Kubrick ad nauseam, vol. 1

February 2, 2007

Like any reasonable person, I’d rather see a movie on the big screen than on a smaller one. So it is that while I enjoy going to the cinema in general, I particularly like going to see revivals and rereleases, and I’ve been lucky enough to see such classics as This Is Spinal Tap and a few parts of Kieslowski’s Dekalog in theatres. And one of the biggest perks of the cinema classes I took in college was not just having an opportunity to see Orphée, Броненосец Потёмкин, and The Magnificent Ambersons, but seeing them on a proper screen.

So it was that I was happy to discover that a (fairly) nearby movie theater was having a Kubrick retrospective of sorts, and last Saturday I watched The Shining, which I’d somehow managed to avoid seeing before, and Spartacus, which Mr Lang sacrificed a week of my 7th-grade history class to show us. For both films, it was quite bizarre to see preview and “note the location of the nearest exit” reels that were in better condition than the main features.

The Shining.

Though I hadn’t seen this movie before, I may as well have. I read the book years back, I own a copy of the Simpsons Kauhujen talo DVD, and I’ve seen so many damn references to “All work and no play…” and “Here’s Johnny!” that the phrases have lost all meaning. So it was quite interesting to see what parts of the movie still worked despite the spoilers for it that are everywhere, and what parts were drained of their impact or otherwise ruined.[1]

The Shining is a suspense film, after all, and the point of it is to drag you to the edge of your seat and make you stew in tension while you wait for the other shoe to drop. (Since it’s a Kubrick film, it also makes a concerted—and successful, in my case—effort to wow you with some amazing cinematography.) The problem with that kind of scenario, though, is that it’s quite vulnerable to distraction. Even if you know what’s coming, it can still grip you—grip you even more than normal, in fact, reinforcing your role as audience cum spectator, powerless to change a future you can see coming.

On the other hand, catching a glimpse of the zipper on a monster costume, or seeing a boom mike drop into the frame during a particularly tense scene, have the effect of sucking you out of the movie and back into the cinema.[2] The same is true of lines that are meant to be extremely dramatic yet have been reduced to mere catchphrases and cultural flotsam. Like “Here’s Johnny!”. In a different situation—if I’d seen the movie in 1980, and known who Johnny Carson was from my own personal experience instead of from history books—that line might well have been powerful. As it is, though, it’s been a victim of its own initial success and now deserves to be put out to pasture. What’s interesting, though, is that the rest of that scene hasn’t lost any impact. The axe coming through the bathroom door is as visceral and effective an image as any I’ve seen, and the shots in the bathroom are framed beautifully. The audience and Shelley Duvall are facing each other, but nobody notices the other since everyone’s attention is on the wicked hunk of metal that keeps edging further and further into the room. After that, Jack Nicholson spouting a decades-old catchphrase is pure anticlimax.


A few scenes in this movie have stayed with me since my adolescence: slaves toiling while the self-important narrator pompously intones about the sorry state of their society; the black gladiator climbing the wall and being killed by the Roman guy; Spartacus drowning a guard in a cauldron of soup; and, of course, everybody and their brother shouting “I AM SPARTACUS”.[3] What I didn’t remember was how godforsaken long it was. It’s truly an epic movie, if “epic” means “full of actors striking dignified and pensive poses”. Don’t get me wrong: the movie is far from crap. Unfortunately it’s also far from Kubrick. It’s not hard to see why he disowned this bloated, overlong thing.

The best description I can give of Spartacus is that it’s a period piece. But unfortunately the period of the piece isn’t the rise of the First Triumvirate in Rome; the period is the late 1950s. It’s a little known fact that Brylcreem was a staple of ancient Roman hairdressing, and that Roman women in 59 BC did their hair just like American women in 1959 AD. And you might be interested to learn that the Italian countryside is full of picturesque spots that look uncannily like Hollywood soundstages with mountains painted on the back wall. And, for fuck’s sake, if you’re going to shoehorn an unnecessary romantic angle into the story, do you absolutely have to grease the lens for every single shot that has the female lead in it? Christ.

It’s not all complaining, though. There’s a very compelling reason to keep this movie around: shaming George Lucas. He should have watched Spartacus a dozen times before making the Star Wars prequels, so he might have been able to pick up a few pointers on how to incorporate a character provided solely for comic relief without making the rest of the movie unwatchable. Lentulus Batiatus and Jar-Jar Binks both perform the exact same function in their respective films, but Batiatus deservedly won an Oscar while Binks merely solidified Lucas’s reputation as someone who should have quite while he was far, far ahead.

* * *

[1] Incidentally, “This one goes to 11” may have been funny if it hadn’t been done to death by the time I saw the source of the quote. One of the drawbacks to seeing rereleases, I suppose.

[2] Even without the commentary, just the overlay at the bottom of the screen in MST3K would be sufficient to deflate just about any movie. The cinema experience isn’t about being in the movie theatre, it’s about getting you the hell out of the movie theatre.

[3] Carl, wherever you are, that was the best thing The Prince has ever been blessed with. You, sir, are a genius.

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