Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Napoleon

Inside Room 237

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Room 237

I’d say a day rarely goes by when I don’t think about Stanley Kubrick, but recently, he’s been on my mind even more than usual, thanks to the appearance in my life of two wonderful pieces of Kubrickiana. The first is the gorgeous Taschen study of Napoleon, the film Kubrick modestly hoped would be “the greatest movie ever made,” including the director’s own notes, voluminous research materials, reference photographs, and his original script. The other is Room 237, the fascinating if somewhat shapeless new documentary that details five elaborate interpretations of The Shining, with its interviewees convinced that the movie is really a veiled allegory, among other things, for the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, or the role Kubrick played in faking the Apollo moon landing. And although the two works might not seem to have much in common, aside from the figure at the center, they cast a surprising amount of light, both separately and together, on the artist who seemed more committed than any other director to advancing the entire medium.

Room 237 deliberately leaves its viewers with more questions than answers, and there are times when we’d like a little more information about some of the passionate, articulate, slightly unhinged voices on the soundtrack, but it’s still a huge pleasure to watch. If nothing else, it’s a welcome excuse to revisit The Shiningone of the richest of all American movies, as the documentary picks it apart with the obsessiveness of a conspiracy theorist rewinding the Zapruder film. It gives us freeze frames, enlargements, diagrams, and entire scenes played in slow motion or reverse, until the film starts to resemble one of those visual puzzles that Nabokov evokes at the end of Speak, Memory: Find What the Sailor Has Hidden. The guiding principle of these readings is that nothing is a mistake, and that even seemingly innocent continuity errors can convey a secret meaning. Even I’d never noticed that the color of Jack’s typewriter changes over the course of the movie, that the pattern on the carpet beneath Danny’s feet reverses itself between two shots, or that Stuart Ullman’s office includes an impossible window.

Danny Lloyd in The Shining

And it’s worth asking why Kubrick, and The Shining in particular, has encouraged such diverse—and occasionally insane—interpretations. For one possible answer, we can turn to Taschen’s Napoleon, which convincingly documents that Kubrick really was as obsessive as he seemed: even before the project had been officially approved by any studio, he had an army of assistants and researchers compiling visual references, combing through archives, and assembling a card catalog that documented what every character was doing on every day of Napoleon’s life. When one of the interviewees in Room 237 claims that Kubrick deployed a team to spend months researching every aspect of Colorado history, we aren’t given much supporting evidence, but it’s certainly plausible. The interviewees argue, not without reason, that Kubrick was a perfectionist who shot miles of film, did countless takes, and wanted to control every aspect of a movie’s production, so that even the fact that a chair in the background disappears from one shot to the next can be taken as a deliberate choice.

But I think there’s a deeper point to be made here about the nature of Kubrick’s process, and of artistic endeavor in general, beyond what particular significance we read into The Shining. (For what it’s worth, I think there’s a good case to be made that the film deliberately incorporates symbolism from American history, although less for the sake of a clear message than as a way of enhancing its richness and texture, and I’m not sure how seriously to take that can of Calumet baking powder.) Kubrick understood that the point of meticulous control, paradoxically, is to make a movie that can strike up its own reality in the inner life of the viewer, independent of the artist’s intentions. The Shining retains its fascination, after so many other films have been forgotten, because the intricacy of its construction, far from limiting its possible readings, creates a sort of playground—or labyrinth—that rewards endless exploration. The real impossible window is one that the work opens up because the rest of it has been so deliberately constructed. And while I’m not sure what Kubrick would have made of the elaborate games of Room 237, I think he’d be the first to grant that only a very dull movie is all work and no play.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2013 at 9:09 am

Let us now forget famous men

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“More books have been written about [Lincoln] than any figure in human history, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ.”

The photo above was taken three years ago by my then girlfriend, now wife, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I didn’t get to go, alas—I was living in New York at the time—but the museum, as I was endlessly informed over the next few days, is tons of fun, with elaborate dioramas of the White House, Ford’s Theater, and other family-friendly attractions, including life-size figures of the entire Lincoln clan. When I saw the text of the plaque above, though, I was outraged, for reasons that might seem hard to understand at first. Here’s my verbatim response, at least as well as I can remember: “What about Napoleon?” I demanded. “What about Napoleon?”

You see, I like Napoleon. I like him a lot. Twenty or so books about Napoleon line my shelves, and I’m always on the lookout for more, the older and more adulatory, the better. Why? Emerson’s essay from Representative Men provides a decent starting point, but the short answer is that Napoleon is the most fascinating person I know in world history—”among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action,” as Will Durant nicely puts it. He’s the foremost figure of Western history, a man who, for all his flaws, embodies more than any other individual the limits of human energy, intelligence, and ambition. And I was pretty sure that more books had been written about him than anyone else, including Lincoln.

And yet here’s the thing. Napoleon came from almost nothing, and became emperor of Europe. At his coronation, he took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. He was, by almost any measure, the most purely productive human being who ever lived. But these days, all that most people could say about Napoleon, if they recognized the name at all, was that he was a short little guy with a funny hat. (Not that short, by the way: he was 5 feet, 7 inches, or roughly the height of Tom Cruise.) That’s what time does: it reduces even the most monumental figures into caricatures of themselves. Two centuries is all it took to turn the leading light of Western civilization to Ian Holm in Time Bandits. It will happen to Lincoln, too, if it hasn’t already happened.

Napoleon, of course, isn’t alone. I was recently reminded of this whole kerfuffle while reading Dean Simonton’s Origins of Genius, inspired by the Malcolm Gladwell article I mentioned last week. Simonton mentions the work of the psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who, back in 1903, made one of the first systematic attempts to rank the thousand most eminent men in history—there were hardly any women on his list—by toting up mentions in major biographical dictionaries and tabulating the results. Here’s his top hundred:

Napoleon, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Voltaire, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Luther, Plato, Napoleon III, Burke, Homer, Newton, Cicero, Milton, Alexander the Great, Pitt, Washington, Augustus, Wellington, Raphael, Descartes, Columbus, Confucius, Penn, Scott, Michelangelo, Socrates, Byron, Cromwell, Gautama, Kant, Leibnitz, Locke, Demosthenes, Mary Stuart [the only woman on the list], Calvin, Moliere, Lincoln, Louis Philippe, Dante, Rousseau, Nero, Franklin, Galileo, Johnson, Robespierre, Frederick the Great, Aurelius, Hegel, Petrarch, Horace, Charles V (Germany), Mirabeau, Erasmus, Virgil, Hume, Guizot, Gibbon, Pascal, Bossuet, Hobbes, Swift, Thiers, Louis XIV, Wordsworth, Louis XVI, Nelson, Henry VIII, Addison, Thucydides, Fox, Racine, Schiller, Henry IV (France), W. Herschel, Tasso, Jefferson, Ptolemy, Claudius, Augustine, Pope, Machiavelli, Swedenborg, Philip II, Leonardo da Vinci, George III, Julian, Pythagoras, Macaulay, Rubens, Burns, Mozart, Humboldt, Comte, Cousin, Cuvier, Justinian, Euripides, Camoens.

Now, much of this list remains unimpeachable. The top ten, in particular, would presumably be very similar today, though Bacon would probably give place to Newton, and we’d need to find room for Einstein and, yes, Lincoln. (Also, hopefully, for some women. The only other women, besides Mary Queen of Scots, to make Cattell’s top two hundred were Elizabeth and Joan of Arc, although, at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we see Sarah Palin.) But with all due respect to my French readers, when I see names like Guizot, Bossuet, Thiers, Comte, and Cousin, among others, my only response is a blank stare. And this is coming from someone who loves Napoleon.

All in all, though, Cattell’s list reminds us how quickly even major reputations can fade. (For an even more sobering reminder, look no further than the bottom of his top thousand. Fauriel, Enfantin, Babeuf, anyone?) And I have no doubt that a contemporary list of the top hundred figures in history, like this one, will look equally strange to a reader a century from now. Just because you made the list once, it seems, doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

St. Francis of the Troubles

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Last night, my wife and I watched the great documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which will hopefully bring my resurgent fascination with Apocalypse Now to a close, at least for the moment. (Which is something my wife is probably glad to hear.) And yet I’m still not quite sure why this movie, so extraordinary and yet so flawed, seized my imagination so forcefully again, when it had been at least ten years since I saw it any form. Part of it, obviously, was learning about Walter Murch’s fascinating editing process in the book The Conversations, but I think it’s also because this movie represents an audacity and willingness to take risks that has largely passed out of fashion, and which I’m trying to recover in my own work, albeit at a much more modest scale.

For those of us who were too young, or unborn, to remember when this movie came out, here’s the short version. Francis Coppola, coming off the great success of the two Godfather movies, decides to make Apocalypse Now, from a script by John Milius, as the first movie by his nascent Zoetrope Studios, even though he isn’t sure about the ending. Instead of the small, guerrilla-style movie that other potential directors, including George Lucas, had envisioned, Coppola elects to make a big, commercial war movie “in the tradition of Irwin Allen,” as he says in Hearts of Darkness. He pays the most important actor in the world, Marlon Brando, three million dollars for three weeks of filming. The entire Philippine air force is placed at his disposal. He goes off into the jungle, along with his entire family and a huge production team—and then what?

Well, he goes deeper. He throws out the original ending, fires his lead actor (Harvey Keitel, who was replaced with Martin Sheen after filming had already begun), and puts millions of dollars of his own money on the line. When Brando arrives, hugely overweight and unable to perform the role as written, the rest of the production is put on hold as they indulge in days of filmed improvisations, searching for a way out of their narrative bind. Coppola is convinced that the movie will be a failure, yet seems to bet everything on the hope that his own audacity will carry him through. And it works. The movie opens years behind schedule and grossly over budget, but it’s a huge hit. It wins many awards and is named one of the greatest movies of all time. Coppola survives. (It isn’t until a couple of years later, with One From the Heart, that he meets his real downfall, not in the jungle but in his own backyard.)

This is an astonishing story, and one that is unlikely ever to repeat itself. (Only Michael Bay gets that kind of money these days.) And yet, for all its excesses, the story has universal resonance. Coppola is the quintessential director, even more than Welles. His life reads like the perfect summation of the New Hollywood: he began in cheap quickies for the Roger Corman factory, became an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, created two of the greatest and most popular movies in history, became rich enough almost be a studio in himself, gambled it all, won, gambled it all again, lost, spent a decade or more in the wilderness, and now presides over a vineyard, his own personal film projects, and the most extraordinary family in American movies. (Any family that includes Sofia Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Nicolas Cage is in a class by itself.)

So what are the lessons here? Looking at Coppola, I’m reminded of what Goethe said about Napoleon: “The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” And that’s how I feel about St. Francis of the Troubles, as David Thomson so aptly calls him. No director—not Lucas, not Spielberg, not Scorsese—has risked or accomplished more. If Zoetrope had survived in the form for which it had been intended, the history of movies might have been different. Instead, it’s a mirage, a dream, like Kane’s Xanadu. All that remains is Coppola’s voice, so intimate in his commentary tracks, warm, conversational, and charged with regret, inviting us to imagine what might have been.

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