The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


Opacity: Virtue or Failing?

I was discussing Mulholland Drive with Katia Mitova, one of the most incisive critical minds I know.  I was questioning the merit of a work that was loaded down with nothing but red herrings. She said, ‘That only works one time.  You can’t make a career out of it.’  if the gimmick of misdirection is the total substance of a work, then it is a game and nothing you need to visit more than once. Unfortunately, David Lynch has not followed Katia’s advice.

Nor did Stanley Kubrick.

I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey since I saw it at its theatrical run at the Loew’s Kings, the magnificent movie palace on Flatbush Avenue.  My father fell asleep almost immediately as was his wont.  I sat respectfully, knowing, even at the age of 13, that this was something important which deserved my undivided attention and adulation.

Over the decades I have seen it rise from the purview of nerdy Star Trek loving kids like me, to be regarded as one of the greatest films of all times, even earning a secure place in the Sight + Sound every-ten-year poll of the ten greatest films of all times.

But 50 years later my feelings about it are quite different.  The opacity of the symbolism annoys me more than it excited by in 1968. As a teenager and budding pretentious intellect, I could argue with friends for hours about what the monolith ‘means’. what the light-show ‘means, what the Star Child ‘means’.  Now I am less entranced.

I believe when symbols are invoked, they have to meet you halfway.  If there is no way of beginning to fathom the creator’s intention, is it fair on the audience? I don’t think so. One school of thought for this sort of thing is that if the work seems impenetrable, let it just wash over you and you get what you can.  To which I say, ‘Rubbish’.

Another problem with 2001 is that it keeps changing what it is.  Is it an anthropological meditation on the rise of society and murder via the device of uncuddly chimps? (cf. the ridiculous dinosaurs of Tree of Life?).

Then it becomes a space mystery in the not-distant future. Something troubling has been found in a settlement on the moon and a team of international scientists.  They don’t know what it is but they won’t release information because they don’t want to freak out the people of earth with a possible clue to origin of life (or something like that).

The third act takes place some 10 months later and this is the famous battle of wills between the two astronauts and the malevolent (or is he just hyper-responsible) computer system HAL-9000.

The two astronauts are so gorgeous in different ways, that they almost seem symbolic.  Keir Dullea has a Nordic, almost other-worldly beauty and Gary Lockwood, a more visceral All-American appeal.

These are men who know each other well and are extremely accomplished.  Their performances show men who are the best at what they do and who have also spent hours of mind-numbing boredom together.

HAL decides that the men are no longer responsible enough to manage the mission and he rebels. And just when you think it will be a classic sci-fi man vs. machine trope, it becomes a muddled and dull psychedelic light-show that goes on for too long.  Just in case you might feel that this is all arbitrary, the monolith shows up again in an aged Keir Dullea’s Louis Quatorze bedroom, just to ensure that it is all arbitrary. And then the Star Child.

I don’t want facile plots and sledge-hammer symbolism, but some elucidation should come from the creator.  The opacity of the film was exciting for a teenager teething on his first critical analysis of a film, but as an adult, it is just tiresome.




1 Comment

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
  2. Marius (Alexander Korda)
  3. Fanny (Marc Allegret)
  4. César (Marcel Pagnol)
  5. Tab Hunter Confidential (Jeffrey Schwarz)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
  7. Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
  8. Juarez (William Dieterle)
  9. Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel)
  10. Faithless (Harry Beaumont)


1- I found The Last Black Man in San Francisco absolute torture to sit through.  A muddled story, a muddled message, clumsy filmmaking. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

2- Please see my post about Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy.  Seeing it again is always nourishing.

3- I had hoped that Tab Hunter Confidential would have had a little more bite to it, kind of like Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Instead it was a pleasant two hour biography of what seems like a very sweet guy who was able to overcome the difficulties of being Gay in 1950s Hollywood.  Nothing wrong with that.

4- Continuing my rewatching of Bette Davis films, I recently watched Juarez and Dark Victory.  Juarez seems to have been conceived as a showcase for Paul Muni in the title role.  Muni was considered one of the impeachable actors of the time, playing a string of historical figures.  Now he seems like a bit of a shameless scenery chewer.  It is a shame that he has such prominence, because two of the great actresses of the 1930s, Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard, are eclipsed by Muni’s hamminess.  Davis does well with a Lucia di Lammermoor-like mad scene, but I wish the movie were Empress Carlotta rather than Juarez.  

Dark Victory is unadulterated soap opera.  That’s fine with me, but it is not as ecstatic as it could be.  Compare this to the magnificence of Now, Voyager. It pales.

5- In this time of social distress and baseness and general unkindness, it is wonderful to encounter Babette’s Feast again.  I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters and it holds up magnificently.  This is due to the beautiful Isak Dinesen (Karin Blixen) story it is based on.  So kind, so loving, so transcendent. Babette’s actions are somewhere on the Maimonides’ ladder of charity. It is a special case, I think. Doing a charity for someone who doesn’t realize what they need and thereby transforming the world.  How often do we see that in popular culture today?

6- I saw that Faithless was going to be shown on TCM and I recorded it mostly because I had never seen Tallulah Bankhead in a movie, besides Lifeboat by Hitchcock.  This looked like it was more typical of what she was famous for. A tale of a high-society dame who falls in love with a humble wage-earner in the Depression.  I thought it was going to be a frothy sex comedy, but pretty soon both characters go bust and it becomes a surprisingly deep and disturbing probing of life in the Depression. It would be a wonderful double-bill with Heroes For Sale (q.v.).   The films about the Depression made during the Depression are among the most powerful of Hollywood products.  It is interesting to me that this era has been completely ignored by current Hollywood.  Too ‘depressing’ I guess.

7- 2001.  See my recent post and please feel free to tell me why I am wrong.