Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Box Or How I Learned to Stop Worring amd Learned what a Kubrickian Masterpiece Is.

In one of the first published reviews of Inception Anne Thompson called that film a Kubrickian Masterpiece as if, 11 years after Stanley Kubrick's death, that phrase can now refer to just about anything as opposed to works that are 1) masterpieces and 2) feel like Kubrick movies. Today the term has evolved because it has become, theoretically speaking anyway, part of public domain. It hardly matters if it's user knows the first thing about Kubrick because if the film is psychological science fiction and engulfs the viewer in it's mammoth scale awesomeness, well it's no ordinary masterpiece: it's a masterpiece of Kubickian proportions. At least that's how I've read it over the years. The term is ironic because A) Kubrick only made two sci-fi films, only one of which (2001) is a masterpiece and B) although his latter day epics such as A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining are more prolific in that they are more recognizably what we have come to associate as being "Kubrickian" the early, shorter films such as Paths of Glory, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove are just as much, if not more so, masterpieces as the latter. However, if Inception is a masterpiece (we won't debate it again here), it certainly isn't a Kubrickian one as the film owes little to Kubrick other than that it is A) psychological science fiction and B) over two and a half hours in length. If we were to break down Kubrick into pieces (the droning soundtrack, the deliberate, surreal pacing, the meticulously symmetrical framing, created by the hand of a true knit-picker, the emotionally distant characters, the devious visual sarcasm) you'll find that very little of Inception translates. It's too sloppy, too full of ideas flying around in too many directions, and too loud and hyper active to be anything Kubrick would have associated himself with. Although it is no masterpiece (or even all that good), if you want to see true Kubrickian influence, look no farther than Richard Kelly's The Box, a strange, enigmatic and wholly Kubrickan sci-fi affair. That Inception was adored to death and The Box hated and swept under the rug is just one more notch of proof that it owes a lot of what it knows to Kubrick. The Box, Kelly's best film, whatever that's worth, is more or less exactly what he's spent two features doing: spinning complex yarns that turn in upon themselves so many times that the only thing they can be about is challenging their viewer to try and figure out just what they heck they are about. However, unlike the interesting but failed Donnie Darko and the abomination Southland Tales, this time Kelly is 1) working from source material and 2) has more control over himself stylistically. Number two is what's most important. It hardly matters what this story is about, if it is even about anything. What's interesting is how Kelly manages to control all of these chaotic elements (a mysterious button, the offer of a million dollars, amputated toes, abrupt nose bleeds, a man with only half a face, strange meetings by the poolside and so on) and keeps them grounded within his stylistic mold. There's something ever so ominous about the muted 50s household naivety; the way the wallpaper in the kitchen is so bold it always seems as if it is about to swallow its heroes whole; the way the faceless man speaks in the clipped tone of someone who is never really saying everything they know; and the way people silently seem to be stripped of their souls, one by one. All of this is very creepy, maybe in part, or maybe in full, because one never quite knows just what is going on at any given moment. Because Kelly is so restrained visually in that mysterious Kubrickian manner, it allows him to go completely over-the-top thematically. That's exactly what Kubrick got away with. That's exactly why his masterpieces have become an adjective all unto themselves.


  1. Mike, I'm so glad that you liked the film - I fear Richard Kelly is going the way of M Night Shyamalan in the public consciousness.

    I loved how the film wouldn't hold back on stranger and bigger ideas, and the visuals are creepy. Southland Tales, to me, is very good and Donnie Darko the abomination. The Box made me grimace and smile all at the same time - it's great fun.

    I wrote a piece on it here, if you want to read it:

  2. I don't know whether your article is bold or just plain weird. I'm exagerating of course, but to call 'The Box' a Kubrician masterpiece takes some sort of audacity. I would agree that it is Richard Kelly's best film, but then again I hated 'Donnie Darko' and thought 'Southland Tales' to be middling at best, so it wasn't as if the competition was difficult to beat.

  3. Visually sarcastic...interesting...

  4. Stephen - Thanks for the link, I will check it out. Ya, I don't understand the hate for M. Night, Sure the Village and Lady in the Water sucked, but Happening was strangely poetic and deeply interesting and sadly overlooked. Before seeing Scott Pilgrim a trailer to Devil came on and when Night's name appeared someone burst out into a loud audible grown. I don't get it.

    Edgar - I need to make clear I wasn't calling the Box a Kubrickian masterpiece but simply observing that it was more Kubrickian than the summer's most praised film which was indeed called a Kubrickian masterpiece. Still, my stance is bold indeed.

    Simon - Maybe I'm coining a new phrase.

  5. I don't know how I missed this when it first went up -- must have something to do with being a new father.

    Always love our disagreements, Mike. The best thing about The Box is the review you just wrote of it. Simply put, this was in contention for my least favorite film of 2009. I found it an utterly laughable disaster. Have you ever seen worse overacting than by Cameron Diaz in this movie? And what about the ridiculously overwrought ending? This, not Inception, is the movie with a slapdash approach to production values and ideas. The thing I agree with most is your question whether The Box is actually about anything. I say it's about less than nothing.

    On the other hand, of course, I have gone on record calling Donnie Darko my favorite movie of the first decade of the 21st century.

    As ever, intelligent people can disagree ...

  6. Arguably what makes Inception so "Kubrickian" is its refusal to conform to what's expected of a summer blockbuster. Inception speaks in a cinematic language removed from what's expected of other films of its sort-- which is true, unless there are summer blockbusters out there that meddle with their own realities as much as Inception does.

    And one of the things that you criticize Inception for-- that once we understand the nature of dreams as presented in the film, we still don't know anything about the characters-- arguably is what makes it most Kubrickian. Kubrick was infamous for the cold detachment with which he regarded his characters, and the distance he kept between them and his audience.

    The Box does neither of these things. It's not terrible by any means but it neither attempts to break free from what's expected of films of its genre, nor promotes a divide between the characters and the audience.

    Shyamalan, changing the subject, is a giant hack. Which is why he's the target of so much disdain and criticism. He's made one good movie, and only one; everything else suffers from his lack of understanding of how tension and suspense work.

  7. Vance - Disagreeing is exactly what makes doing this so exciting. Would Siskel and Ebert have made their name had they not been such compelling arguers. Come to think of it, if you can work out a TV deal for us, I'll be on a plane to LA next week ;).

    I can't really argue with you, there's no logically defending this film other than that I guess I saw it at the right time on the right day and was just in the mood for it. I don't fault movies for being perposterous (Knowing was one of my favourite films of last year) but yes, there seems to be no depth here. Nor did I want to imply that this is better than Inception. Rather this was more criticism of how people throw Kubrick's name around heedlessly than anything.

    But with that I must quote Pauline Kael Films are so rarely great art that if we can't enjoy great trash then there's no point in even going.

  8. Andrew - your point is certainly valid and you actually make a very strong point in favour of Inception being Kubrickian. I'm 100% sure Inception strays as far away from summer blockbuster conventions as you are suggesting here as it ultimately comes down to big style, big special effects and lots of action, it just does the summer blockbuster thing a lot better than the actual summer blockbusters and in a fractured order.

    However, I stand by my criticism of the characters because, unlike Kubrick, Nolan seems to genuinely want to make us care for Leo's plight because, let's face it, this is at the heart of every Nolan movie and I have cared about it in The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Even in a film like the Dark Knight, where he more or less hits the ground running, the characters still exist for us on an intellectual level because they represent ideas. It's like Nolan understands that comic books characters not only signify on the human level but also on the iconic one as well. However. Inception didn't really mean much to me emotionally or intellectually. It was just a hell of a wild ride.

  9. PS - there should be a "not" before 100%

  10. Totally agree on watching great trash, I just don't think this qualifies. Knowing does. I agree with you (and Ebert, who loves it) on Knowing. The difference between Knowing and The Box (both movies in which Richard Kelly was involved, by the way) is that Knowing has a central idea that it sees through from start to finish. The Box has an idea that it branches off into dozens of other ideas that only relate to what is sometimes known as the "Kellyverse" -- an over-arching universe Kelly was trying to create for his films, in which plot elements from different movies may be related to each other. The portals you see in The Box are supposed to be related to Donnie Darko in some way, but what they have to do with pushing that button or whether a young child can see or hear (or whatever his problem was at the end) is questionable indeed.

    And speaking of the box and its button, how much did it kill the mystique of this box to see the scene where they have a million other boxes they're programming to give to other people? In The Box, Kelly throws all the spaghetti against the wall, and none of it sticks.

  11. Oh yeah, and sign me up for our version of Siskel & Ebert. Let's hope we both have better health.