A Stab at Stanley Kubrick

July 26 was the birthday of Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999).

Having had cause to mention him on Travalanche around 50 times, it would seem to be about time for a dedicated post on the director, though one cannot do so without something like stage fright. For someone who writes about movies, it’s the equivalent of playing Hamlet. Not only has it been done to death, but it has also been done by men and women better than I. To what purpose do I do this?

But, nah, I have my own perspective and my own insights, and when you get right down it, my own obsessions and idiosyncrasies, sufficient to justify my own take on the topic. The other concern is: how do you something worthy of the subject at anything less than book length? I think the answer is to emulate Kubrick’s famous discipline, cultivated through years of chess playing. We’ll endeavor to keep it relatively brief and just hit a few points.

Yet there is also a third hiccup, perhaps one more daunting than the other two. So many who love the director are particularly engaged with the technical aspects of his films, and (to tell you what you might already know), that stuff is not only well out of my wheelhouse, but as a general proposition it bores me to tears. Naturally, it matters. On the infrequent occasions when I’ve undertaken to direct something I’ve certainly had to engage with technology and make informed choices that serve the work, whatever it is, a play, a film, or a piece of audio. But unlike so many of my friends and compatriots I really can’t bring myself to fetishize the tools and materials in and of themselves. Things like lenses, film stocks, film speeds, f-stops, lighting gels, and so forth have never fascinated me. If I could make my dreams and ideas materialize into works of art through magical telegenesis, without the aid of intervening media, I would do so in a heartbeat.

It is a testament to Kubrick’s genius and universal appeal that I still embrace his whole body of work, despite the fact that he was perhaps the most technophiliac director in history. My buy-in is possible because, like all great directors, Kubrick was a bit of a Renaissance man, and despite being so much about the pictures, he wasn’t only about them. He also loved literature. Nearly everyone of his films was based on a book. Authors he adapted included Thackeray, Nabokov, Schnitzler, Anthony Burgess, Arthur C. Clarke, Howard Fast and Stephen King. To put it mildly, that by itself cannot make a good film-maker. There are many terrible movies based on great books. But books inform his idea of what a movie is, and he adapts them, makes them visual, and that (as the French auteur theorists taught) is the film-maker’s way of “writing”. And though Kubrick started out as a still photographer and was obsessed with the cinematography of his films, unlike some others who made the same journey, he never lost sight of the fact that he was engaged in storytelling. His images move. He never yields to the temptation to become mesmerized by beauty (with the debatable exception of 2001). He is, in a word, unsentimental.

If I were to try to posit Kubrick in a literary tradition, it would be with the satirists, writers like Swift and Voltaire. With the exception of the Kirk Douglas collaborations, Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), his mature works don’t really have heroes and we find ourselves more intellectually than emotionally engaged. We seem to be floating above the proceedings from a height of 20,000 feet, a detached perspective, gazing at the follies of the puny humans below. Like the Martians of H.G. Wells, audience and director regard the proceedings with “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”. And like all the traditional satirists, Kubrick’s targets tend to be war, violence, and the ways in which society dehumanizes the individual. And we get added richness and complexity in his works from the fact that this man who fetichizes technology and expresses himself with it, also happens to make technology and machine-like social organizations (armies, especially) the villains of his films.

Additionally, like many another satirist before him, Kubrick makes formal parody a component of many of his works. It is interesting to compare and contrast his movies with those of Robert Altman in this regard. Both men explored nearly every Hollywood genre, and put their own spin on it, turned it on its head, exploded it, or revolutionized it somehow. In Kubrick’s case, though he only completed just over a dozen movies, he took on horror (The Shining), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; A.I: Artifical Intelligence.), war films (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), historical epics (Spartacus, Barry Lyndon), noir (The Killing), and the boxing picture (Killer’s Kiss).

Naturally Kubrick’s most obviously satirical films are the two he did with Peter Sellers in the ’60s, Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). I wrote about Chaplin’s influence on Kubrick in this earlier post, but you can also compare these two films to many of the works of Billy Wilder. Kubrick’s works are famously enigmatic, stubbornly Sphinx-like. Many were critically disparaged upon first release, but both critics and audiences tend to warm up to them with the clarity that emerges after many repeat viewings. The Shining is a terrific example. It functions on numerous levels, but when you’ve seen it a bunch of times, its subtle eye-poking of the conventions of the horror film start to stand out on top of the social commentary about domestic violence and the American family. Kubrick believed in using books as jumping off points, and making his own unique works out of them. Which is of course why Stephen King was dissatisfied with Kubrick’s film, and later made his own “official” version. Similarly, Adrian Lyne later made his own version of Lolita that was “more like the book”. Frankly, any version of Lolita is problematic and hard to take nowadays. What IS Kubrick’s point of view? And what is Nabokov’s point of view, for that matter? Why did the world need a pedophilia and borderline incest comedy? I’m not saying it didn’t, because it’s fascinating to argue about, and to examine your own feelings as you watch it. Similarly A Clockwork Orange (1971) can be a tough pill to swallow with its scenes of rape and violence, so closely intermingled with comedy. The answer to both is that they are satire, and the acts of violence are the objects of critique in the films. But the pleasurability of cinema makes the works problematic in a way that, say, Candide, is not. It seems to me that Scorsese inherits this problem from Kubrick, among others.

Kubrick’s films were so infrequent that though he died when I was in my 30s, I only saw three of his movies in the cinema upon their initial release. I adored (and still adore) The Shining, but many critics were down on it at the time. Some critics thought it was trivial because they read it as a straight horror film, which they figured was “beneath him”. And horror aficionados thought it was bad horror. I happen to love it. But I vividly remember being disappointed by his last two movies when I initially watched them. Full Metal Jacket (1987) had the bad fortune to be released in the immediate wake of Oliver Stone’s popular Platoon (1986) and audiences at the time could see it only in that context, drawing the unfortunate and incorrect conclusion that it was derivative. But how could it be? Pre-production on Kubrick’s projects went on for years, sometimes even decades. So this movie was actually in the pipeline long before Platoon. At the time, I remember cringing at Kubrick’s use of pop tunes on the soundtrack, because by 1987 it had become something of a Vietnam movie cliche, associated with movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Good Morning Vietnam, Casualties of War etc. But the truth was that Kubrick had practically invented the self-conscious use of pop records in movies to comment on the action: Stone, Coppola, De Palma and Levinson had all taken it from him, not the other way around. Similarly, I recall all of the critics gossiping about there being “no sexual chemistry” between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Talk about missing the point! Kubrick’s films are ABOUT coldness among human beings, and the film is ABOUT a disconnect between sex and love and passion, as well as being about a marriage in trouble. Anyway, work on the film gave Kubrick a fatal heart attack at the age of 70 — sounds passionate enough to me.

And so, one major aspect of his movies is their timelessness, meaning not just that they hold up, but that they actually improve and accrue meaning the more distant they become from the circumstantial shackles of their initial release. I mean, few had the emotional or intellectual wherewithal to deal with A Clockwork Orange when it came out in 1971. A very few years later, punk became a musical, cultural and socio-political phenomenon in the UK and suddenly the movie made all kinds of sense. (Can you imagine if the movie had starred The Sex Pistols? At one point the Beatles were discussed, but they were too old by that point, and one can hardly have seen them kicking and punching and raping old women or whatever.)

At any rate, to button up this rambling post: who can have anything but scorn for movies with facile, easily digestible takeaways? I prefer to be beguiled by ones that refuse to do that. There isn’t a single Kubrick film I wouldn’t watch again…and then again and again after that. (This includes the last of them I tackled, the three hour long 18th century epic Barry Lyndon [1975], pictured above, which is now one of my favorites, and which I have now seen around four times. One of his lesser known movies, I highly recommend it).