Some factors in the making of a great movie

Many people have favorite actors and actresses. I cannot respect the movie-rating opinions of these people. I’m sorry, I just can’t. If you’re one of them, we can still be friends. Just don’t bother me with your opinions about movies. We’ll find something else to talk about. It’s okay.

It has become clear to me over the course of the years that the key factor, or ingredient , in the making of a great movie, or one which sucks, is the Director. Not even the script, plot, or setting, whilst all very important factors in the making of a great movie, have as great an effect on the greatness (or suckness) of a movie as simply who the Director is; the Director’s vision will make or break a movie every time. It is that simple.

For example, go watch the Shining. Go ahead… This blog will be here when you get back.

Now go watch Stephen King’s The Shining (technically a miniseries, but same difference). Sorry, you should not take my word for this (unless you are already convinced of the influence a director has on the outcome of a film, in which case spare yourself the misery). Here’s a short summary comparison:

Even with that annoying green on the screen in the Kubrick half, there’s really no comparison is there? Jack Nicholson has been recorded by history (at least according to Vivian Kubrick’s Making the Shining) as being at odds, at least initially, with Kubrick over his portrayal of the character. He argued for a more realistic approach. Kubrick called the idea boring and insisted on the more “entertaining” portrayal we ultimately see in the film. No second guessing from me on that call!

One of the most subtle effects under a Director’s control is the cinematography. This is a large part of Kubrick’s magic. He was a photographer first. His movies are like collections of moving photographs – each staged and lighted and angled for maximum effect, creating, even without any plot or dialogue yet at all, a work of art. 2001 A Space Odyssey is a prime example of this. There is only roughly half an hour’s worth of dialogue spread out over more than three hours of stunning cinematography. The result is enchanting and hypnotizing – and all this is before intellectual considerations are taken into play! What a masterpiece when the final product is considered.

Now on to Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Again we have a slow, hypnotic attention to detail. Nothing is rushed. I don’t think in this case the cinematography is the winning element – there are some great shots of the bombers flying (and even refueling midair) and of some cold, rugged bits of the U.S.S.R. (actually filmed not over Russia [that may have been imprudent considering the situation at the time…], but over the Arctic and even the Rockies, according to IMDb) – but rather it is the absolutely dry as a stain on a shirt hilarity that pervades this film which wins the glory. One of the things I always like to say about this film is that if you don’t pay attention to it – if you’re in and out of the room or preoccupied for any reason (why the hell you wouldn’t pay attention is beyond me, but people do crazy things sometimes…) – you might very well get the idea that this was a serious, straight laced movie about the most powerful men in government and the military making the most important decisions ever made by man. What’s absolutely hilarious is the ludicrous, farcical dribble that comes out of their mouths as they debate the specifics of the end of the world, ridiculous line after ridiculous line delivered with the dead pan straight face of a real life politician. Peter Sellers is a man whose talents were legendary and unique, and he adds a certain unqualifiable charm to the movie that wouldn’t be replicable by anyone else.  His president is appropriately concerned, however there’s an air of detached, quasi-aloofness to him that, despite never quite breaking the surface, leaves us nevertheless wont to chuckle at him even when laughter is otherwise uncalled for. Mandrake is ever optimistic and idealistic – these qualities alone are bizarre in the end of times. Dr. Strangelove, the namesake of this entire farcical doing, is himself the climax of the movie (notwithstanding Slim Pickens’ iconic riding of the instrument of death and destruction). The good Doctor’s mind bending perversions of intellect and his almost jovial preparations for the future bring tears to my eyes every time I hear them. There really is no better approach to the idiotic assaults upon reason and sanity posed by the combined threats of the Nazi mindset and the destructive potential of the cold war than black humor. As they say, you have to laugh (because otherwise you’ll cry…)

Now that’s a great film!

There’s a lot out there about how the decision was finally made to make this movie a comedy (it wasn’t part of the original scheme) but I’ll save that for another post. Comparison to the contemporary movie Fail Safe, and the interplay betweenst the two during their creation (not unlike that between the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, for you architecture fans) is another fascinating story for another post.

Before leaving I want to mention another row between Kubrick and actor; this time namely George C. Scott. It is recorded (on the DVD extras if you own it) that Scott was upset upon realizing that Kubrick had more or less tricked him into buffooning up his part. As the story goes, Kubrick would film several takes of the same scene, always including a take where he would ask Scott to go over the edge and really ham it up. Of course, it was these ham takes that made it into the final cut each and every time. Now it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but in a movie as outrageous as this one, would anyone feel satisfied with a less clownish General Turgidson? I know I wouldn’t! That character is one of my all time favorite characters from any movie, and I thank Stanley a million times over for doing things the way he did. Thank you Stanley Kubrick!


  1. clownonfire · · Reply

    I’ve been looking for a Kubrick quote pertaining to the fact that as a photographer, he would have preferred doing movies without actors. Have you ever come across that fact? Or am I completely mixing directors?

    1. It almost sounds vaguely familiar – but I cannot confirm it at this time. It wouldn’t surprise me if He said it. You’ve piqued my curiosity now – I’ll be researching this!

  2. I totally agree. Movies can have the superb script, skilled actors, and beautiful cinematography. Then comes in a director who doesn’t know crap. Some of the directors you mentioned actually made some excellent comments about the whole process of filmmaking. I wrote a Top 10 List of the greatest quotes from great directors.

  3. […] how he feels his films should appear on screen. Decency insists I say no more on the subject. You know what I’m talking […]

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