Thursday, July 26, 2018


Stanley Kubrick would have turned 90 today, except he died in 1999.  Considering how long he took to make his films, he must have figured he'd live to be 150.

Some call him the greatest director of all, but I'm of two minds about him.  He's certainly original, and even his weakest work offers something different, but the truth is only one of his films, Dr. Strangelove (1964), gets my full support.  Kubrick, who generally doesn't display much of a sense of humor, somehow turned out the perfect dark, satirical comedy.

But aside from that, almost every film is flawed, many seriously.

His earliest features I'll ignore (as he did)--Fear And Desire (1953) and Killer's Kiss (1955) show a guy with a low budget who's still learning.  His first major film is The Killing, and it's pretty good, if not especially significant.  His next, Paths Of Glory (1957), is the one that truly put him on the map, and while it's a pretty solid anti-war film, and directed with a sure hand, I'm not sure if it's dated that well.

Then comes the epic Spartacus (1960), a project that was essentially work for hire.  Kubrick didn't initiate it (in fact, he replaced the original director, Anthony Mann, after shooting began).  It's not bad, though Kubrick would disavow it.

Now we come into the Kubrick era where he has prestige, money and an iron will, and every film he made was pretty much to his specifications. First we get Lolita (1962).  It starts as a decent satirical comedy of social mores, but weakens as it goes on, and goes on far too long.  The performances by James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers are fascinating, but it just falls short. (He also couldn't quite go all the way with the material provided by the novel, though considering the times it's amazing he made it at all.  Indeed, the ads back then asked "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?")

Next is Strangelove, which I've already noted is his one definite classic.

Then comes his most famous movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Though technically a marvel, it was not treated well by the critics, originally.  Most came around and today it makes top ten lists, but I think they got it right the first time.  (I suppose on re-viewing, since you know nothing much is going to happen, you don't get too disappointed.)

Kubrick was smart to make it cryptic, since what's going on is less than meets the eye.  It is visually fascinating, and, as I often say, there's a fairly interesting 80-minute movie about a rogue computer packed inside what is otherwise pretentious nonsense.  2001 does lead one to ask how can it can be a failure when one returns to it so many times, even as its silliness is still out there for everyone to see.

Next, another major title, A Clockwork Orange (1971). Some fine scenes, and an intriguing lead performance from Malcolm McDowell.  But the ideas behind the whole thing, once again, are fairly shallow, and the film is actually pretty ugly.  However, like 2001, it's still a film you can return to even as you recognize its deep flaws.

The next film I can't make any excuses for.  A fair number have tried to blow up Barry Lyndon (1975) into a masterpiece, but it's a three-hour bore.  It looks great, but the story is tiresome and the acting isn't much. (In general, especially in his later films, Kubrick gets weird performances from his actors.  Maybe they get exhausted and stop acting like humans, which is just how Kubrick likes it.)

Next is another disappointment--The Shining.  It was not treated well when it came out, but is now considered a horror classic.  You'd think a horror film should at least be scary, but I guess that's not what matters here.  A great set, but I have to agree with Stephen King--the car looks good, but it's got no engine.

Then there's Full Metal Jacket (1987).  It's oddly structured.  You've got this intense 40-minute short about basic training starring R. Lee Ermey, followed by a rather dull army film set in Vietnam.  I've watched the first act a number of times, after which I change the channel.

Then comes his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  I suppose this was supposed to be sexy, or spooky, or riveting, or something.  Instead, it just comes across as bizarre.  People acting strange as Tom Cruise takes a journey that doesn't really go anywhere. (The one scene I like is near the end, when he has a long talk with Sydney Pollack.  Many critics thought it was too expository, but I don't believe a word Pollack is saying.) Kubrick died while the film was still in editing, though there seems to be some dispute about this. Maybe it would have been a bit tighter, but I don't think he could have made it work.

So that's it.  A fairly light filmography compared to many great directors, but he made films the way he wanted.  And people still watch them.  I don't think he could have asked for much more.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must have enjoyed this one especially. (And even I get to enjoy that I didn't miss this one.)


4:24 PM, July 26, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

It brings me no special joy to note that Kubrick isn't the master that many claim he is.

4:55 PM, July 26, 2018  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I haven't seen the early films, Lolita or Eyes Wide Shut, but all the rest pass my "re-watchable" test. This is true for Barry Lyndon, even - I just like watching it from time to time (when I have a lot of time on my hands).

I only just saw Spartacus for the first time, which I really enjoyed, and watched in one sitting! The worst thing in it was Jean Simmons (imho), but really Kubrick did not overplay the romance (which didn't make much sense). I would like to see a more historically accurate treatment of Spartacus someday, but I think I will return to Kubrick's every few years or so.

I do think The Shining is plenty scary, and I like Kubrick's version better than King's made for TV remake. Kubrick creates moods in which you can immerse yourself, and The Shining is definitely one of non-stop foreboding. Clockwork Orange is one of endless dystopian dread.

The weakest film of his that I've seen is Full Metal Jacket, which, as you say, has a great start but falls apart once we are in Vietnam. I would have liked to see him tackle a spy thriller and give us something better that the Mission Impossible series. he could have made Atomic Blonde, for example.

11:00 AM, July 27, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Kirk Douglas wrote a fascinating book on the making of Spartacus. There was a tremendous of problems getting it to the screen, from the planning stage to the post-production process.

Douglas wanted the oppressors to have British accents and the slaves to be Americans, so he didn't want Jean Simmons. When Kubrick came aboard, everyone knew the woman they'd hired for the role was no good, so Kubrick fired her and Douglas accepted Simmons, accent and all.

Perhaps a documentary on the real Spartacus would be fascinating, but the movie was always going to based the novel by Howard Fast. (Fast wanted to write the screenplay but his attempts were hopeless, which is why blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was hired.)

I do agree that Stephen King's TV version of The Shining is considerably worse than the movie, but that doesn't mean that the movie is good. (Speaking of The Shining, have you seen Ready Player one, which has plenty of 80s nostalgia?)

My guess is you would not have liked a "spy thriller" from Kubrick. Conventional genre payoffs were not his specialty.

11:31 AM, July 27, 2018  
Blogger New England Guy said...

They just showed 2001: A Space Odyssey at the local playhouse and my 21 year old son went to see it. I don't think he was that impressed. My memory is that the initial scene with the apemen is compelling (even if you can't understand what is so important) but the scifi story about HAL and the two boring astronauts seems small beer by comparison. I think Kubrick was great for memorable scenes as I remember several from the films you recount but that his movies don't always hold together that well. Even Eyes Wide Shut- I have seen Tom in the funky house with the naked masked headdressed women several times but have no memory of what the damn film was about

4:22 AM, July 28, 2018  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Saw Ready Player One with great expectations that were dashed. The nostalgia was fun but the story was terrible. Seems Spielberg does this sometimes - gets so excited about his gimmick that he forgets there has to be a story that makes some sense.

4:50 AM, July 28, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

By the way, Denver Guy, if you get this message in time, Paths Of Glory is on TCM tonight.

11:31 AM, July 28, 2018  

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