Sunday Coffee Thoughts: Adrift on the Oceans of Cinema

It is odd what personal impulses emerge over time as predominant traits in oneself.  I used to define myself, sadly, by the many media I was obsessed with, convinced that my understanding of them gave me easy insight to other people (which, to be fair, it used to; less so now in the pick 'n' mix culture of the West today) as well as rendering me more transparent.  However, after so many decades of being a film fan, a comics fan, a reader of genre fictions, and a lover of music of all sorts from around the world and throughout time, I appear to have come unstuck from my moorings, and only now am I beginning to appreciate that maybe sailing the open waters in search of new horizons is the better place to be.

It began with the immersion back into modern television that becoming editor of Cult TV Times required.  Working in DVD and film limits massively what one watches for pleasure; I had let entire trends (Nordic Noir, HBO, the U.S. cable revolution) pass me by while focusing solely on what I had to watch for work (independent film screeners, archive film and television).  When film-goers (people who actually pay to see films, as opposed to those who see them free for professional reasons or pirate them) complain about whether those who work in the film business actually watch films or even like them, their bewildered enquiry has some merit; many of those who do, don't, however much they did. This, obviously, contributes significantly to the evident disconnect between the tastes of those funding film and what viewers would actually watch if they had the choice available to them.  Becoming the person who could justifiably carry the name of editor meant I could no longer be that kind of person; I had to go back to a love previous to film, and immerse myself in that world once again: widen my knowledge base, test my taste, examine the critical discussions ongoing and question the consensus.

5751Over the course of the last (nearly) two years of editing the site and magazine, something radical happened to my taste in films.  It was already changing; in pursuing a personal policy of watching older films I had not seen before releases of their remakes or new films heavily influenced by them, I was finding how much I preferred the older films.  Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi's magnificent Suspiria was so much more my kind of film than Black Swan (which I still enjoyed, particularly as a distaff take on director Darren Aronofsky's great debut Pi, and a working through of his interest (obsession?) with the late Satoshi Kon & Sadayuki Murai's Hitchcock riff and pop culture dissection Perfect Blue); Henry Hathaway & John Wayne's adaptation of True Grit was, despite my dislike of Wayne, in another league from the wan, anaemic remake by the Coen Brothers (and make no mistake, despite their claim that is a stand-alone adaptation of the same novel, there are scenes which are original to the earlier adaptation and not Porthis' novel; it's a remake all right), and yet another failure in my eyes from them.  The original 3.10 To Yuma also outclassed completely the modern remake in every single way except budget & production design, the latter and the action & scenery afforded by the former were the only things that kept me watching the new version to the end.  The capper to all this was when I came to show my partner Kim Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly after she had enjoyed A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More; the blu-ray only offers the modern restored version, with re-discovered scenes cut back in and dubbed by the aged then-surviving stars alongside voice actors.  With no theatrical cut to compare to, these scenes still stood out to Kim like forced additions, while to my own perception they took the dreamlike rambling and disjointed nature of the cut many of us had fallen in love with (and lived with for decades) and weighted it down with prosaic explanations, mood-breaking moments under echoey modern dubbing that broke the spell the rest of the movie kept casting over us.  Thank goodness that superlative, immense finale remains intact; any tampering with that would have been insult added to injury.

Good_Bad_Ugly_55I was, frankly, horrified at how little I enjoyed the film that had been at number two on any list anyone asked me to put together of favourite films of all time.  For just shy of thirty years, when asked that question, the first two were easy, the other eight would be hard; they would also change every time.  There are so, so many films I have watched over the years that, although still not a patch on my friends who remain true to the faith of film and cinephilia itself, to me a Top Ten or Top Twenty or whatever is a limiting exercise that serves no real purpose.  Mood is as important to watching a film as the individual viewer's experiences, background, inclinations, or what they did five minutes before watching.  I will make lists in no particular order for people who ask, to introduce them to a cinema they are unfamiliar with, or explore or exemplify a theme or genre.  Taste, however, is a fickle quality, and is not always to be trusted to tell another person about the films listed.  (On the other hand, a taste-based list can always be trusted to tell the reader something about the list-maker.)

With the number two spot holder in its current iteration no longer able to justify holding on to that place, a further shock awaited me, and it would be this that made me realise I was adrift on open water.  Prior to seeing Interstellar it seemed time to introduce Kim to my top spot holder for nearly three decades, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It went badly; after a tiring day at work she fell asleep twenty minutes in (and has expressed a willingness since to tackle it again); I decided myself to persevere with it, as well as finally watch Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's Sunshine afterwards.  To my shock and horror I found 2001 to drag and drag, taking far too long to do anything with anything, standing far too still to appreciate how gorgeous and ambitious and ground-breaking it was busy being.  Great and powerful moments early on, so beautifully conceived and executed as to retain their function when extracted as still images, now seem like momentary gusts of wind in an otherwise becalmed sea, pushing the boat of the narrative on in moments that are few and far between.  When the story finally switched to the Jupiter mission, my first thought was "oh FINALLY, things are going to pick up", except of course, they didn't.  Only as the ship neared its destination and Kubrick starts to ratchet up the tension, often adopting HAL's eye viewpoints, does the film start to get down in the existential dirt with its subjects, instead of affecting a godlike distance.  And so it is only in the film's second half or final third that it gripped me all over again the way it used to last century on repeated viewings in multiple formats, and I enjoyed the final sequence as much as I had done since that first time.  (It has never been a mystery to me, so has become a litmus test for people I meet: do they claim to not understand this sequence or not?)

2001-a-space-odyssey-screenshot-1920x1080-9And so I found myself cast adrift, unmoored from tenets of faith I had professed for decades.  How could this have been my Number One Favourite Movie Of All Time for so long?  How had I, or my taste, changed so much with age?  What was wrong with me?  After all, this is a film that has always had its detractors as well as its fervent admirers, of which I was one - yet here I was, firmly crossing over from one camp to the other.  A simple, realisation that seems meaningless to most was to me as great a moment as the devout of an older religion than cinephilia walking away from all they had professed and believed in all their lives up until then.  Even now writing about it, I am shaking slightly, the uncertainty on which I am adrift at the edge of so dark and scary that looking back to the comfortable well-lit shore seems like the obvious thing to reach for.  Yet how can I? I cannot undo what I have felt, even though I believe firmly that every story must find its best length and pace for itself, not for me.

There is also something deeper, more troubling to my way of thinking as a science-fiction fan of a certain age, racial and cultural background.   In reaching forward to create a future world extrapolated from the decade they made it in, Kubrick and his team prove more than capable of imagining and then realising believable advancements in space-faring and communications technology, dated aesthetics aside.  However, they cannot conceive of a world in which the Cold War has ended, or women and people of colour are by and large anything but servants (there are some exceptions with regards to women, but noticeably the female scientists we meet are from the Eastern Bloc).  It is the world I grew up in, but thankfully isn't exactly (from a racial perspective) the world I live in today.  These lacks are in keeping with the limitations of the creators, but it speaks to one of the fundamentals of science fiction in general, then as now:  creators who do not take advantage of having all of space and time to play in to move beyond their own limitations are not utilising the genre to its fullest potential.  How is a writer or film-maker supposed to transcend their own limitations, one may ask?  Surely that is exactly why one writes; not only to record, or to repeat, but to impact, to transform, to reach for something greater and leave behind a mark more lasting than those one's own life will leave behind.  Maybe that is asking too much of some writers, or even of many; but given the expressed ambition of Kubrick et al to make realistic science fiction with 2001, it seems fascinating that to my eyes now they only succeeded as they imagined the story from the perspectives of an A.I. and a human undergoing an alien-led transformation.  Those sequences transcend in a way that the more prosaic opening third or so no longer do for me.

2001-a-space-odysseyWatching Sunshine afterwards cemented all that I felt.  I loved this film from the outset, wondering which camp Boyle and Garland each fell into regarding 2001.  It also demonstrated Boyle's own unabashed cinephilia, with him making use of a tremendous range of techniques to tell his story that almost all worked.  I was annoyed with myself for not having watched it sooner (six years from purchase to viewing; still not my longest record, however), and cannot wait to watch it again.  Interstellar had more in common with it then Kubrick's film.  Still, an interesting and illuminating double-bill, and life-changing as only a film double-bill can be for a cinephile.  One thing is for certain:  2001 retains its importance for me, and part of its power, but I now no longer have any firm entrants in any future Top Ten I am asked to write.  This is terrifying and yet it is also liberating, and that, in the end, is perhaps the best consequence of all.

Postscript:  Thankfully for my cinephiliac malaise I am not alone in it now, it seems.  Writer-director-producer Steven Soderbergh has recently recut the film for his blog, having lived with and loved it for four decades.  Unfortunately he has taken it down at the request of both Warner Bros. and the Kubrick Estate, but Jordan Blackwell details here some of the changes made.  I would have liked to have seen this version, as it appears to address quite specifically my own new issues with the film, other than that final troubling one; it definitely makes me look forward now to doing the Solaris double-bill I still need to do, having long ago seen Tarkovsky's but not Soderbergh's.

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