Sunday, October 26, 2014

Humankind as Murderer

Audiences remain divided on 1981’s The Shining.


Despite cementing a place in our shared cultural memory, people are still uncertain about what to make of director Stanley Kubrick’s venture into genre filmmaking. Is The Shining a masterpiece of horror? A glorified art house film? A sly homage to gothic affectations? Or a mixed-up and muddled dud? Engage the most cursory search and you can find all three of these positions being defended vociferously in print and digital material.

Trapped in his own head...
Part of the room for such debate stems from the film itself.

Kubrick, fresh off the less-than-spectacular Barry Lyndon (which also divides critics), famously waded through piles of contemporary novels in search of a new film project before—and this, oddly in my opinion—settling on a popular novel by Stephen King that is essentially a page-turner of a haunted house story. Kubrick jettisoned much of the King novel, keeping only the setting and the bare fundamentals of the plot. The result is a complicated horror film that attempts to depict some frightening realities about humankind that King never addressed.

Kubrick invented the steadi-cam specifically for the film.
Specifically, by following the devolutionary arc of Jack Nicholson’s character from a flawed—and potentially abusive and alcoholic—husband and father to an outright murderer, Kubrick is trying to tell us that ultimately humanity is a violent species of animal that is quite capable of killing others of its own kind. Furthermore, if we consider that the family unit is the basic unit of society and society—or civilization writ large—is that which separates humanity from other animals, then the true horror of what Kubrick is showing us becomes even more clear, because by depicting a man who turns against his own family and attempts to murder it, Kubrick is giving his audience the ultimate depiction of how humanity’s dark tendencies can become unhinged and turned inward.


In avoiding King’s plot of a haunted house, Kubrick instead gives us haunted people, and a palpable theme throughout the film is that we are all standing on the shoulders of violence, so to speak, and that the evil done by other humans in days past somehow lingers and taints the present. As I have suggested, this is vastly different from the King novel. Whereas King viewed Nicholson’s character as being victimized by the external and supernatural forces of the haunted hotel, Kubrick clearly believes the evil Nicholson brought with him to the hotel is his own. In other words, Nicholson needed a space in which to go mad and act out his demons. The Overlook Hotel provides him with one.

However, at the same time, we cannot not say the hotel in the film is not in some way “evil” or “haunted” and therein lies the problem with reaching for an overarching analysis to describe the film.

The blood of past deeds?
In interviews given around the time The Shining was in production, Kubrick discusses ESP and psychic abilities in terms that clearly demonstrate that he believes in such powers and intended his audience to take them seriously in the film. At the same time, the “spirit” of the hotel and its ability to manipulate reality and communicate with the living is also “real,” in that Danny, with his psychic abilities, is not the only one who sees the gallons of blood gushing from the elevator. His mother sees it, too. Thus, we have to conclude that Overlook is in fact “haunted” in some way (all three characters experience it), and this haunting helps Nicholson slip further into the madness that always lurked within him. Keeping the hotel as a psychic force outside the characters with a will of its own also signals that Kubrick wanted The Shining to function as a film within the horror genre and we can therefore safely say that this is a gothic picture in the gothic tradition, albeit one with a heavy focus on the psychological.


I believe the film would have been better served if Kubrick had finished jettisoning King’s plot and gone more with his own instincts (I.E. – That the protagonist’s psychopathology is entirely internal and the place his ‘breakdown’ occurs inconsequential). However, Kubrick did not do this, and we are thus left to contend with the fact the film is partially haunted and partially psychological, an interesting duality in and of itself, but one which I believe has confused both audiences and critics for years. Maybe Kubrick could not make up his mind, maybe he wanted both? We cannot know. It is, however, worth reflecting that duality and partiality are referenced numerous times in the film through the use of mirrors, double images and codes, such as the famous, backwards REDRUM.


King famously hated The Shining and said that what was wrong with it is that it was made by a man who thinks too much and feels too little (film critic Pauline Kael feels this way about all of Kubrick’s efforts in cinema). The charge that Kubrick’s work can come across as cold and being more interested in aesthetics than emotions is not an easy one to deny. Writing about The Shining, Kael said Kubrick’s characters are dead on the screen, and what should be a family drama and homage to gothic horror instead becomes a rather robotic metaphysical examination of the timelessness of evil.  I think she comes closes to grasping what is happening in The Shining but misses its essential point: Jack cannot resist himself or the Overlook Hotel, but his wife and his son can and do, and therein lies hope—and some would say, the foundation for the entirety of civilization.

The "unfeeling" director made a film chronicling his disgust
with humanity's murderous tendency.
Exactly why Jack is different—that is, why he falls prey to the inner murderer all of us have—and why the others, such as Danny or his mother or the cook, who also has “The Shining,” do not is the important question raised by the film. Kubrick himself seems uncertain of the answer, but he does—rather grudgingly, I think—believe that murder in and of itself is one of the most human actions of them all, because it has been with us from the beginning of our existence and will be until the end of our days. But unfeeling? No, I cannot see that. In The Shining what Kubrick has given us is the grimmest portrait of murder possible, one that he leaves little doubt about its ultimate ugliness.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Greatest Irony

George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars is a great many things.

A childish romp, a sophisticated homage to Hollywood’s long-forgotten serials – Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers and the like – and a secular fantasy for the United States, one whose easily discernible vision of good versus evil rendered it easy fodder for defense department planners and journalists alike to utilize the film’s name as a moniker for America’s nascent Space Defense Initiative in the 1980s.


Star Wars also cleverly cast aside the somber, post-studio system cynicism that dominated Hollywood and film in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and hearkened back to the swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn, to the long, purposeful stride of larger-than-life John Wayne and to a time when the moviegoer, regardless of age, could watch a fun, thigh-slapper of film and come away from it with the simple enthusiasm of a child just returned from his first circus. As a result, it became one of the most successful films of all-time. Then, it became something more than a film...

When it was released, Star Wars was the independent film of independent films. It had no opening credits, but a strange scroll, for which Lucas was chastised by Hollywood's famous guilds, it had little known actors and an almost paint-by-numbers story. Then there was, as we all know, an endless array of Star Wars merchandise, most of which initially came about partly to help Lucas fund and re-coop the expense of making the film itself, but then stuck around and continues to stick around. Indeed, the film franchise would eventually be sold in 2013 for more than $4 Billion to Disney, largely on account of said merchandise and the potential for more of it. (As a famous aside: Alec Guinness became quite a rich man by foolishly – or so he thought at the time – agreeing to take a cut of the merchandise sales in lieu of his usual fee for acting).


All of the above is a long way of saying that we are all living in the post-Star Wars world, and that whether we like it or not, there is no going back to what came before. Star Wars helped finish off what little was left of the Old Hollywood, which had begun to fall apart in the mid-1960s with the collapse of the studio system, and subsequently helped usher in the New Hollywood of corporations, high finance and marketing. Summer blockbusters, an explosion of science fiction, toy tie-ins and – this more than anything else – a new reliance on advanced special effects, which up to this point in Hollywood’s history had largely been limited because they were not strong enough to carry a picture (actors and scripts did that), are all part of the cinematic world Star Wars created. 

That Lucas intended none of the above is relevant only if we choose to remember how radical a film Star Wars actually was when it was released and how uncertain its place in the American cinema would have been absent Lucas’s compelling vision and his drive to completely fashion an independent film out of the best pieces of myth, iconography, religion and popular culture. Put simply, Star Wars is the most important movie of the past 35 or so years, though I doubt anyone now or then, including Lucas himself, would say so if asked.

Part of the reason for this stems from the fact that outside of its obvious commercial success with audiences, Star Wars has enjoyed little critical fanfare.


Film writer Thomas Schatz dismissed Star Wars as “remarkably superficial”; Robin Wood called it “intellectually undemanding.” Little has changed since these initial pronouncements. Indeed, the arrival of the tortured and overwrought prequels has, if anything, only confirmed the view of many outside the usual fan-base that Star Wars is shallow eye-candy that relies on action and special effects to overcome wooden actors, dull plots and intellectually undemanding themes. Lucas’s aforementioned heavy borrowing to generate the grist of Star Wars material has not helped him on this account, either. 

There are, as my own eyes show me, entire shots lifted from brilliant films, such as The Searchers and Lawrence of Arabia, and from lesser efforts, such as 633 Squadron. There is also the matter of the cantina scene ripped straight from a Western, a character named Han Solo who is the interstellar incarnate of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and the film’s two climaxes, the first of which is essentially a sword-fight, shot almost frame-for-frame like a Kurosawa scene, with the second portraying an attack on a space station that plays out in similar fashion to The Dam Busters.

This is not to say Lucas is not an original, for as I have already suggested, Star Wars was indeed a radical film when it was made, a fact that is lost in time and the film’s subsequent success. Nobody, and this includes most of the cast and crew, understood what Lucas was after in Star Wars and when the first cut of the film was completed, the studio heads were terrified to release it. Talking Robots? A Princess? A villain dressed all in black armor? Spaceships? A furry and howling sidekick? It was all quite out there back then and all something no one knew how to classify...


The other major piece of radicalism in Star Wars is its inherent conservatism, which is also another of its ironies. Lucas chose to make an epic science fiction film that was fantastically different from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Franklin J. Schnaffner’s The Planet of the Apes, the other two high-budget science fiction films that garnered mainstream attention. Lucas intentionally eschewed Kubrick’s cold intellectualism and Schnaffer’s hip political sensibility and chose instead to make a movie that recalled myths from Ancient Troy to King Arthur. At its heart, Star Wars is a hero quest, with a protagonist who is chosen by destiny (Luke) and guided by an old sage (Obi-Wan Kenobi) to first confront and then overcome evil (Darth Vader and the Empire). Lucas set his film to a soaring John Williams score that echoes Wagner and created powerful visual contrasts – the colorless Vader and Storm Troopers and the rag-tag Rebels in their orange jump suits – that ensured audiences saw and felt the difference between good and evil on the screen as much as they understood it. Add the equally simple and powerful themes of maturation, of leaving home, of finding and sacrificing for one’s friends of committing one’s self to something outside the self and you have a palpable mixture of emotion that should have assuaged some of the concerns studio executives felt about the film’s content.


At the same time, it has become impossible to separate Lucas the filmmaker from Lucas the businessman and entrepreneur, a fact even his close friends acknowledged by the early 1980s, when the Lucas Empire had become large enough that many began to openly question the man’s priorities. Francis Ford Coppola, John Milieus and Stephen Spielberg, all of whom were Lucas’s contemporaries at film school at the University of Southern California, all speak highly of Lucas and his talent, both then and now. Coppola, who made at least three of the greatest American films in the latter half of the 20th century, has even called Lucas “one of the most talented directors of that time," but like the others, there is a limit to what he will stomach from his old friend's various conversions.


For example, Coppola has said Star Wars does not show one-tenth of what Lucas is capable of as artist. Lucas, Coppola believes, chose the “industrial marketing complex" instead of art. This is a creative collapse that Lucas himself occasionally acknowledged back in the 1980s, when his empire was much smaller than it is today and he was still uncertain of its ultimate direction. Star Wars, he once griped in between installments, “took over his life,” and in doing so, he became precisely what he hated when he struck out on his own as an independent filmmaker: A corporate CEO. “What I was trying to do was stay independent,” he said in 2005, when it was clear he had given up on this desire. “I’m not happy with the fact corporations have taken over the film industry. But now I find myself the head of a corporation. So there’s a certain irony there.”


Indeed, there is Mr. Lucas.

I would venture farther that such a moment of self-awareness, which now have become almost unheard of as Lucas more and more speaks like the media-savvy fight promoter, is even more ironic when one realizes that the corporate takeover Lucas appears troubled by occurred precisely because of the great commercial success of Star Wars. That is, in order to capitalize the increasingly expensive special effects moviegoers demanded after becoming accustomed to adventures like Star Wars, it became necessary for filmmakers to secure tremendous amounts of funding. In most cases the necessary amounts could only be had through the kind of merchandising Lucas pioneered, which more and more was reliant upon corporate partnerships and a new sort of Hollywood money-man who cared not a whit for the artistic value of their financial ventures. Return on investment, and not just return, but staggering Star Wars-like levels of return became the new expected norm.

For all his aloofness and lack of acknowledgement for what he hath wrought, Lucas remains something of a sympathetic character, if for nothing else than for the sensation one has in reading some of his comments that at one time Lucas genuinely believed he would make other films after the Star Wars trilogy concluded and that those films would be more in line with his earlier, more expressive work. Instead, as we are all well aware, Lucas went on to help invent Indiana Jones, yet another fantastically successful amalgamation of Old Hollywood tropes, and tinkered and then re-tinkered with his original three Star Wars films. Lucas then found – or more likely, invented – reasons to make three additional Star Wars films, none of which approached his initial effort in terms of impact or quality, though all made their creator staggering amounts of money.



With each new Star Wars film, with each new scene of perfectly sculpted Computer-Generated-Imagery (CGI), which is to say with each new piece of rubbery unreality that a director who once boasted of hating actors has been able to utilize, we are one step farther away from the magic of Hollywood’s Golden Age and one more step within contemporary Hollywood’s age of visually shallow wonder, for it impossible to imagine nowadays a major film without the kind of staggering budget and without the kind of staggering effects Star Wars requires to capture its audience. (This is especially the case with the prequels, bereft of emotion as they are. Would there be any reason to watch them at all if they were not visually stunning? Lucas has indeed rid himself of actors in those films). And while some of this might be good for the child in all of us, I cannot help but feel like something else has been sacrificed, something that George Lucas of 1977 might have appreciated about classic film, which he borrowed from so successfully. It is a shame then, that he is both the creator and the destroyer of worlds he loves and that we all must both thank him for all the joy his 1977 vision has given to us even as we all suffer from what that vision so crudely discarded and replaced.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Greatest Nonsense of All

What can I say about one of my favorite films of all time?

I once compelled my three best friends to accompany me to AFI’s opulent theater just outside the nation’s capital so I could see North by Northwest on the big screen. Neither the wonderful setting – all classic film lovers should go there – nor the film disappointed.


Alfred Hitchcock made better pictures, with greater depth and a more detailed examination of the human condition, for sure, but none of those Herculean efforts comes even remotely close to this outing in terms of sheer cinematic enjoyment. Put simply, this movie is like candy or whatever other guilty pleasure you enjoy: You know it is ridiculous and you probably should not be eating it, but you savor every bite because of its inherent wonderfulness.

The plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which does not stand much scrutiny, revolves around a rather juvenile case of mistaken identity that eventually leads to attempted murder and some grand chases that all eventually have something to do with international espionage. Cary Grant, whose smarmy turn as the smug Madison Avenue advertising man has rightly attracted adoration, famously quipped to Hitchcock that the film had a terrible script and he could not make heads or tails of it. Hitchcock told Grant he was unconsciously repeating his character’s lines. I leave it to the audiences to determine who is more right, but there is a sort of uncontrolled zaniness in how film rushes – almost madly – from one scene to another, until, in perhaps the film’s most famous sequence, everything slows and there is nothing but silence and the drone of an airplane for several agonizingly long minutes.


The crop duster chasing Grant might not have aged well – the crash, in particular, looks and feels a little silly – but the scene’s inherent power remains. After being hurled through the plot, Grant is finally dangled a respite that hints at some sort of resolution to his case of mistaken identity, only to be attacked and propelled back into the fray yet again. However, to assert the whole movie, like this scene itself, is completely bewildering would be a mistake. The fields surrounding Grant in the iconic scene are intentionally as grid-like as the title sequence, signifying that there is a deliberate pattern to the film, one in which almost every line is carefully constructed to edge the plot along in its general direction, which is, geographically speaking, Northwest.

At the same time, Hitchcock himself said he practiced “absurdity quite religious” when interview by Francois Truffaut, and this is never more on display than it is in this film. From almost the film’s opening scene, when Grant tells us that “In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration," the film motors along, with barely a care as to how realistic its various parts are functioning. But at the heart of all its madness, as I have already suggested, there is indeed order, as many of the scenes themselves show us. The library Grant is accosted in is immaculate. Later, the wilderness he encounters his lover in is equally as ordered. From chaos, comes a kind of order, Hitchcock is showing us. And thus, his film works and it becomes believable after it has stewed in its own irreverence.  

Man and a woman in an ordered wilderness...

In addition to a reference to Grant’s travels, the title is a nod to a line in Hamlet’s rant about his own insanity, insanity that of course was concocted to shield his true motives. And herein lies another clue, as it increasingly becomes obvious everyone in the film is not what they seem. Grant is a dilettante forced to play a spy, whereas Eva Marie Saint is spy forced to play a dilettante in order to get closer to James Mason, the film’s excellent and cunning villain. Mason himself also plays several roles. He is the host of a party in a home he does not own and a culture vulture buying precious art not out of any sense of refinement, but to enable his espionage transactions. That a love between Grant and Saint emerges at the end of all this deception and role-playing is surely not a plot-twist inserted to please audiences? I rather think it's another of Hitchcock's wry commentaries on life. 


Along the way, there is a great deal of fun. Grant is pitch-perfect throughout and Saint manages to be both sensual and smart at the same time. Indeed, the knows more than our hero does for much of the picture and outmaneuvers him on her way to marrying him, a theme later repeated by Hitchcock in Rear Window. The scene between the two on the train to Chicago is also an amazing exemplar of how the scripts of yesterday were forced to dance around sex with flirtation and suggestion, both of which seem preferable to where movies have sunk to today. 

At the same time, it is also interesting to note precisely how close the film is to a Bond movie. There is a cultured villain (Mason), the scenes on train reminiscent of From Russia with Love and the showdown on Mount Rushmore feels like a Bond ending, though perhaps one with less gusto.

The cultured villain

No matter, a foot hardly is put wrong in this effort. The acting, direction and general melee of a picture all conspire together to create great enjoyment, none of which I think has abated today. The theater I saw the film in was packed and had people of all ages. From the comments I gathered after, the film was thoroughly enjoyed by all, no matter how much of it was sheer and utter cinematic nonsense…

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mistakes of Their Own


The Graduate is more than a classic film.

It is a piece of Americana that has penetrated the nation’s collective consciousness through multiple forms of media to the point that it is now essentially known and ubiquitous.

There is the image of Dustin Hoffman, for example, somewhat cocky and somewhat confused, with his hands thrust in pockets, staring at the outstretched and stocking-clad calve and foot of co-star Anne Bancroft. Surely, this is one of the cinema’s most enduring images of the last century?


And while adultery no longer shocks America, that image retains the power – and the moral price of caving into that power – of raw sexuality and naked titillation. There is also the Simon and Garfunkle acoustic soundtrack that includes “Mrs. Robinson,” a folksy pop tune whose exuberance masks the sadness documented in lyrics that pine for a lost American age represented by famed baseball slugger Joe DiMaggio. And there is, of course, the film itself. It has been parodied, held up as a siren song for a generation, and even more recently, returned for reexamination as a stage play for a whole new age-group and audience.


Timelessness? I think that is an apt word, but a curious one nonetheless, to apply to a film that debuted in 1967 and was immediately embraced as a kind of zeitgeist for the disaffected American youth who looking back saw nothing but the rather grim – but economically successful – 1950s and looking ahead the growing shadow of Vietnam, fractured race relations, urban upheaval and gradual restructuring of the United State’s post-World War Two order. Or perhaps that is all too academic? The undeniable power in this film, I believe, is the confusion that sits at its core. That is, Dustin Hoffman is an educated, somewhat well-to-do young man, but he is seemingly passionate about nothing and has no idea what to do with himself or with his life, a set of ennui-ridden attributes that have afflicted American youth from 1967 up until the present day.


If the Greatest Generation vanquished fascism and put America at the top of the world economic heap, what, if anything was left for their offspring to do? Enjoy the world as inheritors? That world, as shown here, is one of afternoon booze and cocktails, peopled with a seedy and curiously amoral set of characters who speak of investments in plastics as if the welfare of the Republic depended on such mundane commerce. It is a curiously hip and Left-wing view, in that it accepts Marx’s theories about the estrangement of wage laborers as fact and correspondingly presents the most successful of America’s capitalists – as surely Hoffman’s odd parents and their ilk are meant to represent – as dreadfully dull, or, in the case of Mrs. Robinson, mildly socio-pathic and disturbed by the lack of real substance in their lives.


Ennui, of course, is nothing new. And the chronicling of the “quiet, desperate lives” all Americans supposedly live has been a standard trope of both novels and films for at least the past 100 years. What separates The Graduate from this pack is its focus on youth, something that perhaps had not occurred in popular culture up until the 1960s. Hoffman is in the prime of his life. There is, the film shows us, still time for him to avoid becoming his parents. It is this possibility, this thematic fork in the road, which I believe keeps the film fresh well into another century: All youth wants to both emulate and reject their parents, regardless of time period, and Hoffman’s character is no different.


Hoffman debases himself with Mrs. Robinson in a kind of bizarre emulation, but at the same time, he uses his defilement – and hers, one must say – as a catalyst to muster the courage to try to break out of the world of easy living and fancy cars that she and his parents wished to bequeath him and his generation. The ultimate irony is that Hoffman eventually settles on the idea of marriage – or at least, some kind of “elopement” – with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter as his ticket to independence. This is interesting in that marriage is the ultimate conservative social institution, but in the world of The Graduate marriage too is presented as shambolic in 1967 (and this well before the country’s divorce rate really skyrocketed).

The final scene of the film, which has been the source of much debate and parody, is deeply moving.

In a matter of seconds, the Hoffman and Elaine’s expression seems to shift from joy, to contentment to a sad sort of resignation. I have never been able to pin down the source of the last emotion, but I suspect it is something more than the adrenaline dying down in their veins. I suspect what they realize is that they have made a choice by fleeing together, and what is more, this is the first real adult choice they have ever made. 


They are, in other words, not children anymore, and for the first times in their lives, they have exercised their free will and acted outside the wishes and inducements of their parents and their school friends. They have decided to eschew the mistakes their parents made and to run away to make some of their own. That is liberating, hence their initial glee. But gradually, their expressions change, because they realize, almost immediately, that their first “mistake” is the elopement itself. 

Not because the elopement is morally wrong or against the wishes of their parents or of society writ large, but because it is wrong for them, as free-thinking and independent adults. Their rebellion, in other words, is torpedoed at almost the exact moment it began by the very act that sets them free and on their way. What is brilliantly left unknown is how or whether they can recover from this act in time to stave off becoming their parents...I leave it to you to decide, but if you need evidence of what these Baby Boomers became, there is plenty around you in contemporary America.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Dreariness of Sanctity

How does one film The Great Gatsby?

With a great deal of care and reverence, I suppose.


Certainly, the Jack Clayton 1974 version – Hollywood’s third attempt to depict arguably the greatest American novel ever written – is filmmaking with the sort of attention to detail and seriousness usually reserved for a religious ritual.


And yes, like most actual religious functions, this effort is far too somber and particular to ever really entertain or convey anything like sentiment. Adaptation is never an easy art to pull off, of course, and the old adage that great books make lousy movies and lousy books make great movies is never truer than it is here. Standout performances from Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, both of whom seemed born to play Gatsby and Daisy, cannot save what one critic quipped is a film “as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.”

The strangeness of the failure is even more acute when one realizes that both Francis Ford Coppola and Vladimir Nabakov – the latter no slouch at writing novels – worked on the screenplay, a screenplay which on the page, probably sang with passion. The scenes themselves, especially that first grandiose party at Gatsby’s waterfront abode, also look spectacular enough to get the heart pounding and the head hoping that what we are about to see will equal the power and the pitfalls of the novel. But sadly the aesthetics and the integrity of the plot are all that is on offer here. The movie just does not hum along the way the book does and scenes that are meant to be emotional, especially the tragic ones, play out flat and boring, as if conveyed by the robotics of rote memorization.


That the book is far more complicated and less clean than filmmakers and high school English teachers think no doubt also plays havoc on this adaptation. For what is Fitzgerald after in the novel? Many would say it is about money not being everything, an oblique reference to Fitzgerald’s “the rich are not like you and me” quote, which is so often taken out of context as to entirely lose its meaning. Certainly, Redford, with his shirts from Turbell & Asher and his French champagne and fake Oxford degree is not like his contemporaries, something both the novel and the film make clear once he is dead and there is almost no one at his funeral, save Nick Carraway. But is the book – and therefore, the film adaptation here – really so simple? 

Certainly, I did not think so the second time I read the novel, nor the third.


Rather than bore my handful of readers with literary analysis, I will simply offer the following. Gatsby and Nick’s intertwined searches for the self are entirely that: Searches for the self. Gatsby attempted to remake himself because he never knew who he was in the first place and was not sure what he wanted to become. This is the glory and the rootlessness of egalitarian America, where you are not what your parents were and are not confined by where you came from (unlike Europe, for example). You must then invent yourself – and this can take a lifetime, and even longer still, and the worst part of it is, you may never reach a satisfactory result. Certainly, Gatsby did not.

Gatsby chooses Tom and Daisy’s crude and boorish model of success as his lamppost because he wanted Daisy to be his and not Tom’s. What he really wants is a past that he could not recapture and a future based on an alternate past that never unfolded. He does not learn that you are not entirely what others think of you. Worse, if you do not know yourself, truly know yourself, then no party can ever be big enough, no lie convincing enough.


Gatsby is a muddled, shook-up man who likely knows less about himself at the end than he did at the beginning.  Only Nick grows, but even he is paralyzed by his own uncertainty about his own identity to do or say much throughout the plot’s events, which is precisely why he is a great narrator, but near-awful protagonist. He cannot break away from Tom and Daisy until it is too late and he cannot help save Gatsby from himself. The plot itself is about a great many things, wealth, discovery, the American dream, the hollowness of that dream, relationships, love, nostalgia, maturation, lost innocence. I could go on, because it is all there, and what we are dealing with is decisively deadly in the way a tight Shakespearean tragedy is.

Funny thing about the old Bard, he does not film well, either.


My suspicion is these texts matter too much to the people who found some or all of the richness in them and that this affinity prevents these adaptors from the level of interpretation and confinement necessary for two and half hours of film. In that sense, The Great Gatsby, is a beautiful but mediocre film, one that becomes interesting only when we watch it for what it is not. In other words, no matter how earnest the acolyte, he or she cannot conjure up the same magic as the prophet who inspired them, and in the case of this film, what we have is a rather unintentional examination of failing to achieve the sort of legitimate greatness the title character himself vainly sought in the pages of a century-old novel.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

“We’re Not Little Men”

Sean Connery and Michael Caine could do just about anything on film and it would be interesting to watch. Titans of a very different sort, both infuse any picture they are in with the intense gravity that accompanies their commanding presence. In 1975’s The Man Who Would be King, both romp through the exoticism of the East in a film based on a Rudyard Kipling short story about two swindlers intent on conning an entire nation into letting them take over as rulers.


Often labeled, erroneously I think, as rip-roaring piece of criticism about empire, this is a film in which a pair of larger-than-life stars explore the notions of ego and ultimately end up celebrating it. How is that for British irony? Along the way, honor (amongst thieves and otherwise), greed and the corrupting influence of power are also explored, but in the film’s final few frames, Caine, haunted and clearly mad, remains both proud and passionate about what he and Connery achieved through self-motivation and their own guile.




That the two men who perhaps more than any other actors who symbolize British masculinity are cast back to the 19th century to play rakes and conmen is a genius bit of casting that reveals precisely where the film plans to take the audience:  Away from safe and academic topics and toward the dark recesses of what can drive men to questionable acts. Early on in the film, for example, Caine unleashes a powerful invective against the British bureaucracy in India. It is an impassioned speech, but not a word of it is accurate. What Caine and his companion are suffering from is far more generalized, in that it is not red tape they bristle at, but the very law and order that is inherent in civilization. The pair are, in other words, two of Sigmund Freud’s bored “discontents,” chafing from the proscription of the boundless desires their rather large egos have created.


In other sense, these men are also adventurers, and as such, their sense of scale dwarfs the ordinary man’s. They want to leave India and head beyond Afghanistan and Hindu Kush because men of their ambition need “space.” Or as Connery puts it “We’re not little men.” To ease their abrasions, the two devise a wild scheme, wherein they will help a feudal king in Kafiristan overcome his enemies, then depose the king and assume his authority themselves. To aid in their proposal, the pair acquire 20 British rifles and a cache of ammunition, and off they set.

As I have suggested, these are men of appetite, large appetite. And there is something to admire in the way they go about trying to satiate themselves, but there is also something shallow and sad about it, neither of which was lost on Kipling. Connery and Caine’s ambitions often manifest in incredibly prosaic ways. What Connery wants, for example, more than anything else is to be received by the Queen of England as an equal and then made a member of the Order of the Garter, which contradictorily, would again make him a servant of Her Britannic Majesty. This is a commoner’s, boyish dream – and Kipling meant for us to recognize it as such and chuckle at it.


At about the same time the events in this film take place, Lord Acton famously proclaimed “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is nothing terribly new in the supposition that power is a corrupting agent, but the power itself is not really the corruptor. It is the ego that sought the power in the first place. The triumph of Caine and Connery that follows is thus a testament not to a cravenness for power, but to their vision and audacity.


Of course such bold ambition place in the service of self-serving needs cannot be allowed to stand as successful in either literature or film. And thus, the fall comes to Caine and Connery as it does to all misguided and ignoble protagonists. Having installed themselves as rulers and begin pilfering the riches of Kafiristan, Connery cannot resist actually ruling, and ruling as a God no less. Caine attempts to bring his friend back to reality, but to no avail. Connery has truly been ultimately corrupted by the grandiosity of their heist.


The even more incredible irony at work here is the fact that if Connery had kept to the contract – an obvious metaphor for Western temperance – he and Caine devised and minded the part about leaving the native women alone, he would have been able to fulfill their plan (IE -- Loot the riches and flee back over the Hindu Kush). Here, man’s inability to live inhumanly as a God is personified in Connery’s inability to forget Roxanne’s beauty, but more than that, he wants a wife, a family and a child – all of which are very unlike deity-like desires, something the priests quickly call attention to. If there is any ultimate conclusion, it is that audacious swindlers who concoct almighty swindles are still swindlers. They just have larger imaginations than their small-time counterparts. In the end, the goal of both is the same, overturn the traditional order by taking something from someone else to satisfy the rather childish parts of the ego. (Another irony is that wanting to marry and begin a family is the most adult ambition Connery displays throughout the film and it is ultimately his undoing.)

This is not to say Connery and Caine are petty. Their oversized appetite saves them from that fate.

When, for example, they are facing what they believe is certain death early in the film, Caine and Connery are buoyantly resigned to ending their time on Earth, knowing full well that they have lived life in a way few other men have for no other reason than they had the guts to do it. “How many men have been where we’ve been and seen what we’ve seen?” Caine asks. “Bloody few,” Connery pipes back.

Indeed, these are not little men, and we should celebrate them for that. Although the tale is ultimately cautionary, it remains something of a paean to ego. The tragedy as I see it is not that Caine and Connery had these personalities, it is that they were not able to discover anything in their Victorian world that they believed their considerable energies should be dedicated toward. They had, in essence, nothing but themselves and their own desires. Which is the same as almost having nothing.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Power, Perversion and Purpose

Where do we begin with Mr. Bond?


The success of his film franchise – some 23 movies in all – and his status as a cultural icon – one imagines people in the Amazonian rain forest know about the character’s choice of cocktail – is unmatched by anything in the history of cinema. People cheered when the lights went down in the theater where I saw the most recent Bond picture and the frustration about the financial troubles that delayed Skyfall in advance of its release were legendarily frustrating among devotees.

Exactly why the exploits of an officer in the British intelligence service, known as MI-6, should hold such sway over the popular imagination – and this is in not just Great Britain, not just the cousins in the United States or even the English-speaking countries, but of the entire world – begs examination. I propose the success of Bond is visceral (the films are a feast of effects and beautiful to behold), psychological (Bond does what we all secretly wish we could) and philosophical (Bond is a kind of Platonic Guardian of Western Civilization, whose wines and other products he clearly values and enjoys).

The Nature of Bond
In one novel, Bond is described as “certainly good-looking . . . Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.” Add to that the word “ruthless”.


The literary Bond has a facial scar. He fought in the Second World War, can throw knives. He drinks too much, not because it is fashionable, but more because he has no real friends and the loneliness must be filled somehow. He clearly relishes killing, both the build-up, which is often described in sexual terms by Fleming, and the act itself. But the killing takes its toll on him and the spent feelings – again, of an almost sexual vein – pay him back at unexpected moments, so he smokes more, drinks more, or tries to find solace in a round of cards or a drive in the country. These things alleviate his inner demons temporarily, but the only real cure is glimpsed in Thunderball, which opens with burnt-out James Bond recuperating in a health spa. What Bond needs more of is more of the job, more killing, and so he goes looking for it at the spa and finds both. Only then is he "cured" and re-animated.

The literary Bond then is an aesthete, something which unfortunately comes across as humor or snobbery in the films. The literary Bond enjoys the finer things because he does not often like people and the people around him either tend to need killing by him or end up being killed by others. Bond in the novels is closed off to others and he is almost pathologically non-communicative in the books, most of which contain pages upon pages without spoke dialogue, the action being all in Bond's head. He clearly views himself as a distinct being, separated from others by the secrecy incumbent in his job as well as the fact that he is a killer who operates in an artificial – perhaps self-made – world that is beyond everyday Good and Evil.

One philosophy professor writes that Bond is incarnate of a "He Who Eats Meat Wins" mentality, a walking incarnate of the masculine ego's successful overreach into the stratosphere (Bond is many things, but he is not a failure). According to this line of thinking, which I believe is right, Bond has a strong appetite because he is concerned about life and death in way other people are not. Bond could die at any moment, just like the people he himself dispatches. So there is a voracious Epicurean in Bond. Life, which does not hold much meaning to him, is easily extinguished. So he takes pleasure when and where he can...


This Bond does not quite exist on the screen.

The film Bond is the “man every other man wants to be" and "the man every woman wants to sleep with,” as one film critic quipped. On screen, the internal fretting in Fleming’s novels, along with the depictions of doubt and personal regrets, are almost entirely jettisoned. The Fleming anti-hero is thus reborn as a hero, and his uncomfortable flaws and coping mechanisms – that is, his drinking, his nearly sociopathic womanizing and his clear enjoyment of killing – are either softened into punch lines or made positive attributes that denote glamour. It is an interesting transition and one that I believe is critical to the franchise's success. Here, too, I must emphasize that much of the ugliness and raw power of Bond the human being is absent in the films. Ego is often discussed in the film, as Bond's will to act, but in a cinematic context the ego is essentially criticized. In Casino Royale, for example, we have a Bond who must learn humility, and does. On screen, in place of a man who is almost sheer action, we have Bond the civil servant, a man Dr. No calls a "stupid little policeman," which in essence, is correct. Bond therefore is a kind of Horatio Nelson, in that he is somewhat obscene and grandiose, for sure, but still well within society’s bounds of acceptable behavior, and we as an audience are willing to forgive him his trespasses for a handful of equally compelling reasons.

Bond strangles a woman. Pure Fleming moment.
Bond as Escapism
The first reason for Bond's cinematic success is simple. The aforementioned film critic's quip was right. On some level, we – and I mean more the men than the women here – do want to be James Bond (I leave it to the women to chime in on whether they want to sleep with a man like Bond). Or rather, we want to want the things he wants, the fancy cars, dangerous women and good champagne, and we enjoy vicariously participating in his over-sized pursuit of them. We also note Bond's confidence, his acumen and his style and again view these as positive worthy of striving toward. On a puerile level, who doesn't want to be handsome, successful and living an exciting life?

So in this sense, Bond thrills with his wish-fulfillment. Bond films are not documentary or anything like reality, rather they are escapist fantasies, laced with healthy doses of hyperbolic action and over-the-top situations. Bond is never shown filling out paperwork, filing receipts or being forced to grab a lukewarm cup of tea in the MI-6 cafeteria. He literally springs from one luxurious meal to another, from one fine hotel to another, and of course, from one unobtainable – at least to mere mortals – woman to another.

Bond does this, and we get to watch him do it, because he is essentially a creature driven almost completely by his id, which is defined as "the part of the mind containing ... wants, desires, and impulses, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. The id operates according to the pleasure principle, the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse." Most people do not get to indulge their id as much as Bond, because we have duties and responsibilities and social norms we must pay attention to in complicated social settings. Although Bond is far from brutish, his restriction of his id and its impulses is far more limited than in most people.

This is a complicated way of saying, Bond lives in the moment and likes to have fun. And often, there are no consequences – or at least not normal consequences – attached to his actions. We would go to jail, for example, if we killed people. But Bond has his famous license to kill. Which leads me to...

Sex and Death
Make no mistake, Bond films are all existential struggles – isn't the fate of the entire world always at stake in them? – and the films all intentionally make a direct correlation between sex – a creative act – and destruction. If you do not believe me, go back and re-watch the infamous title sequences from the 1960s when completely naked women frolic around the silhouettes of firearms. What is going on there is much more than a crude metaphor for pistol. For on each of his missions, Bond stares death in the face and the plot hatched by the supervillain often involves the kind of negation death is itself. Consider that in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bloefeld utilized a gaggle of nubile young women to do what? To carry a plague that would sterilize plants and animals around the world. To, in other words, negate the creative act symbolized by their sexuality – and the sex Bond has with them – with death.

A penis-shaped laser tries to cut Bond's penis off. A metaphor you could not create on your own. But Fleming did.
That the sex in Bond film's has little or no consequences only furthers the notion that on some level what Bond is at war during the films lies within himself or with existence in more general terms. How many of Bond's sexual conquests are subsequently murdered? There are no awkward morning afters in Bond's world, no talk of promises and commitments. Women are unabashedly objectified and presented as tokens of Bond's dangerous lifestyle (or were until recent films). Just as he gets a great car, he gets great women. Nobody is saying this kind of fetishism is admirable (see Pygmalion), but the desire for this does exist somewhere within us all, just as the desire to murder and be a creature of assured violence exists within us all.

The reward?
Of course, along the way Bond is giving up meaningful relationships, of the possibility of, say, raising children, of having a safe and secure life. And in compensation he receives cars, slavish women, fine caviar, etc. This was Achilles choice and it is Bond's choice. It is not one many of us would make, but there is something primal and attractive about nonetheless, which both Fleming and the filmmakers understand, even if in the case of the latter it is by accident. Bond's brutal life is presented as a glorious procession in order both to tantalize us with the forbidden as well as demonstrate how satisfying and reckless the forbidden might be.


Personally, I am not sure which Bond I like best – the novel or the film version – but I am certain which Bond sells. This is another way of saying that I am certain that if more of Fleming’s Bond made it onto the screen, we would not be talking about a film franchise here of 50 years. Films are spectacles and audiences go to them for bedazzlement. They also go for affirmation. Bond gives audiences both. A Bond film is not a Bond film without almost hyperbolic action sequences (indeed, at one point the action became ridiculous in both the Roger Moore and Peirce Brosnan years). A Bond film is also not a Bond Film without what I will call Bond’s accouterments. By this I mean Bond the aesthete is transformed into a kind of showman for cars, watches, finely tailored suits and complicated drink orders, because these are all luxuries that people want and want to see. After 50 years, Bond and his preferences are now inseparable. The aesthetic eccentricity from the novels has been remade as “classiness” in an age that otherwise rejects such things.

Bond as Civil Servant
If Bond is a creature of id, confronting death and his own personal demons in a way we find entertaining, what ultimately makes him a hero? It boils down to this. As we know, the id "knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality." The id seeks only the discharge of satisfaction (think sex and guns again). And if this is all there is to James Bond, he would appear as the kind of monsters he confronts in his adventures. That he is not a monster is ultimately because Bond's desires are channeled toward the greater good. That is, the filmmakers shrewdly choose to emphasize the purpose of Bond’s existence at the expense of the power and perversion inherent in his character. The Bond in the films is a "hero" precisely because he is working to protect innocents. He is a Platonic Guardian in the purest of forms, because he is an elected elite who endures great hardship and is therefore granted great license and reward so that the Republic will continue to stand.

For Queen and Country
If Bond on-screen did not believe in the goodness of his country and his role in the stewardship of democratically-elected governments, then he would be nothing more than thrill-seeker, cashing in on his job's status to acquire and do things not available to others. But he is not. He is motivated entirely by a noble cause (the defense of freedom), unlike his adversaries. Bond's villains, while sharing much of Bond's will to act and over-sized appetites, are perverted creatures in large part because they do not have Bond's redeeming dedication to service. Fleming was careful to ensure all of his supervillains, for nothing else could stand in the way of a superhero but a supervillain, are both mentally and physically perverted creatures.

Disfigured and without restraint.
Dr. No is a prime example. A cultured and intelligent man, his mind is nonetheless twisted by feelings of rebuke and he harbors an overwhelming desire for revenge that his distorted his entire reality (notice how surreal the Bond villain lairs always are). At the same time, he is a ghost of a human being, with little or no normal emotions and missing hands. In this sense, the Bond villains are evil doppelgangers of Bond, who indeed in The Man with the Golden Gun is openly exposed to this very obvious metaphor when Scaramanga presses Bond to admit how much he enjoys killing and therefore how similar the hitman (Scaramanga) is to the intelligence officer (Bond). Bond, of course, refuses the comparison, but it should provoke audiences to thinking a bit more about the man they have chosen to elevate for half a century. He is, if nothing else, complicated and what he represents about the society that produced him and continues to revel in his exploits is no less complicated...

The Best Bonds
Everyone has a list, of course. On this one, I have avoided what I will call the contemporary Bonds and tried to stick to what I consider the “classic” era of Bonds:


1. Goldfinger (1964): Of all the Bond Films, this ranks top. It is, quite simply, all that a Bond film should be and it is the last Bond film in which the character of Bond himself is not swallowed by the scope of the action or subject to using increasingly ridiculous gadgetry (which thankfully Skyfall jettisoned). The now-established Bond tropes are all introduced here, but they are not distracting yet: We have a wronged woman seeking revenge, a sports car with gadgetry and another maniacal, cultured and somewhat charming villain (Dr. No was not charming), assisted by a bizarre henchmen (Odd Job) who kills people in a fantastic way. There is something important at stake (Fort Knox), but for Bond the battle is more personal, as it would become again when Daniel Craig took up the role. For Bond in this film, it is about beating Goldfinger at his own game rather than “saving the day.” There is also the small matter of the quintessential Bond song, sung here by Shirley Bassey. It was never surpassed, though her sophomore effort in Diamonds are Forever comes pretty damn close.

2. From Russia with Love (1963): Probably the most traditional espionage film in the series, in that this is a real spy film, with a plot that involves a code machine and a honey trap, both classic Cold War espionage devices that have real-world corollaries. The scenes in Istanbul and the chase at the film's conclusion both still stand up, even if the deranged women with the shoe in her knife does not. The opening scene is also a classic, and no doubt worked better on the original audience, who did not know there would be 20 or so more films.


3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): George Lazenby as Bond continues to divide, but leaving aside his uneven performance, this efforts soars with emotion as Bond meets his match in Diana Rigg’s character, falls in love and actually marries. Along the way, there are two great chases in the snow and some real emotional depth to what is clearly the most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel. The pattern of the woman in this film being the equal of Bond became commonplace in later efforts, but it never worked as well it as does here. When Rigg skates up to help bail Bond out of trouble when he is at the skating rink, he is actually scared and out of ideas, something that does not happen anywhere else, I believe. It would have been interesting to see the filmmakers continue the thread begun in the last scene of this film with a revenge picture as a sequel, but instead we got Connery back in the rather glib Diamonds Are Forever.


4. Thunderball (1965): Sure, the underwater scenes are somewhat slow, but the rest of the film races along and Bond on several occasions faces real jeopardy. Connery is at the top of his game here, too. He is suave, provocative and full of a carefully calculated wit. The role does not bore him yet and the filmmakers are still giving him interesting things to do in his scenes that are not cliched. The outdoor shots work well, we get a great Casino scene and a villain who is creepy in a subtle and refined way.


5. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Surely, the best of the Roger Moore offerings? There is no real silliness in the film, aside from Jaws (who is no more or less preposterous than Odd Job) and the soundtrack’s disco-music accompaniment. Barbara Bach is amongst the best Bond girls to look at and more than a match for Moore’s casual approach to … well, everything really (does this man even run in action scenes?). The plot involves an underwater lair, stolen submarines, d├ętente and an arch villain who wants to cleanse the world by destroying it. In case you are not following, this is essentially a remake of You Only Live Twice with a few updates. No matter, because it works. There are some good effects, some real moments of tension, excellent sets (designed in part by Stanley Kubrick) and a great conflict between Bach and Moore.