MoMA and LACMA recently announced the filmmaker honorees of their upcoming galas, with MoMA celebrating Quentin Tarantino at its annual film benefit gala this winter and LACMA recognizing Stanley Kubrick at its October Art and Film Gala. The locations are mildly ironic: Kubrick shunned Los Angeles film culture, and Tarantino’s films are often set in the City of Angels. The Bronx-born Kubrick left a legacy the museums are eager to enshrine after his 1999 death; Tarantino has already secured a place in cinema lore. The two are unique among their compatriots for the range of their accomplishment and the breadth of their praise, which span high-brow critics and casual moviegoers alike.
Both auteurs, the two approach film with a similar independence. Kubrick declared his directorial autonomy after his breakthrough film Spartacus, where he struggled for creative control over what was America’s largest film budget ever. Because of that experience, he moved to London. His reputation attracted Hollywood funds, while separation afforded him the liberty to use them as he liked. Tarantino has likewise drawn Hollywood-sized funding without creative strings, since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction hit big in quick succession. The former was a darling of the Sundance crowd, and the latter won Cannes’ coveted Palme D’Or.
In a career that spanned five decades, Kubrick never produced an original screenplay; everything he did found its grounding in the literary, but rarely more than a grounding. Dr. Strangelove, his iconic satire of mutually assured destruction, was based on an apocalyptic tract meant to somberly show how close the world was to utter annihilation. The controversial film was released within two years of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the subject of nuclear annihilation was, needless to say, quite touchy. Yet the film remains the moment’s definitive black comedy.
The ridiculousness of Dr. Strangelove seemed to bear little relation to Kubrick’s next project: 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film became a lead-in to the sci-fi genre that would explode in the ’70s. The film was novel in numerous ways, especially in its depiction of an emotional computer, and garnered a loyal cult following.
Kubrick’s career snaked its way through numerous genres, spinning a seemingly random assortment of books into paragons of cinema. If there is any common thread among his projects, identifying it is a task beyond this writer. He ushered in the ‘60s with a popular sword-and-sandal epic and marked the beginning of the following decade with a rendition of Anthony Burgess’s violent and unsettling A Clockwork Orange.
The 1971 release of A Clockwork Orange led viewers on a philosophical investigation of free will through the eyes of a gang leader in a dystopian England, with plenty of violence reminiscent of a Tarantino film. It was followed by the significantly more peaceful Barry Lyndon, then the scarringly scary The Shining. His adaptation of the Stephen King novel produced the role that defined Jack Nicholson’s career and gave Nicholson his most iconic moment on the screen.
Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket veered away from the classic Vietnam film model of futile death in malarial swamps; the director shifted the scene first to a training camp and then to the urban Battle of Huế.
It is often said that Quentin Tarantino makes films about films, using the aesthetics and tropes of classic genres (noir gangster films, spaghetti westerns, ‘70s exploitation films) and spinning them together with self-referential awareness and irony. Tarantino is an acknowledged lover of all things film, and himself a preserver of its history. He recently bought LA’s New Beverly Theatre and vowed, "As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm."
Perhaps because of Tarantino’s style, crafting his films out of homages to other films, he is not regarded as achieving the depths of his predecessor. Nevertheless, his products have always moved effortlessly, and his chronologically disordered plot lines always manage to seamlessly dovetail by the final scene.
Top image: Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey