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Beyond the Mind’s Eye: A Stanley Kubrick Retrospective

EDITOR: Who wants to cover the Kubrick Retrospective?

JEREMIAH: I’ll do it!

EDITOR: Okay, it’s yours.

Fuck.

What does one say about Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), who has amassed one of the strongest bodies of work of any filmmaker in the 20th Century? By hatching hoary analytical theories about what his films mean, we inevitably reduce them. I’ve always preferred to think of the Kubrick collection as being open to new interpretation every time rather than imposing ‘definitive’ critical analysis. New doors open every time I watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange, and I’d prefer not to close them.

The critics have never been easy on old Stanley. 2001 was annihilated by pompous braniacs during its initial New York reception. Barry Lyndon has been casually dismissed as a bore. We’ll have to wait another 20 years before it dawns on the cultural zeitgeist that Eyes Wide Shut merits repeated viewings, all the better to enjoy its cutting ridicule of the male subconscious (or, in layman’s terms, how Dr. Bill almost gets in trouble with his little dickie-wickie).

The Kubrick Retrospective, held at NYC’s Screening Room from May 11-24, honors this radical filmmaker’s induction into the Bronx Wall of Fame. These 11 films include his first short film, Day of the Fight (1951), screened courtesy of the Kubrick estate. Unfortunately, no prints of his first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), or his unspeakably profound 2001: A Space Odyssey, were made available for this series.

Killer’s Kiss (1955) Kubrick was a one man army on his second feature. As director, producer, editor, and cinematographer, he put together an outstanding student thesis. Although this auteur never went to film school, his mundane early projects can be construed as his education. Killer’s Kiss is a boring noir about a down on his luck boxer (Jamie Smith) falling for a gangster’s moll (Irene Kane). It’s a looong hour and seven minutes, lemme tell ya, but watch for some authentic location photography on the streets of New York, a savage boxing match, and a memorably spooky climactic chase in an abandoned mannequin warehouse.

The Killing (1956) With hard boiled Jim Thompson (The Grifters) to pen his dialogue, Kubrick moves beyond the thuggish Killer’s Kiss with a bracing beat-the-clock heist scenario masterminded by tough guy Sterling Hayden. The fragmented, non-linear narrative should appeal to our Pulp Fiction generation.

Paths of Glory (1957) Stunning battle scenes, a message about the hypocrisy of war, and a tremendous lead performance by Kirk Douglas are all elements of Kubrick’s first bona fide classic. Steven Spielberg is fond of doting on the admittedly powerful final scene where a German singer (Christiane Kubrick) performs a bittersweet tune for a battalion of weary French soldiers minutes before Col. Dax (Douglas) brings them back to the battlefield. My favorite hits a slightly different note, set in a jail cell as three prisoners squander their time. One of them turns to another and bemoans that the cockroach scuttling on the table will still be alive tomorrow morning, and they’ll all be dead. ‘It will have more contact with my wife and child than I will.’ His buddy crushes the insect and laughs that now they’ve got the edge on him. The knife-edged irony is pure Kubrick.

Spartacus (1960) Kubrick was a master chess player, so it comes as no surprise that the best scenes in Spartacus portray carefully staged battles between the Roman military force and the slaves in revolt led by Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). The director’s heart wasn’t in this material, obviously not concerning himself with the dull romantic subplot with lovely Jean Simmons. Nonetheless, as pure cinematic craftsmanship, you can’t beat the clashing armies on the field or hand-to-hand Coliseum combat, containing all the sweat and rigor missing from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. An enjoyable supporting cast of character actors (Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton) and the racy ‘oysters and snails’ bathing scene between villain Laurence Olivier and slave-boy Tony Curtis liven up this otherwise fairly traditional mainstream affair.

Lolita (1962) ‘We’re very broad minded,’ laughs a garish socialite couple. With its bouncy soundtrack, Lolita asks that we, too, suspend our judgment of dirty old man Humbert Humbert (James Mason) as he marries a tacky widow (Shelley Winters) only to get close to her underage nymphet daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). Suffice to say, dark comedy ensues as Humbert takes his young lady friend on an open ended cross-country ride. Kubrick’s masterstroke is making this pedophile’s delight exquisitely funny, filled with bouncy songs and slapstick gags. The second act drags as Kubrick attempts to find the right note of suggestion while sticking to the moral code imposed on cinema in 1962. But, oh, you wouldn’t want him to change a thing — the first shot of Lolita in a bathing suit and sun hat, Mason’s self knowing reference to cherry pies, Peter Sellers drunkenly joking through a game of ping-pong with the man who intends to kill him. These scenes are so lovely, you want to pack them in your lunchbox and bring them home.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) Aside from those goofy opening titles, you really can’t go wrong renting this savage end-of-the-world comedy. Chosen as filmcritic.com’s #1 movie of all time in its Top 100 Films of the Millennium, I wonder what my colleagues were smoking. Don’t they know it’s only the fifth or sixth greatest? Let’s not split hairs, though — Kubrick makes a complete mockery of the still perilous nuclear situation, has a trio of virtuoso performances from Peter Sellers (‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’) and offers one of the gloomiest d
enouements we’ve ever seen.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) For Roger Ebert, Casablanca is the movie. For me, it’s A Clockwork Orange. When Alex (Malcolm MacDowell) and his droogs step out for a little of the old ultraviolence, Kubrick finds poetry and meaning as the bottom falls out of our society. Once we’ve drunk from Alex’s cup of blood, we’re promptly spun around into the hypocrisy of those who supposedly protect and serve the world Alex is blowing apart. In an age where the cops beat the shit out of Rodney King, our elections are fixed, and the young people of America are blowing away their fellow schoolchildren, A Clockwork Orange seems all the more prophetic. I haven’t even touched on the cinematic splendor of it all, the marvels of cinematography and production design. It rivals 2001: A Space Odyssey on the short list of three to five best movies ever made.

Barry Lyndon (1975) Kubrick’s 18th Century costume drama is a bleak satire of manners that plays its cards so close to the vest, most critics missed the point entirely. Thankfully, it seems to be gaining support in some circles. Ryan O’Neal is perfectly cast as the vapid, ambitious title character who endures the folly of war, endless duels, fabricated romance, and the achievement of satisfaction as a proper gentleman only to be destroyed by his own thinly veiled ineptitude and false pride. As always, Kubrick brought a fastidious eye to details of costume and manner, to the point where frustrated viewers may feel he’s simply presenting a 185-minute waxwork display. Look between the lines of his epic battles and drawing room intrigue and you’ll see as scathing an indictment of so-called civil behavior as anything in Jonathan Swift. From his detached perspective, told almost entirely in master shots, Kubrick is laughing into his fist.

The Shining (1980) Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, crazy as a bedbug) is elected caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during the winter season. He and his family will be the only people there, blocked in by the fierce snowstorm. Kubrick draws out the palpable dread of isolation, making full use of his location. There’s memorably creepy use of the maze garden and exteriors which portray the house as eyes (windows) and mouth (doorway). The over-the-top craziness of Nicholson and weepy simperings of Shelley Duvall may drive some viewers to distraction, but the Overlook Hotel is the true star. As we walk through Kubrick’s haunted house, we’re freaked out by eerie silences. Stephen King described the adaptation as ‘a great big beautiful car with no motor in it,’ meaning it as a criticism. If I were Kubrick, I’d take it as the highest praise — what is a ghost if not horrors lurking in empty space?

Full Metal Jacket (1987) ‘You wear a peace sign on your jacket and ‘born to kill’ on your helmet? What’s that supposed to be? Some sort of sick joke?’ Kubrick’s protagonist, Private Joker (Matthew Modine) seems to think so. This little commentary on the duality of man (the Jungian thing, sir!) exemplifies the strengths of this layered, disturbing view of war as Schizophrenia, Inc. Before going to Vietnam on a tour of duty during the Tet offensive, Kubrick spends the first half of his film with an emotionally searing course in basic training for marines. R. Lee Ermey makes a lasting impression as the unbreakable Sgt. Hartman, who sends ‘overweight fat-body’ Pvt. Gomer Pyle (brilliant Vincent D’Onofrio) into a world of shit. Kubrick’s precise tracking shots and military crisp framings have never been more assured than they are in the early scenes of Full Metal Jacket, and you’ll be quoting Sgt. Hartman’s dialogue for the rest of your life. I know I do. ‘Private Pyle, I’m gonna give you three seconds, exactly three fuckin’ seconds, to wipe that stupid lookin’ grin off your face or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull fuck you!’

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) We’ll never know how Kubrick’s final edit would have looked, since he died shortly before the release. It’s still a challenging piece of work, and as bracing as the work of any young maverick (the director was 70 at the time). From the beginning, we realize Eyes Wide Shut isn’t operating on the same level as our natural, perceived reality. Based on a short novel by Arthur Schnitzler called Traumnovelle (‘Dream Story’), things move a little slower, a little stranger and far more subterranean than the mind’s eye. Our confused hero, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise, in a performance far stronger than his work in Magnolia), stumbles around the empty New York streets trying to work through his long dark night of (male) sexual hysteria before returning to the relative safety and so-called security of his marriage. Kubrick presents New York at night not as it is, but how it can feel sometimes — a city filled with strangers that often feels empty. Dr. Bill stands alone with his lingering thoughts of his wife (Nicole Kidman) in bed with another man. Chalk it up to the logic of dreams. As for the amusing final line of dialogue, Stanley Kubrick ends with a bang: ‘Fuck.’

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