MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #12 – STANLEY KUBRICK
Stanley Kubrick and I do not have many things in common. But one of them is we both, when he was still with us, hate flying. From some limited research I learnt that Kubrick was in fact a qualified pilot but following an incident in the air it scared him to the extent he refused to fly again. The famous story of recreating the major parts of war-torn Vietnam in London because of this during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987) has subsequently gone into cinematic folklore.
I hate flying for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am a science ignoramus and therefore cannot get my head around how that big hunk of metal can actually take off. Moreover, the fear of being trapped somewhere that in a crash situation means I am NOT getting out alive is too much to bear. I mean, on a boat or train or driving in your car you’ve got a fighting chance, but on a plane you’re up cloud creek without a paddle. More prosaically, I do NOT enjoy travelling on planes. Aside from being able to get a beer at seven in the morning, flying is just pointless to me. I don’t really even like holidays. You only have to come back and the relaxation you earned is ruined by the stress of having to fly back home.
I realise these are first world problems but for me to get on a plane is a big deal. Yet, my wife loves travelling and visiting new places so as an appeasement exercise I agreed to go to Copenhagen. What sweetened the deal though is we both love the films of Stanley Kubrick and, given it has yet to come to London, decided to go visit said exhibition before it ended in January 2018. I am glad I did. It was brilliant.
As the photos show every one of Kubrick’s completed and non-completed projects were given a wonderfully curated and considered display. There were: props; scripts; clapperboards, letters from fans; video and audio-clips; letters of protests from angry cinemagoers; costumes; set miniatures; and hundreds of production documents identifying the famed meticulousness of Kubrick’s productions. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Kubrick’s filmic life and well worth getting lost in for several hours. One hopes it comes to London soon so I can go again!
So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s techniques, philosophies and film modus operandi, that rather than offer technical or thematic analysis I’d like to consider the personal impact Kubrick has had on my life. All I can say is that from an emotional level here is a filmmaker who has been with me as far back as I can remember. I recall watching The Killing (1956) on BBC2 in England when I was eleven and marvelling at the incredibly metronomic and overlapping structure. Then, at Christmas later that year, I recall watching Spartacus (1960) on TV with the family and enjoying the blood and guts and heroism of the lead character. I revelled in the Roman baddies being thwarted by a mere slave. When I found out a few years later they were directed by the same person I did not believe it; it blew my mind.
With this knowledge and experience in mind, I consciously or otherwise looked out for other works by Stanley Kubrick. My memory is hazy but in my late teens I found Paths of Glory (1957) showing, no doubt on BBC2 (we still only had four channels then in England), and I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over. Knowing nothing of the filmmaking process I was impacted by the incredible tracking shots putting us in the heart of the action. Timothy Carey, who stole the show as a vicious criminal in The Killing, again really stood out in this classic WWI anti-war film. But like in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was fierce in his performance and his noble character protests against the injustice of the ruling powers within the poisonous French hierarchy.
One film of Kubrick’s I never quite got into was Lolita (1962). I tried to read the novel many years ago but my young brain found it impenetrable. Similarly, the film is a very dark comedy with a risqué theme of illicit romance and sexual awakening. The film was very controversial on release and Kubrick’s one film I have not watched many times but my feeling is that Kubrick was attracted to the weaknesses of masculinity in this work. Now, perhaps it is a sexist and lascivious film but I would need to re-watch it now to be able to fully commit to a clear critical view. One wonders if it would be made now given its context and complexity of gender and paedophilic representations. The PC, Neo-Millenials and feminist agendas would certainly have something to say about it and they would probably have a point. My feeling is though we should be allowed to make up our own mind on controversial works rather than carrying flaming torches on the internet threatening to burn anything that may be deemed controversial.
Another film which is sexual, but this time more symbolically when compared to Lolita, is the anti-nuclear masterpiece Dr Strangelove: or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Having watched it more recently and gained knowledge from the wonderful Kubrick exhibition, this scary and hilarious satire is filled with stupid, impotent and warring men bickering and squabbling over the future of a possible nuclear attack. It’s incredible to think that at the time of the Cold War a filmmaker could turn the fear of an atomic bomb attack into a comedy. But that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick because as an iconoclast he did just that. Like Paths of Glory, which was banned by the French government, the film garnered the ire of the military as Kubrick showed he wasn’t afraid to criticize those in power once again.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another film which, like Lolita, was one I did not see until years later. It was rarely on the television and only watching subsequent cinematic re-releases have I basked in the glory of this science-fiction classic. Kubrick’s work has sometimes been accused of formalism and technique over emotion and arguably 2001: A Space Odyssey is his most accomplished technical achievement. Yet the emotion is derived from the intellectual and philosophical journey of early man to that of enigmatic ‘Star Child’. One wonders at the combination of music and images to create a startling dialectic of wonderment, awe and enigma. What it all means is open to many interpretations and that too was the genius of Kubrick; there was rarely an easy answer to the themes raised in his films.
While I admire 2001: A Space Odyssey more from afar, his next film A Clockwork Orange (1971), is one which I have close cultural connections to. Of course, it was released when I was a baby but on entering my late teens the controversy caused on its release had still managed to reach the chattering testosterone of the boys’ school I attended. Here was a violent, sexual, sexist, profane, dystopic, misanthropic film with blood and nudity that had been banned (later I would find it had been withdrawn by Kubrick himself) AND WE MUST NOT SEE! Obviously that meant we HAD to see it. Alas, I didn’t see it until one evening, as a surprised 22 year old, at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross when it shown illegally as a ‘secret’ film. Subsequently, this action by the above-underground repertory cinema caused legal action by Warner Bros., eventually forcing the cinema to close.
Even without seeing A Clockwork Orange, before it’s bootleg London screening, I had immersed myself in the music on vinyl, bought posters, watched a theatrical presentation starring Phil Daniels; and of course read Burgess’s incredible novel a number of times. Myself and my brother loved the language and iconography and the danger of the piece. This is why censorship of all kinds can backfire because when you’re told you’re not allowed to see something it makes you want to watch it even more. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange would eventually be released openly and it still stands the test of time as a virulent and scathing attack on Governmental control of the proletariat. Of course, Alex the anti-hero is a psychopathic nightmare and a reflection of the brutal society established within the film and book. Again, Kubrick and Burgess’ original book can offer little in the way of solutions but rather a coruscating critique of humanity via an ultra-stylish and formidable cinematic and literary language.
Kubrick’s next film following the Clockwork Orange controversy was Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick had put his typically meticulous planning into a film about Napoleon Bonaparte only for this to fall down for commercial reasons and the budget was then put towards another period drama. I have to admit I did not see Barry Lyndon in full until it was shown on Film Four a few years ago. I subsequently saw it again last year – restored to a 35mm print – at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square and was thoroughly absorbed by the tragic tale of the eponymous leading character. Kubrick’s insistent to shoot in low or candlelight gave the film a heavenly and picturesque glow; fascinating also was the structure of the film as Barry Lyndon’s life plays out via fate and a series of random misadventures. It reminded me somewhat of Forrest Gump (1994) where war and misfortune happen to and around him, while both films end similarly with familial tragedy. Many of Kubrick’s other films have rightly gained classic status with Barry Lyndon perhaps seen as a lesser film. But for me, the imagery and cinematography alone make it a masterpiece for me.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was a film released around the time of the 1980s “video-nasty” era and I watched a lot of those films on VHS. This was the time where my love of horror was formed and despite the enigmatic ending being lost on a dopey 12 year-old, I loved this story of a psychotic Jack Nicholson going mad and attacking his family. It was only years later on further re-watches that I fully appreciated the macabre psychological subtlety of the unfolding detachment from reality, which occurs to Jack Torrance. Of course, everyone recalls the “Here’s Johnny!” moment and is scared to death by his twisted actions, but everything before that is brilliant, as it masterfully builds and creates dread amidst iconic images including: the twin girls, red-patterned carpet, the maze and the creepy barman in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King, apparently doesn’t rate Kubrick’s The Shining but I think he is wrong. I know he changed King’s excellent novel to fit his own vision but Kubrick’s The Shining stands the test of time today.
Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) thankfully came out when I was old enough to see them at the cinema. Both are what I consider classic Kubrick mirrored structures. That is they are split into two long acts rather than the traditional three-act structure present in most classical Hollywood films. In Full Metal Jacket we establish the rigours of training Marines involving, from the film’s point-of-view, the dehumanizing stripping of humanity in order to turn men into killing machines. The second-half places such men into the Vietnam War and finds them lost in a black mirror of death and despair, attempting to make sense of the carnage around them. Such themes as the follies of war and damaging arrogance of those in rule are prevalent throughout his work including this film, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory.
Having failed to get projects such as The Aryan Papers and Artificial Intelligence to the screen his next feature, Eyes Wide Shut, alas, was Kubrick’s final film. It benefits from close to career best performances from then married Nicole Kidman and Hollywood star Tom Cruise. I recall seeing it at a cinema in Fulham Road and my first reaction was it seemed unreal and ungrounded. The explicit sex scenes seemed stagey and were exploitational; plus Nicole Kidman’s acting aside the whole thing did not work for me on any level. Of course though the film, like many of Kubrick’s works, need to be viewed more than once for the nuance and subtle psychologies at work to seep through into one’s psyche. On further views of Eyes Wide Shut, the dark comedy and tragedy at work contextualises the sexual depravity on show revealing a dreamlike structure and strong moral compass which leads you to the conclusion hedonism and freedom of physical expression are empty vessels and vacuous pursuits compared to the relative safety of love, family and marriage.
Walking round the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a fantastic experience. Not only to revel in the artistic bricolage of the genius filmmakers’ oeuvre and history, but also to tread through my own memories of growing older watching Kubrick’s works. This and Copenhagen as a whole made it worth my while getting on a plane and suffering the stress of flight to venture to Denmark; where something totally not rotten was going on.