Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Kubrick at the movies

with 4 comments

Stanley Kubrick

Earlier this week, to celebrate the eighty-fifth birthday of Stanley Kubrick, the BFI website published a list of the legendary director’s favorite movies, compiled primarily from the recollections of his family and friends. More than most such lists, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt: there’s no distinction made between a film that Kubrick found enormously influential and one he happened to mention liking once, and it’s hard to know where The Earrings of Madame De… stands in relation to White Men Can’t Jump. Still, it’s a wonderful list, and for anyone interested in Kubrick—or the movies in general—it provides some fascinating avenues for further exploration. (I’m particularly interested in checking out The Terminal Man by Mike Hodges, after seeing that both Kubrick and Terrence Malick were fans. Kubrick called it “terrific,” and after its release, Malick wrote Hodges to say: “Your images make me understand what an image is.”)

Regular readers of this blog know how obsessed I am with Kubrick, and any insight into his tastes and methods is worth investigating. So what do we discover about Kubrick from this list? We find that he was reluctantly willing to concede that The Godfather was “possibly the greatest movie ever made and certainly the best cast.” We learn that he had a habit of unexpectedly phoning directors whose movies he admired, and that they’d occasionally hang up, suspecting a prank, when he told them who he was. We’re told that the three directors whose work he always felt automatically obliged to see were Fellini, Bergman, and David Lean, with Truffaut slightly further down the list, and that his tastes were broad enough to encompass Annie Hall, Roger and Me, and An American Werewolf in London. And we see that he was willing to take inspiration wherever he found it: “Some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials.”

David Foster Wallace

Reading the article, I was reminded of a similar list that David Foster Wallace once put together of his ten favorite novels, including such initially surprising choices as The Stand, The Sum of All Fears, and two novels by Thomas Harris. Some readers have suspected that Wallace was playing a gentle prank, since he’s elsewhere named such authors as DeLillo, Bartheleme, and Pynchon among his formative influences, but I don’t think that’s the case. Making a list of this kind is a statement, and what I see in Wallace—and to a lesser extent in Kubrick, who wasn’t aware that his opinions were being recorded for posterity—is the list of a working artist. When a critic makes a list like this, he tends to write it with one eye toward the canon, and he’ll often weight his choices toward historically significant works that he also happens to love. A writer or director, by contrast, tends to honor books or movies that he’s found useful in the context of his own work.

And a real artist finds inspiration in places where most of us might never think to look. We know that Kubrick obsessively screened movies by directors he thought of as his peers—Spielberg, Coppola, Cameron—and that he was constantly on the lookout for innovations that would allow him to realize the stories he wanted to tell. Kubrick had as complete a set of technical resources and tools at his disposal as any director who ever lived, and after a certain point, a consummate artist comes to treasure small discoveries—a glance, an exchange of dialogue, a new way to scare or surprise the audience—as much as the big ones. I don’t doubt at all that Wallace knew that he had a lot to learn from Thomas Harris, or that Kubrick, who had thought so much about the portrayal of violence on film, would have responded strongly to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The greater the artist, the greater his appreciation of the new lessons he finds, no matter what the source. And to find them in the first place, you need to keep your eyes wide open.

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2013 at 9:11 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’ve seen a television edit of THE TERMINAL MAN and a) even edited, it was pretty good and b) it’s almost unfortunate that Kubrick liked it because it’s so blatantly Kubrickian — cold, carefully composed, tense. Have you seen Mark Romanek’s ONE HOUR PHOTO, with Robin Williams? Kubrickian like that. (Caveat: I’m going by decade-old memories here.)

    Kent M. Beeson

    July 31, 2013 at 12:21 pm

  2. I think Kubrick’s list reflects a man who is watching other directors to see how they work out action or dialogue. His top list reflects those directors who made great movies that had an edge to them. When I read novels, I know I am doing the same thing, I am looking at the dialogue and pacing to see what works and what does not.

  3. One Hour Photo struck me as the work of a gifted director who had seen nothing but Kubrick movies, which taught me how limited that approach can be. Kubrick may be one of our greatest directors, but he’s a dangerous model to follow.


    July 31, 2013 at 12:26 pm

  4. @notesfromrumbleycottage: Well put!


    July 31, 2013 at 12:29 pm

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