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2001: A film interpretation odyssey

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How does one begin to unravel the dense onion layers surrounding Stanley Kubrick's masterwork "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Why is the film so long and leisurely paced? If aliens planted those big black rectangles, where are the aliens? And how can we possibly make sense of that bewilderingly abstract fourth and final act? CineVerse attempted to answer all these queries last night and came away with these plentiful observations:

IN WHAT WAYS WAS THIS 1968 FILM GROUNDBREAKING, INNOVATIVE, SURPRISING, AND YET WELL-TIMED?
Its visuals and special effects are breathtaking – no science fiction film before it looked this realistic nor depicted actual space travel so accurately; the level of detail and the verisimilitude are stunning, even 48 years later.
Unlike previous sci-fi movies, the aliens suggested here are never shown, which is probably the right choice, considering no degree of special effects wizardry would have been able to improve upon your own imagination or sense of wonder over the mysterious sights we see through Dave the astronaut’s eyes.
It doesn’t follow a traditional narrative construction, and there is very little dialogue; instead, it relies on visual poetry and pure cinema – images married to sound without a reliance on words, narration or exposition – to tell its story. In many ways, this film plays like a silent movie.
The timing of its release was important: in 1968, America was enthralled with the NASA space program and Kennedy’s dream of landing on the moon, which would happen a year later; 1968 was also an extremely volatile and violent year, and some of the themes expressed in and emotions evoked by this film would have resonated with audiences; additionally, the stargate sequence near the end was trippy and psychedelic, which would have appealed to the youth culture of the late 1960s.
There is no proper soundtrack: instead of an original score, the filmmakers rely primarily on 2 classical pieces of music that are perfectly matched to the visuals – Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and The Blue Danube Waltz. The latter is an ideal choice because it, like the space station docking sequence it orchestrates, is purposely slow, majestic, and rhythmic. The former is an ideal choice because it conveys a sense of cold, austere wonder, shock, awe, discovery, and spiritual grandeur.
The film’s pacing, in general, is deliberately glacial, which many critics and film scholars credit making the picture more impactful. “When very little is happening overtly, even the slightest motions or actions assume much greater significance. The slowness of 2001 trains the viewer to watch hypervigilantly, in effect (creating) a new attention span for the viewer for the duration of the film,” wrote online writer B. Krusch.
There is not much of a plot, character development or, for that matter, main characters (Dave is introduced halfway into the film).
This also remains, especially in its fourth and final act, one of the most abstract, ambiguous and thought-provoking if not downright puzzling films ever made – forcing us to ask deep existential questions and ponder many mysteries. The film can be endlessly debated about what it means and how it should be deciphered.
Despite the fact that the events and technologies depicted did not occur by the year 2001, the movie remains powerfully relevant and timely in the deep questions it asks about man and his place in the universe and the technology he creates. A few of the gadgets and technologies, while trivial, look dated now, but the way space travel and life for astronauts is depicted hasn’t changed much.
Interestingly, this is a film that doesn’t try to emotionally manipulate you or telegraph suggested emotions; it’s possible to feel pessimistic or optimistic, happy or sad, excited or disgusted during and following the movie. Many express feeling an overwhelming sense of awe and astonishment after viewing the picture and often can’t explain why they feel what they feel. This plays into Kubrick’s ambition, which was to sidestep “intellectual verbalization” and tap into “the viewer’s subconscious.” “Movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through two areas of emotional comprehension," Kubrick said.
“2001” is also amazingly edited; it can boast of the most audacious jump cut ever used in cinema – the edit point between the bone thrown into the air followed by the unexpected shot of a ship moving through space.

WHAT THEMES ARE EXAMINED IN 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?
The evolution of man: we see primitive apes that evolve into men, and futuristic human beings who have created technology to take them to the stars, and finally the birth of a starchild cosmic being following the death of the astronaut.
Man’s reliance on tools and the dangers this creates: consider that primitive man’s discovery of the bone as a tool leads to him using it to kill; later, we see the astronaut “killing” his own creation, HAL, with a simple screwdriver. At Kubrick2001.com, an interesting theory is proposed: Civilized man has lost control of his tools in space. He must learn to walk again, eat baby food, and be toilet trained. On earth, he’s a master, but he’s just a child in space. By the film’s third of four acts, it’s suggested that man has outlived his tools, and now his tools are seeking to overtake him (HAL). By destroying HAL, man ends his evolutionary alliance with the tool, but is now alone in space and helpless, reliance on the same supernatural/alien force that inspired and guided him (as embodied in the monolith) in his primitive ape form.
Divine intervention: the original story upon which this film is loosely based, written by Arthur C. Clarke, is called “The Sentinel.” The monoliths that appear have been deliberately placed there by an alien intelligence who presumably are trying to inspire life on earth to take the next step in evolution. Another monolith is placed on the moon and sends out a signal to a third monolith near Jupiter that is meant to point to a path man needs to take to evolve even further. There’s a suggestion here that man needs an extra push to progress to the next level of evolution.
Man’s place in the universe: who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going are all questions that the filmmakers attempt to ask.
The flawed nature of man: we keep making mistakes and/or using our intelligence for destructive purposes; consider that the bone is used to beat other ape-men to death, the supercomputer HAL we created has a programming flaw and an ability to overtake us; the astronauts on the moon touch the monolith in the same way that the ape-men touched the monolith, suggesting that we really haven’t evolved or learned much; man may have mastered his ability to live on planet Earth, but in space he has to learn how to walk, eat and go to the bathroom all over again like an infant.
Evolution versus de-evolution: Yes, we see man evolve from primitive animals to sophisticated, intelligent Homo Sapiens, but it’s ironic that HAL is shown as being the most human and emotive of all the characters in the film, in contrast to the two astronauts who appear bland and emotionless. The insinuation here is that man has become dehumanized by the technology he has created, and is in danger of being replaced by that artificial intelligence. Consequently, for man to further evolve, he has to have better command over his tools or, even better, progress beyond his tools by expanding his consciousness and intelligence.
The final evolution is transcendence over mortality: arguably, the film ends on a positive and optimistic note by showing that man, despite continuing to make mistakes (breaking the wine glass) and succumbing to decay and death, can be reborn into a greater, more advanced form. The pessimism here, however, is that man needs outside influence and extraterrestrial or divine help to get there; we are too imperfect, hostile, and over-reliant on our technologies and creations to get there ourselves.

WHAT FILMS WOULD’VE BEEN INFLUENCED BY 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?
The Andromeda Strain
THX 1138
Solaris
Zardoz
Star Wars
Contact
Enter the Void
Interstellar

OTHER MOVIES DIRECTED BY STANLEY KUBRICK
The Killing
Paths of Glory
Spartacus
Lolita
Dr. Strangelove
A Clockwork Orange
The Shining
Full Metal Jacket
Eyes Wide Shot

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Open the pod bay doors, CineVerse…

Sunday, November 27, 2016

You won't want to miss CineVerse on November 30, which is when will be screening and discussing “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968; 149 minutes), directed by Stanley Kubrick, chosen by Jim Krabec. Note: due to the long runtime of this film, we will start promptly at 7 PM and dismiss closer to 10:15 PM

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No CineVerse meeting on November 23

Sunday, November 20, 2016

CineVerse will not meet on Wednesday, November 23 due to the Thanksgiving holiday. We will reconvene next week on November 30. Enjoy your turkey day.

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A film that doesn't exactly follow the herd

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Howard Hawks' "Red River" is a memorable flick for multiple reasons, not the least of which is its colorful characterizations, sharp themes, tense familial dynamics, and awe-inspiring size and scope (the filmmakers really did have to manage about 1,500 head of cattle in addition to the large human cast). Many film scholars point to this picture as a turning point in the development of the American western movie – one that marks a diversion away from the simple white hat versus black hat struggle for survival and supremacy in the old West. CineVerse came to these conclusions after watching the rare prerelease version last evening:

HOW IS THIS MOVIE DIFFERENT FROM OR SIMILAR TO OTHER WESTERNS?
It’s shot and set almost entirely outdoors, filmed primarily in Arizona. Yes, there are some rear projection shots used and scenes that were filmed on the studio lot, but unlike many other Hollywood westerns, this one had to be shot outdoors to depict the cattle drive.
Speaking of, Hawks and his crew really are responsible for moving 1500 head of cattle in this production; it’s yet another example of how epic this film is in scope, theme, look and feel.
A woman solves the main conflict between males by the end of the film. That’s a rarity.
There are many familiar western tropes and conventions here, including character caricatures, like Walter Brennan’s cook and the sharpshooter Cherry.
This is an especially long movie – with over a two hour run time in its theatrical version and a few minutes longer in its prerelease version. For 1948, most movies still came in around 90 to 110 minutes.
It features, in the prerelease version, text narration that we only see quick glimpses of, as if to say that action is more important than words.
It’s exceedingly well cast: this is the role by Wayne that impressed John Ford enough to continue using The Duke in future productions. Wayne plays a psychologically complex character whose stubbornness and tunnel vision create palpable tension. Montgomery Clift, by contrast, employs the Method style of acting and uses characterization subtleties to evoke an a quiet, brooding intelligence and bravery that other actors may not have been able to achieve. Hawks’ stock company also fills out the supporting roles dutifully, including a great Walter Brennan.
There are suggestions of homoerotic undertones peppered in this picture – as evidenced by dialogue between Matt and Cherry like, “That’s a good-looking gun you’ve got there,” “Want to see mine?” and “I’ve taken a liking to that gun of his.”
The love interest in this movie, as embodied by Tess, doesn’t appear until the 95 minute mark – quite late into the picture for a romantic subplot.
The ending is abrupt and unexpected – almost anticlimactic. In fact, there are two expected showdowns hinted at that don’t amount to much: the showdown between Matt and Cherry, and the showdown between Matt and Dunson.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE DÉNOUEMENT OF THIS MOVIE? DOES THE ENDING FEEL CONTRIVED AND TACKED ON OR DO YOU LIKE THE WAY THE FILM CONCLUDES, WITHOUT THE FATHER ATTEMPTING TO GET EVEN WITH HIS SON?
It’s worth noting that the movie’s conclusion differs from that of the original story written by Borden Chase, which ends on a darker note.
On one hand, you can consider it fresh and original that Hawks chooses to have the female lead intercede and prevent bloodshed between Dunson and Matt by employing a comic shaming of those two characters.
On the other hand, critics some critics argue that this undercuts a main theme of the film – betrayal and revenge – by having everything wrapped up neatly and peacefully simply based on the words of a strong female character.
Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “It’s as if Lucille Ball intervened between Ahab and Moby Dick, arguing that their big deal feud doesn’t amount to a hill of blubber in this crazy world.”

WHAT THEMES ARE AT WORK IN RED RIVER?
Betrayal and revenge.
Rivalry: between father and son, between Matthew and Cherry, and between Dunson and other landowners/peers.
The ties that bind: in this case, familial ties and bonds prove stronger than hate and resentment.
Fathers versus sons and the conflict that ensues between familial generations. Roger Ebert suggested: “The theme of Red River is from classical tragedy – the need of the son to slay the father, literally or symbolically, in order to clear the way for his own ascendancy.”
Ebert also suggested a second major theme: “The father’s desire to gain immortality through a child.”
How skill and professionalism can overcome obstacles and prove priceless. This is a theme often explored by Hawks: “The cult of professional skill is something to hang onto any world that might otherwise prove meaningless,” as posited by Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O’Brien.
The danger of tunnel vision and obstinacy. Consider that Dunson’s instincts are almost always wrong or appear wrong: his insistence on his wife staying behind results in her being slaughtered; his steadfastness in driving the herd all the way to Missouri would appear to be a fool’s errand destined for failure; and his decision to overwork his crew and punish them via draconian measures leads to desertions and mutiny.

OTHER FILMS AND WORKS OF LITERATURE THAT COME TO MIND AFTER WATCHING RED RIVER
Mutiny on the Bounty
Come and Get It, a 1936 film directed by Hawks
Moby Dick
Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo, two other Hawks films where strong female characters interrupt a powerful male universe

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY HOWARD HAWKS:
Scarface
Bringing Up Baby
Only Angels Have Wings
His Girl Friday
Sergeant York
To Have and Have Not
The Big Sleep
Gentlemen Prefer Blinds
Rio Bravo

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The Duke makes the river run red

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Make plans to join CineVerse on November 16 for “Red River” (1948; prerelease version with extra scenes, 133 minutes), directed by Howard Hawks, chosen by Jeffrey Kueltzo.

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A spoonful of saccharin mixed with a dash of downbeat flashbacks

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Many biopics are guilty of the sin of perpetuating a revisionist history that doesn't jive with the true facts. Such is the case with "Saving Mr. Banks," a Disney-produced homage to the magic, majesty and mastery of the Disney brand and its founding father – whose creative vision and influence, if we are to believe this film, were responsible for convincing "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers to permit a big screen adaptation of her work. Despite playing loose and free with the facts, however, "Saving Mr. Banks" proves to be an entertaining story-behind-the-story film enriched by memorable performances. CineVerse took a closer look at this picture last evening, and here's our supercalifragilisticexpialidocious spin on it:


WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING, UNEXPECTED, DISTINCTIVE, REFRESHING OR DISAPPOINTING ABOUT SAVING MR. BANKS?
There’s a lot of star power and acting talent running the engine here that’s hard to ignore or not enjoy.
The film’s setting and subject is a curious one, considering that most box office today is directed toward teens and younger viewers, the vast majority of whom have never seen or heard of Mary Poppins; this film is obviously an attempt to primarily appeal to baby boomer nostalgia over the 1964 movie, which is now over 50 years old.
The flashback scenes to Travers’ childhood, some argue, grind the film to a halt and add a depressing sheen to an otherwise upbeat and wistful picture. So tonally, the film may feel inconsistent to many viewers.
It reinforces the power of movies to help us escape from our troubles while also demonstrating that real troubles are often what motivates artists to create escapist art.
In a crass and cynical reading of the film, you could make a case that this is just a feature-length commercial for the Disney brand, the myths and magic behind its founder and empire, and the classic films well represented in its vault. Viewers who subscribe to this theory may feel mistrustful about this film’s characters, plot and motivations for its making.

WHAT THEMES CAN YOU PINPOINT ARE AT WORK IN SAVING MR. BANKS?
The dangers of living in the past, choosing to be haunted by guilt and regret, and not forgiving yourself for past actions.
The ability for art to be both transformative and limited in its power.
Art can be a collaborative process whereby a creator compromises his or her vision to allow another artist to shape or adapt that creation for the benefit of pleasing the most people possible.
Art can also have deeply personal inspirations and motivations behind it that may or may not be identified and appreciated by the masses. Travers may have been driven to create Mary Poppins based on her childhood experiences and feelings about her father, but that knowledge is not necessary for us to be able to enjoy the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins.

MUCH OF THIS PLOT HAS BEEN DEBUNKED AS FACTUALLY INCORRECT – INCLUDING THE FACT THAT DISNEY HAD ALREADY OBTAINED THE FILM RIGHTS TO MARY POPPINS WHEN TRAVERS ARRIVED TO CONSULT WITH THE DISNEY STAFF AND THE FACT THAT TRAVERS HATED THE FINISHED FILM; DOES THIS KNOWLEDGE DETRACT FROM YOUR ENJOYMENT AND APPRECIATION OF SAVING MR. BANKS IN ANY WAY?
Many viewers can fall into the trap of believing most or everything they see in a film biopic because cinema wields a mighty power to persuade.
You have to consider the source here: this is a movie made by Disney about its beloved founder and one of its most treasured properties, so it’s highly doubtful they would tackle anything truly controversial about the true nature of this subject or the true life facts about the making of Mary Poppins.
Nevertheless, this picture arguably doesn’t do any harm in serving as a validation of the mastery and magic that went into the creation of an indisputable movie masterpiece – Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins.
That being said, because most of us have such a favorable impression of the 1964 Mary Poppins film, it’s easy to look at the Travers character as depicted in this movie as being overdue for an epiphany, change of heart or even an apology to Disney himself; portraying her as stubborn and obtuse about a soon-to-be-made film that we know has been widely beloved and acclaimed predictably telegraphs to us that this character will be proved wrong.

OTHER MOVIES THAT COME TO MIND AFTER WATCHING SAVING MR. BANKS:
Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie
Miss Potter, about Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter
Shadowlands, about Narnia author C.S. Lewis
Hitchcock, about the famous director
Gods and Monsters, about Universal Studios horror movie director James Whale
Dreamchild, about the woman whom Alice in Alice in Wonderland was modeled after
Nanny McPhee

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY JOHN LEE HANCOCK
The Rookie
The Alamo
The Blind Side

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Money in the Banks

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Mary Poppins goes meta is the best way to describe “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013; 125 minutes), directed by John Lee Hancock, chosen by Margaret Rooney, which is the next film scheduled for CineVerse on November 9.

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Revised CineVerse November/December schedule posted

Friday, November 4, 2016

Curious to know what we'll be viewing and discussing at CineVerse over the next several weeks? Our updated November/December calendar is now ready for viewing. Click here to access it.

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Birds of a feather flock together

Thursday, November 3, 2016

"The Birds" is one of the most challenging films in Hitchcock's canon, particularly because of the unexplained rationale for the avian attacks, diverging plot line, ambiguous ending, and other elements. But there is a method to this madness and an overall effect that the Master of Suspense was trying to achieve; perhaps this method fails for many viewers, but the overall impression he creates will indelibly be etched into your mind and linger long after the film concludes, for better or worse. Here's our CineVerse group's take on the movie:


WHAT IS THE MACGUFFIN IN THIS FILM?
The very question: “Why are the birds attacking”? This is left ambiguous and unexplained.
The would-be growing relationship between Melanie and Mitch

HOW DO YOU FEEL ONCE THE FILM CONCLUDES?
Perhaps puzzled, bewildered, anxious, unsettled, and/or disoriented.
There is no tying up of loose ends or a happy ending tacked on here: it’s highly likely that the bird attacks will continue and the survivors driving away face an uncertain future that could and soon in violent death. This is anticlimactic to the extreme.
Unlike previous horror movies, where the monsters, aliens or giant bugs and their motives or reasons why they attack are explained, this film doesn’t provide any answers or solutions. The “good guys” don’t win in the end, and the monster/threat is not vanquished or understood.
o Critic Richard Scheib suggested that The Birds ushered in a new era of horror cinema, after which: “Standard horror stories… were represented without classical moral/psychological definitions – without happy endings, explanations and solutions or regard to victims. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, these films would have had strident moral messages about monsters of science unleashed or about the atomic bomb looming over everybody. Far more frighteningly, in the 1960s you never knew why monsters were attacking humanity – they came and went out of the blue... And, as Night of the Living Dead demonstrated, characters could no longer be guaranteed survival just because they were designated the hero.”

HOW IS THE BIRDS DIFFERENT FROM OR SIMILAR TO OTHER HITCHCOCK PICTURES?
The motivations for the terrorizing/threatening force (in this case, the birds themselves) are not explained, just as it’s not explained why Melanie wants to go to such trouble to pull a practical joke on Mitch. Additionally, there is no proper closure by the dénouement of the film: we are left with an open ending wherein very little is clarified.
It doesn’t employ a proper musical score – instead, it utilizes an innovative sound design that incorporates live bird sounds and electronic sounds meant to simulate birds, as well as strange sounds and noises like ambient hum and dangerous animal sounds (like a rattlesnake).
Like Psycho, it features a long pursuit sequence and extended first act buildup in which we think the story is going in one direction (in this movie, a growing relationship between Mitch and Melanie) but suddenly turns in another direction and subverts our expectations.
It features elaborate special-effects for the day, including animated birds mixed with live and electronic birds, realistic matte paintings, complex optical effects and more.
This was the third time Hitchcock attempted to adapt a story by Daphne Du Maurier – previous efforts include Jamaica Inn and Rebecca.

HOW DO YOU INTERPRET THIS MOVIE? WHAT THEMES ARE AT WORK HERE?
You can attempt a feminist/Freudian psychological reading of this movie as such: Melanie enters the life of Mitch and upsets the natural order and structure of the flock who depend on him, which includes his mother Lydia, his previous girlfriend Annie, and his sister Cathy – all “birds” (in the English slang, a term that refers to females). Melanie’s arrival into their lives represents an external threat to their place in the roost that revolves around Mitch. Hence, the avian attacks symbolize the hatred, fear and resentment these three females – especially mother – feel toward Melanie.
o Essayist Brandie Ashe posits: “The attacks only and when Melanie essentially sacrifices herself to an onslaught of birds in the end of the film – her subsequent catatonia and helplessness lead Lydia to take on the role of mother, and it can be assumed that it is her implicit acceptance of Melanie (and of the regaining of her position as the head female character) which precipitates the end of the chaos and the uneasy detente at the conclusion of the film.” In other words, the birds stop attacking because mother has accepted Melanie – and vice versa (Melanie has found a new mother figure to fill that void in her life).
Melanie as albatross: she serves as a kind of bird of ill omen and bad luck, and her arrival into the town precedes the attacks. A town resident even insinuates that she’s a kind of witch, asking “who are you – what are you?” and suggesting that her presence provoked the bird attacks.
Birds of a feather flock together – especially when forced. Keep in mind that Mitch and Melanie both have names that start with M and R both sexually flirtatious and attracted to one another. Another M character – mother, who creates an “M” love triangle – at first rejects Melanie but comes to accept her by the end of the film.
You can also ascribe a biblical/apocalyptic religious reading to the movie: consider that the bird attacks bring to mind the various animal plagues of Egypt described in the Old Testament. We also hear an old drunk character quote the Bible and warn of the end of the world.
It’s important to remember also that this was the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia – thus, the movie can be viewed as a cautionary tale or allegory about escalating tensions between the two factions and the carnage and destruction that could be unleashed upon the world because of it.
The Birds can also be interpreted as a nature’s revenge tale: remember that early in the film, humans keep birds and cages, but by the end of the movie birds keep humans in cages (like Melanie trapped in a phone booth).

OTHER FILMS THAT THE BIRDS REMIND US OF:
A flock of “nature revenge” movies from the 1970s, including Frogs, Night of the Lepus, Killer Bees, Squirm, The Food of the Gods, Rattlers, Empire of the Answers, Jaws, and The Swarm.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror
Kaw
Cujo

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