What’s the Deal…with Stanley Kubrick? (Part 1)
For a man who says he loves films, co-founded a film site and hosts a film podcast, I have seen an embarrassingly small number of them. My relationship with what most people would consider “classics” is even more non-existent. It’s a problem that has reached a point where a meme now exists which expresses faux shock every time I say I haven’t seen a particular film. The ultimate form of humiliation.
Why do I find myself in this situation? I’ll get my pity story out of the way now so that I never have to repeat it again going forwards. I was never really a “film person” until I went to university. Neither were my parents. So when people ask me “how on earth are you 27 years old and haven’t seen (insert literally any film title)?” that’s the reasoning I normally come up with. Whilst a lot of teenage boys my age embarked on a cultural awakening via their dad’s VHS collection, that wasn’t something that was really available to me. Coupled with the fact I grew up in rural Lincolnshire with close to zero internet connection and the nearest town didn’t have a Blockbuster, I was really fighting a losing battle. As I mentioned it wasn’t until I went to university to study English Literature and actually studied film as an art medium that I began to truly appreciate it and fall in love with it like so millions have before me. Subsequently, I’m playing a serious game of catch up for all my years of misguided youth.
So, I am embarking on an adventure to right my infinite list of cinematic wrongs via this (hopefully) recurring column for JumpCut Online which will be called, and quite brilliantly in my opinion, “What’s the Deal?” It’s good because that’s my name. Right? Guys? Hello?
Every month (or so) I will be working my way through the filmography of one of the directorial greats, (we might delve into some film series/franchises too) charting my thoughts and progress as I go, and giving my thoughts on why these people are as revered as they are and whether or not I buy into the hype. For those of you who don’t know me, there are sure to be some takes that will make your eyes roll and for that I apologise in advance.
To begin the series we look to rectify one of, if not probably my biggest, faux pas of all and ask the question …
What’s the Deal with Stanley Kubrick?
Whisky. 20-year-old replica football shirts. Stanley Kubrick boxset. The three staples of traditional, western manhood (probably). A name that you could mention to literally anyone on the street and be met with a vague look of recollection. Renowned for his commitment to his craft and his creation of a masterpiece in each genre, he is an absolute must watch for any self-proclaimed cinephile.
“So why have you only seen two (yes two) of his films then”? I hear you shout in unison. Honestly, it’s become a case of conscious avoidance for me. An example of one of those things that I’m sure we all have that we’ve put off for so long and now it’s kind of a little too late to do anything about it. For example, I’m 27 years old and I still don’t know what truffles are and it’s kind of too late for me to ask anyone about it. Why are there pigs specifically designed for truffles? Why are some chocolates called truffles? Honestly, I’m baffled. Kubrick falls into the same category for me. I’ve gone this far in my life without knowing, maybe I just accepted that I never would.
It’s also become a “what if” situation for me. The added dimension with watching a lot of classics for the first time at this point in my life is the pressure to like them. They’re classics for a reason after all. It’s one thing to not have watched the majority of Kubrick’s filmography but what on earth was I going to do if I didn’t like his films? Would my friends ever talk to me again?
Well, I guess we’re about to find out together.
My journey through his filmography will be split into two parts. In this column I’ll be covering:
- Fear and Desire (1953)
- Killer’s Kiss (1955)
- The Killing (1956)
- Paths of Glory (1957)
- Spartacus (1960)
- Lolita (1962)
- Dr Strangelove (1964)
Fear and Desire (1953)
As with each of the columns in this series, I’m not going to be able to watch every single film that the director in question has made, but in every case I will endeavour to watch their debut feature, and Fear and Desire fits that billing for Kubrick.
Clocking in at just over the hour mark, this felt like a platter of hors d’oeuvres before the… oeuvre? Kubrick himself was not a fan of Fear and Desire, considering it “nothing more than a bumbling, amateurish film exercise written by a failed poet, crewed by a few friends and a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” He disliked it so much that he endeavoured to destroy any copy of it that he could find. I feel like his self criticism here is maybe a little too profound although some of the film’s problems are neatly summated by Kubrick’s reflective self-analysis. It is definitely pretentious, in particular the use of Lt Corby’s voiceover (a technique I find to be generally pretentious anyway). It is definitely trying a bit too hard. It is a bit “amateurish” to use Kubrick’s own words against him but I don’t think it’s fair to judge this film on how small a budget and crew it had.
Despite its flaws, this actually felt like quite an important jumping off point when watching Kubrick’s filmography, given what I know of what’s to come. An anti-war allegory, describing conflict as a “cold stew on a blazing island,” Fear and Desire has all the thematic hallmarks of Kubrick, but perhaps without the polished artistry and subtlety that I’m expecting to see later on in his career. Madness, violence, situational futility and the flawed nature of humanity, and perhaps more pertinently manhood, are all present and accounted for. There’s a sequence in which our group of soldiers crosses paths with an unnamed, local woman that plays out like a PG version of what I’m expecting later on in The Clockwork Orange with our unnamed female character subjected to verbal belittlement “What are we supposed to do with her? I have a wife at home” and “I don’t want to punish her, I only want to tie her up” as well as physical assault and humiliation.
The formative versions of some of the technical features are here too; a prominent and impactful soundtrack, camera closeups that provide an insight into the psyche of our characters and stylish shot composition. As Lt Corby says, “Once you know how a mousetrap works you can use it as a springboard.” Fear and Desire feels like both Kubrick’s mousetrap and his springboard onto bigger and better things.
Killer’s Kiss (1955)
As far as Kubrick is concerned, his feature directorial debut came a couple of years later in the form of crime drama Killer’s Kiss. Much like the film that preceded it, it does nothing remarkable in terms of storytelling (in fact it’s a bit dull in places) but Kubrick’s artistic prowess behind the camera really steps into a new stratosphere. Everything is staged and composed almost perfectly. Kubrick utilises depth-of-field and lighting/shadow particularly well here, giving the impression of a film with a much larger budget than he had available to him. Where Fear and Desire felt like a filmmaker stumbling his way through the craft and learning on the job, Killer’s Kiss feels polished and pristine.
One of the most stunning sequences features his soon to be second wife Ruth Sobotka as a ballet dancer, who Kubrick frames perfectly. Yet, juxtaposed alongside this polished production, Kubrick also manages to characterise and capture the grittiness of New York through short cutaways and still-life styled shots which seem to utilise all that he’s learned in his career as a photographer up to this point in his life. The action sequences are great too. The boxing sequence is claustrophobic and chaotic and the climatic medieval duel in the mannequin factory as our protagonist, armed with a pike, defends himself against an axe-wielding lunatic (Jack Torrance eat your heart out) is an intense experience. Despite only being his second film, it’s clear that Kubrick is already remarkably self-assured in both his ability and style and it seems to be with good reason, as he was able to turn what is a pretty simplistic story into a great cinematic experience. I loved the recurring musical motif as well. I’ll have that stuck in my head for days.
The Killing (1956)
Only a year removed from Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick was back behind the camera to direct this crime/heist thriller. What immediately struck me was that this seemed a much more restrained version of Kubrick. Where every single frame of Killer’s Kiss seemed stylish and intricately designed in its shot composition, this seemed a little more safe and pedestrian. In this instance, that is absolutely fine as I think there’s a clear intention this time around for the film’s narrative to do the heavy lifting, rather than Kubrick’s directorial artistry and flair. For the first half of the film I thought that was to the film’s detriment, however. I was watching and thinking “I’ve seen all this before” and it felt like a very “paint-by-numbers” heist thriller. Of course, there is an argument that films like The Killing and others from that era created the numbers by which every film that has followed has painted by. It would be like watching Indiana Jones for the first time now and thinking it was just a stereotypical action film. Indiana Jones was the birth of that genre. Maybe it’s the same for The Killing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity with the source material.
Whilst the narrative felt familiar and unremarkable at first, it was still carried by some really-well written characters, in particular Mary Windsor’s Sherry Peatty. She was a perfectly pitched manipulator and embodied a lot of the film’s comedic elements, the amount of which was a surprise. For how safe the first half of the film felt, the second half is a masterpiece in narrative manipulation from Kubrick. The deconstruction of the narrative timeline as the heist unfolds and feeding us sequences out of order is a work of genius, creating a powerful and unrelenting sense of dread and anticipation that lasts for the entirety of the second half of the film before pulling the rug out from under our feet in the final few moments. The ending is great, given what precedes it and hammers home again the apparent outlook in Kubrick’s films – the futility of life. Whilst The Killing feels like artistic Kubrick was having to bite his tongue, it exhibits his remarkable ability as a storyteller, a complete reversal of events in Killer’s Kiss. I’m fascinated to see how he balances this going forward and whether one side of his creativity will always have to be subservient to the other, or whether he’ll be able to create perfect equilibrium between the two, as he develops his craft. I’m expecting the latter.
Paths of Glory (1957)
“There are times that I am ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.” A sentence that has circled round my head on multiple occasions in the last year or so, but Colonel Dax’s words perfectly summate my feelings after watching Paths of Glory. I cannot remember the last time I had such a visceral and guttural reaction to a film. The film begins like the distant relative of a Blackadder Goes Forth sketch. Sharp, satirical dialogue coupled with the physical gags and comedic timing of the artillery explosions, Paths of Glory starts off as an outright sardonic comedy as we follow General Mireau around the trenches asking the men under his command whether they’re ready to shoot some more Germans.
There is a distinct tonal shift however when the siege of the aptly named Ant Hill begins and whilst the satirical nature remains, it evolves from absurdity that makes you laugh to absurdity that makes your blood boil. I was left incredulous with rage, as my ire was passed around from character to character, all seemingly intent on outdoing the atrocities performed by those who came before him. General Broulard says at one point “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging or stimulating than seeing someone else die” and call me dramatic, but boy I wish we’d been granted the opportunity to put that to the test in some cases. Kubrick has created a roster of some of the best villains in film history here. Mireau. Broulard. Saint-Auban. They’re all so devoid of anything that resembles humanity. They’re all so far removed from the value of a human life. Yet, all three of them are so perfectly recognisable as human. As a result, this felt less like a lecture on the evils of war itself and more like an exposing of the fallibility of mankind and all of the terrible consequences that stem directly from that fallibility. When we buy into our own hubris, we become the most dangerous and inhumane version of ourselves.
For the first time in his filmography, I feel like Kubrick’s voice is really singing here. He knows exactly what he wants to say and how he’s going to tell us. His personality feels woven into the fabric. The No Man’s Land sequence was astonishing, considering the limitations of the time, and he seamlessly transitions from a war epic to a courtroom drama, perfectly capturing the battles taking place in both environments. The narrative flow is perfectly pitched, culminating in the most tense of finales. Kubrick teases you. He asks you to believe. He dares you to dream that maybe there’s some good out there after all before once again reminding us of the futility of it all and that we’re all just foolish idealists. He reminds us that life doesn’t play out like it does in the movies.
Kubrick was 29 years old when Paths of Glory was released and I’m pretty sure he’s crafted a timeless masterpiece here. It is going to take something truly phenomenal to knock this off my top spot when all is said and done, but I’m starting to get the feeling that if anyone is capable of doing so, that person is Stanley Kubrick.
I’m far from well versed in biblical epics from the 50s and 60s, but from those I have seen, my overriding thoughts steer more towards marvelling at the scope of them rather than enjoyment. Spartacus is the same for the most part. This is a film I watched with appreciation rather than enjoyment. Kubrick’s “eat the rich” epic suffers from a distinct stodginess, particularly prior to the intermission. As a side note, no film needs to be this long, unless it’s name is The Return of the King: Extended Edition. It’s impossible to not be impressed by the sheer scale of what Kubrick has undertaken here, and his ambition has to be applauded, but it would be remiss of me to say I “enjoyed” what I was watching. Whether that’s the just nature of the beast, a result of infamous studio interference or something else entirely I don’t know.
I will say though, that the second half is far superior to the first. Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus and Laurence Olivier’s Crassus play off one another perfectly, as if two sides of the same coin. The climactic battle sequence (I say climatic, there’s about half an hour of film left after it happens) really is astonishing. There are good performances all round too. Olivier and Jean Simmons both shine but my favourite performance came from Peter Ustinov. Perhaps controversially, I couldn’t buy into Douglas’ lead performance at all. I found him a bit dreary and uncharismatic, which isn’t ideal for the film’s heroic protagonist. Alex North’s score is excellent as well, particularly the simple yet effective riff that comprises “Varinia’s Theme”. Much like Fear and Desire, Kubrick denounced Spartacus and refused to acknowledge it as part of his filmography and it’s interesting that those are the two films that I have the most issues with so far. Both fit the bill of “glad to have seen but will never watch again”. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is a personal favourite of mine, and it’s clear that Scott’s film has direct influences from Kubrick’s epic everywhere you look. But in answer to Maximus’ most famous of questions “are you not entertained?!” the answer here is a resounding ”kind of but not really.”
I’d like to think that this trip through Kubrick’s filmography has remained fairly “hot take” free so far but that comes to an end here with the utterly unlikable Lolita. It peaks in the opening few minutes, which is also the ending of the film (something, something, temporal pincer movement), with an excellent dramatic and comedic back and forth between Sellers and Mason. Kubrick again plays with narrative timelines here but in doing so removes all dramatic tension from the film and as a result, the 160 minute runtime feels like an eternity. It’s incredibly poorly paced. We spend so much time with our characters as they talk (and talk and talk and talk and talk) and somehow the characters seem so poorly fleshed out and underdeveloped.
Thematically, the film feels morally dubious and pretty superficial in its investigation into the incredibly serious topic of the destructive power of the male gaze at best, paedophilia at worst. I’ve seen people describe Lolita as a love/romantic film and that notion is pretty upsetting to me. It’s understandable of course, because the film follows a number of narrative beats that you’d expect from a romantic comedy, so on a completely surface level I could probably be convinced to agree but that completely overlooks the specific context of Lolita. Hubert is a paedophile (whilst thinly veiled here I’m led to believe that it’s explicitly made obvious in the novel from which this is adapted) and Lolita is the victim of physical and mental abuse. It’s as simple as that. Other than making James Mason’s Hubert a ridiculous caricature of a man, he faces barely any criticism for that fact. We are given access to the story through the eyes of Hubert. On more than one occasion, Kubrick uses a voiceover from him to move the narrative forward in time, which makes the film seem incredibly biased in favour of the paedophile? Is it a tactic to garner shock from the audience? Maybe.
Whatever the motivation to make Hubert our narrator, it doesn’t work. Lolita is portrayed as an equal instigator who Hubert can’t help but fall for, which makes things even more distasteful and morally questionable. There are small and subtle moments of genuinely great comedy (both in the writing and physically) but I profoundly disliked this film. I was profoundly bored. I genuinely contemplated turning it off. Perhaps worst of all, Kubrick made me feel absolutely nothing other than relief (and maybe a bit of anger) that it was over and I’d never have to watch it again.
Let’s hope that this is merely a pothole in the road and not a bottomless crater from which I can never return.
Dr Strangelove (1964)
Well, it’s happened. My greatest fear and a huge reason as to why I have actively avoided the cinematic greats up to this point in my life. I found myself watching a film that’s considered to be at the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking and being left completely dumbfounded. It’s the kind of watching experience that I dread because it leads me into a full blown existential crisis. Am I too stupid to get it? Do I watch and process films properly? Does everyone else watch films differently to me? Does my brain work? Comedy is a genre I struggle with generally (and infamously amongst my JumpCut colleagues) and that issue raises its head again here. I did not find Dr Strangelove funny in the slightest. I don’t think I even cracked a smile. Again, this might be because I’m too dim to get it but I just couldn’t get to grips with the tone at all. Whilst Lolita is comfortably my least favourite Kubrick film so far, this was comfortably my least favourite viewing experience, because of what I felt like I should be feeling vs what I was feeling. The film made me feel so inadequate and incompetent, which obviously wasn’t the point, but that’s how it left me feeling.
I realise that this isn’t a great piece of insightful film criticism, but the honest truth is that I haven’t got a lot to say about the film itself because it’s all gone completely over my head. I don’t even remember much of it. It’s all a blur. I’m at a complete loss. At this point it’s just me having a meltdown on the internet. Welcome to the club, I guess.
Not to get all hyperbolic on you all, but maybe films aren’t for me after all? I loved Paths of Glory but somewhere along the road between Spartacus, Lolita and Strangelove, I’ve found myself completely lost at sea. Maybe I just need a quick break and then something a bit more run-of-the-mill next up to get me back in the saddle for the second half of this column. Something a bit more accessible.
*looks on IMDb*
2001: A Space Odyssey?
Oh you’re fucking joking…