James Ross Kiefer
We all have our favourite movies, and for some of the film snobs out there, we have our favourite movie directors. These are the people whose work keep revisiting because it resonates with us. Either the story is gripping, the execution of the film itself is alluring or we have just developed a soft spot for their work in our hearts.
And of course once you’ve seen all of a director’s films, you may start to notice some things bleed over from piece to piece. This can range from the way they like to set up scenes and set designs, or to seeing all the same actors reappear in each film. The point is a consistent style seems to develop. So what happens when our favourite filmmakers break that style? Here are two movies that shift away from what we expect of two classic directors.
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”/ Directed by Stanley Kubrick – After taking over Kirk Douglas’s pet project “Spartacus,” Kubrick moved away from historical epics. This was seen in his 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which was plagued with controversy for being too obscene because of its depiction of a pedophilic relationship between the two main characters. Still “Lolita” remained quite the success in the box office, and was nominated for a fair share of awards.
This led to the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” Another book adaptation for Kubrick, this film stands out from his other works. Mainly so because it embraces the genre of comedy more than anything else Kubrick has done.
With a great ensemble cast, Major Kong is portrayed Slim Pickens, a cowboy turned bomber pilot, and probably the most quotable person in the entire film. There’s the tenacious General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, who becomes almost exuberant by the idea of nuclear warfare. Played by George C. Scott, an actor known for the seriousness of his roles, this performance stands out because he is just hilarious throughout. From his banter with his much younger girlfriend and secretary, to the extreme machismo and paranoia he brings to every conversation, ‘Buck’ is a symbol of Cold War era American patriotism taken to the extreme.
Perhaps the most impressive performance found in “Dr. Strangelove” is that of Peter Sellers. Pulling triple duty as he plays the Brithishely polite Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the United States President Merkin Muffley and the eccentric former Nazi scientist, an acknowledgement to Operation Paperclip, Dr. Strangelove. Each character is vastly different, Sellers is able to execute each character with apt comedic timing, blending both verbal and physical humor. Sellers also manages to be one of a handful of actors to reappear in a Kubrick film. His first collaboration with the director was actually “Lolita,” another film that had him playing multiple roles.
The real reason this work sticks out is because it’s first and foremost funny. Sure “A Clockwork Orange” has moments of humor, and “Lolita” marketed itself as black comedy, but “Dr. Strangelove” really runs with the comedy. The dialogue manages to be smart and dark, still while making us laugh at the idea of impending nuclear holocaust. The heavy handed, aggressively phallic dialogue adds a level of humor that calls to mind how offensively male military operations are, and very much mocks our attitudes of war.
The film is also a departure for Kubrick because it’s rather smaller in scope. There are only three real scenes of activity within the film: Burpelson Air Force Base, the War room and the B-52 bomber plane. Before this most of Kubrick’s films used a variety of large scale sets with a variety of plot centric locations. It makes for a more intimate tone to the film, but still maintain a comedic aesthetic.
“Jackie Brown”/Directed by Quentin Tarantino – What can be said about Quentin Tarantino that doesn’t spur an emotional reaction? His films feature heavily stylized violence, with sharp dialogue spouted by super-fly hitmen, assassins and cowboys.
“Jackie Brown” in effect offers an authentic Tarantino experience, but in a manner like none of his other films. Following the release of his landmark second film “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino’s third effort draws influence to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Pam Grier plays the title character Jackie, an airplane stewardess for a small time airline. She is pitted against Samuel L. Jackson’s character Ordell Robbie, who is guns dealer that has Jackie gotten arrested once one of his dealings goes wrong. The film follows how Jackie plays both Ordell, the police and the audience, never fully revealing what her next move is too anyone.
The film has all the air of confidence found in a Tarantino production, but one thing that is missing is the gore. “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” were bloody films, featuring several scenes with character drenched in either their own blood, or someone else’s blood for that matter. Gunplay and violence also ran rampant throughout those films (the torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs” still makes me squeamish).
“Jackie Brown” glosses over this. The little gore found in the film is downplayed into a more realistic and tasteful style. The film even feels meandering at time, as the film is propelled by dialogue more than actual character action. But the dialogue is what makes the film a true Tarantino.
Grier’s performance of Jackie is smooth and powerful. There is simply not a scene that she doesn’t own, and the dialogue has all the brass of a woman who’s in charge and confident. This added with the blaxploitation flair that Tarantino is going for makes Jackie that much more of an assertive and intriguing character. There is one scene in particular where she confronts Ordell about her plan to handle the police, and he freaks out telling her she is giving too much of his operation away. She in effect is, but manages to explain to Ordell why it’s necessary and calms him down. She masterfully handles every situation and turns every outcome to her favor. It’s manipulative as Hell, but it’s also amazing to watch.
The true magic of these films isn’t that they’re different from rest of their director’s works. It is rather a testament to the talent of the filmmakers by saying that they can go outside the lines of their proven formulas, and still construct something that is captivating. It shows understanding and artistic vision, and when it’s done well, I’m definitely sold.