by Niles Schwartz
One of the “elders” at a local coffee shop I frequent has an anecdote about Stanley Kubrick. In 1955, he met the budding filmmaker at a Manhattan bar where Kubrick, a spritely and amiable personality (he was a chess hustler, after all), was handing out passes to his new movie, a palooka noir entitled Killer’s Kiss. My elder acquaintance had a drink with Kubrick, comfortably enjoyed small talk, and saw the film the next day. Though he warmly remembers the impression Kubrick made as an individual, he recalls of the film, “It wasn’t very good.”
He never saw Kubrick again in-person, but spotted the name a year later on a poster for another noir film, this about a race track heist, The Killing, starring Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook. He immediately recognized its greatness and the talent behind it, as Kubrick conducted a miraculous structural high-wire act about contingency, the mastery of his directorial control doubling for heist ringleader Johnny Clay’s (Hayden) fail-safe plot, the riches from which would fund his escape from urban toil. Whereas Clay’s plan proves vulnerable to myriad variables, The Killing is–so it seems–perfectly pulled off. This director, who would soon begin production with a major Hollywood star (Kirk Douglas) on an explosive World War I drama, Paths of Glory, succeeded in calling the world to attention. His aesthetic, nurtured through years of still photography before moving on to documentary shorts, matured. And whereas he was eagerly giving away passes so that anyone would just see his film, even if it wasn’t very good, this new presence, described by Orson Welles as “a giant,” eventually went out of his way to make sure those “rough draft” pictures of his youth weren’t available. He succeeded where Johnny Clay failed, getting his big score (in the contract job of Spartacus) before hermetically setting up production offices outside of London, far from imposing Hollywood control, and dictating his artistic identity (he believed in Nabokov’s advice of receiving an interviewer’s questions in writing first, and then eventually sending the responses by post). Kubrick was a conglomerate, and probably the first studio filmmaker since Chaplin to have unlimited freedom in time and resources on multiple projects.
The remarkable durability of Stanley Kubrick’s body of work has granted him a distinct place in repertory houses and with special midnight movie screenings. However we evaluate his notorious perfectionism and control over his stories and images, Kubrick’s mysterious alchemy ensured each picture continued to feel fresh and reward—visually, aurally, thematically, emotionally—with subsequent viewings, and even people who rarely see a film more than once may admit to seeing Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket several times. He only had about a dozen feature films across 45 active years, but as Martin Scorsese admitted with enthusiastic admiration, “It’s enough!”
It’s too bad that the cultic Kubrick is limited to those five aforementioned titles. They’re all, in my estimation anyway, great films, rich and validated by time, refusing to age and indeed getting better with the years—The Shining was Razzie-nominated in 1980 and is now widely considered a horror classic, and 1987′s Full Metal Jacket, birthed in the shadow of the less oblique and award-winning Platoon, was well liked but felt to be lesser Kubrick, whereas now it’s one of the most quoted and sampled motion pictures ever made. The popular Kubricks appeal to fantastic sensibilities: nuclear war, space travel, futuristic dystopia, the haunted house, and infantry combat, in most cases injected with biting and irreverent humor, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket containing hilarious nuggets of devilish vulgarity. The performances, such as Peter Sellers and George C. Scott in Strangelove, Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Lee Ermy and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, have an expressiveness that is borderline kabuki in theatricality, veering decidedly away from the softer naturalistic acting that was popular throughout the 1960s and 70s: the faces are masks. They invite cultic imitation. Even if 2001 is too deliberate in its pacing for contemporary ADD viewers, the iconography is deeply saturated into subsequent filmdom–from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to There Will Be Blood to Inception–and we nod in reverence.
This is at the expense of some other, more subtler-on-the-surface gems. The Trylon Microcinema is actively trying to remedy this with its December series, “The Underrated Stanley Kubrick,” which features a couple of titles that, perhaps, dwarf the more popular films. One of them, Barry Lyndon from 1975, has my vote for the best film ever made. Paths of Glory, which kicks the series off, is a WWI chateau chessboard of efficient storytelling and breathtaking—and unsettling—photography, a wonderful display of a good and accomplished director quickly becoming a touchstone master. Lolita (1962) is the often overlooked gem where the recalcitrant provocateur and artisan was finally an “author,” obstructed only by censorship laws which in turn made Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov more slyly clever with its array of rambunctious innuendos.
A more curious dual selection is Kubrick’s feature narrative crash-course “film-school,” Fear and Desire (1953) and the aforementioned Killer’s Kiss (1954). The former, a pulpy and abstract war film that–the title makes clear–broadly lays out the filmmaker’s Freudian themes, was financed by the life insurance money of Kubrick’s father. Killer’s Kiss exhibits Kubrick’s photographic genius through a forgettable erotic triangle. It’s a B-movie–and unlike The Killing, not a very good one–that’s still visually transfixing. A climax as men duel amongst mannequins fits into the Kubrickian echelon of unforgettable images conveying something dreamlike and archetypal with a wicked and real-time urgency. This was the director learning every avenue of his vocation, beginning with financial logistics of producing, familiarity with acting (Stanislavsky Directs is an essential text for directors, according to Kubrick, along with Pudovkin’s Film Technique and Freud’s Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis), and, relatively unique for American filmmakers, absolute mastery of moviemaking’s technical apparatus: Kubrick’s is credited as Killer’s Kiss‘ director and photographer and editor.
The Killing ended with Johnny Clay refusing to run from the police as they closed in. “What’s the difference?” he admits as the Law’s black hand closes in. That existential dread, staved off temporarily by a crafty chess player’s maneuvers, takes full hold in Paths of Glory. The picture begins on a note of impossible strategy: good Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is told that he must take “The Anthill,” a German stronghold across No Man’s Land. It can’t be done. It’s absurd. But there is no option to disobey orders. The attack is a blunder, and after the soldiers retreat, the military takes measures to censure the whole regiment by having three men randomly selected to be executed for cowardice. Dax volunteers to defend his men, but the outcome is ineluctable. Kubrick unflinchingly portrays human beings in the pit of knowing despair with more care than few filmmakers before or since, the carnage of warfare juxtaposed against the absurdly formal efficiency of the same machine that will obtusely haunt his later films in various forms (most memorably HAL-9000). The formality of cruelty–replicated in Strangelove‘s “megadeath” statistics, A Clockwork Orange‘s brawling ballets, Barry Lyndon‘s duels, Full Metal Jacket‘s marine initiations, and Eyes Wide Shut‘s orgy–became one of the most recurring topics of Kubrick’s concentration, more recently effectively portrayed–to no less critical squabbling–by Steve McQueen in Hunger and 12 Years a Slave.
After Paths of Glory, Kirk Douglas hired Kubrick to replace Anthony Mann for the epic all-star production of Spartacus. It was not a good experience for Kubrick, whose touch doesn’t register on the finished product, proficient though it is. With The Killing and Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s sense of music had quickly evolved (Killer’s Kiss has a terribly aggravating conventional movie score), austerely relegating it to background jazz (in The Killing) and percussive tension (as during Paths of Glory‘s tracking shots through the trenches). Other scenes were muted, without the consolation of a non-diegetic emotion-swaying score. Kubrick concludes with music in Paths of Glory, as a German village girl (played by Kubrick’s future wife, Christiane Harlan) sings a lovely folk song, the French soldiers eventually humming along. It’s raw and utterly heartbreaking, a requiem expressing the problem of simply being alive. Spartacus’ music, by Alex North, dulls the blow, embracing bombastic and thickly buttered embroidery in its sound. The characters are decidedly simplistic, lots of acting wooden (with exceptions: Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov are terrific, and Laurence Olivier scowls beautifully as the villain), dull dialogue, and kitschy romance. It feels like the the director of Killer’s Kiss more than the director of The Killing and Paths of Glory. But Spartacus was a monumental hit in 1960, a formidable fee Kubrick paid with his time and sweat that allowed him to pursue projects independently.
Lolita was the functional turning point, and begins the period of independence that Kubrick would want us to remember him by. With producer James Harris, Kubrick adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of Humbert Humbert’s (James Mason, incredible) obsession with the titular nymphet (Sue Lyon), his “limp noodle” veering past the strangling and gauche control of her mother (Shelley Winters). On the road with Lolita, he’s thwarted by the similarly perverse chameleon Quilty (Peter Sellers). Kubrick was unable to to portray the sexual relationship between Humbert and Lolita (Sue Lyon is considerably older than the character) from the book (Adrian Lyne tried his hand at that–with mixed results–with his 1997 adaptation), and interviews with colleagues indicate that, as a result, he was dissatisfied with the film. But Lolita is ecstatically funny with its cheeky and subversive playfulness, the oneiric la-la music countering domestic melodrama, knocking a nervous audience on the back of the head with tacit obscenity. With Sellers, Kubrick makes Quilty an inscrutable, hedonistic, and taunting cipher or trickster to the adoring and neurotic Humbert. He’s the comic antipode and mirror, virtually breaking the fourth wall when he declares before his murder, which opens the film, “I’m Spartacus!” Yet for all its humor, Humbert’s longing is heartbreaking, his tragic psychological trap similar to Paths of Glory‘s doomed soldiers marking time before execution. We can understand how David Lynch, who’s said to love all of Kubrick’s films, considers Lolita his favorite, the depiction of repulsive perversion coexisting with heartfelt sympathy there in Twin Peaks‘ incestuous and murderous father, Leland Palmer, and the wonderment of young women forced into performative roles central to INLAND EMPIRE‘s “swing your hips now” portrayal of an actress spiraling through her identity (we see a Lolita poster in the background during a burlesque show).
The grandest gesture of Stanley Kubrick was Barry Lyndon, attempting to frame the weight of the cosmos every bit as much as 2001. Instead of the future and deep space, Kubrick goes into the deep past, beginning in 1750s Ireland with rake Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) through the British and Prussian militaries, luxurious gaming tables, and the pre-Revolutionary aristocracy before he’s sent tumbling back down into anonymity, leveled–as everyone we’ve seen through the previous three hours and thirty years–by death and time: “they are all equal now.” Barry Lyndon is considered by some to be the most beautiful film ever made (if they won’t agree with me that it’s the best period), Kubrick using special fast lenses to shoot interiors with candlelight. His actors are thus constricted (the camera wouldn’t be able to register too much movement with such light levels), but it’s perfect for his theme of social cybernetics, as individuals are held in restrictive poses much like the artwork that adorns their vast chamber halls. Starting with an ill-conceived erotic attachment to his flirty cousin, Redmond is driven far from his origins, escaping into the identity of “Barry Lyndon,” but his fate is tied to the film’s opening shot: from a distance we see Barry’s father killed in a duel that “arose over the purchase of some horses.” Barry will also find his family and fortunes imperiled by an uncontrollable horse, winding up in a tragic duel that his nature brought upon himself.
The new Shining documentary, Room 237, voices a consensus view: “Barry Lyndon is a boring movie.” I’ve never understood this opinion. Though the film moves along slowly like 2001, it pulls us in with its zooms, tracking shots, and painterly compositions. A nearly silent sequence showing Barry’s seduction of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) at the gaming tables, scored to Schubert, expresses perfectly what I love about movies. The people are stoic but so alive in expression and idiosyncrasy–there’s always the threat of something exploding. The film makes the past extraterrestrial, and thereby, strangely, more confrontational and immeasurably mysterious. Like his space odyssey, Barry Lyndon has history and its disparate personages loom over us, stalking us outside the theater as we trudge into the future. Kubrick’s approach is criticized for its apparent detachment, and yet his unique perspective, doubling outer space with psychological inner space, is one of the most forceful encounters with life in its abundance of emotions and phenomena ever conceived, designed, and executed. A last moments of a disease-ridden aristocrat, squealing during a heart seizure as Michael Hordern’s narration reads his obituary, makes death much more than a soft movie abstraction. Its dread shadow is everywhere, thickly hanging about the air amidst sumptuous pomp.
The most glaring omission among the Underrated series is of course Kubrick’s premature swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, another film that moves too deliberately for some viewers, and which also–as a contemporary erotic drama about unextraordinary people, with little sex and no on-screen death violence (the first time in a Kubrick film)–doesn’t lend itself to popular cult perimeters. Nearly 15 years old, and probably hampered by some distaste for an actor like Tom Cruise, it’s still widely dismissed. That’s too bad, as it’s Barry Lyndon‘s biggest rival in terms of beauty, and maybe 2001‘s in terms of mystery. Eyes Wide Shut isn’t necessarily the “hopeful” send-off some critics have described it as–other than the prospect of a good fuck, its characters’ futures remain ambiguous–but as Dr. Bill (Cruise) looks at his sleeping daughter, her room sprinkled with hopeful stardust decor, there’s a touching sense of the aging director’s concern about the future he’s famous for predicting and didn’t live to see. Every frame of Eyes Wide Shut is fascinating–unfinished as it may be (Kubrick turned in his cut in March 1999, but he surely would have tinkered with it until its July release)–but it has a sage old-fashioned perfume. It’s a dream New York evocative of the home Kubrick permanently left behind in the early 1960s before becoming “Stanley Kubrick.” And underneath the austere artifice, in faces, music, colors, cab rides, and masks, there’s something ineffable and ageless, which the filmmaker seems to have been chasing throughout his entire career.
The Underrated Stanley Kubrick runs throughout weekends in December. With the exception of Fear and Desire, all of the films will be shown in 35mm. For more information go to www.take-up.org.
Paths of Glory on December 6-8
Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire on December 13-15
Barry Lyndon on December 20-22
Lolita on December 27-29