Wednesday, 28 July 2010

KUBRICK'S NAPOLEON (Charlie Kaufman, 2010)


When I talk about greatest films you've never seen, I of course attempt to encourage a visionary moment on the part of the reader- these films do not exist, and can be seen in no cinema near you except the Ritz in your skull: the one with the ultimate screen, the eyelid, on which that brilliant-but-flickering projector, the inner eye, sends down images in dream-light. All are the ultimate possibles, because they never were. But there is another kind of never-weres, a branch that exists in the common imagination because they were almost made; their relationship to anecdotal reality is more suspicious, because it includes a failure, because they were begun but never finished, miscarried or aborted long before a metaphorical forty weeks were up. These unfinished films live in a never-ending circle of longing: Just intoning the following creates an inescapable spiral loop: Welles' Quixote; Gilliam's Quixote; Lean's Nostromo (Conrad); Welles' Heart of Darkness (Conrad); Welles' Quixote. Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon stands as possibly the greatest of these unfinished pieces, taking up two years of Kubrick's life in deep research, before studio cold feet brought it to a halt, leaving it as an endless what-if. Kubrick had everything: scripts, set designs, incredibly detailed notes on what he was to do- all of which he kept with him until death, never quite letting go the hope of realising his dream film.


Charlie Kaufman, naturally did not want to just make Kubrick's Napoleon. He didn't want to make a film about making Kubrick's Napoleon either. He wanted to make a film of Stanley Kubrick making Kubrick's Napoleon. He is a man with impossible dreams with a penchant for men with impossible dreams, and so his account is of a young man, director John Fink, who realises that he is about to be the same age that his hero Stanley Kubrick was when he attempted to begin his film Napoleon. Fink decides that he has no chance to be as great as his idol in original deed, so he sets out to recreate a facsimile of the man's dream, and make the Napoleon film that Kubrick did not. He gets access to a storage space filled with Kubrick's huge amount of research, and studiously tries to recreate the plan. Exactly. 1970 vintage equipment is used, and everybody on set must dress in era clothing. No cell phones on set. Strict discipline will surely cause some magic to be absorbed. These rules soon multiply and expand: No-one can travel to the set in a car younger than 1971, no internet, or discussions thereof; No cell phones ever, anywhere. Slang and pop cultural references must be temporaneous. The Shining hasn't happened yet, but A Clockwork Orange has.


Fink goes from dressing like Kubrick in an attempt to invoke his spirit, to impression, to believing that he is Kubrick, all on a long tumultuous shoot that causes psyches to fray and unravel. Rapper R.A. the Rugged Man, noted for his uncanny likeness to a younger Kubrick, stars as Fink in his first dramatic role. He pulls off an astonishingly subtle dive; Fink's absorption into Kubrick's colours and mythos is lengthy and delirious, spinning from the sporting of a lucky black polo neck to full-blown hectic impersonation, even dropping anecdotes from the sets of Kubrick's films as if they had happened to him, like how James Mason's quirks and desire for certain pre and post-luncheon activities reset the clocks on the set of Lolita(1962), and how Malcolm McDowell only eats from one side of his plate (the left). For a while, it works. Cast and crew begin to wonder if this man is a reincarnation, or if they have somehow slipped into the past. Shooting begins well. But it cannot hold.


The original title was K for Kubrick, N for Napoleon which, carrying with it an inescapable nod to Welles' own F for Fake (1974) (and in so doing, reveals itself to be slippery, for if a title like 'F for Fake' transparently suggests its own lie, a title that refers to that lie indirectly silently reveals its hidden lie only somewhat, that is to say, it reveals that its lie is hidden somewhere, or perhaps that it is hiding the fact that it contains an honesty about a lie that too that is not to be trusted. Or not.) perhaps too swiftly put the film in a place of self-described charlatanry that Kaufman had mined before, in particularly in the script for Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999). This place is woozily compelling of course. But Kaufman stepped away from this comfortable clearing, and marched on through the unfloodlit trees with his directorial debut Synechdoche NY (2008)(a film about 'things' and 'people' in every possible permutation unimaginable). He goes further into the darkness here, only now he is running euphorically, somehow avoiding low-hanging branches, fallen logs, and all manner of blackly unseen hazards.

Kuafman as R.A. as Fink as Kubrick fails, burns the set, throws himself on the fire; the only ending possible. $100 million dollars expires.

Kubrick's Napoleon Directed by Charlie Kaufman Produced by Anthony Bregman, Spike Jonze Written by Charlie Kaufman (using sequences written by Stanley Kubrick) Starring R.A. the Rugged Man, Cary Elwes, Tom Wilkinson Produced by Sony Pictures Classics 135 mins Release Date US: March 2010 UK: July 2010 Tagline: 'Can You Solve The Kubrick Rube?'

Thursday, 8 July 2010

PARAPRODOKIAN: MAYBE YOU JUST HAD TO BE THERE (John and Lucy Mills, 2007) a meandering monolgue without a punchline, only moreso, herein we see a playing out of the Monty Python's Funniest Joke in the World sketch, that frustratingly perfect device in which the promised gag is withheld; For this documentary, about the comedian Alex Paraprodokian, labelled by Time magazine as 'The Funniest Man In The World, Sketching' contains no sign of Paraprosdokian himself, as the filmmakers could not track him down. We have no primary evidence of his hilarity either, as none of his jokes have been recorded, on audio or visual media. What we do have is a series of talking heads giving vaguely remembered descriptions of how funny he was, leading to the suspicion that the whole exercise is a spurious gag at our expense. One after another, screen comedians appear to sing the praises of a man who may only be a rumour. These famous, successful comedians all bow down to the almighty Paraprodokian; Stephen Wright, Rodney Dangerfield, Sandra Bernhard, and more, but none can remember an exact joke, none can bring us proof. Time and time again, we're told: I guess you had to be there.

One woman's funny mount is another's vast edifice of nonsense; for one individual, 'because it's there' is reason enough to go to the top, for another, it is an exercise in pointlessness. No one comedian can ever stand above every other, an Everest in fact and feet. I could go on about the highest mountains being below sea, but the metaphor splits in my hands, overstretched with weight. The point being: successful comedians need not be funny, but can merely offer enough of an impression of a funny person to suffice. Silly voices and faces are a start. A speculative experiment finds that, contrary to popular expectation and hope, those that might attempt to sue (to pick someone entirely at random) Adam Sandler, say, for, 'distress caused by gross unfunniness' perhaps,would only ever lose. If his face is on the poster (and it always is) then the viewer only has himself to blame, a hypothetical judge might conclude.

A Hypothetical Judge Might Conclude (1999) is a comedy that revolves around several high-profile comedians reading pre-written jokes in front of a camera (some of which are attributed to the hidden Paraprodokian), which records them. If the delivery is poor, they have the opportunity to record the joke again. When the entire sequence is complete, it is edited together into an apparently seamless and spontaneous piece, known as a 'film'. This approach is, by this point, a tried and tested formula, supported by a multi-million dollar machine that creates the best possible conditions for a successful recording. All possible problems have many opportunities to be eliminated by many of the hundred people involved in the project. And yet. And yet. 'Perhaps we are in a truly 'If you don't buy a ticket you can't win the lottery' industry, and Universal Pictures reason that the more American Pie films are made, the greater their chances of finding a joke,' says Mark Kermode. He too had no idea of Paraprodokian's existence until Paraprodokian came out, and was among the prominent critics suggesting it to be a hoax: That Alex Paraprodokian does not exist. Several comedians in New Jersey have claimed to either be Paraprodokian or to have played a character onstage called Paraprodokian, but none have proved to be very funny. Not proof of their lie in itself; but it does bring with it the ghost of a suggestion that no-one can be that funny, ever.

'Comedy is essentially anarchy, and cannot be bottled' said Bob Hope, of all people. 'The comic, like the Indian, has a piece of his soul stolen by the camera.' Which apart from bringing the story of Alex Paraprodokian to mind, is clearly the kind of mythologising bullshit we support every day; the kind of artist-as-indefinite-divinity system that invented him.

The film concludes in the woods of Conneticut, where the makers have come to find the supposed place of Paraprodokian's birth. The Mills' crew finds nothing, other than a clearing where a house used to be.

Alex Paraprodokian has his place in the OED:

Paraprodokian (n): 1. Name given to an item of brilliance that there is no accountable evidence of. 2. An unseen presence in a room of people.

Paraprodokian: Maybe You Just Had To Be There Directed, Written and Produced by John and Lucy Mills Starring Stephen Wright, George Carlin, Sandra Bernhard, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, Janeane Garofalo, Damon Wayans

Sunday, 4 July 2010


'Without 'two world wars and one world cup', as the song goes, the English would have disappeared from even their own imaginations by the year 2000.' Peter Handke

'Without the Beatles, England are Portugal; Empireless and small.' Ian Svenonius, The Psychic Soviet

' [These comedies] come with the idea: we the British, and more specifically, we the English, can laugh at ourselves, and that is what makes us better than you. But it also contains the more troubling thought: we can laugh at ourselves, because whatever we are, we know we're better than you.' Stephen Fry

When England were paired with Germany in the World Cup last week, it resurrected age-old cliches that even the brazen seemed to use half-heartedly, aware that the ground had shifted. But use them they did, and when Our Boys were ambushed by a swashbuckling young German side filled with various ethnicities, the great unspoken English response was: that should be us. But naturally, it couldn't be, not right now, because deep introspection and radical projection isn't natural for the English (we use a French term, avant-garde, remember, because we have no equivalent of our own).

The goal that wasn't was one of those poetic echoes that sport, unscripted, throws up, a beautifully crafted red herring, in this case.

The Second World War gave Britain several things: A renewed feeling that her innate sense of moral superiority was correct (the geographical spread of the Nazi forces everywhere but the islands is both a fact and a metaphor), a celebratory complacency (for while America thrived in a consumerist glee adrenilized by rock'n'roll/Vietnam/Space Race euphoria, and the rest of Western Europe rebuilt and modernized itself, Britain clung to a sepia infrastructure) and a ribald miscellany of comic types to sustain itself for twenty years, thirty years, forever.1 From the kinky Gestapo officer to the tediously punctual guard, to name but two, the Nazis as joyless sadists turn up again and again, especially in the Nineteen Seventies,when every sitcom/stand-up routine/sexploitation comedy of English origin had one.

Always, it is the notion of spirited, fair-playing Englishmen which prevails, the plucky geezer fighting the robotic enemy. Of course, a berserk romanticism on the part of the Nazi's is key to what undid them. but its kinder (and lazier) to think about them as automatons consistently outgagged and outsmarted by an Englishman, with common sense,wit and attitude.

Adolf Hitler '68 Comeback Special seizes the same turf, initially, as Heil Honey I'm Home, or 'Allo 'Allo: it's mean panto season, then, and our ugly sisters wear swastikas. Shot with the same tone as the Robin Asquith 'Confessions...' flicks, and often with a similar cast and locales (Southend stands in for Paraguay, Brixton is Manhattan), John Le Mesurier plays an eerily un-uncanny Erwin Rommel in the style of Roger Moore, trying to guide the second coming of Hitler (Tony Booth) back from the jungle hideaway in Paraguay he has inhabited since 1945. His plan: Career resurrection, Broadway style. He books a televised show (under the pseudonym Johnny Fuhrer, a name later adopted by the singer of shock punks The Swasticklers) at Carnegie Hall where he will unveil the fourth reich, supported by hypnotism, which he hopes to conquer the new empire of America with. Only his timing is awful, as he discovers that the night he has booked is the same night that Elvis Presley's Comeback is being televised from Las Vegas. The entire world will be looking elsewhere.

Against advice, Hitler plays the show anyway, and to an audience of three, he performs a play, 'Spy Finkel and the Gormless Rotunda', in which a member of the Reich infiltrates America and discovers its pitiful and horrific daily existence.1 The joke is that Hitler's grandly pompous narrative arc, approaching fifteen hours with the menace of a panzer division's progress through Ukranian frost, is so devoid of entertainment (especially in comparison with Elvis' charm) that no-one could ever sit through it comfortably. But this is dealt with so smugly, that one comes away feeling immense sympathy for the misunderstood auteur of epic plays/mass genocide/ethnic cleansing. The underlying feeling is that this Hitler, failing Austrian painter, is an outsider talent being crushed under the wheels of an ignorant entertainment industry. Fuelled by Nazi bullion and a dream he books a rundown theatre for a year, and continues to play the show to nobody, heroically.

Tony Booth is grandly sypathetic, coaching from the front row every night, convinced that with slight script tweaks and absolute commitment he'll have his hit. John Le Mesurier plays Rommel as a resigned but dutiful right-hand, coping with the Fuhrer's eccentricities and his own alcoholism with suave and offbeat style. His white-suited Rommel is immaculate even when waking from the gutter. They're both too likable and foolish to hate, which somehow seems like the grandest faux pas of all.

And then Nazis fell out of fashion, at least in comedy. Stephen Frears' Somme Girls Are Bigger Than Others (1986) was a late, independent dig, mixing First and Second World War metaphors with death-by-Thatcher northern yearning. But the archetypes live on, and on, perpetrated mostly by English minds 'who have already decided on their place in the world, and it is at the top table.'4

Adolf Hitler '68 Comeback Special Directed by Tom Lancaster Produced by Bert Harris Written by Tom Lancaster, Simon Humphries Starring Tony Booth, John Le Mesurier Rank Organisation Release Date UK: Aug 1974, US:N/A, 104 mins Tagline 'The Most Notorious Act of the Century is Back!'

1. And by Britain, in this case, I mainly mean England. Wales and Scotland have other nationalistic crutches to cling to. The Northern Irish.... well, I'll leave the Northern Irish alone for now.
2. Sam Mendes directed a version of this play on the London stage in 2000. It was restricted eight hours, but received some minor praise.
3 .I quote German thinker Pierre Littbarski: 'The English are forced to use a French term, 'avant-garde', becauser they have no equivalent. Their children are stripped of dangerous thoughts, punished under a grammar hammer. The cleverest English are comedians and popular musicians. Ask an Englishman to name a clever fellow countryman,and they will say Stephen Fry. Or Morissey. 'Yes, that bugger's a smartarse.' Philosophical questions must be framed in these highly accessible forms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. So: navel gazing about the war is restricted to casual romanticism.'
4. George Bernard Shaw.