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The Hollywood War of Independence
by Colin Young

In the United States a studio must hope to recover most or all of its costs within the domestic market. This represents the least specialized audience in the world (as we all know there is nothing special about being an American) and there is a constant temptation, almost always succumbed to, to level everything down to the lowest common denominator. In such conditions there is little chance that an individual filmmaker will produce a personal work. Almost always an American film is edited, not by the director, but by the studio - often in committee. It is not difficult to understand why. When several million dollars are at stake a responsible business will rarely rely on the opinion of one man. Other opinions, often outside opinions, will be sought. And each time such an opinion is applied to a film, it becomes to that extent less and less the director's personal statement. The Screen Directors' Guild in Hollywood in recent years has added a clause to its standard contract requiring a producer to grant the director right of first cut. But this is often no more than a formality. (There was a recent case in which the director's version of a film was seen only by him and his editor before it was taken apart again to be run, uncut, for the producers.) And with the current trend to larger budgets, based on the hypothesis that a larger investment is less risky than a smaller one, it is likely that less and less control will be left in the hands of a director, unless he is by age or experience or perhaps by financial participation powerful enough to have a controlling interest.

This is all very discouraging for the young filmmaker trying to bore his way into films through the porthole eye of television, or to make the long hard jump from shorts or the repertory theater into features. And for many European directors this is reason enough for not working in Hollywood. Their financing problems are usually solved film by film, whenever they persuade a backer to support their latest speculation - frequently for a budget which would have been consumed by one elephant charge in a film by the late Cecil B. De Mille...

The freedom to make the films of their own choosing, in their own way, is not even the goal of most Hollywood directors, who seem quite content to be parts of a large organic whole. It is only a small hard-core minority which chases these freedoms, each in his own way, perhaps known to each other, but not united by anything more than interest. Some of them play poker together but they solve their problems in different ways, some choosing to remain independent of a major studio entirely (like Stanley Kubrick), others already in possession of a more or less safe Hollywood studio contract but waiting for their chance to be free of studio control. Others again, not yet so far advanced, are serving a hopeful, waiting apprenticeship in the theater or in live television, or have started by making some shorts - usually documentary, but occasionally dramatic. In each case the mechanical problems are different - there is no single happy road to independence. But in each case the goal is the same - freedom to make a personal film, as free as possible from compromise. The fear that they will fail is a real one, and is responsible yearly for no one knows how many defections. And the thought that when they earn their freedom they will have lost the will to use it is a constant threat...

Stanley Kubrick is perhaps the most widely discussed of the postwar Hollywood newcomers, with four independent features behind him - Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, The Killing, and Paths of Glory. He recently withdrew from the unit about to start shooting One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's independent production, ostensibly to begin work on Lolita, with his producer (since The Killing) James Harris. They bought the film rights about a month after the novel appeared and since then have had several bids from other producers - the highest for $650,000. This offer, like the others, was refused.

All this gives an impression of typically inflated Hollywood economics. But it is curiously untypical of the manner in which Kubrick and Harris work. Paths of Glory was made for $900,000 - $350,000 of which went to Kirk Douglas, its star. Thus, apart from Douglas's slice, the film was comparatively inexpensive-certainly a bargain for its distributors, United Artists. (It has to date grossed two and a half million dollars, worldwide.)

Kubrick is certain that genuine independence is possible only if the director stays clear of the major studios as long as possible. By this he means that a director should have a completed script, and if possible have a cast selected and signed, before going to a major studio for money. Anything less is inviting interference and a loss of control. It must include at least one "name" star, and the list of possibles is quite small - Kubrick mentioned about fifteen men and only seven women. "What this implies," he summarized, "is that you require the means to remain independent until the script is finished, until you have a star, and until the deal is set up properly." (By "properly" he means that the director's control will not prove to be illusory.)

A system so inexorably tied to a box-office list of actors and actresses obviously imposes severe limitations on a director's freedom of choice with material. But this does not distress Kubrick. "There is still a large enough number of good properties to permit you to do what you want - and remain independent."

The only time he has ever worked with a major studio was after Paths of Glory, when, with a forty-week contract from Dore Schary, he was let loose in the MGM library of story properties. It took him a long time to find anything to interest him, but before he left (in the wake of Schary's fall from grace) he had turned Stefan Zweig's touching short story The Burning Secret into a screenplay.

Employed by LOOK as a still photographer, he turned to film, making two shorts for RKO before stepping up to features with two hurly-burly films which he would rather not talk about now - Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss. But when they came out film critics did talk about them and saw the kind of promise which, it is generally agreed, Kubrick honored in his next two films. The money for his first two came from family and friends. Without this support, which must at times have seemed like blind devotion, he might never have reached his present position; it would be hard to estimate the number of aspirants who have never solved the problem of how to raise that first $50,000.

When he came to make Paths of Glory United Artists was the only financing organization in Hollywood which would touch it, and then only after Kirk Douglas agreed to play in it. The majors might have balked, Kubrick thinks, at the thought of offending their interests in France (through theater holdings, etc.). But United Artists is not committed in this way and, Kubrick added, perhaps has a more realistic view of the contemporary world market. In his experience they have been very good with scripts about which there is general apathy or, as in this case, antagonism.

Kubrick's two later films have received widespread critical attention - almost all of it favorable. The Killing is thoroughly manufactured, but the script goes out of its way to give motivation to all of the central characters and this alone would distinguish it from run-of-the-mill gunslingers if it did not anyway have considerable style and impact; it holds up well when reseen today. Paths of Glory is in almost every way a more important work - not only because it was almost three times as expensive. It is obviously about something - when we remember that this dramatization of an incident of military deceit in the French Army of World War I has still to be shown publicly in France.

What will probably be Kubrick's next film is also a war story. Presently titled The German Lieutenant, it is by a new writer, Richard Adams, formerly a paratrooper in Korea and more recently a Fulbright scholar to Europe, where he studied with Carl Dreyer. The story is based partially on his experiences, but has been switched to Germany in World War II.

I asked Kubrick at this point in our conversation why he wanted to make another war film - was there nothing about the contemporary scene which interested him? His reply is crucial and must be given in full.

"To begin with," he said, "one of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual of our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation. Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallize and come out into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would in a less critical situation have to be introduced almost as a contrivance, and would thus appear forced, or - even worse - false. Eisenstein, in his theoretical writings about dramatic structure, was often guilty of oversimplification. The black and white contrasts of Alexander Nevsky do not fit all drama. But war does permit this basic kind of contrast - and spectacle. And within these contrasts you can begin to apply some of the possibilities of film - of the sort explored by Eisenstein."

He said somewhat wistfully, however, that he hoped to be able to deal some day with a more straightforward contemporary scene. To some extent he might do so of course with Lolita, but here his primary interest is to explore the development of Humbert's character, and the varieties of his love for his moppet-ending, ironically enough, with what Kubrick takes to be an almost selfless love for Lolita when, now seventeen, she is stuck with a humdrum pregnancy, and husband, and life. He does not plan to change the ages of the principals, nor the nature of their relationship, but he says they have a way of handling the subject which allows them to consider making the film at all.

Kubrick stands much closer to his material than almost any other director currently working in Hollywood. In each of his films to date he has been the principal or sole author of the screenplay (he did the original draft of Paths of Glory and Calder Willingham came in for the second), and he is at least the supervising if not the actual editor of his filmed material. On Killer's Kiss he carried credit for photography as well as direction, and he operated one of the cameras during the attack sequence in Paths of Glory (one fitted with a Zoomar lens). Thus it is not surprising that there should be a strong feeling of unity and single-mindedness in his films. Such a result is not guaranteed by one man's control of the material - he could be undecided about it. But it is rarely achieved in committee films. "A camel," as the recent proverb has it, "is a mule made by a committee."

There is an unconventionally intellectual air about Kubrick's films, but this may be more a by-product of style than an intentional ingredient. Certainly he does not mean his films to be intellectual in the sense of making a clear-cut statement about something. "I cannot give a precise verbal summary of the philosophical meaning of, for example, Paths of Glory. It is intended to involve the audience in an experience. Films deal with the emotions and reflect the fragmentation of experience. It is thus misleading to try to sum up the meaning of a film verbally." However, it is precisely his very evident style, praised by an eagerly perceptive band of professional film critics, which for some commentators (although not myself) prevents their involvement in Kubrick's characters and situations.

Kubrick has already given ample evidence of his strong grasp of mise en scéne and the extension of character which an actor can be encouraged to bring to the pauses between lines of dialogue. On a second viewing of Paths of Glory, Douglas causes some uneasiness, but the film is otherwise beautifully performed, staged, photographed, cut, and scored - using, for example, a rasping, alarming staccato of drums during the battle scenes. It is a disappointment that Kubrick was not able to continue with Brando. Their relationship could not have been an easy one, but the result could have been fascinating...

This, then, is the "growing edge" of Hollywood. It is a different story than the one which might be told of Bergman, Ray, or Bresson, and it is perhaps not as heartening. But Kubrick is American, trying to work in or through Hollywood. If there is to be any "native" cinema in this country at all, it is as well that Kubrick and other gentlemen who pursue artistic freedom are there, making the attempt.

Film Quarterly, Vol.12 N.3, Spring 1959

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