Comfort vs. Questions: Taking the Kubrick Test with This Year's Best Picture Nominees
My friend Vinny alerted me to this short clip of Terry Gilliam talking about Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, and why the latter is superior to the former:
The dynamic Gilliam is talking about, the massive success of Spielberg versus the “what the hell?” response to Kubrick, is our fault, of course. We want what we don't have: comfort and answers. We don't even want clever answers. We don't want to work. That's the point of the movies for most of us. We go to the movies after work so we don't have to work. Critics, for the most part, are atwork. Watching and writing about movies is their job, and everyone wants their job to have a little meaning. So that's what they search for.
Spielberg's “Lincoln,” as good as it is, gives us comfort and answers. The dilemma the president goes through is a tough one—freedom or peace?—but it's really not presented as much of a dilemma. We sense the right path, and we follow the film's protagonists onto that path, which is a path to victory. If you're in the mood, questions can be raised—chiefly: should Lincoln have just let the South go?—but you have to do the heavy lifting yourself. The movie doesn't help you in this regard.
The rest of the best picture nominees? Should we see how they do with the Kubrick test?
- AMOUR: Opens in Seattle today. I assume it provides little comfort. It's Michael Haneke, for fuck's sake.
- ARGO: Initially raises questions about U.S. and CIA involvement in Iran, but quickly becomes a thriller. The point is for the hero to get the scared people away from the scary people.
- BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Questions are raised, chiefly “Is this post-Katrina? Global warming? What the hell is going on? And who would want to live here anyway?” But the ending is an answer: “Ah, that's what Wink was up to.” Preparing Hushpuppy for that. It's a great final image--Hushpuppy not being meat--but it's NPR wish-fulfillment fantasy.
- DJANGO UNCHAINED: No questions raised. QT is here to entertain us motherfuckers with guns guns guns.
- LES MISERABLES: How hard do you have to work to make a movie about poverty and fomenting revolution and still provide comfort? You work this hard. Look down, look down.
- LIFE OF PI: This is a movie that leaves us with a kind of O Henry question: Gérard Depardieu or the tiger? Which story do you prefer? Do you want the one where human beings are horrible, cannibalistic and isolated? Or do you want the story with the tiger? We want the story with the tiger, of course, which is the one we get. But even as it gives us this answer, this comfort, it reminds us that the whole of human history, certainly the entirety of religious history, is receiving just this comfort. We're part of the problem.
- LINCOLN: Slavery is ended. Lincoln is martyred. His words ring on and on and on.
- SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: Smothered in comfort. As comfortable as watching a Sunday afternoon football game in sweats.
- ZERO DARK THIRTY: It ends with a kind of question: What price, victory? Or: Who are we now, now that we've done this? But it could've raised the most important question of all and didn't. It suggests no one within the CIA questioned our enhanced interrogation program when many did. It dramatized the efficacy of that program when that's completely in dispute. It drank some bitter CIA Kool-Aid and spun it as heroics. This movie will never be nothing but a vast shame to me. Obviously it's a shameful period in our history, but it's also shameful for what this movie, created by very talented people, could have been. But it's not that. It's merely a murky Hollywood genre picture with a somber end.
So none of these movies (“Amour” pending) really pass the Kubrick test. You know a 2012 movie that does? “End of Watch.” But few bothered with it. Maybe for that reason.
Thanks for the clip, Vinny.
Do any of these movies pass the Kubrick test?