Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons; Length 196 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000).

Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts (2012)

Films About FilmmakingThis is another documentary which deals with the practice of filmmaking, but where Side by Side was expository, this is more a work of filmed criticism, the engagement of fans with the film medium and its creators.


Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining is, I think, a brilliant work, and have reviewed it as such on this very site. But I never would have suspected such levels of careful consideration as Room 237 presents. I suppose it’s a documentary, or maybe a work of filmed film criticism, yet if I’m not sure the information it presents is always believable, or amounts to much in the way of genuine critical insight, it’s certainly interesting.

The film takes the form of a series of clips, mainly of course from the Kubrick original, as well as archival footage, still photographs, and clips from other movies, to illustrate the arguments of a number of (unseen) contributors who each has their own interpretation of Kubrick’s film. All are, of course, enjoyable and well presented — they’d scarcely make it into a film otherwise — but they certainly run the gamut of believability. Most notably, one is insistent that it’s a coded story about the genocide of Native Americans, based entirely it seems on the placement of a particular brand of corned beef can in a couple of scenes set in the walk-in freezer. Another does a similar job linking The Shining to the Holocaust (something about the number 42; it’s all pretty shaky). And then of course there’s the faking of the Apollo moon landings, which Kubrick was obviously behind, and it’s all proved here.

Along the way, as it happens, you do get some interesting facts about Kubrick’s own obsessiveness in making his films. I have to disagree with the commentator who claims Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon (1975), is boring: it is not. However, with all the discussion of the effort that the filmmaker went to with his props, and his sets, and the details of the brand of typewriter (German, with an eagle motif), or the patterns on the carpet, you find yourself at times willing to go along with the theorising, wild as it may get. And suddenly these little errors — such as the way that the tennis ball which is rolled towards Danny on the carpet through the lines of its pattern (seen in this documentary’s poster) becomes entrapped by the shifting carpet patterns in a subsequent shot — seem pre-ordained and part of Kubrick’s wider vision, whatever indeed that may be.

You may not be convinced of any of these theories (I wasn’t entirely), but it certainly gets at the free-wheeling and dedicated nature of committed movie fandom. Room 237 in many ways doesn’t even require you to have seen or enjoyed The Shining (though it probably helps). It gains most of its interest and power from being an ode to the true love of the film fan, and as a testament to the insight that can be gained from giving films a really thorough scrutiny — far deeper, I have to admit, than I ever manage in any of my reviews.

Room 237 film posterCREDITS
Director Rodney Ascher; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 January 2014.

The Shining (1980)

This review (of a 33-year-old film, and one you should really have seen already — just saying) contains plot spoilers, just so you know.


I do, of course, sometimes go to see old films at the cinema, and the NFT (or “BFI Southbank” if you want to call it by the name it likes to use of itself) is a great place to catch retrospectives and archival screenings of old films. The Shining however had something of a wider re-release recently, so I went along as I’d never seen it on the big screen, and I’m a particular fan of late-period Kubrick. Everything he did from Barry Lyndon (1975) onwards remains exceptional to my mind, including (I would argue) the posthumous A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Of his late films, I think this is probably the most widely known, particularly because of its iconic Jack Nicholson performance as the writer Jack Torrance going stir crazy while holed up with his family in the Overlook Hotel over winter. It would be easy to dismiss Nicholson’s work here as overly mannered, but Kubrick was never a director to restrain his actors, and he tended to guide all of them towards a kind of gurning monomaniacal over-the-top performance style, almost incantatory. It gives his films something of the quality of a trance, and the line between reality and dream (or some other fugue state) is always blurred. Where this was very much text in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), it’s rather more hinted at here, though the primary clue is in that final image of the old photo showing Jack front and centre at a 1921 New Year’s Eve party in the hotel. He’s like a malign spirit haunting the place, and he’s not the only one.

There’s plenty of stuff in the film to unpick, and indeed there are entire films dedicated to doing so (like Room 237 [2012]). Quite aside from the many levels of interpretation, what I like about the film is its sense of space. Those rides that the kid takes on his tricycle around the building remain unnerving, from the low camera angle, to the precise sound design as he moves from carpet to wood floor, to those blind corners which could reveal anything. Knowing in advance (as I did, having seen the film many years ago) that the dead girls will be around one of them hardly lessens the tension. The same sort of tension is created near the end with the snow-bound hedge maze outside, when Jack is implacably tracking his family through it while wielding an axe.

There’s lots of little stuff like that, along with the bigger enigmas, that draw the viewer in to the film world. None of it is perfectly explicable, and nor should it be, but I can imagine wanting to return to the film in another few decades to check that Jack’s still there, looking after the Overlook Hotel.


CREDITS
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King); Cinematographer John Alcott; Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd; Length 144 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 23 February 2013.