We continue our look at the films of Stanley Kubrick.
Back in June, we began taking a look at the film works of one of the most dedicated directors to ever work behind a camera. His name was Stanley Kubrick and we now continue our look at the man's life work and his continued growth as a filmmaker.
Lolita (1962) 8/10
What could be referred to as his first unfettered masterpiece where he retained full and final cut, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita is an ironic black comedy about a middle aged man named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) who grows infatuated and obssessed with a teenage girl named Lolita (Sue Lyon). He goes so far as to marrying the girl's neurotic and sexually frustrated mother Charlotte (Shelly Winters) to remain close to Lolita. As the marriage grows sour, Charlotte discovers via secret diary Humbert's passion for her daughter and disdain for herself. Committing suicide upon the news, Humbert and Lolita begin an affair and journey across the nation, posing as father and daughter as they shack up from hotel to hotel. Throughout the loosely romantic sojourn, their relationship is assailed by the constant interruptions of Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers, in his first multiple-role effort for Kubrick), an egotistical playwright with equal infatuation with Lolita. Adorning several disguises including the ridiculous and cartoonish German Dr. Zempf, he gradually manages to woo Lolita away from Humbert before she too bails and winds up marrying an everyman. Humbert vows revenge upon Quilty for stealing his love away from him, and the two jilted elders find one another in a deadly standoff.
Despite the impositions Kubrick had to overcome, Lolita was Kubrick's first picture free of conceding to studio wishes, which would have opted for a more optimistic ending. This was the first time Kubrick's narration bore a truly subversive quality, one which would reach it's transgressive height with Alex in Clockwork Orange. We listen to the elegantly mannered Humbert Humbert with an impish smirk of appreciation as we share in his musings about Lolita's beauty in contrast to his wife Charlotte's repulsiveness. Second to Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, which starred James Mason as a teacher who becomes addicted to his medication, Humbert Humbert is Mason's finest hour as a middle aged man smitten by youthful sexuality. Few actors had the capacity or fearlessness to take on such a difficult and controversial role (although years later Jeremy Irons played the iconic role in Adrian Lyne's 1997 remake). Shelley Winters as Charlotte is delightfully obnoxious and almost desperate in her sexual hunger. Peter Sellers' multi-role casting as the mercurial Clare Quilty can't help but foreshadow his work in Dr. Strangelove. And finally, Sue Lyon gives a charmingly funny performance as the beautiful nymphet at the center of everyone's attention.
Almost impossibly daring for it's day, Lolita was controversial from both it's literary inception to it's cinematic adaptation. Fighting against a strict censorship board, Kubrick was forced to de-eroticize many of the more risque elements detailing the sexual relationship between Humbert and Lolita in favor of implication and suggestion. One of it's most daring sequences involves Humbert and his current wife Charlotte in bed, with Humbert gazing intently at a photograph of Lolita as he engages Charlotte. Although Kubrick managed to get around many of the censorship stipulations, he later lamented making the film in the cultural climate of the time. The film was given an X rating, which at the time barred anyone under the age of 16 from viewing the film. Still, in spite of the cards stacked against 'Lolita', as a film it's a brilliant tragicomedy of the allure of youthful sexual obssession as well as the consequences resulting from obsessive's realization of Lolita's unattainability. Much like Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut, Lolita is less about illicit sexual content as it is about infatuation and dirty thoughts. While Lolita laughs with it's hopeless protagonists advances, the film also sees Humbert's mindset as crippling.
Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) 9/10
Around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and world fears of nuclear holocaust emerged this scathing sociopolitical satire about mad General who accidentally triggers World War III. Imagine the most terrifying subject matter told as a goofball, almost slapstick, comedy, replete with self-aware multiple roleplaying by the great comic actor Peter Sellers, and you have a rough idea of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Originally intended as a straight faced thriller, Kubrick reimagined the scenario as an impish joke, creating a timeless masterwork of comedy, satire, and intellectual cinema.
On an ordinary day, a psychotic General named Jack T. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders an impromptu nuclear strike on Russia, cutting off all contact from himself hidden deep within his military base as the military and political powers that be scramble to solve the crisis. Captain Mandrake (one of three roles Peter Sellers would play), locked within the base by General Ripper, is the only one who stands in the way of arbitrary annihilation of the human race. The film cross-cuts between the jet fighters pursuing their targets in Russia, General Ripper and Captain Mandrake under fire, and largely, a massive war room with a circular table and a large computer board displaying the world and the location of the jet planes. It's within the iconic war room set a majority of Dr. Strangelove will take place, with everything from serious minded formalities to slipping on banana peels, per se, all the while regarding it's players with the precise, careful distance Kubrick would become known for.
Opposite the peacenik US president (Seller's second role) is General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), an obnoxious blowhard caught between solving the problem and upholding the pride of the military. Enter Dr. Strangelove (Seller's third and most famous role), a German ex-Nazi scientist who now serves as the president's scientific advisor. Wheelchair bound with a thick accent and a bionic arm with a mind of it's own, it's the precis of the film's attitude towards it's subject matter, simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Running throughout the film is a vague sense of war either as a sexual act or war and sex going hand in hand, reinforced by suggestive phallic images including an opening sequence of jet refueling set to romantic music. There's also the names themselves, such as Buck Turgidson, and Strangelove himself. Turgidson's bikini-clad babe who takes it upon herself to mediate important military calls and phone the war room out of boredom.
Subversive and satirical, Dr. Strangelove was an instant success and solidified Kubrick's reputation as a brilliant provocateur and master class artist. The film was nominated for Four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. While some preferred a straightfoward treatise of the story to Kubrick's incendiary jaunt, it's that very underhanded way of approaching the prospect of obliterating all of mankind that gives the film it's power and timelessness. There's a moment near the beginning of the film where Buck Turgidson remarks the president should be more concerned about the fate of humanity than 'your image in the history books'. As history will prove, time and time again, it's innate for mankind to eradicate itself, often arbitrarily and in hindsight with a sense of lunatic buffoonery.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) 10/10
Early into the making of what would become his greatest cinematic achievement (and my personal favorite film of all time), Kubrick began research into what extraterrestrial life might actually look like. Dozens of designs were sketched of tall, lanky aliens (some of which may have been repurposed in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Eventually, Kubrick would jettison all the sketches and opted instead for a tall, rectangular black object with a chorus of shrieking, otherworldly voices. When asked why there aren't any aliens or space monsters of any kind found within the film, Kubrick replied 'we cannot show the face of God'.
Ultimately, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't so much a science fiction epic as it is about man's connection with God. The film is told in three acts: 'The Dawn of Man', which chronicles the primate's evolution from animal to thinking creature and eventual mankind; 'Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later', which develops into a thriller pitting man against manmade machinery; and finally, 'Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite', which takes the hero of the film (and us) into infinity (afterlife or extraterrestrial landscape?). Because it divides the story of man from his evolutionary roots to his ability to create civilization before finally dying, it paints a picture of the ordinary human experience as one transcending space and time. We all need to be taught how to walk and fend for ourselves before staking our own territory in the world before death brings us into a new consciousness and possible rebirth into the world of the living.
The film is largely silent with exception to long passages of musical montage, celebrating man's technological innovation as well as our mutual dependence on it. Sound itself is unique in space, with the only sound in space being dead silence. Contrary to the loud rumbles of ships flying through space or explosions in space, we hear nothing in spite of seeing everything. As for the cast populating the film, Kubrick intentionally keeps his characterizations flat with exception to HAL, the most human character in the film that happens to be a machine. That mankind with his formalities is far less personal and intimate in purveying emotion than his manmade machine is telling. When HAL becomes truly self aware and turns on his human crew, much like the opening 'Dawn of Man' act, man is forced to kill in order to survive.
While some complain about an inability to comprehend Kubrick's cool interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke's revolutionary science fiction novel, answers to all the questions it poses is not Kubrick's aim. Kubrick himself described as 'having the ability to describe stars and galaxies with the same poignancy one has when talking about children'. Like children coming into the world, when looking at our hands and feet used to walk this planet, one can't help but wonder just why we are here and what is our purpose in life? Is there a God? Is there intelligent life out in the universe? Whatever you believe or disbelieve in, 2001: A Space Odyssey conveys the spectrum of human experience as one beyond words.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) 10/10
If 2001: A Space Odyssey aimed for the Heavens, Kubrick's dystopian nightmare A Clockwork Orange promptly yanks us right back into Hell. For all of the prior film's cleanliness and a sense of hope, A Clockwork Orange deliberately undoes everything set up by 2001 while referencing it throughout all the same. Either a sequel of sorts or taking place around the same period of time, A Clockwork Orange explodes onscreen with Alex, an evil young hoodlum roaming the derelict streets of old England with his band of droogs, fellow wicked gang members prowling for the next vagrant to attack, woman to rape and man to rob. Increasingly malevolent and amoral, Alex is eventually caught by police after committing his first murder and is sentenced to prison. Incarcerated, Alex learns of a revolutionary treatment which could spell his freedom. After a few choice words and actions, Alex is selected to undergo the Ludivico treatment, a kind of brainwashing technique involving being forced to watch violent films while drugs injected into his system cause him to grow physically ill at the sight of violence as well as sex. Alex is pronounced cured and free to go, but crippled within, he is unable to defend himself against retaliation as he crosses paths with one former victim of his after another.
Decidedly anarchic and made in a fashion almost antithetical to 2001, Clockwork Orange forms a kind of yin-yang contrast to the 1968 science fiction epic. Where 2001 was a big budget, G rated effort, Clockwork Orange is a low budget, X rated (at the time) effort. Throughout the movie, references are dropped about 2001 such as when the bum Alex and his droogs attack refers to 'men on the moon, and men spinning around the Earth' instead of paying attention to 'law and order'. The old writer who is assaulted during the infamous home-invasion sequence is typing on a red IBM typewriter (opposite HAL). Alex happens upon a copy of the soundtrack to 2001 at the record store, which itself resembles the stargate sequence concluding 2001 with it's psychedelic colors and lighting perfectly poised symmetrically on both sides of the frame. Alex wandering about his home in his undies as he comes upon his parents' stereo speakers on the wall, positioned in the same spots and shapes of the brief shot of the ships guiding Dave Bowman during the Stargate scene. And of course, there's the final scene of Alex looking at the camera, regarding the audience with an impish grin (is Alex the Star Child?!). It's as though Kubrick is closing all the doors he opened in 2001 with Clockwork Orange.
A Clockwork Orange finds Kubrick at the height of his creative powers, cutting through one's barriers and aversion to criminal behavior by having Alex talk to us via voiceover narration. We partake in the joy of Alex's wrongdoing, highlighted by the ironic use of exultant classical music against a violent and ugly backdrop. Alex brings us closer into the mind of an unbridled sociopath than we're comfortable with, and worse still, Alex seems to suggest there's a little bit of himself in every one of us. One of the strongest sequences in the film involves a public demonstration of the Ludivico technique, as Alex is beaten by a man who insults him, unable to fight back, before being tempted by a full-frontal confrontation with a naked woman. As Alex looks up from underneath, his eyes open with fear before regarding the sight with awe and eventual desire, intercut with the woman's bare breasts filling the frame. The choice to eat the forbidden fruit is right in front of us, and most disturbing of all, Alex's inner impulses (though unable to act upon them post-treatment) are not dissimilar from that of our own.
Barry Lyndon (1975) 10/10
Continuing his exploration of society equaling itself out when one particular member tries to cheat his way to success is Stanley Kubrick's achingly beautiful period piece, Barry Lyndon. Loosely based on William Makepeace Thackeray's 1844 novel, the film transports us into 18th century England and follows the exploits, rise and subsequent fall of an ordinary Irishman, Barry Lyndon (Ryan O'Neal). Lydon will do just about anything to get where he needs to be, including switching sides from the British to the Prussian army, competing (and often succeeding) at duels, card cheating, and marrying into a wealthy family. An omniscient narrator serves to snarkily undermine everything we see Barry do, which also serves as something of a God's eye view with respect to Barry. Where Clockwork Orange took you right into the head of Alex, Barry Lyndon deliberately keeps you at arm's length, even inviting us to impishly laugh at Barry's plight, however tragic his eventual downfall becomes later.
Inarguably Kubrick's most beautiful picture to date, with lush set design recreating a Britain of the past and epic vistas of the Irish landscape, Kubrick sought to light scenes with a technique not utilized again until Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract would come out: candlelight. Using lenses for NASA space travel, painstakingly retrofitted to Kubrick's own cameras, Kubrick was able to create some of the most painterly, evocative, and gorgeous images ever put on film. If anything, it makes the ambience of candlelight even prettier than it might actually look in person. Makeup, key to the period, is also essential, with the pale-faced makeup and black beauty marks on people's faces alongside their costumes and heavily adorned wigs transporting us back in time. This is one of the few reasons to buy an HDTV and a Blu-ray player.
In terms of casting, Barry Lyndon has the largest crossover of actors from Clockwork Orange, with Patrick Magee (the victimized writer) as Barry's right hand card cheater, and the prison pastor cast as Barry's uncle. This would also mark the second collaboration between Kubrick and actor Philip Stone (Alex's Dad from Clockwork Orange and Delbert Grady from The Shining). Most importantly, Barry's arch rival and voice of reason in the film, Lord Bullington, is played by Leon Vitali, who at that moment would become Kubrick's longtime personal assistant and manager of his estate. With Kubrick long since past, it was Vitali who supervised all the digital transfers of Kubrick's work to hi-definition video. Vitali himself would act in Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut as the red-hooded priest at the masquerade ball orgy sequence.
Despite the overwhelming opulence on display and winning 4 Academy Awards, the 3 hour piece didn't bode well with audiences expecting another Clockwork Orange ala Tom Jones, and sadly the film was a box office failure and remains among his least seen masterworks to date. That said, it's an essential title to any home video library and is a bit like looking at a coffee table book of ornate paintings from the past. Although a financial disappointment for Kubrick, this wouldn't deter the strength of his output when he set his eyes on a far more commercial venture, an adaptation of popular horror novelist Stephen King's The Shining.
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