We three kings

The great works of Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola and F.W. Murnau make today's movies look like bags of tricks or boxes of soap.

Published January 25, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Near the start of "Shadow of the Vampire," the producer of the 1922 vampire classic "Nosferatu" tells reporters that his 34-year-old director, F. W. Murnau, is Germany's greatest filmmaker. In 1964, when he commenced four and a half years' work on "2001: A Space Odyssey," you could argue that Stanley Kubrick, at age 36, was America's greatest young director. By 1974, the mantle had passed to Francis Ford Coppola, 35, who had already done the first two "Godfather" films and "The Conversation."

All these filmmakers came to mind in the last three weeks. Murnau via "Shadow of the Vampire." Coppola because of the recent A&E abortion of "The Great Gatsby," a novel he adapted differently, and superbly, 30 years ago. And every time we look at the calendar and see the year 2001, Kubrick again commands attention.

The best work of this trio makes today's most acclaimed releases seem like bags of tricks ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") or boxes of soap ("You Can Count on Me"). They opened up complete new worlds for audiences through that mixture of expansive conceptions and machete-sharp perceptions that used to be the hallmark of film as a popular art. Kubrick, the moviemaker I'll consider first, turned an entire universe inside out.

Since our entrance into the new millennium, magazines and newspapers have filled feature pages with stories about whether reality has caught up with the mechanical marvels of Kubrick's space movie, from HAL the talking computer to the moon shuttle that runs more smoothly than our intercity air shuttles. Nearly all the coverage is by science writers who reduce Kubrick's groundbreaking, space-shattering spectacle to a piece of technological prophecy. Even the DVD included in Warner Home Video's Stanley Kubrick Collection contains as its one significant extra a prerelease press conference with Kubrick's co-writer, Arthur C. Clarke. The sci-fi guru positions the movie as a psychic shock absorber, preparing mankind for the first jolting contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Once those science topics are exhausted, what's left are the enigmas within and around the movie itself. How did Kubrick manage to make a big-studio epic without a conventional plot? What held audiences then and continues to fascinate them now?

"2001: A Space Odyssey" endures not as crystal-ball gazing, but as a mad amalgam of science and showmanship. Its beauty and bombast are as much a part of our culture as "The Wizard of Oz." A TV commercial for a minivan has only to play Kubrick's thundering quotes from "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and we know that the ad guys are referring to the director's big black slabs. Watching the film straight through for the first time in 21 years, I was amazed to see how its shadow stretched not merely over obvious candidates like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Contact" but also over a kids' classic like "Toy Story." When Buzz Lightyear cries out, "To Infinity and Beyond," he echoes Kubrick's title card, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite."

The "Dawn of Man" opening of the movie has been endlessly pillaged and parodied and spun off; it's hard to imagine even films like "Dinosaur" and "Cast Away" without it. With typical audacity, Kubrick began his picture with tribes of ape-men competing for food and water and being nudged into humanhood by a mysterious perfect ebony slab that inspires their use of weaponry. Is Kubrick saying that man is innately vicious -- or that he just needs technology to survive?

The film's directorial poker face is part of its blend of challenge and charm. What's crucial is that Kubrick thrusts us into vast and undefined landscapes that make us feel -- like those man-apes -- helpless before natural forces or more aggressive animals. We experience the chaos of those prehistoric times -- of living without a sense of time and space -- and instinctively appreciate the bone tool as the world's first ordering agent. If it enables man to secure his position on Earth, it also gives him a greater capacity to destroy.

The movie starts with the emergence of Homo sapiens; it ends with the emergence of homo who-knows?. Keir Dullea, the lone survivor of a space mission to Jupiter, undergoes a strange death and transfiguration under the spell of the same (or an identical) black slab. He becomes a figure in an astral fetal sac, leaving us in the exact dilemma we experienced two hours before. Is he an upwardly mobile, evolutionary mutation? Should we be singing those lyrics from "Hair": "Good Morning, Starshine, the Earth says 'hello'"? Or is he a monster capable of crushing a planet between his fingers?

The British critic Clive James, in his Cambridge University student days, ascribed the shifts in the film (which he thought was a masterpiece) to a clash in sensibility between Kubrick and Clarke. According to James, Kubrick, unlike Clarke, believes in neither progress nor entropy: What draws out this director is the spectacle of change. For example, in the movie's midsection, a paralyzingly dull squad of scientists analyze a black slab buried in the moon, trace a homing signal to Jupiter and then send astronaut-scientists Dullea and Gary Lockwood (and three other hibernating crew members) to investigate it.

Even the most famous jokes in the moon sequence are warmed-over burlesque. "What's that?" asks one bland scientist of another who is eating a synthetic mystery-meat sandwich. "Chicken?"

"Something like that," he replies. "Tastes the same anyway." Most of Kubrick's defenders chalk up the banal dialogue to an Orwellian parody of the poetry-denuded vocabulary of the future. (It's telling that the movie describes the astronauts' hibernation as sleep without dreams.) But James sees it as an indication that, in years to come, verbal poetry will lose out to visual poetry. It's a neat argument: a solid-state theory of beauty!

I think it's Kubrick's contradictions, not his syntheses, that make the movie fascinating. In one of Kubrick's funniest and most graceful cuts -- OK, one of the funniest and most graceful cuts in movie history -- the ape-man's jagged bone-weapon, flung into the air in victory, becomes a streamlined nuclear weapons satellite. The edit from a somersaulting bone tool to a lithe 21st century spacecraft emphasizes the wonder of man's tenacity and the intelligence mirrored in his technology. As soon as we go inside, Kubrick seems to be condemning future men for ceding their human qualities to machines. Yet when he plays "The Blue Danube" as the shuttle and a space station do an extended waltz, the director is doing the humanizing.

The entire film is summed up in this paradox: Kubrick wants to have his super-powered future and his Johann (and Richard) Strauss, too. Even before the movie makes its blinding and boggling jaunt to infinity (and beyond), it's a seductive light trip of the future fitted out, for the most part, with the feelings and rhythms of romantic music from the past. No director was more cosmically dour than Kubrick, but after watching "2001" again I can understand why Spielberg, in a eulogy, could picture him as upbeat. Kubrick bounces the banks of winking computers and control panels and the supernal blacks and purples of space off the visors of his astronauts -- an effect resurrected most memorably in the triumphant final minutes of "The Right Stuff."

The ambiguity permeating the movie stems from Kubrick's own divided feelings. That's why "2001: A Space Odyssey" was genuinely controversial and broadly appealing. It drew both techno-geeks and countercultural seekers -- not usually part of the same crowd, especially in those days when the left was wide-awake enough to attack the military-industrial complex. On the other hand, it alienated most literary and movie critics. The late Penelope Gilliatt, who then shared the film chair at the New Yorker on a six-months on, six-months off basis with Pauline Kael, was virtually alone in calling it "a uniquely poetic piece of sci-fi, made by a man who truly possesses the drives of both science and fiction."

Although several reviewers revisited the film, the real debates over the movie erupted in VW bugs and coffee shops. A year after it opened, I remember arguing about it during a three-hour drive with an actor-director from a theater workshop in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to my then-home in southern New Jersey. There I resumed arguing about the movie with an English teacher who portrayed it as a parable of man's need for both technology and art. The linchpin to that theory was, of course, the characterization of the supercomputer HAL 9000. On the trip to Jupiter, HAL proves to be a great chess player and information source, and in a key scene, he acts like an art reviewer, rating Dullea's sketchpad portraits of the other crew members. HAL himself can't draw, even though he "knows" all about drawing. Back in '68, I attacked HAL's subsequent nervous breakdown as a "crude plot device" exploiting "fear of the machine." But HAL alone (with the help of voice actor Douglas Rain) edged his dialogue with subtle humor and menace, advising Dullea in a crisis to "calm down, take a stress pill." And only HAL attained tragicomic stature, singing "Daisy," the song he learned as a child computer, while Dullea gives him a lobotomy.

The reaction to "2001" epitomized the organic, grass-roots controversies that erupted in that fecund age of American movies. The "Modern Library: The Movies" series, edited by Martin Scorsese, recently issued a book called "The Making of '2001: A Space Odyssey,'" which contains some never-before-reprinted production histories and retrospective views as well as a lot of material first collected in Jerome Agel's 1970 "The Making of Kubrick's '2001.'" I think the Modern Library might have been more wise to reprint Agel's giddy paperback original, which captures the explosiveness of movie appetites circa 1968-'73 in its free-form structure and vertiginous graphics, spilling over with reviews, interviews and (best of all) Kubrick's fan mail. The marginalia in Agel's book isn't left to the margins, because it's often more arresting than the main attractions, including a brief illustrated history of monolithic icons from Stonehenge to an Austrian painting called "The Unhinged Doors of Gaza." Agel's book about "2001" ends puckishly with a quote from the script about the moon's black slab: "Its origin and purpose still a total mystery."

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Former Time magazine movie critic Jay Cocks' highly personal introduction to the Modern Library's "The Making of '2001: A Space Odyssey'" comes to a close with a vignette on the North Shore of Long Island, where Kubrick rented a house in the spring of 1968. Cocks and Kubrick notice "a light blinking on the edge of a dock." After they both recall "The Great Gatsby," with its motif of Jay Gatsby gazing at the green light where Daisy Buchanan's estate met the same shore, Cocks is tempted to "make a remark comparing Gatsby's light and the monolith, talismans of mystery and hope for two generations."

Gatsby's light, like Kubrick's monolith, has remained a talisman into the new millennium -- a notoriously dangerous one for filmmakers, as the current A&E cable version has proved again. Indeed, this TV adaptation, swamping Gatsby's fabled "romantic readiness" in a wash of bathos and melodrama, has caused critics to wonder whether any effort to film Fitzgerald's beloved novel is eternally doomed.

After all, the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow has gone down in history as an overpromoted fiasco. As the book "Inside Oscar" chronicles, Time pegged a cover to "The Great Gatsby Supersell," Newsweek dubbed it "an extraordinary white elephant" and Esquire gave the picture a place of dishonor in its annual "Dubious Achievements" issue. But, as "Inside Oscar" goes on to note, "nobody blamed [screenwriter] Francis Ford Coppola for 'The Great Gatsby' letdown."

And there's an excellent reason. After hearing about the virtues of Coppola's script for a quarter-century, I finally got my hands on it -- and it's wonderful. Word of its quality must have spread around the industry. If Jack Clayton, the sometimes-marvelous British director, had been more at home with American idioms, and if Redford had been willing and able to convey the immensity and vulnerability and grittiness of Gatsby's yearnings, they might have made a classic.

Coppola gets everything there is to get out of Fitzgerald's book while supplying, in a long and brilliantly concocted romantic centerpiece, the dramatic ballast a film adaptation needs. Lines that the finished film glided over -- like Daisy's statement, "That's the best thing a girl can be in this world ... a beautiful little fool" -- are in the script positioned just right, both to take on emotional weight and to arouse intrigue.

Who could have embodied Coppola's Gatsby? I say Steve McQueen. He would have been believable both as the Long Island millionaire and socialite and as the crook others assume Gatsby was in his shady past. McQueen, like Gatsby, was born in the Midwest and (after a stint in a California reform school and a number of odd jobs) started to make his fortune in the East (on the New York stage). McQueen could have showed us the toughness in the man's character that forged such a drastic change of identity, in addition to his ever-youthful ardor. In McQueen's most "off-type" role -- the larcenous Boston millionaire in "The Thomas Crown Affair" (like "2001," a film from 1968) -- he played polo like Tom Buchanan and savored every change in eveningwear as if he were the formidable Gatsby himself.

In the 1920s, the German director F.W. Murnau was as looming an international figure as Kubrick in the '60s or Coppola in the '70s. "Shadow of the Vampire" imagines what it would have been like if Max Schreck, the star of Murnau's "Nosferatu," his classic 1922 version of "Dracula," were a real live -- that is, undead -- vampire. It's friskier than you expect of a one-joke movie, mainly because of Willem Dafoe's vaudevillian gusto as the vampire. But the picture has nowhere to go without turning John Malkovich's Murnau into a professedly modern, "scientific" version of an all-for-art impresario. By the end, the Murnau of this movie transforms "Nosferatu" into a snuff film.

The most famous anecdote about Murnau has to do with his death in 1931, his fifth year in Hollywood. His rented Rolls overturned off the road near Santa Barbara, supposedly while Murnau was orally servicing the handsome young Filipino man behind the wheel. So the filmmakers probably felt no compunction about portraying Murnau as a Teutonic variation on Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom." My complaint is that they trivialize him and truncate his career. Seeing this film, you'd never guess that Murnau not only mastered a style of unprecedented fluidity but also showed staggering range and was able to ply his art successfully overseas. Indeed, my favorite Murnau films next to "Nosferatu" were made in America and the South Seas.

Murnau's 1927 Fox production, "Sunrise," rentable on tape or laser-disc at video specialty stores, is a parable of marital betrayal and redemption, about "the Woman from the City" (Margaret Livingston) who tries to get "the Man" (George O'Brien) to drown "the Wife" (Janet Gaynor). Murnau brings unexpected potency to every element of this fable. If the city were presented as a sinkhole of iniquity, the movie might have been too simple. But it's a place of liberation as well as corruption, right from the moment when the panicked wife boards a streetcar to flee from her repentant husband. The circular flow of "Sunrise" conjures both the cycle of nature and the dizzying swirl of aerialists and carnival rides. In this movie, life spins like the Earth -- and like a roulette wheel, too. Gaynor captures the sparkle in the Wife's childlike emotions and O'Brien conveys all the Man's uncomplicated feelings, from helpless lust to stalwart devotion. Under Murnau's direction, O'Brien truly is the Man's man.

Murnau's 1931 "Tabu," available for sale or rent on a superb Milestone VHS tape, is primal exotica about a Bora Bora virgin (Reri) who resists becoming the untouchable sacred maiden of the whole South Seas. Her beau (Matahi) spirits her away to another island, where he makes a living as a pearl diver and racks up outrageous debts. Tabu -- an alternate spelling of "Taboo" -- is the system of customs and beliefs that curses the couple for profaning a divine rite. "Tabu" starts out shakily, but once Murnau's vision takes hold, this spectacle turns into a masterpiece. (Murnau began the movie in collaboration with Robert Flaherty; they share the story credit.) To Murnau, the islanders are in synch with natural forces that are also supernatural. The director fills the action with mystery and metaphor. When the tribal elder who captures the runaway stows her in the hold of his boat and then shuts up the hatchway, it's as if he's sealing her in a coffin.

Photographed by Floyd Crosby (who won an Oscar), "Tabu" looks like no other film. Murnau doesn't go after the usual island vistas. Sometimes he cuts out the sky entirely, imbuing his hula-dancing characters with imposing exuberance, then giving his frame over to the dramatic rock formations and the roiling sea. "Tabu" does move like other films -- all by Murnau. He and Kubrick and Coppola are virtuoso manipulators of images and rhythms. Murnau's "Nosferatu" was subtitled "A Symphony of Shadows." His "Tabu," I once wrote, is a symphony of sun, moon, sand and waves.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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