2001: A Space Odyssey Directed by Stanley Kubrick Released in 1968
If you don’t believe in God, you might as well believe in the movies — where you can be God. British critic Raymond Durgnat once said something to that effect, and it’s not hard to parse what he was getting at: All movies, even the bad ones, unfold before an all-seeing crowd of voyeurs, each free to judge characters when they fail and feel responsible for their success. 2001: A Space Odyssey, which will screen at Cornell Cinema tonight and Sunday evening, pitches this thesis into the infinite vastness of space, where the all-seeing viewer does not judge or relate but sees, for the first and possibly only time, through the eyes of God.
That may sound like a brooding, moralistic slog, but the genius and lasting beauty of 2001 is how light it is on its feet. For a famously accurate film that interrogates mankind’s technical progress, from the first bone-as-weapon to the spaceship that realizes our species’ ultimate Manifest Destiny, the action and ideas embedded within play like music, not polemics. Indeed, 2001 transfixes in its use of music, like when Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube turns a lengthy spaceship docking into a waltz, or when early hominids shriek at a black alien monolith as the discordant creepiness of György Ligeti’s “Requiem” gets under our skin. These moments are brimming with ideas — think about the spaceship’s lyrical movements compared to the hamster wheel dynamics of the astronauts — but you need not mine for meaning to get the full experience, which is to feel awe at the magnificent and fear at the unknown.
Director Stanley Kubrick, who wrote the script with Arthur C. Clarke, had a thing for symmetry and one-point perspective, so that staring at a corridor or wormhole is to stare down its endlessness. The forced compositions betray a meticulous mind, for one, as well as a perceptive, knowing eye behind all the space politics, antagonistic A.I. systems and otherworldly encounters. When we watch astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) navigate their spaceship, we are not looking at human movement so much as automated motion through narrow, fluorescent spaces. There is no room for choice, and thus error, in the ship’s spectacular, streamlined design, and the symmetrical cinematography drives home both the efficacy and inhumanness of this advanced technology.
This explains why Bowman and Poole are utter blanks — anyone who has a bone to pick about the “bad acting” here is missing the point — and HAL 9000, the task-managing supercomputer on board, is genteel, wise and terribly sentient. 2001 doubles as a cautionary tale for how the human brain can only process so much knowledge, and when our species hits that prophetic “singularity,” we will kneel just as the apes at the film’s beginning did before their monolithic master. Perhaps the most novel and inspiring twist in 2001’s plot involves a certain choice (which I will not spoil, if for some reason you are still reading without having seen the movie before) Bowman makes in a dazzling red room. Bowman’s decision exercises tremendous courage and agency, but its protracted, elegiac aftermath may be one of the saddest scenes in American film. How could [insert climactic event] be such a tragedy? 2001 proposes that once humans hit a point in our applied intelligence, we entrust humanity onto technology and forfeit ours in the process.
Kubrick ejects the tension between humans and technology out the thematic airlock once the final act arrives, with its most memorable title, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” The events that transpire here are unforgettable, for Kubrick and special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull discard plot in order to depict something approaching the ineffable. It’s odd how some people approach the “Star Gate” sequence as a puzzle, and are thus frustrated how it refrains from spelling out its secrets. It’s not “about” much anything, except perhaps sight itself. This acid-washed spectacle elapses over a wordless 10 minutes, and it’s worth keeping in mind the literal time of Bowman’s journey probably takes an eternity longer. This sequence and the uncanny one after approximate mankind’s final achievements, if we ever reach them, and how we will no longer just be Homo sapiens once we arrive at the other side.
Exploration has always brought with it violence and, to excuse the violence, moral hierarchies. What 2001: A Space Odyssey, an easy pick for the greatest of films, posits is that the arrogance of man sustains only by the limits of our understanding, and that when our brave rocket man clears that final hurdle, be it literal or metaphorical, the rest of us will answer not to death rays but a deafening coo.
If empathy is a sorely lacking human virtue, and if “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert once said, then why does a Hollywood movie diet leave us so empathetically barren?
I long took it at face value that ‘the movies’ — the popular, American ones — reflected life in a truthful fashion, bad parts included. For the ‘bad parts’ find attention and awards at the Oscars, where a certain fusion of trite liberalism and belittling sentimentalism thrives. Every year I watch a number of new films that claim to engage with ongoing issues, racism being number one (because this is America). The Help, for instance, would very much like its bourgeois viewers to think that they now know what true racism is, when really its plot boils down to a binary conflict between good and evil that precipitates a best-selling memoir by Emma Stone.
But can a preachy Oscar-movie do good? If it falls short of subtle artistry, can it wield its cudgel of enlightenment toward open, discursive ends? Last year gave us an abundance of awards-caliber films about black American life, such as Fruitvale Station, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, which all happen to be helmed by black directors. I’m still arguing with myself over the greatness I saw in The Butler, where the story pits an obsequious but hardy breadwinner — Forest Whitaker’s White House butler Cecil Gaines — against his militant, proudly black son, played by David Oyelowo. That dialectic, and the ennobling and tear-jerking way it resolves at the end, flirts with the profound on its own, and it is the rare melodrama to take a firm stand on politics, only after taking a hard look at the pros and cons to both sides.
Yet I worry if I praise the film because it flatters some white middle-class-ness in me, and then I worry if I should be worrying. I recall my initial reaction, which I shared with a friend after watching it, was that I learned about 1960s civil right history from that film. I had known about sit-ins, Freedom Riders and the Black Panther party since middle school, but I did not grasp their do-or-die importance until seeing three-dimensional characters enact them and quarrel over their implications. Part of this belated education no doubt owes to my largely homogenous areas of residence, yet I imagine that, for some few younger black viewers, too, the film filled an embarrassing gap not of information but of empathy for the brave players in this era of history.
The same can be said of 12 Years a Slave, only more so. It’s not a perfect movie but it is one of the few truly necessary ones, for it renders a pre-cinematic American institution in all its aloof and unceasing savagery. I was angry to find the film such a revelation, for how surprised I felt that slavery was, indeed, this bad and that my public education up to that point had failed to drive that point home on its own. That’s white guilt, I guess, and no doubt the film seeks to wring that out. By tearing a free man, Solomon Northup, from comfortable suburbia, where he kisses his children before bed, and abandoning him, alone, onto a plantation to fend for himself, the script does not force identification with a lifelong slave but with a man whose vague, given notion of freedom reflects that of the viewer, be him black or white or brown.
12 Years a Slave or The Butler should age well, since they already take place in the past, but it can be fascinating to see how Hollywood addressed systemic problems in problematic times. A week ago, Cornell Cinema screened 1968’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, inaugurating a semester-long series on Blaxploitation. In her introduction, Prof. Cheryl Finley, history of art, clarified that this Oscar-winning film directed by Stanley Kramer does not qualify as “Blaxploitation” — it’s too middlebrow, too restrained, too Hollywood for that.
But it’s an incredibly valuable text, more so than its creators likely intended. That is not to dismiss its superficial, Hollywood pleasures: Sidney Poitier’s awkward laugh, Beah Richard’s trenchant monologue, all the expected tears and fire from Katharine Hepburn. It’s good entertainment. But it’s the story of a rich white girl who brings home a black man, so it’s clearly trying to say something. There are some delicious complications: Her shocked parents, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, raised her a liberal; he is a rich, philanthropic, genius doctor, whose only ‘problem’ appears to be the color of his skin. It is a given that they both love each other very much.
The film builds to a treacly ending where Matt (Tracy), the girl’s father, approves of this interracial union because, as he says, “The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other.” But with stuck with me is not his words but the way he went about them. By that point, the women in the house (including Poitier’s African-American mother) needed no more convincing; the burden of change lay on the men. It is Matt who sits the two families down, tells them to “Shut up,” and gives them that climactic spiel on the power of love. It’s good writing, but it betrays the patriarchal view that the final, and right, word belongs to the man, and the white man, of course.
I’d get up in arms about this conclusion if not for the fact that it’s true, and that regardless of what Kramer intended, his film offers a remarkably clear-eyed, self-incriminating view of white privilege that is almost Frederick Wiseman-esque. I’m not sure the average viewer would come to this same conclusion — especially with the Wiseman namedrop — and the movie has fallen to legitimate claims that it’s part of the problem, not against it.
Yet there was something to Matt’s arrogance that prohibited me from swooning over his final speech. Due to the film’s construction, my political inclinations or maybe just my useless white guilt, there stood a barrier of empathy between me and this powerful man on-screen. I became aware that, to the end, the simple nuances of Matt’s behavior, not even his words, prevented others from having a voice. I thought of myself. To watch and revere a film that empathizes with the victims of history is one thing; to see the bad guys for who they really are, family men who have no clue of their own aggressions, is another education entirely.
Is there a better live band than Spoon? If you attend concerts often, you likely have seen shows as great as theirs; for me, TV on the Radio at this year’s Governors Ball and The National at State Theatre last May come to mind. These bands, and very few others, are the best of the best, having hit a peak of skill, presence and professionalism in their performances that defies even the most hairsplitting criticism. If you were one of the many buzzing students, locals or out-of-towners packed into the State Friday night, you’d agree that Spoon, brought here by Dan Smalls Presents, treated Ithaca to a couple of perfect hours of spirited music that permitted only one response, and that is love.
This warm, communal feeling settled over the crowd once the opener, Eric Harvey, walked on stage. Harvey, Spoon’s keyboard player and a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, hails from the region and recruited some of Ithaca’s most talented musicians to join him for a varied, though consistently beautiful 45-minute performance. “Varnishing Day” — a shimmering acoustic ballad with the refrain, “Better hold your head up high” — showcased Ithaca cellist Hank Roberts, who dialed the song down to a hushed whisper and then crescendoed for a stirring finish.
During a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” which featured Mary Lorson on harmonies, Harvey forgot to retune his guitar and said of the slip, “[This is] just a coffee shop gig, for a forgiving audience.” His low-key, forthright music fosters that kind of intimate atmosphere, and indeed the whoops and applause from the crowd assured him this was a night for building up, not breaking down. Rock-oriented instrumentalists closed Harvey’s set with a few basic, effective numbers, one of which ended with a ridiculous keyboard solo by Mike Stark. The local revue spirit of Eric Harvey’s group made it the rare opener that was impossible to ignore, and even rarer, one of which to feel proud.
A short 30 minutes and drastic stage redressing later, guitarist Alex Fischel, drummer Jim Eno, bassist Rob Pope, Harvey and Spoon mastermind Britt Daniel sent the orchestra audience out of their seats and rushing toward the stage as they launched into “They Want My Soul,” the title track off their excellent new album. Daniel, Fischel and Eno wore all black while the rest beamed in all white, a simple color dichotomy that complemented the simplicity of the stage arrangement (just a few tall, white fabric walls) and the dazzling array of lighting set-ups. Some songs rolled by in near darkness, like the second, “Rent I Pay,” where blue spotlights threw Daniel’s spindly shadow onto the surrounding walls. Others went all out with strobes or a spinning disco pyramid (like the ball, but a pyramid), while a few songs illuminated a specific mood, such as “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” with its fitting blood red colors.
Daniel announced early on that this was the first show of their tour, which is an honor that sometimes comes with taxing handicaps, especially in an insular town like ours. There was no dress rehearsal throat-clearing Friday night — just a spectacular, undeniably complicated production fastened to the ground by Spoon’s confidence and likability. “Confident” and “likable” could also be used to describe the most naïve of mainstream rock bands, but Spoon brings too much carnal energy to the stage to be written off as some fleeting confection. The locked-in rhythm guitar of “Who Makes Your Money” or foot-tapping bass of “I Turn My Camera On” belies Fischel’s spontaneous guitar freak-outs and Daniel’s ronin wanderings about the stage. The band fields nothing but pleasure through its individual elements, but taken together, it swerves through a show that is surprising, atomic, unhinged.
If there is a simple way to explain this quality of Spoon’s art, it is this: Britt Daniel is cooler than you. His sandpaper voice must be one of the most indestructible instruments in the business. He sounds like John Lennon did in “Twist and Shout,” except Lennon could only log one (amazing) take before going hoarse and somehow Daniel just stands firm at that precipice, unchanged, throughout a two-hour set.
He also harbors a more punkish, experimental sensibility than his band’s popularity may imply. At the end of “Inside Out,” a recent cut, he milked a minute of Flaming Lips-esque ambience through spacey keyboards, and at the close of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” he did something similar with raw guitar feedback, manipulating it while on his knees. This was not one of those play, finish, “1-2-3-4!” play again concerts, for Spoon engineered a most entrancing flow.
A brickish thud and a sound engineer’s muffled cries were heard (OK: probably, regarding the second item) when Daniel dropped his mic so that he could fetch a beer during the overplayed “The Way We Get By,” the third song of the encore. Suddenly, those much-copied piano chords did not sound so twee; Daniel somehow found an edge to that one. He pulled a Bob Dylan when it came time for the band’s biggest hit, “The Underdog,” by improvising new rhythms and lagging behind the audience’s enthusiastic downbeat claps. Old becomes new yet again.
These antics were all playful, for Daniel was — and I imagine thoroughly is — not the least bit contemptuous. He thanked his crew, of all moves. The most charming moments of the evening came whenever Daniel acknowledged the demonstrably excited man flailing about just below his microphone stand. Instead of ignoring or avoiding him, Daniel, in his typically inclusive way, sang to him on his knees, let him snap a picture and, after the man briefly disappeared at the start of the encore, heralded his return to the front row. He turned what could have been a visible distraction (the guy enjoyed shaking his fist like it was a maraca, which is, like, mesmerizing) into part of the show, part of the Spoon family.
Near the end, Pope announced, “This is the only time we’ve seen a theater crowd standing the whole time.” Who knows if that is actually true, but the unceasing gratitude, heard not only through whistles and applause but actually seen through an absence of smartphone screens, camera flashes and crowd disturbances, grew out of the preternatural brilliance of Spoon’s performance. It was a concert good enough to bring the audience, like Daniel, to its knees; but then again, we didn’t because we’d be missing the show. This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez Released in 2014
How would you react if you walked into your baby brother’s bedroom to find him flailing around a razor-sharp katana sword? With horror, I hope. Now, how about if he was just rapping the trigger to a toy machine gun, shouting lines from Predator? You’d laugh, though you might also worry that he’s watching too many R-rated movies at his age.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For thinks it’s packing all the shock and danger of the former scenario when it’s nothing more than a clearinghouse for obscene and tedious fantasies scraped together by over-stimulated little boys. I laughed, for one, at the sheer idiocy of it all, which means there’s a bit of that “so bad, it’s good” appeal here, but as a piece of art or even coherent entertainment, Sin City 2 is a lifeless, often insidious failure.
Before I get to last week’s bomb, let me deflect with another question: Did you like the first Sin City, from 2005? I did, back in the day, but I am now reluctant to revisit it. Because while this overdue sequel traffics a formless script and some criminally underwhelming combat scenes, its worst offense has more to do with the cheap and sadistic worldview of Frank Miller’s graphic novel universe, a through line in both this film and the last. Deformed, or else mutilated, men take pleasure in snuffing out the lives of rabid frat boys, gamblers and security guards, doing so slowly so as to drink in their suffering. Directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez (Machete) deploy violence not to confront (à la Cronenberg), gross out (Verhoeven) or indict the viewer’s sick pleasure in it (Hitchcock), but to titillate. There’s no divide between the ravenous on-screen anti-heroes and the presumed straight male viewer, who savors in the parade of scantily clad or nude women as much as the splashes of white, red and yellow blood.
Credit to Eva Green, then, for owning her psycho femme fatale Ava Lord to such an extreme that, naturally, the men behind the camera have no clue what to do with her. Ava wears no clothes for about half her screen time, which will be worth the price of admission for some, and she uses her chiaroscuro-bathed body to seduce both allies and enemies. Her enforcer Manute (Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan) tells scorned lover Dwight (Josh Brolin) that Ava is “a goddess” who “makes slaves of men.” She uses the same men again and again, which is awesome, but Miller and Rodriguez shackle us to the perspective of Dwight, a deathly bore, whenever she is on screen and so prop her up as a slice of buxom crazy. A better movie would follow Ava around, ruling shit, for the full duration, but that would require an actual story and a bit of feminine empathy, and besides, that’s why we have Lucy.
In case you haven’t gathered, I am not laying down the expected plot summary for this movie because it is a) needlessly complicated and b) entirely predictable. Miller’s script checks in on four characters — Dwight, Marv (Mickey Rourke), Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nancy (Jessica Alba) — as they avenge, revenge and drone on in purple prose-infected voiceover that laughably feigns poetic insight. One violent scene ends with Johnny saying, “Death is just like life in Sin City.” Dwight’s first words rip off, of all writers, Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It’s another hot night. Dry and windless. The kind that makes people do sweaty, secret things.” This is all delivered straight, in a brooding, tough guy, Robert Mitchum-mocking way. It’s macho nonsense for the child who never reads.
And the action isn’t even that good! You would think Rodriguez would be dependable for visceral, anti-humanist thrills, but he barely photographs human movement here. Punchy sounds like bone snaps attempt to hide stilted camerawork and hyperkinetic editing; in lieu of fluid, graceful combat, Miller and Rodriguez resort to the stomach-churning tactics of the YouTube Pooper. Furthermore, the utter disregard for human life backfires, in that there are no stakes, and thus no excitement, in watching bad and worse people slice each other apart. The directors have clearly seen some classic Hollywood film noir and would be eager to parrot the “film noir equals cynicism” cliché. But what they exclude from Sin City is the melancholy hiding behind Mitchum’s cigarette smoke and Bogart’s sunken eyes. To include melancholy is to admit weakness, and we all know a boy with a plastic rifle in his hands is the most fearless person in the world.
I find myself in the sixth semester of writing this column, otherwise known as the sixth semester where no one knows what I’m getting at, least of all myself. I’m not one for introductions, which explains why, back in January 2012, I inaugurated this biweekly soapbox not with a “Hello” or an overview of my ideas and interests but with a piece on the divine and cinema’s attempts to depict Him/Her/It. I was proud of its title: “Oh, God.” So intellect, much serious. Wow.
I have since learned that growing up demands a bit of dumbing down. Just because I announce, “Today, I write about GOD!” or “The Kardashians and Facebook are killing America!” (my second column) does not make me a smart or challenging or worldly writer. It just makes me David Brooks — you know, smug.
It’s good to lighten up. As far as movies go, that means I temper expectations equally when seeing a holier-than-thou, Oscar-ready biopic about, say, a rodeo AIDS activist or Transformers 4. Both movies simplify, condescend and manipulate; the difference is that most critics will buy into the former, likely because of its Important subject matter, while stringing together a selection of groan-worthy puns aimed at the latter. Call a spade a spade, but if you have a raging vendetta against Michael Bay, try to think of the last time you disagreed with the Tomatometer.
Independent, self-aware, specific critical thought: That’s what I am getting at here. The enviably levelheaded film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz issued a rallying cry earlier this year with the piece, “Please, Critics, Write About The Filmmaking.” In it, he took a swipe at many of his colleagues for ignoring formal analysis in their writing; blog posts and newspaper reviews alike tend to devote more time to plot summary, box office talk or else cherry-picked sociopolitical tirades against a movie or television episode than careful attention to what makes a movie a movie (camera angles, editing patterns, mise-en-scène). It’s not that you should ignore plot, business and politics; indeed, the most valuable, responsible critics (to name just a few: Seitz, Nick Pinkerton, Tasha Robinson, Mike D’Angelo) intersect them all in vital, nuanced writing that is never just about a movie.
The best critical writing is useful, in some way. It should be entertaining, humble and even poetic, but the word I keep coming back to is “useful.” I know no greater compliment than when a friend or total stranger tells me they learned something from reading a piece of mine. I thought I was just spitting opinions here; how am I teaching anyone anything? Well, when you tether those mercurial value judgments to some notes on style, historical context and life’s Big Questions, your useless opinions begin to take on some weight — so long as you come across with humor and honesty, more human than textbook.
This is all a roundabout way to say that, for my time remaining here, I have a plan for this column. With this entry as an introduction of sorts, I plan to turn this mess of pop culture digressions and Liam Neeson appreciations into a focused, ongoing series about the act and nature of criticism. Some working titles for future columns include “How to Read a Movie,” “In Praise of the Mixed Review” and “The Wrong Way to Like Movies.” Pretty pompous headlines, I’ll admit, but one needs to appeal to the click-bait gods somehow these days. I hope to open up about the way I see things and, in the process, find the words for some personal, maybe even rigorous system of aesthetic and moral judgment. It goes without saying that I’ve yet to pin down this system myself.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about shortcomings of my writing that have thrived in this column space, among them hyperbole, preciousness and even weird bouts of anger. I aspire, now, to sanity. I’ll dig into questions that irk all art obsessives (Marrying formalist criticism with appreciation for a film’s emotional effect is a current thorn in my side) but keep in mind that, in the end, we’re all in this game of opinions together. I respect dissent and I hope you can respect those contrarian streaks of mine, too. I know that I know nothing, etc., though I hope in due time you’d be inclined to disagree.
The Cynic's Notebook is a blog operated by me, Zachary Zahos. Here, there are reviews of and thoughts on movies, music, television, video games, politics, etc. Optimism and cynicism coexist here, despite the name.