Against Kubrick 11

Welcome to the final installment of my 11-part polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I began this series in October 2010, and it was one of the main reasons why I started this blog. I just had to get this off my chest.

If you wish to start at the beginning of my Against Kubrick series, you can follow these links:

From the beginning, I identified four great Kubrick films to investigate: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). As I said then:

These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings.

I felt his other films were either not worthy of their director’s genius or were not indicative of my main thesis, namely that Kubrick has a bitter grudge against humanity and that he was anything but a humanist.

Later, I included Barry Lyndon (1974) because I had finally seen it and decided it would make a worthy contribution to this series.

Now, I would like to close the series with a brief discussion on Kubrick’s one truly humanistic (and, in my opinion, greatest) film: Paths of Glory from 1957.

paths-of-glory_kirk-douglas

Welcome to the final installment of my 11-part polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I began this series in October 2010, and it was one of the main reasons why I started this blog. I just had to get this off my chest.

If you wish to start at the beginning of my Against Kubrick series, you can follow these links:

From the beginning, I identified four great Kubrick films to investigate: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). As I said then:

These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings.

I felt his other films were either not worthy of their director’s genius or were not indicative of my main thesis, namely that Kubrick has a bitter grudge against humanity and that he was anything but a humanist.

Later, I included Barry Lyndon (1974) because I had finally seen it and decided it would make a worthy contribution to this series.

Now, I would like to close the series with a brief discussion on Kubrick’s one truly humanistic (and, in my opinion, greatest) film: Paths of Glory from 1957.

paths-of-glory_kirk-douglas

With Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick is actually on the side of humanity. To many of his cynical and sophisticated fans, his humanism may seem corny or naïve. To me, however, it is gut-wrenching and life-affirming. We’re in the French army during World War I, and three innocent soldiers are selected to be shot for cowardice. They are being held up as an example for the entire army, you see. It’s up to the honorable Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, to save them.

That’s a heck of a plot hook, isn’t it?

In Paths of Glory, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s definitely a duck, despite what the duck may tell you. You can find much of the cynicism of Kubrick’s later films in Paths of Glory, sure. But here only characters suffused with hypocrisy and arrogance exhibit such cynicism. We despise these characters. Further, we sympathize plaintively with their victims and root for the honorable men fighting against them. Where in any other Kubrick film do we do that?

The first aspect of Kubrick’s humanism on display in Paths of Glory is his respect for the Truth (note the capital ‘T’). The audience is always acquainted with it and is never given reason to doubt it. General Mireau emphatically rejects the order to take the well-fortified German position known as the Anthill. It’s a suicide mission, he explains, and there would be terribly casualties. His attitude changes quickly however when his superior General Broulard waves a promotion in front of him. Clearly tempted, Mireau waxes on and on about his loyalty to his men and how important their safety is, but his pompous airs tell another story. Of course, he wastes no time in ordering his men to storm the Anthill.

This duality plays an important role in Paths of Glory. There’s what you say and what you do. There’s what happens and what doesn’t happen. There’s what should happen and what shouldn’t happen. And the audience is in on all of it.

Lieutenant Roget panics on patrol and needlessly hurls a grenade, killing one of his own men. But that’s not what he reports to Colonel Dax, of course. Corporal Paris sees the whole thing, but Roget blackmails him into keeping quiet. So Roget is basically a scoundrel. A lying, cowardly, hypocritical scoundrel. The audience sees that and hates him for it. In later Kubrick films, such a character would be the clever anti-hero (as in A Clockwork Orange) or the handsome protagonist (as in Barry Lyndon). Such a character would be likable. In Paths of Glory, however, he’s a straight up villain. Imagine that. A villain in a Stanley Kubrick film.

Out of frustration because some of his men were unable to leave their trenches, Mireau orders artillery to be fired on French positions. When Dax accuses him of this before Broulard, he denies it, of course, and walks off in a huff declaring himself an honest man. In Paths of Glory we despise the hypocrite because of the way he abuses the Truth. Is this not a humanistic perspective?

Kubrick’s sets further display this duality as well as provide a sense of what’s real versus what’s unreal. The film opens in a vast chateau with Mireau and Broulard chatting about art and carpets. Kubrick never lets us forget the vastness of the interior, its beauty, its elegance, its opulence and superfluity.

Chateau

Compare this to his brutal and relentless treatment of the trenches. He tracks through one like a rat in a subterranean maze for nearly one and a half minutes before making a cut.

trenches

Kubrick is not just contrasting the trenches with the chateau. He showing us how real wars are fought and where the price in blood is paid.

Another duality of Paths of Glory deals with the nature of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Are we mere animals? Or are we something more?

When inspecting the trenches, Broulard is told that there had been 29 casualties from the night before, and blames the men for grouping together on the battlefield thereby making them easier to hit. His smug subordinate Major Saint-Auban and Dax then have the following exchange:

Saint-Auban: Well, they never learn it seems. They get in a tight spot under heavy fire. Gang up every time. Herd instinct, I suppose. Kind of a lower animal kind of thing.

Dax: Or kind of a human sort of thing, it seems to me. Or don’t you make a distinction between the two, Major?

When Dax is brought to the Chateau after the Anthill fiasco, Mireau forces him to answer for the fact that a portion of his regiment never left the trenches.

Dax: They’re not cowards, so if some of them didn’t leave the trenches, it must have been because it was impossible.

Mireau: They were ordered to attack. It was their duty to obey that order. We can’t leave it up to the men to decide when an order is possible or not. If it was impossible, the only proof of that would be their dead bodies lying in the bottom of the trenches. They are scum, Colonel, the whole rotten regiment; a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.

Notice how blithely Mireau applies scientific scrutiny to human beings in war. So are we no better than lab rats now? Dax knows this isn’t true. More importantly, so does the audience. Also, the audience gets the chance to witness how Dax’s men were pinned down in their trenches by enemy fire. They witness Dax himself attempting a charge and failing. So we know what the truth is. We always know the Truth in Paths of Glory.

Perhaps Kubrick’s crowning achievement in this film is the courtroom sequence. The French army leadership, embarrassed by their failure to take the Anthill, decides to try and execute three men for cowardice. Colonel Dax then represents these men as council during the trial. Throughout, soldiers stand at attention, either hulking in the foreground as ominous shadows…

Courtroom2

…or in the background like the sculptures which festoon the great walls.

Courtroom1

Earlier, they had been marching like clockwork while the officers lounged in their upholstered chairs and divans. The dichotomy is purely cinematic and impossible to ignore. Throw in the superb performances of the actors (Kirk Douglas especially) and a tight, evocative script, and you have filmmaking at its very best.

Watch and behold…

During this scene, it becomes clear that this trial is little more than rigmarole. The French army will have its cowards and will make an example of them, truth be damned. There is no evidence that Dax can provide that the court will consider. So what’s the point?

While making his final statement, Colonel Dax says the following:

Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race. And this is one such occasion.

Where’s the irony? Where’s the sarcasm? You can keep looking for it, but it isn’t there. Kubrick’s humanism wouldn’t allow it. Only a profoundly humanistic film could have a protagonist say such a line without the slightest hint of irony. The human race is a good thing, you see. Or, it’s supposed to be…despite the fact that many of its members are not very good, and are often very bad.

The end of Paths of Glory is certainly one of the most heart-wrenching moments in cinema. A captive German girl is dragged out on a stage to sing for French troops before they return to the front. As Colonel Dax watches, they react to her with lewdness and loud, coarse behavior. So this is what Dax had been fighting for? A humanity that can’t rise above its lower urges? Are we really no better than animals after all?

But then in a beautiful moment, the girl begins to sing, and the men become overcome with emotion and sing along with her. Faith in humanity is restored. Where in any other great Stanley Kubrick film can we say that? In fact, where in any other great Kubrick film are women so sympathetically portrayed? While the bad guys win in Paths of Glory, they don’t all come out unscathed. Yet the true victor, in the eyes of the audience as filtered through Colonel Dax, is humanity itself. Again, where in any other great Kubrick work does this happen?

girlsinging

Nowhere, that’s where.

During his final argument, Dax calls the trial “a mockery of all human justice.” And he’s right.

But this trial can also be viewed as a microcosm of the remainder of Stanley Kubrick’s directing career. What goes on during the trial that you cannot say doesn’t go on in his other great films? You have weak, hypocritical elites doing great harm, as in Dr. Strangelove. You have the idea that human life is not very consequential, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have psychopathic killers who get away with murder, as in A Clockwork Orange. And you have a willful denial of Truth, as in Full Metal Jacket.

Don’t believe me?

In Dr. Strangelove after it’s too late to stop World War Three, President Muffley and General Jack Ripper are encouraged by the fact that the post-apocalyptic mineshafts they will soon inhabit will have a 10-to-1 female-to-male ratio and that women will be selected for their “sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.” This is a good thing, you see. Well, the ex-Nazi titular character seems to think so. So how is this not a “mockery of human justice” when the American leadership during the Cold War was absolutely nothing like this?

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick presents the death of humans in an extremely offhanded way. We get mere seconds of one astronaut dying in space. We get a few more when the ones in cryogenic sleep are killed. Oh, but when supercomputer HAL dies, well, we get to witness every single excruciating second of that, as if a computer singing a little ditty in its death throes were more meaningful than an innocent man suffocating in space. Is humanity worth so little to Kubrick? He portrays us either as robot-like, as with his dry, soulless astronauts, or as complete savages, like the ape men in the beginning of the film who learn to brain each other with clubs. And this is supposed to be a good thing. It represents then next step in our advancement of humans. So, the Sermon on the Mount, the Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Geneva Conventions…that stuff doesn’t matter. No, of course not. Braining people with clubs. That’s where it’s at when it comes to judging the advancement of humanity. That’s all that we humans are good for anyway. So why not waste a few of them to make an example for the rest of the French army? The point is to win the war, right? Would you rather be killed by the club, or be the one swinging it?

In A Clockwork Orange, a psychopath kills in cold blood and gets away with it by pretending to be a victim and then faking rehabilitation. He thinks this is a good thing as well. “I was cured all right,” he tells us. How are Generals Mireau and Broulard any different? They are victims too, you see. Their brilliant plan to storm the Anthill was foiled by a bunch of “sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs” too cowardly to leave their trenches. Imagine how that will look to the politicians and newspapers editors who so unfairly judge them? So of course they need to waste three innocent men to prevent this from ever happening again. And, like the psychopath in A Clockwork Orange, they get away with it.

In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick places the US Army and the whole Vietnam War effort on trial. And what do we get? No witnesses for the defense. No evidence for the defense.  And who would want to defend American GI’s anyway? They’re just a bunch whoring bullies who glorify killing and sing happy songs after wasting little girls, right? And the American troops, including our hero in the end, sees this is a good thing. Clearly the North Vietnamese were better. Only they weren’t. And most of the American soldiers were not like how Kubrick portrayed them at all. But that matters as much as the innocence of the three men executed in Paths of Glory. That matters as much as Truth to Kubrick. Which is not.

At least not since Paths of Glory, which is when he last exhibited extensive humanism in his art. Unfortunately for those of us who appreciate the genius of Stanley Kubrick, that is not a good thing. In fact, it is a bitter shame.

Against Kubrick 10

This is part 10 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post being the second to focus on…

Full Metal Jacket.

In the beginning of the Vietnam chapter of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick states his intentions quite clearly by focusing on the backside of a sauntering Vietnamese prostitute just before she haggles with two American GIs over sex. In broad daylight. This isn’t a film about the military anymore. And it’s not a film about war, either. It’s a film about vice. Warfare, the military, Vietnam, all of it, are just umbrella’d in beneath this repulsive yet fascinating thing.

hooker

Where Kubrick essentially gave us a protracted and rude introduction to military life in part one, in part two, he endeavors to show how jaded, cynical, psychotic, or sex-obsessed American soldiers were in Vietnam. And in the end he almost doesn’t do this.

This is part 10 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post being the second to focus on… Full Metal Jacket. In the beginning of the Vietnam chapter of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick states his intentions quite clearly by focusing on the backside of a sauntering Vietnamese prostitute just before she haggles with two American GIs over sex. In broad daylight. This isn’t a film about the military anymore. And it’s not a film about war, either. It’s a film about vice. Warfare, the military, Vietnam, all of it, are just umbrella’d in beneath this repulsive yet fascinating thing. hooker Where Kubrick essentially gave us a protracted and rude introduction to military life in part one, in part two, he endeavors to show how jaded, cynical, psychotic, or sex-obsessed American soldiers were in Vietnam. And in the end he almost doesn’t do this. Quite ironically, the second chapter of Full Metal Jacket, while not particularly memorable from a cinematic standpoint, offers a glimpse of the man’s humanist side. Death becomes tragedy in Vietnam. The pain is real. It has real consequences, and these consequences are not always dashed by non-sequiturial pop songs like they were in part one. Further, the characters churn quite naturally under pressure, revealing unexpected strengths and hidden powers. Because, you know, they are human

beings, and that’s what human beings do. When since Paths of Glory in 1957 have we seen this in a Kubrick film? I don’t count Spartacus since Kubrick disowned it. 2001 shows mere hints of such humanism but not nearly enough. Of course, so does The Shining, but that’s more due to the expectations of the horror genre at the time (some 25 years before the advent of torture porn) and the fact that the two characters in danger at the end were a mother and child. Now let me make one thing clear: when I say Stanley Kubrick is not a humanist, I am only talking about him as an artist, not as a man. As a man, by all accounts, he was decent and honest and left many behind who loved him, and not just for his genius. Had he enticed us to dance on the grave of young Danny Torrance however, like he did with Sergeant Hartman and Private Pyle, I would certainly reverse this opinion. Judging Humanity harshly in art is not the same as treating human beings harshly in real life. And Kubrick never did that. We don’t get these humanist glimpses until the end however. Up until then, Kubrick sticks with the formula he used in the Parris Island chapter, that is, using outrageous and memorable dialogue to offset a shortage (for him) of visionary cinematic ideas. Consider:

“Me so horny! Me love you long time!” “Soul brother too beaucoup! Too beaucoup!” “Thank God for the sickle cell.” “This baby looks like she can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.” “I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture…and kill them.”

Now, I didn’t see Full Metal Jacket until a few years after its release in 1987, but I was already aware of these lines just from being tuned into popular culture. And this is to say nothing of the film’s use of racial epithets such as “gook” and the N word, which, thanks to pervasive political correctness, would have been toxic in any polite conversations even as far back as 1987. But for Kubrick, it was shocking (in a good way) since I don’t think anyone doubts that those words were used quite a lot by American GIs of all races back then. There are a couple instances in which Kubrick really delivers cinematically in the Vietnam chapter of Full Metal Jacket. One in particular stands out, not only as a homage to earlier Kubrick movies, but also as a tacit admission to the fact that the North Vietnamese may have committed their share of war crimes as well. When Joker finds a platoon commander, he says, “We heard some scuttlebutt, sir, about the NVA executing a lot of gook civilians.” “That’s affirmative,” the man replies. “I saw some bodies about a half a click this side of Phu Cam Canal!” This little dialogue leads to this iconic image from Full Metal Jacket: Joker1 From which Kubrick tracks back to this. Joker2 Coincidentally, this is also one of Kubrick’s humanistic moments in Full Metal Jacket. The look of resigned horror on Joker’s face says it all. This was a ghastly mass murder of innocent civilians which Kubrick treats with respect and aplomb. Aside from this, however, Kubrick treats many of the American soldiers in Vietnam with contempt. He starts with the machine gunner who murders innocent Vietnamese from the safety of his helicopter while laughing and shouting “Get some! Get some!” gunner

“I’ve done got me one hundred and fifty seven dead gooks killed!” he exults. “And fifty water buffalos too! Them are all certified!” “Any women and children?” Joker asks. “Sometimes!” “How can you shoot women and children?” Joker asks, pretending to be amused. “Easy! You just don’t lead ’em so much! Hahaha! Ain’t war hell?”

From such a barbaric and nihilistic character Kubrick takes Joker and a Stars and Stripes photographer named Rafterman to the mass burial scene shown above. This is where a colonel makes the following ridiculous and contradictory announcement:

“Son, all I have ever asked of my marines is for them to obey my orders as if they would the word of God. We are here to help the Vietnamese because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It’s a hardball world, son. We’ve gotta try to keep our heads until this peace craze blows over!”

From here, Joker and Rafterman head to a platoon in the field where Joker reunites with Cowboy, a friend from Parris Island. Within minutes he meets the brutish and hulking Animal Mother, who nearly picks a fight with him, and then discovers that the platoon (self-dubbed the “Lusthog Squad”) finds it amusing that they have propped a dead NVA soldier onto a lawn chair. deadnva “These are great days we’re living, bros!” gloats one oddly reflective grunt. “We’re jolly green giants walking the Earth…with guns! These people we wasted here today…are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world we’re gonna miss not having anyone around who’s worth shooting.” After a victory at Hue City (where two soldiers are killed) Kubrick inappropriately blasts “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, another exuberant, albeit somewhat whacky, mid-1960s pop hit. He treats us to nearly the entire song. And the eulogy for the dead soldiers? After a few kind words, Animal Mother says, “Better you than me” to the dead men and rebukes Rafterman thusly:

“You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a slaughter. If I’m gonna get my balls blown off for a word, my word is poontang.”

After this, the soldiers discussed how one of the dead soldiers, appropriately named “Handjob” would masturbate ten times day in order to secure his section 8. Then comes the film’s second (!) scene in which American soldiers haggle with Vietnamese prostitutes over sex. As if one weren’t enough. prostitute2 Now, at this point in film is there anything redeeming about the US military? Well, it was nice that Joker seemed to realize that it is wrong to kill women and children, even if he was being detached and ironic about it. He also reacted with appropriate horror to the mass grave. But is that all? I’d have to say yes because in almost every other instance Kubrick goes out of his way to make American servicemen look bad. Did that dead American really have to be a chronic masturbator? Did we really have to see that lunatic helicopter gunner mow down civilians and then brag about it? Did we really have to sit through two very similar scenes with Vietnamese prostitutes? Did they really have to prop a dead NVA on a lawn chair just to laugh at him? What plot are we advancing here? What character are we developing? What narrative theme are we building upon? Was any of this necessary other than to shock and entertain Kubrick’s sophisticated, college educated public (very few of whom supported the war to begin with)? After all, people love it when you affirm what they already believe to be true. And if you do that by slandering the nearly 2.6 million men who fought in Vietnam and not slandering their despicable enemies (who set up a Stalinist police state after the war and murdered or enslaved millions), then I guess that’s just dandy. I mean, it’s not like the millions of lives wasted and ruined by the North Vietnamese, like, matter, or anything. Right? You see, this is why I question Stanley Kubrick’s artistic humanism. He gleefully slanders the lesser of two evils with regards to the Vietnam War while remaining mostly quiet about the greater of the two evils. And if you believe the numbers quoted in Part 1 of my Full Metal Jacket essay, the differences between these two evils are pretty freaking big. And then something must have happened. Maybe Kubrick was just following the script, or maybe he just got tired of sacrificing human beings on the altar of his movies, or maybe he was touched by the Hand of God for the first time in 30 years, or maybe he just slipped, but whatever it was, Stanley Kubrick finally woke up and realized that his characters were human beings. Starting at about 85 minutes in, Kubrick gives us straight-up, un-ironic, non-satirical, suspenseful filmmaking in which we feel what the characters feel and we hurt when the characters hurt. We feel the tragedy when they die. Basically, soldiers start getting killed one by one as Joker, Cowboy, and the rest of the squad are out on patrol. At one point a sniper hidden in a building picks off two soldiers. As they lie writhing on the ground, Cowboy is faced with a difficult dilemma. Does he charge to their rescue, not knowing if the buildings are infested with the enemy, or does he pull back and leave the two stricken men to their fates? He opts shrewdly (and perhaps not incorrectly) for the latter option, only to be repudiated by Animal Mother. The man who had heretofore been the film’s villain (or, at the very least, the Big Bad American Bully) now leads a heroic charge to save his fallen comrades. His actions are perfectly selfless, and, even better, he pulls it off. In lesser scripts, such a guy would have a comeuppance or would reveal himself a coward in battle (because, of course, all bullies are cowards). But no. Here, Kubrick bestows upon this man a sense of humanity that is frankly uncharacteristic for Kubrick films. And to do it with such an unlikable character, the kind of person the film is designed to slander, really is something. AnimalMother This is almost enough to forgive Kubrick for having Rafterman laugh and dance like an imbecile after shooting the little girl sniper in the end. But you see, this was a moment of clarity from which Kubrick promptly wakes up. He ends his film in baffling fashion as the soldiers all march on…singing the Mickey Mouse theme. I really don’t know what Kubrick was thinking in those final few moments, but whatever it was, it undid whatever good he accomplished when he went out of his mind treating his characters like real people for a change. Remember that characters are rarely anything more than pawns in Kubrick’s big game. In the Vietnam chapter of this film he may not play them as masterfully as he does in the Parris Island Chapter, but at least here he takes his hands off the pieces for a little while. He lets them serve their own agendas, not his. Why did Animal Mother lead that charge? It wasn’t to serve the anti-military aims of Kubrick’s, that’s for sure. He did it for the same reasons why real-life soldiers have done the same thing – because he has love for his comrades and a sense of duty to his country. When interviewed by a TV crew at Hue City, Animal Mother is asked what he thinks of America’s involvement in the war. He response is simple and straightforward. He says, “I think we should win.” While contemporary audiences might shudder at such unapologetic jingoism, history will show that, with such clarity of thought, Animal Mother is the most sympathetic and three dimensional character in the film. It’s just too bad that Kubrick didn’t see it that way. This concludes my polemic against Full Metal Jacket. Next up, the conclusion of this series: Paths of Glory, and what a humanist really looks like.

Against Kubrick 9

This is part 9 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post focusing on…

Full Metal Jacket.

To begin, I believe that Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s most overrated post-Strangelove work. He never figures out how to overcome the central shortcoming of the script, which is that, chopped in half, Full Metal Jacket is really two stories that don’t cohere very well. In the first, tensions build during boot camp in 1967 as the apocalyptically abusive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (played by R. Lee Ermey) bullies the hapless Private Gomer Pyle (played by an overweight Vincent Dinofrio) past the point of reason. Eventually Pyle turns into a time bomb. That’s basically it.

In the second, Private Joker (played by a wisecracking Matthew Modine), who had witnessed Pyle’s self-destruction at the hands of Hartman, has become a military journalist in Vietnam. He then joins American soldiers in the field where they take on and defeat a North Vietnamese sniper, who is also a little girl. That’s basically it as well.

In my opinion, Kubrick had fewer cinematic ideas for Full Metal Jacket than in his previous films, and instead found himself relying on memorable and shocking dialogue to make up the difference. Think about it…what memorable images do we have here? A few, to be sure, especially in the first half. I can see why such a script would appeal to Kubrick. Lots of men in uniform shouting and moving in unison can lead to mathematically precise imagry that you can just load with counterpoint.

fmj1

Aside from some great scenes in the marines barracks, however, Full Metal Jacket is not quite like 2001 or A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove where you can just play it with the sound off or capture images almost at random and still know it’s a Kubrick movie. Indeed, there is less of the visionary genius that sparkled in his earlier masterworks.

This is not to say that Full Metal Jacket is bad film.

The Parris Island chapter is a gripping and well-filmed depiction of life at boot camp. Further, R. Lee. Ermey is just mesmerizing to behold, truly a unique cinematic experience. I don’t think a single actor has ever dominated a film so completely and so brilliantly as R. Lee Ermey did in Full Metal Jacket. I think Kubrick simply recognized the man’s genius, pointed the camera at him, and let him spew pure gold.

This is part 9 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post focusing on…

Full Metal Jacket.

To begin, I believe that Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s most overrated post-Strangelove work. He never figures out how to overcome the central shortcoming of the script, which is that, chopped in half, Full Metal Jacket is really two stories that don’t cohere very well. In the first, tensions build during boot camp in 1967 as the apocalyptically abusive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (played by R. Lee Ermey) bullies the hapless Private Gomer Pyle (played by an overweight Vincent Dinofrio) past the point of reason. Eventually Pyle turns into a time bomb. That’s basically it.

In the second, Private Joker (played by a wisecracking Matthew Modine), who had witnessed Pyle’s self-destruction at the hands of Hartman, has become a military journalist in Vietnam. He then joins American soldiers in the field where they take on and defeat a North Vietnamese sniper, who is also a little girl. That’s basically it as well.

In my opinion, Kubrick had fewer cinematic ideas for Full Metal Jacket than in his previous films, and instead found himself relying on memorable and shocking dialogue to make up the difference. Think about it…what memorable images do we have here? A few, to be sure, especially in the first half. I can see why such a script would appeal to Kubrick. Lots of men in uniform shouting and moving in unison can lead to mathematically precise imagry that you can just load with counterpoint.

fmj1

Aside from some great scenes in the marines barracks, however, Full Metal Jacket is not quite like 2001 or A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove where you can just play it with the sound off or capture images almost at random and still know it’s a Kubrick movie. Indeed, there is less of the visionary genius that sparkled in his earlier masterworks.

This is not to say that Full Metal Jacket is bad film.

The Parris Island chapter is a gripping and well-filmed depiction of life at boot camp. Further, R. Lee. Ermey is just mesmerizing to behold, truly a unique cinematic experience. I don’t think a single actor has ever dominated a film so completely and so brilliantly as R. Lee Ermey did in Full Metal Jacket. I think Kubrick simply recognized the man’s genius, pointed the camera at him, and let him spew pure gold.

I will PT you all until you fucking DIE!
I will PT you all until you fucking DIE!

Because of this, the Vietnam chapter often gets overlooked, but it is a tight, suspenseful war story in its own right. It’s just that what makes Full Metal Jacket so celebrated, of course, is not so much what happens, but what people say in between what happens. How often does that happen in Kubrick movies? Name one single major Kubrick work other than this one in which dialogue trumps the pure, viceral images the man can so brilliantly convey.

In the first half, when little happens from a plot perspective, we’re basically entertained by the colorful abuse that Hartman heaps upon his recruits, especially Pyle. You can find most of it on YouTube or IMDB. Here are a few of my favorites:

“You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!”

“You are not even human fucking beings! You are nothing but unorganized grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit!”

“You climb obstacles like old people fuck!”

“Tonight, you pukes will sleep with your rifles. You will give your rifle a girl’s name because this is the only pussy you people are going to get. Your days of finger-banging ol’ Mary-Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over!”

“I bet you’re the kind of guy who would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I’ll be watching you!”

“I want that head so sanitary and squared away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in there and take a dump!”

Here is a great collection of the best bits in part one:

It’s interesting to note that Ermey had been a drill instructor during the Vietnam War and was essentially born to play that role. Nearly 50% of his dialogue he ad-libbed.

Kubrick shows his horns however when he portrays these young marines as being brainwashed into becoming nothing more than killings machines.

“What makes the grass grow?”
“Blood! Blood! Blood!”
“What do we do for a living, ladies?”
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”

This is real Lord of the Flies territory here. But is it true? I’m sure some of it is. But I am also sure there was more to boot camp than training people to kill indiscriminately. If this were the case there would have been hundreds of Mai Lai Massacres instead of one. And the American servicemen who did commit war crimes in Vietnam wouldn’t have gotten in trouble, don’t forget that. By not giving a more balanced representation of boot camp, Kubrick really tries to make military authority figures out to be bad people, psychopaths, even.

For example, Hartman at one point quizzes his recruits on the exploits of Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. These, of course, are two infamous snipers. The former went on a rampage at the University of Texas in 1966 and murdered 11 people. The latter assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Hartman not only brags about how the marine corps taught these two lunatics how to shoot at long range, but he tells his recruits that with their top notch military training one day they will be able to do the exact same thing.

So Oswald and Whitman learned to shoot in the marines, eh? Innnteresting...
So Oswald and Whitman learned to shoot in the marines, eh? Innnteresting…

Now, did Kubrick really need to do this? Did he really need to slander our Vietnam-era military leadership like that? Did he really need to accuse them of training marines to be mass murderers? These were the guys who stormed the beaches at Normandy, or withstood heavy fire at Okinawa, or marched with Patton’s 3rd Army across Northwest Europe during World War II. These were the guys who put their lives on the line to fight fascism…and now they’re what? Brainwashing kids into becoming criminals?

This is why I see Full Metal Jacket not so much as an anti-war movie, but as an anti-military movie. R. Lee Ermey played a similar character named Sergeant Loyce in a 1978 film called The Boys From Company C. Like Hartman, Loyce had to train a group of civilians to be combat ready in a short period of time. Like Hartman, he spouted a nonstop stream of profane abuse, calling his men maggots and civilian slime and worse. But he also gets the opportunity to humanize himself. It starts at 3:01 here:

Here’s what he says:

I got one hell of a shitty Goddamn job here! They sent me 60-80 buckets of civilian shit and expect me to train them to goddamn combat ready marines. I’ve gotta send these people to Vietnam. I’m the one that has to send them! They’re gonna come back in bags. They’re gonna come back in wheelchairs. They’re gonna be maimed. They’re gonna be fucked up people when they come back. It’s up to me how they come back!

Suddenly, these recruits aren’t maggots anymore. They’re people. Suddenly, Loyce isn’t some loud-mouthed, bigoted jarhead anymore. No, he’s a person too. He clearly has compassion and concern for the welfare of the men he’s about to ship off to war. But in Full Metal Jacket, does Kubrick give us any of that? Of course, not! Compassion? In a Kubrick movie? Yes, he does pay lip service to some of the “we’re training you here so you won’t die over there” stuff. At one point, Hartman tells his recruits:

“The most deadly weapon in the world is a marine and his rifle! It is your killer instinct which must be harnessed if you expect to survive in combat. Your rifle is only a tool! It is a hard heart that kills! If your killer instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth! You will not kill! You will become dead marines! And then you will be in a world of shit…because marines are not allowed to die without permission!”

Note that Hartman is less concerned about the welfare of the men he is training and more concerned about welfare of the people he is training them to kill. A dead marine is not bad thing in and of itself, according to Hartman. A dead marine is only bad because dead marines can no longer kill. Because, you know, killing is what marines do. Just because.

“God has a hard-on for marines because we kill everything we see! To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep Heaven filled with fresh souls!”

Well, that about says it all, doesn’t it? So much for making the world safe for freedom and democracy. Murder and mayhem is more like it…as long as it’s said with such clever profanity that Kubrick’s sophisticated, college-educated fans would find it amusing, of course. Please go to Allan Millett’s, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps and Larry Cable’s Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War for evidence refuting Sgt. Hartman’s (and Kubrick’s) outlandish claim. Marines kill, to be sure. But they do a hell of a lot of good work as well, even during wartime.

According to historian Lindsay Kittle in her thesis Gentle Warriors: U.S. Marines and Humanitarian Action during the Vietnam War:

Although the Marines adopted a strategy that encouraged close interaction with the Vietnamese, the forging of relations between the two did not happen simply because of the Corps’ strategy. Marines helped the Vietnamese in many different ways. They often furnished school kits and made desks for children; they also provided medical care and many basic commodities for civilians that they were otherwise unable to obtain.

In 1970, journalist Cherilee Noyes went to Vietnam and had this to say about the marines:

In addition to the few words of the Vietnamese language I managed to muddle through, I also learned first-hand the other Marine story in ‘Nam; the story which is seldom told. The orphanages, schools, churches and hospitals the Marines built, supported and protected.

Can we say the same about the Viet Cong?

Now, we all know how part one ends. Pyle goes ballistic in the bathroom and guns down Sergeant Hartman before taking a seat on the toilet, putting the rifle barrel in his mouth, and pulling the trigger. All while Joker watches on, horrified. This is a pretty intense, harrowing scene, and to Kubrick’s credit, he directs it impeccably.

full-metal-jacket4

Well, in classic-Kubrick fashion, our story then switches abruptly to Vietnam months later with Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boot are Made for Walkin'” on the soundtrack.

Have you heard this song? If not, listen to it now.

An upbeat, catchy mid-1960s pop number with a classic bass-line, “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” is sung from the perspective of a woman who’s lover has been cheating on her. Whether she’ll use her boots to walk away from him or walk all over him remains open-ended.

Now why did Kubrick juxtapose such a peppy song with such a grotesque murder-suicide? Well, for one, he doesn’t care much for the characters he just wasted and doesn’t want you to care either. Really, using “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” as an elegy for such a nihilistic massacre is artistically unforgivable in a serious drama.

Compare this treatment to other famous films in which major characters get killed before the story’s end. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock dusting off “Can Can #4” after Vivian Leigh gets sliced to ribbons in Psycho. Picture Francis Ford Coppola blasting “That’s Amore!” after Fredo Corleone gets dumped to the bottom of the lake in Godfather Part II. How about hearing “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone?” by Charley Pride right after Drew falls out of his canoe in Deliverance. What about “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters after Kevin Spacey eats it in L.A. Confidential?

Or even Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” after Juliane Moore takes a bullet to the head in the futuristic Children of Men? (Yeah, I know “Blurred Lines” came out in 2013, seven years after the film and 13 years before the story takes place. But given the date of this essay, it’s the best I can do.)

And please don’t mention the famous ear slicing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. “Stuck in the Middle” by Steelers Wheels was playing on the radio and was therefore diagetic, despite Quentin Tarantino’s upping the volume on the soundtrack. Anyway, he turned the music off when things really started to get ugly.

So are these movies too different than Full Metal Jacket to matter? OK, fine. Let’s bring it closer to home. Imagine “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” being played after Lawrence Fishburne’s heartbreaking end in Apocalypse Now. Or, better yet, after Willem Defoe’s majestic death in Platoon. Would that make any sense? Remember, Full Metal Jacket is a war drama, not a stab at satire like Dr. Strangelove. Characters really die in this movie, and there are real consequences. We must assume that Pyle and Hartman have family and friends at home who will mourn them. We must assume that what we were just forced to witness was tragic.

But when Kubrick doesn’t wait twenty seconds after bullet hits the bone to kick his movie into second gear with “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” (lingering on the backside of a sauntering Vietnamese prostitute, no less), he’s telling us these deaths aren’t tragic, especially if he’s the one killing you.

The second reason why Kubrick chose this song was because it has meaning vis-a-vis the Vietnam War. According to Wikipedia:

• During television news coverage in 1966/67, the song was aired as a soundtrack as the cameras focused on US Infantrymen on patrol during the Vietnam War.
• In 1966 and 1967 [Nancy] Sinatra traveled to Vietnam to perform for the troops. Many US soldiers adopted the song as their anthem, as shown in Pierre Schoendoerffer’s academy award winning documentary The Anderson Platoon (1967).

Well, I am assuming this was one of Kubrick’s reasons. I am assuming he knew about this, given his penchant for shoulder-hunching research and near-maniacal dedication to perfection. I imagine the chances that I would know something about a Kubrick film that Kubrick himself didn’t would be kind of low.

And it makes sense…this song resonating with American troops in Vietnam: the simple juxtaposition of loyalty versus infidelity, honesty versus mendacity, honor versus dishonor. The delicious threat of a well-deserved comeuppance. And there’s not an ounce of irony to it. The song also serves as a useful allegory for the war itself. For someone who actually believed in the cause, the song’s antagonist could be the North Vietnamese themselves. Consider the lyrics:

You’ve been messin’ where you shouldn’t have been messin’
(Yeah, like in South Vietnam and Cambodia.)

Yeah, you keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’
(Like with all the guerrilla and terrorist stuff you pull with the Viet Cong.)

Now, what’s right is right but you ain’t been right yet
(We have the moral high ground here, not you…)

These boots are made for walkin’
And that’s just what they’ll do
One of these days these boots
Are gonna walk all over you
(See? You’re gonna get what’s coming to ya…)

So to select this very song to segue from a horrific murder-suicide to a scene in which a Vietnamese prostitute solicits two American GI’s who are keen on haggling is to make a statement on the very men who chose this song as their fight anthem. And that statement is negative to say the least. Intellectually snotty, even. If Stanley Kubrick re-makes “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” into the ironic anthem for the psychotic killers, remorseless bullies, and cynical assholes like what we have in Full Metal Jacket, then he has found a very clever and sophisticated way to say that the American GI’s did not have the moral high ground in Vietnam.

And why is this an anti-humanist perspective? Well, for one, Kubrick up till this point in the film refuses to humanize two of his three main characters, not to mention the entire US marine corps. But we already know that. Secondly, the American soldiers, despite whatever misdeeds you can accuse them of, did indeed have the moral high ground in Vietnam. Of course, you can’t expect soldiers to behave like boy scouts when they’re getting shot at all the time. You will find abuse in all wars and on virtually all sides. But as a whole, and in comparison with our enemies, the American forces have little be ashamed of for their conduct during the war.

I understand this not a popular opinion these days. Most educated people, if they think about the Vietnam War at all, will consider the war an act of colonial aggression on the part of the US and ascribe to it the basest of motivations. And of course they’ll have this perspective. They will be informed mostly by films like Full Metal Jacket.

For a more rounded perspective, you can go to Our War Was Different by Al Hemingway, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965, by Jack Shulimson and Charles Johnson, A Voice of Hope by Thomas Flynn, the documentary The American Humanitarian Effort: Out-takes from Vietnam, The untold story of humanitarian efforts during and after the Vietnam War by Robert Wilensky, and Gentle Warriors: U.S. Marines and Humanitarian Action during the Vietnam War by Lindsay Kittle. These sources will show that winning hearts and minds were not simply words to many US servicemen. The US forces did make real efforts to save and protect the South Vietnamese from the Viet Cong as well as improve their standard of life as much as they could.

Yes, there were American war crimes. According to Wikipedia, there was the Mai Lai Massacre of 1968 (504 civilians killed) and other less famous crimes amounting to an additional estimated 194 civilian deaths. This makes the total of innocent lives lost at the hands of American soldiers to 698.

Bad, yes. Tragic, definitely. And you know what? Let’s make it even worse. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Wikipedia got it wrong. Let’s say just for the heck of it that Wiki came up short by about an order of magnitude. Let’s just say that it wasn’t 698 civilian deaths caused by US servicemen but 6980. Then let’s round it up to an even 7000, because I’m a nice guy. That still would be nothing compared to the sins of our enemy.

According to Wikipedia:

During the months and years that followed the Battle of Huế, which began on January 31, 1968, and lasted a total of 28 days, dozens of mass graves were discovered in and around Huế. North Vietnamese troops executed between 2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Victims were found bound, tortured, and sometimes apparently buried alive.

Really. Burning people alive, huh? Even Kubrick doesn’t accuse American GI’s of that. Wait, there’s more.

On December 5, 1967, two battalions of Viet Cong systematically killed 252 civilians in a “vengeance” attack on the hamlet of Đắk SÆ¡n, home to over 2,000 Montagnards, known for their fierce opposition to the Viet Cong. The Vietcong believed that the hamlet had at one point given aid to refugees fleeing Viet Cong forces.

and

VC terror squads, in the years 1967 to 1972, assassinated at least 36,000 people and abducted almost 58,000 people. Statistics for 1968-72 suggest that “about 80 percent of the terrorist victims were ordinary civilians and only about 20 percent were government officials, policemen, members of the self-defence forces or pacification cadres.” NVA/VC forces murdered between 106,000 and 227,000 civilians between 1954 and 1975 in South Vietnam. Up to 155,000 refugees fleeing the final North Vietnamese Spring Offensive were killed or abducted on the road to Tuy Hòa in 1975.

In fact, Wiki has a whole section on the VC/NVA use of terror here:

Let’s not even stop there, because the North Vietnamese were just getting started. Let’s jump cut to after the Vietnam War. Once Saigon fell in 1975, Vietnam succumbed to one of the most shameful periods of violence and oppression the world has seen since World War II. Indeed, the poor Vietnamese were thrown into the 10th circle of Hell. Again, from Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

On 2 July 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Following the communist takeover, 1–2.5 million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, with an estimated 165,000 prisoners dying. Between 100,000 and 200,000 South Vietnamese were executed. R. J. Rummel, an analyst of political killings, estimated that about 50,000 South Vietnamese deported to “New Economic Zones” died performing hard labor, out of the 1 million that were sent. 200,000 to 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the communist Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge would eventually kill 1–3 million Cambodians in the Killing Fields, out of a population of around 8 million. At least 1,386,734 victims of execution have been counted in mass graves, while demographic analysis suggests that the policies of the regime caused between 1.7 and 2.5 million excess deaths altogether (including disease and starvation). After repeated border clashes in 1978, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and ousted the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. The Vietnamese installed a new government led by Khmer Rouge defectors, which killed tens of thousands and enslaved hundreds of thousands.

Hey, Stan, don’t worry about all the zeroes in those numbers counting dead gooks, man. Zeroes mean nothing, baby. Nothin’.

Seriously, ignoring such all-encompassing evil in order to make US soldiers look bad cannot be seen as the work of a humanist. A humanist would be appalled at the inhumanity of the North Vietnamese and would be grateful that the United States and other civilized countries sent men over there to stop them.

I’ll say it, and I’ll say it slow. The North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and afterwards were a bunch of ruthless communist bastards. They were enemies of humanity and a stain on the human race. They are guilty of murdering, subjugating, and terrorizing millions upon millions, and I am proud to live in the United States which had the moral courage to stand up to people like that. This one major reason why I have problems with Full Metal Jacket, for all its brilliance.

This concludes part 1 of my polemic against Full Metal Jacket. Part 2 will address part 2 of the film and how Kubrick continues to rely upon shocking dialogue rather than visionary filmmaking to promote his less-than-humanistic ideas.

Against Kubrick 8

This is part 8 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with Barry Lyndon

I was initially reluctant to include 1975’s Barry Lyndon in my series of Anti-Kubrick diatribes. I had heard that it was long and dull and not particular rich in the misanthropic themes and mathematical acumen that characterizes Kubrick’s best and most infamous works. I was also aware that the film never held a special place in popular culture the way his other masterpieces have. Barry Lyndon was known for some admirable cinematographic innovations, an excellent classical music soundtrack, and an authentic look and feel for a period piece. But that’s about it.

Thus, it would be like fruit that hangs too low: easy to criticize and instructive only for those who wish to make good movies. Such a review would not fit in with this series in which we discuss how Kubrick’s undisputed genius coupled with his unwarranted hostility towards Mankind has been having a real negative impact on people for the last 45 years. A film has to be great first before it can have such an impact and therefore warrant such a discussion.

And from all accounts I had heard Barry Lyndon was not great.

Well, I have finally seen it, and it seems I had it mostly right all along. Yet I will include it in this series since despite its limitations Kubrick still couldn’t help himself. He is still quite the anti-humanist in Barry Lyndon.

This is part 8 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with Barry Lyndon

I was initially reluctant to include 1975’s Barry Lyndon in my series of Anti-Kubrick diatribes. I had heard that it was long and dull and not particular rich in the misanthropic themes and mathematical acumen that characterizes Kubrick’s best and most infamous works. I was also aware that the film never held a special place in popular culture the way his other masterpieces have. Barry Lyndon is known for some admirable cinematographic innovations, an excellent classical music soundtrack, and an authentic look and feel for a period piece. But that’s about it.

Thus, it would be like fruit that hangs too low: easy to criticize and instructive only for those who wish to make good movies. Such a review would not fit in with this series in which we discuss how Kubrick’s undisputed genius coupled with his unwarranted hostility towards Mankind has been having a real negative impact on people for the last 45 years. A film has to be great first before it can have such an impact and therefore warrant such a discussion.

And from all accounts I had heard Barry Lyndon was not great.

Well, I have finally seen it, and it seems I had it mostly right all along. Yet I will include it in this series since despite its limitations Kubrick still couldn’t help himself. He is still quite the anti-humanist in Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon suffers too much from Stanley Kubrick’s misjudgments as a director to be considered a complete work. Ironically, these misjudgments are part laziness and part technical perfectionism.

Lazy? Stanley Kubrick? Why, yes, believe it or not.

In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick very often plagiarizes his own directorial style from A Clockwork Orange, which was shot only a few years prior, but with less reason and diminished effect. Take his penchant for starting in close up and then pulling out to reveal an entire scene, with characters staying stock still as if posing for a painting. The very first shot of A Clockwork Orange is like this and is brilliant. Alex and his droogs are sitting in the Korova Milk Bar, drinking their pharmacologically tainted beverages, and trying to make up their rassadocks about what brand of ultraviolence they should perform that evening, and so on.

The shot lasts for 1 minute and 34 seconds. You could not ask for a more ominous introduction to such a diabolical film. Read more about it here.

In Barry Lyndon, however, Kubrick seems to have run out of directorial ideas and resorts to what has now become just another trick in his cinematic bag. He does the same thing when introducing the scene in which the main character Redmond Barry and his cousin Nora Brady play cards. He does it when Barry and Lady Lyndon are with their infant child. He does as Barry engages in an orgy. He does it when Lady Lyndon is taking a bath, and in a few other places as well. Most obviously, he does it when Lady Lyndon and her adolescent son are just sitting there, perhaps contemplating what a useless rake Barry Lyndon is turning out to be. The shot goes from here:

…to here:

In each case, there is little subtext. The danger and conflict are all pretty much superficial. And that is fine when you’re pointing and shooting just to get from one scene to another. But it is not when you’re being reflexive about it…when you’re Kubrick trying to be Kubrick. In those instances, audiences perk up and notice the hand of the director when it should be invisible.

Other examples of Kubrick phoning it in during Barry Lyndon would be the wooden acting he seemed to require of his leads. While the supporting cast was excellent (especially Patrick Magee as Chevalier de Balibari and Hardy Kruger as Captain Potzdorf), Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson were little more than zombies staring out into space half the time as Lord and Lady Lyndon.

I personally could have done as good a job as either of them since Kubrick basically told them to turn their faces into empty masks for the entire movie, and, essentially, not act. The only time O’Neal expresses emotion prior to his downfall is when he betrays Captain Potzdorf. He cries, but covers his face. And then Kubrick cuts away, as if he didn’t have faith that his actor could affect a good cry.

But what Kubrick doesn’t cover however is his delight at punching home the film’s main theme throughout its long, meandering plot: that it is wise to be dishonest, and foolish to be otherwise. To say Barry Lyndon is a cynical film would be a risible understatement. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that Kubrick almost finds it funny that a complete rogue like Redmond Barry can bluff and cheat his to the pinnacle of a corrupt and effete society that is Europe.

The film opens like so: a beautiful view and a duel, shot from afar so the humans seem little more than insects.

Then one man shoots and kills the other while the unperturbed narrator informs us that the whole affair was all over “the purchase of some horses.” I will argue that this sets the tone for almost the entire film: that human beings are such small, petty things amid the grandeur of the world around them. Their concerns should not be your concerns unless you wish to take advantage of them. Or laugh at them. This was more or less Redmond Barry’s cross-fingered credo throughout the first two hours and forty-eight minutes of a three hour and four minute film. Yes, he and the film changes after that. But by then it’s too little, too late.

Barry starts out earnest enough. As a young Irish farm boy, he initiates a duel with an English officer over his sweetheart’s hand. Later, when on the run, he is held up at gun point by a Captain Feeney and his son.

This is a most revealing scene given the cool, ruthless, rationalism expressed by the captain. Thief and vagabond that he is, he actually comes off as likeable. First, he is extremely polite and businesslike (“How do you do, Mr. Barry! And I am afraid we must get on to the more regrettable stage of our brief acquaintance.”). Second, he is clear thinking, well spoken, and intelligent. When Barry begs him to let him keep his horse, Feeney replies, quite correctly, “I should like to oblige you, but what with people like us, we must be able to travel faster than our clients. Good day, young sir.” Finally, he’s not without mercy. He let Barry keep his boots. Note that this is the last time Redmond Barry introduces himself by his real name until much later in the film, a mistake he does not repeat unless he absolutely has to.

Here is a list of artful swindles committed by Barry Lyndon as the film progresses:

1. He joins the British army under an assumed name.
2. He bails on his comrades during a battle.
3. He assumes the identity of an officer and escapes the army.
4. He tries to hoodwink Prussian Captain Potzdorf with this same false identity. Potzdorf doesn’t buy it and recruits Redmond into the Prussian army instead of returning him to the British.
5. Later, he is retained by Potzdorf to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari a professional gambler whom the Prussians believe is an Irish spy.
6. Upon learning this, Barry turns double agent, joins with de Balibari, and facilitates his new friend’s escape.
7. He does this by impersonating de Balibari himself.
8. The two then make a decent living across Europe cheating at cards.

This is where we are when Redmond and has an affair his wife to be, the Lady Lyndon, who currently is married to old and crippled Charles Lyndon. Redmond then lies to Charles’ face about his intentions and induces the man to have a ghastly heart attack on the spot. The man drops dead soon after.

Once married to Lady Lyndon, Redmond has reached the pinnacle of society and becomes Barry Lyndon. But he alters his modus operandi not one bit. From here, he cheats regularly on his wife, physically abuses his wife’s son, accrues great debt, and, in general, lives recklessly and stupidly.

Now, what has this character done, in the two hours we have been with him since he left Ireland, that is honorable or attractive in any way? He distinguished himself in a battle as part of the Prussian army. That’s about it. That scene doesn’t even last 3 minutes. So going on this, we have a hero? Not likely. How about an anti-hero? Less likely, I would say, given that anti-heroes must be quick-witted and interesting in some way (like Alex from A Clockwork Orange), and I think even Kubrick would have admitted that Redmond Barry is not that.

I think the best way to describe the Redmond Barry character is that he is the story’s “protagino” (if I may coin a term). That is, he is a protagonist in name only. He is there simply because stories, out of habit it seems, need a warm body to fill that role. And there he is. For the vast majority of the film, we never see events through his eyes, we never feel for him or want for him. Rather, we watch on in a detached sort of way as he bamboozles his way through life. Kubrick does nothing to arouse our sympathies with his victims, or, if anything, he tries to trivialize or find humor in their sufferings.

The officer Redmond impersonates in order to escape from the British army deserved to lose his papers and his horse since he was gay and stupid enough to speak about his plans to his lover while bathing in a lake.

redmondspying

The young man of wealth whom de Balibari unfairly beats at cards had it coming since he was so pompous and pampered and not terribly good with a sword.

gamblingfencing

Charles Lyndon’s fatal heart attack is nearly comic in its timing as it comes the moment Redmond leaves the room. The poor man thrashes about, looking ridiculous in full make up, and shakes so madly he cannot even put pills in his mouth. Indeed, this is a sickening scene, largely because I suspect Kubrick played it for laughs. Judge for yourself here.

So, funny as a heart attack? Perhaps for Kubrick. In real life, watching a person in his death spasms could scar almost anyone.

Kubrick the misanthrope is in full form here in Barry Lyndon. He doesn’t want you to feel for his hero or for their victims. They’re human, you see. They are no more important to him than the dark little figures ruining the splendid scenery in the first shot of his painstakingly produced film.

Yes, Barry Lyndon has something of a heart in the end. Redmond redeems himself somewhat through his love for his son. He also deliberately misfires on his stepson in a duel. By the film’s end he has become honorable, and, ironically, this is what causes his downfall. Thus, the film achieves its tragic ending.

So this should negate Kubrick’s misanthropy in Barry Lyndon, right? This should prove that Kubrick indeed has a heart and is a humanist once and for all, yes?

No, it doesn’t. Not after nearly three hours of Barry Lyndon. When this change comes, it is too little, too late.

We had to wait two full hours for Redmond’s entirely mundane love his for son to blossom and then another hour for him to make that one great heroic sacrifice: the sparing of his stepson’s life at the expense of his own. After that, there is no turning back. Redmond Barry made a decision, an honorable one, and sadly was made to suffer for it. This is the great dramatic moment of Barry Lyndon, the very heart and essence of the film, but it should have come at the 80th minute, not the 180th. Clearly Kubrick didn’t think much about great dramatic moments while he was counting F-stops on his fancy NASA-supplied cameras in order to make Redmond Barry’s tedious adventures of fraud and debauchery look like they really occurred in the 18th century. An 18th century, by the way, that happens to contain cameras…and Stanley Kubrick.

One century with Kubrick was certainly enough.

Next up: Full Metal Jacket.

Screenwriting Awards

Did you know I also write screenplays?

My friend and colleague Daniel Maidman and I have been collaborating on screenplays since 2007. I am proud to say that both of the screenplays we’ve written have garnered awards at screenwriting festivals across the country.

Our first project was The Feeding Cycle. It is an existential zombie movie which recently won first place in the Horror/Thriller category at the 2012 United Film Festival in LA. This was a tremendous honor for both of us. Here is the shiny trophy from that festival.

TFC was also a finalist in the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia in 2009.

Our second project was a Christmas comedy screenplay called Confessions of a Naughty Kid. This one has won 12 honors in screenplay competitions including:

Cinequest Film Festival 22 2012 – Top 10 Finalist
2011 Smashcut Screenplay Contest – First place, Family category
2011 Hollywood Screenplay Contest – Silver Award Winner, Family category
2012 Buffalo Niagara Film Festival – Finalist
2011 American Screenwriting Competition – Semifinalist
2011 StoryPros International Screenplay Contest – Semifinalist
2012 Scriptapalooza – Quarterfinalist
2011 Fresh Voices Screenwriting Competition – Quarterfinalist
2011 Script Showcase Screenwriting Competition – Quarterfinalist
2011 Ticket to Hollywood Screenplay Competition – Best Family Christmas script
Happy Writers 2011 Screenplay Contest – Honorable Mention
Emerging Screenwriters 2011 Screenplay Competition – Top 100

Daniel is an artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Check out his work here. He’s also an art and culture blogger for the Huffington Post.

Soon we will get around to writing a third screenplay. The hard part is narrowing down all the ideas we have. That, and finding time to write it. I’ll keep everyone posted once we do.

Did you know I also write screenplays?

My friend and colleague Daniel Maidman and I have been collaborating on screenplays since 2007. I am proud to say that both of the screenplays we’ve written have garnered awards at screenwriting festivals across the country.

Our first project was The Feeding Cycle. It is an existential zombie movie which recently won first place in the Horror/Thriller category at the 2012 United Film Festival in LA. This was a tremendous honor for both of us. Here is the shiny trophy from that festival.

TFC was also a finalist in the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia in 2009.

Our second project was a Christmas comedy screenplay called Confessions of a Naughty Kid. This one has won 12 honors in screenplay competitions including:

Cinequest Film Festival 22 2012 – Top 10 Finalist
2011 Smashcut Screenplay Contest – First place, Family category
2011 Hollywood Screenplay Contest – Silver Award Winner, Family category
2012 Buffalo Niagara Film Festival – Finalist
– Semifinalist
2011 StoryPros International Screenplay Contest – Semifinalist
2012 Scriptapalooza – Quarterfinalist
– Quarterfinalist
– Quarterfinalist
2011 Ticket to Hollywood Screenplay Competition – Best Family Christmas script
– Honorable Mention
– Top 100

Daniel is an artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Check out his work here. He’s also an art and culture blogger for the Huffington Post.

Soon we will get around to writing a third screenplay. The hard part is narrowing down all the ideas we have. That, and finding time to write it. I’ll keep everyone posted once we do.

Against Kubrick 7

This is part 7 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 3 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. I added up the minutes spent on violence and sex versus satire and found more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter. I also organized the film in chapters like so:

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

In Part 2, I explored the quality of the filmmaking and assessed that Kubrick was most inspired when filming acts of cruelty and frankly uninspired when filming much of the satirical chapters. In this third and final installment, I will discuss the flawed nature of the satire itself, underscoring the premise that A Clockwork Orange is anti-humanist in its contempt for people and frankly dishonest for its intellectual pretensions.

At its very center, the film’s satire shows how in the face of endless corruption and weakness, pure evil becomes attractive, if not preferable to good. Purity becomes a virtue because it is a quality no one else in the film besides Alex shares. And the ending turns this already perverted notion on its head when even pure evil becomes corrupted.

Remember Alex mugging triumphantly for the photographers in his hospital bed? After a moment, he looks up, suddenly struck by an idea. He realizes that he doesn’t have to resort to ultra-violence anymore to harm or take advantage of others. He can use the corrupt system that the government has invited him into to do that for him. After all, he is getting away with murder, right? If he plays his cards right, with the powerful friends he now has, he can do it again.

And that last line: “I was cured, all right.” Basically, Alex was cured of his cure, as illustrated here.

This is part 7 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 3 of my discussion on… A Clockwork Orange In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. I added up the minutes spent on violence and sex versus satire and found more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter. I also organized the film in chapters like so:

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes) 2) Prison (24 minutes) 3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes) 4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes) 5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

In Part 2, I explored the quality of the filmmaking and assessed that Kubrick was most inspired when filming acts of cruelty and frankly uninspired when filming much of the satirical chapters. In this third and final installment, I will discuss the flawed nature of the satire itself, underscoring the premise that A Clockwork Orange is anti-humanist in its contempt for people and frankly dishonest for its intellectual pretensions. At its very center, the film’s satire shows how in the face of endless corruption and weakness, pure evil becomes attractive, if not preferable to good. Purity becomes a virtue because it is a quality no one else in the film besides Alex shares. And the ending turns this already perverted notion on its head when even pure evil becomes corrupted. Remember Alex mugging triumphantly for the photographers in his hospital bed? After a moment, he looks up, suddenly struck by an idea. He realizes that he doesn’t have to resort to ultra-violence anymore to harm or take advantage of others. He can use the corrupt system that the government has invited him into to do that for him. After all, he is getting away with murder, right? If he plays his cards right, with the powerful friends he now has, he can do it again. And that last line: “I was cured, all right.” Basically, Alex was cured of his cure, as illustrated here. I draw a dotted line here because it doesn’t have to be Alex committing the ultra-violence himself as long as he has the government covering for him. Hence, he is no longer as “pure” as he was in chapter 1. (Although exactly how Alex could suddenly stand listening to Beethoven again in the film’s last scene despite the Ludovico Technique was never made clear.) Regardless, Kubrick has to do two things to set up such a clever and ironic finale. First, he has to establish Alex as pure evil, which he clearly does. In fact, he may do it better than anyone in cinema, which is no mean accomplishment. More on that later. He also has to portray his victims and others around him in a negative light so we never gain sympathy for them and lose focus on the beautiful white-hot burning flame that is Alex. As soon as that happens, Alex’s fall and satirical rebirth become meaningless. So how does Kubrick do this? By portraying the dystopian world Alex lives in as being: A) hopelessly corrupt B) maddeningly banal C) awash in atrociously bad taste. In such a world, how could we not become spellbound by Alex’s harmonic malice? Unfortunately for Kubrick however, being corrupt, banal, and/or having bad taste are not heinous enough sins even when compounded to be punishable by rape and murder. First, there is the rampant corruption. The Deltoid character epitomizes this. He is presumably some kind of youth counselor, yet he grabs Alex by the crotch while lecturing him on how he should live his life. He also laughs maniacally when informing Alex that he is a murderer. The man is clearly a psychopath, yet he fits in just fine in Kubrick’s world. deltoid1deltoid2 Of course, the prison chaplain’s creepy hand-on-the-shoulder affection for Alex, Mr. Alexander’s vicious politicizing of the Ludovico Technique, and the government cover-up in the end add to this. Really, who in this film is not tainted by corruption? Maybe the chief guard of the prison, but he seems to be there more for cheap laughs than anything else. The signs of corruption everywhere are in images too (e.g., the phallic graffiti, the atrocious art). It seems that Kubrick really wants to portray humanity as some Gordian knot of corruption so that when Alex slashes it to pieces, we cheer. graffiti Second, there is the banality of Alex’s parents. These are two entirely sheep-like human beings. It’s as if they are so heavily medicated they can barely lift a finger. And they are stupid too. Anyone would go mad if forced to live with people like this. At least, that’s what Kubrick wants us to feel. Giving Alex any positive role models would only make Alex look bad in comparison. Finally, there is the atrocious style on display everywhere in the film, from hairstyles, to clothing, to artwork, to interior decoration. It’s all not just bad, but garishly so. Does anyone in Kubrick’s universe besides Alex have a sense of taste? See if you don’t disagree. Notice also how Kubrick deliberately films Alex’s main victims in an unattractive light. I mean, really. Is this necessary? The first screenshot is of the innocent middle-aged woman whom Alex senselessly murders. Do we have to see her in such an unflattering pose? The second screenshot is of Mr. Alexander when he realizes that his guest (Alex) was the one who had raped and murdered his wife and left him in a wheelchair. A little over-the-top don’t you think? So this is how Kubrick sets up his satire, by making humanity entirely repulsive. Hardly the work of a humanist. Also, I’d like to point out an additional tidbit of Kubrick-cruelty. Remember when Alex and his droogs steal a car and go joyriding? Playing “Hogs of the road”, as Alex put it. They run 3 vehicles off the road. So what happened to the people in those vehicles? Were they injured or killed? I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy in the motorcycle had at least broken a leg. But we don’t know because Kubrick doesn’t care to tell us. Those people weren’t important, you see. They were only human. Another way to look at the satire that is A Clockwork Orange is to take it at face-value. Let’s judge it on its own terms as a treatise on mind control and freedom. Again, let’s re-quote Kubrick:

…a

social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.

and

It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is at the same time a running lecture on free-will.

This is frankly laughable. I love how Kubrick refers to Alex as a “delinquent”. Alex is not a delinquent. Alex is a serial rapist and murderer. Anything the government does to keep him from the electric chair is a mercy in my opinion. By giving him a second chance through experimental behavioral conditioning, the government looks good in my opinion. They chose the very risky path (for them and for Alex) of redemption when the path of least resistance would have been a swift execution. And yes, capital punishment had been abolished in England when the film was shot, and yes, they wouldn’t have executed Alex anyway for his status as a minor. But so what? This is the dystopian future. Laws can be overturned in dystopian futures. Here is an additional quote on the subject from the man himself, found here.

The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man. But in this movie, you have an example of social institutions gone a bit berserk. Obviously, social institutions faced with the law-and-order problem might choose to become grotesquely oppressive. The movie poses two extremes: it shows Alex in his precivilized state, and society committing a worse evil in attempting to cure him.

So the point of the satire is to make this kind of governmental mind control out to be a bad thing. It villainizes the government when it tries to (gasp!) hinder the free will of serial rapists and murderers. Well, you know what, Stan? Putting people in prison also hinders free will. How come you’re not complaining about that? And if you must have serial rapists and murderers walking the streets as free men, wouldn’t you want their free will to be hindered somehow? It’s either that or subjecting society to more rape and murder. Also, according to the film, the government reserves its “psychological conditioning” only to its basest criminals, not ordinary citizens. Doesn’t that make a difference? A Clockwork Orange is a far cry from 1984, and the Ludovico Technique is a far cry from the tool of a “totalitarian government”. Remember, Alex volunteered for the treatment. He could have said no at any point and gone back to the prison where he belonged. I suspect Kubrick simply didn’t think this satire thing all the way through. It’s either that or he really believed that allowing thugs to rape and murder is a small price to pay for free will. And I don’t think he did. When I knock Stanley Kubrick for his lack of humanism, I’m knocking the artist, not the man. Kubrick had two daughters. I refuse to believe he would have enjoyed watching what happened to Mr. Alexander’s wife happen to them. So A Clockwork Orange may glorify cruelty under a clumsy guise of satire, but I will say this for it: the first chapter is brilliant, and the film would have been better if that’s all there was to it. My friend (the same friend who challenged me to write these posts to begin with by claiming that Kubrick was a humanist) asserts that the first chapter of A Clockwork Orange is a priceless addition to Western art. He feels that by making evil both repulsive and attractive, it allows us to face any evil we have lurking inside of us. He calls to our attention the scene in which Alex reveals the breasts of Mr. Alexander’s wife with a pair of scissors. We have seen it before, but not like this. Hard to look at, isn’t it? That’s because this scene titillates as it horrifies. Only a filmmaker as adroit as Stanley Kubrick could have pulled off something this schizophrenic and this powerful. But when my friend says the first 43 and a half minutes of a A Clockwork Orange, viewed as a whole, is great art, I cannot entirely agree. True, the film’s juvenile and sloppy satire slathers an intellectual veneer over the violent chapters like a layer of grease. And when robbed of that, the film does become less dishonest. But even at his best in this film, Kubrick is just too snide, too cold, too vicious for me to champion. He shows not one iota of compassion for humanity in that first violent chapter. Lopping off everything after chapter 1 of A Clockwork Orange would put it in league with Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Leni Riefenshtal’s Triumph of the Will as a masterwork of filmmaking, creepy as it is brilliant, but just too weird to be taken seriously or even noticed by the mainstream. And that would not be nothing. It would also be much more than what we have with the entire film, which is basically virtuosic evil masquerading as something highbrow, poignant, and funny. One interesting trick Kubrick kept from the novel was Alex’s constant use of the Russian word “Хорошо”, which, as a Russian adverb, means “good, fine, or well.” It’s pronounced in English as “Horosho”, or, as Alex likes to say it, “Horror show”. It’s a clever use of diction, full of meaning and irony in a dystrophic future in which the Soviets presumably won the Cold War – or at least made headway in England where young cockneys now salt their rhyming slang with choice Russian slovos. But it’s also a double-edged sword that can symbolize the film itself. A Clockwork Orange may seem хорошо with all its vaunted brilliance and satire. But really it’s just a horror.

Against Kubrick 6

This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.

For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.

The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.

So to continue…

This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise is basically that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.

For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.

The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.

So to continue…

The first shot of the film is unforgettable. Alex, our anti-hero, staring into the camera at the Karova milk bar. Eerie synthesizer music. Then Kubrick slowly tracks back, revealing the futuristic setting. Everything here is laden with meaning, foreboding. You can’t take your eyes off it.

acwo_openingshot

This is what I mean when I say profound cinematic idea. I’ll wager Kubrick didn’t consult any rules of direction or cinematography when devising this scene. Rather, he just knew. He knew that it would work because he saw it crystal clear in his mind’s eye before he shot a centimeter of film. This is talent. And odds are you can close your eyes and throw a marble at any scene prior to Alex’s incarceration and come up with something just as good. This is genius.

Here’s a presentation of a half dozen of these images, most from the first chapter of the film:

I love this image. The wide angle. The long shadows. The truncheon resting comfortably on Alex’s shoulders. It’s urban. It’s subterranean. You know something bad is about to happen, but the setting is so…inviting you can’t pull yourself away from it.

I can’t pull myself away from this scene either, but for entirely different reasons.

Now, we all should know what Alex is about to do with those scissors. He’s about to expose his victim’s breasts prior to gang-raping her. It’s horrifying partially because it’s entirely unnecessary. He uses the same pair of scissors to remove all of the woman’s clothes a few seconds later. What does he need to expose her breasts for? He does it because he can, you see. And because she’s a woman and has breasts that Alex the psychopath simply wants to take a gander at. All this and “Singin’ in the Rain”. Chilling cinema.

And who can forget the slow-motion bashing by the lake. Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” playing on the soundtrack. A real feast for the eyes. Notice also how Kubrick frames these last three examples in wide angle, with the boots of Alex and his droogs figuring prominently. For me, this brings to mind storm troopers and documentaries about Nazi Germany. I’m sure it would bring to mind something else for you, but whatever it brings, I’m sure it won’t be comforting. I would be shocked if this wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s intent from the very beginning.

Then of course there’s this:

And this:

Hmm, I wonder Kubrick is up to here? And I mean that in a positive way. There is so much meaning in both of these screenshots that I’ll leave it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Keep in mind that Kubrick filmed it so you could do exactly that.

By the way, the woman in this last screenshot is attacking Alex with a bust of Beethoven. Beethoven is Alex’s favorite composer, and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” (Symphony #9) is Alex’s favorite composition. Of course, Alex’s self-serving hooliganism has no place in the peace and brotherhood promoted by Beethoven’s 9th, yet he loves Beethoven anyway. Beethoven also plays a very important role during the satirical scenes coming up in the film. So the levels of cinematic and narrative irony just keep piling on.

Perhaps my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, from chapter 4…

…which tracks back into this one:

So what’s going on here? After the Ludovico Technique, Alex is not only conditioned against violence, he is also conditioned against Beethoven’s 9th. That man in the middle is a writer known only as Mr. Alexander. He can be seen in the third screenshot above, about to watch Alex and his droogs gang rape his wife, the lady soon-not-to-be in red. Well, Alex stumbles into his home after being released from prison. To get revenge, Alexander locks him in a room and plays Beethoven’s 9th at full blast from the floor below, attempting to drive him mad. Alex screams in agony, but to Alexander it’s all sweet music.

But why is this sequence so mesmerizing, from the exaggerated schadenfreude on Alexander’s face to the apparent indifference of his co-conspirators? I don’t know. But I do know that it generates an emotional response in me that I cannot name. I also love the guy idly rolling billiard balls across the table.

So, I will ask you then, what do these all these scenes have in common? Well, yes, they are products of Kubrick’s stunning cinematic vision. But what else, my dear brother and only friends? What else do they have in common?

Answer: cruelty and violence. In all cases except the first, someone is in the process of getting beaten, raped, murdered, or tortured. And in the first, Alex reveals that whatever he and droogs decide to do that evening, it will involve “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” So if the violence ain’t happening, it’s certainly about to.

So, let’s compare all this great stuff with some of the conceits Kubrick comes up with during the other chapters in the film, namely 2, 3, and 5.

First, we have the chief guard of the prison.

With all his foot-stomping, order-barking, and anal retentive military etiquette, I never quite understood what Kubrick was going for here. And he must have been going for something since so much time is dedicated to this man. Is Kubrick lampooning the military? The British stiff upper lip? Not that it has anything to do with the story or anything, of course. I guess the prison chief is kind of amusing the first time you see him. After that, you’ll realize that Benny Hill did the schtick much better. So did Monty Python.

Then there are the moments that are just disgusting or placed in the movie for shock value. These are what I call cheap tricks, unworthy of their director. They command a person’s attention the same way a car wreck on the side of the road would. They require no sophistication to appreciate. They carry no meaning, present no vision. Here are some examples. See if you disagree.

So you have someone spitting in Malcolm McDowell’s face (Geez, I wonder how many takes it took to hit the lips like that), Michael Bates looking directly into Malcolm McDowell’s arse (Geez, I wonder if he really is pulling apart those arse cheeks), a close-up of Godfrey Quigley’s impossibly bad teeth (Geez, did Kubrick make him chew through a box of Oreos before shooting?), and a close up of Malcolm McDowell licking the sole of a shoe (Geez, I wonder if that’s a new shoe).

I use the actors’ names here and not their characters’ because what’s happening here is real. That’s not fake spit. That’s not a fake arse. That’s not a fake tongue. And if those are fake teeth, they’re real enough to convince. And I ask all those inane questions because they all relate to real life, in this case the act of filming, the very thing a director is supposed to hide unless his name is Jean Luc Goddard. Your reaction to these scenes would be almost identical to your reaction to them in real life. This is why I call these images cheap tricks. You can get them anywhere, and any director can come up with them. They require no craft, no art. Just competent lighting, acting, and camera work.

Now, what do these images all have in common? Little to no violence or cruelty, that’s what. The second and third images have none at all, the second being a routine prison inspection, and the latter being nothing more than a fire and brimstone sermon by the prison chaplain.

As for the first image, yes, spitting on someone isn’t nice. But is it cruel or violent? Hardly. And sure, Alex had just been roughed up by a pair of cops, but it was nothing compared to the ultra-violence he had been heaping upon Dystopian Britain throughout chapter 1. And that wound on his nose? Caused by one of his droogs hitting him square in the face with a loaded milk bottle, not the cops.

As for the last image, from chapter 3, it’s true that Alex gets slapped a couple times by a thug presumably paid to antagonize him on stage. The point of the scene is to show the public that Alex, being conditioned against violence by the Ludovico Technique, cannot retaliate. It is to show that he’d been cured and can thus regain his freedom. So when told to lick the thug’s shoe, Alex does it. Is this cruel? Well, if licking a man’s shoe is the price one pays for freedom, I doubt I’d call it cruel at all. Just the opposite, actually.

To be sure, there’s some good stuff in the satirical sections of the film. A straightjacketed Alex being forced to watch ultra-violent movies as part of the Ludovico Technique stands out, obviously.

And yes, that’s real physician, not an actor, making sure Malcolm McDowell’s eyes didn’t dry out during filming.

But as great as this image is, I wonder how much of it came from Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange the novel and how much originated from Kubrick?

Also, what images during chapters 3 and 5 aside from this one are particularly memorable? Maybe the final scene in which the government official feeds Alex while offering him a bribe. But what else? All the dormitory scenes during the Ludovico sequence are brief and used largely for exposition. What about Alex interrupting a hospital-room tryst when he wakes from his coma? Meh. His final rejection of his parents from his hospital bed? Nothing special there. The Rorschach’s test scene with the blue-haired psychiatrist?

clockwork-psychiatrist

While it was nice for Kubrick to have another woman in his film who doesn’t either get raped, murdered, or appear topless, this scene doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

Overall, I would say that Kubrick is at his best here when depicting scenes of violence and cruelty. His vision is singular and mesmerizing, just like it is in many of his other films. Further, I think the evidence shows that he is less inspired in the sequences in which people aren’t being particularly cruel and violent to each other.

So what does this amount to? Simply that A Clockwork Orange is a film about violence and cruelty first and a satire second. In fact, I could argue that A Clockwork Orange is almost as much softcore porn as it is a satire considering how many naked breasts it contains. I, umm, counted, actually. There are 62 female breasts in A Clockwork Orange, by my count. 40 are fake or in paintings. The other 22 are unique. That is, eleven different women appear topless in A Clockwork Orange. What this has to do with “satire” is anybody’s guess.

This concludes part 2 of my polemic against A Clockwork Orange. Part 3 will address how the very satire of A Clockwork Orange is problematic, further underscoring the idea that satire takes a backseat to violence in this very un-humanistic film.

But before I close, my dear brothers and only friends, I would like to leave you with this awesome image.

This is the first shot of the film’s prison sequence, chapter 2. Alex has just been betrayed by his droogs after his murder of the Cat Lady. Here he is being stared at by a police detective, who never says a word throughout the scene. I do love this image, but perhaps for reasons other than what Kubrick had intended. I love the boredom and contempt on the man’s face, as if to say, “You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you punk? With all your sex and ultra-violence. You think you’re so clever. But I see through you. I know what you really are, and it’s no big bargain.”

This is exactly how I feel about A Clockwork Orange.

Against Kubrick 5

This is part 5 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…

A Clockwork Orange

If you had to pigeonhole 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, you can call it a dark comedy that is far darker than it is funny. In fact, it is a cruel, nasty piece of work that uses satire as a cover for its myriad sins.

AClockworkOrange1

Kubrick’s usual brilliance and vision is on display here most of the time, and when he runs out of ideas he shamelessly stoops to the lurid and shocking to keep people interested. But the film is a satire, you see. We can overlook such lapses because we’re always trying to fit the film’s scenes, no matter how brutal or crude they are, into some bigger picture.

My big problem is that, after 40 years of overlooking Kubrick’s lapses, it seems that people have actually come to celebrate the horrific crimes that take place in the film and somehow believe the government or the political class are the real villains of the story. This really does seem like the intent of the film (accomplished as much by Malcolm McDowell’s riveting performance as Alex the film’s anti-hero as by anything done by Kubrick).

Forgotten amid grand satire, of course, is the suffering of the story’s many victims. But don’t be surprised. With Kubrick, feeling compassion for your fellow man is usually kind of beside the point, is it not?

And this, my brothers and only friends, cannot possibly be the work of a humanist.

This is part 5 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…

A Clockwork Orange

If you had to pigeonhole 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, you can call it a dark comedy that is far darker than it is funny. In fact, it is a cruel, nasty piece of work that uses satire as a cover for its myriad sins.

AClockworkOrange1

Kubrick’s usual brilliance and vision is on display here most of the time, and when he runs out of ideas he shamelessly stoops to the lurid and shocking to keep people interested. But the film is a satire, you see. We can overlook such lapses because we’re always trying to fit the film’s scenes, no matter how brutal or crude they are, into some bigger picture.

My big problem is that, after 40 years of overlooking Kubrick’s lapses, it seems that people have actually come to celebrate the horrific crimes that take place in the film and somehow believe the government or the political class are the real villains of the story. This really does seem like the intent of the film (accomplished as much by Malcolm McDowell’s riveting performance as Alex the film’s anti-hero as by anything done by Kubrick).

Forgotten amid grand satire, of course, is the suffering of the story’s many victims. But don’t be surprised. With Kubrick, feeling compassion for your fellow man is usually kind of beside the point, is it not?

And this, my brothers and only friends, cannot possibly be the work of a humanist.

I’d like to begin with a quick discussion on satire, especially the dramatic kind. In most cases, a satire unfolds in a world that is clearly not our own, yet the characters in the satire act as if it is. This can be funny enough, but it gets even better when the immutable laws of this satire universe seem to contrive in a very human way against a fairly obvious target of some kind, often revealing truths about this target that can’t easily be said in real life.

A great example is the old Onion article originally titled Retirees Rise Up Against Gang Violence…All are Killed.

In the story the gang members commit horrific acts of rape and torture against a group of plucky seniors who only want to rid their neighborhoods of crime. They want to make a better world for themselves, just like they did when they came to America on boats during the Depression or fought during World War II or what have you. But as fate would have it, the gang members not only massacre the seniors, but become better people because of it. They learn to work together, you see, something they’ve never done before. And that’s a good thing, right?

Why is this funny?

Because instead of exonerating gang violence and wanton murder like the article seems to do, it’s really satirizing the hackneyed underdog/good Samaritan stories the news media is constantly pushing on us. Aren’t you just ready to gag on all that syrupy moonshine? I mean, how many times do we have to hear about some disadvantaged girl from the ghetto competing in a national spelling bee, or read about how a retired couple collects and recycles cans to aid a local animal shelter? If you’re as sick of that stuff as I am pretending to be, then this Onion article is for you.

onion

So what does this have to do with A Clockwork Orange?

Well, as you can see, the article is only one page long. Imagine if it had gone on for four pages describing horrific violence not in standard news prose but in virtuosic, almost poetic, language. Imagine the seniors being not a pastiche of ethnic righteousness but a bunch of shallow hypocrites with bad taste. Imagine further the gangbangers being led not by a thug but by a highly literate and charismatic psychopath with a passion for Beethoven. After a while it would occur to you that the article’s point is not satire but to use virtuosic language to describe and, by extension, condone horrific violence.

For nearly the first 45 minutes (about one third of the film), I believe that’s what you get with A Clockwork Orange. As the story goes, you basically have this:

1) Hoodlum performs “ultra-violence”. That is, he fights, rapes, and murders, and has wanton sex. (43.5 minutes)
2) Hoodlum spends time in prison. (24 minutes)
3) Hoodlum receives the experimental, government-sponsored Ludovico Technique to “cure” him of hoodlum-itis. Hoodlum is set free. (20 minutes)
4) Hoodlum is shunned by family and attacked by former droogs and victims. Hoodlum attempts suicide. (33.5 minutes)
5) Hoodlum is bribed by a government official to avoid embarrassment for failure of Ludovico Technique. Hoodlum accepts bribe, realizing that he’s still hoodlum at heart. (13 minutes)

The satire manifests mostly in parts 3 and 5. Although we see some residual effects of Alex’s cure in part 4, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in part 3, and so really doesn’t count.

In Kubrick’s own words (from Saturday Review, December 25, 1971, copy-pasted straight from the Clockwork Orange page on Wikipedia) A Clockwork Orange is…

…a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.

Kubrick also described the film thusly:

It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is at the same time a running lecture on free-will.

Well, isn’t that nice. Kubrick dedicates around thirty-three minutes of a two and one quarter hour film to all the big ideas he throws around in his erudite quotations.

But what about the remaining hundred minutes?

We don’t even hear about the Ludovico Technique until an hour in. We don’t see it until the hour and eleven minute mark. And then later we take a half-hour break from the satire as Alex is ushered out of prison and forced to take big helpings of the ultraviolence he used to dish out. So is this film really a satire about “behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning”? Or is Kubrick using “satire” as an excuse to do what he really wants to do, which is to find new and ingenious ways to film acts of ultra-violence?

Well, the numbers support the latter proposition: 77 minutes of violence, cruelty, suffering. 33 minutes of satire. 24 minutes in prison, which is neither violent nor satirical in the spirit of the rest of the film.

But let’s look at the direction and vision of these chapters and try to judge where Kubrick’s heart is most at, so to speak.

There! Found it.
There! Found it.

I would argue that Kubrick is at his best in the first 43.5 minutes, with Alex running amok in Dystopian England. It is here, for the most part, where Kubrick has his most profound cinematic ideas, his most memorable scenes, his most daring vision. It is here, also, where he makes best use of music.

On the other hand, it is mostly during the satirical phases when Kubrick most often resorts to cheap cinematic tricks and exhibits less of the singular vision found in the violent episodes.

If I am able to successfully argue these points, then I believe I have solid ground to stand on when I say that A Clockwork Orange is really a cruel, soulless film that happens to have satirical elements rather than an important cinematic satire that only uses violence and cruelty to serve some higher purpose.

This argument will be presented in part 6 of my polemic against Stanley Kubrick, which will also be part 2 of my discussion of A Clockwork Orange. Stay tuned.

My Problem with Wall-E

So now I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m picking on Pixar. They produce quality entertainment, don’t they? Haven’t they produced some classics as well? Sure. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are my favorites. These I would say belong on the Great Mount Rushmore of family movies. And all from the same company. Quite an accomplishment.

Wall-E is a classic too. But it’s one of those frustrating works of art that present a startlingly beautiful vision only to mar it with contemporary didacticism. It’s a story with, among other things, an instructive and very important message that we should all take heed of before it’s too late. The presumption here, of course, is that the filmmakers can actually deign to instruct us on anything. The problem here, of course, is that the filmmakers are wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, they get a little bit evil-minded about it as well. And those of us who realize this (like me) have no choice but to leave the theater with fists clenched, hoping that not too many people will be suckers for this little power play that is Wall-E.

So now I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m picking on Pixar. They produce quality entertainment, don’t they? Haven’t they produced some classics as well? Sure. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are my favorites. These I would say belong on the Great Mount Rushmore of family movies. And all from the same company. Quite an accomplishment.

Wall-E is a classic too. But it’s one of those frustrating works of art that present a startlingly beautiful vision only to mar it with contemporary didacticism. It’s a story with, among other things, an instructive and very important message that we should all take heed of before it’s too late. The presumption here, of course, is that the filmmakers can actually deign to instruct us on anything. The problem here, of course, is that the filmmakers are wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, they get a little bit evil-minded about it as well. And those of us who realize this (like me) have no choice but to leave the theater with fists clenched, hoping that not too many people will be suckers for this little power play that is Wall-E.

Let’s first discuss what’s good about Wall-E. It’s basically a well-worn love story formula dressed up with such striking and original storylines, imagery, and characters that the formula becomes new again. Please consider this for a moment: taking something old and making it new. It is like being born again. People love it. And they should. It’s one of the magical things about the film-going experience.

So what is this formula? Simple:

It starts with a broken heart. All heroes and heroines of love stories have to have a heart broken in some way or another. We will use two classic examples from American cinema to help illustrate this point and also to show how truly great Wall-E (almost) is.

So, back to the broken hearts. Wall-E is cute and perky and cleaning up an abandoned planet all by himself. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Our hearts break just thinking about it. Most importantly, however, Wall-E is lonely. Rick Blaine of Casablanca doesn’t stick his neck anymore for nobody. Why? Some dame left him in Paris during the Nazi invasion and didn’t say why. This is why Rick is lonely. Rachel Lapp, the Amish woman in Witness, is lonely too. Her husband just died. That would make anybody lonely.

Then the broken heart stumbles across a something-or-other, a question mark, something that disturbs the melancholy status quo in which the broken heart lives. And it has to be a welcome disturbance from the audience’s point of view. In Wall-E’s case, it’s the finding of the sprouting plant. For Rick, it’s the letters of transit allowing two passengers to board a flight to Lisbon. For Rachel, it’s the fact that her son witnessed a murder in a Philadelphia airport.

After this, enter broken heart number two. Note that this heart shouldn’t be as broken as the first, or vice versa. If they are both equally lonely, two things could happen, both bad. Either they ecstatically fall into each other’s arms, get married, have kids, and that’s the end of the story after twenty-five predictable minutes. Or the lovers will both seem so much like losers that the audience will have a hard time caring about them. In Wall-E’s case, Eve is just doing her job. Sure, she’s far from home and all by herself and probably pretty lonely as a result. But she is certainly in a better place emotionally than Wall-E at the film’s onset. In Casablanca, Rick’s ex-flame Ilsa still loves him and feels awful for dumping him in Paris, but she’s with her husband now, a man of impeccable honor and bravery. As for Witness, it’s the reverse. John Book is more the loser. He’s without a family, and he’s afraid of responsibility but clearly not happy without it. Also, according to his sister, he likes to gripe about his job on the Philadelphia police force whenever he drinks too much beer.

At this point, the two broken hearts, because of this something-or-other, are drawn into some conflict they didn’t expect. They are forced to cooperate out of necessity, to be brave and to grow as characters, and to realize that they meant more to each other than they originally thought. Further, this conflict has to be part of something pretty big. For Wall-E, it’s contending with Auto and his minions on the spaceship Axiom. But what’s really at stake is humans getting a second chance at populating Earth. For Rick Blaine, it’s holding off Nazis until he can get Ilsa and her husband on that plane. The greater struggle is World War II (obviously) as well as whether or not he’ll stick his neck out for anyone again. And for John Book, it’s preventing three crooked cops from killing him and their young witness. But in a deeper sense it’s about resisting the intrusion of modern corruption upon a world that insists on keeping itself pure.

The ending can take many different guises, but has to resolve the conflict in some way. In the two older films, the lovers part, presumably never to see each other again. But the love these people feel for each other helps mend their broken hearts despite their separation. It’s good to be loved, you know?

Wall-E, on the other hand, has the kind of miraculous happy ending you’d expect from a rated-G film. And that’s fine. Due to the snowdrift innocence of the two principals, any other ending would have been inappropriate.

I place Wall-E alongside these two classics because Wall-E is also a classic. Its vision is genius, the plot very tight and believable, and the imagery unforgettable. The ballet sequence in space in which Wall-E dances with Eve with the help of a fire extinguisher is quite simply beautiful cinema. And Wall-E does some truly heroic things, like saving the plant after Auto tries to shoot it into space, and, most importantly, protecting from Auto the machine that will return the Axiom to Earth. Wall-E nearly gets squished as a result. It breaks our hearts after he is fixed but does not recognize Eve. Eve’s kiss, however, which restores the Wall-E we know and love is as wonderful as it is predictable. During such a moment, you’d have to be a cold-hearted monster to not want to cry.

Awwwwwwww

So the instincts of the makers of Wall-E were on the money. It is great cinema. The only problem is that the film promotes propaganda that is anti-human, and dogmatically so, which makes it even worse.

Put bluntly, the treatment of humans as comically lazy, obese buffoons reveals a benign contempt for humanity. There are three elements to this. First, is the obesity. Yes, I have heard (and not bothered to research) that humans would lose bone mass and tend to gain weight after prolonged stays at zero-G. That’s supposedly the basis for the film’s decision to make everyone a fatty. But everyone? Do they mean to tell us that humans just lost all self-respect in space? Wouldn’t that be a sad thing if it were true? Well, no, because the filmmakers obviously think it’s funny.

The second element is the laziness. All the humans on the Axiom never leave their seats while they consume liquid food and watch television all day. Not one person doesn’t do this, you see. So basically, they are telling us that all humans are couch potatoes. Never mind all the athletes, soldiers, and hard-working people we have. No, no, couch potatoes. That’s what we are according to the makers of Wall-E. You know, I would get offended if someone ever accused me of being lazy. I get more offended when someone call all humans lazy and then have the temerity to laugh at them. That’s stereotyping, and stereotyping a whole group of people is supposed to be bad, right?

Finally, there’s the stupidity. The humans are pretty much oblivious to the heroic things that Wall-E and Eve have to do. They also don’t seem to care. Yes, there is the captain. But the captain is so clueless he has to do the most basic research to figure out what Wall-E is up to. For instance, he has to look up the definition of the word “dirt”. Well, of course! He’s fat, you see. And all fat people are stupid. Right? Sure! Like St. Thomas Aquinas.

"Do you think this haircut makes me look fat?"

Then there was the scene in which the captain, with much effort, gets on his feet to turn off Auto. They play Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” just to show what a monumental feat this is. The joke is impossible to miss.

I’ll make the point again. If there is something about being in space for 700 years that would cause ALL human beings to become stupid, fat, and lazy, that would be unspeakably tragic. It would be the death of everything good. Everything we’ve ever accomplished and worked for would be for nothing. But the fact that the filmmakers try to make this condition funny tells us that this really isn’t happening they way things are happening with Wall-E and Eve. With the robots, you have a sweet love story that really happens plot point after plot point. With humans on the other hand all we have is a didactic stab at social commentary. The filmmakers are basically telling us that stupidity, laziness, and corpulence are bad things (as if we didn’t already know this).

"Drunk, fat, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

So, before you think I’m taking all this too seriously, let’s perform a little thought experiment to determine whether or not my response is appropriate. Have you noticed that the humans on the Axiom were comprised of all the major races? That’s well and good, but suppose, on the other hand, there had been only one race of people on the Axiom. Like, say, Asian. Many Asian nations have viable space programs. It’s not out of the question that, when the planet becomes uninhabitable in the distant future, only spaceships from Asian nations would leave Earth successfully. So let’s suppose then that all the human characters in Wall-E are Asian but with their dialog and actions remaining completely unchanged. What would the response to such a film be? How would people react to a bunch of lazy, obese Asians bumbling around in ridiculous sweat suits? How would they react after realizing that the filmmakers wanted us to laugh at these people?

Their first question would be, what the hell do the makers of Wall-E have against Asians?

This would be a just question, and the accusations of racism which would follow would also be just. To imply that every single member of a certain race is stupid, fat, and lazy clearly reveals a low opinion of that race. Hence racism. In fact, there could be no other possible interpretation but racism. Right? Riiiiight?

So my logic follows thusly:

If having all Asians onboard the Axiom reveals anti-Asian racism, then having all humans onboard the Axiom reveals anti-human racism. The human race is a race, after all.

As they say in debate class: Q.E.D.

But before I start running my victory laps, I will add that the filmmakers could have avoided this blunder rather easily and still stayed true to their love story formula. The Earth could have been rendered uninhabitable after being struck by a meteor or attacked by an alien force or, heck, even a nuclear Armageddon if you insist on making the humans the culprits. In any of these scenarios, the stakes would have been high enough to give Wall-E and Eve’s struggles on the Axiom greater meaning. But no, the Earth was made uninhabitable not from an act of God or the evil actions of a few, but because hundreds of millions of earthlings couldn’t be bothered to clean up the mess they made. And did you notice the large corporation that had a hand in this? Buy N Large? A nice little dig at big time capital if there ever was one.

And the bottom line remains: the humans could have been more intelligent and self-respecting and still played a minimal role in the story. Why not? Is there a single reason why not?

Well, there isn’t a good reason why not, that’s for sure. There is a bad reason however: It gives a chance for physical fitness buffs and followers of trendy environmental causes to scold and deride people who aren’t physical fitness buffs or followers of trendy environmental causes. Strip aside the substantial beauty and vision of Wall-E, and this is what you have.

So if you are a physical fitness buff or a follower of trendy environmental causes and like ripping good love stories, then Wall-E is for you. If you’re not one of these people, then please, watch Wall-E anyway. Have your kids watch it too. Just let them know three things after it’s done:

1) That the majority of humans are not lazy, obese buffoons.
2) That there is a lot of scientific controversy about how much pollution is going on and we are nowhere near the state of degradation presented in the film.
3) And that human beings really aren’t that bad.

After all, we make wonderful films like Wall-E.

Romance on Three Legs (More on Glenn Gould)

In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

In my previous post, order I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sovaldi sale by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

To a classical concert pianist, pianos are much more than meets the ear. Apparently, this brand of genius can hear things, feel things, that are little more than dog whistles to the rest of us. Gould had a peculiarly light touch, which suited the baroque music he loved to play. He had unique demands for his pianos and gave Steinway technicians fits trying to meet them. He spent his entire career in search of the perfect piano.

As much a contemporary history as a biography, Romance on Three Legs, tells us much we already know about Glenn Gould, his brilliance and sweetness and sensitivity as well as his hypochondria, his phobias, and his strange strange habits. Author Katie Hafner dutifully describes his youth and early successes, including the splash he made with his mid-1950’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She covers his disdain for public performances and fascination with studio recording. She also includes his notoriously less-than-positive opinions of other classical composers and musicians (he once dismissed Vladimir Horowitz as a faker).

What is new however is the lengths to which Hefner goes to describe the inner workings of the piano and the arcane art of piano tuning. What's the best wood to use for a piano’s soundboard? What exactly is “bellying”? What does a piano “voicer” do? What are hammers, dampers, and jacks, and just how complex is a piano’s action, anyway? Indeed, this book teaches us almost as much about the piano as it does about Gould himself.

Hafner also treats us to a brief history of the Steinway company as well as to a lucid biography of Verne Edquist. She chronicles his riveting journey from sight-deprived lad on a desolate Saskatchewan farm, to door-to-door piano tuner in Toronto, to Canada’s top piano technician. His two decade-long collaboration with Gould resembled master mechanic to star auto racer. Behind the scenes, he was there for most of Gould’s recording sessions, making sure that old CD 318 never went out of tune. They were even competitive about it, seeing who can spot an out-of-tune-note first. Their conversations often revolved around how to tinker with CD 318 until its hammers traveled the right distance, until it achieved “an immediate bite” or sufficient “contrapuntal control”.

Gould was utterly reliant upon Edquist, who was finely attuned to Gould’s peculiar, and some would say mystical, needs. This relationship intensified after the fateful drop the piano suffered at the hands of negligent piano movers in the early 1970s. Like stubborn lovers in a doomed relationship, Gould would not give up on CD 318. He and Edquist toiled through endless tunings, tweaks, and desperate contrivances to salvage the damaged instrument and restore it to its former glory.

Hafner, of course, discusses Gould’s premature death at 50 in 1982, as well as the man’s legacy in music. She provides the obligatory where-are-they-nows of the major players in this odd little history, and gives due mention of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic as quirky as its subject matter.

And what of CD 318? It was sold to the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. And when other concert pianists play it, sometimes they swear they can feel, in that intuitive–some would say mystical–way that pianists have, the old instrument pining for its beloved master.

2 Reviews of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I’m sorry then, but you’re just not qualified to appreciate this film.

The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism.

Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties.

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties, I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French-Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I'm sorry then, but you're just not qualified to appreciate this film. The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism. Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties. I was a film critic for the Chapel Hill News in Chapel Hill, NC from 1992 to 2000, and never did any of my reviews produce hate mail except for this one. The letter came to me on paper via the post since this was before most of us had email. In it a man suggested that I show some humility and not so casually smack around names like Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach. These men were geniuses who have made permanent contributions to Western Civilization and who the bleep are you and what the bleep have you done to put yourself on the same level as them? Fortunately, the missive wasn't longer than a paragraph. It seemed the writer took as much joy in writing the letter as he did in reading my review. Well, I was flattered that someone had taken me seriously enough to actually write me a letter, but I was also dismayed and fearful. The guy certainly wasn't wrong. On the other hand, in my review I was demonstrating the same kind of snooty holier-than-thou attitude that the director did when he made the film? See? Get it? You didn't like my review? Well, join the club. I felt the same way about 32 Short Films. There. See? And some people accuse me of not being subtle. Still, this didn't make the man's points any less valid.

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It took courage for me to write what I did. But courage born from arrogance and ignorance usually isn't anything much more than stupid. Hence my dismay and fear. Well, nearly twenty years later, I guess I'm a different guy. I love classical music and write about it for WCPE the Classical Station. I've also gotten into Bach quite a bit in the last few years. And no, I am not qualified to talk about Bach except for the emotional impact some of his music has on me. A lot of Bach is still beyond me, and I don't know if I will live long enough to be able to appreciate everything he's ever done. I've also purchased a few of Glenn Gould's recordings and really like them. Why? I don't know. How does Gould compare to other Bach interpreters on the piano? Couldn't tell you. All I can tell you is that I like his French Suites and I really really like his Goldberg Variations. Beyond that anything I could say would just be subjective ramblings no better or worse than anyone else's. So, I've always wanted to take another crack at 32 Short Films. I'm grown up now. I've finally got the blare of punk rock out of my brain and can view this film in a more detached manner and from a more informed perspective. So here you go…my second review of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. And guess what? The film is just as dull and pretentious now as it was in 1993. I had it right all along! I stand by my original review, proudly. Well, okay, maybe putting the Velvets and Coltrane on the same level as Bach was a little foolish, and maybe I'd shy away from some of the raw attitude in the original review. But I am proud that the 24 year-old version of me, penniless, uncultured cretin that I was, was able to see this film for the ill-conceived art house experiment that it is. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is essentially a smart movie for smart people who like to congratulate themselves for being so smart. Keep in mind, this is not a knock on Gould or Bach. Nor is it a knock on Colm Feore who does a convincing job of playing Gould. It's a knock on the film and the director who made it and co-wrote it. So where was I? Oh, right. Smug. Note how people in the film appear in interviews without subtitles explaining who they are or their relation to Gould. This really would have helped the audience appreciate the relevancy of the interviews, but I guess Girard couldn’t be bothered. We're supposed to know ahead of time who these people are. And if you don't know them, too bad. Notice also how one of these subjects refers to something called 318. This was Gould's beloved piano, a pretty darn important part of Gould's artistic life. But film doesn't tell you this. You have to infer it because an earlier short film called “CD318” shows the inner workings of a piano as it plays. Actually a double inference is required of the uninitiated: You have to know ahead of time that “CD318” was the, er, name of Gould's piano. And you have to know that the “318” this one interviewee keeps mentioning indeed refers to this piano. Of course, Girard could have told us this without requiring us to jump through hoops, but, then again, he wouldn't want to dumb down his precious movie for the sake of the unwashed masses, now would he? See what I mean by smug? Also, many of Girard's pieces are have a point to them. In other words, he wants to tell us things about Gould through cinema, and often cheap cinema at that. Take the piece “Truck Stop”. Gould drives up, sits down, and orders breakfast. Pop music on the radio, people chit chatting about this and that. Normally, our ears would filter most of this out or relegate it as background noise and not pay attention. But not Gould. He has super ears, you see. He hears one conversation loudly and excludes all the others. Then he hears another even louder and over the first. Then another and another and another, until the whole truck stop is a cacophony of conversation. You see what Girard is doing here, don't you? He's telling us that Glenn Gould had really sensitive ears. That was the point of the short film. I figured that out after thirty seconds, but had to put up with the babble of people who had nothing to do with Glenn Gould for the rest of the piece. See what I mean by dull? Another 'point piece' by Girad is “Pills”. All you get is close ups of certain drugs while Gould rattles off effects and side effects of these drugs in voice over. I'm sorry, this is interesting how? Well, Glenn Gould self-medicated and took a lot of needless drugs which may have led to his untimely and tragic demise, don't you see. Oh. Ohhhhh! Boy, I felt like an idiot when I learned that after the fact in 1993. Of course, Girard could have saved me the hassle (and the discomfiture) and made this clear in his film, but I just guess he didn't think people like me were worth it. Next, there is the experimental aspect of the film. And by 'experimental' I mean the kind of dreck you would find in a really bad student film festival. And 'student' I mean attempts at high art that sink directly into tedium. Take “Variation in C Minor”. It's a visualization of a sound reel as Gould's music plays. Just abstract white globs pulsating on a black background in time to piano music. Does anyone else besides me see this as a cheap gimmick? That, and the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Take also “Diary of One Day”. An x-ray video of a man playing piano interspersed with mathematic equations. A baffling piece if there ever was one. Then there's “Practice” in which Gould whines about being on the road and then imagines that he playing the piano. Girard tracks the camera in circles around Gould as he plays air piano in…what? his apartment? a motel? a studio? I can't tell. He does this in “Passion According to Gould” as well. And to a lesser extent in “Opus 1” in which a camera tracks circles around a string quartet as they play an early piece by composed by Glenn Gould. Who the musicians are Girard does not deign to say until the credits roll. With these pieces Girard is gambling that since the subject matter is Glenn Gould and since the music is classical these pieces will be interesting. He loses his gamble. Music, diagetic or not, loses something when heard on film, I don't care how great it is. Unless it is a concert film, the music becomes supportive to the images. It becomes secondary. Take music videos, for example. In all cases, they are heavily edited and filled with striking images. If not, they better have something real clever or serve up to the viewer. Rarely, do you see musicians just playing with only handful of edits. Great music and a famous subject will not rescue boring visuals. And as a little thought experiment, just to test my theory here, suppose in “Practice” it were my Aunt Millie prancing around her apartment caught in a sublime Bach-inspired epiphany and not Glenn Gould. Would anybody care? There are 32 films here, so Girard does get it right some of the time. I love “The Tip”. This is the only piece that contains a beginning, middle, and end and something approaching a plot. Apparently, Gould was almost as good at playing the stock market as was playing the piano. So here you have Gould getting a tip from a Middle Eastern Sheik's bodyguard about a little-known oil company known as Sotex. Gould sells all his other oil stock in the middle of boom and doubles down on Sotex. His broker thinks he's crazy, but eats his words after a disastrous week when Gould is the only one of his clients who makes money. The piece employs irony, humor, and suspense all in appropriate doses. The performances are charming as well. Other pieces do fine. “Personal Ad” has Gould, dwarfed by hulking stacks of books, composing the ultimate personal ad, an alliterative catalog of geeky character traits he looks for in a woman (“Tristanesque trip taking and permanent flame fluttering”) only to keep mum when he calls the newspaper on the phone. “Gould Meets McClaren” is a nice bit of abstract animation, if you like that kind of thing. “Gould Meets Gould” pits pianist against pianist as they debate Gould's views on art and the artist. Gould famously quit performing by the 1960s, opting to direct his creative energies thereafter in the recording studio. The piece, fittingly I guess, ends in mid-thought. “Leaving” achieves poignancy in dealing with Gould's death. I guess my major problem with 32 Short Films, aside from pieces I didn't like outnumbering the ones I did like 3 to 1, is that it provides a poor starting point from which a person can begin to appreciate Glenn Gould. Of course, if you already love Gould, you'll probably love this film. If you already have any affection towards him, then this film will likely match that affection. The film is as quirky and unpredictable as its subject matter. And that indeed is something. But what is more than just something is the millions of people who are ready to appreciate Glenn Gould, but will be put off by the unabashed elitism of this film. And that's too bad, because in the years between my first review and this one, I finally did experience and appreciate the greatness of Glenn Gould. I can only imagine how my life could have been broadened had this happened when it should have happened, the day I first sat down to review 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.