Classic Movies – Ran

 

At a castle set in the mountains, an aged Lord and his small retinue of soldiers and advisers are viciously attacked by armies led by two of his three sons. As the Lord’s retinue is gradually annihilated, the violence is observed in detached fashion, through a series of distant wide shots. Arrows and bullets fly in quick succession, horses trample on scores of bodies, blood seeps into the earth. The Lord, trapped in a burning tower, looks steadfastly down at the ground, visibly descending into madness. What is more, for most of this scene, there is no diegetic sound. We hear no shouts of aggression or pain, no gunshots, no songs of steel. The shocked viewer is left only with Toru Takemitsu’s brilliant score, elaborating this terrifying visual distillation of chaos, in which its actors appear to be almost ghostly.

Ran 3
“this terrifying visual distillation of chaos”

It was not all so long ago that the same Lord sat on the side of a mountain, amicably addressing each of his three sons. Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem. Lord Hidetora is reminded through a dream of his looming mortality, and decides to give up most of his power to each of his three sons, Taro, Jiro and Saburo – though Hidetora expects to maintain the title of ‘Great Lord’. While Taro and Jiro accept graciously, Saburo attacks these plans, asking why he thinks his sons will be loyal to  him, given that Hidetora has previously used violent means to maintain his own power. Enraged by this, Hidetora banishes Saburo, but in doing so loses his greatest advocate; it is not long before his other sons begin to violently contest his authority, while both are in turn held in thrall by the Machiavellian siren, Lady Kaede.

Ran 4
“Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem”

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear will immediately notice some parallels within the narrative. Shakespeare’s Lear also decides to relinquish most of his power to his (female) progeny, with disastrous consequences. King Lear inspires Ran with much of its story, but also with much of its visual landscape. There was a precedent to this. Back in 1957 Kurosawa had made Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, which used almost no dialogue from the original text. Instead, the miasmic horror inherent in Shakespeare’s language was evoked through the cinematography. The ‘blasted heath’ was translated into copious amounts of rain and the thickest of fog, all filmed and controlled with precision by the director. In the case of Ran, the totalising language of chaos and disorder in King Lear is embedded within the initially wordless scene of violence already described, a masterpiece of visual scale and emotion.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t many quieter moments in Ran; the overall pace is at times quite slow. In particular, the opening scenes of Hidetora with his sons are marked by leisurely formality, something accentuated by Kurosawa’s decision to use mostly wide shots rather than incorporating close-ups of faces and objects. This achieves a distancing effect – we observe the characters, safe in our seats, later to be horrified at the carnage of stormy ambition. But this apparently ‘slow’ style is consistent with his method at this point in time. Kurosawa made Ran late in his life, in his mid-70s, by which time he had lost almost all of his sight. He had spent a staggering ten years preparing every single shot in the film as a painting, from which those who worked on the film operated. While I wasn’t aware of this fact while watching the film, the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots were readily apparent. In one stunning sequence, Lord Hidetora emerges from the flaming building described above, walking slowly down a long flight of stone steps. He knows his soldiers and followers are all dead. He is flanked by the yellow-clad supporters of Jiro on the left, and the red-clad of Taro on the right. The placement of the soldiers forms a remarkable piece of symmetry which intentionally clashes with the unruly fire in the background; the lone Hidetora, his mind raging like the fire, meets the cold violent fact of military organisation. Framing is everything to Kurosawa, but also detail; 1,400 costumes and suits of armour were made for the film in a process spanning two years. It is difficult to imagine such effort being put into a film today.

Ran 1 part 2
“the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots are readily apparent”

That said, it’s also commendable that Kurosawa achieves some exhilarating performances from his cast. Especially commendable are Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the scheming, murderous Lady Kaede. Nakadai, partly with the help of prosthetics, achieves the transition from venerable septuagenarian Lord to tortured, damaged vagrant with the greatest of passion. Passion also marks out Harada, although of a different kind; as she coaxes Taro and then Jiro into following her commands, you are never quite sure whether she will continue to speak quietly or snap into high-pitched, knife-wielding threats.

Ran 6.jpg
Mieko Harada as the “scheming, murderous Lady Kaede”

There are some films that are recognisably great, but which fail to stick long in the memory. Ran is so utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil (Kurosawa thought it was a metaphor for nuclear warfare), that it has compelled me to try and verbalise my experiences watching it, and in doing so to revive a film blog that I haven’t written on for nearly two years. Ran is for showing for a short while in a number of cinemas across the UK. If you get the chance to see it, you simply cannot miss it. It is a masterpiece from a director at the very top of his form, an epic driven not by copious CGI or contrivance, but by the patience of those who made it and the strength of its nihilistic convictions.

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“utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil”

 

Review – The Riot Club

2014, 107 mins, 15, Dir. Lone Scherfig, starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons and Douglas Booth

The Riot Club
The Riot Club

The upper classes and their foibles have had a peculiar endurance though much of world cinema history. In La Regle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir’s country-house gentry were potent allegories for the moral corruption of pre-WW2 French society; in turn many of Hitchcock’s characters were frustrated rich Americans with polished accents. There is something inexplicably fascinating in observing these financially empowered people and how they live, perhaps especially so when they behave in a way that is mortally, abominably offensive.

Lone Scherfig’s new film The Riot Club understands this fact. Drawing from the 2010 play Posh by Laura Wade, who also writes the screenplay, it depicts members of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club, an infamous society at Oxford University known for its exclusive membership policy and drunken, ostentatious dinners. We quickly become acquainted with the ten impeccably-dressed members of the Riot Club, including two newly-inducted first-years, as they trash each other’s rooms and race around town in expensive cars. They use their parents’ money in profligate and unseemly ways and seem to have their futures planned out for them, as symbolised by Tom Hollander’s Jeremy, a Machiavellian MP. The club is not just for Oxford, Jeremy tells the boys, it is for life, as the political connections it offers can prove supremely useful to get out of any difficulties.

The film actually commences around the Georgian era, where we see a gloriously wigged Oxford don (hilariously referred to as that immortal student noun, ‘legend’) engaging in wild sexual acts worthy of A Rake’s Progress. He is stabbed by the unfortunate husband of one of his wenches, leading to the inauguration by his friends of the tradition-bound institution of the film’s title. These historical scenes only further underline the debauched behaviour of the modern-day club members; their elaborate drinking rituals, alcoholic snobbery and financial waste are as archaic as they are arcane. Scherfig assembles a sterling male cast that, combined with the consistently profane script, portray with great invention the views and traits of these characters. In particular, Sam Claflin proves deceptively destructive as Alistair Ryle, the first-year whose violent right-wing politics threaten to induce actual violence. Also impressive is Holliday Grainger as Lauren, the unpretentious Mancunian student who is caught up in the snobbish, machismo-heavy atmosphere of the richer male students.

This seems rather familiar...
This seems rather familiar…
...Ah yes. This.
…ah yes. This.

The central set-piece is an agonisingly long dinner at a local pub, a scene of heavy drinking and rampant class and sexual tensions. It is here that the problems of the film begin to emerge. For all its filming on Oxford rooftops and in country mansions, The Riot Club never quite escapes its stage origins. The dinner scene, confined mostly to a single room, is arguably stretched to excess in terms of actual running time, its cinematic impact diminished. Moreover the behaviour of the Riot Club members seems, ironically, very exaggerated. Sam Claflin’s astonishing line ‘I’m sick to f—ing death of poor people!’ seems absurd even when his character is intoxicated; the final act of stupendous masculine violence, following attempted prostitution and cocaine usage, is equally inconceivable through lack of real precedent. The film is of course an obviously fictional work in which excess is part of the overall effect. Yet if it tries to portray a class that does exist in England, it must surely do so accurately. When the Oxford admissions department continues earnestly to disassociate itself from ideas of wealth and privilege, and a national press often misunderstands the Oxbridge student experience, one can’t help thinking that a subtler take on the story could have been assumed with wholly greater success.

The Riot Club is very well acted by a superb cast of young performers and portrays Oxford in all its Medieval splendour. Yet it is mired in both its stage origins and its own self-conscious shock value, which troubles attempts at plausibility and empathy.

6/10

Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.

Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future

I first heard about Secret Cinema a long time ago. Stories of a mysterious organisation that exhibited films amidst participating actors, themed set design and live music – naturally, in a secret location – reverberated around the internet and in word of mouth. There had been a Secret Cinema production of Blade Runner, which featured acrobatic displays on vertical walls, mirroring the vertiginous struggle of Harrison Ford at the end of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. With a similar level of creative energy had come Bugsy Malone, set in a Prohibition-era nightclub concealed behind an outwardly harmless bookcase. The Red ShoesLawrence of ArabiaPrometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel had been given this dramatic treatment, amongst many others. The mere idea of ‘experiencing’ the world of some of the greatest films ever made – and Prometheus – seemed  for a long time infinitely appealing to me.

I left it for a long time, but finally felt that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was the perfect way to experience Secret Cinema for the first time. I believe Back to the Future to be one of the greatest American films ever made, a tightly-scripted and magnificently entertaining piece with riffs on both the fifties and the eighties. The notion of wandering round a recreated Hill Valley, encountering small-town stereotypes and the characters from the film itself, did not seem kitsch by any stretch of the imagination; it was surely a necessity.

"Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're gonna see some serious s-!"
“Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you’re gonna see some serious s-!”

 

When it finally came round to attending, there were a couple of worrying false starts; the first four events were cancelled due to “a number of issues that we have not experienced previously”. The backlash on social media was severe and, at times, somewhat overbearing; fans had come from as far as Cambodia, and a potential loss of trust in Secret Cinema wavered in the air.

It is thus all the more relieving and thrilling to announce that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future is a stunning success. Theatre, cinema and music combine in a glorious celebration of the 1985 film, 1950s culture, and the sheer exultant joy of being alive.

Spot the actor... or is there one?
Spot the actor… or is there one?

At around 5.10pm on Friday, August 1, I exited the train at Hackney Wick station and waited for the rest of my family to arrive. We had been vigorously encouraged through email to dress in fifties clothing. This was easy enough for me – rolled-up jeans, converses and braces for the style, and the brownest shirt I could find for the rustic farmland feel of small-town America. Across the station platform spewed forth a wave of like-minded people; I glimpsed everything from Marlon Brando leather jackets to a profusion of great, voluminous, flowery dresses.

We soon began the long walk to the Back to the Future site. Though it would be unfair to ruin its exact location, I will say that it was somewhere within the 2012 Olympic village, and that several prominent landmarks – including the Orbit – were clearly visible. If you kept your head down, though, it was hard to believe that you were even in the twentieth century.

Secret Cinema have built in the heart of East London a bustling Hill Valley that is meticulous in its detail and filled to boiling point with gaiety. Buildings from 1950s America are painstakingly re-constructed. The one-room suburban houses are littered with comics, radios, pin-up posters and books from the period; the Hill Valley High school features iconic metal lockers and noticeboards; the movie theater is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, a 1954 American western featuring Ronald Reagan in one of his later roles. The site even features an old-style ferris wheel and a profusion of vintage cars, as well as a yellow school bus.

Just another day in Hill Valley...
Just another day in Hill Valley…

Yet it is really the eighty-five actors within Hill Valley who best bring the world of Back to the Future to life. I was approached by an impressive variety of people from car mechanics to television salesmen; all (well, most) spouting a chirpy Californian drawl, conversing to convince. But they do more than speak to you. They purposefully draw you into their fictional existence, whether that be by carrying tires, pushing a broken-down car or playing pool. It is evident Secret Cinema offers everything for those who prefer not to be mere sedentary spectators.

A full list of everything I did in the three-hours or so I spent wandering around the town would be exhaustive, but I’ve condensed my favourite parts, very unprofessionally, into bullet points:

  • Sat in on a talk outside a suburban house where two people dressed like Mormons taught us methods to protect ourselves against the “plague” of homosexuality affecting the town. Never was homophobia so hilariously conceived.
  • Joined in as a group to sing a song about a hair salon, led by an ominously bearded guitarist and his female companion, who I promptly fell hopelessly in love with (the companion, not the guitarist).
  • Took part in a “scientific” experiment led by Doc Brown himself – or at least a very convincing likeness – by rubbing shoulders in a circle to produce static electricity. Doc Brown then announced after the experiment: ‘I now have your combined discharge. No, it’s not funny.’
  • Before the event every attendee was given an alternative identity and workplace, and was encouraged to bring certain items for that workplace. I assumed the guise of Emanuel Mathews, Proof Reader for the Hill Valley Telegraph. I carried with me three copies of an article I had written for the obviously fictional newspaper, with the headline: “UNCOVERED – – THE REASON BEHIND THE DELAYS TO THE HILL VALLEY FAIR.” I handed in the article to Rita, the editor of the newspaper – who stood in front of old-fashioned printing presses – and was later pronounced “Mr. Telegraph” for the quality of my work. Rita spoke at great length on the importance of producing news by the people for the people, and also tried to convince me that Mayor “Red” Thomas was secretly a communist.
  • I also spotted Fabien Riggall, the Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema, and gave him one of my articles. He stayed completely in character despite this illusion to the insidious delays that had taken place the week before, and accepted my handshake graciously.
hill valley 5
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ – Samuel Johnson

Such listing is perhaps crude but it hopefully gives you a sense of my relentless enjoyment of what Hill Valley had to offer, and also a sense of the immersive kind of experience Secret Cinema strives for. If you really make an effort, you get so much out of it. You even get to a point when, wandering round, you cannot always make the distinction between actor and spectator; the lines between fiction and reality can blur irrevocably. I even found myself trying to ape an American accent, though my success on that matter is probably best left to the imagination.

For an event with so much hype, there are bound to be disappointments. It must be said that the exhibition of the film was something of a mixed affair. After two false starts owing to technical problems, Back to the Future finally began, observed by a vast lawn of ticket-holders. During some of the more exciting parts of the film we were greeted with live-action replications of what was happening on-screen. The fog-shrouded, mass-hysteria-inducing entrance of the Delorean was an evident highlight; another was the sight of an actor dressed at Marty Mcfly skateboarding whilst holding onto a car, whizzing round the town square. This sometimes took attention away from the film itself, particularly towards the end. But it was really a few isolated members of the audience who proved most disruptive; I happened to be sitting next to a drunk person who insisted on standing during parts of the film and yelling something akin to Yuuueueuueeeaaaaaaaahhh!’ Such unwarranted exhibitionism somewhat undermined the family atmosphere Secret Cinema were clearly aiming for, what with the minimum attendance age being only 5. It could perhaps be concluded, with a great deal of irony, that most of the problems that occurred on the evening were caused by the audience, not by the organisers themselves.

You can't quite see the drunk guy from here...
You can’t quite see the drunk guy from here…

Overall, however, it was a totally enchanting experience, a celebration of the best elements of 1950s culture and of Back to the Future. It is only when you experience it for yourself that you realise how much ambition Secret Cinema has, and how its events can very occasionally go wrong as it did the week before. I will undoubtedly be back for more, whatever the film. The possible challenge for Secret Cinema – as put by the BBC’s Newsnight – must surely be to preserve some of the mystery that it first started with, to continue to cherish the unexpected in the face of widespread media coverage and the incessant mobile phone culture that was so blissfully suspended for the one evening that I was there. If it can do that, its artistic future remains secure.

9/10

Footnote – here’s the article I wrote for the Hill Valley Telegraph:

HVT 1HVT 2

Review – Boyhood

2014, 166 mins, 15, Dir. Richard Linklater, starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Boyhood
Boyhood

Many of the very first short films made at the end of the nineteenth century consisted of basic and eminently familiar scenes; nothing more than a group of workers exiting a factory, or a mother entertaining her baby. Such unembellished productions were produced with the simple intention of depicting life, nothing more or less. Fictional films are frequently diverted from this original mission of cinema, either through quirks of genre or the mere presence of a plot contrivance. It is thus all the more beguiling to sit and watch Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for it is a film that is distinguished not by any conspicuous visual spectacle but by the sheer, recognisable, unvarnished humanity of its subject matter.

Over 166 minutes we follow the physical and mental development of a character called Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a process that sees him grow from the age of five to eighteen. Mason navigates an often bewildering train of experiences at home, school, and out and around Texas. The ever-familiar rites of passage are observed: the awkward transition into puberty, experimentation with alcohol and smoking, tentative first relationships and acrimonious break-ups. Amidst an ever-changing family setting he finds continuity in his mother (Patricia Arquette), his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) who visits every other weekend, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Much is difficult to watch, particularly the scenes of domestic violence that run on a thick layer of tension. Other parts of the film are elegantly charming, as in Mason’s propounding of his philosophy on the obsessive excesses of Facebook and internet culture.

A youthful Ellar Coltrane, early in the filmmaking process
A youthful Ellar Coltrane, early in the filmmaking process

What emerges from this perfectly ordinary life is an extraordinary cinematic power that binds you ceaselessly to the characters. Richard Linklater shot the film over twelve years, using exactly the same actors. It is a colossal, ambitious approach, and all the more satisfying that it succeeds. Ellar Coltrane’s performance is astonishingly assured and natural, making the entire film feel like an experiment in personal improvisation. He is Mason. There are no great speeches or sentimental posturing, even towards the end of our time with him. Yet he is also surrounded by a wealth of equally impressive performers; Ethan Hawke’s gradual transformation from youthful, estranged young father to a maturer man with a new family of his own is one of the greatest pleasures of the film. It is a fitting testament to Linklater’s ability to choose and direct his cast members that there is scarcely one moment that puts us at a remove from his characters; their world, with all its flaws and attractions, effectively becomes our own.

Boyhood acts not only as a chronicle of one life, but also as an assessment of its time. In one memorable scene, Mason’s father attempts to educate him and his sister on the political injustices of the Iraq war; they later request permission to place ‘Obama/Biden’ signs on Texan front lawns prior to the 2008 presidential election. The (predominantly electronic) fixations of our age emerge in school, college and the home. Linklater even rejects an orchestral score in favour of using various popular songs from the nineties and noughties. Although I found the inclusion of Coldplay a little irritating in the first few scenes, the soundtrack generally acts as an effective cultural indicator and is more of a benefit than a loss. Such techniques lend the production a time-capsule quality; indeed, it could almost be a documentary disguised as a fiction film.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason Jr and Sr in Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason Jr and Sr

The question of whether or not the film has some kind of consistent message is a pertinent one. A lot could be said about the presentation of alcohol as a destructive force in relationships; or perhaps comment could be made on the presentation of Mason as something of a counter-cultural figure in his late teens. But the closing moments of Linklater’s odyssey suggests that perhaps there is no ‘point’; it could be seen as nothing more than a truthful evocation of what it means to grow up in the modern world. Parents will love Boyhood for its exhibition of the transience of youth and the pains of looking after a child. Meanwhile, as a young person on the brink of attending university, I found the character of Mason irrepressibly easy to relate to, despite differences of culture and country. It is arguably there that Richard Linklater most succeeds. His style is bold, his actors are virtually indistinguishable from their characters; but it is the quiet domestic moments, the reassuring familiarity of home and school life, the entire mess of growing up, that most endears us. In short, the film is life.

9/10

 

Classic Movie – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Silence. A black screen. Then the rumblings of a strange, atmospheric music; a brief overture that spells ominousness, uncertainty. Then, more music – the thumping opening to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. On-screen, a shot of the shadowed moon. On cue perfectly, the powerful, stirring rise of the earth behind the moon, and the sun behind the earth. As the music builds to a dazzling crescendo, emphatic words are emblazoned before our eyes:

METRO-GOLDWYN MAYER PRESENTS

A STANLEY KUBRICK PRODUCTION

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Such is the opening to perhaps the greatest example of science-fiction in the history of cinema. Avant-garde, visually and aurally glorious, 2001 remains the most ambitious of Stanley Kubrick’s films; a paean to human evolution and discovery that has inspired vast hordes of filmmakers. Yet for some the film can be trying; a willingness to forsake convention is certainly required for its more protracted, uneventful sequences. Even so, despite its status as a ‘classic’ movie, the deeply modern aesthetic of 2001 surely ensures that it will continue to endure, whether or not we ever reach its optimistic predictions for the fate of the human race.

Astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The genesis of the film lay in a creative partnership practically matchless for its genre, between director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick had just mercilessly satirised the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove and had subsequently become interested in the possibility of the existence of extra-terrestrial life. After much creative pondering, Kubrick and Clarke began to develop a story which would track humanity’s relationship with the universe, from early evolution to space colonisation, and then beyond. Clarke developed his novel at the same time Kubrick was making his film. While Clarke allows the reader a clearer telling of this vast narrative, Kubrick’s creation is more mysterious and subjective, relying on the power of imagery and suggestion – though it is by no means impenetrable.

We begin on a beautifully rendered, arid prehistoric earth, as a collection of apes live out a relatively untroubled existence – that is, until the arrival of a large, black monolith, accompanied by a terror-filled strain of music. It is this eminently alien object which reoccurs throughout the film, guiding the progress of man. Indeed, soon afterwards, one the apes soon discovers the first human tool – an animal bone – a joyous moment of advancement that marks one step closer to modern man. What comes minutes later is utterly unprecedented. Kubrick cuts from a shot of an airborne bone to one of an object in space. Millions of years of war, empire-building, human advancement and space exploration are encapsulated in a single cut. Whether or not you believe in evolution itself – I am personally sceptical – Kubrick’s cut is a breathtaking coup de théâtre.

1.
From this…
...to this.
…to this.

The eternally graceful Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss suddenly fills our ears as we begin to explore the weightless precision of colonised space. We follow Heywood Floyd, one of the men behind the discovery of an artificial, buried object on the moon. But little sooner than that we again leap settings. Several astronauts, only two actually conscious, are on their way to Jupiter, though they know little about why they are going. Also on-board is the HAL 9000 computer, the mechanical patriarch of the ship. He is the pinnacle of technological advancement in that he exhibits human characteristics. After HAL begins to show some anxiety about the mission – with tense and devastating results – we arrive at Jupiter. The final movement leads us into the unknown, into a potential future for mankind as terrifying as it is unexplained.

The film thus exhibits a variety of different narratives and characters, all the more surprising considering the leisurely delivery of some of its episodes. A measure of the audacity of Kubrick’s approach can be found in the ways the director subverts film convention. The most interesting character of any turns out to be not human at all, but machine – the HAL 9000. Represented visually by a single, unmoving red dot, he is voiced with uncanny ambiguity by Douglas Rain; the transition from quiet amiability to malice is the only real character arc of the story. Many of the humans, by contrast, are curiously cold. Without wanting to spoil any of the film, it should be noted that there is one moment which casts some doubt on astronaut Dave Bowman’s sympathy for his colleague Gary Lockwood. By enacting such ventures, Kubrick poses a vital question of what it essentially means to be human, while also conjecturing the potential for technological progress. This only makes the ensuing man-machine conflict more vital and exciting.

The ominous HAL 9000 watches one of the astronauts.
The ominous HAL 9000 watches one of the astronauts.

Another technique Kubrick insists upon is the reliance on image and sound rather than dialogue. There are no spoken words for vast sections of the film, notably the entire opening and closing movements. The frenetic dogfights and swift pace that would be championed in Star Wars nine years later, and which now seem commonplace in mainstream Hollywood cinema, are entirely absent. Instead, we are given a more balletic, measured pace in keeping with a classical soundtrack; this is a slow waltz rather than a sprawling jive. This can seem ill-fitting to some who expect it to move more quickly, but this approach in reality only adds to the film’s greatness. Kubrick forces us to properly appreciate the majesty of that vast starry silence that is the solar system, rather than pass it by with a mere indifferent gaze.

The best indication of the strength of Kubrick’s cinematic derring-do, however, is to be found in his use of special effects. Even after forty-six years, virtually nothing in the film appears aged; first and foremost the scenes in space itself, Kubrick capturing its black eternity and danger brilliantly. The interior scenes too remain impressive, with the astronaut Dave Bowman appearing to jog all the way around a circular ship in an utterly seamless fashion, the imperatives of zero-gravity pinning him to both floor and ceiling. But arguably the most stunning use of effects comes right at the end, a fifteen-minute swirling neon fantasy that well and truly transcends worlds. In short, the film is utterly extraordinary from a visual perspective, and further commendable when considering how much of it was performed practically, without CGI; the influence on Christopher Nolan is transparent. Though Kubrick’s only Oscar was for the special effects in 2001, the protean visual work of Douglas Trumbull should be acknowledged; he would later be able to make his own film Silent Running in 1972. Indeed, emerging into an iridescent Leicester Square after seeing the film, my friend turned wide-eyed to me and declared: ‘That film just messed with my mind.’

The effects work by Kubrick and Trumbull was pioneering for its time.
The effects work by Kubrick and Trumbull was pioneering for its time.

For such a gaping, ambitious evocation of space life, it seems impossible to completely comprehend everything in just one viewing. I didn’t entirely ‘get’ 2001 at first; I had no problem with its pace, but did find the lack of a definite explanation a questionable inclusion. What caused the stratospheric rise in my opinion of the film? Partly, a growing interest in the aesthetics of cinematic image and a realisation that classical music is not just for upper-class Telegraph readers. But mostly, it was to do with seeing 2001 in a cinema. Only that way could I properly contend with Kubrick’s vision, could I gaze open-mouthed at the bewildering detail of its visuals and the cathartic splendour of its music. Only by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey this way could I gain a greater recognition of cinema’s ability to transform and minds through the miraculous fusion of image and sound. Finally, only be seeing the film this way has it remained so strongly in my thoughts for days afterwards – including now, as I write this, my fingers and hands trembling at the memory of the closing image, a final tribute to the exploring potential of man throughout the ages, and in the future.

Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel

2014, 99 mins, 15, Dir. Wes Anderson, starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and most other actors and actresses of renown.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style is something you have to be prepared for. ‘Quirky’ isn’t quite the word, for it is not only a colossal understatement, but also something of an insult. Anderson’s persistently symmetrical cinematography, the weirdness of his characters and the apparent absurdity of his humour quite simply escapes literary description (though I will press on regardless). That style has provided some of the most entertaining films of recent years. Moonrise Kingdom, a warm and nostalgic tale of young lovers in a New England town, has proven unforgettable since I saw it in 2012.

The story of this film involves the battle for a family fortune and the theft of an expensive Renaissance painting; this is however merely a framework for a number of hilarious smaller sequences featuring the mellifluous hotel concierge M. Gustave, as well as his lobby boy Zero. This is by far Anderson’s zaniest and most fantastic work yet. It has cats being thrown out of windows, amputated fingers, a dizzying action sequence in a ski run, three different aspect ratios, an astonishing array of cameos from famous actors and actresses, and a vertiginous alpine setting that (despite the title) isn’t even in Budapest. It all makes for a distinctly heady and farcical 99 minutes, one which makes you want to rewatch the entire thing to seek out the bits you’ve missed.

An elevator scene in the film - note newcomer Tony Revolori standing at the back, with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes seated
An elevator scene – note newcomer Tony Revolori standing at the back, with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes seated

The cast is truly remarkable, with regular Anderson favourites Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray appearing in brief cameos amidst an ocean of familiar faces. Tilda Swinton turns in an unrecognisable performance as an octogenarian patron of M. Gustave’s hotel. Willem Dafoe turns up to scowl and mercilessly kill people. Harvey Keitel turns into a tattooed prisoner. Edward Norton turns out a magnificently hirsute upper lip; indeed, the facial hair alone in this film merits academy recognition. Nevertheless the film is really Ralph Fiennes’. Dapper, eloquent and philandering, he provides an uncompromisingly hilarious British centre to the narrative, purring ‘Darling’ at officious soldiers and insecure older women alike.

The marvellous M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, a part specifically written for him by Wes Anderson
The marvellous M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, a part specifically written for him by Wes Anderson

The cinematography is typical Wes Anderson, with an underlying orderliness to everything he shoots and frequent whip-pans from one character to the next. It perfectly fits the outlandish, even Bondian events of the plot. The music isn’t quite as prominent or notable as in some of his previous works – perhaps one of the few disappointments of the film – but nevertheless the ultimate impression is that this is another triumph. That brings us to the question of how it rates in comparison to the director’s past oeuvre. I still think that Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s best, despite the widened ambition and pace of The Grand Budapest Hotel; there is something more personal, more affecting about the former film, particularly as it has autobiographical elements. Nevertheless The Grand Budapest Hotel is a more-than-worthy addition to Anderson’s idiosyncratic world, a satisfyingly deranged cinematic experience that will prove as equally unforgettable as its predecessors.

8/10

Facial hair and symmetry: Edward Norton and others in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Facial hair and symmetry: Edward Norton and others in The Grand Budapest Hotel