2001: A Space Odyssey

Filmworker

18/06/18

Behind every great film director stands a whole horde of underpaid, overworked minions, whose very raison d’etre is to enable said director to get his or her vision up onto the big screen, exactly as it has been envisioned. As great directors go, few are as legendary as the late, great Stanley Kubrick. But Filmworker is not so much his story as that of one of those underpaid, overworked minions, in this case a man by the name of  Leon Vitali.

Vitali’s story is unusual to say the very least. In 1967, he went to the pictures to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and casually remarked to his companion, ‘One day, I’m going to work for that director.’ Vitali went on to be a pretty successful actor, appearing in all manner of films and TV shows – weirdly, I vividly remember his appearances in the comedy series, Please, Sir, when I was just a kid. And then, in 1975, he did indeed get to work with Kubrick, playing a major role in his lavish (and under-appreciated ) historical drama, Barry Lyndon. But Vitali was much more interested in the nuts and bolts of film making than developing a career in acting and, against all advice, he gave it up to become Kubrick’s right hand man, a role he fulfilled until the director’s death in 1999, shortly after completing filming on Eyes Wide Shut. In all the tributes and ceremonies that followed Kubrick’s death, Vitali was pretty much ignored – he didn’t even receive an invitation to an exhibition based around the director’s film legacy – and yet his loyalty and love for his former employer is all too evident in this compelling documentary, which provides an intriguing look into the four features they worked on together and makes me appreciate the nuts and bolts that underlie every movie.

It must be said that the picture of Kubrick that emerges from this story is not a particularly salutary one, even if Vitali won’t hear a bad word said about him. Kubrick seems to have relished piling tons of work onto his ‘gopher,’ relentlessly making him go over and over every tiny detail – but of course, it was this very attention to detail that made Kubrick the unique director that he was and Vitali seems to have been happy to take the punishment. It’s sobering though, to see the evident toll that such a brutal schedule has taken on Vitali’s health, leaving him a shadow of his former self. More importantly, though, it does make you admire his tenacity and loyalty in doing everything he can to ensure that Kubrick’s cinematic heritage remains as pristine as he himself would have wanted. Hardly surprising then, that the story ends with the news that Vitali is currently working on a new digital transfer of 2001.

While this certainly won’t be for everyone – a working knowledge of Kubrick’s films is, I believe, a definite advantage – I find this an intriguing and curiously affecting story. It also means that whenever I rewatch a Kubrick film, I’ll be thinking of the unsung hero standing at his shoulder, helping the creative wheels to run smoothly.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

10/06/18

I first viewed this film at an RAF cinema shortly after its initial release in 1964. I was around fourteen years old at the time, and I can still remember how amazed I was by it, how disorientated. I had literally never seen anything quite like it, this weird blend of cartoonish hilarity and overwhelming terror. In those days of ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflets, we spent much of our time worrying about impending nuclear Armageddon. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to claim that now, more than fifty years’ later, such fears are firmly behind us?

On Burpelson Air Force Base, the extremely paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has become convinced of a communist plot to poison the American water supply and, with this in mind, promptly orders a nuclear missile strike on Russia (as you do). General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) is the man charged with the tricky task of breaking the news to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellars in one of three roles he plays in the film), whilst also pointing out that, because of the clandestine nature of the protocol that surrounds such events, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to call the whole thing off. Meanwhile, Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew of airmen are determined to carry out their orders, no matter what stands in their way.

Co-written by director Stanley Kubrick, with Terry Southern and Peter George, Dr Strangelove is a ground-breaking satire with a bizarre, cartoonish storyline that really ought to be totally beyond belief, but sadly, given recent world events, feels all too prescient. There are some extraordinary performances here. George C. Scott is a particular delight, gurning masterfully through his scenes, while in the role of the American president, Sellars’ telephone conversation with the unseen Russian premier is a masterclass in comic understatement. ‘Well, Dimitri, how do you think I feel about it?’

Showing as part of the Cameo Cinema’s Kubrick retrospective, it’s great to have a chance to reappraise this little gem on the big screen. Shot in super crisp black and white, it now clearly displays the shortcomings of its low budget combined with ‘still in their infancy’ effects – the many shots of the Flying Fortress en route to deliver its fifty megaton payload do occasionally look rather shonky and it’s hard to believe that, only three years later, Kubrick would deliver the technical milestone of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that pretty much set the bar for all special effect movies thereafter. Also, viewed through contemporary eyes, Sellars’ climactic grandstanding in the titular role of a crippled former Nazi scientist brushes a little too close to a whole host of -isms and -phobias for comfort, even if it does tickle the funny bone.

But, as I’ve said before, all films are a product of the times in which they were made and should be viewed accordingly – the parts that really work here are so luminous, so utterly compelling, they tend to outshine those bits that are starting to show their age. It’s an important film in Kubrick’s pantheon – the one that first showed that he was more than just a capable director, the one that hinted at the darkly disturbing wonders to come. Returning to it after so long away proved to be a singular delight.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Interstellar

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9/11/14

Some films arrive in the cinema burdened by the weight of unreasonable expectation and Interstellar is one such film. Probably the most anticipated release since Prometheus (and look what happened with that!), if we are to believe what we’re told, this film is destined to save the film industry itself because what the world needs now is a major blockbuster and this just might be it. The film takes on weighty themes like the demise of mankind, the exploration of space and some fairly ‘out there’ theories about black holes and the fifth dimension. If much of it feels like a homage to Kubrick’s 2001, that’s no bad thing. The good news is, that though not perfect, Christopher Nolan’s three hour epic manages to hold a viewer’s attention throughout and in two key set pieces racks up levels of almost unbearable suspense.

The world is going to hell in a handcart, mostly because it’s turning into one great big dustbowl. Crops are dying out and ex space explorer Cooper, (Matthew McConaughey) now a corn farmer, sees his livelihood slipping away. When his young daughter Murphy tells him that the bookcase in her bedroom is trying to communicate with her (stay with me) Cooper identifies an anomaly, one that leads him to a remote location, where NASA scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is preparing a secret space mission, which he hopes will find a way to save the world. He’s prepared to send his own daughter, (Anne Hathaway) as a member of the team and he wants Cooper to pilot the spaceship. But it will mean being parted from his children for many years, with no guarantee of survival…

It’s to the film’s credit, that it makes some fairly unlikely events seem believable, but much of the ‘science’ here is so mind-blowingly complicated, that characters often have to resort to sketching diagrams to ensure that the audience understands it better – and there’s a final M. Night Shymalan-style twist that will either have you starry-eyed with wonder or shouting ‘no way!’ at the screen. Whether Interstellar can save the film industry is debatable. What is for sure is that Nolan hasn’t lost his Midas touch when it comes to creating awe-inspiring cinema. The father-daughter relationship at the heart of this tale is a powerful hook and the cinematography and special effects sequences are often breath-taking. A palpable hit, methinks.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney