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After the Act of Killings director Joshua Oppenheimer began talking with several survivors of a killing spree in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965 at the hands of thugs drafted by the military to weed out accused communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, he had no idea he would become friends with one of those killers. The documentary focuses on Anwar Congo, the last of the 41 perpetrators he met during a total of eight years trying to make this film. Speaking over the phone from a hotel in New York City, Oppenheimer said they still speak. “He and I have remained in touch every three to four weeks,” he said, “and I think somehow we always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate, ultimately transformative journey together.”

The transformation comes about in the film on a rather surreal but brilliantly therapeutic level when Oppenheimer asks Congo and other executioners to act out the killings in brilliantly shot if hokey dramatic reenactments that cover genres from gangster films, musicals to ghost stories. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThe director noted that the reenactments were designed to work on a higher meta-level as being symptomatic of the perpetrator’s boasting and impunity. However, something surprising happened with Congo. “Each time we would shoot a scene he would watch the scene, and he would be very disturbed by what he saw, but he would not dare to say what was wrong with the scene,” said Oppenheimer. “Basically, he would displace the guilt on something trivial like, the costumes are bad, the acting or the genre, and he would propose a new scene. So in a sense he was trying to run away from his pain the entire time, and that’s the fuel for the whole process.”

He points out that with the Act of Killing he was not seeking to make a sentimental film or a psycho-drama. “That would be obscene and wrong,” he emphasizes, adding that this all happened rather serendipitously. He says he unconsciously focused on Congo but, in hindsight, remorse underlined all his seeming boasting. No matter the argument, deflecting or escape, below it all lies a conflicted awareness of guilt. “I don’t think I met a single perpetrator over all these years that did not know that what they did was wrong,” Oppenheimer stated.

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During their first meeting, Congo admits to Oppenheimer that he was often drunk or high during the killings. At first, the admission seems to highlight the “thrill” of killing, but in actually it was one of the many ways Congo found an escape from confronting the horror of his actions. “That’s right,” Oppenheimer agreed. “Anwar’s conscience is present from the very beginning.”

Congo also notes that gangster movies inspired his methods of killings, including garroting by wire. He also throws around an appreciation for Pacino and Brando.

However, don’t blame violence in movies for his behavior because Congo also notes a sense of euphoria after watching Elvis Presley musicals and stabbing people in the street. What’s up with that? Oppenheimer points out that something more sinister underlies these forms of cheap Hollywood films: numbing escapism. actofkilling_2“Some people have made the link that violent movies cause violent behavior, but Elvis Presley musicals are the most vivid example [Congo] gives: of walking out of a midnight show dancing his way across the street, intoxicated by his love of Elvis and killing happily, and Elvis musicals are not violent. They’re just stupid, and I think the real risk is escapist storytelling. How we tell stories, all of us, you, me, everybody to escape our most painful and bitter truths.”

And this is what makes the Act of Killing, which climaxes in one of the most visceral scenes of remorse one will ever see committed to film, the most disturbing horror film you might ever experience.

You can read much more of my interview with Oppenheimer and watch the film’s trailer on the website of the Miami New Times and its art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the logo below:

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Hans Morgenstern

The Act of Killing is in Indonesian and English with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is not rated (the violence is all staged and/or recalled as stories, but it’s more disturbing than you might be able to imagine). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami, for which I originally wrote this interview. It’s playing across the globe now, even having distribution in Indonesia. For worldwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).

Update: the Act of Killing opens Sept. 6 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Sept. 15 at the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The other day we drove up to Orlando from Miami for a live show by Phoenix. Though not as impressed by their latest album Bankrupt!, expectations for a great live show ran high. They had already impressed during their first show in South Florida a few years back (Phoenix pack arena-sized show into Fillmore theater; Oct. 29, 2010). This show, at the House of Blues, just like the Fillmore show, would sell out. This night’s performance, though not as stagey as the Miami Beach show, still impressed. The band breezed through its repertoire with its usual spunk and warmth. It even felt rather brief.

It began with a short set by Chicago ’90s grunge survivors Urge Overkill. There was a time when these guys would headline these venues about 20 years back. It was interesting to watch these guys live. With rather ebullient ease, they played their hits from back in the day, like “Positive Bleeding,” “Sister Havana” and their cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” made famous for its presence in Pulp Fiction. There was also a new tune. But, beyond five or six seemingly impressed attendees, the interest in Urge Overkill seemed polite if any at all. The group’s music is still rather uneventful barroom rock that chugs along on rudimentary hooks. One guy paid more attention to his video game than the performance (see image below).

Nash Kato and videogame

Phoenix would go on at about 9:45 at night with the first single off the new album kicking off the lively set. The sound immediately revealed that this concert was going to sound amazing, from the quality of the performance to the clarity of the sonics. Even though the set list was weighted by lots of new material, the guys brought so much life to their music with their presence (as last time, dual drummers, too). It was a zippy set. The band mixed together several songs as medleys. At one point singer Thomas Mars shared his joy at being in such an intimate venue after all of the band’s earlier festival dates. Here’s one of the band’s biggest ever hits thanks to a car commercial:

They did something interesting with the epic “Love Like a Sunset,” mixing it with the title track of the new album:

The crowd gave them back lots of energy with lots of raised hands throughout the set, and quite literally supported Mars during the band’s closing number, “Rome” and a reprise of soaring section of “Entertainment.” Between the two songs, he appeared at the back of the pit and crowd-surfed his way to the stage, a classic Mars move he pulls at the end of Phoenix’s shows.

Setlist:

Entertainment
Lasso
Lisztomania
Long Distance Call
The Real Thing
S.O.S. in Bel Air
Sunskrupt! (A combination of “Love Like a Sunset” and “Bankrupt!”)
Too Young / Girlfriend
Trying to Be Cool / Drakkar Noir / Chloroform
Armistice
1901

Encore:

Countdown (Stripped-Down Version)
Playground Love (Air cover)
Don’t
Rome
Entertainment (Reprise)

The group has dates scheduled for the US and Europe scheduled through the end of November. See what’s available here (that’s a hotlink).

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

16

In the second part of my conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman (this is continued from: A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), we touch on context and ways of approaching his last film, Damsels in Distress, as well as one particularly good review by a local colleague and another completely wrong review, which was not mine. I was quite critical about the film (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), and he was game to talk about it while he visited Miami as a juror for the Miami International Film Festival, this past March.

In this part of our conversation, we also touch on where I come from as a film critic, something that I have noticed people like about my reviews but, at the same time, also seems to narrow my vision (I’m working on it): my approach to cinema as an art. Not to discredit my criticism or any film criticism for that matter, but there are many factors to consider outside a movie besides the work itself when it comes to criticism. Any work of art resides in the perceived reality of the viewer. Whatever baggage a viewer brings to a work can affect how the work is received, from whether the viewer watches a film in the morning or at night to the mood they bring with them into the theater to the amount of knowledge and life experience they interpret the movie with.

I try to look at technical things but also consider zeitgeist and theory from filmmaking to literature to psychology as well as anything distinct about the filmmakers involved in the making of a movie. Still, my own experiences and biases also inform my reviews. There are times when I do have a chance to mull things over for a month before writing. For my review of Moonrise Kingdom, which was positive (‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film) I had a month. My initial reaction was that the film felt cartoonish, distant and over-stylized. But with time, I later considered it the most innocent and honest film of Wes Anderson’s career. It turned out to be one of the most popular reviews on my blog, which says something about my final opinion.

damsels-in-distress-poster-500x739With Damsels, I knew the film had some value, as I had written a review that was more mixed than negative. I was prepared to see it again in the theater, but never found the time to do so. Stillman told me it was in and out at the only multiplex showing it in Miami in about a week. I had even felt it worthy of recommending to my wife who, much to my delight, came to admire Stillman’s work after I had introduced her to his earlier films. As I had expected, she enjoyed Damsels much more than I did.

After I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the theater, I left confused and unsure of what I had experienced, but I knew the film was trying to say something profound. I now consider it one of Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood masterpieces after more than 20 re-viewings later and a seminar paper on the film, which I used to illustrate Lacanian theory during my Master’s studies for an MA in American Literature. With anything, opinions can and do change. It’s happened even more profoundly with music with this writer. Therefore, I have no shame reconsidering any film I critique, much less Stillman’s last film (Terrence Malick, maybe you’ll be next [Film review: With ‘To the Wonder’ Malick loses sight of cinema for message]?). What an opportunity to have the director sit with you and consider your criticisms with an open, curious and civil mind.

Here is the second half of our recorded conversation from about two months back. We went Dutch for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts off Alton Road in Miami Beach:

Hans Morgenstern: One thing I am wondering about is your intention in the film.

Whit Stillman: There’s a very serious intention in the film.

But I mean, is it a cultural criticism of today?

Of course. All the films are. But I think it’s a kind of life preserver. I think there’s a very serious intention in the film where there is all this kind of romance of suicide, the romance of depression, in college. And the way most people deal with this is to therapize it, take it really seriously and re-dramatize it. And, actually, to get out of those moods for people, when it’s not clinical mental illness, is to distract, to make active, to do these things, and then, with the passage of time, they very often get out of that cast of mind. So the things in the film we presented as a joke, but actually there’s quite a bit of truth. In fact, I think, there’s a quite important practicing psychiatrist from one of the Ivy League schools who saw the film late in its run in New York, which lasted to the 17th week down at the Cinema Village, she came up to me and said, “You know, I think the things they are doing in this film are better than what we do in the university. I think this is better.” So, they’re really depressed, everything is terrible, you know, taking a shower, cleaning up, putting on— for a girl, maybe for a guy— putting on some good scent, dancing, getting out, socializing, cup of coffee, you know, distraction. Distraction activity, hygiene distraction activity, order, work, these sort of things get people out of themselves.

But is distraction really the cure for their problems?

Yeah, it is the cure because time is the cure, and distraction is the entry ramp for time. Gerwig and Adam Brody in 'Damsels in Distress.' Image courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsSo I think it’s a movie that’s serious by virtue of its intentions on all kinds of levels, but I can’t announce that because I like things that are not obvious, and people can take it as they want to take it or take it as silly as they want to think it is. It is a very silly film.

Well, that’s the kind of film I usually love because when I walked into the theater…

How’d you see it? Was it a press screening?

It was a press screening at a cinema.

Was [“Miami Herald” film critic] Rene Rodriguez there?

Rene was there.

Rene gave it a really nice review, coz he didn’t like [Last Days of] Disco that much.

We corresponded about it, and he said, if you like the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” you will like this film. Is that a fair comparison?

Yeah, well, Aubrey [Plaza] is the same in “Parks and Recreation,” has nice spirit. It’s not a show I follow, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s OK.

Maybe I did come at it too cynical. The thing I know is that when I was finishing considering it, which was probably too soon, was that, yeah, I do want to see it again, I do want to recommend this to my wife, and she did see it, and she loved it. So what I predicted about it was right.

And she just saw it this past week?

A few weeks ago.

Before we met up? Oh, cool. Interesting. Because it had been on the Starz thing? Do you feel your blog affects attendance?

Yeah, insofar as it is shared. Miami Beach Cinematheque shares my reviews. So he’s a big champion of my blog, and so is [The Miami International Film Festival Director] Jaie [Laplante]. In fact, this year, the director of Bonsai, which was a big award winner last year, is at the festival to give a seminar, and I loved Bonsai. In fact, Jaie said my review was his favorite review the film had received.

What’s Bonsai like?

Bonsai is actually based on a pretty famous Chilean novel, and it’s about this down and out writer who decides to take up a job to write this novel for this famous writer, Bonsai poster artand he ends up incorporating his own personal relationship into the book, and it jumps between the writing of that book, and his memories as a college kid, so there’s this great sort of self-actualization in writing going on there (Read the review: Film Review: ‘Bonsai’ breathes life into art).

Sounds great. I have a feeling your taste may be more art film than mine.

Yeah, I tend to get that.

Which is good. Someone has to do it (laughs).

I am part of that whole group, the Florida Film Critics Circle, with Rene and Connie [Ogle] at “the Herald.” They know I have this small blog but that I’m covering something different in cinema.

Rene, his review— thank God we got that— it was great. It was syndicated all over the place. That review appears all over the place, and he wrote a nice review. It’s a solid review and a kind of way-in review that tells people how to get into the film. One review that kinda annoyed me, and it’s kinda important, is this one guy who always, always attacks my films. I don’t know what his problem is. But he started this whole thing making a big deal about two posters that are on the walls. He said, the director was telling us, because he has the Lola Montes poster in the girls’ room and the Grand Illusion poster in the other thing [Xavier’s apartment],

D06_IMG_1265.jpghe’s telling us this and he’s telling us that and his intention is this and his intention is that and all this hogwash. The thing is, there’s so many things you can say about a film. Why presume or state something that’s not knowable by him because I had no intention with those posters at all. I have no feeling for those films, none. It’s just that we were really hard up for posters and any art that looked non-ridiculous. No one would give us posters for free, coz we’re not going to pay for posters in a low-budget film. I mean, it’s advertising. They should want it up. So for the suicide center, I went to a place, and I had a contact, I had a connection, so I asked for, you know, the big old-fashioned musicals like Showboat, Guys and Dolls

Iconic ones.

We asked for the right to use the posters in the Suicide Center, and they said, “Oh, no, we’ll charge you a purchasing fee of $1,000.” We’re not gonna spend a cent. If we have to, we’ll pay the $10 and put it up on a poster board, but that’s about it, and so I was stuck. From my old illustration agency we got some stuff, and then we were stuck for other things, and then, by accident, I ran into the guy from Criterion at a party, and I asked him about the posters. He said, “Yes, but you’ll also need permission from Studio Canal and Rialto.” This is the way it always is, “Yes, but.” But, the thing is, I knew they were brother and sister, the Halperns, who I know really well, so I just sent them quick emails, and within a day I had permission and Criterion sent us all these posters. And there are more posters than that up. The guy didn’t see the Godard poster that was up. It wasn’t a very good-looking poster, so we just had it in the background in Xavier’s apartment. And I go into the set and the art department has put up the Grand Illusion poster, and I wasn’t very happy about that. I didn’t want it that present.

It really draws your eye. I do remember seeing the Grand Illusion poster.

That one really draws your eye. The Lola Montes thing he mentioned, you practically can’t see that. Only someone who studied the Criterion artwork would have noticed that because it’s only half of the image. lola-montes-criterion-collection-coverI love the artist who did the image. In fact, I was thinking when it came to do the poster for the film, I was over at the Criterion art department trying to get their ideas. I just love that guy’s work. But [lowers voice] there’s no intention at all. I was thinking, well, it’s plausible… could the character have this on his wall? Well, yeah, he could have that on his wall. It’s possible.

But it’s background. It’s nothing to the theme of your film, right?

Nothing on the walls is supposed to be focal. For instance, my university daughter still hasn’t got her posters back because I took all her posters from her wall because she had to decamp from her room and so the posters were in my apartment, and they were by an artist friend who I had represented, and so I just took her posters and gave them to the art department and said, “Put these in the girls’ room.” And, anyway, he built this whole review about my pretentiousness in my references.

Well, you see, that’s wrong. And they were just these two quick background images?

It’s wrong on so many levels. It’s wrong on so many levels, and then he pounds us in this really important review. He pounds us through the whole thing. Why kill a film based on a presumption out of thin air?

I hope you didn’t get the idea that my review was all negative.

No, your review was not bad. I had remembered it when you first mentioned it to me, but I went back and looked at it. I kind of enjoyed that I didn’t know where it was going to go. I kinda enjoyed the A, B, C thing. I, of course, I thought “A” right away: not older but definitely more cynical.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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During the couple of times I met with film director Whit Stillman at this past Miami International Film Festival, something has bothered me about how to present our meetings. He told me he hates those stories concerned with details about what the subject orders at a meal or what he/she chooses to wear. That’s fine. I could care less about that stuff myself. But what I found charming about this man when we met at the Italian restaurant around the corner of one of the screening venues on Miami Beach following one of his jury meetings, was his suggestion that we make the meal a “Dutch treat,” as he did not want to influence me. “That wouldn’t be ethical,” he said. I had never heard anyone use the original, full term of “going Dutch” until that moment. We agreed on a salad to start the meal and when the waitress asked if we wanted the salad with the entrée, which we literally split, Stillman said, “Well, isn’t the salad supposed to come first?” He wasn’t being a dick. He wanted the right experience. He did not want to rush this experience because when does a director have a chance to pick the brain of a critic who panned his last film, Damsels in Distress? (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding).

We first met a few nights earlier, as noted in an early post covering one day in my week at the Miami International Film Festival (Underwhelming films but overwhelming schmoozing on Day 3 of MIFF). I was sitting with actress Lena Olin and her husband, director Lasse Hallström at a bar during an after-party of Hallström’s career achievement screening. I had interviewed him for “the Miami Herald” ahead of this event (read the article). Stillman came over and introduced himself to Hallström, who seemed to have no idea who the man saying he was an independent filmmaker was. I felt compelled to jump in and sing the praises for Stillman’s work. I then introduced myself as a film critic to Stillman, and he asked me if I had ever panned one of his films. I said, “Well… the last one,” and he made an exaggerated taken aback gesture. I quickly informed him that I am still a fan and quite interested in his work and suggested a meal one day since he was at the festival all the way through as a juror for the Knight Ibero-American Competition. I was impressed that he agreed, and he shared his email so we might coordinate.

I think it says a lot about this director’s humble nature to sit with this local writer/film critic to learn as much about me and my experience with film in general rather than get one-sided and defensive about his work. We turned out having a nice, leisurely lunch that final Friday afternoon of the MIFF. He asked about the title of my blog (I got it from something director Kelly Reichardt had written about filmmaking) and he took down my recommendation to check out DemonloverChloë Sevigny’s surreal work in Olivier Assay’s Demonlover. He really wanted to understand where I came from as much as explain where he was coming from with his last film, and it was an interesting two-way conversation. After the lunch, which I did not document, as I wanted it as a warm-up for our talk about Damsels, we walked over to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. If you have listened to his commentary on the Damsels blu-ray, as I did before our meeting, you already know Stillman’s preference for Dunkin coffee over the dark roast hyped by a famous competing chain.

It was there, with pop radio blasting out classic hits by Michael Jackson and the like that I hit the record button on my digital voice recorder, and we got to the review I so brazenly titled “Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding.” We spoke about some of the statements I made about his movie, the stylized world of Damsels, how the two leads are left more open to interpretation than Stillman might have liked and how technology dates movies. Here is a transcription of the first half of our half-hour chat, slightly trimmed for clarity and cohesion. We began with my lead:

Hans Morgenstern: So I put in the article “either A) I have grown too old and cynical…”

Whit Stillman: Oh, yeah, I was going to say A (laughs).

Of course, it has to be my first choice, because of course you haven’t lost your knack for smart writing, which was option B.

No.

But you don’t think Millennials are too dumb to speak the same language as the generation before them, which was C?

I didn’t quite get that point. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t quite get it.

So, let’s go back to the ‘90s, think Richard Linklater. That was another very smart peer of yours during the rise of ‘ 90s indie film. I came of age in college watching these films. So when I think of those characters, I feel they seem as intelligent as I had felt, whereas the characters in Damsels don’t seem as bright.

Well, I do think they’re bright, except the ones who are dumb. You go with what you love, and I love Fitzgerald and Salinger as writers, but I also love the comedy of Will Ferrell and the comedy of Animal House. What the people at the Dublin Film Festival said about the film, which is really on, is that it’s Jane Austen meets Animal House, and that’s combining things you like. So, yes, some characters are dumb, but I hope it ends up being intelligent with the line of jokes with the guy and the colors, and the rainbow and all that. But I think that Violet is as intelligent a character as we had in previous films. I mean, I felt that where we went astray… there’s certain things that are flaws as far as audience comprehension or acceptance, but I wouldn’t want to necessarily say that they are intrinsic, sort of aesthetic flaws in the film. It just means that the acceptance of the film is going to be limited on the short term, but over the long term, it might make the film more interesting for people to see it a second time or chance on it again. Because, as far as entertainment terms, I probably blundered by having the first five minutes of the film.MacLemore, Gerwig and Echikunwoke in 'Damsels In Distress.' Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Because, the way it’s introduced, a lot of people think these three girls are probably the mean girls, well dressed, all the sort of things we associate with being superficial people, and then there’s this girl who’s nice, the sweet character. They think she’s supposed to be the character we judge the others by. I didn’t realize how strong that would be. Because I thought that we made it pretty clear early on that it’s really about Violet [Greta Gerwig]. So I don’t see Violet as a freak. I see her as someone very appealing and, through her point of view, very interesting. And Lily [Analeigh Tipton] is sort of subverted because Lily was supposed to be a real knockout but kinda cold and superficial, and then all the guys like her. But Violet’s way better and more interesting but doesn’t have those killer looks that Lily’s supposed to have. But then, an actress comes in to audition, and she’s very good and very real, and it’s really good, what she’s doing, but it’s not really what it’s supposed to do. But I feel that my idea is a little bit clichéd, having this easily identifiable negative character and to have it less easy to identify her as a negative character, who’d make the film better and more interesting. But it just throws so many people for a loop.

It happens late in the film, as well.

They constantly see the film as being Lily’s film, not Violet’s film. They still have an uncomfortable time to find that line.

And the actress who played Lily, did you see her on “America’s Next Top Model”?

No. I didn’t see anyone. I might have seen Aubrey Plaza in something before. Maybe I crossed paths with her visually. But it’s all through casting. I mean, yes, once I knew she was good, I went back and looked at “America’s Next Top Model” and that kind of stuff.

So you never even knew she aspired to be a model?

She’s not a model, and that’s a good thing.

No?

I mean, she was never a model. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, writer, actress who got a gig on a reality show playing someone who was trying to be a model, but she’s not a model.

(laughter) Nice.

I mean, the good thing is that I didn’t have the prejudice of her being a model. I just saw her as an actress, and then I heard everyone liked her on “America’s Next Top Model.” Had you been aware of her in that?Analeigh Tipton in 'Damsels in Distress.' Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

I can’t remember anyone on that show because they all look alike, slender young women.

I know that the wife and daughter of the lead investor were very excited that it was Analeigh that they liked.

So, for you, it’s really all about Greta Gerwig’s character.

It’s really all about Violet. We had many alternate titles. One was going to be the Ultra Violets, but that would have sort have been misleading, or the Violet Ultras because they’re sort of ultras, those girls.

Sure. Talk about ultra, like Rose’s revelation at the end where she says she talks with a British accent because she just came from London.

I mean the film’s not supposed to be a retro, joking film. It’s the idea that if there are things in the past that we liked, we can bring them back. We can re-create them, and we can build a future with the elements that we like in the past. It’s sort of like when a bird makes its nest, it takes little elements it likes and puts its nest together with those elements. So, in our future, rather than thinking of anything new and having new things that’s never been done before, why not take some things that seem nice from the past, like, let’s say, a style of dressing or a style of music or a style of dancing, and let’s [recuperate] that. I mean, the Renaissance was about, after the dark centuries, looking back at classicism of Greece and Rome and, see, what is this great culture, how can we bring it back? So I think there’s a bit of that in our society.damsels-in-distress-poster-500x739 I think, at the same time, there’s been technological progress and material progress and many good things in life and the Internet and cool things like that. There’s also been loss, so you see films from the ‘30s and it seems to me like a higher culture. It seems like these people are more civilized. We’ve lost a lot, but we don’t have to lose it because people are more intelligent and aspirational and have good qualities. And reality is totally checked at the door, so people shouldn’t be judging [Damsels] based on any vérité. There was a French filmmaker who did this film where at the end all these young people come and take over the house, and they’re running all around … and I found it a very cliché version of the youth of today. A lot of the industry films, it’s kind of a cliché, but really there are all kinds of types and none of my daughters are like the cliché version of what today’s youth are like.

So they’re not always texting on the phone?

No, no. I have one daughter who’s immune to all that. I mean, we did have more contemporary signifiers, originally, in the film, but you cut out a scene that has it, and therefore it’s no longer in it, so we do have a cell phone in the film, and we do have her [Violet] saying, people don’t write by hand anymore. But also I’ve seen a lot of films where they’re using whatever the technology of the day is and everything, and it gets very boring, very quickly. It’s all about whatever the latest thing is.

Yeah, it seems kind of conscious.

In Spanish films, the classic scene is someone comes in to their apartment and plays the answering machine and listens to the message on the answering machine, or we have a close-up of the answering machine leaving a message, and that is like tedious cinema. I think now we can do the same sort of thing. It’ll just be some boring thing in the future. Like now, who uses answering machines?

Yeah, and it sort of automatically dates your film. It’s not good in the long run.

Yeah, it’s sort of stupid dating. And also, all the sort of dumb action films, even if they’re good movies and they’re fun to watch, they have tons of stuff with the camera on the computer screen as the person is subverting the terrorists. Like, what is it? The Mission Impossible stuff, so you have the good people typing away at their computer screens, and you have the evil people typing away at their laptops (laughs).

Yeah, and how interesting is that going to be 10 years from now, and how much will it turn the film into some campy joke for future generations?

I did have Adam Brody writing his essay “the Decline of Decadence” on my laptop, but it got cut.

It may have been interesting if he were on a typewriter.

I’m not gonna go there. I’m not sentimental about technology, so that whole thing about people who have to use their manual typewriter.

That was my dad.

I’m not gonna go back to that. But the problem is once the technology goes out, it’s real hard to find. And occasionally to address an envelope or a short letter it would be probably much easier to write on a typewriter, a good IBM Selectric would be good to have now (laughs).

* * *

Our conversation continues here:

Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’ – Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

PM_Press Photo 3When Peter Murphy talks about his experience with music, a small part of him fears he is over-intellectualizing. Over the course of our 45-minute chat he occasionally seems to have the tiniest inkling he might be stating things that might go over the heads of readers or may be misunderstood. Toward the end of our conversation, after a rare laugh he says, “It might go over people’s heads, but so what? They’ll get it later, like a hundred years later.”

I spoke with Murphy last Sunday afternoon, as he rode on a tour bus toward the first date of his Mr. Moonlight Tour, which features a set list comprised of only Bauhaus music. After talking about the start and end of the pioneering Gothic rock band and lots in between … much of which you will find noted in my in-depth article on his decision to tour with solely Bauhaus music in the “Crossfade” music blog  from the “Miami New Times (jump through the logo below):”

Miami New Times logo

Up-date: the interview was so long, it was broken up into two parts. Here’s is part 2 (that’s a hotlink).

Our conversation also included the subjective experience of art, specifically music. It came from a mutual appreciation of Brian Eno’s 1974 solo album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Bauhaus famously recorded a quite literal cover of that album’s “Third Uncle” during a BBC session, which they released as a single and also used as the opener on its 1982 album the Sky’s Gone Out.

“Those lyrics, they take you with them. Don’t they?” Murphy saysBauhaus - Third Uncle of the songs on Eno’s second solo album. “They’re not didactic. They’re not literal in that sense. They open up the creative imagination within the listeners. So it isn’t actually selfish. In a way, the audience is the reason.  For music there has to be the listener. Otherwise, the singer or the musician doesn’t matter. It’s a shared experience in a very natural way. That’s not an over-arching idea. But that is art.”

He agrees that some of David Bowie’s most interesting songs come from a decoupage technique popularized by William Burroughs but pioneered by the Dadaists from the turn of the 20th century. “They leave the creativity to the listener, as well,” Murphy notes, who transitioned from solitary poetry composition to Bauhaus frontman in late 1978 when guitarist Daniel Ash introduced him to brothers David J (bass) and Kevin Haskins (drums).

The A-side of the “Third Uncle” track was Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” Murphy notes something very interesting happens when he inhabits that song live, Bauhaus - Ziggy Stardustwhich he plans on playing on this tour. “Songs evoke very personal associations,” he says. “So I have my own experience with Bowie. You could have called me a Bowie fan or whatever, but when I met him I realized it was me creating my own inner world with that music. I was Ziggy Stardust. He’s just some bloke creating some theatrical thing, doing his own thing. It’s not him really. It is, but it’s beyond. It’s me really, hence the idea of doing ‘Ziggy Stardust.’ He just wrote it. We did our version, and we did it how it’s supposed to be done in our minds, and it was brilliant.” He pauses for a chuckle. “That was not a statement against him at all. It’s just the ultimate Bowie fan casualty that was sold. So I still become Ziggy Stardust in that three minutes, that seminal character in music culture, and I’m it.”

Watch the official video:

There was so much more we went over. It was a revelatory conversation. Bauhaus worked from a very primal pool of creativity, relying on their chemistry as musicians. He indulged me in an explanation of how they came up with the brilliant collage track that closes the Sky’s Gone Out: “Exquisite Corpse.” He said it comes from a surrealist game for children. Using a folded piece of paper a group sets out to draw a body but only a small bit of the end of the last drawing is visible to the next illustrator. The result is one exquisite corpse.

The band did something similar during the recording of the song that closes the album on a brilliantly abstract note. After programming a rhythm track, Murphy explained, “We each went in, and we gave ourselves a minute each to write whatever we wanted individually without any of the other members, and then the next person would play from the last five seconds, hearing the last five seconds of the previous person and continue, and then we’d all come in and gathered … and that was the result. So the title, ‘Exquisite Corpse,’ is exquisite. It’s the exercise in letting itself create its own venture.”  You can hear the result right here:

Considering, backwards effects, the coughing, the snoring section and other bits, it will certainly make for a difficult, odd song to perform live, so I would not expect to hear it on the tour (did Bauhaus even ever perform this genius little oddity live?).

Hans Morgenstern

Only one day until the show (I had tons to transcribe and illness to battle) in Miami at Grand Central. Tuesday, April 30. Doors: 8 p.m. Tickets cost $26 / $60 (VIP) – VIP ticket includes a 7 p.m. pre-show, access to soundcheck, meet-and-greet with Murphy, exclusive edition T-shirt and a signed poster. All ages. There will also be a second post on the Crossfade music blog tomorrow morning, so be sure to check back there tomorrow.

Update 2: Show happened! To read my review click on the picture below by “Miami New Times” photographer Ian Witlen:

Peter_Murphy_Concert_Review_Bauhaus_Miami_2013d

For those outside Miami, the tour will proceed as follows across the U.S., into Mexico, then Europe and back to North America:

Wed, May 1 – Tampa FL @ Orpheum Theater
Thu, May 2 – Atlanta GA @ Terminal West
Fri, May 3 – Charlotte NC @ Tremont Music Hall
Sat, May 4 – Washington DC @ U-Music Hall
Sun, May 5 – Boston MA @ Paradise Rock Club
Tue, May 7 – New York City NY @ Webster Hall
Thu, May 9 – Philadelphia PA @ Trocadero
Fri, May 10 – Toronto ON @ Lee’s Palace
Sat, May 11 – Buffalo NY @ Town Ballroom
Sun, May 12 – Pittsburgh PA @ Mr Smalls
Mon, May 13 – Detroit MI @ Magic Stick
Wed, May 15 – Indianapolis IN @ Deluxe at Old National Centre
Thu, May 16 – Chicago IL @ House of Blues
Sun, May 19 – Mexico City, MX @ Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli (to include Peter Murphy solo material, as well!)

EUROPE
Wed, May 22 – Bochum, DE @ Christuskirche
Thu, May 23 – Karlsruhe, DE @ Substage
Fri, May 24 – Zurich, CH @ Komplex Klub
Sun, May 26 – Rome, IT @ Orion
Mon, May 27 – Milan, IT @ Magazzini Generali
Wed, May 29 – Madrid, ES @ Sala Arena
Thu, May 30 – Lisbon, PT @ Coliseum
Sat, June 1 – Barcelona, ES @ Bikini Barcelona
Mon, June 3 – Brussels, BE @ AB
Wed, June 5 – Paris, FR @ Trabendo
Thu, June 6 – Eindhoven, NL @ Effenaar
Fri, June 7 – Hamburg, DE @ Knust
Sat, June 8 – Copenhagen, DK @ Loppen
Mon, June 10 – Stockholm, SE @ Debaser Medis
Wed, June 12 – Helsinki, FI @ Tavastia
Fri, June 14 – Nottingham, UK @ Rescue Rooms
Sat, June 15 – Glasgow, UK @ Oran Mor
Mon, June 17 – Birmingham, UK @ Academy 2
Tue, June 18 – Bristol, UK @ Academy
Wed, June 19 – London, UK @ Islington Academy

NORTH AMERICA II
Sat, July 13 – Phoenix AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
Sun, July 14 – El Paso TX @ Tricky Falls
Tue, July 16 – Denver CO @ Summit Music Hall
Wed, July 17 – Salt Lake City UT @ Urban Lounge
Thu, July 18 – Boise ID @ Visual Arts Collective
Fri, July 19 – Seattle WA @ Showbox Theater
Sat, July 20 – Vancouver BC @ TBA
Sun, July 21 – Portland OR @ Hawthorne Theater
Tue, July 23 – San Francisco CA @ Fillmore Theater
Wed, July 24 – Las Vegas @ LVCS
Sat, July 27 – Los Angeles CA @ Henry Fonda Theatre
Fri, July 28 – San Diego CA @ Belly-up

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

2001_SK

Chapter III-B: The Sublimation of Narrative: Film Techniques in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Note: this is a continuation from the post: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 3 of 4

7. Film Techniques should be invisible

Finally, and most uniquely to the medium of cinema, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick employs obtrusive film techniques, including powerful match cuts and long, self-aware musical sequences where music goes beyond mood and atmosphere to take on a narrative role. This last element of Hollywood cinema dictates the audience should not become aware of technical aspects of movie-making while watching a film. As film scholar David Bordwell notes, “Hollywood’s pride in concealed artistry implies that narration is imperceptible and unobtrusive” (24). Cinematic techniques, such as music and editing, must not break the movie’s spell by calling attention to themselves.

a. Editing:

Some edits in 2001 might feel superficially jarring upon initial viewing, but they are actually pregnant with questions and meaning. Granted, whenever a film is spliced, information is lost, but the Hollywood aesthetic dictates that scenes need to be cut in a seemingly seamless manner. Bordwell explains, “From shot to shot, tonality, movement, and the center of compositional interest shift enough to be distinguishable but not enough to be disturbing” (55).

Much to the chagrin of some critics, 2001 contains several conspicuous edits. As cited earlier, critics like Sarris, Kael and Schlesinger bemoaned the ambiguity between scenes. However, Kubrick’s editing decisions were well thought out. He inserts transitions between many important scenes that force the audience to fill in “gaps” of time and space. These transitions are more associative edits rather than temporal. Nelson pointed to this as an outstanding aspect of the movie:bonedit  “[2001] embodies a kind of ultimate cinematic universe, where all the assurances of ‘normal’ perspective are literally turned upside down, and ‘settings’ project … a disturbing lack of contextual and historical definition” (110).  The narrative effect of this leaves questions of story continuity in the viewer’s mind.

The viewer should not mistake these odd moments of editing with a plot hampered by events strung together haphazardly or coincidental ploys written into the storyline to keep the movie going. These are, in fact, tools that allow the director to raise his story to another level, beyond the theoretical confines of classical Hollywood cinema. In fact, one could argue Kubrick’s movie is more truthful as a result of what he leaves out between cuts as opposed to employing expository dialogue. In Robinson’s Lexicon, the term “cut” is defined as “[The] key to what is carried across from one image to another; whereas with words, inventions of man’s reflective powers, artifice is carried across; with images[,] entities within the visible creations, it is creative power that carries across the cut.” (Lavery 358).

The first scene that compels the viewer to see beyond the action in 2001 is probably the most famous scene of Kubrick’s entire career. It occurs in the early part of the film, during “The Dawn of Man,” when Kubrick introduces the ape-men. He directs the viewer’s attention to a scene involving the ape-men’s cognition that a bone could be used as a tool/weapon by showing the creatures’ transformation from this revelation by using a jump cut to show man’s final stage of evolution: man in space.

During this scene, a screaming Moon-Watcher tosses the bone in the air. As the bone hurtles against the sky in slow motion, the sound cuts to silence before the viewer is presented with the vastness of space and a satellite drifting above the planet earth. A second later, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube begins. Beyond exciting viewers’ intellect with his surprising edits, Kubrick further emphasizes the jarring cuts with the waltz. As this scene clearly shows, “The Dawn of Man” section is not just about man evolving from apes; it seemingly encompasses the lifespan of Homo sapiens.

In his Newsweek review, film critic Joseph Morgenstern pointed out that an extraordinary amount of time is covered in that gap: “The man-ape gleefully hurls his tool of war into the air. It becomes a satellite in orbit around the moon. A single dissolve spans 4 million years” (97). The edit is a trick of the mind, as much as it is the eye.  It is a direct association between club and space vehicle.  The bone doesn’t turn into a satellite. They are two images literally juxtaposed. To correct my namesake (no relation), the transition is not a dissolve but a simple splice in the film. More specifically, it is a match cut, where two similar looking objects are edited into one another to create a relationship (W. Phillips 130). In effect, quicker than a blink of an eye, the viewer is transported four million years into the future. Nelson defines the implication of the association thus:   “The technological leap from the bone to the moon-bound Pan-American spacecraft, imagined against the black background of infinite and unknown space, emphasizes that the next stage of man’s evolutionary rise continues the initial development begun by the ape.” (82).

This becomes the most important cut in the movie, as it clearly sets a profound tone. The match cut of the bone to the space vessel cracks the invisibility element of editing. Maybe not in a literal way that makes one think of the artifice of movie-making, but a jarring, obtrusive way. It calls attention to itself. The film is not looking to explain events, but seeks to stimulate the viewer to inform the action. Hence, the film’s appropriate hallmark of scant dialogue and exposition versus visuals pregnant with meanings. Throughout the film, Kubrick shows the audience that dialogue has little value in exposition. Instead, he emphasizes nonverbal communication like music and images, which he emphasizes through other carefully thought-out cuts within the film.

B. Music

7b music

Classical Hollywood cinema dictates a movie should use music sparingly, supplementing the action on screen but never overshadowing it. As Bordwell says, “The music confines itself to a moment-by-moment heightening of the story. Slight anticipations are permitted, but recollections of previous musical material must be motivated by a repetition of situation or by character memory” (35). 2001 both follows this rule to its fullest effect but also takes a daring turn away from it. Kubrick utilized diverse but, for the most part, famous classical music pieces for the score of 2001. One of the most iconic pieces must be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which appears during the opening credits and during the epiphanies that note the ape-men’s transformation to human and humanity’s ascendance to Star-Child.

Classical Hollywood cinema demands fleeting, associative uses of music that cue the audience into what event might happen next. As Bordwell notes, “During the film, music adheres to classical narration’s rule of only allowing glimpses of its omniscience, as when the score anticipates the action by a few moments” (34). In other words, the tone of the music should be an efficient thematic element scored to the scene that might clue the audience to a character’s intentions or the mood in the scene. Bordwell explains, “Just as classical camera work or editing becomes more overt when there is little dialogue, so the music comes into its own as an accompaniment for physical action. Here music becomes expressive to certain conventions (static harmony for suspense or the macabre, chromaticism for tension, marked rhythm for chase scenes)” (ibid).

The manner in which Kubrick uses music in the film was revolutionary in that entire scenes went on with only musical accompaniment and no dialogue while the narrative developed on an almost subconscious level. In the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, film director Tony Palmer calls 2001 a milestone in cinema history precisely because of the way Kubrick utilized music:

I always think that history of the cinema divides into two essential eras: before Stanley Kubrick and after Stanley Kubrick, especially in relation to the use of music in film. Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in film as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music in particular, it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive of the film.

In fact, Kubrick at first hired composer Alex North for an original score, which would have conformed more to Hollywood cinema’s demands that the music be inspired by the image and try to convey a musical mood in support of the images. North recorded a soundtrack, which is now readily available, but Kubrick was so taken by the classical temp tracks he used during filming, he decided to stick with those instead. “This was a crucial decision,” wrote Roger Ebert in his second review of 2001, where he reflected on the film 30 years after he first saw it. “North’s score … would have been wrong for ‘2001’ because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action— to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action.” Ebert emphasizes the word “outside,” which points to Kubrick’s reaching beyond the actions on screen and drawing the audience into a film that tries to go beyond conventions of Hollywood cinema.

Throughout 2001, non-diegetic music never overlaps with dialogue. There are, however, three questionable scenes focusing on man’s interaction with the monolith. There are the ape-men, who seem to react to the sound of György Ligeti’s high-pitched howling chorus that emanates around them or possibly from within the monolith. Also, the lunar scientists reel in pain after a similar chorus of voices turns into a piercing high-pitched sustained note. Then, during the penultimate emergence of the monolith, Dave Bowman enters the star gate as the chorus once again returns.

One critic referred to the monolith as “the singing slab,” as the imagery seems to respond to seemingly non-diegetic music (Sweeney 229). This minimal use of music that might or might not be non-diegetic adds to the potency of the scenes, which offer a repetitious pattern of similar, yet unique and related events that occur during entirely unique instances during man’s evolution. Ciment explained it best:

The oratorio by György Ligeti which acts as a musical leitmotif for the presence of the monolith coincides with Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that all technology, if sufficiently advanced, is touched with magic and a certain irrationality. Its choral accompaniment leads us onto the threshold of the unknown, just as Kubrick’s use of the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra prepares us for the profundity of his intentions … 2001 postulates the same progression as in Nietzsche’s work, from the ape to man, then from man to Superman” (Ciment 128).

Ciment also notes that 2001’s use of Also Spoke Zarathustra during the evolutionary leap from ape-man to space-man and the rebirth of Bowman emphasizes the film’s Nietzschean tone (105). Kubrick harnesses the power of music to tell the story, rather than limiting the score to offer cues to the audience of what might happen next or set a mood. In 2001, music becomes an essential part of the narrative, while dialogue refrains from offering any profound details into character motivation. With his use of music in 2001, Kubrick goes beyond the limitations of language and even images alone to push his statement.

Conclusion:

6endings

Although Hollywood film demands some degree of cognitive effort by the viewer, it never calls on the viewer to accept abstractions. For instance, at the end of 2001, an astronaut transforms into a baby floating in space. Traditional Hollywood film demands that there be some kind of explanation as to how this happened, be it exposition or a visual representation of the force that brought on such a change, but the film joins the aged astronaut and the fetus only by a film splice, which is imperceptible to the human eye, considering how fast film rolls. Essentially, nothing joins the two embodiments of the one astronaut. Also, nothing before the transformation hints that this is what will be happening to the astronaut and nothing after the transformation explains why it did, at least not definitively.

The dictates of traditional Hollywood cinema never allow for such ambiguity, as every event in a Hollywood movie must contribute to the story in some definitive manner, be it subtle or obvious. For instance, a classic Hollywood version of 2001 might show an alien wave a magic wand over the astronaut and then a flashy transformation might play out between the human and baby forms, definitively linking the two as a single being.

I believe in cinema as serious art. Not as solely entertainment but a medium that allows us a way of looking deeper at ourselves, a kind of aid to mankind in delving in and discovering ourselves. In turn, finding transcendence in art. 2001 strives to tap into a deeper power of the film medium, inspiring contemplation of the deepest questions of life, such as the origins and future of humanity, while not falling into the trap of heavy-handedness. It can only achieve this by breaking the limits of conventional Hollywood cinema.

I think Ebert hit 2001’s purpose on the head when he revisited the film 30 years after he first saw it and contrasted its purpose with the absence of deeper purpose in movies that follow the classical Hollywood cinema:

Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are.

2001 is constructed to inspire viewers to go beyond the image and ultimately look into themselves and what they can bring to the movie. The pay-off for those watching the film comes only when viewers embrace its open-ended quality, feel liberated by it, and instead of scratching their heads or superficially marveling at the “weirdness” of the film, begin to invest in the scenes that call to them. It is only then that they can grow from within after watching a film as convention-busting and masterful as 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is art, the sort of art that out lives us, intriguing one generation after another.

21-space-odyssey

Works Cited

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1985.

Ciment, Michel.  Kubrick:  The Definitive Edition.  Trans. Gilbert Adair and Robert Bononno.  2001 ed.  New York:  Faber & Faber, 2001.

Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  27 March 1997. Rogerebert.com.  6 Feb. 2006 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970327/REVIEWS08/401010362&gt;.

Lavery, David.  “‘Like Light’: The Movie Theory of W.R. Robinson.”  Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values.  Ed. Richard P. Sugg.  New York:  Golden String Press, 2001.  346-363.

Morgenstern, Joseph.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Newsweek 15 April 1968:  97-100.

Nelson, Thomas Allen.  Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze.  New and expanded ed. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2000.

Phillips, William H.  Film: An Introduction.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Sweeney, Louise.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Christian Science Monitor 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York:  New American Library, 1970.  227-229.

* * *

Note: In Miami, O Cinema hosted an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location. This screening was part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which also played at part of the retrospective (see event page). Today is the last day to catch the film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining; both these films have one more screening each this afternoon at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (see calendar).

Room 237 trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

4 cause and effect

Chapter III-A: The Sublimation of Narrative: Narrative Structure in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Note: this is a continuation from yesterday’s post: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 2 of 4 

4. Events have clear causes and effects

As film theorist David Bordwell notes: “Coincidence and haphazardly linked events are believed to flaw the [Hollywood] film’s unity and disturb the spectator. Tight causality yields not only consequence but continuity, making the film progress ‘smoothly, easily, with no jars, no waits, no delays.’23 A growing absorption also issues from the steadily intensifying character causality, as the spectator recalls salient causes and anticipates more or less likely effects”* (18).  This formula effectively eases the viewer into the story, but when it came to 2001: A Space Odyssey, critics felt disappointed that Kubrick did not follow this convention.

Throughout the film, many causes and effects have an ambiguous relationship, which unsettles the viewer. The premiere screening of 2001 in New York featured many walkouts and complaints. Kubrick himself counted 241 (as Jack Nicholson recalled in the Life in Pictures documentary), and movie critic Roger Ebert noted one Hollywood actor at the screening, namely Rock Hudson, who “stalked down the aisle” and grumbled, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?”

Beyond the frustrations of an actor accustomed to working in the Hollywood form, many esteemed film critics also felt hindered from appreciating 2001 because they expected a classical Hollywood film with clear causes and effects. One of the most notable dissenters was Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice. In his review, he sounded frustrated by the obliqueness of the monolith, precisely because of the ambiguity surrounding an object that plays a key role in the transformative events in the movie:  “A big black slab figures in each section of the film, but we never find out exactly what it is or what it signifies” (Sarris 45).

Others hoped Kubrick could spell out the meaning of his film less ambiguously. In his review for Vogue Magazine, Arthur Schlesinger, like many critics, blamed Kubrick’s attention to special effects** for the film’s seemingly failing, unintelligible narrative. “In 2001 he has gone mad over electronic artifacts … Obsession continues to outrun explanation, and this reviewer, at least, could not understand a good deal of what was going on.” (Schlesinger 76). 

With 2001, Kubrick often violates the rule of “tight causality” Bordwell speaks of in his fourth rule of the classical Hollywood form. For instance, after disconnecting HAL, Bowman decides to leave the spaceship Discovery in a space pod and make the ominous decision to blindly approach the mysterious monolith floating in space, but in Arthur C. Clarke’s book, the author gives a clear reason. The book establishes Bowman living in the now derelict ship, carrying on the research for some time after HAL’s disconnection, until, one day, he reports to mission control that he wants a closer look at the monolith floating outside and offers his plan to return to the Discovery in about 90 minutes (Clarke 247-248).

This monolith, which Clarke names “the Star Gate” in his book’s narrative (effectively loading it with more meaning) later seems to absorb Bowman and the space pod as if it were a kind of portal to a place beyond space and time (Clarke 243). The genius of Kubrick’s ambiguous set-up lies in the slipperiness of it. Bowman’s actions startle the viewer, adding to the shock of the lengthy Star Gate sequence, which would only be hampered by exposition. The special effects during the rest of the movie are all meant to dazzle and create an experience beyond words, reflective of Bowman’s unearthly experience. It involves the viewer on a visceral level, rather than if the director served up clear explanations as to what he or she is seeing.

Key to Kubrick’s harnessing the power of ambiguity, the director stays away from using language to explain what might be happening in the movie. 2001 has the rare characteristic of having very scarce dialogue, which contributes to the film’s vagueness. Clarke explains: “[B]ecause we were dealing with the mystery of the Universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they [the forces] could not be totally understandable” (Clarke 249).

5. Narrative has chronology

2001-stargate1

Bordwell states that fifth convention is almost taken for granted by the audience. “[T]hrough its history Hollywood cinema seeks to represent events in a temporally continuous fashion; moreover, narrative logic has generally worked to motivate this temporal continuity” (Bordwell 9). As already can be seen, it is impossible for 2001 to fit this convention because there is no clear character or group of characters that influences the film’s story from beginning to end.

If the fact that Kubrick focuses on three different characters, during three lengthy sections of the film does not already do enough to undermine this convention, the presence of the Stargate sequence blows this rule away. Kubrick called this voyage to Bowman’s destiny— depicted in a drawn-out sequence of lights and brilliant geometric and amorphous shapes, not to mention freeze frames, flash cuts and reversed images— “a journey through inner and outer space” (qtd. in Gelmis 91).

Actually, one of the most confounding moments of the film happens here. Kubrick once explained: “In a timeless state, [Bowman’s] life passes from middle age to senescence to death.  He is reborn … and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny” (qtd. in Gelmis 91).

The critics who disliked this film hated the long, ponderous Stargate sequence so much, they would have preferred to see it cut. Sarris and the Christian Science Monitor’s Louise Sweeney did not find any value in Bowman’s trip through space and time at the end of the movie. In addition, Kauffman joined Sweeney in sharing a preference for having the scenes with the ape-men excised. This leaves the tight chronology of the Discovery trip as the only section of the film that mattered in these critics’ eyes, hoping for relief in the classical Hollywood form.

Going somewhere beyond man’s perception of space and time, specifically during the Star Gate sequence, the narrative announces its dramatic move to go “beyond infinity.” As Robinson has observed:  “Since nothing beyond infinity can be rationally conceived, the title of Part III [‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’], a verbal paradox, itself signifies that Dave has embarked upon a venture too subtle for reason to comprehend” (163).

6. Unambiguous ending

conclusion

2001: A Space Odyssey is all about open-endedness. However, as Bordwell notes, in classical Hollywood film, “[t]he ending becomes the culmination of the spectator’s absorption, as all the causal gaps get filled” (Bordwell 18). With a film that conforms to classical Hollywood cinema, a viewer should feel confident that, by the film’s conclusion, he or she will understand how all of the film’s causes and effects lead up to the finale of its story. By contrast, the end of 2001 concludes with many gaps in the film’s plot left open, in effect leaving many questions in the viewer’s mind unanswered. This demands the viewer see beyond the visuals of the film. After all, Kubrick’s goal, as he has already stated, was to create an experience. In an interview with The New York Times’ William Kloman in April 1968, Kubrick explains, “Essentially the film is a mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level rather than in a specific literal explanation.”

Several critics who wrote negative reviews of the movie indeed had problems with how Kubrick ended his movie. “By the end three unreconciled plot lines—the slabs, Dullea’s aging, the period bedroom—are simply left there like a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology” (Adler 209). Adler specifically voiced her disappointment that the film did not attempt to conform to classical Hollywood cinema, saying the film could not work if it did not spell out its intentions: “This is a long step outside the convention, some extra scripts seem required, and the all-purpose answer, ‘relativity,’ does not really serve unless it can be verbalized” (209). I shiver at the thought of cinematic experience reduced to verbalizing all its intentions.

Sarris also complained about the vagueness of the finale, stating the film ended on an arrogant note of artiness: “The ending is a mishmash of psychedelic self-indulgence for the special effects people and an exercise in mystifying abstract fantasy in the open temple of High Art” (Sarris 45).

Like Kubrick, Clarke was quite aware of the contentious points the New York critics brought up against the film and offered many vocal counter points to their criticisms. “[T]he ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simple-minded critics to the contrary. (You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick’s. Nor is his necessarily the ‘right’ one—whatever that means.)” (Clarke 249).

The arrival of the Starchild ends Homosapiens and begins a race of something else… if one can even call it a race. But, in keeping with the filmmakers’ intent: who knows? Kubrick meant to leave you wondering with that jarring finale. Classical Hollywood films are constructed in such a manner that no questions are left unanswered; their stories and messages may seem clear-cut, but they are also limited in scope. Audiences are effectively force-fed a conclusion and an idea that has as much value as the popcorn and soda they consume while viewing it. Meaning is closed, shut down rather than encouraged by such movies. Films, like any art that hopes to stand the test of time— should mean something to the viewer personally. Kubrick wants to leave the audience with a feeling more so than a thought. As Kubrick once said, “The truth of a thing is in the feel of it, not the think of it” (qtd. in Gelmis 80).

2001-kubrick

Part 4 in this series of posts will examine the final and most complex rule of Hollywood film challenged by 2001: A Space Odyssey (as of he posting of this third part in the series, it stands at double the length of this post, but I hope to shrink it, and it might take more than a day).

Edit: here is the link to Part 4: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 4 of 4

Meanwhile, do not forget…

In Miami, O Cinema is hosting an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location (that’s a hot link for tickets and more information). This screening is part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which is also currently playing at O Cinema (see event page). The film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining, continues to expand this week in the Miami area. It opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables will begin a run on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).

Notes

* Bordwell here quotes from Barret C. Kiesling, Talking Pictures (Richmond, Virginia, Johnson Publishing Co., 1937).

**According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2001 won the Oscar® for Special Visual Effects that year. It was also nominated in three other categories: Art Direction, Directing and Screenwriting.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1985.

Clarke, Arthur C.  Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations. 1st ed.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1972.

— –.  2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Millennium Edition.  New York:  Roc, 2000.

Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  27 March 1997. Rogerebert.com.  6 Feb. 2006 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970327/REVIEWS08/401010362&gt;.

Gelmis, Joseph.  “The Film Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick.”  1970.  Stanley Kubrick Interviews.  Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  80-104.

Kauffman, Stanley.  “Lost in the Stars.”  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  New Republic 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York: New American Library, 1970.  223-226.

Kloman, William.  “In 2001, Will Love Be a Seven Letter Word?”  New York Times On The Web 14 April 1968.  5 July 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/041468kubrick-2001.html>.

Robinson, William R.  “The Birth of Imaginative man in Part III of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.”  Seeing Beyond:  Movies, Visions, and Values.  Ed. Richard P. Sugg.  New York:  Golden String Press, 2001.  161-187.

Sarris, Andrew.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Village Voice 11 April, 1968:  45.

Schlesinger, Arthur Jr.  “2001: A Space Odyssey:  ‘a superb wreck’”  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Vogue June 1968:  76.

Sweeney, Louise.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Christian Science Monitor 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York:  New American Library, 1970.  227-229.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)