Saturday, 26 October 2013

Rudy Wurlitzer: Infinite West

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
A descendant of the Wurlitzer family of jukebox/organ fame, Rudy Wurlitzer came to prominence with the publication of two short novels Nog (1969) and Flats (1970). Praised by Thomas Pynchon and a key text of the countercultural movement, Nog follows a lone narrator on an endless journey through an American West filled with ‘obsessive monologues, disintegrating memories, hoped-for horizons, buried myths, paranoid plans.’ 

Wurlitzer became a screenwriter around the same time, first collaborating with Jim McBride on the post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), before being approached by director Monte Hellman, an admirer of Nog, to rewrite a script called Two-Lane Blacktop – an existential road movie that is a logical outcome of the elliptical and filmic aspects of Wurlitzer’s fiction.

Two-Lane Blacktop stars singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson alongside frequent Sam Peckinpah collaborator Warren Oates. Heavily publicised prior to its release (Esquire dubbed it ‘the Movie of the Year’ and published the screenplay in its entirety) but then ignored and dumped by distributors, Two-Lane’s reputation has grown over the years to become a canonical ’70s film. Wurlitzer went on to write Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) for Sam Peckinpah; Walker (1987) for Alex Cox; also working on Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), Volker Schlöndorff’s Voyager (1991) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993). 

Wurlitzer was working on a screenplay with Michelangelo Antonioni at the time of the director’s death. He wrote the libretto for the Philip Glass’ opera In The Penal Colony, and has also written scripts for the television courthouse drama 100 Centre Street, directed by Sidney Lumet.

The following is an edited extract of an interview with Rudy Wulitzer for the A.V. Club in 2011 in which he discusses his early screenwriting career:

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
AVC: How did Monte Hellman approach you about writing ‘Two-Lane Blacktop?’ You were best known then for your experimental novel ‘Nog’, which doesn’t exactly seem like Hollywood material.

RW: I know! That was like, ‘Wow!’ [Laughs.]

AVC: Had you given any thought to writing for film before that?

RW: I was writing these books one after the other – Nog, Flats, and Quake – and I didn’t see it at that time, but it was sort of a trilogy. So, I was broke, because those books weren’t exactly going to be on Oprah. I didn’t want to teach. I was a bartender for a while and I didn’t want to do that. So it was great. It was a real adventure, and I really liked L.A. in those days. I’m totally alienated from it now, but it was sort of a dreamy place. And I didn’t know that many people there, which was a great benefit. I was left alone, you know? I had written some of Nog there, and that was great, because there was a certain kind of freedom involved.

AVC: How did you go from writing ‘Nog’ to writing screenplays?

RW: Well, I have a visual imagination, so it was not an awkward jump into the form. In fact, I liked the form a lot. Especially when I was left alone. In those days, I didn’t feel sublimated to the director as much – at least, at first. With Monte, he just shot what I wrote. And I can remember an old, grizzled producer saying, ‘Well, son, enjoy it, because that ain’t gonna ever happen again.’ [Laughs.] And yeah, he was right. I mean, sort of. Although Sam pretty much shot what I wrote. And Hal [Ashby]would’ve. I worked a little bit on Coming Home for him. I did the last draft, and he was wonderful. I would’ve gone on to work with him anytime.

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
 AVC: Was the raft scene in ‘Pat Garrett’ in your script? It’s a purely visual moment, and seems to be much of a piece with Peckinpah’s oeuvre.

RW: Yes, I wrote that and MGM hated it. And Sam, when his final cut reemerged some time later, he put it back in. It was an important scene for me, because it worked as a metaphor for the whole Western myths of origins. It just worked on a poetic level.

AVC: Which is not the kind of thing you can say to a studio executive.

RW: No! [Laughs.] Are you crazy? ‘There’s the door!’ But in terms of the whole myth of the West and the frontier – which also mirrored my own sense of internal frontiers, the myth of freedom and all that – in this last book I wrote, a lot of those scripts and research and filmic ideas I was left with found their way into that book, called The Drop Edge Of Yonder. It seemed to complete something for me, because I used the best of that.

AVC: The visual quality of the writing in Nog is so important. It’s almost the only thing that allows you to keep your bearings. You can see how Monte Hellman would latch onto that.

RW: Monte is unlike any director I’ve ever known. He’s very innocent, in his way. What he liked – and, I think, he had in his earlier films that he did with Jack Nicholson – what really turns him on is to be surprised. I think he thought, ‘This guy will give me something new.’ It’s the way he casts, too, for better or for worse. They’re mostly people who’ve never acted before. So, there’s a mixture. With Two-Lane, what’s so interesting about it now, in retrospect, is the non-actors, like James Taylor, and the girl, Laurie [Bird], mixing in with the real old pros, like Warren Oates and Harry Dean [Stanton]. It gives it a strange energy, which, at the time, people were sort of freaked by. But now, I find it all quite lovable, don’t you? [Laughs.]

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
AVC: Absolutely. I love James Taylor’s performance.

RW: Yeah, and he was totally out of his mind. [Laughs.]

AVC: I think it’s, by far, the best thing he’s done in any medium.

RW: Yeah, that’s because he didn’t know what he was doing. And none of us did. It was a process that – more than any other film that I’ve been involved with, except maybe when I worked with Robert Frank – existed in the present. Films are such a linear medium, and they depend so much on the overloaded cost of things, and how it’s set up before, and where it’s gonna go after, so you’re locked into this linear process. But Monte, with his extraordinary openness and innocence, didn’t play by those rules. He didn’t know that he wasn’t playing by them. It never occurred to him.

AVC: You mentioned the juxtaposition of the road movie and the internal journey, as well, which is something that very much plays into the books and the films. It seems to be pretty consistent.

RW: To go back to what you were saying about why Monte chose me, for all the strangeness of Nog, it does represent a very eccentric road movie. So, I think that’s what appealed to him, one of the things.

Two-Lane Blacktop (Directed by Monte Hellman)
AVC: There’s something truly subversive about ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’, which is a movie about a road race that never ends and no one wins.

RW: It didn’t start that way. When I came into the situation, the only thing I kept from the original script was the idea of these race people, the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl, and this cross-country race. But nothing else. So I was very free. I hung out with car freaks in the San Fernando Valley and read all the magazines. I didn’t know a car from a cow before that. It was like a great new language. And the way Monte cast it, with these non-actors like James Taylor and Laurie and Dennis Wilson, and then with these old, great character actors; the balance was really interesting in terms of language and energy, this sort of innocence compared to this high-powered professionalism of Warren Oates. As far as the ending goes, we didn’t know how to end it, and it seemed wrong to end it with them winning or losing; that wasn’t where it was at. The whole thing was about the process of being on the move, the road to nowhere. Of course, when the film opened, people really thought it was nuts. They were expecting a classic story of winners and losers and races, all that stuff. And it didn’t happen.

AVC: Was there a model for the character of GTO, played by Warren Oates?

RW: Not really. A lot of it was just Warren. I just went for it, because I was working against the one-dimensional innocence of the non-actors. They didn’t have that range. They had one note. I wanted to write something that involved a lot of notes that would help balance it. So that’s what I was trying to do. Make it over the top and with humor. The non-actors’ parts didn’t have any humor.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: There’s also, in both ‘Two-Lane’ and ‘Pat Garrett’, a sense of men wrestling with the roles available to them. Pat Garrett and the Driver want to be tough guys, but in a sense, pushing toward that archetype destroys them.

RW: Some of it probably had to do with my own relationship to the film world. One of the things I saw looking at these early films once again was how sublimated the screenwriter is to the powers that be: director and stars. It’s something that I can’t do any more. Although, that said, with those scripts I was freer and looser and more connected to my own instincts than afterwards. So that’s the irony of it. But it was certainly a subject even before the film business, that one has as a writer, and also where I came from – in other words, a complicated relationship with authority.

AVC: You’re dealing with this foundational American myth of the frontier and the road movie, the idea that you find yourself by leaving home. Other countries don’t have that in the same way.

RW: You could say that represents our myths of origins. I’ve always been attracted to that in a lot of different ways, because I’ve always been a kind of nomadic character.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: Did you move around a lot as a kid? When did the wanderlust kick in for you?

RW: The wanderlust kicked in when I was about 16 or 17. I got a job on an oil tanker as a wiper in the engine room. We went from Philadelphia to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait. And then after that, I spent a lot of time in Europe. Paris.

AVC: And that was in the ’50s or the ’60s?

RW: The ’60s. I was influenced a lot by an old poet that I knew, Robert Graves. So I hung out with him. New York in the ’60s was a very exciting place for me, because the first little film I did was with Claes Oldenburg, and it was kind of a happening film. So, I was influenced by Claes and [Robert] Rauschenberg, and the whole art scene, [Jackson] Pollock. And the freedom. The whole jazz scene in New York was great, Ornette Coleman and those kind of people. And the poets: [William S.] Burroughs, I knew, and [Allen] Ginsberg, and Phil Glass was a very good friend of mine. He was working as a plumber then. I had a job at the Five Spot. It was just a kind of extraordinary time of complete permission. The cliché about the ’60s really seemed to be true in the Lower East Side in those days.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: The movies don’t celebrate that kind of freedom, though. They’re about the dangers of freedom, more than its possibility. It seems significant that the race in ‘Two-Lane’ goes from west to east, which is the opposite of the great westward expansion.

RW: Yes. There’s the myth of that. And also, in a literary sense, as I look back on it, what I was questioning was the whole naturalism of the narrative throughline. That was, in a literary sense, what I was trying to do in the books, but also in Two-Lane. Two-Lane related to those three early books more than any other film or book, except perhaps for Drop Edge. That’s an interesting way to think about it.

AVC: There are little bits of Western mythology that thread through them as well, but in ‘Pat Garrett’ you deal with it directly. As with a lot of Peckinpah’s movies, it’s about the seduction of those myths, and also the incredibly destructive power of them.

RW: I was talking about this the other day to this friend of mine, the director Alex Cox, who’s a big fan of that film. And we were saying what’s really interesting, a few people have pointed out about that film, is the politics of it. The Santa Fe ring, and how they were controlling things. That sort of mirrored in Peckinpah’s mind the whole thing he was going through with MGM – being controlled by these other forces where you aren’t quite sure what they’re thinking, you’re at the mercy of. So independence is a loaded thing, and you pay a big price for it at times. But it’s worth it.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: There’s an idea of being in love with self-destruction or nothingness.

RW: That’s an interesting point, because as I look back on that time, I was always sort of skating on the edge of nihilism, but always hoping or trying to find a way to transcend it. To not let it just be nihilism, but to go for a bigger metaphor, and bigger view. Not always successfully, but that was in the room as well, for me, anyway…

AVC: ‘Pat Garrett’ never made it out in its proper form.

RW: I know, I know. There was all that stuff with MGM and – oh man, it was a nightmare. Peckinpah was on the warpath. But those days, now I realize, ‘My God, that was an amazing time.’ When you could just proceed with a certain degree of autonomy and adventure. It was amazing. I would write one of these crazy books and then go out and make a film, and I didn’t know what all the complaints were about. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’ [Laughs.] And then of course, the big, steel doors shut down and it was bad from then on. But the people I worked with, like Monte [Hellman] and Peckinpah, Hal Ashby I worked with awhile, they were all great. And individuals. The whole corporate envelope hadn’t gathered. There were storm clouds on the horizon, but I was so stuck in my own fun, I never saw it coming.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: ‘Pat Garrett’ and ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’, even more so ‘Glen And Randa’, it’s a little hard to believe they got made in the first place.

RW: They couldn’t get made now, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] It’s amazing they were made. Then in the ’80s, of course, it all shifted and changed and became more corporate. The people you were dealing with more were salespeople. Back then, you’d write a script and Monte would say, ‘Yeah, gee, I read this crazy book by you. I’d like to see what you could do.’ So I completely threw everything out and did my own thing, and no one questioned anything. [Laughs.] There were no salespeople in the room. You didn’t have to pitch; you just did your thing. So you were free to go on your own journey, and it was more of a collaboration in that way.

AVC: How did ‘Esquire’ get the idea that ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ was the ‘movie of the year’ and end up publishing the script?

RW: I don’t know. Somebody must’ve sent them the script, and the script had a certain kind of, I guess, cachet they liked. It was the only script they’d ever published. I think they felt, after the first returns were in, ‘My God, what an insane thing. We’ll never do that one again.’

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
AVC: Do you feel like ‘Two-Lane’ and ‘Pat Garrett’ reflect what you had in mind? Or improved on it?

RW: In retrospect, I’m stunned by how they turned out better than I thought they would. At the time, once you’re involved in the whole drama of production and this and that and the personalities, you just don’t know. You’re more aware of the problems and the various cuts. And then when it’s released, and the reviews are mixed at best, you think, ‘Ugh.’ But now, I’m amazed at how good those films are. And it’s not just – well, it is, in a way – that they couldn’t be made now, but the degree of freedom and exploration and spontaneity involved just doesn’t happen now. First of all, films are a hundred times more expensive now, and they’re hooked into a global audience, and it’s all a kind of corporate sell. There’s a sort of magic sense when you’re making a film that you’re just in your own world and trying to work for its own sake. These directors, like Peckinpah, he was amazing. He was crazy and confrontational and inspired and generous, and all these things that now get sublimated. That whole photo-artistic temperament was given full range. So now, I’m fond of those films…

Interview: Rudy Wurlitzer. By Sam Adams. The A.V. Club, August 26, 2011. Full article here

Friday, 18 October 2013

Andrei Tarkovsky: Dialogue on Science Fiction

Solaris (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
Where 2001 examined the technological progress of man through a notably distant lens from its characters, Solaris devastatingly explores the inner psychology of its protagonist (scientist Kris Kelvin), who is tortured by phantom images of his dead wife aboard a spaceship hovering the Solaris ocean, which is argued to have the special ability to accommodate the most desperate human desires.
Where 2001 can be argued as having a relatively positive view towards progressing space travel and thus forwarding the Apollo agenda, Solaris is quite pessimistic towards human space travel. Where technology in 2001 is intended an awe-inspiring display of choreographed beauty, the technology of Solaris is decrepit and useless, and the halls of the spaceship act as largely abandoned canals of depression and defeat rather than a locale for progressive innovation... Space travel is viewed in Solaris as a largely futile, lonely, and unattractive venture. Human space exploration has not led to a final accomplishment here as much as it has simply come to a standstill...
                             – Landon Palmer:  Kubrick’s ‘2001’ vs. Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’
The following conversation is from an interview by Naum Abramov with Andrei Tarkovsky that took place in 1970 while the great Russian director was working on his adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris. Initially billed in America as the Soviet Union’s reply to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), at first glance, both films share similar concerns in exploring mankind’s unsettled role in the universe and the consequences of detachment from his natural habitat. However, it’s evident that each film’s view on space, and mankind’s role within it, are quite different:

ABRAMOV: You’re working on a film adaptation of the science-fiction novel ‘Solaris’, by Stanislaw Lem. Lately, the science-fiction genre has attracted the interest of many prominent filmmakers. This seems to be an indication of how the genre answers some sort of inner need for contemporary viewers and filmmakers alike. Complex, intellectual-artistic content can be combined in one film with aspects of a purely entertaining spectacle directed toward the widest possible audience. I think this is especially true for the genre of science-fiction in cinema. Viewers of different levels of sophistication would appreciate different elements of these films; in some cases the philosophical content, in other cases, the strictly superficial, dramatic, exciting aspects of the plot.

In your opinion, what needs are satisfied in our time by the genre of science-fiction in cinema? Is it a desire to see the scientific and technological progress of humanity, incarnated in the vivid imagery of a contemporary film? Is it the expression of philosophical thought within the strange and thrilling context of a flight into space; the future of our planet; or the story of some brave, new invention? Maybe it’s the striving of the writer and filmmaker to study people’s character, our contemporary character, with the dramatic events dictated by the genre?

And finally, why have you turned to science-fiction, a genre which is so new to you?

TARKOVSKY: The questions you’re asking, as far as I understand, are connected on one hand with filmmaking and on the other hand with the viewer. But first, I want to explain why I decided to adapt Lem’s novel, Solaris. Whether or not my first two films are good or bad, they are, in the final analysis, both about the same thing. They are about the extreme manifestation of loyalty to a moral debt, the struggle for it, and faith in it – even to the extent of a personality crisis. They are about an individual armed with conviction, an individual with a sense of personal destiny, for whom catastrophe is an unbroken human souI.

I’m interested in a hero that goes on to the end despite everything. Because only such a person can claim victory. The dramatic form of my films is a token of my desire to express the struggle and the greatness of the human spirit. I think you can easily connect this concept with my previous films. Both Ivan and Andrei do everything against their own safety. The first physically, the second in a spiritual sense. Both of them in a search for an ideal, moral way of living.

As for Solaris, my decision to adapt it to the screen is not at all a result of some fondness for the genre. The main thing is that in Solaris, Lem presents a problem that is close to me: the problem of overcoming, of convictions, of moral transformation on the path of struggle within the limits of one’s own destiny. The depth and meaning of Lem’s novel are not at all dependent on the science-fiction genre, and it’s not enough to appreciate his novel simply for the genre.

The novel is not only about the human mind encountering the unknown, but it is also about the moral leap of a human being in relation to new discoveries in scientific knowledge. And overcoming the obstacles on this path leads to the painful birth of a new morality. This is the ‘price of progress’ that Kelvin pays in Solaris. And Kelvin’s price is the face to face encounter with the materializatron of his own conscience. But Kelvin doesn’t betray his moral position. Because betrayal in this situation means to remain at the former level, not even attempting to rise to a higher moral level. And Kelvin pays a tragic price for this step forward. The science-fiction genre creates the necessary premise for this connection between moral problems and the physiology of the human mind.

ABRAMOV: And nevertheless, even though you emphasize your indifference to the genre, you are resolving this philosophical problem which concerns you within the genre of science-fiction. lt seems to me that science-fiction creates such special conditions of cinematic representation for itself that it’s impossible just to shrug them off. The filmmaker encounters different intellectual and artistic capacities in a novel and a film. He deals with the cinematic incarnation on screen of what was created by the imagination of the author of a literary work, with the need to provide the fantastic with a plastic specificity.

These questions must have presented themselves to you.

TARKOVSKY: The complexity in adapting Solaris is an issue of film adaptations in general and secondarily an issue of science-fiction adaptations. These are the two fundamental issues of my current work. The first issue relates to the principles of a work of literature in general. Prose possesses the special characteristic that its imagery depends on the sensory experience of the reader. So, no matter how detailed this or that scene is developed, the reader, to the degree of his own experience, sees that which his own experience, character, bias, and tastes have prepared him to see. Even the most detailed descriptions in prose, in a way, will elude the control of the writer and the reader will perceive them subjectively.

In the literal, superficial sense, War and Peace is read and envisioned by thousands of readers; this makes it a thousand different books as a result of the differences in experience between the writer and the reader. In this significantly important aspect is the special relevance and ubiquity of literature – its democracy, if you will. In this is the guarantee of the reader’s co-creation. A writer subconsciously depends on an imaginative reader to see more and to see more clearly than the presented, laconic description. A reader can perceive even the most ruthless, naturalistic details with omission through his subjective, aesthetic filter. I would call this peculiarity of prosaic description to influence the reader ‘aesthetic adaptation’. Principally, it governs perception and the prose author invades the soul of the reader within the belly of this Trojan horse.

This is in literature. But what about cinema? Where in cinema does a viewer have this freedom of choice? Each and every frame, every scene and episode, outwardly doesn’t even describe, but literally records actions, landscapes, character’s faces. And in this is the terrifying danger of not being accepted by the viewer. Because on film there is a very unambiguous designation of the concrete, against which the viewer’s personal, sensory experience rebels.

Some may argue that cinema is attractive because it’s really a source of what is exotic and unusual for a viewer. That isn’t quite right. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Cinema, in contrast to literature, is the filmmaker’s experience caught on film. And if this personal experience is really sincerely expressed then the viewer accepts the film.

I’ve noticed, from my own experience, if the external, emotional construction of images in a film are based on the filmmaker’s own memory, on the kinship of one’s personal experience with the fabric of the film, then the film will have the power to affect those who see it. If the director follows only the superficial, literal base of the film, for example the screenplay, even if in the most convincing, realistic, and conscientious manner, the viewer will be left unaffected.

Therefore, if you’re objectively incapable of influencing a viewer with his own experience, as in literature as I mentioned earlier, and you’re unable to achieve that in principle, then in cinema, you should sincerely tell about your own experience. That’s why even now when all half-literate people have learned to make movies, cinema remains an art form, which only a small number of directors have actually mastered, and they can be counted with the fingers of one hand. To remould a literary work into the frames of a film means to tell your version of the literary source, filtering it through yourself.

ABRAMOV: Where do you draw the line between a filmmaker’s interpretation and the original work? Isn’t there a danger of remoulding the literary work to the point of losing its original stylistics and visual structure?

TARKOVSKY: Working in science-fiction demands great subtlety and sincerity, especially if you’re talking about the issue of perspective. That’s why Lem is such a great science-fiction writer. You would understand what I mean if you read SolarisEden, and Return from the Stars.

In Eden, Lem tells about an expedition to a planet where the members of the expedition encounter a reality, the developmental laws of which they cannot comprehend. These laws slip away from understanding, like thoughts just forgotten. The air is filled with guesses and analogies, seen by the naked eye, but they can’t be caught. It’s a very specific, unnerving, and frustrating condition. And Lem does a brilliant job of expressing this condition. He describes in detail everything that the expedition encounters. But more than the detail, he describes what it is the people see, while not understanding what it means.

The same thing is in Return from the Stars. The protagonist returns from a flight to different galaxies. On earth, because of the differences in time (he has traveled at the speed of light), life has progressed through several generations. The returned astronaut walks through the city and doesn’t understand anything. Lem describes everything the astronaut encounters in extreme detail and despite this detailed description, we don’t understand anything either, along with the protagonist. These emotionally tense pieces express, for me, the quintessence of the author’s personal experience projected into the future.

ABRAMOV: The majority of directors of science-fiction movies think it necessary to impress the viewer’s imagination with the concrete details of everyday life on other worlds or the details of a spacecraft’s construction, which often crowd out the central idea of the film. I think Kubrick’s ‘Space Odyssey’ is guilty of that.

TARKOVSKY: For some reason, in all the science-fiction films I’ve seen, the filmmakers force the viewer to examine the details of the material structure of the future. More than that, sometimes, like Kubrick, they call their own films premonitions. It’s unbelievable! Let alone that 2001: A Space Odyssey is phoney on many points even for specialists.

For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated. I would like to shoot Solaris in a way that the viewer would be unaware of any exoticism. Of course, I’m referring to the exoticism of technology.

For example, if one shoots a scene of passengers boarding a trolley, which, let’s say, we’d never seen before or known anything about, then we’d get something like Kubrick’s moon-landing scene. On the other hand, if one were to shoot a moon landing like a common trolley stop in a modern film, then everything would be as it should. That means to create psychologically, not an exotic but a real, everyday environment that would be conveyed to the viewer through the perception of the film’s characters. That’s why a detailed ‘examination’ of the technological processes of the future transforms the emotional foundation of a film, as a work of art, into a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth.

Design is design. Painting is painting. And a film is a film. One should ‘separate the firmament from the waters’ and not engage in making comic books.

When cinema moves out from under the power of money, namely, the costs of production, when there will be a method for the author of a work of art to record reality as with a pen and paper, paints and canvas, chisel and marble, ‘X’ and the filmmaker, then we’ll see. Then cinema will be the foremost art and its muse the queen of all the others.

– Naum Abramov: Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science-Fiction on the Screen. From Ekran, 1970-1971, 162-165. Translated from Russian by Jake Mahaffy and Yulia Mahaffy. In Tarkovsky Interviews. Edited by John Gianvito. University of Mississippi Press, 2006.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Stanley Kubrick: Thoughts On Narrative

2001: A Space Odyssey (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick insisted that a feature film can be constructed from six to eight ‘non-submersible units’. A non-submersible unit is a fundamental story sequence where all the non-essential elements have been stripped away. These units would be so robust and compelling that they would, by themselves, be able to keep the viewer interested. They would contain only what is necessary for the storyline. And when joined together they would form a greater narrative.

Kubrick’s ideas on cinematic narrative seem to have been formed at an early stage, as far back as 1960, where he summed up his approach: 
I think the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start, the start gets under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.
The way Kubrick reduced 2001: A Space Odyssey to its most important elements was indicative of his emerging method of telling stories. Over the years, Kubrick had adapted many books into films. By the time he came to conceive of 2001: A Space Odyssey he realised that all he needed – as he later told science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss – are six or eight ‘non-submersible units’: basic story points that cannot be reduced any further. When the story points are linked together they form a narrative that will contain a balanced mix of all the themes, images and characters.

On release in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey polarized critical and public opinion. Many of its admirers considered it a prophetic masterpiece while its detractors praised the special effects but found it confusing and disappointing as drama.

The final scenes in particular remained for many an enigmatic, purely emotional, non-verbal experience. Indeed, less than half the film had dialogue. It was a re-organization of the traditional dramatic structure. Process became more important than plot. As one critic put it: ‘It was a film not about space travel; it was space travel’. 

Kubrick retorted: ‘The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyze it.’ Notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey was Kubrick’s first experiment with restructuring the conventions of the three-act drama. It’s likely it started out to be something quite different. The book based on the original screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick is literal, more explicit. The film, in its early stages, had a narrator’s voice. It was cut gradually and then eliminated completely, by virtue of which 2001: A Space Odyssey evolved as a more visual experience.

By the time Stanley Kubrick began working with Brian Aldiss on A.I. Artificial Intelligence (eventually filmed by Stephen Spielberg) Kubrick had formulated his theory of storytelling. As Aldiss recalls, Kubrick told him:
To forget about the narrative, you don’t want narrative, just concentrate on various scenes. He then expounded his theory of non-submersible units… you can see it working out in particular in 2001 where there are these chunks of narrative. This I believe is one of the attractions of 2001 – not only the music, not only the extraordinary silences and the beauty of the photography, but the fact that they don’t quite fit together. This gives the film a sense of mystery, so the intelligent viewer has to construct their own narrative.
In an interview for the documentary Stanley and Us, Brian Aldiss expanded on Kubrick’s notion of constructing a film based around a succession of irreducible sequences:
I was always keen on the idea of narrative. My books always have a narrative. That is to say, cause and effect. That’s what I like. But Stanley was less interested in that and he said to me ‘now forget about the narrative’. He said ‘what you need to make a movie is six ‘non-submersible units’’. That was the phrase he used: ‘non-submersible units’. And he said when we’ve got those we’re away. And I did actually produce one [a script] that he loved and was really enthusiastic about. It was the one time in our working relationship when he was enthusiastic and he said to me ‘Brian, I have the impression that you have two styles of writing – one is brilliant and the other’s not so good’. But when you think about this philosophy of the ‘non-submersible unit’ you can see it in action most effectively, I think, in The Shining. You have an episode and then it’s linked to another by a blackboard that would just say ‘Thursday, Four PM’. You know something bad is going to happen on Thursday at Four PM. It heightens the suspense and so in that respect it’s a very good device. But when you examine 2001, you can see the non-submersible units and they don’t actually quite link up. For instance, the last mysterious episode is almost complete in itself. And then there’s the episode on the ship with HAL. These are the units. And it’s because they don’t link up that we find 2001 so interesting. There’s something that our intellects can’t quite resolve and that’s an attraction in a movie.

Thus 2001: A Space Odyssey can be understood as a break with traditional cinematic narrative, an attempt to remove itself from a conventional way of telling a cinematic story. It was a ‘new way of assimilating narrative’. 2001: A Space Odyssey was not an articulated plot but a ‘succession of vivid moments’. 

In the case of the narrative structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey one can distinguish four such sections or units: ‘The Dawn of Man’, an untitled second section, the third section called ‘Jupiter Mission – 18 months Later’, and finally ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’, with each section separated by a narrative ellipsis.

This visual approach to storytelling was later discussed by Stanley Kubrick in an interview with Playboy Magazine in which he elaborates on the intention behind the non-conventional narrative of 2001: A Space Odyssey:

PLAYBOY: Much of the controversy surrounding 2001 deals with the meaning of the metaphysical symbols that abound in the film – the polished black monoliths, the orbital conjunction of Earth, Moon and sun at each stage of the monoliths’ intervention in human destiny, the stunning final kaleidoscopic maelstrom of time and space that engulfs the surviving astronaut and sets the stage for his rebirth as a ‘star-child’ drifting toward Earth in a translucent placenta. One critic even called ‘2001’ ‘the first Nietzschean film,’ contending that its essential theme is Nietzsche’s concept of man’s evolution from ape to human to superman. What was the metaphysical message of ‘2001’?

KUBRICK: It’s not a message that I ever intend to convey in words. 2001 is a non-verbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to ‘explain’ a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level – but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point. I think that if 2001 succeeds at all, it is in reaching a wide spectrum of people who would not often give a thought to man’s destiny, his role in the cosmos and his relationship to higher forms of life. But even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001 would, if presented as abstractions, fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intellectual categories; experienced in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibers of one’s being.

PLAYBOY: Without laying out a philosophical road map for the viewer, can you tell us your own interpretation of the meaning of the film?

KUBRICK: No, for the reasons I’ve already given. How much would we appreciate La Gioconda   today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth’ – or ‘because she’s hiding a secret from her lover.’ It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a ‘reality’ other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.

PLAYBOY: Arthur Clarke has said of the film, ‘If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.’ Why should the viewer have to see a film twice to get its message?

KUBRICK: I don’t agree with that statement of Arthur’s, and I believe he made it facetiously. The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not – and should not – require further amplification. Just speaking generally, however, I would say that there are elements in any good film that would increase the viewer’s interest and appreciation on a second viewing; the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen. The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art. We don’t believe that we should hear a great piece of music only once, or see a great painting once, or even read a great book just once. But the film has until recent years been exempted from the category of art – a situation I’m glad is finally changing.

PLAYBOY: Some prominent critics – including Renata Adler of ‘The New York Times’, John Simon of ‘The New Leader’, Judith Crist of ‘New York’ magazine and Andrew Sarris of  ‘The Village Voice’ – apparently felt that 2001 should be among those films still exempted from the category of art; all four castigated it as dull, pretentious and overlong. [KAEL: ’It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie’; ADLER: ’Incredibly boring’; SARRIS: ’A disaster’] How do you account for their hostility?

KUBRICK: The four critics you mention all work for New York publications. The reviews across America and around the world have been 95 percent enthusiastic. Some were more perceptive than others, of course, but even those who praised the film on relatively superficial grounds were able to get something of its message. New York was the only really hostile city. Perhaps there is a certain element of the lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema, But film critics, fortunately, rarely have any effect on the general public; houses everywhere are packed and the film is well on its way to becoming the greatest moneymaker in M-G-M’s history. Perhaps this sounds like a crass way to evaluate one’s work, but I think that, especially with a film that is so obviously different, record audience attendance means people are saying the right things to one another after they see it – and isn’t this really what it’s all about?

PLAYBOY: Speaking of what it’s all about – if you’ll allow us to return to the philosophical interpretation of ‘2001’ – would you agree with those critics who call it a profoundly religious film?

KUBRICK: I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001 but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe. Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia – less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe – can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities – and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.

– Extract from Eric Nordern: Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick, 1968.