Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The Film: Spartacus (105)
The Director: Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Killing, etc.)

What Is It?: A stunning Roman epic revolving, but certainly not limited to, the slave revolt inspired and led by the one, the only, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas).

The Experience: I've written extensively about it, but, in a nutshell: I wanted to consume this entire monster of a movie in one sitting. Alex wanted to consume this entire monster of a movie on a 40-inch flat screen. Thus, we waited, and then gorged ourselves on sword-and-sandal, nearly four melodramatic hours of it. As cinematically full as I've felt in years.

Quick Notes:

1. A brief history of the film.

Spartacus (105) was originally going to be directed by Anthony Mann (The Furies (435)) but when actor-producer Kirk Douglas realized that the notoriously hard-headed Mann would be a force to be reckoned with he, amongst a quickly spiraling budgetary fiasco, yanked Mann and installed a director he knew and respected - the then 31-year old Stanley Kubrick, whom Douglas had previously worked with on Paths of Glory.

2. Another bit of history.

The screenwriter on this film is Dalton Trumbo, a celebrated member of the Hollywood Ten. What might you ask is the Hollywood Ten? Those brave screenwriters who opposed the House Un-American Committee in the late 40s, fating themselves to write under pen-names for nearly a decade. Douglas loved Dalton Trumbo though, and thus spat in the eye of well, America, in allowing Trumbo to write and be credited. When protests broke out, Douglas stuffed it in right-wing America's face again, hiring Trumbo to write two more movies. Take that bloated idiocy of America.

3. Is any cinematic experience big enough for this film?

Even after waiting for weeks for a perfect television and my near perfect lady to be sprawled a top me, this film was bigger than I could imagine. The film opens with a ten minute "overture", a commanding performance of the theme song over blackness, and segues directly in a mammoth shot of thousands of slaves working on a desolate desert hillside. I imagine that this shot alone took months and months and months of preparation. And the film is just shot after shot like this, big beautiful vistas and marching armies and the sort of widescreen physical experience one just doesn't experience anymore.

4. How come we can't do big budget films like this anymore?

Avatar, James Cameron's recently opened opus, cost near 500 million dollars, taking nearly ten years to come together. Spartacus (105) was filmed in under and year and cost a not nearly as staggering 12 million dollars (though to be quite honest, it was a staggering figure at the time). Avatar features an entire world created out of ones and zeroes. Spartacus (105) features a world crafted from wood, steel and fabric. Both films were enormous for their time, but I wonder if in fully immersing ourselves in the digital realm, we lose the sort of man-made spectacle that a film like Spartacus (105) offers. Even with out the sort of whizzing flash-bang of modern day filmic spectacles, I was captivated by this monstrous Roman epic, always hungry for what might happen next. And yes this is because Dalton Trumbo is a master, and James Cameron wrote Titanic, but there's something about a crafted world that draws me in. Roommate Yon-Marcum asked if I wanted to see Avatar in 3-D on Saturday and all I could reply was "I'm watching Spartacus (105) in 2-D. Maybe another day."

5. Spartacus is kind of boring.

Not the film, the character. There's three main storylines in this film: Spartacus's slave revolt, Spartacus's romance with Varinia (Jean Simmons), and the underhanded politics of the Roman senate. And honestly, even with all the shirtless man-fighting, I found Spartacus' storylines the most boring. There was a generic late-50s feel to these parts of the film, a sort of chugging Hollywood mechanic that left me starry-eyed at best.

That said, the underhanded dealings of the Romans was fantastic. Lead by three amazing actors (Peter Ustinov as slave-dealing Lentulus, Laurence Olivier as smirking Christian death-dealer Crassus, and Charles Laughton as "corpulent" master of the Senate Gracchus) this is where the film, surprisingly zings. Together, or separate, or split in to pairs, these three Brits, dominate the screen with their subtle sarcasm and undeniable wit. Olivier's speech about his "oysters and snails" (oysters = women, snails = men), Laughton's final moments with Varinia, and every single second with Ustinov's manipulative sniveler on screen showcase how a truly great epic functions by balancing the numbskulled action with brilliant character acting. Amazing.

6. Kirk Douglas' father may have been a mountain.

Seriously, I think Douglas' mother may have had a dalliance with a slab of granite. Look at his face! There's metamorphic structures envious of it.

7. Again, I'm a lucky person.

Alex was excited this week to watch Spartacus (105). Not just with me, of her own accord she cinematically hungry to consume this big old picture in one enormous sitting. We saw Vertigo at The Castro Theater and spent an hour afterward discussing why it is her favorite Hitchcock film. Yesterday we spent nearly an hour playing with two alien looking cats. Barely talking, just enjoying two cats and each others company.

None of these things will I ever take for granted.

Final Thoughts: This is the way I want my big-budget films to be. Well-written, well-acted, long but not bloated. I'm watching a Michael Bay flick at the end of this chunk of five films and I've got to say, I'm curious to how it stands up. I'm thinking of seeing Avatar, watching The Rock (108), and then doing a three way comparison of all the films. A sort of cross-decade look at where the big-budget spectacle has gone. Sounds ambitious though.

1 comment:

jmk said...

I agree with your last thought of doing a comparison. Not because I think that Avatar is something amazing, but it is of a different kind, and I want to hear how the three of these compare in your mind. I think the problem with Avatar will be being letting go of a strictly critical POV and opening up to discover this crazy new 3D cinematic world. We'll see I guess, perhaps you'll hate it. On a different note, I don't think that The Rock will stand up to either of these movies, not because it doesn't have it's own awesomeness, but it just doesn't have the scope of these other two epics.