There are certain directors that you are pretty much required to like, professionally speaking. Steven Spielberg. Alfred Hitchcock. Martin Scorsese. Akira Kurosawa. Ingmar Bergman. Fritz Lang. And, of course, Stanley Kubrick.
I don’t like Stanley Kubrick.
Let me make it clear that I am not saying that his body of work is artistically deficient. Sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey moved slower than a stoned snail, and probably is best watched when you’re on psychedelics. But I fully acknowledge that it is a masterpiece of cinema that still holds up pretty well today (even though we’re almost two decades past 2001, and we still don’t have spaceships), it’s iconic, and the shot compositions are absolutely masterful.
Or take The Shining. Again, so iconic that they basically remade it for The Simpsons (one of my favorite episodes of all time) and just about any part of it is instantly recognizable, and an objectively great horror movie with beautiful cinematography, direction and atmosphere. I really don’t like the fact that there is a lot of subtle disrespect towards the original novel, but that’s not a judgement of the movie’s quality itself.
I have seen other Kubrick movies, by the way, such as Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, and so on. These movies are also iconic (except Eyes Wide Shut, which has some flaws that others have expounded upon), each in their own way, and also objectively good (again, opinions divide upon Eyes Wide Shut).
So let it be known that I do not think that Stanley Kubrick was a bad director. Nor do I dislike him personally – I honestly don’t know much about his personal life.
But I don’t like his work.
It took me a long time to wrangle out why I feel the way I do, and I think it comes down to empathy with the characters. Kubrick’s characters always feel very cold to me – there’s no moment where my empathy snaps into place and I feel identification or strong core emotion from them. Even if I intellectually know that I should feel for a character, I just don’t. I feel like I’m watching extremely talented mannequins being moved around.
(Except maybe Shelley Duvall, who I understand was tortured by Kubrick during the making of The Shining… but that knowledge doesn’t exactly make for enjoyable viewing either)
Compare, for instance, to one of my favorite movies, Psycho. I personally feel a very strong connection to both of the sisters in the movie – for instance, Hitchcock conveys Marion Crane’s sadness, her desperation, her almost savage glee when she thinks of the rich man’s anger, her twitchy palpable fear when she believes the cop is following her, and her sad determination when she decides to give the money back. People just think of her iconic shower scene, but Marion Crane is a character that I think we can all identify with to some degree. Even if we wouldn’t actually choose to steal a giant heap of money, I think we all know we would be very tempted, and we would feel the same loathing towards a sexual-harassing rich jerk, and we would be afraid if we committed a crime that we were pretty clearly going to get caught for.
And I find that I feel that way about the majority of Hitchcock’s movies. I feel a warmth and a connection to the characters in The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Rebecca, To Catch A Thief, Notorious, Frenzy, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, both The Man Who Knew Too Much movies, Family Plot… hell, I felt more personally less cold towards the characters from Rope, and the main characters of that movie were literal murderers who strangled a man just to prove that they were superior humans.
Steven Spielberg is also a master of creating characters that you feel an immediate and strong connection to, even if they themselves are very different from you. Peter Jackson is also very good at this in his Tolkien movies, and so are many other well-known directors. They don’t always produce the same bond with the audience – a Quentin Tarantino character is going to connect with you in a very different way than a Spielberg character – but there is something almost palpable there to pull the viewer in and make them feel.
And with Kubrick… I don’t feel that. His movies are like mathematical equations to me – perfect in their correctness, but without a certain artistic soul. They feel cold. I watch them and I don’t feel empathetically connected to the characters, and thus I feel removed from the story.
And I’m not saying that you have to be super-invested in the characters and their inner lives to enjoy a film. I am capable of appreciating the mechanics of a book, movie or video game, and I can appreciate a character being presented this way or that way for artistic rather than emotional reasons. In fact, I wish the latter would happen more often, with characters developed in a way that makes them more interesting and compelling rather than just exploring the director’s personal issues.
But to me, watching a Kubrick movie is like trying to free-climb a tower made out of smooth, polished diamond. I am tackling an objectively lovely and masterful piece of work, but I am also slipping off the side and unable to get a grip on it.
To reiterate, I have no professional or personal hatred for Stanley Kubrick. I know the attitude of the current day is that if you dislike something, you are expressing hatred and obviously a terrible toxic person. This is idiotic. Watching Stanley Kubrick movies is simply not a pleasurable experience for me the way watching a Spielberg, Hitchcock or Kurosawa movie is.
And that’s okay.
It’s also okay if you enjoy Kubrick’s movies, if you feel deeply invested in what happens in them, and you feel fulfilled when the credits roll. I’m not saying that, because I dislike his work, that is the “correct” way to feel and that people who like his work are wrong to. That’s just the way that I feel, the way that I experience one artist’s work.