Tag Archives: stanley kubrick

What Does Cannes Do?

In the spring, a young cineaste’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Cannes. Or, in the case of certain cineastes, not so lightly.

Does it matter? Does Cannes really do anything anymore, or has it become an airless pageant, one long, beachside photo-op with a few screenings thrown in for old times’ sake?

No: Cannes does matter. As opposed to Sundance, a festival which seems to get more and more insular, self-congratulatory, and (I don’t even know if this phrase will make sense) aesthetically vestigial with every passing year, The Cannes Film Festival has continued to raise the level of film consciousness not just in France, but throughout the world.

Cannes’ partnership with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, along with its commitment to spotlighting documentaries about filmmaking (this year’s subjects include docs about Ingmar Bergman and legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff), is proof of the festival’s seriousness. But Cannes’ greatest gift to the film going world is, I think, in the field of restoration. Every year, after a vigorous cleaning-up (or in the case of certain critical cases, a full-blown rescue), a new crop of classics – some of them fringe, some of them mainstream – gets a Cannes platform. And because a Cannes platform means a world platform, these great works can once again (or maybe even for the first time) be given their due.

This year’s round of restored prints includes Bunuel’s Tristana (presented by Almodovar), Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, as well as The Tin Drum, Psycho, The Kiss of The Spider Woman (too long forgotten), The African Queen (too long remembered), and – this one’s particularly exciting – a restoration of Visconti’s The Leopard, which contains what is easily the most purely beautiful passages of film ever shot. Now they will be more beautiful than ever.

When people talk about movies looking beautiful you’ll often hear them say, “It looked like a painting,” or something to that effect. They mean it as high praise, but often, the painterly, portrait-like compositions they’re referring to are too studied, making the movie feel dead and stilted, more like a museum piece than an actual living, moving piece of life captured on film. Naturally, studied can be beautiful – as in the films of Peter Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman and others – but in The Leopard, especially in the film’s final moments, Luchino Visconti is onto something trickier: portraits that move. Keeping up that painterly framing is no easy task considering that the very nature of the moving image means his compositions must be ever-changing. So how does he do it? How does Visconti keep his world alive without losing his hold on the perfect frame?

Now that the film is restored, we’ll have a clearer answer than ever before.

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Kubrick Before the Chill

There’s a whole lotta Kubrick love going on at Not Coming To a Theater Near You. So I threw down for one of the greats.

To watch Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s first masterpiece, fifty years after its release, is to oversee the great web of Kubrick’s career. In each direction you can see a strand of thought leading on toward a film of the future. In time, the bravura dolly shots that follow General Mireau through the trenches of World War I, will become the unyielding long takes of Full Metal Jacket, following Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as he dispenses his savage insults to his platoon. The expansive white interiors of General George Broulard’s chateau, sterile in their civility, will be reprised to similar effect in 2001A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut, films in which places of elegance – like the barren theater where Alex’s cronies do their raping, and the site of the latter film’s famous orgy – are made desolate and cold. And Paths of Glory’s execution scene, as painful a moment as any Kubrick ever filmed, is composed with a stateliness that looks ahead to the excruciatingly paced duels of Barry Lyndon.

There are nascent proclivities here, but none is more pervasive, or upsetting, than the thematic strand connecting Paths of Glory to Dr. Strangelove—futility in the face of cold-blooded savagery. Looking at the iniquities of war, with its bloodsoaked barracks and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, there seem to be only two reasonable responses: one can either scream in horror or laugh in disbelief. Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s dramatization of the former; Strangelove, the latter.

Paths of Glory – a film about three men portentously court-marshaled and executed to justify the horrid incompetence of their superiors – is fueled by ironic tensions of guilty innocents and innocent criminals, a fact that Kubrick reiterates structurally, through his use of incongruous contrasts. We are not meant to laugh at the awful hard cut that takes us from the aftermath of an execution to teatime. We’re meant to recoil, as Kubrick does, from “civilized” apathy. Like Kubrick’s Humbert Humbert, Generals Mireau and Broulard are all manners and no man. Worse than mere pretense, their so-called refinement and intellectual sophistication is actually antithetical to human dignity. Paths of Glory’s court-marshal, governed by a cluster of highly decorated officials, is a display of vaulted iniquity, positing the formal values of due process over the needs of man. “Gentlemen of the court,” says Dax, “there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.” To be a gentleman of the sort Dax is addressing is to know nothing of what it means to be human.

There’s more. Please read on at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.

Shelley

As a kid, going to the movies with some highly versed, critically attuned picture people, I noticed there was one revered acting word that kept cropping up, one that they would inevitably link to work they admired. The word was “courageous.” The best performances, they said, were turned out by “courageous actors.”

At first, I didn’t get it. For years, really, I struggled to understand what could make an actor “courageous.” Outside of putting him or her self in a place of physical danger, when applied to a performer, the term didn’t make sense to me. Was it a figure of speech? A short cut or piece of inside lingo?

And then finally I felt it. I can’t remember if it was Lolita or Next Stop, Greenwich Village or Blume in Love or A Place in the Sun or A Patch of Blue, but watching Shelley Winters – who I always admired but never quite knew why – I suddenly understood. Not intellectually, but on the gut level. What I saw was an actress throwing herself body and soul into emotional largesse, unafraid to play at a level of intense vulnerability.

Sometimes Shelley was so despairing that it scared me. And I don’t mean to say that her characters simply suffered – any good actor could simply suffer – Shelley managed to add to that suffering hidden, often contradictory aspects of her characters’ personalities. But while another less gifted actor might let all the colors muddy the palette, Shelley wrangled her conflicting streams of passion like a conductor leading a hundred-piece orchestra. The feelings she evinced were not the safe, well-trod emotions that words could put fences around. Rather, they always seemed fresh and specific and utterly independent of timeworn acting clichés. Upon closer inspection, I began to understand further, intellectually this time. Shelley was scouting new ground. Sometimes it didn’t work, but she always took the risk. She took the risk because she was brave. She was a courageous actress.

But she wasn’t operatic. Her largesse wasn’t about size; it was about reality. Because of Shelley’s conflicting streams, she could create characters that looked so ridiculous, and at the same time, so credible. Despite their theatricality, they’re never broad. Her Charlotte Haze in Lolita is a perfect example. In the clip I’ve chosen (which doesn’t really get going until four minutes in), notice how Shelley plays it just a little too big, like a whining young girl, and then, surprisingly, instantly interrupts our feeling of incredulity with an expression of yearning, or humanizing gesture of kindness. The conflict produces a rich character, full of dynamic oppositions – and Kubrick knew it. He let the camera hold on her in a tight, unyielding close up, without music, and gave her little by way of ambient sound. Shelley’s alone out there. But Kubrick knew she could handle it. She could handle anything.

Shelley Winters, one of my favorite actors, died four years ago yesterday, at the age of 85.