Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thank you, Stanley!

When Stanley Kubrick died, I mourned. This isn't like me. I don't generally form attachments to people I don't know. Yet without ever meeting him, I lived with Kubrick all my life. He -- his films and the rare interviews in which he discussed his artistic process -- shaped me as a person and as an artist.

I was born in 1965. One of my earliest memories is seeing "2001" when it first came out in 1968. Actually, I think I saw it in '69 or 70, in an early re-release. But I was very young, five or six. It didn't puzzle me the way it puzzled many adults. Not because I understood it -- I didn't. But I was at that age when not-understanding was natural. The universe was full of mystery and I hadn't yet swallowed the lie that mysteries are always explained. I was used to embracing awe. But I'd never seen awe on the scale of "2001." Nor have I since. I've heard it in Beethoven symphonies; I've felt it when I've felt love; but "2001" is -- to me -- a uniquely oceanic visual experience.

Younger people have a hard time grasping the impact it had in the 60s and 70s. No one had ever made a "space movie" like that. Its competition was "Star Trek" and "Forbidden Planet" -- both fun, but you never for a moment really believed they were real. They were cartoons. But while watching "2001", you WERE in outer space. (Many Kubric films provide this you-are-there experience. "Full Metal Jack" dropped me right in the middle of a war zone. The first time I saw it, after the movie, I walked out of the theatre and into a busy parking lot. It was night, and cars were zigzagging around me. There were bars nearby, and drunken people were on the street, yelling. There was broken glass. Half my mind was still in Kubrick's war. I felt feral. I felt exposed. I felt I needed to find shelter. Sniper fire could, at any moment, fly from one of the car windows or from inside one of the bar doors.)

"2001" has since been technically surpassed -- though it's shameful how often sci-fi films made 30 years later look fake compared to it -- but only "2001" gets the stillness of space, the loneliness, the poetry.

The movie followed me all my life. My mother, who was once a film historian, wrote a short book about it. And then, years later, I got a job at Sothebys, the auction house. My office was right down the hall from the Collectibles Department. I loved Collectibles, and used to drop in there during coffee breaks to see what treasures they'd received: a Ring Starr drumstick, a Marilyn Monroe dress, a Superman #1 comic book...

One day I noticed something familiar. Could it be? Yes, it was an original spacesuit from "2001." I was stunned! I'd always heard Kubrick had destroyed all the props from the film. But somehow this one suit had escaped. One of the collectible guys told me that it wound up in the possession of some crazy guy in The Village. He used to walk around the streets of "New York" wearing it.

In a box, on the the floor next to the suit, I found the helmet. I picked it up. I'd somehow expected something flimsy and plastic. But it was heavy and very REAL. And extremely detailed. I'd always wondered about the purpose of those little "bugeyes" on the helmets in the film. Close up, I could see they were logos of the fictitious space agency. I snapped a couple of pictures of the suit(1 and 2). Alas, the helmet pic didn't come out.

(I was so mesmerized by the suit, I didn't pay attention to the dress behind it. Later, I learned this is an original Scarlett outfit from "Gone With The Wind" -- a film I also love and one that is oceanic in its own way.)

I wound up getting a theatre degree and becoming a director. But I learned more from Kubrick than I did in college, even though he directed films and I direct stage plays. Kubrick spent years in pre-production for a Napoleon film, which he never made. Studios feared it would be too expensive, because Kubrick would -- of course -- insist on filming huge battle scenes with hundreds of extras (in the days before CGI). Kubrick solved this problem by calling armies all over the world and asking how much it would cost to rent a regiment. Eventually, he got a really good deal (I think it was from Bulgaria.) Then there was the question of colothing. Putting hundreds of extras in period costumes? Too expensive! So Kubrick found a printer who would make costumes out of paper. He figured he'd have real costumes made for the foreground actors and use the paper ones for the extras in the distance. This devotion to problem solving -- to finding a WAY -- taught me a lot about the role of the director.

More important, I learned from Kubrick that a director could -- maybe should -- use all his resources to express a deeply personal vision.

I'm fascinated by the bi-polar reactions to his films. In my experience, people are more divided by Kubrick than any other filmmaker. Some people, like me, were scared witless by "The Shining." Others find it silly. Some are awed into a trance by "2001." Others find it boring (as they also find "Barry Lyndon," which is my favorite Kubrick film.) Some people think "Eyes Wide Shut" is sexy, profound or troubling; Others find it stupid or stilted. Some people love "A Clockwork Orange." Others find it deeply offensive.

All these people are right. They are right in the sense that it's both right to like a steak or hate it, depending on one's taste. What's NOT right is to try to cook a steak in a way that will please steak-haters. Sure, you can smother it in sauces to the point where its original taste is unrecognizable, but what's the point. THIS is what I learned form Kubrick.

By relentlessly following a personal vision, he made movies that some people will never relate to. Presumably, these people are fundamentally different from him and would probably be turned off by him if they met him at a dinner party. But because his films are so pure -- so undaunted by "sauces" -- when they click with a like mind, they REALLY click.

Few artists work this way. Most try to please everyone and wind up pleasing no one as fully as they could. They put a little sauce on the steak -- not enough to totally offend the steak purists, but not enough to really thrill them, either. And the steak haters enjoy the meal somewhat -- but they always detect a faint taste of steak.

To me, this is the chief difference between a Kubrick and a Spielberg. Spielberg reaches out to the audience and says, "Please love me! I promise that I'll throw in something for everyone!" And he does: the cute robot for the kiddies, the mild sexual innuendo for the parents, the rebellious teenager for the rebellious teenager. Spielberg can't possibly be all these things himself, but instead of relentlessly following his own inner truth, be panders. It's a shame, because technically, I think he has the brilliance of a Kubrick or a Hitchcock. Very occasionally, he WILL make something personal ("Schindler's List" / "Jaws") and it's like a totally different filmmaker has taken over his body.

By a strange coincidence, I started a theatre company in "2001." We produce only classics: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, etc. When we produce Shakespeare, we do it on a bare stage without using sets or lighting changes (lights up the whole time). No costumes, either -- just the actors in their street clothes. We use very few props. It's just the actors in an empty room and Shakespeare's text, which we usually do uncut. This means our plays often run over three hours.

When we first started this work, I knew some people -- maybe most people -- wouldn't like it: no sauce on the steak. But I like it, and I'd learned from Kubrick that if I was going to be the director, I had to share MY vision -- not something I thought or hoped the audience would like. And so I did. I was scared, but I was relentless.

And yes, some people don't like it. Occasionally someone walks out during intermission. But to my great surprise and joy, most people love it. One common reaction is, "You know, I don't usually like Shakespeare, and when I heard how long your production was, I thought 'Oh boy...,' But I LOVED it. I understood everything, and it just flew by. I can't believe that was three hours long!"

Thank you Stanley. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Something about this post makes sense at a deeper level!!

\m/ \m/
Dark Druid