2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick may have been correct in assigning Richard Strauss to the apes and Johann Strauss to the spacemen. Standing somewhere in the middle of this evolution, I wonder which creature has it worse, the screeching primate or the cosmic amphibian. Certainly, our robotic dullard of the future could do worse than the Blue Danube Waltz. But need it fill every bubble of its silly life with the gaseous demand to live life in three-quarter time? Thus Spake Zarathustra, on the other hand, plays like the birth of an idea, and at the dawn of the next stage of human evolution there will be another strain of Richard before succumbing once again to Johann’s long sleep. Perhaps Kubrick is suggesting we take a nap between our moments of enlightenment rather than walk about and reveal our in-the-moment stupidity by speaking. 2001: A Space Odyssey is something of an evolutionary moment for Kubrick, who has hitherto been a movie director whose primary intent was story-telling. Now he favors the visual construction of thematic issues to the human evidence of themes enacted. His design here is not too different from the claustrophobic ovals of his previous film, Dr. Strangelove. But that picture was buzzing with comic performances, while all 2001 has to offer is a Jack Benny – Rochester gag between a spaceman and a robot that goes on for about thirty minutes. The audience is the butt of Kubrick’s joke, but those who catch onto his peculiar laugh track will at least get a little bit of amusement on this trip to Jupiter and the infinity beyond. I wonder if Gary Lockwood was cast as Kier Dullea’s co-pilot on the strength of his previous work as Elvis Presley’s co-pilot in It Happened at the World’s Fair. Silly as it might seem, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were. After all, where else could the director have seen him? He was only on one episode of Star Trek. I went to see 2001 a second time because I slept through about an hour of it the first time. The second time around, I conked out too. But despite the absolute tedium of the middle ninety minutes, the opening twenty offer a scary ideation of the dawn of man, and the final twenty a vision of cosmic hope for man’s future place in the universe. But maybe Kubrick has it backwards. Perhaps life on Earth is but the in utero memory of a star before its final collapse into itself.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Like 1984, for which Orwell transposed the date 1948 of the novel’s true setting, A Clockwork Orange is a future-tense satire of the present day. From the American perspective, it could be an imagining of the seventies without the peace and love intervention of the sixties, the hoods of West Side Story taking a nihilistic jump across a decade into the next generation. What surprised me about the movie’s reception was how readily Alex was adopted as a role model by the post-hippie alterna-teens, both for his amoral expression of hedonism via ultraviolence and his teddyboy gone glam fashion sense (seeing the movie again two years later, I asked for a refund after twenty minutes, not having been able to take the closeness between Alex’s droogs and the creeps like Ted Bundy who were terrorizing our own streets). Beyond this, Kubrick had also shown a keen insight into the likely direction of trends, including the development of the record store into a mini-mall and the milk bar as a cross-generational opium den. Some of my friends unfairly dismissed the brilliant art direction and set design as being too much like a cartoon. I think they were looking for reasons to avoid engaging with the picture, and the ambiguities it presented in regard to championing a villain as reprehensible as Alex. The film allowed no comfortable moral position from which the viewer could dissect him. Everyone in the theater was an accomplice to the crimes committed in the first act. Shocking as were the murders and the rapes, we enjoyed partaking in them, and kicked Patrick McGee along with Alex to the rhythm of Singin’ in the Rain. In the final movement, when he was on the other end of the stick, we were still with him, not with his tormentors, although they were the ones on the high ground. In the end, we celebrated his cure from the cure and were happy that the old Alex grimace had returned. More murder, more rape, hurrah!
Barry Lyndon (1975)
I nearly choked on the first image of Barry Lyndon. I had never seen such beauty on a movie screen. It was as if light had been transformed into oil. Black branches slashed the six colors of the sky, five men stood against distant hills on the brown earth, which boasted as many colors as the sky, a bright green in the foreground hosting the remnants of a stone wall. Nothing moved except the leaves on branches, moved by the wind until a man fell in a duel. I was usually unmoved by this sort of grand composition, its theft of natural beauty a camouflage for a lack of ideas. But this was no parasol soap opera shimmering in the foliage. Neither had it the forced zaniness of film adaptations of other picaresque novels. Kubrick found more humor in the heavy seriousness of military pomp scored to weepy Irish music than in the crazy harpsichord music pushing the slapstick antics of Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. Funnier than both 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick has distilled Thackeray’s novel to its essential jokes, the punch line often being a blunt fade to black. Much of the humor is visual: Master and Lady Lyndon cramped into a carriage, he smoking, she trying to wave away the offending smoke until finally asking him to stop. He answers by blowing smoke in her face, then kissing her. Ryan O’ Neil is a surprise in the lead, his blandness suggesting a depth of infamy that a traditionally villainous performance would have left beneath the ice. Kubrick is a master at making us simultaneously despise and sympathize with the effeminate titled class. With a Lord Bullingdon who is the spitting image of Mick Jagger, we cannot help but chuckle at the pop culture reference when he challenges his stepfather to a duel by demanding satisfaction. Most historical costume dramas are weighted down with a phony idea of literary pomp. Not this one. Kubrick’s adaptive pen sails through Thackeray’s prose like an enchanted sword. And his camera freezes pages of character description into memorable gestures that precisely define the variables of human nature.
The Shining (1980)
The Shining is the story of a man who hates his wife and son so much that he wants to murder them. It is the perfect opportunity for Kubrick to fragment the family unit into its irreconcilable components. The father works (or pretends to), the wife cooks (or at least opens some cans), and the child plays (if riding a tricycle through a hotel corridor looking for or trying to outrun ghosts can be considered child’s play). Their activities should never intersect, for by such commerce are the seeds of family discord sown. Kubrick is not too concerned with spook show logic. When a ghost appears, it is best we accept the supernatural and all that comes with it, leaving such questions as whether or not a man can get drunk on imaginary bourbon to the comic book convention panellists. What concerns us here is not why Jack figures so prominently in a photograph from the Overlook Hotel’s 1921 New year’s celebration (Stephen King’s novel is the place to go for explicit explanations of paranormal events), but how this guy ended up marrying this girl and having this son. Perhaps there is a religious explanation. Father, Son, and Holy Mary anyone? I’m afraid there is no explanation for any of it. The Shining is simply the best major studio spooko since Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which also took a callously transcendent view of its victim protagonists. The film was about the trajectory of human life, how we keep to our own track even when we are supposed to be merging with others. Danny racing through the twisty corridors on his trike, then winding through the maze on foot in the same curve. Jack manoeuvring his car up the twisty mountain roads while his mind fails to make the right turns, careening him over the cliff and soaring through the air as the car continues to make its earthly ascent. And poor Wendy, played by Shelly Duvall bless her heart, who is about the sorriest looking thing in pictures, so infallibly stupid that she spends crucial final minutes trying to squeeze through a window that Danny could barely pass.
About the Author
Bill White frittered away his early years as a rock musician in Seattle WA, then moved to Boston, MA, where he wrote, acted, and directed for the theater, and made experimental films. Returning to Seattle, he became a film and music critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until its demise in 2009, after which he wrote a novel and a memoir before retiring to Peru, where he married the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Kelly Edery. Currently, he is making anthropological films in Ilo. Peru, and is writing a volume of short stories inspired by popular songs, as well as continuing his work with Washington historian Paul Dorpat on the chronicling of Seattle’s 1960’s counter-culture through commentary on each issue of its underground newspaper, Helix.