Sunday, 25 November 2018

Stanley Kubrick


Kubrick is an icon. A brand. He's a name stamped on every slice of cinematic discussion you can name and in a sense I'm kind of sick of it. I think recently the prevailing stance surrounding the term 'Kubrickian' when deployed by his most avid fans is not one of admiration but ownership. Some people I know seem to try and claim movies with this monocher, and often compliament a flick only to quickly rencounce it as being a fluke the man himself would have handled far better. This is a pokcet of personal experience but in truth I think our all-too avid worship for the man as a collective has gone too far, and cinematic canon needs to make a real effort to de-deify Kubrick and blunt the coinage of his influence with a little perspective. If you aren't happy to simply see a film-maker you adore settled as being less than a god, that's a little worrying. I've lived with his work for nearly a decade, poured over it exhaustingly and discovered a triptch of masterworks, messy crap and deeply troubling projects along the way. In an effort to close the book, here's what I thought.

Fear & Desire (1953)

I’ve noticed a troubling, reductive trend in the Kubrick fanbase in that they tend to ignore Fear & Desire, much like people who constantly attack prog-rock impishly reciting that their precious Pink Floyd does not, in fact, fit the defintion. Indeed, so did Kubrick. He infamously at one point tried to track down decirculate (and in vaguer accounts actually destroy prints) of his debut feature film because he was unhappy with its frankly abysmal realization- and I find this unforgivable. 

understand, truly, the pull of ego to debase and distract from your lesser pictures- but I also think once you've made a movie it is no-longer yours. It flows out into the stream of conciousness and if you understand it as well as you should you'll realize that this is the healthiest place for it. The best films, by the best artists, are ironically those that escape their directors. That transcend maker and become a deleriously self-sustaining beast. Poor Kubrick couldn't have this, and while the movie is avaliable today and he has since looked back with less violent finality- attempting to claim what now belongs to its audience, simply because you think it will make you look bad, smacks of unacceptable arrogance. Fear & Desire is a crap film and, ironically, I think this and Kubrick's selfish campaign against it makes it a vital first stop in his canon. Even the great can screw up, and they should certainly bite the bullet and allow themselves to.

D-

Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Of all Kubrick's films, I have the least to say about Killer's Kiss. Its a weak movie released in a peak year for crime cinema that I've admittedly only watched once. From 1957 onwards I've seen every Kubrick film bar Lolita upwards of five, six (or even ten) times because I grew up exploring the man's filmography, and coming back to find Killer's Kiss in research for this post I wonder if I'd have stopped dead here when I was younger. The cinematic maturation that has soured me on some of the man's most famous work has also healthily deepened my patience for early stuff like this... but I doubt the trite criminality of his stagnanting sophomore will ever draw me again.

C-

The Killing (1956)

Some of the great film-makers like Jean-Pierre Melville, Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava and Dario Argento are so admirable because they were unafraid of working within genre. Their work understands, respects and is often in luminously abundant love with a storied and structured style of moviemaking that is married to a specific strand of tale and tone. The Killing, I feel, is a bad film because it sees itself as above genre. It does not attempt to subvert but instead escape it, in smug obsession with what it tries (and tediously fails) to achieve.

There are many wonderful works so rich in thematic scope they unintentionally transcend any formal definition like Rashomon or Woman in the Dunes; but I think Stanley Kubrick was so desperate to demonstrate his genius that he forgot to make a vivid picture and instead spent every other scene systematically ripping up the carpet of the contemporary heist movie. If you want living proof of this terminal intention then look no further than the aforementioned Melville’s Bob le Flambeur- which oozes so much French cool that its comically deft dismantlement of criminal tradition seductively slinks under all the affectionate tributes Melville pays in his production. Despite its length I’d skip this one entirely or, better yet, check out Rififi… and yet I find it utterly baffling that just one short year after such an insincere experiment that seemed to cash in with contempt, Stanley Kubrick made his magnum opus.
Favourite Moment: Sherry chewing on George early on, before it became a chore       C-

Paths of Glory (1957)

I put it to you that Stanley Kubrick only ever made one “masterpiece”- and it is Paths of Glory. Take note before we continue that my use of the word is purposefully rare. I love everything about the film, so much so that I’ve exhausted my spoken adoration for it endlessly ever since I first saw it half a decade ago. Its brilliance and I think grossly underrated position in the director’s canon demands I take to the streets and quite literally preach its immense importance and scorching humanity.

It’s a work that immediately struck me as the tragic pinnacle of what the man could achieve, structural perfection with human soul that has sadly informed my gradually degrading view of his later films as decidedly more unfeeling, all-thinking efforts to synthetically transform pure cinema into an academic science. Paths of Glory and great film in general succeeds on the spark of its heart, its blisteringly merciless internal logic that pursues a mortifying antithesis of justice so real it remains absolutely horrifying more than a century after its events took place. To recommend another classic, Losey’s King & Country from 1964 is another unremittingly bleak but achingly powerful story in this vein.

Paths of Glory is one of my favourite films: A work of fear, wrath and painful human vulnerability that would elude this director for the remainder of his career. In fact, it’s fascinating to compare this to the quintessentially glacial Eyes Wide Shut, more than four decades later, and wonder what might have been had the man continued to look at our condition as a member of the human race.
Favourite Moment: The attack on the anthill is the most hellish war scene shot before 1969 A*

Spartacus (1960)

Yes I honestly, unashamedly like Spartacus more than a few of Kubrick’s following, perhaps more acutely indulgent works. Its satisfying, anchored by several great scenes, settled into its own admittedly dry but comforting pace and above all soulfully tells the man’s legendary story with a sizable chunk of the director’s visual powers… and without his later self-pretension. I think its bitterly lamented distance from clear creative vision does little to detract from how strong the movie can be, and Kubrick should have taken it as a credit, instead of an insult, that an apparently waning grasp on what he could command here still resulted in such a compelling classic.

It is here that Kubrick’s run-ins with the studio perhaps enlivened his creative insecurities and indeed he wrote off the film, however fine it was, as impure. I use the word insecurities, in spite of auterial control being a desire of many directors, because Kubrick displays negative, often artistically destructive and personal behaviour in the wake of these events. I think this and his frankly embarrassing attempt to destroy Fear & Desire speaks to an all-too afraid and egotistical slice of the film-makers nature that does not only strive for perfection but childishly demands it even within his own continuity: Failure and compromise are dismissed, instead of absorbed graciously and processed into essential learning. And indeed after Spartacus, Kubrick began to purchase his own equipment and enact a far more insular method of movie-making.
Favourite Moment: I've always found the stark closing crucifixion scene shockingly tragic    B

Lolita (1962)

Lolita is fair. Its lushciously framed title card drop and incendiary source material invite more interest than it repais in cinematic heft, but I can shoot it a pass for Kubrick's ever-present symmetrical eye even if it can get a bit irritating sometimes. I think the man's grasp of a 'beautiful' piece of cinematographt that wasn't directly designed to replicate some geometric shape restricts his vision and in a sense I think that highlights just how far he could have gone with Nabokov's novel. In the case of an adaptation, particuarly one this difficult at a time of social impasse, Kubrick's modus opperandi seems to be to shoot it as defly as possible to both impress... and preserve his future film-making career. Thankfully certain censors, critics and fans' response would make possible one of his very finest movies.

C+

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove is brilliant. Its smirking and affable and perfectly structured and gloriously written and performed and everything a great comedy should be, nealty ribboned by a beautiful closing sequence that cements its classic status with atomic clarity.

A terrific eye for comedic character actors (I’ve always thought the Coca-Cola guy smacked of an older Frank Zappa) and somewhat deceptive manipulation of the great George C Scott (who is, though he'd rarely admit it, fantastic in this movie) underpin its most dazzlingly funny moments but the late, great Peter Sellers quite soundly steals the show in a fantastical triple-performance. When Kubrick was at his best making tight, 90-minute movies in heady contract with their own ambitions and wearing a smile, or frown, or some kind of discnerable human expression- he was untouched in contemporary American cinema.

Kubrick's next movie might be his most famous and acclaimed, but I'll adore Dr. Strangelove another ten times before I venture near it again. It's quite simply that entertaining.

Favourite Moment: “Alright, but you’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company” – et al A

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Look, even having seen it many, many times I feel unprepared to talk about 2001- and sadly I think that rests more with its crushing reputation than the immense strength of the film itself. I could dive endlessley into its visceral fusion of image and sound and rich thematic depth courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke's novel expressed with so thrillingly through their partnership... but we all could. This movie has been done to death, and I won't beat it any further- In fact I've always been at a little bit of a loss to engage with the people who think this is the second coming and think I might needlesley infuriate them if I talk about how, even for an avid fan of slow cinema, much of 2001 lingers a little longer than it should. Prickles on a Rose, though. This movie is most-parts magic and if it continues to draw young fans of cinema further into the potential of the medium- thats all I need.
Favourite Moment: If not the first thirty minutes, the monolith on the moon. Cacophonous   A-

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

I am not a person easily offended by violence. Contrary to the burgeoning cult of social justice splitting a line of positive progress and enveloping anti-democracy across the media and sadly now our daily lives, I do not immediately spit at excessive violence or cruelty in media so long as those elements either accept their own point, or make one with sincerity. Equally, a director is not chained to a text- but certain circumstances quite firmly necessitate respect in telling its story. Anthony Burgess’ titular novel is one such case because, in a mortifying dagger of ‘inspiration’, his wife Lynne was gang-raped and assaulted by four military deserters in an event that also likely caused her to miscarry; later informing his detailed and deranged tale of youth violence. This in mind, I am appalled by Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.

I’m reminded of an early scene in the book where Alex and his droogs tear into an innocent pedestrian, written with a heavy hand of experience with such nightmarish reality hanging on every word it made me quite sick to read; and even then Burgess’ prose of course dives into even more unbearable depths as the story progresses. Compare this to the kitsch cool of Kubrick’s self-consciously stylistic opening shot, the unfeeling banality of violence so comfortably chained to his restless droogs as they do in a homeless man while chanting classic songs and cackling gleefully. I ask myself, in all honestly, if it’s stupid of me to propose that counter-culture icon Alex DeLarge is a popular piece of cosplay, yet we rarely see anyone walking about dressed as Le Tenia from Irréversible. Is it really suitable, however ‘enjoyable’ their parent movie, to dress up as a rapist? Their acts are portrayed differently, but sexual assault is unforgivable, and in that perhaps the way Kubrick’s iconography has so plainly abstracted the felonious horrors of its protagonist in favour of cool cinematography and sharply directed music is even more sinister than I thought.

I think we too keenly separate the colourful and immediate art from this artist in order to preserve his legacy but I find no hesitation in believing that Kubrick filmed acts of extreme and traumatic violence while quite vividly enjoying his craft. I think back to Tim Roth’s punishingThe War Zone’ and how the crew were moved to tears by its unspeakable scene. We remember the adaptation of A Clockwork Orange for its sensory flavour and cinematic whorl but it is clear the man himself relished in shooting its most grim barbarity, like the infantile gratuity of our modern Eli Roth only separated by a sense of actual skill and stirring in a dose of respected classical music to conceal his brutal lust. I don’t see a master film-maker pulling a double-bluff as he continually victimises the poor, innocent, vicious rapist Alex DeLarge- who has become an icon of counter-culture in blissful ignorance of his rampage- but of an artist who has fallen in love with the idea if shooting a cinematic id- and in that process totally forgotten himself, irresponsibly infantilising their boyish savagery. There is a fine, fine line to tread when watching a film and reading its tone as respectful or sadistic, and I feel the vast spawn of self-excessive sequences that pepper the distinctly playful, enjoyable streak into A Clockwork Orange without ever realistically committing to condemning its central wretch damn it entirely.

I’ve read about and met budding directors who unsettlingly relish the idea of systematically breaking down their actors on a psychological level, professing this direction for The Shining as a key example of inspiration, and while contemporaries like Bill Friedkin are admittedly not innocent of this treatment I find the subconscious connections you could bridge between this kind of creative spark and the senselessly unethical adaptation of A Clockwork Orange deeply troubling. I think this is a film we all need to take a long, hard look at before approaching it so lovingly again.

The ending is the most revealing, quickly defended as a metaphysical comment on the perpetuated nature of violence when in reality I believe Kubrick ignored the omitted conclusion of Burgess’ book on the strength of a pitiful excuse (which he so tactfully threw out mid-shoot) so as not to see his favourite subject finally face any consequence. It not ironic, but a grim reminder lampooned so obliviously by his crude, cute reprise of Singing in the Rain that Kubrick is loving every minute of making this. I hope, in some small sense, recognising this is what informed the man’s word on pulling the film from cinemas after the outrage it caused; and following this project he took on a far more timid, defusing piece of literature. When D.W Griffith reacted to his equally execrable Birth of a Nation with Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages it flew off beautifully but here, for me, Kubrick goes from bestial lust to soul-crushing boredom…

F

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon, salvaged from the intriguing remains of the planned Napoleon you can read about extensively in the director’s touring exhibition (a project honestly a little obsolete in the face of Abel Gance’s decades-past goliath), is dead. Gutted. It’s a beautiful landscape piece framed with such delicate precision the director has effectively killed all impact it had as a film by restricting it to the two-dimensional space of a small canvas.

Its source text was apparently pretty poor (on the experienced testimony of others) and if so its banality bleeds through in an Overlook-esque wave of boredom, each character mediating their speech with the paced serenity of a brain-dead Ox and demonstrating their arc with such numbing predictability it’s by the end exhausted, lounging tableaus are making me even more sleepy.

Indeed think the film’s ‘revelatory’ cinematography mortally wounds its storytelling and expression to the point where, by the end, I find Barry Lyndon’s perfectly realised painterly aesthetic pretty irritating. It so laboriously takes its time (and technology) painstakingly capturing the Renaissance-piquing wizardry of contemporary artists and in that seemingly characteristic loss of inhibitions totally forgets its committing the cardinal sin of being utterly uninvolving and insufferably dull.

C-

The Shining (1980)

Ironically enough, at least if you’re Steven King, the greatest asset to The Shining is Stanley Kubrick. The man’s clinically cold pursuit of perfectly pure, synthesised cinema infuriated its writer, wrecked Shelley Duvall and in the aftermath laid bare by far the best ‘Kubrick’ film Kubrick ever made.

The Shining is far from my favourite Horror film, or indeed the best, but it’s the one I see the most. I find something so compulsively rewatchable about its seemingly endless stream of classic moments, Kubrick releasing ego for one picture and co-incidentally sucker-punching most every other scene into the face of American cinema. It’s a feature that feels haunted, looming and lurking with spectrally precise Steadicam work and a ferocious application of Avant-score; A movie I’m ever-enjoying, ever-ready to see again, and quite handily the only piece of Kubrick’s that has actually survived his much-professed gimmick of repetitious interest time and again. Even writing about it now, I want to live in The Shining’s tenebrous, devolving network of spirit-world decay for the umpteenth time. A cinematic revelation.
Favourite Moment: The slow-motion shot of Jack rising from Dick's corpse is ever-chilling    A+

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket is an awful movie, for me anyway. I happily remember enjoying it many years ago- but a horrific watch in the cinema quite recently and failed rebuttal of those feelings on Blu-Ray a few months down the line has led me into a pretty tragic about-face in which it’s compelling and frankly even redeemable qualities have dwindled down to less than zero.

R Lee Emery’s once vivid performance has over the years patiently exchanged its brute-force scatological appeal for numbing annoyance. The character arcs are brain-dead dives most war movies under the sun have handled with more human expression. The flick quite infamously slashes itself off at the hip and hobbles along for another hour on the gangrenous corpse of its initial interest- and as the entitled cherry on top I honestly don’t think Kubrick knew what he wanted to say here.

If he did, surely the film’s appraised opening segment would have consumed the entire runtime? The cruel, robotic process of the American military machine supposedly escaped films about Vietnam and war in general but in truth I think it’s felt heavier on the time-wearied brows of the soldiers in Apocalypse Now than in any flat minute of Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick chucks his scalpel for a bone-saw. He batters creeping, subtle logic with soap in socks and horrifically overcooked ‘statements’ (let me stifle a grin) about war and violence. I’m almost sorry to come down so vehemently on this movie but its crap. It stands against every asset the man ever amassed and other than a [self]riotous inclination to crowbar his voice into the American cinema of Vietnam (which had, by this point, quite handily been explored by the likes of Platoon and Coppola’s aforementioned deluge) there is no solid reason I can find for him to have made it. It’s all very well to want to give your view, but if it’s weak, that doesn’t mean you should.
Favourite Moment: Pyle’s death, inspired by the frame-perfect editing of To Live & Die in L.A D

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick's last film might be the victim of his most polar dissection, funnily enough splitting camps of avid adulators and bored shitless dissenters in measures only a truly extreme movie could. I've actually fluctuated between the two over the years, calling it both ball-bustingly banal and brilliant, and settled somewhere in the center. Kubrick's method of film-making became increasingly more insular both in Production and internal compression as the years dragged on, devoting time and resources to making incredibly infallible pyramid-box features that wrap in on themselves both formally and thematically. 

This ominous swansong is certainly the most opaque film he ever made but also one of tender beauty, clinical expression and chugging pace all in conflicting measures. It's in a fight with itself to stay awake that even at its worst I find oddly fascinating. So while its uneven and tedious and occasionally quite trite… Eyes Wide Shut never not interesting- and I think in many ways if it had trimmed its more tenuous intentions and more accurately focused its cinematic ideas then that is indeed the best thing a movie of this very particular flavour could possibly be.
Favourite Moment: Cruise and Kidman give it their best in a drugged-up bedside argument B

And the scores are…
13. A Clockwork Orange (F)
12. Fear & Desire (D-)
11. Full Metal Jacket (D)
10. Killer's Kiss (C-)
9. The Killing (C-)
8. Barry Lyndon (C-)
7. Lolita (C+)
6. Spartacus (B)
5. Eyes Wide Shut (B)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (A-)
3. Dr. Strangelove (A)
2. The Shining (A+)
1. Paths of Glory (A*)

4 comments:

  1. GREAT work! I do like his films a bit more than you, but I loved reading all of your thoughts. The Killing is so important for his career, because the worst part of that film (the useless narration) was not Kubrick’s choice. They added that in post without his consent, and after that, he said he would only continue making films if he had complete and full control over them. (The exception being Spartacus, which was a very unusual production.)

    Your assessment of A Clockwork Orange is quite interesting. I read your remarks very carefully and am taking them all in. Lot to think about there.

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    1. Thankyou! Was fun coming back to Kubrick, thinking about Ozu next but its quite a commitment.

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  2. I enjoy The Killing and Clockwork Orange, but I agree with you when it comes to Full Metal Jacket. I don't even like the first half all that much.

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    1. Its such a bizarrely revered film, right? People of course have a right to like whatever but I find the affection for FMJ difficult to understand. Thanks for stopping by.

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