Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

The Fearful Symmetry of Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237

Room 237

There are two things I watched as a child – that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch as child – a special shout out to my mad cool parents, yo! – that I believe will stick with me forever…and ever…and ever. One is Twin Peaks. The other is The Shining. Oh yeah, and Fright Night. And that episode of Scooby Doo with the pumpkin-headed phantom. But seriously…about The Shining.

Like Twin Peaks it’s been an object of obsession for me. In Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s obsessive new documentary where half a dozen film nuts/Kubrick scholars obsess over every bit of minutiae in The Shining (check out all the stuff in the walk-in cooler at the Overlook…every brand name has a double meaning so sayeth them!), every cross dissolve (Kubrick dissolves scenes like Kapooya!), every continuity error (de-lib-er-ate they say!), there’s not a single theory presented that I haven’t heard before.

The Shining was actually about the Holocaust (the number 42 is quite telling…as is one cross dissolve of people into stacked luggage…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no, wait…make that the American genocide of the Indians (think of the setting, and the set designs, and the back story of the hotel…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no way…it was about how Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing (duh, Danny’s wearing that Apollo 11 sweater, like, what did you think that meant?)…or…AHA! – it was about all of those things!

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Elizabeth R You Free for Dinner?

Okay, Caveman, what will it be tonight? Bison steaks?

 

Would her Majesty care for a spot of tea after whuppin' Spain's Armada-Ass?

 

Go ahead and smile, Mr. Greene, I'll pour the scotch.

 
The concept is simple: You can go back in time and meet ten people (either in their prime or near their deathbed) and share one meal with them where you can ask them anything, and they have to give you honest answers. Who would it be? Who would you want to separate the myth from the fact and finally set the record straight? Whose head would you want to crawl inside and find what made them tick? Who do you admire and just want to spend some time with shooting the breeze?

The idea for this sprang from an unlikely place. To make a short story long….it all started with that damnable Netflix!

With a dearth of interesting new titles to fill my Netflix queue, I’ve relied on their recommendation algorithm to unearth previous works unbeknownst to me. Thus into my instant queue popped Elizabeth R – a 6-part BBC/Masterpiece Theater miniseries from 1971 starring Glenda Jackson in the title role. Continue reading

Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Best Film of the 1960’s

Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Well, HAL, I’m declaring 2001: A Space Odyssey the best film of the 1960’s.  Hell, HAL, it might even be the best film ever made – a perfect symphonic convergence of cutting edge technology, painterly imagery, big ideas and transcendent music, and it was all cobbled together by human hands.

From the dawn of man to the space age, it’s the tools we use and build that define us, that shape our civilization. 

It’s the tools we use to kill and to create.  And it’s the ultimate tool we build, HAL, that will be the death of us.  Working closely with Arthur C. Clarke (upon whose short story, “The Sentinel”, the film is loosely based) Kubrick crafted a vision of the future where mankind is at crossroads – a point at which we have been able to craft artificial intelligence while at the same time being flung into first contact with an alien intelligence that might have been with us, one way or another, all along.  In some ways – it’s the old “the chicken or the egg – which came first?” question.  For is that black monolith not possibly artificial intelligence created by an alien civilization far more advanced than us?  If they have been meddling with our evolution since the dawn of man, could we not possibly be an experiment in artificial intelligence?  Who the hell knows? Continue reading

Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.

Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
 
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
 
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife. Continue reading

The Inception of Dreams

Slick marketing evokes Lang’s Metropolis.

Roughly twelve years following their first feature films, these legendary directors delivered the following:

Fritz Lang:  M

Alfred Hitchcock:  The Lady Vanishes

Stanley Kubrick:  2001: A Space Odyssey

Twelve years after Following, Christopher Nolan invites us to dream along with him through Inception.  And while it’s operating on different levels than the Lang and Kubrick pieces, it shares in Hitchcock’s sense of dark fun and could easily be considered Nolan’s most ambitious and devilishly clever piece of work to date.  He’s an auteur with a full blessing from the studio and his audience, and the project he devised in this rarefied air is awe-inspiring.  Though there are some minor flaws, if you can’t find a way to overlook them and latch onto something meaningful in at least one layer of the dreams on display, then you have no business sitting in a darkened theater watching movies.

Christopher Nolan’s decked-out and high-concept new film brings new meaning to the idea of stealing ideas.  In his futuristic universe, technology has developed where you can enter the mind of another through dream invasions and steal their ideas.  It’s espionage…it’s dangerous…but what’s even more intriguing is the idea of diving deep into dreams within dreams and implanting an idea that can then spread like a virus and alter the shape of one’s universe.  Whoever implanted this idea into Nolan’s mind, we thank you.

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Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Recently over at Wonders in the Dark, Sam Juliano posted an engaging piece where film buffs were invited to name their favorite movie scores of all time.

Even I had been so bold as to name the greatest film composers not so long ago here at The Schleicher Spin.

And while it’s true, many of the greatest films are also imbued with beautiful original musical scores where the moving images flow in perfect harmony with the composers’ notes…it made me wonder…

What of the artists who take a well-known existing piece of music and create moving images that become married to the music’s rhythm?

It’s been so parodied over the years…but can anyone deny the jaw-droppingly imaginative conceit of Stanley Kubrick using Richard Strauss’ “The Spoke Zarathustra” for the opening to his greatest cinematic achievement (hell, THE GREATEST CINEMATIC ACHIEVEMENT) 2001: A Space OdysseyContinue reading

The Best Screenplays of All Time

On Sunday February 22nd at the Oscars, Martin McDonagh will be competing for the Best Original Screenplay for In Bruges.  For me, this was one of the most brilliant scripts in years–darkly comic, heartfelt and compelling, expertly paced and chock full of quotable lines.  Sadly I don’t think it will win–oh, please prove me wrong, Academy–but it made think of all the great scripts from Hollywood’s past.   What films were memorable not just for their imagery, but for the writing as well?  What films contained amazing performances that were great because of the material the performers were given and the dialogue they spoke?

What screenplays are deserving of being considered the best of all time?

Well, here’s this writer’s list:  Continue reading