3 obstacles are obscured

Chapter II:  The Decoy Characters and the Frivolity of Obstacles in 2001

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 1 of 4

  1. Characters

Film theorist David Bordwell states, “Character-centered—i.e., personal or psychological—causality is the armature of the classical story” (13). In its entire narrative span, which, at the very least, covers millions of years (not to mention infinity), 2001 does not feature a single apparent, dominating character over the course of the whole film. Of course, the film’s timespan could not allow for one mortal character or group of characters to steer the story’s development from start to finish. By examining each of the film’s three sections, as introduced by title cards, one can observe both the absence of central characters and the presence of something else in their place.

One of the consistent complaints by dissenting critics was precisely about this. Andrew Sarris, writing for The Village Voice, called 2001 “a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view” (45). In his review for The New Republic, entitled “Lost in the Stars,” Stanley Kauffman states he would have preferred if Kubrick had disposed of all film that did not feature the astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), in effect making Bowman the film’s main character (224).

Some critics made the stretch to make the Monolith the film’s main character. In her review, Adler referred to it as “the sentient slab” (207). But there’s something missing from the Monolith as the decision-maker in plot. This brings us to the second principle of classical Hollywood cinema, as Bordwell has noted: “… the character assumes a causal role because of his or her desires. Hollywood characters especially protagonists, are goal-oriented” (17).

  1. Characters Have Goals

2 charcters and goals

The inference Adler made to call the Monolith “the sentient slab” does not fit with Bordwell’s second rule of the classical Hollywood form. Kubrick presents the Monolith as a mysterious object of unknowable quality. In the last spoken lines of the film, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) states: “Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert. Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.” After all what happens in the film to that point, we are still only left with mystery.

Kubrick has good reason not to explain the ambiguities of the monolith, much less reveal the alien beings behind it, as the black slab more correctly represents an idea or a presence rather than a real person or thing. Taking the unfolding events within the film into consideration, one might find it easy to consider the monolith a stand-in for divine intervention, as it plays a God-like role in the film. Kubrick himself even once admitted:  “I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God” (qtd. in Nordern 49).

Kubrick posits the potential existence of species comparable to man, but ahead of man in millions of years of evolution, already refined to such a degree that they might appear like gods to the young race of humans on Earth:  “Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans” (qtd. in Nordern 50). “They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation”

According to Kubrick, “Mere speculation on the possibility of [the alien beings’] existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without attempting to decipher their motives” (qtd. in Nordern 51). He wants the viewer of 2001 to experience this sentiment, based on the information provided by the images and sound on the movie screen. Keeping in mind the specifics of the second character-related convention key to classical Hollywood cinema, it becomes clear that the main character of 2001 cannot be the monolith precisely because Kubrick never gives away any sense of the monolith’s motivation. Rather, the viewer can only grasp a vague notion of something beyond the monolith. Kubrick purposefully creates a gap of interpretation, as the only thing the viewer knows for certain is that this object is mysterious, just like the unknowable drive of God.

  1. Obstacles

3 obstacles

In 2001, three particularly engaging characters stand out:  Moon-Watcher (the name given one ape man in Clarke’s novel), Dr. Floyd, and Dave Bowman. The first truly relatable character for the audience is Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter). Based on the action surrounding this creature, one can deduce his most basic goals are the acquisition of food, water and safe shelter. Comparatively, Dr. Floyd’s goals seem less visceral, besides travelling to a space station, casual meetings with colleagues, a chat with his daughter on Earth, before it becomes apparent that he is on a trip to see a monolith that has been unearthed on the moon. As for Bowman, lengthy scenes of him jogging, eating and playing chess with the Discovery’s onboard computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) is later overshadowed with his life and death struggle with that same computer.

The only time a character overcomes an obstacle and does something that defies orders arrives when Bowman disconnects the Discovery’s onboard computer, as it begs for its continued existence. Otherwise, obstacles are interchangeable with routine that hold little drama for the people on the screen. But even when Bowman disconnects HAL, he maintains a cold, never swaying determined look, despite the computer even singing to him. Bordwell states, “The character assumes a causal role because of his or her desires. Hollywood characters especially protagonists, are goal-oriented. The hero desires something new to his/her situation, or the hero seeks to restore an original state of affairs” (Bordwell 16).

The conflict with HAL finally shows a character moving beyond a surprise obstacle. Still, for Bowman, any real effort on his part to achieve anything has ended by the start of the third and final section of the film, where he seems to simply exist until his death, when he is reborn as the Star Child. Here again the critics who opposed the film tuned out. Schlesinger dismissed this part of the movie when he writes, “At this point, 2001 dissolves into phantasmagoria” (76). In his review for Newsweek, Joseph Morgenstern (no relation) wondered if the monolith represented God or “Maybe it was a nephew of the New York Hilton” (100).

6endings

The notion that something beyond the main characters might be driving the story seemed to disappoint Kael. “‘2001’ is a celebration of a cop-out,” she writes in her review. “It says man is a tiny nothing on the stairway to a paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway” (150). With her comment, Kael responds to the idea that the force driving the characters in 2001 lies beyond them, rather than within. The tone of her writing sounds personal, which would be appropriate considering she wrote her movie reviews after her first and only viewing (“Film Critics Roundtable”). One might consider her reviews knee-jerk reactions, and Kubrick himself would give little credence to such an approach. “Very few critics work carefully, thoughtfully enough,” Kubrick once said. “To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity” (qtd. in Hofsess 106).

A presence involved in the grander scheme of things constantly overshadows these characters’ personal goals. In fact, one Kubrick scholar noted a common thread in his films includes characters that possess the antithesis of a goal-oriented drive. In his introduction to a new compilation of essays on 2001, Robert Kolker writes:  “[Kubrick’s characters] are never in control and not really characters at all, in the traditional movie sense.  Kubrick’s characters are ideas given human form, acting out their own processes of destruction” (6).

In what came very close to an overt description of 2001’s theme, Kubrick, speaking with the threat of nuclear war on his mind, once said:

“Man must strive to gain mastery over himself as well as over his machines … We are semi-civilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Since the means to obliterate life on Earth exists, it will take more than just careful planning and reasonable cooperation to avoid some eventual catastrophe. The problem exists, and the problem is essentially a moral and spiritual one” (qtd. in Nelson 104).  

This quote, with its concluding philosophical turn, sums up what Kubrick attempts to illustrate with 2001: A Space Odyssey. ActKubrick2001SetThe monolith plays a god-like role by intervening with man’s destiny. By making the monolith’s power mysterious and seemingly omnipotent, Kubrick alludes to a spiritual solution. What the audience takes away from the final, powerful scenes of the film is a metaphor:  Kubrick’s optimism that man’s spirituality and morality will transcend his violent ways. This leads to the question, are other men (or ape-men or computers imitating men) the true antagonists of the film or could human nature itself be the opposing force of the film? By flattening the central idea of character as fundamental to filmmaking, Kubrick points to new ways of understanding film, ways that have to do, in fact, with not only the pushing aside of character-driven plot, but the sublimation of narrative as well.

Part 3 in this series of posts will examine three more rules of Hollywood film that are challenging to place in the context of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also, don’t 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 opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).

Works Cited

Adler, Renata.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  New York Times 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York:  New American Library, 1970.  207-209.

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

“Film Critics Roundtable.”  Narr. Neal Conan.  Talk of the Nation.  Natl. Public Radio. WLRN, Miami.  9 Sept. 2002.

Hofsess, John.  “Mind’s Eye: A Clockwork Orange.”  1971.  Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  105-107.

Kael, Pauline.  Going Steady.  New York: Warner Books, 1979.

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.

Kolker, Robert.  Introduction.  Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey:  New Essays. Ed. Robert Kolker.  New York:  Oxford UP, 2006.  3-12.

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.

Nordern, Eric. “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick.”  Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  47-74.

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.

Hans Morgenstern

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

title card

From the Internet to followers in my hometown Miami, I have long been asked to share my MA thesis that capped off my studies in American Literature at Florida International University, something I titled “the Sublimation Of The Classical Hollywood Cinema Form In 2001: A Space Odyssey.” This was a 76-page paper based on the work of eminent film scholar David Bordwell’s theory of classical Hollywood cinema. I contrasted the seven rules of his theory with criticism both scholarly and popular on the film as well as published interviews with both the film’s director Stanley Kubrick and its co-writer Arthur C. Clarke. The point was to reveal how the director achieved a more profound film— philosophically, spiritually and artistically—  by breaking the rules of classical Hollywood cinema.

I had the opportunity to do that at O Cinema a couple of weeks ago following a rare theatrical screening of the film during a retrospective of Stanley Kubrick’s films (see event page). The art house’s co-director, Kareem Tabsch, invited me to present my argument in a discussion with an intimate audience illustrated by a presentation I designed on Prezi.com (see it here).

O Cinema co-director Kareem Tabsch (at left) with Hans Morgenstern at O Cinema on April 10, 2013 lead a discussion on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo by Ana Morgenstern.

O Cinema co-director Kareem Tabsch (at left) with Hans Morgenstern at O Cinema on April 10, 2013 lead a discussion on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo by Ana Morgenstern.

In a series of posts this week, I plan to share a redux version of my MA thesis, culled from notes from the discussion for O Cinema. This is by no means the full paper and will be missing deeper arguments. But I hope these summaries of my three chapters will provide a clear picture of my thesis. I will welcome any questions in the comments section if something seems unclear.

This work would not have been possible without the members of my thesis committee: my thesis director, Dr. Richard P. Sugg, who was highly influential in my studies and appreciation of cinema during my undergrad and graduate work. Dr. Jamie Sutton was the supportive rock throughout, and I thank him for the extra effort he put in getting me over the most difficult part of writing this thesis: helping me arrange my thoughts into a cohesive paper. Last, but not least, Dr. Bruce Harvey pushed me the hardest, challenging my conclusions and opening my eyes to how deep “beyond” can mean.

* * *

 Chapter I:  The Classical Hollywood Film Theory, Stanley Kubrick and Beyond Subversion

Not long after its release, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey would gain a massive following despite some major critics’ backhanded reviews. Kubrick biographer and film scholar, Michel Ciment documented an efficient summary of their comments:

Who now remembers the firing-squad directed at 2001: A Space Odyssey by New York’s ‘establishment’. ‘It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie’ (Pauline Kael, Harper’s magazine); ‘A major disappointment’ (Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic); ‘Incredibly boring’ (Renata Adler, The New York Times); ‘A disaster’ (Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice)? Variety, the American show-business Bible, is the most reliable barometer of the profession’s suspicion of any unique, unconventional artist… as the ultimate criticism [they stated], ‘Film costs too much for so personal a film’ (43).

Yet, 2001 was the second highest grossing film in 1968, earning over $25.5 million for MGM that year alone (boxofficereport.com). Some went to augment acid trips with the film’s visuals. Others felt a spiritual sensation during the same sequences (see the Life in Pictures documentary). Beyond these sensory experiences, the film also begs an intellectual involvement to reconcile a film that would disappoint those expecting a classical Hollywood film.

One of the reasons for the harsh critical response toward 2001: A Space Odyssey upon release comes from the fact that several popular critics of the time approached this film with an aesthetic expectations stemming from classical Hollywood cinema. Their complaints were all about how the film did not follow Hollywood conventions, and it frustrated them. Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti wrote in Stanley Kubrick, Director:  A Visual Analysis: “The first wave of critics wrote mixed reviews. While seeing a new use of film, they reacted with responses geared to conventionally shaped films” (Walker, Taylor and Ruchti 162).

However there were some that understood the film as something rather different and special during an era where many independent filmmakers were redefining movie’s structure (remember, this was the time when Easy Rider hit the scene). “Newsday” film critic Joseph Gelmis actually wrote two reviews within days of each other reversing his position from his original review, which had a title that stated “Space Odyssey Fails Most Gloriously” to admitting in his second review: “After seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey a second time, I’m convinced it is a masterwork.” (documented on-line here).

Since these first reviews, of course, there have been many critical books and articles that champion the breakthroughs in film narrative championed by 2001.  There are people like Michel Ciment, Thomas Allen Nelson, Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti (those who’ve read books on Kubrick might recognize these names). I especially enjoyed William R. Robinson work, which includes two dense articles that appeared in a book by my thesis mentor Richard P. Sugg, a humanities and literature professor at Florida International University: Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values.

In his essays on 2001, Robinson recognizes that Kubrick was aiming to share something that could only be told through images and as such becomes impossible to explain with dialogue and words, much less the limits of conventional story-telling in cinema.  As Robinson said, “[Kubrick] had a story to tell that could be rendered, perceived, followed and completed only through moving images … he committed himself to telling the story of the active eye” (Robinson 77).

Kubrick shooting 2001

Kubrick’s own thoughts regarding 2001’s interpretation correspond with the approach by film analysts like Robinson, Walker and others. As Kubrick once said:

2001 … is basically a visual, nonverbal experience.  It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting” (qtd. in Gelmis 89-90).

If an interviewer asked him for an interpretation, Kubrick would respond: “They are areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer” (qtd. in Nordern 47).

Rather than strive to produce yet another interpretation of this classic film with my Master’s thesis, which, as Kubrick described, is a “subjective” experience, I decided to hold 2001: A Space Odyssey up against the theories of classical Hollywood cinema, a theory that would not be defined until 1985 by David Bordwell, a famous film scholar based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (he’s now professor emeritus there but still writes on film at www.davidbordwell.net). Keep in mind, this theory had still been almost 20 years away from relevance in film studies.

But by holding this film against this theory that defines what Bordwell called “classical Hollywood cinema” I want to show:

  1. How easy it is to pull apart the same old stories from major studies looking to to appeal to the lowest common denominator to sell the most tickets.
  2. Reveal something about my own approach to film criticism.
  3. How breaking the rules of Hollywood film can feel more fulfilling to a viewer looking for something more at the movies.
  4. Demonstrate how this film has inspired so many competing interpretations (check YouTube for some).

Going back to Gelmis, he wrote that populist critics seemed “‘threatened’ by the film ‘because the conventional standards don’t apply’” (20). It was that little bit of commentary that inspired me to compare Bordwell’s later theoretical work in defining the classical Hollywood cinema form to see how this film fits in with that approach. I wasn’t surprised to find that it does not fit in his theory of Hollywood film at all.

Columbia University Press published the Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 by Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Bordwell’s wife and longtime collaborator Kristin Thompson. It remains in print and essential to film studies to this day. This is what Bordwell said of the film studies world that inspired this book: “During the 1970s and early 1980s film scholars of various stripes were referring to a ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ cinema, centered in the U.S. studio system,” He continues about the book he co-wrote: “In this very long, densely printed, heavily footnoted book, two colleagues and I tried to describe, analyze, and explain what this concept might mean.” For the purpose of my thesis, Bordwell’s section of the book proves most useful, and it breaks down along seven pretty plain and easy-to-understand rules, dealing with narrative structure, style and the technical devices of movies:

  1. The film follows a particular character or group of characters from beginning to end
  2. The principal character or characters have a defined, primary goal or several goals.
  3. The main characters must overcome obstacles presented by antagonists to achieve their goals.
  4. Events that occur in the film have clear causes and effects and are unambiguous.
  5. The story should unfold as if it were in the present with key events occurring in consecutive order, although flashbacks, fantasies, dreams and character point-of-view shots are permitted.
  6. By the film’s conclusion, no questions are left unanswered that may have arisen in the plot.
  7. Film techniques such as editing and sound should not call attention to themselves (236).

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick decisively breaks out of these rules of the classical Hollywood form to make the audience not only look deeper at his film, but experience something beyond the images. In other words, context should be projected by the audience, not dictated by explicit meanings in the narrative.

In my second post in this series I plant to show how Kubrick subverts rules 1 – 3 to offer a grander experience for the viewer. Jump to it here:

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

Watch the original trailer:

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 opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).

Works Cited

Bordwell, David.  2004.  David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema.  2 Nov. 2004. <http://www.davidbordwell.net/books.htm&gt;.

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

“Box Office Report – Revenue Database – 1968.”  2005.  Box Office Report.  Ed. Garris, Daniel.  24 May 2005 <http://www.boxofficereport.com/database/1968.shtml&gt;.

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

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

Nordern, Eric. “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick.”  Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  47-74.

Robinson, William R. and Mary McDermott.  “2001 And the Literary Sensibility.”  1972. Seeing Beyond:  Movies, Visions, and Values.  Ed. Richard P. Sugg.  New York:  Golden String Press, 2001.  77-91.

Walker, Alexander, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti.  Stanley Kubrick, Director:  A Visual Analysis.  Rev. and expanded ed.  New York:  Norton, 1999.

Hans Morgenstern

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

Pinback-2_-¬2012DrewReynolds

Last year, Pinback returned after five years of recording silence with the new album: Information Retrieved. Even bigger for this writer is the San Diego-based band’s return to South Florida for a rare live appearance coming up this Wednesday at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. The show marks only the group’s second appearance this far south since 2004, in support of the duo’s third album, Summer in Abaddon. Back then, the band travelled as far south as Miami to a space called I/O (now Vagabond), skipping this area during support of its 2007 album Autumn of the Seraphs.

Pinback formed on a lark in 1998 when multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rob Crow and bassist/vocalist Armistead Burwell Smith IV’s found themselves with some downtime from other projects. The resulting catchy, crisp pop rock soon outshone any of their earlier bands in terms of interest and record sales. I spoke with Crow last month for a pair of stories in the “Broward-Palm Beach New Times.”

To read the print story, jump through the logo below:

Broward Palm Beach New Times logo

To read a nice, long rambling tangent we took on science fiction movies and Star Wars in particular, jump through the logo below for this left-field story in the paper’s music blog, “The County Grind”:

county_grind logo

As fun as it was to recall our mutual memories of watching the first Star Wars movies in the theater, I found it rather difficult to get Crow going about his music. Here is a back and forth that captures our repartee, where he recalls memories of the band’s first South Florida show, what to expect of the band live and his musical relationship with a man he calls Zack for short, and considers his opposite.

Hans Morgenstern: What do you remember about the Miami visit, the last time you were here, like 5 years now? This is your first return here since then, but in Fort Lauderdale.

Rob Crow: Yeah. We went swimming at dusk. I didn’t know why nobody else was in the water. It’s because it’s crawling with sharks.

That or everyone’s getting ready to hit the clubs. No partying for you guys?

Not for us. We’re the nice-guy band.

I was impressed with how well you captured these songs that are rather intricate and polished in a live setting.

I remember that room. If you could hear anything, that’d be amazing.

I’ve seen many bands there, and it’s always too loud, but I could actually hear the different parts.

(laughs) What a bonus when you can hear the parts!

How do you pull it off live now as a three-piece? 

They’ve been our best shows, as a three-piece, as everyone has wholly agreed.

No keyboards? 

Nope. They will still be there. They just won’t be seen. They’ll just be heard.

So they will be pre-recorded. I was sorry to hear about Terrin Durfey’s passing. How long was he a touring member of the band?

I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it in those terms. The timeline gets confusing for me, and depressing, to be honest, so I don’t dwell on it.

I cannot help but notice a sort of poetic tribute of you all touring as a three-piece, without a keyboardist. Is that a sort of tribute to Terrin or out of respect?

In some ways, like there’s some things we don’t do anymore because he did on the desks, and nobody could ever do that. But we had other people doing his parts as well for years, when he couldn’t do it anymore (coughs) and they were nice, great people and everything, but everything just works better for us as a three-piece.

There’s this clean sound you guys have that seems to harken back to the first polished rock records that really started coming out in the mid-’70s and up, like the Police.

I like the Police. I mean, when we were making our first album, it was one of the few bands that both of us liked, that we listened to while we were dicking around or whatever. He and I have very different views on almost anything, so when we agree on something it’s nice.

Like what views are different?

I don’t know. They’re all different.

How about musically?

He doesn’t own any records. He owns maybe five records, and I own, and I’m an archivist. (laughs)

There’s never any indulgence in feedback in your music, like dominating a whole song.

Zack’s always trying to do that on his bass. It doesn’t work for me.

So you stop him when he pulls that?

We both stop each other from doing stuff. Yeah, I’ve learned that it would be bad to do on guitar, and I just kinda get nauseous when it happens on the bass that much (laughs). That doesn’t mean we won’t do something that does that sometimes. That’d be great to figure out how to make it work.

Where was the new album recorded?

We had a studio that we were both working at [S.D.R.L. Studios, San Diego, California]. But he doesn’t work there anymore, and we both have home studios.

Do you record to tape at all?

No, we used to try to do that, but it was such a nightmare. We just gave up. We had a 16-track, big old giant thing and all this stuff, and were like, ugh, it doesn’t sound better. And we literally cannot afford to keep it in shape.

Ever think of going into a studio?

There’s no way that the two of us could go to a studio where you pay by the hour [He pauses to think about it, and his voice even sounds exhausted as he continues] because it’s just a nightmare. Everything we do is at a snail’s pace… Everything.

* * *

Here are Pinback’s current tour dates (including an appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon:

March 12 – Orlando, FL @ The Social
March 13 – Fort Lauderdale, FL @ The Culture Room
March 14 – Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live
March 15 – West Columbia, SC @ New Brookland Tavern
March 16 – Richmond, VA @ The Canal Club
March 17 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
March 19 – Late Night With Jimmy Fallon @ Rockefeller Plaza, NY (check local listings to watch the performance)
March 21 – St. Louis, MO @ Firebird
March 22 – Kansas City, MO @ The Riot Room
March 23 – Little Rock, AR @ Revolution Music Room

Finally, just for fun, here is all the room I had for the band’s first South Florida appearance in Miami, almost 10 years ago, which ran in print before web mattered as much as it does now. Again, jump through the image:

Miami New Times logo

Hans Morgenstern

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

Movie_Poster_of_-Beware_Of_Mr._Baker-Ginger Baker is probably rock ‘n’ roll’s most infamous survivor. Call him the original, archetypal rock drummer … and you might just piss him off, as the intense documentary Beware of Mr. Baker reveals with an almost breathless pace. Jazz music was his home, and beyond that, African rhythms. But at the same time he ingested the hardest drugs possible, fucked every girl who threw herself at him and came to blows with many fellow musicians. He invested all his intellect in playing drums, leaving behind several ex-wives, traumatized collaborators and, worst of all, children who never had a father they could connect with.

First-time filmmaker and long-time Baker expert Jay Bulger tells Baker’s storied life in one of the most spectacular documentaries ever on a living nightmare of a personality.  He captures the passion of an artist who has devoted his life to playing his instrument with no sentimentality. The heartache on screen comes from as real a place as anything. As devotional as some of the great drummers who celebrate Baker’s talent seem, they all recognize the perils of getting too close to a flame of the appropriately ginger-haired Baker’s aura. “He influenced me as a drummer,” says Simon Kirke of Bad Company and Free, “but not as a person.”

The talking heads are all well-merited personalities and include former band mate in Cream and Blind Faith, Ginger BakerEric Clapton and such important rock drummers like Stewart Copeland (the Police), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Neil Peart (Rush) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica), who all credit Baker for making them drummers. But, also, no one denies what an imposing figure Baker was socially. Clapton seems to downright fear him, admitting he could only stay on the sidelines as Baker and Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce pummeled each other. In his late age, however, Bruce still cannot help but say he only has love for Baker. “He’s definitely the best Ginger Baker in the world,” he says.

Baker, however, seems to have no nostalgia about his old cohorts, and Bulger wastes no time establishing that, opening the film with his final confrontation with Baker on the recluse’s property in South Africa. When Bulger reveals his plans to speak with other people in Baker’s life, Baker angrily warns him he best not do any such thing. He then busts Bulger’s nose with a cane. “Ginger Baker just hit me in the fucking nose,” he tells his cameraman after returning to a waiting SUV, the bridge of his nose split and bloody.

For Baker, it is clear his main drive in occupying his mortal coil is to use it for drumming. Nothing else. Everything else may as well be damned. Keeping time mattered most to him. Transcendence for him could only be found in the shift from 4/4 rhythm to 5/4. Bulger uses Baker’s own words to narrate his childhood captured  visually in dark, rough-edged animated sequences. 28beware-1-articleLargeThe life experiences that formed this man seem almost mythic. He says he was born into an England bombarded by Germany during World War II. “I still love explosions to this day,” Baker says. He took beatings from hoodlums and beat on his desk in school in a rhythmic pattern, inspired by what he heard on a Max Roach record. When he first sat at a drum kit, he found he could play. “Fuck, I’m a drummer … I had it … time … natural time.”

If ever a link existed between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, Baker was that. He hated being called a rock drummer, and he makes that clear, shrugging off such iconic rock drummers like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and the Who’s Keith Moon as dull technicians with no swing. In the early 1970s, at the height of his career, he disappeared from the rock ‘n’ roll pop scene to Africa. Ginger Baker's Air ForceHe could care less about the civil strife and lawlessness of the continent, as he gathered with tribesmen in drum circles to enjoy their unique rhythms where he seemed to find an almost religious sort of bliss. He went on to play with Africa’s most famous popular musician Fela Kuti.

Bulger does a fascinating and riveting job presenting one hell of a talent in rock ‘n’ roll history. This was a man so deep in touch with his primal side he was able to parlay it into a career. However, Bulger does not forget to show that this does not come without costs. ginger-baker-beware-of-mr-baker-documentary-film-noscaleBaker left many broken hearts in his wake, most of all his children. Beware of Mr. Baker might seem at first to be a celebration of a man who lived to fulfill every waking moment of his life and chase after his craft by living it to the fullest. But it truly lives up to its title, as the “Mr. Baker” in the title may just as easily be replaced with Mephistopheles. The film has another dimension beyond seemingly celebrating a man who has sprinted after his dream. It might at first seem sweet and nice that his son Kofi Baker learns to play drums in part to get closer with his father, but there is also something fundamentally tragic about it. As his third wife, Karen Loucks, notes, it’s not about Baker’s verve to follow his art but his “inability to stay.”

Hans Morgenstern

Beware of Mr. Baker runs 100 minutes and is not rated, but Baker is a man born of violence and rock ‘n’ roll is a music that uses offensive language liberally.  The documentary returns to O Cinema in Miami this weekend starting today, Friday, Feb. 15. If other screenings around the US visit the film’s official website.

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

Edgar Ramiraz in Zero Dark ThirtyWhen I got the assignment to interview Édgar Ramírez for his small but key role in Zero Dark Thirty, I jumped at the chance. I respected this actor immensely for what he brought to the title character of Carlos the Jackal in the miniseries Carlos (2011). I caught that film as a marathon cinematic  five-and-a-half-hour experience at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami Coral Gables campus. I came for the filmmaking of Olivier Assayas but was blown away by the performance by Ramírez.

Though an hour late to start, the low-key but charming Ramírez made the resulting round table interview with a group of five other local journalists a pleasure. The resulting piece was published early yesterday morning for the “Miami New Times” Arts and Entertainment blog “Cultist.” I think the story I wrote up captures the subtle intelligence and charm of this talented man. Read it by jumping though the blog’s logo here:

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Of course, plenty more information was covered, so allow this blog post to stand as a supplement to the above piece. I was interested in the working relationship between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, as much has been about the writer’s constant presence on the set (here’s a great “Hollywood Reporter” article about it).

“He was always around,” Ramírez confirmed of Boal. “He’s very involved. It was a huge privilege to have the writer there, in case we needed to change something, in case a line was not working. Then, you could always discuss it with the writer, so it’s always very helpful, and you don’t get that privilege very often to have the writer on set. For me, it was very helpful also because it was a very fast-changing situation, and also because of the location we were at, the tension that was there because of the stakes, then we had to change and re-shape things as we were shooting, so it was great to have that.”

Ramírez also noted Boal’s producer credit, a rare thing for a writer to achieve in a Hollywood picture. However, Ramírez said, Bigelow had a firm hand on the visual elements and working with actors. 1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty“She’s directing. She’s directing the movie. She’s directing the actors, and Mark is there to support as a producer and to support as a writer when we needed him for something … There are certain things that look great on paper, then, for some reason, they don’t get to fully work on a scene, so it is great to have someone who understands, who has an overview of the whole script, who can tell you, ‘Well, this is what you should say because everything was related to something in other places of the script.’ Sometimes you can improvise things on movies, you get stuck, then you improvise, but in a movie like this, so accurate and based on firsthand accounts, you could not take the liberty of just changing one term for another.”

Another good question worth noting, which circled back to his role of playing Carlos the Jackal, is how the film handles history. He offered a very astute observation that too many take for granted while watching what is ultimately entertainment. In my review of the film (‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light) I link to an interview with Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and editor of “The Torture Papers.” Jason-Clarke-Zero-Dark-ThirtyShe argues that history remains unclear on how fruitful torture was for crucial information in the tracking of Osama bin Laden. Yet one of the reasons the film has received so much heat for the torture scenes is that they result in the first utterance of the name Abu Ahmed, bin Laden’s courier, who ultimately leads CIA operatives, including the character Ramírez plays, to bin Laden’s hideout.

Though, again, more information can be found in the “Cultist” piece on how he felt about the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, Ramírez put the narrative into perspective: “We were recreating reality. It’s impossible to reconstruct reality. It happened once. What you do is re-interpret, you recreate, and that’s what you try to do. Even if you have the person who lived it, the person who did it next to you, that happens just once, and I know this. I’m familiar with this because of Carlos. We also had first account information, very accurate research and navigation of facts, and however, it was a work of fiction. There’s no way to imitate reality because it’s not about imitation, it’s about realization.”

So, ultimately, remember, it’s just a movie.

Hans Morgenstern

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

Zero_Dark_Thirty_posterZero Dark Thirty hits theaters in limited release tomorrow riding a wave of critical buzz but also controversy. Having had the opportunity to attend a preview screening early last month by the invitation of Sony Pictures, I can understand why both the hype and concern would crop up. The film opens with 20 minutes of the intense and persistent torture of a prisoner by CIA operatives that had me noting the duration of these scenes when they finally ended. Media analysts and even political figures have protested that the film endorses torture. The filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have been on the defensive ever since.

No matter what anyone says, the answer to the question in a film about linking together pieces for a greater whole, comes from one’s ability to put together the film’s components. It’s a poetic notion for this episodic film that covers 10 years of investigations that led Seal Team 6 to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. The film sets out a clear correlation to the end result with its first narrative scenes: the torture of a man called Ammar (Reda Kateb) at a “black site” in an “undisclosed location.” Secrecy and mystery abound in this film, even though everyone now knows how it ends. But it’s all about finding meaning in associations in the selective dramatization of events, from the vivid recordings of suffering and panic during the Sept. 11 attacks against a pitch black screen in place of the opening credits to the film’s final emotive shot of the its key character played by Jessica Chastain with a concentrated potency that belies a human fragility transcending gender.

The drama of this film lies in the main character’s zeal to keep alive what she believes are credible clues in the face of countering facts and doubts by everyone around her. Throughout the film, the CIA operative Maya (Chastain) tries to keep her beliefs alive by repeating her information to any doubters. The truth lies within her repetition of the importance of a courier’s name gleaned from Ammar, the man so thoroughly tortured by Maya’s PhD-holding colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) during the film’s opening scenes.

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Dan is vividly established as a genius at his craft. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology,” he tells a wiped out Ammar strung up by his arms in a large, cavernous cell. Maya stands in the background throughout most of these scenes that span the gamut of all torture techniques you have ever heard about. Though Dan coolly repeats lines like “When you lie to me, I hurt you” to  Ammar, Maya stands back. She recoils from the beatings, waterboarding and humiliation Ammar endures.

What Maya’s face shows is put into words by a soldier who observes Dan toying with monkeys in a cage outside another black site: “You agency guys are twisted.” In the end, as Dan predicts, Ammar breaks. It looks like kindness finally does it. Maya and Dan sit with him outside in the sun, as Ammar enjoys a meal and spits out various names. But that does not discredit any contribution of the torture prior: the beatings, the degradation and sleep deprivation all build up to the relief of this meal out of the binds. Though Maya recoiled in the early scenes of torture, she is all too eager to reap the rewards after Ammar settles down to name names, including that of the courier who ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan: Abu Ahmed.

The middle of the film is all about keeping that name relevant. The names of Ahmed and bin Laden appear in subtitles during many other interrogation videos Maya watches (again, the association of torture and relevant information). Zero-Dark-Thirty_10However, the film also spends lots of time throwing up obstacles of relevance against that name. She is told she is “chasing a ghost” by both terror suspects and colleagues alike. Her station chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tells her, “You’re fucking out of your mind.” However, while Bradley plays politics, Maya persists, even as her clues seem to crumble around her. This middle part of Zero Dark recalls David Fincher’s slippery use of clues and obsession that fueled his underrated 2007 masterpiece Zodiac. Though lives are lost and even her life winds up on the line, Chastain plays Maya with edgy stoicism throughout, earning the film’s closing shot powerfully. This mission is all the emotional attachment she needs, and in uncharacteristic Hollywood fashion, no love interest is involved. Women will love her for her power as a strong self-supporting female, and men will love her for the power she brings to statements like “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”

It all leads up to that grand finale when Maya’s information leads Seal Team 6 to the complex bin Laden has hidden away in. This is when the score of Alexandre Desplat swells up to swirling strings and the cinematography and editing takes over. 1134604 - Zero Dark ThirtySeal Team 6 becomes an extension of Maya’s fatal reach. The men are obscured by night vision goggles and heavy gear. The darkness of the scene is all shifting shadows. The distinctive voices of Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton sometimes stand out, and close up views of their eyes are some of the brief glimpses of humanity in the film’s most cold and distant yet intense scene. Little terse whispers of “Khalid” and “Osama” by the soldiers lead to fatal mistakes by those hiding inside who dare to peek around corners before precision-like shots and double taps take out the near helpless targets. It’s a brilliantly choreographed and well-earned climax to a film that has earned the recognition and buzz leading up to awards season. It should be an interesting contender for Bigelow and Boal who once again prove they are a directing/writing team to contend with when it comes to intimate war films.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

Zero Dark Thirty is Rated R (these are some angry people throwing angry words and acting angry) and runs 157 min. It opens in limited release in only two theaters in South Florida this Friday, Jan. 4: the AMC Aventura and the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton. The following Friday the film will open wide at most theaters.

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

Joaquin Phoenix in 'The-Master.' Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.There were many great film experiences for me this year. I had more access than ever thanks to the Florida Film Critics Circle, a group of professional film writers who welcomed me into their group in 2011. We voted on many films for several categories. The results of these winners was posted and discussed a bit here.

However, as the critic motivated to celebrate the independent ethos of creators of art, my votes for best films and their components often steer toward another direction. Well-made films are not always easy to understand (though they must first be well-made: smart, writing, illuminating pacing, surprising cinematography,  an eye for miseen-scène, great soundtracks and powerful acting performances can all be found in the films listed below). If I learned one thing while completing my MA thesis on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is that the depiction of the sublime should never seem literal. I would blame Ang Lee’s Life of Pi for something like that. It is also well and good that a film have entertainment value. I won’t deny that I enjoyed Ben Affleck’s Argo, but was it something more than thrilling jingoistic entertainment? It was not. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty does a little better, as it explores the slipperiness of the notion of truth. It’s a subtle thing, overshadowed by lots of dramatic violence, including 20 long opening minutes of torture, explosions and a climactic ambush attack whose results are no spoiler (review to come sometime next week).

Though one of the better film experiences of the year, Zero Dark Thirty still does not enter my top 10 (it may enter my top 20— that list to come in February). My top 10 are for those looking for something even deeper. It starts with a gut feeling that is hard to explain, but even if you cannot understand the film at first glance, there is something in it that makes you feel you saw something different. These films often warrant and reward repeat viewings (or a lengthy review on my part). Several of the films listed below I did see more than once this year. Here are my top 10 films of 2012, as of Dec. 31 (with links to my original reviews were appropriate. Note: all titles are links that will re-direct you to the title’s Blu-ray version on Amazon. By buying the item through that link, you support the Independent Ethos with a commission at no extra charge to you):

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1. The Master

(read my full review)

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2. The Turin Horse

(read my full review)

Holy Motors - poster art. Image courtesy of Indomina Releasing

3. Holy Motors

(read my full review)

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4. This is Not a Film

(read my full review)

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5. Amour

(read my full review)

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6. Take This Waltz

(This film was not reviewed on Independent Ethos)

'In the Family' Poster art. Image courtesy of In the Family LLC

7. In the Family

(read my full review)

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8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

(This film was not reviewed on Independent Ethos)

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9. Moonrise Kingdom

(read my full review)

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10. Cosmopolis

(read my full review)

Now, why “as of Dec. 31” or the “so far” in this post’s title? As noted in a similar post for 2011, based on my experience as a film critic in Miami, many great foreign films of the year do not make it to my area until the early part of the following year. Amour saw its debut in Cannes at the start of this year, but will not see official release in Miami until the end of January. Thanks to my membership in the FFCC I had a chance to see this movie way in advance. However, I still have not had the opportunity to see much praised foreign works like Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, Christian Petzold’s Barbara and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. I also have some catching up to do. I have yet to see Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. So there is still time for the top 10 to shift. In order to make up for the shift and allow for some text to explain my top 10 (the under-appreciated and often superficially understood Take This Waltz especially merits some explaining). In February, I plan to do what I did for my favorite films of 2011 with this post and this post. So here’s to looking forward to what 2013 has to bring. Happy New Year, indeed!

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Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)