Faster mentioned Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, widely credited with having created the science of ergonomics; the pair is better known, however, as the parents of the twelve children in Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes, which this offhand mention prompted me to reread. I expected to come away from them vaguely disturbed by the assembly-line regimentation of their home life (Gilbreth père having insisted on efficiency in the home as well as in the factory) but this turned out not to be the case. Far more off-putting were the looks not at the ways the family differed from the mainstream culture of the time but at that culture itself: the casual racism, the talibanic attitudes toward sexuality. Somehow I missed all this stuff when I first read these back in junior high. Maybe I should track down a copy of The Mark of Conte to see how it holds up.
Several weeks ago I rented Eyes Wide Shut, intending to review it here in tandem with Magnolia, since I tend to watch movies in thematic pairs and these would be three-hour films with Tom Cruise in them. I haven't had time to rent a movie since August. So, here's what I have to say about Eyes all by itself.
One thing that really struck me about Eyes Wide Shut on this, my second viewing, was the lack of throwaway locations and sequences: the film seemed to be a compendium of set pieces, each of which could have been a decent short film in its own right. Or to put it another way, a couple days ago the judging period for this year's interactive fiction competition began. IF games tend to bracket off each change of location with a sort of title card:
Palace Chapel A huge circular panel of stained glass dominates the eastern wall; the way it catches the sun during morning services is almost enough to keep one awake through the Christ Minister's sermons...
Director Stanley Kubrick (the greatest ever, in my opinion) tends toward this sort of organization in most of his films, but here it's especially noticeable: I could easily see the locales of this film laid out as adventure game locations:
Costume Shop Neon lights in the window illuminate this slightly shabby but perfectly serviceable showroom; an audience of mannequins observes the proceedings impassively...
Domino's Apartment This railroad apartment affords little in the way of seating -- even the kitchen table is off limits, occupied by day-old plates of spaghetti. It seems that the only viable option is the bed...
This may not seem like it differs much from other films, but here's what I'm getting at: there are, or at least it feels like there are, no linking passages. No montage sequences, no conversations that take place "nowhere important"... if Kubrick shows the lead character in transit, it's either because there's about to be a set piece that takes place on the street, or else it's to show the physical relation between two places so that the viewer can place them correctly in his or her mental map of the film's New York. There are no wasted locations: if Kubrick implements a place, it's because at least one interesting thing happens there. And there are no wasted sequences. Many films are basically three good parts (or, rather, three parts that hope to be the good parts) floating in a sea of exposition and vamping; in Eyes Wide Shut the sequences are all of roughly equal weight and lock together like legos, from the opening with its wonderful twist ending to the ending in a
Toy Store Enormous stuffed bears pack the shelves of this tony Midtown establishment...
A three-hour movie with three hours of substance. For most directors, this would be the highlight of a career. For Kubrick, it's not even particularly noteworthy.
Probably the best class I took in college was Ojars Kratins's seminar on "The Fantastic in Literature," which didn't focus on Tolkien and the like but on a wide variety of stuff, including David Lindsay's little-read 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus. At the time, I skimmed it; looking for something to reread recently, I scanned my shelves and thought, "Ah ha! Now's my chance to read this properly." So I did. Oddly enough, it made much more sense when I was reading more than every third page. Funny how that works.
A lot of the comp games this year seem to be abstract, and Arcturus is written in a similar vein: this is a book that's concerned not with living things and dead things, male people and female people, good action and evil action, pleasurable experiences and painful experiences, but with Life and Death, Male and Female, Good and Evil, Pleasure and Pain, Love and Hate, Beauty and Ugliness, Will and Obedience, Gods and Devils, Reality and Illusion. Even before he gets into So Far-level abstraction, with little green blobs of Reality being manipulated by the black shadow of Illusion through lightning bolts of Pleasure and Beauty, he has the protagonist encounter a couple dozen avatars for different approaches to The Meaning of Life. Joiwind believes in lovingkindness toward all things; Oceaxe makes every encounter into a contest of wills, with all losers either killed or turned to slaves; Spadevil believes in Duty, and so on and so forth.
This is the sort of thing I would expect to hate, since I'm totally not into abstraction as a rule, but to my surprise I found this book to be excellent. Maybe it's because these concepts are not merely discussed but incarnated: much better to have a personification of Sexual Love and a personification of Worship discuss whether to climb a mountain than to have a couple of beret-wearing jerks talking about love and worship in a cafe somewhere. The characters are actually much more interesting than one might expect from deliberately one-note characters, since they actually do stuff other than pontificate, and because their physiognomies are so different — and this is another underlying point of Lindsay's. The Arcturans have different sensory organs — some have third eyes that determine the usefulness of objects, others have tentacles that transmit empathy one way and sympathy the other, still others bear membranes that strip illusions away from objects that carry them, and the list goes on — and as the protagonist grows and loses these organs as he travels from region to region, he finds his outlook on the world changing. To borrow from Anais Nin, Lindsay seems to be making the point that we see things not as they are but as we are.
But Lindsay is not a relativist: he doesn't think that these approaches are all equally right, but rather that they're all wrong. Having discarded all these philosophies in turn, Lindsay in the final chapter treats us to his own: that this world is an illusion, and that those who aren't blinded by its pleasures are unhappy because they can see that there's a Real world from which they've been cut off, to which they strive to return — and to which they can return, with the help of the Real world's sergeant-at-arms, Pain.
This is not an unprecedented philosophy. When Gotama Siddhattha found himself dissatisfied with this world and searching for something more, he did what all those of his time and place who went on such a quest did: became an ascetic. But he eventually realized that the starvation, the tortures, the mortification of the flesh, did absolutely nothing to propel him towards enlightenment — enlightenment requires a brain in peak working condition, and weakening it with deliberately inflicted suffering is just as counterproductive as distracting it with sensual pleasures. Lindsay's philosophy, though beautifully realized, is immature. And really, just look at the results: the Buddha died serenely after several decades of having put thousands on the road to enlightenment and having left behind a doctrine and discipline that would put millions more on that road in the centuries to come; Lindsay died, miserable and insane, of blood poisoning caused by neglecting his rotten teeth.