Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 2

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So Alex has become a murderer. That’s pretty bad. Hardly anybody likes murderers. And yet, we didn’t particularly like the woman Alex murdered — she was kind of a jerk. Mostly, the viewer at this point is caught in the grip of a seething bundle of contradictions: Alex seems pretty darn bad, but the world he lives in seems worse — one can, in a way, see Alex’s response to his world as a valid one. The world has taught him that life is a meaningless, cruel joke and nothing has any meaning, who could blame him for acting in kind?

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Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 1

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Put most simply, A Clockwork Orange is about a viewer who gets jerked around by a movie. It is altogether fitting that it, itself, is a movie about jerking a viewer around. The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange is a young man, Alex, who wants what any young man wants — to beat, steal, rob, rape, listen to Beethoven, dodge authority and boss people around. Do we like Alex? Are we supposed to like Alex? Does Kubrick like Alex? Can one even imagine a studio in the 21st century hearing a pitch for A Clockwork Orange? “Likability” and “Relatability” are what filmmakers hear every day from studio executives, but Kubrick couldn’t be less interested. Dr. Strangelove had three sexually crippled men who want to blow up the world as its protagonists, and 2001 had a bunch of invisible aliens. And a computer. A Clockwork Orange gives us Kubrick’s most complex, most paradoxical protagonist yet.

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Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 3

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Almost an hour into 2001, the movie starts.  We meet the narrative’s third human-or-thereabouts protagonist, Dave Bowman (although Bowman’s protagonist status doesn’t really kick in for another half-hour or so).  When people complain that 2001 is slow, or draggy, I think this, not the pace of the editing or the speed of the narrative development, are what they’re talking about.  We saw the same thing happen this summer with Inglourious Basterds, many viewers found the movie boring and without incident, not because it was but because it kept "starting over," introducing new protagonists an hour or more into the movie and asking us to invest in their stories.  The protagonists of 2001 (the human ones, not the invisible-extraterrestrials ones) never meet one another, and Bowman, the last, only has the dimmest awareness of what the hell is going on in the very last moments of the movie, and at that point the viewer is sometimes so baffled that it’s easy to miss just what Bowman’s revelation is about.

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Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 2

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ACT I of 2001 begins with a long, dialogue-less sequence describing a day in the life of its main characters. ACT II begins similarly, but is set a few million years later. Act I’s hardscrabble hominids were hard pressed to make it through a day without being eaten, but the humans of Act II whiz through space in sophisticated machines and it’s all perfectly boring. This is the "day in the life" of modern humanity, and it’s as true today, in the real-life 2009, as it was regarding the pretend-future of 2001 — we are surrounded by the most astonishing triumphs of human ingenuity, telephones and televisions and computers and the internet, airplanes and space shuttles and electric cars, and the thing that rivets us most is the cheap drama of petty gossip. Moonwatcher had to fight over weeds and worry about leopard attacks, but the alpha-monkey of Act II, Dr. Heywood Floyd, falls asleep while zooming through space en route to the moon. The bone-to-satellite cut at the top of Act II is justly cheered, but an even better cut might have been from Moonwatcher’s bone to Floyd’s pen, drifting lazily in space while Floyd snoozes in front of his in-flight entertainment of some lame movie or other.

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Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey part 1

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Viewers sometimes find 2001 to be opaque, baffling, boring, slow, tedious and pointless. I find it the opposite — it’s fascinating, suspenseful and, when one considers the wealth of narrative packed into its running time, quite fast-paced indeed, almost humorously so. What baffles people about 2001 is not in the nature or purpose of its collective scenes, but in the choices Kubrick made early on in the devising of the screenplay.

Depending on the way you approach narrative, Kubrick has done one of two extraordinary, innovative things in the narrative of 2001. One, my personal belief, is that he’s created a narrative in which the protagonist never appears. The other, a slightly more conventional way of looking at it, is that he’s created a narrative with three protagonists, three protagonists who never meet but are related thematically and whose motivations all revolve around the same item, the maguffin of the piece, the mysterious black monolith.

Here is my notion of the story of 2001:

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Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act III

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The question of Act I of Dr. Strangelove is "How could a thing like this happen?" The question of Act II is "Why would a thing like this happen?" and the question of Act III is "What if this happened?" The narrative takes us right up to the brink of unthinkability, then, rather incredibly, goes over it.

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Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act II

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One thing I neglected to mention the other day regarding Kubrick’s screenplays is his propensity for long scenes. This wonderfully cinematic director has, paradoxically, a yen for long scenes, very long in some cases, another preference he shares with Tarantino. Generally in Kubrick movies, he’ll present a long scene, and then there will be a big leap forward in time where a bunch of stuff happens we don’t see, and then there be another long scene. The most famous of these cuts is in 2001, where we jump cut a few million years from an ape using a bone as a tool to satellites orbiting in space, but they occur in most of Kubrick’s work. Act I of Dr. Strangelove has a total of eight scenes, eight (a typical screenplay would have at least twenty, and probably more) and Act II has even fewer. There are seven actual scenes, but the bulk of the act is actually two scenes broken up into six sections.

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Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act I

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Stanley Kubrick is lauded, justifiably, for his uncanny eye for composition and his chilly way of setting up a shot. But for me, Kubrick’s genius, like Tarantino’s, begins long before the cameras roll. It begins with his understanding of character and his approach to narrative, both of which were mind-bending for their times and still arresting today.

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Screenwriting 101: Pop Quiz, 2001: A Space Odyssey

The protagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey is:

a) Moon-Watcher
b) The Monolith
c) Dr. Heywood R. Floyd
d) Dr. Dave Bowman
e) Dr. Frank Poole
e) HAL 9000
f) The frozen astronauts
g) None of the above

The answer is g.

Congratulations to RJWhite, who, although he is confused as to the character’s name, correctly identifies the protagonist of 2001 as “whomever was trying to propel the human race forward.”

2001 is, essentially, an education drama, not unlike Blackboard Jungle or Dangerous Minds.  There is a  wise teacher who has been put in charge of a bunch of wild students in the inner city, with their gang wars and primitive ways, and the teacher must show them the beauty of learning and betterment while hoping they don’t use their new intelligence to kill each other.  Kubrick’s bold stroke was to make an education drama where the “wise teacher” goes unseen.  If you can imagine Stand and Deliver with a big black slab instead of Edward James Olmos, that’s pretty much 2001.

“Humanity” is, in fact, the antagonist of 2001.  The protagonist is trying to teach them, and while humanity is capable of learning, their “background” continues to “keep them down.”  The drama of 2001 is, “can the protagonist change the antagonist, given that the antagonist is probably evil to its core?”

“Dave” is indeed a “main character,” but his story is, basically, a subplot.  Dave is the student who advances to the State Finals and must “prove himself.”  The movie, essentially, ends when the student walks out onto the stage to prove what he’s learned, how far he’s come — but then doesn’t show us the speech.

Eronanke supplies a mind-blowing answer to a mind-blowing movie and suggests that “destiny” is the protagonist, which is an intriguing idea, if “destiny” is indeed what the movie is about — which I don’t think it is.  But I also think that “destiny” is no kind of protagonist to hang a 2-hour, 20-minute movie on — even if that movie’s prime directive is to blow one’s mind.

Mr. Noy correctly identifies the four large-scale story chunks that give the movie its shape.  I’m going to go ahead and call these chunks the acts of the movie, even though they don’t really function as acts in the traditional sense.  This is typical of Kubrick’s approach to story structure — three or four very long sequences instead of three acts made up of short scenes — and is, to me, the thing that makes AI such an odd movie-watching experience; Spielberg made Kubrick’s script his own, but kept the decidedly Kubrickian structure.

Here is the plot of 2001, as told from the protagonist’s point of view.


There is this bunch of extraterrestrials.  They have a machine that makes creatures smarter.  Let’s call them the Invisible Extraterrestrials (the IET).

They spot Earth.  Earth has relatively intelligent creatures on it called apes.  The apes are doing okay but they’re eating vegetables and living in caves and getting into fights over resources (plus ca change).  The IET, for reasons unknown, decide to help the apes along in their evolution.

They uncrate three of their smart-making-machines — small, medium and large.  They leave the small one on the planet Earth, in the middle of the ape community, they bury the medium-sized one beneath the surface of the moon, and they put the large one out in space, somewhere near Jupiter.

The scene we don’t see is the IET discussing their plan: “So, we’ll put the small one in the middle of the ape community, and the machine will do its thing, and the creatures will either become smart or they won’t.  If they do become smart, we know that they’ll eventually fly to their moon and discover the one we bury there.  We’ll stick a light-sensitive device in the second one, so that when it gets hit by sunlight it will send a radio signal to the big one next to Jupiter, and if the creatures are smart enough to make it to the big one, then we’ll give them all the intelligence in the universe, and if that doesn’t totally blow their minds, they will evolve to the next step.”

So they leave the small monolith in the middle of Apetown.  The apes wake up in the morning and see the monolith.  Moon-Watcher (the lead ape) touches the monolith, the monolith does its thing, makes Moon-Watcher a little bit smarter, and the first thing Moon-Watcher does with his new intelligence is to pick up a bone and beat his enemy to death and use his new intelligence to stop eating vegetables and start eating meat.

So, here we have the central conflict of 2001 — the protagonist (the IET) want to make humans intelligent, but humanity (the antagonist) has this thing where their nature is, at its root, homicidal.  The question of the movie, which is left unanswered, is “can people evolve to the point where they don’t kill each other any more?”

(The novel, in my opinion, answers “no,” but that is not the concern of this journal.)

But that’s it — that’s the whole movie.  There’s a bunch of invisible extraterrestrials who want to educate humanity but humanity may just be too homicidal to survive the process.

(Each one of the four acts dramatize this central conflict in different ways.  In Act I, we see that an ape, given a little intelligence, kills another ape.  In Act II, we see that humanity, given a few million years of evolution, has advanced to the point where they can destroy all life on the planet with atom bombs and every bit of human interaction must be rife with suspicion, secrecy and coded language.  In Act III, we see that humanity has gotten smart enough to create a machine capable of killing people on its own, and in Act IV we see that a man, even after gaining all the knowledge in the world, still has to eat and still spills his wine.  So the answer to the question “what happens after the end of the movie,” it seems to me, is a very pessimistic one — and indeed, Kubrick once said that he wanted to end the movie with a scene showing the world destroyed by atom bombs but decided it was too much like the ending of Dr. Strangelove.)


It’s the year 2001 or thereabouts (the rest of the movie covers an 18-month time-span, so obviously the whole movie doesn’t take place in 2001).  Dr. Floyd goes to the moon.  And we see how sophisticated people have become, and how boring — they glide across the surface of the moon and can talk about nothing but what kind of sandwiches they have.  (Intelligence and food again, stuck together.  No matter how smart you get, you still have to eat, and something still has to die for that to happen.)

And there’s a bunch of hugger-mugger about “The Russians” and so forth, but the whole act is basically a bunch of “plot” about uncovering the second monolith and getting it exposed to the sunlight — once that happens, the act ends abruptly and we never hear about any of those people again.


A lovely subplot on the spaceship Discovery about Dave and Frank and the frozen astronauts and the murderous computer.  There are more scenes with food, and more scenes showing how, no matter how intelligent humans get, no matter how bloodless and dispassionate, they are still animals who eat and piss and shit and sweat.  HAL 9000 doesn’t have those problems, of course (and here Kubrick points toward AI — machines as the final evolution of humanity) — he is more bloodless and dispassionate than any of the humans on board, although we find that that only enables him to kill more bloodlessly and dispassionately, leading to Dave having to take matters into his own hands and kill HAL.

At the end of Act III, just after Dave kills HAL, the video comes on and Some Guy on the video tells us the story of the movie.  The scene comes after so many mind-blowing visuals one is forgiven for missing it, but the guy on the video actually takes a few minutes to sit there quietly and patiently explain the plot of the whole movie to us.


Dave takes his pod to go investigate the extra-large monolith out in space.  His encounter with the monolith gives him all the intelligence in the universe (that’s the big famous mind-blowing psychedelic freakout scene), but he’s still human.  He still has to eat and his body will still decay.

That’s okay, as it turns out.  The IET give Dave a place to relax and grow old.  The scene where Dave “sees himself” getting old is a misdirect — all that’s happening is that Dave is growing old, over a period of years, and Kubrick is trying to think of an interesting way to shoot that bit of exposition.  The fact that the inside of the monolith looks like some kind of postmodern French hotel suite is just the IET’s way of trying to think of something to make Dave comfortable while he grows old and dies.

Finally Dave dies and, because he’s obtained all the intelligence in the universe, he is reincarnated as the “Star-Child,” the big green fetus who is seen approaching the Earth at the end of the movie.

Now that the IET have given humanity all the knowledge in the universe, what will humanity do?  Will the Star-Child do good works and teach the world to sing, or will it use its super-intelligence to wipe out all of humanity?  That is, will the protagonist’s goal be reached or will it be frustrated by the antagonist’s inherent self-destructiveness?

(This, of course, assumes that the protagonist’s goal is for humanity to better itself.  For all I know, the IET’s goal is to get us to wipe ourselves out so they could come and steal all our resources.  That would make the monolith not an intelligence-generating machine but a homicide-generating machine.)

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The Shining

If you, like me, are writing a haunted-house movie, it’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the structures of Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic masterpiece The Shining with Steven Spielberg’s thrilling, personable Poltergeist. Both are movies about families trapped in haunted houses, but The Shining is grand, quiet, still and stately, while Poltergeist is small, noisy, casual and antic. The Shining is, unquestionably, the greater of the two, but I would argue that Poltergeist comes up with more ingenious solutions to the haunted-house-movie problem than The Shining does. Where Poltergeist can’t wait to throw all kinds of wild ghost stuff at you, The Shining hoards its secrets extremely carefully, keeping us waiting over an hour before the first ghost shows up, and two hours before we’re absolutely sure the ghosts are real.

(Much later, Spielberg tried, again, to make a definitive haunted-house movie, The Haunting, a movie that turned out so poorly he took his name off it.)

The plot of The Shining, for those recently born, goes like this: Jack, Wendy and little Danny move into a hotel that’s closing down for the winter. The hotel, we’re told, does not have a sterling history. Jack, a frustrated writer, starts to act testy with his family while Danny starts seeing ghosts. Then Jack starts seeing ghosts, only to him they’re not so scary. Wendy remains clueless pretty much throughout. The ghosts pressure Jack to murder his family and Jack finally gives in and tries to do so.

What does it do with a running time of 140 minutes?

Well, it spends thirty-five minutes (Act I) showing us around the hotel, then it spends another thirty-five minutes (Act II) showing Jack getting seduced by the dark side (even though it doesn’t tell us exactly how that’s happening). It spends another forty minutes (Act III) showing us Wendy and Danny’s response to Jack going crazy, then it has a fourth act where the brakes come off, the ghosts intervene and Jack is given free reign to pursue his destiny.

The pace of The Shining fascinates me. It shouldn’t work — it’s too slow, plodding even, long takes of actors speaking exposition extremely slowly. A hotel manager explains how the hotel works, a cook talks about the hotel’s past, long lists of consumables are recited, unremarkable rooms are shown in solemn procession. None of it should work — we should lose patience quickly with what appears to be a pretentious, overly-serious genre exercise — but strangely, it does work, these scenes suck us in, convince us that something serious, something important, even cosmic is going on.

With no ghosts for an hour, how does the movie stay scary? Well, I’m going to come right out and say it cheats. It gives us Stephen King’s favorite crutch, the Psychic Kid, and teams him up with one of cinema’s hoariest conventions, the Magic Negro. These days, of course, psychic kids wander in and out of narratives with the regularity of Swiss manufacturing, but the idea of combining scary-movie concepts (Psychic Kid in Haunted House, Ghosts and The Devil, Vampires in Space) was still exciting back in the po-mo eighties. When it can’t wring scares from its Psychic Kid, it manufactures tension from music cues, camera movement and absurd, pointless title cards (I will never forget hearing audiences scream at the word “TUESDAY”).

For its third act, the ghosts remain firmly in the realm of the ambiguous — are they in Jack’s mind? Did Jack try to kill Danny? Is Jack crazy? Is Danny crazy? Will the Magic Negro help save the day? Only at the end of Act III, when the ghosts actually let Jack out of his prison to go kill his family, does the movie actually take a stand and say that there are actually ghosts in the hotel. Then the movie turns into a chase thriller for twenty minutes.

My viewing companion for this evening, who had not seen The Shining since its initial release, marveled at Shelley Duvall’s performance — not so much because it’s good, although it is, but the fact that it exists. Imagine The Shining made today with an actor as good as Jack Nicholson — Russell Crowe, say — and now imagine a director, any director, matching that actor with Shelley Duvall. Wouldn’t happen. It’d be Jennifer Connelly or Gretchen Mol.

The kid playing Danny is great. Nicholson’s performance I go back and forth on every time I watch the movie but the kid’s only gets better and better with every viewing. And then you watch the “making of” documentary and you see that Kubrick seems to have treated the kid absolutely no different from the other actors (“More scared!” “Now run! Faster!”) and you have to wonder what the kid thought he was doing, especially in the scene where he has to sit in Nicholson’s lap for the least encouraging father-and-son chat in movie history.

When I made the change from Movie Fan to Movie Maker, I watched all my favorite movies again and mercilessly analyzed them, killing all the magic they held for me but revealing all their secrets. When I sat down to trace the structure of The Shining, I found I had a hard time identifying the protagonist. Jack is certainly the main character, and almost an antihero, but he does not set the plot into motion and his actions, like the actions of most of the characters, are reactive. Danny is not the protagonist, or if he is he’s not a very active protagonist. “Staying Alive,” I’ve learned, is not an adequate motivation for a strong protagonist. Wendy, as I’ve noted, remains utterly clueless throughout the narrative — the movie has less than zero interest in what she wants out of any of this. Then I realized that the protagonist of the movie is the hotel. The hotel sets the plot into motion — it torments Danny, it seduces Jack, it drives them both crazy, and finally, when Jack proves incapable of doing his duty, it intervenes. The Shining is about how the hotel tries, and ultimately fails, to get Jack to kill his family. I was thinking about this tonight when the Woman In The Tub tries to strangle Danny. I thought — well, right there, we can see that the ghosts can manipulate things — if they want Danny dead, why don’t they just kill him? They could just pick up an axe and kill him themselves, why are they making Jack do it? And I realized, well, the point is not that Danny gets killed, the point is that Jack, who has “always been the caretaker,” fulfills his destiny, kills his family and himself, and returns to the hotel forever. In a way the hotel is simply asking its wayward son to come home. And that’s why the movie spends a half-hour showing us around the place, they want us to see the building as a character in and of itself, to get to know it, feel it embracing these characters, suffocating them, driving them crazy.

A QUESTION: Where does Halloran The Magic Negro go when the Overlook closes for the winter? He’s an 80-year-old man, but he lives in a garish bachelor pad with foxy naked-chick paintings on the wall, a wet bar, and hunting trophies. Whose place is this? Not his, certainly. Is he staying in his nephew’s place, that crazy kid who’s outdoorsy and likes his ladies retro and very naked? And what’s the deal with his briefcase? Why does Halloran have a briefcase? He’s a cook, what need does he have for a briefcase? It’s prominently displayed on his wet bar in his swanky pad in Miami, and then he even hauls it to Denver when he goes to rescue Danny. Why does he take his briefcase to Denver? Even if he had some “cook business” he could address in Colorado, the entire state is under ten feet of snow, nobody’s going to be doing business that week. What the hell?

FUN FACTS: Jack types his experimental novel on an Adler, one not dissimilar to this one. In the “making of” documentary that accompanies The Shining on DVD, we see that Kubrick also types on an Adler, although his is a sporty, yellow model more like this one.

The drink Grady The Waiter spills on Jack is Advocaat, a “rich, creamy liqueur made from eggs, sugar and brandy.” Rest assured, I have never seen Advocaat outside of The Shining.

Even though the Overlook Hotel is in Colorado, most of the folks in the hotel, both living and dead, including the bartender, the desk clerk, the waiters and many of the guests, are all English (as is Danny’s doctor in Boulder). To make things more mysterious, there is a bidet in the bathroom of Room 237, something I’ve seen in no bathroom in the US, much less Colorado. This strange disparity is left unexplained.

For those interested in staying in the Overlook Hotel, you’ll have to make two trips. The outside of the hotel is the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, the interiors are in Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel. Both hotels were built after the date of 1921 shown in the final image.

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