Stanley Kubrick's Films
Stanley Kubrick’s Films
Somehow, they were bigger than movies. They were head-trip events, virtual realities, veritable monoliths of storytelling, each a hypnotically controlled environment unto itself. The eeriest thing about them may be this: They don’t age. When you go back and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon or Full Metal Jacket, no matter how many times you’ve seen each one before, it inevitably looks as radical, as dementedly funny, as shocking in its perceptions and its audiovisual logic as it did the day it came out. Offhand, I can’t think of another director whose movies possess quite this spooky-cool, ahead-of-their-time quality. It has something to do with the way that they’re shot: all those dreamy, glassy, hyperextended images photographed through wide-angle lenses and flooded with clean, glaring light, as if the world no longer allowed for shadows. A Stanley Kubrick movie often resembled some sinister voyeuristic ritual taped off a surveillance camera to be shown on a global TV network of the dystopian future. It didn’t matter whether he was transporting you to the other side of Jupiter, the baroque aristocratic lawns of 18th-century England, or the wintry gothic grandeur of a haunted Colorado resort. Kubrick’s films, by the end, may have come forth at lengthier intervals than most people’s children, but there was one thing you could always count on: Each new one would be a visionary ride in the cosmic theme park of its creator’s mind.
One way or another, they were all about losing your mind, about the insidious way that aggression tears our very identities apart. Having established himself as a conventional, if rather heady, postwar studio-system craftsman with the ingenious crossword-structured heist thriller The Killing (1956), the stirring antiwar melodrama Paths of Glory (1957), the grandly old-fashioned, ever-so-slightly kinky Spartacus (1960), and the droll, not-nearly-kinky-enough Lolita (1962), the director broke through with his first bona fide Stanley Kubrick Movie in 1964, when he turned nuclear-war paranoia into the gonzo apocalyptic histrionics of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His signature stylistic obsessiveness didn’t emerge full-blown, though, until his next feature, the majestically hallucinatory 2001, in which spaceships glided like entranced ballerinas and a sad-voiced computer named HAL expressed more human passion than either of the astronaut drones with whom he’d locked himself in a duel.
In those famous shots of HAL’s ambiguously staring dot of an eye, you can feel Kubrick up to something far more outlandish than the film’s man-versus-microchip story line would suggest. He’s literally out to hypnotize the audience, to heighten our involvement into a state of dizzy religio-cerebral meditation. In a century of cinema, we’ve seen directors who are humanists, poets, magicians, operatic visionaries. But in 2001, and for the remainder of his career, Stanley Kubrick was perhaps the only great filmmaker who adopted the viewpoint of God — a kind of unholy clinical deity, slowing down time, cackling from on high, deploying the seductions of technology to dissolve his characters’ egos. Kubrick’s critics, notably Pauline Kael, claimed that he indulged in cool, bloodless misanthropy, a charge to which one can only reply, ”You bet he did!” He was going to laugh all the way to hell and back. Kubrick’s films are savage parables of a dehumanized age, machine-dream satires that outrage and entice by reveling in the very evils they’re protesting. (The ultimate Kubrick antihero: Alex in A Clockwork Orange — cinema’s original punk.) If you looked closely, though, the director’s compassion came through — as in, say, his intricate portrayal of the platoon in Full Metal Jacket. It was the flip side of his monumental cynicism. It was there in his pitiless dissection of a world that will always conspire, like clockwork, to turn men into dogs.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Sick comedy had been dancing, with a cracked grin, around the edges of the culture. Kubrick brought it center stage with his wildly overwrought, can-you-top-this burlesque of the nuclear-arms race, a movie that sends up the mad, macho spirit of escalation in everything from its dirty-minded dialogue to its Fritz Lang-in-the-loony-bin doomsday look. To a youngish baby boomer like myself, the movie always seemed a bit didactic (repeat: Nuclear war is insane). Its richest joys are the performances of George C. Scott and (in three, count ’em, roles) Peter Sellers. A-
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Still the grandest of all science-fiction movies, in part because it’s the most matter-of-fact. For all its eye-popping technological lyricism, 2001 has the audacity to imagine the future as it might actually look: as a collision of the surreal and the banal, with man reduced to a desperate speck at the center of it all. You can feel Kubrick finding his rhythms here, elasticizing the usual dramatic pauses into a suspended trance state. In 2001, the cosmic joke is that the computer that man ends up warring against is really his own brain — a metaphysical weapon as mysterious in its destructive power as that ape’s elemental first bone. A
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
It’s no coincidence that Kubrick’s most controversial film — it remains unshown in Britain, largely through his efforts, since 1974 — is also his most prophetic. Some wrote it off as an intellectual’s exploitation orgy, yet its vision of a scary, plastic, vaguely totalitarian future overrun by nihilism and ”ultraviolence” looks more resonant every day. The comic scandal of the movie is how flagrantly the director allies himself with Alex (Malcolm McDowell, in a role Mick Jagger once wanted to play), the rapist/terrorist/youth-gang-leader hero, with his showboat craving for sociopathic ecstasy (preferably accompanied by Beethoven). Kubrick probably won more fans — and spawned more detractors — with the gleefully blasphemous ”Singin’ in the Rain” torture scene than with any other moment of his career. The film’s frenzied electric style is really the world according to Alex. That’s its allure and, nearly 30 years later, its undiluted shock. A
Barry Lyndon (1975)
After two voyages into the future, Kubrick set himself an ultimate aesthetic challenge: He’d make a costume drama, a brocade-and-powdered-wig period piece so unprecedented in its authenticity that it would seem as enigmatic — and compelling — to modern audiences as a visit to another galaxy. The now famously overdeliberate Kubrick rhythms grow all the slower here (to many a viewer’s impatience), yet only because the brutality that lurks beneath civilization’s facade is so coiled in its destructive force. To watch Ryan O’Neal’s performance as the upwardly mobile Barry, part victim and part cad, is to see Kubrick’s perverse genius with actors. He cast a dullard only to jolt us, by the end, with the revelation of the bastard within. A-
The Shining (1980)
To me, Kubrick’s one artistic failure — yet the more you watch it, the more the amazing experiment he was trying to bring off comes into focus. In this endlessly fascinating misfire, the director, adapting Stephen King’s best novel, literally tries to lull us inside the splintered motivations — booze, rage, ghosts — that transform a tortured domestic Everyman into an ax-wielding psycho. The film’s point of view grows progressively more fragmented along with its hero’s sanity, leading to what was obviously meant to be the ultimate in mesmeric Kubrickian magic: that endless men’s-room scene in which a murderous former caretaker tries to reincarnate himself as Jack Nicholson. Unfortunately, the movie locks us outside of Nicholson’s slavering performance. B
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
An underappreciated masterpiece. The opening basic-training sequence was justly celebrated for its lurid robotic intensity, but the payoff comes when the film rotates over to Vietnam, where Kubrick stages warfare as a hyperrealist spectacle of brutality stripped of meaning. The climactic sniper sequence brings us closer to the moment-to-moment dread of modern combat than any war film before Saving Private Ryan (which it clearly influenced). In a sense, all of Kubrick’s movies, with their violent raw spectacle, are war films. For him, war wasn’t just hell; it was home. A