In honor of the master’s birthday today, I would like to explain just what makes him one of my five favorite filmmakers of all time (the list, in order, is 1. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2. Wes Anderson, 3. Martin Scorsese, 4. Kubrick, 5. Woody Allen).
Kubrick’s work, more than any other director I’ve followed, gazes so deeply into the abyss of man’s negative qualities that there are moments in his films that are so shocking and inventive that they do not only awe me but sometimes cause me to break out in laughter. Now, this laughter is occasionally awkward and can be used as a coping mechanism for the discomfort I sometimes feel with what’s on screen, but when I truly laugh the loudest it is never out of schadenfreude, because I’m not laughing at the characters’ mistakes, but rather because what’s happening is truly funny, even though it’s the blackest comedy I can think of. Kubrick at his best nailed this nearly impossible-to-pull-off, and very characteristic of his work and none other’s, mix of depicting very serious, sadistic, amoral behaviour in blackly comedic form. At this point I’ll address most of his films, and the moments that depict this duality, in detail, so I can give you a more specific idea of what I’m writing about.
The first movie that gained him attention is The Killing, which I’m not going to discuss right now because so far I see it as a very minor work, though that is hardly my final statement on it, as Kubrick’s films really do get better with every single viewing and I’ve only watched it twice. The next one he did is Paths of Glory, which gets sentimental at the very end and is hardly funny at all, but is very watchable due to its depiction of the insanity of war. Two generals order Colonel Dax, the character played by Kirk Douglas, to lead an absolutely suicidal attack on a well-fortified German position in a World War I battle, an attack which is likely to lead to half of Douglas’ troops dying and very little positional advantage gained. When many of Dax’s men refuse to attack, one of these generals insists on a court-martial to try them for cowardice, and eventually they are shot after a farce of a trial that follows very little of the rule of law. The spectacle of seeing a general angling for a promotion ordering a suicide mission and then having his subordinates killed for refusing to engage in it is sickening to say the least, and Douglas’s speech at the end of the court-martial really brings that emotion to the forefront. This is a very powerful movie that augured very well for the young director’s future.
I’m regrettably going to skip a few movies that followed because I’ve either never seen them or seen them enough times to feel confident in my judgments, to his genre-defining sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. A lot has been written about this film in the past, and will continue to be written as long as there are films and people watching them, so I will keep my views brief. To me, 2001’s greatness lies in the accuracy of its central thesis that man has been selfish and violent forever because its ancestors, apes, were selfish and violent. While this thesis comes through very clearly in the film, it’s one of the few things I can say about its themes that I’m sure about, and its essential mystery is another thing that keeps bringing me back to it. The saying that man’s reach exceeds his grasp is perfectly encapsulated in HAL, a computer that of course its creators claim is perfect and foolproof but could never be so because it was created by men, and men are never perfect. Even more importantly than what it says, however, is how 2001 says it, which is the biggest difference between Kubrick’s pre-2001 work and everything afterwards, as it deals with shocking content about how stupid men can be and how that stupidity contributes directly to the deaths of other men in an unemotional fashion rather than with the palpable outrage of Paths of Glory. I believe Kubrick makes HAL the most interesting character in his film to emphasize how coldly brutal and selfish man has been throughout his reign atop the animal kingdom. This also starts the period in Kubrick’s filmography where his musical choices are often directly at odds with the onscreen material they are enhancing, as many of these films feature gorgeous classical music while man’s basest impulses are depicted.
Then came “A Clockwork Orange,” which is in my opinion his finest achievement in its combination of very biting, very funny social satire with sequences so inventive that they linger forever in the mind, from the famed “Singin’ in the Rain” rape scene to the Alex being brainwashed one. For a deeper discussion on what makes this movie so memorable for me, read my previous post on Christopher Nolan vs. Kubrick, which is conveniently located just below this one. Next was Barry Lyndon, which I’m still not sure I’m in love with but agree with many people before me who claim it is the most visually sumptuous movie ever made. Though I may not love it as much as I adore most of the other Kubricks I’m discussing here, the scene that clinches its greatness for me is the one when Lyndon attacks his adult stepson, Lord Bullingdon, in front of a hundred members of the elite. Seconds after Bullingdon upbraids him for his brutality, Lyndon proves the younger right in such a protocol-breaking, unself-conscious, selfish and childish a manner that the scene is both shocking and hilarious, because it’s true. Thus, Kubrick again showed that men can hit rock bottom, and go even lower in their continued depravity, and his virtuosity in filming such substance with style is literally breathtaking.
This brings me to The Shining, for which Kubrick pulled off yet another near-impossible balancing act, creating an art-horror film. Now, I’m no expert on the horror genre, but it seems to me that ever since the release of The Exorcist, most of the best horror movies are epitomized by low budgets and grimy settings, etc., to create a visual ugliness that parallels the ugly nature of the violence and fear that most horror films depict. Thus it is quite startling on first viewing, and one of the film’s continued pleasures on subsequent viewings, to see that “The Shining” is as visually stunning as “Barry Lyndon,” only with much more violent, disturbing content. Kubrick also nails the frightening possibility that a landscape that is so wide open can be so claustrophobic, for it is sterile, literally cold, and isolating. Finally, the onrushing blood wide-angle shots nail this gorgeous yet horrifying aesthetic into your subconscious, where it stays forever and leaves quite an imprint.
Kubrick’s following film was Full Metal Jacket, which, stop me if I’m being repetitive here, breaks such entrenched narratival and filmmaking conventions that it shouldn’t work at all, yet stands as one of the finest war films ever made, and, after Doctor Strangelove and Clockwork, the most enjoyable Kubrick. The narrative splinters into two halves, which are only peripherally related to one another, and at the end of the first half the story completely stops its progress and restarts at a later date with merely two characters that carry over from the first half. Yet, during the first half of the narrative, which consists of basic military training for these Vietnam recruits, R. Lee Ermey, the former actual Marine playing a Marine, so thoroughly owns his role as the epitome of the ball-busting drill sergeant, and Kubrick’s unblinking camera follows him so closely, that you can’t help but feel that you are there, getting yelled at by one of the most abrasive characters in cinema. Similarly, the battle scenes in the second half of the film are so realistic that you can’t help but sympathize with these soldiers you might normally revile, who act out with murderous rage because they are afraid of the bullets whizzing by their ears, and upset that their best friend has just died in their arms. Yet none of the tragic deaths is accompanied by the over-emotive, James Horner-type scores that are de rigeur in most war films, because Kubrick never wants to engage your emotions in a conventional way.
Unconventional to the very end, Kubrick took twelve years after “Jacket” to release his next, and what turned out to be his last, film, the 159-minute Freudian fever dream called Eyes Wide Shut, which is easily his most underrated film and a great one. “Eyes Wide Shut” is the first Kubrick I ever saw, so I have a definite emotional connection to it, but the simple reason I like it so is the fact that what many people found ludicrous about it, from Cruise’s visions to his acting to the lack of believability in the pot-smoking scene and emotional sterility of the sex scenes, I found mostly absorbing. I do think Cruise’s visions of Kidman in bed with the young interloper are disposable, but the film’s other dreamlike sequences, such as the pot-smoking one, are all disturbing and befuddling in equal measure, you know, like a real dream. The scene when Cruise gets exposed as a fraud in front of everyone at the orgy is one of the best I’ve ever seen, as the minimal score gives me the chills merely when I think of it.
Thanks for reading through to the end of this (at least for me) mentally challenging, elongated yet rewarding post. Much like watching a Kubrick.
Tags: Stanley Kubrick