Kubrick: The First Film Nerd

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:24

    After the July 11 screeningof Lolita, both the Museum of Modern Art and the Anthology Film Archivesconcluded their early career tributes to Stanley Kubrick. These mini-fests arepart of what TheNew York Times has described as mounting expectationfor this week's opening of Eyes Wide Shut. But seeing Kubrick's 1956racetrack thriller The Killing for the first time proved to be an eye-opener-aboutKubrick and his remarkable influence on modern filmmaking. The Killingfits a mini-genre tradition of the psychosocial crime film. Situated betweenJohn Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Robert Wise's Odds AgainstTomorrow (1959), it pulls even with those sharp-eyed, keen-eared dramatizationsof American economic anxiety. But it also stands equal to Jean Pierre Melville'slyrical existential thriller Bob Le Flambeur (1955) through Kubrick'shypnotic black-and-white chiaroscuro, a visual equivalent to the period's jazzflavor, hinting at a new, lasting pop temperament. In the best recent writingon Kubrick, Gregory Solman at DVDExpress.com argued that his films express aconsistent satirical view of Hollywood genre and human foible. It's importantto realize that Kubrick, like any serious filmmaker, was not a prisoner of genre(which is essentially a mere commercial categorization). His films bent narrativeform as much as Godard's or Altman's ever did while also depending upon audienceidentification of generic archetype (the heist film, antiwar film, sex comedy,sci-fi flick, historical drama, horror movie, Vietnam flick, etc.). The Killing,which is simultaneously a caper and an examination of post-WWII malaise, expressedthat period's search for new alternatives to traditional values. "All the elements of American contemporary culture were in place by the year 1955,"scholar William Lhamon wrote, citing "what beleaguered people could fashionto encompass their materially different experience." Kubrick's pitilesshumor was a modern response to generic conventions and novel life attitudessimilar to the seemingly affectless protagonists in Godard's 1959Breathless. Always stepping back, seeingthe absurd in the horrible, Kubrick gave an impression of cold, impersonal detachment.But the lower-depths characters in The Killing are a poignantly humanbunch. The cuckolded cashier (Elijah Cook Jr.) and his unfaithful wife (MarieWindsor), the immigrant chess-playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani), the crookedcop (Jay Adler), the oppressed bartender (Joe Sawyer), the isolated sharpshooter(Timothy Carey), the racetrack deadbeat (Jay C. Flippen) and the cynical mastermind(Sterling Hayden) comprise an unforgettable rogues' gallery. But Kubrick wasn'tcontent with echt-Hollywood caricature; his dialogue individualizes them, fillingin those great battered-flesh faces (grim visages Dick Tracy exaggerated).He also fit them into a devious, startling plot structure that jumbles and repeatsthe time and sequencing of the robbery. This innovation is whatQuentin Tarantino imitated in Pulp Fiction and even less well in JackieBrown. Apparently all of the 90s film critical fraternity overlookedTarantino's theft. But even worse, they forgot Kubrick's innovation. On topof The Killing's mock-documentary narration, Kubrick (later famed forhis emphasis on a scene's duration, especially in the magnificent Barry Lyndon)toyed with the audience's sense of inevitability, causality and consequence.By simply announcing each out-of-sequence, backtracking scene, Kubrick eliminatedthe conventional flashback (an irreverent repudiation of Fred Zinnemann's acclaimedadherence to strict time unities in the 1952 High Noon). The Killing'scomposer Gerald Fried told Peter Bogdanovich that Kubrick frequently smirked"at the tasteless sentimentality of most pictures" and this time-shiftis a key esthetic example. Ridding himself of the useless nicety of narrativeorder, Kubrick evoked existential chaos and-more remarkably-kept audiences ontheir toes. That's the significanceof his uncanny filmmaking technique. It's been a pleasure to revisit it recently,especially in proximity to Lincoln Center's ongoing retrospective of Max Ophuls-thefilmmaker whose meticulous, impressive camera movements inspired the mise-en-sceneKubrick favored. Kubrick emerged from Ophuls, and other filmmaking of his day,with a new-generation energy similar to the French New Wave but spiked withan American intellectual's sophomoric wit. He saw beyond Ophuls' opulent, sensualflow to its mechanical, scientific capacity for probing analysis ("Hiscamera could pass through walls," an awed Kubrick was quoted). As muchas the New Wave's numerous explicit literary and film references, this was thehomage of an American film nerd. Technical fascination remained part of Kubrick'sstyle and his legend. His post-Ophuls tracking shots (almost innumerable inPaths of Glory) became a bold profession of cinematic excitement. Self-consciousand thrilling. In The Killing the uncommon emphasis on natural lightsources (first tried in Killer's Kiss) became a Kubrick signifier yearsbefore 70s American directors discovered "available light." This nerd aspect of Kubrick'sgenius explains his film-buff magnetism, rivaled only by Hitchcock. But to appreciateKubrick simply for his technical ingenuity, as Tarantino does, misrepresentshis artistry. It can be startlingly precise-as in The Killing's robberyscene, where the guard sloppily fills a laundry bag with cash spilling overthe sides to foreshadow the fateful blowout (Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style)at the airport finale. But Kubrick's precision was also moral, albeit formal:A racial/homosexual encounter between sniper Carey and a black parking attendant(James Edwards) rings with provocative symbols-a lucky horseshoe and a hatefulepithet. The emotions are so extraordinary the scene's drama is unhinged-likethat uncanny moment in The Shining when Jack Nicholson repeats a bartender'sslur, twisting its bitterness into lunacy. But Kubrick uses the parking lotsymbols thoroughly, letting the phenomena of human interaction realign the cosmicorder, asserting justice in all its strange beauty. That's something Tarantinoand 90s film nerds have yet to learn-how Kubrick combined his moral and technicalknack into strange, hilarious beauty. Clipped Do All Music Videos Go toHeaven?, my video lecture/presentation at Lincoln Center's Walter ReadeTheater on Monday, July 19, will address the fantasy phenomenon that has overtakenmusic videos. As young filmmakers and film-conscious pop music artists use musicvideo to visualize the emotional states abstracted on disc, the form has changedinto a medium of reverie. Instead of drug-induced hallucinations, we get visionsdeliberately detached from reality-reality heightened into manageable, nonthreateningchimera, like TLC's No Scrubs or Madonna's Ray of Light-and yetunmistakably derived from stress and unease. This is the same therapeuticuse of media that the inspired new German comedy Run, Lola, Run illustratesso well, treating modern tension through a parody of high-speed film-video-animationtechniques. It also occurs in Lauryn Hill's new music video, Everything IsEverything. Like the heroine of Run, Lola, Run, Hill sprints forthe lives of her loved ones-all of us. Hiphop's first Earth mother (fittinglya young, sexy one), she takes on the responsibility of loving. There's an oratoricalpomposity to Everything Is Everything ("Now hear this mixture/Wherehiphop meets scripture"). It's a jeremiad-not the similarly titled loveditty Diana Ross recorded in 1970-because Hill revives rap's sense of mission.Pumping One-Love energy into finding an appropriate visual representation ofher conscientious spirit, Hill's video almost redeems this unstructured track. Since her lionized albumThe Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out a year ago, she has made onlytwo other video clips-Big TV's stereoptical coup Doo Wop and Malik Sayeed'sEx-Factor. But Everything Is Everything benefits immensely fromHill's director, the Indian-born artist Sanji. This the first Hill clip to visualizea philosophical concept. Hill and Sanji adapt the karmic notion of universalconnection and cyclical experience to details of the 90s urban marathon. Streetlife is depicted through its animated pace and by Sanji literally grooving itsenergetic to-and-fro: Hill is seen running Lola-likethrough New York as the huge arm of a phonograph swings over the city. It castsan ominous Independence Day-like shadow, then plants its diamond-tippedstylus into gray pavement. RPM rhythm becomes the video's metaphor for life;so while Hill dashes about in a long skirt and pink velour t-shirt and tossesher fluffy dreads, her movements-stylish and portentous-represent everyone's. The largeness of Hill andSanji's visual concept encompasses the multiplicity of New York, various livesintersecting or in parallels. The worldview Hill raps ("I wrote these wordsfor everyone/Who struggles in their youth") suggests a level playing fieldthat spins and shakes folks up through someone else's control-represented bythe hands of a black DJ. This unnamed hiphop deity makes the earth quake andthe city speak (in Hill's voice) by mining its subterranean resources. Observingthe lives of anxious, working people, the video strikes veins of ambition, chagrin,humility. Run, Lola, Run doesthe same thing with less poetic technique. Director Tom Tykwer imagines a punkette-and-slackerlove story to describe the era's coarse realities. Lola (Franka Potente) andManni (Moritz Bleibtreu) are compelled by arbitrary plot circumstances to actout their unspoken feelings. But like Everything Is Everything's DeusEx Hiphop, Tykwer, following Lola's marathon, scores the layout of her Germanhometown. He (subtly) finds philosophical patterns in Lola and Manni's tergiversations-andin the probable destinies of people they pass, shown in several snapshot montages.In addition to Tykwer's ambidextrous direction (he utilizes film, still photographyand cartoon animation as if master of all), he's written an ideal techno scorethat gives Lola's breakneck race an amusing, metronomic precision. And Lola'stheme song ("I wish I was a heartbeat that never comes to rest") makesTykwer's Wittgensteinian premise a passionate one. It's when the film does rest-fortwo rose-tinted pillow talk confessions between Lola and Manni-that Tykwer'sconceit peaks emotionally. He reveals, at its throbbing center, orbiting notionsof love: male need and female devotion vibrating as in an atomic reactor. Lauryn Hill's solitary songof agape unites that duality. Sanji plays with the spatial distinctions betweenmundane human activity and its magnified appearance (also seen in the RollingStones' Love Is Strong video and a current Sunny Delight commercial).These images (including whip pans of time-lapse horizons moving between skyscrapercanyons) suggest that the everyday experience we take for granted is part ofan even larger design-a point humorously conveyed by the video's grandest symbol,the Empire State Bldg. seen as a spindle with New York bustling around it withcentrifugal force, like a vinyl record. The fantasias of EverythingIs Everything and Run, Lola, Run reflect a unique sensibility-thecontemporary need for outsize, spiritual and mathematical projections of theconfounding urban world. Sanji and Tykwer express ideas that go to heaven theoretically.Meet me at "Heaven" on Monday night. I'll show you more.