venerdì 9 febbraio 2018

Book review: "Kubrick's Monolith", by Joe R. Frinzi

As the year 2018 promises to be full of events and publications about our favorite movie, before being flooded with new releases it's time to finally catch up with stuff from last year that I haven't covered yet. Published by McFarland in July 2017, Kubrick's Monolith: The Art and Mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Joe R. Frinzi, is one of the latest book about 2001 hitting the market, and I got in contact with the author to learn more about it. (Full disclosure: McFarland sent me a review copy).

"Kubrick's Monolith has been a long gestating project, going back before Kubrick died in 1999.", Frinzi told me during an e-mail exchange. "However, his death was the catalyst that got me thinking about it in a serious way. At the time, there were only two standout books that dealt specifically with 2001—Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 which came out in 1970 and is now long out of print, and Piers Bizony’s book, 2001: Filming the Future, in 1994, a picture and text coverage of the film. While I liked both of them, I felt the need to examine the film in a way that neither book had done to the extent I wanted to see, bringing together so many aspects of the film and its making beyond what any other single book has accomplished."

Despite being "a labor of love from a devoted fan", the added value of Kubrick's Monolith lies in the author being an experienced movie critic. Frinzi lives in Easton, Pennsylvania and has been a professional writer since 1981, writing regularly about movies in newspapers and online for the last twenty years; he explains that the book is written "with the intent to bridge the gap between intellectual analysis and pure movie fandom", which is a welcome and refreshing attitude towards a movie that provoked so many heavy theorizations over the last fifty years.

Overall, Kubrick's Monolith makes for an engaging read; it's well written and with a warm personal touch that sets it apart from other similar works. Right from the beginning, in the first chapter - "Vision of the Cosmos" - Frinzi manages to swiftly convey the basic details of Kubrick and Clarke's lives previous to their meeting in 1964, and the decision to make the proverbial "really good" science fiction movie together, while intertwining the narrative with an extensive comment on the author's top ten sci-fi films prior to 1968. Seen through the lens of a knowledgeable movie critic, this makes for an enrichment of the text instead of an unnecessary burden; also, some of the movies Frinzi covers are not the usual suspects that always get in the conversation. 

According to the author, "2001 raised the standards of the sci-fi movie genre completely, by showing you could have a screenplay that seriously examined our place in the universe, and do it with sophisticated production design and special effects. Kubrick took a B-movie genre and gave it the weight and gravitas of an arthouse masterpiece. There had been a few sci-fi films prior to 2001 that attempted to be serious, which I cover in my book, but by and large, the majority of movies being made in that genre were monster flicks and space adventure stories geared toward children. 2001 changed all that."

Instead of resorting to a dry chronological account of the making of 2001, Frinzi focuses on the key themes touched by Kubrick and Clarke, and while he's not shy in delving into a personal interpretation of the movie's mythology, he manages to keep it accessible, devoting the necessary attention to Joseph Campbell's influence, Homer's Odyssey analogies, and the various artistic symbolism in the movie (the monolith, the imagery of birth and death, etc.) "The book was designed to work as a whole, progressively covering all aspects of the movie, from the men who made it to the writing of the screenplay, the production design, the special effects, the use of music, and the impact the film had when it was released, leading up to its legacy half a century later."

The central chapters of the book provide an interesting and surprisingly informative coverage of the scientific background from which 2001 originated, followed by a good round-up of the technological breakthroughs needed for shooting the notoriously complicated special effects, with significant space devoted to the crew members and their contribution. Later chapters are dedicated to the explanation of the Star Gate sequence in detail, and to the experience of what watching the movie is like and the subtle ways information is delineated there; especially interesting is the section devoted to the musical and overall sonic landscape of the movie, where Frinzi (who is also an avid collector of everything 2001-related) provides detailed information about the several releases of the movie soundtrack over the years, something which was seldom included in previous books.

In the last chapters the author (correctly stating that the early critical reception of the movie was, but for a few - yet influent - New York critics, overwhelmingly positive) provides a comprehensive account of the influence and legacy the movie, up to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and Ridley Scott's The Martian, adding the very personal touch of a trip to visit the key New York locations significant for the history of the movie. The up-to-date focus on the impact the movie had on contemporary culture, not only the movie business, is probably the book's biggest achievement.

In conclusion, despite not being based on original interviews (though the author was in contact with Dan Richter, who clarified some details about Moonwatcher and "The Dawn of Man" shooting) or new archival research, and despite a couple of omissions (most notably, there is no mention of the significant influence of Robert Ardrey's works on Kubrick and Clarke's early thinking), Kubrick's Monolith makes for an entertaining read, in which even hardcore fans will find interesting new insights.

I think it's telling about the overall attitude of the author that when asked about why he thinks 2001 is still relevant after 50 years, he highlights the fact that "the movie has been a very inspirational touchstone for untold numbers of people who have gone on to work in the film industry, become writers (like myself) and perhaps even make a career for themselves in the space program. So many people have been influenced by 2001 whether as scientists, artists or what-have-you, that 50 years later it continues to have an impact and resonance in our culture and society. With my book, I’d like to think that I’m just doing my part to keep the spirit of 2001 alive. I certainly hope that whatever insights I have to offer will serve to help others who are seeking to find their own meaning about Kubrick’s film."

Especially if joined with archival-based books like Peter Krämer's BFI monograph, or Piers Bizony's lavishly illustrated magnum opus (now available in a cheaper edition) Frinzi's book is a worthy new addition to the ever-expanding 2001 canon.

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Kubrick's Monolith: The Art and Mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey
by Joe R. Frinzi

Softcover (6 x 9), 224 pages, 20 photos (b&w),  $ 29,95.
Available from McFarland, Amazon (UK and US), Barnes and Noble

1 commento:

  1. Absolutely excellent! This is insightful, personal and meaningful. I learned a lot about this great movie.