Director Retrospective: Stanley Kubrick
For this installment of my ongoing “Director Retrospective” project, I thought that I’d try to tackle a director who many film critics, historians, and fans consider to be one of the greatest — perhaps THE greatest — director of all time, a man whose career encompasses nearly 50 years of challenging work in a vast array of cinematic genres and, coincidentally, someone whose films I, for whatever reason, had never really paid much attention to: Stanley Kubrick.
The Big List
So…I watched all 12 feature-length films by Stanley Kubrick. Here’s the list: Fear and Desire (1953); The Killing (1956); Paths of Glory (1957); Spartacus (1960); Lolita (1962); Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); A Clockwork Orange (1971); Barry Lyndon (1975); The Shining (1980); Full Metal Jacket (1987); Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
The Top Five
Here are my picks for Kubrick’s “Top Five” (listed from #1-#5 with some brief comments on each one)…
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – In simplest terms, I am a HUGE fan of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. For such a classic film and an honest-to-god masterpiece, I’m surprised by how many people that I meet who haven’t seen it. The plot contains three separate but interrelated storylines: (1) An insane general (Gen. Jack D. Ripper, played brilliantly by Sterling Hayden) is obsessed with a nonsensical Russian plot to use fluoride to contaminate “our precious bodily fluids” and, as a result, instructs bombers to target the U.S.S.R.; (2) The crew of said bomber plane — led by cowboy pilot Major King Kong (played by Slim Pickens, who Kubrick allegedly didn’t tell that the film was actually a comedy/satire) is trying to interpret the objectives of their mission; & (3) Inside the U.S. War-Room, the U.S. President and his cabinet/advisers meet with a Russian diplomat in order to avoid setting off the dreaded “Doomsday Machine.” This movie is straight-up bonkers. I’ve already mentioned the great turns from Hayden and Pickens, but the film also contains wonderful performances from the likes of George C. Scott, Peter Bull, Keenan Wynn, and especially Peter Sellers. For those that don’t know, Sellers plays three separate characters here — the ineffectual U.S. President Merkin Muffley, the British exchange-officer Capt. Lionel Mandrake, and the ridiculous ex-Nazi mad-scientist Dr. Strangelove. [Yes, as you can likely tell, most of the characters’ names in the film are some childish version of a sex or poop joke. That’s what we’re working with here. Just deal with it.] There are far, far too many amazing scenes in this film; and while its brand of dark-comedy (pitch-black, in fact) isn’t for everyone, if it clicks with you, it’s the sort of movie that is endlessly quotable. It’s also a scathing critique of both the political and military machinations in a world of global superpowers. And it has one of the best endings in all of film history. Checkout Dr. Strangelove if you haven’t already and just try to roll with it — it’s one of those movies that rewards multiple, yearly re-watchings because of its utter brilliance. Who knew that Kubrick of all people could make an all-time great comedy?
The Shining (1980) – It was a coin-flip to determine whether Dr. Strangelove or The Shining would be #1 on my list of Kubrick films. While I went with Dr. Strangelove, I think that The Shining is essentially its equal. A movie that has inspired other movies about the supposed hidden meanings within the original (e.g. Kubrick’s film is his way of saying that he faked the Apollo 11 moon landing, Kubrick’s film is actually about Native Americans, etc. etc. etc.), The Shining certainly isn’t lacking for subtext. But even if you ignore all of that — and, honestly, most of those theories are fun but don’t really hold up to much scrutiny — you still have an absolute masterpiece: a truly great film that just happens to also be a horror movie. Full of instantly iconic imagery (e.g. the creepy twins, bloody elevator, “Here’s Johnny!,” the dog/bear man, the woman in 237, and so on), it certainly has to be one of the most influential and spoofed films of its genres. It’s easy to forget in all the visual flourishes just how great the performances are here as well — particularly from Jack Nicholson, who is in full-blown crazy-eyes mode. Author Stephen King, whose novel of the same name was the inspiration for the film, has repeatedly discussed how much he hates Kubrick’s version, which he deems to basically be a pretty film without any heart. (And while I don’t agree with King’s overall assessment of the film, I think there is some truth to that particular criticism and not just sour-grapes from Kubrick so drastically deviating from the source.) This is, unfortunately, also the film where Kubrick was in his peak bad behavior. Always a perfectionist (and perhaps to a disturbed degree), he forced his various actors to do take after take after take — sometimes doing as many as 100+ takes of the same scene until they were physically exhausted and emotionally distraught. He apparently purposefully tried to anger/frustrate Nicholson during the shooting. However, his worst treatment — by far — was toward Shelley Duvall, who he daily harassed to the point that she was frequently crying on-set, got physically sick, and began losing her hair. Moreover, Kubrick also instructed the other cast and film-crew to not comfort Duvall during/after scenes in which she was getting belittled and humiliated by Kubrick. The film — and the story behind its making — raises some difficult questions in terms of how we evaluate art and artists, and I don’t expect that discussion to end anytime soon.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – For many film nerds, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only Kubrick’s best film, it’s THE best film by anyone…ever. While I can’t go that far (obviously…it’s not even my top-rated Kubrick film), it’s still an undeniable cinematic masterpiece. Few movies capture both the scope and the grandeur of Kubrick’s space-opera –i.e. its bombastic “who-gives-a-fuckness?” in terms of just going for it, going BIG. [The closest thing that I can think of in terms of scale is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and its similar ballsy commitment to starting at the beginning of time and then going from there. There’s something oddly admirable about that — a paradoxical flipping of that trope that opens so many freshman composition papers.] It’s interesting to watch Kubrick’s version of man’s exploration of the cosmos — which feels beautiful and sanitized, maybe even soul-less — and contrast that with something like Ridley Scott’s Alien or Duncan Jones’s Moon (which present exploration as very dirty business). Collaborating with sci-fi titan Arthur C. Clarke on the screenplay, the ideas of 2001 seem optimistic in their possibilities regarding the limits of man (or the lack thereof), and the special-effects are still incredibly impressive even by today’s standards. Is it (more than) a little pretentious at times? Yeah…I think so. Are there parts of the film that feel like they drag on? I’m looking at you, prehistoric man and giant monolith. But it did give us one of the absolute best villains of all time in HAL, and it takes some considerable skill to make a little red dot so utterly menacing. Plus, the score is amazing and perfect for the tone of the film.
Paths of Glory (1957) – Perhaps a bit of a “surprise” pick here, Paths of Glory doesn’t seem to have captured the attention of ordinary filmgoers quite like some of Kubrick’s other movies. (It was a financial flop upon its release.) After all, Paths of Glory doesn’t have one memorable dramatic scene like Spartacus. It’s not hyper-stylized like A Clockwork Orange, etc. And while many would point to Full Metal Jacket as Kubrick’s best “war film,” I’d actually argue that Paths of Glory is, from beginning to end, the far superior film. Set during World War I, a French general orders his men to attack a well-defended German position; however, due to a combination of the German defenses, miscommunication, and extreme “shell-shock” (PTSD), the French assault is a disastrous failure. Deciding that the attack was a failure due to cowardice on the part of some troops, a French colonel is put in the impossible position of following ill-informed orders and supporting his soldiers against the subsequent court-martial. While there are many good performances here, Douglas’s carries the film; and, honestly, after watching it, I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of the heroic and conscientious Colonel Dax — a middle-manager of sorts within the military who demonstrates personal courage while also defending his more-vulnerable peers. (There’s perhaps not a better hero for our current political climate than Dax, who exposes himself to severe personal/professional risk in order to speak truth to power.) I’m a sucker for black-and-white films, and this one is a beauty — whoever was in charge of the Criterion remastering work on Paths of Glory earned their paycheck. It’s simply a stunning film to behold, full of long takes and complex camera-work that brings the psychological horrors of warfare to life. (Prior to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the French failed-assault scene here must have been one of the best of its kind.) A great film with a powerful message.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Of all Stanley Kubrick’s films, the one that I had the most difficulty watching — from a emotional-visceral standpoint — was easily A Clockwork Orange. From the invasion/rape scene to the torture and/or rehabilitation(?) to the truly atrocious cast of “droogs” and their love of the “ultra-violence,” it’s a deeply disturbing and pessimistic look at human society. That said, it does also feature some Kubrick’s most memorable images — from our first introduction to Alex in the Milk Bar to the subsequent gang-fight and high-speed getaway. And all along the way, Malcolm McDowell does a superb job in bringing the language of Anthony Burgess’s invented dialect to life. (I’ve not read the Burgess novel on which the film is based, but my understanding is that it is a relatively faithful adaptation.) As one might expect, Kubrick was allegedly up to his old bag of tyrannical tricks here — e.g. meticulously re-shooting Alex’s torture scene again and again (to the point that McDowell’s corneas were severely scratched), using McDowell’s real-life phobias against him during production as a practical joke, and then more or less treating McDowell like some stranger (at best) and/or a piece of shit (at worst) after the filming had wrapped. Yeah… But it’s still a breathtakingly memorable experience of a film and one that’s likely to stick with the viewer (for better or worse) long after its over.
The Underrated One
The difficult part of picking an “underrated” film for Kubrick is that his oeuvre is now so highly regarded that all of his films are readily (re)watched and frequently dissected/studied, and many of them have received Criterion treatment. His first film, Fear and Desire, is barely an hour long, is rough around the edges, and is somewhat narratively familiar; however, there’s an undeniable lyrical confidence that one might not expect from a first film. Conversely, Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, is probably the film that some would (mistakenly) disregard as mostly just the director’s attempt at a sex-fetish film; and while that movie’s final turn is somewhat disappointing, the opening two-thirds contain some moments of genuine dread (helped by a fantastic score) and unsettling strangeness (courtesy of some Kubrickian visual flourishes). But, for my money, I think Kubrick’s most underrated film is probably his effort at the film-noir / crime genre, The Killing (1956). Co-adapted by Kubrick and crime novelist Jim Thompson, the film’s plot — which details a racetrack heist gone awry — is engaging if not entirely unfamiliar. However, the cast is superb — particularly Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, and Elisha Cook Jr. (who is underrated for his performances in a number of film and TV roles). One can see how this film might’ve inspired subsequent texts like Ocean’s Eleven, Reservoir Dogs, and Logan Lucky. Kubrick’s films often have really, really fantastic final images; and this one features one of my very favorites from his entire filmography — one that often gets overlooked for some reason. If you’re interested in film-noir or crime movies, then you really ought to watch The Killing at some point.
The One to Avoid
Alright…let me first say this: I don’t think that Kubrick’s body of work actually contains a “bad” film. As I’ve already stated, Fear and Desire is rough around the edges, but I enjoyed it — especially as a first film. The last 20ish minutes of Eyes Wide Shut unfortunately dissipate much of the dread that the film had worked so hard to build to that point; however, I still thought it was better than advertised. Spartacus is a LONG film and, in some ways, it’s the one that feels the least like Kubrick, but it’s still worth watching — especially if you like historical epics. Lolita is a good — not great — movie that’s elevated by wonderfully off-kilter performances from James Mason, Shelley Winters, and Peter Sellers. And I’m of the opinion that Full Metal Jacket is a film of two halves — i.e. the first-half is, for me, one of the director’s finest while the second-half is a bit of a letdown in comparison. But my pick here for the “One to Avoid” is Barry Lyndon (1975). I know that there are plenty of intelligent, passionate film-nerds out there who would argue to the death about this because many consider Barry Lyndon to be Kubrick’s greatest work (albeit one that is mostly overlooked by casual filmgoers). Look…Barry Lyndon is a BEAUTIFUL film. It’s basically a painting that has been brought to life. However, I also found it to be…well…boring. Everything that I admired about the film was purely its technical / visual achievement. I didn’t care at all about the story, the characters, the conflict, etc. etc. In that sense, I guess it’s the most overtly Kubrickian in a negative sense in that, despite its beauty, it ultimately feels all too hollow to me. Not one that I’d hurry to watch again, I guess…
The Place to Start
More than probably any other director that I’ve reviewed so far as part of this retrospective project (with the exception of David Lynch possibly), Stanley Kubrick’s work feels like the most difficult to enter into casually as a viewer. Simply put, he’s likely to be a bit daunting for your casual film-watcher. So that makes picking a place to start a little tricky for those who are looking for a way to enter into Kubrick’s filmography. The Killing or Paths of Glory aren’t bad starting points; however, my pick here is going to be The Shining (1980). Maybe it’s my love of horror films (and the fact that it’s Halloween right now) that’s influencing this choice, but I think The Shining is probably the “most accessible” (which feels ridiculous to type) of Kubrick’s masterpieces. It’s certainly not “easy” — emotionally and/or symbolically — but it’s possible for someone to watch and appreciate on an initial viewing, even if subsequent viewings will certainly open up new possibilities for interpretation. At the very least, it’s certainly more straightforward than 2001 and also tonally broader than Dr. Strangelove. What I’m trying to say is that The Shining is one of those movies that everyone — even people who don’t like movies (whoever those people are) — should watch at least once.
The Final Word
Stanley Kubrick isn’t my favorite director, nor would I say that he’s the greatest director who ever lived — though I can see how others might come to that conclusion. I respect and understand that opinion, even if I don’t personally agree. As a human, Kubrick was more than flawed…he seemed downright despicable. His well-documented, awful behavior toward others on his sets is the stuff of (terrible, unfortunate) legend; and his unprofessional and indecent treatment of others was too often explained away as a symptom of his “genius.” That said, as someone who watches a lot of movies and has deliberately set about to watch a bunch more for this particular project, it’s impossible to ignore the quality of his work. After all, he created arguably the greatest science-fiction film ever, the greatest horror film ever, the greatest black-comedy ever, one of the greatest anti-war films ever, one of the greatest historical epics ever, etc. That is, simply, staggering. To me, Kubrick serves as an important notice that bad people can make stupendous art — an unfortunate but sometimes necessary reminder. We want, we hope for, greatness to be coupled with goodness. But, sadly, that’s not always the case; often, it is not. And so our task then is what? What do we make of it?