Celebs Bow Down in Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures; Stephanie Black's Life and Debt Is Almost Heroic
The cult of personality works so routinely against certain filmmakers that you start to resent when it favors filmmakers with established hip cred. This video documentary's sorriest example comes from Woody Allen: "I had problems with some of the acting and the writing [in Dr. Strangelove] but everything wonderful about that movie was the way it was directed." Does Allen think directing is divorced from writing and acting? He wouldn't know a great director if he tripped over him, and that's what happens here. The rich, famous and clueless line up to bow and trip over Kubrick's corpse?with Tom Cruise narrating, doing a mean Rod Serling.
To have Jan Harlan, your brother-in-law and business partner, produce a biography (without acknowledging the personal relationship) suggests the ultimate control freak. Harlan repeats Jack Nicholson, saying, "Everybody still acknowledges [Kubrick's] 'The Man,' and I still think that underrates him." But Harlan doesn't let Shelley Duvall go into detail with her witty comment on making The Shining ("It was like that movie Groundhog Day"). Spielberg praises 2001: "The [film] form had been changed," as if the New Wave never happened. And Scorsese remembers, "At that time I knew Kubrick was the one." Their awe is less about Kubrick's art than that "he won an astonishing degree of creative independence" (Cruise). But Kubrick decided to have it, demanded it, fought for it?not just won it. Or else there was privilege, cronyism, prejudice, favoritism at work. This is the insight Harlan withholds. He omits the first wife, allows Peter Ustinov to make the bigoted statement that "Spartacus was the best historical epic because it was the only one without Jesus" and lets hubris stand unnoted ("I wonder what Napoleon would have thought of [industry execs] Lew Wasserman and David Picker passing judgment on his life," Kubrick muses).
Only Alex Cox is cogent, crediting Kubrick's collaborators Peter Sellers and Terry Southern and noticing the self-referential 2001 album cover in A Clockwork Orange as a sign of "a director no longer being influenced by others." Though the genius began to fall apart with The Shining?unless you see it as comedy (critic Greg Solman's shrewd take on the entire Kubrick oeuvre)?this hagiography sees everything as a career high.
It all feeds into buff idiocy where 2001's f/x are "a quantum leap for the film industry." But that's not all. It represented the last time before appreciation of film art would be ostracized from pop culture. That image of the embryo facing earth was a cultural landmark?the moment pop peaked and failed. Kubrick had brought the movies' youthful awe to classicism, to seriousness, to the eternal verities, to art. Yet his composition questioned innocence/experience, originality/classicism, erudition and magnificence. That's what the generation who esteem Kubrick almost as much as David Fincher don't do.
Directed by Stephanie Black
These days it's almost unimaginable that a moviemaker could be a political hero. Pop culture has cleaved so deeply?between seriousness and escapism?that most people no longer expect movies to satisfy their political lives. Indeed, a great many contemporary filmgoers think movies are not political?a misconception perpetuated when politically challenging films (Amistad, Three Kings) are dismissed and badly argued ones (Traffic, Bamboozled) are praised.
Recently, I passed up reviewing the restoration?and American debut engagement?of the 1957 The Wide Blue Road, an early film by Gillo Pontecorvo, formerly a political-cultural star when his The Battle of Algiers opened in the 60s. It wasn't because Pontecorvo's Marxist sentiment (faithfully dramatized by his collaborator-screenwriter Franco Solinas) seemed outdated, but the passing of political fashion turned Pontecorvo's imperative in The Wide Blue Road unbearably sentimental. Why bemoan a minor movie better left to oblivion? One could only seem phony or antagonistic to Pontecorvo's very genuine concern with the troubles that Solinas depicted (based on his novel Squarcio) of Italian fishermen attempting to both preserve their livelihoods and resist the encroachment of government-favored big business.
This week Pontecorvo's dramatic simplifications don't seem so bad next to the earnest documentary Life and Debt, about the slow, historic and current destruction of the local economy in Jamaica. Director Stephanie Black (celebrated for the 1990 doc H-2 Worker) has the admirable impulse to uncover Jamaica's political life. She sees it as an absolute, representational tragedy of the New World Order and doesn't hesitate to trace fault all the way to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, organizations that placed cruel restrictions on loans to the struggling Third World country. Yet Black argues through documentary devices that are as stilted as any Pontecorvo and Solinas used, but without the lyrical imagining of drama. It seems much better to have an argument for self-sufficiency played out by Squarcio (Yves Montand), the loner who sets off bombs to catch fish, commanding a boat named L'esperanza while Salvatore (Francisco Rabal), the forward-looking head of the fishermen's collective, works on a boat named Il Progresso. The suggestion that hope is futile without organized social alternatives may be simplistic but at least it's clear.
Black isn't afraid of complexity?that's the proof of her honesty and integrity?but the "big picture" in Life and Debt lacks the human touch of The Wide Blue Road. In place of sentimentalizing actors, Black resorts to something almost worse?an attitudinizing narration penned by the immigrant writer Jamaica Kincaid and read by Belinda Becker. "You're indifferent to the fact that you [tourists] came to this country simply by showing your driver's license?that you can go anywhere. You are excited by the large sheaf of Jamaican dollars you receive in exchange. [The natives] envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom." The tone of voice is cultivated, detached yet bitter. It might as well be the emotional expression of a character whose plight the audience can follow, rather than a faceless voice whose righteousness we are expected to share. Pontecorvo, counting on Montand's and Rabal's sexual magnetism (even throwing in a younger, bright-eyed love triangle for pin-up purposes), was not ignorant about winning moviegoers' emotions. But there's impertinence in Black's (and Kincaid's) angry presumptions; they give us our response before we've had a chance to assess the facts of the situation for ourselves.
Hellish as Jamaica seems, with potato and banana growers being priced out of their farms, laborers corralled into Free Trade work camps and then being replaced by immigrant workers, and politicians both helpless and conniving, the narrator insistently reduces one's response to pique. (Kincaid condemns the founding of Jamaica as "settled by human rubbish from Europe.") What keeps Life and Debt from being an heroic political film (or a movie to place on the same poet-polemic scale as the several Bob Marley tracks heard, or the Mutabaruka song that supplies the film's title) is that its issues aren't transformed into provocation. Watching "a country about to unravel because it cannot finance what it needs" can also be a personal drama. African filmmakers like Sembene and Mambety could make art out of such politics. It was essential for them. They were practiced at it and perceived the tragedy in personal terms, just as Pontecorvo and Solinas did. The Wide Blue Sea took obvious inspiration from the political subtext of great emotional dramas like Visconti's La Terra Trema and Clouzot's Wages of Fear, even though they did not match those films until later with the stirring, ingenious, triumphant The Battle of Algiers and the more polemical Burn!
In our hemisphere, there are few examples to inspire what Black wants to do. Barbara Kopple's superb docs American Dream and Fallen Champ were conceived on a smaller scale. Life and Debt means to be a national epic, and Black seeks a complicated documentary form to catch all aspects of the terrible experience. (She's a keen observer, catching IMF director Horst Kohler's flub: "The issue is to make globalization work for the benefit of all. There will not be a good future for the rich if there is no prospect for a better future for the pure?uh, poor.") Black mixes contrived news broadcasts with local color interviews. From source footage of England's Queen Elizabeth granting Jamaican independence in 1962 (after 300 years of colonialism) to new interviews with a perturbed Michael Manley ("You ask in whose interest does the IMF work? Ask who set it up!"), it's a long story of First vs. Third World competition and frustration. She'd need a much longer feature?or better yet, a season-long network commission?to take the place of fake "reality" game shows. Who Wants to Be a Survivor or the Weakest Link on a Temptation Island Overseen by Big Brother?
Any potential for heroic political filmmaking is forestalled by our culture's indifference. That's probably what made Black underestimate audience capacity to understand Jamaica's tragedy without a coercive narrator. A lone documentarian might as well be blowing up fish in the water as conceiving?and pulling off?the kind of reimagined documentary-fiction that Pontecorvo masterminded when he finally worked his way up from The Wide Blue Road to the great Battle of Algiers. It's clear that Black decided to plead Jamaica's case as she did because she understandably doesn't trust that there is any audience to arouse. So she preaches. When farmers cry, "This is our country, our turf, give us back our market," after the Inter-America Development Bank places bans that kill local cattle and milk industries, or one Jamaican civilian assesses, "Our government has been visionless and weak-kneed," it's hard not to be struck with anger and pity; but the narrator's play on "human rubbish" lowers those feelings. And it's too sententious to go from describing the refuse of flushed toilets to the "African slaves this [same] ocean has swallowed up."
Ideally, Black would have broken through the indifference that now exists to actual documentary, real-life political filmmaking, and found a Jamaican family or person to focus her disgust. The Jamaican flight attendants, hotel workers and tour guides she zips by no doubt have interesting views (ambivalent or not) on the exploitation of their home and themselves. Scoring off white tourists is too easy?as if Jamaica's black tourists were not also indifferent or appalled. Without finding a way to effect Pontecorvo's?hell, even Oliver Stone's?personalizing of political history, Black went from heroic effort to desperate compromise.
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