THIS FILM IS IMPORTANT!

2001: A Space Odyssey (re-release) (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

Is the narrative of this film really an odyssey? I can’t claim to have read Homer’s epic, but I’m pretty sure Odysseus is trying to get home. 2001, on the other hand, is surely about mankind moving forward, not coming back. I realise I’m hitting high-level pedantry early doors, but if Kubrick is going to set himself up as some paragon of filmmaking – a kind of Star-Child of cinema – we should judge him accordingly. And I fear the title makes little sense (as well as being painfully pretentious).

2001 really is staggeringly self-indulgent – shots and scenes are dragged out to agonizing, inordinate length. You end up passing the time by scanning the images to see if they will reveal some fascinating detail, some hitherto hidden depth. Spoiler: they don’t.

“Oh, you don’t understand! Kubrick is telling his story in a bold and unique way. He’s challenging conventional modes of cinema.” Yeah, maybe. And maybe he’s just got his head up his arse. And before you suggest I can’t handle a slow pace – trust me, I can handle slow; I like Ozu. The difference between the two auteurs is old Yasujirō is interested in those funny creatures whose quirks and foibles appear to be anathema to Kubrick. You know, human beings.

The film certainly is bold in its storytelling and not just in its attempt to give an account of human evolution as brought about by some kind of extraterrestrial science experiment. (Pauline Kael called this, “…probably the most gloriously redundant plot of all time.”) Critics rarely seem to comment on the fact that there are two distinct plot elements, and with no initially apparent thematic link. Indeed, the middle act of 2001 – where AI in the form of chatty computer HAL turns malevolent – is almost like a different film. It actually has a dramatic core for a start. Those viewers used to ‘conventional storytelling’ might find it a bit jarring to have one story start, stop before the end, then another story to play out, followed by a return to the first story. Confused? You will be if you manage to stay awake. According to Paul Duncan in his book on Kubrick, there may be a narrative justification for this – the struggle between humans and HAL rhyming with the clash between ape tribes in the film’s opening, or something. But if you only realise that afterwards, or have to be told, it suggests the story isn’t working terribly well.

Regularly found on ‘greatest of all time’ lists, to this viewer 2001 doesn’t measure up to the other usual suspects: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story etc. Yes, it’s a seminal piece of special effects cinema; but coming first and being influential doesn’t automatically make you a masterpiece. I wonder if a lot of the folk who praise it so highly saw it when it came out and haven’t got over the initial thrill and rush of overpraise.

This film is very sixties. As well as the Pan Am sponsorship, it comes on like you’ll be fascinated by every detail of imagined commercial space travel. We get it, Stanley – they’d have to eat. Congratulations, you’re a fucking genius.

2001: A Space Odyssey is definitely different and you can’t imagine it being made today (although Interstellar had a pretty good stab at matching its tedium levels). It also stays with you. I think I could sit through it again…but I’d probably need some Kendal Mint Cake.

The emperor may not be completely naked; but at best he’s wearing some sparkly underpants.

 

Sam Bowles

 

Further reading:

‘Going Steady’, Pauline Kael (1994, Marion Boyars)

‘The Pocket Essential: Stanley Kubrick’, Paul Duncan (1999, Pocket Essentials)

 

 

 

Advertisements

May the (box office) gross be with you…

Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

If anyone’s available over the remainder of the Festive Season, I’m assembling a ragtag cross-cultural group of heroes for a seemingly impossible mission: to steal the screenplay for the next Star Wars movie from Fortress Disney.

Surely something must be done to stop the spread of this evil empire as it aims to indoctrinate us all in its warped worldview; one where synergy talks and creativity can take a trip to the Sarlacc.

Calm down, I’m not suggesting that George Lucas-era Star Wars was anything other than commercial fodder; Lucas made his billions off the tie-in toys and other merchandise. (It’s hard to imagine the next Haneke having an accompanying set of action figures) But at least Lucas understood entertainment, and his own directing and writing limitations. He duly handed over the reigns for The Empire Strikes Back to different screenwriters and a new director. Lucas then financed the film himself. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is technically an independent film. As the great film writer Pauline Kael said, Empire could almost certainly “…not have been made with such care for visual richness and imagination if it had been done under studio control.” Rogue One (like The Force Awakens) is a Disney product; very professionally produced by people who no doubt love Star Wars. But it also betrays a fear of not flattering its audience, so there are endless nods to familiar elements from the past.

The Force Awakens was a lot of fun. Rogue One is a bit of a slog. Both have been vastly overpraised. This is probably due to the disappointment surrounding the Lucas produced prequels. The Phantom Menace (and its successors) had such a build up and was such a let down that all these new films needed to do was not be appalling. The collective relief has led to critics and audiences thinking they’re legitimate classics like the originals.

        *                      *                      *                      *

The big pre-release talk about Rogue One was of a more ‘realistic’ or ‘gritty’ version of the galaxy far, far away. So we get hand-held camerawork and storm troopers decorated with designer dirt. There’s one man to blame for this fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of fantasy. And his name is Christopher Nolan. It is only necessary that we buy into the situations and are interested in the characters. This ‘realistic’ sheen is just window dressing.

In the film’s defence, we have got something different. We’ve got a fairly tedious pastiche of a WWII ‘guys-go-on-a-mission’ movie with added Star Wars galaxy accoutrements. And in this post-Hunger Games world you’re now allowed to be a woman! (Just as long as you’re white, thin and pretty.)

But compare Rogue One with the films it’s a ‘homage’ to, such as Where Eagles Dare. That film begins with Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood etc. already on the plane ready to kick start the mission. Here we have an interminable amount of exposition about the backstory to the Death Star and the various ‘characters’. It takes an age before the mission actually begins. The director Gareth Edwards (who previously made the bore-fest Godzilla) has proven himself adept at special effects and clunky when it comes to storytelling. Rogue One is not short of action and it all looks very impressive. But there’s no subtlety, no humour, nothing that makes you give a toss about the outcome.

Edwards is also developing a major talent for wasting great actors. In Godzilla it was Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston. Here it continues with Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed and many others. Take Ben Mendelsohn – normally such an interesting, surprising performer (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond the Pines), here reduced to playing some kind of Imperial middle manager. But without David Brent’s comedy.

Compare Rogue One with a film from 1977 I still call Star Wars (because that’s its title). Rogue One has many better actors giving more professional performances. Star Wars has significantly more interesting and likable characters. And that’s the key.

There’s also a major issue with the music. John Williams’ scores have always been a huge part of the appeal of this film series. Here we have a different composer, Michael Giacchino, occasionally incorporating bits of the originals. It’s an inevitable disappointment, especially when cues hint at Williams then veer of into something new and less memorable. It’s not really the composer’s fault; he’s been given an impossible job. Consequently, having been so starved of the ‘real’ music (like a heroin addict trying to cope on methadone) the highlight of the film comes during the end credits when there’s a full rendition of the original theme.

So far, the film has been well received, but I suspect its reputation will diminish greatly in the coming years, if not months. Rogue One isn’t bad. It’s just not a whole lot of fun. And I’m pretty sure Star Wars should be fun.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

 

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Stranger Things (2016, The Duffer Brothers)

Critics (film or otherwise) have a neat trick: they can use exactly the same observations to either praise or condemn. One of their favourites is to point out when a work makes several obvious references to other works. The resulting piece can be cast as either “a wonderful homage” or “a shameless rip-off”.

Netflix’s current hit with viewers and critics, Stranger Things, perfectly demonstrates this. Here we have a programme that wears its influences (mainly 1980s sci-fi films) on its sleeve. The ‘creators’, the Duffer Brothers, want us to feel flattered every time we notice an allusion; to smile and nod in self-satisfied recognition. “That was just like a bit in E.T.!” “OMG The score is so John Carpenter!” “Kids walking on train tracks – Stand by Me!”

As such, Stranger Things could easily be dismissed as a collection of tropes, and in some cases virtually entire scenes, that have been lifted from other films and TV series: Carrie, Close Encounters, Alien, The Shining, E.T., The Thing, Gremlins, The Goonies, Explorers, Stand by Me, Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, The Faculty, The Mist, Let the Right One In… Those are just the ones I’ve noticed.

But who decides where to draw the arbitrary line between referencing and plain copying? And does it matter anyway? After all, Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of demonstrating the diversity of his cine-literacy. And he’s made a fair few classics along the way.

Wherever you stand on this, Stranger Things is still pretty damn entertaining. It’s not as thrilling and wondrous as Spielberg. Not as weird and unsettling as Lynch. Not as bold as De Palma or Kubrick. But it is pretty damn entertaining.

 

Sam Bowles