Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Now I've Seen Everything Department: Stanley Kubrick

On "The Charlie Rose Show," examining his family's "warts-and-all" celebration of director Stanley Kubrick, A Life in Pictures, director Martin Scorsese weighed in on the one down-side, as he saw it, of the director's career. "One wishes there were more films, but the material is so rich, it's enough. It's enough."

I'll say. I'll be walking down the street, ruminating on a Kubrick film and all of a sudden, it'll hit me: "Oh, that's why he did that." "That's why that's there." His films, especially his meticulously prepared, laboriously shot later films, starting with Barry Lyndon, are puzzles—though some would say mazes—that defy appreciation on the first viewing, exploding all expectations, slowly burrowing into your mind, staying there, with the bursts of illumination, that on the next viewing seem so obvious, so essential, that the movie morphs into something else, speeds up,* changes. Kubrick's films, like Kurosawa's, benefit from the passage of time. The Chess-Master/director was so many moves ahead by the time he completed the fiilm, that it takes the rest of us—without benefit of his thought and strategizing (and deliberately so as he never explained his films)—a little while to catch up.

I'm still learning about Kubrick's movies decades after their completion, and more than 10 years after his death.

Here are his first films—the documentaries The Day of the Fight, Flying Padre, and The Seafarers:**

Killer's Kiss (1955) Urban drama that is actually more of a photographer's exercise than a valid film. A boxer tries to keep his girlfriend out of the clutches of a mobster and details the desperate acts it drives him to in his "fight." Stilted dialog. Amateurish acting. But, there are the set-pieces: an interesting chase over the New York City roof-tops, the ending stand-off with axes in a mannequin storage facility (!!) Story-wise, it's not much, but the cinematography is experimental and there's great work with natural and patterned light. His working out of capturing a boxing match benefitted from his Day of the Fight documentary. Kubrick had a real love for pulp-writing—there's still un unproduced screenplay of Jim Thompson's among Kubrick's effects, and Killer's Kiss is a simple story told primarily visually, with a voice-over narration filling in the holes...like spackle on a black-tar roof (sorry, couldn't resist).

The Killing (1956) Film noir/caper movie of a racetrack heist notable for its fractured non-linear 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. The robbery actually comes together, but despite all efforts, Fate spoils the plot. The Killing stars Sterling Hayden and a great cast of B-movie actors, and it's a large leap in quality from the previous film. One can see the beginning of many 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 in many different variations.

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. Paths of Glory is noted for its various chess metaphors, lots of double-dealing, and lots of cynical politics that allows for some justice but still leaves dastardly deeds done. The war goes on. It's a tough, tough film that's as hard-as-nails in the telling, and contains a staggering battle sequence done in two tracking shots. And the trench warfare makes very convenient something (borrowed from Kubrick-admired director Max Ophüls)that would become a Kubrick staple—the reverse tracking shot. After all the cynicism, the films finishes with as close to a sentimental ending as any Kubrick film. The girl singing the plaintive song in the sequence would become the third...and last...Mrs. Kubrick.

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 (they'd 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 screenplay (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. Completely in charge, 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 Dolores 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 ways, 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 the 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. In fact, Kubrick came closer than "Spartacus" in making "a religious epic without Jesus." And re-casting the part of God.

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. Universe-spanning in scope and implication for Man's place in it, the movie has enough hubris to go off-world in its speculation of the origin of the species, cutting any chords about putting our "pale blue dot" in the center of any Universe. It would inspire a generation of film-makers to explore new subject matter and film-techniques (there would be no film-making George Lucas or James Cameron without its direct influence and inspiration). 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/class-clown, always "on" and 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, what 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 Bullington...it 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 wanted him to play Napoleon. Kubrick seemed an odd choice for any horror-film let alone 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. But...it dares to ask that question rarely asked (except by Hitchcock in Vertigo) "What is love, really?" And when we choose to make something in our image (do you decorate your computer to make it more "homey?"), how can we not look on it with affection.

The answer was "Love is what audiences didn't feel about this movie," and maybe, like Vertigo's poor box office, we are not ready to cut the chord to our romantic vision of Love. 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.
The Conventional Wisdom is that Stanley Kubrick was a hermetic, mysoginistic, deranged, misanthropic control freak—ask any of the New York fashionista, who are always quick with a catty remark about Kubrick. Kubrick wasn't a partier, and they hate to be ignored. Nor, we he conventional. Not in a disposable Society.

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—he 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 his much-desired equitable station in death. But the promise of life after death pervades The Shining. The squad of Full Metal Jacket survive 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

* I've mentioned several times that 2001, while dismissed as "slow" by most, moves like a bat out of hell to me. So much to see; so little time.

** Kubrick's first film: Fear and Desire—a film he loathed as embarrassingly amateurish ocassionally turns up as a curiosity, but I have yet to see it. Hey, you do your best...

*** 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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simoncolumb said...

These are pretty epic posts - it forces me to attempt to do the same - and then just read your posts as an overview.

Well done sir on watching the whole lot.

Its alot easier when you give yourself smaller goals: The Films starring John Cazale, All of Shyamalans films, All of Danny Boyles films ... etc


Yojimbo_5 said...

Yer damn skippy.

These take a lot of time--with Kubrick, a lifetime--the fortunate thing is I've seen all SK's films innumerable times (I actually saw Anne Jackson's performance in "The Shining that was subsequently cut out--hee hee!), find them challenging, and coerce me to dig, so writing about Kubrick is easy. And, he made relatively fewer films over a lifetime.

Writing about Kurosawa, not so much.

Among the ones I'm trying to get done are, (as you said) the films of M. Night Shyamalan, and the films of Wes Anderson. I'm also thinking about taking on The films of Ubaldo Ragona and Victor Erice.

"baby steps..."

Simon said...

You are dedicated, aren't you? Good for you. Fantastic.

Saturday Stevens said...

Great and all but one HUGE flaw that I can't let go. In the paragraph about Lolita, it says that Humbert falls in love with Charlotte Haze. It should say Dolores.

Yojimbo_5 said...

It seems Saturday's child is full of grace, as well. It is so amended, with my gratitude.

Yeah, that is huge. Thank you for your restraint in pointing it out. I reflected that if Kubrick found such an error, he would point it out, say that it needed to be corrected, and then engage in a 2 hour conversation about how I'd managed to make such a mistake, analyze and question all of the steps in my research process, and then hire a fact-checker to comb my work, vaguely implying that I should be the one paying for it.

You let me off easy!