Sunday, September 2, 2012

Harlan Ellison. A space odyssey.

Re-read Ellison’s criticism of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in Harlan Ellison is Watching -- a collection of Ellison's film and TV reviews and essays. A review from 1969, no less. A raw gut reaction, unfiltered, when the movie was new. A negative review. Harsh. A slap in Kubrick’s face.

Ellison thought the movie was The Emperor’s Space Clothes. He thought it was a vapid, empty exercise that all the cool people (Rob Reiner, et al) were praising for its profundity – which they all assumed was there because they just didn’t get it. But there was nothing to get. The Space Emperor was naked.Thus spake Harlan.

According to Harlan Ellison, 2001 was all flash and filigree. But had no story at its heart. Sound and fury signifying big box office numbers. But not even a tale.

OK. So I rocked back on my heels. Then I thought about it.

No story? Really? Is Ellison right?

OK …

Kubrick was a formalist; he was interested in patterns of images for their own sake. He built those patterns on the foundations of stories, but story wasn’t what he was interested in. Kubrick wasn’t a storyteller. For Kubrick, the story wasn’t the goal; it was the excuse. But he knew he needed good ones.

That’s why Kubrick built his movies on solid storylines. Strong foundations created by Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen King, Gustav Harford, Anthony Burgess, et al. Real writers. Real storytellers.

So, the stories were there in Kubrick’s movies.. They were the foundation. But you probably wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t read the original stories.

In Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack Torrence, the writer, doesn’t feel like a man. After all, in America’s Calvinist mind, a man is defined by his job. A man is paid for his craft; he brings home the bacon. Jack isn’t and doesn’t, and feels useless, a failure to his family. Then Jack gets a temp job taking care of the Overlook Hotel in the winter – and brings his family with him. The malevolent spirits inhabiting this hotel seduce Jack with the one thing he can’t resist. A job. A very important job. Jack’s the hotel caretaker. (AKA, the spirits’ meat puppet doing their bidding in the physical world.) But Jack’s family might take that job away from him. Which is why the spirits tell Jack to kill his family. That’s why Jack goes nuts.

That’s in King’s novel. It’s implied in Kubrick’s movie adaptation. But you’d never know it from watching the movie. It’s the foundation holding everything up. It’s hinted at. But it’s never spelled out. As far as you know from watching the film, Jack goes nuts for no reason whatsoever.

In 2001, aliens leave a sentinel on the moon. These aliens have jump-started human evolution. If humans ever evolve to the point they leave earth and land on the moon, they’ll notice the sentinel’s magnetic field and dig it up. This will trigger the sentinel to send a signal informing the aliens that we’ve made it this far – and are ready for the next phase of evolution.

That’s clear in Arthur C. Clarke’s original short story – and his expanded novel/screenplay based on that short story. You could figure it out from a close reading of Kubrick’s movie. After paying very close attention and seeing it a half a dozen times. It’s implied. But it isn’t spelled out. It isn’t made clear. There was, originally, a voiceover narrative. But Kubrick got rid of it. He didn’t want to make it clear.

Kubrick wasn’t interested in the story. He was interested in the imagery.

Ellison, on the other hand, is interested in both story and imagery. He’s exceedingly visual. His writing has burned indelible images in my mind. Eyes turning to whorls of dust and melting from their sockets; a gargoyle pulping New Yorkers with the 30 Rock globe; the three eyes of a damned soul trapped in a Vegas slot machine – I could go on. A great imagist, dig? But Ellison always yokes his images to the tale. He has no patience for writers and filmmakers who don’t.

So (according to another essay in The Glass Teat), Ellison thought Roman Polanski’s The Tenant was crap and the original Curse of the Cat Woman was brilliant. Really? The Tenant was all image and implication; Cat Woman was a creepy urban legend with a dash of Freudian crap – but a solid, pulpy tale nonetheless. But Ellison got it backwards. The Tenant never fully defined what was going on. But it gets under your skin in a way that Cat Woman (which defined everything) never does. The Tenant was brilliant. The story wasn’t clear – but the film was brilliant nonetheless. To Ellison, that does not compute.

Ellison thought Kubrick’s 2001 had no story. Because the story behind the movie was opaque, he assumed it had none.

Story. That’s Ellison’s blind spot -- as a critic.

He’s a brilliant storyteller and a brilliant imagist.

Kubrick was brilliant; Polanski still is. They (and a handful of other genius filmmakers) were (and are) passionately interested in throwing brilliant collages of images, mood and association at you, and half-hearted at telling tales. Ellison can do both – and do both brilliantly. Not every filmmaker can. More importantly, not every filmmaker wants to do both – even the brilliant ones.

For all his brilliance, that’s the one thing Ellison doesn’t get.

Fugate's 44/100th Law

Doubt is the foundation of knowledge.