite so it can be repaired or replaced and units formed that will kill on command. Where Full Metal Jacket forges its own unique identity in the crowded Vietnam movie market is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey in a star-making turn(well, perhaps not star-making, but it resulted in regular work, which I’m sure he’ll take as a consolation prize). Himself a retired Marine (and then only retired due to injuries), not only does Ermey bring life knowledge but an apparently infinite supply of insults, slurs and creative vulgarisms to the role. You fear him almost as much as the recruits, but you cannot take your eyes off him.

The entire first act takes place on Parris Island, as our major characters Joker (Matthew Modine) and Cowboy (Arliss Howard) navigate the grueling eight weeks of basic. The nicknames, of course, are supplied by Hartman, as is the name of  Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’onofrio, in his film debut), the recruit who can get nothing right, and who boot camp finally, truly breaks, with tragic results.

The second act finds us in-country, with Joker assigned to writing for Stars and Stripes, (much to Hartman’s disgust). Joker is pretty much dedicated to staying out of the line of fire and keeping his cameraman, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) the same. The 1968 Tet Offensive brings the war to their doorstep, however, and Joker and Rafterman find themselves embedded in the Lost Dog Squad (including old buddy Cowboy), who are charged with clearing the bombed-out city of Hue.

This is the third act, again establishing a difference with other Nam movies, which tended to put the war in the jungle or villages of thatched huts; Kubrick’s production designer, Anton Furst, takes an abandoned gasworks near London slated for demolition, and working from photos of Hue after Tet, began the demolition with an artist’s eye. It makes for an enveloping, harrowing portrayal of urban warfare. In the next 24 hours, the Lost Dog Squad will go through three squad leaders, eventually finding themselves lost in the wrong part of Hue and trying to get to the right coordinates, only to find the most dreaded obstacle in any theater of war: one determined sniper with uncanny aim and a near-unfindable location amongst the ruined buildings.

Back at the beginning of the movie, Hartman demands to see Joker’s “War Face”, prompting a scream and the usual derision from the sarge, “Bullshit! You don’t scare me!” The War Face is something that the movie returns to, over and over again. It’s the Full Metal Jacket that Pyle references in the horrific end to the First Act, meaning not only the copper sheath surrounding the lead in his M-14’s ammunition, but also, the War Face, the protective armor the soldier puts around his psyche. Joker, separated from Parris Island, returns to the jovial smartass he  tried to retain during basic, wearing a peace button on his body armor and “Born to Kill” painted across his helmet. Still, in their barracks, the journalists match their war faces and full metal jackets against each other, trying to impress with the number of times they’ve seen action. This dick-measuring contest is cut short by Tet, and although fearfully muttering they are not ready for it, the training takes over and the assault on the base is repelled.

Once he’s reunited with Cowboy, Joker’s War Face comes out again in a pissing contest with Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a character who is basically Pyle without the breaking part. Bristling with ammo belts, he tries to impress Joker with his alpha maleness, until the two are separated, like opponents in a schoolyard scuffle. Later, under sniper fire, Joker is finally going to have to go to the place the Marines built inside him, and take a life, face-to-face. The Full Metal Jacket will only take you so far; eventually the bullet must be fired.

Kubrick’s approach to Vietnam is fairly documentarian; the steadicam fluidly following the men as they crouch and run through shattered concrete canyons. There are a few things that seem out-of-place in a Kubrick movie – the contemporary rock music, as in any Vietnam flick, and a segment with the soldiers being interviewed by a news crew, which had been done by the TV M*A*S*H* years earlier.

Most of the time, however, Kubrick tries to not manipulate your feelings, except through images. There are a couple of times he can’t resist trotting out the black humor, though: Hartman proudly holding out UT Tower sniper Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as prime examples of Marine rifle training, and a Colonel dressing Joker down for his peace symbol, assuring him that “One day, this peace business will blow over.”

But overall, it’s a solid movie with a problematic structure, seemingly split into two different movies: the one set on Parris Island, and the other in Vietnam. The major problem with the second half is that there is no R. Lee Ermey in it, constantly barking and propelling the story forward. He is deeply missed once we’re in country. And frankly, there’s another Nam movie considered a masterpiece that shares the problematic third act: Apocalypse Now, where once Martin Sheen arrives at his destination and Marlon Brando enters the stage, the movie is suddenly struggling through hardening amber. Yeah, I also watched Apocalypse Now again. Sort of had to.

Actor Dorian Harewood, who plays Eightball, says he asked Kubrick if Full Metal Jacket  was his answer to Apocalypse Now. Kubrick replied, “No. It’s my answer to Rambo.” And there you have it. For some reason I never much cared for PlatoonApocalypse Now is more a nightmare set to film than an attempt at historical accuracy. But in my mental lockbox, where I store imagery and experience, Full Metal Jacket remains my Vietnam of note, capturing so well the banality of hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of terror, and the fact that men that were still not much more than boys were given the power of life and death, and set loose on a landscape not their own.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: The Shining (1980)

Of all the Movies That I Haven’t Seen But Probably Should, likely the most surprising is Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s multi-kabillion-copy bestseller The Shining. It is, after all, a horror movie, and I have moved through my life adoring the horror genre. If I’ve grown disenchanted with the genre over the years, it is because so much of the product created has little to offer me. I walk through the Halloween Haunted House, and spend all my time recognizing the props, so shopworn and rote has the field become.

When I find a movie that actually scares me, that’s something to cheer about. I suppose it’s some sort of desensitization, because my wife refuses to watch anything having to do with horror. It affects her on a level I can never hope to achieve again.

You see, I recognize all the props.

But we’re here to talk about The Shining, not me.

After the dismal box office on Barry Lyndon killed forever any chance of making his dream Napoleon project, Kubrick, while casting around for his next movie, must have been keenly aware of a need to make a commercial film. I don’t think box office ever truly mattered to him, but he was close to some of the executives at Warner, and making their lives easier might be a good thing. Horror had been a major force in the realm of Major Motion Pictures since The Exorcist blew up in 1973, and its possible, maybe even probable, that Kubrick was enough of an egotist to either a) feel that he was being left behind, or b) that he could show everyone what they were doing wrong.

So, Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining. That is what is referred to as Box Office Gold. Recognized name, recognized property. A Sure Thing.

Except that it wasn’t a sure thing. I remember everybody who saw it hated it, mainly because they’d read the book. Everybody had read the book. I think with international sales and all, The Shining made its money back, but the backlash was severe.

Then, it’s also a pattern with which we should be familiar by now. Derided at its initial run, The Shining is now considered a classic, almost always cropping up in those largely useless “Best Horror Movie” lists. (I hate lists.) Kubrick, as ever, if not ahead of the curve, is the curve.

Most of the ire directed at the movie is the changes wrought on the source novel, though really – how this surprised anyone is beyond me, given the changes made to the paper versions of Lolita, Red Alert, A Clockwork Orange and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It is easier and far more common to pick up and read a book – (especially one in such plentiful supply as The Shining, which used-bookstores enforced a moratorium upon, they were so common) – than to examine a film director’s body of work. And admittedly, in 1980, it was damned difficult to examine Kubrick’s  oeuvre in a casual manner; you had to be a student at a well set-up university or a millionaire.

The Shining concerns the Torrances – man, woman, and child – who are going to spend six months in the fancy Overlook Hotel as winter caretakers. Jack (Jack Nicholson) is trying to write a book. The child, Danny (Danny Lloyd) is psychic, his abilities manifested through Tony, “a little boy who lives in my mouth”. The Mom, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is pretty much the only non-imaginary friend Danny has – the family seems to have moved a lot recently.

Snowed in by one of the worst blizzards in years, The Overlook Hotel (built over an Indian burial ground, of course) begins to make itself known to the three people trapped inside. Danny keeps seeing ghosts – two sisters who were killed by their father, another caretaker, years before in similar circumstances. Jack begins having nightmares about murdering his family. And then he starts seeing the ghosts of Overlook Past.

There is a certain amount of controversy right from the start, with the casting. King wanted someone who could track from normalcy to insanity, suggesting Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight; he wanted a good man to be slowly corrupted by the Hotel. Jack Nicholson – a choice with whom I’m sure none of the executives argued – is twitchy from the get-go. He’s playing an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in months, and he’s quite obviously keeping a tight lid on, projecting normalcy; he needs this job.

The choice of Shelley Duvall was similarly a source of dismay. Nicholson, for instance, wanted Jessica Lange; but the choice of the unglamorous Duvall, playing a woman who is at a brittle truce with her marriage, who is trying to make it work, chain-smoking her way through days with an oddball son and a volatile husband, who is similarly trying… it’s just damned canny casting.

Duvall has said the filming wasn’t something she regretted, but likely wouldn’t do, ever again – interviewed by Roger Ebert, she stated that “… my character had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.” And to facilitate that, Kubrick was infamously mean and short-tempered with her, even instructing his daughter, Vivian, who was shooting a making-of documentary, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley.” Brutal technique, worthy of Eli Cross. I can’t really say that I can sanction it but, but my God, what results!

Kubrick’s movie takes a much less mystical track with the story, though the fantastic elements are still there – casting The Shining  as a movie of pure psychological horror simply doesn’t hold up, especially toward the end when the spirits of the Overlook start manifesting to Wendy. The Hotel finds a not-too-subtle toehold in Jack’s already tormented psyche, resulting finally in the closest thing Kubrick employs to a jump scare: Jack talking to someone who isn’t there in the abandoned bar, all liquor and provisions packed away for the winter – and in the reverse shot, we see Lloyd the Bartender, in a fully stocked bar. It’s a superb “Oh shit!” moment in a slow-burn movie.

A slight digression: In a scene before the snow actually comes in force, Wendy comes into the large lounge area which Jack has chosen for his writing space. What follows is a fairly upsetting scene that shows that Jack is fraying at the edges, as he tells her in no uncertain terms that yes she is interrupting and it takes time to get back to where he was and to never fucking come in there when he is writing. Look, I would like to think I would not be as offensive as Jack, but I swear to you that is a conversation every writer has wanted to have with his spouse.

A truly major change from the novel is the hedge maze, which, of course, replaced the topiary animals coming to life at the novel’s climax. Something like that might look incredible in the theatre of the mind (truthfully, I found it laughable even while reading the book), but in a movie, it is definitely something better left out. The Hedge Maze of the movie turns out to be a logical, satisfying replacement that lends itself to an exciting, fitting conclusion. (Due Diligence: I have not seen the “authorized” TV version of The Shining, but I understand the topiary animals are there – they just don’t move unless you’re not looking at them. That could work, but the Hedge Maze is so much more of an elegant solution)

I also think a good deal of the backlash against The Shining when it was first released was an unconscious feeling that Kubrick would re-invent the horror movie, just as he had re-invented the science-fiction movie with 2001. But truth to tell, Kubrick hadn’t re-invented the genre as much as delivered a good, stately science-fiction movie, a leather-bound version printed on wonderfully smooth paper, that would sit proudly on the shelf, next to its paperback brethren with rough pulp pages and gaudily colored cardboard covers. And that is what he did with The Shining: created a prestige version of a ghost story that has aged in only the best ways, as quality craftsmanship always does.

You see, I still recognized all the props. But they were so skillfully made, so well-presented, that I did not resent them one bit, and instead welcomed them, like old friends ’round a roaring fire.

To tell ghost stories.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Barry Lyndon

I guess we should start with my confession that I have never read any Thackeray. Which is ridiculous when you consider that William Makepeace Thackeray is a totally bitching name (not “bitchen”, which I am assured is the correct spelling. “Bitching” seems only appropriate in this context). That is likely going to be my regret on my death bed: that I was a voracious reader in my youth, but I read mainly forgettable pulp crap. Sorry, Dr. Savage.

Well, enough of that. I’m still dealing with one of my chief regrets while still on my lifebed, and that is my neglect of significant mainstream movies. Oh, I still truck heavily in my first love, disposable genre movies, but my attempt to educate myself with a better class of entertainment has been educational, if not always… well, entertaining.

A case in point is the latest in my endeavor to watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s films in order, Barry Lyndon, based on the serialized novel of the same name by the aforementioned Thackeray. It’s the tale of Redmond Barry, a member of the landed Irish gentry who winds up in one form of trouble or another, serves in the English and Prussian armies in the Seven Years War, marries a Countess, and eventually loses it all because he’s really pretty much an opportunistic jerk.

It’s tempting to make something of the fact that Ryan O’Neal plays Barry, but the simple truth is that was mandated by Warner Brothers. WB made a whole lot of the creative freedom they gave Kubrick, but they’re weren’t above demanding things like he cast someone in the Top Ten of Moneymaking Faces for such a non-commercial film. The only two in the Ten who were gender and age-appropriate were Robert Redford and O’Neal, and Redford turned the role down. O’Neal is fine as Barry, but his star was already dimming, and he fell off that Top Ten soon after.

As you’ve likely already determined, I don’t feel Barry is a very likable protagonist; his journey is fascinating but not at all edifying, and is a prime tale of someone getting what they wanted and proceeding to completely screw it up. While the performances are not powerhouses, they are uniformly far more than adequate, a solid ensemble that does not overpower the story, but produces a solid patina of workmanship, very much in keeping with the contemporary paintings that Kubrick strives to emulate onscreen. This is history represented as a series of museum pieces, wonderful to gaze upon, absorbing in detail and execution, but – as is all art – untrustworthy as to its truth. Barry is a cipher, continuously re-inventing himself, and though an unseen narrator is constantly informing us of how things turn out before we actually see the mechanics behind his prophecies, so too is he studiously unspecific.

This is a gorgeous movie, if not a happy one. Kubrick had managed to successfully scam two of the older Mitchell rear-projection cameras out of Warner Brothers, who had switched to front-projection and was no longer using them; he then procured a lens made by the German firm Zeiss for NASA, a lens that was designed for satellite photography and had the widest aperture ever created at that time. Kubrick had the lens grafted onto one of the older Mitchell cameras and finally had an instrument that could film nighttime scenes lit only by candlelight. That is one of the most startling things about Barry Lyndon: those wonderful, candle-lit scenes. Technical nightmares to be sure, as the huge lens aperture meant no depth of field, and if an actor leaned back an inch, he might suddenly find himself out of focus – and I don’t even want to think about the continuity problems with the length of candles, given Kubrick’s penchant for multiple takes.

There are a few scenes that almost certainly required artificial light, but Kubrick’s determination to use natural light as much as possible – given a dry run on A Clockwork Orange – yields astounding pictures of great beauty, again echoing the paintings of that era. Where he found such unspoiled vistas for such long, loving shots is beyond me (but not, apparently, beyond Ken Russell, whom Kubrick asked for advice on the subject).

This painstaking period detail and the skill with which the regimental scenes are done in the first part of the story make me pine for the Napoleon movie Kubrick had wanted to make, but abandoned in the face of the disastrous 1970 Waterloo. The scenes of formations marching into battle, while not as extended as a similar scene in Spartacus, are still breathtaking, especially in this day and age, since it’s obviously a ton of extras, with no sweetening by CGI. Seeing a Kubrick-conceived battlefield between Wellington and Napoleon would have been truly astounding.

So this is my take-away from Barry Lyndon. It is a beautiful work of art. Though the story is not ideally compelling, it is intriguing enough to continue watching, to see what new window will open up to a time long gone, what painting is next in our walk through this exhibit. Though I doubt I will ever revisit the movie, I am happy to have seen it, and to have been able to share  this vision.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange before, but the odd thing is, I can’t recall exactly when. This fuzziness is particularly irritating because I am then also uncertain I had actually seen it, although I was intimately familiar with the visuals, and the script. We’ll see if I can cut through this muddle later, as I try to examine Clockwork and its effect on my life.

Journalistic integrity out of the way: A Clockwork Orange is the tale of Alex, a young man in a near-future, depressed England, who, with his mates, lives a life of “What’ll it be, then?” Bored, facing no future prospects whatsoever, they spend nights beating up other gangs, beating up tramps, stealing cars, invading homes and raping and beating their occupants. When Alex savagely puts down an uprising in his ranks, the offended gang leave him for the police when their next bout of burglary goes bad. Alex spends the next two years in prison for murder (of a 14 year sentence), and finagles his way into a program that will supposedly cure him of his anti-social tendencies, and get him released from prison in two weeks time.

“The Ludovico Technique” involves shooting Alex full of drugs that -among other things – induce nausea while he is forced to watch movies of violence, rape, and war. This instills in him a Pavlovian response whenever confronted with violence or, shockingly, a nude woman – immediate, immobilizing nausea. The Minister spearheading the project declares him “The Perfect Christian” – always willing to turn the other cheek. What they have produced, however, is The Perfect Victim. Alex is released into a savage world that he once negotiated so effortlessly, and finds himself again and again in the clutches of those he had wronged before: the tramp, his old gangmates now in uniform as police officers, even the now-paralyzed and widowed victim of the home invasion, who uses Alex’s own beloved Beethoven – now rendered an instrument of torture due to its inclusion on the soundtrack of one of the movies shown to him in the clinic – as a means to drive him to attempt suicide.

Alex survives, and somehow, while he is still in a coma, doctors manage to reverse the effect of the Technique. Alex now finds himself back to his normal, depraved state, with one important addition: He now has political clout.

Apparently, after 2001, Kubrick was planning to do a movie on Napoleon. Then Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer hit theaters in 1970 and… well, suffice to say, that movie met its Waterloo at the box office. So Kubrick did what he had often done before: he headed in the opposite direction.

After the mega-expensive and expansive 2001, he decided to prove he could do a low budget movie – much to the dismay of his producer, no doubt. Clockwork is shot using mainly natural light, and a tiny Lowell light kit, which is good for student films but a far cry from most productions. There was only one set built – the Korova Milk Bar. And if the future seems very 70s, with shiny mylar surfaces and bright colors, purple and yellow and blue wigs, a future with Selectric typewriters and vinyl records and very tiny cassettes – well, it was the 70s.

A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 to an England which was in a state of social turmoil, truthfully, not too terribly far off from the world of the movie. The effect was dramatic; on the one hand, it was a top money-maker for Warner Brothers. On the other, as video games had not yet been invented, Clockwork Orange was identified as the root cause for all evil in the land. ‘Twas ever thus, and continues to this day: People on the docket for hideous crimes claim they did it because they saw it on TV, or in the movies. Kubrick himself received several death threats against himself and his family, and at that point, he requested Warner Brothers remove it from distribution in the UK; it was, in fact, impossible to see it in a theater there until after Kubrick’s death.

I do not think its sudden disappearance made much difference in the level of crime and violence in the country. But that’s rather beside the point, now.

When first released in the US, Orange received an X rating from the MPAA; this was later amended to an R, probably due more to the pornography industry taking over the disastrously un-trademarked X rating than any real loosening of moral standards. In the intervening years, it has to be said that its reputation as a violent movie has been overtaken by broadcast TV. There isn’t even all that much blood in Orange. What is there is quite a bit of female nudity, which in close proximity to the violence is unsettling, and the primary reason the all-out assault of the first half-hour of the movie still packs a punch. But it is still a diminished punch, in this day and age, and it becomes much easier to regard the movie as the jet-black comedy it was always intended to be.

If there is a message in Clockwork Orange, it’s that the removal of free will removes the essence of what it is to be human. The prison chaplain complains that the cure has removed from Alex the ability to consciously make the moral choice between good and evil, and therefore redemption is impossible. It is significant that, back during the filming of Dr. Strangelove, Terry Southern handed Kubrick the American version of Anthony Burgess’  A Clockwork Orange, which for some reason excised the final chapter, in which a more adult Alex, having reformed his gang, nonetheless makes the decision to disband it and attempt to build an actual future for himself. Kubrick’s movie omits that chapter, too, and Burgess never truly forgave him for that.

I know I normally scoff at the idea of entertainment being a direct cause of violence in the real world. However. My best friend in high school, as I got to know him better, I discovered was a Clockwork Orange fanatic. Had the whites, the bowler, the false eyelash, everything. He had recently moved to town from a nearby college burg, and his friends back there had a similar bent. Now here is the thing: though he had seen the movie – several times, I must assume – it was only that first half hour he chose to concentrate upon. The other two hours, with Alex suffering the tortures of the damned (and an incredibly game Malcolm MacDowell suffering too, I must say)? Not even on the radar, I fear.

This puzzles me. At the time, I had not seen Orange, and in that period before VCRs (hell, even something called HBO was still a few years away), I wasn’t going to anytime soon. I found one of those books that was an illustrated screenplay, a couple of black-and-white screen shots per page, and that may be why I am so familiar with the imagery. Of course, my friend played the soundtrack constantly, so that may also play into why I feel I had seen it before.

Time passed, we drifted further and further apart, and eventually parted ways in college. But that still troubles me; why did he feel that was something to emulate? What had Kubrick touched on there, what nerve had he plucked? Because I don’t think my friend was alone. Hell, I know he wasn’t alone in that desire to play dress-up, to imitate that swagger, that aggression. I just can’t imagine why, and I think I’m glad that I can’t perceive it.

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)

Well, I knew it was going to be a different experience.

2010 is, of course, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which was itself a collaboration between Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. 2010 exists as a movie mainly because Clarke wrote a sequel – in fact, he wrote three, two of which have not been made into movies. But apparently it was written with much the same back-and-forth with the director as 2001, made perhaps a bit easier by advances in telecommunications made in the meantime. Seeing director Peter Hyams fire up a Kaypro to communicate with Clarke in the “Making Of” featurette is a nostalgia trip all its own.

That Clarke wrote sequels to his novel doesn’t particularly bother me – both Kubrick and Clarke were pretty realistic in their regard for each others’ work as being different interpretations in different mediums of the same ideas. I do kind of question the necessity of a movie sequel, when 2001 is a fairly well self-contained cinematic experience. But I get really confused when I try to think about that too much, because I really like 2010. Not as much as I like 2001, but I still like it. So, of course, when I watched 2001 as part of the Stanley Kubrick Project, it was almost inevitable that I would wind up revisiting 2010.

2010 is a much more humanistic story. Gone is the substrata of humanity trying to function in a high-tech world, replaced by an increasing desperation as the earth comes closer and closer to nuclear war. Heywood Floyd, magically transformed into Roy Scheider, has to hitch a ride on a Soviet (!) spacecraft to reach the derelict Discovery before its increasingly erratic orbit smashes it into the moon Io. Accompanied by an American engineer (John Lithgow) and the man who created HAL 9000 (Bob Balaban), the idea is to reboot the craft and computer, find out what happened, and maybe figure out what the hell that two kilometer-long monolith is doing, also in orbit around Jupiter. This is made difficult by the worsening political state on Earth and the fact that a post-human Dave Bowman (still Keir Dullea, who looks like he hasn’t aged a day) keeps popping up in impossible places.

If the urgent need to evolve has been replaced by the even more urgent need to avoid a planet-destroying war, the urge to deliver splendid visuals at least remains. Visual effects had come a long way in the fifteen years since 2001‘s debut, though, to the original film’s credit, not that far. It may have been Richard Edlund who mentioned back during Star Wars that they were able to have ships flying across the face of planets, something that had been impossible during 2001; Edlund is the FX supervisor here, and boy howdy do they fly across the face of planets here. A favorite segment is the aerobraking sequence, where the ship does a untried maneuver to save fuel while still putting them in the correct orbit around Jupiter.

This also provides one of the better character moments: Floyd, having no duties during the maneuver, is strapped into his cubicle, stewing because unlike the Russians, he has nothing to distract him from the upcoming danger. Seconds before they start skimming Jupiter’s atmosphere, a similarly off-duty female cosmonaut appears outside his cubicle, obviously freaked out. They crowd together on Floyd’s bunk, riding out the aerobraking, which is a harrowing, noisy experience. When it’s over, they slowly part, but the cosmonaut turns back to give Floyd a quick peck on the cheek. As the woman I was dating at the time pointed out, they didn’t try to make anything of that moment later, and she was glad of that. So was I. It was a good, human moment.

And therein lies the major difference between this and its predecessor: “good human moments”. There is an easy warmth about the movie as the Soviets and Americans learn to work together. It is an almost completely different style of story, though still drawing upon the basics of the 1968 movie. This is the sort of thing that can make you crazy, if you try to think about things like continuity too much. Theoretically, each movie should exist in a vacuum; that is very hard, if not impossible, to do with a sequel. Aliens is a different sort of movie from Alien, but both easily exist within the same universe; 2010 and 2001… not so much.

It is a very solid movie. Peter Hyams is a director I do not enthuse over, but I do really like his work occasionally. The cast is exceptional, from the aforementioned American crew to Helen Mirren as the Russian Captain. Even HAL gets some redemption, this time around. This is a movie that could easily not have existed, and not been missed, but I’m rather glad it does, headaches and all.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Dr. Strangelove & 2001

Work pressures were a bit high last week, so I’m behind with this write-up. Monday was long and complicated, so tiring that I needed a kung fu movie that evening. Wing Chun is on Netflix Instant, and its rather light and breezy tone was a soothing balm (as is Michelle Yeoh). Much editing in a shorter than usual time was required over the next couple of days, and finally, story finished, I had time to write up The Grapes of Death, which was the sort of movie I used to write up on a regular basis. Friday I had camera duty, and in the evening I finally watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I gave up on the MI franchise after number two, since even the presence of John Woo did not wash away the bad taste from the first movie. But I really liked Ghost Protocol, so I guess I should check out the J.J. Abrams entry.

I also found myself doing something out of my regular evening routine, perhaps in answer to the work pressures: Ripping and putting music on an MP3 player I bought almost a year ago. Tiny little thing. Put an even tinier 15GB card in it. After several nights, I am close to actually approving it – I’m already tired of the CDs I burned for the car, Houston radio still sucks, and the Slacker app on my phone has a tendency to play three songs and then crash. This will be much better for commutes.

Now, while ripping a lifetime of Yello and Juno Reactor, I was aware that some of the music would not be wife-approved. Well, you just shrug and press “Next Song” or something. So what has she complained about as being “too weird” thus far? Kate Bush and Uriah Heep. Really? “Sweet Lorraine” is weird?

Anyway, Back to movies. Two weekends ago, I entered the patch of Stanley Kubrick’s movies which are most familiar to me: the ten-year stretch that starts with Dr. Strangelove and ends with A Clockwork Orange, what might, in a narrow sense, be called his science fiction years. I didn’t get as far as Orange, but what I did watch filled two evenings very well. I had come to his previous six films with very little, if any, previous experience, so watching Strangelove and 2001 yielded quite different experiences.

I think the last time I had seen Strangelove was back in 2001, when the Special Edition DVD came out. My first exposure to it was back in the late 60s, when it showed up on TV. I’m still trying to recollect how it affected me at that time. I wasn’t culturally aware enough in ’64 to measure its impact then – hell, I was six years old when Kennedy was assassinated, and only remember being pissed off that his funeral pre-empted all the Saturday morning cartoons. The impact of it must have significant, even though its release was pushed back to 1964 from its original November of ’63 date, and some lines hastily re-recorded to remove allusions to Dallas and the like. All you have to do is take a look at the (admittedly bizarre) contemporary nudie -cutie Kiss Me Quick and its main character, Dr. Breedlove, to get an inkling of its cultural significance.

Dr. Strangelove was released to a nation still reeling from the death of its President, and which could still recall, in memory yet green, the Cuban Missile Crisis. That year also saw the release of Fail Safe, which is practically the same story done straight, which has always bemused me. Something in the zeitgeist, or in the water, as Col. Jack D. Ripper would say. Apparently the original intention was for Kubrick to do the movie as a serious thriller, but somewhere a left turn was taken, a light bulb went on, and Kubrick brought in Terry Southern to make the script more overtly satirical. As the world didn’t need two Fail Safes, this was a remarkably cagey move. I want to add here that I really like Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, too – it’s a great thriller that hasn’t aged too badly – but Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a bit.

Kubrick’s typically canny casting gets a workout on this flick; casting a cranky naturalistic actor like George C. Scott and then urging him to overact (and speaking as a Scott fan, I love seeing this side of him), convincing Sterling Hayden to come out of retirement, resurrecting Slim Pickens’ career when Peter Sellers couldn’t manage a convincing Texas accent (or was injured, depending on which version you believe). Peter Sellers does what he does best, magnificently underplaying two of his three roles (I found him annoying in Lolita, but I have to admit his German psychiatrist schtick in that is quite good), and providing a truly iconic turn as the title character. Strangelove remains eminently quotable nearly fifty damn years after its premiere; for something that was meant as a satire of a particular slice of time, that is a fine achievement.

2001, on the other hand, I hadn’t seen in much longer. I think my last viewing was when I bought it on laserdisc in the early 90s… and there was damage to the film elements during the “trip” sequence! Oh, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times for the discerning cinephile (I can’t imagine a DVD from a major studio being released in that shape). So, here I am, watching it for the first time on Blu-Ray. And I have to say, it did not disappoint.

A lot of criticism is directed toward 2001 that feels it is slow and boring. I also feel this is where Kubrick gets the lion’s share of his reputation for being “cold” and “cerebral”. I don’t think any of these are true. And while people prepare to tell me how wrong I am, I’ll continue on with my feelings.

It was Kubrick’s desire to create a wholly visual movie. Much is made of the fact that the first spoken dialog doesn’t occur until nearly a half-hour in. The space sequences take their time, to be sure; part of that is due to Kubrick’s choice of score, the grand, majestic “Blue Danube” waltz, but it also serves to impress the vast distances involved in the story once we leave prehistoric times. I expect space travel to be slow and cautious.

The very limited dialog serves another purpose, too. Kubrick always managed to get actors who could make the most odd sentences seem natural. Heywood Floyd’s homey domestic banter as he arrives on the space station seems out of place in the antiseptic pop art corridor; that will continue on, in the moonbus, as the workaday normalcy of packed sandwiches (with what looks to be white bread, of course) struggling to make things typical in a pressurized tube full of air moving through a vacuum. Conversation on the Jupiter mission is sparse; 18 months along in their trip, astronauts Poole and Bowman likely ran out of things to say to each other long, long ago.

The effort to remain human in these high-tech surroundings and vehicles is a continuing theme, and if the audience is starting to feel bored, that should cause some sympathy for Poole and Bowman, killing time by sketching what little they can see of their fellow crew members in the cryosleep pods, perpetually losing chess games to the super-intelligent HAL computer (easily the most talkative member of the team). Like the primitive ape creatures in the prologue, there is a need to advance here, a sense of not truly belonging in the world as it had developed, of being on a dangerously low rung of the food chain. A need to evolve, which will be enabled by the mysterious monolith.

Viewers in the “slow and boring” category will feel a certain amount of fellowship with studio executives who left the premiere feeling it was the biggest pile of trash ever. It was going to be quietly pulled from release after the initial two weeks, but the theaters asked to keep the prints longer; word of mouth had gotten ’round, and that magic demographic “young people” were lining up to see the movie, some many times over. 2001 got the subtitle “The Ultimate Trip”, eventually used on its posters.

I think we know who I side with in that little dichotomy. 2001 punches my sense of wonder in all the right places. Even if you don’t like it, even if you find it slow and boring, it commands respect as the first: a rare instance of adult science-fiction, and a game changer in terms of visual effects. Stunning stuff that would not be attempted again until Silent Running (directed by Douglas Trumbull, 2001‘s effects supervisor), and then not until Star Wars opened the gates. The complex, industrial structures of the spacecraft instead of the smooth rocketships of the 50s, the constant video readouts, the instrumentation lights that are so bright they project their own images onto actors’ faces, the sheer attention to detail to which movies like Alien and Outland owe a terrific debt. All due to Kubrick.

And now I want to see 2010 again, although it is a completely different film experience. And if you know how I feel about Peter Hyams, you’d know that is a tremendous achievement, too.