Politics & Policy

Kubricking Movies and Scandalizing Public Opinion

Ex Machina and Welcome to New York play truth and scare

Stanley Kubrick’s influence has ruined more movies than any other great director’s. The new sci-fi non-thriller Ex Machina by novelist Alex Garland is a perfect example of how Kubrick’s misanthropy and technological “genius” (as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining) have combined to keep several generations of filmmakers in a state of cynical juvenile pomposity. They mistake copycat vanity for creativity.

Ex Machina’s lead character is its least interesting character: not the comely, artificial-intelligence female robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), or her barefoot, beer-swilling techno-genius inventor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), but the nerdy computer analyst, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who works for Nathan’s company, Bluebook, and is invited to spend a week in a high-tech bunker conducting secret tests of Ava’s consciousness.

Caleb is the fanboy audience’s surrogate: so young, brainy, and virginal he doesn’t realize he’s lonely, which makes him a dupe for his idolized wizard of odd. Caleb gushes to Nathan: “If you have created a conscious machine, it’s not just the history of man; it’s the history of the gods!” Despite having the history of mankind available on personal devices, Caleb never learned the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea — Kubrick nerds not being fond of the lessons formerly taught in humanities courses.

Garland tries Kubricking the Pygmalion myth so that it resembles other misanthropic sci-fi films like Gattaca, Simone, Species, Her, and Under the Skin. The dystopian gimmick seems personalized in the mind-games played between Ava, Caleb, and Nathan, but there are no surprises — which really means no revelations — when hubris meets its comeuppance.

But Ex Machina has other problems besides cultural ignorance. From the moment Ava appears, with a mask-like face and visible computer hardware in her arms and torso like the maternal mecha who shelters robot David in A.I., the figure of a female without innards or a thrumming hard drive exposes Garland’s fanboy misogyny. By the time Caleb and Nathan finish discussing race, gender, and sex (“A consequence of accumulated external stimuli”), it’s unmistakable that Ex Machina is pandering to a teenage boy’s sensibility. (Simple commercialism probably explains Ava’s look: She’s like a casting agent’s test-tube hybrid of Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara, while Nathan typifies any bearded hipster from Williamsburg to Silicon Valley.)

Omitting Deus from the title is a red herring. How many Kubrick nerds know it’s supposed to complete the title phrase as a modernist reference to theatrical effect, narrative artifice, and the imitation of divinity? There’s no deus in Garland’s details. At least Spike Jonze’s Her had sci-fi visual chic, but Garland’s bland imagery doesn’t enhance his mediocre ideas — even the mountainous landscape out of The Shining carries less emotional impact than the elusive paradise that beckons a lovesick Tom Cruise in the underrated sci-fi lament Oblivion.

Garland’s only cinematic effect occurs when Ava causes a power cut in Nathan’s man cave of solitude, and everything shifts to red-toned emergency lighting intended to evoke the scene of HAL 9000’s dismantling in 2001. Garland depends upon his audience’s being both nerdy and impressionable.

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#related#“You have to feel something,” Gérard Depardieu says at the beginning of Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York. What he means, in his fractured English, is not just empathy but the moral intelligence to understand even the things and people you don’t like — an artistic obligation that is also the highest form of human response but rarely required by recent movies.

Depardieu plays a figure very much like French banker Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose interaction with a New York hotel maid in 2011 became an international sex scandal. In recreating the disputed event and its legal and personal aftermath, Depardieu and the film’s director, Ferrara, have brought badly needed feeling and intelligence to the contemporary embarrassment of scandalization. Welcome to New York is about much more than DSK; Depardieu and Ferrara probe the state of contemporary morality.

It is both shocking and fascinating to see Depardieu go to the depths of depravity and the heights of personal consciousness. Obese, frequently nude, and unabashedly lascivious, Depardieu’s Devereaux never makes excuses for himself. Even after multilevel humiliations (including an arrest, hearing, and jail sequence in which Ferrara offers the best depiction of class conflict in law enforcement since Altman’s The Long Goodbye), Devereaux remains his own harshest judge.

In this amazing film, Depardieu and Ferrara are fully immersed in the complexities of private and social behavior. They avoid the namby-pamby sort of issue-oriented drama that has taken the place of genuine ethical scrutiny in popular culture. Each scene is psychodrama and social drama — as when Devereaux’s adult daughter steps out of a reunion with his disgraced wife, Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), leaving them alone together to argue in Macbeth-like shadows. Ferrara insists on discretion here, yet the moment is searing and candidly intimate — a revelation.

All-belly Depardieu, still a great actor, does what Orson Welles and Marlon Brando always did, revealing the body (and all-too human fallibility) in a courageous act of identification. “I am an addict sex,” Devereaux confesses, confronting us with a realistic linguistic breakdown. That’s also Ferrara’s bold, multifaceted method. Note the scene where Devereaux, under house arrest in a $60,000-a-month rented penthouse, chuckles while watching Truffaut’s Domicile Conjugal (Bed and Board), enjoying its classical/farcical ideas of French philandering and marital sophistication.

Ferrara invites us to recognize a new era of manners, often obscured by a celebrity-based aristocracy and its attendant prevaricating media. Welcome to New York has none of the Aaron Sorkin (Social Network, West Wing) snark that has infected TV and cinema. It’s both New York tough and arty French in its objective of thinking out and clarifying even the grossest circumstances behind media scandal. Ferrara successfully burns through celebrity (that modern social disorder) to analyze power and get to humanity.

Among its other merits, Welcome to New York corrects the way that American movies and TV have gotten so banal and so obvious — especially while pretending to be topical, yet degrading public opinion. This is the best cinema in its humane intellection and imagery (Ferrara and cinematographer Ken Kelsch avoid TV’s fake-doc style; their dark foregrounds recall ’90s Godard). Rejecting received notions about right/wrong, politics, and sex, Ferrara’s unorthodox approach is audaciously vulgar; he denies secular humanists their egotistical comforts as well as their easy, convenient judgments.

Through Devereaux/DSK, Ferrara and Depardieu pose personal crisis against the crude tabloidization of American thinking and the shabbiness of contemporary pseudo-rationality during the past ten years of polarized culture and morality. Our simple-minded modern “convictions” have become self-congratulatory, perpetuated by overrated escapism like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad – the end result of TV dreck’s being accorded the respect of The Godfather (and, even more, the respect denied Godfather III).

Banal filmmakers would try scoring political points off the DSK affair. (Ferrara lets brief news footage of the complainant’s lawyer suffice for politically correct “balance.”) But Welcome to New York transcends politics — and the moment of scandal. It culminates in Devereaux’s soliloquy: “It was only when I arrived at the World Bank that the enormity of the world’s pathos, the infinite suffering inherent in human nature, revealed itself in all its horrible manifestations. I understood the futility of struggling against this insurmountable tsunami of troubles that we face.” Depardieu’s short-breath candor, surveying lighted skyscrapers at night while revealing modern rational man at his lowest, provides the epic personal view Oliver Stone tried for in Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps.

Ferrara and Depardieu have made what will surely be one of the strongest American movies this year, but they had to defy what Devereaux pinpoints as the “pedantic, narrow-minded, and short-sighted sophists” who feed off scandal daily to achieve it.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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