Thursday, June 21, 2012

Where Eros and Thanatos meet: The Films of Stanley Kubrick

Film and Literature: On Monday June 25th, 7PM at the Miles Nadal JCC there is going to be the last class of the series In Nayman's Terms: The Films of Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut. Also, it is worth sharing, for any literature guys, that there is a David Foster Wallace reading group that was recently started which gets together every two weeks at Victory Café (581 Markham Street) at 6PM to discuss Infinite Jest in one hundred page increments. The next meeting will be on July 3rd at 6PM, and if you are interested in joining, we will be discussing the book up to page 410.

These two meetings – the film class and book club, respectively – are fun as they get together a group of varied like-minded individuals to discuss a subject everyone involved is interested in. When discussing, a person usually goes about it from their own perspective, but in these settings the emphasis is that of having a conversation, getting a group of people to share their perspective on something and where they bring their own background in discussing it – with the results always being stimulating.


Now on to Stanley Kubrick, where in discussing him I’m going to talk about Michel Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition (2003), as well as the reception of Eyes Wide Shut at both Cahiers du Cinema and Positif.

The sections in Kubrick: The Definitive Edition are: Kubrick’s odyssey with its two sections Milestones (on Kubrick’s biography) and Standards (on Kubrick’s creative process, his perfectionism); Directing, Between reason and passion, Kubrick and the fantastic, Full Metal Jacket, Number 13: Eyes Wide Shut, and a memorial. The book also includes interviews with Stanley Kubrick (revised for the English translation of the book), and with his collaborators: James B. Harris, Ken Adam, John Alcott, Julian Senior (all from the older edition of the book); and Michael Herr, Frederic Raphael, Les Tomkins, Marit Allen, Andrew Birkin, Malcolm McDowell, Marisa Berenson, Diane Johnson, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall (from the new edition).

Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928, the son of American Jews of Central European origin. His parents were very encouraging, for example his father got Kubrick at a young age interested in both chess and photography. It is interesting that Ciment brings up how Kubrick’s three favorite childhood activities would leave a lasting mark on his filmmaking, that of chess, photography (he was a photographer for Look magazine) and jazz. James Naremore is insightful about this period, in his book On Kubrick, as Naremore discusses how the popularity of Weegee’s photographs in New York at the time could have influenced Kubrick’s own photography. As well Naremore highlights the James Agee influence, with Agee being a leading New Yorker film critic of the time, and where Naremore speculates that Agee’s writing might have been one of the reasons Kubrick started to take cinema seriously, as well a guide to Kubrick’s emerging taste.

Kubrick would then go on to make two documentary shorts Day of the Fight and Flying Padre (both 1951), and then move on towards an amateur war-film Fear and Desire (1953). He was able to present his personal vision to achieve commercial success - and a form of independence through resourcefulness - in his next two features Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956), both film noirs. At an early stage of his career, Kubrick understood the importance of castings and having bankable actors in his films, so where in The Killing there is the rough Sterling Hayden, moving forward Kubrick used Kirk Douglas to be able to make the anti-war film Paths of Glory (1957), and who he would work with again as a hired-hand on Spartacus (1960). Afterwards, Kubrick was starting to get fed up with all the distractions and all of the delays in Hollywood, so with his next film Lolita (1962), based on the Vladimir Nabokov book, Kubrick filmed in England where he has kept his opperations until his death in 1999.

Kubrick’s films are sometimes accused of being too detached and sardonic, but like other modernist filmmakers like Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky, there are metaphysical questions being scrutinized under the surface. Ciment describes his approach as, “The contradiction which he has been exploring – that of admitting the importance and legitimacy of the instincts and the subconscious, while at the same time regarding reason as the only solution for both the individual and mankind as a whole – is one that confronts us all.” In a recent issue of The New Yorker – their Science Fiction Issue (June 4 & 11, 2012) – it includes a piece by Anthony Burgess The Clockwork Condition from 1973 on his book, and the film adaptation, which he though of as a Orwellian critique of society and the state; “It would seem that enforced conditioning of a mind, however good the social intention, to be evil.” While Gilles Deleuze on Kubrick from Cinema II: The Time-Image, from his discussion of the cinema of the body, and that of the cinema of the brain,
"If we look at Kubrick's work, we see the degree to which it is the brain which is mise-en-scene […] Kubrick is renewing the theme of the initiatory journey because every journey in the world is an exploration of the brain […] But if the calculation fails, if the computer breaks down, it is because the brain is no more reasonable a system that the world is a rational one.”
Other great essays in Kubrick: The Definitive Edition includes Kubrick and the fantastic which highlights how Kubrick’s films deal with the fantastic, which Ciment defines as “the hesitation experience by a being cognizant only of the laws of nature when confronted with an apparently supernatural phenomenon.” And in these moments, Ciment writes, “the spectator is incapable of supplying a rational explanation for what he has witnessed and ends up by accepting the supernatural.” On Full Metal Jacket, Ciment narrows in on the first weapon of the film, the hair clipper; and on the film, “Full Metal Jacket provided a clinical examination of reality.”

It is also worth bringing up here Geoffrey Cocks’ book The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History,  the Holocaust, where Cocks' is able to find in the scene in Eyes Wide Shut where Bill is pushed by a group of thugs onto a blue Mercedes, significance that, "That the car is a Mercedes is, moreover, a typically tiny clue to Kubrickian passions and concerns directly related, though often indirectly expressed, to the problematic nature of human existence in general and the dangerous history of the modern world in particular." And that, "But at the center of this body of work - like the Minotaur in its maze - lies The Shining, for in that film there slouches a deeply laid subtext that positions the Holocaust as the modern benchmark of evil." This is one interesting way to read The Shining, though as I’ve discussed elsewhere (cf. Stephen King on The Shining), is not the only way to read the film. Which brings me towards an interesting documentary that was recently made, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which is a documentary on a variety of people’s interpretation of what exactly The Shining is about? 

Eyes Wide Shut
In the issue of Cahiers (N.538) which features Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise is on the cover (earlier in that year Cahiers also had a Kubrick issue). Nicolas Saada’s review Scenes de l’envie conjugale, pin-points exactly how a Kubrick fan would respond to the film, “Five Seconds. It’s about the time it takes for one to fall under the spell of the new film by Stanley Kubrick.” Saada talks about how the film is based on Rhapsody: A Dream Novel (1926) by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, and then makes a Viennese connection between the Kubrick film and those of the European émigré direcrors Max Ophuls and Ernst Lubitsch. The mysterious death of the young woman in Eyes Wide Shut seems like a reference to Kubrick’s own early noirs, and in the scene in the mortuary, when Bill (Tom Cruise) is contemplating the corpse in front of him, Saada is quite insightful when he describes the scene as, 
“We don’t know if Bill desires to sense the dead or, on the contrary, to transmit life to this inert corpse. And it might be because of this gesture that Tom Cruise, with this hand posed on the forehead of the dead, has something indelible and shaking, that goes against the simple mystery of a man who can finally just let go.”
Kent Jones, a American correspondent for Cahiers at the time, in the same issue has a piece, Frissons, on how American film critics discussed Eyes Wide Shut at the time of its release: Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert liked it versus The New Yorker and Dave Kehr, who didn’t. While in a few succeeding issues of Cahiers came Laurence Giavarini, Puissance des fantasmes, which is one of the more thorough readings of Eyes Wide Shut. Giavarini sees Kubrick’s last film as a horror film, it’s not the story of Bill and his ghosts, but that of Bill in the land of ghosts – which makes it a horror film as much as The Shining. Giavarini, “It is clear that this bewitchment is the temptation of Eyes Wide Shut. It is thus a horror film for this reason of slowness that the exact images passes in front of us, that bring the couple red-eyed together in the morning.” 

While in Positif (Sept.99, N.463), Michel Henry has a great essay La penombre des ames that contextualizes Eyes Wide Shut within the turn of the century Vienna, the actual setting of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovella (the original German title of the book), and places the film in the Kammerspielfilm “chamber drama” tradition of Germany of the 1920s. While Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s review Fear and desire: the night of masks in the same issue is a lot more skeptical, “We can regret that his other projects – Napoleon, or A.I. – have been abandoned for this one, but, if someone had to turn Traumnovelle into a film, we doubt anyone could have done a better job.”

While in a couple of issues later, Positif would do a special issue dedicated to Stanley Kubrick, Ciment from it’s editorial, “Positif is without a doubt in the world, the one magazine that has dedicated the most text to the films of Stanley Kubrick.” And that issues centerpiece is The tomb of Stanley Kubrick which asks forty-eight filmmakers, from Woody Allen to the Taviani brothers, what they think Kubrick’s relation to cinema is and what films they are most attached to.

Kubrick, Ciment and Positif
Kubrick: The Definitive Edition by Ciment is not only a great Kubrick book, but as I’ve argued elsewhere (cf. Kubrick by Ciment) is a great example of Positif-ien criticism. Where the form of the publication gives precedence to the films. So through a management of space – Positif is the magazine with the largest page size and it publishes twelve issues a year – and the placement of texts and images, there is the impression of a rapid-fire effect of film appreciation. Some of Positif's different magazine sections are: film reviews, interviews, books and DVD reviews, voix-off, which are unpublished contributions by filmmakers; Bloc-notes, diary like entries by their writers; and features dedicated to subjects and film history. All of these different forms of writing not only expand on Positif’s discourse on cinema, but express that writing about cinema can be a form of self-expression. And similar to The New York Review of Books, Positif’s dozen writers stand out in such a big magazine through their prose, knowledge and generosity.

In Kubrick, Ciment brings up Kubrick’s cinema in relation to the other art forms whether they be painting, literature, philosophy, classical music, opera and theater. Unlike Cahiers which seems more interested in cinema in terms of medium-specificity, Positif aligns cinema with all the other arts (e.g. see their recent dossier on Opera and Cinema). Where Cahiers can dismiss a “bad” film in a short paragraph, Positif’s lengthy reviews enrich film criticism within that of the larger field of art- and literary-criticism. For example here is Ciment on Kubrick, “His approach is more like that of a write or painter. The fame of writers like Stendhal, Flaubert, Kafka, and Joyce is based on a relatively small number of works.”

Ciment’s Kubrick book is similar to other books by Positif writers like Robert Benayoun’s photo-based book Le regard de Buster Keaton or the intellectual prose of Vincent Amiel’s Joseph Mankiewicz et son double. These forays into book publishing, continues the canon that Bernard Chardère wanted to create when he founded Positif in 1952. At this current date Ciment, the current director of the publication, does not publish too much in Positif. Ciment writes several of the magazines monthly editorials - usually directing the magazines editorial stance - as well as he conducts a lot of the interviews with the big name directors, a bloc-notes in January where he lists his ten favorite films of the preceding year, and he contributes some of Positif best memorials (e.g. Raoul Ruiz, Theo Angelopoulos). The feel of Ciment's writing is  more like a friend talking about something - it seems personal - which is different then the “objective” writing style of a  New York Times. And he isn't afraid to take on unpopular positions (e.g. see his recent attacks toward Jean-Luc Godard). Reading Positif on a regular basis gives off the impression of being in one of their famous monthly meetings – the ones where they discuss the films that they’ve seen and choose the upcoming months magazine cover.

Why discuss Positif so much? What do I like so much about the magazine? Does Positif have the secret key to unlock all of the mysteries of cinema? First off, before I get to these questions, I want to say, that I’m not only person to inquire about the history of this revered magazine, and for more information I would have to point you  towards the great French film-blog Nightswimming by Edouard Sivière, who has dedicated three lengthy entries on the history of the magazine (I, II, III).

Even though Positif has changed over the years, there seems to be a constant to it, and I think what is at the heart of Positif returns back to the magazines title, Positif, to be positive, and the writing gains from their writers, people sharing their pleasures about why they like certain movies, and why they have given their lives to cinema. If I read and write about Positif so much, its just because it's an important part of my cinephilia. 

If I can point to only one of their issues, as a summit of Positif-ien thought – as useful as Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema - it would be their recent Portfolio 80 cinéastes vus par… Positif et Nicolas Guérin (2010). What is it about? Well... Let’s talk about our favorite auteurs. Let’s talk about cinema. Let’s talk about history, politics and culture. Let’s do it well, and let’s make it look good!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Lost Documents - Found Files : Stephen King on The Shining

Lost Documents - Found Files. This is a new series I plan to build upon, with my task being of finding relics of film criticism: texts that are not readily available, which are obscure, and that may have been only partly referenced. I plan on finding them, from libraries and such, and then hosting them here. And make sure to email me if you have any suggestions of pieces that you are curious about and that you would like me to try to find. - D.D.
Stephen King's new book 11/23/63 is like what Triple Agent was for Eric Rohmer: They are both late works that explore the era of their authors childhood, though not so much in a vein of romantic nostalgia but through a more critical lens. The subject of Rohmer's Triple Agent is the opaqueness of others, even those that are closest to us, through a look at humanity at its extreme within the behind-the-scene politics of the Popular Front in France in the thirties, as the Russian Fiodor betrays his Greek wife Arsinoé. While for King it is the cultural and emotional legacy of the post-WWII American rural life, with the large catastrophe being the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas Texas on November twenty-third in nine-teen-sixty-three. In 11/23/63, Jake Epping time-travels from the present to the past to do something "good", make the world a better place, but what he finds there is just as racist and vicious as anything today - and say that the assassination was prevented, whose to say the world would a better place? Even though the two artists are different in sensibility they very much to speak to a certain regional populace for both of their respective countries, with Rohmer being in the tradition of a French discursive and articulate intellectual tradition while for King that of a blue-collar and mainstream America - the voice of the people

To get ready for the class on The Shining (tonight, Monday June 11th at 7PM) in the series In Nayman's Terms: The Films of Stanley Kubrick at the Miles Nadal JCC, I've found and transcribed a rare interview with Stephen King where he discusses his thoughts on the Kubrick adaptation as well as other anecdotes. Vincent LoBrutto in his excellent Kubrick biography Stanley Kubrick: A Biography first brought up this King interview, which I then found in the June 1986 issue of American Film that I was able to find at the Film Reference Library.

Though to start off here is how most people would be familiar with King's views on Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, from the introduction to the reprint edition of The Shining:
"My single conversation with the late Stanley Kubrick, about six months before he commenced filming his version of The Shining, suggested that it was this quality of the writing that appealed to him: What, exactly, is impelling Jack Torrance toward murder in the winter-isolated rooms and hallways of the Overlook Hotel? Is it undead people, or undead memories? Mr. Kubrick and I came to different conclusions (I always thought there were malevolent ghosts in the Overlook, driving Jack to the precipice), but perhaps those different conclusions are, in fact, the same. For aren't memories the true ghosts of our lives? Do they not drive all of us to words and acts we regret from time to time?"

"King of The Road" by Darrel Ewing and Dennis Myers (American Film, June 1986)

He's the self-proclaimed "Sears catalog with a plot," the chronicler of contemporary America's dreams, desires, and fears. His name is synonymous with literary horror. He is Stephen King, and he holds the imagination of millions of Americans hostage. Mixing humor and horror into the landscape of middle-class America, King fascinates and terrifies people in record numbers. With his extensive mainstream popularity, he is, in effect, the literary counterpart of Hollywood's Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg and King have similar sensibilities. Both situate the evil aspects of the world within the commonplace. The difference between the two, of course, is that Spielberg offers transcendence and escape, but for King the horror is never ending, and often apocalyptic.
King's film credits include eleven movies based on his writings, with another four in development, and Maximum Overdrive, the first film he has not only written but also directed. Based on his short story "Trucks," it is set for a national release date in July.

Question: Can you talk about Maximum Overdrive - what was it like directing your first movie?
Stephen King: The movie is about all these vehicles going crazy and running by themselves, so we started shooting a lot of gas pedals, clutches, transmissions, things like that, operating themselves. We had one sequence: The gas pedal to the floor, the gas pedal goes up, the clutch goes in, the gear shifts by itself, the clutch comes out, and the gas pedal goes back to the floor again. We were able to shoot everything but the transmission from the driver's-side door. The transmission was a problem, because we kept seeing either a corner of the studio or a reflection.
So I said: This is no problem, we will simply take the camera around to the other side and shoot the transmission from there. Total silence. Everybody looked at everybody else. You know what's happening here, right? I'd crossed the axis. It was like farting at the dinner party: Nobody wanted to say you've made a terrible mistake. I didn't get this job because I could direct or because I had any background in film; I got it because I was Stephen King.
So finally [cameraman] Daniele Nannuzzi told me I'd crossed the 180=degree axis and that this simply wasn't done, and although I didn't understand what it was, I grasped the idea that it was breaking a rule.
Later on I called George [Romero] up on the phone and I said, "What is this axis shit?" and he laughed his head off, and explained it, and I said, "Can you break it - the rule?" He said, "It's better not to, but if you have to, you can. If you look at The Battleship Potemkin" (which I never have), "it crosses the axis all the time and the guy [Sergei Eisenstein] gets away with it." Then I saw David Lynch and asked him: "What's this about crossing the axis?" and he burst out laughing and said, "Stephen, you can do anything. You're the director." Then he paused and said, "But it doesn't cut together."
Question: What effect were you aiming for in Maximum Overdrive?
King: I wanted it to move fast. It's a wonderful moron picture, in that sense. It's a really iilliterate picture in a lot of ways. There isn't a lot of dialogue in it. It's fast. A lot of things explode. It's very profane, very vulgar, quite violent in some places. We're going to have trouble with the Ratings Board, I guess.
Question: Did you pay attention to character relations in the story or did you want to wow the audience with spectacle?
King: I'm interested in my people. One of the few really sensible things that anybody said at the story conference that we had at MGM in L.A. - those people, what an alien mentality! - But somebody did say that if the charactersdon't stand out and this is just a movie about machines it'll be a bad picture. Their solution was to suggest that a lot of dialogue and scenes between the major characters be added for character and texture. I was always calling them the jumbo "John! Oh, Martha!" scenes because they're like soap operas. We shot 'em. We just cut 'em all out in the editing room, every single one.
It's like that classic moment in The Swarm where Fred MacMurray and Olivia De Havilland have this scene, and Fred says the equivalent - I swear this is true - he doesn't actually say this, he says something like, "The bees are coming, and we'll all probably be killed, but thank Christ I'm not impotent anymore." That's really what they want.
I'm interested in character eccentricity, in the interactions of daily life that you don't necessarily see on the screen. I'm not particularly interested in character in the traditional sense of, let's say, Scorsese. I prefer Hitchcock, because the character that you find really interesting in his picture are always in supporting roles, like the old lady who lectures about the birds in The Birds: "They can't. It's simply not possible. Their brain pans are too small."
Question: What do you feel are some of the scariest moments in your film adaptations?
King: You mean that scared me in the theater? When that hand comes out of the grave in Carrie at the end. Man, I thought I was going to shit in my pants.
Question: You had no idea ... ?
King: Yeah, I knew they were going to do it, and I still almost shit in my pants. The first time I saw Carrie with an audience they previewed it about a week and a half before Halloween. They didn't do a screening in Maine, but they did one in Boston, so my wife and I went down to the theater, and I just looked around in total dismay, because the regular picture that they were showing was Norman, Is That You? with Redd Foxx. The theater was entirely full of black people. We looked like two little grains of salt in a pepper shake, and we thought: This audience is just going to rate the hell out of this picture. What are they going to think about a skinny little white girl with her menstrual problems? And that's the way it started, and then, little by little, they got on her side, you know, and when she started going her shtick, I mean, they're going, "Tear it up!" "Go for it!" and all this other stuff. These two guys were talking behind us, and we were llistening to them, and at the end they're putting on their coats and getting ready to leave. Suddenly this hand comes up, and these two big guys screamed along with everyone else, and one of them goes, "That's it!" That's it! She ain't never gonna be right!" And I knew it was going to be a hit.
Question: What do you think of the movies adapted from your books?
King: Firestarter is one of the worst of the bunch, even though in terms of story it's very close to the original. But it's flavorless; it's like cafeteria mashed potatoes. There are things that happen in terms of special effects in that movie that make no sense to whatsoever. Why this kid's hair blows every time she starts fire is totally beyond my understanding. I never got a satisfactory answer when I saw the rough cut. By that time, Dino [De Laurentiis] was regularly asking me for input, so I'd give him the input. Sometimes he'd take it. In that case...
The movie has great actors, with the exception of the lead, David Keith, who I didn't feel was very good - my wife said that he has stupid eyes. The actors were allowed to do pretty much what they wanted to do. Martin Sheen, who is a great actor, with no direction and nobody to him - and I mean there must have been literally no direction - with nobody to pull him in and say, "Stop what you're doing," he simply reprised Greg Stillson [in The Dead Zone]. That's all there is; it's the same character exactly. But Greg Stillson should not be in charge of The Shop [secret government organization in Firestarter]. He's not the kind of guy who gets that job.
Question: You were disappointed in The Shining - if you were directing it now, what would you do with it?
King: Oh, I would do everything different. There's a lot to like about it. But it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it scream that from the beginning to the end, from plot decisions to that final - which has been used before on The Twilight Zone.
The best illustration of what's wrong with that movie, and I guess it is a scary moment - yeah, there is one scary moment in The Shining. It's a classic fairy tale situation, the Bluebeard situation, where Bluebeard says, "You can go anywhere in the castle, but don't go into this room." Only in this case, what Bluebeard says is, "You can do anything you want or go anywhere you want, but you can't look at my book - which I'm going to leave right here." So she can't help it, she looks at it. And we're frightened when she does that because we know the conventions of the genre and we know that the conventions of the genre demand that she be caught. The it gets worse, because when she starts to thumb through the pages she sees that he's writing the same thing over and over again: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." And she's thumbing through it faster and faster and faster, and we're cutting back and forth to her face, from the book to her face, from the face to the book, back and forth, and it's great, because you know he's going to come.
Then for some reason that I still don't understand, Kubrick cuts away and shows us Nicholson approaching her. Now, sometimes this works. Hitchcock said that if you show the bomb under the table and then have the guy sitting down, it's worse than if the bomb just explodes, and that's right, except that sometimes it's wrong. In this case, you know that he's there, you don't need to see him, and what should happen is that while she's looking at the book, there should be just this [King grabs the interviewer's shoulder], and cuts away and shows us Nicholson first, so there's no payoff. That's the end of it; that's the dissipation of the climax.
I wanted to like that movie. I was so flattered that Kubrick was going to do something of mine. The first time he called, it was 7:30 in the morning. I was standing in the bathroom in my underwear, shaving, and my wife comes in and her eyes are bugging out. I thought one of the kids must be choking in the kitchen or something. She says, "Stanley Kubrick is on the phone!" I mean, I was just floored. I didn't even take the shaving cream off my face.
Just about the first thing he said was, The whole idea of ghosts is always optimistic, isn't it?" And I said, with a hangover and one eye almost open, "I don't understand what you mean." He said, "Well, the concept of the ghost presupposes life after death. That's a cheerful concept, isn't it?" And it sounded so plausible that for a moment I just floundered and didn't say anything, and then I said, "But what about hell?" There was a long pause on his end, and then he came in a very stiff voice and said, "But I don't believe in hell." He doesn't believe in ghosts, either, he just found the whole concept very optimistic, which is what leads his version of the happy ending for Jack Torrance - this closed loop where he is always the caretaker. He didn't seem to want to get behind the concept of the ghost as a damned soul.
Question: It sounds as though he was trying to rewrite the horror genre.
King: I'm sure that he wanted to bust it open, to do something new with it, but it is very unbustable, which is one of the reasons it has endeared as long as it has.
Question: What was it you liked about David Cronenberg's direction of The Dead Zone?
King: If there were no element of horror in my books, they'd be the dullest books ever written. Everything in those stories is totally ordinary - Dairy Queens - except you take one element and you take that out of context. Cronenberg did the ordinary, and nobody else who has used my books really has. I thought that Lewis Teague, who directed Cujo, did to a degree, except that Teague always seems to me to get this kind of soap-opera look in his people and his sets. But once you got them to the house, I mean, that movie just Sonny Liston. I love it.
One of the guys who worked on Dead Zone, someone I respect very much, told that Dino was the first producer David Cronenberg ever had who forced him to direct. Who forced him to approach the job, not as this gorgeous toy that was made for David Cronenberg, but as a job where he had a responsibility to the producer and to the audience. And that's another reason why Dead Zone was a good picture.
Question: Where did you get the idea for it?
King: For some reason I had just a scene in my mind of this teacher, and a test going on, and how quiet the room is when you're having a really tough test, and everybody is bent over and there's no sound whatsoever, and then this girl finishing up and handing her test paper to the teacher, and their hands coming into contact, and the teacher saying, "You must go home at once. Your house is on fire. Everybody's going to die." And everyone in the room looks up, sort of pinning him with their eyes, and him being very self-conscious and like a crazy person. Something like that.
The scene never ended up in the book at all - it was just a focus point. The story was supposed to be about this guy who eventually would shake hands with the man is going to blow up the world. I got interested in the idea of whether it would be possible to write a moral novel where an assassin, an American assassin, actually was a good guy, or where the act would be justified. When you write a novel - well, at least for me, because I never think about theme as a starting point - I just think about story. But sometimes about three-quarters o the way through the first draft you'll discover that there is a theme, or the potential for a theme. Or you discover what it is that you were actually talking about all along.
In Dead Zone, I thought that what I was talking about was the way that we sometimes think gifts or special talents are actually the things that cause people to be totally rejected by society. Books like Carrie and Firestarter are instinctive rebellings against that. I think that Dead Zone is the only time that I was able to go back and actually approach the whole rewrite of the book with one unifying idea in mind, which made it into a novel. I mean, it's actually sort of thoughtful.
Pet Sematary to some degree is the same: It's supposed to be a reflection on what happens when people in a materialistic society,  people who live only for materialistic reasons, come into contact with questions of faith and death and outside forces.
Question: What do you think of America at present? Is it ordinary?
King: I think the same thing about it that I have always thought: I think it's fantastic. We're killing ourselves; we're fiddling while Rome burns. I mean, while we've got enough explosives to turn planet Earth into the second asteroid belt, the largest weekly magazine in the country talking about where celebrities shop, and why people in Hollywoo don't want to serve finder foods any more. It all seems really ridiculous to me, but I love it. I love everything about it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Festival Report: Cannes 2012

This is the first guest-contribution by Blake Williams: he arranged the fifty-two films that he saw at Cannes into seven categories, here are the top two. You can read the rest of Blake's comments on everything else he saw at Cannes on his excellent blog, R, and G, and B. – D.D.

Tier 1
Holy Motors (Leos Carax) – So singularly weird and exhilaratingly cinematic that, really, it doesn’t even *need* to mean anything (though it clearly does mean many things). It’s capital ‘S’ Surrealism as it pertains to the disappearance of cinema and humanity as we know them. Very telling anecdote: Carax hates digital cinema, and this film was shot digitally (among other things, Holy Motors may be the only Cannes Main Competition film that will ever have the screen intentionally datamosh). But there’s so much more, relating to online avatars, Georges Franju, as well as the confusion of our own personas and identities in the face of virtual existences (video games, cinema, the internet). The fact that all of these broad themes are packed into such an entertaining, euphoric presentation is just icing. Had the film walloped me the way I think it should have at the end, I might already be calling it one of the greatest films ever made.

Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) – I was no lover of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, but this all but cleaned the floor with me; had it had a less Romanian ending (think Aurora), I’d have probably needed to ask for tissues when it ended. It details the tragic rejection of compromise between three parties that is so intense I often could not believe what I was seeing. The second half of the film in particular is just crescendo after crescendo of pure emotion that’s as visceral as in any recent film I can recall. Many intelligent persons are calling this film boring, and I do not know what film they were watching.

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami) – When the screening first ended, I went out on a limb and called that this would be the most divisive film at Cannes this year, having heard no reactions yet. I was right. Playing off of Certified Copy’s interests in what makes us love another person, and the way the *behaviours* of loving someone is ingrained in our DNA, this is a minimal, sorrowful and absurdist package that contains dozens of breathtakingly serene and blissfully drawn-out conversations & car rides. Kiarostami is practically confrontational in his challenge for us to add it all up to something, only refusing to be easily define it for us (in contrast to the new Carlos Reygadas film (see Tier 5), it is apparent that further digging will actually yield substance). I thought of Chantal Akerman’s News From Home on occasion while watching, but really it’s like nothing I’ve seen or experienced in quite some time – a truly weird film. I will need another look, or twenty, before I can make perfect sense of this, but it refuses to exit my mind.

Tier 2
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg) – radically stylized & inhuman, it actually took me a while to realize that Robert Pattinson wasn’t in fact giving one of the worst screen performances I’d ever seen, but was, conversely, giving a pretty amazing portrayal of a man who’s forgotten how to be human. Once it picks up steam, ideas fly at you like data in a detached but riveting stream, perfectly complimenting its theme (which pairs nicely with A Dangerous Method): the way our minds can repress the humanity of our mannerisms, behaviours, and interactions.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! (Alain Resnais) – I saw this one twice, and I’m so glad I did, because what was a tedious and disappointing chore on first watch cleared itself up nicely on another viewing, though I don’t think everyone will require a second look to fall for it. Basically, there is a very heady, clever, and playful conceit at the heart of this film, and I fixated on it too much the first time. The key to appreciating this film lies in its source material: Eurydice. Pay attention to the play – it’s really lovely, intelligent, and bittersweet – and don’t get hung up on the wacky set-up, and you should be good to go.

Amour (Michael Haneke) – Turns out I already saw the new Haneke film a year ago in the Director’s Fortnight; an unfortunate coincidence, it’s almost identical to the Icelandic film, Volcano. Moment-to-moment it’s incredibly straightforward considering its maker, and starkly ‘what it is’. We wait for each progressed stage of deterioration in order to arrive at the same defeating and inevitable exit that we know – and are told in the very first scene – will come. For the first time, it felt to me like Haneke has made a film for his own cathartic therapy; no scolding or lessons to teach the audience. Getting old sucks, and that is primarily true because you have to watch loved ones do it, too. A devastating film, in its own modest, not-earth-shattering way.

Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan) – OK, fine! I still think Dolan is light on ideas, and he’s far too young to hold steadfast to a fixed theme (that being ‘impossible love’; I mean, this guy wants so hard to be taken seriously as a wunderkind auteur that he risks suffocating himself, which he did in his previous film, Heartbeats), but the filmmaking is really superb for most of this, and for the first time, it feels more ‘Dolan’ than anyone else (Wong, Almodovar, Allen….). Not sure what’s changed since his last film actually, but it’s just more genuine and honestly exuberant in its youthfulness and naïveté.

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher) – It’s practically a comedy, offering up a string of straight-faced observations, theories, exposés, and analyses by OCD cinephiles who latch on to what they perceive to be subliminal messages hidden in The Shining. Because Kubrick’s a genius, of *course* he slyly inserted all of this devastating and subversive conspiracy theory nonsense on purpose, right?!?! Most of what these guys propose is so insane/absurd – but genuine! – that I felt ashamed of the fact that, as a passionate cinephile myself, I often do the very same thing all the time. Films are playgrounds for us to insert ourselves and our experiences into, and we manufacture statements that reflect *us* so that we can understand a film just as much as we wish to be understood by others. Many will see this film as a curio that introduces interesting ideas on what The Shining is about, but what it *actually* accomplishes is more ambitious: showing exactly how cinephilia has been transformed by the home video era of movie-(re)(re)(re)(re)watching.

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo) – since this was ‘only’ my seventh Hong film, it still felt fresh to me. Huppert had me giggling the entire time, even when I didn’t know what I was laughing at. Those familiar enough with Hong (i.e. if you’ve seen more than two) will note that this is yet another auto-critique, this one regarding the fact that pretty much all of his films have the same script and casting aesthetic. The 1st act is the funniest, but for the rest I was coasting on the subtle differences in each Anne (Huppert plays three different characters, all with the same name, naturally), and the treatment toward her by others.

Sister (Ursula Meier) – Ursula Meier is one talented lady. I wish the twist came about a little more naturally than it did (actually, I think the film would have improved if the audience had been in on it from the get-go), and I’ve yet to get more out of the film than just seeing it as a really well-done inversion of the absent parental guardian picture, but it’s *really* good at that. It’s a popular comment, but this really is a very Dardennes-ian film, though I missed the quasi-surrealism from her last film, Home, which was no doubt lifted in order to better serve the ultra-realistic tone.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik) – No doubting what Dominik wants you to take away from this (hint – Obama may not like this movie), but it’s still an exceptional, dialogue-heavy thriller that is boldly non-commercial. It is impressive that such a movie was made without ever feeling Tarantino-esque. I loved Gandolfini and Liotta.

Tabu (Miguel Gomes) – how anyone claims to have properly digested this on a single viewing is a mystery to me, but its second half sure lived up to the vague memory of hype I seem to recall it having, which is to say: I was floored by its singularity and the fact I cared so much. Bifurcation is like so ‘in’ right now and I guess now that I see the hints of connections between the halves I can start to appreciate it next time, but in the act of watching this I wished that the first hour would up and disappear altogether.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley) – a pretty solid mix of Mike Leigh’s naturalism and Edgar Wright’s absurdly casual genre injections; humor works about half the time – mostly because you can see many jokes coming from a mile away – but its simple yet accurate observations of a couple who’ve reached a romantic plateau in their relationship and must invent new ways of staying interested in each other is often piercing despite the laughter.

No (Pablo Larraín) – aesthetically, conceptually, and thematically bold, not to mention that I laughed more at this film than anything else other than the new Hong. I just wish its political purpose resonated as much as the ironies and kitsch do.

Blake Williams

For the following five tiers, see Blake's blog entry "Cannes 2012 Hierarchy, with comments".