Stanley Kubrick Films
© 2013 by John Varley; all rights reserved
We were so pleased with our Coen Brothers retrospective that we decided to embark on another trip down memory lane. The question was: Who? There were a lot of possibilities. Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kurosawa? All great choices, but they each have a lot of movies. It would be a long project. Or, another thing we considered was to watch a lot of movies set in Los Angeles. We lived there for several years, got to know the place better than a lot of native-born Angelenos, and find that it’s nostalgic fun to recognize locations. But that’s an open-ended project. There are literally thousands of movies set, more or less, in LA. Some show a lot of locations, some just have establishing shots. We may do that, but for now I was more inclined to pick another director, someone with a shorter list of credits.
The answer was obvious: Stanley Kubrick. In a 48-year career, he directed only 13 movies and three shorts. Of those, I have already seen 12 of the movies, but would be happy to see them all again. The 13th, actually the first, was Fear and Desire, an orphan, not exactly disowned by Kubrick—he never denied authorship—but dismissed by him as amateurish. He didn’t want it seen. The only known copy is owned by the George Eastman House film preservation company, in Rochester, New York. They agreed to Kubrick’s request that it only be shown in house, which meant you had to go to Rochester and request a viewing. Over the years many people have done so. I understand this, because I have an awful first novel squirreled away at the university library in Philadelphia that keeps my own archives. I thought many times of destroying it, but didn’t have the heart, so I let them have it with the condition that no one is allowed to read it except right there, sitting in the library. Over the years precisely one person has done so, to my knowledge. Poor guy.
I have learned that bootleg copies of Fear and Desire are available, and I found some and thought about buying one. But in the end I decided not to, because A) The very few bootleg movies I have seen have been of awful quality and B) I don’t really approve of bootlegs. So this retrospective will have that gap in it.
Oddly, the ones I thought would be impossible to find turned out to be easy. The three short subjects Kubrick made are all on YouTube, and I watched them all. In the interest of completeness, here they are:
Flying Padre: An RKO-Pathe Screenliner (short, 1951) Screenliner? Maybe the reference is to streamliner, or airliner, but to me it brings to mind plastic garbage can liners, which probably didn’t exist in 1951. At only eight and a half minutes, this is the shortest and, to me, the most interesting. If you are of my generation or older, you will recall that movies often used to play as double features. You could really make a night of it at the movies. In addition to the features, there would be a color cartoon, maybe a travelogue (Come see beautiful Lower Slobbovia!), maybe even a newsreel, though I don’t recall seeing many of those. Their day had passed. But these little filler pieces gave work to legions of movie-biz hopefuls. This is where Kubrick found his first two jobs making films. This one is not bad, though there is absolutely nothing distinguished about it—just as there’s nothing special about the others. If the credits didn’t say “Directed by Stanley Kubrick” I have no doubt these three little features would be moldering on some archive shelf, unseen since the day they were made. This one concerns a Catholic priest in New Mexico whose parish covers a huge area. He presides at eleven mission churches, and flies a little single-engine puddle-jumper to get from one to the other. We see him at a funeral, saying mass, giving communion, and then flying to an isolated ranch to pick up a mother and her sick baby and take them to the hospital in Tucumcari. That’s it. So start the Looney Tunes already, Mr. Projectionist! VIDEO
Day of the Fight (short, 1951) This one is about 20 minutes. It’s a fair piece of documentary short, nothing more. Once again, nothing but his name in the credits would make you think it was Kubrick, unless it’s at the fight at the end, where he gets in close. It begins with some lame philosophizing about boxing, and then follows a boxer from getting up in the morning to the ten-rounder that night, which turns out to only go for one round. Okay, come on, let’s have a Merrie Melodies! PART 1 & PART 2
The Seafarers (short, 1953) There’s no way to describe this other than “awful.” It’s not even a documentary, was probably never shown in theaters. It’s a thirty-minute commercial and recruiting film for the Seafarers International Union. Somehow the title led me to think I’d be seeing some ships, maybe sailing ships. Actually, there are only about two or three minutes of shipboard activity, all aboard tankers and freighters. All the rest takes place in the union hall, where the virtues of joining up are sung to the skies. They could have shown this over and over to prisoners at Abu Ghraib and dispensed with the cattle prods and such. Amnesty International would have classified it as a war crime, and I’d agree. VIDEO
And now … Hold the phone! Stop the presses! Tear up the front page! The above introduction was written a few weeks ago. I’ve decided to leave it as is, but in the meantime I happened to stumble on a showing of Fear and Desire on Turner Classic Movies. I TiVoed it, and sure enough, “For the first time on television,” there was Robert Osborne talking to a guy from the Eastman House, about the film, and about film preservation. There was no explanation about why, after 58 years, they decided to take their 1989 restored print out of the vault and show it to a mass audience. I don’t really care. I wanted to see this, and now I have.
Fear and Desire (1953) This movie is everything I expected it to be—that is, not very good at all—and a little more, that is, much better technically than it had any right to be. Most of the trouble comes from having a really lousy script. Four soldiers from an imaginary country (we are told this in a pompous narration at the beginning) are in a plane crash behind enemy lines. They try to get back. Along the way, they encounter a woman and tie her to a tree. The scene is very creepy, with the man in charge stroking her hair, and then leaving her with the weakest of the group while they go off to reconnoiter, or something. She gets one word of dialogue (“Boat?”), and soon she is dead. The guard—played by a very young Paul Mazursky, who should be a lot more ashamed of this movie than Kubrick ever was—didn’t really need to shoot her. His overacting would certainly be fatal at point-blank range. It practically killed me, all these years later. He and all the others, though they know she doesn’t speak their language, operate on the well-known principle that if you speak loudly and space your words out, she’ll understand. Well, that’s certainly real enough, people do that. Who would have guessed that Mazursky would go on to be a good actor and a great director? It’s all awful, simply awful.
Where the movie does shine is in two aspects. One is getting your money’s worth on a no-budget privately financed project like this. You take a camera out into the woods with a few friends, and the result is usually amateurish and unwatchable. This one might remind you of The Blair Witch Project, though it does have two actual sets.
The other good thing, no surprise, is the cinematography. Kubrick was a photographer first, a filmmaker second. He knew black and white, everything you could do with it. The picture has a great look, with stark close-ups, backlighting, and some impressive Eisenstein-style editing in a scene where the men overpower and kill three enemy soldiers.
Moving from this one (a piece of shit, let’s face it) to Killer’s Kiss, to The Killing, and then to Paths of Glory (the first of many masterpieces) in only four years, you can see Kubrick learning. That’s the only reason I could recommend it.
Killer’s Kiss (1955) Compared to the ten grand his first film cost, Kubrick spent a fortune on this one: $40,000, again borrowed from his uncle. I get the feeling almost no one saw Fear and Desire when it was new (and very few people since), but this one got him enough notice to get some decent money for the next one.
I ask myself, looking at this, would I peg it as a Kubrick film if I didn’t know that going in? The answer is no … but the information would come as no surprise. It is way more sophisticated, visually, than your typical low-budget noir from the mid-fifties. There’s just a look about it, in almost every scene, especially outdoors and at night. He probably knew more about cameras than all the directors in Hollywood, and most of the cinematographers. He films in Times Square, and I can’t imagine he had a permit and all the trimmings that go with a big studio shoot, so I wonder how he got the people walking by not to look at the camera. I can’t believe they were paid extras. It is gritty and grainy, and wonderful. He also films in Penn Station, and I wish we could have seen more of that, as the idiots tore the damn thing down not many years after this.
There are two great sequences. The first is the one and only round of the prize fight where our hero gets the shit kicked out of him. I’m no fan of boxing, but this is amazing. Kubrick gets right in with the fighters, using a hand-held camera, from all possible angles. Compare it with boxing scenes in earlier films and you won’t find anything like it, not even close. It was probably the best scene of its kind until Raging Bull. Then there is an epic fight in a warehouse full of mannequins that feels very real. There is even one short shot, in a dream sequence, reversing the film negative and reminding me a lot of the “trip” at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Flaws: Okay, it’s not a distinguished story by any means. It is accompanied by a narration that really isn’t needed at all. And there is a ridiculous happy ending that was forced on Kubrick by the distributor. The title … what was that about? Means absolutely nothing. Killer? Kiss? Nothing to do with the movie. Other than that, it’s pretty damn good.
Have to add these tidbits from the IMDb. The girl, “Irene Kane,” is really the distinguished journalist Chris Chase. Apparently she enjoyed the odd acting bit as a change of pace. Aside from a three-year stint on Love of Life, her credits are very short. The boxer, Jamie Smith, worked in small parts in television up to 1963, when he apparently gave up on the glory of the actor’s life … until 30 years later, when he had a part in a long-running Dutch TV series called Goede tijden, slechte tijden (Good times, bad times). The part was so tiny I had to scroll through several hundred names to find him, under “unknown episode.” Wouldn’t you like to know the story behind his return to show biz?
The Killing (1956) Stanley Kubrick’s third film (though for all practical purposes it’s his second, as he did everything he could to bury his first). This is where he really began to find his voice. It’s a crackerjack caper movie starring Sterling Hayden, who with a crew of five plans to rob a racetrack of two million dollars. The mastermind reminds me a little of the Parker character in Richard Stark’s (Donald E. Westlake’s, really) books. It’s a good plan, and almost succeeds … but unsurprisingly it all goes wrong at the last minute, in ways you wouldn’t expect. It is flawed somewhat by a corny Dragnet-style narration, but the timetable is so complicated and the flashbacks so numerous that I can see Kubrick deciding that it was the only way to play it straight with the viewer. These days we are all more familiar with fractured time lines, but back then it probably would have been very confusing. The centerpiece of the film is the masterful handling of the race and robbery, where we go back to the beginning of the race multiple times, each time established with the bugle call and the same scene of horses entering the track. This is the film that really put Kubrick on the map. It got great reviews, and brought him to the attention of the major studios in Hollywood. His experiences there were not good, but it did teach him the lesson that he had to fight for total control, final cut, the whole nine yards, and once over the awful experience of Spartacus, he never surrendered control again.
Paths of Glory (1957) This movie totally stunned me the first time I saw it. I could hardly believe such a thing could happen. But it could. Not frequently, but it did happen. Two generals decide an enemy position must be taken in two days. Never mind that World War One had been going on for two years and the position of the trenches hadn’t changed more than 100 yards. Never mind that, as one general put it, with total dispassion: “We’ll lose five percent from our own artillery barrage. Another ten percent getting through our own wire. Another twenty percent getting through the German wire …” The upshot of which is he expected to lose more than half of his men. And that was a best case, impossibly optimistic assessment. The assault proves to be impossible, and the general wants to execute 100 of his own soldiers for cowardice. He is talked into murdering only three, any three. One of the unlucky ones was knocked unconscious before he could get out of the trenches. Another sustains a brain injury during the night, waiting for the firing squad. So they prop him up on a stretcher and shoot him …
It’s no surprise that the French military hated this film, even all those years later in 1957. The surprising thing is that it even got made. There was such pressure on Stanley Kubrick that he contemplated going with a happy ending, a reprieve at the last moment. But the star, Kirk Douglas in his finest role, held firm. He caught a lot of flak for it, professionally, but he got the last laugh, as this is one of the best war movies of all time and everyone knows it now. Ralph Meeker is great in this, too. And the two generals, played wonderfully well by Adolph Menjou and George Mcready, are two of the most loathsome characters ever put on film. Hannibal Lecter? Freddy Krueger? Pussies. These generals killed tens of thousands without batting an eye, and slept well at night. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. If I was King of the World at the end of WWI, I would have lined all the generals up against a wall—French, German, American, British, Austro-Hungarian, whatever—and gut-shot them. And waited for them to die.
There is a scene at the very end, after the executions, that always kills me, and I’m never completely sure why. The single female to appear in the film (who two years later would marry Kubrick and be his wife until his death) (and not a single German soldier appears in the film) is brought out on a little stage. She’s German, and the intent seems to be to humiliate her. All the troops in the audience seem more than ready to do so. Then she starts to sing a little song in German. She’s no Jenny Lind, but the men quiet down and soon tears are leaking down their cheeks and they are singing along with her. She seems to represent their lost humanity, their hope of survival … many things. But it is a brilliant way to end such a nasty film.
Spartacus (1960) This doesn’t have the stunning action scenes of Ben-Hur nor the parting of the Red Sea like The Ten Commandments, but it is certainly the best of the swords-and-sandals epics of the 1950s and ‘60s. What it does have is a good, non-religious story, and a crackerjack battle scene near the end. Kubrick always wanted to make a movie about Napoleon, and he would have included battles where you could actually see the troop movements and the strategies of the commanders. He accomplishes a lot of that here, with phalanx after phalanx of Roman soldiers coming over a hill in the distance, to face the rabble of rebelling slaves. It is a daunting scene. The slaves have a few tricks up their sleeves, but the bottom line was that no one ever defeated the Roman legions when they were well led. Their tactics were simply superior. As was their cruelty, as they crucify the survivors all the way back to Rome …
Kubrick was brought in after filming had already begun, as differences arose between Kirk Douglas and the original director, Anthony Mann. Mann's only contributions were the scenes at the quarry in the beginning. This was the last film over which Kubrick did not have complete control, and of his major works, it is probably the least innovative, the least interesting. But it was a big hit, and established him in Hollywood for all time. Kirk Douglas hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write the script (and also, to my surprise and delight, my old blacklisted friend Peter Brocco, to play Peter Ustinov’s head servant, Ramon) and the two didn’t get along. Kubrick didn’t like the final version, but couldn’t do much about it. He also took over the cinematography, basically firing Russell Metty. Metty remained in the credits, and thus, in a stunning irony, won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for something he hardly had anything to do with! Kubrick would repeat this pattern later. If you look in the credits for Eyes Wide Shut, you will see the famous … Larry Smith? And if you think Larry shot that film, I’d like to sell you some prime swampland in Florida. His previous credits were as gaffer (chief electrician) on The Shining and Barry Lyndon. Basically, what Stanley wanted in a cameraman was someone to load the film and move the lights. He was such a good photographer he could get away with that.
With all its flaws, it’s still great fun to watch. It was a mammoth production, with 10,000 of Francisco Franco’s finest infantry dressed up as Romans. (That might have been a good time to invade Spain and kill that asshole, while his army was playing Hollywood out in the boondocks.) It was cut down after its original release, but was restored in 1991, along with 14 minutes that had been cut before the original release. Included was the infamous scene where Olivier comes on to Tony Curtis in the bath, asking him if he preferred eating oysters or snails. Wink, wink. Way too bold for 1960!
Lolita (1962) As Stephen King discovered to his sorrow when seeing the final cut of The Shining, a Stanley Kubrick film is a Stanley Kubrick film. No real room for anyone else. Valdimir Nabokov, the author of the book was hired to write the screenplay, but it was almost entirely junked. I’ve never read the book but I know that many things were changed. It was re-made in 1997, much more faithfully, but this version is much, much superior to that one. Just as Kubrick’s vision of The Shining, for all its faults, is superior to the more faithful but completely pedestrian television re-make that King wanted. As always, the black and white photography is striking. Kubrick would make one more film in B&W before going to color for all the rest. I get the feeling he really loved B&W.
The cast is very, very good. The character of Humbert Humbert is one of the most pathetic figures I can think of, and James Mason really brings him to life. Shelly Winters … oh, lord, what can you say about Shelly Winters? She was so amazingly good at playing these overblown, whiny characters, as here and in A Place in the Sun. Peter Sellers really outdid himself—which takes some doing—as the insanely insidious Clare Quilty. The opening scene, which is the end of the story, is sheer genius on his part.
No, wait, the real opening scene is yet another example of Kubrick’s ability to innovate and shock. A woman’s foot comes into the scene, then a man’s hands. He tenderly, erotically tucks bits of cotton between her toes, and starts painting her nails as the credits roll. This is before the movie even really begins, and already I am fascinated. He would pull the same stunt again in Dr. Strangelove, i.e., a very funny scene under the credits that has nothing to do with the plot.
But I guess it all succeeds or fails with the character of Delores Haze: Lolita. And Sue Lyons is stunning. The first time we see her, lying on her side on the back yard on a towel in her bikini and big hat and sunglasses, is one of the single most erotic images in the cinema, in my opinion. I can see how poor Humbert never had a chance. She remains wonderful in scene after scene. I hadn’t realized, when this was new, that in the book Lolita was only twelve. Holy cow! Sue Lyon was thirteen, and the character had been written as being fourteen. Can anybody say pedophile? Would this book have been such a success—though of course very controversial—today? I wonder.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) This is the first of the two Kubrick films that are on my Top 25 (or so) Films of All Time. The odd things is that, shortly after we viewed this again, we also saw Fail-Safe, purely by accident, not design. Fail-Safe is a great film, and a classic, no doubt about it. But Dr. Strangelove is a work of genius. I see no reason to write a new review, even though we’ve just seen it again. Obviously some of the information has changed—I’ve now seen all his films, every frame of film Kubrick ever showed in theaters. But here is some of my old review:
Stanley Kubrick is the only great director who, in my opinion, never made a bad film. All the other greats, Hitchcock, Ford, Scorsese, Preston Sturges, Capra, Fellini, even Kurosawa, made a stinker or two. Of course, he only made 13 films. Fear and Desire (1953) is only available on bootleg DVD. Of the other 12, I’ve seen Killer’s Kiss (1955) twice, and it’s pretty good, and all the others multiple times.
I already broke my one-film-per-director rule twice here, with Kubrick and Lester, and I was severely tempted to include three or even four films by Stanley. Barry Lyndon missed out by just a tiny bit. And how can I exclude Paths of Glory, which absolutely shattered me the first time I saw it?
In the end I had to include 2001, and for the second one I picked the one that made me happy. What an odd thing to say about a movie dealing with nuclear war ... but of course everything about Dr. Strangelove is weird from the git-go. Just look at the character names, for chrissake: Generals “Buck” Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper, Premier Alexei Kissov, Colonel “Bat” Guano, President Merkin Muffley (a merkin is, believe it or not, a pubic wig, and also the redneck pronunciation of American: ‘Murkin). Burpelson Air Force Base.
There are dozens of things I could talk about in this film, but I will limit myself to one: what may be the single best bit of casting in the history of cinema ... Slim Pickens as Major T.J. “King” Kong. And it so happens, as often is the case in the movie biz, that it almost didn’t come to pass. Peter Sellers was going to play it as his fourth part in the movie, but he had trouble getting the accent right and then he broke his leg. Kubrick decided to go with an authentic cowboy. He never showed the script to Slim, and didn’t tell him it was going to be a black comedy, “Just play it straight.” And thus was born one of the best comic performances I’ve ever seen, and one of the iconic images of the 20th century: Major Kong riding the H-bomb down to the end of the world as we know it.
P.S. Oh, yeah, and you want realism? The Air Force wouldn’t let Kubrick see the inside of a B-52, so they made it up ... and it was so accurate the AF was sure they’d stolen classified information.
P.P.S. Though Sellers didn’t know it at the time, there really is a condition called Alien Hand Syndrome (now called Dr. Strangelove Syndrome) whose symptoms are exactly like what Strangelove suffered in the film.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Again, my review from my Top 25:
One of only two science fiction films on my list, and the only movie I’ve ever seen that was virtually a religious experience. I’m not talking about the psychedelic ending, though that was marvelous, like every frame of this film. No, the awe for me began with the first chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra, that little bit of music by Richard Strauss that has since become such a cliché but which I was hearing for the first time, with the curtain still down in the Golden Gate Cinerama theater in San Francisco. The woofers made the whole theater vibrate. Something was moving on the screen as the curtain rose. It was the moon, very close. And then the sun burst out, behind the rising Earth! I was crying. I’d been dreaming of this scene since well before Sputnik. Praise Kubrick! Shout out the holy name of Clarke!
With the state of SFX in movies today, it’s hard to explain to a new generation the shattering impact of seeing, for the first time, what outer space would really look like. I sat in awed puzzlement, like everybody else, as the apes discovered the black slab, learned to kill, wondering how Kubrick got monkeys to act so well. Then the ape threw the bone in the air and there was the famous 3-million-year cut in 1/24th of a second ... and that’s when the hallelujah brother! really began. That’s when I saw Jesus, as it were, that’s when I watched in helpless ecstasy as scene after scene took me into a world that I had imagined many times, reading books, or simply daydreaming, but had never seen! Can I hear you say Amen!
My understanding is the first showing of 2001 left most of the critics scratching their heads, many of them hating it. Kubrick went back and cut seventeen minutes. I would give a lot to see that uncut version, because the only thing I didn’t like about the movie was that it ended! I left the theater and wanted to turn right around and go back in, but I couldn’t, because the line was too long. Many of the people in line were already glassy-eyed. Myself, I was never even tempted to get high on acid and watch it. The movie supplied its own acid.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) These days, just about everybody makes “science fiction” movies, if you want to call total crap like Transformers and The Green Lantern science fiction. But there are a few who specialize in it, and some of them are pretty good. Ridley Scott and James Cameron come to mind. But before Scott and Cameron there was Kubrick, and he revolutionized several of the most important sub-genres of SF. Before 2001 there had never been a real space travel movie … and for that matter, there still are almost none. He made the best movie about nuclear holocaust. He made (not entirely successfully) a movie about psychic powers. And he took the genre of dystopian futures and made what is still one of the best ones, even in the age of The Matrix, District 13, Minority Report, The Hunger Games, and Children of Men. (I’m not the only one who thinks so. Look at this list, which I think is a pretty good one: 50 Dystopian Movies of All Time.)
Seldom had a film looked so stunningly good, so totally original. There are no spaceships or hovercars or robots. Just a modern city that seems to be falling into ruin, like many places you can see today, 40 years later. Alex’s parents’ tiny, awful little apartment with its clashing colors and his Mum dressed like a teenager. The abandoned casino where the most awesome, choreographed (to The Thieving Magpie) fight scene ever filmed up to that time takes place. Beethoven on the Moog synthesizer. Remember, electronic music was very new and very strange at the time. Scenes of pure genius, like the brutal rape by the droogs while Malcolm McDowell croons “Singin’ in the Rain.” (He claims Kubrick asked him to sing, and that was the only song he knew.) Like the awful image of Alex strapped down with his eyes held open by metal pins, or him licking a boot. Like the fight with the cat woman, surrounded by hypersexual paintings, he armed with a giant plastic penis, she with a bust of his beloved Ludwig Van. Like the insane Korova Milk Bar, where they tune up for a night of ultraviolence drinking milk laced with drugs. And most of all, the costumes they fight in, with the padded crotches, derby hats, and eyeball cufflinks. (Sadly, some idiots took to wearing this stuff while beating people up, even singing, to the point that Kubrick wouldn’t let it be shown in the UK while he was alive.) Maybe most amazing of all, the use of Nadsat, the dialect Anthony Burgess invented for the book, a combination of twisted Russian and various other sources. You can have a glossary at the end of a book, and Burgess did. Not so in a movie. You have to figure it out for yourself, and he made it work wonderfully.
Barry Lyndon (1975) (New review) How does one describe Barry Lyndon? How does one describe every painting in a large museum of masterworks? There is no question that this is the most beautiful movie ever made. Not only that, but I can think of no other movie where every frame is perfectly composed. There are outdoor scenes where he must have waited hours for the perfect light in the distance. There are indoor scenes lit by thousands of candles in chandeliers, or only three candles sitting on a table. This was revolutionary; they had to use a special super-fast 50mm f/0.7 lens developed by Zeiss for the moon landings. The whole film was shot with virtually no electric lighting. (Kubrick was always at the cutting edge of technology, from the brand-new special effects of 2001 to the extensive use of the new Steadicam in The Shining.) Many of the costumes were actual antiques. The result of all this attention to detail gives us a look no other film has ever achieved, as if the camera had actually gone through time to this earlier age. Time after time the camera starts on a close shot and pulls slowly, slowly back, each frame revealing more and more, until we are in a landscape painting by Turner or (no kidding) John Varley.
Those who don’t love it complain of the glacial pace, and the lack of emotion in many scenes. I can see that, but I myself think of it as the stately grace of the dances of the time, of a minuet. And, true, the acting is not overly emotional, but take a look at the absolutely devastating duel between Barry and his stepson, one of the most tense scenes ever filmed. Look at the stunning scene of the red line of British troops marching stolidly into withering rifle fire. They actually fought like that! Now, it’s true that I would never have picked Ryan O’Neal for the starring role, but even the great Kubrick had to make commercial choices now and then—and he was not above promoting his films. To get financing, he had to cast someone from the Top Ten box offices stars of the previous year, and Ryan was #2. (Really! Love Story). Number 1? Clint Eastwood. Of the other seven (#6 was Barbra Streisand), all of them would have been as bad as Eastwood, or worse. And I think O’Neal fit in pretty well, actually. I like to watch this film every other year or so, or five years at the most.
The Shining (1980) Before one even gets to the movie, one has to mention what I’m certain is the finest trailer ever made for any film. Two elevator doors in a hotel lobby. Clunky furniture. Credits roll for one minute. Then … one of the doors opens and an ocean of blood flows out in super-slow-motion. Well, the audience I was with was totally stunned. I think a hit was assured from that moment on. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
Which is not to say it is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces. Stephen King was so upset with it that he had it re-made (badly, I’m sorry to say). And I agree with King on some points. The worst of all was having Scatman Crothers travel all the way back to the Overlook Hotel only to be killed the minute he walks in the door. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
On the other hand, there were the usual amazing cinematic touches that Kubrick does so well, and King can’t really equal in a book. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. The scenes in the giant ballroom with the people from the Roaring Twenties, for instance. The horrifying beautiful woman in the bathtub. Or the scenes of Danny riding his big wheel over the floor and then the carpet, the floor and the carpet, with the sound turning on and off. The Steadicam was still new, and this was the best use of it so far. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. The whole damn thing, the cavernous interiors of the hotel, and even the outdoors and the maze, was shot in studios in England. All that snow was salt. The development was so damn good, it’s too bad the ending was a let-down. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) The first half is a masterpiece, as good a short film as has ever been made. The second half is merely brilliant. It lost me only at the end, where Kubrick surprised me by indulging in that most-abused filming technique: slomo. What, did Brian de Palma, the awful king of slomo, take over production for a week? I simply did not believe that, when the soldiers discovered that the sniper who had turned half their platoon into cranberry sauce, was a 13-year-old girl, they would have spent even three seconds debating whether or not it was right to finish her off, much less the three or four minutes of screen time they did take.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) It’s a shame the Kubrick had to go out with this, in my opinion, the least effective and least interesting of his later work. It has the Kubrick look, in every scene, but story is often his weakest point, and I had a very hard time getting involved in this one. I didn’t like much about these rich people, and Tom Cruise’s sexual odyssey didn’t hold a lot of interest for me. And, sadly, though some parts looked a lot better on my recent second viewing, some of it just looked worse.
In particular, the long middle part of the movie takes place in a vast mansion, big as any museum, and it’s pretty silly. Inside is a giant orgy, involving hundreds of people, spread out from room to room. There are hired women, all of them naked, but everyone else is cloaked and masked. They either stand around watching, or engage in silent, mechanical sex. Is this any way to run an orgy? I’d be bored out of my mind. Is the idea that these people are so jaded that they enjoy simply standing around quietly, passive, drugged, whatever? The Marquis de Sade wouldn’t choreograph an orgy this way. These are supposed to be insanely rich and unimaginably powerful people, so I kept wondering just who they were. The Knights Templar? Freemasons? The Tri-Lateral Commission? The International Jewish Conspiracy? That silly Agnus Dei group from The Da Vinci Code? (No, if it was Catholic higher-ups there would be a lot of naked little boys around.) I decided it was probably Skull and Bones, and that was George W. and Laura Bush up there on the balcony. Boola boola!
Colour Me Kubrick: ATrue … ish Story (2006) This is not a Kubrick film, and it’s not even about Kubrick, but it seemed like a nice place to end this saga. It is based on a true story—considerably embellished, as is the norm in this sort of story—but it seems to stick to the main facts. It’s the story of Alan Conway who, during the 1990s while the real Kubrick was directing Eyes Wide Shut in England, successfully impersonated him for several years and fooled a great many people, even though he looked nothing like Stanley and was flamboyantly gay. Because there were few pictures of Mr. K, he was able to say he had recently shaved off his beard. For a while he fooled Frank Rich, the Broadway critic for the New York Times. He was able to mooch off a great many people until he was caught, whereupon he promptly suffered a “nervous breakdown” and took it easy at a hospital. This, too, was a scam. Some of it is pretty funny, and John Malkovich is very good, hamming it up. My favorite scene, though, was when he was chatting up a guy at a bar and the guy says his favorite Stanley Kubrick film is Judgment at Nuremberg. Oh, sure, Conway says, and starts to tell a story about the filming. “That film was directed by Stanley Kramer,” the guy says. “If you’re going to impersonate someone, at least get your facts right.”
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