DON’T YOU WANT IT TO BE PERFECT? NO, I DON’T.
There’s a story Nicole Kidman tells about her experience working with legendary director Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut. They were between takes and she mentioned the criticism commonly lobbed at Kubrick, that he was a perfectionist. The subtext seemed to be that he was monomaniacal, obsessed to the point it hurt the work.
His response to her perfectly encapsulated his position on the critique. “Don’t you want it to be perfect, Nicole?”
It’s a good answer, and certainly one should strive to do their best at all times. And yet the question might not be quite as rhetorical as Kubrick probably thought. There are, in fact, times, where perfect is not what’s called for, some instances where rough edges improve rather than harm.
Examples of this are far more numerous in music than in film. Think of all the various subgenres that highlight the fuzziness of strangely-tuned guitars, deliberately sought-feedback, even noise for its own sake. Art rock, lo-fi, garage rock, and punk all have strands that repudiate the perfect as inauthentic, sterile, soul-draining.
When Nirvana recorded their second studio album, Nevermind, they made the jump from respected regional indie SubPop to industry juggernaut Geffen, and naturally their production got the requisite makeover. A new producer was brought in, and his work was double-checked by another producer, who changed and tweaked the mixing levels with one of those space age soundboards. The result was a massive, international hit so influential it divided modern rock along one of those B.C. / A.D. cleavages. And yet the band’s ultimate feeling about the album—especially Kurt’s—was that it was like an artifact encased in Lucite. It couldn’t really be touched, or enjoyed. Its perfection alienated the ear rather than reaching out to it.
They would correct this mistake (if indeed such a great album can be called a mistake) with In Utero. For that album they would bring in Steve Albini, whose style was so antithetical to that of his predecessor that he even eschewed the label “producer.” He saw himself as a recordist, and made it clear beforehand that Nirvana wasn’t even one of his favorite bands.
Albini proved much more hands-on, literally, his approach involving positioning mics over each instrument at a particular distance and angle to achieve that imperfect-perfection. And the difference shows.
Whether you like Nevermind or In Utero more (or if indeed, you like either) would probably reveal as much about your taste in songcraft as anything else. But the sound difference is there, and evidence of two different aesthetic philosophies.
But if it’s easier to understand the appeal of imperfection in music, does it still remain possible to see the principle at work in film?
Take Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, the relatively low-budget movie about a drug-addicted cop having a crisis of conscience and a nervous breakdown after dealing with the rape of a nun. Plenty of scenes were shot guerilla-style, with Ferrara sneaking into clubs so closely on Harvey Keitel’s heels that he bumps plenty of unwitting extras, who look at the camera. Even the scenes that were shot with permits or in the interiors of friends’ apartments were many times underlit, but the graininess wasn’t distracting. It was (much like the deliberate lens flares employed by Kubrick) part of a larger aesthetic choice. Critic Roger Ebert noticed as much in his review of the film:
“This film lacks the polish of a more sophisticated director [than Ferrara], but would have suffered from it. The film and the character live close to the streets.”
The shaky camerawork, the blending of pros with nonprofessionals, even the dialogue sometimes not picked up clearly by mics makes it better than it otherwise would be.
The writer Charles Bukowski, near the end of his life, complained that every time he tried to pick up a new novel it would just fall from his hands. “The slick polish grates. The lies jump out.” There’s that same word Ebert used, “polish.”
Kubrick definitely didn’t lie, but he did polish, tune and tweak. His longtime collaborator—Jan Harlan, relation of both Kubrick’s wife Christiane and the Nazi filmmaker Veit—said that Kubrick was still editing Eyes when he died. Would he have improved it? And if so, would the improvements have made the film better, or (paradoxically) worse?
It isn’t as if perfection didn’t serve Kubrick well at times. The sublimity of 2001 works because the movie is in some way about the fearful yet ungraspable symmetry of our universe. It’s a movie that even a race of aliens far superior to us could probably admire. Hell, even the creator of the universe would probably find it fascinating, although he/she/it might dispute a few details, like a celebrity reading an unauthorized biography of themself.
The perfection approach works equally well for Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork Orange. For these movies are in some ways god’s eye views of human follies: of our self-destructive urges (Strangelove); of our petty obsession with caste and decorum, status and ritual (Barry Lyndon); of the medical-scientific desire to solve the conundrum of human aggression, the destructive demiurge that can’t quite be separated from the creative (Clockwork Orange).
This approach doesn’t quite work for me when it comes to The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. I fully understand that both are influential masterpieces. But I can’t watch them again and again like those previously mentioned films.
Full Metal Jacket, for me, is far inferior to Platoon, despite Kubrick being a much better filmmaker than Oliver Stone. But that static quality to Full Metal Jacket— its frozen self-awareness, the white cloudless sky of what is obviously not Southeast Asia—sinks the film. Kubrick, like Terrence Mallick, ignores the prosaic miseries of men in war. He has them quote Nietzsche rather than complaining about how uncomfortable their dirty underwear feels after weeks without washing. Full Metal Jacket is the Nevermind of war movies. It’s packed away in a Lucite box, a museum piece you can stare at but not touch.
In Platoon you can smell Vietnam, the acrid insect repellent, the antimalarials dropped into fuggy canteen water, the mildew soaked into army surplus canvas. It is an imperfect movie in which, excepting the finale, there are no battles that can be understood as setpiece encounters. That’s another thing Ebert got right when talking about Platoon, that the battlespace is a confusing, unsatisfying three-hundred and sixty-degree arena. Yes, Oliver Stone tried to graft his own philosophic pretensions onto the film, but his personal experience of the war made it impossible for his didactic streak to prevail.
What about The Shining? Author Stephen King’s words are worth paraphrasing here. He said that the movie was like a beautiful Cadillac without an engine. It was gorgeous but didn’t really go anywhere. And contra the novel, in which the Overlook Hotel burned, in the film version everything around the hotel froze, including the mad writer Jack Torrance.
King ultimately accused Kubrick of having a materialist overintellectual mindset that would not let him countenance the idea of the supernatural. The only monster in Kubrick’s The Shining was a man going insane. It was the work of someone who thought too much and didn’t feel enough, was how King put it, I think.
King’s detractors fired back that he was a man who felt too much and didn’t think enough. But if that were true, none of the titanic minds of the movie world (like David Cronenberg or Kubrick himself) would have been drawn to his material as they so obviously were.
King said his main tact as a writer was to create sympathy for his characters and then put them in harm’s way. Bearing that in mind, you can see why he didn’t dig Kubrick’s picture. Shelly Duvall pants and emotes and looks pale but her fear alienates and even repels more than it draws the viewer in, in sympathy; the boy who plays Danny is only slightly less creepy than the two axe-murdered twins who urge him to come play with them. And Jack Nicholson is...well, Jack Nicholson. He glowers and arches those satanic eyebrows the same batshit gusto as Gomer Pyle and Droog Alex in their respective films glowering from that trademark Kubrickian angle.
Believe it or not, there’s actually a religious corollary to what we’ve been talking about here. I learned it from a housepainter who was a bit of a wiseacre. His fellow housepainter had noticed that he’d applied a little too much gloss to some shiplap siding on a house. The smartass turned from his ladder and said, “You know, Muslim rug weavers deliberately loom one flaw into every carpet, because they believe perfection is an insult to god. For only Allah is perfect.”
Maybe that’s the secret.
Perfection works when and where the Zola-esque/Flaubert-esque “god’s eye” omniscience is warranted. Vietnam needs a worm’s eye view, though, preferably a worm rooting around in the blood-soaked, shrapnel-spalled loam. The Shining needed someone to stand beside Danny and Wendy when Jack starts to wield his axe. But it feels like Kubrick—who probably would have denied a sadistic streak—is somehow allied with the axe-murderer. Nicholson’s a brilliant actor, especially when playing against type, in understated, quiet roles (like About Schmidt). But his intentionally over-the-top blowing-a-gasket-Tony Montana-style performance is essentially wasted here. We don’t care (or at least I didn’t) about him or his victims. He might as well be wearing a hockey mask and obscuring that movie star mug. And you could have swapped Danny and Wendy out with a couple big-bosomed coeds, who were dared to spend a night (rather than a whole season) at the Overlook.
It would have shortened the runtime and provided more t & a besides just the decomposing woman in Room 237.