Celebs Bow Down in Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures; Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt Is Almost Heroic

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


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.

 

Life
and Debt

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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