Brain Damage

Frederic Raphael on Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Open ~

“I have had three more long and exhausting telephone conversations with S.K. To begin with, I was as deferential and thin-voiced as any hireling. I have become less inhibited. Cinematically, I have no doubt that he is a master. However, I have little fear that he is intellectually beyond my reach; I am not even sure how bright he is.”

This is the same problem reported by John Fowles in his dealings with William Wyler. The novelists know they are supposed to respect the directors, but they can’t see the evidence of genius. I think it’s a different KIND of intelligence from what they’re looking for.

Sometimes the difference is more extreme. Here’s Ridley Scott interviewed in The Guardian two weeks ago:

“Our evolution, from the bang, to the earliest forms of life is so organically unlikely that it’s actually impossible. There would have to have been a billion decisions made by accident for that to have occurred, so one has to wonder, who is in charge?”

Great. The director of BLADE RUNNER comes out for Intelligent Design, and shows that he has no understanding of the basic concept of Darwinian evolution. He also thinks we started evolving at the time of the Big Bang. This isn’t really the forum for a chat about evolution, but let me share with you what I figured out for myself at school: it’s not accidental. The initial mutation that gives one animal a longer neck is an accident, but given the random genetic variation we see all around us, within our own species, for instance, it’s the kind of accident that’s bound to happen. If the longer neck proves an advantage, the animal is more likely to flourish and provide more offspring, some of which will inherit the advantageous attribute. And so after generations, we get the giraffe.

Scott MIGHT be talking about the initial appearance of life (it’s not quite clear what he means by “organically unlikely”) but he expresses himself so poorly it’s not too clear. I always thought of him as a great eye with not much behind it. He couldn’t even read the (quite short) Philip K Dick novel BLADE RUNNER is based on. The screenwriter Henry Bean said “You could talk about abstract concepts with Ridley Scott and…it was okay. If you got him onto visual ideas then his intelligence showed.” By contrast, Bean thought that Tony Scott was “a very smart guy”. Not every screenwriter has agreed.

I don’t have any problem labelling Ridley Scott as visually talented but dumb. William Wyler was no intellectual (hated to read a book) but had an incredible instinctive grasp of dramatic values. Stanley Kubrick was “a genius”, but perhaps not of the kind Freddie Raphael was expecting to meet. Kubrick’s working methods sometimes seem like those of a computer playing chess, weighing up every single possible move, however seemingly dumb, wasting masses of time and effort on unpromising byways in order to arrive at the perfect choice, but in fact there’s an inner perversity to Kubrick’s approach that prevents his work becoming mechanical or predictable or even straightforwardly effective. There’s always some weird spasm of the purely personal, some scent of the mysterious, some failure to achieve the obvious, leading to a stunning success in hitting some obscure, uncharted response. Maybe he was a genius in spite of his methods. Reading his interviews, he’s clearly a thinking man, but not necessarily smarter than some of his interviewers. What happens in his work genuinely comes from a place beyond intellection.

10 Responses to “Brains”

  1. I’m inclined to agree, Intelligence is a much more faceted and complex thing than our society often accepts.
    I’ve met fantastically erudite and well informed people who are dumber than a bag of hammers when it comes to manipulating the world in any practical way. I tend to think that the way we educate people favours Intellectual achievement above all and fails to recognise genuine brilliance in other aspects of brain function.
    This is why finding a good Plumber can be so difficult.

  2. The cinema is visual and therfore automatically metaphoric and imprecise. For a writer like Raphael precision is all, therefore Kubrick is a maddening figure. He thought about the Schlitzner nouvelle for years before electing to turn it into what we now know as Eyes Wide Shut. I imagine his attraction to it proceeded from his admiration for Ophuls. Setting it in conetemporary New York rather than fin-de-siecle Vienna changes everything. Raphael wants the specific. Kubrick doesn’t. What EWS (which I greatly admire, BTW) is actually “about” is almost impossible to say. Sex and Power are involved certainly. And AIDS anxiety too. But if it were any clearer it wouldn’t work at all.

    So I say it’s about Leelee Sobieski’s smile.

  3. John Baxter’s Kubrick bio isn’t terribly great, but the anecdotes about Kubrick and sexual fantasy are revealing. He seemingly fantasised about using his position as a director to get women, but reall all he wanted to do is look. EWS does suggest some of the sexual anxiety lurking behind that. Cruise sets out to cheat on his wife and yet never manages to, although he does have opportunities. It’s almost a Bunuelian set-up.

    Sobieski on Kubrick: “He always wore the same black smock with many pockets, but he must have had lots of them because he didn’t smell bad or anything.”

    Cinema has provided us with two absolutely perfect dream plumbers: Jennifer Jones in/as Cluny Brown and Robert DeNiro as Harry Tuttle in Brazil. Maybe because “In art we’re always trying to make things work out perfectly, because in real life…it’s real hard.”

  4. Chris B Says:

    >Reading his interviews, he’s clearly a thinking man, but not necessarily smarter than some of his interviewers.

    There’s partial doses of intellect but he does have an annoying habit of generalising, famous example would be his “Eisenstein is all style and Chaplin is all content” comment, which, don’t get me wrong, *does* makes sense (to a certain extent) but only after a thesis worth of thought on how he came to that conclusion.

    >>So I say it’s about Leelee Sobieski’s smile.

    That’s a good enough reason for me! And I get to see EWS in High Definition when the HD DVD finally arrives…

  5. I’m still fascinated by the story that pre-release prints of EWS were pin-sharp and entirely lacking that very grainy look (which I adored).

    Did your Bed Sitting Room DVD arrive yet?

  6. Chris B Says:

    Haha, I have no idea but when it comes to the High Definition debate, EWS is one of the most contestable discs simply because of its “look” (i.e. dreamlike grain); in fact, it separated the tech-heads from the cinephiles in the conflict between cleaned up razor sharp imagery and director’s intentions. This is not applicable to the Kubrick releases (which look stellar) but the worst filter a company can employ is DNR (digital noise reduction). At its worst, the *life* is sucked from the image and what remains is waxwork actors, I should find you some screencaps to prove this evil in action.

    Still waiting for the Lester but this is no surprise, when the same company sent me the 5 1/2 hour cut of APOCALYPSE NOW some years back, it took either 3 or 4 weeks to arrive. I’ll be sure to send it your way when it is here…

  7. No Bed-Sit as yet.

  8. Oh, that question was for Chris! You’re not getting Bed-Sit, David, you’re getting Losey’s “M” and some other stuff. Sorry for confusion.

    Should arrive soon-ish but no telling when.

  9. Getting back to that Scott interview – what struck me was the outrageous hubris of the man in daring to correct Carl Sagan; ” So I asked him, “How, then, do you account for the fact that we’re the only ones, the only accidental selected piece of biology since the big bang?”

    Stick to lense-filters and smoke machines , Rid.

  10. Yeah, and the implication that Sagan was unable to think of a comeback line, that he slunk off, defeated by Sir Ridley’s superior reasoning powers!

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