Monday, March 23, 2015

Doctor Zhivago

It must be awful to be Lona.  Taken by her mother’s lover at a young age while still at school, she is forced into a tragic life situation.  She marries a determined man, who becomes a killer.  The only joys in her life is her daughter and her love, Zhivago.  For the most part, the film is seen through the view of the compassionate doctor, a bourgeoisie poet living in the wrong times.  Although much is made of this love story, it is really a story of survival, of how a man can live in love in a time of demanding justice.

Is Doctor Zhivago a great film?  It is certainly an epic film, covering a generation and massive landscapes and huge themes.  For a film about Russian events and people, it is an extraordinarily British film.  I feel that if we exchanged the Russian Revolution for the rules of Henry VIII and Mary and Elizabeth, we wouldn’t see much difference in plot.  Omar Sharif is a great actor and he is many things, but Russian isn’t one of them. 

A Russian epic must have a deep sense of the tragic.  While Doctor Zhivago has a dark humor and a recognition of oppression and a question of class systems (which any Russian epic should have), yet it lacks a real sense of the tragic. Pyaasa feels like a better tragic story of an oppressed poet.  Well, Pyaasa is a better film, if not better cinematography.

This film is a marvel to behold.  It is big, so big and it has a landscape that matches that huge scope.  But unlike Lean’s other great epics—Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai—the landscape seems to be less integrated into the film.  We have a dramatic scene, then BOOM—giant picture postcard.  We have a quiet scene, then BOOM—another giant picture postcard.   Beautiful postcards.  Sometimes they have to do with the plot.  But they could just as well have been from another film.  Or a gorgeous slide show.  Beautiful, but not especially cinematic.

I enjoyed the film quite a bit, but I’ll have to side with those who say it is a good film, not a great one. 


The great love stories are tragedies.  Love leaves one vulnerable, open to both joy and disaster.  And the universe, chaos agent that it is, takes advantage of the vulnerable.  If we are not vulnerable to the dangers of love, then we cannot experience the full joy.  And if there is no joy in love, what good is it?

Love is stronger than death.  Yet we must avoid the love that has death wrapped within it, for we cannot escape either.  When our love is death then death and love wrap themselves around our body and our fate is determined.

Love is power, and in a man’s world, men hold the power of love.  Women may say they don’t want it, that it destroys them, but the choice of love isn’t theirs.  Men will force love upon them, until it only bears the slightest resemblance of love.  Love, in it’s pure form, sets aside power and grants freedom so that love

Idealism fights against love, even the ideals of peace, of justice.   There is a time to surrender love for justice, when injustice doesn’t allow love to survive, let alone flourish.  But we must remember, the purpose of justice and peace is the freedom to live in love.  Not a love that harms, but a love that builds and grows and flourishes the weakest among us. 

2001: A Spacey Analysis

I just had a marvelous experience.  

A local theatre just set up a restored 70mm projector and the first film they showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The last time I watched this film was as a teen, thirty years ago, on a small television screen, with me sitting across the room, the volume not too loud so as not to disturb others who lived in the house.  My experience last night was right in front of a huge screen, in front of a speaker, with my twentysomething son and a friend.  

Truly unforgettable.   I could imagine being a film viewer in 1968, when the lights dimmed and the 50’s sci fi music mystically settled the audience down, then the room goes black, deadly black, we are in emptiness, the blankness of space and then we see the sunlight display the outline of the earth and the sunrise gives way to moonrise and all three orbs are gloriously magnificent in the midst of space and Zarathustra stirs our soul, in preparation to an epic spectacle.  

I may have seen greater films that have been made since this tremendous visual circus, but almost every epic since 1968 has been influenced for the better by this one.  Its greatness cannot be questioned, and it cannot be forgotten.

For all of its importance and power, yet 2001 is a strange duck.  For a long epic film, the narrative is minimal at best and incomprehensible at worst.  Perhaps this is because Stanley Kubrick wanted his viewers to work for the plot, to remain so dazzled that they will examine the film and so piece together the story over time.  But I suspect that isn’t the case.

Kubrick wrote the story and screenplay with Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century.  They based the story on Clarke’s novella, The Sentinel, but they worked so closely on this project that while Kubrick was creating the film, Clarke was writing the novel, and the two works of art really should be seen as two aspects of a single work, different mediums working together, where one isn’t complete without the other.   Only the film’s outline is comprehensible without the novel, and the power of the story is lost without the film’s visuals and music.

This is an unusual relationship between a novel and film.  Perhaps only George Lucas’ original Star Wars film and book has anything similar, in which the novel fills out the film and the film empowers the novel.  I have deep questions that one was ever supposed to understand the meaning of the film without the novel.  Although my son, in his first viewing of the film, was able to glean the basic outline of the meaning of the film, only aided by hundreds of movies, tv shows, video games and novels that have been influenced by this work of art. 

Yet there are many who are baffled by this film.  And who wants to read the sci fi novel?  So I will give you the basic elements of the film, and in about 15 minutes you can sound as good as anyone else who has guesses as to what the film is about.  It’s been about 25 years since I read 2001 and about that long since I read the first sequel, 2010, but I remember it well enough to have a coherent idea of the film.  I will present the basic foundation of the film, the purpose of many scenes and some guesses of my own. As usual, I am open to any comments or corrections of my analysis.

Main plot
Incredibly advanced aliens direct the evolution of humanity, from the dawn of man to humanity’s next step, the Star Child.

Main subplot
Humans and their tools battle for rule of the solar system.

The primary cycle
Humanity is in a restless peace.  Humanity is always seeking more power, more security, more of the universe they can see and comprehend, but they are at their limit. The elegance and peace of humanity is represented by Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube.   A black monolith appears, and the voices of Requiem by  Gyorgy Ligeti,  call humanity, disturbing the peace with a mystical communication of knowledge that will take them to the next level.  A human touches the monolith, to the theme of Thus Spake Zarathustra and the communication is completed—humanity then has knowledge of the path of the next level they must pursue.  They will achieve the next level of evolution only through power and domination, as Friedrich Nietzsche stated (who inspired the piece Zarathustra).

Introduction I
With the theme of Zarathustra playing, we are introduced to the line of communication from the heavens, including the sun, the moon, to the earth.

The Dawn of Man
Proto-humans live peacefully with warthogs, in fear of violent large cats and against other tribes over a muddy watering hole.  A monolith appears, granting a single tribe the knowledge of using tools, which they use for violence, both against the warthogs for food and against other tribes in the first war for power over the watering hole. 

 Introduction II
The tool of a bone shifts to the tool of a space-plane in 2001, where tools now are so complex and huge that they encompass humanity.  This harmony between tools and humanity are highlighted by elegant flight and the elegant Blue Danube.   Heywood Floyd travels to the moon to examine a monolith uncovered 40 feet beneath the surface, buried 4 million years previous.  This is clear evidence of alien life.  After Dr. Floyd touches it, a signal is sent to Jupiter, communicating to the aliens, and directing humanity to Jupiter to receive their next communication.

Journey to Jupiter
As we are introduced to the crew members, we notice that one of humanity’s tools, HAL 9000 is treated as an equal member of humanity.  HAL is uncomfortably human and the pilots are uncomfortably sub-human, with each of them meeting in the center of a humanity shaped by tools and tools becoming more human.  HAL is infinitely smarter than any single human, with greater logic and able to run the ship to such a degree that the pilots are dependent on him.

HAL, while on the trip, comprehends the true purpose of the mission, that aliens will confer on humanity the next evolutionary step.  HAL, perhaps considering humanity inferior to their tools, plots to kill the humans and to take the step himself.  HAL kills off Frank and the rest of the crew in stasis, and then isolates Dave Bowman in space.  Dave, using the mechanical system on the ship, not connected to HAL, is able to enter the ship at great risk. Although HAL has greater logic than any human, he underestimates human determination to survive, even to take on a huge risk.  Dave takes HAL’s chips out, causing him to regress to his birth.   This is the final war of humanity, the battle of whether humanity or their tools will take the next evolutionary step. 

Jupiter and Infinity
David Bowman leaves his ship behind, travels to a monolith, just beyond a moon of Jupiter.  He travels through a wormhole, into a room in which he quickly lives out the rest of his life.  At the moment of his death, he reaches out to a monolith, which transforms him into the Star Child, the mediator between humanity and the aliens, the dominating force of our solar system.

60’s Mindset
The pace is slower than any other Kubrick film, except perhaps The Shining, but why is this necessary?  It only offers to confuse and bore the audience.  I think it has to do with that the film is supposed to focus on visual spectacle, minimizing narrative—a huge picture book for the novel, or the visual outline the written novel is supposed to explain.  The slowest aspects of the film are dull to our modern eyes, but we could understand that Kubrick wanted to showcase the models of the complicated spaceships and the camera tricks that display weightlessness.  While these visual effects are commonplace today, they are unique pieces of art that Kubrick thought would keep the audience’s attention.

This film is very much caught in its timeframe, reminding us again and again that it is a film of the 60’s, with a 60’s vision of the future, as all visions of the future are ultimately reflections of their own time.  While the male doctors are given the title “Doctor” the female doctors are called “ladies”, and servants are all women.   The fashion is just a step beyond the time-restricted 60’s fashion, whether furniture or clothing.  The final “mind blowing” acid trip of a wormhole is little more than dye on glass, color filters and colored pen on film , and weak compared to some of the spectacle we have seen in more recent years.  As forward-thinking as the film is, it remains an obviously 60’s vision, which takes away the timelessness of most great films.

The greatest restriction of the film is the fact that it has influenced so many films after it, from Solaris to Star Wars to Tree of Life to Gravity.  There is little in the film we haven’t seen before.  Yet it is still an amazing film, worth seeing in all its 70mm glory.  The ideas might be overused by others, but its greatness shouldn’t be lost on audiences for all time. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Stagecoach: The Breakfast Club of Classic Westerns

Stagecoach begins like a pulp fiction western. Geronimo is on the warpath and a set of stereotyped characters are all put on a stagecoach to travel through dangerous territory.

The Breakfast Club of classic westerns. So many tropes and types:
-The noble marshal
-The drunk doctor
-The prostitute with a heart of gold
-The comedic driver (classically played by Andy Devine)
-The lady with a secret
-The gambler
-The pompous financier
-and, of course, the just outlaw played by John Wayne
Put them all in what amounts to a locked room and you get some fun personality clashes.

In any classic western, you have to have landscapes, an Indian battle, fine stunts, lot of horses, a cavalry, and, of course, a shootout.

Most directors would just shake all the parts up and pour it out, but the writers put this one together carefully, creating a great blend of tension and comedy and enough character by-play to make it all interesting. Not deep, but a lot of fun.

War in The Outlaw Josey Wales

I have for years thought that I needed to catch up with The Outlaw Josey Wales... but it turns out I have seen it. I don't know how long ago, but I distinctly remembered almost every scene, and knew the general outline of what was going to happen next. I also remembered that I didn't think much of the film, that it seemed a pretty standard Western story (which probably meant that I saw it when I was much younger as well, as this story isn't especially common.)

I have to say that I'm really glad that I watched it again because it has certainly gone up in my estimation in this viewing.

Clint plays the title character who finds himself in the middle of the Civil War after a Union troop destroys his house, rapes and kidnaps his wife and kills his son. When the war finishes and he finds himself on the losing side, he cannot pledge allegiance to the Union, and finds himself an outlaw, being chased across the land, from Missouri to Texas.

But my question about this film comes in the short introduction that Clint, in his current aged appearance, makes to the film. He says that it is "about the destructiveness of war"... which puzzled me. There is a brief war montage at the beginning of the film, but almost all of the film takes place in the aftermath of the Civil War. I believe the director, so it caused me to reconsider what this film was really about. Suppose it was all about war, how would it be read?

First, the situation comes as a result of war. Clint's family is killed and he is thirsty for revenge because a group of men was given licence to ravage uncontrollably, which really would happen only in wartime. The betrayal of his men comes from the hatred and distrust of even honorable men that occurs in wartime. Clint is declared an outlaw because he refused to put the war behind him. Everywhere he went the bodies stacked up because no matter where he was the war followed him. Even though many had put the war behind them, he didn't because his thirst for revenge hadn't been fulfilled, and there were many who wanted to take revenge on him. The large price on his head was also an aftermath of the war, in which war crimes were overlooked (or even rewarded with promotions). Because of this continuing war, Clint could never settle down, never relax, never create a new homestead.

There are signs of peace between individuals. Hatreds can be set aside between individuals, and battles can be agreed to be avoided between individual leaders. But this cannot happen, it is agreed, between governments. Governments must fight and kill the innocent because they have no choice. [spoiler]At the end, the man whom Clint thought betrayed him declared his peace, saying, "The war is over." But this is only because the government's official records declared the outlaw dead. War can only end in the face of a lie. [/spoiler]

How does this fit into Clint Eastwood's filmography and politics? I think it is clear that Clint supports the individual right of violence, but opposes any institutional violence. Institutional violence kills too many innocents, ruins the independent nuclear family/homestead ideal, and destroys lives long past the war's cessation. Clint is close to a libertarian, seeing government as a largely malevolent force, creating a context in which the individual is forced to be an outlaw to survive.

While the ethics and politics I might question (especially any support of redemptive violence), I think that this film presents such an ideal in a marvelous way. It is often subtle, and the brutality of the story is often softened by the beauty of the landscape, not unlike The Searchers. The cinematography and pacing is certainly reflective of Leone's influence, although Eastwood doesn't have the patience of Leone to really develop an intense suspense. This film is about as close as I've seen Eastwood get to an epic film, in both theme and size of landscape. 

I'm Not There's Approach to Biography

At the beginning of I’m Not There, we are introduced to Bob Dylan a southern black child blues singer.  If you think that’s unique, given that Dylan is a Jewish kid from Minnesota,  we might conclude that this biographical film isn’t necessarily concerned with accuracy.  And we would be right.  Later in the film we are introduced to Dylan, the poet under inquisition, the folk singer, the born again preacher, the western hero and the rock star (played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett).  To think of all these characters as one person, in one life is dizzying, in that it is both confusing and exhilarating.

I think that I'm Not There is one of the best biography films ever made, if not the best. It recognizes that his subject is not a single person, able to simplify into a recognizable pattern or plot. Rather, he is multiple people, a community, that should be represented by many characters. I think that there are many, many people like that-- on this forum, even-- who cannot be shoehorned into a stereotype, and to reduce them to a single storyline is to do injustice to their whole selves.

I love how this film incorporates fantasy of a self into the whole picture of who the man is or was. He is a hero of the West, a genius child performer, and these fantasies informed who he was in real life. They created a context for how he acted that "real life" couldn't explain.

The fact that the film is about Dylan isn't the point. Dylan is just a starting point. The real point is the complexity of every individual, the community of people that we all live with, the multiple personality disorder that we all control, or fail to control, in unique ways.