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!


Unknown said...

That's a great article and I would like to refer to it in my essay on Kubrick. However, in order to do that I need author's full name and surname. Unfortunatelly, I cannot find this info. Is it possible to contact you somehow in this matter?

David D. said...

It's David Davidson.