The other day I stumbled across a great deal on an evil, unnamed shopping website for two boxsets of Stanley Kubrick films. I realised I didn’t own a single Kubrick film on DVD which seemed like sacrilege to me so I bought the lot. The next day I had almost all of Stanley Kubrick’s major films minus Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and Lolita so decided on giving my Saturdays over to Kubrick marathons and reacquainting myself with his work.
As soon as I became aware of what they were and their influence, I’ve always claimed Stanley Kubrick as one of my all time favourite film directors. Before you go bashing the ‘pretentious’ button I should add others on this list include Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Nolan and formerly Steven Spielberg who are “Popcorn” directors largely. I always state this when asked about favourite directors but when asked about favourite films I rarely name a Kubrick in the top ten. This is typical of the sort of director who makes the same film repeatedly and whilst Kubrick’s films are the polar opposites of one another they do feel like they are stylistically the same film. This can be a good thing and a bad thing: I am not a fan of Wes Anderson and his films are all stylistically identical, likewise I like Tarantino and his are all stylistically identical. this boils down to what film students and cinema commentators call ‘Auteur Theory’.
Auteur Theory has something of a wooly history and definition. It wasn’t something that evolved it was an idea developed by some writers for a french film magazine that was then adopted by directors to feel big and is now part of cinema law. Originally the studio system dictated what films were made and how, this resulted in what was called the ‘conveyor belt’ system (sometimes pejoratively referred to as the ‘cookie cutter’ method) where the studios decided what films should be made in a box ticking exercise to make money. Directors were simply seen as giving direction to the actors, there were formulas for editing, camera placement, sound design that were all strictly adhered to. The producer tended to have more power than the director in those days as they tended to be studio representatives and the money man (now these are called Executive Producers). Slowly though films became more creative under the guidance of more wilful directors like Truffaut, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Renoir. Influenced by these early talents at making more individual films and the explosion of creativity in the 60s the movie brats moved into Hollywood and the Auteur was king. Chief among these was the likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and if you really want a lesson in all this read the fantastic book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’. HOWEVER, operating through these various shifts in trend was Kubrick, who, from day one it seems, was bucking the trend.
I have a shaky relationship with Auteur theory. There is no denying when certain directors make a film you can say it is most definitely a Spielberg, or a Scorsese, or a Coppola, or even an Anderson but cinema itself and the making of a film is a massive task, certainly for the bigger blockbusters. As such it requires thousands of people to make a film these days and whilst a director may have influence and certain aspects of production they cannot control the exactness of every person’s involvement in a film. Therefore, especially if a director only directs, is it their film? Are they truly the Author? For me one person really was and that’s Kubrick.
Stan the Man co-wrote and directed all his films but most importantly for his early films produced as well. That meant he had creative and technical control of any project he started, even going so far as to having his own production company just so his films could become financed. (A fact regularly over looked by critics and film historians.) As such Kubrick could then be as deconstructive or transgressive as he liked with little fear of the studio stepping in. This also gained him an ominous reputation for being a perfectionist and control freak but the results are incomparable when you see them in sequence and think of his early films in context.
I’m afraid I’m going to summarise each film now so *spoiler alert* and *boring nerd alert*. I watched them deliberately out of order to try and spot ‘Kubrickisms’ where possible but will write them in order. I have not yet seen his first low-budget feature ‘Fear and Desire’ or ‘Barry Lyndon’ either so they are omitted:
Spartacus I saw as a kid but remember it being long and rather dull. I may feel different now but Kubrick disowned it and considered it not part of his “canon”. He was hired in after other directors left the production, this meant Kubrick had less than his usual level of control and despite winning 4 Oscars is not considered his finest work. Equally Lolita is an uneven one. I saw it as an 18 year old after having seen the remake with Jeremy Irons and was not impressed even as I was by then a Kubrick fan. It is peculiarly comedic especially given Peter Seller’s performance as Quilty. The censorship standards were much more strict then, given that a Ratings system was not in place at the time (did a post about that sort of thing here) which meant the book could not be adapted in a more exact way. Lolita’s age was raised and Humbert’s desire was mitigated to real love. The film was still shocking at the time but feels uneven now, I would have been more intrigued if he had directed the 1997 version as it would have probably been much more shattering and hard to watch. As stated though these were not present in my recent marathon so I could be entirely wrong and operating on the vagaries of memory.
Killer’s Kiss is a classic noir about a boxer and a broad in deep with the mob and trying to escape. In many ways if you’ve seen Pulp Fiction you’ve seen this film as Tarantino, to an almost overt degree, has cribbed from it. Other than the now trademark Kubrick camera work it is unremarkable … until the end. The finale in an abandoned department store where a duel is acted out amongst hundreds of mannequins is a work of macabre wonder and is pure Kubrick. It is tense and bizarre and easy to forget its period setting. The chase along the rooftops are a wonder to behold, seeing New York in all its black and white glory. The framing device of the lead character waiting at the station is also wonderful and another trope stolen by Tarantino.
The Killing is even more Tarantino. It is about a group of men (and a woman) planning to rob a race track. It involves a varied rogues gallery of characters and some stellar editing and camera work. In a revolutionary bit of scriptwriting the sequence of events is told out of order and occasionally in flashback and can easily be identified as a blueprint for Reservoir Dogs, in fact most of Tarantino’s output. It also has truly brilliant ending that is honestly tense and I didn’t expect. Despite being very much dated, Kubrick’s tropes are coming to the fore and you can feel him pushing the limits of the medium already.
Paths of Glory is the first that feels like true Kubrick and the first that feels truly modern. The story of a power mad general ordering his troops to their death amongst the trenches and then making an example of three of his troops by putting them to trial and then firing squad is slightly scattered but utterly cohesive. Kirk Douglas and the three men charged with “Cowardice” turn in performances of astonishing subtlety that would be happy amongst more modern filmmaking and still make an impression. The long winding shots of the men in the trenches and the painfully cold “down-the-barrell” shot of the firing squad is startling and proof of Kubrick’s investment in revolutionary and incomparable cinematography. The strange, unsettling and off-kilter finale is textbook Kubrick and most certainly assured Hollywood’s desire for him to direct Spartacus thereafter.
After Spartacus and Lolita came one of my definite favourite films of all time ever: Dr. Strangelove. A cutting-to-the-bone satire of the Cold War it is not simply intelligent, tense and MAGNIFICENTLY acted by the main cast, it is laugh out loud funny, which for a satire is hard to achieve. So much has already been said about it so I can add little but know that it is totally worthy of it all. Sellers is truly great in his three utterly different roles, the War Room is justly remembered as an all time cinema classic set and the themes in our time of Russian propagandising and war mongering seem sadly pertinent. It still holds up, is still painfully funny and still shocking. I can’t recommend it enough.
And then. And then… 2001: A Space Odyssey was used by Nasa to train its astronauts and conspiracy theorists believe it is proof Kubrick directed the moon landings. To be honest I think that’s all that need be said. 2001 is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is always the film I cite as being what cinema *could* be. It is also the most obvious film showing Kubrick’s desire to tell more than one story in one film. It is alternately about the evolution of early man, then a film about commercialisation and tourism, then about Man’s struggle with technology and then Man’s struggle with “God”, whatever that may be. The name ‘Odyssey’ encapsulates it well. 2001 is often cited as a “Film School” film and whilst I feel this is a rather ignorant statement there is a reason for it. To say the film still holds up is an understatement, it still has a broader palate than most films or filmakers achieve, it is so ahead of its time we’re still analysing it. It is admittedly long and very slow, so with modern audiences who demand Michael Bay style whizzbang, kinetic energy it is not a populist film but if you are willing and prepared it is totally rewarding. What still staggers me is that it was made in 1968. 1968! We didn’t even have a full picture of the earth from outer space yet! Star Wars was a DECADE away. The film was the first of its kind, was utterly visionary and still is and its influence is almost inescapable in every corner of cinema. Re-watching it did nothing to dim my beliefs of it and merely cemented its place in history for me. Kubrick went technicolour in every which way.
As if to middle finger everyone after making cinematic art of such titanic scale, his next film was A Clockwork Orange a character drama and a return to satire. Much is made of its greater influence than its source material, the Novel by former fellow Manchester resident Anthony Burgess, and I feel that is justifiable having only recently read the novel. I saw this on its debut in the UK which is not something many can say for 29 year old who wasn’t even born when it came out. This is because Kubrick pulled the film due to our delightful print media destroying it before a frame was shown and he sensibly said “if you can’t hack it, you can’t have it”. To that end it was only formally released in the 2000 after Kubrick had died which is when I, and most people in this country for that matter, saw it. It is a very close adaptation of the source it must be said (minus the ending) and is yet another tour de force of filmmaking. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of brilliant playing the smug and menacing Alex, the production design is a little dated but still striking and the ever present “Kubrick Eye” of cinematography is another standout. The fact so many references are made to it in other novels, films, graphic design, band names, etc is testament to its influence.
The Shining is a tough one. It has been analysed (too much), parodied and pilloried to such a massive degree over the last 30 years it is hard to remove it from all that but the simple fact it IS so ingrained should be enough a testament to its influence. For me its Nicholson’s best performance, its not subtle but it is utterly believable. The editing is still unmatched, staggering considering we now have far more powerful editing techniques available to us and I rate it as Kubrick’s best shot film. The cinematography is pure artistry and is equally unmatched to this day. It has been called camp, slow, long and even (this one is beyond me) “not very scary” but it is a masterclass in atmosphere despite or maybe because of those reasons. I am a fan of horror when it is good. I define a good horror movie as being atmospheric, psychologically affecting, with a simple yet solid plot and good characters. For me that makes The Shining the perfect horror movie. It sits just below Don’t Look Now for me in this regard. Also, spot how many other films reference this one either in parody or homage or even without realising it. Undoubtedly a classic, love it or loathe it. I love it.
Seven years later Kubrick returned to the war movie genre with Full Metal Jacket which looks like it could have been made yesterday. It practically was. War films are still using it as a template. Saving Private Ryan would not have been made were it not for this film. Nor The Thin Red Line. Again Kubrick seems to stitch to different films together: Hartman’s abuse and bullying of Gomer Pyle and his ultimate descent into madness and suicide which shocking conclusion introduces us to the story of Sergeant Joker and his travels through the war zones of Vietnam. Kubrick is firing on all cylinders with jaw dropping cinematography from slo-mo to atmospheric lighting, chilling and deliberately juxtaposing sound design, documentary style shooting, black humour, character drama, satire, cultural comment and much more besides yet as always it remains cohesive and steady. As ever it is slow and luxuriant in its pacing but not to its detriment. It is probably the most readily accepted of Kubrick’s films, being a war movie, but is unmistakably his. It is a haunting and deeply affecting movie and, yet again, changed the genre in which it is set completely.
A full twelve years after that, Kubrick finished Eyes Wide Shut just prior to his unexpected death. It garnered middling returns on its release and came in for something of a critical pasting despite being one of cinema’s greatest at the helm and the two biggest box office draws at the time in the lead roles. Telling the story of a Man’s exploration into sex and desire over a two day period ending in a possible plot on his life and a conspiracy amongst the wealthy it was perhaps still a little ahead of its time. It seems more suited to now. I think it is odd that it is Kubrick’s least ambitious film of his career yet took the longest to shoot. It is also sad that something relatively slight was his swan song yet it does not make it any less brilliant. I had not seen it until the other day and decided to watch it last after having seen all his others in close succession and it does seem like a natural conclusion to his ‘oeuvre’ for want of a better word. With a far greater focus on character it watches like a cinematic version of Joyce’s Ulysses (that is mere conjecture, I’ve not read Ulysses); long, meandering and contemplative it is equally funny, erotic, chilling, frightening, tense, awe inspiring and sad but fiercely contained. You get the impression Kubrick is trying to narrow his massive talents to a single point which, in my opinion, he succeeds at but this is probably why it was so poorly received. Despite being wonderfully grand (the COLOURS!) it only contains a few Kubrickian flourishes which to an idiot might be what you want. It is admittedly slight in comparison to FMJ, 2001 or Clockwork Orange but it is no less a film for that. It initially left me chewing it over and reluctant to state an opinion due to its candour and density but now I feel like it is one of his best. The biggest drawback for me is the casting of Nicole Kidman whose attempt at breathy femme fatale is simply annoying. She delivers every line like a narcoleptic just awoken in what she mistakes for sexy and is generally just a functional character that goes nowhere and Kidman adds nothing to. Luckily Kubrick focusses on Tom Cruise, on fantastic form, and the ancillary characters instead giving them all tragic pathos, the odd funny line and real arcs whether on or off screen. Its sexual politics and already dated appearance will cause problems for many but I think in the future it will be regarded as a classic and have much further reaching influence.
Watching all these in a row many things came to light. First and foremost, for me as a photographer, they are the most cinematically interesting, arresting and innovative pieces of art I’ve seen. Even his earliest films use his trademark unsympathetic, active camera work. Using hard lines, distance, foreground objects, vanishing point perspective and very wide angles, every frame is a picture and truly epic meaning you focus on the figures within these pictures more and that they inhabit a real, large world just like us. Secondly, Kubrick’s preoccupation with Sex. Nudity is not something Kubrick was shy of nor the topic of sexuality at all. Lolita, Clockwork Orange, 2001, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut all concern themselves either overtly or covertly with sex and sexuality. This is often taken as an inditement of Kubrick’s character alongside his other well noted character foibles, that he is a sexist and pervert who is preoccupied with sex. Watching all these together this is not the impression I came away with. Kubrick forever simply observes and the naked bodies of women (and plenty of naked men) are viewed coldly, dispassionately and anatomically whenever in a scene. Kubrick knows that sex is a MASSIVE part of who we are and simply represents that either literally or through imagery (riding the bomb in Strangelove, “getting your gun off” in FMJ or the space child in 2001). He seems to treat sex like a curiosity, an alien brought to earth wondering why humans are so obsessed with procreation. Finally and most pleasingly for me, his misanthropy.
Much is made of Kubrick the oddball, Kubrick the perfectionist, Kubrick the Shut in, Kubrick the tyrant and to me these all speak of a man who – and I flatter myself to compare myself to the great man – like me, largely loathes people and the societies we have created. I may be utterly wrong but the central theme of each film is almost always: Fuck the Big Guy. Whether its the mob, societies laws, enforced sexual identity/conformity, the chain of command, the military itself, the government, the patriarchal figure, or even the idea of God himself, Kubrick endeavour’s to focus on the individual in any given circumstance and say: “Do what you want to do. People always have done. People always will.” This notion that we are our own masters is refreshing and seems to be something Kubrick believed to his core, separating himself from the glitteratti of Hollywood, it studio system and making his own films his own way seems indicative of what this ideology. As someone who also believes no one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do as they are just as stupid and self-interested as you are, this is probably why Kubrick’s films speak to me as a whole.
To surmise, Kubrick should be on everyone’s watch list. Similar to the Beatles he is inescapable. He revolutionised cinema practices and storytelling inside and out. Spielberg, Tarantino, Aranofsky, Sophia Copolla, Lucas, Scorsese, Eli Roth, all have visible references to Kubrick – conscious or not – in all their films. As you can see from the list above and not forgetting the four I have omitted, Kubrick was not confined to genre and completely restructured every type of film he touched be it sci-fi, war, satire comedy, relationship drama, histroical biopic, horror, whatever your favourite film is, it is safe to say Kubrick will have influenced it in some way. Also look how varied each film is! Not including his shorts he only released 13 films. THIRTEEN! And look at his influence! Also I would argue he never made a dud, they are all wildly different and polarise opinion but are undeniably near faultlessly constructed pieces. Masterfully executed and wildly differing it is easy to see why he is the director’s director. It boils down to the fact that whether you believe Auteur theory or not, Kubrick’s influence on, not just his own films, but Hollywood itself is unmistakable, far reaching and profound. For such a small body of work made over a lifetime his quality control was set to maximum something no other filmmaker has done since.
In an industry that is very much returning to the classic studio system what with superhero films ruling cinema, adaptations, remakes and rip offs being stock in trade for every other type of film Kubrick’s belief in his ideas and abilities is rare today but equally his ability to challenge himself and his audiences in different ways with every film something that no one is doing anymore and not just in cinema. Cinema is the largest consumed form of entertainment next to computer games. Computer games garner none of the discussion, criticism or awards films do yet are so wildly different and becoming more and more challenging year by year it seems like real Auteurs who might be the next Kubrick would be better served making the switch to computer games where rules are more blurry and where the future of storytelling and audience involvement may lie. Suda 51, Ken Levine and Peter Molyneux are evidence of this altering trend but I for one have meagre hope in cinema thanks to the likes of Christopher Nolan (who seems to be setting his career on Kubrick’s own), Ben Wheatley, Lars von Trier, Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn, Jonathan Glazer and a few others who still try to bring innovation and depth into their medium.
I would urge you to pick up any Kubrick film either again or for the first time and give it a very attentive watch. They are all rewarding films and as a whole speak of an actual creative genius that is, by me at least, sorely missed.