Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Now I've Seen Everything Department: Stanley Kubrick

In which the author, having seen everything there is to see on the subject makes a capsule summary of each,* looking for trends and contributing what he calls an Ouvre-view.**

Killer's Kiss (1955): Urban drama more of a photographer's exercise than a valid film. Boxer tries to keep girlfriend out of the clutches of a mobster. Stilted dialog. Amateurish acting. Interesting chase over New York roof-tops. Ending stand-off with axes in a mannequin storage facility (!!) Great work with natural and patterned light.

The Killing (1956): Film noir/caper movie of a racetrack heist notable for its fractured story-telling technique. First we see the planning. Then we see the plot's planner ensuring the pieces coming together. Then we see each participants part to completion, then roll back to another section. Robbery actually comes together, but despite all efforts, Fate spoils the plot. Stars Sterling Hayden and a great cast of B-movie actors. A large leap from the previous film. And one can see the beginning of Kubrick themes--its hero supervises the planning and execution of a brilliant robbery, but is ultimately undone by elements he has no control over. Kubrick would tell the same story many times.

Paths of Glory (1957): Kirk Douglas stars in this WWI drama of a french troop sent on a suicide mission, and when it fails, three of its surviving members are executed for cowardice. Lots of chess metaphors, lots of double-dealing, lots of cynical politics that allows for justice but still leaves dastardly deeds done. The war goes on. Contains a staggering battle sequence done in two tracking shots. The trench warfare makes very convenient something that would become a Kubrick staple--the reverse tracking shot. Ends with as close to a sentimental ending as any Kubrick film.

Spartacus (1960): Kirk Douglas kicked Anthony Mann off his "religious epic without Jesus" after a week of shooting, and hired Kubrick to take over. A bit like throwing Christians to the lions, the indie-minded Kubrick had to contend with entrenched studio personnel and bickering bitchy stars--not the least of whom was the producer who'd hired him. Still, Kubrick did right by his boss by off-setting the rebel-slave romanticism of Dalton Trumbo's script with the cold and ruthless efficiency of the Romans in action. The battles and training sequences are brutal (and would be echoed in "Barry Lyndon" and "Full Metal Jacket") and brilliantly realized, and Kubrick creates an indelible character in Woody Strode's Draba without a single line of dialog. But he couldn't touch Trumbo's script (Douglas wanted to make a point of staying faithful to the black-listed writer's script) and the experience left Kubrick convinced that Hollywood was not the place he wanted to work--and he'd only take on projects where he had complete autonomy. He would begin to take enormous risks, and his first project was designed to do exactly that.

Lolita (1962): There was no way Kubrick could get away with making "Lolita" in America--the book had a hard enough time being published here (and the ads exploited that fact). But he could in England and it proved fortuitous: it allowed him to look beyond the city-scapes which had dominated his early movies and it introduced him to Peter Sellers. "Lolita," in its outline could serve as the blue-print for many Kubrick films: a man well-schooled and competent in every way is undone by a fatal flaw that he is helpless to avoid. Here, Professor Humbert Humbert is obsessed with teenaged Charlotte Hayes. You know the story. Kubrick goes as far as he can with the perverse romance and Humbert's humiliating obsession, but in finding Sellers, Kubrick shifts more of "Lolita" his way, turning his Claire Quilty into a recurring character under different guises and using him as a cackling, drooling stand-in for Humbert's conscience. Sellers and the rest of the cast is uniformly brilliant (including a braying, wierdly sympathetic Shelley Winters as the mother of obsessions). Kubrick also makes interesting editing choices--starting the film with the murder of Quilty, which includes a comic tour de force for Sellers, shifting the focus of the film from "will he get the girl" to "why'd he kill Quilty." Some were disappointed with Kubrick's pussy-footing around the subject matter with "Lolita," but when Adrian Lyne made a more explicit version years later, that version wasn't nearly as deeply thought or as satisfying. That would happen again in Kubrick's career.

Dr. Strangelove: (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964): In many way,s "Dr. Strangelove," Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear gamesmanship, is his most inspired film. Yes, it's funny (damned funny!), but it also maintains its dramatic intensity and factual integrity.*** After frustrating attempts to write a straight-ahead version of Peter George's "Fail-Safe" cousin "Red Alert," Kubrick, to avoid trying to make the ludicrous situations appear palatable,**** just went with the insanity and enlisted help from gonzo satirist Terry Southern and "Lolita" conspirator Peter Sellers (playing three parts) to tell a complicated cross-cutting story of an insane Air Force General playing nuclear "chicken" with the Soviets and stepping on the gas. In the course of the movie, every fail-safe device fails and the best deterrents devised by man only ensure his demise. There is a sub-genre of the caper film called the "Incredible Mess" - Kubrick combines it with the story of an Air Force crew determined to accomplish its mission by any means possible--thus making the unthinkable possible by an American "can-do" spirit. Everybody's doing their best but the result is the worst. And "Strangelove" ends with mankind resolutely facing its doom prepared to make exactly the same mistakes again. After accomplishing the near-impossible - making the world laugh at its proclivities for self-destruction, Kubrick wired Arthur C. Clarke about collaborating on "the proverbial good science-fiction film," a genre inhabited by scientists in lab-coats, anthropomorphized robots and scantily-clad maidens. In "2001: A Space Odyssey," none of those were apparent.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): 'Nuff said. Despite mixed reviews (no doubt inspired by expectations generated from "Strangelove," "2001" slowly built an audience, and is now considered a science fiction classic, and a ground-breaking film. This movie, in particular, cemented Kubrick's reputation and led to two significant career-posts: It prompted Warner Bros. studio to offer him an exclusive contract for the remainder of his career; his next two films would make him fear for his life.

A Clockwork Orange (1971): Kubrick labored for years on a film-biography of Napoleon--another man of brilliance undone by his foibles--but the box-office failure of "Waterloo" torpedoed it. Kubrick turned instead to Anthony Burgess' tale written from trauma,***** "A Clockwork Orange." Kubrick was attracted to its out-sized characters, its themes of dehumanization, its experimental use of language, its perfect plan gone awry, and its humble narration. Doing a 180 from "2001," Kubrick used a skeleton crew and real locations to film "Clockwork" and found the perfect collaborator in actor Malcolm McDowell, who turned his vicious thug into the shiniest object in the room. McDowell's Alex is a cock-sure (um...yeah) monster/classclown, always "on" - always playing to the audience, be they enemies or victims, and it is only when his instincts are taken away from him that his violence ceases and society's violence takes over. In high school, I was enamored with "Clockwork" mostly because I loved "2001" (it is also a damned good movie). As I've grown older, "A Clockwork Orange" has become more repellant, and even the casual use of the word "rape" in the poster makes me wince. In making Alex a watchable character, Kubrick and McDowell risked making Alex an admirable character (and the film inspired some copy-cat crimes among mis-fits, causing Kubrick to request Warner Bros. to withdraw distribution in England, which, to stay in his favor, they did), but his point (and Burgess') was to show that even when applied to the worst person in the world, the elimination of a person's free-will is an abomination, however altruistic the intentions for doing so. What Kubrick did not know when adapting "Clockwork" was that Burgess had written a 21st chapter, in which Alex does make the choice, of his own volition, to give up his violent, hedonistic ways. The American publisher chose not to include it, and it was this version that Kubrick was given, read and became obsessed with.

Barry Lyndon (1975): At the time I saw it in the theaters, I felt it was a crashing bore. Now, I think it's a masterpiece. After the kinetic energy of "Clockwork," folks were expecting a "Tom Jones"-like romp from the Thackeray novel (Thackeray wrote both books). But instead of something like Tony Richardson's zesty little movie they got was a scrupulous recreation of 18th century life (right down to the pace) and a constant parade of painterly images (tied together with an all-knowing and rather louge narrator) as Redmond Barry wenches and duels his way into British aristocracy. "Barry Lyndon" was the perfect film for the avaricious 80's. Sadly, it came out during the disco-70's. There were complaints of Ryan O'Neal's performance being soulless, which is the right approach considering Barry didn't have a soul...or a conscience, and the only time he displays any strength of character...during his final duel with Lord destroys him. Heartless, maybe. But a just fate. Kubrick took his time filming "Lyndon" not only because of the elaborate preparation each scene necessitated, but also he was receiving death-threats from the IRA while filming in Ireland. Notable also for the lens-technology created to film scenes using only candle-light, "Barry Lyndon" offers a glimpse of what Kubrick's "Napoleon" would have been like if it had ever happened.

The Shining (1980): Desperate for a "hit" after "Barry Lyndon" tanked, Kubrick looked long and hard for a vehicle that could do well at the box-office...and one he could use Jack Nicholson for the lead. Kubrick seemed an odd choice for a horror-film or one written by Stephen King--the only previous King adapataion was Brian DePalma's hyper-version of "Carrie," but Kubrick was drawn to another story of an intelligent man unable to fight off his demons, in this case the ones inhabiting your proverbial haunted house. Nicholson's spit-spewing performance is straight out of EC comics, and Shelley Duvall had the thankless task of maintaining hysteria for the last half of the movie, but "The Shining" succeeds in provoking dread throughout its entire length. King and King-fans hate it, especially for one death-deviation from the book, but when King produced a TV-version years later that stuck scrupulously to his vision, it was a sappy mess that dragged and dragged. Kubrick boiled it down to essentials, and made the better film.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): Kubrick didn't want to make an anti-war film about Viet-nam. He wanted to make a war film about Viet-nam. The choices inflicted. The breaking down of boys (unformed men) into soldiers. The cohesion of a group and the trap of cameraderie. Oliver Stone had covered a lot of the same ground in "Platoon" (mixed in with his parental conflicts and delusions of grandeur), but Kubrick added more (with Gustav Hasford's slim novel "The Short-Timers" as guide, funneled through the sensibilities of John Milius and Michael Herr******), such as the sloganeering that stands in for values (in the film's finale, the remnants of the squad march through their "world of shit" to the cadence of "The Mickey Mouse Club" song), and though there's strength in numbers, it's every man for himself. Kubrick touches on many facets that made Viet Nam a unique war from others, and doesn't shy away from the atrocities or the exhilaration. Plus, it captures Hasford's loopy language for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999): You wanna know what power is? Power is chaining two of the hottest stars of the time to an exclusive contract and keeping them beholden to you while you make a relationship movie FOR TWO YEARS. Two years of filming. But Kubrick's films had such skeleton crews, he could afford to do it, and still come out with a modestly budgeted film, despite the salaries of Cruise and Kidman (and Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who were bought off due to schedule conflicts). I have a hard time saying this is a finished Kubrick film. His first cut was done, shone to the studio and stars, then Kubrick, after three years putting it together, died. Had he lived, he would have cut it down, probably eliminating redundant dialog (there's a lot of it "Really? A Lot of it?") and generally trimming fat as he did with "Strangelove," "2001," "The Shining" and presumably "Full Metal Jacket." But what there is, is intriguing, if far less mysterious than he probably wanted. A casual argument turns into a wife's confession of wishful lust, and a too-complacent professional******* finds himself adrift and part of a world he never knew existed and avoids life-changing consequences--just barely. For once, Kubrick spares his competent man the humiliation or destruction. Cruise feels like an adult here, for once. Kidman is sphynx-like. But the emotions feel raw, and only a too-pat (and badly-scripted) ending destroys the denouement. Not as sexy as hyped, it is Kubrick dealing with relationships of everyday life that spin out of control and reality. It's still too early since its premiere to have cracked all its secrets. But, I just know one day I'll be walking down the street and a stray piece of dialogue or image will float into my consciousness and I'll go..."Wait a minute....he did that because..."

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001): The Kubrick-Spielberg love-child that nobody loved. Kubrick called it his "Pinocchio" movie, and quite rightly decided after years of development to hand it to Spielberg, which, after Kubrick's death, he was eager to complete. But in the transition from Kubrick outline to Spielberg screenplay there's a lot of gear-grinding from cold fantasy to sentimentality. And unfortunately it suffers a fate that too many sci-fi movies suffer - it asks us to absorb too many concepts too fast, and the casual movie-goer has a hard time accepting global warming, robot love, and an ice-aged Earth inhabited by your PC's descendants. Throw in a Blue Fairy and a dying robot's last wish and the audience is in stitches. dares to ask that question rarely asked (except by Hitchcock in "Vertigo") What is love, really?" And the answer was "Love is what audiences didn't feel about this movie." Still, there's some definite mind-stretching going on here. And it gave Jude Law a star-making turn, at last. Plus, the kid is simply amazing.

Ouvre-view: The Conventional Wisdom is that Stanley Kubrick was a hermetic, mysoginistic, deranged, misanthropic control freak--ask any of the New York fashionista.

Well, he was a control-freak. It's the chess-thing. You make preparations for all eventualitites.

But my view of Stanley Kubrick was that he built a career, a life, and a world that perfectly suited him and his family and saw little reason to venture out of that world, except when absolutely necessary. That's the advantage of getting everything you want.

I may be a bit of a depressive, but, curiously, after "Lolita," I've never found a Kubrick movie depressing. Shocking, yes. Disturbing, boy, howdy. But look at it from Kubrick's view. In "Dr. Strangelove," mankind (and unkind) will suvive (albeit to certainly commit the same mistakes as before). In "2001," man transcends (with a little help from our friends). In "Clockwork Orange" free will defeats fascism. In "Barry Lyndon," a title card (not the snarky narrator) informs us that "they are all equal now," Barry has achieved a equitable station in death. But the promise of life after death pervades "The Shining." The squad of "Full Metal Jacket" have survived the pincers of their impossible situation and live to march another day. Love triumphs over infidelity and indifference in "Eyes Wide Shut."

Yeah, but...

Yeah, but...despite all the perfect systems that can't fail (but do), and despite the clever, competent, supremely well-informed Masters of the Universe (in the Wolfe-ian sense) with the flaws they can't seem to recognize and are helpless to ignore, that Universe ticks inexorably on, mindless of the plight of its supposed "Masters." And the answers, if you're conscious enough to seek them, lie not in our stars, but our selves.

Leave it to a control freak to come up with something like that.

* With any luck

**Ouvre: 1. the works of a writer, painter, or the like, taken as a whole.

*** Kubrick warned Production Designer Ken Adam to keep his resource materials, as there were government inquiries about the at the time secret B-52 interiors.

**** Kubrick's breaking point was the scene where the President advises the Russian Premiere to shoot down the American bombers.

***** Burgess' past is murky at best and full of writer's invention, but his first wife was brutalized by sailors, and so Burgess made the damned subject of the Ludovico Technique for depriving one of free-will one of those men. Even one such of these, to Burgess, shouldn't be deprived of choice.

****** Herr wrote a sadly celebratory memoir of his dealings with Kubrick, in lieu of what Kubrick intended to be an extensive interview for "Eyes Wide Shut" in Vanity Fair. Herr then published an expanded version in book-form. It's a great read.

*******Named Harford,because, according to the screenplay writer, they were thinking of Harrison Ford for the part!

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