I dislike Kubrick because he is a rhetorician, not an artist. To quote Godard on Steven Spielberg: “Spielberg, like many others, wants to convince before he discusses. In that, there is something very totalitarian.” I feel the same way about Kubrick. He does not explore ideas from multiple points of view, present positive and negative, allow his characters or world agency. Rather, he begins with an idea, and expounds upon it for two or more hours (usually more, unfortunately). If his films can be accepted as evidence, Stanley Kubrick dislikes everyone and accepts no opinions other than his own.
In short, I find Kubrick arrogant, cruel, juvenile, detached, and plastic in his cynicism. His films feel like the ire of a grumpy old man in an ivory tower, not a genuine reflection of a life lived. He is a fascist in his art; he controls character and world to such an extent that, to him, everyone and everything exists to do his bidding. His films are suffocating and often times comically absurd two dimensional portraits of individuals and society – it almost feels as though Kubrick wants to make filmed essays, ironically somewhat like latter day Godard, yet insists upon using narrative fictional cinema as his means of expression.
The reason I've had Kubrick on the mind recently is simple – he came up three times in very quick succession a few months ago. It all began in September, when Hollywood Reporter published “Next Gen Directors: 10 Wunderkinds Everyone in Town Is Watching”. Of the 10 directors profiled, three of them mentioned Kubrick as a director they admire, a full 16 years after his death, and many generations removed from his best work. The entire careers of Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino, Fincher, PT Anderson, and countless others happened after the bulk of Kubrick's work came out, yet 3 out of 10 up-and-coming filmmakers mentioned Stan.
Of course, it's not unheard of for a young filmmaker to wax romantic on the greats of yore. Would it be absurd for a young director to mention Kurosawa or Fellini, both of whom were older than Kubrick? No, not at all. Yet. One name on the list really surprised me – Ryan Coogler, director of Fruitvale Station and Creed. Both of these films come straight from the heart, compassionate works of art in which material seems found rather than created, in which characters decide their own destinies. Miles away from Kubrick's cynical fascism. Yet to quote Coogler, “Stanley Kubrick. He made films that felt somehow bigger than the genre."
Makes sense. Creed is certainly a film that's about a lot more than boxing. And the idea of making mainstream Hollywood genre films with capital “B.I.” Big Ideas can certainly be attributed in part to Kubrick (although we'd be remiss to forget Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and countless others – but again, we're not here to slag off Kubrick). A science fiction movie about the nature of humanity, for instance? Maybe unthinkable before 2001: Space Odyssey. Yet flash forward to November of 2015, two months after reading aforementioned Hollywood Reporter article, and I finally got around to seeing Interstellar for the first time.
At the end of the day, Interstellar is a distinctly Nolan film, rising above homage and rip off, yet it wears its Kubrick influence very proudly and visibly on its sleeve. And it bored me to tears. I enjoyed about 45 mins of it's near-three hour run time. The intellectual wankery and plastic cynicism had me rolling my eyes constantly, and Matthew McConaughey floating around in the tesseract at the end communicating with himself in the past had me laughing almost as hard as I did at that midnight screening of The Shining. In the end, Interstellar struck me as a $165m wank fest, Christopher Nolan brewing up an overly saccharine, oddly bitter elixir of half baked ideas and forcing them down the throats of unsuspecting audience members. Undoubtedly there will be those who claim I simply didn't get Interstellar, yet I think it requires greater intellectual capacity to follow the average Hong Kong police thriller than it does to “get” the maudlin fax-intellectualism of Interstellar.
Not long after watching Interstellar, which, admittedly, was probably a lot better in IMAX, 3D or a combination of those, I saw Love, the most recent foray into weirdness from Gaspar Noe, director of Enter the Void. Love contains a handful of references to Kubrick straight from the mouth of the young protagonist, an American ex-pat and aspiring filmmaker living in Paris, who mentions 2001 as his favorite film. This character clearly inherited several traits from Noe, himself an Argentine filmmaker living in Paris who has mentioned 2001 as his favorite film. In a 2010 piece for Vulture, Noe admitted to having a Kubrick obsession.
(Full disclosure: Interstellar now holds a 71% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 74% on Metacritic, while Love has a 39% approval rating on RT and 51% on Metacritic. So, it's probably me that's wrong here.)
Thinking on Gaspar Noe as a director after seeing Love, it seems as though sensual – here defined as “devoted to or preoccupied with the senses or appetites”, rather than “sexual” – is the best way to describe his work, in particular Love and Enter the Void. His films are about the sensations they create, and the way cinema can affect the audience by stimulating senses. Even the stories of Noe's two most recent films seem developed specifically to indulge and engage his cinema of the senses – the journey of the soul of a recently deceased man (Enter the Void) and the sexual and romantic memories of someone trapped in an apartment on a rainy day. The latter film – Love – even goes so far as to present a central mystery it makes no attempt to solve.
In the aforementioned interview with Vulture, Noe spoke – as he has done in other interviews, as well – about the influence of drugs on Enter the Void, and his desire to create a cinematic equivalent to being on mushrooms.
“One day, in my 20s, I was with friends, and had done too many mushrooms. I turned on the TV as I was coming down, and it was showing Lady in the Lake, the Robert Montgomery film noir that’s filmed entirely through the character’s eyes. I wasn’t so much hallucinating at that point, but I thought it would be great to make a movie like this and add all the experiences I had today on mushrooms — telepathic perception, strange colors around people, the sense of floating.”
My problem with Kubrick is rooted in his ideas. Yet I just said I'm not particularly interested in Noe's characters or stories. So maybe the key to understanding, and loving, Kubrick, is approaching him at the correct angle. As Ryan Coogler said, Kubrick was revolutionary for the way he made genre films stuffed with big ideas. And if you ignore the philosophical overtones and meandering story in The Shining, it's a gorgeous, sensual film filled with snow, blood, light, movement, and fascinating sounds. The thing is, I still can't watch The Shining without laughing, but maybe that's a good thing, right? I can now love the film as a violent, bizarre, nerve-shredding comedy – which sounds to me a lot like a genre film that goes beyond the average elements.
One of the great problems I have with art is deciding I hate it rather than admitting I don't understand it; not that I don't understand what it's trying to do intellectually or creatively, but rather I don't understand where it's coming from, and what I'm supposed to be paying attention to. I've learned, over the years, to love several bands I didn't like when I first heard them. Hell, I really didn't like Boogie Nights too much the first time I saw it, but I've seen it more than 20 times since, and it might be my favorite movie of all time. I thought Rashomon was boring and stupid when I was 18, now I run the Kurosawa Project.
So maybe the conclusion to be drawn here is that we learn to dislike and even hate things that don't fit our aesthetic requirements, narrative desires, or the social images toward which we gravitate. But perhaps, with art, we should open our minds and try to understand, rather than simply dismissing work based on snap judgments, personal problems, or arrogance, as I know I've done countless times. I still think Kubrick is an arrogant, cynical, facist ass, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy his movies.