Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. The time, we explore the work of one of cinema’s true great auteurs.
Nobody’s born an arts writer, film critic, or movie buff. Born to be one — maybe. However, that journey from being a young child watching a pre-movie cartoon alongside a parent to bingeing a director’s entire filmography deep into the wee hours of the night follows a basic developmental path: hundreds of treks up and down sticky, popcorn-speckled aisles (often alone); thousands of late-night rentals (also often alone); and a growing, insuppressible urge to tell others about what you’ve seen (it helps if you’re not alone — or at least have a pet).
But there’s one more moment that I think all film lovers share: the very first time we watch a movie and come away thinking, “Oh, so that’s FILM” or “I didn’t know a movie could do that.” I can rattle off dozens of movies that have, to borrow a phrase, shifted the cargo in my haul — from a courtroom drama like 12 Angry Men to a coming-of-age plunge like The Graduate to a perfectly paced thriller like Jaws — but one came before them. That was Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
I will never forget seeing that opening shot in the Korova Milkbar for the first time: that demonic, glassy-eyed close-up; Hell’s own synths acting as ventilation; and the Nadsat slovos dripping from our humble narrator’s tongue like knives falling on marble tiles. Forget all that comes after that initial image. At that moment, I stared and thought, “Oh…”
And while not a very profound observation, I think it’s safe to say that on almost every occasion that I’ve seen a Stanley Kubrick film for the first time, my initial thought amounted to little more than an entranced “Oh…” His are films that open us to worlds beyond our reach, make us reconsider and think more deeply about the world we do inhabit, and, above all, rarely fail to stretch our imaginations to new and richer lengths.
In honor of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s 50th anniversary, we returned to all 13 full-length pictures in Kubrick’s canon. It’s been a daunting task, one that’s left us feeling like fetuses orbiting the Earth, apes beating our chests, and teenagers staring at a screen and thinking, “Oh, so that’s FILM,” all over again.
— Matt Melis
13. Fear and Desire (1953)
Runtime: 1 hr. 2 min.
Press Release: News flash: war’s awful, terrible, and no good. How do we know? Because universally speaking, combat has a way of messing with people’s minds, and there’s no better example of this than in Fear and Desire, which drops four soldiers behind enemy lines. The countries aren’t identified. The battle, presented with nominal backstory or reasoning. No, we simply get four men in almost stage play-like fashion daring to confront their own … you guessed it, fears and desires.
Cast: Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, and Virginia Leith
Score: Fear and Desire didn’t have much in terms of its score, but Gerald Fried did manage to provide some effectively succinct downbeats. The bitter patriotic melody with steadily declining sounds worked like a metaphor for Kubrick’s soldiers and their devolving sanity.
It should be noted that this was Kubrick and Fried’s second collaboration. Fried already worked with Kubrick on the director’s Day of the Fight short. (Which, uh, hey, it’s free on YouTube.) The two would work with each other on later projects like Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Paths of Glory.
A Brief History of Stanley Kubrick: Since Fear and Desire’s his debut feature, it’s worth looking at Kubrick’s biography, and how he came to filmmaking. It’s fun to recant the legend every couple of years — inspire the film school troops.
Bronx born-and-raised, Kubrick was an art, literature, and film obsessive and had a knack for photography that landed him a job at Look magazine. His look? Crisp looks at social systems, snarky angles, high-contrast lighting, and subjects like librarians, boxers, and congested traffic among other things. Fast-forward to the ‘50s, Kubrick started making shorts, including Flying Padre and The Day of the Fight. While ostensibly commercial and observational work, his films explored human subjugation and how men punish themselves to get by. God what a gifted sadist.
Right, Fear and Desire. Kubrick raised dough on shorts. Roughly a grand from friends and family, which is quite impressive when your mind wanders to how much a first film can cost at Sundance in 2017. Kubrick knew he wanted to make feature-length films, and he committed to a script from his friend Howard Sackler about the perils of war-mongering, The Shape of Fear.
That script, shaped into Fear and Desire, the allegory we’re talking about right now. And the film, initially pitched as a low-cost, silent experiment, ran over budget, costing $53,000 (again, what a bargain). It flopped. Kubrick had to make another short, The Seafarers, and raise more money for his next film, Killer’s Kiss. The rest is film history.
Lost Fears, But Growing Desire to See This Film: Fear and Desire was certainly no hit. It was grim, and admittedly amateurish, but it had a hard edge that adds an interesting side dish to any Kubrick enthusiast’s desire to watch the filmmakers’ full work. Plus, come on, it’s 62 minutes — sneak it in during your lunch break.
Desire’s distributor died in 1953, and this film fell off the map. Kino, thankfully, Blu-Rayed this in 2012 (complete with a restored version of The Seafarers), and thanks to the weird state of this film’s licensing, you can comfortably watch this online for free without much fear of legal reprisal.
Thee Moment: Poor Private Sidney. It’s a little senseless and overplayed, but Mazursky’s Sidney losing his mind is so rapt and watchable and focused and assuredly dramatic, it could have snuck into Full Metal Jacket. Sidney’s manic-obsessive break shows the actual physical manifestations of war when the mind’s first to go. For 1953, this is relatively daring stuff.
The Master at Work: Funny. Kubrick worked so hard at just getting this film off the ground that none of the trademark mania and control-freak tendencies have been heard about with this film. This was Kubrick at just 25 years old, just trying to get a full-length film made, not the hardcore auteur he would become. Not to be trite, but what the hell did you produce at 25?
Kubrickian Scale (0-10): 6, about. The anti-war flick is a dime a dozen. From The Western Front to Private Ryan, many a mighty filmmaker has tackled the horror, and Fear and Desire acts as more of a debut and proof of skills and tenacity than anything else. It’s not the boldest statement, or a fiercely visionary thing, although … Fear and Desire has that caustic, dark streak of Kubrick’s. Or at least, hints of it.
Analysis: Fear and Desire is a first film, through and through. Kubrick played with creative angles while rambling and telling his story with a lack of authority. The movie explores ideas a little too big for such a small film. And yet, there’s such a jaded worldview on display that it can’t help but feel like a Kubrick.
It’s also a weird film when placed historically. In 1953, the big hits were chipper studio fare, like Shane and The Band Wagon. The biggest anti-war film was Wilder’s Stalag 17, and the most impressive thriller was Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Fear and Desire wasn’t and is not strong enough to counter any one of those films. But, it does make for a great Cliffsnotes for Kubrick-ia and acts like a young punk stirring something up in the back of the class, and there are rewards within.
It has great performances (especially from future director Paul Mazursky), impressive invention with the camera, and Kubrick’s attempts to scale back warmongering to avoid specific causes and countries is an interesting and impressionistic move. It’s not a bang, but it’s certainly not a whimper either. It’s a curious call for things to come and worth seeking out. — Blake Goble
12. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Runtime: 1 hr. 7 min.
Press Release: As disgraced boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) prepares to board a train taking him back to his family in the Pacific Northwest, he recalls the last few sordid days of his life, in which his fixation on his lovely next-door neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane) leads to a dangerous path of set-ups, back-alley brawls, and murder.
Cast: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera, and Jerry Jarrett
Score: The score is split between boldly dramatic strings and conductor Gerald Fried’s unnerving jazz compositions. Fried plays with several dissonances throughout the film, creating the kind of asynchronous unease that Kubrick would come to favor in his later work.
It’s a film scored to wild drums and uncontrollable horn sounds, a notable counterpoint to the traditional “guy and his dame” structure of the story. Silvera’s gangster, Vinnie Rapallo, is a conspicuously violent foil for the era, and it’s the actor’s terrifying countenance, accompanied by Fried’s manic score, that forms so much of the film’s late drama.
The Glories of Film Noir Poster Design: Everything about the poster art for Killer’s Kiss is deliciously vintage. The pulp tagline! The simultaneous tease of indecency and sales pitch of the very same! The menacing axe, suggesting the unnerving depravity (by the standards of the time) of the mannequin-factory climax! Clearly, long before Jack Torrance picked it up, the visual of the hulking figure with the killer weapon was in the director’s head.
The Limits of True Originality: For such a venerable filmmaker, it’s odd to consider that Killer’s Kiss is the last feature the director ever made that wasn’t an adaptation of a pre-existing work, to one degree or another. For as derisively as Kubrick’s “studio days” are sometimes regarded, he found his footing with a series of lurid stories that would guide much of what was to come.
Thee Moment: Killer’s Kiss is an indication that Kubrick excelled at manipulating the audience’s perspective from his earliest days in film. One particularly striking shot sees Rapallo seemingly gaze into the camera, only to destroy the mirror that’s actually reflecting off him. Mirrors are also used when Davey (and Kubrick) takes a longer look at Gloria, as she hovers over his shoulder in the opposite apartment, through the reflection. The act of watching is integral to the film, as it is to so much of the director’s work, and these manipulations build the lingering urban panic of the film through its long stretches of dialogue-free buildup.
The Master at Work: In his twenties, the director wasn’t yet the exacting presence he’d come to be known as in the following decades. But the hallmarks are still present; Kubrick fired his sound director during production due to shadows that interfered with the lighting of some scenes. All of the dialogue was re-recorded in post-production, which leads to some of the visibly odd matches onscreen during the film.
Kubrickian Scale: For a sophomore feature, Killer’s Kiss exhibits a notable leap in the director’s assurance and style. While it would take a few more years/features for Kubrick to truly find his cinematic voice, some of the hallmarks are already present, his affinity for low-angle shots as a method of generating dread in particular.
While the studio-mandated happy ending feels at odds with the rest of the film, it’s essentially an hour-long exercise in wondering if a banged-up prizefighter can survive a long night, and its vacillations between detachment and uncomfortable close-ups are already quintessential Kubrick. (There’s also that shot of the alleyway nightmare, delivered in negative photography, a characteristically surreal image.) We’ll give a solid 5 for this one.
Analysis: At barely an hour in length, Killer’s Kiss is a modest production for Kubrick. Regardless, the signatures are already beginning to visibly form even at this early stage, from the interest in the human gaze to the use of extreme close-ups on bodies pushed to their limits. The disarming nervousness of the boxing sequence is sustained through the rest of the film, from the grit of the “Watch Your Step” sign hovering over Gloria’s head in the office building to the long shot of Davey sprinting around a locked rooftop, desperately searching for safe harbor.
Other interests are equally prevalent, in particular the director’s fixation with the female form; in the nudity of the lifeless mannequins at the film’s end, or the mildly-scandalous-for-the-time shots of a half-clad Kane, Killer’s Kiss lingers on the visual of the onscreen woman in all of her definitions. It’s still a film of stiff performances (particularly from Smith and Kane, although the former fares best when brawling), but it’s a harbinger of successes yet to come and a prevailing mood of deep anxiety that would come to inform Kubrick’s later masterpieces. — Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
11. Lolita (1962)
Runtime: 2 hr. 33 min.
Press Release: European academic Humbert Humbert (James Mason) finds himself a tempting diversion while spending a summer in the intellectual boonies of the American Midwest: his landlady’s (Shelley Winters) underage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). What lengths will Humbert go to assure that he can be with his little nymphet, and what fate shall befall any and all who come between him and the “light of [his] fire, the fire of [his] loins. [His] sin, [his] soul. Lo-lee-ta”? Quick, somebody call Chris Hansen!
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, and Peter Sellers
Score: While the Nelson Riddle score and swelling main theme by Bob Harris might be forgettable, the recurring dance song that Humbert hears when he first gazes at Lolita in the garden (called “Lolita Ya Ya,” with Lyon on vocals) became a hit for various artists. This isn’t the last time a musical curiosity from a Kubrick film would go on to find success in the pop charts (see: Full Metal Jacket).
How Did They Ever Make a Film of Lolita?: The original posters for the film (as seen above) all pose this question, and the simple answer remains: a lot of omissions and censorship. As Kubrick has reflected, he wouldn’t have even attempted to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial classic had he known how much of his vision would need to be tempered.
Not only did the film play ambiguous with Lolita’s age (she was 12 and change in the novel) and employ a noticeably older actress (Lyon was 14 and 15 during filming), but Kubrick greatly toned down the erotic elements of Humbert’s obsession to the point that the film really became Lolita-lite. In his version, we know nothing of Humbert’s past, mental illness, and predatory desires and are almost asked to view him as a somewhat likable, sympathetic character, comedically foiled by the circumstances of a one-off infatuation and wronged by competing parties, rather than as a true monster who will likely continue to discard one nymphet for another.
“I Don’t Think I Wanna Play Anymore”: Peter Sellers, as Clare Quilty or “Dr. Zempf,” steals every scene in Lolita that he appears in, and his offbeat performance hints at what’s to come in the near future. Not only does Kubrick have Sellers sink into several different roles (even though he’s technically Clare Quilty in disguise), but many claim his ruse as school shrink Dr. Zempf marks the origin of the title character of Dr. Strangelove. You be the judge.
Thee Moment: Lolita cannot possibly work without Humbert Humbert smitten at first sight with his little nymphet. When Charlotte Haze insists on showing the polite but disinterested prospective lodger her garden, Kubrick walks his Humbert into an Eden whose sweetest fruit and blossom cannot be plucked. We find a soft-lit Lolita lying on a towel in a bikini, shades, and a glamorous (plumed?) oversize hat, her body welcoming Humbert as if posed by a professional photographer.
Humbert gazes longingly at her before fidgeting, trying to avert his eyes, and losing his composure in speech with Charlotte. Mere seconds after he was ready to make a hasty departure and never return to the dull, unsophisticated Haze household, we find him eager to move in that very day. “What was the deciding factor?” Charlotte asks, oblivious to the spell cast by her daughter. “I think it was your cherry pies,” he returns bashfully. I don’t think it was the pie.
The Master at Work: Nabokov gets the lone credit for Lolita’s screenplay, but very little of what he submitted made it into the final script. Kubrick often got the authors of his source material involved in projects, but it wasn’t unusual for the director and his screenwriters to make like Fleetwood Mac and go their own way once shooting commenced. In other words, thanks for the jump-start. Shirley will pay you on your way out.
Kubrickian Scale: 5. Lolita surely doesn’t bound to mind when we think of the quintessential films of Stanley Kubrick. However, we do see his knack for black comedy here as well as his continued interest in the internal struggles of men. Unfortunately, we barely scrape the surface of Humbert Humbert’s messy and conflicted soul.
Analysis: Nabokov often cited a fascinating anecdote when people would ask him the origins of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. The author would refer to a news story that reported that an ape in captivity had sketched a charcoal drawing that included the bars of its cage. In that sense, we can view Humbert as a man imprisoned and doomed by his nature and disturbing infatuations with young girls.
Obviously, Kubrick was a master at adapting the work of others and adding his aesthetic to their narrative frameworks in order to address themes that mattered to him. Unfortunately, Lolita, being a work that takes place entirely in the fascinating, emphatic memory of a deteriorating predator — along with its sexually taboo subject matter — doesn’t lend itself to exploring Nabokov’s characters on film.
Instead, Kubrick uses the brilliant comedic talents of his cast — the awkward chemistry between Mason and Winters is particularly hilarious — to create a film that succeeds as a black comedy, even if it fails to really get down to the bottom of Humbert Humbert. — M.M.
10. Spartacus (1960)
Runtime: 3 hr. 17 min.
Press Release: : Sword-and-sandals epic follows the story of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a slave who leads a rebellion against the masters and government of ancient Rome. During his rebellion, he finds love (Jean Simmons), friendship (Tony Curtis), and odds seemingly impossible to overcome. All he wants is freedom, but Crassus (Laurence Olivier) wants him dead. There is bloodshed. There are stunts. There are Brooklyn accents. There is Spartacus!
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis
Score: Composer Alex North never won an Academy Award. Though his work on Spartacus garnered him a nomination, he didn’t win and honestly didn’t deserve to. The score is a pastiche of the Hollywood epics that came before it. Horns and strings overcompensate for a lack of human drama by a cast doing its absolute damndest.
That North lifts all too frequently from Hugo Friedhofer’s The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t do his main theme any favors, either. The AFI loves it. A lot of people love it. Whatever. A few years later, North would find greater swords-and-sandals success in another epic tale featuring Julius Caesar: 1963’s Cleopatra.
North had not walked with Kubrick before Spartacus, but he would work with the director one more time nearly a decade later. We’ll go into greater detail on that information later in this feature. In the meantime, I’d be remiss to not mention the fact that North composed the music to one of the greatest songs of all time: “Unchained Melody”. God speed your love to me!
Trumbo Trumbophant: You film buffs out there are no doubt familiar with last year’s Trumbo. The great Bryan “Walter White” Cranston portrayed the blacklisted screenwriter to critical acclaim, earning him an Oscar nomination. Trumbo’s return to glory was through his work on Spartacus and that same year’s Exodus, marking the first time in years that he was given official credit for a screenplay.
The symbolism in the film is overwhelming. The heroes are handcuffed and cannot be free as long as the clean men in power puff their chests. Protests from the American Legion for its communist “leanings,” violence, and suggested homosexuality (see below) led to cuts, but we can all enjoy the restored version today. That’s the real victory!
Apples and Oranges. Snails and …Oysters?: My above labeling of Spartacus featuring “suggested homosexuality” is a bit unfair. It’s overt. The relationship between Olivier’s Crassus and best friend Grabbus (played by an overmatched Dahl, so good in Rope) is full of tension in lines like the former thinking of ways for the latter to “repay” him after a military appointment. From the mean streets of Brooklyn, New York (apparently), Crassus acquires Antoninus (Curtis), who proceeds to wash him down in a lengthy bathing sequence. The seduction is on, and at one point the master says to his slave, “My taste includes both snails and oysters.” Long story short, Crassus was down to clown with anybody.
Thee Moment: The most memorable moment from the film almost didn’t happen. Spartacus’ army has been defeated. A Roman soldier promises that the lives of the surviving soldiers will be spared if they identify Spartacus. Just as the man himself is about to rise, Antoninus jumps him and declares, “I am Spartacus!” Dozens follow, and Kubrick gives nearly everyone their own shot as they do so. Douglas musters up a tear. Triumphant music appears. For some reason, the movie goes on for another half hour. It’s a great big “movie” moment in an era full of them. As for why it almost didn’t happen?
The Master at Work: There’s a great entry in Douglas’ I am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist. Douglas was the person who wanted the scene re-written to include the “I am Spartacus” bit, and he wrote Kubrick about it. He didn’t hear back. The next time they saw each other on set, Douglas asked Kubrick about it, and Kubrick responded, “It’s a stupid idea.” Then this happened…
That was the wrong thing to say. I pushed the horse right up against him. She nosed him back against the wall, pinning him there.
“Listen, you little prick,” I said. “I’ve gone along with you on everything and you’ve been right about most of it. You were right about cutting out almost all of my dialogue at the beginning of the movie. You were right about the scene between Varinia and Spartacus just touching hands — it’s much better the way you shot it. You’ve been right about making the battle scenes more realistic. It’s cost us a helluva lot of time and money, but I’ve supported you every step of the way.” “Kirk…” he began. “Shut up. This may be a stupid idea, but we’re going to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it out, but we’re going to shoot it.”
Kubrickian Scale: 1 out of 10. The reason is simple: Kubrick was a hired gun. Producer/star Douglas was very passionate about his work. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the time production commenced on Spartacus, and having a producer credit only made him that much more of a perfectionist. On a film with over 10,000 extras and a budget of $12 million ($100 million today), he butted heads with original director Anthony Mann and fired him a week into shooting.
Douglas previously worked with Kubrick on 1956’s Paths of Glory and called upon his old colleague to help him out. It’s a competently made film, but you can tell it’s lacking a Kubrick stamp from any era before or after. Its legacy? Kubrick disowned the film after he had final cut taken away from him. In a 2016 interview with Variety, Douglas spoke of the director: “Difficult? [Kubrick] invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent.”
Analysis: Spartacus is Douglas flexing. The modern-day equivalent is when those guys vroom-vroom past you on the street in their souped-up trucks, only Douglas had a reason to exist on the planet. It’s big and bold. It’s got the required sand, sandals, and swords. It isn’t that the film is missing something; it’s that it’s not missing enough. The love story between Spartacus and Varinia isn’t really felt until the 3 hr. 14 min. mark of the film. It clumsily jumps back and forth between senate hearings and slave uprisings, introducing major actors in limited roles and not finding enough time for them.
One person who does stand out is the genius that was Peter Ustinov. His portrayal of slave owner Batiatus is equal parts flustered and blustered. He’s a character too weak in character to be a true threat in the long run yet will outlive even his greatest enemies. Ustinov’s performance is from another planet here, injecting lines and circumstance with his own haughty flair. It no doubt got him cast in Disney’s animated Robin Hood 13 years later. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Spartacus is well-deserved.
There are a lot of dated elements that plague the film in ways that don’t even touch earlier Kubrick films like The Killing or Paths of Glory. The severe miscasting of the heavily accented Curtis as a singer who doesn’t actually sing looks bad. The romantic sequences? Paging your grandmother’s favorite soap operas! Having said all that, the scope of the piece is rather incredible to look at. That we’re recommending Kubrick’s fourth worst film says a lot about the man’s storied career. Swords and sandals always optional. — Justin Gerber
09. The Killing (1956)
Runtime: 1 hr. 25 min.
Press Release: A veteran thief plans his big final score, assembling an eclectic team of degenerates with special skills to rob a horse track of $2 million during a big race. But when one of the participants lets slip to his cheating wife that he’s in on the big score, a web of deceptions and double-crosses leads to violence, tragedy, and everybody getting exactly what they deserve.
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Ted de Corsia, Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey, Vince Edwards, Joe Sawyer, and Kola Kwariani
Score: Working once again with Gerald Fried, as he did on Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick goes for a sound more in keeping with the heist movies of the time, all frantic high notes and blaring, nervous horns. The arrangements are simple but effective, heightening the tension of the central con while highlighting how doomed it is long before the first betrayal-fueled gunshots ring out.
Kubrick vs. Film Criticism: The Killing offers some of the first notable evidence of Kubrick’s films being underappreciated at the time of their release; in 1956, what’s now considered one of the great noir works of that decade was regarded by The New York Times as “a fairly diverting melodrama.” His work has often been overlooked or dismissed until later appraisal; even some of our favorites on this list encountered backlash upon initial viewing. Some of the criticism centers around Kubrick’s non-linear approach to a heist movie timeline, but this is arguably one of The Killing’s greatest strengths.
Ebert on Kubrick: The late, great film critic added a majority of Kubrick’s films to his “Great Movies” volumes over the years, including The Killing. In his must-read essay, Ebert draws an intriguing through-line between the exacting precision of Johnny’s central hustle in the film and Kubrick’s own chess-like precision. Rather than attempt to condense the prose of one of film criticism’s best-ever writers, we’ll let Ebert speak for himself:
In his films, he had the plan in his mind. He knew where everyone should be and what they should do. Such a perfectionist was Kubrick that he knew every theater his films were opening in, and the daily grosses. It’s said that a projectionist in Kansas City received a phone call from Kubrick in England, informing him that the picture was out of focus. Is that story apocryphal? I’ve never thought so.
Thee Moment: For our money (heh), it’s the fatalistic ending on the tarmac, in which Johnny and Fay see their dreams of a dramatic airline escape thwarted when the cheap briefcase holding the score is dropped on the tarmac, sending all of their riches scattering out into the night.
It’s the first evidence of the director’s forthcoming penchant for nihilistic finales, his characters accepting the non-existence of salvation and accepting their fates, however brutal they might be. It’s not the modern apocalypse of A Clockwork Orange, but Johnny’s wan declaration “What’s the difference?” is its own kind of resigned letdown. For a guy like Johnny, prison was the only end he was ever going to know.
The Master at Work: As legend has it, the studio was vehemently opposed to Kubrick telling the story out of order, to the point where the film was initially recut in sequential order. It didn’t work, leading to the overarching, almost documentary-style narration throughout, which Kubrick equally disliked. This is why some of the information offered by the narrator is slightly inaccurate, maintaining the disorienting sense of mystery and confusion that hangs over the entire film.
Kubrickian Scale: It’s a 6, one for each member of the heist crew. There’s a seediness that permeates through almost every corner of The Killing; nobody is a straight shooter, many of the players have their own agenda, and by the time it all goes to soil, it’s highly unlikely that life would’ve turned out well for them even if the best-laid plan had been followed. Kubrick’s dual interests in perversion (seen here through Windsor’s cuckolding moll) and punishment manifest in notable ways, and after the mandated happy ending of Killer’s Kiss, The Killing instead ends in the only honest way it can: with nobody learning or gaining anything, all undone by Johnny’s hubris.
Analysis: The leap from Kubrick’s early features to this still-modest but far more confident outing is noticeable from the early minutes, in which The Killing manipulates classical storytelling to fit its winding saga of small players chasing a big score. Hayden is the most assured leading man Kubrick had cast up to this point, and his presence goes a long way toward establishing Johnny as the kind of grifter you can’t help but cheer on. But even as he sets the table, it’s clear that Johnny and Fay aren’t going to elope as planned, and watching the dominoes fall is the source of so much of the film’s visceral exhilaration.
The racetrack sequence is a thrilling setpiece, and if the film is built on little more than the anticipation of a collapsing house of cards, it’s a ruthlessly efficient piece of storytelling. Kubrick’s eye for minute details is already sharpened here, and even some of its shaggier, low-budget trappings (a visible studio wall can be seen over the top of one set at one point) only add to the small-time feel of its doomed criminals. It’s just as ambitious as the director’s staggering later epics, in its own modest and viscerally intimate way. — D.S.M.
08. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.
Press Release: Stanley Kubrick returns from a seven-year directorial absence with a story every bit as terrifying as his previous film, 1980’s horror game-changer The Shining. Follow Private J.T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) from his green beginnings in marine boot camp at Parris Island to his first heavy action in “the shit” as his platoon humps through the burning, dilapidated wreckage of a decimated Huế in Vietnam. It’s a harrowing personal journey in the face of realities every bit as cold, callous, and indifferent as a full metal jacket howling through the warm night air in search of a fleshy home.
Cast: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin, and Arliss Howard
Score: Kubrick’s daughter Vivian (under the alias “Abigail Mead”) actually wrote the film’s score on synth and Synclavier, used to chilling effect during the two pivotal Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) nighttime scenes in the barracks.
For popular music, Kubrick pulled from chart-toppers of the time, such as “Surfin’ Bird” and “I Like It Like That”. The use of period hits not only bolsters the realism of young men trying to maintain a connection to home and some semblance of normalcy while fighting overseas but also makes Vietnam seem all the more remote and foreign; for instance, “These Boots Are Made for Walking” plays over negotiations with a local prostitute in broad daylight, and “Wooly Bully” spins at a “birthday party” thrown by the Lusthog Squad for a North Vietnamese corpse. Not exactly the scenes you’d expect these swinging oldies to soundtrack.
Maybe strangest of all is that Vivian Kubrick and Nigel Goulding actually turned foul-mouthed Sgt. Hartman’s (R. Lee Ermey) call-and-response cadences into a No. 2 hit single on the UK charts. Jesus H. Christ!
Page to Screen: Kubrick, Michael Herr (author of Vietnam memoir Dispatches), and Gustav Hasford adapted Full Metal Jacket (the name pulled by Kubrick from a gun catalog) from Hasford’s 1979 novel, The Short-Timers. The film accurately adapts the first part of the three-part novel (the training scenes and Pyle’s breakdown) and fleshes out its second half by pulling from the book’s second and third parts.
Perhaps the most significant difference between book and film is that the novel has Joker performing the mercy killing on Cowboy, not on a female sniper. As a final shooting script rounded into shape, Hasford took umbrage with the lack of writing credit he received and at one point even snuck onto the set dressed as an extra with two friends to presumably confront Kubrick. Maybe he thought he was John Wayne?
Last Plane Out of Saigon: By the time Kubrick lost interest in a Holocaust project and set his sights on Vietnam in the early ’80s, the war had already been the focus of several acclaimed pictures. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter had shown the devastating effects of Nam on a group of small-town friends, and fellow auteur Francis Ford Coppola had reimagined the voyage up the Congo River found in author Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a framework for his own surreal take on Vietnam.
However, far more threatening to Kubrick’s Vietnam project was Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon, which took home four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and featured a young Charlie Sheen facing similar internal struggles to Modine’s character. While Stone’s film collected more hardware and won the box office in a landslide, Full Metal Jacket, in most eyes, has gone on to become the more admired film.
Thee Moment: R. Lee Ermey’s soul-crushing and hilarious drill sergeant opening and broken Vietnamese prossy English like “Me love you long time” have become ubiquitous in pop culture, but the moment most identified with the film remains the shocking scene in which Leonard, a fresh Section 8, murders Hartman and turns his rifle, “Charlene,” on himself as a shaken Joker looks on.
The spotless barracks head is bathed in blue moonlight, Vivian Kubrick’s score plinks like empty bullet casings striking bathroom tile, and a glazed-over, slobbering D’Onofrio eyeballs the heavens as Private Pyle readies for that big AWOL in the sky. No matter how many times you watch this scene, it never feels any less disturbing. This is what happens when you break down a man and fail to piece him together again.
The Master at Work: Kubrick, of course, studied footage, images, and stories of Nam for years before making Full Metal Jacket. He also rented a battalion of tanks and imported enough palm trees to make England look like southeast Asia. But as important as it was to make audiences believe they were experiencing Nam in the late ’60s, none of that would matter if those same moviegoers doubted Joker’s emotional authenticity as he stared into the eyes of the sniper who just killed his best friend, Cowboy.
Kubrick was infamous for having his actors perform up to 50 takes of a scene — a practice that could alienate his performers to the point of emotional breakdowns — and one can only imagine how many takes the director may have subjected Modine to (1, 13, 37?) before the actor managed to make his silent intensity scream out as it does in the final cut. He may have been a pain in the ass, but Kubrick almost always got the most out of his actors.
Kubrickian Scale: 8. Though Full Metal Jacket doesn’t get thematically dissected as intensely as more obtuse Kubrick masterpieces, we see several quintessential elements of the director’s signature style: a dedication to gritty realism, a barrage of closeups, a focus on man’s internal struggle, and the willingness to latch on to good ideas wherever they might come from. For instance, about 50% of Sgt. Hartman’s infinitely quotable dialogue comes from Ermey’s improvised audition tapes. Those tapes and insults won Ermey the job, and his foulmouthed rants and put-downs in the film’s opening scene have become the stuff of pop-culture legend.
Analysis: Like war itself, Full Metal Jacket isn’t neat or tidy. It kills off its most entertaining characters in the first half and eschews traditional narrative techniques for a two-part structure that acts as a series of short stories or vignettes rather than adapting the more straightforward plots of most war films.
It’s really not surprising that Platoon initially found more popularity with general audiences. Charlie Sheen’s Taylor can be seen as an agent of justice when he avenges Elias by killing Barnes, and we understand his character’s internal struggle and what he means by “the enemy was in us” as he’s being choppered off the battlefield. Nothing quite that simple can be derived from the final moments of Full Metal Jacket.
Unlike Taylor, we’re not sure about Joker. Is he the squad leader who tried to mentor Leonard Lawrence or the angry private who beat him harder than anyone during a moonlit assault? As he looks down at the girl sniper who killed Cowboy and unloads his weapon, does he become her executioner or angel? Can he somehow be both? Can he exist as both the smart-ass, peace symbol-wearing journalist and the rifle-carrying marine with the words “Born to Kill” inked on his helmet?
Moments after Joker finishes off the sniper, we find him marching in formation through fiery rubble as his platoon playfully sings the lyrics to The Mickey Mouse Club theme song. He’s earned his 1,000-yard stare. Joker tells us how thankful he is just to be alive and insists that he’s not afraid, but it only raises more questions. Part of us wonders how such gratefulness can exist without fear. Another part suspects that Full Metal Jacket, or any war movie for that matter, might not really be about war when it comes down to it. Kubrick leaves so much open to debate, which is partially why we’re still talking about Full Metal Jacket 30 years later.
M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e. — M.M.
07. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Runtime: 3 hr. 4 min.
Press Release: The name’s Barry. Redmond Barry. Well, it was Redmond Barry; now it’s Barry Lyndon. Much fancier. Real status in that new name. How do you do?
Barry Lyndon is the saga of one of history’s most notorious social climbers, an Irish lad by the name of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). Barry’s a cad. A liar. A bit of a loser, too. But he navigates through 18th century life in a way that begets great fortune, by weaseling through armies and marrying upward. And like all vainglorious men, Barry manages to squander it all because of his own stupid selfishness, enemy-making, and all-around apathy.
Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1884 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, here’s a comedy of manners for the ages. A flip on the big biopic. Because some “great” men just want enough money to coast and carouse. Barry Lyndon. What a guy.
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner, Gay Hamilton, and Michael Hordern, as the unreliable, roast-happy narrator
Score: Before you cry “stuffy!”, know that Barry Lyndon’s soundtrack only serves to make the film funnier with its pomp and circumstance. Kubrick, get this, was a lover of classical music — as if 2001 or Clockwork Orange didn’t give that away — and Lyndon afforded the opportunity to assemble a sort of all-star playlist. Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert, and Paisello were among the featured composers, and George Frideric Handel’s “Sarabande” became the film’s calling-card composition. The harpsichords, flutes, timpani, and all-around dreary pacing only serve to give the film its cheeky atmosphere. Kubrick knew full well the sound was one of a party you’d feel really uncomfortable at. Nervously laugh through. And it all works wonders as Lyndon’s baroque, ironical music to drop monocles by, and it netted the film’s composer, Leonard Rosenman, a best score Oscar. Adapted and/or original song score, of course. Ha, the Academy in the ‘70s.
A Vanity Affair: A lot of this film’s moves evolved from Kubrick’s R&D on other failed projects. For one, Kubrick struggled through a bit of his career to get a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic produced. That project’s historical research helped with Lyndon after a Napoleon movie never came to fruition. (Which, would some angel buy this for me for my birthday?)
Kubrick also was a big Thackeray fan and wanted to make a Vanity Fair adaptation, but dubbed it too hard to compress, which is ironic given Lyndon’s size. But hey, Mira Nair got that job in 2004, and, um, was it good? Missed that, sadly. Anyway, if not for those failed starts, we might not have gotten Barry and Kubrick’s itch to scratch a voluptuous period drama.
Marty Loves Stanley: This is just cute, but Lyndon is fellow master Martin Scorsese’s favorite Kubrick. Well, okay, it’s never been explicitly called Marty’s fave, but let’s clarify. There’s this great quote that keeps coming up in articles and essays (that’s damn hard to place the origin of — perhaps a book on writing) where Scorsese basically gushes over Lyndon, its reputation, growing esteem, and the fact that he keeps coming back to it.
“I’m not sure if I can say that I have a favorite Kubrick picture, but somehow I keep coming back to Barry Lyndon. I think that’s because it’s such a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings. People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness — and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival.”
Those are the words of a man obsessed, and we dig it. For extra credit, please, do watch Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies documentary from 1995, and listen to his observations on Lyndon. Scorsese’s a true fan and a scholar, sir.
Thee Moment: DAMN. To pick a single shot for this film? Celluloid fetishists obsess over Barry Lyndon’s 70mm revelry. The film’s a gallery of 17th century painterly aesthetics, alluding to the likes of Hogarth and Gaines, while maintaining that gorgeously, crisply, curiously gritty ‘70s cinematography. Herm. One second, there’s a sumptuous candle-lit romance here. The next, it’s insanely choreographed telephoto lens marching into battle. Amusingly distant duels. Lacy, depressed bathtubs that are slowly zoomed out of. (Note to self: talk to Warner, sell Barry Lyndon postcards.)
Heugh. For our money, could there be a more perfect opening shot?
The Master at Work: You mean to tell me Kubrick sought out actual clothing from the period, shut out the press from covering this film, and actually insisted on special lenses and painstakingly natural lighting to maintain the period effect?
What a marvelous pain in the ass, that man.
Kubrickian Scale: A 7, if only because while this film totally works off of Kubrick’s fascination with man’s selfishness and arousal over tight images, it’s not as quickly lauded, recognized, or made memetic like his other more commanding works. Perhaps — and this is a cheap but fair guess — the three-hour runtime scares potential viewers off. This writer saw it last in Kubrick’s filmography. What a mistake.
Analysis: If ever a film was the definition of droll.
Barry Lyndon is a tale of two takes: a furiously committed vision of technical super power and a truncated, deadly comical “hero” portrait that’s anything but heroic. But to Scorsese’s previously mentioned point, this movie was not rapturously received upon its initial release. Critically mixed, enough critics lauded the filigree and admired Kubrick’s calculation.
Yet, there was (and probably still is) a strong contingent of viewers that cried “cold!” Nolan and Scott still catch that, too. The movie’s intensely rigid and founded around a man’s selfish pursuit to climb the social stratosphere. More colloquially, Barry’s an asshole and hardly the kind of great figure that gets a movie in this fashion. Cowardly, petty, and just plain sneaky, Kubrick’s ode to selfish delusions of grandeur naturally raises the question: why?
Because it’s damn funny, that’s why. By the mid-’70s, the likes of Gunga Din or Lawrence of Arabia were already passé. The big adventure films? The stately character works? That’s just not Kubrick. But a mocking, comically derisive take on those tropes? Now that’s Kubrick. Lyndon starts off with a petty death and ends in a callow buy-out, it’s the most handsomely staged work about a rotten shit ever made, and it’s almost like a big “eat me” to T.E. Lawrence.
That four-hour film was about a truly great man and set a standard for these kinds of myths, and Kubrick makes light of the form by placing it on mediocrity. To slather Lyndon in mighty lensing and all the pomp and circumstance of Lean-like mega-films is like trolling of a higher order, but we love the light tricks and musket accuracy all the same. And Lyndon marries for money. He switches armies. He even helps men cheat at cards!
History’s big men? Maybe they do not boldly trek, Lyndon seems to argue. Maybe they act solely in self-interest to save their own hides. They get revenge and act on jealousy. And Kubrick found this compelling, ratty saint in Barry Lyndon. Throw in the marvelously self-aware narration, the good looks but shallow interior of Ryan O’Neal’s performance, and a patient gaze that’s both hypnotic and at times hilarious, and well, you’ve got a low-key classic. An epic about the greatest two-timing sonuvabitch you ever did saw. — B.G.
06. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Runtime: 2 hr. 39 min.
Press Release: When Alice (Nicole Kidman) voices her deepest sexual fantasies to her husband, Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise), Bill is sent away from their privileged lives and onto a surreal odyssey into a dark, twisted night of the soul. Along the way, he attempts to broaden his own horizons, challenge his own barriers, and possibly find his salvation. Or destruction. It might all depend on whether or not he knows the second password.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Vinessa Shaw, Todd Field, and all those people at the party
Score: The signature classical compositions are on hand as always, with Kubrick using Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2” over the opening, as well as compositions from Franz Liszt and György Ligeti throughout. One of composer Jocelyn Pook’s more interesting arrangements comes with “Masked Ball,” in which she plays a Romanian Orthodox chorus in reverse.
But perhaps the film’s most memorable sound came about organically; left anxious by the prospect of the film’s many nude scenes, Kidman allegedly requested to have her own music on set to get into the right mood. One of those songs was Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” which ended up being a crucial musical cue in both the film and in its trailer.
On Censorship in the Late ‘90s: As those who were around at the time might recall, Eyes Wide Shut was met with quite a bit of controversy in the run-up to its release. Warner Bros. had enthusiastically supported the film, as it had previously notched hits with so many of Kubrick’s other works, but in a summer overwhelmed with moral panic over everything from Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam to South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the mid-blockbuster season release of Kubrick’s cerebral, button-pushing film drew no shortage of its own heat.
The director had considered having some of the more debated sequences covered digitally before his passing, and the film’s famous orgy scene accordingly had some of the most explicit material obscured, either by additional actors or via computer-animated G-strings. (A later DVD/Blu-ray release saw the film restored to its original, unrated cut.)
A Husband and Wife Affair: Any understanding of Eyes Wide Shut is incomplete without some background on the bold pop-cultural maneuver Kubrick was making at the time; Cruise and Kidman were each A-list movie stars, and famously married, and surrendered their relationship to the demands of a filmmaker notorious for breaking his actors down to the point of reaching something truly organic. (Whether this was a good thing is a topic of much debate to this day.) According to a must-read Vanity Fair article about the production:
“Kubrick decided to find his story through psychoanalyzing his stars, prodding Cruise and Kidman to confess their fears about marriage and commitment to their director in conversations that the three vowed to keep secret. ‘Tom would hear things that he didn’t want to hear,’ admitted Kidman. ‘It wasn’t like therapy, because you didn’t have anyone to say, “And how do you feel about that?” It was honest, and brutally honest at times.’ The line between reality and fiction was deliberately blurred. The couple slept in their characters’ bedroom, chose the colors of the curtains, strewed their clothes on the floor, and even left pocket change on the bedside table just as Cruise did at home.”
Thee Moment: While there are a number of phenomenal set pieces to be found throughout the film, the most memorable (and Kubrickian) is certainly the famous orgy sequence. As Cruise’s foal is led astray into a place of unimaginable hedonism, the director ratchets up the unnerving hum of tension by the second, near-silently following Hartford through a den of absolute, unchecked indulgence.
By the time he realizes that he’s found himself in the last place he should ever be, it’s far too late to go back. Like vengeful gods punishing him for his wandering eye, he’s dragged into a place of absolute vulnerability, in front of more of his peers than he could ever possibly know. The stillness and silence of the terror inherent in this scene makes for one of the filmmaker’s best-ever stagings.
The Master at Work: Let’s start with the part where Eyes Wide Shut was shot for 400 days and took what was, as of 1999, a Guinness World Record for lengthy film shoots. The director’s clinically precise approach to a couple’s relationship in turmoil included taking Cruise and Kidman’s real-life relationship to its limits, directing them individually while refusing to let either performer discuss notes with the other. Cruise’s pivotal conversation with Pollack in the pool room included about 200 takes by itself. In every way, this was a Kubrick production, with a distinct aura of mystery surrounding it; even the promotional materials suggested a film full of sexual intrigue featuring two of the moment’s biggest movie stars and little more.
(Also, that mask Cruise is wearing in the final confrontation with the lords of the orgy? It’s modeled after Ryan O’Neal, from Barry Lyndon. The film is full of other such allusions to Kubrick’s work as well.)
Kubrickian Scale: A strong 8. One of Kubrick’s most intimate, character-driven films is also one of his most immediately identifiable, from the anachronistic feel of New York City (by way of London) throughout Hartford’s quest to the haunting sense of dread and terror lurking around every dark corner.
For what’s easily one of the most unabashedly erotic films of the ‘90s, the director paints even the film’s dirtiest episodes with a detachment that’s at first curiously artful and eerie long after that. It’s a long gaze at what makes people tick when they’re at their most stripped-down, vulnerable, and insecure, and virtually every one of the filmmaker’s works have touched on this concept to one degree or another. As final films go, it’s something of a master’s thesis, in which even after the central conflict is “resolved,” the film’s leads will be no more assured or safe than when they started. They’ll just go on to another day and then another prolonged night following it, telling their secrets to themselves and to one another.
Analysis: Eyes Wide Shut is nearly 20 years old as of this writing, and yet spirited arguments continue endlessly about what the film could mean, what it says of its director and its stars, and whether Kubrick’s final opus is a model of artistic over-indulgence or the sort of grandiose work that no lesser a visionary could make.
It’s a deceptively simple film, using the melancholic aesthetics of the Christmas season to comment on a couple in turmoil as they face middle age and their own unrealized dreams and desires. Yet, it’s a film that can be read in virtually any way you like: as a parable for the terrors of sexual discovery, as an allegory for man’s basest instinct to prostrate and degrade himself, as a cautionary tale, or as an investigation of who people really are when the room is empty and nobody else is looking.
If anything, it’s a triumphant last gasp for the kind of bold, European-influenced filmmaking that studios had almost entirely abandoned by 1999 in favor of the guaranteed, name-brand properties that fill multiplexes today. A movie like Eyes Wide Shut would be almost unfathomable at the top-shelf studio level today, let alone as a major summer release with a substantial amount of buzz behind it. But such is the power of Kubrick: people didn’t know what the hell they were going to watch when they showed up, and many of them walked out even more confused than they were when they arrived. And they couldn’t stop talking about it … and still can’t. — D.S.M.
05. Paths of Glory (1957)
Runtime: 1 hr. 28 min.
Press Release: It’s the first World War. A French colonel must defend three soldiers after charges of “cowardice in the face of the enemy” are brought against them. Col. Dax (Douglas) must contend with unfeeling, conniving, and oblivious superior officers in a race against time. Can he convince his generals to see the actions of the three men from his point of view? Will the three men fall by firing squad?
Cast: Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel
Score: Whether it be through reimagined, famous compositions or original pieces of work, Kubrick’s most famous films are instantly recognizable by their score … save Paths of Glory. Gerald Fried’s military score briefly appears during the film’s opening and closing credits, as well as a sequence early on that finds Gen. Paul Mireau (Macready) making his way through downtrodden trenches.
This would mark the final collaboration between Fried and Kubrick. Fried’s scores appeared in every work Kubrick directed in the ‘50’s, dating all the way back to the short documentary Day of the Flight. Not to slight Fried, but musical accompaniment is not missed while watching Paths. Its stripped-down story didn’t need a score to guide us along the way or nudge us towards a specific emotion. Instead we’re given a definitive case of “less-is-more”. As for Kubrick’s crucial inclusion of a proper song, well, that’s for another category…
Carey’s “Ferol” Performance: As for other Paths players who couldn’t stand him, where do we begin? Carey himself recounts them in one of his final interviews, this one with Film Comment: producer James Harris (“He made sure I’d done all my scenes, then fired me the next day”), actor Emile Meyer (“He wanted to punch me because in my death scene I was biting his arm”), and actor Adolphe Menjou (“…he thought I’d disgraced the company with my behavior. I had a toy monkey with me, and I was walking around with holes in my shoes.”)
But here’s the thing: over 60 years later, the behavior was worth it. Look at Carey’s face during the trial sequence. Kubrick’s intense close-up won’t let you miss it, but he’s captivating all the same: eyes rolling around in his head, trying to keep it together in the face of death. That aforementioned sequence with Meyer? Kubrick actually encouraged Carey to keep with it, and it led to the improvised repetition of his emotionally scarring “I don’t want to die.” There are countless stories about Carey from throughout his career in Hollywood. Truly a fascinating performer.
A Twist on the Enemy Shoulder: Paths of Glory is considered to be one of the greatest war films of all time, but not for obvious reasons. While the charging of Ant Hill is an incredible spectacle that was the ‘50s equivalent of Spielberg’s D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, it isn’t Kubrick’s action that drives his path to glory (I will not apologize for that). It’s in the film’s many closed-door meetings where we discover the film’s message: Our enemies aren’t always at our back door. Sometimes they’re already in our house.
Paths’ generals Broulard (Menjou) and Mireau (Macready) are villains almost to the point of stereotype. The former always has a smile to hide his fangs, the latter a mustache just short of twirl-worthy as he gives his outrageous orders. Mireau even goes as far as to order his troops to fire into their own trenches. These characters are more concerned with rank and achievement than they are behind Queen and Country. And then there are those quotes!:
“There’s no such thing as shellshock.”
“There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.”
“The men died wonderfully.”
The French were taken aback by the film’s plot that focused on its military and banned it for decades, even though the film took place over 40 years before its release year. The furor over Paths’ anti-war sentiment spread across the world and it would receive banishment in several other countries for years. To quote Col. Dax (who quotes Samuel Johnson): “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Accept the past. Do good in the present. Embrace the future.
Thee Moment: The men are dead, but Col. Dax can take some comfort knowing that Mireau will go to trial for his actions. He stops just outside a bar where a large number of French troops await a performance. A young German woman in tears (Christiane Kubrick née Harlan) is pulled to the stage. She is frightened and does not want to be there. The troops hoot and holler, and after an insulting introduction by the bar’s owner, the young woman begins to sing.
The rowdy crowd starts to quiet down almost immediately as she sings a folk song: “Der treue Husar” (“The Faithful Hussar”). It’s likely the men don’t know the lyrics, as they indicate by simply humming along, but it isn’t about that. They hear the beauty. They remember home. Love. All of the above. Kubrick cuts to close-ups of dozens of the men, all in various states of grief and self-recognition. Dax is called away. The film ends.
Kubrick is rightfully lauded as a technical genius, but it’s in the final minutes of Paths of Glory that his ability to capture humanity is film at its finest. Kubrick’s marriage to Harlan would last until his death in 1999.
The Master at Work: Kubrick’s most memorable moment as a director in this film follows Dax’s walk through the trenches. While the stark lighting in the prison cells as the men await their fate is a masterstroke, much of that credit goes to cinematographer George Krause (his first and only time working with the director). However, it is in the trenches that we get a tease of POV shots that would define so much of Kubrick’s days in color cinema.
Kubrick alternates back-and-forth between Dax’s POV with shots focused on the colonel himself as he makes his way through the trenches. Men look upon him in silent fear — not of the man himself, but with dark knowledge of their near-certain doom. Bombs go off just feet away, but Dax is focused on staying strong for his troops. It’s the least he can do. Beautifully shot, beautifully cut.
Kubrickian Scale: 6 out of 10. If you go into Paths of Glory not knowing it was a Kubrick film, you may be surprised to learn that fact later on. However, going in knowing who directed the film changes a lot. The pitch-black military humor is less broad as it is in Strangelove, but it’s there for the taking, nonetheless.
Analysis: Paths of Glory is not nearly as well-known as some of his other masterpieces, as well as Kubrick films that just plain aren’t as good. It lacks the flash and pop of future works but never suffers because of it. Paths is an exercise in subtlety for the most part, and you can look no further than the film’s “climax” (if you can call it that): Three men are unfairly killed. There is a meal with military leaders. A woman sings.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Paths doesn’t need to be a second longer and Kubrick recognizes this. He would direct other military-focused films later on, expanding upon Paths’ “lunatics running the asylum” approach to a much more humorous effect in Strangelove. But the reason Paths reigns supreme over his other war film, Full Metal Jacket, is because it goes beyond the simple “War is Hell” motif. It exposes war games, back-patting, blackmail, betrayal, and the unjustness of it all. We do not see one enemy soldier throughout the entire movie, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
In many ways the film is of its time. Would Broulard and Mireau be played quite as sniveling and e-vile today as they are in this film? Would Douglas and his tough American accent have been cast in the role as a French colonel? Who’s to say? There is too much spectacle to be found in Paths of Glory that compels us to look away from these dated decisions. The Ant Hill charge is a spectacle in and of itself, but the manipulative, tactical nature by those we should trust is the film’s calling card. — J.G.
04. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Runtime: 2 hr. 16 min.
Press Release: Adapted from the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, Clockwork follows the character of Alex (McDowell), who is the very worst humanity has to offer in an England of the future. Alex and his eerily merry band of droogs terrorize the city streets, wreaking havoc upon both its land and citizens. When the “fun” runs out, Alex is subjected to a technique that promises to “cure” him. Can you cure evil, or is it a permanent state of being?
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin, and Aubrey Morris
Score: Wendy Carlos’ synthetized adaptations of classical music encapsulate the experience for the viewer. We shouldn’t be hearing Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” or Beethoven’s “Ninth” this way, but we must. We shouldn’t be watching these horrible people do these horrible things, but we must.
While not a score to a “horror” film, Carlos’ synthesizers are nothing short of unsettling and at times downright frightening. The moment we meet Alex in that extreme close-up is that much more terrifying because of Carlos and the slow build of the emerging title theme.
Beethoven’s “Ninth” is featured in its pure form several times throughout the film. It is Alex’s soundtrack to life. He reveres it so much that he abuses Dim when he interrupts a woman singing “The Hymn of Joy” at the Milk Bar. He needs it to play as he climaxes to thoughts of women hanging, volcanoes, and a chorus line of bleeding Christs dancing before him. The piece later transforms from fulfilling a pleasure center to negative reinforcement: the soundtrack to the videos he must endure during his rehabilitation. The power of music defines the character of Alex as much as it does the film.
As would be the case nearly a decade later (see: The Shining), Carlos was displeased with how little of her score was used in the film. Kubrick, as has been repeated ad nauseam, was known for sticking with temp tracks after filming was complete. This was no exception for Clockwork. Carlos’ complete score is now available for anyone who wants to hear it, and while it’s compelling in its own right, it is tough to imagine the film altered in any way. It’s iconic as is.
Futureal in a Sexual Dystopia: Paging Captain Obvious: the “ultra-violence” in Clockwork is difficult to take in. However, the nightmarish events that women are put through are not simply to shock for shock’s sake. These actions present to the audience the depths of depravity young Alex has willingly entered — transforming his violent fantasies and mad dreams into action. This is never clearer than when Alex and his droogs invade a home and rape a woman in front of her incapacitated husband.
What is this future, and how much of it is real? Is it a coincidence that nearly every piece of artwork features women in submissive positions? While Alex’s bedroom features a giant painting of a woman with her legs spread (that his pet snake seems quite enamored with), the “Catlady”’s workout room has a number of paintings with women bent over, looking over their shoulders at their lovers (assaulters?). Her lone statue is a penis with enormous testicles (buttocks?). She meets her end when Alex clobbers her with it, but not before he teases her with it first, of course.
Much of what we see in the film may be from Alex’s blurred perspective, but the outcomes are very much real. Clockwork is about sexuality and violence run amok and unchecked. We’re not meant to be entertained or titillated by the events on screen, but we are meant to feel something. The homeless man says it best before he takes his beating early on: “It’s a stinking world because there’s no law and order anymore! It’s a stinking world because it lets the young get on to the old, like you done. Oh, it’s no world for an old man any longer. What sort of a world is it at all?”
Self-Banishment: Artist responsibility is a tricky one when it comes to the reaction of their audience. Clockwork is supposed to be a condemnation of and commentary on brutality. A disheartening number of disturbed individuals saw otherwise. After allegations of copycats and an outraged public’s protests became too overwhelming, Kubrick himself banned the film in the United Kingdom. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until after his death in 2000, a year after he completed another “outrage” film: Eyes Wide Shut.
Thee Moment: The Prison Chaplain tells Alex that “goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” He does not believe that the Ludovico Technique will do anyone any good, let alone Alex. But Alex doesn’t care; he just wants to get out of prison by any means necessary. The technique is difficult to go through both physically (eyelids kept open by metal prongs) and psychologically.
Through fictional (?) scenes on a movie screen, he witnesses a man beaten in the streets and a woman raped (both by a gang of hooligans that resembles Alex’s own droogs). At first this is pleasurable to Alex, but before too long the sequences begin to make him sick. The inclusion of Beethoven’s “Ninth” as the soundtrack to the technique is too much for Alex to bear. He screams uncontrollably. The result of this sequence plays a big part in not only young Alex’s future, but society’s, as well. Iconic.
The Master at Work: There are several fascinating extras on the film’s 40th-anniversary edition Blu-ray (remember those?). The best of the lot is probably a 10-minute special feature with Alex himself. Malcolm McDowell is brought to a table to pore over old photographs and memorabilia from the film’s production. The actor is genuinely surprised when he picks up an early draft of the script to discover Kubrick had scratched out the title and replaced it with The Ludovico Technique (he mocks this unused alternate title).
During this segment, we learn that the actor initially refused to film the aforementioned treatment sequence, suggesting that his stand-in take his place. Kubrick promised it would only take 10 minutes, but surprise, surprise, it didn’t. The professional doctor responsible for administering the eye drops during the shoot couldn’t remember his one line, both causing the shoot to go longer than expected and distracting him from treating McDowell.
Another story McDowell regales us with took place after a long day of shooting. Kubrick drove McDowell back to his house to go over some dailies. As they pulled into Kubrick’s estate, they saw three Rolls Royces parked out front. They were big-wigs from Warner Bros. and they had been waiting for hours. Kubrick, as non-plussed as ever, told them that he and McDowell had to go over the dailies, but they were not invited. He suggested to these executives that they order local Chinese food and wait for them. McDowell looks back on this event and laughs as he reads a note from one of the WB reps, who fondly writes about how much they enjoyed the evening.
Kubrickian Scale: 10 out of 10. From the moment we see Alex staring us down. The one-point perspective is, ahem, on point throughout Clockwork. Couple that technique with the myriad amount of tracking shots (think record store), and you’ve got tailor-made technical Kubrick. Listen to the condemnation of a selfish government and doomed society and you have philosophical Kubrick.
Analysis: A Clockwork Orange was punk cinema years before The Sex Pistols never learned how to play their instruments. It’s in-your-face and ugly in its depiction, but technically brilliant and laced with the dark wit that dominated the earlier works of Kubrick. This is a fantasy film telling the story of a mind warped on fantasy. There are disorienting car chases complete with obvious green screen. Sexuality on display wherever you look. The ugly driven out of their homes and into the tunnels. Vanity is no longer a sin but an influential way of living.
Compared to other Kubrick adaptations, most of novelist Anthony Burgess’ novel remains intact with minor changes. His dystopic world is brilliantly realized on film, and nothing like it had ever been seen before in that medium. It’s brought to life by Kubrick’s eye, McDowell’s’ eyelashes, and the eye of the storm that is masculinity at its worst. A true representation of the “toxic” association that gets attached to men behaving badly (to say the least).
Its legacy remains intact. You can see flourishes of its mood in films like Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. It creeps into pop culture by way of shows like The Simpsons and even the music of … Rob Zombie (“YEEE-AH!”)? It’s still scary as Hell and hasn’t lost any impact. Like the ultra-violence it depicts, it’s not going anywhere. Unlike the ultra-violence, we wouldn’t have it any other way. — J.G.
03. The Shining (1980)
Runtime: 2 hr. 24 min.
Press Release: Based on Stephen King’s best-selling 1977 novel of the same name, The Shining follows the downward spiral of troubled writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who accepts the job as the winter caretaker at Colorado’s prestigious albeit very remote Overlook Hotel. Joined by his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his psychic son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack plans to spend most of his time finishing his play and conquering his writer’s block. However, there are many secrets and skeletons to the hotel, and as the snow piles on, the walls start talking and madness reigns.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd
Score: In an alternate universe, The Shining features a complete score by the film’s original composers, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. But not this one. Instead, Kubrick opted to go with a scattered palette of music, from Polish legend Krzysztof Penderecki to Hungarian hero György Ligeti, meticulously pieced together by music editor Gordon Stainforth. Naturally, this decision didn’t sit too well with Carlos, who had previously scored A Clockwork Orange, and she vowed to never work with him again. Not surprisingly, she wouldn’t be the only member of the film’s cast and crew to reach this conclusion.
Sour grapes, perhaps, but the right grapes to swallow, as the more chaotic approach considerably added to the film’s already bizarre aesthetic. The way Stainforth and Kubrick weave through patches of music is downright jarring, swinging madly from big band ballads (Al Bowlly, Henry Hall) to terrifying avant-garde instrumentals (Béla Bartók, Herbert von Karajan), and it becomes very emblematic of Torrance’s psychological breakdown. It’s not at all far-fetched to say that 90% of the scares toward the end derive strictly from Penderecki’s unquestionably terrifying composition, “Utrenja”. Chills.
And to be fair, Carlos and Elkind still factor heavily into the film, as Kubrick wound up using their theme for the main titles and another track dubbed “Rocky Mountains”. Granted, the former is a reinterpretation of Hector Berlioz’s “Dies Irae,” but it’s since become the most iconic piece of music from the film and arguably the go-to audio cue outside of Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” moment. For those interested in hearing Carlos’ shelved music, consult her 2005 release, Rediscovering Lost Scores, which features a number of compositions written solely for the film. It would have been interesting.
King vs. Kubrick: The Shining is not a direct adaptation of King’s work, and that’s something that has never sat well with the Maine author, who’s gone back and forth on the now-iconic film over the years. Because what Kubrick did was chisel down the story to its bare essentials, using the novel as a foundation to build upon — like a scrapbook of sorts. As such, there are a number of essentials stripped right out of the book — from the overall premise to Jack Torrance’s alcoholism to Danny’s supernatural visions to the hotel’s sordid past — but the execution is much, much different.
King has long argued that Nicholson’s Torrance goes through a much different transformation by bringing his madness to the hotel as opposed to the hotel bringing it out of him. Though, several critics have since countered this argument, specifically journalist Laura Miller, who wrote in October 2013 that, “…in Kubrick’s The Shining, the characters are largely in the grip of forces beyond their control. It’s a film in which domestic violence occurs, while King’s novel is about domestic violence as a choice certain men make when they refuse to abandon a delusional, defensive entitlement.”
Both King and Miller aren’t wrong, and that’s partly the genius of the film. Everything’s awash in ambiguity, and that’s really the greatest difference between the novel and the book. Whereas King lays everything out for his audience, Kubrick isn’t interested in being as forthcoming. Are the ghosts real? Does Jack become a part of the hotel? Was he always the caretaker? We never really know. Nevertheless, Kubrick still manages to capture the conceit of the novel, being Jack’s descent into madness; he just went another way about doing it — and added an elevator full of blood and two twins.
“There Ain’t Nothing In Room 237!” Naturally, Kubrick’s eerie brand of ambiguity towards The Shining has since led to manic theories, shifting perspectives, and brazen analyses over the years by both fans and critics. Much of this is accurately reflected in Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary, Room 237, which more or less serves as a proverbial soapbox for the pop culture crazies who have devised the wildest and most bizarre hot takes from the 1980 adaptation.
These include oddball arguments that Kubrick subtly confessed he was involved in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing to how the film’s actually about the genocide of the Native Americans or maybe even the Jews. Some of it’s compelling, most of it’s ludicrous, but all of it’s proof that there’s a palpable madness to Kubrick’s film, one that goes way beyond the traditional ghost story. And as a film, it’s a fascinating portrait at how there’s really no limit or box to pop culture criticism, and that’s very reinvigorating.
Thee Moment: What the film and the book do have in common is the nightmare in room 237, even if it’s actually 217 in the book. Both mediums present a terrifying scenario — Jack coming face to face with a beautiful woman in a bathtub, only to make the ghastly discovery that she’s a rotting corpse — and both are fairly similar.
However, the most iconic imagery of the film happens to be the work of Kubrick and not of King, and that’s the two Grady twins. Now, this writer feels their first appearance in the game room, where Danny is throwing darts, is truly the scariest moment in the film, if only because it suggests that the spirits are there even while the hotel staff is roaming around the halls.
But, most would point to the Hallway Scene, and for all the right reasons: Danny’s expression, the way the Steadicam naturally weaves through the unnaturally tight corridor, and the cold monotony of the children’s voices. There’s also something about the mirror effect the twins have, but you be the judge…
The Master at Work: It’s difficult to say whether this was Kubrick at his most insane, especially given all the accounts surrounding his other projects, but it certainly was one of his darkest chapters. Principal photography took over a year, mostly due to Kubrick’s insistence on multiple takes and other methodical approaches (like sprawling games of chess), and seemingly everyone broke down. Duvall argued consistently with the filmmaker and became physically ill during filming (even losing hair); Crothers crumpled into a ball of tears after doing over 60 takes of his paralyzed stare; and Nicholson grew so frustrated with the rewrites that he stopped looking at the scripts until they were minutes away from shooting.
Now, it can be argued that these hurdles and mind games were all a part of Kubrick’s big plan, and it can also be argued that the resulting turmoil added to the film’s overall aesthetic, but really, the only truth that can be gleaned from any of this outstanding chaos is that it landed Kubrick in the Guinness Book of Records for most takes at 127 and legendary talents like Nicholson and Carlos refused to ever work for him again. Otherwise, it’s impossible to say whether his unruly process was certifiably genius or verifiably insane. A little of column A and B?
Kubrickian Scale: A solid 10. This film could belong to no one else.
Analysis: With the exception of possibly Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining is by far Kubrick’s most perplexing film, and that confusion is the direct cause for much of its terror. Because really, as humans, we fear what we don’t understand, and there’s very little to understand in Kubrick’s King adaptation. But when you think about the idea of a ghost story, namely how and why it’s often dubbed “a ghost story,” it’s often because whatever occurrence happened cannot be explained. Say what you will about its implicit or explicit meanings, but there’s little argument over whether or not The Shining captures that feeling of uneasiness.
In some respects, it’s a Rubik’s cube of horror, one that potentially meditates on the inevitable madness of human beings, and how such madness is often meekly ascribed to its surrounding cultures. This is why King’s past protestations are moot; it doesn’t really matter whether Jack Torrance’s descent is caused by spirits or by his own inherent rage. What Kubrick’s narrative suggests is something far more elusive — that it could be any one of those things, that it could be both even. And that idea is not only unnerving but supremely universal, because again, we never really know why madness persists. It just does.
Thematic assumptions aside, The Shining is also a terrifying slice of cinema. Kubrick’s use of the Steadicam, his distorted set pieces, and juxtaposition of color make for a timeless psychological experiment that eschews the traditional novelties of horror. Seeing how everyone was at wit’s end behind the scenes, the performances are one-of-a-kind, too, particularly Nicholson, whose cartoonish mannerisms toward the finale oscillate manically between camp and carnal. It’s a brilliant parallel to the film’s unexpected tones in that you never know what to quite expect around the corner or down the hall at the Overlook.
And that will always be scary. — Michael Roffman
02. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min.
Press Release: Sayonara, civilized world. In a bit of macho madness, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) sets in motion a series of events that could lead to the activation of a Doomsday Device, which would obliterate the free world. Oh, important thing — this is comedy. Come to think of it, the darkest of comedies. Some precious bodily fluids here, a couple of Coca Colas there, and one B-52 bomber’s tragic run later… Nuclear holocaust, baby. Based on Peter George’s 1958 novel, Red Alert, Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the premiere bomb-happy satire and a black comedy of atomic proportions. If this rings psychotic or perhaps you’d like the serious version of this Cold War premise, try Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (produced the same year by the same studio).
Cast: Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and Sterling Hayden
Score: The score was credited to Laurie Johnson, an old school English composer of film and television. Perhaps you recognize him from The Avengers theme?
This was Johnson’s only collaboration with Kubrick. But Johnson’s sexually sensitive scoring, and straight military marches were a perfect companion to Strangelove’s fatalism. The classic Kong bomb run music was a variation on “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” a 19th century English anti-war ditty. (Further reading: hear old Johnny’s extra ironic usage in Die Hard with a Vengeance). The music showcased Kubrick’s affinity for old-fashioned sounds, juxtaposed wittily over contemporary material.
However. Because we simply can’t not argue this: for our money, the film’s musical star was and still is Vera Lynn and her crushingly beautiful rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” over the end credits. Oh, the agony. The song’s true history is almost cruel. It was a sort of de facto British war tune that embodied the sad realities of going off to battle — not many soldiers would meet their families or loves again. The song’s use was an apparent suggestion from former Sellers colleague and comic writer Spike Milligan, and the rest is history. No not film history, living history. Humanity becomes history, and all we’re left with is the bittersweet sounds of Miss Lynn.
Pie in the Sky: It was the end of the world and all they had was custard cream.
Dr. Strangelove’s alternate ending is the stuff of Hollywood “what if?” legend. Like the last act of Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors or that first draft of Rogue One, Dr. Strangelove’s original finale has enough clout to have kept gossip and message boards stirring for years. Originally, Kubrick was gonna end on a zanier note with elected officials and head honchos fighting in the war room with pies. Because when the final solutions come, what else is there to do but have a pie fight, right?
It might have been an amazingly bold stroke for an already jam-packed comedy, and you have to wonder. It’s not on any disc releases. Video’s impossible to find, because according to interviews with the editor, Anthony Harvey, it’s long lost. But thank god for production stills. BFI has a wonderful assemblage, and the alternate ending, while perhaps a bit too Three Stooges for even this film, still looks funnier than hell.
Why’d it get cut? Bad timing. No, not in the editorial sense — Strangelove was screen tested around the time of the Kennedy assassination in late 1963, and there was a line that apparently made audiences pucker up. President Muffley is knocked out with a pie in the keyster, and George C. Scott’s Turgidson screams, “The president has been struck down in his prime!”
Additionally, it seems like Kubrick felt the absurdism was out of place anyway, and the pies were unreal even for this movie. Actors were smiling. It was cartoony. Those two factors gave sufficient reason for the cut, and Kubrick never second guessed because they were rushing to a January ’64 release date. So, hey, Columbia Pictures, if you have the time, could you find that footage? We’d love to see it.
Bigger Than John Wayne: So, hey there, pardner. You like Strangelove and its freaky jokes? Well, you have got to get on Terry Southern if you haven’t already. The transgressive writer man was something of a counterculture icon who’s been lost in the echoes of time and taste, and his contributions to the Dr. Strangelove script were divine.
To wit: thank Southern for the line about precious bodily fluids. He had a way with these dirty, disgusting, and just left-field word choices (SNL couldn’t deal with him when he moonlit in the ‘80s, failingly pitching gross, sexual, political material — borrow this writer’s copy of Blue Movie if you want.) Naturally, he was perfect for Kubrick’s arsenic sensibilities. While Strangelove’s production is well accounted for, Southern’s essaying produced some wild and shaggy anecdotes about this film, and the stories about Slim Pickens are, well, bon appétit.
Quickly: Peter Sellers was set to play Major Kong, but bond people and doctors forbade the funnyman from taking on a fourth role after an accident. Acting fast, Kubrick wanted a real-life, boot-strappin’ cowboy and asked Southern for advice on casting. Kubrick hadn’t been in the US for 15 years at that point. The duo pursued “Hoss Cartwright” from Bonanza, but the actor, Dan Cartwright, called the script “pinko” and balked.
Kubrick then recalled his experiences on Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks, specifically working with a former cowhand named Slim Pickens. The movie shipped out Pickens to the UK Victor Lyndon, the associate producer met him, but his English accent was no match for Pickens’ Southern drawl. Send in Texas-born Southern. Southern basically wrangled Pickens, and the little stories and subsequent exchanges, are incredible. Slice-of-life would be the politest characterization. Embarrassingly funny might be more apt. Here, this is Southern capturing his first meet with Pickens and what Pickens said when offered some Wild Turkey.
“Wal, you know ah think it was jest this mornin’ that ah was tryin’ to figure out if and when ah ever think it was too early fer a drink, an’ damned if ah didn’t come up bone dry! Hee-hee-hee!” He cackled his falsetto laugh. “Why hell yes, I’ll have a drink with you. Be glad to.”
Golly! The whole encounter’s amazing. Southern captures Pickens’ accent for all its grandiose and laid-back tics. Sure, some of it’s a little retrograde and piggish, but it sure makes for compelling reading. Pickens was every bit the yee-haw Wayne type the film needed, and Southern was just the man to write about him. Seriously, read all of Southern’s recount if you can!
Thee Moment: Ground control to Major Kong. We have a big problem here…
Kong going ape shit, riding the bomb giddily, and activating Doomsday is the stuff of legend. It’s the ultimate comic euphemism for men and the ego between their legs that they love to caress, embrace, and ultimately ride to their own demise. What’s the line from Toys? War is the domain of a man’s small penis or something to that effect? Not Kong’s problem now!
Uh, but yeah, the gag is legendary, and the film’s total apotheosis of pride, stupidity, and again, thinking with your penis. A “nuclear orgasm” as its called in a 2000 documentary. The ultimate deathblow by Kubrick — for laughs. It’s still recognized as a high mark of comic insanity. It was spoofed on The Simpsons. And Kong’s scream was just sampled by Run the Jewels. It is the pre-eminent Strangelove moment.
The Master at Work: Yes, Kubrick allegedly obsessed over thermonuclear war, read over 50 books on the subject, and was interested in a reality-based thriller surrounding the bomb. (Which, thank goodness, the script was written in the wee hours, which fostered the film’s squirrely take.) But Kubrick’s devotion to being disturbed by news like the Cuban Missile Crisis, is nothing to the masterful madness of Peter Sellers.
Sellars was perhaps the most attention-seeking, or rather, demanding talent on the set. His participation was half the production’s cost. He resisted Kubrick’s pleas to play Kong. He made the crew laugh so much that multiple takes became required. He had to mine the likes of real people like Adlai Stevenson, Terry Thomas, and ex-Nazis to keep straight three distinct personas. But the “funny in the head” line as Muffley? Improvised. Strangelove’s Alien Hand Syndrome as a metaphor for struggling with impotence and a visual allusion to Nazi salutes? Improvised! Now that’s comic mastery. And Kubrick would quip that Sellers was worth the cost — three actors for the price of one.
Kubrickian Scale: 10 to 1. Err, 10. The forceful framing, high contrast photography, and willingness to allow his mostly male cast to look ugly as hell was super-duper Kubrick. And this would not be the only time Kubrick went anti-war. Strangelove couples fascinatingly with Fear and Desire and Full Metal Jacket.
Analysis: So long, and thanks for all the nuclear fission.
Dr. Strangelove sits loud and proud atop Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre as a his most-mordant masterpiece. In a career defined by human subjugation, square-tight imagery, and a cynical eye for systemic failure, it’s still kind of impressive that Strangelove works well within all of the director’s trademarks as an anarchic comedy. Because when shit’s about to hit the fan, who doesn’t nervously reassure themselves, that, you are fine and I am fine? Yes, Dmitry.
When Kubrick finished Lolita, it’s like the director couldn’t help but keep courting controversial material, and his grim fascination with the rise in global nuclear armament led to a very keen sort of dread (one the American public holds heavily even today). But comedy might have been the best route. Think about it. Nuclear war, global warming, death, taxes, and other tragedies. Is it not normal to just want to nervously laugh through those conversations? And it’s that levity that Kubrick channels sublimely as he created the ultimate absurdist satire. And the film’s humor and production assembled like kismet.
The script’s a knockout. Peter George’s framing with Southern’s weirder inclinations and Kubrick’s nervy ideation are a perfect trio. And Kubrick really had the gall to commit to this thing — he pulls no punches and balances grave circumstances with the silliest moments. Who stammers an apology and avoids the bigger issue when billions of lives are at stake? These guys.
And speaking of that, the casting makes it impossible to pick a funniest character, because between George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, and Sterling Hayden, it’s still hard to pick nutjob of the year. They’re all inspired loons with their fingers on the button, arguing pettily (NO FIGHTING IN THE WAR ROOM!). And let’s not forget the diverse genius of Peter Sellers, still fascinating and ferocious in three roles — it’s the kind of feat that should be required in acting classes forever.
These “commie stooges,” as the film puts it, really did something special. Put it all together, and you have one of the most explosive comedies of all time. I mean, this film’s good, see, I mean it’s reeeally sharp, and it can barrel in so low … oh you oughta see it sometime. It’s a sight. Varrrooom! Its jet exhaust … frying chickens in the barnyard! — B.G.
01. 2001: a space odyssey (1968)
Runtime: 2 hr. 22 min.
Press Release: From the minds of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick comes a story unlike any other — 2001: a space odyssey. Journey across the savannas of Africa as we witness the dawn of mankind, look ahead towards Jupiter as we climb aboard the United States spacecraft Discovery One, and accept the unexpected as we leave our solar system. It’s an existential spectacle for the ages.
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000
Score: Once again, Kubrick abandoned another original score — this time by Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove collaborator Alex North, who didn’t find out until opening night (rough) — in favor of an eclectic collection of compositions.
Though, unlike his scatterbrained approach to The Shining, the marriage of sound and screen in 2001 is almost scientific. Each composition is wired to specific facets, motifs, or themes throughout the film: György Ligeti’s four avant-garde instrumentals pertain to events involving the ominous, all-knowing monolith; Johann Strauss II’s historical waltz “The Blue Danube” captures the majesty of human innovation; Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio)” embellishes the abyssal nature of space (and was later re-appropriated by the late James Horner for Aliens); and Richard Strauss’ philosophical piece “Also sprach Zarathustra” serves as a bookend to the film’s transformational sequences.
At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, there’s perhaps no other film whose soundtrack is more important, more iconic, or more intrinsically tied to each scene than that of 2001. Despite the fact that a number of these compositions existed long before Clarke and Kubrick ever put their heads together — both “Also sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube” date back to the late 19th century — it’s damn near impossible to hear them without seeing or thinking about the film.
They’ve since become embroidered into the fabric of modern pop culture, especially “Also sprach Zarathustra,” which has become the de-facto song to use about anything involving wonder or discovery. Though, given that Strauss was initially prompted to write the piece after reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential book of the same name, any thematic ties technically have more to do with the piece itself than the film. But c’mon, they’re usually referencing 2001.
Page to Screen: Following his work on Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick decided he wanted to ditch Earth and make “the proverbial good science fiction movie.” Thanks to an introduction by Columbia Pictures staffer Roger Caras, Kubrick found his map to the stars in Clarke, who gave him a bunch of his short stories to peruse for ideas. Seeing how Kubrick wanted to wrestle with “man’s relationship to the universe,” he opted for “The Sentinel,” which focuses on an alien artifact left on the moon, aka the monolith.
With a firm base in place, the two decided it would be best to write the novel first and then focus on the screenplay later. Though, as time marched on — it should be noted they would devote four long years to this project, from conception to theaters — the novel and the screenplay wound up being developed concurrently.
Even still, there are considerable differences between the two mediums. Since the book was based on earlier drafts of the screenplay, which evolved as production ensued and Kubrick realized what he could and and could not do (hey, even an auteur of his caliber had limits), little details like swapping Saturn for Jupiter split the difference.
However, what truly sets them apart is that the film is a visual beast that relies on thematic imagery to tell its narrative, while the book is incredibly verbose, explaining the vague treasures that are often left to the mind on screen. In other words, the book serves as an operandi modus for pretty much everything that happens, from the mythology of the monolith to why the HAL 9000 system goes AWOL on David Bowman and Frank Poole, and should certainly be read after the film.
As Kubrick told Playboy in 1968, “How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth’—or ‘because she’s hiding a secret from her lover’? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.”
Decades later, most viewers have no clue there’s an accompanying book to the film, which, in hindsight, is mildly depressing given that the context is quite astonishing and revelatory. Sure, Clarke’s clearly the Mark Frost to Kubrick’s David Lynch in this scenario, but it was Clarke who brought the legitimate science to the fiction and that science is an absolute blast to parse through and worth exploring further in the following sequels: 2010, 2061, and 3001.
A Space Parody: Iconic films breed iconic parodies, and there’s no shortage of them for 2001. From the monolithic album cover for Who’s Next to Y2K-themed commercials for Apple to subtle nods in other outstanding films like Hal Ashby’s Being There, the DNA of Kubrick and Clark’s science fiction epic can be found almost everywhere. As the old adage goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the countless, seemingly never-ending references to the film only solidify the notion that 2001 is a timeless pop-culture artifact.
Having said all that, the greatest parodies of 2001 came straight outta Springfield — twice, in fact — and both involve Homer J. Simpson. The first arrived in November 1991 with “Lisa’s Pony,” which opens with a familiar “Dawn of Man” sequence that finds Homer sleeping rather than evolving, while the second followed in February 1994 with “Deep Space Homer,” which not only spoofs the match cut but also pairs “The Blue Danube” with Homer’s weightless snacking.
Thee Moment: From beginning to end, 2001 is a two-and-a-half-hour string of essential moments. There’s the 10-minute-long “Star Gate” sequence that still shatters minds nearly half a century later. There’s the chilling appearance of the monolith on the moon. There’s the whole “Blue Danube” space flight sequence that changed science-fiction cinema forever.
And, of course, there’s the Star Child itself, wrapping up the whole shebang with one of the most confounding endings in the history of cinema. But, there’s just no substitute for the match cut that occurs right at the very beginning, immediately after our fearless ape learns how to use a nearby bone as both a tool and a weapon. It’s a sign that the primate has evolved, that it’s possibly been influenced by the nearby monolith, which had been curiously taking up some of their real estate.
So, when he tosses that bone up in the air, and it cuts to a similar-shaped spaceship in the blink of an eye, it’s as if we just finished reading the introduction to Kubrick and Clarke’s thesis on The History of Mankind. It says everything you need to know about 2001.
The Master at Work: The research that went into 2001 is unbelievable, and the film speaks to Kubrick and Clarke’s dedication to be as honest and faithful as possible to the science of the past, present, and future. All throughout the production, the obsessive filmmaker never stopped consulting with the right people for the right job, which traditionally led to the right resources, from forward-thinking mathematicians to cutting-edge designers to high-profile engineers to legendary astronomers, all of whom would ensure 2001 looked and felt as accurate and realistic as possible.
This ranged from commissioning one of the special effects designers behind the groundbreaking short-form documentary Universe, which had even sent shock waves to the folks at NASA, to a deep rumination on extraterrestrial life with a mastermind like Carl Sagan.
Kubrick gave it his all, overseeing literally every facet of the production, and that includes the 205 special effects shots that took nearly two years to accomplish. He was ahead of the game, pioneering technology and techniques that hadn’t fully been incorporated into the Hollywood system at the time. For instance, the expansive use of front projection with retroreflective matting, which enabled him to create the lush backdrops for the dawn of man and moon sequences, was a game changer and influenced a number of films shortly thereafter.
And that’s all without mentioning the ambitious models and sets that were constructed for the film, specifically the 27-ton “ferris wheel” that served as the Discovery centrifuge, which Bowman jogs through and where Poole eats his meal as he catches up on the news. It’s still unreal.
Essentially, 2001 was where Kubrick truly earned the terms “auteur,” “genius,” and “legend.”
Kubrickian Scale: 9000.
Analysis: On September 12, 1962, the late President John F. Kennedy delivered what has since been dubbed his “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, where he said, among many things, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.”
Of course, he was mostly kicking off the dick-swinging moon race between the United States and Russia, but there’s an aching vitality to the line: “Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind.” In fact, one might argue it’s the most important line ever uttered by a politician on the matter of space exploration, as it speaks to the universal truth that so many officials, lawmakers, and taxpayers shy away from: Our future is in the stars.
In hindsight, there’s something depressing about watching 2001: a space odyssey today. For one, it’s 2017, and it feels like we’re even further away from something like Discovery than we might have been in 1968. For Christ’s sake, we haven’t even reached Mars yet, and while NASA continues to set dates and push the idea that deep space exploration remains on the table, public interest on the subject continues to wane.
Instead, the people and the government continue to invest themselves in more and more petty political issues, often involving archaic concepts and inherent truths that stem from an overwhelming religious right that wants to derail the very fabric of scientific analysis. With that in mind, one can’t help but feel weirdly nostalgic while watching 2001, a film that’s nearly half a century old and yet looks and feels and acts more modern than anything out today.
Here’s the thing, though: 2001 couldn’t happen in today’s day and age, and that’s another dreadful thought to swallow. The closest approximation we’ve seen to a forward-thinking film of this kind in recent memory has been Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a notable inclusion in the heady sci-fi genre by a director who had to work his ass off to make it happen, and yet it’s still a depressingly distant echo by comparison, plagued by exposition for dumbed-down audiences.
Now, it would be unfair to say those same audiences don’t want to think anymore, because, sure, that’s not entirely true. But, they’re certainly not making a strong case to prove otherwise, as evidenced by the ludicrous, outstanding box office receipts for hot garbage like Jurassic World or Minions or whatever Pirates sequel Johnny Depp has lost himself in. It’s a grizzly situation.
Fortunately, Kubrick built 2001 to last, and that’s certainly been the case for the landmark film. In addition to influencing pretty much every groundbreaking director in the last 50 years — from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas to the aforementioned Nolan — the film has also changed the way we look at media and technology, especially the iPad you’re holding right now to read this article.
But, above all else, 2001 avoids being relegated to a ’60s time capsule because it attempts to answer the infinite questions that subconsciously circle around in everyone’s heads day in and day out. And while we’ll probably never really know how close Kubrick and Clarke came to connecting the dots, the film will always be a measuring stick that everyone from filmgoers to scientists will turn to from now until the entire universe melts away.
Odds are it’ll still look better than anything else. — M.R.