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Ultimate Guide to Darren Aronofsky and His Directing Techniques

Darren Aronofsky

STUDENT FILMS (1991-1994)

Few filmographies are as uncompromisingly independent and fiercely original as director Darren Aronofsky’s.  From his scrappy lo-fi debut in 1998 with PI, to the release of his revisionist biblical epic NOAH in 2014, each of Aronofsky’s feature films convey an artist with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a deeply-sympathetic view towards the terrors of the human experience.

His strength of vision is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability– for instance, the unconventional spirituality that shaped the unforgettable images of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN is also what caused mainstream audiences to stay clear for fear of having their fragile horizons broadened.

His willingness to court controversy might have held him back from bigger directing opportunities (he was once attached to direct a Batman film in the early 2000’s, only for his profoundly revisionist take to get canned in favor of Christopher Nolan’s famously “dark and gritty reboot), but it has nevertheless allowed him to accumulate a cultish fanbase just the same.

To some, the study of his career might be read as a cautionary tale; to others, a thorough deconstruction of one of the most vital voices in contemporary independent cinema.

Aronofsky was born February 12, 1969 in Brooklyn, to Charlotte and Abraham Aronofsky.  Both parents were public school teachers who no doubt influenced his intellectual curiosity from an early age.

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach neighborhood, Aronofsky was continually exposed to a mix of Italian and Russian & Orthodox Jewish cultures– the future director himself was raised in the cultural aspects of his Jewish heritage, although the religious and spiritual aspects were not as emphasized.

Aronofsky’s early hunger for intellectual enlightenment soon led him beyond the confines of Brooklyn, supplementing his education at Edward R. Murrow High School with brief stints at the The School For Field Studies in locations as far away as Alaska and even Kenya.

His studies in Africa proved particularly influential, an experience Aronofsky cites as paradigm-changing and that led him to further journey on through Europe and the Middle East with nothing more than a backpack.

SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991)

Aronofsky’s voracious appetite for knowledge eventually led to his enrollment at Harvard University in 1987, where he majored in social anthropology.  It was here that he met an animation student named Dan Schrecker and aspiring actor Sean Gullette, who would later go on to star in his debut feature, PI (3).

Aronofsky credits these two with stoking his dormant interest in filmmaking, leading to his eventual formalized studies in the craft (4).  In studying the history of the medium, he founds himself particularly enamored of the work of Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, amongst others.

These studies would culminate in his senior thesis film, SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991).  Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information to be found about the film, let alone a viewable copy, but it featured Gullette in a leading role and went on to become a finalist at the National Student Academy Awards.

This experience no doubt proved highly influential for Aronofsky, solidifying his desire to pursue filmmaking as a career.

FORTUNE COOKIE (1991)

After Aronofsky’s graduation from Harvard in 1991, he moved to Los Angeles to obtain his MFA in directing from the prestigious American Film Institute.  The two-year program resulted in the creation of two short films, the first of which is 1991’s FORTUNE COOKIE— an absurdist comedy inspired by the Hubert Selby Jr story of the same name.

Thankfully, an old VHS dub of the film has been made available in its entirety online, giving us our earliest glimpse at Aronofsky’s artistic development.  Written by Aronofsky and produced by Jody Teora, FORTUNE COOKIE concerns a middle-aged salesman who comes to believe his recent string of successes are the result of the good luck contained with an old fortune cookie he keeps in his pocket.

The short follows his highs and lows, forcing him to contend with the pushy aggressions of a rival salesman intent on figuring out his secrets, and a strange pervert who follows him around and makes unwanted romantic overtures from the cabin of his gigantic Cadillac.

Aronofsky’s broadly humorous approach strikes a curious tone, exemplified by literal fart jokes and purposely weird performances that would be almost Lynchian if they weren’t so over the top.  To his credit, Aronofsky casts the film entirely with middle-aged actors or older– a notable aspect in the world of student filmmaking, where the casts are typically comprised of the director’s friends or fellow students.

A distinct, albeit half-hearted, midcentury aesthetic defines the production design, with the characters dressed in baggy suits from the 1950’s and affecting a rapid-fire Transatlantic vernacular to match.  Aronofsky even sprinkles a vintage car or two in the background, but beyond that he makes no effort to hide the trappings of contemporary life.

Nevertheless, a degree of deliberate design choice evidences itself in the locations, which juxtapose sleepy, pastel-colored suburban environs with crumbling, graffiti-riddled industrial areas (perhaps as a comment on the breakdown of the American Dream myth, or something similarly heavy-handed in an appropriately film-school way).

Working with credited director of photography Usa Stoll, Aronofsky captures FORTUNE COOKIE in the square frame of analog video, which no doubt was less of an artistic choice than it was a mandate from his first-year directing professor at AFI.

His approach to coverage mostly eschews conventional over-the-shoulder compositions and reverse shots, in favor of having his actors continually break the 4th wall by addressing the camera directly.  A recurring visual motif finds Aronofsky framing his protagonist in a wide, flat composition and moving from one side of the frame to the other.

He repeats the action with the same framing in the subsequent shot, albeit a few yards down the street.  Most filmmakers would cover this same action as a continued dolly shot, but Aronofsky chops it up and fragments the line of movement as another way to convey that his protagonist is moving in circles without actually going anywhere.

The effect is like watching an old-school side-scrolling video game that doesn’t actually scroll when the hero reaches the edge of the screen.  A soundtrack comprised primarily of street performance-style percussion only vaguely foreshadows the urban character of Aronofsky’s future work, but a series of activity-based insert shots (presented in extreme closeup up and edited together in rapid-fire succession to a soundtrack of exaggerated audio effects) immediately call to mind the signature stylistic technique he’d perfect in PI and its follow-up, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000).

PROTOZOA (1993)

While his next student short from this period is also unreleased and only available for AFI student viewing in the school’s media library, Aronofsky’s 1993 short PROTOZOA nevertheless serves two vital contributions to his development as a filmmaker– one being that its successful completion meant receiving his and the other being his first collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who would go on to become a key creative partner in Aronofsky’s professional work.

The short, which apparently stars a young Lucy Liu, is reported by those who’ve seen it to be about a trio of slackers just drifting aimlessly through life– akin to human amoebas.

Several key aspects of Aronofsky’s directorial signature apparently emerge here, like his quick-cut insert shots and intellectual approach to religion.  PROTOZOA’s title itself would prove influential in Aronosky’s development, becoming the name of the production company in which he’d later produce his features under.

NO TIME (1994)

Aronofsky’s fourth short from this era– 1994’s NO TIME — appears to have been made after his graduation from AFI, and adopts the brazen Generation X attitude that marked pop culture in the 90’s.  At first glance, the film appears to be a slacker riff on improv comedy shows, anchored by a quartet of young actors playing various characters across several vignettes.

Shot by Matthew Libatique on color 16mm film, NO TIME resembles the style of FORTUNE COOKIE with its super-broad humor and moronic fart jokes that seem at odds with the darkly cerebral character of Aronofsky’s future professional work.

The visual style plays fast and loose with the rules of composition, frequently opting for close-ups that are almost claustrophobic in their nature.  It’s unclear exactly what Aronofsky was trying to achieve with NO TIME, unless he was trying to get this particular style of filmmaking out of his system early on.

Any director’s student films have a strong chance of bearing no resemblance to their professional counterparts.  After all, that’s the nature of film school– to experiment, to feel out, to play in the pursuit of establishing one’s particular voice.

Aronofsky’s professional style is so distinct and singularly his, however, that this quartet of early shorts really does leave one surprised as to how little they predict the unique artistic voice we’ve since come to cherish and anticipate.

Nevertheless, these first efforts constitute a crucial training ground for Aronofsky, and their creation within the confines of the formalized film education system provides him with vital resources and collaborators that would carry him towards professional success in the long-term.

In the short-term, these same resources would give him the confidence necessary to take that first step: the creation of a feature-length effort that would establish his voice as that of an uncompromising indie maverick.


PI (1998)

At its heart, the filmography of director Darren Aronofsky is concerned primarily with the conflict between faith and reason.

His stories find his protagonists as otherwise reasonable people laboring under some kind of delusion– a washed-up wrestler believes he’s on the verge of a comeback; a ballet dancer thinks she’s transforming into an animal; an intellectual pursues his late soulmate across time and space.

This line can be traced all the way back to his feature-length debut: the paranoid mathematics thriller, PI (1998).  One of the scrappiest debuts in recent memory, PI stages itself as a frenzied showdown between faith and reason in which a reclusive mathematician employs numerology in a bid to predict the stock market, only to unwittingly entangle himself with a cabal of hasidic Jews intent on decoding the true name of God.

As any proper debut feature should, Aronofsky’s script draws heavily from personal experience.  Set in his native New York City, the story finds inspiration in Aronofsky’s Jewish upbringing, which de-emphasized the religious aspects in favor of its cultural experience.

As a result, Aronofsky was raised to embrace his faith at arm’s length, always regarding it with a critical eye while never discounting its importance as an emotional motivating force.

PI reflects this rather literally as it charts the plight of its protagonist, the brilliant recluse Maximillian Cohen.  Portrayed by SUPERMARKET SWEEP’s Sean Gullette, Max suffers from debilitating cluster headaches, which prompts him to shut himself off from the outside world and sit before his homemade computer named Euclid as it spits out a random sequence of numbers he hopes will bring him riches on the stock market.

On the rare occasion he ventures outside his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, he tends to visit a retired Columbia professor and mentor figure named Sol Robeson.  A crucial bridge between Max’s logic-based perspective and the fanciful designs of the hasidic Jews, Sol is played by seasoned character actor Mark Margolis, easily the most recognizable face in the film.

When Max’s computer spits out a 216-digit number that he initially dismisses as nonsense, Sol is uniquely suited to convey the number’s spiritual significance, thus setting up Max’s increasingly perilous association with a pushy hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (played by Ben Shenkman), who sees Max’s mysterious number as the answer to a longtime mystery involving the true name of God that, when uttered aloud, will bring about the messianic age.

Aronofsky’s approach to PI’s distinct visual aesthetic is unavoidably shaped by its relatively paltry $68,000 production budget, but by no means is it limited by it.  In an era where shooting on video was becoming increasingly accepted, Aronofsky’s choice to shoot on film is a notable and vital one.

Working once again with his film school cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky positions PI as not just a story told from Max’s perspective, but as a subjective experience totally contained within the confines of his mind.  Gullette’s noir-style voiceover plays a substantial role in this regard, but it is Aronofsky and Libatique’s extremely gritty and abrasive cinematography that can claim most of the responsibility.

PI’s radical high-contrast look stems from its acquisition onto black and white 16mm reversal stock, which foregoes the negative process by producing a positive print right out of the gate.

The savings in processing time are offset by a decreased latitude and an exaggerated grain structure, which in Libatique and Aronofsky’s hands results in a rough 1.66:1 image that resembles the earliest days of photography.  They push this conceit even further via harsh lighting setups and claustrophobically-tight compositions.

The camerawork reveals PI’s shoestring-budget origins, foregoing luxurious tracking shots in favor of simple locked-off setups and jittery handheld movements.

Several of Aronofsky’s technical signatures make their feature debut in PI, like rapid-fire activity inserts that portray a physical action like shutting a door or popping pills in a hyper-exaggerated manner, or a disruptive camera technique that has since become known as Snorricam, whereby the camera is rigged to the actor’s body with the lens pointing towards him, selfie-style.

This results in an effectively unsettling composition that anchors the actor firmly in the center of the frame while the background whirls and spins around behind him.

Aronofsky’s technical approach is even more impressive when considering that the entire film was shot guerrilla-style, having never secured any permits for their various locations.

PI also marks the first collaboration between the burgeoning director and his longtime composer, Clint Mansell, whose breakbeat electro-grunge score relentlessly pushes the action forward while becoming the musical equivalent of a drill corkscrewing its way into your head.

PI establishes several concepts and ideas that have since become key artistic signatures of Aronofsky’s.  Beyond the aforementioned religious themes that deal specifically with the director’s native Judaism, PI shares his profound intellectual curiosity– exemplified by Max’s efforts to find mathematical patterns in the flow of life around him, as if to “decode” the ways of nature itself.

The film takes great pains to point out how concepts like the Fibonacci Spiral and the Golden Mean recur naturally across a wide of biological phenomena, giving a semblance of mechanical order to the relative chaos of evolution.

The terror of the human experience is another major theme that courses through Aronofsky’s work, whether it’s the theatrical horror of films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) and BLACK SWAN (2010), or the lower-key existential fear of oblivion and obscurity in films like THE FOUNTAIN (2006) and THE WRESTLER (2008).

PI establishes this artistic conceit via the perils of genius, whereby Max’s staggering degree of intelligence is both a blessing and a curse.  His mental powers endow him with an almost supernatural talent with mathematics, but they come at the price of his chronic, crippling headaches.

Aronofsky seems to ask: “how smart is too smart?”, as Max becomes so consumed by his need to decode the meaning behind the mysterious number sequence that he feels the need to literally drill into his brain as a means to make it all stop.

This idea of knowledge as a curse dovetails obliquely, but rather nicely, with Aronofsky’s exploration on religion, as it was Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that cast her and Adam from the Garden.

Aronofsky further peppers PI with little artistic quirks, like having the actor from his student short FORTUNE COOKIE reprise his creepy pervert character in a scene on the subway, or having Max take a trip out to Coney Island– the primary setting of his next film, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

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Considering its origins as a scrappy shoestring indie with an unproven director, no recognizable talent and an admittedly abrasive visual aesthetic, it’s fair to say that PI’s creators probably didn’t fully anticipate the degree of success their film would go on to achieve.

PI debuted at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where its buzz as one of the most talked-about films that year propelled Aronofsky to his first major career award: the festival’s prestigious Directing Award.  Artisan Entertainment acquired PI at the festival for $1 million, its investment paying off when the film went on to gross $3 million in its theatrical release.

The film world responded positively to Aronofsky’s arrival, awarding him the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay, and eventually giving PI the distinction of being the first feature film available for download on the internet (1).

Through sheer labor and fortitude, Aronofsky had kicked off his career in earnest, with PI establishing him as a maverick visionary poised to take the indie film world by storm.


CLINT MANSELL MUSIC VIDEO: PI R SQUARED (1998)

As part of the promotional campaign of PI’s release in 1998, director Darren Aronofsky highlighted the work of his composer, Clint Mansell, with a music video for the score’s de facto theme.

Titled “PI R SQUARED”, the piece takes a fairly basic approach that only seems complicated thanks to rapid-fire, subliminally-appealing cuts synchronized with Mansell’s frenetic breakbeat sound.

Aronofsky intercuts skin-crawling stock footage of ants with footage from the film itself– specifically, the sequences in which Sean Gullette runs around the city in a paranoid frenzy.

Combined with flashes of mathematical images like Fibonacci Spirals and complicated formulas, Aronofsky creates an overall feeling much akin to the experience of its feature-length counterpart. “PI R SQUARED” is a fairly minor piece, perhaps more of a marketing after-thought than a true-blue music video, but it nevertheless establishes the foundation for the advertising work that he would pursue later on in his career.


REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)

2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is often cited as the de facto film that “you must see, but never want to watch again”– it’s a gut-wrenching, nauseating, and nightmarish experience that aims to convey the inescapable horrors of addiction.

My first experience with the film was a memorable one– I was in high school, and one day a group of us gathered together in my friend’s basement to watch the film.  For two hours, we were glued to the TV screen, its lurid blue glow being the only light source in the room.

We were too morbidly curious and profoundly horrified to turn away, and by the time the movie was over, we immediately burst outside into the bright spring sunshine and ran around like idiots given a second chance at life.

It’s nearly impossible to achieve such a visceral film experience in the comforts of your own home, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM delivered that and so much more, besting any of Nancy Reagan’s efforts to keep kids off drugs with a harrowing and uncompromising audiovisual experience.

For me, and for much of the film world, this was the first impression that director Darren Aronofsky left on pop culture.  He had broken out into the indie scene in a big way with 1998’s PI, but he was still an unknown quantity in the eyes of the larger cinematic community.

That all changed with the release of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, still considered to be one of the most controversial films of all time almost two decades after its release.

Aronofsky’s association with the project reaches all the way back to film school, beginning with his making of the short student film, FORTUNE COOKIE, in 1991– an adaptation of author Hubert Selby Jr.’s short story of the same name.

Selby was an influential force in Aronofsky’s artistic development, leading the burgeoning young filmmaker to purchase his 1978 novel, “Requiem For A Dream”, shortly after finishing school.

By the time he was cutting PI in 1998, Aronofsky had barely cracked Selby’s book open, so he lent it to his producing partner Eric Watson to read during an upcoming trip. As Aronofsky notes in his director’s commentary for the film, Watson would immediately approach him upon his return with an urgent desire to adapt Selby’s book for the screen.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is, at its most basic level, an anti-drug film– but that’s not exactly where Aronofsky’s interest lies.  Instead, his approach is informed by a simple question with profound implications: “what is a drug?”.

Far from simply being a story about narcotics, Aronofsky uses the framework of Selby’s story to dissect the inherently-addictive nature of our pleasure centers.

This inquiry drives the creation of a rich tapestry of characters, all addicts in their own ways, clustered together in Aronofsky’s native Brooklyn in an ambiguously contemporaneous setting– it could be today, or yesterday, or 1973.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM marks Aronofsky’s first time working with well-known talent, establishing his artistic reputation for driving his cast to deliver career-best performances.  Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans headline the film, each giving the entirety of themselves over to their roles.

Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a scrawny, strung-out heroin junkie whose addiction compels him to continually steal his mother’s TV set and sell it at a pawn shop so he can score his next fix.

Bursty would take home an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb– a frail and delusional recluse whose drug is the euphoria of adoration, causing her to go to dramatic lengths to lose weight for what she thinks will be an upcoming appearance on a television program hosted by Christopher McDonald’s flashy oil salesman, Tappy Tibbons.

Connelly plays Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver, an aspiring dress designer with a dark and moody temperament.  Wayans eschews his screwball comedic persona for a rare serious turn as Harry’s best friend, Tyrone Love– an up-and-coming drug dealer who isn’t as street-smart as he thinks he is.

Aronofsky structures the cascading rhythms of these characters’ arcs as something of a symphony, evoking the musical nature of the film’s title as he divides the action into four distinct movements (spring, summer, fall, & winter) that gradually build in intensity towards a shocking and deliriously-intense catharsis.

Aronofsky retains several prior collaborators from PI and his student work, including Sean Gullette and Mark Margolis, who cameo as an unnervingly pompous yuppie and a lazy pawn shop dealer, respectively.

Stanley B. Herman also makes his requisite appearance as a variation on the creepy pervert he’s played since FORTUNE COOKIE, unwittingly giving the film one of its oft-quoted lines in his lecherous “ass-to-ass” chant during a nightmarish sex party sequence.

Technical collaborators like cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell also return to lend their talents in service to Aronofsky’s vision.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM presents old-fashioned 1.85:1 35mm film in radical new ways, pairing his picture with a hyper-aggressive sound mix to completely assault the senses.

A muted, naturalistic color palette complements a distinctly gritty texture while evoking the ramshackle grime of Coney Island with buzzing fluorescents and unforgiving sunlight.  Indeed, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is a decidedly ugly film, but one that’s nevertheless so richly-realized and surreal we can’t help but be drawn in.

Aronofsky and Libatique employ a variety of classical dolly, handheld and Steadicam movements in addition to expressionistic techniques like distorted lenses, spiraling overheads, extreme undercranking, and Aronofsky’s signature actor-anchored “Snorricam” shot, all of which editor Jay Rabinowitz chops up into a delirious split-screen brew that simulates the experience of an increasingly-bad trip.

Mansell’s score would prove instantly iconic upon the film’s release, imprinting itself into the collective pop culture psyche with its dark techno baseline and an intense string theme performed by Kronos Quartet.

Indeed, the score was a breakout piece of work for both Mansell and Kronos Quartet, helping to ensure the film’s longevity with a theme that has since been used and repurposed many times over, perhaps most famously as a battle theme for the trailer of Peter Jackson’s second installment of his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE TWO TOWERS (2002).

PI may have been Aronofsky’s breakout, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is the film that cemented his artistic aesthetic in the eyes of the public, establishing his technical and thematic signatures.

Having grown up around Coney Island and greater Brooklyn, the world of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is one that the director knows intimately and completely.

His familiarity imparts the film with an unforgettable sense of place, helping his audience to understand the context of the world that his characters wish to escape via their various addictions.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM also represents the perfection of a technique he had been experimenting with since his earliest student work: rapid-fire inserts that depict distinct activities in extreme close-up.

Referring to these mini sequences as “hip hop montages”, Aronofsky employs this technique throughout the film as something akin to a punctuation mark preceding some of the film’s most bizarrely surreal images.

The audience is able to experience the same kind of rush his characters feel as they shoot up or pop pills– but just as we get to share in their loopy delight, we also must endure their pain and suffering as their addictions increasingly take hold.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is nothing if not a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction, a key pillar in Aronofsky’s career-long exploration of the dark side of the human experience.

Aronofsky shows how our ability to subvert our own biological chemistry and willfully manipulate our perception of reality comes at a high price– the more we give ourselves over to narcotically-induced euphoria, the more we lose of our authentic selves.

Addiction slowly saps of us our humanity, dimming the bright light of our individuality until eventually the light goes out.  Aronofsky’s inherent understanding of the human condition allows him to depict addiction for the waking nightmare it truly is, exposing drug culture’s sexy and appealing aspects as ultimately hollow and elusive.

Nearly twenty years after its premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM has steadfastly maintained its reputation as one of the most controversial films ever made.

The controversy began before its theatrical release, with the MPAA refusing to rate the film any lower than NC-17 due to, of all things, its sexual content.  To his credit, Aronofsky courageously refused to cut the film– after all, the shocking nature of its content was integral to the conveyance of the core message.

An NC-17 rating would mean that commercials couldn’t air on TV and prints ads couldn’t appear in newspapers, virtually guaranteeing a box office catastrophe.

In the end, Aronofsky chose to release the film unrated.  This move would allow him to distribute the film without edits or censorship, but it also meant that no mainstream theater chain would show the film either.

Thankfully, Aronofsky was able to leverage his indie cred and the film’s public controversy into a respectable run in arthouse theaters.

The film’s cult status was cemented with its successful performance in the home video market, with many no doubt adding the DVD to their collection as a must-own work of cinema that they’ll knowingly never take down from the shelf.

More important than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s profit margins, its warm critical reception reinforced the power of Aronofsky’s unique voice in cinema.  He had delivered on PI’s artistic promise with an unforgettable powerhouse of a film that served as the culmination of his early directorial output.

In closing this first chapter out on such a strong note, Aronofsky would begin a new one well-poised to meet the greater challenges of a higher artistic plane.


THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

Entering one’s thirties can be a loaded rite of passage– the telltale signs of aging like grey hairs, chronic pain from old injuries, and a slowdown of metabolism usually rear their ugly heads for the first time.  It’s a time when many start to grapple with their future and the realism of their prospects and dreams.

Thoughts about one’s own mortality can move from the realm of the impossible to the all-too tangible, but most don’t have to deal with the spectre of death directly.

In the early 2000’s, director Darren Aronofsky was entering this particular life juncture for himself, and found himself confronting death when his parents were diagnosed with cancer.

While they eventually overcame their illnesses, the process left the young filmmaker trying to make sense of it all– caught between the worlds of faith and reason, his intellectual rationality couldn’t reconcile itself with the staggering unknowability of oblivion.  Words simply failed him; thankfully, pictures did not.

All this internal turmoil caused Aronofsky to turn to his old Harvard roommate, Ari Handel, in an effort to develop a story that properly expressed his sentiments about the great beyond.  Their efforts would result in Aronofsky’s third feature film: THE FOUNTAIN (2006).

An ambitious and overwhelmingly unique meditation on death, eternity, and undying love, THE FOUNTAIN is a pivotal work in Aronofsky’s canon.  It was received upon its release as an artistic misfire, but it’s clear now that THE FOUNTAIN was simply ahead of its time.

Pop culture during the 2000’s was defined by its materialistic flash and taste for gaudy excess, so in hindsight it’s perhaps understandable that audiences decked out in Tom Hardy tattoo shirts and pink sweatpants with “Juicy” on the butt were not exactly ready for the psycho-spiritual brew Aronofosky had concocted.

The success of PI (1998) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) gave Warner Brothers the confidence to finance Aronofsky’s vision, setting him and his producing partner Eric Watson up with an exponential increase in budgetary resources to the tune of $75 million.

Complete with epic battle scenes, gigantic set builds and an all-star lead couple in Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, THE FOUNTAIN was shaping up to become Aronofsky’s first big Hollywood film.  The lifelong New Yorker even relocated to Australia to settle in for a long, arduous shoot.

Inevitably, the studio got buyer’s remorse, and when Pitt departed the project because Aronofsky wouldn’t accommodate his rewrite requests, they seized on the opportunity to shut a massively risky project down and cut their losses.

Despite all this, the project wasn’t completely dead in the water– Warner Brothers, to their credit, still believed in Aronofsky’s vision enough to leave the door open to a revival should he bring the costs down.  The wounded director retreated to his writing while re-immersing himself in his roots in the independent sector, trimming away unwieldy battle scenes to better hone in on THE FOUNTAIN’s key themes and ideas.

In doing so, Aronofsky was able to shave his budget down to $35 million.  By 2004, Aronofsky was off to Montreal, Canada with his second greenlight and a renewed conviction in his vision.

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THE FOUNTAIN’s story arranges itself as a triptych, depicting a man named Tomas and his quest across time and space to conquer death and live forever with his beloved, Isabel.

Aronofsky sets the action in three distinct time periods– the 16th century, 2005, and sometime in the distant 2500’s– with the action and story beats arranged so that they repeat, overlap, and cascade upon in each other in such a way that suggests a circular temporal structure of reincarnation rather than a linear, forward-pushing timeline.

In the 16th century, Tomas is a Spanish conquistador who has traveled to the jungles of South America in a bid to find the Fountain of Youth and win the hand of his beloved Queen Isabel.  In contemporary 2005, he is a driven neuroscientist desperately searching for the elusive cure to brain cancer before it claims his terminally-ill wife.

In the 2500’s, he is a meditative zen astronaut, traveling through the cosmos in his bubble spaceship towards the dying star, Xibalba.

Known primarily at the time for his fierce portrayal as Wolverine in the X-MEN films, Hugh Jackman proves a revelation as the three distinct incarnations of Tomas– each more grief-addled and tortured than the last.  Rachel Weisz handles the luminescent complexity of Isabel’s three forms so effortlessly that it’s hard to imagine Aronofsky initially didn’t want her in the part; she was his girlfriend at the time, and was sensitive to the potential accusations of favoritism that her casting might imply– until Jackman was able to overcome his resistance and sway him.

Weisz ties her three roles as a Queen, a wife, and an ethereal angel together with a wide-eyed wonder at the prospect of confronting oblivion– she’s unafraid of the Great Beyond, seeing death not as an end, but as an empowering transformation that will enable her to discover the wider universe beyond our perception.

Indeed, her musing that “death is the road to awe” handily sums up THE FOUNTAIN’s fundamental message, giving the film the necessary conviction to uphold its distinct tone.

Through these two souls and their various incarnations, Aronofsky fashions a profound narrative that resonates at the innermost levels of the collective human experience, drawing inspiration from a wide range of resources like Renaissance art, Western religion, and Eastern philosophy and meshing it together into something that feels at once both impossibly familiar and jaw-droppingly alien.

By this point in his career, Aronofsky had cemented his core group of collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.

This includes talent like Ellen Burstyn and Mark Margolis– Burstyn following her highly-praised turn in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with her appearance here as modern-day Tomas’ compassionate and maternal boss, Dr. Lillian Guzetti, and Margolis as Fr. Avila, a Franciscan priest accompanying 16th-century Tomas to the Mayan jungles.

Behind the camera, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer James Chinlund, editor Jay Rabinowitz, and composer Clint Mansell also return– their individual efforts coming together in sublime harmony.

Celluloid film is already prized for its organic nature (especially in relation to the clinical, sometimes-lifeless sheen of digital cinematography), but THE FOUNTAIN finds Aronofsky and Libatique imprinting the 1.85:1 35mm film image with an unusually-tangible degree of organic texture.

Extreme closeups reveal the fleeting effervescence of life itself via the fine hairs on skin and rough tree bark.  Indeed, Aronofsky and Libatique shed the gritty, grimy lo-fi texture of their previous collaborations for a timeless aesthetic that looks at the specter of death with a romantic eye, painting it as an unknowable force of impermanent beauty.

An evocative black/gold color palette unifies THE FOUNTAIN’s three eras, complemented by limited splashes of green and red.  A “starlight” motif drives the film’s approach to lighting, illuminating Chinlund’s sets in bright wells of concentrated spotlights or the warm, ambient glow of candles while puncturing the surrounding darkness with pinpoints of distant luminescence.

If Aronofsky harnessed the spirit of John Cassavetes with his rough-hewn approach to PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, then THE FOUNTAIN channels the ghost of Stanley Kubrick with its plentiful one-point perspective compositions, abundance of overhead angles, and classical/formalist camerawork.

Rabinowitz brilliantly weaves the film’s three epochs together into a cosmic whole, employing classic techniques like match-cutting on action or similar shapes.

Naturally, a story like THE FOUNTAIN requires a substantial degree of visual effects, but Aronofksy’s roots as a scrappy microbudget filmmaker enable him to pull off his vision while both keeping costs down and ensuring his images’ technical integrity against the always-evolving nature of digital wizardry.

Aronofsky endeavors to capture as much of the film as practically as he can, utilizing only basic CGI techniques like compositing and rotoscoping.

THE FOUNTAIN’s most inspired touch in this regard is arguably its technique for realizing the vast backdrop of a dying nebula in space. To achieve this, Aronofsky employed macrophotography of various chemical reactions inside water– a process that reads as organic and entirely believable thanks to space and water’s shared physics.

In adopting this approach, Aronofsky was able to create realistic and astonishing visual backdrops for a fraction of the cost it would take for a computer to do the same.  Like Rabinowitz’s edit, Mansell’s already-iconic score unifies the disparate elements of THE FOUNTAIN into a singular entity, using romantic and intensely epic string arrangements played once more by Kronos Quartet as well as Scottish post-rock band, Mogwai.

As vastly different a film as it is to previous works like PI or REQUIEM FOR A DREAMTHE FOUNTAIN is nonetheless an inherently authentic portrait of Aronofsky’s distinct artistic character.

His intellectual, academically-minded and atheistic upbringing within a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and culture forms his lifelong search for the middle ground between faith and reason.

Despite opening with a verse from the Old Testament, the film takes great pains to ensure its narrative and thematic conceits can’t fit into a tidy box labeled for one particular religion– indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of Eternity marries the core spiritual tenets of Western and Eastern religions while also folding in elements of Kabbalah mysticism, Mayan creation myths and contemporary neuroscience into a singular cosmic experience.

In doing so, Aronofsky is able to capture the awe of oblivion, the afterlife, and creation itself without religious imposition.  Indeed, THE FOUNTAIN is the kind of film that a Christian, Muslim, or Agnostic alike could find profound spiritual resonance in.

Just as REQUIEM FOR A DREAM explored the dark side of the human experience through addiction, THE FOUNTAIN dissects ideas like death, grief, and religious fanaticism (seen best in a sequence set during the Spanish Inquisition).

Whereas his previous film’s depiction of chemical dependency made for an appropriately harrowing and dour viewing experience, THE FOUNTAIN’s treatment of its darkly existential themes is meant to inspire awe at the beauty of creation’s impermanence.

Death is a powerful force that we all must succumb to one day, but THE FOUNTAIN posits that Love is even stronger; death can be conquered– not by living forever, but by letting our divine capacity for love resonate through the ages.

THE FOUNTAIN premiered at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, generating a strong base of acclaim before its theatrical release.  Its domestic run, however, did not meet expectations– mixed critical reviews and poor audience attendance left THE FOUNTAIN unable to recoup half its production costs.

Critics admired the earnestness of Aronofsky’s ambition even as they dragged him for the film’s perceived failures, belittling his vision as a hodgepodge of religious gobbledygook that, while pretty to look at, made little to no narrative sense.

Time has revealed those sentiments to be shortsighted at best (and foolish at worst), as Aronofsky’s ambitious “failure” has only grown in esteem in the decade since its release.  Like a slow-blooming flower, THE FOUNTAIN’s multitudes of nuance and spiritual insight steadily unfold over time– each subsequent viewing drawing us deeper into Aronofsky’s vision, yielding ever-more elusive emotional truths.

These are the kind of ideas we expect to see from filmmakers nearing the end of their lives, not one barely into his thirties.  Remembering this, the spiritual profundity of THE FOUNTAIN becomes even more impressive.

Whenever “Best Of” film lists are compiled for the 2000’s (or the 21st century for that matter), THE FOUNTAIN almost always manages to achieve a respectable slot– even ticking upwards in rank every couple years as its ideas prove ever more timeless.

It may be one of the most misunderstood films of its decade, but THE FOUNTAIN is also one of its best.  For Aronofsky, it may not quite fully embody his aspirations as a cinematic masterpiece, but it is certainly a work that will stand the test of time– marking his transition from an upstart maverick to a mature artist in full command of his abilities.


THE WRESTLER (2008)

Everyone loves a good comeback story.  As long as cinema has been around, it seems, this particular narrative archetype has persisted.

It can happen either in front of or behind the camera, sometimes simultaneously– especially simultaneously, considering the trope’s usefulness as a tool for washed-up actors or tired directors to revive a flagging career.

In 2008, the latest comeback story to enrapture audiences was told by actor Mickey Rourke, who had finally delivered on the early promise of a career many had written off as a series of missteps and squandered opportunities by starring in director Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature film, THE WRESTLER.

Rourke made himself particularly visible during the film’s promotional campaign, availing himself of countless media interviews and appearing at local screenings in LA (I managed to catch one of these appearances myself, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica just prior to its official release).

Indeed, the pairing of THE WRESTLER and Rourke was lightning in a bottle– a divine alchemy between actor and subject matter.  What often gets lost in this narrative, however, is Aronofsky’s role in the proceedings, and how THE WRESTLER serves as something of his own comeback story.

The sudden surge of career momentum that enabled Aronofsky to make 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN slowed just as abruptly in the wake of that film’s disappointing performance.

Having experienced his first major career setback by faltering under the scale of a mid-budget studio film, Aronofsky must have felt a return to the independent sector in which he had made his name was the appropriate move.

Indeed, a total artistic reboot seemed necessary in order to reclaim his forward momentum.  He found this fresh start in Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay about an aging wrestler attempting a comeback– a story he was strongly compelled to realize on-screen despite it not stemming from his own thoughts like all of his previous work.

Partnering with a new producer in the form of Scott Franklin, Aronofsky set up a bare-bones– yet ambitious– production that shot around the New Jersey area for thirty-five days.

The scrappy nature of the shoot didn’t provide Aronofsky with very much in the way of resources, but it did give the director the opportunity to reconnect with his independent roots and re-establish his artistic relevancy, all while making one of the most acclaimed films of his career.

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The eponymous wrestler of the film’s title is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up champion fighter far removed from his 1980’s heyday.

He’s got little to show for his prior success– he lives in a trailer park in rural New Jersey, his chest bears the scar of a major heart operation, and he’s estranged from his grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  He’s still wrestling, albeit in the ramshackle regional arenas he used to dominate on his way up to the pros.

Rourke is nothing short of a revelation here, delivering a performance full of heartbreak and regret that reveals untold depths about both the character and the man playing him.

It’s hard to imagine the fact that Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star in the role (1), as it belongs so fully to Rourke– indeed, no other actor would likely have brought the kind of dedication Rourke does, like physically cutting himself to draw blood during a match just like a real wrestler might do.

Funnily enough, even Rourke apparently needed some convincing at the beginning.  He reportedly didn’t think very highly of Siegel’s script, but his desire to work with Aronofsky pushed him through his initial wariness.

Aronofsky even let Rourke rewrite all his lines (10)– a seemingly simple gesture that nonetheless shows the director’s growth of artistic confidence in his collaborators, considering how his first iteration of THE FOUNTAIN had collapsed partially because he refused to accommodate Brad Pitt’s request to make changes to the script.

As Randy mounts one last shot at glory in the form of a rematch with his former nemesis The Ayatollah, Rourke repeatedly shows the audience that this was the role he was born to play.

Rourke’s own career had followed a similar trajectory, and all the bad choices he made have led up to this singular moment that requires everything of him.  Clearly, the power from Rourke’s performance lies in its nature as an emotional and artistic catharsis for the actor himself– it is, simply, art imitating life.

Life would imitate art after the fact, with Rourke’s valiant efforts ultimately coming up short.  Despite universal praise from critics that positioned him as a lock for the Best Actor Oscar, Rourke would only make it as far as the nominee pool, losing the golden statue to Sean Penn’s similarly transformative performance in Gus Van Sant’s MILK (2008).

However, this development only matters if one sees the Oscars as the be-all end-all of a film’s artistic worth; the fact remains that Rourke delivers the performance of his lifetime, and the art form of cinema as a whole is made richer by his dedication and sacrifice.

Befitting its framing as an indie character study, THE WRESTLER surrounds Rourke with a limited set of supporting characters, most of them female to better differentiate Randy’s cartoonishly macho fantasy world from reality.

There aren’t too many people that Randy can relate to, but he finds something of a spiritual counterpart in a middle-aged stripper named Cassie.

Played by Marisa Tomei in an Oscar-nominated performance, Cassie also pays the bills by offering up her body to the entertainment of the crowd, her vessel having become more of a liability than an asset as she’s aged.  Like Randy, she too wears a mask when she’s working, hiding her real self away from her audience.

This includes Randy, who spends a great deal of time and energy attempting to make the transition from customer to friend, gradually coaxing the real Cassie out by the end.

Evan Rachel Wood excels as Randy’s estranged daughter, Stephanie, delivering a vindictive, bitter performance as a damaged college student who wants little to do with the father who is only now beginning to show interest in her.

Aronofsky fills out the remainder of THE WRESTLER’s cast with authentic performances by real wrestlers and other New Jersey locals, injecting a visceral realism to the proceedings while further differentiating the everyday from the garish theatricality that Randy deals in.  Finally, character actor Mark Margolis continues his streak of appearing in every one of Aronofsky’s features by making a cameo as Lenny, the cranky landlord of Randy’s RV park.

The visual aesthetic of THE WRESTLER differs so wildly from Aronofsky’s previous work that it functions as a complete artistic reset, switching out all of his key collaborators (save for returning composer Clint Mansell) in favor of new blood and fresh ideas.

He starts with the cinematography, eschewing a fourth consecutive collaboration with his regular DP, Matthew Libatique, in exchange for the services of Maryse Alberti– a french cinematographer renowned for her cinema-verite  documentaries.

Aronofsky and Alberti shoot THE WRESTLER on gritty Super 16mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, presenting a dreary, autumnal color palette punctuated with bursts of garish color via the wrestlers’ various costumes and the countless fountains of spurting blood.

Indeed, the grainy, organic texture of Super 16mm aptly captures the literal and thematic sheen of blood & sweat, further reinforcing the raw physicality on display.  Far from the sculpted theatricality and stagework of THE FOUNTAIN, THE WRESTLER harnesses the natural light found in its real-world locations, empowering the filmmakers with a nimble mobility.

Indeed, when it comes to Aronofsky’s camerawork, “mobile” is the operating word: inspired by the work of the Dardenne Brothers, his camera evokes sensations of searching or restlessness as it fluidly follows the actors around real locations.

There’s a degree of detached observationalism at play, albeit one that gradually diminishes itself in favor of a quiet empathy and compassion as the story unfolds.

While the cinematography strives for visceral realism, editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a tempered expressionism, utilizing jump cuts as visual ellipsis that compress time across one long, continuous action.

Another memorable moment finds the sounds of an audience cheering in anticipation of a big wrestling match juxtaposed with a tracking shot of Randy making his way from the bowels of a grocery store to the deli counter– to him, it’s just another performance, but the striking mismatch between sound and picture brilliantly underscores just how far Randy has strayed from his element.

While Clint Mansell returns to Aronofsky’s fold, his score (consisting of a spare guitar riff played by none other than iconic guitarist Slash) is downplayed in favor of a suite of needledrops that perfectly embody Randy’s mindset and 80’s heyday.

Classic 80’s hair bands like Quiet Riot and Guns & Roses make appearances on the soundtrack– a development that normally would gobble up the majority of Aronofsky’s budget and leave little left over for the film itself.

It’s a testament to Aronofsky’s credibility, as well as Rourke’s moving performance and THE WRESTLER’s resonant storyline, that many tracks were donated for free– including extremely iconic radio hits like Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child Of Mine” (2).

Bruce Springsteen even got in on the fun, finding himself so inspired by an early cut of the film that he composed a new original song named for the film that would go on to be incorporated into THE WRESTLER’s end credits and even win a Golden Globe.

Despite its significant departures from Aronofsky’s established aesthetic and prior narratives, THE WRESTLER is undoubtedly preoccupied with the key themes that drive his artistic identity.

The New Jersey setting allows Aronofsky to ground his efforts in a sort of “home base”, harnessing the experiences and observations he’d cultivated during his formative years in the larger New York/NJ area.

The dark side of the human experience, previously explored to such chilling effect in all of his prior features, again finds Aronofsky dissecting another particular aspect thereof– specifically, pain, aging, and the distinct horror of having your body fail you.

Aronofsky goes to great lengths to show the extreme wear and tear Randy has accumulated throughout a lifetime of gruesome physical performance.  A large scar runs down his chest, leftover from a drastic heart bypass surgery.

His joints are creaky, his energy is low, and he needs a chemical cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs in order to function at the most basic of levels.

One of the film’s key generators of suspense is Randy’s battle against his own heart, which threatens to give out entirely if he exerts himself too much.  Naturally, this stands as a major obstacle to Randy’s attempt at a comeback, but what choice does he have when all he really has left to live for is the roar of an approving crowd?

Being of the advanced age that he is, Randy walks that fine line between delusion and conviction– he’s too old, too washed-up to recapture the glory days of his youth, the haters might say.  Every sign points towards retirement, but Randy truly believes he can be become a champion once more.

This aspect of THE WRESTLER’s story serves as a great example of the internal battle between faith and logic that marks Aronofsky’s work– albeit one that flips the script from previous iterations.

As seen in Max in PI or Thomas in THE FOUNTAIN, an Aronofsky protagonist is often a rational, intelligent person challenged by the presence of the unknown or the inexplicable.

Randy The Ram, however, is stuffed to the brim with faith in himself and his abilities, despite the cynical dismissal of the outside world who see him as a broken-down sack of hamburger meat.

While the screenplay did not originate with Aronofsky himself, it’s easy to see why he was drawn to it, and the act of approaching his signature themes from the perspective of someone else’s expression makes for one of the most nuanced and resonant works in his celebrated filmography.

As mentioned before, THE WRESTLER kicked off a wave of resurgent momentum for Aronofsky’s career after the disappointing reception of THE FOUNTAIN.  The film premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, taking home the Golden Lion in the process.

It went on to Toronto, where Fox Searchlight snapped up the distribution rights for $4 million.  Given a limited release in December of 2009 before going wide in January, the film debuted to almost-universally positive reviews and healthy box office driven by a savvy marketing campaign that created a meta-narrative around Rourke’s own comeback story.

Rourke even made a guest appearance on WrestleMania XXV with a fake storyline that paralleled his character in the film (3).  Critics honored Rourke’s courageous performance with the aforementioned Oscar nomination, as well as bonafide wins at the BAFTA’s, the Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards.

As for Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER is evidence of his graduation to a mature filmmaker with refined (yet still iconoclastic) tastes.  Nearly a decade on from its release, THE WRESTLER is fondly remembered as one of his very best works, re-establishing his pre-eminence in the indie sector while setting the stage for even bigger victories to come.


BLACK SWAN (2010)

The lo-fi independent production of 2008’s THE WRESTLER served to unleash director Darren Aronofsky’s ferocious creative energy, reconnecting him with the iconoclastic spirit that kickstarted his career.  He knew that he couldn’t afford to bask in the glow of his artistic redemption– he had to strike again, and soon.

Leveraging his newfound creative momentum into another hit was a task easier said than done, but thankfully he already had a project in the pipeline.

Back during the production of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Aronofsky received a script by Andres Heinz titled “The Understudy”, about off-Broadway actors in New York contending with the haunting appearance of their doubles.

He liked the general idea, but thought it might be more compelling if set within the world of ballet, being an insular subculture that is rarely depicted onscreen.

He commissioned Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin to craft a rewrite with this change in mind, resulting in what would become a nightmarish foray into psychological horror titled BLACK SWAN.  The project had spent the ensuing the eight years in development hell, finding a brief home at Universal before decamping back to the independent realm.

Despite the heat he’d generated with the success of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky was turned down by every studio in town– even with a proposed production budget of $13 million, he found he couldn’t entice studios to bite on such an experimental genre picture, even with major stars attached.

Indeed, the indie iconoclast was confronting Hollywood’s New Normal: a post-Recession aversion to risk and a distaste for the cultural cache of The Auteur in favor of candy-hued “Content” desperately licensing any kind of pre-existing intellectual property that might draw an audience.

Thankfully, Aronofsky’s street cred in the indie world was strong enough to secure the funds he needed, enabling him to make what would come to be his most successful film to date.

Following in the grandiose footsteps of horror icons like Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg, BLACK SWAN tells a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in the pursuit of artistic perfection.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, an ambitious ballerina plucked from obscurity to headline her dance company’s new production of Swan Lake.

Portman, who Aronofsky had attached to play the part as early as 2000, fully immerses herself into the role, going so far as to drop twenty pounds and spend countless months in dance training prior to the shoot.

Her long-term loyalty to Aronofsky’s vision would prove fruitful, propelling her through a career-best performance that would ultimately earn her the Academy Award.  She’s imprisoned in a childlike inner state, held there by her strict, overbearing mother Erica.

Played by seasoned character actress Barbara Hershey, Erica is a former dancer herself– albeit a failed one who projects her own ambitions onto her daughter and pushes her to be the prima ballerina she never was, all while denying Nina her agency and sexuality as a grown woman.

This arrested development proves a problem when Nina’s director, Thomas Leroy (iconic French actor Vincent Cassel) handpicks her to play the lead in his production of Swan Lake– a role that requires the successful projection of duality in the twin forms of the White Swan and the Black Swan.

Coaxing Nina’s dark side out from deep within proves a formidable task for the intense, narcissistic director, compelling him to employ psychological and sexual manipulation with surgical precision.

The ploy works, although a little too well– a monster awakens inside Nina, making itself known via nightmarish episodes of doppelgänger sightings and body horror that question her grip on reality.

This insatiable beast feeds off the dark energy of those around her, thriving off her sexual relationship with Mila Kunis’ Lily, a mysterious new dancer in the company, as well as the bitter despair of Winona Ryder’s Beth Macintyre, who had previously been Leroy’s star dancer before she was unceremoniously replaced by the younger and more-virginal Nina.

As Nina descends into her nightmare of perfection, Aronofsky embraces the conventions of the psychological horror genre even as he plays them against the everyday objectivity implied by the film’s documentary-style cinematography.

He deftly incorporates spooky subtleties and blatant jump scares alike, all the while dragging the audience deeper into Nina’s subjective perspective and making her eventual transformation into the titular Black Swan a viscerally plausible experience.

After the total collaborative reset of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky brings back some of his key creative partners from films past in a bid to connect his new aesthetic to his artistic roots.

This includes recurring performers like Mark Margolis and Stanley B. Herman making respective cameos as an extra in the gala sequence and, naturally, a creepy pervert on the subway.  It also includes technical craftsmen like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, editor Andrew Weisblum, and composer Clint Mansell.

If its thematic similarities weren’t enough to position BLACK SWAN as a companion piece to THE WRESTLER, then the cinema-verite style of cinematography shared between them certainly picks up the slack.

Libatique adopts the handheld Super 16mm film aesthetic that Maryse Alberti developed for THE WRESTLER, giving the 2.35:1 frame a gritty, organic texture that stands in stark contrast to the film’s cosmopolitan setting and elegant subject matter.

The handheld camerawork gives BLACK SWAN an appropriate fleet-footed energy, allowing Aronofsky to quite literally dance with his actors.  Libatique’s approach differs from Alberti’s in its embrace of the horror genre, mixing the theatrical lighting of Nina’s professional world with the dim, natural glow of her personal one.

Framing favors tight, almost-claustrophobic closeups and compositions that allow Aronofsky to play with the literary idea of “The Double” by highlighting a reflective element in almost every shot.

Libatique’s efforts work in concert with new production designer Therese DePrez, who cultivates a color palette of black and white tones supplemented by secondary splashes of pale green and pink.

Mansell’s contribution is much more notable here than his spare work on THE WRESTLER, reworking excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into a mysterious, brooding score underscored by a throbbing guitar that musically echoes the beast lurking beneath Nina’s refined exterior.

Like THE WRESTLER before it, BLACK SWAN’s narrative hinges on several of Aronofsky’s signature thematic preoccupations despite not authoring the script himself.

The film’s format as a psychological horror enables Aronofsky to plumb more of the pitch-black depths of the human experience– in particular, disease, body horror, and the idea of passion as a negative quality.

Some of BLACK SWAN’s most iconic moments stem from Nina’s body coming under siege from a bird-like presence within, like pitch-black feathers poking out from under the skin of her shoulder, or her knees forcefully cracking backwards into a horrific avian posture.

Coupled with terrifying hallucinations and sightings of her doppelgänger, these developments ultimately lead up to Nina’s total transformation into the titular animal– but did she really turn into a bird in full view of an adoring audience, or was it all in her mind?

Aronofsky deftly walks the fine line between the real and the imagined, further underscoring Nina’s conflict between belief and logic.  Logic would dictate that humans can’t simply transform into another animal; it’s safe to say that’s an objective truth (extreme body modifications notwithstanding).

However, by aligning the audience’s perspective with Nina’s subjective point of view, Aronofsky does away with the pesky hurdle of an objective truth and establishes a scenario where all things are possible.

The tug of war between faith and logic is the backbone of any good psychological thriller, and it’s directly because of Aronofsky’s exploration of this conflict in his prior films that makes BLACK SWAN so effective as an entry in the genre.

Whereas the exploration of faith in prior films like PI or THE FOUNTAIN used the prism of religion, BLACK SWAN is inherently about faith in oneself and how it clashes against expectations and discipline.

Few art forms are as rooted in the necessity of discipline as ballet– indeed, nearly every aspect of Nina’s waking life is dominated in some form by her vocation.  When she isn’t practicing in an insular studio sealed away from the bustle of the city, she hangs around her dingy apartment and practices some more.

She has no love life to speak of, and routinely denies herself small indulgences like the occasional slice of cake.  To successfully play the Black Swan, she has to learn to let go of her discipline and give in to a raw, animalistic drive.

The framework of the psychological thriller genre might imply that BLACK SWAN’s descent into madness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing one’s self to unchecked id, but in Aronofsky’s hands, the message instead seems to be that all the discipline in the world is for naught without the foundation of passion and inspiration.

Reams of critical thought have already been expounded about the idea that BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER are companion pieces, each working in complement to each other within a distinct chapter of Aronofsky’s artistic growth.

Indeed, their respective narratives frameworks bear many similarities as they each track a protagonist pursuing a career of demanding physical performance at the expense of a “normal life”.

When viewed together, it becomes immediately evident that the refined and cosmopolitan femininity of BLACK SWAN contrasts tidily with THE WRESTLER’s blue-collar, broken-down machismo.

The two films seem to inform and shape each other, despite being made separately– an observation that no doubt stems from the lingering vestige of Aronofsky’s original idea years back, which would have detailed a love story between an aging wrestler and a young ballerina before he decided it was better to split them up into their own respective films.

United in their shared aesthetic and thematic conceits, BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER are also tied together by their shared success– a one-two punch that represents the pinnacle of Aronofsky’s career as well as his artistry (so far).

After debuting as the Opening Night film of the 2010 Venice Film Festival, BLACK SWAN opened to warm critical reception.

A modest degree of success was to be expected given its genre trappings as a psychological horror, but the rave reviews from critics helped BLACK SWAN to find the kind of mature, artistically-discerning audience it might not have had otherwise.

Aronofsky’s crossover hit eventually joined the ranks of other classics like William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) and Jonathan Demme’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) as one of the few overt horror films to be honored by the Academy, earning nominations for Portman’s performance, Andrew Weisblum’s editing, Libatique’s cinematography, and even Best Picture.

Aronofsky himself would score his first Oscar nomination for his direction, thus formalizing the growing notion that BLACK SWAN was a truly special film in his body of work– the perfect alchemy of subject matter and his particular artistic strengths.

Portman may have been the only one to walk away with a gold statue that night, but the filmmakers could rest assured that their passion project had been formally canonized as one of the classics of 21st-century cinema.  Seven years on, BLACK SWAN has lost none of its darkly-elegant edge, with each passing year adding more fortification to the idea that Aronofsky had achieved an artistic perfection all his own.


MUSIC VIDEOS & COMMERCIALS (2011-2012)

Riding high off the success of 2010’s BLACK SWAN, director Darren Aronofsky turned his attention to a long-gestating passion project that aimed to reimagine the classic biblical story of Noah’s arc.

The logistical challenges of mounting such an ambitious project naturally made for a slower pace in development and pre-production, so Aronofsky filled his spare time (and bank account) with a series of music videos and commercials that would broaden his aesthetic portfolio.

METALLICA & LOU REED: “THE VIEW” (2011)

Aronofsky’s first music video in over a decade would be for a collaboration between Metallica and The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed called “THE VIEW”.

His last music video was for Clint Mansell’s “PI R SQUARED”, and was comprised of grainy black & white footage lifted directly from his feature debut; “THE VIEW” brings back that particular aesthetic, opting for an extremely high contrast, monochromatic look.

Perhaps inspired by Lou Reed’s fire & brimstone vocals (spoken plainly like a poet prophet rather than singing), Aronofsky also incorporates expressionistic flourishes like lens flares and unstable double exposures that complement the over-aggressive macho posturing on Metallica’s part.

THE METH PROJECT CAMPAIGN (2011)

Anti-drug commercials have always been hailed for their willingness to shock and horrify.  Easily the highlight of Aronofsky’s short-form work during this period, he collaborates with The Meth Project for a series of four spots that recapture the graphic shock and visceral horror of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

Through the four vignettes– individually titled “DEEP END”, “ER”, “DESPERATE” and “LOSING CONTROL”— Aronofsky drops us right into a vivid scenario involving someone caught in the grips of a severe meth addiction.

We see a girl slashing her wrists, another girl overdosing, a young man tearing his little brother’s room apart in search of cash, and a boy reluctantly prostituting himself out to an older man.

Each vignette starts out with an extreme close-up of the subject’s face, awash in bright light and looking to the camera while an inner monologue plays.

The effect is almost tranquil– that is, until Aronofsky dials the exposure back and ramps the film speed to real-time, pulling back with his handheld camera to reveal the horrific chaos unfolding around them.  The ads made quite the splash when they debuted in November of 2011, generating waves of chatter about the campaign’s effectiveness as well as the excellence of Aronofsky’s craftwork.

YVES SAINT-LAURENT: “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME” (2011)

Aronofsky closed out 2011 with a case of artistic whiplash, veering from the graphic grittiness of the Meth Project campaign to the glossy elegance of a perfume commercial for Yves Saint-Laurent.

The spot, titled “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME”, features his BLACK SWAN co-star Vincent Cassel as a black-suited lothario effortlessly seducing a trio of beautiful young women across the city.  Each of the three locales gets it own color code, helping us to differentiate Cassel’s location via strong swaths of orange, blue and red.

Aronofsky creates a moody, cinematic look that juxtaposes baroque elegance with the crisp lines of modernity.  The piece is also notable for its contributions by several of Aronofsky’s frequent collaborators, including producer Scott Franklin, editor Andrew Weisblum, writers Mark Heyman and Ari Handel, and composer Clint Mansell.

KOHLS: “JENNIFER LOPEZ” (2012)

A 2012 commercial promoting pop icon Jennifer Lopez’s partnership with Kohls doesn’t particularly seem like it would appeal to an artist of discerning taste like Aronofsky.

Indeed, the bright, bubbly spot bears no evidence of his signature, maybe save for the string lights in the background that evoke the lighting aesthetic of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN… but even then, that’s a stretch.

Aronofsky stages the piece as a single shot, strung together from multiple takes as Lopez dances and sings to the camera and undergoes several wardrobe changes.  It’s an admittedly slick piece of work, with Aronofsky’s relative anonymity behind the camera affording him the opportunity to play around with complicated technical ideas.

One could easily imagine Aronofsky taking the job just for the payday (especially while he was laboring to get an ambitious and risky passion project off the ground), but that line of thought does a disservice to the man’s natural curiosity towards his craft, which manifests through an eagerness to experiment with technique.

“JENNIFER LOPEZ” isn’t exactly memorable as a piece of advertising, but it is effective as a cohesive marriage of concept and execution.

When viewed together in the context of his larger body of work, these short-form pieces don’t evidence a substantial amount of artistic growth on Aronofsky’s part– indeed, pieces like “THE VIEW” and The Meth Project campaign find him returning to extremely familiar ground.

That being said, this period does show Aronofsky turning away from the inward-looking nature of his artistic approach and engaging with pop culture on a level that’s appropriate for an American filmmaker of his pedigree.

A longtime outsider and iconoclast dwelling on the independent fringe of Hollywood, Aronofsky’s brush with prestige in the wake of THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN’s twin successes meant he was now on the inside of the machine– a commodity that could be exploited for the material gain of others.  The challenge would now be maintaining that ferocious independence in the face of mainstream expectations and pressure.


NOAH (2014)

The biblical epic has always been a time-honored staple of American cinema, with some of the earliest films ever made drawing inspiration from the timeless stories contained within the “good book”.

In the latter decades of cinema’s existence, these biblical films tend to be marked by a high-profile controversy over their artistic interpretations– films like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) or Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) have caused no shortage of consternation over their depictions of Jesus and the events of The Gospel.

These stories dare to humanize their iconic protagonists, which naturally tends to generate vocal backlash from the people and organizations tasked with preserving their sanctity.

The latest revisionist take to rankle the faithful is director Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH (2014), which seeks to expand upon the Old Testament’s classic, yet all-too-brief, fable of Noah and The Ark.  Aronofsky had been interested in the story since the seventh grade, when he won a writing contest with his entry on the subject (1).

After making his debut feature, PI (1998), Aronofsky partnered with his co-writer and former college roommate Ari Handel to write a screenplay exploring his unique take on the Noah story (1)– the crafting of which would ultimately take several years.

Despite the success of his recent efforts, THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2011), Aronofsky found it difficult to convince studios to buy into his $125 million passion project.

It was the age of “Intellectual Property” in mainstream studio filmmaking, and the world-famous story of Noah and his Ark somehow couldn’t quite cut the mustard.

To prove that indeed there was a modern audience for his revisionist take, Aronofsky rather cunningly commissioned the production of a NOAH comic book in 2011, and used the project’s resulting fanbase to quantify the worth of his “IP”– in other words, he went out and built the necessary audience himself.

Armed with Paramount’s financing and the collective resources of super-producers Arnon Milchan and Mary Parent, Aronofsky and his producing partner Scott Franklin soon found themselves embarking on the director’s most ambitious– and successful– film yet.

We’re all familiar with the biblical story of Noah and The Ark, but we’ve never seen it quite like this.  Ten generations on from Adam & Eve, humanity has split into two distinct clans– the barbaric descendants of Cain and the virtuous descendants of Seth, headed by patriarch Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) and embodied in Russell Crowe’s Noah.

Aronofsky seeks to deepen the sketch of a character that’s typically portrayed in The Bible, casting Noah instead as a reluctant man of faith with a horde of psychological demons tormenting him on the inside.

When he begins having nightmarish visions of a world destroyed by a deluge of water, Noah seeks guidance from his grandfather, Methusaleh.

Hopkins injects the role with an immediate gravitas befitting his career reputation, believably projecting the grizzled, magical aura of a man who is reported to be many hundreds of years old and is the last living person to have met Adam.

Methuselah advises Noah that a great flood is coming– a means for an unhappy Creator to purge the Earth of his unsatisfactory creations and start life anew.  What’s more, The Creator has tasked Noah with building a large ark in which to shelter two of every animal and his small family so that they can start over when the waters recede.

Despite his internal doubts and misgivings, Noah begins preparing for the Great Flood, constructing a massive arc with the help of several Golems– fallen angels whom God had transformed into hulking rock monsters when they came down to Earth to help humanity.

The first half of Noah is rather fantastical, adopting a LORD OF THE RINGS template in its approach to mankind’s origins– complete with a massive CGI-laden battle as Noah defends his ark from an offensive led by Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain, the brutal and vindictive figurehead of the Cain lineage.

The second half is where the film gets really interesting, when Aronofsky treats Noah’s riding out of the flood in the ark as a simmering psychological chamber drama.  Racked by a profound survivor’s guilt, Noah spirals even deeper into his obsession with fulfilling The Creator’s wishes.

His wife Naameh — played by Jennifer Connelly in her second collaboration with Aronofsky after REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) — becomes the voice of reason, imploring Noah to come back from the brink.  He also must contend with a rebellion from his two sons, Ham & Shem.

Played by Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth, respectively, his two sons each have their own reason for turning on their father: Ham seeks revenge for the girl Noah allowed to be killed by her own people, and Shem seeks to protect his pregnant wife, Ila (Emma Watson), from Noah’s crazed crusade to extinguish humanity once and for all.

While all of this is happening, Tubal-Cain is stowed away in the bowels of the ark, laying in wait to wrestle control from Noah and re-establish his evil leadership.

NOAH affords Aronofsky the opportunity to work with an all-star cast, which even extends to the voice-only roles, with Nick Nolte and regular collaborator Mark Margolis providing the voices for two of the golems.  Behind the camera, Aronofsky’s core group of technical collaborators also return.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique injects NOAH with the epic feel of a big-budget Hollywood film, replete with an orgy of CGI creatures and epic battles that marks the film as one of the most technically-challenging for both Aronofsky as well as his computer effects team.

Combining a mix of 35mm film and digital Arri Alexa footage onto a 1.85:1 canvas, Libatique and Aronofsky render their range of dynamic compositions in drab earth tones.

Handheld close-ups complement an otherwise formal approach, with Aronofsky making a recurring visual motif out of a particular aerial/crane move that drifts up and away from his subject.

Indeed, he often strings this same movement across multiple successive shots, achieving a hypnotic effect that also showcases the volcanic grandeur of his Icelandic locales and production designer Mark Friedberg’s cavernous Ark sets.

Returning editor Andrew Weisblum faces a greater challenge than usual, with Aronofsky tasking him with the execution of a recurring motif that sees epoch-spanning timelapses rendered in a unique, rapid-fire snapshot style.

Clint Mansell expectedly provides NOAH’s original score, which once again commissions the talents of Kronos Quartet and possesses a swelling, romantic flair reminiscent of biblical epics of yore as well as  Aronofsky’s own 2006 feature, THE FOUNTAIN.

NOAH deals heavily in the themes and ideas that Aronofsky has spent his career exploring, the most prominent of which being the interior struggle between faith and reason.

This conflict is no doubt what initially attracted Aronofsky to a revisionist take on Noah’s Ark, as it would enable him to apply a cerebral approach to religious ideas– an approach that previously had made films like PI and THE FOUNTAIN so intellectually resonant.

A significant portion of the classic Noah’s Ark story finds Noah grappling with doubt from both within and from those around him regarding his outlandish visions of the end of the world.

NOAH takes this template and runs with it, applying a compelling (and borderline-psychopathic) twist that extrapolates Noah’s desires for the end of humanity to the point that he’s willing to murder a newborn infant.  He labors against all sound logic and reasoning, filled with righteous conviction that he is fulfilling The Creator’s divine plan.

Additionally, Aronofsky obliquely explores this theme during a montage that incorporates the aforementioned propulsive snapshot-style timelapse technique to detail the origins of the universe and mankind.

Noah recounts to his family the biblical story of creation found in the Book Of Genesis, but the images onscreen detail The Big Bang, the cosmic formation of the stars and planets, the beginnings of life on Earth, and mankind’s slow evolution from apes.

Aronofsky then goes a step further, with Noah explaining the generations of violence between the tribes of Cain and Seth while rendering this conflict on-screen via rapid-fire silhouettes of figures engaged in combat throughout history– including the recognizable forms of Roman centurions, Napoleonic troopers, WW2 fighters and modern-day soldiers.

It’s a stunning sequence that finds Aronofsky achieving something of a harmony between faith and logic by applying a figurative interpretation of the Bible that seeks to connect ancient ideas to immediate contemporary concerns.

For whatever reason, however, Aronofsky temporarily ignores this scientific approach in his portrayal of Adam & Eve in The Garden of Eden, rendering them less as flesh & blood human forms and more as ethereal alien-types with a golden glow.

filmz.ru

The dark side of the human experience is another theme that courses through the entirety of Aronofsky’s filmography, and the story of NOAH provides an opportunity to explore its very origins– murder, temptation, and the idea of Man’s Original Sin that led to his casting out from The Garden.

More specifically, Aronofsky explores sin as a stain that runs down through the generations, marking an entire line of people with a predetermined fate.  If The Creator made mankind in his image as a perfect being, then the introduction of sin marks the point at which we became imperfect.

Sin is what separates God from his creations, and the protagonists of Aronofsky’s films are often found attempting to close that gap with logic while struggling to overcome their imperfections– PI’s Max Cohen labors to find the true name of God via mathematics; REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s scraggly group of heroic addicts used narcotics to seek enlightenment and euphoria; THE FOUNTAIN’s Tomas believes science is the key to immortality; THE WRESTLER’s Randy The Ram puts his body through the thresher for the worship of his fans; BLACK SWAN’s Nina Sayers works towards godliness in her mastery over her body.

NOAH continues this tradition by having its protagonist actually commune with his creator, risking the very future of humanity so that he can purge it of sin and start anew.

In both idea and execution, NOAH is most similar to THE FOUNTAIN— both are ambitious, big-budget indies about the cycle of death & rebirth as well as a direct reckoning between faith and reason.

By making NOAH in the first place, Aronofsky was flirting with the kind of disappointing reception and aura of “failure” that THE FOUNTAIN initially met with upon release.

Indeed, NOAH posed an even bigger risk, considering the significant creative liberties that Aronofsky took in adapting a section from what is easily the most scrutinized and sacred work of literature in human history.

On top of the inevitable religious controversy, NOAH faced criticism for its perceived white-washing, perpetuating the long cinematic tradition of casting all-white actors in roles that, historically-speaking, would have most definitely not been Caucasian.

The controversy might have even been of a higher profile, had Ridley Scott not stolen that particular spotlight with his release of EXODUS: GODS & KINGS that same year– a much more egregious display of white-washing considering his Caucasian leads were portraying ancient Egyptians.

Despite these controversies, NOAH outperformed expectations, earning mostly positive reviews and posting big numbers at the box office.

When all was said and done, NOAH had emerged as Aronofsky’s highest-grossing film to date, vanquishing any anxiety that it might be another disappointment like THE FOUNTAIN.  With NOAH’s success, Aronofsky proved he could handle big-budget epics with the deft, assured touch that marked his indie thrillers.

He had seemingly found his groove, and was now poised to consistently deliver more of contemporary cinema’s most visceral and strikingly original creations.


COMMERCIALS (2016-2018)

Following the success of his 2014 feature, NOAH, director Darren Aronofsky once again turned to the commercial world to sustain himself as he prepped his next big effort.

This chapter of his career finds Aronofsky bringing his iconoclastic vision to powerhouse establishment outlets like The New York Times and high profile fashion brands like Hugo Boss while dialing down the individuality of his artistic aesthetic to better accommodate the commercial interests of his employers.

HUGO BOSS: POWER OF BOSS (2016)

Aronofsky’s prior work for Yves Saint-Laurent established the director as a sought-after talent in fashion marketing.  In 2016, Hugo Boss enlisted him for “POWER OF BOSS”, a spot for their new men’s fragrance.

Starring the emerging actor Theo James, the spot exudes high-glamor and a slick, cosmopolitan vibe.  The Weeknd’s darkly seductive single “High For This” throbs over sensual closeups of bodies in motion– hands caressing bare skin, lips brushing together, and so on.

The spot contains a brief allusion to BLACK SWAN, in that Aronofsky uses mirrors and windows as a framing device to suggest the idea of “the double”, often with the subject being reflected twice-over in the glass prism.

While it’s still a relatively anonymous spot, “POWER OF BOSS” further evidences Aronofsky’s ability to capture glossy, slick images in addition to the gritty, visceral visuals usually associated with his repertoire.

NEW YORK TIMES: THE TRUTH IS HARD (2017)

In 2017, Aronofsky was hired to direct a quartet of spots for the New York Times, celebrating the role that their photojournalists play in bringing the immediacy of the news home to their readers.

Only three of the four appear to be available for public view, with Aronofsky adopting the same style of execution for each: a series of rapid-fire snapshots punctuate stretches of black while the photographer delivers a voiceover monologue (filtered to sound like a telephone call) about his or her experience in the field.

At the end of each spot, Aronofsky settles on a singular image in particular, showing how it becomes the key image for the news article it accompanies.  Aronofsky proves the right choice as the helmer of the spot, bringing his unique insights into the dark side of the human experience in the exploration of images featuring war & disease.

As of this writing, these pair of commercials represent Aronofsky’s most recently-released works, although he’s set to release his seventh feature film MOTHER! next month.  A psychological horror starring Jennifer Lawrence, MOTHER! promises to chart territory similar to BLACK SWAN.

If early buzz is any indication, Aronofsky is set for yet another hit in a string of well-received genre pictures that have embodied his operational prime.


MOTHER! (2017)

One of the lesser-talked about aspects of pursuing a career in filmmaking is the loss of that visceral or “magic” sensation that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place.

The ability to passively sit back and let ourselves get swept up in the story becomes hampered by an active deconstruction of narrative logic, performance, or mise-en-scene. Emotion & empathy takes a back seat to intellectual scrutiny, robbing us of the thrills or exhilaration that the filmmaker worked so hard for us experience.

Once in a while, however, a film comes along out of nowhere and lands with such increasingly-rare impact that we surrender the entirety of our senses to its power.

Despite marketing materials that heavily emphasized its supposedly-batshit narrative, I was not expecting such an outcome when I sat down to a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 feature MOTHER!— sure enough, however, I was so shaken by the film that I had to wander outside in a daze for nearly an hour.

I needed time to process what I’d just seen, but I knew I had loved every minute… and that most audiences would loathe it.

Aronofsky, of course, is no stranger to dramatically polarized reactions to his work— the foundation of his artistry is built upon it.  Ever since the protagonist put a power drill to his head in his debut feature PI (1998), Aronofsky has sought to elicit visceral exhortations of shock and disgust from viewers.

The difference, however, between Aronofsky’s gruesome predilections and the torture porn titillation of, say, the SAW franchise, is the intimidating intelligence that drives it.  The phrase “tortured artist” doesn’t seem particularly apt to describe Aronofsky; he typically comes across as a soft-spoken, buttoned-up intellectual in interviews.

Nevertheless, MOTHER! — easily the most ambitious marriage of his cerebral narrative approach and gut-wrenching visual flourishes — was born from a place of deep sadness and anguish on Aronofsky’s part (2).

Following the success of 2014’s NOAH, he reportedly turned his attentions towards a project that would be a first in his filmography: a film for children (3).  As it turns out, it’s a bit difficult to write for children when their future isn’t as rosy as their cheeks.

Indeed, how could anyone, when the world is on fire, fascist authoritarianism is on the rise, and family dinners are spent blankly staring into the glow of smartphones?  Aronofsky’s existential despair had built up like water against a dam, and the only way to relieve the pressure was to express it in the form of art.

Thus, MOTHER! was born, its first draft screenplay feverishly dashed out over the course of five mad days (whereas Aronofsky’s normal gestation period is measured in years (1)).

Like his script, Aronofsky’s latest Protozoa production came together exceedingly quickly, shepherded by his longtime producing partners Scott Franklin and Ari Handel over the course of a few months while Aronofsky conducted extensive rehearsals with his cast in a Brooklyn warehouse.

This gonzo strain of frenzied focus would carry on through to the shoot in Montreal and, ultimately, the finished product— itself a flaming phoenix of cinematic anarchy encompassing nothing less than the whole of human civilization.

mother!

The “plot” of MOTHER! is hard to describe, if only because it doesn’t operate on a straightforward narrative level.  Every character and event is suffused with allegorical meaning, rooted in the self-contained setting of an isolated farmhouse that seemingly exists outside of both time and space.

Jennifer Lawrence anchors the film as the eponymous “Mother”, a woman who has given the entirety of herself over to her husband, played by Javier Bardem and identified only as “Him”.  He is a poet, albeit a tortured one that suffers from a severe case of writer’s block.

Mother seems to exist only for Him, with no exterior or interior life of her own beyond fixing up their farmhouse and catering to his creative needs.  Their fragile harmony begins to fray when a Man (Ed Harris) arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to stay the night while he passes through.

In letting Man in, however, Mother and Him unwittingly invite a cascading series of unimaginable, increasingly chaotic events that will come to include a funeral, a birth, and a fiery reckoning.

Aronofsky’s biblical and anthropological allusions aren’t exactly difficult to draw out, but the tidiness of their allegorical significance nevertheless resists close scrutiny.

In other words, Aronofsky gives us just enough detail to track the roles his characters play in the larger ur-narrative while leaving plenty of room for a variety of personal interpretations.

My own read of the film first requires further discussion of its technical construction and other thematic conceits, but there’s still plenty to remark about on the surface level of MOTHER!’s story, especially as it pertains to the performances.

If MOTHER! can be called a star vehicle for Lawrence, then it can also be said that Aronofsky never deviates from a cockpit view.  Everything orbits around Lawrence and her tour-de-force performance— she is the Earth (or “Gaia”, as Aronofsky himself describes her), and all the other cast members are satellites circling past her periphery.

The fact that Lawrence goes barefoot throughout the entirety of the movie so as to emphasize her organic connection to the farmhouse (1) points to the rich level of detail and commitment that she gives to a character who, at least on paper, serves as a relatively-blank cypher for the audience to experience the film through.

A nurturer by nature, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, wanting nothing in return except for the love of her husband, Him.

Despite his personal malaise over his lack of productivity, he is ultimately an exceedingly warm and attentive man who is able to return her love in full and still have some left over for his increasingly-needy houseguests.

Indeed, he is accommodating to a fault, welcoming of strangers with open, trusting arms because he can’t help but revel in their praise for his writing. By turning his gaze away from Mother, he inadvertently puts her through all nine circles of Hell until she has nothing left to give him… and even then, he still requires more of her.

Despite their significant gap in age, Bardem’s casting complements Lawrence’s rather well, balancing her character’s youthful naïveté with a seasoned, almost-otherworldly gravitas.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, as Man and Woman respectively, are the disharmonious yin to Mother and Him’s yang.  Their presence illuminates the unbridgeable gap between their host’s characters and proceeds to widen that chasm even further.

Identifying himself as a surgeon and teacher when he unexpectedly arrives in the middle of the night, Man proves himself a toxic presence in the house— it’s not enough that he’s simply intrusive, he also brings sickness into Mother and Him’s lives.

He’s constantly sneaking cigarettes, despite an alarmingly severe cough that speaks magnitudes about how little time he has left on this Earth. Woman proves equally abrasive, also arriving unexpectedly a day later and quickly overtaking Mother’s energies with her icy sexual aggressiveness and high-grade alcoholism.

Real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleason play their two adult sons, the former a slimy misogynist and the latter a wiry, spoiled twerp who arrives in a red-hot rage over learning he’s been cheated out of his inheritance.

It’s at this point that MOTHER!’s cast loses control of its contained chamber-drama nature, with strangers multiplying at an alarming rate until the house is absolutely stuffed.  Most are nameless extras, but Aronofksy notably casts Kristin Wiig against-type as Him’s corporate-y publisher, credited only as “Herald”.

Indeed, a quick glance at IMDB’s cast listing for MOTHER! further shades out the biblical/mythical connotations of his allegorical ambitions, featuring bit-part characters named Cupbearer, Fool, Whisperer, Penitent and Devourer, among so many others.

Aronofsky’s technical execution reinforces his vision of MOTHER! as a 2-hour stress attack.  Once again working his trusted director of photography Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky returns to the 2.35:1 16mm film format that lent so much visceral grit and organic weight to previous films like THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2010).

These films, and now MOTHER!, etch into stone the idea that Aronofsky is not cut out to be a studio filmmaker; he thrives in the indie environment, where a smaller production footprint affords him plenty of nimbleness and his affections for lo-fi filmmaking formats and techniques are appreciated.

The 16mm gauge in particular has come to serve as something of a calling card for Aronofsky, with its amplified grain texture allowing his work to stand out amongst the hordes of slick, yet inescapably sterile, digital content that populates our screens today.

Its deployment in MOTHER! echoes the earthiness of the story while capturing an ethereal aura in the imperfection of its chemistry.  A lot of ink has been spilled about digital‘s increasing ability to match the quality of film to the point that, to the average observer, there is no discernible difference.

However, the fact remains that film is a chemical process whereas digital is an electronic one; one could shoot the exact same composition using the exact same lens and lighting setup, but the two resulting images will always be fundamentally different.

Aronofsky and Libatique understand this, using the increasingly-minute quality of celluloid’s distinguishing aspects as a storytelling tool— the volatile, unreplicable alchemy of exposing grain crystals to light (as opposed to capturing light onto an electronic sensor) imbues the light itself with life; a palpable, fleeting luminosity that underscores MOTHER!’s very existence.

As such, the quality of light on display throughout MOTHER! takes on an ethereal beauty: dim, cool daylight and the warm, sensual amber of incandescent practicals come nightfall.  This is, of course, before Hell itself arrives at Mother’s doorstep and bombards the farmhouse with a fusillade of garish fluorescents, ash-choked moonlight, and searing fire.

MOTHER! succeeds at generating an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere through a series of complementary artistic decisions passed along through the entirety of the production pipeline.  The film is shot almost exclusively handheld, immediately creating a present-tense realism and a restless energy.

To better unify the film’s perspective to that of his protagonist, Aronofsky and Libatique limit their coverage to 3 basic setups— the first being a closeup composition that is always tracking Mother’s facial performance as she moves throughout the farmhouse, the second being corresponding over-the-shoulder angles that aim to establish her spatial relationship to the events she’s witnessing, and the third being direct POV shots through her eyes.

The result is an effect akin to hyper tunnel vision, propelling Mother and the audience through a narrow space while intensifying the surrounding chaos.

Philip Messina’s production design further evokes the growing claustrophobia in his vision of the farmhouse itself, which incorporates a recurring octagonal motif both in its structure as well as various decorational elements.

An exercise in the marriage of interesting aesthetic design and thematic underscoring, the heavy usage of the octagon shape is quite appropriate to Aronofsky’s narrative.

The shape was employed by many ancient civilizations, who associated the number eight with the idea of “rebirth” or “renewal”, further entangling the relationship between the earthly and the divine in its merging of the square and the circle.

MOTHER!’s allegorical conceits deal heavily in the language of rebirth, suggesting an infinitely-repeating cycle of creation & destruction that echoes scientific theories about the perpetual expanding & contracting of the universe.

On a visceral level, the farmhouse’s octagonal shape serves to muddle the audience’s bearings, constantly subverting Aronofsky’s deliberate use of extended tracking shots that follow Mother through various rooms.

It’s a rather inspired idea, using the visual language & continuity of motion typically employed to establish spatial orientation, but within a form factor that actively obscures our sense of geography.

We always know what room Mother is in on an intellectual level, but we can never quite discern where she is in relation to the rest of the house— the corners always seem to be closing in on themselves… and by extension, us.

That Messina renders the farmhouse interiors in various neutral shades (similarly echoed in the clothes worn by the characters) results in an abstractified, relatively-colorless environment that boosts the narrative’s metaphorical, “outside of time” qualities.

In the absence of color within the frame itself, Aronofsky uses the remaining tools in his arsenal to give MOTHER! its tactile depth and contrast.  This includes aforementioned elements like lighting and a neutral color palette, but also post-production tools like visual effects, editing, and sound design.

The VFX work goes a long way towards establishing the farmhouse itself as a living, breathing entity that Mother is intimately connected to— she’s able to sense a delicate heartbeat behind the drywall and plaster, and can glimpse fleeting, skeletal visions of charred woodwork that pulse throughout the house like heavy breaths.

There’s also an arresting image of a lightbulb pooling with blood until it explodes and sends plasma splattering everywhere.

Returning editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a swift pace that builds exponentially in tandem with a hyper-aggressive sound mix, resulting in an effect that’s not unlike being caught within the whirlpool of a flushing toilet… spinning faster and faster as we circle the drain.

Notably, MOTHER! features no music whatsoever until Patti Smith covers “The End Of The World” over the end titles.  An original score by the late Johan Johansson was planned, and even produced, but nixed as early as the rough cut stage (4) when he and Aronofksy came to the conclusion that the film worked better without music.

Their decision — an admirable display of creative restraint — proves to be the right one; there’s something infinitely more disturbing about MOTHER!’s spiral descent into madness without the accompaniment of bombastic music cues constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.

The absence of score allows us to better witness the narrative from Mother’s viewpoint while denying the sense of safety and remove that stems from theatrical artifice.

If the entirety of Aronofsky’s feature output can be boiled down to a singular, unifying thematic idea, then it stands to reason said theme is the collision of logic and faith.

From PI’s besieged mathematician to NOAH’s eponymous biblical hero, the arc of each Aronofsky protagonist passes through this prism, giving the director an avenue to approach religion and belief from an intellectual standpoint.

Having been raised, as he describes, in a non-practicing, “culturally” Jewish household, Aronofsky uses his art to exhibit his primarily-anthropological interest in religion and its influence on human behavior.

As previously mentioned, MOTHER! stands as the arguable apex of this career-long excavation, its allegorical storytelling approach being the reason for its very existence.

In crafting a story about a woman under siege by recurrent tidal waves of hostile humanity within her own home, Aronofsky expresses a cinematic lament over our apparent powerlessness to curb runaway climate change in the face of self-enriching presidential administrations and pollution-friendly corporations, all the while tying in the grand sweep of civilized history to demonstrate how our self-destructive tendencies are dyed in the wool.

In other words, our ability and apparent willingness to eradicate ourselves is a feature of the species— not a bug.

As mentioned before, MOTHER!’s narrative isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead assigning allegorical correlation with both religious and world history to make a larger statement on the human condition and our failure to be responsible stewards of the Earth (spoilers below).

As the personification of the Earth itself, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, inviting her husband and houseguests to take advantage of her generosity until she has nothing left to give.

The events of the film put her under significant duress, manifest at several junctures in the form of increasingly-violent tremors that push Mother to the floor.  These moments resemble earthquakes, illustrating the raw destructive power that lurks underneath.

Bardem’s character stands in for God, his profession as a poet/writer alluding to The Almighty’s unfettered creativity. The arrival of Man’s character signifies Adam, an already-compromised creation whose sickness alludes to the frailty of human life.

It’s no coincidence that the night after Mother accidentally catches a glimpse of a vicious scar over Man’s rib, Woman arrives on her doorstep.  Him’s office can be read as the Garden of Eden, his treasured crystal artifact becoming an object of obsessive temptation for Man and Woman not unlike the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

We later learn this crystal is forged from the charred remains of the previous Mother’s heart, underscoring that her love and generosity is a precious gift that’s easily destroyed.

The hot-blooded murder of Man’s son by his other son is an obvious reference to the biblical story of Cain & Abel, while the boy’s subsequent funeral, attended by an increasingly-populous and out-of-control congregation, represents both humanity’s growing numbers and its wanton sinfulness.

The first half of the film culminates when some particularly-careless “mourners” accidentally rip Mother’s unbraced sink away from the wall and unleash a torrent of water that clears out the house; this can be read as an allegory for the Great Flood in the Old Testament, in which God drowned out his compromised creations and wiped the slate clean.

The ensuing argument between Mother and Him leads to their making up via making love, and Mother wakes up the following morning with the supernatural realization that she’s already pregnant.

Overcome with love and a regained appreciation for life, Him is struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and immediately scribbles out the first new poem he’s written in years— a New Testament, if you will… the beginning of a new covenant with humanity based on compassion and forgiveness rather than tempestuous wrath.

The resulting text single-handedly resurrects his career, drawing in a growing tide of admirers whose lives he touched with the beauty of his words. This second half of the film is where the narrative really plays into the thematic throughline of Aronofsky’s work: his anthropological fascination with the bleakest, darkest aspects of the human experience.

Mother’s grip on the situation quickly spirals out of control as people keep coming— an endless wave of increasingly-frenzied fanatics who erupt into fistfights with each other and steal Mother and Him’s belongings as if they were precious artifacts to be hoarded.

In selfishly ransacking a farmhouse they’ve come to regard as a holy temple to their creator poet, they suggest the compounding dangers of rampant overpopulation and religious fanaticism.

Before Mother can kick each trespasser out of her house, the crowd has seemingly merged into a singular glob of chaos— a parasite or disease that is quickly devouring the Earth.

Aronofsky takes an evident truth — that it’s in our nature to destroy beautiful things — and maps it out over a harrowing, mind-melting escalation that sees each room in the house become a diorama for the horrors of the 20th century: famine, concentration camps, human trafficking, brutal riots, war, and terrorism.

By refusing to deviate from Mother’s viewpoint, Aronofsky expertly orchestrates a sense of overwhelming chaos and incomprehensible panic, evoking the deep existential horror that comes from both the loss of control and the absence of logic.

MOTHER!’s steep nosedive into the bowels of hell culminates in the birth of a baby boy, heralded as something of a Messiah by the frenzied masses below.

In what is easily the most disturbing, gut-churning moment in a film already stuffed with images of sudden blunt-force trauma, exploding jawlines, and even a blood-squirting toilet creature, Aronofsky easily outdoes the body horror of previous films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) or BLACK SWAN by showing the crowd seize the newborn and feverishly rip it apart into bite-sized chunks.

This is a horrifically-literal echo of Communion, the sacrament celebrated by Catholics at every mass with the consumption of bread that’s regarded as “the body of Christ”.

That Him is all too ready to forgive the crowd for this unspeakable act reminds us of the Christian God’s compassion, knowingly sending his only son to slaughter so that humanity could be saved.

Mother, however, does not share Him’s compassion— the loss of her baby sends her into a murderous rage, culminating in her burning the whole house down on top of everyone (likely an allusion to runaway global warming, the inescapable terminus of humanity’s total domination over the planet).

While Aronofsky presents the majority of MOTHER! through a Western perspective, his final reveal draws from Eastern thought— specifically, the idea of reincarnation.

Evoking THE FOUNTAIN’s ruminations on the endless cycle of death & rebirth, MOTHER! ends with Him digging Mother’s heart from her charred body and forging it into a new incarnation of the precious crystal he keeps on display in his study.

As a new day dawns, the house builds itself back up from the ashes, and a new Mother (played by a different actress with a fleeting resemblance to Lawrence) wakes up in her bed just as she did at the beginning of the film.

With this final beat, Aronofksy alludes to the theoretical reincarnation of the universe itself: a continual expansion and contraction of the cosmos that provides a rather-tidy answer to the question of what preceded The Big Bang.

All of this is extremely heady stuff, to be sure, and poses quite the challenge in connecting with an audience that mostly regard movies as an opportunity to switch off their brains for two hours.

As it turns out, said audiences — especially those of the American variety — really weren’t up for an evening of sensory overload and confrontational anthropology.  MOTHER! earned itself an exceedingly rare “F” CinemaScore, reflecting the general repulsion manifest in its relatively-meager  worldwide gross of $44M over its $30M budget.

The film’s critical reception, however, tells a much different story: after premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, jurors nominated MOTHER! for their highest honor, the Golden Lion.  Several prominent critics from Rolling Stone, The Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian subsequently issued rave reviews, applauding its allegorical audacity.

This isn’t to say that other reviews weren’t negative — indeed, there were plenty of critics who were all too eager to file scathing notices. If anything, MOTHER!’s polarized reception speaks to the success of Aronofsky’s efforts.

The repulsion is the point; when confronted with a visceral portrait of humanity’s capacity for (and long history of) atrocity, we should be disgusted and horrified.

Our collective desire to be & do better is the only way to break the cycle of chaos and bloodshed that will ultimately end in the boiling annihilation of the only home we’ve ever known.  Despite its perceived “failure” as a commercial product, MOTHER! succeeds in hammering its message home, and in so doing, confirms Aronofsky’s legacy as a creator of transgressive & fearlessly independent cinema.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide to Francis Ford Coppola and His Directing Techniques

EARLY WORKS (1962)

Few figures in the world of cinema cast a shadow as long as Francis Ford Coppola’s.  He’s a giant of the art form, with a handful of movies that have redefined film as we know it.  His inherent genius, which has cost him considerable grief throughout his career, is abundant enough to be passed down to his offspring.

Indeed, the Coppola family dynasty is something of a phenomenon– there’s his daughter, indie darling Sofia Coppola, as well as his filmmaker son Roman (and that’s not even counting more distant family like Jason Schwartzman or Nicolas Cage).  His recent films may only have a fraction of the power of his early work, but Coppola’s place in the annals of cinema history is undeniable.

Born in Detroit, but raised in New York City, Coppola found his love for film by way of the theatre.  Suffering from polio during his childhood, Coppola entertained himself by putting on puppet shows and dabbling with the family’s 8mm film camera.  This led to substantial training in music and theater, capped by a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in graduate school at UCLA that he began formally studying film.  Influenced by the works of Elia Kazan and Sergei Eisenstein, Coppola was a member of the earliest wave of directors to directly benefit from a dedicated filmmaking program.  It was during this time that Coppola cut his teeth with shorts like THE TWO CHRISTOPHERS and AYAMONN THE TERRIBLE.

What’s interesting about the beginnings of Coppola’s career is that his work found wide distribution before he even graduated.  A full five years before he earned his graduate degree from UCLA, Coppola had already made several feature-length films.  Some of these have been lost to time, such as his first work– 1962’s TONIGHT FOR SURE– a softcore comedy meant to titillate rather than entertain.

THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS (1962)

His next work, however, exists in bits and pieces around the internet.  Also shot in 1962, THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS was more of an editing job than a directing one.  However, recutting and adding new footage to German director Fritz Umgelter’s film MIT EVA FING DIE SUNDE AN earned him a full director’s credit.

The film, shot in black and white, was yet another stag/nudie comedy.  The only clip I’ve been able to find, presented above, makes no mention of whether the footage belongs to Coppola or Umgelter.  It doesn’t appear to be dubbed, so for the sake of this article I’ll assume it’s Coppola’s.

This brief snippet shows an intimate scene between newlyweds, as the husband tries to cajole his timid new wife into sex.  Coppola shoots wide and straight-on, capturing the action dispassionately until we pull back to reveal that these characters are actually actors rehearsing for a play.

It’s a playful move on Coppola’s part to deceive us using only the boundaries of the frame– an effective trick that hints at Coppola’s budding desires to challenge convention and redefine the language of cinema.

BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962)

That same year, Coppola found work as an assistant to legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman.  Coppola’s first task under Corman was a daunting one: westernize an existing Soviet sci-fi film entitled NEBO ZOVYOT for American audiences.

Coppola’s take on the material, subsequently retitled BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, became a schlocky monster film, albeit one with the conviction and resourcefulness of a young director with something to prove.

BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (presented above in its entirety) concerns a space race between a unified Earth’s two latitudinal hemispheres, set in a then-future 1997.  Which is hilarious, by the way.  When the South Hemis nation attempts to beat the North to Mars and crash-lands on a nearby moon, the two powers must work together and fend off vicious space monsters so they can return to Earth safely.

This film is probably the epitome of Eisenhower-era B-movie cheese.  Spacecraft models and props are janky, special effects are laughable, and the limited understanding of actual space travel is preciously quaint.  However, it is surprisingly watchable, if only for the glimpses of Coppola’s earliest directorial choices.

His largest contribution to the film, besides the dubbing over of dialogue with American actors, was to inject a space monster battle midway through the film.  Long before Ridley Scott made the sexualization of aliens cool in ALIEN (1979), Coppola crafted his dueling monsters to resemble vaginas and penises.  This was a common characteristic of the lurid films that Corman produced, all of which were churned out rapidly and cheaply to maximize profit.

Ultimately, these films aren’t reliable indicators of Coppola’s growth as a filmmaker.  Put simply, they’re glorified editing jobs where Coppola got to re-conceptualize an existing film and conform his edit accordingly.  However, they’re fascinating looks into how film school students gained experience in the early days of the institution, when the costly nature of celluloid prompted experience gained via unconventional avenues.

Coppola’s work with Corman would eventually lead to the making and distribution of his first, true feature film.  His early works served as important stepping-stones on that path, and now they serve as assurance for up-and-coming filmmakers that even the greats had to start somewhere.


DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

In 1963, director Francis Ford Coppola was deep into his apprenticeship with schlock mogul Roger Corman.  That year also found Coppola in Ireland, working as the sound man for Corman’s feature THE YOUNG RACERS.  When filming was finished, Corman found that he had a substantial amount of money leftover in the budget.

He may not have been a great film director, but Corman was undoubtedly a shrewd businessman, and he saw an opportunity to invest that money in Coppola’s untapped talent.

Corman gave the money to Coppola, with an assignment to stay behind in Ireland with a few of THE YOUNG RACERS’ cast members and make a low-budget horror film in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  Coppola responded to the challenge with DEMENTIA 13, his first true feature film of his own making.

While today the film comes off as understandably dated, low-budget and schlocky, it also offers a captivating insight into the mindset of a young, hungry director who would go on to become one of the greats.

The story of DEMENTIA 13 is well-rooted in classical and cliche horror-tropes.  When her husband unexpectedly dies of a heart attack during a late-night boating excursion, Louise Haloran (Luan Anders) unceremoniously dumps his body overboard and heads to his family’s ancestral home in Ireland.

  Acting under the guise that her husband is still alive and absent on a business trip, she maneuvers to get written into his mother’s will so she can cut out with a hefty portion of the family’s wealth.  What she doesn’t count on, however, are the meddlings of her husband’s two brothers (William Campbell and Bart Patton), their macabre obsession with their deceased sister Kathleen, and a mysterious axe murderer stalking the grounds.

Despite DEMENTIA 13’s campy, trashy roots, the cast seems to be aware that they’re working with a great director, accordingly giving themselves over entirely to their performances.  Anders is the archetypal Hitchcock blonde at the center of the story, and her shrewd, calculating ways aren’t as off-putting as they are lurid and compelling.

Campbell and Patton are the brothers to Louise’s dead husband, and they embody stubborn conviction and haunted torment, respectively.  Veteran character actor Patrick Magee delivers a standout performance as Justin Caleb, the family doctor whose gruff mentality raises questions about his true intentions within the story.

DEMENTIA 13 is positioned as a slasher film, but it also dabbles in the murder mystery genre by giving us a gallery of characters with their own potentially-murderous motivations.  Due to the speed in which Coppola wrote the screenplay, the identity of the murderer is easily deduced about halfway through the film– which doesn’t make for much in the way of suspense.

However, the pure excellence of Coppola’s craft, even at this early, low-budget stage, is undeniable.  DEMENTIA 13 is absolutely the kind of film that shouldn’t hold up fifty years after its release, but there’s a small, palpable aura of prestige that lingers over it.  Yes, it’s shlock, but it’s the kind of schlock you might find given a reverent release by the Criterion Collection.

Coppola’s camerawork is simplistic, belying the shoestring nature of the production.  However, its minimalism draw inspiration from classical filmmaking techniques that give the film a timeless feel.  This low-key approach amplifies the few stylistic flourishes peppered throughout;  the opening high-angle shot looking down on a rowboat bobbing in the lake, as well as the floating, dreamlike nature of the underwater photography come to mind.

As lensed by Director of Photography Charles Hannawalt, the 35mm film image uses the low-budget necessity of the black-and-white format to its advantage.  The contrast is crisp and moody, alternating between naturalistic and high-key lighting scenarios as needed.  A vicious knifing sequence halfway through the film uses rapid-fire edits to create disorientation and a sheer sense of terror.

The homage is so apparent that it matches PYSCHO’s infamous shower murder scene shot-for-shot.  This doesn’t read so much as Coppola trying to rip off Hitchock as it does as an example of Corman’s business model for deliberately emulating successful films in his cheap knock-offs.  The same practice still exists today, most notably in “masterpieces” like SNAKES ON A TRAIN,  churned out monthly by cheap production companies like The Asylum.

The music of DEMENTIA 13, provided by Ronald Stein, is appropriately gothic and mysterious.  It’s traditional in that it’s composed like most orchestral scores of its day, but Coppola’s rebelliousness as a young filmmaker gets another chance to shine with the sly inclusion of diagetic rockabilly music.  Using prerecorded source tracks may be commonplace in films now, but In the early 60’s, it was virtually unheard of.

The practice didn’t really gain steam until a generation of film brats like Coppola, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese adopted it as an aesthetic trademark.

As a low-budget genre/exploitation film, DEMENTIA 13 doesn’t give us much in the way of a personal insight into Coppola’s psyche or development as a filmmaker.  While it trades heavily in the tropes of schlock cinema, such as weak acting and easily-corrected inconsistencies (if the film takes place in Ireland, how come nobody is actually Irish?), it also carries a great deal of pathos and understated style.

It might seem dated by today’s standards, but I was surprised to find how effective DEMENTIA 13 was as an old school chiller.  Its gothic iconography has considerable spooky charm, and it’s easily one of the better films within Corman’s extensive library.  But most of all, it’s a solidly-constructed first effort from a blossoming filmmaker (who was still in film school, to boot) who was on the verge of shaking up the entire art form.


YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (1966)

It’s an inarguable fact that director Francis Ford Coppola benefited greatly from the nascent days of the film school institution.  Making a film wasn’t as commonplace as it was now– back in the 60’s, your film was remarkable for the fact that you even made it.

Coppola was a different force altogether– before he had finished his master’s degree at UCLA, he already had the successfully-released features DEMENTIA 13 (1963) and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962) under his belt.

In order to graduate, Coppola needed to complete his master’s thesis film.  Naturally, he crafted the most ambitious student film ever, a feat unmatched even by today’s standards.  This effort was 1966’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, a feature adaptation of the David Benedictus novel.

Shot for the obscene sum of $800,000, Coppola’s little “student film” eventually premiered in competition at Cannes, secured distribution with Warner Brothers, and netted an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress Geraldine Page.  If this were to happen to a student filmmaker today, he’d be hailed as the second coming of Christ– but for Coppola, this was only a taste of things to come.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW tells the story of Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner), a bookish, virginal young man who works in his father’s library in New York.  HIs mother Margery (Geraldine Page), sets him up with an apartment in the city but aggressively warns him about the dangers and evils of women.  Now living on his own for the first time, the sheltered young man’s eyes are opened to a whole world of sexuality and danger.

He begins dating the sweet Amy Partlett (Karen Black), but he quickly finds he can’t help himself when a beautiful, glamorous go-go dancer (Elizabeth Hartman) shows interest in him as well.  Caught between Mrs. Right and Mrs. Right Now (I hate that I just wrote that), Bernard learns that there’s a lot more to love than sex.

The performances are appropriately outsized to match the comedic, absurd plot developments, but they also traffic heavily in a rebelliousness that lends the film a countercultural quality.  The dynamics between the excitable Kastner and the seductive Hartman are well-drawn, if not a little cliche.

Kastner does an admirable job as the lead, delivering a performance reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE (1967)– despite the fact that he had never seen it himself (THE GRADUATE was still a year away from release).   Hartman’s character of Barbara Darling is distant and cold, completely unaware of the psychological damage she inflicts on her suitors.  She fully embodies the weaponized sexuality that was an unintended product of the free love era.

Page’s Oscar-nominated performance is quite funny, if not entirely memorable.  Her conviction that girls are the devil is a well-worn character trait, but she performs the role with a fresh urgency.  Torn and Black would go on to have bigger careers after this film, so it’s incredibly interesting to see them as young upstarts here.

Torn is so young and fresh-faced that he’s nearly unrecognizable as Bernard’s stern, reserved father.  Black does an admirable job embodying the kind of girl that a budding lothario knows he should pursue, even if that comes at the cost of a milquetoast characterization.  While she’s innocent and sweet, she doesn’t judge Bernard for his transgressions, which is refreshing for her character’s archetype.

Bucking the trend of student films shooting on 16mm film, Coppola uses his considerable budget to film on 35mm.  Andrew Laszlo, serving as Director of Photography, gives the film a fresh, energetic look that suits Coppola’s countercultural aesthetic.

The cold grays of New York City are contrasted with bright pops of color seen in the young characters’ attire and props.  Indeed, all the adults are depicted in boring, neutral tones so as to make the teenagers’ vibrancy stand out.  One great instance of this is the film’s opening shot, which starts wide on a dull, quiet library scene.

Suddenly, the camera rushes in towards the door, and Hartman’s character storms into the room.  Clad in screaming orange and accompanied by the blasts of rock and roll music, her entrance signifies nothing less than the arrival of a new generation intent on upending the traditional order.

Editor Aram Avakian complements this attitude by employing fast-paced, experimental editing influenced by the then-burgeoning French New Wave.  Other stylistic flourishes, like on-screen titles animated to resemble typewriting, further push the experimental tone that Coppola is after.  As a result, the film must have felt very fresh and bleeding-edge in its techniques upon its release.

Robert Prince contributes a jaunty, energetic score, but the musical soul of the film belongs to rock band Loving Spoonful, which firmly roots the film in the teenage counterculture of the 60’s.  It’s unpolished guitar riffs chafe against the edges of the frame, encroaching ever closer and eventually consuming its characters entirely.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW finds Coppola combining his experience with his early softcore comedies with the hard-edged vitality of the emergent youth culture.  The film’s tone is breezy and playful, with the kind of boundless optimism and curiosity reserved only for the young.  There’s even a sense of burgeoning filmography to Coppola’s craft, manifested by the use of footage from DEMENTIA 13 as an art installation in a nightclub sequence.

By this point in his career, Coppola had yet to establish a consistent visual aesthetic, but his taste for experimentation and boundary-pushing is quite evident.  With the release of YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, Coppola established himself at the forefront of his generation’s ascent into the industry.  Not bad for a student film.


FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968)

Full disclosure- I’m not a big fan of musicals.  Something about people spontaneously bursting into song and dance makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and I can’t explain it.  Naturally, I approached my viewing of FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968), director Francis Ford Coppola’s third true feature film, with a large degree of hesitation.

  While I don’t plan on watching it again, I have to admit it was much better and watchable than I expected it to be, thanks to young Coppola’s considerable storytelling ability and an evocative Southern setting.  FINIAN’S RAINBOW, distributed by Warner Brothers, is Coppola’s first big studio picture, and the modest success of the film would further propel his career to new heights.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW is about Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark), who’ve recently left their native Ireland to venture to the mythical land of Rainbow Valley, Missitucky.  Unbeknownst to Sharon, Finian is carrying a bag full of gold that he stole from a leprechaun named Og (Tommy Steele), and plans to place the gold in close proximity to Fort Knox so that it may multiply.

While Sharon falls in love with Rainbow Valley’s most eligible bachelor, Woody Mahoney (Don Francks), Og The Leprechaun tracks down Finian to Missitucky and attempts to take back his gold before he becomes mortal.  Toss in a little song and dance, and a lot of Irish stereotypes and you’ve got the idea.  It was by complete coincidence that I watched this very Irish film on St. Patrick’s Day, but my general amusement at that fact helped my enjoyment of the film overall.

Every member of the cast seems fully devoted to Coppola’s vision.  Even the seasoned movie star and dancing legend Fred Astaire gives himself fully over to Coppla’s whims.  Pushing 70 during the film’s production, FINIAN’S RAINBOW became Astaire’s last major movie musical.  It’s a great send-off that allows Astaire to retain his youthful vigor, dazzling grin, and fancy-free footwork despite his elderly, frail state.

Clark garnered a great deal of acclaim for her singing talent as Irish lass Sharon McLonergan.  Francks drew from the folk persona of Woody Guthrie for his portrayal of the rakish Mahoney.  Keenan Wynn is a good sport, allowing himself to be humiliated at every turn as the film’s racist, lily-white antagonist, Senator Rawkins.

The sprightly Barbara Hancock plays Susan the Silent, who is unable to speak but communicates effortlessly via dance.  As the cartoonish leprechaun Og, Tommy Steel received the bulk of ire directed at the film.  His goofy, slapstick-laden performance was decidedly off-tone (despite the inherent whimsical nature of the story).  I can’t say I blame his detractors– I hated that guy’s shit-eating grin, too.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW sees one of the largest casts that Coppola has ever assembled, and he does a great job filling out the population of Rainbow Valley with outsized, memorable personas.    The expansive world-building on display proves to be a great training ground for the kind of epic filmmaking Coppola would take on in THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

Indeed, FINIAN’S RAINBOW marks a considerable uptick in scale and production value for Coppola, who makes great use of all the extra toys afforded him.  The sunny, springtime exterior locales are given scope via extensive crane and dolly movements (and even the occasional helicopter shot), and all the set dressings required to sell his story are in abundant supply.

Curiously enough, Coppola mashes together location/exterior footage and sets made to look exterior with reckless abandon, oftentimes creating jarring transitions and leaps in logic.  While some of these sets were built for valid reasons (lighting a forest at night would be too expensive), others seem to have little explanation.

However it does illuminate Coppola’s internal battle over shooting the film like a traditional Hollywood musical or indulging his experimental, more-realistic tendencies cultivated in film school.  One instance of this indulgence is allowing specks of water to remain on the camera lens during a firefighting sequence, which gives the scene an immediate presence not unlike documentary.

While the film is decidedly old-school in its approach, an undercurrent of film brat rebellion charges the picture with a harder edge than it normally would have.

As lensed by Director of Photography Philip H. Lathrop, the 35mm film image– framed at the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio– is heavily saturated with the gonzo hues of Technicolor and lit within an inch of its life.  Coppola and Lathrop show an aptness for staging complicated group numbers with a breezy energy that draws the audience into being active participants in the song and dance.

The sleepy southern town of Rainbow Valley and its rich, brown/green color palette is fleshed out in great detail by production designer Hilyard M. Brown.    Ray Heindorf rounds out the list of technical collaborators with his arrangement of the musical’s many numbers into jaunty, energetic orchestrations that retain a decidedly Irish influence.

Having been released in the prime days of the Civil Rights movement, FINIAN’S RAINBOW’s racial and cultural politics have now aged into amusing, quaint oddities.  Its incorporation of actor Keenan Wynn playing blackface (having been magically transformed from white to black in the course of the story) was understandably met with controversy upon its release.

So many decades on, it still comes off as extremely politically incorrect, but is now more-easily written off as a product of antiquated cultural views.  This is further reflected in the film with earnest, positive expressions about the benefits of credit, and even asbestos.  Moments like these paint a fuller picture of an optimistic time gone by, albeit at the cost of losing a certain, timeless aura.

Coppola does an admiral job directing FINIAN’S RAINBOW, breezily clipping along the film’s 2 ½ hour running time so that it’s not a complete snoozefest.  There are many positive things to recommend about it– Astaire’s performance, and the set design to name a few– as there are negative.

Its cultural legacy has since become its relevancy to Coppola’s development as a filmmaker.  It was a huge step up for him, and the first real test of his talent.  The sheer task of directing such a big, mainstream production would efficiently prepare Coppola for the biggest challenges of his career, and would allow him to soar like Astaire himself when lesser filmmakers would’ve fallen flat on their faces.


THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969)

A year after releasing his first big-budget studio film (1968’s FINIAN’S RAINBOW), director Francis Ford Coppola was back in theaters with a markedly different feature film.  Channeling the experimental sensibilities and understated narratives of the French New Wave, 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE was a subtle, introspective road picture that eschewed all the frills of contemporary studio filmmaking.

For Coppola personally, the film is further notable in that it was the first project released under his fledgling production studio, American Zoetrope.  In the years since, American Zoetrope has been a source of great trial and tribulation for Coppola and his associates, but has consistently delivered on its promise of making original, thought-provoking acts of cinema.  As Zoetrope’s first feature release,  THE RAIN PEOPLE is a fascinating window into the principles and ideals that shaped an upstart indie studio into a cinematic institution.

THE RAIN PEOPLE assumes the perspective of Natalie Ravenna, a lonely housewife who abruptly picks up and hits the road upon learning that she’s pregnant.  Spurning her husband’s pleas to return home, she picks up a handsome, mentally stunted hitchhiker named Killer (James Caan).  The two form an unlikely friendship, with Natalie becoming something of a caretaker to the young man.

Inevitably, Killer falls in love with Natalie, which doesn’t make their situation any easier when Natalie becomes romantically involved with a lonely police officer named Gordon (Robert Duvall).

Coppola’s command of his cast’s performances, especially in regards to their emotional restraint, is superb.  Natalie, as played by Knight, is reserved and conflicted as she suddenly finds herself in the throes of a quarter-life crisis brought about by pregnancy.  It’s a haunting performance, and Knight was rightfully recognized for the strength of her portrayal.

In hindsight, the most interesting aspect of Coppola’s casting is the first instance of collaboration with both James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Everyone knows they’d both go on to legendary performances in Coppola’s next film, THE GODFATHER (1972), but not a lot of people know that Duvall and Caan were actually roommates at one point.  If that doesn’t compel you to amicably figure out who’s taking care of those dishes in the sink tonight, I don’t know what will.

Caan is fresh-faced and quiet as Jimmy Kilgannon, affectionately nicknamed Killer.  His character was a college football player who was left mentally stunted after a particularly bad concussion.  He embodies a child-like innocence, with an unflagging loyalty and obedience to Natalie that’s not unlike a dog.  Duvall, in contrast, is inquisitive and tough as a widowed cop looking for some rough love.

He’s dangerous and unpredictable, which makes him so attractive to Natalie in the first place.  The battle between these two men is well built-up to, and when it finally explodes, it does so with the force of an atomic bomb.

What struck me most upon watching this film was Coppola’s visual treatment of the story.  The picture, lensed by Director of Photography Wilmer Butler, is simple and unadorned.  Coppola and Butler are content to let the 1.85:1 frame simply dwell on its subject, passively observing long, quiet moments of reflection and malaise.

The lighting is as naturalistic as the performances, and the air of realism hangs heavy over the proceedings.  It’s almost the prototypical mumblecore film, what with its low-key look, simple performances and barely perceptible plot developments.

Ronald Stein, who previously supplied the score for Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13 (1963), creates a staccato, melancholy score here that also infuses a little bit of jazz into the rural West Virginian setting.  Contrasting with the musical bombast that was FINIAN’S RAINBOW, Coppola adopts a reserved approach to music that matches his minimalist aesthetic.  Even the film’s opening credits eschew music, opting instead for the quiet patter of early-morning rain and ambient clanking of garbage truck machinery in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

Curiously incongruent with the low-key nature of the photography, however, is Barry Malkin’s editing.  Borrowing heavily from the innovations of the nascent wave of cinema rebels in France, Malkin incorporates a variety of avant-garde techniques like jump-cuts, poetic juxtaposition, mismatched sound cues, etc.  Coppola and Malkin often pepper dialogue scenes with wordless flashes of perpendicular action, flashing forward or backwards to illuminate events that bring greater meaning to the dialogue sequence at hand.

The groundbreaking editing, when combined with the minimalist visual style, gives the film a very European vibe.

This points to a common, definitive trait of the “Film Brat” generation of directors– that of reference and/or allusion to classic works as well as the work of their contemporaries abroad.  Unlike the directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, directors like Coppola were part of a larger community of filmmakers inspiring each other in their attempts to redefine the language of cinema.

Coppola counts THE RAIN PEOPLE among the top five favorite films of his own making, and for good reason.  It’s a strikingly confident work, free of the studio interference that would come to plague him as he became more successful.  It was also his first collaboration with future STAR WARS  creator George Lucas, who served as production associate on the film.

Filmmakers like Lucas were one of the reasons that Coppola founded American Zoetrope– he sought not only to advance his own cinematic interests, but to further the innovative spirit of filmmaking by empowering like-minded directors and giving them the resources to create outside of a stifling studio system.

Ironically enough, Coppola’s next film would beholden him to the studio system more so than he ever wanted (albeit at great benefit to his career).  In that context, THE RAIN PEOPLE is an interesting look into an artistically pure Coppola, unfettered by outside opinions and influence, as he cements his particular brand of storytelling and characterization.


THE GODFATHER (1972)

What more is there to possibly say about 1972’s THE GODFATHER that hasn’t already been said?  It is undoubtedly, inarguably one of the greatest films ever made.  It’s a goddamn institution of cinema that dares you to find fault with it.  Yes, you could say it’s overlong, convoluted, even boring– but by no means can you not respect it.  I suspect that director Francis Ford Coppola had no idea what he was getting into when cameras first started rolling that fateful day in 1972.

Coppola initially took the job, not for passion, but for money.  American Zoetrope, the company he founded with the intent to liberate himself from the studio system of filmmaking, found itself in debt to those very same studios due to budget overruns on his good friend George Lucas’ directorial debut, THX 1138 (1971).  As the producer on that film, Coppola found himself deeply in debt and took on THE GODFATHER so that he could afford to feed his growing family.

It was precisely this familial element of the film’s genesis that threw the story into focus for Coppola.  Paramount saw another cheap gangster film that would turn an easy profit, but Coppola saw a sprawling epic about loyalty, family, and honor that became a grand metaphor for the ruthless mechanics of American capitalism.  So convinced of his own vision was he, Coppola endured a trial by fire wrought by studio executives who made very vocal their distaste of his casting and directorial choices at every step along the way.

It was the single most formative experience of Coppola’s career, even more so than his fiasco of a shoot in the jungle for APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

We all know the characters, and we all know the story– to a varying degree, of course.  THE GODFATHER’s famously labyrinthine plotting slowly reveals itself only through multiple viewings.  By my own estimations, this was the the third or fourth time I’ve seen the film, but it was probably the first time where I was able to really follow what was going on throughout.

I also had the distinct pleasure of watching the film with my girlfriend (hi, Chelsea!), who was watching it for the first time.  Many of the film’s sequences are iconic, but it was refreshing to see someone experience it for the first time, and still be actively engaged in a story that is nearly forty years old.  This speaks to the great deal of timelessness that THE GODFATHER is imbued with– it’s truly a film that will endure through the ages.

THE GODFATHER focuses on the Corleone crime syndicate, a close-knit Sicilian-Italian family who have amassed a tremendous fortune through illegal gambling operations.  As run by aging patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Corleones are a well-oiled, efficient operation with friends in high places.

Set in New York in the decade following World War 2, THE GODFATHER chronicles the internal upheaval that the Corleones experience when pressure builds to join the increasingly-profitable narcotics trade, or risk losing their relevance in the world of organized crime.  As a man of honor and principe, Vito is staunchly opposed to dealing drugs, which angers the heads of rival crime families.

An unsuccessful assassination attempt on Vito’s life sparks open warfare involving his sons, particularly Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a war hero and the youngest of Vito’s progeny.  When the heir apparent to Vito’s empire, hotheaded eldest son Sonny (James Caan) is betrayed by his brother-in-law and brutally gunned down in the street, and middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is deemed unfit to head the operation, Michael decides to assume control of the family.  However, the cost of this decision will be his very soul.

The performances in THE GODFATHER are career-defining, and nothing short of legendary.  A great deal of the film’s power comes from the sheer pathos and gravitas embodied by each and every character.  This is all the more-remarkable due to the fact that the studio infamously hated the cast and fought to have some of the key players replaced.

Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Don Vito (and famously refused to accept it in order to call attention to the terrible depiction of Native Americans in cinema).  Only 45 at the time of shooting, Brando assumed the affectations of a man twenty years his senior, all while under heavy prosthetic makeup and an elaborate jaw appliance that gave him a severe underbite.  His heartbreak at the sight of his empire crumbling and the corruption of his sons is heartbreaking to watch, and makes his performance one of the most iconic in history.

Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone became his career breakout and instantly established him as one of his generation’s top acting talents.  Pacino’s Michael is vindictive and ruthless while still remaining likable, which makes for a believable performance as a man fated to become the very devil he meant to dispel.  His character arc is one of the most compelling trajectories ever devised, and while it came close to a reality several times throughout production, it’s very hard to imagine anyone else other than Pacino in the role.

James Caan and Robert Duvall continue their collaboration with Coppola as Sonny and consigliere Tom Hagen, respectively.  Caan is all fiery temper and braggadocio as the heir apparent to Vito’s criminal empire.  Despite his presence in only 1/9 of the entire GODFATHER TRILOGY’s 9-hour running time, his presence hangs heavy over the entirety of it like a specter.

While Caan would continue delivering iconic performances throughout his career, his portrayal of Sonny Corleone will arguably be the one he is always remembered for.  Same goes for Duvall, who as Vito’s adopted son of Irish and German descent, is one of the family’s most trusted outsiders.  Acting publicly as the family’s lawyer, he privately takes on an advisor role to Vito, dispensing wisdom and objective reason.

Filling out the Corleone family is the inimitable Cazale in his film debut as middle son Fredo, as well as Coppola’s real-life sister Talia Shire as their sister Connie.  While Cazale’s true importance lies in the events of THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), the roots of those problems are firmly established here by depicting Fredo as somewhat of a black sheep, too stupid and clumsy to reliably lead the Corleone family on his own.

Filling out the cast are Diane Keaton and Sterling Hayden as key players in the Corleone family saga.  The impeccable Hayden plays Captain McCluskey, the repugnant, corrupt cop that Michael murders in cold blood.  Keaton plays Kay Adams, who becomes Michael’s wife in the film.

Her anglo-saxon, WASP-y ways stand in stark contrast to the Corleone’s reserved familial identity, a dynamic visually reinforced by having her continually clad in bright primary colors that scream compared to the dark neutral shades that The Family dresses in.  Her growing despair at the realization of Michael’s corruption is a focal point for the saga’s continuing conversation about ethics, and she becomes an avatar of sorts for our own arms-length distance from the family affairs.

Coppola finds an elegant way to visually depict this at the film’s end, when Kay stands outside the inner chamber of Michael’s office as his capos come to kiss his ring as the new Don Corleone.  We see the remove from her perspective, and then Coppola elegantly cuts to the reverse shot– a close up of Kay’s falling expression as the door closes on her.  The moment is pure cinema: the culmination of all that came before it and a charged beat that brings the film’s central conceit into clear focus.

The mastery of craft on display extends to the film’s cinematography, courtesy of Gordon Willis- a man who who’s ability to capture evocative shadows earned him the moniker “The Prince of Darkness”.  Indeed, THE GODFATHER is a very dark experience visually and thematically.  Shot on 35mm film, the image’s pervading darkness is broken only by strategically placed pools of light which create an exaggerated chiaroscuro without departing too far from reality.

Colors are washed out and desaturated, taking on a warm sepia tone that resembles a faded old family photograph.  The darkly handsome 1.85:1 frame is given life by elegant, classical camera movements and deep focus that highlights well-worn, distinctive set dressing by production designer Dean Tavoularis.  THE GODFATHER is often imitated and held up as a gold standard in cinematography, and after recent restoration efforts by Coppola himself, the film looks just as good as it did when it first unspooled on unsuspecting audiences forty years ago.

Any discussion of THE GODFATHER wouldn’t be complete with mentioning the film’s iconic musical theme.  Composed by Nino Rota, the theme has ingrained itself into pop culture so much that it is instantly recognizable, even among those who haven’t seen the film.  It’s a mournful waltz that effortlessly incorporates the major themes of the film into musical form.

The music is one of those serendipitous things that just resonates with the zeitgeist and becomes a part of the human experience– the mere mention of the words THE GODFATHER makes you immediately hear the song in the head (admit it, you’re humming it to yourself even now) .  Part of why the films will never be forgotten is due to Rota’s score being so damn unforgettable.  As for Coppola personally, it will accompany him in major milestones for the rest of his life– Oscar wins, public appearances, etc.  I’d bet it’s even played at his funeral.

THE GODFATHER is a master-class in directing, revealing new insights upon each subsequent viewing.  Many things, like Coppola’s inclusion of oranges in a given sequence as a bellwether of impending death are well known, but many more of THE GODFATHER’s secrets aren’t given up so easily.

Coppola’s rich explorations of the themes of family, loyalty, and obligation can be seen as explorations into his own cultural identity and heritage.  For Coppola, and Italian culture at large, communal rituals, traditions and ceremonies are major life milestones by which the plot points of our lives are played out.  The film begins with a lavish wedding steeped in Old World custom, designed to introduce us not only to this detailed world but to the complicated characters who inhabit it.

Conversely, Coppola ends the film with a baptism by both water and blood.  It’s the most stunning sequence of the film, and arguably the single best contribution Coppola has ever made to the ever-evolving language of cinema: as Michael’s nephew and godson is baptized into the Catholic Church (and thus delivered into the proverbial saving grace of God), Michael’s capos carry out an elaborate series of murders designed to knock off the Corleones’ rivals and consolidate power in a baptism of blood (thus delivering Michael into the hands of Satan).

It’s a bone-chilling and haunting sequence, effortlessly orchestrated by Coppola in a way that takes full advantage of his experimental affectations.  It literally created the cross-cut, a perpendicular editing technique that is still used to today to lend immense power to films like SKYFALL (2012) or THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

Even Coppola’s contemporaries have referenced it, most notably in the Jedi extermination/creation of the Empire sequence in George Lucas’ STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).  In this sequence in particular, THE GODFATHER’s hidden, double meaning as a title is revealed.  While initially presented in assumed reference to Corleone patriarch Don Vito, it’s not until the end that we realize its in reference to Michael as he fully embraces his descent into evil.

THE GODFATHER has left an enduring legacy on the American psyche that’s almost unfathomable to comprehend.  It was a bonafide phenomenon and instant classic upon its release, resulting in the highest box office returns and acclaim in Coppola’s career.

It catapulted him into the echelons of cinema’s great directors nearly overnight, and even though many of his contemporaries’ films have lost some of their luster upon reappraisal, THE GODFATHER still holds up as a sterling example of what cinema is and should be.  It truly is one of the greatest films ever made, and anyone who thinks different is liable to find themselves sleeping with the fishes.


THE CONVERSATION (1974)

I have a strange, contentious relationship to director Francis Ford Coppola’s feature film THE CONVERSATION (1974).  It is widely regarded amongst film circles as a masterpiece in its own right, and I tend to agree.  However, there’s something intangible that I find alienating on a personal level.  I don’t know what it is, so I can’t really explain it.

I had the same reaction the first time I saw the film in college– that of a deep, yet cold respect that left little in the way of actually loving it.  I was hoping that this might change upon revisiting the film, but I can’t really say that it has.

After the Best Picture win for 1972’s THE GODFATHER, Coppola was awash in acclaim and could choose any project he wanted.  Despite the calls to go right into production on a sequel to THE GODFATHER, Coppola chose instead to shoot a small, personal project as a palette cleanser.

This arguably began the trend of successful directors leveraging a blockbuster’s warm reception into making a passion project of their own design (a trend continued most recently by Christopher Nolan when he made 2010’s INCEPTION between the two final chapters of his DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY).

THE CONVERSATION concerns a private investigator named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who specializes in audio surveillance.  He and a team of associates have been contracted to record a clandestine conversation between two seemingly-innocuous pedestrians in a crowded San Francisco park.

As Caul refines and mixes his recordings in his warehouse studio, the nature of the conversation reveals itself to be of murderous intent.  Thinking he might be indirectly enabling a horrible crime to occur, Caul descends into an abyss of paranoia and mystery, convinced that he has become a target of surveillance himself.

The film was released just as the Watergate scandal broke, which made the story feel extremely relevant. The performances, which tapped into a fundamental distrust of authority figures, are striking without being over-the-top.  As Caul, Gene Hackman eschewed his leading-man good looks by donning ill-fitting glasses and an unflattering plastic jacket that looks not unlike a placenta.

However, he injects a paranoid pathos that is utterly compelling, taking us along for the ride as he descends into madness.  Caul might be one of the more intriguing protagonists in recent memory:  his career consists of recording unsuspecting targets, but he has developed an extreme case of paranoia about his own privacy– even going so far as to tear up his entire apartment when he suspects it’s been bugged.

Coppola also enlists the help of GODFATHER alumnus John Cazale, who plays Stan, Caul’s bookish surveillance assistant.  Out of the six films in which Cazale appeared during his lifetime, this is probably his smallest role, while also being his least neurotic/eccentric.  Despite the limited screen time, Cazale brings a highly memorable presence to the film.

It really is a shame that we lost Cazale so early, as he might have been one of cinema’s most treasured character actors.

Rounding out the cast is Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, and recurring Coppola collaborator Robert Duvall.  Garfield plays Bernie Moran, a sound surveillance expert from New York and a friendly rival of Caul’s.  Williams plays Ann, the anxious, vulnerable woman at the center of Caul’s surveillance.  Ford, who was introduced to Coppola via George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), plays Martin Stelt, a well-dressed businessman who stalks Caul in pursuit of his recordings.

It’s interesting to watch Ford in his pre-Han Solo days, as his developing talents are very noticeable.  He’s not particularly good in THE CONVERSATION, but you can tell the potential is there.  Meanwhile, Duvall appears in somewhat of a glorified cameo as the mystery man who commissions Haul to record the targets, only to find himself a victim of his own suspicions.

THE CONVERSATION has a much more even look compared to the amber-soaked visuals of THE GODFATHER.  Originally lensed by director of photography Haskell Wexler, Wexler proved to be combative with Coppola and was replaced by Bill Butler, Coppola’s DP from THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969).  The 1.85:1 35mm film frame is appropriately gritty and seedy, dealing in a bland color palette of grays and neutrals.

This color scheme is further reflected by Dean Tavoularis’ production design, which features cold, brutalist architecture at odds with its picturesque San Francisco setting.  Perhaps this is why I feel so alienated by the film– a great deal of the film’s story takes places in cold, imposing locales that blot out clarity and logic.  While opting for a relatively realistic presentation, Coppola does include an impressionistic dream sequence rendered in a cobalt blue through a thick layer of smoke.

Despite the unassuming visual presentation, Coppola makes artful use of his camerawork in a way that reinforces the story’s central themes.  A recurring visual motif is “machinery in motion”, most notably seen in the whirring gears of Caul’s audio equipment.  Telephoto lenses prove to be a boon to Coppola’s aesthetic, giving the film’s surveillance sequences a verite feel that’s highly effective.

The opening shot (a slow zoom-in from a bird’s-eye perspective that finds a single conversation amongst a crowd of people) is one of the most famous of its kind, praised for its virtuoso sound editing by legendary cutter Walter Murch.

The camera movements are mostly restricted to the functional movement of actual surveillance cameras (the ending shot that pans back and forth is the clearest example).  This is an inspired move from Coppola, and yet another example of how he has redefined the visual language of cinema throughout his career to better tell his stories.

THE CONVERSATION utilizes the jazzy piano work of David Shire for its score, which combines the sounds of swing and ragtime music with minor keys that suggest intrigue and mystery with sinister underpinnings.  While it may seem odd for such a low-key, paranoid film, the sound reflects Caul’s own musical inclinations– he’s seen throughout the film playing his saxophone along to jazz records when he’s alone in his apartment.

For the entirety of the 1970’s, Coppola found himself on a directing hot streak in which he could do no wrong.  THE CONVERSATION falls somewhere in the middle of this streak, and sees Coppola embracing the low-key aesthetics of his independent roots while applying them to the trappings of a big-budget genre picture.

Coppola looked to his filmmaking peers abroad for inspiration when crafting the film, a practice that would come to define the film school-bred directors of his generation.  His chief influence was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Italian hit, BLOW-UP (1966), which featured a similar plot of using recordings (photographs in Antonioni’s film) to uncover a murderous conspiracy.

It could also be argued that Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950) was another big inspiration to Coppola, with its multilayered narrative featuring different interpretations of a single event.  These European sensibilities lend at once both a worldliness as well as a bracing sense of innovation to what was somewhat of a stale period of American filmmaking.

THE CONVERSATION went on to snag the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and has since joined the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, thereby stitching itself into the very fabric of American culture.  Coppola himself has stated that THE CONVERSATION is his favorite film of his own, owing to the very personal nature of the story.  For Coppola’s production studio, American Zoetrope, the film’s success was a validation of everything he had set out to do with its creation.

By tackling a smaller, radically different film after the success of THE GODFATHER, Coppola bought time to creatively refresh himself before embarking on production of THE GODFATHER PART II that very same year.  THE CONVERSATION has aged remarkably well since its release, becoming a classic in its own right.  While I still found myself inexplicably put-off by its subdued charm, I can’t deny the film’s sheer excellence that has contributed to its longevity.  THE CONVERSATION still has many secrets to tell us… all we have to do is listen.


THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)

As a general rule, sequels are pale imitations of the original films whose stories they continue.  In the modern Hollywood climate where franchised properties rule supreme (and nine out of ten films are a sequel, prequel or remake), it’s almost unfathomable to think of a time when sequels were looked down upon with disdain.

  It would take nothing less than the man who single-handedly re-energized American cinema to make a sequel that stood on equal footing with its predecessor and usher in the age of the serial film franchise.  Released in 1974, director Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II undoubtedly (and ironically) became the genesis for today’s serialized cinematic landscape.

There is considerable discussion as to which is the superior film, with a substantial camp proclaiming THE GODFATHER PART II as not only superior to the 1972 original, but one of the greatest films of all time.  Personally, I fall into this mode of thought as I find THE GODFATHER PART II to be a richer exploration of the themes of loyalty and succession that so brazenly defined THE GODFATHER.

The film marks a substantial expansion in scope and vision for Coppola, who enjoyed abundant resources and  minimal studio intrusion during the shoot due to the runaway success of the original film.  As such, THE GODFATHER PART II is arguably Coppola’s biggest, most-fully-realized film– and undoubtedly his best.

Picking up right where the first film left off, THE GODFATHER PART II finds the Corleone family thriving in their adopted home of Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  On the occasion of Michael’s eldest child receiving his first communion, interfamilial conflict is brewing anew.

The new leader of Clemenza’s spinoff caporegime, Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo), comes to Michael (Al Pacino) requesting his help in resolving a dispute with the NY-based Rosato brothers.  Michael refuses, citing a conflict of interests with the Rosato brothers’ employer, a Florida-based Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg.

That night, an unsuccessful assassination attempt is made on Michael’s life, throwing the Corleone compound into chaos.  Michael travels to see Roth in Havana on the eve of the Cuban revolution, whilst trying to figure out who betrayed his family.  As the truth becomes evident that the betrayal rests inside his innermost circle of trusted advisors, Michael must sink to an unprecedented level of darkness to consolidate his power, even if it comes at the cost of his own family.

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative runs side by side Michael’s 1958 storyline.  This alternate story takes place in New York City’s Little Italy during the early twentieth century, as a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) rises to become the all-powerful Don Corleone introduced to us in THE GODFATHER.  Arriving in Ellis Island as a child refugee from his hometown of Corleone, Sicily, Vito adapts well to his community’s particular brand of American capitalism.

The major milestones of Vito’s life are presented in comparison with Michael’s own tyrannical reign, which creates nothing less than the grand American Epic in its chronicle of power and destiny.

Chances are if you ask any professional actor about their reaction to THE GODFATHER series, they will gush at length about their love of the performances.  The series boasts one of the most unexpectedly impeccable casts of all time, and THE GODFATHER II resulted in no less than five acting nominations at that year’s Academy Awards.  Of those five (Pacino, DeNiro, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael Gazzo), only DeNiro walked away with a golden statue, but that doesn’t mean any of the other performances are less distinguished.

THE GODFATHER PART II is Pacino’s show, showcasing his total embrace of moral bankruptcy and fundamental distaste for the necessity of his sins.  It’s a tour de force performance, embodied by a quiet, haunting intensity that lingers on a fundamental level.

DeNiro, an unknown whom Coppola cast after remembering his strong audition for the original film, is impeccable as the young Vito, channeling all of the physicality that Marlon Brando made famous while giving it the vigor and virility of a young man.  DeNiro’s Vito is the strong, silent type– a family man with vision and honor that could easily become a feared criminal leader.

The role was DeNiro’s breakout performance among mainstream American audiences (he had previously made a splash as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS a year prior), and was a stunning first act to one of the most acclaimed careers in cinema.  The presence of young Vito makes the entire GODFATHER saga richer and is the best manifestation of Coppola’s exploration of what it means, to quote those infamous opening lines to the original,  to “believe in America”.

The supporting cast is just as compelling as the marquee talent, helped largely by the considerable investment audiences made in their emotional arcs during the first film.  Diane Keaton reprises her role as Michael’s wife, Kay, continuing her trajectory as a disenfranchised wife who finds she must do the unthinkable in order to truly hurt him as much as he’s hurt her.

Regular Coppola collaborator Robert Duvall’s reprisal of consigliere Tom Hagen is also given added responsibility this time around as a reluctant accomplice to Michael’s nefarious aims.

John Cazale returns as Fredo, playing a much larger role in the Corleone’s Shakespearean drama as the older brother who’s upset over being passed over.  Cazale’s performance in this film is easily his career-best, imbued with a seething resentment stemming from his incompetence.  As I’ve written before, Cazale was only with us as an actor for a very short time.

He only made six films before suffering a premature death, but what impeccable films those six were (the two GODFATHERS, Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974), Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), and Sydney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)).  Cazale is heartbreaking here in that his actions lead to very tragic consequences, even though he’s just trying to earn a little respect.  Cazale will always be synonymous with his depiction of Fredo Corleone, and it’s a shame he was never formally recognized for his subtle, excellent performance.

Talia Shire returns as Connie, who has fallen into bouts of deep depression and ill-advised relationships with men Michael doesn’t approve of, all as a way to get back at him for having her first husband murdered.  No longer the hysterical, tearful woman that she was in the first film, the Connie found in THE GODFATHER PART II is refined and elegant, taking her first steps on the path to becoming the Corleone matriarch after her mother’s passing.

A gathering of new faces breathe fresh blood and dramatically-rich conflict into the series, most notably Lee Strassberg and Michael Gazzo.  As the wizened Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, Strassberg was lured out of retirement to craft an unforgettable character who’s frailty belies a lethal menace.  Initially presented as somewhat of a buffoon, Gazzo’s Frankie Pentangeli is an unexpected, conflicted antagonist to the Corleones whose actions cause key members of the Corleone family to question their own motivations.

Surprisingly, a young Harry Dean Stanton pops up as Frankie’s bodyguard, who I had never noticed in the film during previous viewings.  And last, but not least, James Caan famously received his entire pay from the first GODFATHER for his one day shoot reprising Sonny Corleone for a flashback sequence at the end of the film.  The balls on that guy, but credit is due since he actually pulled it off.

One of the defining traits of THE GODFATHER series is that all the films visually resemble each other.  When taken together, all three films coalesce to form a single, nine hour magnum opus.  This is due in large part to Director of Photography Gordon Willis, who devised THE GODFATHER’s striking visual look and replicated it in subsequent installments.

The 1.85:1 frame, shot on 35mm film, is rich in darkness, continuing the sepia-tinged aesthetic established in the first film.  The increased budget means more resources, which Coppola uses to great effect to expand the scope of his story with sweeping, operatic camera moves and a heavily detailed period recreation by production designer Dean Tavoularis.

One interesting thing that Willis does to help differentiate the two time periods can be found in the 1917 sequences, where sunlight is depicted in interior sequences as an intense glow that gives a distinct halo to characters when they stand in front of windows.  This approach subtly recreates the evolving nature of photography at the turn of the century, where greater degrees of latitude had yet to be developed and there was a much harsher contrast between light and dark.

Composer Nino Rota returns with his mournful, elegiac waltz of a score that has lingered in our collective consciousness for decades.  With THE GODFATHER PART II, he builds upon themes and leitmotifs that  show the progression of Mario Puzo’s beloved characters and to reflect their growing inner turmoil as the stakes stack ever-higher.

Coppola also includes a variety of diagetic source cues that paint a bigger picture of the Italian culture at large.  This is most notable in the Fest of San Gennaro sequence (which I’ll discuss at length later), which uses the fascistic Old World sound of “Marcia Religioso” to astounding effect.

Put simply, THE GODFATHER PART II is a staggering accomplishment of directorial prowess.  That Coppola reached this level of skill so early on in his career is astounding.  While many sequels fail in their rush to rehash the story beats that worked in the original, Coppola’s original vision for THE GODFATHER was so strong and compelling that, when given carte blanche to do as he pleased, the subject matter yielded entirely new, unexpected and shocking ways for the story to continue.

Many casual filmgoers don’t know this, but while the original film was based off of Mario Puzo’s novel, there was never an accompanying sequel novel off which to base a film version.  The entire story of the Corleones in midcentury Lake Tahoe (and their presence during the Cuban revolution) are entirely new fabrications devised by Coppola himself, albeit with some help from co-writer Puzo.  The Little Italy sequences set in 1917 are derived from a single chapter in Puzo’s original novel, yet fleshed out in a way that contrasts Michael’s fall from grace with Vito’s rise to power.

Indeed, this parallel rendering of a father and son at the same point in their lives during different time periods is one of the most affecting and relatable aspects of the film, and an unprecedented, inspired move on Coppola’s part.  As a young man myself, trying to establish my career and rise up to become whatever person I’m meant to be, I often find myself reflecting on how my own father came to be the person that I now look upon as a leader in his community and a model of manhood and success.

Obviously, he didn’t shoot people or join organized crime to get where he is, but the pursuit of the American Dream is something that everyone can relate and aspire to, regardless of their trade.  So naturally, I respond on a profound level to this kind of portraiture that Coppola has developed.

There’s one scene in particular I’d like to highlight as profoundly effective on me as a filmmaker, while also being a master-grade illustration of what just might be the perfect cinematic sequence.  Succession and ascendance into power are primary themes in the trilogy, with an act of murder usually serving as the initiation into the upper echelons.

In THE GODFATHER, this is shown when Michael murders Salazzo and Captain McCluskey at a quiet Italian restaurant.  In THE GODFATHER PART II, we witness young Vito’s own baptism of blood, which takes place during the famous San Gennaro street festival in Little Italy.  Vito stalks the rooftops above the celebration, following the movements of his target: Don Fanucci, a wealthy gangster who’s been oppressing and intimidating the community.  The soaring brass of “Marcia Religioso” serves as a quasi-fascistic accompaniment to the proceedings and lifts it to the level of opera.

If THE GODFATHER is about rising to power via succession, then THE GODFATHER PART II– with its inclusion of this sequence and the Cuban revolution storyline–  is about taking power by force.  Coppola’s sequel is about the deposition of kings, and how delicate that power is to hold onto once achieved.  The San Genarro sequence itself is perfectly paced, with nary a single shot wasted.

Each detail and moment is precisely calculated to generate suspense: from Vito’s prolonged stalking, to his manipulation of the lightbulb, to the use of a towel to dampen the sound of his gunfire, to Don Fanucci’s stunned reaction to the messy, imperfect red button that’s been punched haphazardly into his cheek and through his brain.  As far as the construction of a sequence goes, it’s perfect.  Coppola earned his first Oscar for directing with THE GODFATHER PART II, arguably in large part to this simple, yet riveting sequence.

Due to the relative freedom he enjoyed making the film, THE GODFATHER PART II is a view into Coppola at his most unfiltered.  As his own family was growing and he bought an estate out in Napa, CA to house them, he channeled the insights learned from these life experiences into his depiction of the Corleone family.  The story is a deeper exploration of the customs and culture of his ancestral heritage, which yields some of the most memorable and dramatically-rich plot developments in cinematic history.  Furthermore, the story requires Coppola to run a production on a personally unprecedented scale, especially in the young Vito Corleone sequences.  For a filmmaker who’s start was in small-budget schlock films (indeed, Coppola’s old boss Roger Corman makes a cameo appearance in the Senate Committee scenes), Coppola rises to the considerable challenge with bold vision and an effortless grace.

Objectively speaking, this is the pinnacle of Coppola’s career as a filmmaker.  It was met with a huge box office take, but ironically had a modest critical reception that only grew as people had a time to reflect on it.  This proved to be beneficial as THE GODFATHER PART II swept that year Academy’s Awards, netting gold statues for Best Art Direction (Tavoularis), Best Score (Rota), Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola & Puzo), Best Supporting Actor (DeNiro), a repeat Director (Coppola), and Best Picture.

All the more astounding for the fact that it was a sequel (and one that started the trend of including numbers in the title to boot), THE GODFATHER PART II became a phenomenon that cemented the series’ place in pop culture and cinematic history.  Furthermore, the Library of Congress deemed it significant and worth preserving in 1993 when it inducted the film into the National Film Registry.

A film can’t get any more successful than that.  Even though his recent output has been somewhat weak, Coppola remains at the top of the heap of respected auteurs precisely because of the lasting fallout from this film.  THE GODFATHER PART II is a cornerstone in the house that cinema built, and it will endure long after its makers are gone.


APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

Some films are to be cursed from their very inception. They taunt their makers with Herculean obstacles, only to break their spirits when they fall far short of their goals.  Some of these filmmakers would never recover (like Michael Cimino and 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE), their careers never again retaining the same heady heights as their previous successes.

A select few manage to overcome these soul-crushing challenges, and fewer still actually manage to make a truly transcendent piece of work.  No film’s making more embodies the term “fiasco” than director Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).  Shot as the follow-up to the unfathomably successful THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), Coppola suddenly found himself in those most treacherous of directorial waters: complete financial freedom.

  The production of APOCALYPSE NOW, which dragged on for close to three years, most certainly took many years off of Coppola’s life (as well as hundreds of pounds).  However, this sacrificial (and literal) pound of flesh netted him something much more valuable: immortality, in the form of one of the greatest and culturally significant films of all time.

APOCALYPSE NOW is nothing less than a cinematic descent into madness.  Based off Joseph Conrad’s lurid novella HEART OF DARKNESS, Coppola and screenwriter John Milius have kept the basic plot conceits while updating the setting from a turn-of-the-century Congo River to the Vietnam War.

Initially developed to be a directing vehicle for Coppola’s American Zoetrope colleague George Lucas, Coppola took the helm after Lucas departed to make 1977’s STAR WARS (a move which insulted Coppola so much they didn’t speak for years).  Coppola’s vision was to paint the Vietnam War as it truly was– a psychedelic, deeply disturbing voyage into the darkest corners of men’s souls.  Coppola aimed to make the greatest film ever created; an allegory for the entire American experience in Vietnam.  It’s safe to say that he more or less succeeded, despite the infamously-troubled production nearly killing him.

APOCALYPSE NOW tells the story of Willard (Martin Sheen), a burnt-out Army captain who’s sent out on a confidential mission: find and execute a rogue Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who’s gone insane and established his own kingdom of brutality in the upriver jungles of Cambodia.

To transport him up the river, Willard is assigned a patrol boat operated by a small team of Naval officers.  As they inch ever closer to Kurtz’s savage compound, the men endure the hells and existential crises of the Vietnam War that rages around them.  When they finally arrive, Willard experiences a strange emotional connection to Kurtz’s deranged dogma that threatens to foil his mission and consume his sanity.

The film is a staggering achievement on all fronts.  As to be expected from Coppola, the cast is exemplary, with many turning in career-defining work despite the brutal filming conditions.  Martin Sheen, who replaced original actor Harvey Keitel two weeks into production, gives one of the best performances of his career as Captain Willard.

We first meet Willard as a strung-out husk of a man, rotting away in his hotel room in wait for an assignment that may never come.  Sheen’s haunting voiceover provides a dark, interior perspective to the events of the film, helping us to understand his psychological connection to Kurtz.

Sheen gives all of himself over to his character, even to the point where he infamously suffered a heart attack at the age of 36 as a result of the stress he endured during production.  With his haunting performance, Sheen seared himself into our collective consciousness and became an avatar for the American experience in Vietnam.

Marlon Brando, despite only having a few minutes of actual screen time, easily earns his top billing by ominously towering over the story as the near-mythical Col. Kurtz.  Coppola managed to lure the reclusive star into the jungle for one more collaboration, but Brando certainly didn’t make it easy for his exhausted director.  Famously, Brando not only showed up (late) to set overweight and bald, but having not read the screenplay or Conrad’s original novel.

Brando battled Coppola on every single element of his character, but given the unfathomable genius of Brando’s performance, it’s easy to see there was a method to his madness.  Coppola shot Brando in shadows and close-ups mainly as a way to hide his enormous girth, but in doing so, he created a staggering personification of unknowable evil.

Of his late career roles, Brando’s performance as Col. Kurtz eclipses even that of Vito Corleone in Coppola’s THE GODFATHER.  While he would go on to do a handful of roles in smaller films until his death, APOCALYPSE NOW marks Brando’s last great appearance in cinema, closing the book on one of the medium’s most talented personas with a pitch black conclusion.

Robert Duvall, who by this point had appeared in every Coppola film since 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE, channels a very different kind of unhinged psychopath in the form of Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore.  Duvall’s Kilgore heads the 9th Air Cavalry Regiment, a cocksure squad of gung-ho helicopter jockeys who tear ass across the jungle while blasting Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries”.

Representing the testosterone-laden braggadocio that led us into the Vietnam War in the first place, Kilgore barks each line with a forceful authority.  His eyes obscured behind pitch-black sunglasses, Kilgore’s specialized brand of cowboy diplomacy leaves nothing but fire and death in its wake.  His lust for war is matched only by his love of surfing, which he manages to pack in even under heavy artillery fire.

Duvall clearly enjoys the chance to chew scenery, which he doesn’t usually get to do under Coppola’s direction.  Despite a comparable screen time to Brando, Duvall’s performance is highly memorable due to his pathological delivery of enduring lines as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the only one on the entire production who actually had any fun.

Accompanying Sheen on his journey upriver are the colorful characters of the PBR boat, manned by the gruff quartermaster George Philips (Albert Hall).  The late Sam Bottoms appears as Lance, a boyish California surfer whose clean-cut persona descends into a druggy haze as he tries to cope with the horrors of the war.

A young Laurence Fishburne (only 14 at the time) plays Mr. Clean, a cocky kid whose self-deceit over his own mortality will be his ruin.  Finally there’s Frederic Forrest, who previously appeared in Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974).  Forrest plays Chef, a mustachioed saucier from New Orleans and an unpredictable, manic presence.  These characters help to establish levity and companionship as the circumstances grow more dire.

Rounding out the cast are Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, and G.D. Spradlin.  Hopper plays The Photojournalist, the strung-out jester of Kurtz’s court.  Hopper adds a great deal of energy late into the film, drawing on his hippie persona that he established ten years earlier in EASY RIDER while taking it to a dark extreme.

A pre-STAR WARS Ford, having previously appeared in THE CONVERSATION for Coppola, plays Col. Lucas, a bookish officer who briefs Willard on the mission.  Spradlin, who played Senator Geary in THE GODFATHER PART II, plays the general that gives Willard his assignment.

To create APOCALYPSE NOW’s acid-baked look, Coppola turned to Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro.  Filmed on 35mm film, Coppola and Storaro take advantage of the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio to capture Vietnam’s nightmarish vistas.  A palette of saturated earth tones and yellow highlights gives a sweaty, slightly sick look to the visuals.

This burnt-out look is further complemented by the use of lens flares and relentlessly plodding camerawork.  Coppola utilizes a great deal of aerial photography to give an uneasy majesty to the proceedings, capturing Dean Tavoularis’ exhaustive production design in all its sprawling glory.  The editors (Walter Murch, Lisa Fruchtman, and Gerald B. Greenberg) make recurring use of crossfade transitions and double-exposed/layered shots that give the film the surreal aura of a bad acid trip.  APOCALYPSE NOW is easily Coppola’s most visually stylized film apart from 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, accentuating the psychedelic, nightmarish nature of Vietnam.

Sound plays an enormous part in Coppola’s grand vision, beginning with its pioneering use of the Dolby 5.1 Surround sound system– which has since become the exhibition standard for all major films.  APOCALYPSE NOW paints a sonic portrait of Vietnam even more hellish than its imagery, punctuated by concussive bomb blasts and the menacing drone of helicopter rotors.

Coppola’s vision for a psychedelic experience extends to the sound design, where he synthesized many sound effects so as to be indistinguishable from the score (the helicopter droning being the most famous example).  Continuing his penchant for collaborating with family members, Coppola enlists the help of his father Carmine to craft the score.

Coppola the elder creates a foreboding electronic score that uses discordant tones to create a fundamental unease and an encroaching sense of malice.  Francis Coppola also utilizes the druggy sound of The Doors and The Rolling Stones to further establish the psychedelic aspects of his vision.

It’s a big feat when a filmmaker is able to indelibly link a pre-existing song to a film so strongly that they become inseparable.  The auteurs rising up amongst the Film Brat generation realized the power of well-placed music, not the least of whom was Coppola himself.  With APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola creates several such such moments as easily as you would tie your shoe.

There’s the brooding vocals of Jim Morrison’s “This Is The End” playing over silent footage of napalm reducing an entire jungle to cinders, or the unforgettable “Ride Of The Valkyries” sequence (which was referenced later in Sam Mendes’ JARHEAD (2005) as a way to pump up young Marines on the eve of their deployment to Kuwait).  There’s even Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q”, which accompanies the appearance of three dancing Playmates during a rowdy USO show.  I can’t think of another film that so brilliantly and creatively mixes sound and music to such striking effect.

Coppola’s habit for experimentation with the language of cinema is on full display with APOCALYPSE NOW.  He paints Willard’s journey upriver as an allegory for a journey backwards in time, beginning with the machine-based warfare of the present and reaching back to the primitive, sacrificial nature of tribe-based social systems.

He also released the film without titles or credits, originally intending to tour the film around the country with printed programs.  While this didn’t exactly come to pass, most home video releases of the film omit credits, making for a fully immersive descent into madness free from conventional cinematic constructs.

In a rare move, Coppola appears in a cameo as a newsreel director who yells “pretend you’re fighting!” to soldiers as they run by his camera.  This is, of course, an allusion to the manufactured image that the television/entertainment complex depicted the war with, but it also goes a long way towards establishing the story’s startlingly self-aware viewpoint.

The Vietnam War was the first major war to be beamed directly into our households via television, and Coppola gracefully touches on the point while making a concise point about the media’s perversion of combat.

The story of APOCALYPSE NOW’s production has been extensively documented in print and film (most notably in wife Eleanor Coppola’s brilliant HEARTS OF DARKNESS documentary), so I won’t go into too much detail.  It was (and still is) the biggest production Coppola has ever mounted, with a scale and scope so staggeringly massive that one film could barely contain it all.

THE ODYSSEY-like nature of the story required an equally operatic point of view, which Coppola was well-equipped to handle due to his previous experiences.  What he wasn’t equipped for, however, were the almost-biblical challenges he had to face with shooting the film in the primordial jungles of the Phillippines.

Before he even could get a firm handle on his operation, the production ballooned millions of dollars over-budget and months behind schedule.  A six-week shoot turned into almost thirty, and the tempestuous tropical climate wreaked havoc on expensive sets as well as morale.  Coppola found himself shouldering nearly all of the burden alone, losing nearly 100 pounds during the process.  Simply put, the shoot was hell.  The fact that such a great film, let alone a coherent film, emerged from the wreckage is nothing short of a miracle.

APOCALYPSE NOW was made during the tail end of the auteur era, perhaps even contributing to its demise.     While it was met with widespread acclaim and box office success, its particular brand of scorched-earth filmmaking influenced directors like Michael Cimino to launch elaborate productions of their own– resulting in the atomic bomb that was HEAVEN’S GATE.  These two extravagantly-made films caused studio executives to assert more control over their runaway productions, and subsequently ushered in the epoch of the blockbuster.

Fortunately for Coppola, APOCALYPSE NOW was received as a qualified masterpiece on par with his two GODFATHER entries.  It managed to win the coveted Palm D’Or at Cannes, which is more impressive when you consider that Coppola only screened an unfinished cut.  It went on to win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, and was even inducted into the National Film Registry in 2000.

In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch went back to the source elements and created a new edit of the film, dubbed APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX.  This longer cut (running almost three and a half hours) included several deleted scenes that shed further light on Coppola’s darkly complex characters.  There’s significant debate within the film community as to which version is better.

For the purposes of this essay, I watched both versions to arrive at my own personal conclusion.  While both versions are excellent, I’d have to give the edge to REDUX, mainly for its more-expansive exploration into man’s primordial darkness.

APOCALYPSE NOW is an unforgettable film, made even more so by the utter misery the filmmakers experienced in shooting it.  Its cinematic legacy is assured, judging by the deep respect and reverence bestowed upon the film in the thirty years since its release.  Furthermore, it is the capstone to a truly remarkable decade for Coppola– each of his four films in this period went on to become cultural institutions in their own right.

All of this success came at a heavy price, however; to this day Coppola has been unable to attain such raw, visceral power in his subsequent projects (not even 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III).

Did APOCALYPSE NOW use up all Coppola’s talent?  Did the overwhelming stress ultimately break him? Did he lose his soul to insanity like Kurtz or Willard?  We may never know exactly what happened in that jungle, but what came out of it was northing less than a bloodsoaked rebirth for cinema.


ONE FROM THE HEART (1982)

The word “irony” is not lost on director Francis Ford Coppola.  One could argue that Coppola’s entire career is ironic, due to him becoming a symbol of the very same studio system that he initially sought to oppose.  After entering the pantheon of great American filmmakers with his two GODFATHER films and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), his next project would ironically bring him back to down to earth with a massive failure matched only by Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE (1980).

This one-two punch of opulent misfires effectively ended the auteur era in Hollywood, with executives reasserting control over projects that subsequently usher in the age of the blockbuster.

After the success of APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola sought to make the exact opposite kind of film– a breezy, low-budget musical filmed entirely on soundstages.  This project, entitled ONE FROM THE HEART (1982), was originally supposed to be made for only two million dollars– a mere fraction of the sum that consumed APOCALYPSE NOW.

y the time Coppola finished shooting, however, the costs had ballooned to over twenty-five million.  The film had become an albatross of a distinctively different breed.

ONE FROM THE HEART’s story is very minimal, instead choosing to focus its attentions on lavish set design, lighting, and visual trickery.  The plot is set in Las Vegas, where a young, unmarried couple– Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr)– have reached a point of mutual dissatisfaction in their relationship.  Following an explosive argument, they set out into the night, intent on finding comfort in the embrace of new lovers.

Frannie finds herself in the bed of Ray (Raul Julia), a smooth-talking Latin lover and aspiring crooner, while Hank takes up with Leila (Nastassja Kinski), an alluring circus girl with a bohemian bent.  Throughout the course of the night, Hank and Frannie’s separate encounters lead them to believe that maybe they do really still love each other after all, and that love is worth fighting for.

It’s a story we’ve all seen a million times, but we’ve never seen it done quite like this.  The performances, while admirable, inevitably sink underneath the weight of Coppola and production designer Dean Tavoularis’ heavily-stylized mise-en-scene.  Forrest, a Coppola regular who had previously played Chef in APOCALYPSE NOW, now takes center stage and assumes the affectation of a young Marlon Brando in his brutish, blue-collar take on Hank.

Garr is energetic and makes the most of her comic abilities as the jaded, temperamental Frannie.  Julia and Kinksi do a great job of being attractive and exotically-alluring characters, each with their distinct charms.  Rounding out the cast, Lainie Kazan plays Maggie, a friend and confidant of Frannie’s, and veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton (who had previously played a bit part for Coppola in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)) plays Moe, Hank’s curly-haired and leisure-suited best friend.

Despite the tired story tropes and underdeveloped characters, Coppola crafts an unforgettable look that’s based around an overarching theatre conceit.  Coppola famously eschewed location shooting, choosing instead to shoot the entirety of ONE FROM THE HEART on soundstages.  In this regard, the central conceit is the film’s biggest success.

Returning Director of Photography Vittori Storaro (working with Ronald V. Garcia) fills Tavoularis’ beautifully-designed sets with cathedral-esque shafts of neon light and striking bursts of color.  Coppola and his twin DPs have adopted an unusual aspect ratio (1.37:1), but it’s a little unclear as to why– perhaps it’s to further Coppola’s visual conceit by evoking the literal, square proscenium of traditional theatre.  This is further supplemented by real-time lighting changes not unlike one would see in a stage play.

Why take this visual approach, especially when it was largely responsible for extreme budget overruns?  I suspect that Coppola was actively trying to evoke what it truly feels like to fall in love– that is, finding beauty and theatricality in the everyday and mundane.  Romantic love brings heightened emotions that, upon future reflection, tend to take on an idealized, slightly surreal quality.  If this was indeed his intention, Coppola absolutely nails it.

Ever the experimentalist, Coppola continues his pursuit of redefining the cinematic language that was so eloquently established by his cinematic forebear, Sergei Eisenstein.    Besides the aforementioned proscenium conceit and in-camera lighting changes, Coppola plays with double exposures, as well as parallel action being projected onto the set to portray simultaneous events (as opposed to the more traditional cross-cutting).

This approach also extends to the music, where it eschews the traditional definition of a musical by denying the characters of song or dance.  Instead, the musicality comes non-diagetically, from the smoky, unmistakeable vocal chords of Tom Waits.  In his first original film score, Waits crafts a moody, jazzy sound resembling old torch songs that perfectly evokes the Las Vegas setting and Coppola’s melancholy musings on love.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s undeniable how well it actually works within the film.

If APOCALYPSE NOW saw Coppola at the height of his directorial powers, ONE FROM THE HEART is the first work in a long, drawn-out decline that would see his influence severely weakened.  Much like how Cimino’s excesses and self-indulgence on HEAVEN’S GATE led to box office disaster and the sinking of United Artists, ONE FROM THE HEART performed abysmally in theatres— forcing Coppola to declare bankruptcy.

It was a steep fall for a director who had been heretofore regarded as untouchable.  The majority of his output for the ensuing two decades were primarily efforts to pay back the massive debt he incurred on ONE FROM THE HEART.  To this day, his reputation has never fully recovered; not even a third GODFATHER film, shot in 1990, could restore him to former glory.

Thankfully, time heals all wounds, and all the venom spewed at and around the film upon its release has largely fallen away.  What remains is the film itself, left to stand on its own merits.  In this light, ONE FROM THE HEART is still a heavily flawed film, but its remarkable vision is creatively executed with considerable flair by a director firmly in command of his craft.  You have to hand it to Coppola: the man makes even failing look fantastic.


THE OUTSIDERS (1983)

I, like millions of other American kids, read S.E. Hinton’s teen angst novel The Outsiders in a high school English class and identified with it.  My favorite part of reading a novel in English class, however, was getting to watch the movie adaptation afterwards, which would always eat up a couple days of class.  Naturally, we watched Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation, which I remember quite liking at the time.  If memory serves me right, that might have even been the first time I had seen a Coppola film.

Thirty years after its release, Coppola’s THE OUTSIDERS has aged somewhat well, but certainly feels dated in that it’s rooted to a particular place and time.  The film was a modest success for Coppola, albeit a much needed one after the nuclear bomb that was ONE FROM THE HEART (1982).  It would be a crowning gem in any director’s body of work, but considering Coppola’s exceptionally strong oeuvre, it becomes a minor work at best.

The film adaptation of THE OUTSIDERS got its start when Coppola received a letter from a Fresno middle school.  The letter, penned by a teacher and signed by all her students, implored Coppola to turn the classic novel about lost innocence into a feature film.  Moved by this unique display, Coppola secured the rights to the novel and began production.

We’re all familiar with the story: the constant battling between the Soc’s– the well-heeled, preppy rich kids– and the Greasers– the poor kids from the the wrong side of the tracks– and how it manifests in a tragedy that claims casualties on both sides.  At the center of all this is Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), a sensitive young man who aspires to something better than his hardscrabble existence.

In this midwestern town in the 1950’s, the teenage social constructs are boiled down to two distinct classes:  the haves and the have-nots.  It may be an unrealistically simplistic concept (after all, Hinton was only sixteen years old when she wrote the novel), but the story’s power is derived from the cultural cache these archetypes bring.  The stakes couldn’t be any more meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but in their world, every altercation means life or death.

The strongest thing about the film, by far, is the casting.  Coppola and producer Fred Roos assembled a pitch-perfect ensemble of the era’s brightest up-and-comers.  It’s fascinating to see so many well-established and respected stars as fresh-faced kids, full of optimism and energy. The aforementioned Howell is compelling to watch as Ponyboy, and his lack of star power is actually beneficial for serving as the audience’s point of entry into this strange, yet familiar world.

Matt Dillon is pitch perfect as Dallas, a hotheaded delinquent who serves as a role model to the more impressionable minds of the group.  Ralph Macchio, of KARATE KID fame, plays Johnny with the appropriate scruffiness and skittishness.  The late Patrick Swayze, by far the oldest of the cast, is thoroughly convincing as Darrel,  Ponyboy’s brother, guardian, and father-figure all rolled up into one.

Rounding out the cast are a mix of faces who were at the time just breaking out into the mainstream.  For many, this was their debut feature film.  This was certainly the case for Rob Lowe, who played the middle brother of the Curtis clan, Sodapop.  Lowe is energetic and sensitive like his younger brother, but unfortunately saw the majority of his screen time cut in the theatrical release.

Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez, plays Two-Bit, the Mickey Mouse T-shirt-wearing jester of the group.  Tom Cruise, baring a truly hideous set of crooked teeth, brings a manic, wild energy to his depiction of Steve.  Then there’s the inimitable Diane Lane as Cherry, an insightful Soc who bridges the gap and finds common ground with the Greasers.  In a film filled with heavy doses of male braggadocio, she’s a welcome bit of femininity and elegant grace.

Coppola eschews any extravagant aesthetic styling in favor of a toned-down, realistic approach.  As lensed by Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, Coppola paints the rusted-out industrial environs of midcentury Tulsa, OK with a saturated, yet natural color palette and a high-key, noir-ish lighting scheme.

Interpreting the subject matter as somewhat of a rockabilly version of Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), Coppola adopts the panoramic 2:35:1 aspect ratio and covers a fair amount of action with sweeping dolly movements.  This approach also extends to more stylish flourishes like projected backgrounds (the infamous “stay gold” sunset sequence draws many visual comparisons to the romantic cinematography of GONE WITH THE WIND).

As far as Coppola’s visual execution goes, THE OUTSIDERS is pretty straightforward.  There’s no discernible attempt at experimentation, save for Coppola’s affection for double-exposed, multi-layered images.  He peppers a few shots throughout the film that feature the subject in extreme close-up and a background element in wide shot, yet both are in equal focus.

This is indicative of Coppola’s attempts to push the boundaries of cinematic language, and he accomplished these tricky shots by using a split-field diopter on the camera lens, which works not unlike a pair of bifocals.  Other recurring visual elements, like the smoky park in which Dallas meets his violent end, and an on-camera appearance by musician Tom Waits, hark back to previous Coppola films by virtue of their inclusion.

Coppola’s use of technology as a tool to further his storytelling was also incorporated into an extensive rehearsal process before the shoot.  Video was a nascent medium in the early 1980’s, and Coppola was bullish about its benefits.  He incorporated video’s primary usefulness at the time– cheap image recording– to document the rehearsals, effectively constructing a video version of the entire film.  Yes, he was so excited about the ease of video shooting that he managed to shoot the entire film on video before he even began making the film itself.

Also consistent with Coppola’s previous films, THE OUTSIDERS is a family affair.  The aforementioned Estevez is Martin Sheen’s son, who we all remember played Captain Willard in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).    Coppola’s own (late) son, Gian-Carlo Coppola, served as a producer on the film alongside Roos, Kim Aubry, and Gray Frederickson.

Coppola also enlisted his father, Carmine Coppola, once again for score duties.  Coppola the elder crafts a rocking/surfer vibe for his score, which complements the rebelliousness of the central characters.  Coppola the younger also included a mix of well-known rock tunes, like Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, as well as commissioned the  original ballad from Stevie Wonder that opens the film.

THE OUTSIDERS was severely cut upon its release in order to have a more palatable running time.  When Coppola again began receiving letters asking for a version of the movie that more resembled the book, he took it to heart.  In 2005, he unboxed the original negatives and put back in an additional twenty-five minutes.  He also replaced a great deal of Carmine Coppola’s original score with a variety of prerecorded rock tracks that give the film a distinct, entirely new flavor.

This alternate cut, known as The Complete Novel, now appears to have supplanted the original cut as Coppola’s preferred vision of the film.  The new cut was greeted with a great deal of praise and appreciation, not the least of which was by actor Rob Lowe, who saw the vast majority of his cut footage reintegrated into the film and his character’s importance boosted.

THE OUTSIDERS has aged only slightly since its release, but what struck me most upon revisiting the film is that it seems like it belongs somewhere within Coppola’s pre-GODFATHER early work, as opposed to his mid-career efforts.  It’s much more simplistic as a film, and there’s no grandiose statements about the nature of the American experience as there in his other adaptations of novels like THE GODFATHER (1972) or APOCALYPSE NOW.

In short, it’s a small story about male camaraderie and the deep bond formed in moments of crisis.  It’s unpretentiousness is one of its strongest points– offering an earnest, optimistic point of view that captures the boundless energy of teenage life.

In watching THE OUTSIDERS, I was briefly transported back to my first encounters with the material in high school, and I found myself waxing nostalgic about the good old days… a time where everything was simpler and affairs of the heart consumed every waking thought and desire.  I suspect this was Coppola’s intention all along, to return us to a more innocent place and time, in hopes that we’ll reconnect with the rambunctious child that still lives deep inside ourselves.  If that was indeed his intention, then THE OUTSIDERS is truly a success.


RUMBLE FISH (1983)

In 1983, director Francis Ford Coppola found himself in Tulsa, OK, and in the middle of a creative hot streak.  Midway into the production of THE OUTSIDERS (1983), Coppola approached the novel’s author S.E. Hinton, and asked if she had any other works he could adapt.

Hinton responded with Rumble Fish, an avant-garde, misunderstood novel that had failed to gain the kind of wide audience that The Outsiders did.  After Coppola read the book, he decided that not only was it going to be his next film, but that he’d film it back to back with THE OUTSIDERS, utilizing the same Tulsa locale and much of that film’s cast and crew.

Released later on in 1983, Coppola’s adaption was not met with the same kind of critical and financial success that THE OUTSIDERS enjoyed.  In fact, it sunk Coppola ever lower into debt and threw the existence of his independent studio, American Zoetrope, into jeopardy.

The film’s stylized, avant-garde aesthetic also turned off a lot of fans and critics, as it was so strikingly different from his previous work.  Like much of Coppola’s misunderstood work, however, it has gained a deep appreciation and a cult following in the years since its release.

RUMBLE FISH’s story isn’t immediately clear upon first viewing; indeed it strikes one as much more of an exercise in style-over-substance.  Set in an unnamed Midwestern industrial town in the 50’s or 60’s, the story revolves around a headstrong wanna-be hood, Rusty James (Matt Dillon), who spends his nights romancing the pretty, preppy Patty (Diane Lane), and engaging in wild rumbles with the town’s various miscreants.

One day, his older brother—known only as Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke)—returns to town after a long excursion into California.  Rusty James wants nothing more than to be just like his older brother, but Motorcycle Boy is old enough to realize the error of his ways, and finds it a difficult task to discourage his brother from following in his footsteps before it’s too late.

What’s lacking in story is more than compensated for by the brawny, muscular performances from Coppola’s young cast.  Dillon, taking on the lead role right after his work in THE OUTSIDERS, channels a juvenile delinquent of a different breed as Rusty James.

His is an idealistic machismo, and he’s set on proving his worth as a man through violent brawls and burning through the town’s supply of women.  In one of his earliest starring roles, Dillon proves to be a veritable force of nature.

Mickey Rourke, looking trim and handsome in his pre-boxing/hamburger-face years, goes against expectations with his portrayal of Motorcycle Boy.  Rourke is sensitive, quiet, and observant.  He speaks softly, but can be absolutely ferocious when need be.

  Motorcycle Boy is a deeply troubled character, haunted by unseen eternal demons that manifest themselves in colorblindness, occasional deafness, and bouts of withdrawn melancholy.  It’s a fine, pulpy performance that belies Rourke’s tough exterior.

The supporting cast is filled out with regular collaborators and faces new to the Coppola fold.  Diane Lane joins Dillon in hopping right from production on THE OUTSIDERS to play Patty, a teenage schoolgirl with a sultry, tempestuous temperament.

Two old friends from 1979’s APOCALPYSE NOW—Dennis Hopper and Laurence Fishburne—also join the fray.  Hopper plays Rourke and Dillon’s father, who’s a crazy-eyed, shambling drunk of a man—the kind of character Hopper can play in his sleep.

Fishburne, having physically filled out dramatically in the four years since APOCALYPSE NOW, is nearly unrecognizable as Midgit, a well-dressed confidante of Rusty James’, who may just be a figment of his imagination.

Then there’s Nicolas Cage and the late Chris Penn, in small roles that serve to challenge Rusty James’ self-proclaimed authority.   In keeping with Coppola’s tradition of casting family in his films, the bouffant-ed Cage (Coppola’s nephew) makes his film debut with RUMBLE FISH, and it appears he was just as loony and eccentric as he is now.

Furthermore, Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, appears in her own bit role as Patty’s kid sister.  What’s immediately apparent about RUMBLE FISH’s artistic merits is its bracing visual style.  Filmed on 35mm black-and-white film stock (to emulate Motorcycle Boy’s color blindness), Coppola and returning Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum craft a look unlike anything in Coppola’s body of work.

Drawing equally from the handheld, verite aesthetic of the French New Wave and the high-key, stylized chiaroscuro of German Expressionism, Coppola’s neo-noir is a hallucinogenic blend of realism and fantasy.  Clouds scream past along the sky while characters look up at them in wonder—a trick achieved using timelapse photography to suggest that time is lost on the young, moving much faster than they might realize.

The monotone look highlights the raw, sweaty nature of Burum’s cinematography, which is peppered with bursts of striking color whenever the titular “rumble fish” make an onscreen appearance.

This striking dichotomy is evident in two scenes in particular: the violent rumble that introduces Motorcycle Boy, and a wild romp through a downtown pool hall.  The brawl sequence, choreographed by a professional dancer, is almost elegant in its ballet of blood, punctuated by flashes of lightning and daring feats of acrobatics.

It’s an incredibly expressionistic sequence that calls to mind the laboratory creation sequence from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), albeit on LSD.  The second sequence –more Cassavetes than Murnau– plays fast and loose with its camerawork in capturing the feel of a booze-soaked night on the town.  The sequence takes on the air of documentary, finding fleeting moments of unscripted interaction and revelry that could never be truly replicated with traditional methods.

Music, provided by composer Stewart Copeland, is equally as baroque and avant-garde.  It perverts the sound and conceits of rock-and-roll music into a fevered cavalcade of percussion that ramps up our anxiety, much like how the restless Rusty James must feel en route to a brawl.

This bizarre blend of picture and sound alienated a lot of people when RUMBLE FISH was released.  Many claimed that Coppola had gone too far in his attempts to deconstruct the art form and reassemble it in his own vision.

I can certainly see that argument, but I view the look as a shot in the arm for the medium during a period of time that saw a relatively flat, bland aesthetic become the commercial standard-bearer.  I know that I’m not alone in that assessment—its influences can be seen in a wide variety of subsequent works by then-burgeoning directors, most notably in Gus Vant Sant’s breakout debut, MALA NOCHE (1986).

There are a few other curious elements that peg RUMBLE FISH as distinctly Coppola’s.  There’s the aforementioned use of family members in the cast (and recruiting of sons Gian-Carlo and Roman in producing roles), but there’s also his copious use of smoke during expressionistic sequences, and a highly experimental sound design that calls to mind the inner psychedelics of APOCALYPSE NOW.

RUMBLE FISH also sees Coppola’s continuation of a unique preproduction process that he dubbed Electric Cinema, where he used green-screen technology to shoot his rehearsals against photographs or rough sketches of the location to create a full version of the film on video before production even began.

Is it a needlessly complex process?  Maybe.  Especially in a time where video often  equals the quality of film, the idea might now seem quaint and extraneous, but the benefits of an involving rehearsal process is really apparent in RUMBLE FISH’S final product.

I think there’s something to be said in the fact that, even after all the critical trashing and financial disappointment, RUMBLE FISH is in Coppola’s top five favorite films of his own.  Time has divorced the film from its overshadowing companion piece and given it an identity all its own.

It’s not for everyone, to be sure, and even those who give it a shot will find it an acquired taste at first.  At the end of the day, the film is an instance of a supremely gifted director using his substantial resources to carry out his full vision, without any regard for how eccentric it might appear.  In that regard, RUMBLE FISH is a piece of pure, unadulterated pop art by a strong-willed director who refuses to become complacent.


THE COTTON CLUB (1984)

There is a club in downtown Los Angeles called the Cicada Club, and stepping inside its doors is like crossing the threshold into another era.  Inside these walls, it’s as if time froze around 1944—the art deco architecture is pristine and polished, the live music is appropriately old-timey, and the clientele are impeccably dressed in tuxedos, zoot suits, and WWII army uniforms.

The effect is like stepping into that infamous photograph at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).   The Cicada Club is a hidden diamond in downtown’s rough, and I would never have known it ever existed if my girlfriend hadn’t been dancing there for the past few years.

THE COTTON CLUB (1984), director Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to his twin 1983 S.E. Hinton adaptations THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH, very much plays in the same world as the Cicada Club, so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder if the film directly inspired the Cicada’s creation.

The film marks something of a return to form for Coppola, who was working from a script originally written by the creator of THE GODFATHER (1972), Mario Puzo.   Finding its origins in the oral history of the real-life Harlem club of the same name, THE COTTON CLUB was shepherded by THE GODFATHER producer Robert Evans, who brought Coppola onboard, despite his financial troubles following ONE FROM THE HEART’s(1982) bombing at the box office.

The film’s story dealt with organized crime and corruption in an opulent New York setting, which seemed like a perfect chance for Coppola to recapture some of that GODFATHER charm and success.

THE COTTON CLUB is set in Jazz-era Harlem, 1928.  Dixie Dywer (Richard Gere) is a promising cornet soloist who catches the attention of a local crime lord, Dutch (James Remar) and his emotionally cold flapper moll, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane).

As Dixie’s reputation as a talented musician grows, he soon finds himself the star of a hit Hollywood movie where he plays a ruthless mob boss.   This makes Dutch furious, as he believes Dixie’s performance is a thinly-veiled parody of himself.  When Dixie falls for Vera, Dutch declares open war on his former employee, and the Cotton Club is caught in the middle of the crossfire.

The film boasts several great performances from a committed cast, albeit the characterizations tend to be a little bit on the cartoonish side.  Gere is well-cast as the talented musician at the center of the story, bearing a pencil-thin mustache with suave confidence and righteous virtue.

His dedication even went as far as learning to play the cornet at an advanced level.  James Remar shaved back his hairline to resemble Al Capone in his portrayal of the crime boss Dutch.  The veteran character actor gives his antagonist a crazy-eyed stare, with a ferocious, murderous unpredictability.

Caught between these two men is femme fatale Diane Lane, who is on her third consecutive Coppola collaboration.  A woman firmly of her time, Diane’s Vera Cicero flashes the latest in flapper fashion as she uses her feminine wiles to advance her station in life, ultimately taking possession of a nightclub all her own.  She’s ambitious, feisty, and street-smart, which makes her attractiveness undeniable.

Filling out the cast are a variety of faces, many of which have been seen in previous Coppola films.  There’s his nephew Nicolas Cage as Vincent “Mad Dog” Dwyer, Dixie’s ambitious brother whose impatience is his undoing.  Laurence Fishburne makes his third Coppola appearance as Bumpy Rhodes, an enforcer for Harlem’s black elite.

Tom Waits also pops up as a programmer and emcee for entertainment at the club.  (I think there’s something interesting to observe in Coppola’s aesthetic with his continued inclusion of Lane, Fishburne, and Waits, but I’m not sure what that might be exactly). New to the Coppola talent fold are Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, and Jennifer Grey.

Hines plays Sandman Williams, a gifted tap dancer and hopeless romantic, with McKee as the target of his affections.  Hoskins plays Owney Madden, the owner of the Cotton Club with a firm authority over the feuding crimelords that frequent his establishment.  Jennifer Grey, who you may recognize as Matthew Broderick’s vindictive sister from FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), plays Cage’s young, unmannered wife.

Stephen Goldblatt, Tony Scott’s Director of Photography for THE HUNGER (1983), finds himself in Coppola’s employ for THE COTTON CLUB, which sees a refreshing of talent behind the camera in many major departments.  Shooting on 35mm film, Goldblatt creates a reserved aesthetic that could be read as more of a stylized take on THE GODFATHER’s visual look.

The 1.85:1 frame draws from a brown, black, and red color palette that’s appropriately saturated to reflect the earth-tone patina of Richard Sylbert’s production design (who takes over for Coppola’s frequent Art Director Dean Tavoularis).  Coppola tells the story of THE COTTON CLUB with handheld and steadicam-based camera movements that complement the traditional photography, and he even throws in a few dutch angles for variety.

John Barry, he of James Bond fame, comes aboard as THE COTTON CLUB’s musical maestro.  Using a variety of string, woodwind and brass instruments, Barry’s score evokes the old Hollywood sound of The Jazz Age, which is also reflected in the many live musical performances that run the gamut from ragtime to swing.  There’s a distinct musicality to the film, which lends a unique vigor and firm sense of place and time.

Given its relative obscurity, THE COTTON CLUB is an unexpectedly strong work.  It performed terribly at the box office upon release, but was nominated for two Oscars (One for Sybert’s production design, and the other for editors Robert Lovett and Barry Malkin).

It channels Coppola’s strengths in the organized crime genre, and even has a few moments where it recalls the genius construction of THE GODFATHER, most notably in Dutch’s murder sequence towards the end.   This is further evidenced by Coppola’s collaboration with GODFATHER producer Robert Evans—although the two apparently had a falling out during production and Coppola banned Evans from set altogether.

There isn’t much in the way of personal development as a filmmaker on Coppola’s end.  Despite the inclusion of a few signature elements like double exposed frames, and an experimental sound design (one scene takes a diagetic tap-dancing performance and uses it as non-diagetic score in a parallel cross-cut scene occurring elsewhere), THE COTTON CLUB feels like it could have been made by a number of other filmmakers.

THE GODFATHER influences signify the film as distinctly Coppola-esque, but the slightly cartoonish treatment of the characters and violence suggests instead the vision of a director influenced by Coppola.  Like much of Coppola’s output in the 80’s and 90’s, it was made not because of a genuine ambition, but to reduce Coppola’s significant debt at the time.

THE COTTON CLUB, while not having aged as well as some of his other work, is a strong and underrated film   However, it pales in comparison to Coppola’s groundbreaking 70’s work, which was always going to be a tough act to follow.  But, if anyone can do it, it’s the man himself.

By this point in his career, Coppola was still a young man, with plenty of time to recapture glory—if only he could dig himself out of the hole opened up by his indulgences.


CAPTAIN EO (1986)

Following the middling reception of 1984’s THE COTTON CLUB, director Francis Ford Coppola found himself slowly but steadily pulling out of the debt spiral that began with 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART.  Coppola could not afford to rest on his laurels, needing to work consistently to pay off said debt.

As his next feature film project began to take the shape of 1986’s PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, Coppola first would tackle a project of a very different kind, one that endeavored to quite literally push the boundaries of cinema.

The mid-80’s was an interesting time to be in media.  Conglomerations like Pepsi and Disney were tapping into American pop culture as a way to shill product.  Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself, became heavily involved in corporate branding and lent an aura of star power to commercial campaigns.

His collaboration with Disney manifested in a short film/music video that would be played in the mouse house’s various theme parks as part of an integrated “4D” viewing experience.  Titled CAPTAIN EO and originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg, this experience would incorporate hydraulic seats, scent sprays, synced smoke, lasers, and a variety of other things to create an immersive ride that went beyond 3D’s stereoscopic imaging.

The script was co-written by Coppola’s friend George Lucas, who by this point had already completed his groundbreaking STAR WARS TRILOGY and was well familiar with spaced-based swashbuckling action.  After Spielberg dropped out, Lucas’ old buddy seemed like a good bet to helm a project whose presentation lay in uncharted territory.

Due to its elaborate presentation, the story was appropriately simplified to feature Michael Jackson as Captain Eo, a brave space traveller who guides his crew to a dark, industrial planet in an attempt to breathe new life into its inhabitants with the help of music and dance.

Jackson’s crew is populated by a variety of space-age Muppets, a robot, and a stop-motion animation butterfly/rat thing.  Anjelica Huston is nearly unrecognizable as the Supreme Leader, Eo’s main antagonist.  The Supreme Leader’s makeup and costume design is one of the strongest points of the film, fusing a cyberpunk aesthetic with the machinations of a spider.

While frequent Coppola cinematographer Vittorio Storaro apparently served as a lighting director, Peter Anderson gets the cinematographer credit for CAPTAIN EO.  Anderson’s photography effectively captures the saturated, bright colors of Eo’s spaceship and the cold blacks of the Supreme Leader’s lair, in an inspired design from Art Director Geoffrey Kirkland.

Coppola crafts a slightly cheesy, chintzy sci-fi aesthetic that harkens back to his Roger Corman days.  Visual effects are quaint and intentionally shaky-looking, which I suppose adds a degree of charm.   I imagine that experiencing CAPTAIN EO during its run in various Disney theme parks was a sight to behold, but I just so happened to view the film on Youtube, which came from a VHS recording of the only time the film was ever broadcast on TV.

As you can imagine, it looked pretty terrible.  And unless the Mouse House sees fit to release the short to the public, this shitty VHS dub is the best you’re ever going to get.  At seventeen minutes long, CAPTAIN EO is basically one big music video.

And at a cost of $1 million dollars per minute of finished film, it also ranks as one of the most expensive films ever made (on a minute-by-minute basis).  For those accustomed to the idea of Coppola as the esteemed auteur behind THE GODFATHER (1972), watching CAPTAIN EO comes as somewhat of a shock.

It may even come off as a desperate, pathetic money grab on Coppola’s part—another rung lower in the fall from greatness.   Personally, I see the film fitting quite comfortably into Coppola’s oeuvre, albeit in unexpected ways.

Coppola’s career-long pursuit of redefining cinematic language is given a rigorous exercise with the demands of an immersive theme park theatrical presentation.  Not only did Coppola have to rely on sound and image to tell his story, but motion and smell as well.  It’s a literal bursting forth from the constraining proscenium wall that had so beautifully contained his ideas in ONE FROM THE HEART.

Watching the film now, CAPTAIN EO feels inescapably dated, as if it were a forgotten relic of 1980’s pop culture.  It enjoyed a brief resurgence when it was brought back to Disney theme parks in tribute form following Michael Jackson’s death in 2010, but the very nature of its conception means it can never be truly timeless like most of Coppola’s other works.

That is the nature of pop—an art form that is so focused on being “of the moment” that it completely overlooks the fact that the chosen moment passes by all too quickly.  At least Coppola’s foray into pop commanded a collaboration with no less than the King himself.


PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986)

Director Francis Ford Coppola spent the majority of the 1980’s taking on for-hire film work featuring commercially-viable stories as a way to erase the debt suffered by 1982’s box office disaster ONE FROM THE HEART.  Unfortunately, most of these films were hit-or-miss themselves, and the infallible talent that gave us THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) now seemed to be washed up, all of its promise drained.

The year 1986 saw a brief respite for Coppola, in the form of a feature film called PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED.  While not a particularly great film, it was enjoyable and channeled a certain nostalgia for midcentury Americana to modest box office gains.  Indeed, the film’s upbeat, optimistic tone mirrored the fact that things were looking up for Coppola, for the first time in years.

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is a dramatic comedy about a faded beauty named Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), who is anxious about attending her high school class reunion after a bitter divorce from her appliance baron husband Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage).

When she’s crowned reunion queen (that’s a thing?), she faints during the coronation.  She wakes up, only to find that she’s back in the year 1960, and back in high school.  Blessed with the knowledge of what the future will bring, she relishes the chance to connect with long-dead family members and tries to reconfigure her romantic life to avoid her eventual marriage to boyfriend Charlie.  However, she learns that even a second chance at youth can’t change fate.

It’s a powerful question: if you had a second chance to re-live your youth, what would you do differently?  Coppola’s cast gamely explores this conceit through wry characterization that must be presented differently in two distinct timeframes.

As the central character, Turner changes gradually in a conventional arc, much like Jimmy Stewart’s character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).  The weary Peggy Sue starts the film as a shell of her former self, reluctant to engage old friends because of the natural life-comparison that occurs at reunions.

Throughout the film, her dalliances with a mysterious young beatnik and a reconnection with her immediate family changes her outlook, making her cognizant of the true value of the people in her adult life.

Coppola continues his collaboration with his nephew Nicolas Cage, who plays Peggy Sue’s estranged husband Charlie Bodell.  A complete goober of a man, Charlie is presented as a schlubby, has-been appliance tycoon, but the past sequences show an outrageously energetic, wildly-bouffanted young man that aspires to fame and riches as a doo-wop singer.

Those who take delight in Cage’s eccentric characterizations will find themselves satisfied in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED—Cage adopts a strange vocal inflection for his character that’s nasally and off-putting.  Coppola almost fired his own nephew over the voice, but somehow Cage argued his case and it stayed.  The jury’s still out on whether it actually works or not, however.

The supporting cast is filled out with a variety of fresh faces that have since gone on to fame in their own right.  A young Helen Hunt and Joan Allen make appearances as Peggy Sue’s daughter and high school friend, respectively.

The most interesting bit of casting is a young Jim Carrey, who steals his scenes as class clown Walter Getz.  This is Carrey even before his IN LIVING COLOR days; that unmistakable gawkiness blessed with the elasticity of youth.  It’s really quite wild to see.

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is one of Coppola’s most straightforward-looking films.  Shot on 35mm film and lensed by legendary Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth, Coppola paints his idyllic Americana setting in naturally saturated and bright colors.

Camerawork is non-intrusive, objectively and sedately capturing Coppola and returning Production Designer Dean Tavoularis’ midcentury rockabilly aesthetic.  One might say it’s bland photography, but it effectively sets the tone of the story and allows the performances to take center stage.

For the music, Coppola once again collaborates with Bond composer John Barry, who creates a lushly romantic score with traditional string instruments.  Like 1983’S THE OUTSIDERS before it, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED also boasts a selection of classic rock-and-roll hits from acts like Buddy Holly, who sings the song from which the film takes its name.

Overall, there’s not a lot to the film that classifies it as distinctly Coppola’s.  The only dead giveaway is the inclusion of his daughter Sofia as Peggy Sue’s kid sister.  There’s a distinct lack of experimentation, which gives a rather anonymous quality to the direction, but perhaps that is why the film was so well-received.

The age of Reagan wasn’t a particularly progressive time, so it makes sense that a box office hit could be achieved by playing it safe.  But in doing so, Coppola is able to zero in on what makes a film like this work—emotion—and scores his first bonafide hit in years.


FAERIE TALE THEATRE: “RIP VAN WINKLE” EPISODE (1987)

In the year 1982, actress Shelly Duvall began producing a television series called FAERIE TALE THEATRE.  Originally conceived as a nourishing antidote to commercial-heavy children’s programming, Duvall and company set out to create a series of fairy tale retellings with lavish vision and elaborate production design.

I like to think she started it to reclaim some assurance in the natural goodness of the world after Stanley Kubrick tormented her to the point of insanity on the set of THE SHINING (1980).

In 1987, the show began its sixth and final season with a retelling of the legend of Rip Van Winkle.  Director Francis Ford Coppola, still struggling to climb a mountain of debt, signed on to direct his friend Harry Dean Stanton in the title role.

Despite the depressing nature of this development, Stanton and Coppola really give their all to the charmingly cheesy children’s show.  It has aged terribly in the time since—its handcrafted set designs don’t hold up against the hyper-bright colors of LCD televisions—but what remains is a fascinating look at how far children’s programming has become, if not saying much in the way of Coppola’s directorial development.

We’re all familiar with the tale of Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep as a young man and woke up twenty years later as an old man.  Told over the course of an hour, Coppola’s RIP VAN WINKLE fleshes out the story significantly, adding in an interesting dramatic through-line by placing the action in the Catskills of New York in the mid-1700s.

We first meet Van Winkle as a lazy oaf of a man that has to endure his screeching wife (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire) and her attempts to get him to do some work around the house.  One day, he wanders out into the mountains and happens across a band of pirates, or ghosts, or something.

They all end up having a merry time, get Van Winkle drunk, and he passes out.  When he wakes, it’s twenty years later and everyone he knows (save for his son) is dead.  To make things even more confusing, his country has seemingly changed hands overnight into the United States of America, and his loyalty to King George puts him at great odds with the patriotic townspeople.

Coming in six seasons deep, I can’t imagine Coppola had much of a say in the visual look of the show.  The series, or at least the episode I watched, seems to use a theatrical proscenium conceit much like Coppola used in ONE FROM THE HEART (1982).

This is supplemented by the lighting, which is heavily colored and stylized to match the intended mood.  Elaborate, hand-crafted backdrops and costumes populate the 4:3 television frame, and a crude version of green-screen visual effects seem to be employed to further add to the whimsical-ness.

Interestingly enough, RIP VAN WINKLE seems to be Coppola’s first brush with video as a finishing format (he had previously shot full versions of 1983’s THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH on video using only rehearsal footage).  The magical-sounding music is provided by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father, in what is yet another family affair for the seasoned director.

RIP VAN WINKLE is similar to 1986’s CAPTAIN EO short, in that Coppola indulges a cheesy, shambled aesthetic that seems considerably beneath someone of Coppola’s cinematic stature.  It’s a forgettable foray into disposable programming, and another relic in the video-tinged graveyard that was 80’s pop culture.

It’s a curious move by Coppola, but people will do some weird shit for cash. At least he continues to keep us on our toes.  And hey, a young Chris Penn is in it too.  I guess that’s something.  FAERIE TALE THEATRE: RIP VAN WINKLE is currently available on Hulu Plus, or you can watch it all on Youtube via the embed above.


GARDENS OF STONE (1987)

The 1980’s could read like a lost decade for director Francis Ford Coppola.  After the career coronation that was 1979’s APOCALYPSE NOW, there seemed to be nowhere else for Coppola to go but down.  Most of his films from this period are either regarded as outright disasters or merely forgettable.

  However, time has allowed these films to become removed from the context of their releases, and objective conclusions are easier reached.  As such, many of his lesser films are in a prime position for re-evaluation and tend to be better than most remember.

The year 1987 saw the release of GARDENS OF STONE, Coppola’s follow-up to the surprise hit PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).  His first real heavy drama in more than a decade, Coppola channels the reserved vision of THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE CONVERSATION (1974) to tell the somber story of a tight-knit group of soldiers who stayed behind in America during the Vietnam War to bury those who came back in body bags.

  It’s a handsome-looking film, devoid of indulgent flash or a sense of self-importance.  As a result, GARDENS OF STONE—while not terribly well-received upon release—is a rare glimpse at the dynamo filmmaker Coppola had been a decade before, and is perhaps the strongest film to come out of that period in his career.

Returning to the emotional fallout of a war that he had previously explored in APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola assembles several old friends to help him tell the story.  James Caan, who hadn’t been seen in a Coppola film since 1974’s THE GODFATHER PART II, plays Sergeant Hazard, a lonely military-man who made the army his family after his wife and son left him.

Together with his pal, Sergeant Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones), Hazard leads the members of Fort Meyers’ Old Guard: the stoic soldiers who perform ceremonial duties (like the 21 gun salute) at Arlington Cemetery military funerals.

An ambitious recuit, Jackie Willow (DB Sweeney), soon endears himself as a son-figure to these two old men, and they take an active interest in his development.  They support his desire to go the front lines of Vietnam (despite there not being a front line to speak of), even though they’re well aware of the horrors that await him there.

As the war rages on, the characters will find that holding down the fort at home won’t save them from the emotional turmoil of Vietnam.  GARDENS OF STONE is a return to form for Coppola, especially in his ability to command arresting performances.

There’s not an ounce of the hotheaded, cocksure Sonny Corleone in Caan’s portrayal of a middle-aged man who finds that marriage to the military isn’t exactly fulfilling.  Anjelica Huston, fresh off her collaboration with Coppola in 1986’s CAPTAIN EO, plays Samantha Davis—a middle-aged journalist who manages to dismantle Caan’s armor.

James Earl Jones is a particular delight, in a rare energetic turn that utilizes that lusciously smooth voice of his to charming effect.  I’m so used to seeing him as a grizzled old-man figure, it was arresting to watch him engage in young-man shenanigans like getting plastered and wailing on punks.  Lonette McKee, who previously acted for Coppola in THE COTTON CLUB, plays Jones’ feisty southern belle of a wife.

I wasn’t too familiar with Sweeney’s work before watching GARDENS OF STONE, but he is effective as the wide-eyed young man who naively yearns for glory on exotic battlefields.  It should be noted that this role was originally supposed to be filled by Griffin O’Neal.

However, a boating accident during filming that occurred due to his drug use not only resulted in jail time for him, but more unfortunately, resulted in the death of Coppola’s son and sometime-producing partner, Gian-Carlo.

A few familiar faces from APOCALYPSE NOW return for a PBR-boat reunion of sorts.  Sam Bottoms plays Lt. Weber, albeit he’s not given a terrible lot to do.  Laurence Fishburne, who by this point had become a regular in Coppola’s work, plays Sergeant Flanagan, a gruff drill sergeant at Fort Meyers.

And then there’s Elias Koteas, that absolute favorite character actor of mine, as a young military clerk in a small, early role.  If you were to make a list of all the great directors Koteas has worked with, you would be convinced that he might be the greatest actor to have ever lived.  He’s literally worked with everyone–maybe even more so than Kevin Bacon.

GARDENS OF STONE is a handsomely somber-looking film.  Shot on 35mm in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film retains the services of legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Coppola’s previous feature.  Subtle, reserved camerawork complements a naturalistic lighting and color scheme, which draws from a palette of forest greens and khaki tones.

The late 60’s setting is recreated in great detail by Coppola’s production designer Dean Tavoularis, without having to resort to an aesthetic that’s not blatantly period.  The subtle, reserved camerawork is appropriate for the film’s serious tone, recalling the visual restraint that made THE GODFATHER so emotionally potent.

Coppola’s father Carmine returns to score the film, utilizing a mix of military-style trumpets and horns (in addition to traditional string arrangements) to create an elegiac mood.  Authentic military hymns are scattered throughout to give a greater insight into the ritualistic world of the story, and the use of modern rock music from The Doors during a bar brawl sequence further conveys the time period while also subtly calling back to APOCALYPSE NOW.

With its militaristic setting and detailed recruit drill sequences, GARDENS OF STONE brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, which actually came out that same year.  The two films couldn’t be any more different, however.

Whereas FULL METAL JACKET irreverently explores the inherent insanity and inhumanity of war, GARDENS OF STONE examines the emotional fallout that stems from that loss of humanity when (or if) the warriors return home from the battlefield.

There is a heavy sense of loss that pervades the film, visualized by endless rows of white slabs—each one signifying a lost soul taken in the name of their country.  This feeling really hits home due to Coppola’s personal connection to the subject matter.

I mentioned before that his eldest son, Gian-Carlo, was killed during production.  For a film that dwells so much on the experience of death as lived by those left behind, Coppola was able to tap into his own grief and channel it into a cathartic experience.

Family members have always been key collaborators in Coppola’s films, and the institution has always played a large role in the kinds of stories he tells, so it makes sense that the familial themes of GARDENS OF STONE are so prominent and poignant given the circumstances.

We may never know the pain of losing a loved one to armed conflict, but GARDENS OF STONE makes one universal truth quite clear—we will all experience loss at some point.  Unsurprisingly, somber stories about death and sorrow don’t exactly translate to big box office.

GARDENS OF STONE was misunderstood upon its release, bombing both financially and critically, and further adding to Coppola’s spotty track record in the 1980’s.  Today, it remains an under-seen and underappreciated work in his filmography, but it holds up to the ravages of time quite well.

As an elegy for those lost in Vietnam, it’s a sobering experience.  As an artist’s paean to his lost son, it’s devastating.  But ultimately, GARDENS OF STONE is a compelling portrait of a side of war that is seldom seen—the experience of those left behind on the homefront.  GARDENS OF STONE is currently available on standard definition DVD via Mill Creek and Columbia TriStar.


TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988)

Despite the minor failure of 1987’s GARDENS OF STONE at the box office, director Francis Ford Coppola seemed to be experiencing a second wind.  Spurred on by the loss of his eldest son–a producing partner and car enthusiast– Coppola turned his attentions to a long-gestating passion project about a plucky entrepreneur’s quest to revolutionize the auto industry.

  Titled TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988), the film was first conceived by Coppola in childhood, and continued to occupy his interest as his career developed.  When it was finally released, the film was met with substantial critical praise that resulted in three Oscar nominations—most notably for Martin Landau in the Supporting Actor category.  Despite poor box office performance, Coppola suddenly found himself relevant again.

Set in Michigan during the year 1945, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM tells the story of Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), a successful businessman and local celebrity who desires to change the car business with an automobile of his own groundbreaking design.  Painted as a virtuous, insightful and gracious family man, Tucker finds his character and his patience tested when disapproving Big Auto tries to shut his entire operation down.

It’s rare nowadays to have a protagonist that is so earnest and optimistic, with nary a character flaw.  It’s a credit to Bridges’ inherent likeability and talent that Tucker comes off as compelling as he does.  Bridges’ Tucker is a natural showman—a visionary with big ideas and an even bigger heart.

  He draws inspiration from such forebears as Thomas Edison, and his obsession with detail plays like a midcentury Steve Jobs.  It’s an energetic, boyishly charming performance that helps sustain the film’s chipper tone without being off-putting to the cynical members of the audience.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Bridges playing the part, but interestingly enough, Coppola had initially envisioned the film decades prior with Marlon Brando as the lead.  Joan Allen, who previously worked with Coppola in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986), has a much larger role to play here as Tucker’s eternally-supportive wife, Vera.

Allen carries herself with an elegant, feminine grace—a grace that gives strength to Tucker in his darkest moments.  Her sharp, porcelain features are easy on the eyes, but admittedly confounding to logic—she doesn’t appear many years older than the actors playing her grown children!

As I mentioned before, venerated character actor Martin Landau was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Abe, Tucker’s grumpy business partner and advisor.  Landau plays the character as an old New York Italian type—one that wouldn’t be out of place in THE GODFATHER series.

His grumpiness soon proves endearing, and he effortlessly becomes one of the film’s shining strengths.  It’s a nomination well-deserved.  Among the faces returning to the Coppola fold are those belonging to Frederick Forrest, Elias Koteas, and Dean Stockwell.

Forrest, who was the lead in 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART, plays Eddie, another member of Tucker’s team.  His relation to the family isn’t very defined, but it appears that he’s the chief mechanic and a good-natured cynic.  Koteas plays Alex, an ambitious designer who quits the Air Force and shows up on Tucker’s doorstep to ask for a job.

His talented drawings soon earn him a spot as Tucker’s key designer.  Stockwell, who appeared as various bit characters in Coppola films past, assumes the towering personality of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in a short cameo.

Hughes seems to be an intriguing character in the minds of Coppola’s filmmaking contemporaries.  His close friend, Martin Scorsese, would of course go on to make THE AVIATOR (2004) with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes during his Spruce Goose era (which also features in this film).

And finally, a baby-faced Christian Slater appears as Tucker’s ambitious son, Junior.  In his big screen debut, Slater shows a lot of promise, and it’s easy to see why he continued working after the fact.  Like Coppola himself, Slater’s talent seemed to fizzle out in middle age as well, and unfortunately Slater has since become more of a direct-to-video punch line than a prestigious actor of note.

Coppola re-enlists frequent Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro to capture the vibrant patina of Tucker’s experience.  The 35mm film is shot in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, lending an epic feel to a story about an equally epic life.

Scope is created through the use of sweeping crane shots, and Storaro uses strong yellow key light in several scenes to establish a golden, nostalgic tone.  Many sequences also adopt the conceits of early newsreel films, complete with kitschy black and white documentary footage and an overly earnest voiceover narration.

Production Designer Dean Tavoularis also returns, continuing the midcentury Americana aesthetic that Coppola sustained in his films throughout the 1980’s.  Overall, Coppola and company are able to make such a plucky character like Tucker succeed due to their embrace of an overtly kitschy, tongue-in-cheek tone.

For the music of TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM, Coppola eschewed his regular collaboration with his father, Carmine, in favor of working with Joe Jackson.  Jackson creates a plucky, big-band sound that fits in with Tucker’s grandiose personality and viewpoint.

The many period details are reinforced with the incorporation of a variety of ragtime and swing source cues that meld well with Jackson’s original score.  The late 1980’s and 1990’s saw Coppola tone down his experimental explorations, but TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM does feature an interesting new take on that timehonored cinematic shorthand: the split-screen telephone conversation scene.

Instead of simply using an optically-printed line down the middle to separate two simultaneously-occurring moments in space, Coppola uses negative space in the frame as a canvas on which to superimpose the other side of the conversation.

This works substantially better than it sounds in print, trust me.  It’s an intriguing way to subvert one of cinema’s most basic examples of visual shorthand, which can undoubtedly be traced to Coppola’s lifelong attempts to redefine cinematic language.

It’s worth noting that Coppola’s good friend George Lucas is credited as an executive producer.  This simple credit belies a bigger story, where after Coppola’s previous attempts to get the film made had ended in failure, Lucas rescued the project by setting it up at his own production company (Lucasfilm) and financing it himself.

It ultimately became a losing hand for Lucas, as the film fared poorly at the box office.  At least the critics appreciated it; I don’t think Lucas ever lost any sleep over misplacing a couple million dollars.

For our purposes, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM is an intriguing insight into Coppola’s psyche, almost like a heavily-disguised biopic of the man himself.  Both men are blessed with large families that they entrust their life’s work with on a regular basis—Tucker creates and executes his designs with his family in his own home, and Coppola frequently utilizes father Carmine, daughter Sofia, sister Talia Shire, nephew Nicholas Cage and others in his films.

In addition, both men see themselves as the little guy that must do battle with overbearing corporate interests out to squash their vision.  And both men ultimately prevail by sticking to their guns and coming out the other end with an inspiring product to show for their efforts.  Coppola must have felt a great sense of relief when the film was well-received by critics—in a strange way, the warm reception validated his entire life story.

As a particularly brutal decade for Coppola’s reputation came to a close, the director was approaching middle age, and was beginning to think about his legacy.  To date, the majority of his studio filmmaking experiences had been difficult, if not absolutely dismal.

Coppola finished TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM thinking it was going to be his last Hollywood film.  He had diversified, branching out of film by launching his own lifestyle brand that included wine amidst other things.  He imagined himself continuing to make movies, but of the experimental independent kind.

Ironically, his studio days were far from over.  In the 1970’s, he was considered untouchable, but how would time judge him now, in light of the string of misfires that generated a massive debt that he had still yet to pay off entirely?   All of these concerns coalesced to form a desire to do something Coppola thought he’d never seriously do: tackle a third GODFATHER film.


NEW YORK STORIES SEGMENT: “LIFE WITHOUT ZOE” (1989)

Director Francis Ford Coppola closed out a particularly brutal decade for his career on a down note, unfortunately.   Having firmly established himself as one of the leading filmmakers in his generation (dubbed the Film Brats due to their being the first wave to come up through the institution of film school), Coppola collaborated with two of his biggest compatriots—Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen—on an anthology filmed named NEW YORK STORIES.

Each director crafted a forty-minute film that expresses their love for the city that never sleeps, but Coppola’s entry– LIFE WITHOUT ZOE– was the least-liked of the bunch.  Granted, it’s easy to be the lesser filmmaker when one is up against the likes of Scorsese and Allen, but LIFE WITHOUT ZOE can’t help but feel phoned in at best, and simply awful at worst.

In what could easily be a story devised by Wes Anderson, LIFE WITHOUT ZOE concerns a precocious young socialite named Zoe (Heather McComb) who lives in a hotel with her mother in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  She’s got the intellect and wit of a woman twice her age, and commands the unwavering loyalty of her Chanel-clad minions at school.

When a new boy joins their class—an exotic young prince from an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation—the girls get involved with his familial affairs and regard him as a major curiosity.  Meanwhile, Zoe attempts to reconcile her estranged father– a world-famous flutist (Giancarlo Giannini)– and her weary mother (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire).

If that plot sounds a little vague, that’s because the story itself isn’t particularly well-developed.  Coppola shoots from a script he co-wrote with his daughter Sofia (the traits that would later mark her own directorial debut are very noticeable even at an early age here), but the result is indulgent and out of touch.

  I’ve previously written about how I admired the fact that Coppola incorporated his family so much into his art, but LIFE WITHOUT ZOE and its successor, 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III, stand as an example of when the practice crossed the line into nepotism and unnecessary indulgence.

The cast is comprised mostly of unknown child actors, but there a few recognizable faces.  The excellent European character actor Giancarlo Giannini (most would recognize him as Mathis in Martin Campbell’s CASINO ROYALE (2006)) is easily the best part of the film.

Shire, who has appeared in all three GODFATHER films, also turns in a great performance as Charlotte, Zoe’s beleaguered mother.  Comedic character actor Chris Elliott makes a small appearance as a robber, and apparently Adrien Brody is in there somewhere, but I never saw him.

Produced by Coppola’s regular partners Fred Roos and Fred Fuchs, LIFE WITHOUT ZOE also retains the services of Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis.  Storaro shoots the 35mm film with an eye for bold colors, striking contrast, and canted camera angles.

Tavoularis’ production design is as reliable as always, but the influence  (some might call it meddling) of Sofia is easily seen via the film’s costumes, which typically are obscenely rich haute couture staples like Chanel and Louis Vuitton awkwardly worn by rich little brats stinking of stale Old Money.

Carmine Coppola scores the film, crafting a very 1990’s-style pop character that evokes Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”, while also using the flute for whimsical renditions of famous childhood lullabies.  It’s weird, but it fits.

If it weren’t for a few instances of double exposures and crossfade cuts, the film wouldn’t necessarily stand out as a Coppola film.  This is the kind of Coppola that is capable of making JACK (1996), not the Coppola who floored us with THE GODFATHER (1972).

It might very well be the worst thing he’s made yet, but it’s not without its redeeming moments.  The family element of the film is poignant and powerful, especially in the relationship between Zoe and her father.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the fundamental disconnect lies.  For me, it’s the completely alienating tone and setting.  I realize that the upper crust of the Upper East Side is an exclusive world of decadence all its own within a city full of different, contained lifestyles, but I can’t help but only see repulsive, spoiled brats—and not quirky, precocious trendsetters as their makers intended them to be.

There also isn’t a great deal of inspiration driving Coppola here, and it’s always disappointing to see a great filmmaker not giving his best.  Fortunately, his next feature—a return to the venerable GODFATHER franchise—would see Coppola striving to work at top form once again.


THE GODFATHER: PART III (1990)

Facing a seemingly-insurmountable mountain of debt stemming from the box office failure of 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART, director Francis Ford Coppola struggled throughout the 1980’s to make films that would dig him out, only to see them fail and Debt Mountain rise even higher.

By 1990, Coppola had to do something drastic, something he thought he’d never do—he had to make a third GODFATHER film.  Paramount had always extended a long-standing offer to him to make another sequel, but when he finally took them up on it, they kicked him while he was down.  They gave him only a million dollars to write, produce, direct, and edit the film, as well as a measly deadline of six weeks in which to write the script.

With the deck stacked against him, Coppola summoned everything he had to make a film that would stand up to the saga’s two cinema-defining predecessors.  In the end, the long-awaited final product—THE GODFATHER PART III—did modestly well at the box office, but disappointed its audience and has since become known as an “awful film”, the black sheep of a sterling silver lineage.

What most people forget, however, is that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and despite a few fatal flaws, THE GODFATHER PART III holds up surprisingly well as an inspired, yet unexpected conclusion to an epic saga.

The story picks up in New York City, circa 1979.  The Corleone family consiegliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is dead, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is an old man intent on salvaging his legacy and bringing legitimacy to the Corleone name.

He taps his considerable wealth to buy a controlling share in Immobiliare, an ancient Italian real estate conglomerate with ties to the Vatican.  In doing so, he has to contend with the cardinals of the Catholic Church, who are well aware of his sins and fight to prevent his takeover.

At the same time, the bastard son of Sonny Corleone, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) is rising fast in the mafia ranks, making known his intention to succeed Michael as Don of the Corleone family.  He begins an affair with his cousin (and Michael’s daughter) Mary (Sofia Coppola), while also battling with the Corleone’s family rival, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).

As these two story threads converge, Michael realizes that he can never be saved from his sins, but he can do everything in his power to save his family.  THE GODFATHER SAGA is known for its iconic performances, and while PART III more or less holds up to that standard, it falters along the way.

Pacino is as great as ever, imbuing his older version of Michael Corleone with the hunched back that comes with heavy burdens and aging complications.  We last saw him as a distinguished, suave young man, but PART III finds Michael as a soft-spoken diabetic, ashamed of his past and wracked by guilt.

It’s a haunting performance, especially in the film’s final moments.  Oddly enough, it was the only one of Pacino’s three performances as Michael not to receive an Oscar nomination, but it’s just as worthy.

Diane Keaton returns as Michael’s estranged wife Kay, who is also been made weary by time, but finds herself softening to Michael in her advanced years.  She no longer sees a murdering monster, but a good man who lost his soul doing what he thought was the right thing for his family.

Kay has always been the audience’s point of sympathetic access to this world, and her arc is necessary to hammer home the key theme of forgiveness and redemption.  As Corleone family upstart Vincent Mancini, Andy Garcia is the highlight of the film, channeling his late father’s hotheadedness and charisma to secure his place at Michael’s table, only to learn he was born a few years too late and organized crime isn’t really the Corleone’s thing anymore.

Garcia is sly and charming, a natural successor to Corleone’s criminal empire—he would have made a perfect Michael Corleone himself if THE GODFATHER (1972) had been made twenty years later.  The supporting cast is filled with actors of the highest caliber.

Talia Shire returns as Connie Corleone, fully in command of her status as the matriarch.  Her years in service to Michael have made her a calculating woman, not unlike a Lady Macbeth.  Whereas in PART II she railed against Michael’s tyranny, in PART III she is a full partner and Michael’s closest confidante.

An elderly Eli Wallach plays Don Altobello, a good-natured old man who becomes an unexpected nemesis to the Corleones in the wake of Zasa’s rivalry.  As Joey Zasa, Joe Mantegna steals his scenes with a smug, vainglourious attitude and a slippery, treacherous demeanor.

Zasa is the closest the film gets to a traditional GODFATHER antagonist, and Mantegna has never been better than he is here.  John Savage, who had once appeared in a film that took enormous inspiration from THE GODFATHER (Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), comes off believably as Tom Hagen’s son Andrew, a friendly priest on assignment to the Corleone’s native Sicily.

He doesn’t get a lot to do, but fans of the actor will find his inclusion memorable nonetheless.  And then there’s the elephant in the room.  I’m talking about Sofia Coppola, handpicked by her father to sub in for Winona Ryder after she dropped out of the key role of Michael’s daughter Mary.

Now, I respect the hell out of Sofia and truly love her directorial work, but it’s no secret that her acting is outright atrocious.  It might have even been the decisive factor which kept the film from attaining the same kind of Oscar glory that its counterparts enjoyed.

Her flat delivery and blank stare is devoid of life and robs the film’s resolution of substantial dramatic impact.  Coppola is to be admired in how he collaborates with his family to create great art, but charges of nepotism are certainly justified in this case.  Simply put, his judgment was clouded, and his impaired foresight almost sank the entire ship.

For a sequel made sixteen years after its last entry, the look of THE GODFATHER PART III is remarkably consistent with its predecessors, due entirely to returning cinematographer Gordon Willis.  The 1.85:1 35mm frame boasts deep shadows and keeps the same color-faded sepia tone that evokes old family photographs that so distinguished the previous two films.

However, I also noticed that the image is considerably pink-er than the others, as if shot through rose-colored glasses.  Willis and Coppola capture the various New York and Sicilian locales with the same reserved camerawork that was employed by its predecessors, and returning Production Designer Dean Tavoularis authentically recreates a subtle period aesthetic circa 1979.

We see a much more decrepit NYC this time around, consistent with the griminess of the city at the time, but it also suggests the growing inner decay of the film’s morally bankrupt characters.  This is most apparent in scenes with Vincent Mancini, who operates underground in a time where gangsters aren’t afforded the same type of respectable, dignified public image they once were.

Instead of Nino Rota, Coppola’s father Carmine comes on board to score the film, adapting much of Rota’s iconic themes into new arrangements that give the music a somber, distant and forlorn patina to reflect Michael’s regret.

The unmistakable waltz theme fires up right at the beginning of the film, reassuring as we slip right back into the mafia’s world as if no time had passed at all.  The trademark inclusion of opera music and church hymnals are also retained, while a few dashes of rock music are scattered throughout to reflect how times have changed for our favorite crime family.

Musically, Carmine’s work is probably the weakest of the three scores, but it still packs an emotional punch—especially through his arrangement of “Cavelleria Rusticana” in the film’s denouement.  THE GODFATHER SAGA is well-known for several sequences that are reference-grade work on great direction.

Scenes like the Baptism Murder sequence in PART I, and a young Vito stalking his prey along the rooftops of New York’s Little Italy in PART II are some of the best individual sequences in cinema.  PART III, unfortunately, has only a handful of similar sequences—none of them packing the same kind of emotional punch as the aforementioned scenes.

The only one that comes close is the ending, in which Coppola depicts Michael’s agony over (spoilers) the death of his daughter Mary by shooting.  While the scene is shot fairly conventionally in terms of coverage, legendary editor Walter Murch made a daring, inspired choice to cut out the sound of Michael’s anguished scream so that his face becomes a silent contortion of grief.

Michael’s heart problems are alluded to throughout the film, so for a moment it seems like he could be suffering a major cardiac arrest until he finally finds his wind and lets out a neutered whimper.  It’s heartbreaking to watch, and what was initially a happy accident becomes the film’s most memorable moment.

Like the previous two films, I had seen THE GODFATHER PART III several times before watching it for the purposes of The Directors Series.  I had always thought it to be an excellent film, despite its poor reputation.  Watching it in the context of Coppola’s career development, I was able to read into the film deeper than ever before.

While the key themes of the series—religious ceremony/ritual, family, and a cross-cutting, murderous climax—are all present and accounted for, I saw a very autobiographical aspect to Michael Corleone’s storyline this time around.  Coppola’s previous feature, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988) had previously explored this territory in much more overt fashion, but THE GODFATHER PART III comes at it from a more compelling angle.

I’ve written before about how by this point in his career, Coppola was firmly into middle-age, and his best work was most likely behind him.  Faced with a sharp downturn in the quality of his product, Coppola no doubt must have felt the desire to salvage his cinematic legacy from ruin—much like how Corleone was compelled to clean the dirt from his family name as he became an old man.

Both men’s efforts are constantly foiled by the products of their own sins and indulgences: Corleone’s demons are the ones he has birthed himself from the wreckage of his tyrannical crime empire, and Coppola’s is the inability to distinguish himself in new ways in the eyes of an audience who has judged him to only be capable of one way.

Both men ultimately save their souls by selling them—Corleone reluctantly embraces his old criminal methods and Coppola has to make the one kind of film his audience wants him to make.  It’s a well-known fact that Coppola, having envisioned it as simply an epilogue to the first two films and not a true PART III, wanted to name the film “The Death of Michael Corleone”.

It could be argued that an equally appropriate title would be “The Death of Francis Ford Coppola”, with Michael standing in for Coppola as a man struggling to stay afloat in the wake of a child’s death, a stalled career, and a public perception at odds with the legacy he wishes to leave.  THE GODFATHER PART III is an expression of remorse and hope for a fallen soul.  It is a confession, both Corleone’s and Coppola’s alike.

This impassioned approach undoubtedly shows in the finished product, resulting in one of the finest films Coppola has ever made.  THE GODFATHER PART III is quite literally Coppola filming for his life, as an act of cinematic survival.

It’s not a perfect film, still prone to nepotistic indulgences and stubborn auteurism, but it’s a worthy conclusion to one of the greatest American film series of all time, and a valiant effort to recapture that ineffable talent that never quite found its way out of the jungles of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).


BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)

Despite its disappointing critical reception, director Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to make THE GODFATHER PART III proved to be a fruitful one.  His company, American Zoetrope, earned a stay of execution by the forces of bankruptcy, but it wasn’t in the clear yet.

Coppola’s next project came from an unexpected source: Winona Ryder, who had previously dropped out of playing the role of Mary Corleone for Coppola without explanation, came to him with the idea of a new take on Bram Stoker’s iconic literary creation, Count Dracula.

Sensing an opportunity to explore the unworldly and deeply erotic undertones of Stoker’s vampire story, Coppola channeled his inspiration into one of the most original visions in cinematic history—boldly forward thinking but achievable using cinema’s most primitive effect techniques—and saved American Zoetrope from obliteration in the process.

The result, 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, distinguishes itself by loyally adhering itself to the source novel, while presenting a lavishly surreal vision of gothic horror.   You know the story, but not like this:

It is the year 1897.  The Victorian period is on its way out in Europe, and a fascinating new invention named cinema—that is, moving pictures—has captured the imagination of the public.  A young, English real estate broker named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to distant Transylvania to negotiate a contract for a piece of prime London property with its buyer, the reclusive and supremely mysterious Count Dracula (Gary Oldman).

Seemingly held against his will, Harker languishes in Dracula’s ancient desolate castle while Dracula spirits away to London in search of the blood of virile young women.  He sets his sights on Harker’s young fiancé (Ryder), but soon finds himself falling in love with the girl, who may be a reincarnation of his own lost love from centuries ago.

When Dracula’s vampiric nature is deduced, a scholar of the occult named Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is called in to help Harker destroy Dracula before he turns Mina into his own bride of blood.  To think of Dracula is to imagine ancient, cobwebbed castles, cheesy flying bats, and sinister shadows.

But most of all, we think of the unmistakable visage of Bela Lugosi, who literally defined the role in the original Universal monster movie DRACULA (1931).  His depiction of the infamous Count has towered over every other incarnation for just over sixty years, so what would Coppola need to be do differently to reinvent a character who had already been so firmly established in our collective subconscious?

What Coppola has chosen to do here is something of a triumph, quite honestly.  From day one, his interpretation of Stoker’s novel was meant to be strikingly original.  His initial intent was to reduce the sets to artful configurations of shadows and light akin to the German expressionism found in such early silent films as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), while pouring the art budget into elaborately designed costumes.

When his financiers balked at this idea, Coppola agreed to make a more conventional looking film, but the heavily-stylized design conceits would remain.  The result is nothing short of a complete visual tour de force, the likes of which may never be seen again on a scale like this.

Coppola’s cast, an eclectic mix of acting powerhouses and young, attractive stars, breathes life into the director’s grand, baroque design.  Gary Oldman is perfectly cast as the infamous Count, completely shredding any lingering impressions of Bela Lugosi while still paying a tremendous deal of respect to Lugosi’s interpretation.

An apt comparison would be the Heather Ledger’s take on The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), against Jack Nicholson’s depiction in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989).  Oldman assumes many guises—each one of them horrifying, oftentimes acting under pounds of prosthetic makeup.

It’s a radical reinvention of the character, and apparently much closer to Stoker’s original vision for the character than the form the Count has taken in pop culture.  Winona Ryder plays Mina Harker, a mischievous young socialite who finds herself caught up in Dracula’s gaze, and unable to resist his advances.

Ryder gives all of herself to the role, no doubt making up for lost opportunity when she bowed out of THE GODFATHER PART III.  Anthony Hopkins turns in a predictably powerhouse performance as Van Helsing, giving the iconic character an Old World flair and a somewhat-scruffy, wild-eyed demeanor.

Whereas in the classic Universal version of DRACULA, Van Helsing was portrayed as a dignified, elderly intellectual, Coppola’s take on the story finds the character considerably sexed up, prone to fallibility and temptation. Hopkins is one of the finest actors of his generation, and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is yet another showcase of his superlative talent.

The inverse can be said for poor Keanu Reeves, who I don’t find to be a particularly terrible actor in general, but rather one with an extremely narrow range.  In a performance that evokes the fiasco that was Sofia Coppola in THE GODFATHER PART III, Reeves’ utter inability to convince as a wealthy English aristocrat drags Coppola’s entire vision down.

He tries so hard to speak his lines in a Victorian English accent, that he completely forgets to emote, resulting in one of the most wooden performances I’ve ever seen.  His casting reads as a cynical move on Coppola’s part, who has publicly stated that he needed “hot young actors” to lure in the youth audience.

As to why he didn’t pick from the sizable pool of attractive young stars that could actually pull this role off, I’ll never know.  Cary Elwes and Tom Waits are the performances of note that round out the supporting cast.  Elwes plays Lord Holmwood, a dandy-ish aristocrat who is drawn into Dracula’s insidious activity when his new wife is infected with vampirism.

Waits, a regular performer for Coppola in the 80’s, plays Renfield, the infamous character who is driven mad by his encounter with Dracula and eats rats for sustenance.  Waits’ take on Renfield channels something of a steampunk aesthetic, and the musician’s insane, disheveled mannerisms are the most exaggerated displays of Acting (with a capital A) that I’ve ever seen from the man.

Every penny of the film’s budget is thrown right up on the screen in dripping color.  For the cinematography, Coppola enlists the help of a new collaborator, Michael Ballhaus, who captures the director’s sinister, baroque vision with feverish aplomb.

The 35mm film gauge is typical of a modern Hollywood film, but Coppola and Ballhaus channel the spirit of cinema’s magician roots to convey a look that’s firmly entrenched in techniques of the past yet altogether entirely new.

Drawing quite liberally from the aesthetics of German Expressionism and Japanese shadow puppet theatre, the film affects a preternaturally creepy persona via perspective tricks, stylized theatrical lighting, billowing cloth, and subtly unnatural visual cues.

Understandably, the color red is the dominant color in Coppola’s palette, but even more interestingly is his treatment of the green end of the spectrum—particularly in the appearance of foliage and other plant life.

Most visibly evident in springtime garden sequences featuring Mina Harker, Ballhaus and Coppola have dramatically desaturated the green from the surrounding trees and hedges, thereby draining the film of life itself.  In Coppola’s vision, the rules of nature and physics bend to the will of the undead, and the stench of rot is overbearing.

For a film set during the dawn of cinema, Coppola’s chiaroscuro appropriately and heavily borrows from the aesthetics of silent film, most notably from F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922).  The production design, by first-time Coppola collaborator Thomas E. Sanders is first-rate, but the lion’s share of acclaim really goes to costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who won the Oscar for her Japanese kabuki theatre-influenced costumes.

By far, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is Coppola’s most elaborately stylized film to date, and its loving references to cinema’s beginnings blend sublimely with the rest of the mise-en-scene.

In a move indicative of his love for collaborating with direct family, Coppola famously fired his visual effects team when they were unable to give him what he wanted, and replaced them with his young son, Roman.  Some might say this stinks of nepotism, a further indulgence of the kind that stained THE GODFATHER PART III; however, Roman’s youth and relative inexperience proved to be serendipitous and liberating.

Literally every single effect was achieved in-camera via forced perspective, painstaking multiple exposures, miniatures and other tricks of the trade.  As a result, this film—like its undead antihero—will never age, forever existing in the realm of pure cinematic magic and unblemished by outdated computer renderings.

The amount of creativity on display is simply astounding, and it is a standard that visual effects artists should hold themselves too more often.  The score is supplied by a new collaborator for Coppola, one Wojciech Kilar.  His gothic, mysterious cues recall the ominous bombast of the classic Universal monster films while adding an unworldly soprano voice that hints at Dracula’s deeply-buried humanity.

Coppola’s decidedly romantic vision is complemented by Kilar’s lush palette, as well as by an orchestra of frenzied voices, wails, and screams that somehow defy the chaos to harmonize into a feverish sound design.

After returning to his stylistic roots with THE GODFATHER PART III, Coppola forges entirely new ground in an attempt to bring class and elegance back to gothic horror.  Ever the innovator, Coppola’s use of ancient filmmaking techniques was unprecedented in this day and age, and it also became the first major film to utilize a nonlinear editing system in its construction (as the digital era had yet to descend on the industry, traditional flatbed editing was still in widespread use at the time of the film’s release).

But most of all, Coppola’s risky vision paid off at the box office and finally saved his long-beleaguered American Zoetrope from financial ruin.  In the years since its release, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA has been gently forgotten, dwarfed by more mainstream vampire fare like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994), or a certain popular book series adaption that I refuse to name, but those who take the time to reacquaint themselves with Coppola’s vision will find a timeless masterwork by one of cinema’s most brilliant minds.  Just don’t get too hung up on Keanu.

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures (although it’s a little known fact that it was issued as a part of the Criterion Collection during the Laserdisc days).


JACK (1996)

I knew this moment was coming, and I was dreading it just as soon I decided to focus on the work of director Francis Ford Coppola.  How is that one man can be the author behind both one of the greatest films of all time, and yet also be responsible for one of the worst as well?  It quite literally defies the laws of physics.

The first time someone, anyone hears that Coppola directed JACK (1996), they stop in their tracks, struck dumb by shocked disbelief.  How could this… thing exist in the world and not have the universe collapse in on itself?

Hyperbolic rhetoric aside, JACK is a confounding entry in Coppola’s oeuvre.  We’ve seen Coppola capable of some head-scratchingly awful work before, but at least it was awful in the attempt of pushing boundaries, or challenging himself.  JACK, while infuriatingly poignant by the end, commits the worst sin in art:  indifference.

The film knows exactly what it is but doesn’t try to be anything more than that, its “drama” culled from cliché sentimentality and blatantly manipulative storytelling.  This was my second viewing of JACK, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t help shedding a tear as the film drew to a close, but I was angry with myself over doing so— that emotion wasn’t earned by good storytelling, it simply exploited the overt poignancy of the moment and cranked up the sad music and soft-focus cinematography to 11 in a rapacious attempt to force me into feeling something.

JACK, first and foremost, is a family film— which I guess is where its connection to the Coppola filmography begins and ends.  It tells the story of Jack Powell (Robin Williams), a sweet, energetic little ten-year old boy who, because of a severe aging defect, has the outward appearance of… well, Robin Williams.

The film deals with his decision to stop his secluded home schooling and enter into the dangerous world of public school alongside normal children.  He’s regarded as a freak at first, but his charm and innocence soon win over his classmates.  Ultimately, he conquers the emotional wreckage of his defect and manages to live a full, albeit very short life.

I’ll say this—the performances are as good as they can be.  I honestly don’t mind Robin Williams at all, and I love it when he subverts his image with darker roles, like in DEATH TO SMOOCHYINSOMNIA, and ONE HOUR PHOTO (all of which, fascinatingly, were released in 2002).

Williams’ hyperactive style of delivery is appropriate for the role of an overgrown ten year old boy, and it is chiefly Williams that makes the movie as (infuriatingly) touching as it is.  You may disagree with the quality of his performance, but you can’t deny that it was at least perfect casting.

Diane Lane, who worked with Coppola before on THE OUTSIDERS (1983) RUMBLE FISH (1984) and THE COTTON CLUB (1984), plays Jack’s caring mother Karen.  Lane has that whole “unconditional love of a mother” thing down pat, even when she looks like she could be her son’s younger sister.

Dedicated to making his short life the happiest it can be, she indulges in rowdy games with Jack, and convincingly appears anxious when the outside world begins to exert its will over her son.  Her performance is easily the best thing about this film, and its been a special experience to see her grow from innocent teenager, to confident sex kitten, to finally a courageous mother through the course of Coppola’s work.

Brian Kerwin plays Brian Powell, Jack’s dad, and does a fine job without particularly standing out.  Bill “Pudding Pops” Cosby is Lawrence Woodruff, Jack’s cool-as-a-cucumber private tutor and de facto best friend (at least at the beginning of the film).

Jennifer Lopez, who has had the terrible misfortune of being both in this film and GIGLI (2003), is sweet and effective in her role of Miss Marquez, Jack’s homeroom teacher and first crush.  And then there’s Fran Drescher, who plays a local mother named DD.

DD quickly gets the hots for Jack, ignorant of the fact that he’s mentally and emotionally ten years old, and unwittingly initiates him into the very adult world of sex.  Drescher in general irritates me, as a person—that grating smoker’s voice with that terrible Atlantic City accent, and that fucking laugh of hers.  I can hear it right now in my head, and it’s making me grind my molars together.

To lens this incredibly milquetoast-looking film, Coppola works for the first time with Director of Photography John Toll (who would go on to shoot Terrence Malick’s gorgeous THE THIN RED LINE two years later).  Shot on 35mm film in the standard Academy 1.89:1 aspect ratio, JACK is full of natural, bright primary colors that evoke a sunny, optimistic demeanor.

There’s no particular style to the film, and there’s absolutely no experimentation—everything is presented exactly as straightforward as it can be.  This makes for a very visually dull film, but it’s appropriate for the subject matter.  Coppola’s frequent Production Designer, Dean Tavoularis, returns to craft a childlike, nostalgic aesthetic.

The film’s Bay Area setting helps towards this end immensely by providing plentiful clean, golden sunlight to shower upon Coppola’s subjects.  Michael Kamen is on scoring duty in his first collaboration with Coppola.

In what is probably the most conventional element in a heavily conventional film, Kamen’s score has that typical “kid’s movie” orchestral sound—a sound that I’ve personally dubbed “shenanigans!”.  You’ll know it when you hear it.  Bryan Adams shows up as well, lending an overly earnest theme song to the film that I guess fits with the tone, if indeed there is a tone at work here.

JACK was released to abysmal reviews and poor box office receipts, and Coppola’s career hasn’t really been able to recover from it.  I know I’ve spent the better part of 2 pages shitting all over the film, so I’ll try to think of the positives, in the spirit of Jack Powell’s boundless optimism.

The look of the film is appealing in a charming, inoffensive way.  The performances are surprisingly effective, tapping into the burdens of adult life that they feel they must protect Jack from.  There isn’t an ounce of cynicism to be had on Coppola’s part.

And he also reigns in his at-times overbearing desire to fly in the face of convention to deliver a sweet, simple story about a misunderstood little boy who’s not big enough for his britches.  JACK is generic and bland, yes, but is the world any worse off because it exists?

Are we just being reactionary when we say that JACK is the worst film ever made?  Maybe.  Probably.  I agree that Coppola defied our expectations of him by choosing to tackle this film, but hasn’t he been defying our expectations his entire career?

He’s proven himself as a competent (if not formidable) filmmaker in just about every genre except science fiction, so why is a family film any different?  By rejecting this film, we judge Coppola for failing to live up to our assumptions of his character, but we’re also not allowing him to be who he really is.  Maybe that’s why we hate JACK so much: we’re completely missing the point.


THE RAINMAKER (1997)

The 1990’s saw director Francis Ford Coppola regain some of the clout he had squandered in the 80’s with high profile hits like THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992).  Fortunately, he was able to close out the decade (and the millennium) on a high note by adapting a popular John Grisham novel into an entertaining character drama.

Titled THE RAINMAKER (1997), Coppola’s last big studio film (so far) was greeted with a fair deal of praise and grossed just barely above its production budget.  It was a small victory for a man who was in dire need of them.

THE RAINMAKER stars Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, an ambitious and eager law student who gets his first job working for an eccentric, flamboyant, and possibly corrupt lawyer named Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke).  When his employment doesn’t turn out as life-affirming as he expected, Baylor teams up with Stone’s pint-sized business partner Deck Shiffle (Danny DeVito) to form their own firm.

To drum up their client list, they set their sights on the case of a young man dying of bone marrow cancer who’s life would have been saved if his health insurance covered a certain operation.  Sensing a wrongful death suit, Baylor and Shiffle set about investigating the business practices of the boy’s insurance carrier, Great Benefit.

They unwittingly discover a vast conspiracy of denying claims to those in need purely for profit purposes, so the two enterprising lawmen launch a civil suit to expose this massive corporate malfeasance.  In the process, Baylor finds he can’t help breaking his number one rule: don’t get personally and emotionally involved with his clients.

Coppola has assembled a fine cast here, and everyone is convincing and effective in their roles.  Damon, looking slim and boyish in one of his earliest film performances, adopts a southern drawl to better communicate the film’s Memphis setting.  His Rudy Baylor is virtuous, whip-smart, and caring—everything you’d expect a protagonist to be.  It’s a strong performance by Damon, but not necessarily standout—despite starring in a Francis Ford Coppola film, he didn’t turn any heads until later that year in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING.

DeVito, as usual, steals the show as Baylor’s disheveled business partner, Deck Shiffle.  DeVito imbues the character with a sleazy, yet loveable charm.  The man, who isn’t exactly a lawyer himself since he failed the Bar six times, pursues potential new clients with reckless abandon—even while they’re recuperating in a hospital bed.

Normally, we’d view this behavior as despicable, but DeVito pulls it off with a degree of good-natured earnestness that gives him more of the aura of “loveable scamp” instead of “sleazy shark”.  Jon Voight plays Leo Drummond—a genial, well-heeled southern gentleman who represents his client Great Benefit, which makes him the de-facto antagonist.

Drummond is slippery, smooth, and razor-sharp.  He’s the kind of lawyer that knows every trick in the book and will turn the tables on you without you realizing until it’s too late.  It’s a strong, subdued performance from Voight, one that gives the film palpable tension without resorting to cliché “bad guy” archetypes.

And speaking of archetypes, there is a love interest in the film, played by Claire Danes (who was then experiencing a surge in fame after her performance as one half of the titular couple in Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET (1996)).  Her character, Kelly Riker, spends most of her screen time under heavy bandages as a victim of serial domestic abuse.

She’s young, pretty, and strong—especially when she has to defend her life against her abusive husband.  A bevy of familiar faces rounds out Coppola’s supporting cast, starting with Mickey Rourke as Baylor’s first boss, Bruiser.

Rourke imbues the role with a thuggish, flamboyant sensibility that telegraphs his corrupt nature like a street sign.  Regular Coppola performer Dean Stockwell returns as Judge Hale, a grumpy, sickly man who abruptly dies at the outset of Baylor’s suit against Great Benefit.

He is replaced by Danny Glover, who’s Judge Kipler character is a hardass, by-the-book kind of fellow.   Virgina Madsen appears as Jackie, one of Baylor’s key witnesses who could break the entire case open, but instead crumples into a sobbing pile under Voight’s expert counter-examinations.

And finally there’s Roy Scheider—of Coppola contemporary Steven Spielberg’s  JAWS (1975) fame—who has a small, yet key role as Wilford Keeley, the ultra-wealthy CEO of Great Benefit.  There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo thrown around by all parties involved, and it’s a testament to their talent and Coppola’s direction that they all actually sound like they know what they’re talking about.

The look of THE RAINMAKER harkens back to the somber, reserved aesthetic Coppola popularized in THE GODFATHER TRILOGY.  Working again with JACK (1996) cinematographer John Toll, Coppola gives the 35mm film frame a subdued color palette, dealing mainly in earth tones, deep shadows, and an overall blue/green color cast.

The reserved camerawork favors wide compositions, enhanced by the use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Tone-wise, the film looks dead serious, but Coppola finds plenty of opportunity to inject natural, subtle comedy to help lighten the mood.

Music is provided by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, who uses the film’s Memphis setting as inspiration for a blues-y, jazzy orchestral sound similar to David Shire’s work on THE CONVERSATION (1974).  As such, the score doesn’t carry the portentous weight that one might expect from a courtroom drama.

Instead, it bops along to the riffs of a church organ and other iconic Memphis sounds.  It’s an unexpected choice, but goes a long way towards establishing a unique, local flavor to the film and gives us a better view into the mindsets of its characters through their environment.

THE RAINMAKER doesn’t show a great deal of growth on Coppola’s part, but that’s to be expected for a middle-aged filmmaker with multiple masterpieces under his belt.  With this film, Coppola is treading well within his wheelhouse, but he’s not complacently resting on his laurels, either.

As his last big studio film so far, and his last film of the 20th century, Coppola has crafted a fine, respectable drama with a distinct character.  It may become increasingly forgotten as time goes by, but the work speaks for itself. It’ll hold up in the court of public opinion where so many of its bigger, mainstream contemporaries will fall flat.  In the long run, that’s the only verdict that matters.


YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (2007)

After the release of 1997’s THE RAINMAKER, director Francis Ford Coppola’s next move was the most surprising of an already-unconventional career: he took a ten-year hiatus.  Like his counterpart Terrence Malick, Coppola all but disappeared from the film scene for a ridiculously extended period of time, and many assumed he was simply retired.

  It had been a brutal two decades for Coppola, who saw the infallible image given to him by his quartet of masterpieces in the 1970’s battered to near-death by a string of flops and audience-alienating indulgences in the 80’s and 90’s.  The man certainly deserved a break, but when he came back, he came back with his priorities realigned and his creativity refreshed.

I have written before about how Coppola used the considerable wealth he had garnered from his directorial triumphs to diversify into other endeavors, most notably his lifestyle brand, Francis Ford Coppola Presents.  During his decade-long sabbatical, the aging Coppola tended to his business endeavors– the most profitable of which was his winery.

Frustrated by the studio meddling that comes with studio financing, Coppola was probably unsure how to proceed forward with his bold, experimental style in an industry that had become too “safe” for radical artists like him.

Perhaps it was his intention all along, but the answer to his artistic woes were right under his nose– swishing around in his glass as the aroma of fermented grapes invaded his nostrils.   He could get around the tampering of clueless studio executives by robbing them of their leverage; that is to say, he could regain creative control by financing his films with the considerable profits from his wine business.

An unexpected result of this decision was a radical shift of direction in Coppola’s career.  Coppola was taking a firm step away from the studio method of filmmaking that he had practically re-energized single-handedly with THE GODFATHER (1972), and was striking out on his own as a maverick filmmaker, answerable to no one.

Budgets would be a mere fraction of what he was used to, but this also meant he was much lighter on his feet and possessed more leverage to assert total creative control.  By unavailing himself from the tools of complacency brought about by bountiful resources, Coppola was able to approach filmmaking with the energy and experimentalism of a hungry film student.

Coppola’s first project under this new philosophy, 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, marked his return to cinema after ten years in the woods.  An adaption of the novel by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, the nonlinear, surreal nature of the story provided plenty of room for experimentation.

The film concerns an old man living in pre-WW2 Romania named Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) who is suddenly zapped by a bolt of lightning in the town square.  Instead of being fried to death, Dominic finds himself alive and well, much to his doctors’ bewilderment.

Astonishingly, he appears nearly thirty years younger when the bandages come off, blessed with the virility and energy that comes with youth.  Given a second lease on life, he toils through the middle decades of the twentieth century, trying to answer the mystery of his condition.

 He soon comes into contact with a beautiful woman named Veronica (Alexandra Lara), who he takes as a research subject and lover when she is similarly transformed by a freak occurrence of nature.  Instead of aging, she becomes possessed by primitive forces during her sleep, each night babbling in a different language that reaches back further and further into mankind’s past and the origins of speech.

However, his extended presence has negative consequences for her—namely, she ages exponentially while Dominic remains the same age.  Dominic finds himself torn between letting her suffer further for the potential discovery of our linguistic origins, or sacrifice love and happiness so that she may be young and healthy.

It’s all very heady stuff, and the cast demonstrates a firm grasp on the intricate subject matter.  Tim Roth gives one of his best performances as Dominic, both as a reflective, somber elderly man under pounds of prosthetic makeup, and as the sprightly, intellectual younger version of the character.

The time rift experienced by Dominic also fractures his identity, manifested in a malevolent double that appears only in mirrors but has an agenda all its own.  Roth effortlessly transitions between both sides of his identity, making for an engrossing and disturbing performance.

Interestingly, Roth is the only recognizable actor in Coppola’s cast.  The lovely Alexandra Lara holds her own against veteran Hollywood talent as Roth’s lover, Veronica.  Her descent in the dark interior jungle of man’s origins is frightening and captivating, and she naturally spouts off dozens of primitive languages without stumbling once.  It is a truly impressive performance.

While the remainder of the cast does a fine job, the most noteworthy supporting performance belongs to a cameo—Matt Damon, in his second Coppola appearance following his starring turn in THE RAINMAKER. Damon appears only in one scene (he seems to do this a lot for respected directors like Gus Vant Sant or Steven Soderbergh), but his shady American intelligence agent does a great job of illuminating the broader context of the times, and the secrecy-shrouded backroom dealings of The Cold War.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is notable in Coppola’s filmography for being his first feature shot on the high definition digital format, instead of the traditional celluloid film.  Digital filmmaking was still in its nascent stages in 2007, but Coppola saw its potential for creating striking-looking cinema on a smaller budget.

His work with a new format is reflected in his hiring of a new cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shot the film using Sony’s F950 camera (which no doubt had been recommended to Coppola by his colleague George Lucas after using it on 2005’s STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH).

The HD image is striking, creating one of the best-looking early examples of the format’s capabilities.  Using the traditional anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio as a canvas, Coppola and Malaimare make a seamless transition into the digital realm with a handsome, filmic image.

The cinematography evokes a cross between Coppola’s aesthetic for THE GODFATHER and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)— that is, dark shadows and an earth-toned, amber wash is interspersed with bright colors and expressionistic compositions.

Camerawork is mostly of the reserved, traditional variety—except when the camera itself is turned on its side or upended entirely.  High-key, expressionistic lighting reflects Coppola’s baroque, dreamlike tone, while also becoming a subtle visual signifier when the whimsical morphs into the nightmarish.

All in all, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a stunning looking film that shows off the lush beauty that a then-fledgling format was capable of.  The film’s music is provided by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, who gives the musical palette an Old World, romantic flavor.

Golijov is not specifically a film composer by trade, but his relative inexperience makes for a fresh, dynamic sound.  The film’s overarching theme of time is reflected through the use of arrhythmic percussion and chimes similar to the grinding of intricate machinery.

Golijov strikes a good balance between traditional, romantic orchestration and ambient, enigmatic tones that propel the film’s sense of mystery and wonder.  Also reflecting the midcentury European setting is the inclusion of a handful of popular songs from the era (think Edith Piaf, even though I don’t believe any of her songs specifically make an appearance).

While a number of Coppola’s key creative personnel are new (Malaimare Jr and Production Designer Calin Papura), YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH benefits from the participation of veteran colleagues like longtime producer Fred Roos, editor Walter Murch, and son Roman on second unit directing duties.

And for the first time in a long while, this actually feels like a Coppola film—his signature crossfades, double exposures, and other layering techniques create a rich tapestry that eschews the harsh lines of the traditional editing language.

Indeed, language itself is one of YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH’s most prominent themes, so it only stands to reason that Coppola would use the story as a springboard for the further exploration of unconventional storytelling techniques that have distinguished his career.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH channels a charming Euro Art Deco aesthetic, right down to the opening titles that resemble those old, colorful olive oil posters you see in  Italian restaurants.  For a film that’s so distinctly unfamiliar in its telling, an Old World mise-en-scene is a comforting inclusion that also gives the film a great deal of class.

However, it was not enough to win over a wide audience upon release.  It failed to make back its meager production budget, and critics experienced mixed reactions running the gamut between lavish praise and hateful scorn.

I had seen the film once before sometime after graduating college, and I wasn’t exactly taken with it.  Ironically, it took a second viewing years later for me to realize how subconsciously profound an influence it was on me in determining the aesthetic of my own 2009 feature,

SO LONG, LONESOME.  The nonlinear presentation of chronology, the juxtaposition of bright and saturated colors with drab, toned-down images, and unconventional framing techniques all rubbed off on me as ways to convey a heightened reality in tune with the metaphysical.  The film’s enchanted, lived-in aesthetic also could have feasibly served as a reference for a thematically similar work, David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008).

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a challenging film, no doubt.  It requires your undivided attention and multiple viewings in order to truly appreciate its mysteries.  While watching the film for the purposes of The Directors Series, I realized that I had not given the film enough of my attention the first time around, hence my original lukewarm reception to it.

This time, I found myself more engrossed by the intricate storyline, and connected more with its potent musings on age and the ravages of time.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend this film to just anyone, but those with the necessary patience will find YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH a richly rewarding experience.

For his grand return to filmmaking after a prolonged absence, Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH marks the beginning of a bold, experimental phase for the seasoned director.  His productivity will no doubt decline, whether it’s due to a leisurely development schedule or his own advancing age, but I find it heartening to see a director of Coppola’s stature getting back in touch with his roots as an indie maverick.

His best years might surely be behind him, and his new work may turn off a great deal of his fans, but Coppola has consistently and unabashedly followed his heart where his art is concerned and the results are never boring.  YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is not unlike renewing one’s marriage vows, in that Coppola is dedicating himself anew to his life’s passion with vigor.

In doing so, Coppola has rediscovered his own youth, and has successfully channeled it into an ambitious, challenging film unlike anything he’s done before.  He may have been away for a while, but don’t count him out yet.


TETRO (2009)

The release of 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, while middling in its critical reception, proved to be a reinvigorating event for director Francis Ford Coppola.  After a decade-long absence from the screen, the middle-aged filmmaker had found an energy and inspiration matching that of an ambitious and inquisitive film student forty years his junior.

  After a long run of compromise and disappointment in the studio system, he had finally found a method that worked for him.  By financing his own films entirely from his winery profits, he could assume total creative control and succeed or fail on his own terms.

Not long after YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH wrapped production, Coppola began working on his follow-up:  a darkly romantic tale of familial discord between two estranged brothers in Buenos Aires.  Titled TETRO (2007), the film would harken back to his earliest work by focusing on subtle relationship dynamics and gorgeous, unadorned cinematography.

Like its cinematic predecessor, TETRO was similarly received with mixed reactions and lackluster box office returns, but Coppola’s daring vision makes for his strongest and most-respected film in years.  A teenaged boy, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), arrives in Buenos Aires after the cruise line he works as a waiter for suddenly experiences an engine room fire and has to dock for a few days.

He takes advantage of the scenario by calling upon his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who took off on a mysterious writing “sabbatical” when Bennie was only a child and hasn’t been seen since.  When Bennie reunites with Tetro, he finds a deeply-cynical and mean-spirited man who wants nothing to do with his family, and his past.

  The only way of understanding Tetro’s current state of disdain, as well as Bennie’s own heritage, is to examine his scribbled writings, which Bennie procures through the deception of Tetro’s well-intentioned girlfriend Miranda (Mariba Verdu).  In doing so, Bennie uncovers a complicated family history and a shocking secret about his true lineage.

Part of Coppola’s new filmmaking method seems to be anchoring a cast of talented international unknowns around a singular star name.  YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH had Tim Roth, TETRO has film renegade and provocateur, Vincent Gallo.  Gallo, who swears by the benefits of improvisation during the production process on his own directorial work, had to realign himself with Coppola’s own meticulously-rehearsed philosophy.

  The result is a strong performance by Gallo, who uses his trademark eccentricity to striking effect as a reclusive, disgruntled genius.  Gallo’s Tetro is volatile and prone to psychotic outbursts, but he also finds an inherent humanity that pays off in the film’s final moments.

Of the unknown cast, Ehrenreich and Verdu stand out the most.  Ehrenreich drew comparisons to a young Leonardo DiCaprio in his performance as an inquisitive young man with a well-travelled innocence.  Verdu projects a feminine warmth and grace as Miranda, Tetro’s demure girlfriend who gave up a promising career in medicine to attend to his off-kilter needs.

Together, both actors create a tangible foundation for Gallo to build off of, reigning in what could have been an indulgently bizarre performance and turning it into something insightful and touching.  Coppola re-enlists the services of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, who appears to be this career phase’s incarnation of Vittorio Storaro.

Seeing TETRO as a thematic companion piece to his 1984 film RUMBLE FISH, Coppola wanted to emulate the black and white cinematography of the latter, while also evoking the texture and compositional elegance of old photographs.

TETRO also marks Coppola’s second time using the high definition digital format as his acquisition medium, which makes for razor-sharp lines that heighten the noirish, black and white photography.  The camera never moves, utilizing carefully-composed 2.35:1 frames to tell Coppola’s story.

Ever the visual pioneer, Coppola uses another conceit to redefine our notions of the tried-and-true “flashback”.  Shot in a letterboxed 4:3 aspect ratio that evokes the boundaries of old 8mm film, Coppola shows us the twists and turns of Tetro’s complicated family history in striking color and handheld camerawork.

These don’t resemble home movies, however—the glossy sheen of the digital cinematography makes these sequences appear as if they were concurrent along the main story’s timeline.  The warm color tones that Coppola emphasizes during these sequences depict an objective truth that is obscured in the expressionistic, stark sequences set in the present day.

Also reprising his role in Coppola’s key creative team is Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, who crafts a somber, jazzy score that calls to mind 1974’s THE CONVERSATION, albeit with an accordion-based, Latin influence.

Coppola also indulges his affectations for opera music throughout the film by incorporating an entire subplot around it.  This paints cosmopolitan Buenos Aires as a cultured city of good taste and history, making the juxtaposition of pop and rock cues all the more striking.

Coppola is well within his directorial wheelhouse here, combining several thematic conceits from films throughout his career.  The aforementioned RUMBLE FISH connection is the most obvious, but there are other hidden references, such as a visual callback to his 1963 debut, DEMENTIA 13.

The subtle relationship dynamics call to mind Coppola’s understate film, THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969), while the themes of family and success evoke THE GODFATHER TRILOGY.  By returning to his low-budget roots, Coppola proves to a powerful and fearless independent filmmaker.

The man’s career has always been predicated upon the theme of family, both as a dramatic focus as well as his collaborative tendencies (son Roman once again serves as the second unit director).  While Coppola’s Italian roots have been extensively explored throughout his life, TETRO finds Coppola grappling with his other, Argentinian bloodline.

The film allows him to draw a throughline between both cultures to find the similarities in their tastes in art and architecture, their lifestyles and social customs, and most of all, in their attitudes towards the family unit.  Coppola has publicly stated that TETRO is a very autobiographical film, albeit one that doesn’t contain a single true event.

The truth Coppola speaks of is in the emotions at play– an apt reference for art itself, where the only truth that matters is emotional truth.  As of this writing, Coppola has since directed another feature—2011’s TWIXT—which has yet to be released to a wide American audience.

As such, my analysis of Coppola’s career and filmography concludes (for now) with TETRO.  The man is a giant of international cinema, with an inarguably profound legacy.  Careers like his are some of the most rewarding for the purposes of The Directors Series, as they provide a decades-long examination, complete with highs and lows that welcome insightful analysis when freed of the context of the times they were released in.

My general takeaway on Coppola’s development is that he has always been an innovator, challenging his audience by redefining how films are constructed and presented.  One of his earliest influences was Sergei Eisenstein, the father of film editing technique and theory.

While they are commonplace to the point of invisibility today, Eisenstein’s innovations were radical and incredibly influential during the earliest days of cinema.  An entire visual language sprung up around cinematic storytelling, and Coppola spent the majority of his career building upon that language and challenging our relationship to it.

Coppola will always be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, mainly due to the uninterrupted run of absolute masterpieces he released during the 1970’s.  Each of those four films—THE GODFATHER (1972), THE CONVERSATION ,THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)—is highly regarded not just in film circles but in the entirety of art.

Each of them have been deemed culturally significant and worthy of preservation by the National Film Registry.  They netted Coppola Academy Awards and Cannes Palme d’Ors.  He could have only made these four films and still be considered one of the greatest that ever lived.

Luckily, Coppola was not one to rest on his laurels, and always strove to push the boundaries of the art form, at great risk to his own legacy.  His failures may have tarnished his reputation as a filmmaker, where priority is placed on commercial success, but they have solidified his legacy as a true artist.

Coppola will always surprise us, because his work isn’t preoccupied with the popularity contest of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.  He began as a maverick on the fringes, and that is where he will end it.  But until that day comes, keep those surprises coming.


TWIXT (2011)

By 2011, director Francis Ford Coppola was well into a new phase of his career, a phase that saw him financing his films independently with the profits from his lifestyle brand, Francis Ford Coppola Presents.  This approach resulted in the reinvigorating success of 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and 2009’s TETRO—so naturally, Coppola was keen to go a similar route for his next project, 2011’s TWIXT.

The idea for TWIXT came to Coppola in a dream, where he encountered the author Edgar Allan Poe in a gothic, wooded setting.  After working through his idea a little more, Coppola ended up with a story about a washed-up author of horror fiction who finds inspiration in a series of nightmares he has during a book tour stop in a mysteriously sleepy town.

But just as Coppola’s unabashed adherence to his vision cost him in the form of several failures throughout his career, so too does TWIXT—a pretty terrible film any way you slice it—become a large stumbling block to progress in Coppola’s delicately nascent indie phase.

The story of TWIXT begins when has-been horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), described as a bargain basement Stephen King, stops in the sleepy town of Swann Valley during a humiliatingly ill-attended book tour of his latest work.  Standing watch over the town is a giant clock tower, each wall adorned by a giant clock.

Each of these clocks tells a different time, so no one quite knows exactly what time it is in this town.  Hall is approached by a grizzled Sherriff named LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who happens to be an aspiring writer himself.  He proposes a collaboration with Hall—a new book based on a story he’s concocted about a series of murders that occurred in the town.

Hall is intrigued by LaGrange’s concept, and spends his days trying to hammer out an outline while trying to convince his publisher to forward an advance to his nagging wife (played by Kilmer’s real-life ex-wife).  When night falls, however, Hall finds himself transported to a Gothic dreamscape, populated by ethereal children, a ghostly young girl named V (Elle Fanning), and his own literary idol, Edgar Allan Poe.

Through these nocturnal encounters, Hall uncovers the dark secrets of the town while stitching himself into the very fabric of its mysteries.  As the washed-up protagonist, Val Kilmer ably projects the aura of a has-been alcoholic with the requisite middle-aged bloat and a truly disgusting ponytail.

 TWIXT is the first time to my own eyes where Kilmer truly looks he’s aged tremendously, and to think he played Batman/Bruce Wayne in BATMAN FOREVER only eighteen years ago.  There has to be some sort of voodoo curse on him, because even working with a world-class director like Coppola can’t save the movie from going straight to video in America.

He gives a spirited performance, but he can’t transcend the messy mise-en-scene around him. As V, Elle Fanning spends the movie bathed in an ethereal glow and heavy makeup.  She’s initially presented as a sweet, ghostly young girl with a giant set of braces on her teeth, but her true nature as a vampire is revealed in a not-surprising twist.

Bruce Dern plays Sheriff LaGrange, a backwoods cop who brings a lot of comedic relief despite his serious intentions.  Rounding out the cast is Alden Ehrenreich, who previously starred in TETRO for Coppola.  In TWIXT he plays Flamingo, the goth/punk leader of the vampires who hang out “across the river”.

And finally, Tom Waits—a regular performer in Coppola’s canon—appears via a brief voiceover narration at the beginning.  However, his inclusion is a little odd considering his narration never occurs again for the remainder of the film.

Like Coppola’s previous two films, TWIXT is shot digitally by returning cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.  While their first two films together were gorgeous works of art that showed off the beauty that digital is capable of, TWIXT is unilaterally awful-looking.

There’s no excuse for how bad it looks; how can this be the same cinematographer who shot Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous 2012 film THE MASTER?.  It’s overly crisp, overly lit, and completely fake-looking for the grand majority of its running time.

It’s as if the backgrounds were digitally inserted using entry-level compositing software—it’s THAT bad.  Counteracting with the bland static of the “reality” sequences is a stylized nightmare dreamscape.  These sequences were obviously shot during the day and color-timed after the fact, with Coppola adopting a silvery-cobalt monochromatic look punctuated by bright crimson and unnatural oranges.

The biggest strike against TWIXT’s visuals lies not in Coppola’s clearly imaginative inspiration, but in the execution— specifically, the visual effects.  Most of the effects are of such a shoddy bargain-basement quality that they look like they were ripped from a 90’s PC game.

It’s so bad that that it has to be intentional—there’s no comprehensible reason a world-class director like Coppola would let such shoddy work slide.  TETRO’S Osvaldo Golijov returns to score the film, this time collaborating with Dan Deacon to create a cheeky

gothic score.  It’s deliberately cheesy, like a low-budget schlock film you might find in VHS in the 1980’s.   I suspect that the score is the sole part of the film that’s accurately conveying Coppola’s intentions.  If his intention was to create high art out of low-brow direct-to-video horror trash, then he’s certainly pulled it off—and we’ve been reading the film totally wrong this entire time.

Coppola’s directorial style wasn’t built on aesthetic conceits like most of his contemporaries.  Rather, every choice he makes is informed by a constant goal: to find new cinematic vernaculars, new ways to express ideas on-screen.

One of the main reasons Coppola even made the film was because of an idea that would innovate the film-watching experience using the new tools that digital filmmaking had to offer.  He wanted to redefine what it meant to watch a movie unfold, live in the theatre.

To this end, he worked out a plan to literally “remix” the film live, responding to the audience in real time and adjusting his edit on the fly.  Perhaps this conceit was a little too ambitious, as he could never quite figure out a way to make it practical.

There’s no telling if the concept would’ve caught on had he been successful, but if it had, he would’ve revolutionized the way we consume movies and imbued the dying institution of the movie theatre with a newfound life and relevance.

Unfortunately, this was not meant to be, so Coppola was forced to edit together a definitive master cut of the film culled from the various pieces he had shot, making for consistently un-even viewing experience.  By embracing the independent realm, Coppola has empowered himself to make intensely personal work that would otherwise be compromised in the studio system.

TETRO was very clearly about Coppola’s Argentinian roots as well as his own immediate family.  TWIXT, however, takes more of a literal tack, with Coppola incorporating a subplot in which Kilmer’s character is haunted by the death of his young daughter, who died on a boating accident that he could’ve prevented had he not been too hungover to go along.

In real life, this is almost exactly what happened with Coppola’s eldest son Gian-Carlo, who was killed in a boating accident in 1986 at the tragically young age of 22.  Coppola had always felt responsible because he could’ve been there and prevented it, and TWIXT provided a conduit in which he could own up to his regret and maybe even forgive himself.

To put it simply, TWIXT was a huge failure for Coppola.  The fact that he financed it himself meant that he stood to lose a lot from a flop, and he did.  But that’s the price you pay for creative freedom.  His next project has yet to be announced, so it’s hard to ascertain as of this writing whether he’ll continue the independent route.

Given his conflict-laden history with the studios, I’d stand to venture that he does keep on self-financing his work.  Even if they’re all failures like TWIXT, their very existence is valuable because they are the manifestations of a true visionary’s unchecked creativity.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Stanley Kubrick: The Ultimate Guide to the Legendary Filmmaker

FIRST WORKS (1951)

There’s not much more to write about director Stanley Kubrick than what’s already been written. His work has been analyzed, pored-over and dissected as long as it’s been around. He’s held up as the gold standard in filmmaking—the benchmark by which all other directors aspire to, and all critics compare against.

Each of his major films, from 1956’s THE KILLING to 1999’s EYES WIDE SHUT, can be considered masterpieces in their own right, possessing lurid qualities that continue to draw us into Kubrick’s meticulously crafted worlds and beckon us to uncover their secrets.

He was a calculating genius in every sense of the term, seemingly born as a fully formed artist— suited particularly to the moving image. Had film school existed when he was a young man, he probably wouldn’t have gone out of principle alone.

Kubrick’s sterling legacy is somewhat ironic, considering that most of his films were misunderstood, controversial, and lukewarmly received upon their release. It wasn’t until many years later that his work achieved the kind of cultural value and respect it holds now. Considering that his career spanned five decades, Kubrick’s filmography is surprisingly small, consisting of just thirteen features.

This can be attributed to his reputation as a demanding perfectionist and obsessive researcher. He was notorious, especially later in life, for taking several years between projects, which he spent amassing obscene amounts of research. For instance, in compiling information for his long-gestating (but never-made) passion project NAPOLEON, he constructed a card filing system that was so thorough that it had entry for every single day of Napoleon’s life.

He wasn’t just a master dramaturge however—his storytelling prowess extended to the technical side of the craft, and many of his films are famous for their groundbreaking innovations in cinematography. 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY pioneered realistic space effects that are still unrivaled today.

BARRY LYNDON (1975) broke new ground in low-light photography by using specialized NASA-designed lenses, often filming gorgeous tableaus by nothing more than candlelight.THE SHINING (1980) introduced the ethereal, floating specter of Steadicam to audiences around the world and freed the camera from its heavy constraints.

The controversy over his work’s challenging subject matter would turn Kubrick into a recluse late in life, which projected a great air of mystery and myth about him—indeed, many of his fans didn’t even know what he looked like. While the details of his advanced are closely guarded family secrets, Kubrick’s early life is well documented in the public forum.

He was born in New York City in 1928, to Jacob Leonard Kubrick, a prominent doctor, and his wife Sadie Gertrude Kubrick. The Kubricks were of Polish, Austrian, and Romanian descent, and they identified as ethnically Jewish, although they did not raise Stanley as religious. As a bookish lad growing up in the Bronx, Kubrick wasn’t interested in the normal, mischievous pursuits of boyhood.

He was obsessed with chess, which his father taught him at the age of twelve—he appreciated the game’s emphasis on patience and discipline, traits that would mark his filmmaking style later on. His love of visual art began at age 13, when his father gave him a still camera and encouraged an interest in photography.

The teenage Kubrick was more interested in jazz drumming and catching double features at the local cinema instead of attending school, where he wasn’t much of a model student. His poor grades, combined with the influx of returning World War 2 vets in 1945, pushed him out of the opportunity to attend college after graduation.

To compensate, he took night classes at City College of New York while working as a freelance photographer by day. In 1946, he became an apprentice photographer for the prestigious Look Magazine, and it wasn’t long until he was promoted to full-time staff. He married his high school sweetheart Toba Metz in 1948, and they moved into the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan.

It was around this time that Kubrick began frequenting film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and became enamored by the work of directors like Max Ophuls and Elia Kazan. While most of his formative years were spent developing a love for image-making, it was only around the late 1940’s that his ambitions coalesced into a firm desire to make cinema.


DAY OF THE FIGHT (1951)

Kubrick’s first foray into the moving image is relatively nondescript and pedestrian— an independently financed newsreel intended for distribution by the MARCH OF TIME series. Essentially working on spec, Kubrick based DAY OF THE FIGHT off of an earlier photo feature he had done for Look Magazine in 1949 on Irish middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. The short film follows Cartier on the day of his big fight against fellow middleweight Bobby James on April 17th, 1950.

Kubrick and his small crew shot DAY OF THE FIGHT using specialized, daylight-loading cameras that took 100 foot spools of black-and-white 35mm film. The camerawork is extremely conservative, confined to a static tripod except for a single shot that is executed with a subtle dolly. What Kubrick lacks in style and finesse, he makes up here in an excellent visual sensibility.

His background in photography Kubrick gives him the capability to imbue a compelling depth in his compositions, as well as an inherent understanding of light and its importance in storytelling. Narrated by Douglas Edwards and scored by Kubrick’s childhood friend Gerald Fried, DAY OF THE FIGHT falls very much in line with newsreel shorts of the day, incorporating a musical sound that’s very civic and MATLOCK-sounding in its jaunty sense of self-seriousness.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that Kubrick’s signature themes and storytelling fascinations are fully formed on his first time at bat, but Kubrick’s long exploration with man’s relationship to creation and religion sees modest roots in DAY OF THE FIGHT with a sequence that shows Cartier and his twin brother attending church and receiving communion before the match.

Kubrick’s efforts turned out successful when he sold DAY OF THE FIGHT to RKO for four thousand dollars. He only made a profit of $100 after his out-of-pocket production expenses of $3900 were recouped, but he had managed to establish himself as a working director and start his career off on a strong note.


FLYING PADRE (1951)

Kubrick’s second newsreel short, FLYING PADRE, was also created in 1951 and features Father Fred Stadtmuller as its subject—a priest whose parish is so spread out (400 square miles to be exact), he must fly a small plane to get wherever he’s needed. Produced by Burton Benjamin and narrated by CBS announcer Bob Hite, FLYING PADRE is similar in style to DAY OF THE FIGHT and other newsreels of the day.

Shooting again on black and white 35mm film, Kubrick makes use of the bright, even light of the prairie, evoking the earnest sensibilities of a western film (whereas DAY OF THE FIGHT’s treatment of light resembled film noir). The camera, locked to a tripod, is observational and unobtrusive save for one striking shot at the very end where it tracks backwards away from Father Stadtmuller and his plane.

This is the earliest instance of a shot that Kubrick would employ (to striking effect) throughout his work, helping to define his style as a director. Aside from the religious aspect of his subject, Kubrick’s other defining signature—the exploration of man’s relationship to technology—begins here in FLYING PADRE with an in-depth look at how the modern miracle of flight enables Father Stadtmuller to overcome the intimidating challenges of tending to such a large parish.

DAY OF THE FIGHT and FLYING PADRE are highly representative of Kubrick’s humble, journeyman beginnings. These newsreel shorts are devoid of style, feeling very much like a bland product of “the establishment”—a nebulous entity that Kubrick would very soon turn on and stake his career against.

While not particularly notable in their own right, these two newsreel shorts would firmly establish the arrival of one of cinema’s most important and treasured auteurs and enable the opportunity for his first feature.


FEAR & DESIRE (1953)

Aspiring directors making their first features under scrappy, shoestring budgets and/or a shallow pool of production resources is a grand tradition within the art of cinema.  Oftentimes, directors’ first films are their most electrifying—a shrill cry of independence and assertion of artistic existence wrought from a primal desire for expression.

  Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavettes, Lynch, Malick…. any major director born after World War 2 that you could think of, odds are they have a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges feature at the beginning of their filmographies (with Cassavettes in particular, that’s pretty much ALL you’d find).  All of those films– and their maverick makers—owe a debt of gratitude to what could perhaps be considered the original indie debut, Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE (1953).

Kubrick’s body of work needs no introduction—indeed, he intentionally deprived us of one by writing off his debut feature as a “bumbling amateur exercise” and barring it from public exhibition.  He was a director who valued total artistic control over all else, and he would rather have the film world’s first true taste of his talent be something much more polished, like 1955’sKILLER’S KISS.

However, time has shown that Kubrick himself served as his own worst critic when it came to passing final judgment on FEAR AND DESIRE—the film certainly has its share of major flaws, make no mistake, but today’s critics regard it not as an albatross, but as an intellectual curiosity that exposes Kubrick’s vulnerabilities while establishing a platform for future greatness.

FEAR AND DESIRE started out like any other new film project from a burgeoning young director—pregnant with optimistic hopes, excitement, and visions of greatness.  Just twenty-five years old at the time, Kubrick quit his job as a photographer at Look Magazine to focus on the project full-time, acquiring the financing when his father cashed in his life insurance policy and his uncle chipped in some earnings from his pharmaceutical business.

  Kubrick recruited Howard Sackler, a high school classmate and aspiring poet, to write the screenplay (which probably accounts for the ham-fisted internal monologue voiceovers that pervade the film).  Kubrick shot the film silently as a way to stretch his meager $13,000 budget, but he hadn’t planned on the expensive necessity of redubbing the actors’ lines in a studio.

  Kubrick was initially proud of his completed first feature, with critics at the time praising the young directors evident promise and talent if not the film itself.However, as Kubrick developed as an artist, he came to see FEAR AND DESIRE as an embarrassment, denouncing it as such in public interviews and burying any possibility of further public screenings by burning the negative.

For decades, FEAR AND DESIRE was touted as Kubrick’s “lost” film, and the only way to see it was via the Kubrick estate or, more recently, a poor-quality VHS bootleg (with Italian subtitles) that was uploaded to Youtube.  Thankfully for us—and unfortunately for Kubrick—a print was found recently in the George Eastman Kodak archives and restored to its original glory and released publicly through Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress.

While the ethics of going against the wishes of a deceased filmmaker is another conversation unto itself, FEAR AND DESIRE is nonetheless an important document in the history of cinema that should be preserved.

Set in an unnamed country during an unnamed conflict, Kubrick’s approach to FEAR AND DESIRE uses the generic idea of combat to better access the psychological underpinnings that fascinate him.  The story begins when a combat plane crashes in the mountains, and a small squadron of four men must find their way back home safely.

Complicating matters is the fact they’re miles behind enemy lines without any gear, food, or weapons.  As they follow the riverbanks towards home, they encounter a lovely native girl, who they tie to a tree so she can’t escape and reveal their presence to the enemy (whose base they’d discovered during a scout).

When one of the squad members loses his self-control and forces himself on the girl– only to kill her as she makes her escape– the squadron recognizes the sincere existential threat of their situation.  With mounting desperation, the squadron comes up with a plan to make a last-ditch escape that involves stealing one of the enemy base’s airplanes while leaving behind one of their own to distract guards by firing on them from the river.

As the squadron sets its plan into motion and storms the enemy base, they are confounded to find that the enemy general and his soldiers are their exact look-alikes, further deepening the existential mystery at the heart of FEAR AND DESIRE.

Kubrick’s cast is comprised mainly of unknowns, headed up by Kenneth Harp as Lieutenant Korby and Frank Silvera as Sergeant Mac.  Korby is styled in the vein of the traditional romantic hero archetype common in midcentury American cinema— confident and virtuous, but ultimately quite vanilla and devoid of any sort of edge.

Silvera imbues Sergeant Mac with another archetype—the gruff and tough military man, disgruntled by his long experience in the armed forces.  Paul Mazursky, who would later go on to become a film director in his own right, plays Private Sidney—a squirrely young recruit who is so affected by his transgressions against Virginia Leith’s Native Girl that he ultimately goes mad (think shades of the Renfield character in DRACULA).

Finally Stephen Coit plays a small, rather unobtrusive role as Private Fletcher, the fourth member of the squadron. In a move befitting a shoestring-budget indie feature, Kubrick performed most of the duties of a film crew himself, with only his wife, Toba Metz, serving as script supervisor, Herbert Lebowitz working as the production designer, and a crew of Mexican day laborers acting as impromptu grips.

In the beginning development of his penchant for total control, Kubrick served as his own cinematographer and editor, shooting the film in black and white mostly for budgetary reasons, but also because he could maximize his experience in lighting for black and white so as to achieve more of a “professional” look.  Kubrick and company shot in southern California’s San Gabriel mountains, their shooting style severely limited by a lack of resources.

Special effects were improvised with unconventional equipment, like a crop sprayer that was used for smoke and fog (which naturally made the cast and crew violently ill), or a baby carriage standing in for a dolly.  Kubrick’s eye, for the most part, is quite competent and is able to recognize compelling framing.

However, it’s evident that the young filmmaker hadn’t quite grasped the concept of eyelines and spatial geometry.  This translates to a rather jarring and incoherent edit, where Kubrick routinely cuts away to close-ups that are framed in awkward angles or brazenly cross the 180 degree line.  When combined with a thick layer of overwrought, existential voiceover that tries hard at sounding “profound” only to come off as hackneyed and trite, it’s easy to see why Kubrick would strive so hard to keep FEAR AND DESIRE from being seen by mass audiences.

Childhood friend Gerald Fried, who provided the music for Kubrick’s first newsreel shorts DAY OF THE FIGHT and FLYING PADRE (1951), composed the score for FEAR AND DESIRE, utilizing a bombastic, orchestral sound headlined by an elegiac oboe as a recurring motif.

Low, arrhythmic drums rumble like distant thunder, indicating far-off battles and keeping the tension on a simmer.  Kubrick would later be well known for his musical taste, but his scrappy beginnings here don’t show any notable evidence in that regard.

Despite being something of a crash-course in feature filmmaking for the young auteur, several of Kubrick’s long-running thematic explorations make their first appearance in FEAR AND DESIRE.  Kubrick’s main fascination was the deconstruction of the human condition, rooting out and exploiting those primal forces that compel us to act for– or against– our fellow man.

He was most interested, ultimately, in what makes us “human” and how fragile and tenuous those circumstances really are.  Violence and sex, admittedly, are two polar extremes in the spectrum of human experience, and two of the most potent, uncontrollable forces we will experience in our own lifetimes.

Kubrick would later go on to explore the psychological nature of warfare and combat to much greater degrees in films like PATHS OF GLORY (1957) or FULL METAL JACKET (1987), but FEAR AND DESIRE serves as our first true taste into Kubrick’s mentality towards violence.

As it stands, the violence is FEAR AND DESIRE is rather surface-level, but Kubrick films it in a particularly expressionistic, impactful, way.  One memorable instance occurs halfway through the film when the squadron storms a small guard outpost and kills the guards within.

Instead of showing us the explicit act of a knife sliding into the belly of a hapless soldier, Kubrick shows us an extreme close-up of the orange the soldier had been eating prior to being unexpectedly ambushed.  His fist squeezes the orange ever tighter until it bursts, spilling juice all over his hand and the floor.  Frankly, it’s hard to think of a more graceful and fitting way to communicate the traumatic explosion of a soul as it’s extinguished against its will.

The other thematic pole– sexuality—again better explored in later films like  A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), receives the most examination in FEAR AND DESIRE during the sequence with the Native Girl tied to a tree.

Kubrick makes his audience complicit with Private Sidney’s most primitive instincts and desires by repeatedly cutting to close-ups of The Girl’s lips, eyes, hands, etc.  Kubrick casts each body part in the harsh light of the male gaze, and it is this same sexuality that The Girl uses to free herself from her bonds and make her ill-fated escape.

The consequences of this development cause Private Sidney to lose himself in the grips of madness, which is yet another big theme present throughout Kubrick’s work: dehumanization and mankind’s mental frailty against forces that are much larger than them, forces which are more often than not supernatural in origin.

In FEAR AND DESIRE, for instance, the squadron encounters their look-alikes at the enemy base, which references the folklore of dopplegangers.  The subsequent murder of their look-alikes at their own hands throws the surviving members of the squadron into an existential funk at the end of the film, where they ruminate on the true cost of warfare and whether they can ever truly bring themselves back from the brink they experienced behind enemy lines.

Admittedly, the use of dopplegangers to convey this rather trite philosophical idea screams “film school”, but Kubrick’s sheer commitment to the idea makes it effective.  The release of FEAR AND DESIRE came amid a tumultuous period of Kubrick’s life.

He had divorced Toba Metz shortly after production wrapped, and by this point had remarried to an Austrian-born dancer and theatrical designer named Ruth Sobotka.  The finished feature was well-received by critics of the day, who offered much more generous praise than the film probably deserved, but it fell far short in what the industry considers “true” success: box office.

Shortly after its release, Kubrick would grow mortified of its shortcomings and suppressed any further release of the film by burning the negative and prohibiting the public exhibition of any bootleg copies or prints.  Long considered all but lost, prints of the film began popping up in archival vaults—the most famous case of which was its discovery inside the George Eastman House vaults.

These bootleg prints began to circulate among film circles, helped by the fact that FEAR AND DESIRE had entered into the public domain and couldn’t be recalled by its owner any further.  After a long existence locked away in dark basements and vaults, FEAR AND DESIRE is now widely available to the filmgoing public and serves as the intriguing, long-denied introduction to one of the greatest filmographies to ever grace our screens.


THE SEAFARERS (1953)

Following the release of director Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE (1953), the burgeoning auteur might have been dismayed to find that his first feature-length narrative effort didn’t generate a great deal of forward momentum for his career.

While he gained a good deal of new friends in the critic’s circle, his phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with calls from Hollywood.  For Kubrick, there was no turning back– he was now committed as a full-time filmmaker, and until he found success in that line of work, he would have to put food on the table with commissioned work instead.

Luckily, he found such work fairly quickly in the form of THE SEAFARERS (1953), an industrial film for the Seafarers International Union.  Hosted by CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck , THE SEAFARERS exists as a way to articulate SIU values and ideals while enticing prospective new members.  Using an unnamed East Coast headquarters location as a reference point, the short film provides an in-depth look into the seafaring industry from a worker’s perspective.

  Kubrick’s treatment of the SIU headquarters makes it seem like something of a clubhouse, and considering the fact that the SIU’s members are transient by the nature of their work, the headquarters would essentially need to function as such—a home away from home.  The seafaring union and industry as a whole is treated as a very noble entity, committed to the betterment of its members and their families.

As an industry film, it’s fairly unremarkable, but it takes on a much more fascinating aura when viewed in the context of Kubrick’s canon.  Shot by Kubrick himself, the film is the director’s first to be shot entirely on color 35mm film.

  Kubrick’s confidence in cinematography comes from his background in black and white photography, but that confidence wavers somewhat in the transition to color.  Kubrick understands that the way subjects are lit will change in the switch from black and white to color, but his inexperience in the matter causes the image to suffer.

Utilizing a broad, even lighting scheme, Kubrick creates an image that’s a little bit over-exposed, but that also could admittedly be due to the print transfer or the film stock itself.  To my eyes, the way that the colors are rendered suggests THE SEAFARERS was shot on cheaper reversal stock instead of negative.

Industry films are by their nature very dry and informational, and THE SEAFARERS is no different in its emphasis on the communication of helpful information at the expense of Kubrick’s personal artistic aesthetic.  However, one of Kubrick’s favorite camera moves—the slow, long dolly shot—pops up during the cafeteria segment and gives us a clue as to the identity of the wizard behind the curtain.

THE SEAFARERS is also short on Kubrick’s thematic fascinations as an artist, but there are glimpses into the young director’s developing psyche for those determined to wring meaning from insignificance.

For instance, those wanting to see how Kubrick’s exploration of technology (and mankind’s relationship to it) is depicted in THE SEAFARERS could look to the brief section on how the SIU incorporates machines into their daily operation.

  Likewise, one could point to the close-up of a poster in the barbershop featuring a pin-up girl’s breasts as evidence of Kubrick’s fascination with complicated sexual mores.  However, this is probably reading way too much into things.

THE SEAFARERS is, ultimately, a minor curiosity in Kubrick’s body of work– notable mainly because of its color photography seven years prior to his first major color work, SPARTACUS (1960), as well as its status as the master filmmaker’s very last short-form work.  In terms of the director’s development, THE SEAFARERS doesn’t give us much to go off of, but from a historical standpoint, the film serves as an interesting artifact of a bygone, romantic and idealized era.


KISS (1955)

The release of 1953’s FEAR AND DESIRE did not bring director Stanley Kubrick the kind of career momentum he might have hoped for. Instead of jumping on another feature straight away, Kubrick took a detour with a short industrial film called THE SEAFARERS (1953) as a way to pay the rent.

He wouldn’t make another film for two years, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t busy. He was actively developing the story for his follow-up and scraping the resources together, all the while navigating a divorce from his first wife Toba Metz and taking a second—a prominent New York City ballerina named Ruth Sobotka.

For his follow-up, Kubrick looked back to the world of boxing, which he had depicted in documentary newsreel form in 1951’s DAY OF THE FIGHT (his first filmed effort). Working with FEAR & DESIRE’s screenwriter and aspiring poet Howard Sackler, Kubrick spun a tough, gritty yarn he ultimately called KILLER’S KISS—at once both a noir thriller and a romance whose mainstream sensibilities he hoped would bring him the success that had so far eluded him.

Despite his ambitions, Kubrick’s efforts were not on the most solid of foundations—the twenty-six year old director was on welfare during production, and most of the financing was borrowed once again from his wealthy uncle, the owner of a prominent drug-store in the city.

This time, Kubrick’s gamble paid off with a remarkably accomplished low-budget feature that solidified his talent and applied the lessons he had learned on FEAR AND DESIRE, paving the way for further opportunities and giving the young director a decent platform to build from.

KILLER’S KISS begins inside New York’s iconic, now-demolished Old Penn Station, with a man pacing and smoking as he waits for a train to arrive. His internal voiceover monologue (no doubt the work of Sackler, judging by a similar conceit used in FEAR AND DESIRE) introduces us to his predicament—he’s waiting for a girl that may or may not ever arrive, a girl he’s wrecked his entire life for.

The bulk of the film is a flashback, with Kubrick showing us everything that leads to this point. The man is a boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), living a spartan existence in a small, dumpy studio apartment within a dilapidated New York neighborhood.

The one window in his place looks out onto the apartment of Gloria (Irene Kane), a beautiful young taxi dancer that he is pining after. One night, he witnesses her being attacked, so he dashes over to save her as her assailant makes his escape. Davey helps Gloria calm down and clean up, with their mutual attraction becoming quickly apparent.

Before they know it, they’ve fallen in love and are making plans to run away together and escape their hardscrabble Gotham existence. But there’s just one problem—her boss, a slick cigar-chomping businessman named Vincent Rapallo (FEAR AND DESIRE’s Frank Silvera)—loves her too, and he’s not going to let her go without a fight.

Davey finds himself drawn deeper into New York’s criminal underworld as he attempts to extricate Gloria from it, and this boxer will have to fight like hell for his happy ending.  The performances in KILLER’S KISS are rough and unpolished, much like the film itself, but are leagues beyond the talent on display in FEAR AND DESIRE.

Frank Silvera is the only holdover from Kubrick’s earlier effort, and he shows a decent amount of range as the seedy boss Vincent Rapallo. His worldly, weary cynicism serves as a decent foil to Jamie Smith’s idealistic, naïve boxer. As Davey Gordon, Smith plays well at looking like he’s in over his head, which adds some spice to a character with fairly uncomplicated values and ethics.

As the love interest Gloria Price, Irene Kane fills a necessary void in the story with a soft-edged femme fatale archetype that leaves a lot to be desired. Kubrick’s wife, Ruth, makes a short cameo as Gloria’s deceased sister and accomplished ballerina in a flashback sequence.

Much like FEAR AND DESIRE before it, the shoestring nature of KILLER’S KISS’s production meant that Kubrick himself had to serve as both the cinematographer and editor. Kubrick’s background in photography serves him well here, with the cinematography being one of the film’s strongest assets.

The 1.37:1 black and white 35mm film image might be cheap by its nature, but Kubrick imbues it with dark, rich shadows and a fantastic sense of depth that suggest a budget three times its size. Kubrick lights KILLER’S KISS like a polished Hollywood noir film, creating evocative compositions whose deep focus draws us further into his world.

The camerawork matches this approach, such as in a moment when Kubrick slowly dollies down the length of a dance hall to add grandeur and scale despite the relative cheapness of the technique. Indeed, many of these shots were achieved from the back of a pickup truck, which came in handy when Kubrick’s inability to secure location permits often necessitated a covert approach.

KILLER’S KISS stands out amongst Kubrick’s filmography in that the polish is countered by a measure of spontaneity, a trait that Kubrick would abolish entirely in later works. The film cuts away to gritty street details quite frequently, giving us a sense of place and liveliness that one could see influencing a young John Cassavettes.

Kubrick’s on-location depiction of New York stands as the most potent example of this dynamic—he makes great use of the dramatic skyline and looming architecture to add drama and grit, in the process capturing an authentic, lived-in cityscape.

Contrast these images with Kubrick’s last work, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), with New York streets being recreated on a soundstage so Kubrick could exert complete control over his shot. This approach extends to the boxing sequences, where Kubrick opts for a handheld documentary look and expressionistic point of view angles that predate Martin Scorsese’s dreamlike fight scenes in RAGING BULL by twenty-five years.

The expressionism on display also extends to a short dream sequence in which the camera screams down a long urban corridor at breakneck speed, the black and white image flipped to its negative. Visually arresting on its own, the shot anticipates the famous space tunnel sequence in 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and is one of the earliest instances of Kubrick’s fondness for one-point perspective in his compositions.

Much like FEAR AND DESIRE before it, Kubrick was forced to re-record the dialogue and sync it to picture in post-production due to the limitations of his production resources. As such, Kubrick relies heavily on the musical contributions of his FEAR AND DESIRE composer, Gerald Fried, to even out an otherwise-awkward sound mix.

Fried’s score is not unlike his previous work with Kubrick, utilizing an orchestral, romantic, and brassy sound. Kubrick and Fried also incorporate a lively mix of jazz and samba music that provides an urban edge and must have felt very contemporary and daring when the film was released.

KILLER’S KISS serves as a neat little distillation of Kubrick’s two main thematic fascinations, violence and sex. The boxing world is inherently violent, of course, but Kubrick’s story seems to merge the two acts—one an act of destruction and the other an act of creation—until their boundaries blur ambiguously.

In the world of KILLER’S KISS, sex is violent and violence is intimate. Nowhere is this blur more apparent than in the film’s climax, where the hero and the villain savagely duke it out against a backdrop of mannequins. Their cold, statuesque beauty echoes Gloria, and on a literal level, we’re visually reminded that the two men are fighting over her as the ultimate prize.

However, their presence underscores the intimate, feminine aspect of violence—the aspect that requires the two fighters to lose themselves in the moment and express their feelings up close with their bodies. The climactic chase sequence also serves as an exploration of dehumanization, with the characters framed in wide shots, dwarfed by monolithic structures and cold, unfeeling cityscapes.

Endless brick walls tower over them in an almost abstract fashion, heightening the hero’s need to escape the city because his relative insignificance within it threatens to consume him entirely.  For the longest time, KILLER’S KISS was Kubrick’s first “official” feature, having taken the print of FEAR AND DESIRE out of circulation and burning the negative.

Despite it being shot very similarly, Kubrick did not seem as embarrassed aboutKILLER’S KISS’s roughness and lack of polish. The film itself was received modestly well, enough so that it generated significant momentum into the production of his third feature, THE KILLING (1956).

It’s not hard to see that KILLER’S KISS is a marked improvement over his earlier work, with his evolution very apparent in every frame. We can see that Kubrick’s direction is much more confident, having grasped concepts like pacing and geography while coming up with creative, bold compositions.

KILLER’S KISS shows us a gifted young man coming into his own and starting to find his aesthetic, solidifying tastes that would inform one of the richest and most compelling filmographies the art from would ever see.


THE KILLING (1956)

The release of 1955’s independently-produced KILLER’S KISS made a small splash in film circles, gaining its young director, Stanley Kubrick, a modest amount of attention in the process. An upcoming young television producer named James B. Harris found his own attention particularly captivated by this bold new voice in American cinema, and he felt compelled to help that voice grow louder.

Working together as a producing team, Harris and Kubrick pored through mountains of material in search of their next story—eventually finding it in Lionel White’s crime novel “Clean Break”. After successfully licensing the film rights, Kubrick crafted the story into a script he called THE KILLING, which Harris then took to his contacts at United Artists.

Only a year after the release of KILLER’S KISS, Kubrick found himself prepping his next big project with the support of a respectable studio— a development that Kubrick must have found was equal parts blessing and curse.

While the budget was barely enough for Kubrick to successfully realize his vision, he had access to the studio’s expansive resource pool and was able to inflate the production value using better cameras, lenses, and production design.

However, this also meant that Kubrick now had to deal with unions, permits, and all the other aggravating aspects of filmmaking that kill creativity. Despite these new challenges, Kubrick’s third feature proved the young auteur’s innate talent to a broader audience.

THE KILLING may not be Kubrick’s most famous film, but it serves as a high quality genre exercise told in a challenging, unconventional way. More importantly, it marks Kubrick’s emergence as a mature filmmaker and unparalleled storyteller.

Tied together with an omniscient narrator speaking in the third person, THE KILLING weaves a fractured narrative from multiple points of view. The centerpiece character is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a seasoned criminal on the verge of retirement.

Before he settles down and marries his beloved Fay (Coleen Gray), there’s one last score to take down: a two million dollar payday at the horse track. He assembles a team of bent cops, ace shooters, musclebound bruisers, and compromised bookies to help him orchestrate and execute the elaborate heist.

It’s the perfect crime, both in conception and execution, and Kubrick’s take on the story plays like something of a procedural, detailing the actions of each team member down to the minute. Unbeknownst to Clay and his crew, however, one of his team members, George Peatty (played by Elisha Cook Jr), has leaked word of the heist to his adulterous wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor).

Thinking the promise of untold riches would finally make her love him, George doesn’t anticipate that Sherry will turn right around and inform her secret lover, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), in a bid to intercept the crew’s big payday. Kubrick’s churning narrative builds to an explosive finale that’s capped by a twist of dark irony when Clay finds that all the meticulous planning in the world can’t account for the unpredictability of chance.

THE KILLING marks the first time in which Kubrick’s cast is comprised mainly of well-known, professional actors and actresses. While this is ostensibly an ensemble film, the story belongs to Hayden, who ably portrays handsome crook Johnny Clay as cool and confident.

As Johnny’s girl, Fay, Colleen Gray does a serviceable job but can’t rise above the limitations of her stereotypical “dependent, supportive love interest” archetype. Seasoned character actor Elisha Cook Jr proves just as captivating to watch as Hayden, injecting an anxious energy into his role as George Peatty, a beta male who lets his wife walk all over him.

Jay C Flippen lends a warm, paternal presence as Marvin Unger, a kindly old bookkeeper and the heist’s financier. Contentious character actor Timothy Carey, in the first of multiple performances under Kubrick’s direction, plays Nikki Arcane – an expert marksman with a wild, unpredictable element to his personality.

As George Peatty’s wife Sherry, Marie Windsor excels at taking advantage of her husband’s adoration and adopting a cynical, bored demeanor. The handsome, cocksure Vince Edwards rounds out the cast as Val Cannon—Sherry’s lover, a young hood, and the one development that Johnny Clay’s meticulous planning couldn’t anticipate.

THE KILLING is notable in the context of Kubrick’s early filmography by virtue of having personally shot everything that came before it. His background in photography provided him with the competency to expose film properly and his eye for visuals allowed for compelling, artistic images— essentially, he had all the hallmarks of a good DP.

With THE KILLING, however, its mere existence as a United Artists film meant that the production was a union job, which further meant that Kubrick had to hire an external director of photography for the first time in his career. His choice was Lucien Ballard, a veteran cinematographer whose work he greatly admired.

Their collaboration, however, was anything but harmonious. Director and cinematographer reportedly did not get along at all, with Kubrick’s pursuit of visual perfection frequently ruffling Ballard’s feathers. Despite this contentious relationship, THE KILLING’s black and white 35mm film visuals are a thing of beauty.

The first of Kubrick’s works to be shot in the widescreen format, THE KILLING’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio allows ample room for the young director’s striking, depth-filled compositions. A low-key, high contrast noir lighting approach gives the film a high-end pedigree, matched by elegantly complex camera moves.

In his essay “The Killing: Kubrick’s Clockwork” (included on Criterion’s 2011 Blu Ray release of the film), writer Haden Guest makes a clever observation about the hidden meaning behind the film’s fluid dolly work:

“Ballard’s gliding camera cuts a neat cross section through a series of connected rooms in its path, transforming the apartment interior into a type of controlled tunnel that exactly describes and limits the possibilities of movement—a striking illustration of entrapment that subtly parallels the camera’s and actor’s “tracks” with those of the horse race.”

Indeed, the interior sets of THE KILLING, artfully designed by Kubrick’s wife Ruth Sobotka as production designer, are reminiscent of a labyrinth—an idea that Kubrick would continue to revisit throughout his career.

The layout of the rooms seem to suggest a finite number of paths for the characters to take, dictating their movements and actions while assimilating them into a complex, cosmic machinery that ultimately renders these same characters insignificant to the grand sweep of fate (or just as potently: chance).

Kubrick routinely takes what would otherwise be several shots and strings them together into one fluid take, and in the process discovers a proclivity towards complicated, yet understated, camerawork that reinforces a story’s themes and that would fundamentally inform his future work.

A further innovation that THE KILLING makes potent use of is a fractured, nonlinear narrative. As assembled by editor Betty Steinberg under Kubrick’s supervision, we see the same scenes several times, but each revisit brings with it a new perspective from the vantage point of another character.

As the drama and tension mount, we see conflicting details and snippets of crucial information that had previously (and strategically) been withheld. The narrator even gets in on the fun, becoming increasingly unreliable and contradictory.

To their dismay, Kubrick and Steinberg were forced to go back and re-edit the film in chronological order after test audiences couldn’t follow their original edit. Thankfully for us, their “conventional” edit proved to be even more of a mess, and their nonlinear cut was reinstated and released to theatres.

THE KILLING’s radical story structure proved to be highly influential in the decades since its release, with Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) in particular owing a huge debt to Kubrick’s trailblazing.

Kubrick’s career-long exploration into the psyche of violence and sex enjoys a brief respite in THE KILLING, with Kubrick toning down those fascinations to focus instead on delivering a taut genre picture. Kubrick’s film is most assuredly a crime thriller, but he frequently finds opportunities to color outside the lines and subvert our expectations.

This undermining of genre while simultaneously upholding it would be a trademark of Kubrick’s for the rest of his career, a tangible method by which he could elevate the subject matter and make salient psychological points about the human condition.

Additionally, Kubrick’s knack for regularly creating indelible, iconic imagery begins in earnest with THE KILLING—not so much in specific shots, but in visual ideas. One of the film’s most compelling images is the simple sight of the hauntingly-blank clown mask that Hayden wears during the heist, which one could easily see influencing Christopher Nolan’s bank heist introduction of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

There’s also the image of a vast fortune of cash sucked up by a vortex of air and billowing away into nothing—a poetic and elegant visual metaphor for the film’s central conceit that chaos and chance will always be there to ruin our best-laid plans.

THE KILLING is revered as an indispensable classic today, but few remember that it was effectively dumped by United Artists when it made its original release on the second half of a double bill (the equivalent of today’s January/February release window).

For most filmmakers, this would be death by poor box office—but Kubrick was not most filmmakers. The film didn’t make much money, but those who saw it were blown away by the 28 year-old director’s undeniable talent, and word of mouth spread through the upper echelons of Hollywood until it reached Kirk Douglas, the man who would take Kubrick’s career to the next level.

Watching THE KILLING with the luxury of hindsight, it becomes immediately apparent that this is truly Kubrick’s first mature, fully realized film. More so than any other film in his canon, THE KILLING makes the case for Kubrick as the link between the old-school, consummate craftsmanship of Old Hollywood (a generation that influenced him immensely) and the radical innovation of New Hollywood (a generation that he would inspire directly).


PATHS OF GLORY (1957)

The war film has long been a staple of cinema, from 1930’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT to 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Almost every major war in human history has been depicted in some form onscreen, yet the genre persists because the high-charged, ideological nature of warfare makes for compelling drama and action.

While most mainstream works in the genre are romantic glorifications of combat, the most potent stories have taken a distinct anti-war tack, arguing against warfare as a means to solve conflict.

The trend began in earnest during the widespread disillusionment that the Vietnam War engendered and gave us the likes of such classics as THE DEER HUNTER (1978), but one of the strongest anti-war films in cinematic history had already been made almost two decades prior by a rising wunderkind director named Stanley Kubrick.

1956’s THE KILLING put Kubrick on the radar of Hollywood movers and shakers. Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris, needed to capitalize on their momentum and get another project into development, and in short order they acted on Kubrick’s desire to make another war film after the self-perceived failure of his last go at the genre (1953’s FEAR AND DESIRE).

He remembered a book he had read when he was fourteen, Humphrey Cobb’s seminal World War 1 novel “Paths Of Glory”, and subsequently enlisted Harris to license the film rights. The resulting screenplay, written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and THE KILLING’s Jim Thompson, aroused the fervent interest of Hollywood superstar Kirk Douglas, whose participation afforded the filmmakers a budget of one million dollars.

While it was the biggest budget Kubrick had worked with to date, it still wasn’t a huge amount of money (even by 1957 standards) with which to make a sweeping war film. Nevertheless, Kubrick and company found themselves in Germany shooting PATHS OF GLORY, a feature that performed modestly at the box office but would come to be heralded as an “important film” and solidify Kubrick’s reputation as a major new voice in the art form.

PATHS OF GLORY takes place in France during World War I. The two warring factions—France and Germany—have dug themselves into sprawling networks of trenches while enduring an agonizingly long stalemate.

A decorated French general, Paul Mireau (George Macready) is tasked by his superior general Broulard (Aldophe Menjou) to break the stalemate and organize a charge through No Man’s land to take The Anthill—a small, heavily fortified enemy encampment.

The land gain is only a few acres at best, but Mireau agrees that it is a worthy endeavor. He selects a promising young colonel named Dax (Kirk Douglas) to plan the offensive. Despite his initial misgivings about the mission’s futility and the likelihood of a staggering casualty rate, Dax accepts the assignment and leads his men up and over the top of the trenches towards certain death.

The charge fails spectacularly, the men falling back like a tidal wave—that is, if they even got out of the trench in the first place. In a bid to save himself from massive embarrassment, General Mireau orders the execution of three men from Dax’s battalion by firing squad for the crime of cowardice.

Dax volunteers to defend these men—who were chosen by lottery—at the mandatory court martial, but he soon realizes that the trial is more akin to a kangaroo court, and these men’s death warrants were signed long before their names were ever chosen.

As the prisoners languish in prison and await the final verdict, Dax races against the clock to exonerate them and deliver justice. When the story draws to a close, PATHS OF GLORY reveals itself as a hard-hitting examination into wartime ethics and the moral conundrums that arise when there is too much investment in an ideological struggle.

Kubrick’s cast for PATHS OF GLORY represents an impressive collection of cinematic heavyweights delivering career-best performances. Douglas takes every opportunity to chew scenery as the idealistic and virtuous Colonel Dax.

Principled and heroic, his former criminal defense lawyer is sharp as a tack and doesn’t let any injustice get past him without condemning it. His working relationship with Kubrick, while paying dividends for both men’s careers, was reportedly contentious at best.

They challenged each other in a way that only two men who truly shared a mutual respect could. Unlike a great deal of directors, Kubrick rarely worked with the same actors over multiple films, and when he did it was only during the first half of his career.

Yes, he collaborated with Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel and Peter Sellers more than once, but their second efforts with the director were in supporting roles. Only Douglas has the distinction of headlining more than one Kubrick film, which speaks volumes as to the nature of their stormy, yet fruitful working relationship. Menjou and Macready form something of a two-faced antagonist, with Macready being the cold, pragmatic yin to Menjoy’s warm, grandfatherly yang.

Macready’s performance as the scarred, ruthlessly vindictive General Mireau is particularly notable for its’ dark, Kubrick-ian irony—that of a man who will dress himself up in the colors of honor and patriotism to justify his twisted agenda.

Kubrick’s supporting cast is well-assembled, with Ralph Meeker gaining the most screen time as Corporal Philippe Paris, a disgruntled idealist chosen for the firing squad. His uncompromising masculinity reminds me of a proto- Josh Brolin, and his is easily one of the most memorable performances in the film.

As the second doomed man—Private Pierre Arnaud— Joe Turkel brings an unconventional physicality to the role, one which would help him greatly when Kubrick called on him to play the ghostly bartender in 1980’s THE SHININGTHE KILLING’s Timothy Carey plays the third man—Private Ferol—a self-described “social undesirable”.

Something of an overgrown man-child, Ferol regresses to a simpering, childlike state when faced with the immediate prospect of death. Carey’s second performance for Kubrick would also be his last—his increasingly difficult behavior and bad habit of scene stealing and unpredictable performances led to Kubrick souring on him.

A run-in with the law during the shoot was the last straw for Kubrick and Harris, and they subsequently fired him before he had shot all of his scenes, requiring the use of a body double to finish his performance.

Finally, there’s Christiane Harlan, who plays the small role of the captive German girl singing a packed beer house of French soldiers during the film’s closing sequence. Her unsteady yet ethereal performance is captivating simply because she is the first female presence that we encounter in the film, and the story literally stops in its tracks to lose itself in her beauty.

This part of the film might’ve been no more than a footnote in Kubrick’s filmography had it not been for the fact that he ended up falling in love with this woman, and would divorce his wife, Ruth Sobotka, a year later in order to marry her instead. This time, the marriage would stick, with Christiane and Stanley remaining together until his death in 1999.

Kubrick’s filmography is littered with unforgettable images, but PATHS OF GLORY is the first instance in his canon where the cinematography is truly gorgeous. Shot by cinematographer George Krause, the black and white 35mm film image is artfully composed to fill the 1.66:1 widescreen frame.

The film’s camera movement is notable in that it is where Kubrick’s signature aesthetic truly coalesces and emerges. His use of the dolly, for instance, is compelling and purposeful, often letting such moves go on for a long time in order to establish scope and mood.

One instance is the Anthill charge, which unfolds almost entirely in one lateral-moving dolly that tracks parallel to the action. Another moment takes place shortly beforehand, with Douglas marching down the long trenches in an unbroken shot while a flank of soldiers look on and explosions rock the ground above him.

This shot in particular also shows off Kubrick’s affinity for one-point perspective compositions, employed as a way to lure the audience deeper into his meticulously-crafted world. Furthermore, Kubrick makes subtle use of zoom lenses during the charge sequence, which introduces an element of documentary to the proceedings while linking Kubrick to the directors of the New Hollywood school—a generation of filmmakers who made frequent use of zoom lenses in a bid to inject reality and immediacy into their work while rejecting the polished techniques of their Golden Age forebears.

In his fourth feature, Kubrick focuses quite acutely on music and its effect on storytelling, acting with a conviction and sense of purpose that was missing from his previous work. More than five decades removed from the film’s release, we know that Kubrick would become well known for his excellent ear for classical music and its placement in his work.

More often than not, such moments have become some of cinema’s most enduring combinations of sound and image. Later works would increasingly do without an original score entirely, with Kubrick himself publicly stating that nothing new could compare to the masterworks of the great classical composers, so why use anything else?

PATHS OF GLORY marks the earliest instance of this aspect of Kubrick’s aesthetic, with Kubrick opening the film with a rendition of the French national anthem, “Marseillaise”. He then goes on to include a small number of other classical cues, like Johann Strauss’ “Kunsterleben Op. 316” during an Officer’s Ball sequence.

This image in particular—aristocratic men and women waltzing to classical music in large, opulent spaces—would itself become a recurring motif throughout Kubrick’s career. For the most part, however,PATHS OF GLORY relies on Gerald Fried’s original score. Having scored all of Kubrick’s films up to this point, Fried drastically departs from his usual swelling, orchestral sound for the film. Instead, he opts for a minimalistic and militaristic snare drum/trumpet combo that keeps the energy up and the tension roiling.

PATHS OF GLORY ruminates quite heavily on the nature of war and violence, a topic that held Kubrick’s interest his entire life. The film looks at violence as an agent of discipline, as well as how conflict rooted in ideology causes us to dehumanize the opposition as “the other” and justify actions that would seem outright barbaric in the cold light of day (like sending three innocent men to their deaths so that a high-ranking officer can keep his reputation untarnished).

Interestingly enough,PATHS OF GLORY is the rare instance in Kubrick’s filmography where the perspective sides with the moral and virtuous character—in other words, the traditional “hero”. His later works would examine similar ideas about dehumanization and madness, but from the perspective of the afflicted, ultimately giving into the darkness within.

PATHS OF GLORY also sees the beginning of Kubrick’s on-screen fascination with baroque architecture, most notably in the choice of location for the French army’s chateau headquarters— eagle-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau location as the same one used for Alain Resnais’ fundamentally haunting LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961) .

Kubrick often frames his subjects in a wide shot during these scenes, allowing the ornate, gilded interiors and echoing marble halls to overwhelm them with insignificance (while also providing an ironic visual counterpoint to the officers’ admittedly barbaric, uncivilized judgment of three innocent men).

Kubrick also contrasts the spacious, royal nature of the chateau—home to the well-fed and well-dressed elite of the French leadership—with the gritty, mud-soaked trenches in which the rank and file grunts carry out their orders.

The soldier vs. officer/pawn vs king metaphor at play here is quite deliberate—Kubrick’s love of chess profoundly influences his sense of dramaturgy. PATHS OF GLORY is the first of Kubrick’s films to use baroque imagery to convey salient points about class conflict, but it wouldn’t be last—from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), to BARRY LYNDON (1975), all the way to EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), Kubrick’s filmography is dominated by this distinct architectural style and the cultural attitudes it engenders.

PATHS OF GLORY marks a huge step up in Kubrick’s development as an artist and a filmmaker. In terms of scale alone, Kubrick proves himself to be the real deal. The complex staging of the central charge sequence shows that Kubrick could handle a grand epic just as well as an intimate heist thriller—indeed his next movie gig came about precisely because he proved he could handle a large scale.

While it performed as expected at the box office (read: not well), PATHS OF GLORYnonetheless holds up today as one of the best war films ever made—an assertion backed up by the Library of Congress when it was added to the National Film Registry in 1992.


SPARTACUS (1960)

A filmmaker’s development happens gradually, over the course of a lifetime. His or her aesthetic is informed by a series of experiences, experiments, and ideas that coalesce through repeated trial and error. Once in a while, however, a singular event or experience can have such an impact that it can alter the course of a filmmaker’s development almost instantaneously. In the case of Stanley Kubrick, the events of the year 1960 proved to be such an experience.

Everything he had done up to that point had suggested an artist who ultimately aspired to large-scale, conventional Hollywood epics—each of his first four features had eclipsed the other in scope and ambition, and his successful rendering of World War I trench combat and collaboration with superstar Kirk Douglas in 1957’s PATHS OF GLORY suggested that he had the chops to successfully take on a big, old-fashioned Hollywood epic.

For all intents and purposes, he proved his bonafides and delivered a successful, Oscar-winning picture in the form of 1960’s SPARTACUS. The success of the film undoubtedly boosted Kubrick’s reputation and invaluably helped in solidifying the course of his career—but not in the way we might expect.

The seed of SPARTACUS was planted when screen icon Kirk Douglas lost the title role to Charlton Heston in William Wyler’s BEN-HUR (1959). The blow to his ego compelled Douglas to set up his own project to rival Wyler’s, one that would focus on the classic tale of a slave revolt led by slave-turned-gladiator Spartacus.

He would produce the film through his own production company and take the title role for his own. His choice for screenwriter proved highly controversial—blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who by this point had been living in exile from the studio system after his outing as a Communist sympathizer during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare hearings, sustaining himself by writing under a series of pseudonyms.

Douglas hoped to deal a fatal blow to the integrity of the anti-Communist movement by allowing Trumbo to use his real name, proving himself every bit as virtuous and idealistic as the screen heroes he regularly portrayed.

Trumbo and Douglas envisioned the biblical-era story of SPARTACUS as an allegory for modern-day concerns like the Civil Rights Movement and the McCarthy hearings (best epitomized during the film’s iconic “I Am Spartacus!” sequence), a tactic that undoubtedly gave the film some much-needed relevancy and immediacy.

Director Anthony Mann was originally hired to direct SPARTACUS, but after a week of clashing with Douglas and the film’s considerable scale, he was unceremoniously fired. Douglas remembered the fruitful, if contentious, working relationship that he had with Stanley Kubrick during the production of PATHS OF GLORY, and so he called on the young auteur to step in and save the film.

Kubrick’s subsequent realization of SPARTACUS is a peculiar albatross in his filmography, mainly because it is the only one that doesn’t feel like it bears his stamp. Admittedly, it doesn’t—for the first—and only— time in his career, Kubrick’s contract under Douglas severely limited his creative freedom and mandated the toning down of his aesthetic in favor of an old-school, Hollywood epic style.

While the film is absolutely stunning from a technical standpoint, the result of Kubrick’s muzzling is a film that lacks genuine heart and soul. SPARTACUS is set in ancient Rome during the year 70 B.C. A proud, stubborn slave named Spartacus is taken from the salt mines of Libya and sold to Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a well-known gladiatorial trainer who runs a prominent school outside the Roman capital.

Forced into Batiatus’ fleet of burgeoning gladiators, Spartacus is disgusted by the idea of killing another man for the mere entertainment of others, but his talent for fighting and bravery is undeniable. His conviction and sense of morality makes him an admired figure amongst the other gladiators, and when a revolt unexpectedly flares up inside Batiatus’ compound, Spartacus becomes the slaves’ de facto leader, tasked with delivering them to freedom.

Spartacus and his charges ride toward the sea, freeing the slaves along every town and accumulating a devoted army of their own. Simultaneously, he finds love and happiness with Varinia (Jean Simmons), a slave girl from the gladiator school.

They take each other as man and wife, and begin dreaming of a world where their child will be born free. As word of Spartacus’ exploits reach the marble halls of the Roman Senate, a ruthlessly pragmatic politician named Crassus (Laurence Olivier) draws up plans to suppress Spartacus’ slave uprising before it ever begins.

With his back to the sea and the Roman armies closing in on him from all sides, Spartacus will have to fight for not only his freedom, but for the freedom of his family and his people. At first glance, Douglas and Kubrick’s second consecutive collaboration appears to be even more fruitful than their last— Douglas’ towering performance as the proud, virtuous Spartacus is one of the best of his career, after all.

However, their collaboration in SPARTACUS quickly fell prey to a collision of egos and stubbornness. Kubrick allegedly had a fundamental issue with the fact that the Spartacus character had no compelling faults or quirks, his ire further stoked by his complete lack of creative input on the script.

Douglas’ impression of Kubrick’s artistic integrity took a substantial hit when Kubrick was quick to volunteer his name to replace Trumbo’s if the script were to run into trouble with the blacklist gatekeepers. This war of opinions between the two men festered throughout the long, arduous shoot, ultimately ruining their working relationship, if not their friendship, for good.

Kubrick had no fear of spurning his collaborators for what he perceived as the greater good of the project, but in the case of Douglas—the man who had almost single-handedly turned Kubrick from a nobody into a major Hollywood director—perhaps Kubrick went too far. It’s a miracle that the film turned out as cohesive and confident as it did.

Kubrick’s collaboration with the rest of the cast was not as dramatic, thankfully. Master thespian Laurence Olivier plays the primary antagonist, Crassus, with a cool, smoldering demeanor. In the infamous “snails or oysters” deleted scene, Crassus is revealed to be a bisexual—perhaps one of the earliest instances of such a character in cinematic history.

Jean Simmons plays Spartacus’ love interest, Varinia, with a maternal, feminine air that’s perhaps a little too glamorous for a slave (but effective all the same). Rounding out the cast is Charles Laughton as the portly senator Gracchus, John Gavin as a young Julius Caesar, and Tony Curtis as Spartacus’ best male friend and fellow slave, Antoninus.

Last but not least, there’s Peter Ustinov as Batiatus— the slave trainer and unexpected benefactor in Spartacus’ quest— whose sweaty, breathy performance earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. As it stands, Ustinov would be the only actor to win the gold statue for performing in a Kubrick film—a fact that must have incensed Douglas to no end judging by the ambition that compelled him to make the film in the first place.

As befitting a grand Hollywood epic, SPARTACUS’ cinematography is sweeping and colorful. One might even mistake it for a David Lean film, which is ironic considering that Lean was initially approached to direct and turned down the opportunity.

The cinematographer, Russell Metty, was already in place when Kubrick came aboard, and the two men clashed almost instantly. Reportedly, Metty was infuriated by Kubrick’s demanding pursuit of visual perfection and lack of regard for the cinematographer’s creative input.

As a result, Kubrick personally shot most of the film himself, his brilliance with light and composition earning SPARTACUS an Oscar for Best Cinematography—ironically, it was Metty who took home the gold statue on awards night instead of Kubrick. Shooting for the first time in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Kubrick (and Metty) use every available grain of the Technicolor 35mm frame to render a lush, expensive-looking image.

Kubrick’s first feature in color employs a copious amount of sweep crane and dolly shots to sell the film’s scale, but it doesn’t contain the same kind of alluring energy that similar shots have in his other, more personal work.

Indeed, the film appears to be the work of another director entirely. Many of Kubrick’s thematic explorations that have made his other works so rich and creatively potent are mostly discarded here in favor of a straightforward, un-ironic and earnest narrative.

Like the short THE SEAFARERS (1953) before it, SPARTACUS sees Kubrick working mainly as a director for hire, with little control over the script or the production. The film’s violent aspects allow Kubrick to indulge in his visual meditations of man’s inhumanity to man in the form of fighting to the death for sporting and entertainment’s sake.

Working solidly within the “swords and sandals” epic genre, Kubrick nonetheless manages to subvert it in the film’s climax, which sees Spartacus and Antoninus fighting to kill each other—not for the entertainment of others, however, but so as to save the other from an even-worse fate on the cross.

SPARTACUS was a monster success when it released, easily becoming Universal’s biggest moneymaker in history until it was dethroned by 1970’s AIRPORT. It received widespread critical praise and won four Oscars, but more importantly, it made history when Trumbo’s employment effectively ended the Blacklist and prominent politicians (including President John F. Kennedy) disregarded the cries of anti-Communist protesters as they stepped inside the theatre.

Despite the film’s success, Kubrick personally disowned the film (obviously to not as far a degree as he did with his first feature, FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)). However, SPARTACUS marks a crucial turning point in Kubrick’s development as an artist—whether he acknowledged it or not.

Had he been happy with the final product and his overall shooting experience, Kubrick quite easily could have made a career of making supersized epics and become a David Lean-type for a new generation of filmmakers. Instead, his need for directorial control—a need that trumped cooperation or compromise—would lead him down a very different path.

SPARTACUS marked the end of Kubrick’s “Old Hollywood” phase of conventional filmmaking techniques, with his disappointing experience on the film causing his attention to gaze towards the wave of experimental art films trickling out of Europe—films that would revolutionize Hollywood and place Kubrick himself at the cutting edge of an evolving art form.


LOLITA (1962)

The exhausting production experience of 1960’s SPARTACUS left its young director, Stanley Kubrick, in a state of profound disenchantment. He found that he could not peacefully work within the rigid demands and expectations of the American studio system, which understandably poses a fundamental problem to an artist who simultaneously values complete control while aspiring to direct large-scale Hollywood films.

After some deep reflection, Kubrick found that the answer to his malaise didn’t lie in his native United States whatsoever—it laid across the Atlantic in Europe, where a new wave of filmmakers were enjoying total artistic autonomy and creative freedom and, as a result, creating radical, groundbreaking films.

In looking for his next project, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris settled on Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel “Lolita”, about a man’s torrid relationship with a barely-teenage girl. They hired Nabokov himself to adapt the novel into a screenplay, and set up their production camp in England, far from the watchful eye of the American studio system.

As Kubrick’s first outright stab at the comedy genre, LOLITA (1962) is laced with the kind of cheeky black humor that only a deviously mischievous man such as Kubrick could dream up. After the grandiosity of SPARTACUS’ production, Kubrick used LOLITA to scale down his aesthetic for a back-to-basics approach.

In tackling such extremely sensitive subject matter, Kubrick must’ve known that he was making a controversial film, but what he couldn’t have anticipated was just how much he would have to compromise his vision to even get it released. Whereas other directors might falter or back down in the face of controversy, Kubrick doubled down in his adaption of lurid LOLITA, thus establishing his reputation as one of the boldest, most controversial voices in cinema.

Though filmed entirely in England, LOLITA is set in the fictional town of Ramsdale, located somewhere within the state of New Hampshire. A sophisticated, well-read college professor named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) has just moved to town, having taken a teaching position at the local college.

He rents a little room in the upstairs of a home owned by one Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters), an eccentric middle-aged widow. Almost immediately, Humbert finds himself intensely attracted to Charlotte’s nubile teenage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). As he settles into his new home, he dances around the line of appropriateness with Lolita, who’s aware enough of her effect on men to use it to her advantage and tease Humbert’s yearnings.

To keep Charlotte’s suspicions at bay, Humbert marries her and takes Lolita as his stepdaughter—but it’s only a matter of time until Charlotte discovers Humbert’s true feelings about her daughter and, in her grief, throws herself headlong into the path of an oncoming car.

Humbert, who is now perhaps the happiest widower there ever was, sets off with Lolita on a cross-country road trip to find a new town to settle in. However, even a change of scenery isn’t enough to obscure their torrid affair from the prying eyes of neighbors and friends, especially those of one man in particular—Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers), an eccentric playwright and television writer with designs of his own to secure the affections of alluring young Lolita.

LOLITA is, admittedly, stuffed with truly reprehensible characters possessing significant moral shortcomings. It’s a credit to the cast’s talents and Kubrick’s eye for performance that they end up coming across as undeniably charismatic. James Mason confidently takes on the dangerous, potentially career-ending role of Professor Humbert Humbert.

His urbane, sophisticated sensibilities appeal to the audience in a reassuring, paternal fashion, making it easier to forgive his monstrous qualities while simultaneously making us complicit in them. Shelly Winters is inspired casting as the widow Charlotte Haze, a vain aging beauty who is so desperate for love and companionship that she flaunts her insecurities in loud, tacky clothing.

Sue Lyon imbues the titular role of Lolita with a bored, sultry affection and wisdom beyond her years. With her calculated manipulation of Humbert’s emotions, she’s every bit as deceitful and mischievous as her elders— if not more so. Legendary character actor Peter Sellers, who pioneered the idea of disguising oneself in multiple personas in a single project, plays avant-garde playwright Clare Quilty with a pretentious, anxious affection.

An aristocratic hedonist, Quilty reflects the shifting mores and liberal attitudes that shaped the counterculture of the 1960’s. Sellers is easily the most entertaining member of the cast, indulging in his love of disguise by having Quilty orchestrate various personas (most notably the proto-Dr. Strangelove German psychologist, Dr. Zempf) in a bid to steal Lolita out from under Humbert’s nose.

Sellers’ irreverent performance extends all the way to his peculiar dialect and manner of speech, which he reportedly modeled after Kubrick’s own.  Shot by cinematographer Oswald Morris, LOLITA marks Kubrick’s return to the black and white 35mm film format.

Oswald and Kubrick enrich the image with a high contrast, polished look that belies the film’s independent pedigree. While the visual presentation itself is relatively minimalist and sedate, Kubrick’s impeccable eye for composition graces his composition with compelling depth and meaning.

The camerawork is low key and subtle, favoring graceful dolly and crane movements that don’t call attention to their inherent complexity. For instance, Kubrick built the Haze house set in such a way that he could dolly and crane through floors and walls to establish a sense of spatial continuity.

This technique can be seen in many modern films, especially in those of Kubrick acolyte David Fincher, who used his 2002 feature PANIC ROOMto build upon Kubrick’s foundations with similar, yet highly stylized and exaggerated, movements.

Funnily enough, this is not the only cue that Fincher took from LOLITA—the film’s poster tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” would be repurposed by Fincher for the 21st century in the advertising for THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).

Kubrick completes the tone of his acerbic, pitch-black comedy by incorporating the music of Nelson Riddle, who trivializes (in a good way) the characters’ sordid actions with a lighthearted, bouncy jazz score that also incorporates a playful “cha-cha-cha” samba theme for Lolita—an apt musical reflection of Lolita’s dual nature as innocent and seductress.

The film’s winking tone is absolutely a product of its time—a necessity of its making under the oppressively restrictive Hays Code and the stern, watchful eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency. Even if the film were to be made again today, freed from the constraints that Kubrick personally felt neutered his vision, it could be argued that LOLITA wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

The playful skirting around of abject indecency with thinly-veiled double entendres and innuendo is directly responsible for LOLITA’s charm, and allows Kubrick to explore complicated sexual ideas from a space of relative social safety.

By highlighting sexual deviancy and quirkiness within otherwise well-adjusted people, LOLITA predicts the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s, incorporating barely-disguised references to swingers and pornography (it’s revealed toward the end that Quilty wanted Lolita to shoot an “art film”). At other times, Kubrick doesn’t even bother to hide the innuendo—the name of the summer camp that Lolita attends is Camp Climax, for god’s sake.

LOLITA affords ample opportunity for Kubrick to explore other thematic and aesthetic fascinations. His love for one-point-perspective images results in a recurring shot that follows Humbert’s car as it drives away from us en route to Quilty’s house, full of purposeful malice.

The climactic murder of Quilty is staged in an artful manner that stays consistent with Kubrick’s artful depictions of violence. Instead of directly showing Humbert shoot Quilty to death, Kubrick stages their actions so that Quilty first crawls behind the meager cover of a painting depicting Victorian-era woman, with the image bullet tearing a hole in her cheek and presumably continuing along its trajectory into Quilty’s body. 

LOLITA’s baroque imagery, evident in both the Victorian portrait as well as the opulent mansion that surrounds it, calls to mind similar occurrences throughout Kubrick’s career—notably BARRY LYNDON (1975) and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Additionally, his usual depiction of the bourgeoisie—aristocrats waltzing in ballrooms to classical music—receives a modern American twist in LOLITA in the form of a high school dance.

Kubrick only made two outright comedies in his career—LOLITA and its 1964 follow-up, DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB—and its worth noting that both films are decidedly dark in their comic sensibilities.

As an artist, Kubrick valued pitch-black irony, and both LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE are absolutely dripping with them. Made close together, chronologically speaking, and under similar conditions, LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE exist as companion pieces, complementary to each other in surprising ways.

Kubrick’s artistic explorations throughout his career can be charted according to the opposing poles of sex and violence. LOLITA is ostensibly a film about sex, the ultimate act of creation, whereas DR. STRANGELOVE is a film about war, the ultimate act of destruction.

Their shared comic affections and visual style bind them together, giving us perhaps the most straightforward insight into Kubrick’s artistic profile before he would obscure it with the expressionistic, experimental works of his later career.

LOLITA found commercial and critical success when it was released in 1962, but more importantly it marked the beginning of Kubrick’s reputation as an auteur provocateur and subverter of genre. His expatriation to England gave him an artistic freedom and expanded worldview that he never could have had on American shores.

He was free to work as he saw fit, a development that allowed him to create one uncompromising masterpiece after the other.


DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)

The second half of the twentieth century was marked by a profound existential malaise brought about by the rise of the atomic bomb and its ability to throw the world into a nuclear holocaust at the drop of a hat. The Cold War transcended conventional notions of armed conflict and became a permanent state of tension and caution where the slightest miscommunication could set off the end of the world as we knew it.

When faced with such a morbid, seemingly hopeless existence, what can one do but simply laugh at the absurdity of it all? Enter director Stanly Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, released during the height of nuclear escalation in 1964 and arguably one of the most defining films of the twentieth century.

After finishing 1962’s cheeky sex comedy, LOLITA, Kubrick grew fascinated with the idea of mankind’s demise by our own hands through nuclear warfare. Ever the dutiful researcher, Kubrick read everything he could find on the subject and found a story he wanted to tell in Peter George’s cautionary thriller novel, “Red Alert”.

In securing the film rights, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris initially planned to create a straight adaption in the thriller genre. However, Harris was at this time beginning to aspire to a directing career of his own, and he amicably ended his partnership with Kubrick during preproduction.

Left to his own devices, Kubrick started toying with the idea of transforming the film into a black comedy, finding that the acknowledgement of the utter absurdity inherent in voluntary nuclear warfare actually enhanced the effectiveness of his message.

Towards this end, Kubrick brought in noted playwright Terry Southern to fashion his script into satire— in the process, creating the eccentric titular character of Dr. Strangelove and giving the film its absurdly long name. Half a century after the film’s release, DR. STRANGELOVE still holds it own as a relevant and entertaining piece of pop culture and makes a case as Kubrick’s first true masterpiece.

DR. STRANGELOVE details an utterly absurd—but no less plausible—scenario in which mankind might meet its end. At a nondescript Air Force base, General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone rogue and ordered a full-scale nuclear strike on Russia without authorization from his superiors or the President.

A paranoid conspiracy theorist, Ripper’s motivation for the strike is crystal clear only to him— the Communists are out to steal our “precious bodily fluids” and will most certainly gain supremacy through them if they aren’t totally destroyed immediately.

He barricades himself in his office with a British RAF Captain named Mandrake (Peter Sellers), who attempts to avert crisis by tricking the stubborn Ripper into telling him the recall codes. Meanwhile, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) tries to regain control and diffuse the situation in the War Room.

His efforts are derailed by the over-aggressive warmongering of General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) as well as the wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more) who can’t quite shake his old Nazi convictions about genetic purity and welcomes the nuclear holocaust as an opportunity to create a new master race underground via prestigious breeding with sexually desirable and genetically perfect women.

As the masters of the universe seek to avert Armageddon on the ground, a lone B-52 manned by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) takes a direct hit from an incoming Russian missile, which damages their communications systems.

Unable to receive the recall commands from the ground, Major Kong and his crew of bombardiers fly on into the heart of Russia to deliver their nuclear payload—a mission that Pickens will personally see to its completion. Kubrick’s message is clear—the slightest miscommunication can spell our doom, and in the case of DR. STRANGELOVE, that miscommunication results in a comedy of disastrous proportions.

DR. STRANGELOVE boasts one of the most eclectic and talented casts to ever assemble under Kubrick’s supervision. Peter Sellers headlines the film in multiple roles, a development caused by studio mandate. Columbia Pictures—rightly or wrongly— attributed the success of LOLITA to Seller playing multiple roles, and decreed Sellers do the same in DR. STRANGELOVEas a contingent of their financing the film.

Sellers arguably turns in the best work of his career here, giving Captain Mandrake the requisite fussy airs of a British serviceman while modeling his President Merkin Muffley off the self-serious affectations of Presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson, and Dr. Strangelove off of the grand traditions of German Expressionist cinema (and in the process creating one of the most indelible and unique characters in film history).

Sellers hits it out of the park with every character he plays in DR. STRANGELOVE, and while he would never collaborate again with Kubrick, his work in the film serves as a fitting sendoff to their fruitful partnership.

To fill out the rest of his mostly-male ensemble, Kubrick turned to actors both old and new. After their successful collaboration in 1956’s THE KILLING, Kubrick was able to lead Sterling Hayden out of retirement to play General Jack Ripper, an all-around alpha male typical of the midcentury military-industrial complex.

Venerated character actor George C. Scott plays the ornery, blustering role of General Buck Turgidson. Turgidson has such a personal axe to grind against the Russians that he’s practically eager to initiate a nuclear war, dismissing the massive American casualties such an act would create as a small price to pay for ensuring his beloved country’s dominance.

The role of Major Kong was originally supposed to be also played by Sellers, but was ultimately filled by American actor Slim Pickens. Pickens essentially appears here as he was in real life—a flamboyant Texan and blindly loyal straight shooter. James Earl Jones also appears in the small role of Lt. Zogg, one of Kong’s bombardiers and the only man on the B-52 to question the validity of their command.

Kubrick’s films are normally praised more for their technical proficiency than their acting, but DR. STRANGELOVE’s cast more than holds it own against Kubrick’s considerable visual flair, bringing it all home with a manic energy unparalleled in even most screwball comedies.

The cinematography of DR. STRANGELOVE finds Kubrick in a transitory phase of his visual style. His aesthetic arguably serves as a bridge between the polished glamor of Old Hollywood filmmaking and the rough edges of the New Wave, withDR. STRANGELOVE in a sense becoming a bridge inside of that bridge.

While Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shoot DR. STRANGELOVE on black and white 35mm film and give it a relatively straightforward, polished presentation, the maverick director peppers the film with experimental, cutting edge touches— like rack zooms that highlight information inside the B-52 plane, or the chaotic, handheld cinema verite rendering of the Air Force base battle (which predated the style popularized by Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN by nearly thirty four years).

When working inside a studio set environment, Kubrick favors high contrast, low-key lighting and compositions that favor depth and minimal camera movement.  The striking visual presentation, however, owes less to the cinematography and more to the iconic set design by legendary production designer Ken Adam.

Famous for his larger-than-life supervillain lair sets on the JAMES BOND series, Adam proves to be an inspired choice to realize Kubrick’s outsized vision of absurd grandiosity. He echoes Kubrick’s propensity for depth, designing hard, angular sets like The War Room and General Ripper’s office with strong lines that converge onto a singular point.

The War Room in particular is an unassailable icon of set design, perfectly reinforcing the characters’ delusions of grandeur and in the process becoming one of the most recognizable sets in cinematic history. The idea of DR. STRANGELOVE as a transitory film in Kubrick’s filmography also extends to his treatment of music.

While Laurie Johnson is credited as the film’s composer, the majority of the music stems from either pre-recorded material or adaptations of preexisting material. What original score appears does so mainly during the B-52 bomber sequences, but even then it is an appropriation of preexisting material—the military hymn “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, rendered with snare drums, trumpets, and men humming in low unison that suggest the steady, unstoppable encroach of war.

Kubrick’s mischievous nature also results in bookending DR. STRANGELOVE with a pair of cheeky and cheery pop songs that make ironic counterpoints to the images they accompany.

An instrumental cover of “Try A Little Tenderness” opens the film under stock footage of jet fighters refueling in mid-air, further emphasizing the sexualized nature of the process while also foreshadowing one of the film’s key themes (sex as a fundamental motivator behind conflict).

Kubrick then closes DR. STRANGELOVE with the mother of all showstoppers—a cataclysmic nuclear war (again realized using stock footage of nuclear tests) set to Vera Lynn’s romantic ballad “We’ll Meet Again”. Only a sense of humor as perverse as Kubrick’s could’ve thought of this juxtaposition of sound and image, and he found it so effective that he would continue to break new ground with this technique for decades to come.

While Kubrick never really established a concrete visual style for himself like, say, David Fincher or Wes Anderson, he nonetheless managed to make his stamp on his work using recurring themes, camera techniques, and an overbearing sense of dark irony.

In that regard, DR. STRANGELOVE is the first point in Kubrick’s filmography where everything coalesces into what is unmistakably “a Kubrick film”. Certain storytelling techniques—the omniscient narrator speaking in the third person, or favoring one-point perspectives in his compositions—are present throughout DR. STRANGELOVE and point to Kubrick’s decidedly unique worldview.

However, it’s in the exploration of the duality of sex and violence that the director’s mark is made apparent. The film explores the idea of violence as a response that ultimately stems from sexual frustration. All the characters in DR. STRANGELOVE are sexually frustrated in one fashion or another—General Ripper equates the male orgasm in intercourse with losing his “essence” and denies his “precious bodily fluids” to those who seek it.

General Buck Turgidson is caught in a distracting, schoolboy-esque affair with his secretary. Dr. Strangelove is obsessed with the morbid idea of playing a central role in repopulating the earth with a bevy of beautiful women in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Even the pilots in the B-52 are seen ogling Playboy centerfolds as they fly towards their target.

The characters’ sexual dysfunction bleeds over into their professional lives as leaders of the free world, and the relatively easy access to nukes make for quick, convenient, and effective bluffs when their fragile egos are threatened.

Kubrick was well known for his brilliance at playing chess, and he draws the story of DR. STRANGELOVE as a game of chess writ large where we are the pawns, beholden to the whims of our kings and knights who are too involved in their petty affairs to realize that they are actually court jesters instead.

DR. STRANGELOVE was originally supposed to debut to test audiences on a very fateful day: November 22nd, 1963— the day that President John F. Kenney was assassinated in Dallas. Naturally, this had a profound effect on such a politically charged film.

The biggest casualty was Kubrick’s original ending, which would’ve seen an epic pie fight break out in the War Room and George C. Scott exclaiming that “The President has been struck down in his prime!” after Seller’s President Muffley took a pie to the face.

The film was also delayed until January of 1964, where it was released to critical and commercial acclaim, as well as a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. As the last black and white film that Kubrick ever made, DR. STRANGELOVE’s importance—not just to cinema but to twentieth century history— cannot be overstated.

The Library of Congress presumably felt the same way, selecting it as one of the first films to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. No other film encapsulates the hopeless absurdity of the Cold War as perfectly as DR. STRANGELOVE, and as long as nuclear weapons continue to exist— squirreled away by the hundreds in hidden silos and ready to launch at the push of a button—Kubrick’s blackly comic, cautionary masterpiece will remain as relevant and important as ever.


2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

A few days ago we celebrated the forty-fifth anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, an event that captured the imagination of the entire world and heralded the arrival of a Space Age that, regrettably, has yet to fully materialize.

We haven’t been back to the moon since 1972, and our collective dream of becoming a spacefaring civilization living amongst the heavens has gone essentially unrealized—bogged down firmly by the mud of warfare, urgent domestic issues, shuttle disasters, and budgetary neglect.

The dream of space is a dream delayed, a fact that was made painfully apparent at the dawning of the twenty first century. The year 2001 came and went, but we were nowhere near living on giant, spinning space stations and flying on commercialized commuter spaceships, let alone undertaking missions to Jupiter and beyond.

All of these things were promised to us in a film released the year before we stepped foot on the moon for real and discovered that it was, in fact, not made of cheese.  That film was director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), and its matter-of-fact, realistic (yet no less romantic) depiction of our spacefaring future captivated the imagination of millions.

It became one of the most influential films of all time, and even today it remains a benchmark of craft and design. It is a cultural touchstone, its enigmatic storyline and mysteries sparking an endless debate about our place among the cosmos in addition to smaller (but no less important) matters like the development of artificial intelligence.

Kubrick himself was fascinated by these ideas as well as the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and began a series of discussions with noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in the mid-1960’s. Their conversations gave way to serious collaboration, with Clarke offering up several of his novels and short stories as source material for Kubrick to adapt.

Kubrick aspired to make, in his words, the “proverbial good science fiction film”, and fashioned his narrative from a combination of Clarke’s short stories, arranging them into an examination of mankind’s evolution as a process aided by extraterrestrial intelligence.

In making 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kubrick acted as his own producer, and thus had no one that would object to his dropping of traditional story structures and dialogue conventions while rendering the film instead as an enigmatic audiovisual experience.

The financial and critical success of Kubrick’s previous film, DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), gave the visionary director a significant amount of momentum and leeway in getting his follow-up off the ground, and by the following year he was in back in England (where he had since relocated with his family full-time), rolling camera on the film that would cement his legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY unfolds against the sprawling expanse of space, but at its core, tells a very concentrated story about mankind’s evolution and taking our rightful place amongst other intelligent civilizations in the stars.

Kubrick begins his examination with The Dawn Of Man— the point in which humanity branched off from the line of apes to become the dominant species on earth. Their evolution is kickstarted by the discovery of a massive black obelisk, which bestows superior intellect upon them.

Their rapid development is charted quickly and wordlessly— it’s not long until they are walking on their hind legs, and the first use of tools allows the apes to transcend their scavenging ways while empowering them with the means to create their own meals.

When a rival group of apes tries to push in on their territory, the newly-evolved apes turn their tools into weapons, and ensure their dominance through violence and murder. Kubrick then cuts to the year 2001, where space travel is commonplace and a similar black obelisk has been found buried underneath the moon’s surface.

After laying inert for millions of years, it emits a single piercing radio wave out towards Jupiter before falling silent once again.  Excited by the first indisputable evidence of intelligent life outside the Earth, a research mission is organized and sent to Jupiter to see what might be waiting for us there.

Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) heads the five-man mission, assisted by his deputy Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) while the remaining three men hibernate in cryosleep. The ship is guided by a state-of-the-art, artificially intelligent computer named HAL 9000.

HAL 9000 is essentially self-aware, and is treated like a sixth member of the crew by the humans until the possibility of a flaw in its computations is suspected. The HAL 9000 series of computers were supposed to be perfect and utterly incapable of error, so the Jupiter mission’s HAL was given complete control of every single system on the ship.

Naturally, even the smallest of computational errors on HAL’s part could mean that the entire mission might be compromised. When Bowman and Poole attempt to re-assert manual control of the ship and shut HAL down, the self-aware computer uses the ship itself as a weapon against the humans in a defensive bid to keep itself operational.

What neither Bowman or the all-knowing HAL 9000 can predict is that they are on a crash course with the next stage of human evolution, a stage that lies outside the space-time continuum and within a different dimension entirely.

Kubrick’s films have always been noted more for their craft and style than their cast, and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY reinforces that notion almost to an extreme, scaling back the characterization to the barest of minimums. Dialogue is almost nonexistent, with the first spoken line not occurring until we’re already twenty-five minutes in.

What little dialogue there is serves either as exposition or as a means to move the story along in the simplest of strokes—anything else is banal and ordinary, emphasizing Kubrick’s thesis that space travel would be so commonplace by the year 2001 that any novelties would have worn off.

This idea is personified in the character of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), who is introduced to us early in the film as a travelling businessman en route to the moon, his lack of wonder at the whole enterprise suggesting he’s made this trip several times before.

He’s more attached to his life back home on earth, at one point even making a video call to his daughter on her birthday (played by Kubrick’s own daughter, Vivian). Keir Dullea plays the Jupiter mission commander Dr. Dave Bowman, who can be considered the film’s conventional protagonist.

However, his personality is downplayed considerably, achieving a blank, emotionless slate that tells us absolutely nothing about who he is as a person. The same can be said for the Gary Lockwood’s slightly more-aggressive deputy, Dr. Frank Poole.

Since this is a Kubrick film, we should know by know that his story choices will always skew towards what’s most poetically ironic. In that respect, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a stroke of genius in its depiction of the self-aware, artificially intelligent supercomputer HAL 9000.

Voiced by Douglas Rain and represented only by a red light inside of a large glass lens, HAL 9000 is perhaps the most emotional, relatable character in the entire film, a strange claim considering that as a computer it can’t physically emote.

HAL 9000’s omniscience gives way to something resembling neuroses, and its ability to acknowledge its own existence leads to it actively protecting said existence at any cost. One would be hard pressed to find a villain in cinematic history that’s more fundamentally chilling and iconic than HAL 9000.

The sequence where HAL 9000 begs in its characteristic monotone for Dr. Bowman to not disconnect it is especially haunting, simply because its lack of a physical body renders it ultimately unable to defend itself against Dr. Bowman’s particularly monstrous determination.

The visual style of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY marks a radical shift in Kubrick’s aesthetic, not the least notable aspect of which is the director’s return to glorious color after 1960’s SPARTACUS. Shot by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth in the staggeringly wide 2.20:1 Super Panavision aspect ratio, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a film that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible.

My first experience with the film was on a regular consumer television, but shortly after I moved to Los Angeles, I caught a screening of a 70mm film print at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre and the experience was nothing less than a revelation.

Kubrick’s panoramic vistas are rendered in large swaths of vibrant, searing color (or, alternatively, inky blotches of black). He makes excellent use of the color red in particular, using it as a recurring visual motif to distinguish man from the colorless voids of space and technology.

Red, as we all know, is the color of blood—the essence of life, so to speak. In the film, it is a color that belongs firmly in the domain of the humans—it is the color of Bowman’s spacesuit, for instance, as well as the interior of the reconnaissance pods—the only part of the ship safe from the watchful eyes and ears of HAL 9000.

However, as HAL 9000 becomes more human-like in its expression of concern, the balance of red’s ownership tilts decidedly in the computer’s favor. It starts off with only the little red right in its “eye”, but much like the inside of the human body, Kubrick eventually reveals that HAL 9000’s interior memory mainframe is literally drenched in red.

Kubrick’s camerawork in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY echoes HAL 9000’s supposed infallibility in its compositional precision, deliberately set back from its subjects so that it may observe the action in a cold, clinical manner devoid of subjectivity.

Kubrick’s frame makes excellent use of depth, frequently incorporating one-point perspective compositions whose lines all converge towards a singular point in the distance. The pacing is glacial—at times unbearably so—but it also reinforces the endlessly patient, calculating nature of its antagonist.

Despite the plodding nature of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s storytelling, Kubrick and editor Ray Lovejoy still infuse it with punches of New Wave expressionism, like jarring jump cuts that radically disrupt the visual continuity.

The most famous example of this is perhaps the most famous jump cut of all time, where Kubrick jumps forward four million years within a single frame by cross cutting from a bone in the air to a similarly-shaped satellite suspended in orbit above the Earth. Nearly fifty years after the film’s release, this cut in particular is still breathtaking in its sheer audacity.

Kubrick’s inventiveness extends to other aspects of the film, such as sound design. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was groundbreaking in its realistic depiction of the sonic aspects of space travel. Most science fiction films tend to value entertainment over realism, and thus blatantly disregard the well-known fact that space is a vacuum, and sound needs air in order to travel and be heard.

Recent films like Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY (2013) have re-introduced us to the idea of the silent cosmos, but Kubrick’s realistic treatment of the phenomena in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY blazed the trail in using the lack of sound as an asset. Long stretches of the film are just simply the sounds of the astronauts’ breath inside their own helmets, and they are just as tense and exciting, if not more so, than they would be if accompanied by a richer soundtrack.

Kubrick approached the film’s visual effects from a similar standpoint. Whereas CGI-laden films from a few years ago now look dated and fake to our eyes, the effects of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY hold up, even looking arguably more realistic than the best that modern CGI can offer.

Kubrick was praised throughout his lifetime as not just a gifted storyteller, but also as a pioneer in filmmaking technology. His inherent knowledge of the film medium gave him the confidence to create 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s striking effects in-camera, fully rendered onto the original negative so as to preserve the highest image quality.

Despite having a team of visual effects artists at his disposal, it was Kubrick himself who accepted the film’s sole Academy Award win (out of thirteen nominations) for its visual effects. The irony of the only Oscar Kubick ever won being the result of work he couldn’t fully claim as his own surely must not been lost on the master filmmaker.

As an artist who demanded complete control over his projects, Kubrick prized shooting his films in the manageable isolation of studio sets. This also allowed Kubrick to impose his own design aesthetic on the sets themselves. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY must have been a very appealing project to Kubrick in that the demands of the story dictated shooting entirely on soundstages.

After all, it’s not like they could exactly go up into space and shoot “on location”. This, combined with the need to create the various miscellanea of a futuristic existence results in what is perhaps one of the most meticulously designed films ever made.

I’m not exaggerating—Kubrick even placed detailed instructions on how to use the space station’s toilet on the front of the bathroom door even though it served absolutely no story purpose. Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, and Anthony Masters share the Production Designer credit under Kubrick’s vision, creating a distinctly-1960’s vision of the future.

Kubrick and his designers incorporate banks of pure white light into their sets as a recurring motif throughout the film, such as the walls of the briefing room on the moon, the floor of Bowman’s baroque-style apartment suite in the “stargate” sequence, and the entire interior of the earth-orbiting space station.

This has the effect of creating a cold, even light that eliminates all shadows and allows Kubrick to objectively examine his subjects like they were exhibits in a museum. The technology on display in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is remarkably prescient.

While full-scale space travel is not yet a reality, we do have several things (albeit about thirteen years late) that the movie predicted would be commonplace by the dawn of the twenty first century: portable computer tablets (iPads) and video calls (Facetime), for instance.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find the research and development facilities at Apple looking like they were straight out of this film. If anything, it just proves how highly influential 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY continues to be.

Of course, any projection as far into the future as 1968-era Kubrick made is bound to have missed a few marks. Kubrick rather accurately predicted that space travel in the twenty first century would give way to private corporations and commerce rather than remaining strictly government or military endeavors.

While this is now in the infancy of becoming a reality thanks to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, Kubrick erroneously (yet logically) predicts that major airlines would have made the natural expansion into space—Dr. Floyd is seen flying to the moon in a Pan-Am branded spacecraft.

Since Pan-Am wouldn’t last as an operating company long enough to even see the year 2001, it’s easy to look back on Kubrick’s inclusion and laugh. However, that would be losing sight of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s design as a valid historical document—an expression of our dreams and hopes for the future during the romantic era of space flight.

Given that we have been firmly grounded here on Earth ever since, that aspect becomes more poignant than ever. A dream unrealized.  Kubrick’s reputation as a fuser of indelible image and inspired music really begins in earnest with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Whereas his previous films might have augmented an original score with adaptations of existing classical material, here Kubrick eschews a composer and a conventional score entirely. However, that was not always the intent.

Kubrick commissioned an original score from his SPARTACUS composer Alex North, but quickly dumped it when it didn’t meet with his satisfaction. Inspired perhaps by the graceful pirouetting motions of the space station, Kubrick yet again made film history by pairing the sequence introducing mankind’s technological advancements in the year 2001 to the dizzying waltz of Johan Strauss II’s “Blue Danube”.

This pairing had such a profound impact on our collective social psyche that I defy you to find someone who doesn’t think of spinning space stations when they hear it. Similarly, Kubrick uses Richard Strauss’ bombastic classical piece “Also sprach Zarathustra” throughout the film to symbolize the wonder of mankind’s evolution.

We hear it when the apes realize that bones make great tools, and we hear it again when Bowman re-enters our dimension and is reborn as a star child. Much like “Blue Danube”, this piece is also ingrained into us and paired with visions of space and the cosmos.

In addition to using classical music from romantic, Victorian eras, Kubrick turns to compositions from modern maestros like Gyorgy Ligeti, the man behind a fundamentally unnerving suite of cues that accompanies the terrifying appearances of the black obelisk.

Primal and dissonant, the piece features a building chorus of men’s voices seemingly scrambling over each other in a bid to escape some unseen evil emanating from the bowels of the earth. It’s the kind of music cue that makes one’s skin crawl, so of course Kubrick uses it as his beginning musical overture, filling the screen with an impenetrable blackness for several minutes before the story begins in earnest.

Just as radically as Kubrick deviates from the straightforward visual style of his previous films in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, so too does he loyally adhere to the same set of themes that have fascinated him as an artist. He uses the film’s storyline about evolution as a conduit into further explorations of violence, essentially stating that it is a natural byproduct of the evolutionary process.

If evolution can be described as “survival of the fittest”, then it stands to reason that those who can assert dominance over the ecosystem will prosper—and the only way to assert said dominance is by force. The apes’ discovery of tools allowed them to take charge of their own development, but it was only a short matter of time until they perverted the tool’s original purpose for warfare.

Mankind built its civilizations on the foundations of violence and war, and as such, it is an inextricable component of our humanity.  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY filters its ideas about personhood and evolution through the lens of technology, another major theme in Kubrick’s body of work.

The character of HAL 9000 represents the countless ethical conundrums surrounding the concept of artificial intelligence, but most importantly raises the question: “at what point does an artificial intelligence achieve personhood?”.

The ship’s human inhabitants view HAL 9000 as another crewmate, and they entrust their lives to its stewardship. We know that the computer is as intelligent—if not more so—than humans because Kubrick shows it winning a game of chess against Dr. Bowman (a none-too-subtle nod towards Kubrick’s own dominance at the game).

As intelligent as it may be, HAL 9000 is still not a human, and cannot emote—yet it shows increasing signs of paranoia and neuroses as trouble mounts during the mission. It stands to reason that a self-aware entity would fight to defend its own existence, which the story of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY makes more than clear when HAL 9000 pleads with Bowman before being shut down.

Throughout history, man has fashioned technology in service to its needs, but it’s the tipping point in which technology itself emerges as a dominant species that captivates Kubrick’s interest. Just as we now bear little resemblance to the apes from which we descended, it stands to reason that the next link in the chain of evolution will appear quite dissimilar to humankind. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY raises many questions, but it is here that its core line of questioning becomes clear—will humanity’s successor come in the form of cold machines, or does our destiny instead lie out in the vast expanse of the cosmos?

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY also makes potent use of several of Kubrick’s signature storytelling conceits as a way to imprint his stamp despite the radical tonal departure from his previous work. While Kubrick formally dispenses with the omniscient voiceover narration that peppered throughout his previous films, he essentially achieves the same purpose here with the incorporation of the all-knowing, all-seeing HAL 9000 computer.

This is also the film in which Kubrick perfects his use of one-point perspectives compositions, hypnotically luring us deeper into his world by travelling down the length of claustrophobic tunnels. An extreme version of this is evident in the infamous “stargate” sequence in which Bowman travels to another dimension entirely.

Additionally, the rendering of Bowman’s enigmatic apartment suite in the gilded style of baroque décor points to Kubrick’s fascination with the era and serves as a link to a common thread that runs through his filmography and its disparate genres and styles.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is no doubt a massively influential work, but it didn’t achieve that status overnight. The film debuted in 1968 to severely mixed critical reception. Kubrick’s intentionally obtuse storytelling frustrated countless old-school critics, but more “enlightened” critics immediately recognized the film’s brilliance and importance.

The film also had something of a slow start at the box office until it caught on as a cult hit among young adults, who would come to late-night screenings—stoned out of their gourds no less—to lose themselves in the psychedelic “stargate” sequence.

The idea of the film as a cinematic milestone began catching on in earnest when the next generation of filmmakers—the generation that brought us STAR WARS—credited 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as a key inspiration in their work. Over time, the film’s legacy has only grown stronger, and its induction into the National Film Registry in 1991 ensured its preservation for generations to come.

Perhaps his best known and most widely-viewed film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY rocketed Kubrick to the top of his field, cementing him as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Though Kubrick would not live to see the year 2001 himself, his groundbreaking work here assured that his legacy would carry on well into the twenty first century and beyond.


A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

The human race is inherently violent—one only needs to pull up CNN at any given moment to see the proof. The building blocks of society are laid on a foundation of violence—the land on which our cities sit was either taken by force or successfully defended against those who wished to take it by force.

Anger is a natural human emotion, and we can all cite a time when we wanted to inflict physical harm on another person. What matters is whether we actually follow through—a personal choice that we call “free will”, and its one of the principles that the definition of “personhood” is established upon.

So if we were to find one day that we could condition violent inclinations out of a person entirely— to the point that violent thoughts would make that person physically sick— would we consider such a development to be taking away a person’s free will, and by extension, their very humanity? It’s a potent question; one that director Stanley Kubrick tackled in brilliant fashion with his challenging, divisive 1971 masterpiece, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

After the success of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Kubrick started working earnestly on a long-gestating passion project—NAPOLEON, an epic biopic starring Jack Nicholson as the infamous French emperor.

He had spent most of the 60’s conducting an exhausting amount of research for the project, and by the time he was finished he had an elaborate notecard system that detailed Napoleon’s exact movements—one notecard for every single waking day of his life.

However, right as cameras were preparing to roll in 1969, the project fell apart, and the failure of Sergey Bondarchuk’s similarly-themed Napoleon film WATERLOO a year later killed any chances Kubrick had at reviving the project. Even today, Kubrick’s unrealized NAPOLEON project still haunts the film community as one of the greatest films never made.

Kubrick was now faced with the task of finding a new project to develop in the wake of NAPOLEON’s failure, and he turned to a book that Terry Southern had recommended to him on the set of DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)—a book he had initially dismissed as incomprehensible.

That book was Anthony Burgess’ seminal novel, “A Clockwork Orange”. Looking at it with new eyes, he was drawn to the book’s dystopian setting and its examination into the psyche of a violent young man as a byproduct of his environment.

As he had done with2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kubrick served as his own producer as well as his own screenwriter in adapting A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to the screen. The film is a curiosity within Kubrick’s body of work in that it is very faithful to its source novel, whereas Kubrick had a reputation for dramatically altering source material to fit whatever given movie he wanted to make.

This can be credited to the fact that Kubrick disregarded his own script and worked on set using the novel itself—an uncharacteristically haphazard approach for the notoriously disciplined director, but it fit with the lo-fi, improvisational nature of the shoot.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE tells the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a young man living in a dystopian future Britain with one hell of an extracurricular activity: dressing up in menacing attire by night and terrorizing the town with his gang of like-minded buddies.

They beat hobos senseless, brawl with rival gangs, and break into the homes of decent, upstanding citizens for “a bit of the old ultraviolence”. Alex and his so-called “droogs” are seemingly unstoppable—that is, until a routine nocturnal break-in goes awry and Alex murders a woman he had intended to rape.

When his gang of droogs betrays him and enables his capture by the police, Alex is thrown into prison for his heinous crime. However, instead of languishing in a jail cell for the rest of his life, he’s given the opportunity to participate in an experimental new form of aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique.

He is forced to watch several days’ worth of horrifying, gruesome footage as a way to condition him against his own violent impulses. In return for his participation, he is given an early release back out into society and hailed by the media as a cured man.

However, his transition back into society proves harder than he expected, and his inability to cope with his natural violent tendencies leaves him a broken shell of a person—and vulnerable to retribution by all those who he had previously harmed.

The story raises a salient question that cuts to the core of Kubrick’s message: Alex’s crimes were horrible yes, but by depriving him of his free will, could the government’s conditioning of his very identity be considered an even worse transgression?

Despite all the flash and theatrics, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is at its core a character study, which places a significant burden on the shoulders of young Malcolm McDowell. Under Kubrick’s steady hand, McDowell turns in a career-defining performance as Alex, the twisted, psychopathic antihero at the center of the story.

While his crimes are vile and reprehensible, it’s a testament to both Kubrick’s vision and McDowell’s boyish charms that we as an audience ultimately find him sympathetic, and—dare I say it—relatable. McDowell’s devious characterization of Alex results in one of the most influential and iconic film characters of all time—a status that still stands today judging by the cues Heath Ledger took from McDowell for his portrayal of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

McDowell isn’t the only actor in the film, but his performance towers every other cast-member to the point that one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. That’s not to say that the other cast members don’t pull their weight and help fill out Kubrick’s nightmarish, dystopian vision of the future (Patrick Magee and future Darth Vader, David Prowse, are notable standouts).

Working with cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick trades the polish and gloss of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s visuals for a decidedly lo-fi, indie aesthetic in bringing Burgess’ novel to life. Tonally, the visuals of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE play like a hybrid between Kubrick’s clinical, restrained classical style and a hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon.

For instance, Kubrick and Alcott exposed most of the 35mm film image using only natural light, resulting in a lifelike, down-to-earth look that features pops of color amid drab, neutral backgrounds. However, in those same shots he also uses wide-angle lenses to distort and exaggerate reality to unrealistic proportions.

This is also reflected in the camerawork, which alternates between static wide shots that observe the action dispassionately and up-close, handheld shots that bring the objective point of view firmly into the subjective.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s reliance on natural light seems peculiar—if not entirely out of character— for Kubrick, whose reputation for controlling every aspect of his image was infamous. However, this development can be ascribed to two defining aspects of Kubrick’s artistic aesthetic. Kubrick was well aware of his superlative talents, and saw each project as the “definitive” film in its particular genre.

So when he saw the wave of scrappy, low-budget youth films streaming out of Europe and America during the late 1960’s—films like Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969)—he decided that he would adopt the same affectations in an effort to deliver A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as the “ultimate” youth picture, much like he had done for the sci-fi genre in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Additionally, Kubrick’s interest in natural light didn’t stem from light itself, but rather in the technological advancement of lenses that required less and less of it to properly expose the film negative. This speaks to the pioneering aspect of Kubrick’s craft: his constant push to eliminate technical limitations on the realization of a filmmaker’s vision.

In later years, he would make significant strides in this regard, working directly with NASA to develop a lens that could expose a film image using only candlelight for 1975’s BARRY LYNDON.

This approach is mirrored in the edit, where Kubrick and editor Bill Butler brazenly cut from distant, observational setups to dynamic handheld shots that bring the action up close and personal. Kubrick uses the expressionistic nature of his edit to creatively portray the film’s most violent aspects, such as the murderous bludgeoning of the cat lady.

Instead of showing us the act itself, Kubrick cuts away to a series of rapid shots of the cat lady’s paintings, strung together in such a fashion as to suggest animation (specifically, those colorful flashes one would see in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon after dynamite explodes).

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s editing was highly influential, forecasting the rise of rapid music video-style editing popularized by films of the 90’s and 00’s, as well as the stylistic flourishes of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.

Like his previous three films, Kubrick shot A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in England—both in London and around his home in Elstree. He recruited John Barry as his production designer, who adapted existing locales to fit the needs of the story rather than build entirely new sets.

To convey the dystopian feel of Kubrick’s vision of a future Britain, Barry sought out socialist-style housing projects and municipal buildings built in the Brutalist school of architecture. The cold, uninviting concrete structures stand like oppressive symbols of the society that has allowed youths like Alex to run amok—a society that’s lost any interest in civic infrastructure or betterment.

Kubrick contrasts this with the interiors of Alex’s family flat, a garish mishmash of bright colors and patterns that suggests a counterculture struggling for its voice in the absence of a unifying message. The production design of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE suggests a very different future than the one Kubrick depicted in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY—indeed, this future is decidedly earthbound and considerably more cynical.

Wendy Carlos, credited here as Walter because the film was made before her sex change operation, fashions the score for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as a blend between baroque classical compositions and computer-age instrumentation.

Alex’s love for classical music is reflected in the appropriation of works like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, filtered through the inspired use of a Moog synthesizer and vocoder that makes it sound as if it was being sung by a computer.

This perversion of music’s inherent beauty extends to the inclusion of “Singin’ In The Rain”, which runs over the end credits in addition to being sung by Alex as he brutally rapes a woman during a home invasion. Kubrick’s filmography is littered with music that plays counter to the actual image it accompanies, but A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is really where he perfects his surprising, brilliant concoctions.

Our perception of “Singin’ In The Rain” has been permanently discolored, seared into our collective memory as the sound of impending doom. Kubrick peppers the soundscape of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with this sort of audiovisual irony, giving a twisted elegance to the carnage on display.

The world of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE affords Kubrick several opportunities to develop his aesthetic. The frequent usage of narrative voiceover, one-point perspective compositions and extended tracking shots (sometimes even the combination of the two, such as the shot of Alex roaming his beloved record store) are the clearest visual indicators of Kubrick’s hand.

He also experiments with a few new techniques, like the breaking of the fourth wall, or filming from the floor up at someone leaning over a closed door—a very unconventional, somewhat disconcerting angle that Kubrick would later use to great effect in 1980’s THE SHINING.

Kubrick’s career-long meditation on sex and violence takes center stage in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, what with its depiction of a seemingly-lawless future society and explorations of conditioned behavior. The character of Alex is the result of a hypersexual culture—a culture that is implied through the pervasiveness of penis popsicles and pornographic pop art displayed in the homes of otherwise respectable, upstanding citizens.

Perhaps as a prediction of the nascent birth control movement, Kubrick’s vision of a future Britain is a world in which sex has been stripped of consequence, and thus exists merely for titillation and self-serving gratification. In other words, it is simply for entertainment.

Whereas bored teenagers of the 1970’s would find entertainment in hanging around drive-in movie theaters and cruising the main strips of their hometowns, the bored teenagers of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE get their kicks in the form of indiscriminate rape and torture.

Rape is a particularly salient theme for Kubrick to explore, precisely because it is the intersection of sex and violence—it perverts the act of love into an act of hate, and Kubrick’s somewhat-humorous (yet ultimately horrifying) depiction of it forces us to reckon with the darkest parts of our own humanity.

Man’s capability for inhumanity towards his fellow man (and woman) is reinforced by Kubrick’s exploration of the inhumanity capable of institutions—civilization’s invention to protect man against himself. The Brutalist architecture of the socialist housing blocks—cold, concrete structures with no personality or history reflective of their inhabitants—reinforces the purely utilitarian reasons for the existence of institutions.

In their efforts to create a stable civilization and strip man of his wild nature, they overreach and subsequently take away a man’s ability to govern his own behavior. This sacrifice on behalf of the individual for the greater good of the societal whole is a common theme that runs through Kubrick’s work— films like PATHS OF GLORY (1957), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, andDR. STRANGELOVE all examined the inhumanity of institutions towards the individual (albeit DR. STRANGELOVE did so in an inverted way that saw the government sacrifice the masses for the few—themselves).

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE stills stands today as Kubrick’s most controversial film, by any standard of measure. The violence and carnage on display was shocking, and far exceeded anything that had been made up to that point.

In the wake of its release, public furor over its content and real-world copycat crimes prompted death threats on Kubrick and his family, leading to his voluntary withdrawal of the film from UK cinemas—an embargo that would last until his death in 1999.

In America, the film was a runaway hit, and secured a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With the divisive success of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick’s reputation as a daring maverick auteur was assured. If he wasn’t already the figurehead of the new wave of radical filmmaking sweeping the world, he was now.


BARRY LYNDON (1975)

Director Stanley Kubrick made a career out of confounding expectations. Each work in his filmography belongs firmly within its genre, yet at the same time also acts as a blatant subversion of said genre. PATHS OF GLORY (1957) turned the romantic war epic into an ethics debate.

DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB(1964) twisted the conventions of the sex comedy by giving it cataclysmic, end-of-the-world stakes. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) traded the cheesy pulp tropes of midcentury science fiction for a sweeping sense of ominous wonder towards creation and the unknown.

After the highly-controversial, ultraviolent A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), Kubrick again surprised the film community by swinging another 180 degrees in his choice for a follow up: a stuffy costume drama based on an obscure 1844 picaresque novel written by William Makepeace Thackery and titled “The Luck Of Barry Lyndon”.

Knowing what we do of Kubrick’s career up to this point, however, the selection of Thackery’s novel isn’t surprising at all. Kubrick had spent years exhaustively researching the life and times of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for an epic film that fell apart shortly before cameras could roll, forcing him to channel his energies instead into A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

A film adaption of “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” afforded Kubrick the opportunity to repurpose the mountains of research he had amassed for NAPOLEON, given the similar time era and cultures depicted in both works. Working from his own script and with his brother-in-law Jan Harlan as an executive producer, Kubrick set about making BARRY LYNDON (1975)—an oversized production that took two years to film and endured no less than two shutdowns as its budget swelled to $11 million.

Despite Kubrick’s great difficulty in getting the film made, BARRY LYNDON’s mixing of old school costume dramaturgy and the filmmaking techniques of the New Wave results in one of the best films of the 1970’s, and arguably the finest film of its illustrious director’s career.

BARRY LYNDON unfolds against the backdrop of the United Kingdom in the 18th century. Kubrick begins his three-hour story in Ireland, where a headstrong young peasant named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) loses his cousin’s romantic love for him to a British officer stationed in their town.

Enraged, Barry challenges the officer to a duel and wins, necessitating his exile from the town for having killed a British officer. He hides away in Dublin for a bit before joining the British Army as an inspired means to keep a low profile.

When he sours on the hardscrabble military life and tries to desert, he’s found out and pressed once more into service by the Prussian Army. They assign him to monitor a wealthy aristocrat named Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), who they suspect to be an Irish spy.

Barry’s shared kinship with the Chevalier compels him to deceive the Prussians and form an alliance with his countryman that sees them roam the countryside and scam aristocrats out of their money in rigged games of cards and chance. Their adventures bring them into the social circle of Lord Lyndon, whose wife, Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), catches Barry’s eye.

Determined to live out the rest of his days as a wealthy gentleman of leisure, Barry begins a not-so-secret affair with Lady Lyndon that strategically positions him to benefit the most from her ailing husband’s impending death. Surely enough, Lord Lyndon kicks the bucket and Barry weds Lady Lyndon, assuming the new mantle of Barry Lyndon.

He commences living the leisurely life he aspires to, but his hedonistic pursuit of pleasure leads to domestic troubles and new enemies—the most formidable and underestimated of which is Lord Lyndon’s son, Lord Bullingdon, who seethes with hatred for Barry over the careless squandering of the family fortune and his inheritance.

In the 1970’s, Ryan O’Neal was at the peak of his career, and his performance as the titular Barry Lyndon remains perhaps the very tip of that peak. As Lyndon rises from rags to riches, only to fall back to rags once more, O’Neal applies a composed nuance to each stage of the journey.

Lyndon’s decades-long growth from stubborn, idealistic lad to disdainful, hedonistic adult is given a convincing sense of the passage of time by O’Neal, who excels at projecting a world-weary countenance onto his boyish face. For Lady Lyndon, Kubrick looked to model Maris Berenson, who isn’t required to do much besides standing around in a silent, statuesque fashion.

However, Berenson imbues the character with a layer of fundamental sadness masked by stoic composure that serves the story well as it draws to a close— when she signs off on an alimony check for her disgraced lout of a husband, she pauses and looks up for only the briefest of moments, but in that moment she lives a lifetime.

Supporting performers of note include Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon, who would later go on to become Kubrick’s personal assistant and casting director on his final two films, as well as two veteran Kubrick performers on their second tour of duty: Patrick Magee and Philip Stone.

Magee, who played the crippled political dissident in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, appears in BARRY LYNDON under an eye patch and a pound of white makeup as the aristocratic libertine and charlatan Chevalier de Balibari. Stone, who likewise appeared in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as Malcolm McDowell’s father, plays Graham, a meek banker for Lady Lyndon and an unexpected conspirator against Barry.

BARRY LYNDON is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful films ever made, and for good reason. Working once again with cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick puts his prior experiments with natural light to masterful use in rendering the pre-electric world of BARRY LYNDON.

Kubrick’s visual presentation differs radically from his previous works in that he presents scenes as carefully staged tableaus, expertly composed to provide staggering degrees of depth and resemble the paintings of 18th century artists like Thomas Gainsborough.

The romantic feel of Kubrick’s compositions are further emphasized by the use of soft focus, which diffuses the frame’s highlights and adds to the film’s sense of Victorian glamor. Kubrick’s subjects and locales, impeccably designed with a careful eye to authentic period detail by DR. STRANGELOVE’s production designer Ken Adam, are lit almost entirely with existing natural light— an aesthetic choice that really accentuates the red and blue pops of color from British and Prussian military uniforms (respectively) against the golden earth tones of pastoral England.

Kubrick was so intent on creating an authentic pre-industrial world that, in the process, he managed to pioneer an entirely new technology that would change filmmaking forever. Working with NASA, Kubrick developed a specialized lens that could capture a beautiful exposure using only a few candles.

Many nocturnal scenes in BARRY LYNDON are lit entirely by candlelight, and the organic feeling of these scenes would be highly influential in the continued development of low-light technology, while its groundbreaking use in BARRY LYNDON would become one of the cornerstones of the film’s legacy.

Kubrick’s supreme confidence in his mastery of visual language is on full, flagrant display in BARRY LYNDON—the fact that he presents his scenes almost entirely in masters while rarely cutting away to other coverage speaks to the sheer audaciousness of Kubrick’s vision and technical prowess.

The effect is staggering and stately, a reflection of the pompous rigidity of his subjects. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this approach would be endlessly boring, but Kubrick incorporates the unconventional filmmaking techniques of New Hollywood—techniques he himself helped to popularize—in order to breathe immediacy and energy into the proceedings.

While there are a few characteristic tracking shots (one scene in particular recalls Kirk Douglas’ trench run in PATHS OF GLORY) as well as several instances of handheld, documentary-style photography, BARRY LYNDON mostly plays out in the aforementioned master tableaus, aided by the frequent use of zoom lenses to zero in on a particular detail within the scene or vice versa.

Kubrick uses this conceit repeatedly; creating a hypnotic mood that pulls us deeper and deeper into his baroque vision.  At this point in his career, Kubrick had fully embraced the use of classical music over an original score, and to this end he enlisted Leonard Rosenman to create new arrangements of famous works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franc Schubert in addition to several Irish folk songs.

BARRY LYNDON’s most memorable piece of music—George Frideric Handel’s “Sarabande”—was re-appropriated as a theme song of sorts, thundering along as Barry’s fate unfolds. While on the surface, the musical character of Kubrick’s classical selections does not run counter to the images they accompany (indeed, classical music seems to be a very conventional and appropriate choice for a story about the European aristocracy circa the 18th century), he nonetheless uses it subversively.

The operatic “Sarabande” march in particular suggests the trials and tribulations of a great king—someone like, say, Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Kubrick bestows this theme not on a king or emperor, but on a peasant who lived large for a while and ultimately died as a penniless nobody who had contributed absolutely nothing to history.

The sense of history and importance that Sarabande conveys runs counter to Barry Lyndon’s actual life, reflecting only his supreme narcissism.  Despite its regal, stuffy aesthetic, BARRY LYNDON contains all the visual hallmarks of its subversive maverick director.

The combination of one-point perspective compositions and an omniscient narrator places the audience at an observant remove from the action. The story’s examination of Victorian culture in its heyday allows for the indulgence of Kubrick’s fascinations with baroque architecture as well as the ineffectual pageantry and customs of the aristocracy.

Lyndon’s stint in the military also provides an opportunity for Kubrick to further explore violence in the circumstance of warfare, specifically the strangely self-sacrificial rituals of battle in the pre-Industrial era. In those days, antiquated notions of honor and valor were attached to leaving oneself open and exposed to enemy fire, as if taking cover to protect oneself was an act of cowardice.

This can be seen in the gorgeously colored and decorated (yet highly visible) uniforms worn by soldiers, which certainly made them appear as magnificent gentleman but had the unfortunate side effect of advertising their location to their enemies from a great distance.

The style of combat reflected this as well, with armies advancing on each other while politely taking turns in their exchange of fire—- effectively leaving the entire front line vulnerable and willingly exposed to a volley of musket balls. Under Kubrick’s hand, these notions of “civilized” warfare among gentlemen become highly curious and ironic.

This idea is echoed on a smaller scale in the sequences wherein Barry participates in turn-based duels. In the world of BARRY LYNDON, violence has been institutionalized by the civilized as a means to resolve disputes or inflict disciplinary punishment, but in the process has lost the emotion and intimacy that makes it meaningful. Instead of violence being a reflection of our inhumanity to our fellow man, it is violence itself that has become inhuman.

Kubrick’s body of work is held in such high regard today that it’s easy to forget the release of his films were regularly met with something of a mixed bag in terms of reception. They were, understandably, ahead of their time, and many people didn’t quite know what to make of them.

Many outright hated them, but nonetheless they knew they had to also respect them. This can certainly be said of BARRY LYNDON, whose release was met with modest box office success and mixed critical reception.

A three hour-plus non-epic about the 18th century European aristocracy may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but damned if they didn’t respect it—- and respect it they did, all the way to the Oscars (where the film took home golden statues for Alcott’s cinematography, Adam’s production design, Rosenman’s score, and costumes and Kubrick himself was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay).

Kubrick’s achievement here is nothing less than masterful, and while he would never get to make his long-gestating NAPOLEON film, he was able to channel that passion into making BARRY LYNDON a stone cold masterpiece—one that very well could have stood head and shoulders aboveNAPOLEON had he made it (and that’s not just because the French Emperor was a short man).

In a filmography composed almost entirely of masterpieces, BARRY LYNDON stands out as quite possibly the finest of the bunch.


THE SHINING (1980)

Many films lay claim to the title of “scariest movie of all time”, but only a select handful can truly call themselves as such. Of this elite group, you’ll find movies about demons, ghosts, serial killers, and zombies, but there is one film that defies easy explanation—whose horror derives from its very inability to articulate its evil in tangible form.

We fear the unknown, so if we are presented with a presence or force that we can’t ever hope to know, then it stands to reason that it will terrify us in endlessly fundamental ways. Stanley Kubrick’s blood-soaked masterpiece of horror, THE SHINING (1980), is just such a film, still talked about in hush whispers by those it terrified.

Kubrick’s film is a giant, labyrinthine puzzle where no two viewings are ever the same. Its secrets continue to present themselves, with these new revelations factoring into the continuing conversation about the film and continually reshaping our perceptions of its meaning.

The typical horror film by its nature is fleeting and ephemeral— for all intents and purposes, they are roller coaster rides. THE SHINING, however, has touched a nerve in the deepest part of the human psyche and endures in our collective unconscious. Much like the ghostly specters that haunt its halls, we have never quite left The Overlook Hotel.

Stanley Kubrick was unique among filmmakers in that he didn’t specialize in any one particular genre. Rather, he liked to sample from all of them—like one would a craft beer flight—and deliver a final product that would serve as the gold standard within its respective genre.

By the late 1970’s, the horror genre was phenomenally popular; a reflection of turbulent, uncertain times and a fundamental distrust of authority. Kubrick sensed his irrelevance within the horror genre and sought to rectify the situation while bringing artistic legitimacy to otherwise schlocky fare.

This meant finding subject matter that was completely different from the usual assortment of zombies, ghosts, and vampires. After poring through mountains of prospective material as per his custom, he found what he was looking for in “The Shining”, Stephen King’s seminal novel about a man driven mad by the spooks residing in an old Colorado hotel.

Kubrick was infamous for radically changing his films’ source material, and his treatment of King’s “The Shining” is perhaps the most egregious example of that. King’s initial screenplay draft was thrown out by Kubrick, who disagreed with the author’s supernatural-heavy take, and instead hired Diane Johnson to help him rework the story into a tale about malevolent energy and its effect on the human psyche.

Working once again with his brother-in-law Jan Harlan as executive producer, Kubrick set about making his version of “The Shining” in England—a production that would bog down cast and crew for over a year while the director battled his way through the shoot’s frequent and frustrating speed bumps.

The final film initially met with lukewarm critical reception and a scathing dismissal from King himself, but Kubrick’s hypnotic take on the horror genre would grow in esteem and notoriety until it became considered as one of the master filmmaker’s finest films and, quite possibly, the scariest film of all time.

THE SHINING begins when writer and unemployed family man Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) agrees to take on a caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel while it closes down for the winter. He uproots his family—wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd)—from their humdrum apartment in the suburbs and moves in to the grand old Overlook, looking forward to the promising amount of writing that several months’ worth of solitude will afford him.

He ignores warnings about the hotel’s supernatural phenomena- ghosts lurking in the corridors, the ancient Indian burial ground that sits below the foundation, and the very real tragedy of a previous caretaker who went mad with cabin fever and slaughtered his family with an axe.

For a while, the Torrances are happy in their new home, but all is not what it seems. Danny becomes acutely sensitive to the dark energies, and his ability to “shine”—that is, the ability to manifest said energies into visions of the past, present and future—results in increasingly disturbing hallucinations.

The Overlook’s ominous malevolence then begins to work its dark charms onto Jack, who finds himself losing his grasp on his sanity and seeing and hearing things that he shouldn’t, or having conversations with people who—by all rights—should not be there.

These evil entities succeed in tempting Jack back to the bottle after months of sobriety, further impressing upon him that his wife and son are to blame for his own state of internal torment and must be punished.

As a freak snowstorm descends on the mountain and strands the Torrances inside The Overlook without transport, telephones, or radio, Wendy and Danny must evade their murderous father while also dealing with the blood-soaked terrors that lurk deep in the hotel’s interior.

THE SHINING isn’t the first time that Jack Nicholson crossed Kubrick’s orbit—the director previously had Nicholson in mind to play the titular role in his failed passion project NAPOLEON. Instead, Nicholson makes his Kubrick debut here as Jack Torrance, the frustrated protagonist turned antagonist.

An actor well-known for his brilliantly unhinged performances, Nicholson turns in the work of his career by channeling a fundamental twitchiness, as if he’s uncomfortable in his own body. His spiraling psychosis is at once both riveting and terrifying to witness. Shelly Duvall is also effective as the ineffectual, meek, and needy wife to Nicholson—a woman whose mundane blandness is almost oppressively so.

Duvall famously had a rough time on the production, where Kubrick tormented her with constant verbal abuse. If it was all done to get a certain performance out of Duvall, it certainly worked—Duvall’s exhausted shakiness projects a hopeless demeanor that adds to the film’s overall tension.

As the young, innocent Danny Torrance, Danny Lloyd doesn’t fall prey to overacting—the bane of all child actors— and it is precisely this restraint which makes his “redrum” trance so bone-chilling and memorable.

Famously, Kubrick avoided the possibility of exposing such a young boy to the horrific subject matter of the film by convincing him it was a family drama, even going so far as substituting doubles or a dummy in scenes that would’ve shattered the illusion and revealed the true nature of the project. Kubrick even showed Lloyd a heavily edited version of the film when it was released—Lloyd reportedly did not see the real film until well into his teenage years.

For his supporting cast, Kubrick reunites with a couple familiar faces—Philip Stone and Joe Turkel. In his third consecutive appearance for Kubrick, Stone assumes the persona of Delbert Grady, the ghostly waiter of The Gold Room, whose distant politeness and manner is uncomfortably creepy.

Turkel, who last worked with Kubrick on 1957’s PATHS OF GLORY, plays Lloyd, the Gold Room’s bartender. Turkel is particularly inspired casting, as his gaunt visage already resembles that of a skull. Turkel adopts an emotionless, painted-on smile that sears itself into our retinas, like a morbid Cheshire Cat.

Scatman Crothers, who used his friendship with Nicholson to get into the casting room, plays The Overlook’s head chef, Dick Hallorann. Crothers’ role is an important one, as he shares Danny’s ability to “shine”, and explains the phenomenon to the young boy (and by extension, explains the title to the audience). Crothers plays Hallorran as a jovial, energetic middle-aged guy, but he also incorporates some minstrel overtones into his performance that date the film quite considerably.

THE SHINING marks Kubrick’s third consecutive collaboration with director of photography John Alcott, and their groundbreaking work together on 1975’s BARRY LYNDON translates here into a horror movie that looks unlike any other. Beginning with the sweeping, rock-steady helicopter shot that opens the film with the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, Kubrick and Alcott immediately signal to us that this won’t be just another cobwebs-and-candelabras creepshow.

THE SHINING, perhaps more so than any other Kubrick film, features the near-constant use of one point perspective compositions, which imbues the 35mm film frame with an evocative sense of depth. By setting up the Overlook Hotel as a three-dimensional space, Kubrick and Alcott then introduce the idea of exploring every nook and cranny via their camera.

While THE SHINING features lots of conventional dolly camerawork, its legacy lies in its introduction of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam rig to audiences. Kubrick was fascinated by the organic, yet serenely smooth, nature of Brown’s groundbreaking camera innovation, and he uses the technique here almost as if it were its own character.

Indeed, many of the shots in THE SHINING give us a distinct sense that a foreboding, unseen entity (or even the hotel itself) is alive and watching the Torrances’ every move. Instead of relying on the gothic imagery of horror films past, Kubrick employs the Steadicam to generate the film’s unnerving creepiness. His expertise with various lenses also helped him considerably as far as this new tech was concerned—by placing an extremely wide lens on the Steadicam, he could create an exaggerated sense of momentum, speed, and gravity, which served to better place the audience in the point of view of malevolent ethereal entities.

Kubrick and Alcott also utilize a host of camera techniques popularized by the New Wave in the service of amping up the horror and tension—flash cuts, rack zooms, the breaking of the fourth wall, and Kubrick’s own signature shot that looks up from the ground at a subject while he or she is at a door. All of this adds up to a highly stylized, yet naturalistic, visual presentation.

Also returning to the Kubrick fold is musician Wendy Carlos, who teams up with Rachel Elkind to deliver THE SHINING’s score. This being a Kubrick film, their work isn’t necessarily comprised of new, original cues—rather, Carlos and Elkind appropriate and manipulate dark, existing works from contemporary classical artists, weaving them into a foreboding tapestry that underlines and enhances Kubrick’s images.

Most of the film’s music is filtered through the prism of a Moog synthesizer, previously used to equally chilling effect in Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). The electronic synths are worked into an ominous music bed, peppered with disembodied, chanting voices and the rhythm of a throbbing heartbeat.

Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of THE SHINING’s musical soundscape, however, is the use of the Ray Noble Orchestra’s vintage recording of a slow love ballad called “Midnight, The Stars And You”. Used in the background of the scene where Jack may or may not be hallucinating a 1920’s-era ball, it gives us a peek into the glamor of the Overlook’s heyday while underscoring the tragedies that doomed it to ruin.

Kubrick was a master of ironic song choices that served as counterpoints to the images they accompany, and his juxtaposition here of a glamorous old-fashioned love ballad echoing in the foreboding emptiness of the Overlook creates an irony that is distinctly chilling.

A significant reason why THE SHINING has endured over the decades within a genre that seeks to top itself with every new entry is Kubrick’s inclusion of heavily-coded visuals and clues. The Overlook Hotel is presented as a giant puzzle that requires multiple viewings to solve—a reflection of Kubrick’s own love for the intellectual stimulation provided by chess.

A documentary film released in 2013, ROOM 237, examines the various interpretations and hidden messages inherent in THE SHINING. These “conspiracy theories”, for lack of a better term, range from the reasonably sound (the film being a metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans) to the utterly ridiculous (the film being Kubrick’s confession that he faked the moon landing for NASA). It’s a veritable master class in how to “read” a film.

The documentary itself is well worth watching to see all the various interpretations of meaning that THE SHINING has given birth to since its release, but two interpretations in particular bear legitimate explorations. Ever since Nicholson uttered the line, “White man’s burden, Llloyd.

White man’s burden.”, to the ghostly bartender in the Gold Room, academics and fans alike have drawn allusions from Kubrick’s film to the massacre of the Native Americans—a genocide upon which modern American is founded and barely acknowledges. The Overlook is stuffed with Native American imagery—from decorative quilts to the cans of Calumet baking powder that line the stock room.

This interpretation was first popularized in 1987 by former ABC reporter Bill Blakemore in an essay entitled “Kubrick’s ‘Shining Secret: Film’s Hidden Horror Is the Murder Of The Indian”, where he points to the closing image of Nicholson’s face among the revelers in a photograph of the Overlook’s 1921 July Fourth Ball. He writes:

“…most Americans overlook the fact that July Fourth was no ball, nor any kind of independence day for native Americans; that the weak American villain of the film is the re-embodiment of the American men who massacred the Indians in earlier years; that Kubrick is examining and reflecting on a problem that cuts through the decades and centuries”.

The second interpretation that suggests THE SHINING as a massive puzzle is the inconsistent and conflicting layout and geography of The Overlook itself. King famously modeled the novel’s version on the infamous Stanley Hotel in Colorado, a purported hive of paranormal activity and spectral spooks.

Like he did with King’s story, Kubrick rejected King’s suggestion to shoot at the Stanley in favor of his own design, basing it on the Timberline Lodge, situated at the peak of Oregon’s Mount Hood (a point of pride for us Portland-bred cinephiles). Kubrick shows us the Timberline in wide shot during bright daylight towards the beginning of the film, allowing us an unadulterated, extended glimpse of it.

This isn’t merely an establishing shot, however—it’s the setup of an extremely subtle deception on Kubrick’s part. For the rest of the exterior scenes, Kubrick built a condensed-scale version of the Timberlines’ façade outside a soundstage in England. The effect is a hotel exterior that looks the same upon first glance but under closer scrutiny reveals dramatic inconsistencies.

This approach extends to the interiors, all built on a soundstage in such a way that allows Kubrick to run a Steadicam through its grand halls, residential corridors, and industrial kitchen spaces seamlessly. What we don’t realize as an audience, however, is that if one were to map the layout of Kubrick’s Overlook on a sheet of paper (and many have done so), one would find an impossible geography pockmarked by dead-end corridors, windows where there should be walls, etc.

Kubrick’s Overlook is like one of those haunted house mazes where the door disappears behind you the moment you enter the room. Architectural design aesthetics vary wildly from room to room, creating a mishmash of jarring colors and styles from drastically different time periods. By rendering the Overlook in such a way, Kubrick is subtly suggesting that the hotel itself is a living, breathing entity of evil that exists outside of normal space-time.

THE SHINING, more so than any other film in his filmography, illustrates one aspect of Kubrick’s work that becomes clear only in retrospect—a recurring motif that incorporates imagery from the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. In Greek folklore, the Minotaur was a beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who dwelled in a massive maze-like labyrinth.

The labyrinth itself was designed to test the fortitude of those who would attempt to slay the Minotaur. Mazes, labyrinths, and tunnels play a huge role in shaping Kubrick’s aesthetic worldview. Ever since he sent a camera careening down a narrow New York city street in a dream sequence for KILLER’S KISS (1955), Kubrick has made potent use of “the tunnel” as a visual allegory.

There’s also another allusion to the Greek myth in KILLER’S KISS, in the form of an opening credit that reads: “A Minotaur Production”, or the name of Kubrick’s production company at the time. This could hardly be construed as coincidental, especially when such similar “tunnel” imagery reappears in PATHS OF GLORY’s embattled trenches or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s claustrophobic spaceship corridors.

Kubrick’s protagonists always seem to be descending into an underworld of sorts, where they will have to confront a supernatural enemy. THE SHINING is easily Kubrick’s most overt reference to the Greek myth, what with the long, languid takes that roam the Overlook’s countless nooks and crannies. He even places the climax inside a literal maze, just in case we were incapable of picking up on his earlier signals.

The horror genre serves Kubrick well in his explorations of sex and violence, allowing him to indulge in more lurid meditations of each—see Jack’s psychotic axe murder spree or the ghostly naked woman in Room 237 (or even the fundamentally unnerving shot of a ghost getting fellated by another ghost wearing a warthog costume for that matter).

THE SHINING is no doubt a film about a man’s swift downward spiral into madness, but Kubrick’s particular ideas about the fragility of the human psyche make for an utterly original film that bears his unmistakable stamp. He never quite tells us what exactly is causing the hotel’s unexplainable phenomena. Are these ghosts simply a manifestation of Jack’s growing psychosis, or are they authentically supernatural?

Michael Ciment, a leading Kubrick scholar, has pointed out in his writings that whenever Jack converses with the ghosts of the Overlook, he is always situated so that he is talking into a mirror. This would seem to definitely suggest that Lloyd the bartender and Grady the waiter are simply manifestations Jack’s psychological state, but then later on in the film Grady is depicted physically releasing Jack from the meat locker that Wendy has trapped him inside.

When this happens, we’re forced to admit that the real source of the Overlook’s evil is ultimately unknowable. This is where the true horror of Kubrick’s THE SHINING lies.

THE SHINING is held in such high regard today that it’s easy to forget that Kubrick’s first (and only) horror film was not well-received when it was initially released. Critical reviews were unfavorable, and box office receipts were lackluster before picking up steam quite some time afterward.

In setting out to conquer the horror genre, Kubrick created an enduring classic that continues to not only to chill us to the bone, but to awe us with its impeccable craftsmanship. Very few horror films can be rightfully called masterpieces, but THE SHINING is just that: a stunning, reference-grade work of cinema that dares to show us that true horror comes from within


FULL METAL JACKET (1987)

The experience of the Vietnam War had soured America on the prospect of warfare, mostly because the widespread adoption of television allowed the war to be broadcast into the homes of every family— punctuating their supper with gunfire, explosions and the anguished cries of wounded men.

Kubrick felt a desire to make a war film that reflected this new paradigm, and selected author Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel “The Short-Timers” as the source material upon which he’d base the story for what would eventually become FULL METAL JACKET. Working once again with his brother-in-law and producing partner Jan Harlan, Kubrick recruited a novelist and Vietnam veteran named Michael Herr to help him craft the script.

The shoot audaciously (but not really convincingly) faked rural England for the humid jungles of Vietnam, with the production timetable ballooning longer than a tour of duty in the military. Where most actors and craftsmen would quit in anger over the prolonged schedule, this element of Kubrick’s shooting style had become so well known by this point that his collaborators willingly signed on knowing full well it would happen.

They placed their utmost faith and confidence in Kubrick, and that trust and passion shows through in the final product. FULL METAL JACKET may be a flawed, uneven film, but that can’t stop it from enduring as one of defining films in the war genre as well as Kubrick’s own body of work.

In an attempt to do away with conventional modes of cinematic structure, Kubrick employs a two-act structure in FULL METAL JACKET. The first half takes place at a military base in South Carolina, where a band of new recruits are being trained to become the latest wave of efficient killing machines.

They are under the command of Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), a relentlessly abusive disciplinarian who has placed a special focus on an overweight recruit he dubs Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). He never misses an opportunity to remind Pyle that he is a worthless fat-ass and a disgrace to the Marine Corps. One of the other recruits, who Hartman has dubbed Private Joker (Matthew Modine) takes pity on Pyle and helps him shape up to Hartman’s superhuman standards.

Under Joker’s positive encouragement, Pyle shows remarkable growth—but that growth comes at a cost, and on the eve of their graduation, Pyle murders Hartman before firing a rifle round into his own skull. The film’s second half is set in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, one of the defining moments of the war.

Joker is now a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes, the military-owned newspaper distributed to the troops. On a routine assignment, he runs into a buddy from his days in South Carolina, Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who is now running with a squadron making their way through Hue City. They eventually become lost and try to take refuge in the city’s abandoned ruins. They’re ambushed by relentless sniper fire, but there’s no retreat.

If they want to live, they must forge ahead by any means necessary. By film’s end, we are left only with one question—what is the cost of warfare? Kubrick’s thesis posits that the answer lies not in the form of dollars, but in our very souls.

Kubrick’s cast is comprised entirely of unknowns, and it’s a testament to their talents here that they all went on to respectable acting careers afterwards. Matthew Modine headlines the film as the gangly Joker— a mischievous subversive who pairs his military fatigues with a peace symbol decal, which makes his story arc of lost innocence all the more potent.

He carries a smug grin on his face throughout the entirety of the film, but you better believe by the end that Kubrick will have wiped it right off his face. Vincent D’Onofrio makes his film debut in FULL METAL JACKET as the fat, uncoordinated Gomer Pyle. He purportedly gained seventy pounds to play the role, offering a hint of those“dedicated thespian” affectations his career would later be known for.

Arliss Howard plays Cowboy, the squad’s flustered, short-lived leader. His performance is unremarkable in and of itself, but it took three screenings of the film for me to realize that he also plays the antagonistic role of John Hammond’s nephew in director Steven Spielberg’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997).

Spielberg was, of course, a close friend of Kubrick’s and his casting of Howard for his dino sequel speaks to how much he admired Kubrick and his work. The real star of the show, however, is R. Lee Ermey, who plays the hardass drill sergeant Hartman. Prior to the film, Ermey was a real-life retired Marine drill sergeant, and was brought onto the project as a tech consultant.

His dedication to authenticity was so intense that he outright stole the role of Hartman from the guy who had been originally cast. His relentless abuse and creative grasp on insulting profanity approaches the level of performance art, and his particular showing in FULL METAL JACKET kickstarted a second career as an in-demand character actor that continues to this day.

By this point in his career, Kubrick had built up a strong working relationship with cinematographer John Alcott, who shot his previous three features. When Kubrick began to assemble his crew for FULL METAL JACKET, Alcott declined a fourth go-round with the maverick auteur. In hindsight, this would prove to be a serendipitous move for both parties, considering Alcott died during the middle of production.

Douglas Milsome, who had previously worked on Kubrick’s films as a focus puller, stepped up to assume the role of cinematographer on FULL METAL JACKET instead. Milsome and Kubrick craft a relatively straightforward visual presentation that’s high on style and low on flash. Kubrick’s compositions retain his signature one-point perspectives that emphasize depth and symmetry, while his camerawork builds on THE SHINING’s innovations with the Steadicam by incorporating it as often as possible.

Kubrick has always favored extended tracking shots as a way to convey mood, and the rise of the Steadicam allowed him much greater flexibility and versatility in that regard. No longer bound by dolly tracks, he could mount the camera on a Steadicam rig and follow his subjects right into the maelstrom without so much of a hint of handheld jitter.

Like BARRY LYNDON or THE SHINING before it, Kubrick counters the formalism of his camerawork with New Wave techniques like slow zooms and flash cuts. FULL METAL JACKET’s naturalistic aesthetic isn’t as lurid or evocative of other Vietnam classics like Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1987) or Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), yet its visuals are just as (if not more) iconic due to Kubrick’s legendary eye for composition and considered movement.

The music of FULL METAL JACKET marks an abrupt departure for Kubrick, who was well known for using prominent classical works to accompany his visuals instead of original scores. Instead of baroque concertos, Kubrick opts for the iconic sound of the Vietnam War: rock and roll.

Beginning with Johnnie Wright’s crooning country ballad, “Hello Vietnam”, Kubrick uses an inspired selection of late 70’s-era rock music to reflect the dark, subversive and unpredictable nature of Vietnam’s combatants. A particular standout is the use of The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black” over the end credits—a musical echo of the darkness that Joker now dwells in after the completion of his character arc.

Despite the heavy presence of rock cues, Kubrick does make potent use of an original score written by his daughter, Vivian Kubrick (credited here as Abigail Mead). Vivian creates a suitably foreboding, industrial sound using electronic instruments that appropriately reflect Kubrick’s pitch-black portrait of institutionalized destruction.

While Kubrick’s films defy easy explanation, they can be distilled into the examination of two primal, opposing forces: violence and sex. His last two films—FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT—would become companion pieces in that they each dealt with their respective theme (violence for the former, sex for the latter) in a singularly summative manner.

Kubrick was no stranger to war films, but whereas PATHS OF GLORY dealt with the ethical conundrums of warfare on a collective scale, FULL METAL JACKET is more concerned with the psychological consequences of warfare on the level of the individual.

The film focuses on the military as an institution not only capable of perpetuating man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, but one that needs such devastation in order to thrive. Kubrick doesn’t depict the military so much as an institution, but as a machine—devouring countless scores of boys whole and spitting them out the other end as robotic killing machines devoid of compassion and empathy.

The machine is kept fed by a surrounding culture that commodifies and glorifies violence; Joker’s iconic line, “I wanted to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill”, is terrifying precisely because it hits so close to home.

Vietnam was more than just a war for the American public—it was an existential crisis that introduced the idea of cynicism and irony into warfare. It was, for lack of a better term, The Hipster War. Having peppered it throughout his filmography to extremely potent effect, Kubrick was no stranger to the concept of irony, and FULL METAL JACKET is stuffed to the brim with it.

Joker complements a peace symbol decal with a helmet that has the words “Born To Kill” scrawled across it. The big bad sniper of the film’s denouement is revealed to be a scared twelve-year old girl. Soldiers march against fiery scenes of devastation while cheerily singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. A young recruit is trained into such an effective killing machine that he turns his rifle on the man who created him.

FULL METAL JACKET came out the same year that Oliver Stone’s PLATOON did, and while Kubrick’s final statement on war and violence would eventually lose out the Best Picture Oscar to Stone’s breakout film, it now overshadows its former rival due to the legacy of its genius creator. It may not be the definitive Vietnam film, but it is certainly one of the most definitive films of the war genre.

For Kubrick himself, FULL METAL JACKET serves as a fitting, yet, haunting conclusion to a topic that he spent a lifetime exploring.


EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

After his permanent relocation to England in the mid-1960’s, director Stanley Kubrick began accumulating a reputation in the media as an eccentric recluse. He valued his privacy as well as time it took to perfect his vision on a given work, which the newspapers regularly embellished as the controlling nature of a megalomaniacal artist.

Because Kubrick didn’t do anything to dispel these rumors, this false reputation only grew until it attained the power of myth. It would take Kubrick twelve years to realize another project after 1987’s FULL METAL JACKET, and the long period of silence from the maverick auteur led the film world to wonder just what exactly he was up to all this time.

The hype machine kicked into overdrive when Kubrick announced his next project (and unbeknownst to him, his last) would be EYES WIDE SHUT, a cautionary tale about infidelity and sexuality set among the strata of the New York City’s elite.

Kubrick based the film on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler titled “Traumnovelle”, or “Dream Story”, which he had optioned way back in the 1960’s. Collaborating with writer Frederic Raphael and his producing partner/brother-in-law Jan Harlan, Kubrick began rolling film on his fourteenth and final feature in 1996. EYES WIDE SHUT, starring Hollywood’s superstar couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, found its high production profile both a blessing and a curse.

Kubrick’s shoots had a reputation for going absurdly overlong, but when the production of EYES WIDE SHUT broke Day 400 (and a new Guinness World Record for longest continuous shoot), many wondered whether Kubrick had finally gone too far. In 1999, three years after he had commenced principal photography, Kubrick handed in his final cut of EYES WIDE SHUT to Warner Brothers.

Before he could reap the fruits of his labor, he died of a massive heart attack in his sleep only a week later. With the successful release of EYES WIDE SHUT in cinemas, Kubrick left us with a complete set of masterworks and ensured his legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived.

EYES WIDE SHUT is set in contemporary New York City during the Christmas season. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), are a wealthy couple living in an expansive New York penthouse with their young daughter and running in the social circles of Gotham’s elite class. We catch up to them as they attend a glamorous Christmas ball hosted by Harford’s colleague Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack).

Kubrick shows us that Bill and Alice are comfortable with each other, yet boredom is beginning to creep into their lives. Alice entertains an extended flirtation with the human equivalent of Pepe Le Pew, while Bill is called upstairs to help rejuvenate a nude hooker who has overdosed in Ziegler’s private bathroom. Back in the comfort of their own boudoir, Bill and Alice get high and have a truthful reckoning with each other.

Alice admits that while she has never cheated on him, she’s had unbearably strong fantasies about a young army man who she had only seen once in real life. Bill is unexpectedly called out to attend to a patient whose father has died, but Alice’s revelation has spooked him so much that afterwards he wanders Greenwich Village in a daze.

He meets an old medical school buddy for a drink, where he learns about an intriguing costume party that night at a mansion out in the country. Bill finds a costume and sneaks into the mansion (note that it is the same mansion that Kubrick acolyte Christopher Nolan used as Wayne Manor in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS), but what Bill finds there is something he could never have predicted: a costumed orgy.

After Bill’s presence at the exclusive affair is made known, he is mercifully let go with a warning. However, Bill can’t quite let go of what he saw that night, and as he makes inquiries around town in an attempt to figure out just what happened, he becomes embroiled in a deepening mystery with far-reaching consequences. However, because this is a Kubrick film, nothing is quite what it seems and Bill begins to question his grasp on reality and wonder whether what he saw really happened, or if it was all just a terrible dream.

Kubrick had a habit throughout his career of picking leading men there were just left of center, in terms of popularity or stardom. The two biggest stars he had worked with up to that point had been Kirk Douglas and Jack Nicholson, and even then both men paled in comparison to the blinding luster of Cruise’s celebrity.

Cruise was already a superstar before he was cast in EYES WIDE SHUT, but he would lay down any affectations of vanity in full service to Kubrick’s harrowing vision. As wealthy Gothamite Dr. Bill Harford, Cruise explores the darker side of his charismatic psyche—his iconic toothy grin now becoming a hollow façade for the tortured soul behind it.

Kubrick’s canny harnessing of Cruise’s manic intensity and dedication results in one of the finest performances of Cruise’s career. The same can be said of Cruise’s then-wife, Nicole Kidman, who plays Alice Harford. The role of Alice is a particularly vulnerable one, as it requires her to be completely nude throughout a good deal of the film, but Kidman shuns any sense of modesty and flaunts her stuff confidently.

She’s perfectly believable as the glamorous wife of a wealthy doctor, but Kubrick has the good sense to give her a nuanced role all her own. Her pragmatic sensuality exerts an unspeakable power over Bill, and while Cruise and Kidman would not pan out as a couple in the long run, their charged chemistry in EYES WIDE SHUT is captivating.

For the supporting roles of Nick Nightingale and Victor Ziegler, Kubrick turned to two fellow directors: Todd Field and Sydney Pollack. Field, a Portland native, wasn’t exactly a director himself during the making of EYES WIDE SHUT, but he would prove his bona fides with his later award-winning works, IN THE BEDROOM (2001) and LITTLE CHILDREN(2006).

In EYES WIDE SHUT, Field plays Nick Nightingale, a med school buddy of Bill’s who dropped out to become a jazz piano player. Field doesn’t have much to do in the way of characterization, but the role is instrumental in pushing Bill headlong into his dark adventure.

By contrast, Pollack was already an Oscar-winning director at the time, having helmed 1985’s OUT OF AFRICA and 1982’s TOOTSIE, and had previously directed Cruise himself in THE FIRM (1993). As Victor Ziegler, Pollack proves that he’s equally adept in front of the camera, channeling a mild-mannered kind of antagonism towards Cruise as the good doctor threatens to expose his participation in the secret sex cult. Furthermore, cult character actor Alan Cumming appears in a brief cameo as a hotel concierge.

The visual style of EYES WIDE SHUT, besides being inherently Kubrick-ian in conception and execution, reads like a baroque, old world nightmare. In selecting his director of photography, Kubrick continues his tradition of pulling from John Alcott’s camera crew.

Just as he promoted focus puller Douglas Milsome to lens FULL METAL JACKET, Kubrick calls up Larry Smith, who served as the gaffer on BARRY LYNDON (1975) and THE SHINING (1980). After twelve years away from a film set, Kubrick manages to retain all the visual conceits he has made into his signature: alluring one point perspective compositions, the frequent use of Steadicam rigs, zooms (both slow and fast), extended tracking shots and elegant dolly work.

The camera floats dispassionately as it observes the action, creating the distinct impression of an omniscient observer. Indeed, the floating nature of the camera echoes the floating nature of dreams themselves, and Kubrick’s kinetic perfection here— when combined with a sumptuous blend of oranges, reds, purples, soft focus setups, and Christmas lights everywhere—generates a hazy, ethereal patina.

Kubrick’s production designer on THE SHINING, Roy Walker, returns to provide his exceptional set-building talents in collaboration with Leslie Tomkins. The director’s preference for controlling every single aspect of his shoots often meant that soundstages were the only option. The deception of theatricality is a major theme of EYES WIDE SHUT, which is reflected in the fact that the film was made entirely on soundstages—even the streets of New York City were recreated in painstaking detail.

At the same time, Kubrick doesn’t bother to hide the artifice of the process—instead he embraces it as an aesthetic conceit. The streets of New York in EYES WIDE SHUT feel like less of an actual place and more like someone’s memory of the city, recalled in a daydream. That same dreamlike approach extends to the intense, unnaturally blue moonlight that filters through windows, or the blatantly-fake taxicab sequences (or even that one very-noticeable walking shot) that employ rear projection to give the illusion of movement.

By 1996, rear project was already an obsolete technology, but Kubrick’s inspired use of it subtly reinforces our suspicions that all may quite not be what it appears.

Contemporary classical composer Jocelyn Pook is credited for the film’s music, but Kubrick once again uses a variety of pre-existing classical works. Some are appropriations of Pook’s existing work, like the creepy piano chord plunks that symbolize the ominous watch of the secretive sex cult. The orgy sequence itself is scored with a recording of an Orthodox Mass in Romanian played backwards, lending a spooky, Satanic vibe to the ritualistic nature of the party.

Kubrick also uses a piece by Dmiti Shostakovich—“Jazz Suite Waltz 2” as the de facto theme of the film, continuing his streak of forever linking underappreciated classical music with his indelible images. Quite simply, no one ever has (and perhaps ever will) use classical music as effectively as Kubrick. Finally, Chris Isaak’s brooding rock track “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing” is used during a brief sex scene between Cruise and Kidman, adding an edgy modernism to EYES WIDE SHUT’s musical landscape.

Just as FULL METAL JACKET devoted itself solely to the exploration of violence, so does EYES WIDE SHUT single-mindedly attack the other end of the totem pole: sex. Whereas previous films like LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) danced around the subject of sexuality with winking innuendo, EYES WIDE SHUT confronts it head-on from the opening shot of Kidman’s nude backside and all the way up until the closing shot where she informs Cruise (in no uncertain terms) of their immediate need to make love.

EYES WIDE SHUT defines its exploration of sexuality through the prism of marriage and the institutions built around it. Kubrick makes a stark contrast between the lurid, rampant promiscuity of the mansion sex party and the quiet, comfortable intimacy of Alice and Bill’s bedroom. In the mansion, secrets are created, and in the bedroom, secrets are divulged.

The spectre of infidelity cleaves like a dagger through the Harfords’ marriage, setting them each off on a journey of self-exploration and discovery to ultimately arrive back at a stronger place than they were before. The nature of said journeys also reflects the differences in gender in terms of arousal—Alice’s fantasy dreams reflect the psychological, intangible aspects of attraction (a trait often described as feminine), while Tom’s close calls with the hooker played by Vinessa Shaw or his experience at the mansion party reflect impersonal, transactional attitudes towards sex that are often attributed to the masculine psyche.

The placing of Alice and Bill among the social circles of New York’s elite can be read as a distinctly Kubrick-ian move that affords him the opportunity to indulge in gilded, baroque production design and images of dancing aristocrats.

Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or THE SHINING before it, a supernatural mystique courses through EYES WIDE SHUT. The coded iconography of dreams allows Kubrick to cast a naturalistic eye on spooky images like the hedonistic ritualism of the mansion sex party or the ominous masks worn by its attendees. The masks themselves were based on those that one might see at the Carnival of Venice, which coincides quite nicely with the Old World supernaturalism that Kubrick is after here (along with the not-so-subtle allusions to the Illuminati).

Indeed, masks play a key role in the story of EYES WIDE SHUT—the film is a commentary on the masks that we wear: that of the loving wife, or the devoted father, or the principled member of society’s upper crust. These masks give us our identity—without them, we are anonymous, and our anonymity reveals us as we really are: mere animals vulnerable to our primitive instincts and desires.

EYES WIDE SHUT takes place on the city streets and in the sky-high apartments of New York City, but Kubrick’s fascination with the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth still informs the film on a fundamental level. It’s no coincidence that Bill Harford is beckoned to “where the rainbow ends” by two drunken, seductive models during the film’s opening at the Christmas Ball, only for him to later wind up buying his costume for the mansion orgy at a shop literally called “Rainbows”.

He’s followed the rainbow to its end, only to find a rabbit hole that leads deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. As Harford meanders the cold city streets on his many head-clearing walks, Kubrick shows the streets themselves as something of a maze. Like the hedge mage in THE SHINING, Harford’s surroundings look the same at every turn, and he never quite understands that he’s walking in circles.

As long as he allows himself to be consumed by the mystery, he will never escape this labyrinth. Only, he’s not on a confrontation course with the Minotaur—Bill’s internal battles with his jealousy and suspicion means that HE is the Minotaur. Whereas Kubrick’s prior films have been about his protagonists entering the labyrinth to slay their Minotaurs, his final film allows the Minotaur to free himself from the tyranny of the labyrinth entirely.

Kubrick was immensely proud of EYES WIDE SHUT—he allegedly considered it to be his best film. It was a homecoming of sorts for the director, taking place in his native New York City despite him never shooting a single frame outside England (not counting the second unit footage). Sadly, he would not live to see the success of EYES WIDE SHUT firsthand.

On March 7th, 1999, Stanley Kubrick died of a massive heart attack in his sleep—only days after he had turned in his finished cut of the film to the studio. After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, EYES WIDE SHUT opened to strong box office receipts and a mixed critical reaction. Some saw a profoundly flawed film while others saw an unfinished masterpiece.

The general perception at the time was that the infamous perfectionist had ultimately succumbed to that bittersweet brand of irony he spent his career exploring and closed out his life’s work with an incomplete, half-baked film. However, much like Kubrick’s other work, time and repeat viewings have eroded that notion and revealed a thoroughly considered and impeccably crafted work that ranks among the best of the director’s filmography.

With EYES WIDE SHUT, Kubrick’s life work was complete, and for all the innovation and excellence he had given the art form, he was rewarded with perhaps the best parting gift a filmmaker could hope for: a pitch-perfect finish.


A DEBRIEFING

In November of 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted the first ever exhibition of director Stanley Kubrick’s career. I went with a good friend of mine—a fellow aspiring director—to marvel at the artifacts of Kubrick’s work up close. We got to see models of the iconic war room set of 1964’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB.

The slightly decayed monkey outfits used in 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The giant NASA-designed lens used to capture a scene by candlelight in 1975’s BARRY LYNDON. We even saw the famed file cabinet that held a card for everyday of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life that Kubrick assembled in his research for the failed project on the French emperor.

However, the most powerful item for me to have seen with my own eyes was located right at the entrance to the exhibit: Kubrick’s directing chair—a weathered, battered canvas seat flanked on either side by a wooden box stamped with the word: “KUBRICK.” The director’s chair is perhaps the most iconic and clichéd image that comes to mind when one thinks of the profession, but I was captivated by this chair in particular and all the groundbreaking decisions that had been made on it.

Every living filmmaker today works under the shadow of Stanley Kubrick. When one first expresses an interest in pursuing a career in the art form, they are almost always pointed towards the work of Kubrick. He is the reference-grade gold standard in filmmaking, and even though many find his films unlikable, they admire and respect the total command of craft on display in every single one.

No other director, living or dead, can claim as many true masterpieces in their filmography. Okay, maybe Hitchcock. Even in my own early explorations of Kubrick’s work in college, I didn’t necessarily love them butdamn, did I admire them. I’ve grown to appreciate every single one, and every time I watch a Kubrick film, I discover something I never picked up on before. Kubrick’s legacy endures because no two viewings of a given film are ever the same. They’re always withholding a new secret, beckoning you deeper down the rabbit hole.

Kubrick’s roller coaster ride of a career lasted forty-five years and spanned two continents, leaving fourteen features and countless innovations in its wake. Even as a young boy growing up in New York City, Kubrick’s intimidating intellect was immediately apparent— despite the fact that he performed poorly in school.

His love for photography and chess would fundamentally shape his worldview as he grew into a young man. Indeed, he approached his life’s work like one big game of chess—every move must be thoroughly considered and planned for if one had any desire to beat his opponent.

The stark naturalism of his early black and white works—KILLER’S KISS (1955), THE KILLING (1956), and PATHS OF GLORY (1957) reflected his time as a documentary photographer for Look Magazine, where he honed his talents for evocative lighting and cinematic, depth-filled compositions. His fluid, graceful camerawork suggested the influence of director Max Ophuls, whom the young Kubrick admired for his tracking shots and eye for movement.

His love for film was all-consuming, and by the mid 50’s he had already burned through two marriages. His marriage to Christiane Harlan, who he met on the set of PATHS OF GLORY, would be the love that stuck and transformed him into a devoted family man. As the Kubrick family grew, they relocated from New York to Los Angeles for a brief time in the late 1950’s. Being located in the heart of Hollywood gave Kubrick his biggest career opportunity when Kirk Douglas recruited him to helm 1960’s SPARTACUS.

It was a crucial development in Kubrick’s life, but not for the obvious reasons—the unfavorable experience only served to push him away from Hollywood, solidifying his desire to work outside of the studio system as a means to exert total artistic control. He found this autonomy in England, where he shot LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE, eventually deciding that it would also be a good place to permanently relocate his family to.

Kubrick’s move to England was also a catalyst for a change in his filmmaking style—he became inspired by the innovations and transgressions of the New Wave coming out of Europe and incorporated them into his own work. As a result, his films increasingly took on a distinct sense of surrealism.

Kubrick’s considerable talent is immediately apparent to everyone who watches one of his films, and his power over the Hollywood studio system never has and never will be repeated. He had full artistic independence with his projects, in addition to the full backing of studios. It’s almost impossible to comprehend this scenario in today’s filmmaking environment.

This total autonomy turned Kubrick The Man into Kubrick The Myth, with legends of his demanding eccentricities spreading like wildfire in the media. They said he was a control freak. A secretive recluse. A mad scientist. They said he went to insane lengths in researching his projects and drove actors to the brinks of insanity themselves with the countless number of takes he would demand from them. In truth, these reports were gross embellishments, designed solely to sell newspapers.

The reality was that Kubrick was an intensely private person who prized his anonymity and cared deeply about his work because he knew would have to answer for it for the rest of his life. His voluntary withdrawal of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from UK cinemas in the wake of a wave of copycat crimes inspired by the film wasn’t just a display of his astonishing directorial power, but a prime example of his sense of social responsibility and foresight. His life and his work was one big game of chess, and he was playing the long game. He was playing for keeps.

In making his films, Kubrick ultimately wanted to change the form of cinema itself. His exploration of alternative story structures and new forms of expression resulted in several groundbreaking contributions to the development of the craft itself. He pioneered realistic visual effects with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, generating what director Steven Spielberg called “his generation’s Big Bang”, and inspiring a legion of upcoming filmmakers to push those boundaries even further.

Kubrick’s supreme command of his craft and knowledge of trick photography would result in the only Oscar he would ever win—for 2001’s groundbreaking visual effects. The gold statue for Directing or Picture would evade him for his entire life.

Other groundbreaking innovations that Kubrick popularized are well known: the specialized low light lenses on BARRY LYNDON, or the graceful gliding of the Steadicam on THE SHINING, to name just a few. Some of his innovations are less well-known—his endorsement of video assist, a technology that allowed filmmakers to view a take immediately after filming it, directly contributed to its quick adoption throughout the industry.

He also popularized the idea of shooting dozens of takes as a way for actors to let go of their preconceptions about “technique” and reach a deeper, fundamentally authentic style of performance—a practice that Kubrick acolyte David Fincher would claim as his own calling card. It’s important to remember, however, that accumulating mountains of footage wasn’t just a means to wear his actors down to raw nubs.

Kubrick often found the final form of his films in the editing room, sifting through the dozens of takes and various angles he had explored on set and stitching it together into a unified whole. In that sense, he was a perfectionist in the best way— making sure that he left no stone unturned in realizing the full potential of any given project.

Indeed, when he accepted the most prestigious directing award of his life from the DGA shortly before his death, he invoked the myth of Icarus in a videotaped speech that alluded to his perfectionism—Icarus may have failed in trying to touch the sun, but that only means that we must build better wings.

Kubrick is unique among other directors in that he had very few constant collaborators. Whereas some directors continue to work with one particular actor again and again (see Martin Scorsese and his string of films with Robert DeNiro—or Leonardo DiCaprio for that matter), the only leading man that Kubrick used more than once Kirk Douglas, and even then it was only because Kubrick had no say in the casting of their second collaboration together.

Kubrick’s regular confidantes stayed firmly behind the camera, with producing partners James B Harris and Jan Harlan being the most significant in terms of their contribution to Kubrick’s films, as well as cinematographer John Alcott who shot three consecutive films (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BARRY LYNDON, and THE SHINING) for the maverick auteur.

Other craftsmen (and women) like production designers Ken Adam and Roy Walker or composer Wendy Carlos can only count two collaborations with Kubrick. Out of all the people who wandered on and off Kubrick’s sets over the decades, only one person could claim a lifelong collaboration with him—his wife, the love of his life, and the woman who inspired him on a daily basis: Christiane Kubrick.

In a video interview, Kubrick’s late-career executive producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan states that Kubrick’s work is fundamentally about the conflict between emotion and intellect. His protagonists are often painted as men railing against the confines and impersonality of civilization’s institutions.

Kirk Douglas raged against the uncompromising imperialism of both France and ancient Rome in PATHS OF GLORY and SPARTACUS (1960), respectively. DR. STRANGELOVE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are both about mankind fighting to preserve itself from the cold objectivity of our own technological innovations. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s Malcolm McDowell manages to free himself from the institution of prison only to land firmly within the prison of his own mind and body.

FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT each deal with the institutions of military and marriage, respectively—specifically the internal destruction that can be wrought upon the individual when the idea of moral ambiguity is introduced.

For Kubrick, storytelling was ultimately about the cycle of creation and destruction. He knew that people always have a visceral response to violence and sex, and he filtered his narratives through these two prisms as a way to challenge our own preconceptions and hang-ups. This is a brilliant tactic because while the content may turn us off, it actively engages us and forces us to confront the darkest, most base impulses of our humanity.

Another defining trait that can be seen in all of Kubrick’s works is his presentation of his films as puzzles. Kubrick’s background in photography was immensely helpful in this regard in that it trained him to get across his message in a single, static shot. Towards this end, he had to use every available tool to tell the story: lighting, composition, depth of field, etc.

His mise-en-scene is comprised of coded messages left open to interpretation, and it is Kubrick’s refusal to elaborate on the meaning of his films that bestows the air of mystery on his work. Kubrick’s films mean different things to different people and it’s because they see what they want to see. People watch THE SHINING and see an allegory for the genocide of the Native Americans, or they watch EYES WIDE SHUT and see nothing but references to masonry and the Illuminati.

This alluring ambiguity is the key to his work’s longevity and ensures that his films will be studied and dissected for decades, if not centuries, to come.

This idea of the puzzle, or the maze is crucial to our understanding of the dark, seductive power that Kubrick’s work holds over us. Kubrick was profoundly influenced by the Greek myth of The Minotaur and the Labyrinth, which saw brave men descend into a maze-like underworld to face the demon that was torturing their community.

He was so inspired by the myth that the imagery of tunnels or mazes makes it way into nearly every film. THE SHINING, with its labyrinthine tangle of halls and grand open spaces (as well as its literal hedge maze) is the most visible example, but the idea pops up in places one wouldn’t expect. In EYES WIDE SHUT, the grid-like streets of New York City become an underworld that Tom Cruise must navigate.

The confined spaces of the spaceship in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY render the crew unable to hide from an omniscient intelligence. The supernatural mystique that exudes from Kubrick’s work suggests the lurking Minotaur—a force that threatens to destroy Kubrick’s protagonists either physically or mentally.

In the nearly five-decade span of Kubrick’s career, he only completed fourteen features. That may seem like a lot, but pales in comparison to directors like Woody Allen, whom Kubrick admired for churning out a new film without fail every single year. Kubrick’s perfectionism meant that he had to spend long amounts of time on any given project, and he always regretted his slow pace.

Like most other filmmakers, Kubrick abandoned a few projects over the course of his career, but unlike those other filmmakers, his unrealized works are regarded as great gifts that we’ll never receive. Funnily enough, these films all involve his close friend and fellow director Steven Spielberg in some fashion. Kubrick’s lifelong ambition to make a film on Napoleon Bonaparte is well known, so much so that it widely called “The Greatest Film Never Made”.

In a way, it would have been the most autobiographical film that Kubrick ever made—both Kubrick and Napoleon were master strategists that were well aware of their brilliance. He no doubt would’ve drawn many parallels between the art of war and the art of filmmaking, seeing as both men approached their respective work with a totalitarian mentality.

Kubrick’s shooting script for NAPOLEONis now reportedly being developed by Spielberg as a television miniseries, so we may end up seeing The Greatest Film Never Made after all. Kubrick’s other big failed project was a planned film about the Holocaust called THE ARYAN PAPERS, based off Louis Begley’s book “Wartime Lies”. In a nod to his companionship with director Steven Spielberg, it would have starredJURASSIC PARK’s Joseph Mazzello as a young boy hiding from the Nazi regime as they persecuted Europe’s Jews.

Ironically, Kubrick abandoned the film after Spielberg released SCHINDLER’S LIST—perhaps the definitive narrative film about the Holocaust—in 1993. SCHINDLER’S LIST was a tough act to follow, and Kubrick wasn’t keen on reliving the disappointment he experienced when FULL METAL JACKET was eclipsed by Oliver Stone’s PLATOON that same year, so he abruptly stopped development on the ARYAN PAPERS and turned his attention to EYES WIDE SHUT.

And finally, there’sA.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—- a long-gestating project that Kubrick sought to make himself but ultimately decided to pass on to Spielberg to direct. After Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg was compelled to honor his old friend and made the film as closely as he could to Kubrick’s original vision.

Kubrick continues to be a highly influential filmmaker because his work continues to be extremely relevant, even today. His career holds countless lessons for both aspiring filmmakers and established ones. In watching Kubrick’s body of work in chronological order and charting the ebbs and flows of his career, I came away with several distinct observations that I intend to apply to my own work.

Kubrick was well-known for working out of his home, which served to bring him closer to his material and make it more personal for him. As an art form and a mode of self-expression, filmmaking should be an intensely personal endeavor. Kubrick always trusted his instincts, even when they veered off the beaten path and out into the deep end.

As a filmmaker, the courage of conviction is a necessity. A director must have the presence of mind to follow his or her vision, but not at the cost of rigidly adhering to it. Contrary to his authoritarian reputation, Kubrick would solicit advice from anyone who cared to give it, whether they were the lead actress or the set janitor.

He demanded many takes and took an inordinate amount of time during the shooting process because he wanted to explore every possible angle in a given scene. No stone must be left unturned lest it hides brilliance underneath. If we are to take away any lessons from Kubrick’s illustrious, controversial career, let it be this: a script isn’t a rigid document—it’s a blueprint for collaboration with performers and craftsmen, each one bringing their experience and technique to the project and enriching it to a degree that a director cannot achieve on his own, even if he is a genius.

As arguably the single most influential filmmaker of all time, Kubrick leaves behind a substantial number of heirs and acolytes, and he will continue to do so as long as cinema remains as viable art form. While Steven Spielberg was greatly influenced by Kubrick and even became a close friend later in life, it could be argued that Spielberg’s own distinct aesthetic disqualifies him as a true “heir” to Kubrick’s cinematic legacy.

Rather, he is more of an immediate beneficiary. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have modeled core conceits of their careers and aesthetics on Kubrick’s example, but I, for one, would argue David Fincher as Kubrick’s most-direct successor. Yes, both men are infamous for their meticulous attention to detail and countless number of takes, but it’s really their shared thematic explorations of the fragile human psyche as well as their almost-clinical observations of mankind’s inherent darkness that bonds both artists to each other.

Fincher’s career simply wouldn’t be possible if not for the paths that Kubrick so bravely paved a generation earlier.

Like a large storm cloud, Kubrick’s shadow looms large over the cinematic landscape—he was a force of nature that permanently altered the art form, and while we may never get the gift of a new Kubrick film ever again, his legacy will continue to endure as long as there are uncompromising artists who are unafraid to gaze directly into the dark side of human nature.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———