Where Have You Gone, Stanley Kubrick?
Posted Sunday, June 17, 2012 3:51 PM
It’s fair to say that I’m a film fanatic. I’ve watched about 2,500 films, in all genres, and from all over the world. And as a fanatic, I follow directors rather than actors. Casual fans, those who gush over movies like “Avatar” and “Forrest Gump,” may not understand that the director is the individual who makes or breaks a film. Unfortunately, truly exceptional directors are not as prevalent today as they were in the past.
The much-admired (and emulated) Martin Scorsese, for one, is an outstanding auteur and easily one of the best directors working today, yet he cannot rightly be ranked alongside the titans of the golden years when cinema was emerging as a serious art form: Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and the list goes on. These masters were, and remain, larger-than-life legends.
There are indeed master directors working today, though not of the same caliber (with the exception of Werner Herzog) as those cinematic geniuses who have departed. This elite group also includes Scorsese, Andrzej Wajda, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bela Tarr, Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, and the Coen brothers. (Sorry, Godard fans.)
But as much as I like, say, Clint Eastwood, I won’t run out to pay $13 to see his latest movie, as I imagine I would (if I were born earlier, and the ticket price was adjusted for inflation) for Akira Kurosawa’s latest. Alfred Hitchcock’s weakest movie in his last 30 years of filmmaking (think “Under Capricorn” or “Topaz”) would still be good enough to make critics’ top-10 lists in any of the past 30 years of American filmmaking. Orson Welles had more talent in his pinky than many of today’s celebrated directors can summon with their entire beings.
Why even have this debate about directors? Why exactly is the director so paramount? The short answer is that no other person involved in filmmaking (including actors, writers, cinematographers, producers) has as much influence on what we see on the screen than the director. S/he is the ultimate authority on all aspects of film production.
This focus on the role of the auteur, however, should not mitigate the importance of the actor. Without actors, there is no movie. But it seems that the quality of an actor’s performance, excepting rare stars like Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, varies from film to film. For example, Natalie Portman is a fine actress. But she, along with other typically reliable big names (Ewan McGregor, Samuel Jackson), falters in the new “Star Wars” movies. Why? Because George Lucas, despite his brilliant imagination, is not a particularly good director. Kirk Douglas, meanwhile, not a great actor by any means, puts in a career performance in “Paths of Glory,” directed by the inimitable and at the time very young Stanley Kubrick (Douglas specifically requested him for the project). And what about Ray Milland, who himself admitted he did not excel at acting, but who most certainly did in “The Lost Weekend” by Billy Wilder and “Dial M for Murder” by Alfred Hitchcock? Master directors demand (and get) the absolute best from their actors.
Hitchcock was known early on for stating that “actors are cattle.” For years, this statement would haunt him, until in 1941 he clarified: “I said ‘Actors should be treated like cattle.’” (This after Carole Lombard brought cows onto the set of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” marked with the names of the lead actors.)
According to author Patrick McGilligan, Akira Kurosawa was a bona fide perfectionist and dictator on the set. He had actors don their costumes weeks before shooting. He halted filming of a storm scene until an actual typhoon arrived. He had archers shoot real arrows at poor Toshiro Mifune in “Throne of Blood.” (I think even the madman Herzog would pass on that.)
Another perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick, while filming “The Killing,” was not getting along with his noted cinematographer, Lucien Ballard. At one point, the 28-year-old Kubrick said to the man 20 years his senior, “Lucien, either you move that camera and put it where it has to be to use a 25mm or get off this set and never come back.” Ballard complied and the arguments ceased.
And how did the actors who regularly worked with these giants of cinema feel about them?
The great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune described Akira Kurosawa as: “Kurosawa has this quality, this ability to bring things out of you that you never knew were there. It is enormously difficult work, but each picture with him is a revelation. When you see his films, you find them full realizations of ideas, of emotions, of a philosophy which surprises with its strength, even shocks with its power. You had not expected to be so moved, to find within your own self this depth of understanding.”
Joseph Cotten said about Orson Welles while filming Citizen Kane (1941): “Orson must have been about 22 then and I still think he's one of the greatest directors in the world. I don't know why people regard him as a difficult man. He was the easiest, most inspiring man I've ever worked with. He was the only one who seemed to know what he was doing because we were all virgins on that picture.” (Welles was actually 25 at the time “Citizen Kane” was made, still impressive.)
You can talk about a director’s creativity, technical skill, vision, etc., but what these things amount to are the finished product: the film itself. And while the perception of movies, like all art, is subjective, there generally exists a consensus among people (critics) who have made it their business to study and interpret movies and declare what constitutes a great one. Most of the time, but not always (think “The English Patient” or “On the Waterfront”), they get it right. While there are certainly moviegoers who would prefer “The Bucket List” to “Ikiru” or “Old School” to “Animal House,” no respectable critic will. With that being said, the best movies and overall bodies of work of the new masters fall short of those of the old.
Take Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese as an example, a reasonable comparison given their renegade statuses. Kubrick is responsible for “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Wow. Scorsese lensed “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” and “The Departed.” All excellent movies, but can one seriously consider that his films are superior or equal to Kubrick’s best?
How about Jean Renoir and Clint Eastwood, two directors with humanistic inclinations? Renoir made “The Crime of Monsieur Lange,” “The Lower Depths,” “Grand Illusion,” and “The Rules of the Game.” Eastwood directed “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and “Gran Torino.” Eastwood is skilled enough to make otherwise trite stories shine, populating them with characters whom we really care about. But it’s Renoir (“The Rules of the Game” is an all-time great) who consistently made memorable films, inspiring other masters such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray.
But what defines quality then versus now? In the pre-“Star Wars” era, the story was more important than the visuals, but today, with technological advances which were previously unthinkable, it’s often the other way around. Cinematography is indeed a key component in what makes a film enjoyable. However, you cannot have a good movie without a good story. And that’s not to say that the old masters didn’t have their own unique visual style. Orson Welles is probably the best example, as he experimented with all kinds of camera angles, lighting, etc. But these innovative techniques supported the story rather than acted as ends unto themselves.
And why are overrated directors like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron showered with money, while other talents, such as Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, and Richard Linklater, fall consistently under the radar? Because even though Hollywood is in the business of making and distributing art, Hollywood is still a business. And the decision-makers are ultimately in business to make money. How else can you explain how Rob Schneider movies get made?
The blockbuster “Avatar” made a gazillion dollars, but I’d rather watch David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” any day, or any myriad of unsung, quality movies. Lest I be labeled a film snob who is incapable of appreciating popular entertainment, I feel compelled to note that the original “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” series are two of my absolute favorites.
People have a tendency to overrate contemporary art, whether it be movies, music, books, or anything else created by artists. We like to think that the present time is the most important and interesting in the history of the world. And perhaps it is. But we can’t get carried away by rating “Raging Bull” as the fourth greatest American film of all time (what?!) as the venerable American Film Institute recently did.
Movies are a reflection of not only our society but also those universal human traits which transcend time and place: love, ambition, fear. And the best ones are those which we recall fondly, which have a profound effect on us, and which even change our lives. I only wish they were making more such films today.
David Barwinski, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, lives and writes in New York City.