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Death Of An Olympian

Posted by acdtest on March 7, 2003

Death Of An Olympian

[Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The following appreciation was published originally (print) on the occasion of Kubrick’s death, 7 March 1999.]

he death, Monday of last week, of American cultural icon Joe DiMaggio, almost totally eclipsed TV coverage of a loss the preceding day of substantially greater cultural dimension. For with the death at age 70 of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, the world lost an artist of Olympian gift.

The lopsided coverage left me, I confess, a bit miffed, even though I understood it, sort of (Kubrick, an ardent Yankees fan, would have understood it perfectly). I don’t pretend to be competent to comment authoritatively on what DiMaggio’s accomplishments as a ballplayer and as a man contributed to the sport of baseball, America, or the world in general, as the sum total of my knowledge of sports and sports figures consists of my knowing that (a) baseball is played with a bat, and (b) football isn’t. But one doesn’t have to know much about such matters to know that DiMaggio hasn’t played ball in decades, and that the DiMaggio mythos will only become more burnished and be made more potent by his death, whereas the death of an active artist of Kubrick’s stature is an almost palpable loss as it means the world will forever be denied any future work from him.

In the short history of cinema there are but a handful of men (and one woman, Leni Riefenstahl) who can be said to have achieved Olympian stature as filmmakers. Needless to say (or perhaps not so needless given the extent to which pop modes of thought have today contaminated even the loftiest domains), such stature is not secured by box office grosses, quantity of output, or celebrity. It’s secured exclusively by that which it ought properly to be secured: Magnitude of gift.

At the very top of that elite pantheon of cinema is the towering figure of Orson Welles, who, one can say without question or fear of serious challenge, possessed the most prodigious and profound gift of any filmmaker before his time or since. He is the Shakespeare of filmmakers, the Bach of cinema, which is to say he’s absolutely sui generis. Below him in the pantheon (you decide on the order) reside filmmakers such as Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Riefenstahl, Eisenstein and Griffith. I suggest, as will, I’m sure, discerning others, that Stanley Kubrick rightly belongs in that august company.

Kubrick, born in New York in 1928, was not above turning out Hollywood product when he had to, and when he did, his work could stand with, and usually above, most of the best of that genre. His Spartacus (1960) and Lolita (1962) are more than adequate testimony to the fact. But turning out Hollywood product was not what interested Kubrick. Near the beginning of his almost half-century career he abandoned Hollywood and the United States to take up residence and work in England where he felt he could best operate as an independent.

And independent is what Kubrick had to be as what interested him was filmmaking — the making of films, not movies; something antithetical to Hollywood and the movie establishment. To comprehend just how necessary a move that was on Kubrick’s part one has to comprehend that, Pauline Kael notwithstanding, the distinction between film and movie is not merely a matter of snobbish or pretentious semantics (though it can be, and too often is). Although the terms are used interchangeably in ordinary discourse to refer to the same thing (Kubrick himself would probably have used the term movie in preference to film), they’re often useful shorthand for indicating the very real and substantive difference between the two.

One difference is movies make the big bucks, films rarely do. But there’s a more fundamental difference that perhaps can best be expressed by stating that a film mostly says what it has to say by way of techniques and methods uniquely cinematic; a movie mostly by way of elaborately illustrated narrative, an adaptation of a technique borrowed from literature by way of the stage.

To demonstrate the distinction more concretely, and using, mutatis mutandis, only the material of the original script, try to imagine Citizen Kane — an apotheosis of film — turned into a novel or stage play of equal power.

Can’t be done. The work’s narrative — its “plot” — is but a skeleton structure. All the film’s power, indeed its very life, depends almost exclusively on devices uniquely cinematic, many never used before, or here used in ways not previously imagined.

Now, in the same way, imagine turning into a novel or stage play of equal power a typical Hollywood biography of the same era (or as it’s called in the biz, a “biopic”; technically, Citizen Kane is also a biopic), any one of which would be pure movie — say, The Life of Emile Zola, or the best of that genre, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.

Piece of cake. The work makes the transfer effortlessly, and loses little by the transition.

Today there are few pure examples of either film or movie, most modern works incorporating the telling characteristics of both. Not surprisingly, however, one fairly modern example of pure film is a work by Kubrick; the one, in fact, for which, in the public’s mind, he’s most famous: His 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One may take exception to my classifying 2001 as an example of pure film, but consider, please, the following: When shown on TV, even in so-called “letter-box” format, 2001 fails. There doesn’t seem to be much there. It looks merely like a quirky if atypically well-made sci-fi movie. In the theater, if not shown in its original Super Panavision format, it fails in almost the same way, if not as abjectly. Ditto if it’s shown in the theater in Super Panavision but the release print is even marginally substandard. In other words, 2001 depends almost entirely on its meticulously planned and crafted cinematic qualities, meticulously executed from conception to projection, in order to work, and one can hardly get more purely film than that.

When Kubrick was working in his true métier he transformed to his purpose everything he touched. One thinks immediately of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), both works adapted from novels of the same names, and both altered substantially from their originals in ways that brought heated words of disapproval from their authors, Anthony Burgess and Stephen King, respectively.

In the case of The Shining, one can see what might have truly galled King. The novel is a typical King opus, brimful with his trademark brand of tacky horror, or what passes for horror in a King novel. Kubrick adapted and changed much of the novel for his film, producing an authentically disturbing and harrowing masterpiece of the genre (which, however, is not to suggest the film has no flaws of its own). One could say the approximate difference between Kubrick’s film and King’s novel, as well as the TV movie King later made of it, is that Kubrick’s overarching frame of reference seems to have been Henry James’ short novel (or long short story) The Turn of the Screw, while King’s overarching frame of reference, both for the book and the TV movie, seems to have been Tales From The Crypt, the comic book.

In any case, neither King nor Burgess had cause to whine. The novel is the author’s and remains his. The film is the filmmaker’s. One has only little to do with the other.

On reflection, what was perhaps most important about Kubrick over his long career (and I suspect Kubrick might have argued with this assessment, but I make it nevertheless) was that from Paths of Glory (1957), his first real film, through Full Metal Jacket (1987), his last film save one (Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which is still to be released, and the final cut of which was finished just one week before his death), he was, in his work, unremittingly and almost to the exclusion of all else, devoted to the aesthetics of film. In an era which has seen, and is still seeing, the beleaguered retreat of the aesthetic in all the arts in favor of what has earnestly been called the socially and politically responsible (one can, for instance, graduate from most undergraduate colleges today without ever having read a single line of Shakespeare, Milton, or Joyce, but one will never get out alive without being exposed, in extenso, to the third-rate brayings of, say, an Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, or Adrienne Rich), the importance to world culture of such unremitting devotion to the aesthetic by an artist of Kubrick’s gift simply cannot be overstated. As I’ve already remarked, the loss of such an artist is almost palpable, and leaves in its wake a void which won’t soon be filled, and perhaps may never be.

On hearing of Kubrick’s death, Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood moviemaker par excellence, is reported to have said, “Stanley Kubrick was the grandmaster of filmmaking. He copied no one, while all of us were scrambling to imitate him.”

Generations of filmmakers to come will surely echo that very same sentiment.

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