Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 8th, 2011

Great Directors: Stanley Kubrick

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Essential films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon, and many others.

Kubrick’s case is an unusual one. Film for film, he has the most impressive body of work of any director from the last half century of movies, and no other filmmaker can match him for ambition, intelligence, and attention to detail. Yet his example is dangerous. Kubrick gets away with habits that would be deadly in a lesser director—the obsessive perfectionism, the countless takes, the frequent indifference to recognizable human emotion—because he’s Kubrick. A talented director who had seen nothing but Kubrick’s films would end up with a very distorted sense of what movies can, or should, do; the result, at best, might be something like Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. Far better, if an aspiring filmmaker had access to only one director’s work, to study Michael Curtiz, or even Steven Spielberg.

That said, Kubrick remains the most imposing of all modern directors, and his methods are justified because they resulted in a series of extraordinary films. The most striking thing about Kubrick’s work is that, the more you watch it, the more the comedies begin to feel like tragedies, and the tragedies like comedies. The Shining grows funnier, and better, each time I see it, while Eyes Wide Shut—my own favorite—has gradually come to seem like a screwball comedy slowed down to the speed of a dirge. His best movies, aside from the unique vision of 2001, are finely balanced between comedy and despair, which is the only sane response to the human condition, at least as Kubrick saw it. Paul Thomas Anderson, speaking of Barry Lyndon, said it best: “When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, ‘This is fucking hilarious!'” Which is exactly right.

Tomorrow: Orson Welles and the secrets of Kane.

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2011 at 7:40 am

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