Recently, I slipped while running on the wet grass and strained a calf muscle. As that happened on a Saturday afternoon, I had nothing to do that evening but ice my leg and watch the idiot box. Flipping the channels, I came across a movie that I refused to see in the theatre. Its reviews were pretty good, but it was nevertheless portrayed as a mindless – if stylized – portrait of ceaseless violence. And it wasn’t just violent; it was a tribute to those God-forsaken kung fu movies that I have come simply to loathe.
But the movie was the product of Quentin Tarantino. So I watched and recorded it. And now it finds itself in my relatively short list of movie obsessions.
I’m not saying the Kill Bill movies – which are really one movie that was released in two parts -- should go down in history as among
Kubrick’s three masterpieces – A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dr. Strangelove – set the standard that I have in mind. All the films are hysterical, even though only the third is generally touted as a comedy. All the films are brilliantly acted, which they’d have to be, given that Kubrick would keep the actors around for take after take after bloody take until they finally created the precise scene that he had in mind. But above all, what makes these films are their characters. Whether we’re talking about a young punk (Little Alex), a narcissistic computer (Hal), or a deranged scientist (Dr. Strangelove), Kubrick gave us a singular portrait of both excellence and depravity at their highest extremes. Somehow, god and demon found themselves combined in the same organism – or, in Hal’s case, in the same computer.
Excellence, you ask? Consider each of the above characters. Little Alex, the central character of A Clockwork Orange, was more than just a sadist who would beat up old hobos and rape women while forcing their husbands to watch. He was an extremely disciplined fighter, a lover of music at its highest levels, a master of the Queen’s English, and a dashing charmer – at least when he wanted to be. Hal? Sure, he, or should I say, “it,” was a cold-blooded murderer that took itself way too seriously. But the downfall of this “ultimate computer” was the fact that it had become such an amazing machine that it ultimately figured out how to develop emotions of its own – including the deadliest of all, pride.
Then there’s the good Dr. Strangelove. OK – he’s probably responsible for the destruction of all sentient life on planet Earth. (I’m speculating there, but once the bomb blew up the
The moviegoer leaves a Kubrick flick overwhelmed by the power of the characters, the acting, the visuals, the music, the jokes, you name it. Everywhere you looked, you saw and heard evil and insanity. And yet the genius and humanity of the very sources of evil and insanity were equally apparent. Kubrick’s characters are always morally ambiguous – victims as well as perpetrators, lovers as well as haters. But they’re not ambiguous because they’re full of grey. They’re in fact vivid contrasts of black and white in their starkest possible contrast.
Thought provoking? Perhaps not. But Kubrick movies aren’t about thoughts or concepts. They’re about visions and sounds. They’re about portraits – persons painted in multiple conflicting ways. And above all, they’re about the potential of every living person to reach the highest pinnacles of excellence, or descend to the deepest circles of Hell. Each of us has that power. Just consult your id, and you might see it for yourself.
I enjoy the fact that my favorite movie director, Kubrick, and my favorite rock singer, Mick Jagger, shared the same birthday – July 26th. They also share the fact that neither appears to be capable of generating any more great art; Kubrick happens to be dead, and Jagger … well, if any of you heard him sing at the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, you know what I’m talking about. But just as rock n’ roll had to continue even after the Stones and Beatles stopped generating classics, so too must the genre Kubrick mastered. For a while, I couldn’t tell if anyone would pick up the mantle. Now, I have to give the nod to Tarantino.
I wouldn’t deny for a second that Tarantino’s movies lack the depth of Kubrick’s. It’s also surely true that he refuses to take on the same grandiose themes as Kubrick. Kubrick made movies about the savagery of war, the centrality of free will to human morality, the dangers of technology; Tarantino makes movies about violence, violence, and more violence. No doubt, Kubrick was far and away more intellectual than his disciple. But in this genre, great themes aren’t necessary. What is necessary is a gift for dialogue, a sensibility for music, a heck of a sense of humor, and above all else, a commitment to characters who blow us away with their sharp internal contrasts.
I could go on and talk about the characters of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in the same degree of detail as the great Kubrick characters, but I won’t. Tarantino’s characters aren’t nearly as compelling. And yet nor are they forgettable. In each case, you find yourself sympathizing with them. Their humanity is readily apparent. So are their talents. Then again, so is their depravity. Tarantino paints these characters, as Kubrick did before him, in a manner that makes them almost seem realistic. That, of course, is the key. They are both icons and lunatics, but ultimately, they are human. I cannot help but find them captivating.