I'll be walking down the street, ruminating on a Kubrick film and all of a sudden, it'll hit me: "Oh, that's why he did that." "That's why that's there." His films, especially his meticulously prepared, laboriously shot later films, starting with Barry Lyndon, are puzzles—though some would say mazes—that defy appreciation on the first viewing, exploding all expectations, slowly burrowing into your mind, staying there, with the bursts of illumination, that on the next viewing seem so obvious, so essential, that the movie morphs into something else, speeds up,* changes. Kubrick's films, like Kurosawa's, benefit from the passage of time. The Chess-Master/director was so many moves ahead by the time he completed the fiilm, that it takes the rest of us—without benefit of his thought and strategizing (and deliberately so as he never explained his films)—a little while to catch up.
I'm still learning about Kubrick's movies decades after their completion, and more than 10 years after his death.
Here are his first films—the documentaries The Day of the Fight, Flying Padre, and The Seafarers:**
The Killing (1956) In 1955, James B. Harris, who had sold his film distribution company with the intention of making films, and, impressed by the frugality and production value of Killer's Kiss, sought out Stanley Kubrick. Together, they formed the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation with an eye towards compelling story and bigger budgets. Harris acquired the rights to Lionel White's "Clean Break" just ahead of United Artists making a deal, and they convinced United Artists to distribute their intricate film noir/caper movie of a racetrack heist, which became notable for its fractured non-linear story-telling technique. First we see the planning. Then we see the plot's planner ensuring the pieces coming together. Then we see each participants' part to completion, then roll back to another section. The robbery actually does come off, but despite all efforts, Fate spoils the plot. The Killing stars Sterling Hayden and a great cast of B-movie actors, and it's a large leap in quality from the previous film. One can see the beginning of many Kubrick themes--its hero supervises the planning and execution of a brilliant robbery, but is ultimately undone by elements he has no control over. Kubrick would tell the same basic story many times in many different variations.
Spartacus (1960) Spartacus producer Kirk Douglas kicked director Anthony Mann off his "religious epic without Jesus" after only one week of shooting, and hired Kubrick—who'd been languishing with Marlon Brando and screenwriter Sam Peckinpah over what would become One Eyed Jacks—to take over. A bit like throwing Christians to the lions, the indie-minded Kubrick had to contend with entrenched studio personnel and bickering bitchy stars--not the least of whom was the producer who'd hired him. Still, Kubrick did right by his boss by off-setting the rebel-slave romanticism of Dalton Trumbo's script with the cold and ruthless efficiency of the Romans in action. The battles and training sequences are brutal (they'd be echoed in Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket) and brilliantly realized, and Kubrick creates an indelible character in Woody Strode's Draba without a single line of dialog. But he couldn't touch Trumbo's screenplay (Douglas wanted to make a point of staying faithful to the black-listed writer's script) and the experience left Kubrick convinced that Hollywood was not the place he wanted to work--and he'd only take on projects where he had complete autonomy. Then, completely in charge, he would begin to take enormous risks, and his first project after the high-profiler Spartacus was designed to do exactly that.
Lolita (1962) There was no way Kubrick could get away with making Lolita in America--the book had a hard enough time being published here (and the ads exploited that fact). But he could do it in England and it proved fortuitous: it allowed him to look beyond the city-scapes which had dominated his early movies, and it introduced him to Peter Sellers. Lolita, in its outline could serve as the blue-print for many Kubrick films: a man well-schooled and competent in every way is undone by a fatal flaw that he is helpless to avoid. Here, Professor Humbert Humbert is obsessed with teen-aged Dolores Hayes. You know the story. Kubrick goes as far as he can with the perverse romance and Humbert's humiliating obsession, but in finding Sellers, Kubrick shifts more of Lolita his way, turning his Claire Quilty into a recurring character under different guises and using him as a cackling, drooling stand-in for Humbert's conscience. Sellers and the rest of the cast is uniformly brilliant (including a braying, weirdly sympathetic Shelley Winters as the mother of obsessions). Kubrick also makes interesting editing choices--starting the film with the murder of Quilty, which includes a comic tour de force for Sellers, shifting the focus of the film from "will he get the girl" to "why'd he kill Quilty." Some were disappointed with Kubrick's pussy-footing around the subject matter with Lolita, but when Adrian Lyne made a more explicit version years later, that version wasn't nearly as deeply thought or as satisfying. That would happen again in Kubrick's career.
Dr. Strangelove: (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964) In many ways, Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear gamesmanship, is his most inspired film. Yes, it's funny (damned funny!), but it also maintains its dramatic intensity and factual integrity.*** After frustrating attempts to write a straight-ahead version of Peter George's "Fail-Safe" cousin "Red Alert," Kubrick, to avoid trying to make the ludicrous situations appear palatable,**** just went with the insanity and enlisted help from gonzo satirist Terry Southern and Lolita conspirator Peter Sellers (playing three parts) to tell the complicated cross-cutting story of an insane Air Force General playing nuclear "chicken" with the Soviets and stepping on the gas. In the course of the movie, every fail-safe device fails and the best deterrents devised by man only ensure his demise. There is a sub-genre of the caper film called the "Incredible Mess" - Kubrick combines it with the story of an Air Force crew determined to accomplish its mission by any means possible--thus making the unthinkable possible by an American "can-do" spirit. Everybody's doing their best but the result is the worst. And Strangelove ends with mankind resolutely facing its doom prepared to make exactly the same mistakes again.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): 'Nuff said. Despite receiving mixed reviews upon its release (no doubt inspired by expectations generated from Strangelove), 2001 gradually built an audience during its first-run in theaters, reassuring (and perplexing) the M-G-M bosses that their years-in-the-making investment paid off, and it is now considered (despite most people seeing it at home on inadequate-sized screens) a science fiction classic, a ground-breaking film, and something of a Rosetta Stone for a new generation of film-makers. Universe-spanning in scope and implication for Man's place in it, the movie has enough hubris to go off-world in its speculation of the origin of the species, cutting any chords about putting our "pale blue dot" in the center of any Universe. It would inspire a generation of film-makers to explore new subject matter and film-techniques (there would be no film-making George Lucas or James Cameron without its direct influence and inspiration).
The Shining (1980) Desperate for a "hit" after Barry Lyndon tanked, Kubrick looked long and hard for a vehicle that could do well at the box-office...and one he could use Jack Nicholson for the lead—Kubrick had wanted him to play Napoleon in his aborted bio-pic. Kubrick seemed an odd choice for any horror-film let alone one written by Stephen King--the only previous King adaptation at the time was Brian DePalma's hyper-version of Carrie, but Kubrick was drawn to another story of an intelligent man unable to fight off his demons, in this case the ones inhabiting your proverbial haunted house. Nicholson's spit-spewing performance is straight out of EC comics, and Shelley Duvall had the thankless task of maintaining hysteria for the last half of the movie, but The Shining succeeds in provoking dread throughout its entire length. King and King-fans hate it, especially for one death-deviation from the book, but when King produced a TV-version years later that stuck scrupulously to his vision, it was a sappy mess that dragged and dragged. Kubrick boiled it down to essentials, and made the better film.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick didn't want to make an anti-war film about Vietnam. He wanted to make a war film about Vietnam—the choices inflicted, the breaking down of boys (unformed men) into soldiers, the cohesion of a group and the trap of cameraderie. Oliver Stone had covered a lot of the same ground in Platoon (mixed in with his parental conflicts and delusions of grandeur), but Kubrick added more (with Gustav Hasford's slim novel "The Short-Timers" as guide, funneled through the sensibilities of John Milius and Michael Herr******), such as the sloganeering that stands in for values (in the film's finale, the remnants of the squad march through their "world of shit" to the cadence of "The Mickey Mouse Club" song), and though there's strength in numbers, it's every man for himself. Kubrick touches on many facets that made Viet Nam a unique war from others, and doesn't shy away from the atrocities or the exhilaration. Plus, it captures Hasford's loopy language for "the phony-tough and the crazy-brave".
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) The Kubrick-Spielberg love-child that nobody loved. Kubrick called it his "Pinocchio" movie, and quite rightly decided after years of development to hand it to Spielberg, which, after Kubrick's death, he was eager to complete. But in the transition from Kubrick outline to Spielberg screenplay there's a lot of gear-grinding from cold fantasy to sentimentality. And unfortunately it suffers a fate that too many sci-fi movies suffer—it asks us to absorb too many concepts too fast, and the casual movie-goer has a hard time accepting global warming, robot love, and an ice-aged Earth inhabited by your PC's descendants. Throw in a Blue Fairy and a dying robot's last wish and the audience is in stitches. But...it dares to ask that question rarely asked (except by Hitchcock in Vertigo) "What is love, really?" And when we choose to make something in our image (do you decorate your computer to make it more "homey?"), how can we not look on it with affection.
The answer was "Love is what audiences didn't feel about this movie," and maybe, like Vertigo's poor box office, we are not ready to cut the chord to our romantic vision of Love. Still, there's some definite mind-stretching going on here. And it gave Jude Law a star-making turn, at last. Plus, the kid is simply amazing.
"Yeah...'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven..."
The Conventional Wisdom is that Stanley Kubrick was a hermetic, mysoginistic, deranged, misanthropic control freak—ask any of the New York fashionista, who are always quick with a catty remark about Kubrick. Kubrick wasn't a partier, and they hate to be ignored. Nor, was he conventional. Not in a disposable Society.
He was a control-freak; it's the chess-thing. You make preparations for all eventualities.
But my view of Stanley Kubrick was that he built a career, a life, and a world that perfectly suited him and his family—he saw little reason to venture out of that world, except when absolutely necessary. That's the advantage of getting everything you want.
I may be a bit of a depressive, but, curiously, after Lolita, I've never found a Kubrick movie depressing. Shocking, yes. Disturbing, boy-howdy. But look at it from Kubrick's view: In Dr. Strangelove, mankind (and unkind) will survive (albeit to certainly commit the same mistakes as before). In 2001, man transcends (with a little help from our friends). In Clockwork Orange free-will defeats fascism. In Barry Lyndon, a title card (not the snarky narrator) informs us that "they are all equal now," Barry has achieved his much-desired equitable station in death. But the promise of life after death pervades The Shining. The squad of Full Metal Jacket survive the pincers of their impossible situation and live to march another day. Love triumphs over infidelity and indifference in Eyes Wide Shut. Yeah, but...
Yeah, but...despite all the perfect systems that can't fail (but do), and despite the clever, competent, supremely well-informed Masters of the Universe (in the Wolfe-ian sense) with the flaws they can't seem to recognize and are helpless to ignore, that Universe ticks inexorably on, mindless of the plight of its supposed "Masters." And the answers, if you're conscious enough to seek them, lie not in our stars, but our selves.
Leave it to a control freak to come up with something like that.
* I've mentioned several times that 2001, while dismissed as "slow" by most, moves like a bat out of hell to me. So much to see; so little time.
** Kubrick's first film: Fear and Desire—a film he loathed as embarrassingly amateurish occasionally turns up as a curiosity, but I have yet to see it. Hey, you do your best...
*** Kubrick warned Production Designer Ken Adam to keep his resource materials, as there were government inquiries about the, at the time, secret B-52 interiors.
**** Kubrick's breaking point was the scene where the President advises the Russian Premiere to shoot down the American bombers.
***** Burgess' past is murky at best and full of writer's invention, but his first wife was brutalized by sailors, and so Burgess made the damned subject of the Ludovico Technique (designed for depriving one of free-will) one of those men. Even one such as these, to Burgess, shouldn't be deprived of choice.
****** Herr wrote a sadly celebratory memoir of his dealings with Kubrick , in lieu of what Kubrick intended to be an extensive interview for Eyes Wide Shut in Vanity Fair. Herr then published an expanded version in book-form. It's a great read.
******* Named Harford, because, according to the screenplay writer, they were thinking of Harrison Ford for the part!