Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Payne: An unexpected congruence
Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Payne:
An unexpected congruence
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.