Terry Gilliam on the Difference Between Kubrick & Spielberg: Kubrick Makes You Think, Spielberg Wraps Everything Up with Neat Little Bows

Fit­ting, I sup­pose, that the only cre­ative meet­ing of the minds between two of the twen­ti­eth century’s best-known film direc­tors took place on a project about the prob­lem of non­hu­man intel­li­gence and the dan­ger­ous excess­es of human inge­nu­ity. For both Stan­ley Kubrick and Steven Spiel­berg, these were con­flicts rich with inher­ent dra­mat­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty. One of the many impor­tant dif­fer­ences between their approach­es, how­ev­er, is a stark one. As many crit­ics of AI: Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence—the film Kubrick had in devel­op­ment since the 70s, then hand­ed off to Spiel­berg before he died—have point­ed out, Kubrick mined con­flict for philo­soph­i­cal insights that can leave view­ers intrigu­ing­ly puz­zled, if emo­tion­al­ly chilled; Spiel­berg push­es his dra­ma for max­i­mum emo­tion­al impact, which either warms audi­ences’ hearts or turns their stom­achs, depend­ing on their dis­po­si­tion.

In the lat­ter camp, we can firm­ly place Mon­ty Python alum­nus and cult direc­tor Ter­ry Gilliam. In the short clip at the top of the post, Gilliam expli­cates “the main dif­fer­ence” as he sees it between Spiel­berg and Kubrick. Spielberg’s films are “com­fort­ing,” they “give you answers, always, the films are… answers, and I don’t they’re very clever answers.” Kubrick’s movies, on the oth­er hand, always leave us with unan­swer­able questions—riddles that linger indef­i­nite­ly and that no one view­er can sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly solve. So says Gilliam, an infa­mous­ly quixot­ic direc­tor whose pur­suit of a vision unique­ly his own has always trumped any com­mer­cial appeal his work might have. Most suc­cess­ful films, he argues, “tie things up in neat lit­tle bows.” For Gilliam, this is a car­di­nal sin: “the Kubricks of this world, and the great film­mak­ers, make you go home and think about it.” Cer­tain­ly every fan of Kubrick will admit as much—as will those who don’t like his films, often for the very same rea­sons.

To make his point, Gilliam quotes Kubrick him­self, who issued an inci­sive cri­tique of Spielberg’s Nazi dra­ma Schindler’s List, say­ing that the movie “is about suc­cess. The Holo­caust was about failure”—the “com­plete fail­ure,” Gilliam adds, “of civ­i­liza­tion.” Not a sub­ject one can, or should, even attempt to spin pos­i­tive­ly, one would think. As an exam­ple of a Kubrick film that leaves us with an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al vor­tex, Gilliam cites the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pic­ture the great direc­tor did fin­ish, 2001: A Space Odyssey. To see in action how these two direc­tors’ approach­es great­ly diverge, watch the end­ings of both Schindler’s List and 2001, above. Of course the genre and sub­ject mat­ter couldn’t be more different—but that aside, you’ll note that nei­ther could Kubrick and Spielberg’s visu­al lan­guages and cin­e­mat­ic atti­tudes, in any of their films.

Despite this vast divide—between Spielberg’s “neat lit­tle bows” and Kubrick’s headtrips—it might be argued that their one col­lab­o­ra­tion, albeit a posthu­mous one for Kubrick, shows them work­ing more close­ly togeth­er than seems pos­si­ble. Or so argues Noel Mur­ray in a fas­ci­nat­ing crit­i­cal take on AI, a film that per­haps deserves greater appre­ci­a­tion as an “unnerv­ing,” exis­ten­tial­ist, and Kubrick-ian turn for Spiel­berg, that mas­ter of hap­py end­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ter­ry Gilliam Reveals the Secrets of Mon­ty Python Ani­ma­tions: A 1974 How-To Guide

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Rare 1965 Inter­view with The New York­er

In 1968, Stan­ley Kubrick Makes Pre­dic­tions for 2001: Human­i­ty Will Con­quer Old Age, Watch 3D TV & Learn Ger­man in 20 Min­utes

Auschwitz Cap­tured in Haunt­ing Drone Footage (and a New Short Film by Steven Spiel­berg & Meryl Streep)


Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ralph Melcher says:

    Ever since see­ing it for the first time I’ve regard­ed “A.I.” as Steven Spiel­berg’s most chal­leng­ing and inter­est­ing film. The cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion between two direc­tors with such dif­fer­ent styles (but sim­i­lar obses­sions with detail) is almost dia­bol­i­cal in it’s inter­weav­ing. One can almost sense the ten­sion between their approach­es in every scene, mak­ing every moment a tra­jec­to­ry toward anoth­er rev­e­la­tion of the unex­pect­ed. Spiel­berg’s urge toward res­o­lu­tion strug­gles against Kubrick­’s insis­tence that there are no clear answers to who we are or where we’re going. We nev­er real­ly know whether the affec­tions that sur­round the pro­tag­o­nist are ‘real’ feel­ings or mere­ly the pro­grammed respons­es of an automa­ta, or whether it mat­ters. The unre­lent­ing action of a Spiel­berg movie becomes the con­tain­er for a path that leads us toward seri­ous con­tem­pla­tion.

    Kubrick very pur­pose­ful­ly hand­ed this project to his friend with a very spe­cif­ic out­line (includ­ing musi­cal scores) to be com­plet­ed after his death. One of his under­ly­ing themes is to ques­tion the very emo­tion­al agen­da inform­ing the major­i­ty of films, and cer­tain­ly those of Spiel­berg. On one lev­el the movie is a debate over our moti­va­tions for going to the movies, whether to open our­selves to unique points of view or mere­ly to have our famil­iar but­ton’s pushed?

    The ten­sion comes to a crest in the last scene, which has sparked numer­ous debates and harsh crit­i­cism, but which embod­ies the movie’s essen­tial para­dox. Some have crit­i­cized it for cater­ing to Spiel­berg’s emo­tion­al agen­da by leav­ing us on a note that’s over­ly sen­ti­men­tal. With the excep­tion of this film, I’ve often thought that Spiel­berg’s films would ben­e­fit by cut­ting out the last 15 min­utes of ‘tying it all up.) I believe, how­ev­er, that this con­clu­sion is inevitable to the degree that we iden­ti­fy with the char­ac­ter of the automa­ta (played bril­liant­ly by the young Haley Joel Osmet) instead of see­ing that the over­all out­look of the film, from the begin­ning shots of a drowned city to the final one of the lights going out, is that human­i­ty is quite like­ly a species doomed to be a fig­ment of mem­o­ry in an oth­er­wise indif­fer­ent uni­verse..

  • Dean says:

    So fuckin sick of that over­rat­ed Kubrick. I can’t get through any of his movies with­out being bored to tears. Gilliam is even.

  • Bill says:

    Com­par­ing Spiel­berg with Kubrick is like com­par­ing McDon­ald’s to a five-star restau­rant. Those two are not even close to being in the same f..ing league.
    A.I. is kind of proof of that. You can clear­ly see that the begin­ning is typ­i­cal Kubrick hard sci-fi stuff, and then it sud­den­ly veers into “Pinoc­chio as a robot”.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that Spiel­berg was a pio­neer in a lot of cin­e­mat­ic stuff. He’s often the first to expe­ri­ence new tech­niques and then every­body else just fol­lows in his foot­steps, but when it comes to intel­lec­tu­al con­tent, you might as well try to com­pare Walt Dis­ney and Friedrich Niet­zsche.

  • David Silverman says:

    Fine, Kubrick makes you think. Spiel­berg makes you feel warm and fuzzy. We will stip­u­late to this being fact. Still, count me among the many who don’t always want to be intel­lec­tu­al­ly chal­lenged by a movie. Some­times I like mind can­dy. This may be hor­ri­fy­ing to an intel­lec­tu­al like Ter­ry Gilliam, who I great­ly admire and have enjoyed in both his mind can­dy work with Mon­ty Python and his chal­leng­ing works like Brazil, but that’s ok. I don’t care. Liv­ing a high mind­ed life non­stop is oppres­sive and some­times a bit of escapism and even an easy under­stand­ing that in pure hor­ror, such as the Holo­caust, there were glimpses of human­i­ty it is ok to allow one­self to be dumb­ed down. That does not make it endem­ic.

    In oth­er words, get over your­self, Ter­ry.

  • Z says:

    To peo­ple who get bored to tears with any of Kubrick movies; go watch iron man or any Mar­vel crap, those are prob­a­bly more suit­able for you.

  • Sean Mahan says:

    Com­par­ing Kubrick and Spiel­berg is akin to com­par­ing Lennon and McCart­ney. Both are great. One is “the thinker,” and one makes “sil­ly love songs.” But both of them are great artists.

    Some peo­ple will pre­fer Kubrick because they like the hid­den mes­sages, and because they to be made to think. Some peo­ple will pre­fer Spiel­berg because he is a mas­ter sto­ry teller who can tell a sto­ry bet­ter than any­one. Both are great artists — and some will pre­fer one over the oth­er.

    Ter­ry Gilliam is a thinker. His movies also make you think — so it is not sur­pris­ing who he prefers.

  • Ben says:

    This isn’t a zero-sum game, y’all. It is imi­nent­ly pos­si­ble to rec­og­nize the art of both of these direc­tors with­out den­i­grat­ing the oth­er.

  • Hanoch says:

    Gilliam strikes me as the sim­plis­tic one in attempt­ing to make his point. He quotes Kubrick, stat­ing that Schindler’s List “is about suc­cess. The Holo­caust was about failure”—the “com­plete fail­ure,” Gilliam adds, “of civ­i­liza­tion.”

    Well, of course, the Holo­caust is about about human fail­ure. But only some­one with a very shal­low mind could miss that, even with­in the midst of hor­ror, there can still be found tremen­dous acts of human great­ness and, yes, suc­cess. Those sto­ries should cer­tain­ly be told.

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