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I was very interested to read a piece comparing Christopher Nolan to Stanley Kubrick in The Guardian over the weekend. Ignoring the fact that I don’t think it’s fair to attempt to seriously describe anyone as the “new” anything (it’s really only handy as a shortcut, to form a quick association, rather than forming the basis of a whole argument) and, if I had to, I’d say Nolan was “the new Hitchcock”, one piece stood out at me, when comparing Kubrick’s work to Nolan’s under “thematic daring”:

In the end, what are Nolan’s films actually about? Two of them are superhero flicks, two are cop movies and one is about a magician. Nolan isn’t exactly going to the wall for the big ideas. (Interestingly, by far the most radical film he’s made was that very first one, Following – a very creepy existential story about a stalker.) Kubrick made films about paedophilia, military justice, atomic obliteration, urban violence and the Vietnam war … Nolan is – at present, anyhow – a confirmed establishment figure; nothing he’s done has caused the smallest ripple of disquiet. This may change, but with another Batman film in the works I can’t see it happening just yet.

What immediately struck me about that paragraph was how ridiculously condescending it was to the genres that Nolan worked with – as if to say he’s “only” made two movies about a guy who dresses in formfitting rubber, two cop thrillers and one film about some blokes who do magic. How ridiculously patronising can you get?

If Batman hears one more person say "The Dark Knight isn't bad for a comic book movie..."

And this ignores the dismissive comments from readers about how “despite his flaws, Kubrick was much more than a maker of superhero blockbusters”. I’m tempted to make a cheap joke about how they’re only Guardian-readers, which would arguably undermine my entire point for a cheap laugh. But you can pretend I did. And it was witty, wasn’t it?

Lt’s turn this article on its head. If Nolan is guilty of working in the cliché artforms of his time – cop movies and superhero films (and I think it’s genuinely disingenuous to refer to Memento as “a cop movie”) – was Kubrick really that much better? He made, in no short order:

  • a gladiator film (Spartacus) in the era of “swords and sandals” epics;
  • an exploration of cold war paranoia (Doctor Strangelove) which arguably came years after other directors had handled similar fare;
  • a film about pedophilia (Lolita), which is a challenging subject, but made somewhat easier by the fact it was based on high-profile source material; 
  • a Vietnam War film (Full Metal Jacket), a full five or six years behind the trend of film makers making Vietnam War films;
  • a science-fiction epic (2001: A Space Odyssey) when science-fiction was regarded as the trashiest of genres;
  • a studio-produced horror (The Shining), which is still on of the lowest regarded genres out there.

I don’t say this to diminish Kubrick’s contribution to cinema – although I’m less sold on most of them than most other writers, they’re all among the finest examples of their respective genres – but to observe that, most of the time, Kubrick’s movies could actually be fairly conveniently categorised, and they could be categorised into genres that would have been looked down upon at the time. I don’t think the argument that Kubrick was any more or less daring than Nolan holds up, I think that both were exceptional at taking well-defined genres and offering intelligent and well-constructed examples of them.

Jack Nicholson has an axe to grind...

But this isn’t really my point. It’s the inherent snobbery that sneaks into conversation when a film is dismissed because of the genre to which it belongs – seemingly the attitude is that certain genres are inherently incapable of producing good films and are flawed by their basic premise. “It’s only an action movie,” I’ll hear uttered from time to time when somebody praises Terminator 2: Judgement Day, for example. Bonus points if they suggest that The Terminator is better simply because it’s not a blockbuster action movie. I’m not saying that The Terminator isn’t superior to its sequel, I’m just saying that making an argument as to quality based solely on genre suggests a very weak position.

This isn’t to say that you can’t observe that some genres do have typical weaknesses – I’m very fond, for example, of lamenting the casual sexism of the modern romantic comedy, based upon the big textbook examples of the genre – like 27 Dresses or The Ugly Truth. Similarly, you could observe that action movies are typically an “empty” genre, devoid of ideas and personality – based on movies like From Paris With Love or Prince of Persia. However, I would never dare to suggest that a film is flawed because it belongs to a typical genre. Chasing Amy is probably in my top ten films of all time, and it’s a romantic comedy. (500) Days of Summer was my second favourite film of last year, and it’s also a romantic comedy. Similarly, I’ll lament the state of modern horror (there’s probably no trashier genre), but when a genuine classic comes along (like The Mist), I’ll laud it.

Somehow, superhero movies are the exception to this rule. No matter how clever or insightful they may be, they will always be “just” a movie about a person in a funny suit. Don’t get me wrong, most are – 90% of everything is crap, after all – but that’s a hell of a blanket assumption to make. That just because a film contains a character who dresses up in spandex, it can’t be deep or insightful or speak to the human condition. It’s this sort of petty closed-minded-ness which kept The Dark Knight (and Wall-E) from (in my opinion) much deserved Best Picture nominations two years ago. And it irks me, greatly. Hell, you can see I’m still going on about it.

The Guardian asserts that Kubrick “made films about paedophilia, military justice, atomic obliteration, urban violence and the Vietnam war”. It does this by phrasing the central premise of each film in an abstract manner. If I were to do the same, it would look like this: “Nolan makes films about the relationship between memory and identity, guilt, the dynamic between vengeance and justice, the act of creation, the structure (and fragile nature) of modern society and the War on Terror”. The article just obstructs its bias through clever use of language.

I’m not suggesting Nolan and Kubrick are at all similar. In fact, I’d suggest that they adopt two entirely different approaches to film making: Kubrick was very focused on demonstrating that popular ideas and genres could appeal to intellectual audiences (and was not afraid to make his films oblique if he had to); Nolan is more focused on demonstrating that intellectual ideas can appeal to mass popular audiences (and isn’t afraid of populist appeal). The ideas sound similar, but I think Kubrick relished intelluctualising common ideas, while Nolan loves tying big and smart ideas to concepts that mainstream audiences can engage with.

Or maybe I’m not sure what I’m saying. Crucially I’m not sure what we can get out of this comparison between the two directors, it’s like comparing apples and oranges, to use a cliché. What do you guys think?

Still, I feel distinctly uneasy at how much snobby audiences can condescend to a director who has produced some of the smartest and most daring blockbusters in recent memory, simply because he grafted his ideas to a firmly established concept. It just irritates me how close-minded that some people who purport to be film lovers can be. This isn’t an attack on those, for example, who negatively review Nolan’s work – it’s not for everyone, but that’s the appeal and I have no time for the angry fanboys bashing those who didn’t like Inception. Instead, it’s a bit of a criticism about those who define the quality of a movie based solely on the genre to which it belongs.

Sorry, that just really bugged me…

4 Responses

  1. Interesting. I see no parallels between Kubrick and Nolan at all, besides the spin-on-a-trope aspect. But I do hate when people around me try to sell, say, The Dark Knight as either the greatest movie of all time or ‘just a comic movie’, as my Parent will so eloquently put it.

    • Yep, the truth, as ever, is in the middle. I don’t get the pairing either. If anything (and this is still a stretch) he’s a modern Hitchcock. But I don’t like putting people in a “box” with “modern [insert name here]” label. I’m just happy that he’s Nolan.

  2. Great stuff as always, Darren. I hope you’re there to defend me the next time I shoot my mouth off in the wrong direction. You touched on it, but I think a lot can be said for teasing out “empty” genres for all they’re worth. Working in a tired, familiar landscape and still coming up with something original and moving is more or a challenge than delving into the “respected” genres like period dramas or whatnot.

    I think Kubrick’s body of work needs to be turned on it’s head more often. Good on ya.

    • Thanks Steve. I don’t know, Kubrick also struck me as a “sacred” figure, and it’s always fun to take a closer look at such revered figures.

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