Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Paulettes bury Kubrick - again!

Will it never end? Will the Paulettes never give up on Stanley Kubrick? You'd have thought they'd gotten their last shots in with Eyes Wide Shut - when even the director's death did little to dissuade Pauline Kael, with her trademark class, from calling his final work "a piece of shit" while her acolytes piled on.

But you know, it's a funny thing about genius - it's hard to keep a good one down. Eyes Wide Shut was slowly rehabilitated, after several major magazines ridiculed the dim film-critic consensus (an unheard-of event, right there). Kubrick boxed sets began to be issued with striking regularity. A gigantic coffee-table tome, The Stanley Kubrick Archives, was published. Hollywood's most successful director, Steven Spielberg, completed Kubrick's unfinished A.I. - again, unheard-of (can The Aryan Papers be too far off?).

But the endurance of the Kubrick legend, needless to say, rankled the Paulettes (as Pauline Kael's critical followers are known). After all, they bet big against him. Big. Kael herself called him a pornographer in print and intimated that he was a racist. And just how valid could her continual criticism be if it was directed at the film artist whose oeuvre has emerged possibly the greatest legacy since World War II?

For make no mistake: of Kubrick's thirteen feature films, five are masterpieces (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey - that's Kubrick directing on its famous centrifuge set, above), three more are flawed but fascinating (Lolita, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut), and one is a sumptuous failure with many brilliant moments (Barry Lyndon). It's an incredible oeuvre - one of the best of the century. No wonder there are endless re-issues of the boxed set (which always lacks, unfortunately, Paths of Glory).

But I suppose, with each re-issue, we'll have to endure another ritual as well; let's call it The Paulettes' Revenge. Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe seems to have taken on the duty of the current roasting in last Sunday's edition, so welcome to yet another episode of (drum roll, please) "Tom Garvey Bitch-Slaps the Globe Critic." And without further ado . . .

Feeney begins his hatchet job with - what else? - an interview with Robert Altman. Ah, yes, Robert Altman - remember him? The director of one masterpiece (Nashville), five or six more very interesting films (M*A*S*H, Images, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, and The Player), and then some thirty more movies that are either mediocre or outright suck? Yeah, him. The guy with the bleached-out, "stoned" camerawork, the muddy soundtracks, the sketchy bohemian stance, and the none-too-subtle mix of malice and misogyny? The guy who was unrelentingly brutal to his characters, and who stripped his actresses naked as often as he possibly could? Yeah, him. That wild party animal!

Unsurprisingly, Feeney informs us, he once interviewed Altman on Kubrick, and guess what: Altman didn't think much of him. Surprise, surprise. As Feeney puts it: "Kubrick was the anti-Altman: not actor-friendly, not improvisational, not prolific, neither slapdash nor shaggy."

No, not prolific - just always interesting. And what's this "not actor-friendly" b.s.? Kubrick's "not actor-friendly" because he clashed with Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining? Please. Few directors have produced more indelible performances: Kubrick's direction gave us Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton in Spartacus; James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers in Lolita; the entire cast of Dr. Strangelove; Douglas Rain in 2001; Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (above left); R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket; Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, and a host of brilliant character performances in almost all his films (even Barry Lyndon includes wonderful performances by Leonard Rossiter, Godfrey Quigley and others). By way of comparison, there are fine performances in early Altman, yes, but one gropes for anything great from his actors after Three Women (and sorry, Altman was never more inept than he was with the sterling British cast of Gosford Park). Indeed, only the ensemble of M*A*S*H achieved anything like the cultural impact of the acting in half of Kubrick's movies.

Actually, Feeney's smart enough to realize he can't make his case against Kubrick on artistic terms - there are just too many highlights to disguise. (And he doesn't even dare to bring up Kubrick's imagery or his soundtracks, because here the gap between Kubrick and just about everybody else is something like a chasm.) So he forgoes art for politics. He just doesn't like Kubrick - and neither should you. Kubrick was pretentious. He was a control freak. He "thrilled to the idea of total authority." He was a dictator - just like some of his villains! And worst of all, no punk band has ever named themselves after him. (I'm not kidding, Feeney really said that - he also says Kubrick's movies "flirt with turning into musicals"!)

Uh-huh. And can you say "beside the point"? Good. Now think about it. Let's take that "pretentious" claim - it's true: Kubrick was pretentious. Some great artists are not pretentious; but others are. Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest artist in any genre, was not pretentious. Mozart was not pretentious. But Beethoven was pretentious. Wagner was pretentious. Matisse was not pretentious; Picasso was pretentious. So by Feeney's logic, you really shouldn't like Beethoven or Picasso.

And how about that "anti-improvisational" claim - only someone who isn't familiar with Kubrick's work history could ever make it. Kubrick was improvisatory on a grand scale, often changing artistic course in mid-production and abandoning early decisions in flights of inspiration. Can you believe that Dr. Strangelove was originally planned as a suspense drama, and that Kubrick entirely re-wrote it with Terry Southern in his limo on the way to the studio? Or that Kubrick commissioned an entire score for 2001, recorded it at great expense, then trashed it for the tracks he'd been listening to in production (he pulled this trick again with The Shining)? That Malcolm McDowell improvised "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange? Ditto much of Jack Nicholson's performance in The Shining - and R. Lee Ermey's famous rants in Full Metal Jacket (above)? In short, very few directors have improvised quite as much as Stanley Kubrick - or taken such risky chances.

Of course Kubrick was - or rather, became - highly self-conscious, as is the case with many wildly successful artists. His work process became even more labored, as he felt the weight of living up to his past successes. (His many takes, while rather coldly administered, could also be seen as an opportunity for actor exploration, not directorial control; surely anyone can see that.) Always a loner, he also became more isolated after terrorist threats against his family during the making of Barry Lyndon. Eventually, it's true, he was something of a recluse.

But hold on a minute - isn't this also the maverick artist's dream? Kubrick held onto an astonishing level of control over his projects through the very methods that Feeney decries - obsessive attention to detail, isolation, and cold calculation. If Altman had had those attributes, perhaps his career wouldn't have gone into a tailspin after the failures of bombs like Buffalo Bill, and H.E.A.L.T.H. Maybe we'd have three or four more great Altman movies, instead of twenty crummy ones. Of course there were places Kubrick went that Altman could never go: Altman was never capable of the operatic synthesis that was Kubrick's highest goal - those moments in which sound, image, and drama coalesce into a resonance that only cinema can manage (as in Eyes Wide Shut, above). To the end of his days, Altman essentially directed his films as if they were television (where he began his career); when his scripts were good, the movies were good, and when the scripts were bad, well . . . the movies were, too. But hey, they were great parties, right? What's most poignant about Altman is that he never realized that if you commit yourself to going with the flow, and conjure a constant atmosphere of give-and-take and compromise, then you wind up with, well, movies that are compromised, too.

Seriously, could Altman ever match this image? Or idea?

So can we begin to decouple the bohemian stance from the artistic product? Can we admit that if you run your set like a party, you wind up with Dr. T. and the Women? Can the Paulettes ever just say, "Kubrick's movies are paced too slowly, but they're worth the time and trouble"? And can they stop saying that Kubrick was a pornographer, a racist, a control freak, or as Feeney says, "almost lunatic"? (And can we please drop the junior-high-level observation that HAL is "the most interesting character in 2001"? That's the point, kids.)

In other words, can the Paulettes move on?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that you point out Altman's television background.

    I was thinking, after reading this, that aside from Nashville and MASH the only lasting Altman film for me is the little-seen TV adaptation of the Caine Mutiny Court Martial.

    I didn't like the Queeg as much as Bogart, but I did enjoy Bogosian's turn as Barney Greenwald, especially at the party scene in the end.