Beyond the Dark Star, Before the Black Rainbow

For a film that’s often dismissed as nostalgic pastiche, Beyond the Black Rainbow (our current Movie of the Month) is a difficult one to anchor to any direct, cited influences. Part of the film’s lore is that director Panos Cosmatos intended to evoke “an imagining of an old film that does not exist,” recalling childhood trips to the VHS rental store Video Addict where he would imagine the plots of horror films he was too young to rent based on the images on their cassette jackets. The eerie psychedelia of the killer-ants curio Phase IV or Ken Russell’s Altered States approach the paranormal throwback mood Cosmatos was attempting to achieve in his debut, but neither work quite captures the full spectrum of what’s on the screen. What’s much easier for Cosmatos to pinpoint are the influences on the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow, touchstones he discussed with cinematographer Norm Li. In an interview with Joshua Miller for CHUD, Cosmatos referenced titles like Manhunter, Dark Star, and The Keep as direct influences on the film’s cinematography style, while playing influences on the tone & narrative much closer to the chest. The title Dark Star stood out to me in those citations, because Cosmatos is very specific about what he pulled from that ancient sci-fi comedy; he notes that a particular scene set in “a freezer room” was an influence on the bluish tints sometimes deployed in Beyond the Back Rainbow—what Cosmatos refers to as “night mode.” The specificity of that influence rings even more odd to me now after having watched Dark Star in this context, as the film may have had much more influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow than Cosmatos either realized or admitted.

It’s incredible that a film as small as Dark Star would ever have had enough lasting impact or wide enough of a reach in distribution to inform the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow nearly four decades later. What’s even more incredible is that Cosmatos’s film is one of the least significant corners of genre cinema it has influenced. The debut feature from genre legend John Carpenter, Dark Star was a student film project at the University of Southern California—stitched together from reels of 16mm footage (with some post-production bulking-up before its theatrical release to a reach feature-length runtime). Carpenter directed & scored the film, already establishing some of the basic tones of eerie sci-fi atmosphere & broad humor that would carry throughout his career. His main collaborator was Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote with Carpenter, acted in a central role, edited the picture, and supervised its production design & special effects. Carpenter getting his sea legs here before immediately jumping into churning out all-time classics (his next two pictures were Assault on Precinct 13 & Halloween) already makes Dark Star a culturally significant work, even as a microbudget student film. It’s really Dan O’Bannon who secured the film’s legacy. however. Not only were the film’s incredible special effects its main draw and his character’s name cited as the source for the band Pinback, but O’Bannon repurposed many basic elements that didn’t work in Dark Star for his career-defining work in Alien. There’s a lengthy spaceship chase in Dark Star involving a beachball-shaped alien with claws that fails miserably in its humor, but O’Bannon later thought to play for genuine scares out of frustration – so that you can get an idea here what Alien might have been like if it were an early SNL or Groove Tube comedy sketch instead of one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Failed sketch comedy & sci-fi majesty are exactly the tones at war with each other in Dark Star, which is understandably more interesting to gaze at as a visual feast & discuss as a cultural object than it is to watch as entertainment media. A sci-fi comedy made by California college nerds in the stoney-baloney haze of the 1970s, the film is very loose in its structure and often is deluded in believing it can get by solely on the strengths of its punchlines (spoiler: it cannot). As beautifully eerie as the film’s pre-Star Wars space-travel effects look, the comedy it’s in service often feels mind-numbingly mundane. Some of that mundanity is (smartly) baked into its premise. The film profiles a trio of deep space colonists who seem to have an exciting job of exploding distant “unstable” planets with “intelligent talking bombs.” The day-to-day reality of this work is shown to be one of corporate boredom, however, as they fill their downtime playing trivial games and suffering the bureaucratic delay of supplies requests for necessities like toilet paper. A lot of this space-travel boredom transfers to the audience as the futuristic stoner humor slowly drifts along, although the movie does admittedly end on its best joke (and perhaps its only good one): a lengthy existential discussion between the ship’s captain and a talking bomb that’s threatening to detonate due to malfunctioning protocol. It’s a dryly funny philosophical battle between man & bomb, approximating the midway point between Douglas Adams & HAL 9000. It’s that latter comparison point that the marketing jumped all over during the film’s theatrical run, cheesily riffing on Kubrick in taglines like “The spaced-out odyssey” & “The mission of the Strangelove generation.” Dark Star was advertised as a full-length Kubrick parody, which was misleading, but likely an easier sell than what it truly was: an aimless stoner comedy adrift in outer space.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is another film that mixes visual majesty & stony baloney psychedelia with moments of incongruous humor, but that’s not the Dark Star influence Panos Cosmatos cites for his own debut. The “freezer room scene’s” influence on the intense blues of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s “night mode” sequences is much more specific & direct than any Dark Star influences Cosmatos may have picked up through cultural osmosis, given the stature of its central two collaborators. That scene, in which the new captain of the ship visits his cryogenically frozen predecessor for advice, is significant enough to Dark Star’s legacy that it’s the image used on the film’s Kubrick-riffing poster (likely due to the frozen captain’s distant gaze resembling 2001’s own advertising). It’s understandable then, that the freezer room scene would be the reference point Cosmatos & Li used to create some of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general look, but I believe Dark Star’s influence may have extended even further than that scene’s acknowledgement. Throughout Dark Star, there were kaleidoscopic flashes of light, washes of color, and outer space animation that recalled the general analog psychedelia vibe of Beyond the Black Rainbow for me. There are two particular scenes I could point to that I believed resembled Cosmatos’s film much more closely than even the blue hues of the freezer room: one in which a laser gone haywire paints everything in its vicinity a harsh, monochromatic red and one in which the new captain waxes nostalgic about waxing his surfboard while staring out an observation dome, his head effectively floating in space while cross-lit in red & blue. The freezer room scene may have been a useful reference point when coordinating specific aspects of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s cinematography, but Dark Star’s fingerprints are visible all throughout Cosmatos’s picture outside that specific context.

Given the feats Carpenter & O’Bannon would later accomplish, Dark Star’s comedic missteps and detectable influences on just this one isolated picture seem like petty concerns in its greater legacy; the ways it transformed sci-fi media through Alien is alone enough to drown out those minor details. Its comparison to Beyond the Black Rainbow is of much more interest on Cosmatos’s end, as his work often feels so impenetrable in its pastiche of a genre era that likely never existed that any flash of a direct, specific influence like Phase IV or Dark Star feels illuminating. It’s unclear how much of those two films’ visual similarities (outside the freezer room “night mode”) were an indirect result of general genre bleed-over due to Carpenter & O’Bannon’s larger cultural presence, but it is clear that Cosmatos pulled something directly from Dark Star that indicates what Beyond the Black Rainbow was meant to accomplish. It’s also clear that Panos Cosmatos made a much more creatively successful feature debut than John Carpenter did, something to be immensely proud of.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s examination of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #64 of The Swampflix Podcast: Kubrick in Filmtopia & Double Lover (2018)

Welcome to Episode #64 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-fourth episode, Brandon & CC discuss the inaugural, Kubrick-heavy Filmtopia Film Festival, held at Prytania Theatre. Also, Brandon makes James watch the French erotic thriller Double Lover (2018) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-The Podcast Crew

The Killing (1956)

I’m used to thinking of Stanley Kubrick as a fully-formed artist, the meticulous craftsman behind mind-boggling technical achievements like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It now seems obvious, but it never before occurred to me that the director must’ve had many, many stepping stones to that machine-like precision in his early career. 1956’s The Killing is an excellent snapshot of what early-career, still-figuring-it-out Kubrick looks like while still exhibiting the promise of what he’d later accomplish with more experience & larger budgets. In a way, its small-scale genre film territory is much more in tune with my usual cinematic interests than Kubrick’s grander, more precise productions, so seeing it screen locally at The Prytania Theater was oddly more of an eye-opener than similar screenings of works like Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange. I was already aware Kubrick was capable of large-scale technical anomalies; what I had never seen before was him paying his dues in the low-budget genre film trenches.

Purported to be Kubrick’s first professional-level production, The Killing is a straight-forward, late-period noir with all the bells & whistles that genre descriptor indicates: intense black & white cinematography, over-written voice over narration, dangerous criminals, even more dangerous dames, guns hidden in flower boxes & musical instrument cases, etc. The story concerns the planning, execution, and unraveling of a heist at a race track. It’s like a less zany precursor to Logan Lucky, except with horses instead of NASCAR. It even preempts some of Logan Lucky’s humor, especially in a drag-ready performance from Marie Windsor as the wandering, dangerously greedy wife Sherry Peatty. As a disparate group of sweaty men plan, execute, and lay low from the race track robbery that’s meant to make them millionaires, Sherry lazes in her lingerie, swills liquor, hurls insults at her husband, and fetches her on-the-side boy-toy to retrieve the stolen cash for her by any means necessary. Her plan is just as disastrous as the heist she’s attempting to usurp, but she’s consistently amusing in her cold-hearted quips in a way that transforms The Killing into The Sherry Peatty Show. There’s a humor to the way the central heist, an operation commanded by a contingent of macho brutes, is ultimately all in service of a woman who hardly ever leaves her apartment. The movie also ends on an even sillier joke where a small, rascally poodle becomes an even bigger bane to the burly men’s aim for quick, easy cash.

As humorous as The Killing can be in its more eccentric details, it still delivers the brutal violence expected of it as a noir-era crime picture. Cops, criminals, horses, and bystanders are torn apart by gunfire. Men and women who threaten the planning of the heist are treated with equal physical force, knocked unconscious by the alpha criminal’s burly fists. Infidelity, liquor, armed robbery, and police corruption define the film’s borders, establishing a crime world setting that’s so in tune with noir sensibilities it often feels like it was assembled entirely of genre tropes. Kubrick was smart to balance that macho brutality with slyly cartoonish humor and an exaggerated femme foil, a tactic he doesn’t often get enough credit for in his later works. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to films like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001 that’s often overlooked for the sake of praising their technical achievements. Kubrick is understood to be coldly calculating in tone, but his depictions of human villainy often find absurdist humor in the intensity of their brutality, the same way Daniel Day Lewis is oddly amusing in his villainous PTA performances in There Will Be Blood & Phantom Thread. You can feel the early stirrings of that brutal/comedic tension in The Killing, especially in the character of Sherry Peatty, who joins the ranks of humorously wicked Kubrick villains like Jack Torrance and HAL 9000. Marie Windsor deserves that recognition.

The Killing follows another pattern of Kubrick’s later, greater (in scope, at least) works: it wasn’t properly recognized in its time. It’s difficult to understand now, but when his more out-there works like The Shining & 2001 were first released, they were divisive at best. Many critics initially passed off the now-beloved director as an over-ambitious hack. The Killing experienced almost the exact opposite trajectory. Wide audiences passed on the film, which was ultimately something of a commercial flop, while professional critics raved about it long enough to keep it in the conversation for Best of the Year lists (and, eventually, repertory screenings like the one I just attended). Six decades later, The Killing still feels essential in the same way it was to critics then – showing immense promise in the stylistic & tonal ambitions of a young director who would eventually go on to accomplish big budget greatness. For genre film enthusiasts, it’s an especially precious gem, as there’s nothing better than an ambitious, talented creator imposing their personal impulses on a set-in-stone structure with its own built-in, pre-established payoffs. The Killing finds a young Kubrick playing by the rules of a strict genre template and struggling to work around the limitations of a modest budget. It’s a rare mode to see him working in and makes for one of his more distinct accomplishments as a result.

-Brandon Ledet

Filmworker (2018)

The Auteur Theory is an enticingly convenient way to talk about film, but it’s also a reductive one that dismisses the work of hundreds of collaborators on each picture discussed. Meticulous tyrants like Stanley Kubrick are often praised for the incredible depth of their genius & control in craft, but little attention is paid to the behind-the-scenes collaborators who make that genius achievable. The recent documentary Filmworker is especially illuminating when viewed in the context of The Auteur Theory’s shortcomings, with insight into Kubrick’s tyrannically selfish brand of genius in particular. The film profiles former actor Leon Vitali, who got his big break as the snotty Lord Bulingdon in Kubrick’s infamous production of Barry Lyndon, then immediately dropped everything in his life to follow the director around like a loyal, exhausted lapdog until his master died. Kubrick enthusiasts might find Filmworker of interest for its behind-the-scenes factoids about productions like Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, but they’ll also find a huge moral quandary at the center of the hero worship of that man’s unique genius. Vitali pushed the hagiography of Kubrick as the greatest artist of the 20th Century to the most bizarrely self-destructive extreme imaginable; he’s living proof of The Auteur Theory’s most glaring lie.

Upon seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a wide-eyed youth in the swinging-60s, Vitali knew he wanted to dedicate his life’s work to Kubrick’s genius. As he tells it, he decided not that he wanted to be an actor, but that he wanted to work for Kubrick, regardless of the capacity of that servitude. Landing a role in Barry Lyndon was all he meant to achieve with his acting work, despite establishing a very promising career onstage & BBC television productions to get there. Kubrick took note of his enthusiasm and made extensive use of him behind the camera as a jack-of-all-trades workhouse assistant for the rest of his career. Vitali was left just as little time for acting gigs as he had for eating, sleeping, and raising his children. Calling him a “personal assistant” is insultingly reductive, as he would switch roles form editor, casting director, acting coach, archivist, and so on as Kubrick’s whims & demands dictated. He was essentially an uncredited producer on multiple films that are widely considered to be some of the greatest achievements in cinema, yet Filmworker finds him lonely & sustained mostly by his children’s charity. It’s sad to see, but it’s also oddly sweet. Vitali seems totally content, if not immensely pleased with his life’s work of supporting a Genius Auteur who worked his mind & body into the ground with essentially no reward outside the collaborations they left behind.

As with other behind-the-scenes, low-budget documentaries like DOOMED!, Casting By, or Lost Soul, Filmworker relies heavily on the strength of the story it tells without focusing too much on the craft of telling it. The interviews are cheaply filmed through a sickly digital gauze, as if they were recorded in a supermarket staff breakroom. The editing is unfocused, drawing the story out into redundancy & exhaustion. Other shortcomings, like a lack of female interviewees & Kubrick’s own voice, could be considered reflections of the auteur’s current legacy, but they hurt the film’s entertainment value anyway. There’s a kind of poetic justice in knowing that Kubrick would have been driven insane by the film’s more glaring faults, however, a minor payback for all the stress he crushed Vitali with over decades of tyrannical demands. Regardless of the format’s merits, this is still a vital story that deserves to be heard, not only for the insight it provides into one of cinema’s great auteurs, but for its challenge to our lauding of great auteurs in the first place. Film is a collaborative medium and we can do much better by recognizing the efforts of its lesser known collaborators. No one should need to be as tireless of a martyr as Vitali to earn that recognition, but this is still as good of a place to start as any.

-Brandon Ledet

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

It’s a difficult era of my life to recall, but there was a time while I was alive when the internet was not a ubiquitous influence on pop culture & politics, but just something nerds in basements used to discuss nerd shit on nerdy message boards. Before the at-your-fingertips availability of sites like IMDb & Wikipedia, it was easier for false word-of-mouth information about movies to spread, which is how I heard weird urban legends about the production of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The lie I was told about A.I. as a kid was that it was a Stanley Kubrick film that the infamous auteur did not live to see completed, so it was taken over & “ruined” by populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg. I vaguely understand where this claim is coming from, as it’s difficult to reconcile the out-of-nowhere sweetness of A.I.‘s epilogue with the (out-of-character for Spielberg) brutally bitter, ice cold sci-fi masterpiece that precedes it. The truth, of course, is that Kubrick did not direct a frame of A.I. He held onto the rights for the project (an adaptation of a Brian Aldiss short story) for decades, but was frustrated with child acting & special effects limitations that made the task appear impossible. Kubrick essentially gave up on A.I., handing over the reins to Spielberg, who turned it into what I believe to be the most beautifully bonkers & traumatic work of his career. Kubrick’s influence certainly guided Spielberg’s hand through the project (with some spillover into his next project, Minority Report) and seemingly pushed him to creative heights as great as any of his earliest, most iconic blockbusters. The idea that Spielberg ruined the work of a deceased auteur is total bullshit, though, and I’m embarrassed that I initially believed it without seeing the picture for myself.

Watching A.I. now, well over a decade after the initial umbrage around its jarring epilogue, the film’s few faults seem microscopic in comparison with its towering ambition & technical achievements. What clicked most for me on my recent initiation to the film is in the tension between the warm Spielbergian concept & cold Kubrickian execution, which I suppose is what inspired the urban legend around its production history. It’s difficult to imagine a more Spielbergian narrative than a scientist (William Hurt in Icarus/Altered States mode) striving to “build a robot who can love” or “a robot who dreams.” Instead of filtering that concept through the childish, wide-eyed wonder of something like Hook or E.T., though, Spielberg leans into the scenario’s emotional terror. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a fairy tale about a machine who loves unconditionally, but receives nothing in return because he is considered a Thing, not a Person. Its many allusions to Pinocchio rely heavily on that tale’s horrors of body dysmorphia & crises of self, not its potential for storybook cuteness. Filtering that formula through a Blade Runner-inspired future of “real” people playing god with artificial minds & bodies opens the film up to a brutal adventure into philosophical dread & emotional torture. Spielberg is not at all afraid to twist the emotional screws here— stabbing, melting, dismantling, and psychologically torturing his robo-cast at every cruel twist in the story, a far cry from the “gee willikers!” sci-fi throwbacks of his 1980s work. He walks back those impulses somewhat in the epilogue, but the film has already dug too much of a wickedly cold groove at that point for the emotional damage to be undone. I’m always on the hook for Spielberg’s forays into sci-fi but I can’t remember a time a film of his has struck me more in its sheer audacity.

Haley Joel Osment delivers the performance of his career as the titular A.I. and the de facto Pinocchio— a childlike robot created to soothe parents traumatized by the declining health of their “real” son. When their human son snaps out of his life-threatening coma, their robo-boy no longer serves a purpose in the household and is essentially curbed as if he were a broken dishwasher. This sets off a never-ending quest to earn his “mother’s” love by becoming a “real boy,” something the audience knows is impossible, but the robot does not. Every line-reading of “I love you, Mommy. I hope you never die,” & “I’ll be so real for you,” is a stab to the audience’s heart, a feeling the film chooses to linger in at length. A.I. starts as a climate change parable, a traditional fairy tale set in a nightmarishly familiar near-future for yuppies. Once its central robo-boy is abandoned as obsolete technology, its vision shifts to a Blade Runner hellscape packed with a never-ending parade of sci-fi eccentricities: canine-shaped Tron bikes, an oversexed neon perversion of Atlantic City, a moon-shaped hot air balloon, a Ministry concert/right wing robo-torture rally, etc. Out poor, lost robo-boy is not built to survive these conditions, having been designed for intimate, domestic comfort. He finds comrades in fellow abandoned comfort appliances (most notably an animatronic teddy bear & a sex robot played a perfectly-cast Jude Law). Their help is mostly an empty gesture, though, as his ultimate goals of earning his “mother’s” love and becoming “real” are tragically unobtainable. Because of his programming, it’s a fact he never accepts and the audience has no choice but to watch him search in vain for peace that will never come.

There’s a clear sequence late in A.I. when the story logically comes to a (bottomlessly grim) conclusion and the movie seemingly ends. Everything after that moment has been picked apart & scrutinized for “ruining” the picture by so many people, to the point where its meaning has been widely misinterpreted & urban legends about its inclusion have muddled the film’s history. Personally, I think the ending is perfectly serviceable, even if mediocre; it only stands out like a sore thumb because of the near flawless 2+ hours that precedes it. Even on a technical level, A.I. is a modern wonder. Haley Joel Osment’s creepily convincing robotic acting digs under your skin, even as you feel deep empathy for his existential plight. The mixture of practical effects (including robotics work holdovers form the Jurassic Park crew) and CGI is remarkably seamless for a film this far in the past, amounting to an intoxicating visual experience. Even if the technical end were amateurish, though, I’d still be in amazement of how Spielberg can use his knack for emotional manipulation for evil here, creating a truly torturous experience out of his typical childlike wonder. The dismount may be subpar in comparison to the rest of the film, but the claim that the final ten minutes “ruins” everything that comes before it is ridiculous. Spielberg’s at his best when working in this rare mode of Not For Everyone sci-fi instead of his usual populist grooves. Claiming that he corrupted the genius work of another filmmaker is a disservice to what’s really going on here: a darkness & mastery of the form he’s not always willing to dwell in when afforded the chance. A.I. is a great glimpse at the genre-film master Spielberg could be if he weren’t so careful with his less emotionally complex crowd-pleasers. This is a work of obsessive, insular passion, even if it feels on the surface like Kubrickian coldness.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 13: 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is referenced in Life Itself: On pages 88 & 395 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that the film’s infamous, evil A.I. robot was built at his alma mater, writing “Chills ran down my spine when I first heard the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey announce that it had been born in the computer lab at the University of Illinois in Urbana.” He also mentions on page 153 that 2001 was one of the biggest “event” films of his early, formative years as a professional film critic.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Kubrick’s universe, and the space ships he constructed to explore it, are simply out of scale with human concerns. The ships are perfect, impersonal machines which venture from one planet to another, and if men are tucked away somewhere inside them, then they get there too. But the achievement belongs to the machine. And Kubrick’s actors seem to sense this; they are lifelike but without emotion, like figures in a wax museum. Yet the machines are necessary because man himself is so helpless in the face of the universe.” -from his 1968 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, ‘2001’ is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.” -from his 1997 review for his “Great Movies” series

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“Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” – Ancient proverb

The arthouse space opera 2001: A Space Odyssey is madman auteur Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus. Or, wait, maybe that’s The Shining. Or maybe Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick boasts too many crowning achievements to definitively rank any particular one as king beast, but 2001 certainly inspires that kind of lofty thinking, just in mere acknowledgement of its grand scale ambition. It’s a film that attempts to encapsulate the totality of time– past, present, and future– and does a fairly successful job of it. Its iconic scenes of space epic obfuscation have in time become so seminal that they now almost feel cliché, considering the one million and ten times they’ve been referenced & parodied in later, lesser works. This film is an unimaginable technical achievement for 1968, however, and I’m still scratching my head over the practicality of how some of it was accomplished through practical effects. Because each scene in the film is so overly-familiar to the public lexicon at this point, it’s near impossible to tell if I’ve actually watched it from front to end before. I do distinctly remember falling asleep to it once or twice in high school at the very least. As majestic & awe-inspiring as any particular achievement in 2001 can be, the film is also a slow, plodding, dialogue-light downstream drift that dares you at nearly every turn to lose focus & nod off. This is more or less the definition of challenging cinema. It takes a determined effort to stay on board for the journey, but the destination’s rewards are bountiful.

The funny thing for me on this most recent watch was that the movie I always think of as being 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie where a crew of astronauts are murdered by an evil A.I. named HAL 9000, is just one segment of many in the film’s cinematic patchwork. 2001 functions almost like a horror anthology, with each of its four separate segments providing only a small window into its larger narrative. Each section of the film is dominated by the throughline talisman of the monolith, but they each stand as rigidly divided works of art, just in the same way Kubrick allows nearly every shot of the film to hang in the air like an isolated, precious object worth examination. 2001 is an art gallery just as much as it is a narrative motion picture.

In the first segment the film takes poetic license with evolution & the Dawn of Man and depicts the all-important monolith teaching humanity’s primate ancestors how to use tools, a development that immediately leads to the world’s first coldblooded murder. In the second segment a second monolith is discovered by astronauts on the moon and its effect is largely shrouded in mystery, other than the signal it projects that points to Jupiter. As this film was released just one year before the real moonlanding (an event some eccentrics believe Kubrick himself had a part in “faking”), the mysterious terror of this piece points to modern anxiety about what comes next on the frontier of scientific discovery. The third segment answers that question loud & clear, proposing that our near future will be dominated by pompous A.I. robots with murderous intent. The closing segment, beautifully titled “Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite” is a somewhat-open-to-interpretation trip though religious transcendence, a gateway into the next step in our evolution. The lucky astronaut who endures that final chapter’s monolith as a test subject emerges on the other end as some sort of unknowable space fetus. The future of humanity is left open-ended here, but given that all previous monoliths in the film were directly followed by murder, the outlook is just as chilling as it is majestic.

Much like how the monoliths transformed the state of humanity at several points throughout the film, 2001 transformed the state of sci-fi adventure media. Long gone are the days of Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers, although they would later return with 2001-esque special effects in George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise. The HAL 9000 segment of 2001 functions somewhat like a genre film if you squint at it the right way, but the other 3/4s of the picture are so gloriously obscured & open-ended that Kubrick’s version of a space adventure is a much stranger, more artful beast than the examples that preceded it. There is a clear narrative progression here in the evolution of humanity, but the source, nature, and purpose of that evolution is so immense & mysterious that the “odyssey” of the title is more figurative than it is literal. I’m sure Arthur C. Clarke’s novelized version of this story (which he wrote for the film as a collaborator) is much clearer than what’s onscreen, but I feel like any concrete, extraterrestrial explanation of what transpires would cheapen the movie’s poetry. The aliens in this film may as well be an all-knowing god or The Will of the Universe, considering the immensity of what’s onscreen. I left the film with few solid answers and took delight in that ambiguity.

Not everyone feels that way. Ebert noted in his “Great Movies” review of the film that there were several walkouts during the 1968 Los Angeles premiere he attended. Most notably among the miffed was an especially exasperated Rock Hudson, who was visibly livid that the couldn’t pin down the film’s exact plot. Indeed, 2001 feels determined at every turn to spurn its audience, like an ornery mechanical bull in a dive bar (except one bucking in spectacular slow motion). This is a film that will either bore or terrorize you depending on how game you are for its journey. As much as I loved it as an immersive cinematic experience I’ll even admit that a couple dialogueless shots where the soundtrack was dominated by heavy breathing & mechanical whirs tested my patience a great deal. I’d even go as far as to say it got on my nerves. That’s not to say this is  humorless, highbrow work without a touch of pedestrian entertainment value, though. I think the shock of starting the film among the unevolved primates was something of a sly joke, maybe even serving as Kubrick’s way of poking fun at human folly & hubris. Hal 9000, however creepy, is subtly funny in its own cold, biting way, even downright bitchy in intonations of phrases like “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, Frank.” There’s even an honest-to-God, outright gag in the film where a character perplexedly reads a long list of instructions for a zero gravity toilet.

Of course, humor & genre thrills are not likely to be anyone’s biggest takeaway from 2001. For those who can stay on board for its demanding runtime, glacial pace, and deliberate obfuscation, the film delivers a perfectly crafted, near-flawless glimpse into the unknown, which is a rare treat for any kind of art, much less a cinematic space adventure. The violence on display here ranges from blind rage to cold calculation, but never for a minute feels exploitative. The visual effects & smooth, spinning camerawork are dizzying achievements of technical prowess, but feel more purposeful than showy. An old-fashioned overture & intermission feel entirely earned given the scope of the film’s ambition. I’m not sure if 2001 is Kubrick delivering a passionate work of narrative art so much as a perfectly calibrated machine that begs to be gawked at as it functions with divine precision. Either way, it’s a real beaut.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (4.5/5, 90%)

fourhalfstar

Next Lesson: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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fourhalfstar

Have you ever completely forgotten that you’ve seen a film before until you’re in the middle of watching it? I ran across a couple posts recently that compared Stanely Kubrick’s masterful horror landmark The Shining to a 1920s Swedish film named The Phantom Carriage. There was one .gif in particular that mirrored the two works’ infamous axe scenes that really caught my attention while scrolling through Tumblr posts. I made a point to bump the Criterion-restored version of The Phantom Carriage to the top of my Hulu queue only to discover about five minutes into the film that I had seen it once before, years & years ago, and already really enjoyed it.

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A silent film that combines horror & dramatic tragedy, The Phantom Carriage tells a similar story as works like It’s a Wonderful Life & A Christmas Carol with an intense focus on the supernatural aspect of that framework. In the movie’s mythology whoever dies last on the last day of the year must drive Death’s carriage for a full year. Each day feels like 100 years as the titular phantom carriage’s driver makes their rounds like a mail room clerk, collecting souls from the recently deceased on Death’s behalf. The horse & carriage are always the same, but the driver is different each year, almost like a morbid version of the Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause.

On this particular New Year’s Eve the newest phantom carriage driver-elect is one David Holm, a boozy sinner who’s spent most of his life abusing anyone who dares to love him. Before David’s (literally) given the reins, however, he’s forced to take a remorseful journey through his own past, bearing witness to each horrifically shitty thing he’s done to his fellow man. David is forced by Death’s previous servant to watch as his past self abandons his family in favor of booze, shames the charitable for caring about his well-being, and intentionally tries to spread consumption among the innocent out of pure malice. He can barely stand to watch himself act like such a destructive ass & that discomfort is a large portion of his punishment as Death’s new servant.

Outside the obvious homage in the axe scene pictured above, there isn’t much to The Phantom Carriage‘s connection to The Shining except on a very basic thematic level. The Phantom Carriage is a ghost story about alcoholism & familial abuse in which the temporary caretaker of a supernatural, cursed establishment is driven to cruelty, so yeah, it does telegraph a lot of the basic structure of where Kubrick would take his Steven King adaptation over 50 years later. However, Kubrick is far from the first director who comes to mind while watching The Phantom Carriage, which is likely why I didn’t remember seeing the film before when prompted by those social media posts.

It’s Ingmar Bergman who pulled the most readily recognizable influence from the silent classic. As soon as Death’s servant arrives in the iconic hooded robe & sickle get-up, Bergman’s version of Death in The Seventh Seal immediately comes to mind. Before I even read this film’s Wikipedia page I could’ve told you Bergman watched The Phantom Carriage religiously and, indeed, the director claimed to have viewed it at least once a year. It’s possible to argue that The Shining would’ve been a very different work without The Phantom Carriage‘s influence, but what’s an even more immense question is just how different Bergman’s entire aesthetic would be without the seminal work. It’s crazy to think of the massive influence Bergman’s image of Death has had across pop culture, from The Last Action Hero to The Independent to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (naming a few personal favorites), and that its seed was actually planted in the silent era.

The Phantom Carriage is well worth a watch even outside its massive influence on the likes of Kubrick & Bergman. The film was noteworthy in its time for innovations in its ghostly camera trickery and its flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure. Those aspects still feel strikingly anachronistic & forward-thinking today, especially the gnarly phantom imagery, but you don’t have to be a film historian to appreciate what’s essentially a timeless story of brutally cold selfishness & heartbreaking remorse. I also like the movie’s gimmick of trying to make a non-Halloween holiday spooky (the film was set, plotted around, and released on New Year’s Eve), something schlock horror would do with Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and whatever else for decades to come. It’s a shame that at one point I forgot I watched The Phantom Carriage in the first place. It’s a great slice of horrific silent cinema & innovative filmmaking history.

-Brandon Ledet