Takes A Cold Fish To Know A Cold Fish

Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy has written a smart essay about who might direct a forthcoming televised version of Stanley Kubrick‘s Napoleon, which Steven Spielberg has said he’s hoping to produce. The piece has many sage observations, but I was especially taken by McCarthy’s clever notion about who would be best suited to direct Kubrick’s 186-page screenplay, which would run about three hours but could theoretically expand into a six-hour miniseries.

That person would not be Spielberg, McCarthy claims, as Napoleon embraces the same misanthropic view of human nature as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. “An ideal director should be someone whose style is precise, analytical and cold — an analytical sort with a skeptical, if not caustic, view of human motivations and a belief that intelligence and rationality are very often trumped by destructive traits, particularly hubris,” McCarthy writes.

That is Kubrick in a nutshell, and about as far away as you can get from the “fundamentally optimistic and ennobling attitude that is almost always dominant in Spielberg’s work,” he says.

“Who, then, among big-name Hollywood directors, could realize Napoleon — or, more likely, parts of Napoleon — in a way that would be most compelling and still properly honor Kubrick? Seven clear-cut candidates would be David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and Peter Weir.”
Then McCarthy suggests what seems to me like the perfect fellow, “a now highly prominent international director who has only ever undertaken his own projects and has never done anything on this scale but whose work is just as exacting and chilly as Kubrick’s and is probably his intellectual equal: Michael Haneke.

“I have little doubt that Kubrick himself would have loved The White Ribbon, and I believe that, if Haneke shot, in his own style, any portion of Kubrick’s script more or less as he wrote it, we’d have something as close to what Kubrick would have done as any director now on Earth could manage.”

  • Mark Sheridan

    David Cronenberg?

  • “…someone whose style is precise, analytical and cold — an analytical sort with a skeptical, if not caustic, view of human motivations and a belief that intelligence and rationality are very often trumped by destructive traits, particularly hubris,”

    I thought for sure you were describing Lars Von Trier.

  • Did McCarthy miss most of Spielberg’s ’00s films? Most were cynical, and far removed than the old ’80s Spielberg. When he does do it, no one shoots “real” violence more brutally than Spielberg, (Schindler, SPR, and Munich). I guess the scene where they kill the female assassin, and then leave her there naked, sure is enobling, and optimistic. Right. I bet it still bugs Kubrick fans that he wanted Spielberg to direct AI, and that the ending was his idea. (And they still wrongly consider it a “happy ending.”)

    And fuck Fincher. So tired of his boxed in, murky, sepia style.

    • Love all the Spielberg movies you mentioned but they featured noble expressions of courage. Characters were tormented by combat but their endeavors were more defined than those in the nihilistic Full Metal Jacket. The most heroic figure in post-Spartacus Kubrick movies is who, Mandrake in Strangelove? Spielberg goes for more typical heroes (not a bad thing, just a fact) than Kubrick (also not a bad thing, just a fact).

      • John Anderson, and Bana in Munich had no issue with doing the government’s dirty work, until it turned against them. They weren’t courageous in the traditional sense.

        • Traditional, no. And Munich IS Spielberg’s darkest drama but even then, Bana was clearly performing the work of a national hero. Spielberg wisely turned the movie into a Flags of Our Fathers-style warping of patriotic values but I found Bana’s character quite courageous even as he killed. He’s a Billy Costigan sort of hero, tormented and working in grim circumstances, but his pursuits are noble.

      • Raising_Kaned

        Good post, Jesse.

        The Spielberg of recent years is definitely “closer” to Kubrick than the Spielberg of the ’70s or ’80s, but there’s still a rather wide philosophical gap there — they just have a different worldview.

        Kube was a pretty big fan of SL, if I’m not mistaken, but I doubt he would have ever made it himself (although I could see him doing something like The Pianist, for sure).

        SS is sort of eternally locked into the protagonist/antagonist structure — even in Munich and WotW remake (both of which contain quite a few laudable deviations on the old white hat/black hat formula), you’re still essentially “rooting” for Bana/Cruise.

        Which isn’t a bad thing, like Jesse says. But who the hell are you ever “rooting” for in Clockwork, Strangelove, Lolita, etc? Everyone is so insanely flawed and always working to further their own self-interests to the extent that you usually find yourself siding (or at least I do) with the character who is the most honest and least Machiavellian about his own selfish desires and primal instincts.

        That’s one helluva hook to pull off throughout an entire filmography.

  • I agree that Spielberg carries more optimism than a Napoleon script would warrant, although his outlook can work to his advantage at times. Think about Catch Me If You Can. In real life, Frank Abagnale said he hit the road (and the skies) with little more intention than meeting women and getting laid. Fun story, but adding the bits with Walken and saving the family farm made certain moments in the film *devastating*, like when he meets his old man in a bar on Christmas and he’s wearing the saddest postal uniform on the planet.

    Were Spielberg to direct Napoleon, its tone would veer way off from Kubrick’s, but not necessarily to the film’s detriment (although my personal tastes run more toward Kubrick’s than Spielberg’s). Actually, how about Oliver Stone bringing a little NIXON magic to the project? Imagine Napoleon as some sweaty paranoid powerhouse who calls Josephine “buddy.”

  • Raising_Kaned

    We pegged about half of the names on that list in a talkback earlier this week — I went with Ridley (when he’s at his very best, he has that whole “eye of God” thing down cold).

    Something tells me Haneke might not be interested in doing this, but I could very well be wrong — a chance to “work with” Kubrick (even if it’s posthumously) probably isn’t an easily refused by any filmmaker. And despite making “big” movies, there is a quiet intimacy at the core of most of them (esp. Lolita, Lyndon, and — ironically — The Shining) that would likely appeal to his aesthetic sensibilities. EWS actually seems like a movie he could have conceivably made — and how many directors (living or deceased) can you say that about??

    Cronenberg would be interesting, too, though — I’d love to see him switch it up and try his hand in that genre.

  • Bobby Cooper

    If it’s Spielberg chaperoning this, expect the sagginess and hamminess of HBO’s JOHN ADAMS by the end of the process. The Kubrick Estate wants it both ways, enshrine the man’s contributions to elevating/exploding the form and then cash in on projects never meant to see the light of day. This is a director who BURNED negatives of deleted scenes and b-roll.

  • Bob Loefflad

    Kubrick’s work was fundamentally subversive and cynical in a darkly comic way. I vote for the Coen brothers. Haneke’s work doesn’t have the necessary comic undertones.

    • Raising_Kaned

      This is a good point — throw the Coens in the blender with Haneke, and you’d probably get even closer (if only it worked like this).

      Of the list above, I would say only PTA comes anywhere near matching his pitch-black humor (esp The Master, but also TWBB).

  • Mr_Gittes

    Peter Weir. Final line and shot in Truman Show is Haneke level. Plus Master and Commander ain’t no Disney ride, too. And Vincent Cassell for Napoleon.

    • dvdoff

      Let’s not forget “Fearless” also.

  • Trimmer

    PTA or Todd Field.

  • Worrywort

    If they “expand into a six-hour miniseries”, then get David Simon involved.

  • DukeSavoy

    Jeff Nichols – Take Shelter simmers with cold, glacial flow. Nichols can impart energy to stillness like Stanley.

    Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan may be Kubrick by way of Ken Russell, but Aronofsky captures some genuine SK whack. And Aronofsky would get the chilly heart of Comrade “l’état, c’est moi”

    • D.Z.

      If by SK, you mean Satoshi Kon-‘cus that’s all Darren will be remembered “borrowing” from soon enough-then you’re correct.

  • Mr Bohemian

    I’ll pass on this one and skip to Kubrick’s lost 1950’s script Lunatic at Large sounds like it could be a story about a guy who likes to make an admired directors unmade films. When Spielberg runs out of Kubrick projects he could do some David Lean, Charlie Chaplin,Jerry Lewis or do a scene for scene remake of Convention City the great lost pre code film. Napoleon is sunk due to the fact they can’t get Brando to pull it off, or the guy from 1967’s War and Peace.

  • It’s a shame he is taking a break from directing because a clinical look at a historical feature that could span an entire miniseries suggests Soderbergh.

  • Bob Hightower

    The idea that Kubrick is misanthropic is just a myth. I see him as a romantic idealist profoundly disappointed in his fellow human beings.

    • DukeSavoy

      Yes, so profoundly disappointed that he was a raging misanthrope — albeit a deliciously clever, stylish and funny one with a killer eye who produced more classics than most directors could in their crank dreams. Romantic idealists make the best misanthropes.

  • Bob Hightower

    Duke, you misunderstand Kubrick. Explain how Danny, Halloran, and the Star Child in 2001 are evidence of misanthropy?

    • JLC

      I’ll have to mull over Danny and Halloran, but the Star Child, at least originally, was one of Kubrick’s most misanthropic creations. He represents the pinnacle of evolution and, as such, the end of the road for mankind. The rest of the species is rendered superfluous.
      In the original version of the screenplay – which appears in the novel – the Star Child returns to Earth and detonates the nuclear weapons in orbit, destroying the planet. According to The Making of 2001, Kubrick decided to scrap that ending because it was too similar to Strangelove.
      Always thought it was funny that in 2010: Odyssey Two, Clarke wrote a sequel not to the novel, but to the film.

      • Bob Hightower

        Yes, the Star Child is like the robot boy in A.I. in representing the end (and future) of humanity, although the irony in A.I. is that he’s not actually human. This could be seen as misanthropic in that humanity failed and destroyed itself, as it does in DR. STRANGELOVE (I would still argue that this too is a sign of a disappointed idealist). But one could also argue that the ending of 2001 is optimistic because humanity is starting over in a better way. I would add Colonel Dax and Spartacus and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake as among other Kubrick characters who represent the better sides of humanity. Even Barry Lyndon, for all his flaws, earns our sympathy for striving to break out of his class and become someone in a flawed world. It’s too simple just to say SK is misanthropic; his work is far more complex. Case in point: He told Jack Nicholson that he though Stephen King’s novel THE SHINING is optimistic. Nicholson was astonished and asked why. Kubrick replied because it includes ghosts, and that implies there is an afterlife, which is optimistic.

        • JLC

          I agree that labeling SK as purely misanthropic is an over-simplification. To paraphrase Men in Black, I think SK liked individual persons. It was people en masse that he mistrusted.
          One of the reasons Clockwork Orange is my favorite Kubrick is that I think SK has a real affection for Alex, despite the fact that he’s a monster. He’s the only thing that’s really alive in the future. It’s the government SK despises. The government that’s applauded when it breaks Alex of his antisocial tendencies, derided because it’s turned him into an automaton, and then applauded again when it returns him to society in his original, monstrous state. Reminds me of Antony twisting the mob in Julius Caesar.

        • DukeSavoy

          Of course, “misanthrope” alone could never encompass the genius of the man. He clearly wasn’t misanthropic in every character and every scene. That would be ridiculously one-note for an artist as talented as SK. He was anything but that. And I think you’re correct that there resides within his work something of the romantic idealist, but I’d still argue that it is a frostbitten idealist betrayed by murderous human nature. And the abasement of his romanticism may have come early. One account of his famous shot of the news seller sad at FDR’s death is that SK had the man pose for maximum effect. “Accurate is good, interesting is better.” His long scenes of Poole and Bowman in the emptiness of space seem almost a “coming home” moment for him. He feels he has achieved a connection with the frigid vacuum and wants the audience to get it, too. “This is it, folks. Don’t turn away.”
          There is a long shot in Lyndon when a coach crosses the screen. It’s not a quick, red sky silhouette on a ridgetop. We look down onto the road below us as the tiny coach struggles across our field of view. Surrounding are lush fields and verdant growth, yet that little coach is as alone as Discovery crossing empty space.
          As for Danny and Halloran, I’ll give you Danny as a good character unsullied by compromise (he’s still young). But Halloran, why does he return to the Overlook? Is it altruism? Or is he instead driven by guilt? He stews in Florida, knowing that things will not go well with “Doc” in Colorado. Halloran knows he has abandoned the boy to the forces of the old hotel and his insane father. He returns to assuage the guilt that is keeping him up at night, the guilt that even though he has the power to shine and should know better, he failed Danny. Not an optimistic character at all.
          The final rotation of the Star Child alongside earth is a chilling moment. The stubby fingered fetus with its alien eyes surveys its victims like wingless flies about to be stomped. Just because Bowman has been transformed to a higher level of being doesn’t mean he will be automatically altruistic and enlightened. After all, the men who evolved from the apes with the help of the monolith now hunt and eat apes as “bush meat” and cage them for their zoos.

          • Bob Hightower

            Many points I agree with here. I appreciate the thoughtful exchange. I would say that Halloran may not be portrayed optimistically but that he is a deeply humane and sympathetic figure. Yes, the Star Child can be the subject of speculation about what he might do, but the absence of any evidence (and the omission of the nuclear-war theme) leaves us to wonder about his future role rather than assume malign intent (other than for the fact that he appears to loom hugely over the universe, which could seem sinister). I think the ending is somewhat ambiguous, like most good art, but that there is a guarded optimism to it and SK’s worldview in that film. The humans seen earlier are mostly portrayed as robotic, but eventually the astronaut Dave seems quite human and sympathetic, sort of like Neil Armstrong if you read about who he really was.

  • roland1824

    Honestly, other than Spielberg, Kubrick’s family and assorted film nerds, is anyone really asking for this thing to get made? Are the masses going to turn out for 6 hours on Napoleon? What studio(s) are going to put up the big cash it will cost and where will it end up? HBO? Netflix?

  • Haneke would be so ridiculously out of his element directing a lavish war epic based on someone else’s script. He makes intimate character-driven projects on his own terms, and if FUNNY GAMES is any indication he also seems more than a little contemptuous of genre films.

    Peter Weir or Ridley Scott would be perfect for this.