The Law of Gravitation


Having taken a random jaunt through '90s Europe with Chance, Chaos and Coincidence, we cross the Atlantic and showcase perhaps the three greatest American filmmakers ever -- Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola -- in a theme entitled "The Law of Gravitation". The word "gravity" probably brings to mind slow, ponderous movies on weighty affairs that are about as exciting as watching grass grow. While a lay moviegoer might not be too far off the mark in ascribing a subset of those characteristics to a subset of the movies in our showcase, the discerning audience rises above such piddling considerations as 180-minute run times and instead focuses on the movies' compellingly attractive disposition, also implied by the word in question.

The films constituting the theme are Kubrick's overlooked classic "Barry Lyndon", Welles' masterful debut "Citizen Kane" and Coppola's "The Godfather: Part II", which is undoubtedly the best sequel ever made. All three movies illustrate the law of gravitation at work on the fortunes of its characters, chronicling the rise and fall of the protagonist. (TG Pt. II actually depicts the fall of one character and the rise of another, but we shall not quibble.)

The rise-and-fall story is one of the most classical of dramatic forms, with a history dating back to the Ancient Greeks. Not surprising, given the scope it affords for the use of symmetry, irony and contrast in its formal structure, not to forget a little dash of tragedy to lend the story the gravitas that elevates it above the merely good. In fact, the rise-and-fall story appears to offer a measure of closure unmatched by other templates such as the rags-to-riches story -- a closure that I find mirrored in musical structure, where a piece begins in its key, and then wanders all over the map, but cannot come to rest until it returns to the original key. (Sure, the hero can grab all the riches he wants during the movie, but he'd better lose it all and return to square one before we're willing to call it quits!)

The three films under consideration here use three very different narrative structures to tell the rise-and-fall story. Stanley Kubrick goes with a straightforward linear narrative in his adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Barry Lyndon" and frames his story with a fearful symmetry that is reflected not only in the story but in the film's grammar -- the visual compositions, the camera movements and the music. Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", when it was not busy being honored as the greatest film ever made, found time to pioneer the fractured narrative, with a story that begins a few steps from the end, and intersperses the final crawl forward with massive flashbacks to flesh out the beginning. Coppola's "The Godfather: Part II" goes in an interesting third direction, telling two parallel stories -- the "Fall" story that starts in the middle and descends towards the end, and the "Rise" story that begins way back in the beginning and progresses smoothly towards the middle.

Comparing the merits of these films is like comparing apples and oranges (which is what Galileo allegedly did when standing at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa trying to figure out gravity :-)). Suffice it to say that, while I believe that each of these three great directors has made at least one film better than the ones considered here, these works still reflect them at the peak of their game having the time of their lives. Enjoy!

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon "Barry Lyndon" (IMDB Link) is the most under-appreciated of Stanley Kubrick's films, a phenomenon that is not too surprising given the historical context. Rewind to the year 1975. The world is eagerly awaiting the latest concoctions that reclusive maverick Stanley Kubrick has been cooking up in his mansion in England. Kubrick's last three features have set the bar extremely high. First, there was Dr.Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a savage satire that became an instant classic with its ostensibly lunatic plot that betrayed disturbing traces of realism. Then, there was that mystifying piece of science fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey, so outre in its time that many short-sighted critics walked out in the first few minutes. (Oh, well! If only they'd remembered to stock up on the acid. Everything was just so lucid once you started tripping, as an entire generation of fans found out.) Following it was the ultra-violent orgy of fluctuating morality that was A Clockwork Orange, an X-rated Best Picture Oscar nominee which was eventually withdrawn by Kubrick from British screens because it was deemed too violent. So, what new trick does Mr. Kubrick have up his sleeve to show his eager audience? What kind of grim world view is the misanthropic Mr. Kubrick going to project this time? Those were the questions of the day.

And, in response, the world was presented with...Barry Lyndon. The pedigree appeared fairly impeccable. An eighteenth-century period drama, which was in keeping with Kubrick's penchant for not operating in the same genre twice. Authored by the nineteenth-century master satirist and societal critic, William Makepeace Thackeray (of "Vanity Fair" fame), which meant there were opportunities aplenty for juicy and wicked satire, along the lines of Kubrick's own Dr. Strangelove. A world (as described by Thackeray) of misery and exploitation populated by dirty individuals playing dirtier tricks of one-upmanship, which appeared perfectly aligned with Kubrick's taste for exploring the seamy underbelly of society.

But what is this we're seeing here on the screen? The satire and humor have been drained out of the story, transforming the raging wit of Thackeray into a sober narrative. Even the cute and ironic original title "The Luck of Barry Lyndon" (our protagonist is Irish) is transformed into the prosaic "Barry Lyndon". What's the big idea? An intrusive voice-over narration insists on spelling out every single thing that's going to happen right before it does, ruining all elements of surprise in the whole movie. Weird. And where is all that misery and ugliness we were supposed to see? All that's on the screen are vistas and painterly compositions of breathtaking beauty, unbelievable night scenes illuminated by mere candlelight (this is one place where luminous intensity really is measured in candles), beautiful, rich and immaculate costumes painting a picture of unsurpassed elegance and opulence, complemented musically by the baroque strains of Handel. Hmm, seems like a stretch to interpret Thackeray's words and come up with this. And even the people are sorely lacking in the evils department. What on earth is Kubrick doing making characters nicer than they were in the book? Have the darkness of his own movies driven him bonkers?

It turns out Kubrick hasn't quite gone the way of the cuckoo yet, but you wouldn't know it to hear some critics speak. Pauline Kael declares the film "monumentally unimaginative", adding for good measure that the music "might as well be embalming fluid". Andrew Sarris calls it "a disaster". But voices of dissent begin to emerge. Vincent Canby offers it two upraised thumbs, calling it "another fascinating challenge from one of our most remarkable, independent-minded directors". John Hofsess gets to the heart of the problem in his beautiful New York Times essay How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love 'Barry Lyndon', analyzing the critical divide over Barry Lyndon. The problem, he says, is that Kubrick has pushed the cinematic envelope by relegating the traditional form of discourse -- the story and screenplay -- to a subordinate role in the film, but not all critics have managed to come along for the ride.

Kubrick is a firm believer in, and perhaps the pioneer of, the theory that a good film needs to transcend the merely literary. Why, asks Kubrick, should we use the conventional tools of a novelist to tell a story on film? Why not restore the primacy of the audio-visual experience, with the tale telling itself through the film grammar of composition, camera angles and movements, editing, and the choice of background music? Just as it is impossible to articulate the magnificence of a da Vinci painting, or a Beethoven symphony, a great film must communicate with its viewer, Kubrick contends, not merely through a good plot or quotable dialogue (that would be called a book), but on a plane "beyond the reach of reason and language". And just as a painting or a symphony stands alone without the need for a special meaning or message, the purpose of a film is to just be, an audio-visual artifact to be experienced for its own sake, that engages its audience through all the hooks at its disposal, arousing both intellectual and emotional responses.

Seen in this context, Barry Lyndon begins to make sense. Kubrick has intentionally deprived the story of much of its literary value; the story is not overly compelling, the characters are unexceptional, and there is no higher purpose being served -- no morals being preached. And, ridding himself of the conventional safety nets, Kubrick still proceeds to completely absorb his audience, stirring strong sentiment through pure cinematic wizardry. Critics more erudite than I have attempted to defy Kubrick and use reason and language to explore this cinematic language, and rationalize why they love Barry Lyndon so, and why everybody else ought to too. In their articles, one may find detailed analysis of many aspects of the film's discourse, quite a few brilliant theories on Kubrick's intentions and the meanings embedded in the film, and the answers to a whole bunch of questions that one might never think of. (References below. Spoiler Warning!) Instead of replicating their efforts here, I will content myself merely with a few personal observations on my favorite elements in Barry Lyndon and how it all relates to the law of gravitation.

Barry Lyndon is perhaps the most beautiful film ever shot. (Days of Heaven and Road to Perdition are two other legitimate contenders for that crown, but I think they'd both lose.) Practically every single frame is a work of art, and any resemblances to 18th century paintings are entirely intentional. The most famous scenes in the film are the ones shot at night solely with the aid of candlelight in order to recreate the natural lighting of the period. The story goes that Kubrick and John Alcott, the cinematographer had long been on the lookout for a fast lens that could pull off such a feat, and they finally managed to get three Zeiss lenses from leftovers in a batch made for NASA's Apollo mission. Fitting these still-camera lenses into the body of a movie camera was no mean feat; the separation between the lens and the film was a mere 4mm, there was no through-the-lens focusing, and even a conventional viewfinder was impossible to use because it would consume too much light. An interview with John Alcott makes for very interesting reading. The end results, though, are simply spectacular.

The film's structure provides abundant scope for the use of symmetry and irony to contrast the rise of Barry Lyndon with his fall. The entire movie is framed by a pair of duels -- duels that bear surprising similarities to one another-- one that triggers Barry's picaresque adventures and the other that draws them to a close. The runtime of the movie is divided equally almost to the minute between the "rise" and "fall" segments. The dividing point is the entry of Lady Lyndon into Barry's life which marks the pinnacle of his fortunes; and, wouldn't you know it, the first time Lady Lyndon appears in a frame is in the 93rd minute of the 185-minute long movie. Many other aspects of the film's structure add to its symmetry. For example, every scene in the first half starts out up close, and then steadily zooms out to place the action in the distant foreground, a trend that reverses itself in the second half. A much larger laundry list of symmetries can be discovered by perusing some of the references listed here.

Personally, I have found Barry Lyndon to be the most emotionally satisfying of Kubrick's movies. While most of Kubrick's canon is characterized by cold intellectualism -- an intellectualism that I find downright fascinating, by the way, -- Barry Lyndon demonstrates a genuine warmth towards its characters, lending its tragedy a raw power that few movies have managed to match. A case in point is the climactic duel which is a masterpiece of visual cinema; it has all the high drama and spectacle of a Sergio Leone face-off in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, or Once Upon a Time in the West, but is elevated into the stratosphere by its emotional depth and an overwhelming sense of suspense that can only be induced by empathy with the characters. Upon my first viewing, it was easier to admire the film than to like it. (Curiously, Thackeray's daughter made exactly the same comment about her father's novel more than a hundred years ago.) To some extent, this may be attributed to Kubrick's deliberate efforts to distance the audience from the film. However, the effects of repeat viewership were quite dramatic, with every successive viewing making my reactions to it more visceral and less detached, until I found myself completely sucked into the world of Barry Lyndon. Through some means beyond the reach of reason and language.

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Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

The difficult question that confronts the viewer of Citizen Kane (IMDB URL) is not whether it is the greatest milestone in the history of film. Five minutes into the movie, it becomes clear that Citizen Kane is light years ahead of its contemporaries in its intellectual and cinematic sophistication. So broad is its footprint that there is little by way of modern film language that cannot be traced back to it. So, to make an objective case for Citizen Kane being preserved in a museum as a historic artifact heralding the birth of modern film is hardly a task fraught with difficulty. But is it the best film ever made? After all, we don't call the Model T the best passenger car ever made simply because it was pioneering. So, does Citizen Kane stand alone as a giant among films on the basis of its own artistic merits, without the crutches of historical context to support it? Personally, the hardest part about answering this question has been in achieving the requisite separation between film and context.

Upon first watching Citizen Kane back in the mid-'90s, my reaction was one of stunned surprise. Nothing had prepared me for its breathtaking energy, wild inventiveness, acting at once realistic and stylized, the complex, layered narrative structure and, best of all, its ambiguous, mysterious larger-than-life protagonist. Movies from the '40s just weren't supposed to be like this! I was inevitably drawn to favorable comparisons with other so-called classics of the time, such as "Gone With the Wind" or "Casablanca", with the consequence that my judgement of the film lost sight of its absolute scale and became colored by context. But practice makes perfect.

My subsequent viewings of Citizen Kane have been instrumental in establishing it in my mind as a great film in its own right, not because of the historical context but despite it. Yes, it is interesting that Orson Welles and his crew used every trick in the book to create a sprawling epic look on a microscopic budget. (It is said, rightly so, that this film has more special effects than Star Wars.) Yes, it is interesting that it took enormously complex lighting and lenswork to achieve the massive depth of field that they did working with only the low-speed film that was available in those days. But the difficulty of these feats do not automatically make the film a must-see today. It is their success that does so -- their success that helps deliver magic on screen, demonstrating young genius unabashedly experimenting with the limits of a new art form, providing high-octane excitement drawn in equal measure from style and content that few later films have successfully matched, defining the film as a timeless classic that is perhaps not the best film ever made, but very much in the top twenty.

The story behind Citizen Kane was, for quite a while, more famous than the movie itself. For the film's eponymous hero was a thinly veiled stand-in for the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, a man who didn't much like being made the subject of a movie, especially not one written by a former insider, and most certainly not one that showed him in a not-altogether-positive light. And when William Randolph Hearst didn't like something, he usually did something about it. Like getting Louis B. Mayer to try purchasing the film and bury it without a theatrical release. Like putting the Hearst newspapers to work in destroying Kane and Orson Welles' career. Like using his considerable influence in preventing Kane from being released in any of the big movie houses. Luckily for Kane, it was fronted by a giant of its own -- Orson Welles -- and managed to throw a few counter-punches itself. The New York Film Critics voted it the best film of the year, and it received 9 Academy Award nominations although it only won for Best Screenplay. (It goes to say much about the power of Hearst and people's envy of Welles's genius that the nominations were all greeted by boos at the ceremony.) All this attention notwithstanding, most of America never got to see Citizen Kane. It was not until the late '50s that the film eventually managed to receive a wide release and become known to the world at large. But become known it did, and very quickly at that. By 1962, it had already become firmly entrenched as the consensus choice for the Best Film Ever Made. (For those interested in the Hearst-Welles conflict, the documentary "The Battle over Citizen Kane" makes for engrossing viewing.)

So what is the movie all about? The story tracks the life of Charles Foster Kane, from scenes of his childhood in Colorado, through his youth building a newspaper empire founded on sensationalism, through detours into marriage and politics, down to his death as an old, sad and lonely man. But not for Orson Welles the simple linear story arc. No, he has to begin with the old man's death, which is then followed by a mock newsreel that presents a ten-minute summary of Kane's life. Thus having sketched the big picture, Welles uses a series of flashbacks to fill in the details. The story device enabling these flashbacks has to do with Kane's last words or, more precisely, word "Rosebud". A reporter is assigned the task of figuring out what the last word means, and he tries to do so by piecing together information from various people in Kane's life -- his faithful employee Mr. Bernstein, his former friend Jed Leland, and his second wife Susan Alexander, as well as the diaries of his former guardian. Each of these sources occasions a flashback to make yet another pass over Kane's life adding more and more details -- from each of these different perspectives, with ample doses of comedy, music, drama, you name it -- to flesh out Kane's character and life story. Does the newsman ever find out what "Rosebud" really means? This constitutes the gimmicky but emotionally satisfying pay-off that Orson Welles was quick to blame on co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.

What really stands out about Citizen Kane on a first viewing are its distinctive cinematography and surprising visual effects. The entire movie is shot in deep focus, which means that the eye can discern detail in all parts of the frame, unlike in traditional cinematography where the audience's eyes are directed towards a particular sub-segment of the frame which alone is kept in focus while the rest of the frame is relatively blurred. Deep focus thus requires the audience to make up its own mind on what portion of the frame to to look at when, thus making them active participants in the film experience. (Not surprisingly, this did not go down well with everyone at that time, with many audience members demanding their money back claiming the film gave them a headache.) The technique is particularly valuable on repeat viewings, as the eye invariably spots something new and interesting -- and there is always tons of interesting things in each frame -- on each viewing, helping build a film that has its secrets all out in the open and in focus, but nevertheless relinquishes them reluctantly.

The film's visual effects in transitioning from one scene to another is a marvel of continuity. (The continuity also comes in no small part from the unbelievably long takes involved in many of the scenes, long takes characterized not merely by a still camera but by an active one that moves about all over with little apparent regard for the constraints imposed by physical impediments, scything through furniture like Moses parting the Red Sea.) The most famous example of the transition technique is in the opening shots of Kane's castle, Xanadu. We are treated to a sequence of images of the castle, each inching closer than the previous one, until we end up right in front of the lighted window of Kane's bedroom. Intriguingly, every one of these successive cuts miraculously retains the window (or a reflection thereof) in exactly the same location on the screen, so that we come ever closer without ever losing sight of it! Welles uses not only such visuals, but even dialogues and music to smooth his transitions. In yet another famous scene, Kane's guardian announces "Merry Christmas...and a Happy New Year" and twenty years have passed in the intervening cut between the phrases. Visual and auditory delights such as these abound, and I have never ceased to be amazed that no other film I know of has attempted to replicate this approach to scene editing.

No discussion of Citizen Kane would be complete without mentioning the star of the show, Orson Welles. Not just Orson Welles, the director, but Orson Welles, the actor. The 25-year-old actor who pulls off an incredible coup, playing Charles Foster Kane all the way from age twenty-five to his seventies, evolving his appearance, his speech patterns and his manner of walking, looking authentic every inch along the way. It is hard to think of an instance of a single actor covering such an age span as authentically as Welles (and his make-up crew) managed here. The weight of time has lent a certain added gravity to the story of Citizen Kane, perhaps due to the fact that the similarities between Charles Foster Kane and Orson Welles himself began to make themselves apparent. The emotional core of Kane -- the anguished helplessness of the solipsistic hero unable to reconcile himself with the world's ways, longing for the simplicity of lost childhood -- often appears to be very much Welles's own cry of longing. Welles' story is one of talent gone abegging. For all his genius and for all the critical acclaim he garnered, he went on to greater fame as an actor and a personality extraordinaire than as a director, and never again made a Hollywood film under his own creative control. While every one of the films that he did make have the stamp of Wellesian greatness (including such pulp as The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, and eccentric classics like F for Fake), and a legitimate argument could be made that The Magnificent Ambersons and the newly restored version of Touch of Evil are as good as Citizen Kane, one can only wonder at what could have been achieved had he been afforded the money and independence to indulge his art. As it stands, Citizen Kane reflects the fearless improvisation of youthful exuberance and promise given full rein -- a promise that was nipped, as it turned out, in the Rosebud.


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The Godfather: Part II

The Godfather: Part II

There has always been a raging controversy about the relative merits of The Godfather (IMDB Link) and The Godfather: Part II (IMDB Link). The snobs might argue that Part II is better, believing that the length of a film must be inversely proportional to its quality. (The original Godfather clocks in at a not-inconsiderable 175 minutes, but is outdone by its successor that goes an even 200 -- long enough to require two DVDs.) Hmm, Hitchcock once said that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder. Perhaps we should christen the inverse-proportionality argument the Reverse Hitchcock Rule.

Unfortunately, reverse Hitchcock rules notwithstanding, I must determine that the original is the better film, denying Part II entry into that exclusive pantheon of good-to-great sequels that are better than the original. A pantheon populated by movies such as Spider-man 2, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I'm not even sure the last two qualify as sequels. (It seems to be the moviegoers' curse that they are always subjected to slipshod sequels to mediocre movies while never being offered a follow-up to a truly good movie. Hence, the Movie Club's passionate rallying cry: Death to the SQL.)

I must admit, however, that The Godfather: Part II is indubitably the best sequel ever made and, in some respects, does outperform its predecessor. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the first two Godfather movies can be traced back to Mario Puzo, the author of the original novel. Puzo happened to be an exceptionally brilliant storyteller, but ruined his novels with lousy prose. The first of the Godfather movies was a masterpiece because it managed to get rid of the terrible writing -- replacing it with great style and acting -- while retaining the compelling, clockwork-precision story, making for a practically flawless cinematic experience. Part II, on the other hand, does not derive its primary story from the novel (although Puzo shares credits on the screenplay) and it shows; the plot is a little too unwieldy, has one loose end too many, and is not above stooping to cheating its way out of a messy complication. On the bright side, it is also more ambitious, and possesses a powerful rise-and-fall structure that lends it an emotional depth that far surpasses anything that the original film threw up, beneficial consequences that we may legitimately attribute to the lack of Puzo's involvement, since there is nothing in Puzo's oeuvre that suggests his ability to develop stories on such a broad canvas.

The narrative structure of the film is intriguing. The primary thread tells the story of Michael Corleone, beginning at the height of his powers as a powerful Mafia don slowly working his way towards legitimacy, and observing his drift into the murky depths of moral decline and emptiness, a transformation that is made to look almost inevitable by the cruel actuators of fate that consign him to a life encircled by betrayal and fear. To further heighten the story's power, Francis Ford Coppola chooses to interleave the decline of Michael with a second, sepia-toned story thread that chronicles the early years of his father, Vito Corleone, depicting his rise from humble beginnings as a young Italian immigrant to his establishment as a man of repute respected and feared by all. It is a brilliant storytelling device as the poignancy of Michael's fall resonates even more deeply in the joy of his father's earlier rise, a brilliance augmented by the smooth editing that transposes us from one storyline to the other.

One of the exceptional elements of the Godfather movies (excepting the third part) is the acting involved. The actors inhabit the characters so thoroughly that the film practically oozes realism. Part II boasts of two of the best actors in the last half-century, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. (Although they never appear together in the same scene. One would have to wait another twenty-one years for Michael Mann's Heat before that happened.) Pacino is probably at his best here, steering well clear of his latter-day chewing-the-scenery efforts. Robert de Niro is a revelation, exuding charisma despite a role that offers him little in the way of dialogue; and what little dialogue there is, is mostly in Italian dialects. Robert Duvall is as reliable as ever, and steals the scene towards the end in his conversations with the Frankie Pentangeli character. And to top it all off, we have Lee Strasberg himself, the proponent of method acting and tutor to many a great actor. The story goes that the mobster Meyer Lansky, who is said to have inspired Strasberg's character Hyman Roth, personally called Strasberg to congratulate him on the role. (For more on Meyer Lansky, Bugsy wouldn't be a bad place to start.)

Seen back-to-back, the first two Godfather movies probably constitute the greatest 6-hour story told on celluloid. The smooth-running engine of the first movie, punctuated by its sharp finale, and the subsequent steady build-up in the first half of Part II merely set the stage for a climax of relentless violence and moral disintegration, saturated in an overwhelming sadness that brings the story to life like no story has been before or since. The only regret that one need have about the Godfather movies is that Coppola had to go off and make a third part; good as it must have sounded on paper, and good as it was in concept, he ought to have known that the magic of the first two movies could never again be captured on screen the way it was in those heady '70s.


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