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Hot Movie Takes: Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Payne – An unexpected congruence

July 31, 2016 2 comments

Hot Movie Takes:

Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Payne –

An unexpected congruence

 

Image result for alexander payne

 

©By Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Been revisiting the work of the late Stanley Kubrick. While I’ve always regarded him as a true master and genius of cinema, my appreciation for just how far ahead he was of his times is deeper than before. He may be the boldest independent filmmaker to ever come out of America. When the Hollywood studio system still had an iron grip on the industry, as an outlier totally outside that apparatus he went ahead and taught himself filmmaking, got his work distributed and within a few years Hollywood came knocking at his door. He did this long before John Cassavettes. He did it long before there were film schools. He forced himself into the world cinema ranks without the benefit of having come up through the studio system or having a mentor or working in television or theater. He just made himself into a filmmaker through sheer will and talent. He eventually entered a longterm contract with Warner Brothers that gave him remarkable freedom to make films on his terms with little or no interference from the suits. It’s the same kind of arrangement Woody Allen later struck and still enjoys today. But what got Kubrick noticed by the studios in the first place were doc projects he audaciously made on his own, “The Day of the Fight” and “The Flying Padre,”followed by two narrative features he also made on his own, “Fear and Desire” and “Killer’s Kiss,” thus proving he could produce and direct as good a B picture as any of the studios. Whereas making commercially viable films outside the system is fairly routine today, doing so in the late 1940s-early 1950s as he did was unheard of. It helped that this once prodigy still photographer had done photo essays for Look Magazine. He was a brilliant visualist and storyteller and an astute cinephile, He learned practically everything he needed to know to be a filmmaker through his photography work and watching movies. Of course, someone like Kubrick or Alexander Payne doesn’t just watch a film, at least a compelling one, they analyze and absorb it. Their insatiable intellects make a study of everything that falls in their gaze.

In his early 20s, Kubrick rented a motion picture camera and shot those two documentary shorts with it, both of which he sold. Then came the two indie features. Neither is very good but each shows the filmmaker’s great eye for composing beautifully lit and evocative shots and for handling complex movements and actions. An indie distributor saw the first feature and got it shown in art houses. United Artists took interest in the second and offered Kubrick a deal to make a feature for them, which became “The Killing,” his inventive and effective racetrack heist picture that marked him as a serious talent. That led to his first masterpiece, the brilliant anti-war film “Paths of Glory.” It marked his first time working outside the U.S. and with a major star, Kirk Douglas. “Killing” and “Paths” displayed his sardonic sensibilities, visual poetry, precise compositions and facility for authenticity, all of which became trademarks for his subsequent work. Kubrick’s first full foray into big Hollywood studio filmmaking came when Douglas asked him to helm “Spartacus” after firing veteran A-list director Anthony Mann following the first few days of production. It was Kirk’s project. Just as Douglas clashed with Mann, he did with Kubrick, who hated being a director for hire without final say – a position he vowed never to be in again and he wasn’t – though the well-received project did boost his standing in the industry as a bankable artist. His next two projects, “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove,” were completely different than any American films of that era in their incredibly frank, intelligent and satiric treatment of very sensitive subjects that in lesser hands would have fallen flat or rang dishonest or been ridiculous.

And then he changed the face of cinema for evermore by making his most ambitious film to date, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Before “2001” the best sci-fi film was “Forbidden Planet,” a very serious, big-budget project that I adore but that when compared to Kubrick’s work is a naive and simplistic cartoon. Outside the U.S. Fritz Lang made a German masterwork in “Metropolis,” but we’re confining this discussion to American films. Kubrick raised the genre to heights never before seen or imagined and arguably never since surpassed. It is a work of art unfraid to tackle the biggest questions concerning life on Earth, the universe and eternity. Which brings me to Alexander Payne and a certain congruence between his work and the work of Kubrick.

In rewatching Payne’s work to prepare for the release of the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” I realized that they are twinned satirists who insistently tweak, challenge, subvert and decry the worst in humankind yet offer a glimmer of hope in the end, though Kubrick’s endings are decidedly less hopeful and more pessimistic. But these artists’ works definitely share an affinity for the ambiguous, complex and dual natures of people. They both dislike authority, exploitation, manipulation and dishonesty. Their films seamlessly juggle multiple storylines. Their films also share the keen sense of observation that comes from analytical and intuitive minds that place us as viewers at a distance so as to keep us intellectually and emotionally involved without indicating too much what we are to feel. They each respect us enough to let us glean what we will without beating us over the head with cues. Visually. Payne is not at Kubrick’s level, at least not yet, though his compositions, cutting and visuals have become more and more cinematic, rhythmic and poetic. And where Kubrick was making and in many cases reinventing highly evolved genre films right from the start (“Day of the Fight” is a boxing film, “Fear and Desire” is a war story, “Killer’s Kiss” is a suspense film, “The Killing” is a heist pic, “Paths of Glory” is a war story, “Spartacus” is a historical epic, et cetera), Payne has not worked in hard and fast genres, except he calls everything he makes a comedy. “Citizen Ruth” is a social satire about abortion and a lot of other things. “Election” is a high school comedy about blind ambition and mid-life crisis. “About Schmidt” is a personal dramedy about identity crisis. “Sideways” is at once a buddy pic, road flick and love story. “The Descendants” is a family dramedy about infedlity, loss and love. “Nebraska” is an elegiac tone poem about aging, family and community. The film he still has in production “Downsizing” is, whether he agrees or not, a sci fi film that not unlike “2001” takes on major social, political, cultural, philosophical and spiritual topics. It’s also a love story. Payne has always talked about wanting to work in genres and this may be his first venture there, though this is a terrestrial story, not an extraterristial tale. No spaceships or monoliths or Star Child or self-aware Hal computer here. However, the entire plot does hinge on speculative new technology that makes it possible for humans to downsize or miniaturize themselves to a few inches tall and much of the story unfolds in the hypothesized Small World. There’s yet another fictional world depicted, this one akin to a Middle Earth, that also has a major role in what reads like a post-modernist fable. I am not suggesting that Payne’s “Downsizing” will be the cinematic landmark that “2001 was but then again, maybe, just maybe, it might be. I, for one, can’t wait to see.

 

 

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Director Alexander PayneGRANT SLATER/KPCC

 

Of course, Kubrick considered more big ideas in his subsequent genre films “A Clockwork Orange” (sci-fi), “Barry Lyndon” (historical epic), “The Shining” (horror), “Full Metal Jacket” (war) and “Eyes Wide Shut” (love/relationships). Perhaps Payne will get around to that Western he’s long talked about and, who knows, maybe he’ll try his hand at a war film or an historical drama. Whatever he does, you can be sure it will be done with ultimate care, rigor and agility. Just as Kubrick’s body work by his seventh film already made him a world cinema giant, Payne is at that same point, too. In fact, Payne’s first two features were far stronger than Kubrick’s. You might argue that Kubrick’s next few films on through “Strangelove” were somewhat more impressive than Payne’s work from “About Schmidt” on through “Nebraska.” By that mean, Kubrick’s work was also visionary and unconventional and groundbreaking. I can’t say that for Payne’s works, although within the conventions he works in his work is unmatched. And then Kubrick went to a whole other level with “2001.” Something tells me Payne will do the same thing with “Downsizing.”

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

 

NOTE: My Alexander Payne book releases Sept. 1 but now through August 27 it can be purchased at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street in Omaha’s Old Market. It lists for $25.95. Or you can pre-order a copy at leo32158@cox.net. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.

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Hot Movie Takes: Do any Alexander Payne films rate among 100 greatest American films ever made?


 

74247 full
Director Alexander PayneGRANT SLATER/KPCC

 

Hot Movie Takes:

Do any Alexander Payne films rate among 100 greatest American films ever made?

 

©By Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

So, when the American Film Institute (AFI) gets around again to naming the 100 best American movies of all time along with the 100 best American comedies of all time, will any Alexander Payne films make the list? After recently rewatching all his work and putting together the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” I would hazard to guess that enough time may have passed by now for as many as five of his films to crack these lists, though another decade or so may make the case better for some of them. In the Greatest movies category, I can make a great case right now for any or all of the following: “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” though I think the most likely of that group to be so homored is “Sideways.” Personally, I think the most deserving is “Nebraska.” When I review the current AFI Greatest rankings, there are several movies that to my tastes anyway have no business being there, including “Ben-Hur,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Swing Time,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Easy Rider,” “Titanic,” “All About Eve” and well a whole bunch more. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all fine films. But do they rise to Greatest ever heights? Let’s just say that on my Greatest list I would change out about half of the entries in the AFI list for other films I regard as better works. I definitely rate any of the Payne films I nomianted as Greatest candidates above the pictures I singled out here. I see that “The Last Picture Show” is on the AFI list, and while I admire the movie, I don’t think it’s as good as Payne’s “Nebraska,” another black and white, small town elegy story. There are very few comedies on the Greatest list and once again i would rate any of Payne’s comedies, with the exception of “Citizen Ruth,” right there with “The Apartment,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie,” “The Graduate,””Duck Soup,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “City Lights,” “Modern Times” and “The General,” and I am a great admirer of all those films.

Looking over the AFI Greatest Laughs list, any or all of Payne’s films deserve a spot there. For many Payne buffs, his best comedy to date is “Election” and it certainly belonsg among the best screen comedies. Based on sheer fillmMaking and cinema as art consideratons, only a very few on the AFI list can match or exceed his work in my opinion, and that would be “Dr. Strangelove,” the aforementioned Chaplin films, Keaton’s “The General” and “The Navigator,” Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” James L. Brook’s “Broadcast News” and the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo.” If you’re grading purely on comedy or laughs, well then several films may be funnier than Payne’s comedies, such as “The Producers” or “There’s Somtething About Mary” or “Animal House” but of course his movies don’t only operate as comedies. Indeed, they are as much dramas as comedies because he applies a sharp satiric lens to everything he looks at and he focuses that lens on some very tough subjects. Abortion. Addiction. Infidelity. Loneliness. Alienation. Identity crisis. Aging. Death. With his new film “Downsizing” he’s tackling even deeper, darker subjects. For my tastes anyway, his comedies are among the richest and most satisfying ever made for these very reasons. In this sense, he shares much in common with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Frank Capra, Ernest Lubisch and Billy Wilder from the Golden Age of Cinema. Part of the fun of fillm is that everyone sees everything so differently.

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

NOTE: My Alexander Payne book releases Sept. 1 but now through August 27 it can be purchased at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street in Omaha’s Old Market. It lists for $25.95. Or you can pre-order a copy at leo32158@cox.net. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.

®

AFI’s 100 GREATEST AMERICAN MOVIES OF ALL TIME

The very first edition of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies is a list of the 100 greatest American films of all time.

In 1998, AFI invited more than 1,500 leaders from across the American film community – screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, editors, executives, film historians and critics among them – to choose from a list of 400 nominated films compiled by AFI and select the 100 greatest American movies.

The AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies CBS television special originally aired on June 16, 1998.

The updated 10th anniversary edition to this list is here.

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# MOVIE YEAR
1 CITIZEN KANE 1941
2 CASABLANCA 1942
3 THE GODFATHER 1972
4 GONE WITH THE WIND 1939
5 LAWRENCE OF ARABIA 1962
6 THE WIZARD OF OZ 1939
7 THE GRADUATE 1967
8 ON THE WATERFRONT 1954
9 SCHINDLER’S LIST 1993
10 SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN 1952
11 IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE 1946
12 SUNSET BLVD. 1950
13 THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI 1957
14 SOME LIKE IT HOT 1959
15 STAR WARS 1977
16 ALL ABOUT EVE 1950
17 THE AFRICAN QUEEN 1951
18 PSYCHO 1960
19 CHINATOWN 1974
20 ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST 1975
21 THE GRAPES OF WRATH 1940
22 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY 1968
23 THE MALTESE FALCON 1941
24 RAGING BULL 1980
25 E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL 1982
26 DR. STRANGELOVE 1964
27 BONNIE AND CLYDE 1967
28 APOCALYPSE NOW 1979
29 MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON 1939
30 THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE 1948
31 ANNIE HALL 1977
32 THE GODFATHER PART II 1974
33 HIGH NOON 1952
34 TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD 1962
35 IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT 1934
36 MIDNIGHT COWBOY 1969
37 THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES 1946
38 DOUBLE INDEMNITY 1944
39 DOCTOR ZHIVAGO 1965
40 NORTH BY NORTHWEST 1959
41 WEST SIDE STORY 1961
42 REAR WINDOW 1954
43 KING KONG 1933
44 THE BIRTH OF A NATION 1915
45 A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE 1951
46 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE 1971
47 TAXI DRIVER 1976
48 JAWS 1975
49 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS 1937
50 BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID 1969
51 THE PHILADELPHIA STORY 1940
52 FROM HERE TO ETERNITY 1953
53 AMADEUS 1984
54 ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT 1930
55 THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965
56 M*A*S*H 1970
57 THE THIRD MAN 1949
58 FANTASIA 1940
59 REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE 1955
60 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK 1981
61 VERTIGO 1958
62 TOOTSIE 1982
63 STAGECOACH 1939
64 CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND 1977
65 THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 1991
66 NETWORK 1976
67 THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE 1962
68 AN AMERICAN IN PARIS 1951
69 SHANE 1953
70 THE FRENCH CONNECTION 1971
71 FORREST GUMP 1994
72 BEN-HUR 1959
73 WUTHERING HEIGHTS 1939
74 THE GOLD RUSH 1925
75 DANCES WITH WOLVES 1990
76 CITY LIGHTS 1931
77 AMERICAN GRAFFITI 1973
78 ROCKY 1976
79 THE DEER HUNTER 1978
80 THE WILD BUNCH 1969
81 MODERN TIMES 1936
82 GIANT 1956
83 PLATOON 1986
84 FARGO 1996
85 DUCK SOUP 1933
86 MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY 1935
87 FRANKENSTEIN 1931
88 EASY RIDER 1969
89 PATTON 1970
90 THE JAZZ SINGER 1927
91 MY FAIR LADY 1964
92 A PLACE IN THE SUN 1951
93 THE APARTMENT 1960
94 GOODFELLAS 1990
95 PULP FICTION 1994
96 THE SEARCHERS 1956
97 BRINGING UP BABY 1938
98 UNFORGIVEN 1992
99 GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER 1967
100 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY 1942

AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 MOVIES (1998)
List of the 400 nominated movies
List of the 100 winning movies

 

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