Like a transmission from an alien monolith, Adam Nayman's latest lecture series promises to be a mind-expanding event.
This time last year, the walking cinematic encyclopedia that is Toronto film critic Adam Nayman (The Grid, CinemaScope, Reverse Shot) kicked off a series of public lectures looking at polarizing and controversial filmmakers. This year, his “In Nayman’s Terms” classes return to the Miles Nadal JCC with a course devoted to the one director even your mom knows is a master: Stanley Kubrick.
Nayman’s new series will survey Kubrick’s hugely varied, famously visionary career, from his rare, early works like Day of the Fight and Killer’s Kiss to 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, which, though less lauded than much of Kubrick’s filmography, is among Nayman’s personal favourites. The eight-class syllabus will touch on the formal construction, philosophical content, and historical context of Kubrick’s works, and will doubtless feature plenty of shrewd insights you can pass off as your own the next time you need to appear sophisticated at a cocktail soirée.
To give you a taste of what you can expect from the series, which begins tonight and runs through June 25, we went one-on-one with Nayman for a little Kubrick 101.
Torontoist: Among film buffs and casual film fans alike, Kubrick is widely recognized as one of the greats. How would you explain his appeal?
Adam Nayman: One of the things I discovered, or rediscovered, in preparing the series is that contemporary critics didn’t necessarily consider him a great director. Almost every Kubrick film was panned. And not in that Stravinsky Rite of Spring way, where people didn’t understand them. Not that idea that he’s doing something that people don’t understand—except maybe a bit with 2001. If anything, what his films were criticized for was the “Stanley Kubrick–ness” of them. The idea that he’s this guy—he’s clearly a master filmmaker—but he’s hermetically sealed himself off. He’s answering to no one; he’s self-indulgent or undisciplined.
I don’t necessarily think that any of this is true, and a lot of this criticism didn’t hold, because by the time the next Kubrick film came out, the previous one was actually used as a stick to hammer it. So when A Clockwork Orange comes out, people say, “Well, this is a science-fiction film without any of the visionary elegance of 2001.” And then when Barry Lyndon comes out, people say, “Well, where’s the dynamism and excitement of A Clockwork Orange?,” and then The Shining comes out and people say, “Why’s he dealing with this pulpy crap? If he’s going to do a literary adaptation, Thackeray [whom Kubrick adapted in Barry Lyndon] is better.” And then in the case of Full Metal Jacket, people say, “This isn’t as good as Paths of Glory.”
So one of the things the course is based around is the myriad contradictions in his films, between his life and his films, and in the reception of his films. And one of those contradictions is that, as you say, anyone would cite him as one of the great directors, but if he’s one of the greats, why did the great film critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael and the Cahiers du cinema French critics—why did they pan these movies? It’s an interesting question to ask.
And with regard to his popular appeal, I’ve always thought of him as a gateway director, the way people consider pot a gateway drug. You tend to come to Kubrick fairly early on, because everything surrounding the films—like posters, like trailers, like the art, even the way the DVDs and VHSs are packaged—they’re so seductive, they’re so sinister. They’re cool. You usually have someone’s older brother telling you, “You gotta see this.” Because he worked in popular genres, he’s not as forbidding to see when you’re 12 or 13 as maybe Last Year at Marienbad is.
Kubrick seems to serve as a lot of people’s first “auteur.”
And yet an interesting contradiction is that he was rejected by the auteurs. One of the reasons for that is they had an axe to grind against literary adaptation. That’s what they were upset about in France: these films that were just reconfiguring French literature. “Kubrickian” has become an adjective, but all he did were adaptations. He never wrote an original screenplay. To me, that doesn’t qualify or disqualify him from anything. It’s just fascinating that unlike some of his major contemporaries, he never wrote a personal screenplay from his own experience, the way that Martin Scorsese did with Mean Streets, or Francis Ford Coppola did with The Conversation. So you have a situation where auteurists didn’t like, as you said, a lot of people’s first auteur.
Which raises the question, what are the key elements of a “Kubrickian” film? What characterizes his cinema?
In James Naremore’s book on Kubrick—which is the best book on Kubrick I’ve read, and which I leaned heavily on in preparing my own course—he advances the argument that Kubrick is a grotesque director. Not in the sense that “that’s grotesque and I don’t like it,” but that his films reach back to that kind of literary narrative tradition of the grotesque, of exaggeration, of excess—whether it’s violence or extreme bodily horror—in a way that creates a tension with the fastidiousness and the cleanliness of everything around it. And, in a way, that’s the same argument I made about a temperamentally very different director when I taught the class on Paul Verhoeven [from Nayman’s controversial directors series]. I talked about him as a grotesque director, too. What draws me to both filmmakers is the way that grotesquerie sometimes just explodes, sometimes out of nowhere. And I think that they’re both satirists.
In Kubrick’s case, he has this reputation, especially after 2001 for making these kind of dry, cold, Olympian, detached movies, but I think all of them are funny. I mean, Barry Lyndon is very funny, The Shining is funnier than that, and Full Metal Jacket, for the first half, is hilarious. And Eyes Wide Shut is very funny, down to the casting of Tom Cruise at that point in his career as someone who can’t fuck anybody. He’s passively wandering through this sexual netherworld and his movie-star charisma helps him not at all. Kubrick always had a joke; he always had a sarcastic comment. And I find that to be kind of an irresistible combination: that wry satirical sensibility with this incredibly implacable, formalist visual attack. I think for a lot of people that’s what the appeal of him is.
Given the diversity of his filmography, would you suggest that satirical element works as a connective tissue?
It’s one of them. I think the connective tissue is that he decided fairly early on, after he worked as a photographer for Look Magazine that he wanted to be a great film director. Most of his films are made by someone who thinks of himself, who fancies himself, who has the ambition of being a great film director. As apart from someone who simply wants to be a storyteller, or be an entertainer, or certainly someone who just wants to take a job.
One of the most amazing things about his career is how, as of 1964, after Dr. Strangelove came out, he managed to get this completely permissive relationship with major studios. And if you look at some of the directors who hover over Kubrick—not necessarily in terms of being better, but directors who he was influenced by, someone like Orson Welles—that is the exact opposite of Welles’ career. Welles was an American exile because no one wanted to work with him. He burned bridges; he wasn’t liked. Kubrick voluntarily removed himself from America, and yet he was able to wrangle every possible resource from these studios. I can’t actually think of another major American filmmaker who worked so unencumbered by interference within Hollywood.
Is there a particular lecture you’re looking forward to giving?
There’re three, which doesn’t mean I want to put anybody off any of the other ones. The first one [on Kubrick’s early independent work], because I want to see how many people come, and I want to see what people are bringing to it, in terms of whether these are Kubrick fans, skeptics, or agnostics. There’s that, and I also think it’s fascinating to look at Day of the Fight and Fear and Desire.
I’m really interested to do the Sellers class, because I think acting in Kubrick is something that’s not talked about enough, and I think that in Lolita—which is perhaps Kubrick’s most underrated film—and then in Strangelove, Sellers kind of created a template for grotesque performance in Kubrick that I think a lot of actors built off of.
And then I’m interested to teach Eyes Wide Shut. It’s one of those movies I run the risk of micromanaging when I watch it, because it’s the most overtly dreamlike of Kubrick’s movies, and there are so many clues in it—within the mise en scène, the dialogue, the literary and musical quotations—that allow you to figure out what’s happening. It’s fun to try to break it down. And I think that class is going to be some of the closest visual and thematic analysis that I do.
“In Nayman’s Terms: The Films of Stanley Kubrick” begins today, April 16, at 7 p.m. at the Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Avenue). For a complete lecture schedule, visit the JCC’s website. Cost is $12 per class, or $6 with a valid student ID. A $90 series pass is also available.