22 February 2008

Production Diary - Day Fifteen

This is from an email I just sent to Thomas Bender. He is back on board and is asking for time to wrap up his current gig with the Howcast website before signing on to the Kubrick Napoleon documentary.

Kubrick's work as a magazine photographer in New York has great potential for story ideas. He was like this prodigy at sixteen who was working for one of the biggest photo journals of the time. He was living in the boom times after the end of World War II, when big cars and big furniture with stereos and television built-in were spreading into newly developed suburbs. Kubrick lives this bohemian life, playing chess for spending money so that he could buy the latest camera gear. He was a real gear head when it came to cameras and would never lose that as he grew older. There's a lot of fodder there. It was actually one of his photo assignments that gave birth to his first picture, a short subject looking at boxing and a day in the life of a boxer.
We've been exploring Kubrick's early life on this blog before he ever dreamed of making a sweeping epic portraying Napoleon's life. It sometime feels like we are spending more time exploring Kubrick's youth than Kubrick did studying Napoleon. Kubrick hired Felix Markham to pick the Oxford don's brain on Napoleon and his world. They met one morning during the in-between time after the release of 2001 and before "A Clockwork Orange." Kubrick had the conversation taped and I found a transcript of that interview in the Kubrick archive. I took the tube to Elephant and Castle and found myself in a maze of subways built under the busy street above. One tunnel led directly from the tube stop to the University of Arts. I did not find it until after I followed another tunnel that took me the long way.

Kubrick spoke to Markham about a wide range of subjects, from the political economy of post revolutionary France to Napoleon's love affairs. He actually started by quizing Markham about a cognate for Napoleon's Corsican accent in English. Markham suggested that Napoleon would sound like a highlander from Scotland. Later, Kubrick confessed that he was sympathetic to Napoleon's form of "enlightened despotism." Markham understood Napoleon to have created his own aristocracy, one that was only preserved by Napoleon's military grip on the leading houses of Europe. Kubrick supported Napoleon's actions in clamping down on the press during the early days of his rule: France was still unstable and agitation from the media would have promoted continued chaos. Surprisingly, Kubrick spent little time discussing the battles other than complimenting Markham on the clarity of the word pictures he used to describe Napoleon's key battles in his biography of the man. Kubrick understood that in war victory was a matter of making fewer mistakes than your opponent.

What Kubrick admired how as an emperor Napoleon made battle so efficient he turned war into a "going concern" for France. Markham reminded Kubrick that in order to keep making a profit he had to keep winning all his battles. Ultimately, it was chess is what helped Kubrick nail down Napoleon's personality. To Kubrick, Napoleon's achilles heel was his inability to play the "in-between" moves of battle. "Un-swish-en-sug" is how Kubrick spelled it out for the benefit of the transcription. It is a chess term for moves played in the limbo between attack and defense, when there is nothing to attack or defend. Kubrick put it this way: "The situation between attacking and retreating [Napoleon] finds unbearable. He will take it either way. Whatever circumstance dictated, he can accept it and function well. But he can't function in that in-between spot. He doesn't like it. It makes him anxious." Markham added that the ruling families of Europe had the conventional aristocracy behind them. Napoleon only had the prestige of battlefield victories over the armies of these families; he did not share in their bloodline. It was only in blue blood spilt did Napoleon have any claim on legitimacy. Napoleon as the ultimate class warrior.

There is much more material in the Markham transcripts from the Kubrick archive. Too much for one post, but this one is a real nugget of gold.

Picture of the day. Reasons to be cheerful, part three. The New York Times published an article suggesting John McCain had an affair in the Nineties. Now the conservatives who were shunning him are coming to his side. The New York Times is making the reporters available on the InterWebs to prop up the legitimacy of the story. This is an in-between time for McCain because he had no one to attack yet on the Democratic side in the election. Hilary Clinton hinted at the prospect of losing the nomination in a Texas debate last night on CNN. Barack Obama is closing the gap down to single digits in Ohio and is even in Texas with Clinton. Obama Edwards anyone? Here's a shout out to John Malkovich, inventor of the Jell-o diet and a festival of style.

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