REVIEW: S Is For Stanley

7 08 2017

S Is For StanleyFantastic Fest

Watch “Room 237” or any video essay about Stanley Kubrick, and you’ll come away with the impression that the preternaturally gifted filmmaker is something of an automaton. His films contain such a precision that they almost seem to evince the work of an infallible creator.

Alex Infascelli’s documentary “S Is For Stanley,” on the other hand, shows a side of the director we tend not to consider as frequently: his human side. In a kind of real-life “The Devil Wears Prada” tale, the film tells the experiences of Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s personal driver for many decades. The director plucked him from the world of race-car driving in Italy to be his personal errand boy. Over the years, he performed tasks ranging from the tedious (guaranteeing candles for three years for “Barry Lyndon”) to the discomforting (getting high on secondhand smoke from Jack Nicholson on the set of “The Shining”) to the downright fascinating (interlocuting for Kubrick in the presence of great Italian director Federico Fellini).

But Emilio’s particular set of skills come most into play when Kubrick undertook the massive project of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the multi-year production that unfortunately became the director’s last. “S Is For Stanley” at times feels like it could be a glorious DVD extra on the Criterion Collection release for that film (fingers crossed it’s eventually coming), but Infascelli avoids the kind of hagiography or star worship that normally plagues similar profiles. He simply lets Emilio tell his stories, which are bound to be fascinating for any cinephile who simply wants to share his unique view of cinema history. B

Dr. Strangelove and American Fascism

6 03 2016

In recent months, I have grappled frequently with the idea that a form of fascism may be rising in America. Recent events have surprised me, as they have shocked others. But the other day, I remembered a paper I wrote nearly 5 years ago in a Cold War literature class, and it reminded me that I should not be surprised at all. Stanley Kubrick gave us a pretty great idea of how America would fall prey to fascist ideals, albeit in a more existential and oblique way. Here’s the text of that essay, unaltered from its original submission in November 2011.

During the Cold War, America was ostensibly fighting the Soviet Union. However, in his 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick makes the case that while locked in this battle, the country was still plagued by the remnants of fascism lingering from World War II. Through the proceedings of the United States government with former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove in the War Room, Kubrick shows that in the efforts of President Merkin Muffley and his advisors to prevent a state-executed nuclear holocaust, the country falls prey to fascist ideals.

America was so committed to destroying fascism in World War II that they were even willing to ally with the Soviet Union, a nation with a conflicting political ideology. At the war’s outset, both countries feared the rapid expansionist policies of Hitler. But as the clash continued, they also grew to fear the Nazi’s dehumanizing and barbaric applications of technology to commit genocide sanctioned by the highest-ranking officials of the party, including Hitler himself. The two countries ultimately forced Nazi capitulation and dismantled the fascist government, writing the history of the war as if bringing Hitler to his demise was tantamount to destroying the most perniciously evil being on the planet.

President Muffley fears even being mentioned in the same sentence as the Fuhrer, judging his own decisions against the notorious legacy: “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.” With the development of the atomic bomb – a testament to human scientific progress yet also a means to achieve ends of Nazi proportions – world superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States began to stock up on nuclear weapons to keep the world from destroying itself. To maintain this fragile peace, they kept the world in a climate of fear as an apocalyptic meltdown loomed.

History defines the Cold War in terms like deterrence and mutually assured destruction; Kubrick, however, has a different vocabulary for the contentions between America and Russia. Through satire, he breaks down what he perceives to be the ridiculousness of such strategies to a juvenile game of comparing penis size. The drive for war is tied into the male sex drive through consistent use of phallic imagery, ranging from cigars and missiles to a fuel nozzle. Many of the characters carry sexually connotative names, including references to male studs (General Buck Turgidson), perversity (Dr. Strangelove), and aphrodisiacs (Captain Mandrake).

One character that does not fit the mold is President Merkin Muffley, whose first and last names are slang references to the female pubic region. The contrast between he and the generals is further drawn by exaggerated physical differences. While Turgidson and the other men in the War Room are big, bulky men with deep voices, Muffley is balding, timid, and nebbish and talks in higher, nasal tones. Such a characterization of the most powerful man in the country hardly conjures an image comparable to the fiery, militaristic Adolf Hitler.

At the beginning of the film, Muffley appears immune to many of the ideas of the other generals in the War Room. He can reason conscientiously in the presence of these men, taking into account the lessons of history before hastily jumping to a decision. Muffley is able to make clear distinctions even when pressured by grandiosely worded arguments:

TURGIDSON. Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.
MUFFLEY. You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson’s rhetoric employs an appeal to pathos, a ploy that Muffley can reject because it requires him to personally make the choice to kill millions of people. He equates such a deliberate decision with Hitler’s calculated extermination of those he considered less superior. Muffley also fears another parallel between himself and Hitler because the Nazi dictator also claimed justification for slaughter by saying it served his country’s best interests.

Dr. Strangelove (2)

However, Dr. Strangelove exposes that the President’s fear may only be of the image associated with fascism. The femininity implied by Muffley’s appearance and name suggest that he is more prone to be swayed by logical and intellectual arguments than the testosterone-fueled generals. With the world in peril, Muffley turns specifically to Strangelove for advice on how to proceed in the face of – and later, the aftermath of – the triggering of the Doomsday Machine.

Strangelove, the director of weapons research and development for the United States, is a brilliant ex-Nazi scientist bound to a wheelchair. Dr. Strangelove champions the computerization of the Doomsday Machine, claiming that it becomes all the more effective because it lacks the human element to make the decision to stop it: “Because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying.”

Muffley initially fears the machine when informed of its existence, but once told that he would not have to be implicated in triggering it, he calls it “fantastic.” Unlike when talking with Turgidson, he is now comfortable with the idea of causing the death of millions only because the killing will be impersonal. While this development might disassociate him with the face of Nazi Germany, Muffley appears to have failed to realize that, ironically, he is advocating the use of technology to achieve similar outcomes.

The ease of lapsing into fascism is most evident in the final scene. After the bomb Major Kong rides into the ground detonates, the world is in ruins and on the brink of apocalypse. With a nuclear holocaust on the horizon, Dr. Strangelove begins to propose mineshaft survival measures that sound eerily reminiscent to Nazi programs like the Final Solution and eugenics. He encounters slight opposition from Muffley though:

MUFFLEY. I would hate to have to decide who stays up and who goes down.
STRANGELOVE. That would not be necessary, Mr. President. A computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills.

Muffley gives a tacit approval to Strangelove’s ideas by not really questioning their validity. Much like with the Doomsday Machine, Dr. Strangelove is able to allay the President’s fears by adding in the allure of technology, thus removing a sense of personal responsibility from whatever occurs. At the same time, Strangelove is enabling Muffley to commit a much more systematic extermination than the Nazis could have ever carried out because of the advanced technological capabilities of the United States without having to outwardly look as treacherous as Hitler.

Kubrick juxtaposes Muffley’s regression to fascist ideals with Dr. Strangelove’s bodily relapse back into its old Nazi habits. When asked by President Muffley if it would truly be possible for humans to survive in the mineshafts for 100 years, Strangelove’s voice gets higher and faster in excitement; he also refers to the President as “Mein Fuhrer,” a slip he quickly corrects. Soon after, his right hand begins acting up, seig-heiling Muffley against his will after exalting the values of the military.

After he furiously beats it into submission, his wayward right hand curls up under his chin in the pose of the famous statue “The Thinker” and then proceeds to choke him. This image harkens back to one of Kubrick’s central messages: anyone, even a genius that can ponder the deepest questions of humanity and existence, can be strangled by the impulses of their right side. Here, the right side is literally Strangelove’s spastic hand, but figuratively, it is the ultra-right leanings of fascism.

Even as Dr. Strangelove begins to outwardly show his fascist tendencies, Muffley and General Turgidson do not question his political motivations. In fact, they even seem to contemplate it further. While Muffley sits in pensive silence, Turgidson begins to apply his American sexually driven jingoism to Strangelove’s Nazi ideas:

TURGIDSON. We must be increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!

Turgidson’s comment demonstrates that Strangelove’s intellectual fascism has quickly become intertwined with the American ideology. Immediately following this outburst, Dr. Strangelove gets up out his wheelchair and begins to walk, declaring: “I have a plan … Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” His rise from the wheelchair and subsequent unapologetic reference to Muffley as his Fuhrer echoes what Kubrick views as a nascent American fascism coming to full bloom.

Dr. Strangelove

Strangelove, like the political ideology he supports, was not exterminated by World War II but only confined to a wheelchair and imported to the United States in a weakened form. Dr. Strangelove and fascism both lurk in the secret depths of the American government, waiting to attach itself to the masculine-fueled drive for war and experience a revival. In a film replete with irony, perhaps the cruelest and hardest to face is Kubrick’s prediction that the United States will one day come to resemble the very thing it fought to eradicate.

Despite being satirical in tone, Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” offers many criticisms of American culture not confined to just the Cold War epoch. During a time when an insidious enemy threatens to destroy the fabric of society itself, it becomes all too easy to look to the horizon and let the foundations of America rot. If policing communism – or any other threat – means a regression into fascist ideals, the United States may not be a savior but rather a danger to the world and to itself. In their strenuous effort not to look bad, Kubrick suggests that America may have forgotten to actually be good.

If the country cannot change its ways, perhaps the United States is headed down a path similar to the one tread by the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I government. In a volatile world shaken up by global conflict, it easily fell victim to forces that would commit monstrous atrocities.

REVIEW: Room 237

26 01 2015

Room 237Aside from showing how far the “fair use” exemption of American copyright can be extended, Rodney Ascher’s unique documentary “Room 237” is a film that demonstrates how the cult of auteurism has run amuck to its point of logical absurdity.  The cinephiles and film analysts he spotlights stretch the theory that a director is responsible for every detail in every frame almost to farcical extremes.

The images of Ascher’s documentary, or potentially a feature-length video essay, come entirely from Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic horror film “The Shining” (as well as a few of his other films to play the part of B-roll).  The words are all provided by five people convinced they know the secret meaning underlying every minute of that film.  Depending on which one of them you ask, “The Shining” is really about sexuality, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, the entirety of the human family, history’s collective amnesia, or even an apology for faking the moon landing.

Each interviewee has to adopt a certain attitude to how playful or serious Kubrick was in his crafting of the film, selectively pulling from film criticism to make their arguments irrefutable.  All seem to agree, however, that Kubrick is infallible, completely incapable of making a continuity error, mistake or oversight.  Nothing could be chalked up to coincidence, for Kubrick oversaw every speck in every frame.  A so-called “impossible window” could not possibly a snafu given that there were two different sets for the film.

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Classics Corner: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

12 09 2010

Gut reaction to Stanley Kubirick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” – WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?!?

I just had to put that out there.  From my past experiences with Kubrick, which only include “Spartacus,” “The Shining,” and “Full Metal Jacket,” I was definitely expecting a head-scratcher.  But I can honestly say that in my nearly 18 years of watching movies, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so cryptic.  I feel like I’m going to be left baffled for the rest of my life, and somehow I feel like Kubrick is grinning mischievously down at me from the afterlife, sniveling “I’ve got him just where I want him!”

Honestly, how did they discuss this movie in the 1960s?  Without the Internet to bounce ideas and theories off each other, did people just accept the fact that they couldn’t understand it since they didn’t have access to the geniuses who post things on the Web?  I can’t even fathom how dinner conversations might have gone in discussing such an innovative movie.

As you can see from the poster, the movie is advertised as the ultimate trip.  It truly is … the ultimate ACID trip.  I strongly advise anyone who might be under the influence of certain influences to stay away from this movie, not because of the content, but because the style might cause you to have some kind of seizure, stroke, or spasm. But what makes this movie a classic?  I can tell just from my first viewing that it has had an enormous influence on filmmaking in the 42 years since its release.  I felt a particularly urgent desire to watch “2001” now because Christopher Nolan named it as an influence of “Inception.”  Here are the specifics according to The New York Times:

The influence of the director of ”2001: A Space Odyssey” is readily apparent in a ”dream-gravity” sequence during ”Inception” that tracks Joseph Gordon-Levitt through an environment of rotating rooms followed by a period of total weightlessness. ”Kubrick to me always had a wonderful sense of calm and specificity in everything he did,” Mr. Nolan said. ”Every detail had a specific meaning and purpose. That’s something I always try to aim for in my filmmaking. It’s not a specific thing. It’s an approach of saying: ‘Why is this thing here? What are we doing with this detail, this element?'”

I can definitely feel a sense of overarching purpose in both the works of Nolan and Kubrick. The former, however, is much more forward while the latter is more subtle, really requiring us to trust in his directorial abilities.  In 2010, a time where Kubrick has been given God-like status among filmmakers, it’s very easy to do that.  But in 1968, I can imagine I might have been a little more skeptical.

The movie is packed with all sorts of themes, imagism, motifs, and symbols, many of which I have absolutely no idea how to interpret.  And I’m not even going to try (to quote “A Serious Man” despite the fact that I despise it, “accept the mystery”).  On the surface, the most accessible thematic element is that of artificial intelligence.  We build computers to be smart, even machines like the HAL-9000 that can supposedly make no errors, but when will come the time that they become smarter than us?  This idea has definitely been echoed quite a bit ever since, often times in a more paranoid tone (see “The Matrix”).

There’s also the ground-breaking special effects, which wow me even in 2010.  Crowd reaction must have been like “Avatar” on steroids.  The fact that someone can watch visual effects over four decades old and not be able to laugh at them is practically unfathomable, yet here is “2001” with spectacles that are barely even dusty.  And beyond the graphics, the movie also boasts some very appealing cinematography and skilled make-up artistry.

And of course, no discussion of “2001” can be complete without discussing the music.  I swear that “Requiem” was used in “Inglourious Basterds” when the Nazis killed Shoshana’s family, but I can’t confirm it anywhere (and thus risk looking like a fool if I am refuted).  But the eccentric, or as some would say, innovative, sequences where the only thing we is hear is instrumental music are definitely incredibly influential.  Not to mention the incredibly eclectic nature of the film’s music, which often times feeling entirely out of place, that I say for sure manifests itself in today’s movies.  Look no further than Quentin Tarantino for that.

I’m not ready to crown Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” one of my favorite movies of all time, although I know many would include in their pantheon of fantastic films.  However, I am thankful that this movie was made because it got the ball rolling for the future masters of science-fiction and fantasy to further expand the possibilities for the genre.  I think it’s a topic to debate whether this still reigns supreme or if any of the movies it has inspired have eclipsed it.

*NOTE: I wrote this entire review without consulting any source that would attempt to explain the mystery that is the movie to me.  That has to count for something.