Monday, 14 March 2011
The Directors: Stanley Kubrick
Doing a blog post about Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) proved to be (in scale) as harrowing and as long a process as his films were to make. So I could kiss my own deadlines goodbye. But to give tribute to one of the greatest directors this world has ever seen, one must be willing to stretch his schedule to think it out, sit and watch the films and hunt down his more obscure earlier work. I did leave out the short films he made, but maybe some other day I'll talk a little about them too. Most of Kubrick's movies are of course quite widely seen, and it would be cooler to intoduce lesser-known directors in this series. But seeing as I've recently rewatched several, it's as good a time to write about them as any.
Kubrick was originally a photographer by profession. That is why he is nothing short of a visual genius. Every single one of his films contain unforgettable images that pop up in pop culture and culture in general all the time. He cropped and lit his films like no one else. But he also understood that the art of cinema isn't only about making pretty pictures. That's why his use of music is also versatile and he directed some actors so good, they never managed to get a role even near of what they had accomplished in a Kubrick movie.
But the real meat in the Kubrick experiment lie in his films and how many-sided and open for interpretation they are. I give only a small piece of thoughts about every one of his films, but one could easily write an essay on each just by single watching (OK, post-The Killing perhaps). Kubrick specialized in examining the limits of moden civilization and culture. Does one have to accept the rules of society to be an individual? What's the limit of being human? His cynicism about modern society and in particular those in power of them are healthy thoughts to have to survive in this world. These days when the Fat Cats use us as tools, Kubrick's films couldn't be more recommended.
Fear and Desire (1953)
Kubrick hated a few of the films he made over the years, but none more harshly than his first, of which he purchased and destroyed every print he could find. Only one print remains in the whole world, and currently if one wishes to see the film, one must try to catch that in its rare public screenings or stoop to watching bootlegs. But it may well be woth it, as Fear and Desire is by no means an "unwatchable" film as panned by its creator. It contains a lot of good ideas, nicely shot pictures (Kubrick worked also as a cinematographer) and one can clearly see that a true master is starting to develop.
The film tells a story of a platoon in an unnamed war. They get caught between enemy lines and quarrel whether they should build a raft to get out of there or to try to destroy the enemy headquarters located nearby. As one can guess from the title, the men do their decisions based on their fears and desires.
Kubrick shoots this low-budget film like a pro, and there are plenty of striking black-and-white images throughout. The standout piece is when the platoon attacks a group of enemy soldiers at their supper. The stew getting caught up in the middle probably will remind everyone of the blood and guts, even if none are shown. Kubrick's pet themes of losing one's humanity for violence is surely at work even here. Also emphasizing the two sides of the coin are that the same actors play roles on both sides of the war - and then end up killing their doppelgangers. The biggest problems come with the scale of the film. Even though the actors and the photography are good, there's always a lingering feeling that it's all a movie just shot in a nearby forest. Some archive footage about tanks and aeroplanes and the like would have also made the war going on feel more concrete.
The Killer's Kiss (1955)
Killer's Kiss is another early film that feels like Kubrick mastering his art but at least he felt it was completed enough to allow to be shown. A boxer (Jamie Smith) falls for a dancer who has an abusive boyfriend. Thus he gets into a feud with a gangster (Frank Silvera) who attempts to kill him for sticking his nose into other people's business.
The film has a happy ending and the plot by Kubrick himself is oddly conventional otherwise, too. But the film shines in its cinematography. Kubrick seemingly enjoys shooting sharp film noir -contrasts. The finale in a warehouse full of mannequin limbs and torsos is the most memorable image from the film and it is beautifully shot. Pity it doesn't seem to have anything deeper to say than that the hero is willing to risk "life and limb" for his beloved.
There's nothing seriously wrong with the film, but it washes out of the memory pretty easily, which is why it's hard for me to try to analyze it here.
The Killing (1956)
Without a strong lead role in his story, Kubrick is allowed to move around the fringes of the story. And he does it with great ease as the film is incredibly entertaining to follow. The stakes get higher as the actual robbery is performed and by the finale viewers are at the edge of their seats. It's a fun entertainment movie, for sure, but it seems it doesn't have such grandieur themes as Kubrick's later masterpieces. Instead it opts for the pretty basic "crime doesn't pay""whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" and "women are treacherous and unreliable" messages as many of the other crime films of the same era.
Paths of Glory (1957)
It's probably because the war stayed so still for years that we have quite few movies about the First World War. In the immortal words of Captain Blackadder the Allied Forces advanced since 1914 as much as "an asthmatic ant with two heavy shopping bags". The same goes for the Germans on the other side. Yet the war did have its drama and the futility at its core can translate into quite gripping anti-war stories. And sure enough, Kubrick directed one of the best of them.
The French military plan on an all-out attack on no-mans land. The reasonable Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) has his doubts about the plan, but tries to execute the orders the best he can. The result is a massacre, where most of the attacking forces get killed. A few soldiers turn away to save their lives. The Officers blame them for the plan's failure and have three of them court martialed. The soldiers are picked randomly and are as innocent as any, but the higher ranks demand satisfaction and are adamant to give the men the Capital Punishment to make an example.
Paths of Glory is one of the most cynical of Kubrick's films. The distrust to authorities is taken to its extremities as the Generals in the film are all after their own glory, which they intend to achieve without getting their hands dirty. Other than with blood, that is. The privates in this war are pawns to their games, yet privately just ordinary, simple men with modest pleasures. Poor and peasants, they only exist to be exploited by the upper class. By the end the virtuous Colonel Dax gets a small revenge on the system, but this just makes the big Generals to consider him to be cunning enough to be worthy of a promotion. He is naturally disgusted by the offer. The film is a plea for humanity. It appears there is still some left and it comes through the cracks at the end as a scared and kidnapped german maid starts to sing.
Spartacus is my favorite sword-and-sandal -type epic, although I've got to admit I really doubt most of the thanks goes to Kubrick on this one. Kubrick wasn't yet a big name in art film circles and was just another director in Hollywood at this point. The Golden Age of the studio system was at its last, but still luring people from their new television sets to cinemas by promising epics larger than life. This system, where the producers cough up more and more extras and lavish sets and the director merely watches the cast knows their lines, would end with the huge financial flop of Cleopatra three years after Spartacus.
The story goes the star Kirk Douglas actually attached Kubrick to the project after firing the previous one. Douglas produces the film and plays Spartacus, a Roman slave drafted to become a gladiator. As his friends die for the amusement of Roman noblemen, one day Spartacus has enough and revolts against his oppressors. He gathers an army from freed slaves to take on Rome in all its might. For Douglas, the noble rebel just wanting freedom for his people was, of course the noblest character this side of the Bible.
The film resembles more other big-scale epics made at that time than anything other Kubrick ever directed. The melodramatic love story between Spartacus and the slave woman Viridia, for instance, has a certain wamth lacking from all other of Kubrick's works. The strong message of fighting for human rights was also too "moralizing" for Kubrick's taste, but of course he would prefer a more subtle approach. However, the film is not entirely devoid of Kubrickian themes. A lot of the film is spent on depicting the schemings of Roman politicians, who can't wait to double-cross each other to gain power. This fulfills Kubrick's knack of having mistrust about the people in power in his films. The Cinemascope photography is simply breathtaking and Kubrick also proves he can shoot dynamic fight- and battle sequences. This one's for the little people and how our spirits can't be crushed, no matter how much we're oppressed.
Kubrick tried his hands next in directing a gripping romance for the modern ages. As proper romances go, the society will not accept the pair and its forces will drive it to end unhappily. Kubrick saw a problem in that the society in the swinging 60's would accept almost every kind of heterosexual pair. That's why he went to work with the controversial Russian author Vladimir Nabokov to adapt his book, Lolita. The book, and the subsequent film concerns an older man's (James Mason) lust for his landlady's teenaged daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), which drives him into desperate acts. He, Humbert Humbert, will get a chance for a relationship with Lolita eventually, but then he gets paranoid about getting caught.
From the credit scene (and the poster above this text) on it's obvious that the romance is a quite soft one. The film's credit sequence features Humbert's hands painting Lolita's fingernails and caressing her foot. It sums perfectly how the relationship works: Humbert pampers Lolita but leaves her passive, waiting for him (to come home from work or just to act). Yet Lolita does have a mind of her own. As for the age difference, Humbert could be Lolita's father (and for a while practically is). That's partially also why he feels he should protect Lolita from outside influences and not allow her to grow adult. As he loves her as an adolescent, he wishes to store her like a butterfly. But Lolita does act her age and does things on a whim, rebels, juvenily teases and misleads Humbert and later, escapes
Yet the film isn't quite as good as I feel it could have been. Part of this is certainly because Kubrick is so cool and cruel for his characters. The real warmth in the relationship is scarce and Humbert is a little too obsessive to be in any way relatable character. Not having a relatable lead character works in many other of Kubrick's films, yet the romance genre really needs it to survive. Another thing that bugs me is the role of Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. Sellers is brilliant in the opening scene, as first hung-over, then bemused and finally desperate and frightful bohemian faces the enraged Humbert who threatens to kill him. The rest of the film is told in flashback. Sellers pops up only here and there, mostly in stupid disguises, which might work in a more farcical film. Here it doesn't really bring in much-needed comic relief but just an odd out-of place feeling. Kubrick would later find something more appropriate for Sellers's talent in creating great characters and strong improvisation abilities. Having such a great opening scene also waters the film's ending totally and I am actually flabberghast of how tacky the film ends. Maybe Kubrick should've waited a few more years to get to break the form of the film postmodernly a little more. With just one scene moved to the beginning, it's not a functioning solution.
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Ah, one of the finest satires ever crafted. Yet, you might argue about this, but I do think that some of the humour in this is a bit dated nowadays. Even though it's not a laugh-to-the-point-of-tears riot any more, one can still find some good belly-laughs and appreciate the ludicrous rules of nuclear warfare this film portrays. The film's dark humour was based on all too real books about the subject. Indeed, Kubrick first intended to make a straight-faced thriller, until he noticed how silly two great powers threatening each other with massive carnage basically is. The fact that he'd worked with Peter Sellers on his previous film helped a lot, too. I always wondered how they got along so well, the master craftsman who desired perfection with each of his films, and the crying-on-the-inside clown genius who insisted on improvising a hilarious line after another.
The plot concerns the race against time to reach Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who has launched an unauthorized nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) tries to find a peaceful solution with the Russian embassador, his generals and his scientific advisor Dr. Stangelove (Sellers). Like many other clashes between two big brutes, the war here is paraphased to be mostly of sexual nature. Ripper is impotent and believes the Russians have poisoned the water supply. Muffley is a big pussy, which is noted by his name which means just that. And one can interpret what one will about Strangelove's hand, which likes to stiffen up and face the ceiling when he's talking about saving just the most genetically superior people from nuclear holocaust. The pitch-black, abrupt end sequence is a fine one, and one to think when our nuclear power plants start to blow up any of these days.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick's (and probably anyone's) most ambitious film chose to have no fewer and no less than the entire human evolution as a subject matter. We begin at the dawn of history when apes learn the use of tools and thus come, by definition, human. A mysterious giant monolith is somehow responsible for it. The same monolith next crops up a couple of million years later when it's found in a dig in the moon. Some time after that astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) experiences technical difficulties on his trip to Jupiter as the ship's computer HAL 9000 becomes conscious and kills the other passangers. Dave ultimately proves that man is more worthy than its creation by shutting HAL down. He is rewarded by the monolith, which is now outside Jupiter. It allows him to step inside, which marks a whole new era of human development.
2001's plot doesn't seem that grandieur when put to words like that, but it proves we are dealing with cinema in visuals and audio more than in words. 2001 is Kubrick's most ambitious and challenging work, and at the same time most open to different readings. It help a lot to produce such a film in the '60s - the flower people might have not understood it all, but they admired the film's unique arthouse aesthetics and visuals. Which is to say, the end scene is like a giant drug trip. But it is mostly about us humans, and a little cynical at that, too. Notice how both major turning points in human civilization are triggered by a murder of a lowers species happening shortly before.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange is a strangely poetic name for a film. It tells that it isn't a very easy or pleasant experience for the viewer. As far as I can tell, it tells a story of a society where mostly everyone is working like clockwork. Everything is done bureaucratically and when there's a problem, no one questions why the problem has been formed, but rather tries to get rid of it in the most straight-forward way possible. This is not obvious as this is told in the fringes of the story of one such a problem for the society. The teenaged Alex (Malcolm McDowell) enjoys brutally beating people, stealing, lying, raping - and classical music. Society won't have any of it so they try to reform him by stripping all his wants alnd will away - bad and good.
It tells a lot form Kubrick's talent that he can introduce such a despicable main character, yet turn the tables on us in the middle and actually make him a victim of society. This doesn't make him quite symphatetic but the world is revealed to be vengeful and bitter. Former victims can be just as cruel when they get the upper hand. Alex is also used as a massive tool for different agendas. A cold resentment for the ruling class once again makes the film a harrowing experience. Along 2001, Kubrick was allowed to experiment with his story-telling methods, so the film has almost painting-like near-still moments as well as high-speed sex.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Kubrick tried a huge period movie again next, with a classic costume drama about a man's will to be a nobleman in the 18th century Britain. You can perhaps see some of what Spartacus could've been like, had Kubrick had more creative control over the film, in Barry Lyndon. For this is an epic story of one man who defied his heritage in a background of huge battles. But this time around, there's not a drop of sentimental melodrama, even if there is a sort of romance or two at the centre, but even more cold and calculating scheming with the occasional splashes of violence.
Like Full Metal Jacket later on, Barry Lyndon is a film of two halves. Of course the same could almost be said of any of his later films as Kubrick loved to put a whole new gear on for his films in the middle. The stylistic changes do work like a hand in glove for his films. Conviniently, in Barry Lyndon the halves are divided by an intermission, as this is a very long film. First, Irish countryman Redmond Barry's rise to power through a series of misadventures including fighting along multiple armies in the Napoleonic wars (another interest Kubrick harbored for years). Second, as Barry snatches the widow of a dying nobleman and consequently marries her he becomes Barry Lyndon. He then has to face against his stepson, who seems unnaturally attached to his mother and loathes his new stepfather.
Kubrick lets us take a peek behind the scenes of the luxury and glamour of the aristocracy. In the first half it becomes clear that their peacefulness is bought by common man's blood on the battlefield. In the second, the ambitions bite back. Barry is tormented by his past deeds and which subsequently lead him to lose the things he most desires and most cherises. Kubrick is a cynic and finds that too much ambition serves no one well. The film's exceptional beauty must also be marked here. Kubrick was influenced by the artists of that period to create his look. That's why the camera is placed so far away from the action from time to time, yet always in just the right place. The many candle-lit scenes also pushed the art of cinematography forward and look fantastic even today.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King doesn't agree, but Kubrick directed the best adaptation from his texts. As Kubrick had sense, he left the eerie opening scenes of the novel intact to build athmosphere, but made major changes towards the end. King always has a cathartic finale where evil is destroyed, but Kubrick realized the bigger horror comes from the uncertainty, hence a creepy-as-hell final shot on a mysterious photograph.
But I digress. If anyone doesn't know the plot already, here it is on a nutshell. Others can skip away to the next chapter as the film is better if one doesn't know too much about it. The Shining is about a family lead by Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). Jack takes a job to be the winter caretaker of a large hotel in the middle of nowhere to get some peace to work on his latest book. He also takes with him his wife Wendy and his small son Danny. Danny is revealed to have psychic powers, which make him sense supernatural evil lurking inside the hotel. Eventually Jack starts to also see the hotel's ghosts, which bring out murderous thoughts inside him.
As I said, Kubrick selected just the right amount of ingredients from King's toolbox. The isolated venue, oddly quiet and tidy corridors of hotel are creepily shot. But he adds a lot of very artistic tiny details that don't quite make sense. His masterful handling of pace works wonders here. One of the scariest jump-scares is when the sign says "Tuesday". The film's minimalist music is also important. As Jack starts to question his sanity, we as viewers might, too. King complained that Jack Nicholson seemed too crazy to begin with. He has a certain point, but Kubrick's point is not to make us scared of our loved ones lose their sanity. No, he has a lot larger questions concerning time repeating itself, bad auras and, crucially, emotional numbness. Once again, also our Freudian centres begin to flow out once we're in a hostile environment.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Kubrick returned to direct another war opus, this time based on the war in Vietnam. A group of young men to be sent to fight in 'Nam have to go through an intensive training period firs. The tough-as-nails Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) torments his trainees with never-ending verbal abuse. His aim is to make his boys ready to kill. He succeeds a little too well: Private "Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio) who had gotten the short end of the stick from him, goes slowly mad and ends up killing Hartman and then himself. This all has been observed by Private Joker (Matthew Modine), who we then follow into the war itself. Joker works for the Frontline Newspaper, that has a double-faced policy on how the happenings of the war are to be depicted. This encourages Joker's odd sense of humour about all the madness going on in the war, which he also carries with him to battlefields.
The first thing everyone will ever say about Full Metal Jacket is that it's a film of two halves. The opening half about training is the one that is more fondly remembered. Indeed, how we train ordinary men to become killing machines is a subject most war movies tend to miss. I think the half is pretty much perfect, with its casting, R. Lee Ermey's inventive abuses, twisted reality and all. The film would've been a poignant masterpiece had it merely based on the training. But we do go to 'Nam too, and it is kind of anti-climatic. Kubrick touches upon the madness of war and the fear and boredom of risking one's neck every day, both themes that have been exceptionally told about Vietnam before. Kubrick stays away from the jungles and depicts mostly urban war. Deaths come suddenly and the fighting is mostly between only a handful of guerrillas. This could also be a depiction of Afghanistan or any other modern war. This emphasizes that unlike Apocalypse Now or Platoon, Full Metal Jacket isn't that much about Vietnam, it's about modern war in a conceptual stage. The end scene is particularly harrowing. Is all this slaughter just a kind of game to a group of sociopaths or is it that we're sending children to massacre on behalf of some weird concepts of society?
When I was in the military I do believe many of the officers took a page on Hartman's methods. The quips from this film were not exactly rare among us privates too. I doubt that was what Kubrick had in mind.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Kubrick spent the 80's and 90's planning huge projects like Napoleon and what would later turn up to be Steven Spielberg's A.I. - Artificial Intelligence. One of his pet projects was also to do a softcore porn film with A-list actors. It's a groovy idea - too bad that Paul Verhoeven directed Basic Instinct 7 years prior and flooded Hollywood with "erotic thrillers" during the whole decade. Kubrick's film was unfairly compared to this genre and the shock value of boobies was long gone. Kubrick's film isn't very erotic nor very exciting. It is still about sex. After both of them have flirted with others at a party, Alice Hatford (Nicole Kidman) tells her doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that he's been fantasizing about having sex with other men. This revelation makes the shocked Bill search for his own extreme sexual experiences. But he realizes he's gone too far when he's unmasked at an orgy and a woman may have to give her life to save him.
Many critics have turned to defend the film. Yet I myself find the slow tempo and a weird lack of mood off-putting. Most of the blame is on the central actors. The film contains simply too much of Tom Cruise moping and (poorly) acting shocked. His then-wife Nicole Kidman isn't much better. Her bursting up laughing might be the least convincing giggle in the history of cinema. But Full Metal Jacket veteran Ermey reportedly said that Kubrick told him on the phone that the scientologist couple ruined his final masterpiece. At least Kubrick's style remained intact, as the musical choices and eye to cinematography are still stunning.
I'm starting to feel perverse about this rating system, as I wouldn't give a numeric score to Van Gogh or Mozart. Yet, the show must go on. Kubrick scores 3,85.