September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
One of the great ironies in film is that the French auteur theory, which in its early form stressed the personality of the director as the criterion for excellence, should have settled on a director such as Stanley Kubrick. There is no much-written-about director in our time who has revealed less of his personality than Stanley Kubrick. In his early films, particularly The Killing (1956, from a Lionel White crime novel), he manifested a gift for hip, cynical low-budget noir that was jettisoned almost as soon as he got his first big budget. After that, Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) revealed a liberal political sensibility as predictable as that of another Stanley: Kramer ( On the Beach , Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ). Kubrick’s next two films, Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1963), were far and away his best in spite—or perhaps because—of being a bit messy. They still feel as if they were conceived by a human.
It is simply not possible for those who don’t “get” 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and, finally, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to understand those who do.
Philip Kaufman is as meticulous a craftsman as Kubrick, and he is every bit as much a rebel, living (and sometimes working) in the Bay Area and going to Hollywood only for a busman’s-holiday thriller such as Rising Sun (1993). If his achievement has never been completely recognized by the critical establishment or even by the discriminating filmgoing audience, it may be because he deliberately sublimates his style to the material at hand. Few of those who have seen all of Kaufman’s major films— Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Wanderers (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Henry & June (1990), and last year’s Quills —are even aware that they had the same director.
What a range of subjects and temperaments his films reveal. Is there another director who would even attempt, let alone triumph with, two such wildly disparate texts as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being ’? Is there another great director out there more concerned with opening up the material to a wide audience and less with the expression of his own “personality”?