Monday, June 21, 2010

Day 74: A rugged day in the cinema

Eleven years ago, to celebrate the release of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, an independent cinema just down the road from me, screened a Kubrick retrospective: new prints of eleven feature films over four or five days, beginning with The Killing(1956) and climaxing with a midnight premiere of Eyes Wide Shut(1999).

I think it must have been the third or fourth day in: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange, the three films in the one after the other!! At the end of that cinematic session I needed a good lie down in a dark room.

If you ever get the chance to see the documentary, narrated by Tom Cruise, called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, do yourself the biggest favour and marvel at a man that was worthy of the title ‘genius’. One of the many, many things that impressed me about Stanley K was his ability to turn his hand to almost any genre: Horror (The Shining) Comedy (Dr Strangelove) Period Piece (Barry Lyndon) Crime/Heist (The Killing) War (Full Metal Jacket) Sci-Fi (2001:A Space Odyssey). He tried love, romance and relationships in Lolita & Eyes Wide Shut, historical epic with Spartacus and the dexterity doesn’t stop there.

I think Ridley Scott’s trying to emulate this feat, but y’know what? As much as I like his films, he’s patchy where Kubrick wasn’t; Stanley would never have made A Good Year. Kubrick was on the money, every time, every film or your cash back. Kubrick didn’t miss a beat. He may not have made as many films as someone like Ridley - the eleven films that I saw spanned 43 years worth of work, that’s a movie nearly every four years - but the quality was impeccable. Kubrick would be up there in my pantheon of directors along with Sidney Lumet, David Lean, Woody Allen, Kieslowski, Coppola, Spielberg and Ken Loach.

In the books that I have on Stanley, stories of his weird and wacky ways are just endless; his obsessiveness...incomprehensible. His project from beyond the grave, AI, which he’d been working on with Steven Speilberg (who picked up the baton anmd ran with it after Kubrick’s death), was maybe some sort of filmic child born on the wrong side of the blanket. And sure, Eyes Wide Shut was no classic by Kubrick’s standards (although I watched it again recently and found plenty to test me and marvel at). But those stories, the anecdotes of his all-consuming passion and pre-occupation with his craft are just mind-boggling. The other side of that fearsome coin was the fierce determination that gave him his independence as a filmmaker, that rare power bestowed on a director to make what they want and have their say as to the final cut. Very few are allowed that.

I believe many think that a lot of bulls**t is spouted by admirers of Kubrick, a lot of high-falutin’ nonsense by thoes who, maybe, in his thrall, those who are prepared to overlook the inconsistencies in order to revere. Could be? I find it hard to reconcile the film 2001:A Space Odyssey with myself. Truth be known, I’m not sure that if a gun were held to my head I’d be able to give you a cogent synopsis of what’s going on in that film? It was one of those films that I’d refused to watch on Video (DVD hadn’t exploded yet in 1999), knowing that it would eventually hit the big screen again, as it did. In the retrospective I had an okay time in the cinema, nothing much more than that, but three months later when I saw it on general release, I was riveted. The closing piece of music over the credits is Johann Strauss’s 'On The Beautiful Blue Danube' and it overruns the credits by a good seven or eight minutes; I couldn’t leave until the music had finished, even though the houselights were up and everyone else had long gone. Don’t ask me why, it doesn’t matter, I was having one of those “moments” in the cinema that actually defy all that I subscribe to about films and I shock myself (in a very nice way) when I have those moments (more often than not they’re films where the story structure and consequential meaning, or absence of, are all over the show) - Tarantino did it to me recently in Inglorious Basterds and Michale Hanneke in Caché/Hidden.

It’s great to love films that fly in the face of everything that I believe constitutes a great film.

Day #73 Tip: Against being preachy
The subjects of Kubrick’s films were often central characters facing inner struggles between the antipodes of life - good and evil, love and hate, fidelity and betrayal - for surely that is what we want to see and identify with in stories and in the cinema: human beings facing the dilemmas of life that we all face. He would put both sides of the argument up there on the screen for us to see and throw it to us to wrestle with.

In Stanley Kubrick’s own words: “The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.” Kubrick knew that fashioning this in a script demands playing both sides of the chess board (a Robert McKee metaphor employed here before), first playing white’s moves and then turning things around to play black, and to play both with equal zeal.

As a writer, I must show both sides of the coin. Kubrick would show the characer of Alex meating out the most unspeakable acts of violence and then have him swoon to Beethoven and Bach, he’d have a whopping, hollerin’ cowboy riding an atomic bomb like a buckin’ bronco down to death and destruction on the ground below, his films were full of contradiction and irony that handed the work of ‘deciding’ back to the audience. An intelligent filmmaker for intelligent people? Nup, a great moviemaker who made terrific pictures for all of us.

In the Taschen published-book on Kubrick, he mentions how he hated being asked what his films were about and quoted T.S,Eliot talking of 'The Waste Land': “I meant what it said. If I could have said it any differently, I would have.” “To understand a Kubrick film, you must experience it for yourself.” The struggle is tossed to us....I for one, am grateful for that respect shown to me, in the cheap seats.

Where a story ends up, how the coin lands, how the chess game finishes, is down to the writer’s telling of the tale through working both sides of the debate with matching passion and eloquence in the screenplay.

It may come as no surprise to know that in his early twenties, the only income Kubrick had was from playing chess in Washinston Square Park (Manhattan) where he was known as “the Master”.

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