Saturday, December 26, 2009

Films I Love to Hate

Too often, some of the best critics are asked by their readers if there is anything they actually like, since their reviews are so often negative. Some of the greatest critics - like Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, George Jean Nathan, and John Simon - were notably negative most of the time. Their reasons were the same - called on to review whatever is available every week, month or quarter means being forced to write bad reviews, since the notion that everything - every book, play or film - is worth reviewing is simply ridiculous. The result is that, out of several volumes of criticism, the critics mentioned above end up with only a handful of truly positive opinions. But having to spend most of their time tearing something to shreds must have given them a genuine taste for it.

Hereafter are some of my favorite films "I love to hate." Often they are films that I single out to deplore because they have earned a great deal of praise from a lot of very misguided people. My only advice to them, or to anyone who may still have an unformed opinion of the films, is: Look again.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is by far the most intelligent science fiction film ever made. And therein lies the problem. After Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick was American film's great hope in the 1960s. And, after Welles, he was its biggest disappointment. For some mysterious reason, he lost interest in portraying human beings in his films after Lolita. It was not a problem in Dr. Strangelove, since he was creating a satire. It is, however, an insurmountable impediment in every film thereafter. In 2001, nearly everything is convincing except the two principal (human) characters. And Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood do not help matters by being such miserable actors. Kubrick's ape men are interesting, but only because they are proto-hominids with little resemblance to human beings. The super-computer HAL is a fascinating creation, thanks largely to the euphonious voice of Douglas Rain.

But the fundamental flaw of 2001 is its central proposition - that man has been helped along in his evolution by an alien intelligence that appears from time to time in the form of a black obelisk, accompanied by György Ligeti's spooky music. This supposition is no better or worse than every other UFO or ET fantasy. It could have been lifted, in fact, straight from the pages of the notorious Erich von Däniken book Chariots of the Gods?, which is full of wild theories about the origins of the Egyptian pyramids, Mayan and Incan structures and inscriptions. While not quite as foolish as Däniken's, Arthur C. Clarke's and Kubrick's obelisk is equally insupportable.

Kubrick's otherwise elegant depictions of space travel (the use of the "Blue Danube" waltz is inspired) are wasted on Clarke's ludicrous deus ex machina, which transports one of the astronauts into a psychedelic mystery tour so redolent of the '60s that it inadvertently dates all of Kubrick's visions of the world and outer space. And the appropriation of the overture to Richard Strauss' long Zarathustra tone poem is sheer effrontery.

Has anyone tried to relate Kubrick's choice of the year 2001 to what actually happened that year?

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