More noise than signal

Stanley Kubrick

This is repurposed from the show notes of my podcast, Fuds on Film.

This month we turn our attention to one of the most well regarded directors of his generation, Stanley Kubrick. For someone who made films for nearly five decades, you’d think we’d have to pick and choose which films to cover, but his meticulous attention to detail in all aspects of production means that there’s only thirteen feature films for us to talk through, and there’s a few on that list that Kubrick himself probably wouldn’t be thanking us for covering.

Fear and Desire (1953)

In particular, we’re talking about his debut feature which he did his best to expunge from the historical record, although now he’s sadly no longer around to pursue that aim it’s rather easier to get a hold of. His initial outing is rather compromised by the shoestring budget he had available at the time, however it’s an interesting watch for aficionados of his work. This tale of four armed forces operatives trying to make their way back to base after crashing behind enemy lines features some aspects that Kubrick will return to again and again, not just the futility of war but the effects that it has on the soldiers. It’s remarkable in an era where war on film was still rather jingoistic that this examines, even if largely unsuccessfully, the trauma of stress disorders. Interesting, and certainly much more successful than many directors student outings (which this effectively is), but ultimately the lack of budget, minimal narrative and iffy performances means that it’s too much of a stretch to call this a good film, but certainly an interesting footnote for the completionist.

Killer’s Kiss (1955)

The first of Kubrick’s rather more noire-ish outings, this sees an over-the-hill boxer, Davy Gordon (Jamie Smith) on the verge of quitting get caught up in a doomed relationship with his neighbour, Gloria Price (Irene Kane) after intervening in a domestic between her and sleazy boyfriend Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). This soon escalates into murder and kidnapping, as Rapallo sends his thugs to abscond with Gloria and frame Davy, a plan that he must foil. It’s a solid enough story, however again there’s a number of uneven performances that make this a respectable enough thriller, but not up to the heights of his later career .

The Killing (1956)

Another noire, this time covering the planning and execution of an audacious race-track robbery, and how eventually it all goes rather wrong. This is kept together rather better than previous outings and is more than pacy enough to hold interest past some rather clunky narration that adds very little to proceedings. Arguably not too much remarkable about it, other than being efficiently put together and a good example of the type, but surely that’s enough?

Paths of Glory (1957)

Kubrick joins up with Kirk Douglas’ production outfit at this time, leading to him directing this WW1 drama. Initially set in the trenches on the French / German frontline, Douglas’ Col. Dax is ordered to take his exhausted unit and storm a fortified German position, an effort that fails with terrible loss of life, leading to a retreat. As WW1 operations were commanded by barely functional morons, this leads to accusations of cowardice and an order to have three soldiers kangaroo-court-martialled and executed. Y’know, to keep morale up. This is a rather more obvious examination of the insanity of war, and with rather more budget to play with we get a rather more Kubrickian film, for want of a better term. This is where Kubrick really starts to find his stride on the technical side of things, and it’s aided by a terrific performance from Kirk Douglas. This is one of the films that contends for Kubrick’s best picture, particularly when other directors are polled, and while it’s not close to it for me I can at least see the very solid argument for it.

Spartacus (1960)

This is rather more likely to be one of the films Kubrick himself would disown, describing himself as merely the highest paid member of the crew in thrall to the producer’s wishes. Kirk Douglas again stars in this almost entirely inauthentic look at the Third Servile Wars in Ancient Rome, but with Spartacus recast as a hybrid of Jesus and Moses rather than the intriguing military commander and warlord that the real Spartacus wound up being. It’s rather showing it’s age these days, with some particularly unconvincing painted backdrops rather spoiling the epic feel it’s going for, and Douglas seems to have grown significantly more wooden over the intervening three years. It’s almost made up for by amazing supporting turns from Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, but not to the extent needed. A little dreary, and not up there with the other swords and sandals epics of the period.

Lolita (1962)

If nothing else, Lolita shows that Kubrick was not afraid to take risks, adapting Nabokov’s controversial novel. In, I assume, an attempt to at least pay lip service to the Motion Picture Production Code, it’s been rather defanged, if read literally, although there’s enough nudges and winks to show that it assumes you’re in on the deal. It’s a story of a deluded middle aged literature professor, James Mason’s Hubert Humbert, who becomes infatuated with his landlady’s flirtatious 14 year old daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon). However in the fullness of time there’s competition for her affections with mysterious screenwriter / huckster Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers, leading to an eventual nonce-off. It’s given a rather lighthearted touch, given the dark nature of what we’re talking about, that makes this an unsettling watch, although I’m not convinced for quite the right reasons. You’re asked to view this with the same moral delusions that the main character has, and I suppose it’s a testament to the lead performers that it can carry us some of the way down that road. How did they ever make a movie of Lolita? By compromising the novel into a rather different story, and while it’s not entirely unsuccessful in telling that story, it’s not really the same beast. Still a much more thought provoking movie than most recent releases, so well worth looking at.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Next came the Peter Sellars powered black comedy of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as the Cold War and impending nuclear armageddon is treated with a surprising amount of disrespect as a rogue U.S. Air Force General issues an order for his bomber wings to attack the U.S.S.R., which would trigger an all out nuclear war. Again returning to the absurdity of war, and how even those at the highest levels of power often are as bewildered and ineffectual as the rest of us, this is a hugely impactful, hilarious dark satire. If we’re being critical, the very up-front nature of the comedy may hurt repeat viewings, but that first run through is truly something to be savoured.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Routinely selected as his most iconic work, 2001 can certainly leave people cold, and we are no exception. Ranging in scope from a mysterious monolith’s effect on human evolution, to discoveries on a moon base, an investigative trip to Jupiter, and an ending that departs from any logic whatsoever, it’s a real technical tour-de-force and a disjointed narrative of general disappointment. The meat and potatoes of it revolves around the trip to Jupiter and the murderous A.I., HAL 9000, which is certainly told with an effective, clinical precision, but it feels too isolated from the other segments to be narratively satisfying. That said, the technical work on it is of such undeniably high and lasting quality that it alone presents a compelling reason to watch.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Courting controversy again, this tale of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his gang of violent psychopaths, his betrayal, arrest, conviction and ‘correction’ through a controversial, free-will denying brainwashing procedure and it’s eventual undoing is certainly an arresting tale. While Kubrick was strident in denying that it glorified violence, when the writer of the novel it’s based on takes issue with that then there’s a case to be answered as to whether the ‘misinterpretation’ is entirely the audience’s fault, and even with the unreliable narrator the presentation of shocking violence in light-hearted tones unavoidably gives mixed signals. One of the more complex works to analyse, it’s another film that demands viewing even if the nature of it makes it difficult to sympathise and engage with.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

You could, as many have, make the argument that the rags to riches back to rags story at the heart of Barry Lyndon is not the most original narrative Kubrick has committed to film. Which is perhaps fair enough, but it’s not addressing the crucial aspect of this film, that being that it’s perhaps the most beautiful work ever committed to celluloid. Anchored by a stellar and under-rated turn from Ryan O’Neal, and some fabulous support, this is a terrific yarn that deserves much more than the short shrift it’s been given in the Kubrick Canon. If 2001 can be recommended on a technical level alone, then if nothing else Barry Lyndon must be seen on an equivalent aesthetic basis. Stunning.

The Shining (1980)

Perhaps our favourite Kubrick film, as this adaptation of the awful Stephen King novel combines Kubrick’s command of technical filmmaking with his knack for pushing actors to their breaking points and beyond in to create a rather special horror film. Jack Nicholson plays the off-season caretaker of the isolated Outlook Hotel, pushed into madness and attempting to murder his family in an iconic, powerhouse performance. Perhaps the genius of this is the misdirection on whether this will be a psychological or supernatural horror, an (eventually answered) ambiguity that gives this more leeway than we’d otherwise be inclined to, but in any instance we’d like this as Nicholson delivers a performance that simply demands attention.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

There’s an element of the narrative disjointedness mentioned earlier in this Vietnam war outing, with the first half of the film covering Matthew Modine’s Pvt. Joker’s boot camp experience, most notably along with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Pyle and that tragic ending, before heading off to the thick of things in Vietnam culminating in that harrowing sniper scene. Each half of this film could be a complete film in their own right, and arguably may have been more effective as such, but any doubts as to the narrative structure can be overlooked especially with the career best performances from the leads, despite their relatively tender years. This again touches on the follow and damage cause by wars, and while it says Vietnam on the tin it’s as applicable to any other conflict.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

For a director so often described as clinical, a move into eroticism seemed like rather an odd notion, and that’s borne out by the fairly tepid output. A Noo Yawk doctor played by Tom Cruise rather flakes out after his wife, Nicole Kidman, at the time both character and reality-wise, tells him that at one point she’d fantasied about sex with someone else. This puzzlingly sends him tail-spinning into almost hiring a prostitute, then bluffing his way into a high class orgy before being busted and then fearing that those powerful orgy elites will have him erased. While the second, more thriller based half of the film has its moments, the first half does such an incredible job of making Cruise’s character an unlikable jackanape that it’s impossible to care about him, especially after displaying all of the desire and sexual charisma of a bag of crisps. Pickled onion crisps. That have expired. And gone a bit mouldy. A bit of a misfire on every level, really.

That said, just look at the body of work Kubrick has left us with. Almost all of these films are worth viewing on some level, and many of them we count amongst our favourite films of all time. If that’s not as glowing a recommendation as we can muster, then I don’t know what is. Check them out, and you will not be disappointed.