Last year I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film,Inherent Vice. Based on the novel by enigmatic author Thomas Pynchon, the film covers pothead detective Doc Spotello's case looking into his missing ex-girlfriend Shasta Fey. The result is a complex whodunnit that eventually gets lost within its own haze of marijuana.
I saw the movie at the New York Film Festival along with a group of friends, all of whom are big movie buffs. Of the four of us, I seemed to be the only one to fully enjoy the experience. Having read the book previously, I was expecting and happy to find that the film did not "sell out" and compromise the prose of the story in order to be more accessible to a standard audience.
It often meanders over its own plot and by the third act the circumstances and results of Sportello's case don't really matter; however, this is not some risky choice that Anderson came up with on his own, but more or less the entire point of the novel itself. Pynchon's goal was to craft more of a commentary on Los Angeles during the post-Manson period and less of a well-rounded crime caper.
So, after rambling for three paragraphs about Vice without naming neither Spielberg nor Kubrick than what exactly is my point? Well, I think Inherent Vice (as well as Anderson's previous feature, 'The Master') brings up a fascinating question: is a film better when figuring out a perfect balance between general audience fare and intellectual entertainment OR is it best when a filmmaker takes extreme chances and makes something purely for the intellectual mind? This is where Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kubrick walk into the proverbial bar (oh crafty me).
Steven Spielberg is the master of crafting a story accessible to pretty much everyone. He is able to convey the "show don't tell" mentality while at the same time keeping it simplistic to the eye. To better illustrate I'm going to post two clips with the same amount of exposition behind them. Both are taken from near ending points of their films; both working both on their own and in the context of the movie(s). First is this iconic clip from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as our jumping off point:
Within the span of eight minutes, and with very little dialogue. Spielberg uses a combination of brilliant editing, composition, and most importantly John Williams's score to instantly convey who is the hero (the awesome guy on the horse), who are the villains (the guy in the white hat with the Nazis), what are they after (the ominous crate going into a truck).
This type of execution is prevalent throughout Spielberg's films. It is what makes them both so unique and so simplistic at the same time.
Now let's take a look at something a little different from one of Stanley Kubrick's most iconic films, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
During the scene, we are treated to striking visuals. The renaissance style paintings on the walls, the sterile white decor, all in beautiful contrast to the astronauts striking ruby red space suit.
You have no idea what on earth is going on, but at the same time Kubrick brilliantly builds up some feeling of curiosity and dread through sound design and his unflinching deep focus.
So, Which Approach is Better?
Many people will argue that the more intellectual the better, but is it really when you can have a packed theater that will be the most entertaining? At the same time, what will make you think more? Does true talent come from making things look so easy or being so obsessive with detail and deeper meanings that the film loses its accessibility?
There is no right or wrong answer, but it is merely another way to say that film can bring us such varying experiences, and to deny that what Spielberg does is intellectual in its execution is doing a disservice to his talent.
At the same time to say so about Kubrick's films being incomprehensible messes ends with the same results. It is ultimately about realizing that most talented filmmakers aren't just doing this to trick you, but make you think in varying ways. It's what makes individual directors' styles so interesting.