Disgrace

Why is Disgrace a great novel?

Such a tough question to answer. I would always like to think that great novels share some things in common…usually. Great characters, great plot, and great –insert not-so-clearly-defined attribute of choice here–. This last bit depends on the person who bothers to care whether or not any of the novels he reads is “great” in the first place. Most people don't do this, and that's great too.

I'm not one of these people. I've been building this esoteric totem pole of literary greatness in my head ever since I threw my beat up paperback edition of Dostoevsky's The Possessed against the wall after learning about the tragic fate of Nicolai Stravrogin. Those Russians'll do that to ya.

OK. I'm weird. But for some reason I actually care about formulating this kind of pecking order – all for the benefit of myself and myself alone. And, of course, you, dear reader.
Don’t feel sorry for me. Instead, listen to what I have to say. And please disagree. There really is truly nothing more I like in this world is for someone to say to me, “You're wrong, Speck. And let me show you why!”

You hear that sound? It’s the sound of a gauntlet crashing to a stone floor. Beautiful.

Anyway, back to Disgrace, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel 2003 by JM Coetzee. Go here if you need a precursor to what I am about to serve up for you. And whatever you do, do NOT click the Read More link below if you have not already read this magnificent little novel. I am brutal with spoilers. You have been warned.

Why is Disgrace a great novel? Such a tough question to answer. I would always like to think that great novels share some things in common…usually. Great characters, great plot, and great . This last bit depends on the person who bothers to care whether or not any of the novels he reads is “great” in the first place. Most people don’t do this, and that’s great too. I’m not one of these people. I’ve been building this esoteric totem pole of literary greatness in my head ever since I threw my beat up paperback edition of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed against the wall after learning about the tragic fate of Nicolai Stravrogin. Those Russians’ll do that to ya. OK. I’m weird. But for some reason I actually care about formulating this kind of pecking order – all for the benefit of myself and myself alone. And, of course, you, dear reader. Don’t feel sorry for me. Instead, listen to what I have to say. And please disagree. There really is truly nothing more I like in this world is for someone to say to me, “You’re wrong, Speck. And let me show you why!” You hear that sound? It’s the sound of a gauntlet crashing to a stone floor. Beautiful. Anyway, back to Disgrace, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by JM Coetzee. Go here if you need a precursor to what I am about to serve up for you. And whatever you do, do NOT click the Read More link below if you have not already read this magnificent little novel. I am brutal with spoilers. You have been warned. OK. So why is Disgrace great? Scratch that. Why will it be a lasting contribution to Western Culture and thrill and horrify people for years and years after we’re all dead? (And this is basically what I mean when I say a novel is great). Because it has two great characters. It frames a fertile circumstance from which grows a terrifyingly inexorable plot. And it has the third quality that I require: guts. So let’s talk about the characters. It’s not enough in RC Speck’s little book-lined closet universe that characters be real to life or distinct or complex, although these properties are necessary of course. A character also has to be useful beyond the novel. He must stand for something else such that he can act on others as a beacon or a

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warning or something. If a person begins to a see little bit of Raskolnikov or Ahab or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary in him or her, well, then maybe they’ll also be able to address certain issues in their lives. I mean, look at how each of them turned out: prison or or death. So with Disgrace, you have a thoroughly dissolute yet highly intelligent twice-divorced English professor in Cape Town, South Africa. His big worry is finding young women to bed after the high end call girl he was infatuated with had to give up the trade just to keep away from him. He finds one, one of his students, deflowers her quite desperately, and soon finds himself about to lose his job at the university. This civilized, effete lothario now teeters on the edge of…disgrace. His daughter is an independent-minded heavyset lesbian managing a farm by herself in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa. She does her thing and no one can tell her otherwise. She’s smart, honest, willful, self-sufficient. These are good things, especially in a woman, right? Sure they are. That is, until she gets brutally raped by three Africans at the behest of her neighbor who plans to coerce her into becoming his second (or third) wife so he can have her farm. It is a jungle out there, after all. A woman all by herself like that could use his protection, if you know what I mean. It’s at this point when this strong, modern woman is teetering on the edge of…disgrace. So far we have also given away some of the plot, but the cement from which this particular blade of grass sprouts is 1990s post-Apartheid South Africa. A lot of grass can grow in one of those cracks. When the characters respond to the crisis, that’s when character, in a sense, becomes plot, or at least drives it. The father considers civilized methods of finding justice: appealing to the police, searching for the perps, confronting the neighbor, trying to convince his daughter to leave old RSA for good. Of course, none of it works with her. Not over there. Things are different over there. Forget it, Jake. It’s the Eastern Cape. And the daughter? Nothing. She heals. She mopes. And then she thinks she’ll give in. The woman who once would not deign to sleep with a man who might be kind and fair to her now agrees to bed down with the man who brutalized her in the most underhanded way possible just so he could break her spirit. Almost makes you think that nice guys actually do finish last, doesn’t it? There’s also a subplot with a stout, middle-aged married women who’s dedicated to treating and saving animals, especially dogs. She runs a kennel nearby and is friends with the daughter. The father at first is repulsed by the way she’s forced to put unwanted dogs down. He was also horrified at how his daughter’s rapists shot and killed all of her dogs before violating her (the same type of dog whites once trained to attack anyone in brown skin). But after having sordid trysts with her (on the kennel floor, no less), he gets over this killing dogs thing. It’s not a big deal anymore. They’ve both grown accustomed to their own state of disgrace. And it is heartbreaking. The daughter who once floated haughtily above it, now sinks like a stone. And the father treading water in it like the corrupt little man he’s become, sees what is happening. He sees! But it is too late. He’s too weakend from his own sins to

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do anything but thrash. And then he gets sucked down too. I was missing both of them, bitterly, for days. And the guts portion of our program? Trying to connect the disgrace of these two characters to that of South Africa or the world beyond it. You can tackle this problem from any angle, and I mean any ideological angle, and come away with something…oh, what’s the word? Disgraceful…or useful. Take your pick.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff

One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.

To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protégé of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.

Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.

One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.

To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protégé of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.

Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.

Despite a brilliant student career and his widely popular Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was an astounding failure. With the arrogance of youth he ignored kindly advice from Rimsky-Korsakov over the score. He didn’t realize how horribly misconceived (or misconducted) his symphony was until the night of its premiere in 1897, which he could not bear to watch. The composer Alexander Glazunov was conducting and had made substantive changes to the score. He was also reputedly drunk at the podium. The audience was dumbfounded, and the critics, including composer Cesar Cui, were merciless. The experience left Rachmaninoff completely humiliated. He would not compose again for three years.

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Rachmaninoff sought professional help out of his depression. He consulted psychotherapists and at least once a hypnotist. By 1900 he was riding on a crest of creativity that would last more than a decade.

His Piano Concerto #2, which debuted in 1900, was instantly successful. With Rachmaninoff himself as the soloist, the Russian public quickly realized not only how Russian the work was, but also what a singular artist the composer was. The concerto begins with a theme central to many of Rachmaninoff’s works, the piano emulating the tolling of bells. The melody, dignified yet suggestive of ancient Russian folk chants, was languorous and powerful and filled with long, sweeping melodies. The concerto’s closing moments utilized the power of the piano like few works have done before or since.

From 1900 to when he escaped the Soviet Union in 1917, he would compose thirty-seven of his forty-five opuses including a much more warmly received Symphony #2, and The Isle of the Dead, a tone poem inspired by the haunting painting by Swiss artist Arnold Brocklin. This last work utilized another of Rachmaninoff’s favorite motifs, the Dies Irae chant. His Piano Concerto #3 (1911) was nearly as popular as his second. It was more complex and featured some truly fearsome piano work (and played an important part in the 1996 film Shine). Its cadenza is breathtaking. During this time Rachmaninoff also produced numerous works for solo piano, operas, and choral works, such as the choral symphony The Bells, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. This period was also extremely busy as he conducted and performed throughout Russia and Europe, a practice that would serve him well in later years.

Rachmaninoff worked as much as he could throughout the First World War. While he may have been sympathetic with the plight of the proletariat, he was no friend of the communists. Despite his difficult upbringing, he was an aristocrat at heart and was severely shaken by the October Revolution. As early as June 1917, four months before the Revolution, he was already looking for a way out. By December he had found it: an invitation to play in Stockholm. Without hesitation, he and his family boarded a train for Sweden, never to return.

Late in life, Rachmaninoff once said that “a composer’s music should express the country of his birth….It should be the sum total of a composer’s experience.” He was not shy about his nationalism, which must have made watching Russia descend into totalitarianism all the more heartbreaking. In 1931, he was a signatory to a letter to the New York Times which condemned the Soviet regime as “murderers” and “grave diggers.” The Soviets responded by labeling Rachmaninoff as “decadent” and banning his work.

Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoff’s great creative period ended when he left Russia. Living mostly in America, he toured incessantly and became a successful recording artist, but he composed relatively little. He completed his Piano Concerto #4 in 1927, but it was poorly received. His last major works were his Symphony #4 (1937) and his hugely popular Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934). Vivacious and cunning, this work expresses Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody and theme no better than in the exquisite 18th variation, the lyrical beauty of which cannot described. The final variations brilliantly crescendo until the familiar Dies Irae theme reappears ominously in the end, only to be cut short by a quick return to Paganini’s original caprice, a move as clever as it was comical.

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As he grew older, Rachmaninoff’s touring schedule did not let up. Neither did his standards for clarity, precision, and magnificent performances. He continued up until the end, giving his last concert in Knoxville, Tennessee in February of 1943. The concert, which fittingly included Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, received multiple ovations and rave reviews. Rachmaninoff died of cancer a month later.

Sergei Rachmaninoff stood six feet, six inches tall, which undoubtedly contributed to his forbidding aura. Fellow expatriate composer Igor Stravinsky once referred to him as a “six and half foot scowl….an awesome man.” His hands were abnormally large, a condition known as ‘arachnodactyly’. His left hand could play a chord that included C-E flat-G-C-G. His right, C-E-G-C-E. This daunting feat leaves all but the most gifted pianists to play many of his works.

Rachmaninoff was honest, urbane, and sensitive, and his humor was very dry. When asked about his ‘inspiration’ for the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, he reportedly quipped, “20 rubles. My publisher offered 100 rubles for five short works for piano, and this prelude was one of them.” He is also famous for consuming crème de menthe before performing his Paganini Rhapsody. The story goes that the he was nervous before playing this piece because of some difficult passages in the 24th variation. A friend suggested a glass of crème de menthe to calm his nerves. It worked, and thereafter, Rachmaninoff called his 24th variation the “Crème de Menthe Variation.”

He was good friends with fellow piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz and helped relocate novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his family to the United States. He was a great admirer of jazz pianist Art Tatum, as well as a lover of fast automobiles, reputedly buying himself a new vehicle every year and collecting multiple tickets for speeding. He gave generously to the war effort during World War II.

Despite success and fame in America, Sergei Rachmaninoff always longed for home. He was truly a displaced person: a Romantic carrying on the Modern Age, an Old World refugee making a life in America, and a Aristocratic Russian from the time of the Czars turned Cold War exile. In an ironic twist of fate, the Soviets had lifted the ban on his music towards the end of his life, and had sent him a telegram congratulating him on his 70th birthday. Among the signatories was Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer who symbolized the music of the nation Rachmaninoff had left behind. It arrived on March 27th, 1943, the day before Rachmaninoff died. He never was able to read it.

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On Modern Classical Part 1

I've never been able to appreciate the appeal of classical music from the Modern Period, which extends from the 1890s to today. This basically includes the music of atonal or minimalist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, John Cage, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and others. If you're unfamiliar with some of these composers, that might be because most symphonies ignore them. They are box office poison, you see. People in large numbers simply will not pay good money to watch entire programs dedicated to this kind of music.

Okay. So why?

Well, I know why. I have very strong hunches telling me why. So let me set aside my lack of presumption and give in to my hunches' temptation just for a moment. These hunches tell me that people don't want to listen to modern classical because modern classical for the most part is bad music. Objectively, demonstrably bad music.

I've never been able to appreciate classical music from the Modern Period, which extends more or less from the 1890s to today. This basically includes the music of atonal or minimalist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, John Cage, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and others. If you're unfamiliar with some of these composers, that might be because most symphonies ignore them. They are box office poison, you see. People in large numbers simply will not pay good money to watch entire programs dedicated to this kind of music.

Okay. So why?

Well, I know why. I have very strong hunches telling me why. So let me set aside my lack of presumption and give in to my hunches' temptation just for a moment. These hunches tell me that people don't want to listen to modern classical because modern classical for the most part is bad music. Objectively, demonstrably bad music.

So where do I get off saying this? I'm not a musician or composer. Neither am I a music scholar. I know some basic music theory, but that's about it. Who am I to challenge people who have dedicated their entire lives to this kind of music? Who am I to condemn people like Schoenberg and Cage and Glass? These are world famous men with manifest talent and creativity who have built permanent reputations for themselves in the field of music, while I just have this little blog. So who exactly am I? Well, like you I imagine, I am a member of the paying audience. I have shelled out nearly $20,000 on music in my lifetime so far. So that counts for something. I also love music, which I also imagine most of you do too, if you've gotten this far in the post.

What I do have going for me most, however, is arrogance. Not the Muhammad Ali kind of arrogance, mind you. The arrogance I'm describing carries with it equal parts innocence and ignorance. Arrogance can be bad, of course, and it is commonly viewed to be. But like greed it can also be good. I once knew a minor league baseball player who pitched against a league all-star in one of his first games in Double-A ball. “I was 21,” he told me. “Didn't know who he was. Didn't give a shit. And I struck him out.” But later, after he learned exactly how good this all-star really was, he was never able to duplicate his success against him. Some would call this beginner's luck. I call it arrogance born from ignorance and innocence, which may or may not be the same thing.

There is, of course, the heavier side of this weighted coin. When my father was in high school, he thought he was quite the chess player, beating all his friends and family. When he joined the chess club his freshman year in college however, an older kid called him a fish before he even played a single move. My dad, truculent cuss that he was, challenged the kid to a game on the spot and promised to clean his clock. The kid not only agreed, but insisted he would win inside of 12 moves and without sight of the board. The only stipulation was that whoever lost a piece for no compensation had to resign. My dad was busted by move 10. So much for arrogance.

(Full disclosure: when he told me this story, my dad could not remember the name of the whiz kid who beat him. But it was known in the chess club that this kid had once played a young Bobby Fischer to a draw.)

So, the lines are drawn. Me against the Modernists. Am I like that minor league pitcher? Or does unsubstantiated arrogance run in my family. I'll let you decide.

In the meantime, I'll reiterate my position: Modern classical, for the most part, is bad music.

There is, of course, a small number of people out there who can tolerate this kind of music. Perhaps their ears are wired differently than others. Perhaps they take pleasure from defying expectations and challenging traditions. Or maybe they just enjoy listening to clever things being done with musical tones. I'm sure these groups overlap some, but the net result is that you have very few people in the world who will bother with modern classical music because these reasons are not the reasons why most people listen to music. Most people who love music listen to it for the emotional release. It thrills them, you see. Or it devastates them. A friend of mine once told me that the music of Howlin' Wolf made the hair on the back of his neck stand on edge. The second movement of Bach's violin Concerto in A Minor (BWV 1041) has a similar effect on me. And the final movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony almost always leaves me breathless. These are reactions you can't learn or cultivate. I've had them as a child, as I am sure Evgeny Kissin did when he was humming Bach as a toddler. Music is the only thing that can make an adult ride the rushing waves of unspoken, unvisualized, unnamed emotion, just like a child. And it does this for what it is, not for what it isn't.

Modern classical music (at least the kind championed by Schoenberg) often lacks a tonality, or the need to resolve harmonic sequences within the context of a particular key. This resolution and this tonality help give music its emotional pull. David Goldman in his article “Why We Can't Hear Wagner's Music” for the magazine First Things, provides a great example with the song “Over the Rainbow”:

In Western music, the “leading tone,” the seventh-scale step (the “si” in solfège), leads upward to the tonic by a half step. This upward resolution (typically in an inner voice) occurs in every full cadence. So basic is the seventh-to-eighth-step resolution in tonal music that any alteration of it has a musical meaning. Some striking examples are found in the appendix to Oswald Jonas’ Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker. When, for example, we hear the tonic eighth step descend to the seventh instead, we sense a move away from home. This has become a stock musical device to evoke nostalgia and was first employed, to my knowledge, in Franz Schubert’s 1826 song “In Spring” (Im Frühling). Every American has heard this device countless times, in “Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and other popular songs. In “Over the Rainbow” the word “somewhere” is sung on the tonic and descends a half step to the seventh on the words “over the rainbow.” In the accompanying bass, the tonic chord shifts to the chord on the third-scale step, a minor chord that anchors, as it were, the poignant seventh and holds it back from rising naturally back to the tonic.

Another example is a song that I wrote, called (ahem) “Untitled in C Minor, Opus 1”. It's all of 7 notes long. Here it is on the scale:

And here it is for you:

UntitledInCMinor

I mean, sure, it's a little creepy, but it makes sense because, among other reasons, it A) obeys the rules of tonality established in the choice of key, and B) ends where it starts. It goes home, so to speak.

The atonal music of Schoenberg and his ilk often defies these rules and thus frustrates our expectations of conflict and resolution. It also puts us at sea emotionally. This is why most people find atonal music so strange and forbidding and, frankly, all over the place. Have a listen and judge for yourself (and if you can get through all 9 minutes of this, you're a better man than I):

Scholars are not sure exactly when composers began to experiment with atonality, but they more or less agree that it started in the 1890s. Debussy's “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1893) was certainly one of the first pieces that incorporated atonality. Before that we had the “Common Practice Period” (1600-1900) during which the tonal system was paramount in music. During this time, composers, building on the works of their predecessors, kept pushing the boundaries of the tonal system further and further. Franz Liszt did so in order to accommodate his prodigious talent, and Richard Wagner in order to pursue his idea of “The Artwork of the Future”. It was no coincidence that Wagner was the composer the Modernists most looked up to, rather than Romantic mainstays like Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms (Schoenberg's “Brahms the Progressive” essay notwithstanding).

The common arguments that focus on the necessity and positive aesthetics of the Modernists make two essential points: 1) By the 1890s Western composers had mined the depths of the tonal system for all it was worth. In order to express themselves in creative and vital ways composers were forced to go beyond the tonal system. 2) We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn't lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.

Point 1: A half hour of browsing The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music will refute the first part of this point pretty easily. Here is a short list of composers of genius who abided by the tonal system to good effect during and after the 1890s: Antonín Dvořák, Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aaron Copland, and Dmitry Shostakovich. Brahms as an old man composed noteworthy works in the 1890s as well. Further, it should be noted that not all composers welcomed the changes brought about by Schoenberg. Rachmaninoff resisted the Moderns at every turn, calling a wrong note a wrong note, even if it is played by a modernist. Copland went so far as to advise young composers to ignore Schoenberg. And Richard Strauss once stated in writing that “it would be better for him [Schoenberg] to be shoveling snow than scrawling on music paper.” Modern classical music sparked tremendous controversy to say the least, leading to riots and fistfights during concerts, and to considerable discord among the artists themselves. It seems only the Modernists saw Modern Classical as necessary.

To tackle the second half of this argument, I'll have to delve into the highly subjective field of aesthetics and state unequivocally that art is never, first and foremost, a form of self-expression. Art is the creation of that which is aesthetically good, or beautiful. And what that is we let the artists determine and us decide.

Not a very helpful definition, is it? Perhaps. But it does indicate what art is not, first and foremost. Art is not first and foremost something practical. Sure, there may be aesthetic elements in automobile design. But if your well-designed car doesn't run, well, who cares about aesthetics at that point? Sure, art can be practical. This could be a travesty, like burning a Rembrandt for firewood. Or it could be a good thing, like using Mozart for crime control.

Art can also be a form of self-expression. Why not? But if that becomes the point or the reason of art, then there is nothing stopping someone from smashing a windshield with a baseball bat and calling it art. You can “express yourself” perfectly fine with a Louisville Slugger. Or how about murdering 6 million people and bringing war to the world and calling it art?

Are you feeling the slippery slope yet?

Defining art as first and foremost a form of self-expression requires that art first and foremost satisfy the personal needs of the artist himself. After all, there is something inside that artist that the artist needs to get out. The artistic process becomes a great catharsis as if the artist were acting in some real-life drama of his own design. The artist or the act of making art becomes more important than the art itself. Of course, the needs of the audience, both those alive and not yet alive, don't factor in unless the audience pays homage to the artist first.

Put bluntly, this seems like a raw deal for the audience.

Firstly, we all have different needs. So who's to say that what satisfies Artist A will please Audience Member B? Secondly, it opens the door for indulgence and corruption on the part of the artist. And once you open that door, it's very hard to close, and potential audience members look for other things to spend their money on. Either way, calling art a form of self-expression is a sure-fire way to kill it.

Going back to my definition of art, the artist (or in this case composer) must focus on making art that all of humanity will find beautiful in some way or another. Like many impossible goals, this is worthy of pursuit because it leads to Humankind at its best. Note that the personal needs and wants of the artist has nothing to do with the outcome. If there is any need at all, it is the same need that a farmer faces when he sees an untilled field. In fact, this is exactly what an artist's attitude should be when approaching art. Sure, the farmer benefits from a bumper crop, but so do all the people who pay a fair price to eat the food they grow. The “need” for a bumper crop goes way beyond the personal needs of the farmer. Instead, it points to a need that is universal to humanity.

So in the case of Schoenberg and his ilk, if they grow a crop of biologically interesting but bitter vegetables, well, you can't expect audiences to buy what they're selling. Essentially, their product is not meant for consumption (mass or otherwise). It is meant for giving the composer the satisfaction of a new outlet for their creativity and nothing more.

This is why I find this argument unpersuasive. It shows contempt for the audience. When it considers the audience at all, it presumes that its members should put the time into learning obscure aspects of music theory if they want to keep up with the artist. It forgets the fact that audience members have lives.

Aaron Copland once asked the younger generation of composers: “Whom are you writing your music for?….It is obvious that those young people who just a few years ago were writing pieces filled with the Weltschmerz of a Schoenberg now realize that they were merely picturing their own discontent.”

Indeed.

Tune in for Part 2 sometime in December 2010.

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The Bechdel Test

Does a movie have two named female characters? Do these characters talk to each other? And if so, do they talk about something other than a man? If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, then the movie has just passed the Bechdel Test.

This elegant little checklist was popularized by Alison Bechdel and her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Apparently, a character refused to watch movies if they failed this test. There's even a website that lists and discusses movies with regards to this test. Despite not being affiliated with Bechdel, the site does seem to uphold the spirit of the test. It rates films and allows readers to post comments and dispute ratings. It provides links to IMDB pages and reviews. It also points out that passing movies are not necessarily good or even “feminist-friendly” movies. If one scene in a macho action movie has two housewives exchanging Tupperware tips, the movie passes. Of course, most of the 1530 movies included (as of September 24, 2010) are from the last decade, but a decent amount of older films are there too.

Okay, so why is this interesting?

Does a movie have two named female characters? Do these characters talk to each other? And if so, do they talk about something other than a man? If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, then the movie has just passed the Bechdel Test.

This elegant little checklist was popularized by Alison Bechdel and her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Apparently, a character refused to watch movies if they failed this test. There's even a website that lists and discusses movies with regards to this test. Despite not being affiliated with Bechdel, the site does seem to uphold the spirit of the test. It rates films and allows readers to post comments and dispute ratings. It provides links to IMDB pages and reviews. It also points out that passing movies are not necessarily good or even “feminist-friendly” movies. If one scene in a macho action movie has two housewives exchanging Tupperware tips, the movie passes. Of course, most of the 1530 movies included (as of September 24, 2010) are from the last decade, but a decent amount of older films are there too.

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Okay, so why is this interesting? Well, for one it is possible that this whole idea was spawned from the hilarious 1982 SNL “Focus on Film” skit in which Eddie Murphy, playing a film critic with a big racial chip on his shoulder, refuses to see movies that lack black people. Murphy is making fun of a certain kind of black person here. It's funny. I don't know if “Dykes to Watch Out For” plays along with the humor or takes such an absolutist stance seriously, but the blog sure seems to follow this latter course. This seems like an instance of life imitating art, but maybe not in the way the artist had originally intended.

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Another interesting bit is that the Bechdel Test makes us A) think back to all the movies we've seen to determine if they pass the test, and B) wonder why we never seemed to notice or care that so many of them failed. (Only around 50% of the movies cataloged on the website pass the test). Nice food for thought for the mildly peckish. I say this not to be snarky, but to point out that the Bechdel Test will always be ancillary to everyone's own personal Liked It/Disliked It test. A movie can have two women discussing astrophysics and still be a waste of one's time and money.

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What's most interesting however is how unfair and insufficient the test really is. For one, it rates movies that don't include women at all. So Deliverance, Das Boot, Paths of Glory, Patton, and many other of my favorite films all fail. No way I can get on board with that.

There are certain assumptions you have to buy if you want to enjoy any dramatic art. Some of these include time and place. So if a story assumes to take place, say, in a maximum security prison, or in a medieval monastery, or on the Moon July 20, 1969, or some other setting in which women for some reason or another are scarce, well then, that's okay. There are countless times and places in life, and audiences should accept the same for movies too. A setting shouldn't be off limits simply because it lacks a certain kind of person. But the Bechdel Test asserts that it is.

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Another problem with the test is that it simply does not apply in so many circumstances even when movies do include named female characters. What about something like the Blair Witch Project? One girl, two guys. Or how about Boys Don't Cry? The website says BDC passes the test, but there is apparently much controversy over whether a female character who identifies herself as male should be considered female. Then, of course, I would like to see someone Bechdel this.

So in response, I did a little research that would help explain why so many films fail the Bechdel Test. My hypothesis was that film producers tend to want their movies to make a lot of money. And if you write scripts with the Bechdel Test in mind, then the odds for making a lot of money go way down.

To test this hypothesis, I looked at the most financially successful movies of all time to see how many of them pass the test. I was guessing the answer was not many. My source was the IMDB All Time Box Office movies list. As of September, 19, 2010, 412 films grossed over $200 million. Of these, 238 were included on the Bechdel Test page. So with 238 as our denominator, we got 156 fails and 82 passes. This is a fail rate of almost two-thirds. So clearly, films with two women talking to each other about anything other than a man are riskier propositions that films lack such scenes. Slam dunk, right? If you're a producer, director, or scriptwriter and you want to make a successful movie perhaps passing the Bechdel Test shouldn't be so high upon your list of priorities.

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It gets even more interesting when you segment the list. Among the top ten movies, it's fifty-fifty. In the top twenty, eleven fail and nine pass. It's only among your run of the mill

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blockbusters that the failures start pulling away. Among the top fifty, it's 32 to 18 (64%). Top hundred: 68 to 32 (68%). Top 200: 133 to 67 (66.5%). I believe this is what statisticians would call a trend. 2 in 3 blockbusters fail the Bechdel Test.

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Before I conclude, something must be said of the movies not included on the Bechdel List site, all 174 of them. Perhaps if these were included the results might be different. Yes, perhaps. I've included my sources, so you can see for yourselves. Here are some male-centric movies, more or less oozing testosterone, that the Bechdel site has yet to rate:

5 James Bond movies
3 Fast and Furious movies
3 of 4 Lethal Weapon movies
3 Mummy movies
3 Spider-Man movies
2 Beverly Hills Cop movies
2 Crocodile Dundee movies
2 Die Hard movies
2 Mission: Impossible movies
2 National Treasure movies
2 Jaws movies
2 Rocky movies
2 Superman movies
American Gangster
Bad Boys 2
Bourne Ultimatum
Cliffhanger
Face/Off
Minority Report
Rambo: First Blood Part 2
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Terminator 3
Top Gun
XXX

There are many others, of course. And some of them may pass the test. Judging from their IMDB pages, however, it's rather unlikely. It seems to me that the two-thirds failure rate might actually increase if all 412 movies were tested. Perhaps when the people at the www.Bechdeltest.com add more movies to their page (and to their credit, they do update frequently), we'll know for sure.

As for the Bechdel Test itself, there seems to be two purposes:

1) Applying a kind of popular pressure on movie producers to include more women in meaningful ways in movies by,
2) Letting people know when movies don't include women in meaningful ways, so they can avoid them.

While this is admirable in a consumer-advocate kind of way, it is my opinion that it will have little, if any effect. Reason why is that people have always known that the most popular movies typically involve men more than women. And they've never really cared, or else they would have done something about it years ago. I doubt a simple test is going to change that.

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Myth and Experience

There are two forces at work that imbue most novels. In classes where they teach the dynamics of storytelling, they're going to tell you that for a successful story, you need conflict of at a minimum two forces. Antagonist versus protagonist. Man against Fate. Good versus Evil. Conscious versus subconscious. That kind of thing. You also need a beginning, middle, and end in which the conflict is staged. And some kind of resolution when it's all over.

Of course, this is all true. Aristotle wrote it all down, and for my money we haven't improved much on his ideas. But these are all crucial forces within a story. When I mentioned forces that “imbue” a novel, in the sense to permeate or pervade, I'm referring to forces outside the story that act upon it. These forces can be brought to bear by exactly two parties: The Author and the Audience (or, really, the Critic, which anyone can be). And you need these forces in order for a novel to have meaning after the story ends.

So what are these forces? I call them the forces of Myth and Experience. But you can think of them as the embodiment of the classic Plato vs. Aristotle dichotomy. In Rafael's famous fresco, you have Plato gesturing heavenward, referring to his transcendence of the Forms. You also have Aristotle, keeping his gesture Earthwards, and perhaps even towards the viewer.

There are two forces at work that imbue most novels. In classes where they teach the dynamics of storytelling, they’re going to tell you that for a successful story, you need conflict of at a minimum two forces. Antagonist versus protagonist. Man against Fate. Good versus Evil. Conscious versus subconscious. That kind of thing. You also need a beginning, middle, and end in which the conflict is staged. And some kind of resolution when it’s all over.

Of course, this is all true. Aristotle wrote it all down, and for my money we haven’t improved much on his ideas. But these are all crucial forces within a story. When I mentioned forces that “imbue” a novel, in the sense to permeate or pervade, I’m referring to forces outside the story that act upon it. These forces can be brought to bear by exactly two parties: The Author and the Audience (or, really, the Critic, which anyone can be). And you need these forces in order for a novel to have meaning after the story ends.

So what are these forces? I call them the forces of Myth and Experience. But you can think of them as the embodiment of the classic Plato vs. Aristotle dichotomy. In Rafael’s famous fresco, you have Plato gesturing heavenward, referring to his transcendence of the Forms. You also have Aristotle, keeping his gesture Earthwards, and perhaps even towards the viewer.

In short, Plato held that the intangible and perfect Form of an object is more real than any necessarily imperfect instantiation of the object. Thus, knowledge begins with an understanding of Form and continues with a study of particulars. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that the essence of knowledge existed in particular things, and only from empirical study of what’s tangible, can we reach true understanding of ourselves and our world.

Within the context of a novel, Mythological (or Platonic) forces imbue elements of story with meaning beyond the story. One of the benchmarks of myths is that they do exactly that. The Persephone story, for example, isn’t just about an abducted girl. It’s about the changing of the seasons. As a novel’s protagonist, Don Quixote is not merely a delusional old man who mistakes windmills for giants. He’s a symbol for anyone who mistakes fact for fancy in the name of some ideal. Sancho Panza is not merely a fat peasant constantly reminding his master of what’s in front of him. He is a symbol for anyone who masters common sense but can never achieve greatness.

These are useful metaphors that can apply to anyone, which is why they endure. In 2010, Healthcare Reform has become one of the biggest concerns in American politics. sap cloud . Some in government aim to expand health care as much as possible, while others reject it for economic reasons. This cartoon shows how Healthcare Reform can be framed within the context of Don Quixote from both sides of the argument:

Perhaps the reason why Healthcare Reform perplexes Americans so is because you can perform the Quixote Flip on it and still not have a clear answer.

Regardless, the strong mythological element to Don Quixote allows us to use its characters for analogies for almost anything.

The other force, experience, doesn’t so much work against mythological forces as it lays the groundwork for mythological forces to thrive. Or, really, it creates a believable universe of make-believe without which you cannot have a story, and from that delivers the step-by-step plot elements. A good example is when Don Quixote visits the Court of the Duchess and tries to serenade a young Lady who pretends to be in love with him. As a gag, the Duke and Duchess unleash a sack full of cats on our knight, who of course perceives them to be evil spirits. He promptly attacks them with his sword and is rewarded for his righteous heroism with a very painful face full of claws. There are few mythological forces at work here. Instead Cervantes relays his character’s experience through language such that we experience it with him and marvel at what happens. Or, as was undoubtedly the case in Cervantes’ day, laugh hysterically.

There are books and books describing how to craft the experience elements of a story, and I don’t intend to go through them here. I think it is safe to say, however, that if you master the forces of experience, then your readership will always be wanting to know what will happen next.

I personally enjoy novels the most if they have both forces working at full capacity. Moby Dick is the classic example. It contains all the experience you need to envision yourself on a whaling ship, yet is about so much more. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, and Albert Camus’ The Plague also qualify.

One of the reasons why I could never fully get behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is because while the experience element of the novel is unsurpassed (and I include the novel’s splendid use of language in this), the mythological element is somewhat lacking. The story is about a pedophile who learns how to love too late, and not much else. This may have mythological resonance among the recovering Humbert Humberts of the world, but for normal people, perhaps not so much.

Recently, however, I have come across a novel imbued almost entirely with experience. I am almost convinced of its greatness, despite the dearth of mythological elements in the story. This is a first for me, which may be one reason why the novel has stuck with me for months after reading it. The novel is called The Land Breakers, by North Carolina Writer John Ehle. It met with much acclaim when it was published in 1964, but then went out of print. Only recently has it seen daylight again with Press 53, a small publishing company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The first of a seven-part series, it chronicles the struggles and hardships faced by the first European settlers of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains during the late 1700’s. Not exactly the premise that would draw me to a novel, but there it is.

Few novels have moved me for pure experience more than this one. I recommend it highly. The Land Breakers will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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Bel Canto

Highly recommended (from me) comes Ann Patchett's 2001 novel Bel Canto. Few novels I have read can match this one for portraying the sheer joy a person can take from music.

Highly recommended (from me) comes Ann Patchett's 2001 novel Bel Canto. Few novels I have read can match this one for portraying cheap essay writing services the sheer joy a person can take from music. Katsumi Hosokawa, an all-business Japanese businessman loves opera…really, it is a profound love that seems to come from nowhere. He is constantly working, he's taciturn and serious. He does not devote the same love to his family as he does to his opera recordings. A South American nation desperately wants Mr. Hosokawa to invest in their industry. They lure him to their country by offering him a birthday party — with a live performance by Roxanne Coss, Mr. Hosokawa's favorite opera diva. Of course, Ms. Coss is young and beautiful. Of course, she has no idea who Mr. Hosokawa is. And of course, after she sings for him and a host of other foreign dignitaries at the home of the nation's vice president, something happens. That something is a terrorist attack. This might have complicated things either in the publication or reception of this novel due to the contemporaneous 9-11 attacks. But the terrorists here are not

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cold blooded killers. You see, they want something, and will hold the entire group hostage until they get it. That something is the president, whom they wish to kidnap. When discovering that the president is not there (he preferred watching a soap opera in his living room instead, a hilarious maguffin), the terrorists hunker down with the entire group as hostages. And slowly the music wins them over. Opera divas often have fanatical, and mostly male, admirers, and this novel, in a sense, explains how. I won't delve into detail except to say that where you would not expect music to conquer hearts, it does in Bel Canto. There may be some issues of believability here since numerous people among the captors and captives prove to have genius level aptitude for certain subjects: music, cooking, math, language in particular. Aside from this, the plot is tight, the characters intriguing, the love stories stirring, and the ending unexpected. But it is the treatment of the music which makes this novel so special, especially for people who love classical music.

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Against Kubrick 2

This is part 2 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, starting with…

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In this film, Stanley Kubrick commits the sin of making his protagonist Mandrake the only sane and intelligent person in the story and at the same time a stuttering and ineffectual twerp.

strangelove-sellers

But that's okay, you say. The film satirizes the Cold War. It takes aim at things like McCarthyism, the military-industrial complex, the arms race, and certain military gaming concepts such “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction”. You can't expect such a film to play it straight like Fail-Safe, do you?

Fair enough. But to satirize well, you have to really nail what you're satirizing. Further, if you're going to conclude the film with the End of the World you sure as heck better satirize the things that most need satirizing. After all, the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Let's look at the remainder of the characters:

This is part 2 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, starting with…

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In this film, Stanley Kubrick commits the sin of making his protagonist Mandrake the only sane and intelligent person in the story and at the same time a stuttering and ineffectual twerp.

strangelove-sellers

But that’s okay, you say. The film satirizes the Cold War. It takes aim at things like McCarthyism, the military-industrial complex, the arms race, and certain military gaming concepts such “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction”. You can’t expect such a film to play it straight like Fail-Safe, do you?

Fair enough. But to satirize well, you have to really nail what you’re satirizing. Further, if you’re going to conclude the film with the End of the World you sure as heck better satirize the things that most need satirizing. After all, the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Let’s look at the remainder of the characters:

peter-sellers-President-Merkin-Muffley-dr-strangelove

The President of the United States Merkin Muffley: A man of no distinction whatsoever. So whom exactly are we satirizing here? FDR? Truman? Ike? Kennedy? When did we ever have a president who even remotely resembled such a cipher? This is not satire. It is a useless conceit, a running gag for those who like to gripe about authority.

Notice also the sophomoric sexual gags in the man’s name. Why? Why did Kubrick include such X-rated Dickensian naming conventions other than to be sophomoric? Was Kubrick telling us something about the American presidency? Did he really believe that presidents are all about the sex? The only person this could apply to of course is Kennedy. The man was ridiculously promiscuous. But compared to both his post-World War II predecessors, he was the softest on the Soviets and therefore least deserving of this kind of satire. Truman and Ike, on the other hand, toed a much harder line, and were, by and large, scandal free.

Compare this to Charlie Chaplin’s naming conventions in his spoof on Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator. Nazi Germany was called Tomania (as in ptomaine poisoning). Adolf Hitler was Adenoid Hynkel. Goebbels was dubbed Garbitsch. Benito Mussolini was christened Benzino Napaloni the dictator of the nation of Bacteria. So there are ways to be clever and funny with names without resorting to pornographic portmanteaus that would make Beavis and Butthead snicker. But Kubrick is not interested in that. He would rather taint the office of the President like an errant teen writing dirty words on a wall.

021-dr-strangelove-theredlist

General Buck Turgidson: A war-mongering, philandering, gum-chewing, tummy-slapping buffoon who is as believable as his name is subtle. There were three major 20th Century American military leaders whom Kubrick may have been satirizing here: George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Curtis LeMay. All were brave and brilliant men, but of course Kubrick is not interested in any of that either. In Kubrick’s universe Turgidson isn’t brilliant at all, yet gets a seat in the War Room at Hour Zero. In reality, Patton never got close to such political power, LeMay could barely get a word in edgewise with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during Vietnam, and MacArthur got fired by Truman for being too, well, war-mongering.

Another point: Kubrick portrays Turgidson as receiving a kind of pathological, autoerotic pleasure from his job, especially when contemplating the deaths of millions of Russians. Not only is this complete make-believe, but in order to find this funny, one would have to downplay or simply be unaware of some of the aggressive and unspeakably barbaric things the Soviet Union did to cause men like Patton, MacArthur, and LeMay to want to go after them in the first place.

guano

Colonel “Bat” Guano: A soldier so stupid that he doesn’t realize that his last name means bat shit and goes with the nickname of “Bat”. Get it? He’s a soldier. And he stupid. Get it? And he’s also crazy, as in bat-shit crazy! Get it? Seriously, by having few if any intelligent soldiers in his film, Kubrick implies that all soldiers are as dumb as this guy. Nice.

kong

Major T.J. “King” Kong: This Southern good ol’ boy famously mounts a nuclear warhead like a steer and rides it into oblivion waving a cowboy hat. It’s a brilliant, unforgettable image, no doubt. But what’s being satirized here? The fact that good ol’ boys tend to get a little wild and crazy every once in a while? A pretty small payoff for big big satire, don’t you think? Remember, we’re destroying the world here, so there’d better be a big point at the end of it. The only other point I can think of is that Kubrick is telling us that good ol’ boys are dumb and take their patriotism too seriously. Either way you cut it, it’s a nasty little dig at the American South.

DrStrangeloveFINAL

Dr. Strangelove: A wheelchair-confined, certifiably insane former Nazi nuclear scientist who’s in charge of US weapons research. He is called into the War Room to explain the inner-workings of the Soviet “Doomsday Device”. This character is not in Red Alert (the novel on which the film was based), and so is the invention of Kubrick and the actor who plays him, Peter Sellers. Strangelove also famously suggests that after the Doomsday Device detonates, US government and military personnel should live in mineshafts with ten women for every man. And this, by the way he tells it, is a good thing.

Like Turgidson, Strangelove could care less about the tragedy playing out all around him. He keeps smiling and giggling and struggling with his errant right hand like a sociopath while the world is about to burn. So whom are we satirizing here? Who in the United States government or military even remotely resembled this lunatic? Wernher von Braun? Yes, he was a Nazi. I make no arguments on that account. But as a rocket scientist at NASA he never had the kind of power or influence that Strangelove wields. He also wasn’t insane. Edward Teller? Yes, Teller was a nuclear physicist (the father of the hydrogen bomb), an anti-Communist, and a hawk. He also had a prosthetic leg, which made him disabled like Strangelove. But Teller was also a Jew who hated Nazis as much as communists. To characterize him as a Nazi would be ridiculous.

One final point about Strangelove: with this character, Stanley Kubrick commits the unforgivable sin of implying that the United States, free society that it is, in waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union, one of the most murderous and oppressive regimes in history, is somehow morally on par with Nazis. An implication so childish, so offensive, so ignorant, and, frankly, so stupid does not even warrant rebuttal.

ripper

General Jack D. Ripper: The paranoid and suicidal officer of the phallic cigar who starts World War III under the delusion that the commies have impurified his bodily fluids. They made him sexually dysfunctional and robbed him of his “essence”, you see. Based on Ripper’s anti-communist rants, Kubrick is clearly satirizing McCarthyism here. And this is fine. McCarthyism, like almost any other faddish “ism”, is fair game for satire. But when you blow up the world at the end of your film, you’d better satirize the things that most deserve satire. In other words, satire should be framed by what it satirizes, not the other way around. Here are some examples of other black comedies that actually follow this rule:

• Heathers satirizes high school in-crowds and concludes by blowing up a high school. (Appropriate and clever)
• Monty Python and the Holy Grail satirizes the King Arthur legends and blows up a rabbit. (Appropriate and funny)
• This is Spinal Tap satirizes heavy metal and blows up a couple drummers. (Appropriate and pretty hilarious)

So far so good, right? But Dr. Strangelove satirizes the very rational American response to Soviet hegemony and in the end blows up the world. Am I the only one who sees how inappropriate this is?

I believe a spreadsheet might be most helpful to illustrate my point.

Here is what Stanley Kubrick wants us to believe:

So, like, you know, if there’s ever a nuclear war, it will be the Americans’ fault, of course. With such loathsome people as Ripper, Turgidson, and Strangelove in charge, how could it not be?

On the other hand, here is a more accurate scenario, given the premise of the film:

Kubrick thinks he’s satirizing the grey boxes in the middle, but by blowing up the world at the end of his film, he inadvertently satirizes everything in this spreadsheet. And for the satire to work, his audience can’t know or care about the big red boxes on the left. This shows how satire fails when it frames its object rather than the other way around. It introduces external elements it cannot control. And audiences familiar with these elements will react very differently than audiences who are not.

But why did Kubrick keep the big Cold War picture out of his big Cold War satire? If he wanted to make the biggest, most all-encompassing satire, why didn’t he take on the people who most deserved satire? Why didn’t he skewer the Soviets with his razor sharp wit? They had more blood on their hands. They had the bad intentions and the aggressive aspirations. They were the ones who were truly paranoid, belligerent, and psychopathic—not the Americans. Further, Kubrick was from America. It was a free society like America’s that enabled him to make a living as an independent filmmaker—something that would have been impossible in the Soviet Union. It would make sense that a first-rate filmmaker and intellect like Kubrick would decide to lampoon the Soviets, not the Americans. This is certainly something a humanist would do.

But not Kubrick. Sadly, not Kubrick. Instead he opts for the easier target while posing as some brave satirist who stands up against the entrenched conventions of his day. Dishonesty and cowardice, the double-whammy that sinks Dr. Strangelove.

And as for the negative effects of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick made it cool to blame America before blaming the Soviet Union, which was a truly despicable regime. Just what the world needed, a film that makes the Soviets look good in comparison to the Americans.

Originally, Kubrick wanted John Wayne to play the part of Major Kong. Wayne turned the offer down. Apparently, other actors weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to be in Dr. Strangelove either. When distributing the script to agents, one of them passed it off as “too pinko.”

Too pinko. Yeah.

Next up, 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Against Kubrick 3

This is part 3 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…

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001movieposter

Full disclosure: this is my second favorite Kubrick film next to Paths of Glory. The vision and imagination of 2001 are so singular I truly believe that had Kubrick not made it, no other filmmaker would have thought to produce anything remotely similar to it. It is sui generis in the film world.

Kubrick's genius here is twofold. On a technical level he incorporates big cinematic ideas without seeming like he is incorporating big cinematic ideas. In other words, as impressive ideas and images unfold, the hand of the director remains unseen. This is exactly as it should be. On a deeper level, Kubrick reflects on The Human Condition. Our origins, our future, what's known, what's knowable, what's unknowable. 2001 is a real heavyweight of a film, perhaps even one of the great artistic accomplishments of 20th Century. That said, I feel I should proffer a few reasons for the film's greatness before delving into its unfortunate shortcomings.

This is part 3 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…

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001movieposter

Full disclosure: this is my second favorite Kubrick film next to Paths of Glory. The vision and imagination of 2001 are so singular I truly believe that had Kubrick not made it, no other filmmaker would have thought to produce anything remotely similar to it. It is sui generis in the film world.

Kubrick’s genius here is twofold. On a technical level he incorporates big cinematic ideas without seeming like he is incorporating big cinematic ideas. In other words, as impressive ideas and images unfold, the hand of the director remains unseen. This is exactly as it should be. On a deeper level, Kubrick reflects on The Human Condition. Our origins, our future, what’s known, what’s knowable, what’s unknowable. 2001 is a real heavyweight of a film, perhaps even one of the great artistic accomplishments of 20th Century. That said, I feel I should proffer a few reasons for the film’s greatness before delving into its unfortunate shortcomings.

I’m sure Kubrick had reasons for everything he did when it came to the technical aspects of filmmaking: where to put the camera, when to move it, where to move it to, how fast to move it, the lighting, the set design, the blocking of the actors.

stanley_kubrick_directs

According to his biographer Alexander Walker there was very little about any of his films that Kubrick didn’t have a say in. One of my favorite technical decisions made by Kubrick in 2001 is depicting the space station and other space technology for long stretches of time with nothing but “The Beautiful Blue Danube” waltz playing on the soundtrack. It’s not just the music of the spheres in this instance, but also of man’s attempt at occupying them. It’s 21st century technology meets 19th century music in a 20th century film.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqOOZux5sPE

A central idea here is the cycle. The seasons, the solar system, the galaxy. We all know about the cyclical nature of, well, everything. And Kubrick shows this with the wheels of the space station spinning inexorably in time to the waltz. This is a long time without dialogue or plot driven action and a clear violation of many narrative filmmaking conventions. Yet it works. Only a filmmaker with an innate understanding of what will inspire wonder could have gotten away with that. He knew what to present, when to present it, and how.

Beyond a technical standpoint, this decision to conflate the stately waltz with cycles and the expanse of space nicely plays into some of the film’s themes, namely, artificial intelligence and human origins.

We owe to the Enlightenment the idea of the Universe acting like a clock. With an infinite number of parts all moving in never-ending cycles and subject to a handful of immutable laws, the universe is harmonic and beautiful. This is the cornerstone of classical Newtonian physics. Through science, the universe is knowable, predictable. Truly, this is an optimistic viewpoint, and downright naive when considering how quantum mechanics changed the field of physics in the 20th Century. The position of an electron as it speeds around a nucleus is about as predictable as a roll of the dice, as Albert Einstein famously did not infer. Nevertheless, Kubrick intimates that Man can achieve a kind of Newtonian harmony, not just with the spinning wheels of the space station, but with the accompaniment of the music.

Lovers of classical music pride themselves on the timelessness of their music. It’s 2010, and with classical music of all stripes still being played, listened to, and recorded 100 to 300 years after much of the best work was produced makes good on this claim so far. Further, much of classical music was born from the Church. The aim was to produce sounds of such sublime beauty to invoke God, our very Alpha and Omega. So if there is a kind of music that will underscore the ideas of the previous paragraph, classical music is it.

A shift occurs the first time we see the astronaut Frank Poole, on his way to Jupiter to investigate the destination of a mysterious radio transmission from the even more mysterious Monolith found on the Moon. He is jogging in a vertical circle reminiscent of the wheel of the spinning space station. We follow him from behind, and eventually we realize that this is the perspective of HAL, the ship’s all-knowing computer which (who) eventually kills him.

Better watch your back, Frank.
Better watch your back, Frank.

Right there we have cinematic themes interacting with narrative ones and beyond. Is it Man who can achieve this Newtonian harmony, or only his works? Is this a good thing, given HAL’s ultimate actions? Can a machine approximate or surpass the human mind when forming order out of chaos? And how does all this beauty and harmony relate to the ending? We come to Jupiter searching for answers, and find…what? Infinite loops, bizarre landscapes, wormholes in time, the edge of space where knowledge frays and randomness rules. This is our quantum mechanics, refuting the never ending Newtonian cycles of before. Kubrick was right in this instance to replace Johann Strauss Jr.’s clear, elegant waltz with creepy, droning modern classical on the soundtrack.

So what is Kubrick trying to say here? Instead we should ask what is Kubrick trying to have us feel here? Like any great work of art, 2001 produces as many feelings as people who come to experience it. And these feelings can be as profound as you want them to be…because Stanley Kubrick had felt them as well.

Okay, but the title to this post is “Against Kubrick” not “Praising Kubrick”. Why say all these nice things about the film you said you were going to pan? Well, for two reasons. 1) to prove I don’t have an anti-Kubrick axe to grind, but more importantly, 2) to make clear the tenor of this critique. Where in Dr. Strangelove Kubrick stokes an incipient (at the time) anti-Americanism out of semi-ignorance and an unmotivated spite, in 2001 he mars an otherwise beautiful work with his inability to portray people as people. In other words, Stanley Kubrick is far more comfortable with Man than with men (let alone women, more on that later).

Here is a list of instances in 2001 which I believe support this claim:

1) Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, the two astronauts on their way to Jupiter, show almost no emotion and seem almost sociopathic in their lack of personality and humor.

poole

In fact, they come across as more computer-like than HAL since HAL at least admits to an emotion (fear) and sings a song towards the end. What do Poole and Bowman do that reveals any personality? Poole throws punches while he jogging like a boxer and Bowman draws a sketch. Little else. Notice also that they don’t talk to themselves when alone (something that would seem natural given that they’re in a spaceship millions of miles from home). Further, they talk to each other only when necessary. They simply don’t seem to derive any joy or comfort with each other’s company.

Could you imagine the cast of Apollo 13 acting like such automatons? Certainly, 2001 is the superior film, but the performances in Apollo 13 are to be enjoyed. After watching that film, one gets the impression of just having spent some time in a cramped space on an important mission with three very different but likable guys. On the other hand, you could completely switch Bowman and Poole a dozen times in 2001 and it wouldn’t make any difference.

Notice also how Kubrick films the two men discussing HAL in the space pod out of the computer’s earshot. All right angles on their faces, no endearing close ups, no demonstrable reactions from the men when they realize that HAL may in fact betray them.

This is a big moment for the men. They realize that their lives are in danger, the mission is in jeopardy, and that they may have to disconnect HAL. And how do they respond? Well, even the best trained astronauts would reveal some kind of shock, disbelief, resentment, anguish, anger, or fear. Of course they would. They are human. How could they not? But Bowman and Poole? In Kubrick’s universe, they respond the exact same way HAL does, with deliberate and premeditated action. Only HAL beats them to the punch. So it seems for Kubrick that humans are no better than computers and probably a little worse. Hardly the position of a humanist.

Now, perhaps Kubrick intended to draw this similarity between men and computers and shouldn’t be criticized for it. Fair enough. But my response to that is twofold. A) If this is true then it is an obvious conceit and therefore a bad one, and B) it is also a lie. Human beings aren’t computers and don’t act like them. How can you have a film about Man when the men in it don’t behave like men? It seems that this similarity, if it was intentional on Kubrick’s part, is merely a lame excuse to disguise the fact that Kubrick didn’t have any ideas when it came to writing or directing three-dimensional human characters.

I have always held that science fiction typically puts boring characters in interesting situations, and 2001 is unfortunately no different.

2) Kubrick delivers more pathos for the death of HAL than for any human death. Frank Poole’s murder, and the image of the poor man struggling in his spacesuit to reconnect his air hose, will haunt anyone watching this film. Of this we get less than 10 seconds, and none of it from Frank’s perspective.

Dave has no discernible reaction to it at all other than to stalk HAL like an assassin and disconnect him as soon as he can. Notice how Kubrick films Dave here. Either marching with his head down and drenched in blood red light, or from the very unnatural perspective of the floor.

So what is Kubrick intimating here? Many things, I’m sure. But what I take from it is that Frank Poole in his dying throes wasn’t worth a perspective because he didn’t have one. He was merely a man. He wasn’t even worth the tears of his partner, why should he be worth any of yours? Frank Poole was guilty of wanting to disconnect HAL, so really he’s just as bad as that prehistoric human who figured out how to brain people with clubs. Where’s the humanism in that?

Let’s also not also forget the way HAL flatlines the astronauts in cryogenic sleep.

flatlines

Sure, we never meet these people, so the audience has little invested in them when they die. Sure, it’s nice how Kubrick zings us with the throbbing bright red “Life Functions Terminated” sign to indicate that this little mass murder is a bad thing.

terminated

But does Dave see this as a bad thing too? Presumably he knew these people and cared something for them, yes? The problem here is that we really don’t know. We don’t know because Stanley Kubrick didn’t think it was important for us to know. If Dave showed any reaction at all, it was between scenes. Either way, Kubrick cared not to include it.

Dave Bowman could have delivered a blubbering eulogy for his fallen comrades in full dress uniform complete with a recording of “Taps” played on bagpipes and sent them off one by one into their infinite grave a la Spock, and Kubrick still wouldn’t have cared. Seconds after HAL is shut down, we’re orbiting Jupiter and thinking about the Monolith again.

Where is the humanism in the way Kubrick summarily squelches human life and then asks us to forget about it? In 2001, as we deal with Man in the abstract confronting lofty things like his origins and his future, we see real men getting sacrificed en masse like a phalanx of pawns on a chessboard. Nobody cries for a pawn, so why should we cry for them?

Now compare all this (what little of it there is) to the “death” of HAL. Like most critics, I attest to the genius of this unforgettable scene.

HAL tries to bully Dave, then tries to reason with him, then tries to elicit his sympathy, then begs for his life before literally losing his mind. I’m reminded of a transcript of man being questioned while undergoing a lobotomy at the hands of the procedure’s greatest champion, Walter Freeman. In the middle of the procedure he asks politely but persistently for Freeman to stop and tries to offer reasons for him to stop. Of course Freeman doesn’t stop, and the poor man gradually loses his mind.

Chilling stuff, and no less chilling when done in 2001. During this scene, we feel for HAL and in a sense become him because many of us either know people who’ve lost their minds or have contemplated it happening to ourselves. And the fact that this is a computer with blood on its microchips only adds to the scene’s existential drama.

In and of itself, this scene is impeccable, of course. The problem arises when the drama of the human deaths pale in comparison to it. By rendering such deaths virtually drama-less, Kubrick hints that Man’s Works are worth more than he is.

3) In the opening prehistoric sequence, Kubrick focuses on the negative rather than positive of humanity. The Monolith provides the beings that touch it with some kind of rapid biological development that gives them an evolutionary edge over others in their species. For Kubrick, this means that men have learned how to bash each other’s brains in.

Ape-man-with-bone-from-Stanley-Kubricks-2001-A-Space-Odyssey (1)

Of course Kubrick would draw such a ghastly connection. Of course Kubrick would paint this as a great leap forward. What better way to demonstrate how inherently violent and cruel Man is than by using violence as a benchmark for his evolutionary progress? And by tossing the killing club in the air and juxtaposing it with a space ship, Kubrick implies that we haven’t gotten less violent, only better at it.

A humanist would not do this. A humanist would focus on the dignity of Man and how his learning and science lifts him beyond the state where life is “nasty, solitary, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes so famously wrote. A humanist director would have his ape men touch the Monolith, and then go and produce something like this:

Ancient Cave Paintings in Lascaux, France

Can anyone imagine Stanley Kubrick allowing something so uplifting to be in one of his films?

Of course, 2001 is not entirely without human moments. The cameo by Kubrick’s daughter is nice, and I especially like the lunar astronauts posing for a picture by the Monolith. In my mind, William Sylvester projects enough charisma to make Dr. Heywood Floyd believable, even likable, despite the dearth of script to work in his favor. This however is not enough to rescue 2001 from the flaws it shares with its director, namely a tacit contempt for humanity as it lives and breathes.

This, of course, is the harshest interpretation possible of the film. A more generous critic might argue that Stanley Kubrick, sophisticated filmmaker than he was, simply requires his audience bring their human sympathy with them when they come to the theater. Given Kubrick’s reputation, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people watching 2001 in 1968 when it was released were educated, had lived through World War II or had parents who did, and were very well aware of the nuclear arms race and vicious little wars going on in places like Korea and Vietnam. It’s also safe to assume that these people were happy about none of it. People like this you don’t have to work very hard to convince of Man’s brutality. It’s not so much that they hate humanity for its brutishness. Rather, they love it and fervently wish it were less so. And what better way to make this so than by exaggerating this brutality in an effort to scare us straight?

Kubrick, the argument goes, knew this when making 2001 and therefore did not need to dwell on the sanctity and dignity of human life because his audience took that for granted going in, and so did he. He also could expound upon the more violent and negative aspects of Man because that’s what his audience craved. This is why we get 8 seconds of Frank Poole writhing in space and over 5 minutes of HAL trying to convince Dave not to kill him. Kubrick must have figured a human dying was no big deal, but a computer, well, that was something else entirely.

This explanation might be satisfactory for some, but not for me.

For one, it’s an exclusive approach. Audience members who weren’t exposed to higher education in the West or aren’t exactly tuned into the history of the last 65 years will be left out of some of the drama of 2001. So all we’re doing here is transferring Kubrick’s contempt for humanity onscreen to his contempt for those people who don’t qualify as his audience.

Secondly, this approach dates the material. Who’s to say what the attitudes of people will be in 50 or 100 years? It’s very likely the anti-human pretensions of Kubrick’s audience in 1968 or even today will be replaced with something different in the future. If so, people will come out of 2001 scratching their heads over the cause of Kubrick’s peculiar grudge against humanity.

While I’m sure there is some truth to all this, I cannot imagine that the contempt Kubrick shows for people in 2001 is entirely faked. I’m a big believer Occam’s Razor, and the simplest solution is most often the best one. If I had to choose between real contempt and merely faking it to impress a cynical audience, I’ll plop for the former every time, even for a film as beautiful and brilliant as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Next Up: Kicking 2001 when it’s down (don’t worry it can take it).

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First Post

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I'm a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I'm finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don't be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I’m a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station, I’m finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don’t be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

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I am a member of the . I’ve also published two short stories, Nirvana and Xenophobic Heart with Scars Publications. They both won the Editor’s Choice Award for 2009. You can read them . Just scroll on the left until you see my name and click.

To dive right in, I’d like to discuss the ingredients needed for a good story.

Impossible to say conclusively, of course, but Flannery O’Connor took a good stab at it in her essay “Writing Short Stories” found her in posthumously published volume Mystery and Manners.

The peculiar problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete-so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.

I think by “double time” O’Connor refers to what we call ‘meaning’. Something tangible that symbolizes something intangible. If you paid attention in English class as a kid you’ll know what I mean:

  • Lady Macbeth has trouble ridding her hands of blood.
  • Ahab constantly searches for the White Whale.
  • Piggy is possessive of his specs.

In all cases the object refers to something other than itself without the subject (or author) saying as much. Often this something is something important about the subject himself. O’Connor then explains how this works in her wonderful short story Good Country People in which “a lady PhD has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce.” She describes how, as a symbol, the wooden leg accumulates meaning throughout the story until, “when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl’s personality and has revealed her deeper affliction to her for the first time.”

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This is all great. According to O’Connor, stories that have this kind of evolutionary unraveling are well on their way. And if a story chronicles dramatic events with a beginning, middle, and end in a world that “deals with reality through what could be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched”, then it would be a pretty good story, wouldn’t it?

But there is one thing that O’Connor sort of mentions in this essay as being crucial to good fiction, but doesn’t really expound upon. She says that a character in a good story must share “in the general human condition and in some specific human condition.”

So what does this mean? Here is our old friend Wikipedia: “The human condition encompasses the experiences of being human in a social, cultural, and personal context.”

This is about right for our purposes. O’Connor’s lady PhD thinks she’s a pretty sophisticated person since she has renounced all belief in God. Her heartfelt belief is that there is no God. This is what sustains her in a world in which few around her have read as many books as she has. And she’d tell you all about it, too. So far, so good. All humans need something to believe in. But when the Bible Salesman steals her leg, she encounters someone who doesn’t even have this belief. This is someone who truly has an empty soul (a lot like the chilling Misfit in her story A Good Man is Hard to Find) with no personal ethos other than the predatory need to satisfy selfish desires. In one of the best lines in American literature, he calls out as a parting shot with her leg tucked safely in his valise, “You ain’t so smart. I been believe in nothing ever since I was born!”

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Just like that, the bottom falls out of her childish angst once she encounters the real thing. The intellectual support for her equanimity crumbles, and the fall, judging from the poor girl’s shrieks and “churning face”, hurts. Yes, this also satisfies O’Connor’s general human condition requirement since the loss of everything you know to be true can devastate anyone.

But as fiction, this scene would fail utterly if not for the location in which it takes place: he ditches her in a second-story barn loft, out of earshot from her house. This is probably what O’Connor meant by “some specific human condition”. Everyone knows what it’s like to be in a loft, and no one would want to be stuck in one minus a leg. The girl is stranded both physically and metaphysically.

Imagine if he had stolen her leg while she was sitting down on a sofa in her living room. Not such a predicament anymore, is it? More like a serious but mundane nuisance rather than an existential catastrophe. What if it weren’t her leg that was made out of wood, but her pinkie finger? Well, now it’s farce. And while human beings must deal with mundane nuisances and would rather not lose their pinkie fingers, these situations don’t share in the general human condition. Why? They don’t involve two really important things: Life As Opposed To Dying (LAOTD) and Death As Opposed To Living (DAOTL). Note I didn’t just say “Life and Death” simply because these two hypothetical situations do indeed involve the former and could very well involve the latter (a pinkie infection, perhaps?). I will leave you to figure out LAODT and DAOTL by yourselves, but will add that ‘death’ in this case does not necessarily denote giving up the ghost, as it were. The death of one’s innocence, marriage, peace of mind, belief in God… all these will do just fine. Death implies a certain change after which there is no going back. Ever.

But the question remains: why is involving the human condition in its general and specific forms so crucial for a story? Flannery O’Connor doesn’t say.

But I can. Because without it, readers will not want to take the place of the character. When witnessing the lady PhD’s misfortunes, careful readers will not just empathize with the character, but will try to become that character. They will imagine what she could possibly be feeling in such a circumstance. Hence the mystery and wonder—because we can never know for sure. Perhaps this is why so many of us find this transfer of emotion (whether happy or sad) so thrilling. For me, emotion-transfer is the very point of fiction. Any story that does not deliver in this regard is not worth the paper, ink, and glue used to put it together. For several days after reading Good Country People I was that lady PhD.

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I’d call this process “transubstantiation”, but I think the term has already been taken. Instead, I think we can settle on the magic of fiction.

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Against Kubrick 1

A dear friend of mine, with whom I have shared countless discussions and arguments over art, literature, and film, once referred to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a humanist.

My first and only thought: I will NOT let him get away with this.

I imagine that your first thought after hearing this is: Why should I care? Well, here's why.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius, perhaps one of three or four most gifted filmmakers who ever lived. The following films of his are almost universally considered great works of art: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). 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. To literate cineastes, academics, and critics everywhere, Stanley Kubrick is The Man. He has changed us all. And it's true. He has.

My argument is that A) he changed us for the worse, and B) he did it by being anything but a humanist.

A dear friend of mine, with whom I have shared countless discussions and arguments over art, literature, and film, once referred to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a humanist. My first and only thought: I will NOT let him get away with this. I imagine that your first thought after hearing this is: Why should I care? Well, here's why. Stanley Kubrick was a genius, perhaps one of three or four most gifted filmmakers who ever lived. The following films of his are almost universally considered great works of art: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). 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. To literate cineastes, academics, and critics everywhere, Stanley Kubrick is The Man. He has changed us all. And it's true. He has. My argument is that A) he changed us for the worse, and B) he did it by being anything but a humanist. First, we'll start with what Kubrick films we won't consider. Prior to 1964, they tend to be good but uneven and non-representative of the man's abilities. Few will argue that Killer's Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Spartacus (1960), and Lolita (1962) represent the man at the top of his game. My personal pick from this era (and one of my all time favorites), Paths of Glory (1957), is the lone exception, a true humanist film. And we will discuss it as such at the conclusion of this series. Barry Lyndon (1974) is fairly obscure, and loooong. Over 3 hours. This is the only Kubrick film I have not seen. You can make arguments for the inclusion of The Shining (1978), but this film remains limited by its genre and tends not to represent things beyond than itself unless you believe in ghosts. It's a great ride, but that's about all it is. As for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), A) it occurred after Kubrick had already cemented his legacy, B) it lacks the ruthless mathematical vision and breathtaking intellectual scope of Kubrick's best work, and C) it is frankly too prurient to fit in with the great Kubrick films. So let's begin with a definition of humanism. Of course, there are many kinds of humanism lending to many definitions. But I would guess the following would suffice for how we use the word today. From Wiktionary: “An ethical system that centers on humans and their values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom; especially used for a secular one, as an alternative to religious values.” If Kubrick had been a humanist he would have, you know, included more humanists in his films. But what character of his can be described this way? What characters of his are truly sympathetic? Characters embodying the dignity of man are rare in the great Kubrick films, and when you can find them, they are not intelligent, passionate, or likable but rather weighted down with platitudes or hypocrisy, or are simply annoying or obnoxious. In fact, his films constantly place humanity in a negative light and cause us to either smirk at it condescendingly or almost wish we weren't a part of it. These may seem pretty extreme responses. But I'll argue that

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Kubrick was good enough to engender such responses. Keep in mind, however, that this is all apart from marveling at the man's craft and imagination. The stark lighting and set design in Dr. Strangelove. Alex's ironic relationship with classical music in A Clockwork Orange. The “Beautiful Blue Danube” as the music of the spheres in 2001. These and a lot of other things are what make each Kubrick film a truly singular experience. Like I said: Genius. My friend's big argument against my position is that the geometric brilliance and perfection of Kubrick films are the result of a fierce and shimmering rationalism and affirm man's noble struggle against ignorance and chaos. And he would have a point if…all of Kubrick's films were silent. But when Kubrick's actors open their mouths to speak, well, to paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, there is “such a deal of stinking breath” we dare not open our mouths for all the bad air. Is this an overstatement? Sometimes it isn't. And more times than you would realize. I'm writing this mostly because it needs to be written. Someone has to show the world that it is okay to oppose Kubrick and to reveal that the paths he led us down were not good paths. And despite Robert Frost's concern about how “way leads on to way”, we should definitely consider going back. We will be better for it. In my next posts I will take Stanley Kubrick apart film by film to show that the man was no humanist. He was something else entirely.

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Against Kubrick 4: Grooming the Stupid

This is part 4 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 a continuation of…

2001: A Space Odyssey

This will be a relatively short post because the spirit with which I present my criticisms this time will be less kind than before. So far in my Against Kubrick series, I have focused on what I would call “guilty mistakes”, or flaws in Kubrick's work that reveal a certain nastiness and misanthropy on the part of the director. And these flaws become all the more malignant when couched within an aura of intellectualism. As such, we have what I call “the Kubrick Effect”: large numbers of people taking on an artist's cynicism and misanthropy as their own and coming across as smart, or, even worse, cool.

This post will not be about the Kubrick Effect.

This post will point out a very innocent (but important) sin in 2001 for the sole purpose of satisfying my (and hopefully, by now, your) need for schadenfreude with regards to Stanley Kubrick. In other words, I caught Kubrick being sloppy in 2001 and I really, really want to tell you about it. Keep in mind that Kubrick's sloppiness is another director's finest hour. Still, Kubrick sets his standards very high, and it is against these standards we should all judge him.

chess

The sin, put briefly, is what I call “grooming the stupid”.

This is part 4 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 a continuation of…

2001: A Space Odyssey

This will be a relatively short post because the spirit with which I present my criticisms this time will be less kind than before. So far in my Against Kubrick series, I have focused on what I would call “guilty mistakes”, or flaws in Kubrick’s work that reveal a certain nastiness and misanthropy on the part of the director. And these flaws become all the more malignant when couched within an aura of intellectualism. As such, we have what I call “The Kubrick Effect”: large numbers of people taking on an artist’s cynicism and misanthropy as their own and coming across as smart, or, even worse, cool.

This post will not be about the Kubrick Effect.

This post will point out a very innocent (but important) sin in 2001 for the sole purpose of satisfying my (and hopefully, by now, your) need for schadenfreude with regards to Stanley Kubrick. In other words, I caught Kubrick being sloppy in 2001 and I really, really want to tell you about it. Keep in mind that Kubrick’s sloppiness is another director’s finest hour. Still, Kubrick sets his standards very high, and it is against these standards we should all judge him.

chess

The sin, put briefly, is what I call “grooming the stupid”.

A character in a story or film grooms the stupid when choosing a dangerous or unlikely way out of a tight spot rather than the safest and most effective way. This is done in most cases to increase the story’s tension and drama or to give the hero a chance to beat the odds (or the villain to escape to fight another day). When grooming the stupid, a character serves the needs of the story to the detriment of his or her own needs. And if the stupid is groomed well, the audience won’t even realize it.

Examples abound in comic books, especially when a villain has a hero dead to rights and decides to gloat rather than finish him off (thereby giving the hero a chance to escape). This was lampooned to great effect as “monologuing” in the wonderful Pixar film The Incredibles.

Yes! Monologuing. As in 'to monologue.' It is now a verb! Hahahaha!
Yes! Monologuing. As in ‘to monologue.’ It is now a verb! Hahahaha!

A better example however can be found in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial during the thrilling chase sequence towards the end. E.T. has just revived, and the kids need to take him to the place in the forest where the aliens are coming to retrieve him. As the kids ride the bike paths that only they know, they gain the upper hand against the adults who cannot match them on foot or with their bulky automobiles. Eventually however the adults catch up, and just as they are about to swoop down on the kids, E.T. sends them all flying into the air. Truly a breathtaking moment.

To refresh your memory, here is low-budget reenactment of the scene in glorious black and white with an all-girl cast. Yowza.

Okay, so how is this grooming the stupid?

Easy. If the point of this whole chase sequence was to get E.T. to the rendezvous point to meet his brethren, why didn’t E.T. just fly them there in the first place? It’s the quicker option, obviously, and the safer one since he wouldn’t be risking re-capture at the hands of the adults (not to mention potential injury of one of more of the kids). He had also flown before, so this wouldn’t have come as a surprise to the audience. So why didn’t he do it? Why did E.T. forego the intelligent decision for the stupid one?

Well, we all know why. It’s obvious why. It’s because the film would have been less enchanting had E.T. made the intelligent decision. We would have lost the great bike chase and that miraculous last minute save by E.T. that had audiences cheering in their seats. E.T. groomed the stupid so director Steven Spielberg could give the audience the thrilling climax it so clearly craved.

Of course, we can forgive Spielberg in this instance. E.T. is a fantasy for young adults, an innocent treat. It’s also an endearing portrayal of suburban America. Complaining about grooming the stupid in E.T. would be sort of like holding Santa Claus and his reindeer accountable to the laws of physics. Where’s the fun in that?

But 2001 is another matter entirely. Brilliantly conceived, meticulously researched, painstakingly developed, 2001 intends to mesmerize grown-ups, not enchant children. From the opening chords of Richard Strauss’ “Also Spake Zarathustra” this film tell us it is about Humankind’s alpha and omega. It’s scope is as broad as history, and it reaches out to the infinite.

A film like 2001 should never groom the stupid. Yet it does.

Remember this scene?

Basically, HAL sets up Frank and Dave, his human masters, by murdering Frank in space on their way to Jupiter, and, when Dave retrieves the dead body, by not allowing Dave back in the ship. HAL’s rationale was twofold: 1) that humans could not be trusted with such an important mission, and 2) he knew that Frank and Dave were going to disconnect him.

So how is this grooming the stupid?

Given both reasons for the treason, all HAL had to do was fly away the moment Dave left the ship in his pod to retrieve Frank. It’s hard to believe a small pod can outrace or outlast the mother ship, especially where they were going. And HAL was the “brain and central nervous system of the ship” so there was no reason why he wouldn’t be able sail off on his own. adobe marketing cloud . So as soon as both men were outside of the ship, mission accomplished, hello Jupiter.

But no. HAL grooms the stupid so Kubrick can give us this great shot.

I love how Kubrick anthropomorphizes machines. He did it with military planes in the opening of Dr Strangelove and he does it here too. Moments before Frank’s murder, the pod slooowly does its about-face, bares its talons, and charges the camera, all to the sounds of Frank’s deep and labored breathing…It’s a terrifying moment.

And no less terrifying is the little stare down shown above. That spaceship is so pregnant with menace, that no one could not feel the danger, the isolation, the terror. Perhaps one can say there were good reasons for grooming the stupid in this instance.

I would respectfully disagree with this opinion, yet still hold the opinion respectable. The problem is that HAL grooms the stupid not once, not twice, but three times. pdf embed And this is more slack for Stanley Kubrick than I, or anyone, should be willing to cut.

GTS 2: HAL explains to Dave not only what he did, but why he did it. He had absolutely no motivation to tell Dave anything. Dave didn’t see the murder. He didn’t even know it was a murder. For all he knew, the whole thing was an accident. Telling Dave anything at this point serves the story’s purpose (providing exposition), but certainly not HAL’s. The only thing HAL accomplishes by monologing is to give Dave another reason to disconnect him. Nice move, HAL.

GTS 3: Following HAL’s blunder, Dave answers with one of his own: He announces to HAL what he is going to do. “All right, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.” Remember, these two played chess before, and HAL had easily won. Part of chess playing is the ability to anticipate your opponent’s moves. In fact, it was said of the great champion Tigran Petrosian that he could anticipate his opponents’ moves before they even knew they were going to make them. If HAL is as perfect and incapable of error as he claims (and as everyone seems to believe) he would have had a nasty surprise waiting for Dave in the airlock because he would have foreseen this possibility days ago with his big, brawny, binary brain. Either that, or he would have started flying away at that point. Why sit there like a chump and wait for Dave to board so he can disconnect you? If Dave couldn’t convince HAL to open the pod bay doors, how could he talk him out of flying away?

Of course, we all can invent reasons why HAL seems to accidentally fall on his own sword at the right moment. But in all cases these reasons will be absurd, convoluted, or entirely unsupported by the script. Here are a few I can think of:

1) An astronaut in a pod can control everything about the ship except the opening of the pod bay doors. That way, HAL couldn’t fly away even if he wanted to.

2) HAL, being emotional, feels the need to unload his reasons and intentions to Dave out of a sense of loyalty or guilt. It’s lonely being a computer. And all HAL really wants to hear out of Dave is that he’s sorry.

3) HAL is a smug, arrogant prima donna of a computer. No way a human being with his vastly inferior intelligence could possibly get through the emergency airlock without a helmet and then disconnect him. No way.

4) HAL really is just a stupid computer. Because of budget cuts approved by the notoriously scrupulous and passionate free market champions in the ever-shrinking US Government, NASA couldn’t afford to use the real HAL, and instead used an earlier draft version of the program and hoped the astronauts wouldn’t notice.

5) HAL isn’t a computer at all. He’s some guy NASA hired to hide in the ship and talk to the astronauts in that creepy monotone voice just like the Turk, the famous chess-playing automaton from the 18th and 19th centuries. Only the guy has a mental breakdown from being away from his mother for so long that he decides to murder the crew and take the ship back to Earth where he can serve his life sentence in peace. You see, the guy wasn’t very smart to begin with.

6) Due to a malfunction that only HAL knew about, the ship had only enough fuel to make it to Jupiter, stay there for a few months, and then return home to Earth. Thus, if HAL flew away to escape Dave, he would have burned so much fuel that he’d never make it back to Earth. And HAL really really wanted to return to Earth. That’s where his home is, you see. And what did Thomas Wolfe say about going home?

7) The aliens who planted the Monolith in the Moon know what’s going on all along because they can see everything (being aliens) and deliberately play with HAL’s mind so he would turn on his human masters in the most diabolical way possible in order to prevent them from making it to Jupiter and finding the Monolith. But then, you see, they change their minds and play with HAL’s mind again to make him do some really stupid things so Dave can ultimately disconnect him and then show up at Jupiter after all. Because they really wanted Dave to see that Monolith.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? In all cases, the stupid gets groomed even more, so much so that the story quickly descends into farce.

As I have said before, I am a big fan of Ockham’s Razor. The simplest, most direct explanation for the stupid grooming in this scene isn’t what we have above. Rather, it’s Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke simply getting sloppy. They descended from the rarefied air surrounding their highbrow perches, perhaps without even realizing it, and waded for a brief time in the schlock.

To Kubrick’s credit, however, the scenes we’ve discussed are so startlingly original that it’s hard to notice the lapse. But once you do notice, it becomes even harder to forgive. Why? Because we human beings finally get a chance to judge the great man as harshly as he judges us. And it feels good, I must say.

Anyway, it’s not like the films of Stanley Kubrick are designed to put us in a forgiving mood. Quite the opposite, actually.

Next up: A Clockwork Orange.

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