Staff Picks: The Sensational Stanley Kubrick

Today marks the birth of one of the looming legends of the modern motion picture, American director Stanley Kubrick. To commemorate this occasion, we at A Fistful of Film have chosen to examine a fair portion of his filmography, from his early studio pictures to his acclaimed latter-day output.

Paths of Glory (1957): David Alkhed

François Truffaut once said “there is no such thing as an antiwar film”, meaning that no matter how much you try to demonize a subject, cinema as an art form will forever find a way to glorify it (no pun intended), and war is one of those subjects. I certainly understand where Truffaut is coming from and I have come to think that just because the filmmakers say they’re making an antiwar film doesn’t automatically qualify it as an antiwar film, and many of them do end up glamorizing war in some way. But there are exceptions and war films that manage to truthfully depict the horrors of war, and one of those examples is Stanley Kubrick’s fourth film and, in my opinion his first masterpiece, Paths of Glory.

Kubrick had read the book Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb at a younger age, and after completing The Killing, Kubrick and producer James B. Harris chose to adapt the book as their next project. With a script written by Kubrick, The Killing’s Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham they were able to attract Hollywood superstar/producer Kirk Douglas, who used his clout to get the film made.

What the film comes down to is the barbarism of humanity and how we can hide our violent and darker tendencies behind the veneer of phony words such as “honor”, “pride” and yes, even “glory.” In fact, the title of the film and the book come from a quote by Thomas Gray who said: “the paths of glory lead to but the grave.” The so-called civilized nature of the generals depicted in the film is proven to be pure hypocrisy and only serves to profit the men on top, rather than the men at the bottom. And for once in a Kubrick film, the audience’s frustrations against the incredibly injustice is reflected in Douglas’ protagonist Colonel Dax and he becomes perhaps Kubrick’s most sympathetic protagonist.

Kubrick displays a much greater discipline with his use of the camera in Paths of Glory, and the film features numerous groundbreaking and trendsetting tracking shots that reflect the stern discipline of the military, whilst also featuring a few select handheld shots in the attack across No Man’s Land (a truly remarkable sequence). Kubrick also displays his ironic sensibilities by using the French national anthem La Marseillaise in the opening credits, sending a cynical message about patriotism and nationalism, the ideologies that led to World War I and in some ways, the world we live in today.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): By Saoirse Selway

Kubrick’s second dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove, is held up as a masterpiece for good reason. Never before within Hollywood filmmaking had we seen such a mixture of brave and conflicted technique, outlandish performances, style, and shocking prescience. The striking, stark, and studied compositions of the majority of the film devolve into documentarian recreations of warfare that put you in the hell of battle in a way few other pieces of cinema can. We have George C. Scott who was tricked by Kubrick into using all of his rehearsal takes where he intentionally went over the top in order to get into character. Then we have Peter Sellers…oh Peter Sellers. Three very different and masterful performances. From his stuck-up, ice-stiff Brit, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, to the dry patheticness of the President, to the titular Dr. Strangelove. Who could forget him battling with a random goon resulting in the genius line, “you’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola corporation”? Who could also forget, “I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri,” perfectly undercutting the bureaucracy of high level leadership and the bravado that comes with it, or even the eponymous doctor’s hilarious and transgressive final moments? 

The real gem of this film is it’s substance though. The film deftly weaves themes of toxic masculinity, ego, paranoia, and war to it’s grand thesis that the Cold War was nothing more than a pissing contest between a group of very small men who thought they were more. An approach politicians have to this day and it annoys me. The end of the world is fueled by a possibly schizophrenic general who becomes paranoid that the Soviets put chemicals in American water to make men less fertile. It’s all phallic, as demonstrated not only by the frequent undercutting of male bravado, the sexual connotations of the imagery of refilling planes in the air, and the nigh orgasmic images of nuclear explosions. The thesis of the movie (and a brilliant one it is) is that in war, as in everything, men are led by the dick.

Spartacus (1960): By David Alkhed

I’m not a huge fan of Spartacus. In fact, I’d argue that it’s Kubrick’s worst film second to Fear and Desire. The reason why is because never once in the entire film did I think “this is a Stanley Kubrick film”, what I thought was “this is a Stanley Kubrick film?” The film is completely devoid of any of Kubrick’s trademarks and, for me anyways, made the film feel soulless and fairly generic, and mostly forgettable to be honest.

Kubrick was approached by his Paths of Glory-star Kirk Douglas to helm his passion project Spartacus. Anthony Mann, the previous director, had been fired and Kubrick accepted the opportunity, but it would be a decision he’d soon regret, mainly due to the hostility directed towards him from the crew (especially cinematographer Russell Metty) and his lack of creative control.

This comes through in the finished film. Since Douglas was the producer, he often overruled Kubrick’s decisions and it makes for a surprisingly bland historical epic. The biggest problems lie in the script and the shooting style. The script (written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo) is very black-and-white and doesn’t really offer much exploration into the complexities of revolution, the politics of the period, and the character of Spartacus who, despite a strong performance from Douglas, remains an uninteresting character with no flaws and I never felt truly invested in his struggle. Many of the issues I have with the film are actually the issues that Kubrick himself had, and his own ideas were often discarded (he wanted to show how revolutionaries could be just as cruel as their oppressors and were often disorganized and he also wanted to make Spartacus more flawed) in favor of the more simplistic finished version.

Spartacus was a rough production with many egos clashing (especially Kubrick and Douglas), but it became a huge success financially and earned four Academy Awards. Despite this acclaim, Kubrick would disown the film much the same way he disowned Fear and Desire (I don’t blame him) and was determined to have total creative control on his upcoming films and they would be projects of his own choosing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): By Jacob Calta

When I was growing up, many pictures etched themselves into my brain. I was an odd duck in that I not only loved science fiction, but slow-burn science fiction at a young age. For me, films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture were the shit. And when it comes to slow-burn science fiction, no film looms quite as large or as powerfully as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A chronicling of Man’s past and future, culminating into a transcendental experience that truly takes us where no man has gone before, 2001 is Kubrick in complete control of a studio science fiction picture, budget and all. The mysteries of the universe, the dangers of artificial intelligence, and so much more is explored in this two-and-a-half-hour epic. What made this film so attractive to me as a wee one was the sheer amount of effects work. I grew up in love with model work of the Star Trek films, though I did not acknowledge it as such as a young’un. To me, these were simply cool spaceships. And what makes 2001 so spectacular is that it may be one of the most intellectual effects pictures in the history of the medium. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s sharp script provides a firm basis for everything to happen, creating compelling drama amongst the crew of the Discovery, but it is realized through a bevy of excellent effects technology. Detailed model work, rotating sets, front-projection, and Doug Trumbull’s iconic slit-screen effect are all under Kubrick’s toolbelt in creating the distant past and the spectacular future the film exhibits. Add in the iconic (if somewhat controversial) soundtrack that utilized some of the most memorable music in the Romantic and Modern zeitgeist, and you have yourself a film that defined a director, a genre, and a medium.

Lolita (1962): By David Alkhed

“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” is a really good question but an even better question would be “how did they ever make a movie of Lolita in the 1960s?” It’s almost unthinkable to me how Kubrick was able to get away with a film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous novel in that time period, although it may have to do with the film being heavily compromised compared to the novel (the novel contains references to rape and incest). But the film still revolves around a middle-aged man who falls in love with a minor and how he tries to keep her for himself. Some have argued that because of this unique, ironic and often darkly comical exploration into human sexuality and desires, Lolita is the first true Stanley Kubrick film. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it is undeniably a film made by Stanley Kubrick.

It should be said that Lolita contains some of the most actor-driven and character-driven scenes in Kubrick’s entire oeuvre. James Mason provides an exterior warmth and authority that he uses of hide his darker desires and to manipulate his way towards Lolita. Speaking of Lolita, she is played very well by Sue Lyon who, despite her relative youth (she was 14 at the time of filming) commands the screen with her intelligence and relative maturity which puts her on the same pedestal as the adults in the film. There’s also the brilliant Peter Sellers, who’s character serves as a sort of dark double of Mason’s character and becomes a form of nemesis, but played rather playfully in the typical Sellers way (with an American accent inspired by Kubrick’s own Bronx accent).

The film explores two of Kubrick’s favorite themes; sexuality and human darkness. In this case the two are combined since the story revolves around hebephilia. But Kubrick captures this through a unique lens that blends comedy with melodrama. The film manages to be very funny despite the darkness of the subject matter thanks to the performances and multitude of innuendos that populate the film. This truly unique view makes you certain that you are watching a Kubrick film and not a film made by committee, which makes it a rewarding experience for a Kubrick fan.

Although it’s far from my favorite Stanley Kubrick film, I’m still glad he made it so he could truly return to his true artistic identity after the disappointing experience on Spartacus. And, although it was controversial, it became a hit and guaranteed Kubrick the ability to maintain creative control on all of his later films.

A Clockwork Orange (1971): By Amos Lamb

Easily Kubrick’s most infamous film, A Clockwork Orange caused waves of hysteria in England. With copycat crimes occurring after the release, alongside the director and his family receiving death threats, ultimately led to him pulling the film from distribution. But if anything, this made the film even more infamous, with bootleg and foreign VHS tapes of the film being distributed around video stores across the country. Critically the film was met with mixed reactions, some praised the film as both brilliant and dangerous, but the film had its fair share of detractors, some calling the film pornographic and others criticizing the ideology of the film. 

Personally, I love the film and think it’s one of the strongest in Kubrick’s filmography. Even before watching the film I was a big fan of Anthony Burgess’s novel and was eager to see how the story would be translated to the screen. Kubrick cleverly utilizes the architecture of London to match the dystopian setting of the story, which I think was a genius move to match the warning message of the future with the contemporary culture the film is criticizing. Alongside this, Kubrick uses extreme wide-angle lenses to create the dreamy atmosphere of the film, while also highlighting the alienation of the society of the world. 

For me the main selling point of the film is the psychology and morality of the film. Obviously the film is framed through Alex’s perspective, skewing the film’s perception of violence and victimhood, as Alex is shown as significantly more sympathetic than the victims of violence at his hand. But this all adds into how the film explores the concepts of good and evil, alongside the nature of the government’s control over the people. It is a brutal film, especially in its depictions of sexual violence, but under the surface, Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell manage to create a compelling narrative that uses its stylised nature to leave a lasting impact on the viewer.

Overall, the film is a perfect combination of parts. The whole cast does a fantastic job at bringing the intensity where needed (McDowell especially), the technical side to the film creates this perfectly bizarre, surreal and dreamlike world, and the two merge to capture the corruption that permeates throughout every element of the story. There’s a reason this was my favorite film for the longest time, and why it’s one of Kubrick’s best.

The Shining (1980): By David Alkhed

My favorite horror movie is John Carpenter’s The Thing, but I think a strong second could be The Shining. I had dreaded watching it for a while since I used to be scared of horror films, although I overcame that fear once I watched Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in 2015, which became my gateway into the genre. Then roughly four years later, my English class was cancelled so I got home early and decided to watch a movie and I randomly picked The Shining. I instantly fell in love with it, and rewatched it only one month later and now it stands as one of my favorite films, let alone Kubrick films.

Kubrick was heartbroken by the lackluster commercial performance of Barry Lyndon (truly a shame since it stands as possibly his best film) so he desired to make a film with greater commercial appeal, yet retained his own artistic stamp. Riding the horror-boom in post-Exorcist Hollywood, he chose Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining as his subject as he desired to not only make a commercial hit but also, in a sense, to make the ultimate horror film. In some ways, he did.

As previously stated, Kubrick was (and still is) often accused of being too calculating and too objective in his craft, denying any relatability or feeling of empathy for the characters and the story. Although I think that’s a gross oversimplification, one could actually apply those terms to The Shining, but I wouldn’t do that in a negative way. In fact, I’d say that’s what makes it so scary in the first place. We get to objectively see the decay of the characters unfold in front of our very eyes, almost as if we’re all James Stewart from Rear Window, but unlike Stewart, we’re watching a film and therefore unable to change the series of terrifying events depicted, and must endure the realities of a family breaking down and a father losing his already deranged mind. And that, at least to me, is a very scary idea, thus the reason why The Shining is so scary still even after forty years.

The Shining wasn’t well received upon release, but has stood the test of time as one of the greatest horror films of all time, and I’m not here to argue that. It’s truly a monumental piece of cinema.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): By Saoirse Selway

Kubrick was always fascinated by the subject of war and the psychological connotations and consequences of what wartime and warfare does to people. If Paths of Glory explores the morality of the choices we are forced to make and how we maintain our integrity in wartime, Dr. Strangelove explores the absurdity of the decisions made in the higher echelons of the structure of war, and Barry Lyndon frames war as just one event in the lengthy totality of one’s life, Full Metal Jacket then really investigates the psychology of war on the ground. 

Alternating between Kubrick’s trademark absurdity and pure emotional blackness, Full Metal Jacket just might be Kubrick’s bleakest vision of warfare. 

Yes, the first half has most of the iconic moments, and rightly so, as R. Lee Ermey’s performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is one of the best performances of all time. Vincent D’Onofrio is a perfect foil to him as the more reserved Private Pyle who’s just trying his best to serve his country. In this way, Full Metal Jacket highlights how, more than any other war, the Vietnam War was ruining the totality of a whole generation and how that period changed politics forever. 

The second half in the actual war follows a similar structure of actually starting out kind of fun and funny and slowly descending into existential bleakness. The breeziness of the beginning of each segment reflects the zeitgeist attitude to the war beautifully, and reflects how history remembers it. It is at this point that Matthew Modine as Private Joker really comes to the fore providing a stellar turn and throughout the movie a solid emotional anchor. 

I understand why Full Metal Jacket may not be remembered by some as being up there with his period of filmmaking from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Shining, and it may not be as abstract, complex, and experimental as any of the films in that run, but it is one of Kubrick’s most accessible works, and it packs a punch like few other films can, let alone other Vietnam War films.

One thought on “Staff Picks: The Sensational Stanley Kubrick

  1. Many don’t realize the incredible body of work this man directed. He was one of those directors that always demanded and got the most incredible performances and work out of the cast and crew.

    Like

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