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Posts Tagged ‘film’

27 NOVEMBER, 2013

November 27, 1965: A Rare Recording of Stanley Kubrick’s Most Revealing Interview

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“People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction.”

In the spring of 1965, the physicist and prolific author Jeremy Bernstein wrote a short piece for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” about of 37-year-old director Stanley Kubrick, who was accelerating towards the zenith of his cultural acclaim after releasing Lolita and Dr. Strangelove and was about to release his greatest film, his cult collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The piece garnered enough interest that Bernstein was assigned to write a feature-length profile of Kubrick — something the reclusive director wouldn’t have ordinarily agreed to, had it not been for one peculiar passion he shared with Bernstein: the love of chess. So Bernstein traveled to Oxford, where 2001 was being shot, and spent ample time with Kubrick, sneaking in chess matches during production breaks. And even though he never beat Kubrick, he accomplished an even greater feat: He got the young director, notoriously averse to long interviews, to engage in a 76-minute conversation, recorded on tape. This rare audio, recorded on November 27, 1965, is arguably Kubrick’s most extensive and revealing interview about his early career, discussing such wide-ranging subjects as how he learned that problem-solving is the key to creative success, why he got bad grades in high school, the promise and perils of nuclear power, the allure of space exploration, and what it was like to work with Clarke and Nabokov.

The profile, fittingly titled “How About a Little Game?,” was published nearly a year later, in the November 12, 1966 issue of The New Yorker, and was eventually included in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (public library) — the same excellent collection that gave us Kubrick’s Playboy interview on mortality, the fear of flying, and the meaning of life. One of the most interesting — and prescient — subjects discussed in both the New Yorker article and the audio interview are Kubrick’s conflicted views on nuclear power and the atomic bomb. Bernstein writes:

It was the building of the Berlin Wall that shaped Kubrick’s interest in nuclear power and nuclear strategy, and he began to read everything he could get hold of about the bomb. Eventually, he had decided that he had about covered the spectrum, and wasn’t learning anything new. “When you start reading the analyses of nuclear strategy, they seem so thoughtful that you’re lulled into a temporary sense of reassurance,” Kubrick explained. “But as you go deeper into it, and become more involved, you begin to realize that every one of these lines of thought leads to a paradox.” It is this constant element of paradox in all the nuclear strategies and in the conventional attitudes toward them that Kubrick transformed into the principal theme of Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick goes on to argue that nuclear energy and the atomic bomb have been reduced to an abstraction, one “represented by a few newsreel shots of mushroom clouds,” which hinders people’s ability to actually engage with the reality of the issue. He tells Bernstein:

People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction. The longer the bomb is around without anything happening, the better the job that people do in psychologically denying its existence. It has become as abstract as the fact that we are all going to die someday, which we usually do an excellent job of denying. For this reason, most people have very little interest in nuclear war. It has become even less interesting as a problem than, say, city government, and the longer a nuclear event is postponed, the greater becomes the illusion that we are constantly building up security, like interest at the bank. As time goes on, the danger increases, I believe, because the thing becomes more and more remote in people’s minds. No one can predict the panic that suddenly arises when all the lights go out — that indefinable something that can make a leader abandon his carefully laid plans. A lot of effort has gone into trying to imagine possible nuclear accidents and to protect against them. But whether the human imagination is really capable of encompassing all the subtle permutations and psychological variants of these possibilities, I doubt. The nuclear strategists who make up all those war scenarios are never as inventive as reality, and political and military leaders are never as sophisticated as they think they are.

And yet, despite this glib view of our capacity for transcending the limitations of our own minds, Kubrick did have beautiful faith in the human spirit, as his timeless words bespeak: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

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07 OCTOBER, 2013

Edie Windsor, Patron Saint of Modern Love

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“The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.”

At the 2013 New Yorker Festival, I had the existential thrill of meeting the magnificent and humbling Edith Windsor — beloved patron saint of modern love, who invested years of legal battle and decades of personal struggle in making marriage equality a constitutional reality for all of us, and subject of the soul-stirring 2010 documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. During her conversation with the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy — whose beautiful profile of Windsor remains a masterpiece of magazine journalism, an absolute must-read, and a lamentable case of paywalls robbing culture of culture — 84-year-old Edie spoke with remarkable wit, wisdom, and bravery about her journey and her monumental win for universal love as she was losing the love of her life. Thea Spyer, her spouse of 42 years, who died in 2009 and her death imposed an outrageous estate tax of $363,053 on Edie, which precipitated the landmark United States v. Windsor case that resulted in overturning DOMA.

Portrait of Edith Windsor by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

Here are some of the most memorable highlights from the talk.

On being gay and in love in the 1950s:

It looked impossible.

On the elegant humanity of how acceptance happens:

The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.

On reconciling rejection from family and friends — something Edie knows a grim lot about, given her own homophobic sister didn’t speak to her for thirty years:

You just have to live your life, and the people who can’t catch up, can’t catch up.

On the rewards of her pioneering role in the LGBT rights movement, despite the personal tragedy:

I can’t think of a better position to be in and I can’t think of a better life for myself to have. There’s so much love and such a sense of community.

Her relationship advice to all couples, gay, straight, and varied — a wonderful addition to history’s greatest wisdom on love:

Don’t postpone joy.

But the moving moment, for me, came when I got a chance to ask Edie a question about love and mortality. Her answer, simple and honest and immutably human, was pure goosebumps:

Q: My partner is older than I am, so the prospect of mortality, of eventual and inevitable grief, always haunts the back of my mind. How do you keep love alive after death?

A: I sometimes wish I knew how not to.

Thank you, Edie, for everything.

Try not to tear up at this trailer for Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement:

Complement with Windsor’s Reconstructionist profile and Debbie Millman’s illustrated account of Edie’s historic phone call with President Obama.

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04 OCTOBER, 2013

Secrets of The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer on Creativity, Anxiety, and Failure

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“Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile.”

In 1961, a young architect by the name of Norton Juster received a grant for a book on urban perception and settled down at his house in Brooklyn Heights to write it. Struggling with the process, however, he began toying with a playful story about a boy named Milo in an effort to distract himself from the burden of his workload, and showed his drafts to his neighbor, an emerging political cartoonist named Jules Feiffer. Juster never wrote the urbanism book — instead, he teamed up with Feiffer and together they dreamt up The Phantom Tollbooth, which went on to become one of the most celebrated children’s books of all time, brimming with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — its map of The Kingdom of Wisdom alone is a profound metaphor for curiosity and the human condition.

Map of The Kingdom of Wisdom from ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

In 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the beloved classic, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Hannah Jayanti set out to capture the book’s remarkable legacy by offering a rare glimpse of its creative process in a documentary that follows Feiffer and Juster, both 82 at the time, as they reminisce about their historic collaboration and the lesser-known challenges of the project. The documentary, funded on Kickstarter, has now come to life. Hannah has kindly offered two exclusive clips from The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations — one of Juster and one of Feiffer, each reflecting on the core of his creative philosophy — for our collective enjoyment. In the first clip, Juster explores the reverse bell curve of pleasure that stretches across what he considers to be the three stages of writing — a notion that maps almost perfectly onto Malcolm Cowley’s four-step model, only fusing the first two steps into one — as he looks back on writing The Phantom Tollbooth:

It was a wonderful experience — wonderful in an odd sense, in that I always felt there were three steps in writing:

The first step, which is the anticipation of writing — wonderful, because there you are with an abstract idea, and you’re quite sure that you can do it, and it’s going to be quite wonderful, and you can visualize all the wonderful sales, the interviews, the reviews; you start to write your Nobel acceptance speech. And so that’s great, because there’s nothing real there, in the anticipation of writing.

Number three is the other end of that, having finished — and that’s a wonderful feeling, because number two is an agony all the way.

Juster echoes Kierkegaard on anxiety as an essential part of creativity, reminding us of John Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — the uncomfortable skill of tolerating uncertainty and the prospect of failure, so very crucial to all good art — and harking back to Tolstoy’s notion of “infectiousness” as the ultimate litmus test for creative success:

I find that writing … it’s so anxiety-making, it’s so tense, it’s so scary, it’s so full of danger of failure, that you wake up every morning and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to do it… You can feel what you want in the back of your head but can you and are you going to get it down on paper so someone else can feel the same.

Juster’s closing remark, however — the revelation that someone as magnificent as Maurice Sendak experienced the same cauldron of creative anxiety — is strangely yet immutably comforting.

In the second clip, Feiffer reflects on his experience as an art educator and the importance of teaching his students the art of making mistakes — and reminds us that the fear of failure so core to the creative experience, while toxic, is also our greatest chance for transcendence:

Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile, and to try everything.

The full film premieres at the 2013 New Yorker Festival and is available for pre-order online. Complement it with the magnificent The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition, which features reflections from such beloved authors and artists as Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, and Maurice Sendak.

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