Kubrick & Burgess: Two Clockworks


clockworksmallerI recently responded to a friend’s Facebook post commenting on the differences between Anthony Burgess’ novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the material. I tried to describe why I thought the changes that were made by Kubrick were valid and why I saw his concentration on sex and sexuality in the film (compared to the novel) as being so crucial and important an element.

What I wrote was a combination of my own thoughts and observations, mixed with ideas raised in conversation with others and, finally, other notions and observations made by professional critics, both contemporary and at the time of the film’s release.

Here is my response as I sent it. I repost it here simply as a conversation starter and because I so enjoy this type of discussion. I hope you do, too:

I think it’s important to see the film of CLOCKWORK within the context of the time in which it was made. Newfound sexuality, the sexual revolution, sexual conversations were out there in a way that was the antithesis of where they had been in the years just prior to this period. Sexual violence was also something that was finally being discussed as opposed to swept under the rug. I think it does a disservice to Kubrick to think of him as unsophisticated or adolescent. I think he’s one of the few directors for which these terms do not apply. Don’t mix up commentary on a subject for being a justification or acting out of a subject. As for subtlety, the film may be more subtle than you think in this regard. The simple fact that some people saw the film as “cool” or “got off on it” is extremely telling. I don’t think Kubrick himself was making the film to elicit such responses. He was making it in reaction to such responses and raising the topic for conversation. That said, subtlety is not a requirement for me in storytelling. Though it’s something I admire greatly. But there have been many masters of filmmaking who are not known for subtlety. In fact, quite the opposite. The great David Lean being one of them. Never subtle, but almost always amazing.

What Kubrick wanted to address in CLOCKWORK reflected what he saw in society. He wasn’t trying to simply adapt Burgess’ ideas or vision. He was “interpreting” them to what he felt was important and contemporary. In his eyes. A great book should leave one thinking, asking questions. The end of a book should be (in my opinion) the beginning of a journey for the reader in life. Burgess’ book sent Kubrick on his own journey which, for me, is incredibly appropriate and exactly what I would want from him. That said, I think that Burgess and Kubrick did say many of the same things and I don’t feel the film is as far removed from the book as you do. There have been a few films that were direct, literal adaptations of books and, in many cases, those films did not work for some of us as well as other adaptations that tried to capture the “essence” of the material as opposed to transcribing it directly. It’s another medium and another storyteller at work. One could not adapt a painting into a film and expect them to be the same.

Burgess wrote the novel 10 years before Kubrick turned it into a film. There were great cultural shifts in those 10 years which are reflected in Kubrick’s adaptation. Burgess’ wife had been raped after the war and a lot of what’s in his book comes from an autobiographical perspective. Kubrick is taking in the story via his own experiences, as we all do, and what the characters and story mean for him. As for the book’s ending, Kubrick was more of a pessimist with a sense of the ironic than was Burgess. That is why he kept the ending he did (he did read Burgess’ other ending). The film reflects the social anxieties and political concerns of its time. Not to mention, fashions, styles, etc. The naked women furniture in the Korova Milkbar were inspired by sculptures (by Allen Jones) that had been on display and gaining lots of attention. Again, Kubrick was making a commentary. Even Alex’s costume in the film was very different from the description in the book. Kubrick was making a commentary on a certain type of cricket-playing English gentleman.

Filmmaker Fellini stated of CLOCKWORK “I was very predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realized it is the only movie about what the modern world really means.” Again, I think it’s crucial to take the film in under the context of the times. And to give Kubrick some credit. He was never a flippant filmmaker. And he, unlike many other filmmakers today, dealt with sexuality directly and in ways that were often misunderstood (EYES WIDE SHUT). Also, Burgess was a Christian and came from that perspective. Kubrick, on the other hand, was more of a pessimist and saw the State as using many of its most violent and disturbed individuals to maintain control. Alex’s droogies becoming policemen and Alex himself being hired by the Minister of the Interior at the film’s end. Kubrick was always very vocal in regards to politicians and the military and their use of “collecting” violent individuals to enact their needs and maintain control. Again, look at the political and social upheavals, the wars, police actions, taking place at the time. Alex and his droogies are “evil” but also very human. Are they so different from a society that acts similarly but in the name of morality?

Alex is the Id. And I think any portion of him that we may recognize (consciously or, more important, unconsciously) in ourselves is a very scary notion which quite easily elicits anger and a condemnation of the film itself instead of an exploration of what it evokes in us as human beings and members of society. Alex also has some very noble and attractive qualities: he’s witty, smart, VERY much “alive,” not to mention his deep appreciation for music. Another thing to consider is that Kubrick uses films of violence as the tool with which to try and control Alex. They are the government’s form of propaganda. Kubrick is HIGHLY aware of the power of film and of violence in film. And he says as much in this sequence. He is making a commentary on his own medium and, in a way, the very film he is making.

Kubrick also chooses to comment on how open-sexuality, which had until recently been a rebellious act, had now become incredibly casual. This is one reason for the imagery in the home of the woman he kills with the penis statue. CLOCKWORK is also, in many ways, satirical. It can not –should not– be taken at face value. No Kubrick film should if it is to be understood and its many secrets revealed. And yes, there is a journey that needs to be taken in order to get to that place. But it is a journey I, as a lover of film and filmmaking, find wholly worthwhile.

And I absolutely think Kubrick’s vision is about “choice.” The entire film suggests that to try and make Alex good, they are, in fact, making him less than human. And their tactics are equally as horrific as Alex’s own. “It is necessary for man to have choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human — A clockwork orange.” –Stanley Kubrick.

In his write-up on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the time in “The Catholic News,” John E. Fitzgerald wrote: “The film seems to say that to take away a man’s choice is not to redeem him but merely to restrain him. Otherwise we have a society of oranges, organic but working like clock-work. Such brainwashing organic and psychological, is a weapon, that to totalitarians in state, church or society might wish for an easier good even at the cost of individual rights and dignity. Redemption is a complicated thing and change must be motivated from within rather than imposed from without if moral values are to be upheld. But Kubrick is an artist rather than a moralist and he leaves it to us to figure what’s wrong and why, what should be done and how it should be accomplished.” 

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Kubrick & Burgess: Two Clockworks

BARRY LYNDON, LOLITA & New Criterion Blu-ray Titles


The good news is Warner Brothers has finally set a date for releasing those wonderful as-yet-unreleased Kubrick Blu-ray titles, BARRY LYNDON and LOLITA. Two of my all-time favorite films! The bad news is that they are only available if you purchase the full STANLEY KUBRICK LIMITED EDITION BOX SET. Sure, we can expect them to eventually be offered for individual purchase, but will that even be this year? I understand that business is business, but these kind of things always feel a little smarmy to me. As someone who has ALREADY PAID FOR THOSE OTHER TITLES, I should be rewarded, not scorned for having made those purchases earlier as opposed to later. I supported Warner Brothers and the Blu-ray format when it was still new! Now, I either need to repurchase those titles again, or wait an indefinite amount of time because I chose to support them in the beginning. Again, there’s just something icky about that business model to me.

Back to some good news!

Criterion has just announced their new Blu-ray slate for May and the titles I’m personally most excited about are Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, Ingmar Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE, Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR and Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD. Check the Criterion web site for more!

BARRY LYNDON, LOLITA & New Criterion Blu-ray Titles

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Contains massive spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film!

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There’s more to Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS than meets the eye. If you were hoping to see KELLEY’S HEROES, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE or even a remake of the original THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, this film probably left you feeling like Tarantino missed some crucial elements of the Men-On-A-Mission/War genre.

In fact, Tarantino, who has exhibited his love of film and genre-filmmaking time and again, has bumped himself up a notch here and twisted our expectations to make a film that is both artistically and historically subversive.

But let me start with a brief introduction to Tarantino and my reactions to his earlier films. While I loved RESERVOIR DOGS and its character-driven and deeply cinematic approach to the Heist-Gone-Wrong genre, I found PULP FICTION (Tarantino’s most commercially popular film) to be rather slight. It was cinematically fun and contained moments of truly witty, well-written dialogue, but at the end of the day the film left me feeling empty. And while JACKIE BROWN was entertaining and gave us a chance to see some sorely missed faces return to the big screen, the film didn’t knock me out, though I did appreciate it. The KILL BILL movies I found to be terrific. Not deep or meaningful, but filled with a love and mastery of a specific genre that Tarantino knows very well. It is a glourious1homage to so many films that one has to share Tarantino’s knowledge to recognize them all. Luckily, that’s not a prerequisite to the film’s enjoyment. It just adds another dimension. DEATH PROOF, the second feature on the GRINDHOUSE double bill, was a mixed bag for me. I found the scenes with Kurt Russell to be mythic and engaging and exactly what I would have hoped for. The long passages of dialogue with the young women, however, particularly the first set, seemed endless and a tad masturbatory. For me, it took the wind out of the GRINDHOUSE sails, particularly after Robert Rodriguez’s rousing zombie actioner that preceded it. All this said, I believe each and every one of the above-mentioned films deserves another look as INGLOURIOUS proved to be so much more than I initially thought.

Upon leaving the theater after the brief closing credits for INGLOURIOUS, I thought to myself that I had just seen a truly captivating and fun Tarantino film. Already one of my favorites. But there was something nagging at me; areas of the film that seemed “underdeveloped” or misdirected. But Tarantino’s no dummy and he knows his genre films better than most. So what exactly was I feeling? What was that brewing just beneath the surface?

Well, through conversations with friends and my own inner dialogue, I started to see the film Tarantino had made, instead of the film I had expected him to make. And like some of the greatest filmmakers of all time (e.g. Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes) Tarantino’s new film will elicit different reactions based on expectations and might easily be dismissed and/or misunderstood. At least initially. That said, I don’t consider Tarantino a director of the caliber of a Kubrick or Cassavetes (yet), but I think in this age of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking, Tarantino still understands the word “cinema” and has placed his own stamp on it. This puts him leagues above many of his working contemporaries.

Let’s start with the Basterds themselves. A seemingly familiar team of rag-tag rebels thrown together by circumstance and talent to create the perfect unity for accomplishing a near-impossible task at great risk to themselves. And like all Men-On-A-Mission films, the lives of thousands, maybe millions, hang in the balance. However, the main thing that appears to be missing from Tarantino’s take on the genre is time spent getting to know these characters. In INGLOURIOUS, the Basterds are sorely lacking in dimension. We know little about most of them and, as a result, have little investment. Naturally, this seems to be the antithesis of the genre as we know it. Especially since one of Tarantino’s specialities is finding ways to make even the smallest character unique and three-dimensional. Take the inglourious-basterds-2scene in the underground bar, for example. The celebrating Nazi soldiers are given moments that tell us something about their personalities and interactions. When the female soldier (Petra Hartung) puts her pal in a headlock and teases him by twisting his nose (an iconic image of youthful innocence and playful — albeit somewhat masculine — affection), the young man’s anger, resentment and humiliation is present even as the camera pans away. Relationships, personalities and hierarchies are established almost instantaneously. Even the frightening Maj. Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) seems to be the only one present who recognizes that the film KING KONG was a reflection of America’s fear of the black male. While playing a name game, Hellstrom asks Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) “Am I the story of the negro in America?” When Hicox answers “No”, Hellstrom replies with “Well, then, I must be King Kong.” It is Hicox’s oblivious denial and lack of awareness that allows Hellstrom to be certain of the correct answer. So it takes a racist Gestapo Major to recognize an allegory for America’s fear and racism when we ourselves may not see it. And this, without question, tells us quite a bit about Hellstrom. It also serves as a hint to the audience that the film we ourselves are watching may be richer in social meaning than its facade suggests.

Even the new Nazi father, Master Sgt. Wilhelm, played with drunken delight by Alexander Fehling, immediately gains our sympathy and understanding. We don’t want him to die. We want him to go on to see his son Maximilian grow up. And there is an air of sorrow when he does not.

So why not make the Basterds equally as sympathetic? As revealing? Why not give them equal presence? It is Hellstrom and Wilhelm who steal the bar scene. It is they whom Tarantino chooses to explore. By comparison, Fassbender’s Hicox is shown to be both arrogant, dimensionless and sloppy. It is he who singlehandedly undermines the entire mission with his lack of self-control and self-awareness.

At first, one starts to think perhaps crucial footage was cut from the film in order to accommodate a shorter running time. In fact, some footage was cut (as is always the case), but I’m starting to think that may have been a wise, insightful move. The Basterds are presented as brutal, Nazi-scalping killers. And if one is to keep score (as you should), the most graphic violence in the film comes from these men.

inglourious_basterds_8By contrast, let’s take a look at the Germans, the Nazis, the “villains”? They are, oddly enough, more developed characters than our “heroes”. Christoph Waltz’s star-making turn as Col. Hans Landa, while being a frightful man in may ways, is also portrayed as engaging, intelligent and, at times, somewhat charming. He’s the German Sherlock Holmes. Only he’s hunting Jews. And we admire his skill, as appalling as its intent may be. And though he may not necessarily be “likable”, his time onscreen is nothing short of mesmerizing. And while he is responsible for the death of an innocent Jewish family early in the film, this massacre is shown with bullet holes in the floor as opposed to a splattering of blood and guts. Not like the graphic nature of the Basterds whose scalpings are shown in gory detail throughout the film. And both inglourious-basterds-brad-pittLanda and Brad Pitt’s commanding Basterd, Lt. Aldo Raine, each let one survivor go, both scarred in their own way. Both men are playing God. The difference is that Pitt’s Raine is presented as the quintessential American caricature. He’s dimensionless and boiled down to a series of stereotypes. This is, essentially, how we have portrayed Nazis and villains in film after film. The Aryan-featured SS officer with a scar down his cheek, a thick, repulsive accent, and a kind of sadistic glee. Pitt’s “Nazi Killer” is just that. Only he’s the American version with a scar across his throat.

We’re also reminded here of the Hollywood stereotype of American Indian “savagery”. After all,  Raine claims to be part Indian and thinks of his merry gang as “Apache Jews” and is himself known as “Aldo the Apache.” The fear tactics used by the Basterds are the same tactics used by American Indians against the U.S. Cavalry; essentially, being outnumbered, the Indians created an overwhelming degree of fear in the minds of their enemy through unspeakably violent and humiliating acts. So much so that the enemy believed it would be better to kill themselves and their families rather than be captured.  In contemporary terms, these tactics are commonly known as “acts of terrorism.” Even Col. Landa, in his face-to-face conversation with Raine toward the end of the film, makes a similar comparison. “And your mission–some would call it terrorist plot– is still a go…” If one stops for a moment to look at the Basterds’ final plan, it is to strap explosives to themselves and blow up a theater full of people. One need not stretch one’s imagination too far to make the necessary comparisons to today’s threat of suicide bombers. Nor would it be inappropriate to draw a line between some of the Basterds’ tactics and American military methods used at facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

holeLt. Aldo Raine’s interrogation of Bridgett von Hammersmark (played by the lovely and tough Diane Kruger), is nothing short of brutal and heartless torture as Raine calmly presses his finger deep into Hammersmark’s fresh and oozing bullet wound. What makes this scene even more subversive is that it is intercut with a quick “fireside chat” with a vulnerable and all-too-human Adolf Hitler as he explains his reasons for wanting to attend the upcoming screening of “Stolz der Nation.” Placing these two contrasting images side-by-side competes with our desired concept of heroes and villains, Americans and Nazis. To portray Hitler as more sympathetic than the American soldier trying to stop him clashes head-on with our collective self-perceptions by twisting and shattering beloved and much-needed icons. As a result, Inglourious_Basterds_Hitler_talksTarantino successfully blurs the lines between heroes and villains and what happens when human beings lose sight of their own humanity. No matter what side they’re on. And it is in that same conversation mentioned above between Raine and Landa, that Landa compares the two men as equals. “Tell me Aldo, if I were sitting where you’re sitting, would you show me mercy?” To which Raine replies with unabashed honesty, “Nope.” This is soon followed by Landa’s disgruntled observation, “Lt. Aldo, if you think I wouldn’t interrogate every one of your swastika-marked survivors… we simply aren’t operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed.”

Two peas in a pod.

But Landa is not the only character Raine is compared to. Despite claims that Pitt’s performance came across as if he were in a different film from the rest of the cast, Pitt plays the part of Raine with a full understanding of his role within the big picture. It is Martin Wuttke’s committed portrayal of Adolf Hitler as an angry, spoiled child that comes across equally as broad and stereotyped. Raine and Hitler inhabit similar worlds within the genre. But unlike Pitt’s Raine, Wuttke’s Hitler is never shown enacting any violence himself. In fact, in one scene, Hitler and the soldier Raine set free are essentially crowned Basterds-8-300with a halo of sorts. And Hitler never questions the surviving soldier’s lame alibi, but instead sets him free, though the weight of history and Hitler’s childlike relish at watching Americans slaughtered in the film within a film “Stolz der Nation” still keeps him a dangerous, buffoonish sort of villain worthy of a bloody end. But those same childlike qualities and vulnerabilities make his death just a tad less satisfying than, say, if he’d killed the surviving soldier as one would expect a villain like Hitler to do. He does not interrogate this “swastika-marked survivor” as Landa or Raine would.

By the same token, Raine and his men are only heroes to us in that they’re killing Nazis and history has shown us just how horrible and atrocious the Nazis were. But, as we’re starting to realize, in Tarantino’s Nazi occupied France, the Germans are presented in a somewhat different light than we’re used to from the genre. And though Tarantino is clearly relishing his ability to rewrite history, he is not presenting the Nazi’s as innocents or heroes. He’s not glorifying or forgiving them. Hardly. That’s not the history he’s rewriting. But he manages inglourious_basterds16something fascinating. When Richard Sammel’s Sgt. Werner Rachtman is asked by Raine to divulge the whereabouts of his fellow soldiers, their weapons and mission, he “respectfully” refuses. Even though he knows that he will face a brutal and painful death. But even though this man is a Jew-hater and murderer, there is also a bravery and strength of character, something admirable about him. And when he answers with a “Fuck You” to Raine, we understand and hope that we would have a similar conviction and commitment to our own beliefs. Yet his “Fuck You” is also followed by “And your Jew dogs”, forever reminding us who this man is, what he represents and, at the same time, instilling a sense of bewilderment at our own conflicted reactions to him. It is this depiction against the dimensionless brutality of Raine and his merry gang of mercenaries that we, as the audience, start to experience something that, at first, seems “wrong.” Isn’t Aldo Raine the hero? Aren’t the Basterds the good guys? Shouldn’t we be admiring them? Perhaps, but Tarantino concludes the sequence with Sgt. Donny Donowitz questioning the purpose of a medal hanging from Rachtman’s chest: “You get that for killing Jews?” “Bravery,” is Rachtman’s answer. And brave he is, by any set of standards. Even Rachtman’s walk to his inevitable death is given to us in slow-motion as a stirring spaghetti-western-flavored score — usually reserved for heroes and stoic characters — unspools in the background. Rachtman is then ceremoniously beaten to death with a baseball bat. And Tarantino trains the camera on every skull-cracking, brain-squashing moment. And we do recoil somewhat. Even though we know that this Sgt. has committed atrocities possibly worthy of such a death. And yet there’s something else in the air, something off in this interpretation of the genre as we know it. Even the young terrified Nazi soldier who is given his freedom gains our sympathy. We “feel” for him, his fear, his humanity. We don’t want to see Raine and the others beat his head in, too.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mIt should be pointed out that the American who wields the bat that crushes the life out of Sgt. Rachtman is horror/torture-porn director Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER, HOSTEL). Not personally a fan of Roth as a filmmaker, I carry that slight aversion onto his acting and presence in the film. He’s not awful, not by a long shot, but he’s also not of the caliber to be acting alongside the likes of Waltz, Pitt and others. There is also something definitively unsettling about seeing this guy who directs pornographically violent films, wielding a bat and series of machine guns and acting out what seems like a disturbed childhood fantasy. I’d like to think that Tarantino made this choice on purpose; that it was meant to be a statement in and of itself. That would certainly coincide with the rest of the themes inherent in the film and filmmaking. But Tarantino also used Roth to annoying effect in DEATH PROOF and produced Roth’s HOSTEL, so one can assume he’s fond of the guy. But Roth’s own take on INGLOURIOUS just adds to my distaste: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling…. My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day.” This led Roth to tag INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS “Kosher Porn.” Perhaps this is the place Roth needed to go (or was led) in order to play the character of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. The Bear Jew, but I do not believe it defines the essence of the film. It is a simplistic interpretation that I believe speaks more to Roth’s sensibilities than to the film’s.
 
Which brings me to a slight aside: Is a film its filmmaker’s intent? If Tarantino shared Roth’s interpretation of INGLOURIOUS, would that make it so? I believe, unequivocally, no. Like the makers of KING KONG who may not have intended their film to be an allegory for the slave trade, we do not know how many of the connections made here regarding INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS were intentional on the part of Tarantino. And truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. Once a piece of work is put out there for public consumption, it no longer belongs to the artist; his or her intentions are secondary to the experience of the film itself, as Tarantino himself will attest to:

“When I write, I’m not very analytical about it, I don’t ever deal with the subtext cause I just know it’s there… I just keep it about the scenario, I keep it on the surface, all my concerns… And one of the fun things is that when I’m done with everything, now you get to be analytical about the process, and now I can watch the movie and see all the different connection things and see all the things that are underneath the surface. But I don’t want to deal with the underneath while I’m making it or when I’m writing it… because, again, I don’t want to hit these nails on the head too strongly. But that’s one of the things that I love the most about when I do write film criticism and stuff, is getting into the subtextual areas.”

In fact, when confronted with similarities between the Basterds and Al Queda, Tarantino answered:

“I wasn’t trying to necessarily make a political point in there. It literally was just the next step in the story as far as I was concerned. However, once I did it, the irony was not lost on me at all.”

By the same token, Tarantino wasn’t completely oblivious either, as his statement here on his intentions suggests:

“I wanted the film [to work] sort of the way ‘Bonnie and Clyde‘ worked when it came out. It was an old genre that took place in the ’30s, but it was actually telling you something about the time today. And that was what I was trying to do with this in this genre.”

It is what is inside the filmmaker that comes out in his or her art and finds its way into the subtext. Any artist who trusts their talent and is not stifled by some predetermined formula knows this to be true. Tarantino again:

“My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. ‘Kill Bill’ is a very personal movie…. It’s my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre…. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.”

With that, I’ll continue.

In the above-mentioned Sgt. Rachtman death scene, we are given a glimpse into the background of one of the Basterds. Til Schweiger’s Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz. At first, I assumed this was a device that would be used to stiglitzreveal the histories and personalities of all the Basterds. But this turned out not to be the case. Again, no mistake. Sgt. Stiglitz was a Nazi turned Nazi-killer. He was inducted into the Basterds for his skills. He is still a German. And he is given more development than any of the American or British characters in the film.

I was told there were scenes shot detailing the past of Eli Roth’s Donny Donowitz. If true, I don’t know why the scenes were removed, but judging from the structure of the film and the themes present in this cut, I believe that better serves the film.

Now let’s take a look at the characters of the French Jew Shosanna Dreyfus and her unrequited Nazi suitor Pvt. Frederick Zoller, played by Melanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl respectively. Shosanna is cold and distant, but understandably so. Her family was brutally murdered by the Nazis under the command of Col. Landa. This “other” storyline has richer characters than any concerning the Basterds. The inglourious-basterds-danielbruhlpersistent Zoller is a walking contradiction; a German war hero who singlehandedly slaughtered upwards of 200 Americans in a 72 hour period, and who is also charming, sincere and extremely likable throughout most of the film. We can’t help but like him despite the fact that he has committed mass murder. After all, he was just a soldier doing his job and his affections for Shosanna seem downright innocent and boyish. However, the closest thing to a friend, or perhaps a mentor, that Zoller is shown as having is none other than Joseph Goebbels, played with disarming vulnerability by Sylvester Groth. Certainly not the Goebbels of our history books nor of American films past. This Goebbels has a genuine love of cinema and even sheds a tear of pure unadulterated joy when his Führer/father-figure proclaims that Goebbels’ newest film may be his best ever. Ironically, the German director responsible for the Führer’s new favorite film is nowhere to be found. He is not seated in the private booth with Goebbels and Hitler, nor is he (or she) ever mentioned or congratulated. This is especially noteworthy as Zoller is the star of the film within a film and Shosanna pangs him earlier with the line “I’m French. We respect directors” when he asks her why she included director G.W. Pabst’s name on the marquee for an earlier film showing at her cinema.

Meanwhile, Shosanna’s true love, her projectionist and partner in crime Marcel, played with understated pride by Jacky Ido, enacts a crucial role in the events to take place and in aiding in the development of Shosanna’s onscreen character. Sadly, he himself has far too little screen time and the film yearns for the possible inclusion of a scene that was supposedly shot and removed before release detailing how Shosanna became the owner of the theater and met and fell in love with Marcel. Not having seen this footage, I obviously cannot comment on the actual benefits of its inclusion into the story. Nonetheless, the result is once again going against convention and not giving equal attention to our typically heroic characters and, though we like Marcel, we are given little of him.

But Shosanna has another man in her life. Col. Landa. The scene staged between these two is filled with all the tension one would hope for from such an encounter. It is landafarmeralmost Hitchcockian in the way its deceptively simple dialogue places you on the edge of your seat. Like the film’s opening scene between Landa and Denis Menochet’s strong and sympathetic Pierre Lapadite. Few films can claim such a riveting opening consisting almost entirely of 20-plus minutes of pure conversation (as well as appropriately inspired camerawork).

But back to the scene at hand… One wonders fearfully if Landa knows who the woman he is sharing strudel with actually is? Was his ordering Shosanna a glass of milk to compliment her dessert an innocent gesture or a subtle torture? Or is all this insistence on milk and creme just Landa’s way of weeding out Jews by seeing who will consume dairy products not in sync with proper Orthodox dietary laws? We never find out. Shosanna’s plot to kill the Nazi elite, though successful, is never revealed to Landa, whose job it is to prevent such actions from occurring. Shosanna gets her revenge, but the man who killed her family is not there to witness it. He never knows who was behind it. Tarantino pulls the rug out from under us yet again as he denies us, as well as Shosanna, that moment of gleeful, personal revenge. In fact, Landa is too busy working out the details of his happy future living the good life on Nantucket Island to notice much else!

And here is where the lines blur even deeper as we find ourselves spiraling toward our climax. The charming and terrifying Landa gets his hands truly bloody for the first time in the film as he strangles to death German actress turned British spyinglourious_basterds14 Bridgett von Hammersmark. There is a brutality here that we have not seen before. Though he is responsible for the killing of Shosanna’s family, he has his soldiers do the actual dirty work. It is an important distinction and somehow manages to change how we feel about this character when he decides to do exactly what von Hammersmark was attempting by betraying his country and his comrades. It is he who carries on her work! His killing of von Hammersmark is not a product of national pride, but of personal pride. It has more to do with her foolish attempt to trick him than with what it is she is trying to achieve. Landa becomes truly monstrous at this point, beyond his already unsettling presence. And this, ironically, just moments before he decides to become a willing U.S. ally and let the Basterd’s plan run its course. It’s almost as if he had to prove his brutal worth within the context of the film before trying to become a Basterd himself.

At the same time, Shosanna’s boyish Nazi suitor shows another disarming quality as he exhibits a level of disgust at watching the film version of himself massacring the “enemy.” But just as we think we know where this is going, Tarantino throws us for another loop as Zoller shows us the dark side that allowed him to kill those people in the first place. Gone is the charming suitor, and in his stead we find a wrathful bully angered by Shosanna’s apparent lack of feeling. But it’s only after Shosanna has shot him down, both literally and figuratively, that she finally shows any real signs of sympathy and remorse. But it’s a direct result of her glimpsing Zoller’s “innocent onscreen hero” projected on the big screen before her and not Zoller himself. She, like the film’s Nazi audience, is taken in by the propaganda machine responsible for so many mistruths and untimely deaths. And it results in her own. Her moment of weakness (or humanity–you decide) is met with her brutal shooting at the 1224252968211_1hands of the real Zoller whose final act is one of bloody vengeance. Shosanna doesn’t live to see the fruits of her labor. By this point in the film, Shosanna is inexorably linked to her Nazi audience both physically, emotionally and psychologically. When she puts on her rouge to prepare for the evening’s bloody proceedings, it is clearly more war paint than makeup, and the swastika looming in the background completes the picture. It should also be noted that it is film itself, the highly flammable 35mm nitrate prints Shosanna has collected, that is used to spark the fire that destroys everyone in the theater and ends the war. Like its effect on Shosanna’s feelings toward Zoller, it is both creative and destructive, truth and lies, as our characters are both beautiful and ugly simultaneously. They are flip-flopping now at a rapid pace. The distinction between villains and heroes narrows even further. All victory, for the characters and audience, is marred.

And it is around this point in the film that we start to realize that Tarantino is truly playing God, not only with our moral conscience and our genre expectations, but with history itself. While we’re busy wondering how Hitler and Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi elite will escape the impending arson (because history insists that they must), Tarantino gives us the one thing no film in this genre has attempted before. He lets them all die. The war comes to a screeching halt and millions of lives that were lost in actuality, are spared. We are permitted to celebrate the fantasy death of these historical monsters as the film’s opening statement “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” comes to fruition. But all at a price.

While watching the film version of Zoller’s “heroic” massacre of American soldiers, the Germans cheer and celebrate each and every brutal killing. And in doing so, they disgust us. But suddenly the tables are turned as we find ourselves cheering the deaths of Hitler, Goebbels and others trapped inside the burning theater. As they panic and claw at one another in an attempt to escape the flames and smoke that will consume them (oven and gas chamber references welcome), two Basterds mow them down with machine guns. Men and women, in their best celebratory attire, drop like flies, their bodies riddled with bullets. Meanwhile, ibface2-thumb-500x264-11600Shosanna’s laughing face is projected onto the smoke from the flames like that of a crazed demon or the devil herself. She has placed herself in the film. She is the film. And the propaganda of her final act is now aimed at us. This is truly a scene of genuine horror. Heroes and monsters are suddenly lumped together as the audience watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS becomes a mirror image of the audience of Nazi elite watching Stolz Der Nation or Nation’s Pride. We are denied our moment of pure vengeance, of having done the right thing, of the heroes overcoming the villains. Everyone here is a villain. Even Donowitz’s frenzied destruction of Hitler’s face is both satisfying and sickening all at the same time. Hitler’s long dead by the time Donowitz turns his machine gun on him one last time. It all happens so fast that we are never given a moment to revel in Hitler’s realization that he has been outwitted and undone. It simply doesn’t occur. Our fantasy scenario has been marred and we are left unsure as to whether we should cheer or put our heads down and mourn the loss of all humanity.

And this is carried out right up to the last frame in the film. Though we know Raine’s carving of the Nazi swastika deep into Landa’s forehead is just and deserved, it is also shown in such graphic detail as to be simultaneously sickening. In fact, it is through Landa’s (and, in an earlier scene, a young Nazi soldier’s) point of view that we witness Raine’s final deed of “just vengeance,” making us, the viewer, the recipient of his knife-wielding handiwork. These shots, consciously or unconsciously, are disturbingly reminiscent of a famous publicity still (used on the film’s soundtrack LP cover) from Wes Craven’s chilling and bloody 1972 revenge-fest, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, taken from a scene in which one of the film’s sadistic killers, while out in the woods, carves his name into his victim’s flesh and then leans back to admire it, while his equally twisted partners-in-crime look on, impressed.

As a result, in the final shots of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Raine and his Basterd partner (B.J. Novak) seem a bit more demented than heroic, even though we can’t flaw them for their actions and, to a degree, celebrate them. But Tarantino makes it just a tad harder to revel in their deeds without infusing a small tinge of something else there too. Something lacking humanity.

And so, like Cassavetes’ use of the public’s expectations of the Hollywood Romance genre to turn the audience on their heads in MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, Tarantino takes our expectations of the Men On A Mission and American World War II genres and completely subverts them. He gives us our cake, and lets us eat it, too. But he purposefully leaves out the sugar.

melanie

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

The Sad State Of Film Criticism


criticThe internet has been a blessing and a curse to the world of film criticism. The bad side is that everyone’s a critic. The good side is, we’re no longer limited to the opinions of those able to get their words in print. Trust me, just because you’re writing film reviews for a major newspaper doesn’t mean you know a damn thing about film.

The perfect example: I had a friend who ended up being hired to write additional film critiques for a major U.S. city paper. Though a very sweet man, he knew nothing of film. Not its history, not its art, not its technique. He didn’t even understand the concept of genre. His taste in film was limited to the bizarre and offbeat. Anything else was trash. Some of the greatest films to be released in the years he was a staff film writer were met with vast amounts of ignorance and negative “stay away” comments. Understand, there wasn’t a malicious bone in this man’s body. However, what he understood of film could be balanced on the head of a pin. We who knew him and considered him our friend (and still do) cringed weekly at reading his reviews. He was hired by the paper because he was good at writing critiques of literature, something he actually did know something about as he was, himself, a novelist. And a damn good one. But a film critic? Not on his best day.

So how many truly wonderful films were greeted with less than stellar attendance due to this man’s negative reviews and complete misunderstanding of the medium and the intentions of the artists working in it? Quite a few, I’d venture to guess.

On my journey as a film lover and film maker, I’ve run across some truly surprising and distressing comments. Some made by “professional” critics, others by bloggers and various online movie sites of varying degrees of popularity.

Let’s start with Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. His review of the new movie MOON begins with this comment:

There are those who think “2001” is the greatest movie ever made, and then there are those of us who think it’s the greatest boring movie ever made.

To think that a major film critic in this day and age can’t even see the value of a film like Kubrick’s 2001. Sure, it’s all a matter of taste. Or is it?  I’ll be honest, I could never trust a critic who would write something like this. I couldn’t trust the man’s basic understanding of filmmaking and storytelling. For 2001 not to be your cup of tea is one thing, but to devalue it and not seem to appreciate its merits and place in history or to recognize its great artistry… Aw, hell, I can’t respect anyone who writes about film for a living who thinks 2001 is boring. Sorry, Peter, but I just don’t trust that you know of what you write.

And speaking of 2001, here’s critic Kyle Smith of New York Post fame suggesting WATCHMEN is similar to the films of Stanley Kubrick in depth and artistry:

Director Zack Snyder’s cerebral, scintillating follow-up to “300″ seems, to even a weary filmgoer’s eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as “2001″ must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles “A Clockwork Orange. Like those Stanley Kubrick films – it is also in part a parody of “Dr. Strangelove” – it transforms each moment into a tableau with great, uncompromising concentration. The effect is an almost airless gloom, but the film is also exhilarating in breadth and depth.

I suppose I should simply be happy Mr. Smith even knows the films of Stanley Kubrick and can list some of them off in a positive light.

Or how about this paragraph recently culled from online pages of  Rogue Cinema:

If you want to call me lazy, so be it, but I personally prefer films that actually spell everything out at some point during the story rather than leaving me to wonder about it.  I like many people, don’t watch films to think.  I watch films to get away from all the thinking I have to do when I’m not watching films.  When a film leaves me wondering at the end, I feel unsatisfied, like the story wasn’t completely told.  It’s kinda like reading a whole mystery novel and then finding out that the last ten pages are missing.  It’s not the viewer’s job to finish the story in their head.  It’s the film’s job to tell the story in a complete way, or at least, if it’s not going to give a complete explanation, give enough of one so that it’s easy for the viewer to piece it together.  Now I know there are some people out there who like to get deep and analyze everything in a plot in order to come to their own conclusions, but I would hazard to say that those types are in the minority.

Really? REALLY? You don’t like movies that require thought? This “reviewer” actually states that he prefers to have everything spelled out for him. Maybe I’m in the minority when I say that I find this kind of thinking to be quite astounding in all the worst ways. I guess this is how films like CRASH win Academy Awards and tons of accolades. And CRASH is one of the better films to explain everything to the audience as if they weren’t really all that smart. Hey, at least it’s trying to be a smart film with something to say. Unlike 90% of what hits the big screens showing studio-fare. I guess it’s a scary proposition to make a film that requires true thought and participation on the part of the audience in an age where critics think 2001 is boring and films are meant to be nothing more than an escape from using one’s brain.

I gotta tell you, though, that’s not how I was raised. Sure, we had silly, mindless films when I was younger, too (I’m 45 now, not quite ancient yet), but we were inundated with films that relished ambiguity, promoted conversation, assumed the audience contained intelligent beings who actually liked using their brains and had the ability to do so.

Even famed critic Roger Ebert makes assumptions about how film should be made and what film should be. Here’s a comment he made about Woody Allen’s CASSANDRA’S DREAM:

The identical premise is used in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which is like a master class in how Allen goes wrong.

A master class? Okay… I suppose Mr. Ebert never noticed that Mr. Allen IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT KND OF STORYTELLER AND FILMMAKER THAN MR. LUMET? Both have made great films and both have made films that some would say were not among their best, but neither should be compared to the other with the notion that one is right, the other wrong. There are no rules, no guidelines to filmmaking. I know people like to suggest that there are, but there aren’t. You start out with a blank piece of paper and move forward from there. Film is still, essentially, in its infancy. There should be no restrictions placed on the artist’s imagination or the ability of the audience to decide which filmmaker and films move them/effect them. There is no “master class”. And Mr. Allen didn’t “go wrong.” He simply made a Woody Allen film.

Or how about critic Sean Smith’s embarrassing Newsweek article about M. Night Shyamalan? In it Smith quotes, and appears to support, comments made by the producers he interviewed in which they seem to denounce artistic freedom as if it were the devil:

The success of “The Sixth Sense” gave [Shayamalan] total creative autonomy, and he has isolated himself in Pennsylvania, where all his movies are made. “When someone is given total artistic freedom,” says one blockbuster producer, “the result is usually bad.”

Later in the same article, Mr. Smith continues:

The solution, most suggest, is for [Shayamalan] to break out of his self-imposed cocoon. “The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be,” says an indie exec. “Look at Stanley Kubrick. If you see ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ it’s clear he hadn’t left the house in 20 years.”

Well, with this school of thought engaging the minds of the masses, it may take a while for Mr. Smith and the world at large to recognize the cinematic masterpiece that is EYES WIDE SHUT. Yeah, I know, lots of people hated that film. But truthfully, I have little respect for those who dismiss the film as garbage. Again, personal taste is one thing, but I have little faith in many people’s ability to recognize daring, groundbreaking and/or important cinema when it’s staring them in the face.

“The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be…”

I love that this indie-exec has decided what constitutes an artist and art. I love that he or she has also decided that Shyamalan’s choice to live in Philadelphia is making Shyamalan’s world “smaller.” As if Los Angeles were the center of the universe and a solid reflection of the “real” world. This sad way of thinking is only made more distressing by the critic who used these quotes to support his narrow argument.

Take film critic Desson Thomson’s comments from his review of Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH in the Washington Post:

Coppola proves that even the best of our film artists can lose sight of what this medium is all about: entertaining, enlightening and including its audience.

Again, I am (almost) struck dumb by the assumption on the part of so many critics as to what film is and is not supposed to be. Really, Mr. Thomson, is that what the medium is all about? Thanks for enlightening me. And I’m sure for enlightening Mr. Coppola, who obviously needs to sit down and take a film class from you! And did it ever occur to you that maybe this film did achieve all of these things for some other members of the audience? Perhaps the less narrow-minded?

And this is where so many great films get lost or destroyed because of a false belief in what is possible and acceptable within the medium. This is why most Kubrick films are often bashed upon release by critics, only to be held aloft years later as revolutionary, groundbreaking films. Create something unique, expand your horizons, and there’s a whole world of film critics ready to tell you that you did it wrong.

David Lean’s DR. ZHIVAGO was met with venom upon its initial release. But that was nothing compared to the negative critical reviews of Lean’s next film, RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Critics were so harsh on this incredible movie from an artist at the top of his game, that Mr. Lean couldn’t bring himself to make another film for almost 14 years! Good work, kids. Your lack of vision and open-mindedness lost us some potentially great inclusions by Mr. Lean to the world of cinema. Thank god we got the amazing A PASSAGE TO INDIA before Mr. Lean left us too early.

Luckily, we know there are still people out there who do like to use their brains and appreciate and seek out films that ask them to do so. And we know there are critics out there who also appreciate such cinematic adventures. But they are becoming few and far between. But perhaps we will see a shift. If all is cyclical, then we may soon see a new age of cinematic literacy again. Another golden age. Or, we will just continue to slip deeper down the chasm of mindless entertainment, and films that require thought will be considered trash by the masses or, better yet, declared illegal.

I guess then I will have to become a member of some underground movement. Or, perhaps, I already am.

The Sad State Of Film Criticism

An Old Fogey Watches The WATCHMEN. And Mourns…


poster-theatricalI must be getting old because I find myself referring back far too often to my youth and how things “used to be.” Granted, I came of age during Hollywood’s second Golden Era: the 70’s. Actually, to be more accurate, I started living and breathing cinema in the late 60’s and was exposed to first releases of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and BONNIE AND CLYDE among so many others. And for a good decade or more, films were a sight to behold. Daring and edgy while dipping ambiguously into alternate realities and tackling subjects and characters with an inner desire to strip away the outer layers and look closely at what lies beneath, all the while pushing the boundaries of the medium in a way unseen to date.

So in my old-age, I have to shake my head slightly when I hear directors like Zack Snyder hailed as “groundbreaking” and “visionary.” Now I have nothing against Zack Snyder personally, but I have yet to witness any real visionary storytelling in his films. I haven’t found any of them downright “bad”, but they have sadly left me feeling rather empty. DAWN OF THE DEAD stripped away the social commentary that made the original so damn effective. And 300 looked really cool, but was ultimately lacking in character or depth. At least for my tastes. WATCHMEN isn’t a horrible film by any stretch and there are some interesting themes and moments, but at the end of the day, I was bored through a good portion of the film and almost walked out in the first half hour. I found myself slightly more involved as the film continued, but only slightly. And as for the visuals, as with 300, the images were ultimately empty, though at times striking. These films left me with very little to hold on to after the end credits rolled. I never felt challenged or stimulated or moved. These films never got past my first layer of skin, no less into my gut.

The world of special effects these days has dulled something in film for me. When used sparingly, it can be a wonderful tool. However, when a film is allowed to ride on its effects budget alone, the results are often artistically disastrous, regardless of box office intake.

The STAR WARS prequels were vapid. Yes, even REVENGE OF THE SITH which, despite the claims of those desperate to find something of value there, was a lesson in non-storytelling. It was a wonderful display of effects devoid of performance or script.

The other side of the coin could be, say, the recent Swedish vampire flick LET THE RIGHT ONE IN which used its effects sparingly with the result being that each effect was a part of the story and therefore had far more impact than if the film were an effects extravaganza, as the American version would have been (or will probably be).

418px-straw_dogs_movie_posterAnd then there are films like STRAW DOGS which I had the pleasure of watching again recently. You know, when all is said and done, STRAW DOGS is a film that could only get made today as an indie. If that. Very few locations, a handful of great actors, a challenging script and theme, and a director with something to say and the talent to say it. It is the powerful and incredible editing in STRAW DOGS that is its greatest “effect.” So you won’t see ANYTHING like STRAW DOGS worming its way through the Hollywood system today. No, not without having its guts removed piece by piece until any trace of humanity, artistry and/or meaning had been thoroughly stripped from it. Sorry to be such a sad sack, but it’s the truth. And, sadly, even the indie world is filled with filmmakers yearning to walk away from the creative goldmine that is indie filmmaking, to pass into the ranks of Hollywood star directors. Just like so many visionary foreign filmmakers who come to Hollywood and never make another film of vision or substance. I take my hat off to the Pedro Almodovars of the world who recognize the glory of their current situations and turn away from the siren’s call of Hollywoodland.

So it was that when I read Kyle Smith‘s review of WATCHMEN in the New York Post, my head shook uncontrollably with despair:

Director Zack Snyder’s cerebral, scintillating follow-up to “300” seems, to even a weary filmgoer’s eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as “2001” must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles “A Clockwork Orange. Like those Stanley Kubrick films – it is also in part a parody of “Dr. Strangelove” – it transforms each moment into a tableau with great, uncompromising concentration. The effect is an almost airless gloom, but the film is also exhilarating in breadth and depth.” 

Really? Comparing Snyder to Kubrick? REALLY? Luckily, my loneliness and horror can be eased by comments like Kenneth Turan‘s in the Los Angeles Times:

Despite being prematurely canonized by the film’s publicity apparatus, Snyder stands revealed here as more of a beginner than a visionary in his uncertain approach to making an on-screen world come alive. 

Now I know my comments here will be met with some hostility from the fans of the above-mentioned films, but like I said, I’m just some old fogey complaining about how things were when I was younger. “Back in the day,” as they say.

So I’ll just shut up and go back to my little home theater to take in another viewing of THE CONVERSATION or MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER or POINT BLANK. And maybe I’ll follow those up with some antiquated old-timer fair like BLACK NARCISSUS or THE BIG PARADE. You know, films that were made before the visionaries came along.

An Old Fogey Watches The WATCHMEN. And Mourns…

Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH: One More From The Heart


Spoiler free.

Youth Without YouthIn today’s American cinema, it’s rare to see a film unafraid to revel in its moments of ambiguity; to see a film that feels more like a novel, yet still uses the visual medium with the greatest love and understanding. Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH seems to have garnered the worldwide first impression of being a great disappointment. At least that’s what one might take from the majority of reviews. No one seemed to love it, a few truly liked it, and many seemed to downright dismiss it. But this is the path one takes when he or she chooses to create simply for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story one feels needs to be told, if for no other reason than the filmmaker himself wanting to see it. 

I’m not claiming that YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a cinematic masterpiece, or even a great film, but it is an interesting one that does not go to most, if any, of the places one thinks it will (or should). When that happens, a film is often seen as a failure because the viewer didn’t get what he or she wants or believes a film should be. Take Desson Thomson’s quote from his review in the Washington Post:

Coppola proves that even the best of our film artists can lose sight of what this medium is all about: entertaining, enlightening and including its audience.”

It always amazes me when critics (or people in general) decide what a work of art is “supposed to be”. And even if the above quote were somehow steeped in some inescapable but incredibly worrisome truth, who’s to say the film doesn’t do that? The best one can say is that it didn’t do that for them. I found YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH to be entertaining and enlightening and I never felt left out. Is the story confusing? Yes, at times, but not horribly so. But the film relishes its moments of ambiguity, its sudden changes of mood and, at times, even genre. These aren’t mistakes or missteps, these are deliberate. This is the story being told.

Granted, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is nothing like THE GODFATHER or THE CONVERSATION or APOCALYPSE NOW. It doesn’t feel like those films, move like those films. It does, however, have traces of mood we’ve seen from Mr. Coppola before: BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, ONE FROM THE HEART, RUMBLE FISH. So many films throughout Coppola’s career have been ill received. Films that I think to be quite masterful, fascinating, daring, challenging and incredibly cinematic. It seems the films Coppola made for others are the films that garnered him the most attention and acclaim. And they are all worthy. Some, in fact, are among my favorite films of all time. Though they may not have been close to Coppola’s heart or, at best, not exactly what he would have liked to be making, I am glad that I live in a world where these films exist. After all, once the film is out there, the intent of the filmmaker is almost secondary to the effect and interpretation put on it by individual viewers. 

Stanley Kubrick once said:

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

This is what film was for Stanley Kubrick. It is not, nor does it need to be, that for everyone. However, I’d say Mr. Coppola is working along very similar lines here. There was a time when films like YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH stood a better chance of finding an audience. That time is over thirty years past, but I still hold out a strong hope for the future. If everything’s cyclical, then there’s a great resurgence of American film as art somewhere in our futures. Sadly today, Hollywood cinema is to art what the Bush Administration is to the American dream. We’ve been in a very dark period, people are numb and their expectations have been lowered to frightening standards. 

But the world of literature continues to be a medium where anything can happen. There are no rules to follow, no structure that need be adhered to, no style that is considered improper. Be it the prose of a Michael Ondaatje or a Toni Morrison, the delirious surreality of a Haruki Murakami, the delicious imagery and word structure of a John Steinbeck, or the chilling imagination of a Stephen King or popular suspense of a John Grisham, all forms of storytelling are accepted and have an audience. Film has the same potential and, in my opinion, should be bound by no less artistic freedom. Which brings me to yet another quote by the late Mr. Kubrick:

“A filmmaker has almost as much freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper.”

How easy it is to forget this. Whether we’re the filmmaker or the audience. 

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH trailer

Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH: One More From The Heart