Archive for the ‘kubrick’ category

Dr. Strangelove

September 11, 2016

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.

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Room 237

March 30, 2013

room2373900x506Everyone who loves movies needs to see Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, if only to roll their eyes at certain points. The documentary is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining — not the making of the film, but, really, the deconstruction of it. Ascher interviews five theorists who have very different perspectives on The Shining and what Kubrick was trying to say in it. Bill Blakemore thinks the movie is really about the genocide of the American Indians. Geoffrey Cocks opines that it’s really about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns makes much of the supposed minotaur imagery and points out the “impossible” architecture of the haunted Overlook Hotel. Jay Weidner thinks the film was really Kubrick’s acknowledgment that he helped NASA fake the moon landing. John Fell Ryan talks about showing two prints of The Shining projected one over the other, one running forward and the other backward, an experiment that yields some memorably weird and oddly beautiful images.

The first order of business might be to ask, Why this film? Why not another ghost movie from the same year, like The Changeling? Why not another Stephen King adaptation, like The Dead Zone? Why not another Kubrick film — ah, but there we answer part of the question, because a cursory surf around the web will unearth countless deep-dish analyses or close readings of practically every Kubrick film. His swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, is really Kubrick telling dark truths about the Illuminati, who promptly assassinated him days after he finished it. Well, at least a guy on the internet says so. I think the same guy also says Lady Gaga is an Illuminati tool. He’d probably find Illuminati stuff in The Shining, too.

The thing is, you can find anything you want to see in any movie. Rodney Ascher could as well have found five people who discovered profound meanings in Dude, Where’s My Car? But The Shining is the perfect launching pad for a movie about obsessive film theorists, because Kubrick in general attracts theories like lint, and this film in particular is perhaps his most stubbornly mystifying work. Pauline Kael’s review noted the film’s many “deliberate time dislocations.” Stephen King himself didn’t like or understand the movie, and still doesn’t. Years later, King would show how little he understood what made not only Kubrick’s film but his own book work, and wrote a terribly boring TV adaptation of The Shining, a clip of which we see in Room 237. The majority of the footage here, of course, comes from the Kubrick version, as well as from all his other films.

Some of it I enjoyed; some of it I’d heard (or read) before; some of it made my eyes glaze over and made me want to revisit The Shining. In form, Room 237 is more of a video essay than a documentary; the video essay is, to these eyes, an unfortunate bastard child of the close-reading film review, apparently made by people who don’t like to write, for people who don’t like to read. Copious use of other people’s work is an easy bonus for the video essayist. Room 237 also doesn’t show the five theorists onscreen — we just hear their voices — which tends to emphasize the “text” of what they’re saying instead of offering an Errol Morris-type study of five obsessives fondling Kubrick’s film like the blind men touching the elephant in the ancient fable. It’s a pillar! No, it’s a snake!

Kubrick himself preferred to let his movies speak for themselves, which for some viewers creates a void they rush to fill. Amusingly, Kubrick’s former assistant Leon Vitali, who was there at the time, scoffed at many of the theorists’ claims in a recent New York Times interview. Sometimes a typewriter is just a typewriter, even if it changes color; sometimes a chair that’s there in one shot and gone in a later shot is just a continuity goof. Directors — especially those who started before the advent of home video — are far less concerned with editing gaffes than many would suspect. “That’s the only usable shot, and that’s the shot we’re using” is what most disappearing-chair mysteries boil down to. Directors hope the narrative will move you past the small errors, but of course when a movie is available to watch again and again in your living room, the disappearing chair becomes noticeable.

I’ve seen The Shining more than a few times myself. What do I think it’s about? My take, briefly: it’s another chapter in Kubrick’s epic, decades-long doctoral thesis about the ongoing folly of man. Jack Torrance (man) has always been the caretaker (murderer). King, an active alcoholic when he wrote the book, meant the story to illustrate generational, genetic frailty (Jack’s father was an abusive drunk). Kubrick took that and magnified it into a statement about the timeless rivers of blood (redrum) running through human history. The theories about the Indian genocide and the Holocaust would seem to fit neatly inside mine, but I’m going to do us both a favor and let the moon-landing thing pass in silence.

Kubrick

July 26, 2011

Note: The following was written shortly after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, and is reprinted here in honor of what would have been his 83rd birthday.

Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, to be released posthumously on July 16, will be Eyes Wide Shut, which many people otherwise know as the new Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman vehicle. Had the notoriously exacting director finished it in time? Yes. According to industry reports, Kubrick’s cut of the film was screened on March 2 for Warner Bros. executives, then shipped back to Kubrick in England; on March 7, he was dead. I can imagine him holding out just long enough to receive the reels back into his waiting hands; I can further imagine Kubrick, after two tortuous years of tinkering, recasting and reshooting, finally letting go of his movie and his life in the same breath. Not quite a Kubrickian notion (the image owes more to Welles), but a comforting one to us nonetheless.

I will spare you the conceit of Kubrick on his deathbed, pointing at the monolith and ascending to the heavens, born again as the star child. Few deaths in his films were so poetic; people tended to die abruptly, violently, even comically, but seldom romantically. “I can hack it,” sputters the dying Arliss Howard in Full Metal Jacket, spitting bile from a sucking chest wound. Those are his last words — nothing profound, just the fear of death disguised as unfounded optimism. For Kubrick, death was a sick joke; life was a sick joke. The protagonists of his films over the last 30 years have all been detached in some way, removed from all suffering except their own — a direct line connects the blank astronauts in 2001 to the blank soldiers in Full Metal Jacket, and both Dave Bowman and Private Joker perform what can only be called mercy killings. Death: the big switch-off, the ultimate trigger-pull. Kubrick himself was something of a private joker: Only the initiated, the sardonic like-minded, could really dig his midnight-black view of humanity — though underneath it beat a true humanistic heart, the sensibility of a man who felt we could be better. His job wasn’t to provide answers or suggestions as to how we could be better; he just illuminated the areas in which we have a lot of work cut out for us as a species. As saddened as I am by Kubrick’s passing, to get sentimental about him now would be to violate the lessons of his work, which will survive all of us.

The main program on Kubrick’s hard drive was dehumanization — men devolving into beasts or being turned into cold hard machines (which is another kind of devolution). In Kubrick, we are given intellect and will, only to use it to dominate and control others, to indulge in some ultraviolence or the old in-out in-out. The use and misuse of language also fascinated Kubrick — the lingo that distances us from the implications of what we’re doing, and dehumanizes others so we can justify victimizing them. “Enough of words. Action speaks louder than,” says a politician in A Clockwork Orange, and there is a definite tension in Kubrick’s films between the word and the image; almost all his movies feature narration (fittingly, The Shining — about a blocked writer — is a notable exception). Clockwork offers the most delirious linguistics, with sights to match (Anthony Burgess, author of the original novel, is responsible for the lingo), but Kubrick was just as pleased with real-life doublespeak, particularly the military sort heard in Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory (a Kubrick masterwork sorely due for reappraisal), and Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick’s movies, especially Dr. Strangelove on, are distinguished by an intellectual rigor as well as a dynamic purity of design. No movie announces itself quite so boldly as a Kubrick film; it gets in your face right at the start and then pulls back — literally, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, which opens with plain credits against bright mod colors, accompanied by Walter Carlos’ mischievous Moog-rape of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” the first image being Malcolm McDowell leering up into the camera (the famous “Kubrick crazy-face”). The camera then zooms out slowly, encompassing the whole of the Korova Milkbar. It’s as if to say, Here is your guide, and here is his world. I am willing to say that nobody started a film better than Kubrick; think of the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001 (what the hell does this have to do with space travel? we are compelled to watch and find out), the ominous mountain shots in The Shining (with the credits oddly scrolling), the borderline slapstick head-shaving montage wedded to the mournful country-tinged “Hello Vietnam” in Full Metal Jacket (what the hell kind of war film is this? we are compelled to watch and find out). Kubrick hooked you and kept you hooked.

He wasn’t too shabby at endings, either. For here was where Kubrick’s mordant wit really came out to play; he took care to seal things with a perverse joke, usually accompanied by an incongruous yet somehow brilliantly appropriate melody. He killed us all off to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Strangelove; he reprised “Singin’ in the Rain” at the close of Clockwork, leaving us to imagine the cured Alex loose in the streets, kicking his heels (among other things) in a cracked mirror image of Gene Kelly; he left us with two shots of Jack Torrance in The Shining — one mortal, frozen in the snow, one immortal in a roaring-’20s photograph, with period music to match; the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket marched out singing the “Mickey Mouse” theme song, which faded into the Stones’ “Paint It Black” — as good a summing-up of Kubrick’s philosophy as any. Then, of course, the baffling final reel of 2001, destined to be debated long after Kubrick and the rest of us are dust.

In a Kubrickian circular motion, then, we return to Kubrick’s own ending — the master falls after completing his last work. As a director’s fantasy, this perhaps runs a close second to actually dying on the set after calling the final “Cut!” The sad ironies pour in: He never got to see the movie open, never got to see Warner’s batch of DVDs of his films come out, never got to finish that much-talked-about A.I., which he was rumored to be filming four months at a time every five years. And he never got to make his dream movie, a biopic of Napoleon, in which Jack Nicholson was once interested, and for which Anthony Burgess had written a screenplay rejected by Kubrick. No matter how good Eyes Wide Shut may turn out to be, one can’t help feeling that Napoleon would have been a much grander finale. Damn him for being so slow! The movies he never made would wipe the floor with most movies that do get made. Unlike Welles, Kubrick couldn’t point to unfriendly studios as an excuse for his lack of productivity; he had Warner Bros. by the balls, having earned their hands-off, unequivocal support for any project he chose to pursue.

That he chose not to pursue much over the last 20 years is as much a blessing for us fans as it is a curse. There were no Kubrick bummers, no movies he did for the money, no movies he didn’t have his black heart in. Eyes Wide Shut might seem the exception, a conscious sell-out with two big box-office stars, but it’s important to remember that Jack Nicholson wasn’t exactly an obscure dinner-theater actor when Kubrick hired him for The Shining, and Kubrick must have caught the first faint whiff of the mid-’80s Vietnam craze in the air (initiated, one could argue, by Rambo) when he began production on Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick was a businessman as well as an artist. As for Eyes Wide Shut, it’s said to be based on the Arthur Schnitzler novel Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, which he had talked about adapting since the early ’70s. Why not cast Hollywood’s cutest couple as a debauched psychotherapist couple having affairs with their patients? The endlessly perverse Kubrick would have cast Tom Hanks as a leprous child molester — and Hanks, like Tom Cruise and every other actor in his right mind, would have leaped at the chance to fondle toddlers for Kubrick’s camera.

Kubrick was also, it must be said, a pain in the ass. If there is any comfort in his prerelease death, it is that he won’t be around to micromanage every aspect of Eyes Wide Shut‘s distribution, marketing, and exhibition; he won’t be around to inspect each theater and approve the footlights, the projectors, the cushions on the seats, the tiles in the bathrooms. Above all, he won’t be around to demand yet more reshoots or diddle with the footage for another two years. Then again, maybe it isn’t a comfort. All wise-ass comments aside (and wise-ass comments are appropriate when eulogizing our premier wise-ass filmmaker), Kubrick gave a damn. He took years and years between projects, and he took years on each project. He took hundreds of takes, he took the energy of his cast and crew, he took and took. But he also gave. The proof is on your shelf, if you own most of Kubrick’s films on video. Stack them side by side and scan the titles; ask yourself if there’s a turkey in the bunch. There isn’t. Eyes Wide Shut will be his final gift to us; some will inevitably slam it as an unworthy swan song, while others will lionize it as a fitting coda. Either way, the fact of his death will only add weight and anticipation to the movie. Stanley Kubrick’s final film! Way to steal George Lucas’ thunder, Stan! Good planning!

After the movie is gone from theaters, we may feel his passing a second time, a pang of renewed grief when we see the sad words EYES WIDE SHUT: FINAL DAY in the theater listings. Then, some months later, it will take its place alongside its siblings, on the shelf with Kubrick’s other films. After that, there will be no more. Having broken his decade-long silence, Kubrick has fallen silent forever. His work will continue to speak eloquently on his behalf.

The greatest orgasm face ever.

June 18, 2010

“I was cured, all right.”

Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes

May 30, 2009

Past a certain point, what you are looking at when you look at the rows and rows of boxes in the 48-minute documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes is fear. Maybe, well, fear and desire. The desire is for knowledge. The fear is, perhaps, of walking onto a film set on day one without knowing everything there is to know about the film’s subject.

In 2001, documentarian Jon Ronson was invited to the Kubrick estate to browse through the thousands of boxes, filled with research, memos, keepsakes, and sundry other items dating from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick never threw away anything (except for outtakes from his films, which he ordered incinerated). In a 2004 article for the Guardian titled “Citizen Kubrick,” Ronson writes about opening one box and discovering “an extremely lifelike and completely disgusting disembodied head of a young Vietnamese girl, the veins in her neck protruding horribly, her eyes staring out, her lips slightly open, her tongue just visible.” This is, I think, from the unused ending of Full Metal Jacket, wherein the Marines play soccer with the female sniper’s head. We don’t see this head in Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes — I was a little disappointed.

We see a great many other things. Fan letters to Kubrick were immaculately filed according to geographical origin; crank letters were separated from the rest. Ronson tracks down one such “crank,” frustrated playwright Vincent Tilsley, who wrote to express his disappointment with 2001. Today Tilsley is a psychotherapist. What would he have to say about the highly OCD mind laid bare by the acres of dusty boxes? Ronson tells us that as the gap between Kubrick’s films grew wider (four years between 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, four between Clockwork and Barry Lyndon, five between Barry Lyndon and The Shining, seven between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, twelve between FMJ and Eyes Wide Shut), the amount of sheer stuff grew more vast. Partly, we’re told, this was due to Kubrick’s increasing difficulty finding a story he wanted to tell. (Several years of research went into his unmade Holocaust project Wartime Lies, and Kubrick accumulated massive data on Napoleon for that unmade film.)

Partly, I have to assume, Kubrick was a control freak who felt the pressure of his own reputation as, to paraphrase David Denby, a lordly ditherer. Kubrick couldn’t just go out and crank out a flick on the fly. I think his first couple of features (Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, neither of which pleased him) inoculated him against fast, cheap efforts, and I think his experience on Spartacus forever doomed him to need — demand — absolute control over everything, from the years of research (the hundreds of photos snapped of London streets for Eyes Wide Shut, when there’s maybe ten minutes’ worth of exterior footage in the entire film, all of it shot on a studio lot) to the micromanagement of newspaper ads (this ad is a few millimeters smaller than it’s supposed to be; let’s get on the phone and find out why).

The comedic highlight here is a painstaking memo from 1968 asking an assistant to determine the barometric pressure in London on such and such a date, and whether said barometric pressure is normal for the season. Why did Kubrick want to know this? Nobody remembers. The equally amusing subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes deals with a bunch of devoted (if sometimes baffled) Brits skittering back and forth catering to the whims of a transplanted New York Jew. The vague implication is that Kubrick moved to England because he could sense that the English genetically know how to placate royalty. King Kubrick’s earthly leavings are pored through by Ronson (also British) like an archaeologist peering into a pharaoh’s tomb. Ronson even uncovers some footage of Kubrick on the set of Full Metal Jacket (shot by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian); the maestro complains about the crew taking too many tea breaks, and we see various extras coated with lime for the famous “The dead know only one thing” zoom shot.

The dead may only know one thing, but the insatiably curious Kubrick wanted to know everything before he could only know one thing. My suspicion is that, as Kubrick got older, he didn’t do research so that he could make movies; he made movies (or ended up not making them) so that he could do research. The proof is in all those boxes. Kubrick is my favorite director, and although his assistant Tony Frewin says in the film that Kubrick couldn’t make movies any other way, I look at all that stuff and I see a lot of wasted potential, wasted time.

Kubrick now only knows one thing, and we will never have more than fourteen of his feature films to savor. It’s undeniably fascinating to look inside a few of the cardboard cells in the massive brain that became his archives. But being left with a warehouse of almost-films and memorabilia is somewhat cold comfort.

AI: Artificial Intelligence

June 29, 2001

aiend12SPOILER ALERT.

There’s one moment early in A.I., Steven Spielberg’s lavish, long-awaited fantasy, that promises a far more complex experience than we end up getting. David (Haley Joel Osment), a “mecha” (robot) designed to act as a child, is having dinner with his adoptive “parents” (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards). Actually, David is only pretending to have dinner, since he can’t eat. Anyway, Monica, the mother, has a long strand of food dangling from her mouth — the sort of thing a kid would laugh at — so David lets out a raucous simulation of a laugh, scaring the hell out of both “parents.” Then they laugh uneasily at him. Then he laughs some more. Then they all laugh some more. Then, finally, they just stare at each other.

This brief, wordless sequence, with its barely repressed hysteria popping out like a switchblade, sends a ripple of equally uneasy laughter through the audience; it says, very economically, pretty much everything A.I. has to say. The rest of the movie, even before the disastrous triple non-ending, features some of the most elaborate bumbling I’ve ever seen from a great filmmaker. And Spielberg is great, or, rather, he once was. No longer content to be an ingenious entertainer, he now wants to improve us; his movies have become the equivalents of the latest Oprah Book Club selection — each story is picked according to its potential for uplift.

What Spielberg doesn’t, or can’t, recognize is that this story has no such potential. A.I. began life as a 1969 short story by Brian Aldiss. For years, the late Stanley Kubrick wanted to turn the story into a movie; he consulted Spielberg on the visual effects he wanted to use for it, and even suggested Spielberg direct it and he himself produce it. After Kubrick’s death, his estate offered the project to Spielberg, who takes sole screenplay credit, working from a “screen story” by Ian Watson. To put it mildly, what Spielberg has done with the material is not what Kubrick might have done with it, though the fact remains that Kubrick spent years trying to find a cinematic way into the story and couldn’t. What made Spielberg think he could? He can’t, either.

William Hurt appears at the beginning, as a robot-engineering guru named Professor Hobby (very subtle). We’re in the future; the ice caps have melted, submerging the coastal cities and drowning millions, and mechas have been created to take care of some of the tasks humans used to do. Apparently, they’re only available to the elite who can afford them; the movie doesn’t get much into the middle-class or working-class response to the mechas, or their resentment at being replaced by them — though this is alluded to in a dark-carnival scene of violence, set at the “Flesh Fair,” where malfunctioning robots are shot out of cannons or drenched with acid for the amusement of hooting mobs of lowbrows.

So, is artificial intelligence good or bad? Kubrick would have concluded that any robotic intelligence designed and controlled by fallible humans is bound to break down eventually (see HAL 9000). Spielberg, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know or care. But back to Professor Hobby, who speaks about the need to build a mecha capable of love. Such a creation, he reasons, will be perfect for couples who cannot have (or have lost) a real child. Someone brings up the question of what happens when a loving mecha is thrown in with people who cannot love it in return; Professor Hobby is stuck for an answer, and so is the movie, which in any case doesn’t linger very long on the question.

When David is brought home to his human “parents” — whose genetic son is cryogenically frozen until doctors can find a cure for whatever’s wrong with him — we’re meant to find David a bit creepy (an overused word in reviews of A.I., but it fits). We identify with the bafflement and, eventually, the horror felt by the parents as they watch this simulacrum interact with their real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who has been cured and brought home. Martin is sportive and sadistic towards David; sometimes he seems to think it’s cool to have a mecha for an adopted brother, other times he seems to find the very idea of David — and of being replaced by him, even if only temporarily — offensive.

In any event, most of this is forgotten once Monica, frightened by one mishap too many, takes David to a remote, woodsy area and abandons him. This, I think, is where the movie first seriously goes astray: Spielberg abandons a cool, contemplative premise in favor of masochistic longing — he leaves his own movie out in an emotional nowhere to fend for itself, and it’s not a pretty sight. In a cruelly overextended scene, David weeps and begs his cherished mother to take him back. If done differently, the moment could resonate across many fields of experience in the audience, but Spielberg oversells it, just as he goes on to oversell everything else in the movie.

A viewer might assume that the stage is being set for a fable in the tradition of A Clockwork Orange, which thirty years ago was already parodying this sort of woe-is-me trauma (in the scenes wherein Malcolm McDowell, post-Ludivico, returns home and is rejected, beaten and nearly killed). Spielberg has something different in mind, though: a series of disjointed adventures that smack dangerously of the frantic exertions in his Hook. David meets up with a sex robot named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who has been framed for the murder of one of his female clients. Joe’s backstory seems pointless except to explain why he’s on the lam and to provide yet another instance of human mistreatment of mechas. We’re meant to feel, helplessly, that this just isn’t fair. To paraphrase John Lennon, mechas are the n—–s of the world, used up and then torn apart. This sounds like Kubrick in rare form, but Spielberg’s tone is way off. The tenor of the movie is oddly resentful: these worthless, compassionless humans don’t deserve the service of the very beings they’ve built. Humans are seen as crude, incompetent gods sending their creations into squalor. Kubrick might have chuckled icily at the hubris of man playing God; Spielberg stamps his foot and says it just isn’t right.

Together, David and Joe narrowly escape the Flesh Fair (a disturbing sequence until Spielberg apparently decides he’s gone far enough and makes the screaming crowd have a sudden change of heart towards David) and wander around Rouge City, a sort of Ralph Bakshi carnal wonderland complete with open female mouths swallowing the highways that lead into the city. Spielberg blows a chance to show how Joe might thrive in a place like this; Jude Law, bounding into the movie with a phallic energy that recalls McDowell’s in Clockwork, is mostly thrown away for his troubles (Spielberg treats him like a mecha). Joe doesn’t really belong to this story as Spielberg is telling it, anyway; he’s being imposed onto the material — he can be yanked out at any time without harming the narrative. After some dawdling, the two wind up in a sort of informational kiosk, speaking with a digital guru named Dr. Know, with the voice of Robin Williams. Like an earlier vocal cameo by Chris Rock as a minstrelly-looking mecha who gets shot through a propeller at the Flesh Fair, Williams’ Einstein shtick takes you out of the movie — you start wondering if Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg will turn up as well.

Brian Aldiss’ original story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” reissued in a collection of the same name along with two follow-up stories Aldiss wrote 30 years later, is much more haunting; anything chilling in A.I. — other than film-specific inventions like the Flesh Fair — derives pretty much from Aldiss. The two sequel stories, particularly the middle one “Supertoys When Winter Comes,” take the premise of David and his fuzzy-bear robot friend Teddy into even darker territory: for instance, in the middle tale, David flips out and dissects Teddy to prove that he and Teddy are real, and goes on a rampage that results in the death of his mother figure. If A.I. had given us a David who desperately, futilely seeks the love of his mommy — who can’t return his love because she’s dead — some of the metaphysical gassing in the final half hour might have had more of a point.

As it is, David is just a sweet little “boy” who’s hardwired to love his mother (once she has “imprinted” him with a few random words); when he encounters the tale of Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy who could turn the puppet into a real boy, he adds that to his pull-down menu of obsessions, and the movie becomes about how he yearns to become “real” so that his mother will love him. Spielberg seems as obsessed with Pinocchio as his little hero is. To be fair, Kubrick was the one who insisted on keeping the Blue Fairy stuff in the movie, much to the bemusement of Aldiss, who notes in his foreword to his collection that “I tried to persuade Stanley that he should create a great modern myth to rival Dr. Strangelove and 2001, and to avoid fairy tale.” Kubrick didn’t take this perfectly sound advice, and neither did Spielberg.

David winds up in Professor Hobby’s headquarters, where he confronts irrefutable proof that he really is a robot, though you’d think he would’ve figured that out by now. In Aldiss’ stories, David is in denial about his mecha nature throughout; in the movie, things happen to him that obviously separate him from humans, such as malfunctioning when he tries to eat spinach. (Is this Spielberg’s joke on kids who won’t eat their spinach? Or a free-floating Popeye reference?) But when David encounters another David, he flies into a rage and bashes the other David’s head clean off — Kubrick popping up again, maybe: even a perfect little mecha can be made bestial and violent by human passions. Spielberg, though, films this atrocity — we’ve seen that David can feel pain, so we assume this other David can, too — entirely neutrally, as if it were a necessary step on the hero’s mythic path. Are we not supposed to care about the second David’s destruction because he’s just a robot? If so, why were we prompted to care about the robots at the Flesh Fair? Or, for that matter, about the David we’ve been watching?

At this point, we’re hovering around the two-hour mark, but Spielberg isn’t anywhere near finished with us yet. Joe goes out of the picture rather abruptly and absurdly, leaving behind a gnomic announcement: “I am. I was.” (Between this and Tom Hanks’ “Earn this,” Spielberg seems to have cornered the market on quasi-profound catchphrases. Djimon Hounsou’s “Give us free” also would not be out of place here.) David goes underwater — we’re in Manhattan now, where the Statue of Liberty is submerged up to its torch — and ends up at Coney Island, where he parks himself in front of an old plaster Blue Fairy and waits. And waits.

“Two thousand years passed,” narrator Ben Kingsley informs us — what? — and now we’re into a post-humanity Ice Age, where super-advanced mechas who look like shimmering Giacometti sculptures are trying to recreate the human race by digging around in the ice for human DNA. David awakes, reasserts his desire to be loved by his mother, and is given his mother, revived for only one day so that he can finally hear her say that she loves him. (Is this Spielberg delivering a message to the parents in the audience — “Tell your kids you love them before it’s too late”?) This may be the first solipsistic epic since 2001, but it has none of that film’s wonder or mystery — Spielberg collapses into spasms of exposition, suffocating the uncanny with verbiage, and one’s boredom and exasperation may turn into anger. It’s as if Spielberg were trying to ape the Kubrick of Eyes Wide Shut, who allowed Sydney Pollack to drone on and on about what the past half hour’s events didn’t mean (in retrospect, the Pollack speech is pretty funny, though — it tweaks our desire to see the mystery cleared up).

This is probably Spielberg’s worst film since Hook, perhaps even worse than that other misguided fairy-tale revamp, since this one had the potential to be so much more. Haley Joel Osment tries very hard to be everything that this difficult role requires, but, unavoidably, his performance becomes more conventional and dull when David is on his own, with no one except other mechas to play off of; everything else in the movie dulls out, too. Spielberg appears to have latched onto the Pinocchio material, and all the rowdy adventures it made possible, as an escape hatch from the deeply uncomfortable scenes of David and his uncomprehending human family. Brian Aldiss knew what Spielberg, and Kubrick before him, didn’t: that the story of Pinocchio is a too-easy parallel with this material, and that it throws out everything that might have made this film complex, specific, original. The movie goes outward when its nature — its wiring as programmed by Aldiss — demands that it turn inward. (Eventually it does turn inward, but in an extremely literalized, disappearing-up-its-own-ass way.) If Spielberg had stayed home with the mecha and his family, and explored the implications of an inhuman boy showing more humanity than his human parents and sibling, he might’ve had a classic. What he has delivered is the scattered wreckage of a good idea — a mechanical thing clogged with emotional spinach.

Eyes Wide Shut

July 16, 1999

As a die-hard fan of the work of Stanley Kubrick, I thoroughly enjoyed his swan song Eyes Wide Shut, but I have my doubts as to what the general public — those not already attuned to Kubrick’s style and rhythm — will make of it. Will they simply respond to the plot? There really isn’t one. Will they go expecting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to show us all what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom? They don’t — except for that kissing-in-front-of-the-mirror scene most people have seen anyway. In fact, it now seems clear that Kubrick may have cast Cruise and Kidman as a sort of conceptual prank: the hottest married couple in movies, and they’re apart for most of the film.

Eyes Wide Shut is an exquisitely stubborn work — a repressed erotic movie. Based more or less on Arthur Schnitzler’s tightly written 1926 novel Traumnovelle (or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel), the screenplay by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael follows Cruise’s character, Dr. Bill Harford, on two long and bruising nights after his wife Alice (Kidman) has confessed to having sexual fantasies about a man who once caught her eye. Bill, conflicted and haunted by his visions of his wife in bed with another man, goes forth into the New York night and does … well, not much. Part of the sly joke of the book and the movie is that its main characters haven’t done anything to feel guilty about. The shame derives from the erotic theater of the mind.

The story is essentially a psychological odyssey and won’t hold up under literal-minded scrutiny. Kubrick’s “New York” is a soundstage New York, created in London (of course) and intended to stand in for any city, where the possibilities of both pleasure and pain are endless. Bill wanders about, running across a variety of available women who keep throwing themselves at him. In the film’s centerpiece, he finds himself at an orgy, a sort of mad ball in which anonymous people in masks and cloaks go at each other joylessly. The sequence, I think, is meant to dramatize the folly of sexual freedom, which can be another kind of prison. (For the record, the digitally inserted figures obscuring some of the action only serve to make the film dirtier, since your naughty imagination just fills in what’s being hidden.)

After the orgy, Eyes Wide Shut loses a little steam. Kubrick keeps his pace slow and steady, but the film slackens near the end when it should tighten (as it tightens in his other films); the last 20 minutes or so begin to wear you down. In particular, a billiard-table chat between Bill and a tycoon acquaintance (well played by Sydney Pollack) drags on as much as the men’s-room talk between Jack Torrance and Grady the waiter in The Shining, only without that scene’s sinister undertones. It’s especially wearying because nothing is disclosed in this dialogue that we haven’t already guessed. The final act of the master’s final film feels like a saddening winding-down — a loss of energy, a capitulation to convention.

On reflection, though, that may be what Kubrick intended. In the theater, I think this scene was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many viewers. We’re at the 2:20 point, we should be heading for the home stretch, and along comes Sydney Pollack to tell us a lot of shit that doesn’t especially affect anything. In fact, what he says raises more questions than it answers. I’m prepared to defend the scene: For one thing, it mocks the viewer’s need for resolution, by over-explicating in a way that doesn’t satisfy us (much as the shrink did at the end of Psycho). You keep waiting for a revelation that ties things together, but all Pollack says is that the death of a prostitute earlier in the movie had nothing to do with what went on at the orgy. Of course, he could also be full of shit. Bill spends about half an hour of screen time wandering around chasing a non-mystery, or at least a mystery that isn’t cleared up to our satisfaction.

Eyes Wide Shut obviously looks great, the slightly saturated images unfolding smoothly and meticulously. And Kubrick gets avid performances from Cruise and Kidman, as well as a slew of supporting players — Marie Richardson as a grieving woman, Todd Field as a mysterious pianist, Vinessa Shaw as every man’s soft, pliant dream hooker, Leelee Sobieski conveying Lolita-esque naughtiness with a bare minimum of dialogue. One must remember, too, that Eyes Wide Shut is no more “about” its events than The Shining was “about” a haunted hotel or 2001 was “about” a space mission gone awry. Like all Kubrick’s films, this one will take time, and multiple viewings, to yield up its full meaning and resonance. Armed as I am with just one viewing under my belt, I can confidently say it’s a worthy capper to a great body of work.