What does a Top 10 list say about you?

Image result for 2001 a space odyssey

Last week, a friend of mine tagged me on one of those Facebook chain messages, in which you’re nominated to follow through on some task that others have done. I was nominated to list my top 10 films.

As I approached the end of the process, another friend posted a comment: Had I seen a pattern?

That got me wondering.

Here’s the list, in reverse order:

10. North by Northwest

9. Quiz Show

8. Raiders of the Lost Ark

7. Europa Europa

6. The French Connection

5. Goldfinger

4. Blazing Saddles

3. Network

2. The Third Man

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

First, it should be said that only the top four are etched in stone, and probably in those positions. “Blazing Saddles” is my favorite comedy, an anarchic engine of wackiness that never lets up and sometimes (most of the time?) foregoes logic in favor of jokes. I don’t argue with people who prefer “Young Frankenstein” among Mel Brooks films; it’s definitely a better film. But nothing makes me laugh like “Blazing Saddles,” except maybe “Airplane!” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – both of which also put chaos ahead of sense.

“Network” becomes more prescient with each passing year; in fact, it’s probably – finally — even less crazy than the media world we live in, which means it plays more as ancient history than a vision of the future. I wish more people would watch it and do more than shrug “whaddya gonna do,” but the days when actual dialogue was important in movies passed sometime in the early ‘90s.

I still can’t make sense of some of “The Third Man.” I blame Alida Valli’s accent, the shadowy black-and-white visuals and Carol Reed’s deliberate copying of Orson Welles’ fondness for overlapping dialogue. (Welles is, of course, the main attraction of the movie as the villainous Harry Lime, and his first appearance remains a heart-stopping thrill.) But in its uncertain atmosphere – anything-goes postwar Vienna, complete with the real-life rubble left behind from World War II – and amazing set pieces, the film is more than the sum of its parts. The final scene, a wordless long take, remains one of my favorites of any film.

And “2001”? I’ve seen it in three-projector Cinerama, in the 2018 big-screen re-release and on 19-inch cathode-ray tubes, and it never fails to fill me with awe. As I said in my Facebook post, I know some people find it boring and tedious. I’m not one of them. Maybe I wish the “Dawn of Man” sequence would run a little faster, but I always lose myself in any number of other scenes – the exhilarating ballet of the “Blue Danube” dance between shuttle and space station, the sickening, chilling death of HAL, the scary/heightened trip into the Infinite. I’ve devoured any number of books about space travel, and though I’m sure “First Man” gets the quotidian correct, “2001” is the only space-set film that manages to capture that internal “wow” that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, while at the same time being brilliant cinema. (Which reminds me – I really have to watch “Apollo 11.” Thanks to my old employer for helping produce it!)

But what of the rest? The other six films, with maybe the exception of “Raiders,” could have easily been replaced by others. I didn’t find room for “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Airplane!”, “Citizen Kane,” “My Fair Lady,” “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Godfather.” I considered “The Social Network” (probably my favorite film of the last 10 years) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (though, among Newman-Redford films, I go back and forth between it and “The Sting”).

The most obscure film on my list is probably 1990’s “Europa, Europa,” which is there because it’s so emotionally frank and touched me so deeply. (I defy anyone to not gasp at some of the close calls for the protagonist, a Jewish boy who finds himself accepted as Aryan in WWII Europe – or cry at the conclusion.)

But even that could have been replaced by “All Is Lost,” the underrated 2013 film with Robert Redford as a solo sailor lost at sea, which is equally understated and also has an affecting ending.

Catch me on another day, and you’d have another list.

But, to get back to my friend’s question, is there a pattern?

Maybe not a pattern, but I do see some themes:

  • I like messiness. Nobody would confuse Mel Brooks with the bloodless, late-era Stanley Kubrick, but a more capable director would have killed “Saddles’ ” comedy. “The French Connection” has that verite 1970s New York going for it; “Network” puts Paddy Chayefsky’s sprawling monologues at center stage. Even the “careful” directors – Kubrick, “Raiders’ ” Steven Spielberg, and “Northwest’s” Alfred Hitchcock – leave room for serendipity. “Raiders” moves as precisely as a well-made watch, but it breathes, too. Rock critic Ed Ward once noted he preferred the “Beggars Banquet”-era Rolling Stones to the “Abbey Road”-era Beatles because you could “hear little Stones in the speakers” — in other words, the music sounded like it was made by humans, not machines. I disagree with his opinion of “Abbey Road,” but I get it, and the same goes for the movies on this list. All you CGI-loving directors, take note. (Or even directors who usually forsake CGI: I think Christopher Nolan is a wonderful director, but damn, he can seem as bloodless as Kubrick. And I liked “Dunkirk.”)
  • Give me a good script. Chayefsky hit a home run with “Network.” Ernest Lehman wrote “North by Northwest.” “Goldfinger” crackles, courtesy of Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn. (The Daniel Craig Bond films have their moments, but they’re all too flabby.) “Quiz Show” is elevated by Paul Attanasio’s screenplay, even as Rob Morrow mangles a Boston accent. Even “2001,” which has minimal dialogue – and what it has is often deliberately banal – has a strong storytelling sweep, and Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood find depth in their clipped sentences. (Douglas Rain, as HAL, is simply perfect casting.) Contrast those films with, say, “Titanic.” James Cameron’s award-winner may think of itself as epic, but his terrible script sinks the whole thing. The only scene with any grandeur – when you get a sense that this is a human tragedy, not some kind of connect-the-dots extravaganza — is the wide, pull-back shot of the ship starting to go down with its hapless passengers.
  • It’s got some movie magic. With Chayefsky’s theatrical screenplay, you’d think “Network” would make a good play, right? But I saw it on Broadway and it was just OK, even with (and perhaps because of) Ivo van Hove’s busy direction. Score one for Sidney Lumet. Carol Reed walks a fine line with “The Third Man,” finding uneasy laughter amid what could have been straight tragedy. (Graham Greene and Welles helped.) And many films have tried to copy the popcorn brilliance of “Raiders” – including its sequels – but the original is simply out-and-out great, perhaps even Spielberg’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.

That last one seems obvious, I know, but gets back to the medium itself. For me, the movie experience remains a singular ritual, starting with buying the ticket and then sitting in the dark, among other supplicants, facing a big screen. Sure, you can see movies on a smaller screen – and these days, that may mean a phone – but that makes “movie magic” all the more necessary, because otherwise it may as well be a 1972 episode of “Mannix.” I didn’t grow up in the age when movies were programmed like television, so for me they’ve always been the equivalent of what used to be called roadshow releases. Maybe that’s for the best, and maybe it’s the reason so few films of recent years have moved me the way the ones mentioned above have. They may as well be big-screen video games.

That said, do these 10 films reveal any real patterns? I’ll let a therapist figure that out. Just not any of the folks at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.

Review: ‘Space Odyssey’ by Michael Benson

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” at least 15 times. That may not sound like much – Tom Hanks, a superfan, has seen it more than 200 times – but it may be the film I’ve seen the most. (It’s certainly the one I’ve seen on the big screen the most – including once in full Cinerama at Atlanta’s long-defunct Columbia Theater and, last year, twice in its restoration roadshow.)

It never fails to fill me with joy and awe. And yet I can still be surprised by it – and stories about it.

That’s what I realized from “Space Odyssey,” Michael Benson’s making-of book that came out last year, the film’s 50th anniversary. I expected to find out new things about director Stanley Kubrick, writer Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, and any number of other people and incidents.

But I never expected the most interesting person in the book would be the guy who played Moonwatcher, the ape that’s the protagonist of the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence.

That would be Dan Richter, a name I’d never paid attention to, even though he’s listed fourth in the credits after Keir Dullea (Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Poole) and William Sylvester (Heywood Floyd). In a movie with few speaking parts, I’d long assumed he was probably one of Floyd’s colleagues or maybe even the mission control guy who checks out the AE-35 unit from Earth. Nope – not only is he the main human ancestor, he actually trained the other primate-costumed actors how to do their movements.

(I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d also long assumed that most of the apes were, well, apes. Instead, except for the chimpanzee who gets a short close-up, they were mostly members of a theatrical troupe. Richter, who came to the film separately, was an innovative mime.)

Richter, it turns out, kept detailed chronicles of his time on “2001,” and Benson had access to his writings for his “Space Odyssey.” And such tsuris he went through: the costumes, by the equally pioneering makeup man Stuart Freeborn, required careful application and included mouth magnets (so the lips could close a certain way) and a suit that was suffocatingly hot under studio lights – ironic, since ideally the set was a controlled environment. (The bright lights were needed for the film’s cleverly used front projection and recreating the sky of the African desert.) He studied animals in captivity and read numerous books. Between Richter, Freeborn, and resourceful assistant Andrew Birkin, the making of the “Dawn of Man” sequence is, frankly, often more interesting than what ended up on film.

Such is the magic of moviemaking. And the best parts of “Space Odyssey” are about how the magic was created, whether it was filming paint mixing from overhead (which ended up in the spacy “Beyond the Infinite” sequence) or the dangers of recreating weightlessness 30 feet in the air. In fact, stuntman Bill Weston, who played Poole in the scenes in which he’s floating dead in space — a victim of HAL’s paranoia — almost plunged to his own death after the wires that held him aloft snapped. Only his quick thinking – he grabbed the nearby pod – saved him. And he needed quick thinking, as wearing the spacesuit only gave him oxygen for a limited time. The NASA astronauts weren’t the only ones who had to undergo grueling physical activity.

Indeed, the challenges of mounting “2001” were sometimes as confounding as those of the actual space program. Kubrick, as the book reinforces, was a perfectionist, always pushing his cast and crew to go beyond what was thought possible. So Freeborn kept inventing new kinds of ape makeup; the special-effects team kept constructing and filming models that still seem futuristic; and Kubrick and Clarke kept wrestling with the film’s structure and themes in their attempt to make the hoped-for “good” science-fiction film.

If “Space Odyssey” falters, it’s in – perhaps surprisingly – the characterizations of its two creators. Kubrick remains just as remote in Benson’s telling as he is in others; often described as a genius, and certainly demonstrating an amazing eye and a martinet’s single-minded focus, he nevertheless emerges almost as cold-bloodedly analytical as HAL. At least there are some passages that describe his impish sense of humor – and his genuine human fear when his decisions almost led to tragedy, as with Weston. (On the other hand, the book reinforces the director-as-God syndrome; at one point, Kubrick urges Birkin, who’s several thousand miles away in Africa, to dislodge several rare kokerboom trees so they could be photographed in a better setting. After a nightmarish trip with the smuggled trees through a flash-flooded creek and an accidental fire, Birkin set them up … for a shot barely used in the film. The ones you see were fabricated in England.)

As for Clarke, the famed writer comes across as amiable and a little desperate, thanks to the spendthrift ways of his romantic partner – whom Clarke funded in some Sri Lankan movies – and Kubrick’s tight-fisted contracts. It wasn’t until after the film premiered in 1968, helping Clarke’s book version become a bestseller, that he managed to retire his debts. The early chapters featuring Clarke are interesting, but he quickly becomes a sidelight.

Benson is also a little glib at times in his writing style, which ends up diminishing the often amazing story he tells. It’s as if the sign saying “Zero Gravity Toilet” in “2001” were held a beat too long.

But he gives real depth to the challenges of making the film, even if the scenes with Kubrick and the suits at MGM are all too familiar from any number of other Hollywood tell-alls. (I’m reminded of “The Devil’s Candy,” Julie Salamon’s book about Brian De Palma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” though Benson’s book has a much happier ending – and many fewer celebrities.) He’s incredibly generous with his sources – particularly Richter, Trumbull, and the thoughtful Gary Lockwood — which gives “Space Odyssey” a fulfilling humanism. If the book never touches the awesome power of “2001,” it at least shows how hard everyone had to work to construct the seemingly immaculate result.

Pretty soon I’ll have to sit down and watch it again.

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