Thursday, October 4, 2012

Stanley Kubrick, Ranked

(This is the third entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon. Next month is Andrei Tarkovsky.)

For what it's worth, I've had more "fun" watching the films of Stanley Kubrick than those of almost any other director, which runs counter to accepted truths of the notoriously reclusive director's work being "cold to the touch" and, worse, "too challenging." Starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Kubrick embarked on a string of films so creatively focused and immersive that the inconsistent gaps that separated them must have had some kind of major healing power, rejuvenating his intellect and shifting his curiosity to another existential mystery. He's one of those filmmakers that every entry-level cinephile devours in their early days of film appreciation, and the same was true for me, but the difference is that I've never grown tired of his work or used it merely as a stepping stone to a wider culture of film. I've found that he, in so many ways, is one of the backbones of film culture, his influence reaching, consciously or otherwise, across directors worldwide for decades. More often than not, when I seek all that is good in cinema, I find echoes of Kubrick under every stone.

Few directors had as immaculate and intuitive a grasp of aesthetics as Kubrick. From his crisp, orderly compositional sense, to his careful choreography of color and movement, to his uncanny knack for picking the perfect piece of music to accompany a given scene, his films evolve in a fluid, cumulative manner, casting a spell with near-mathematical precision. But while the surfaces of his work are often approached as if an equation, the emotional and thematic material underneath is not; Kubrick had a wonderful ability to leave the most significant mysteries of human behavior and the universe intact. Characters seethe with emotion in his films – megalomania, madness, fury, sexual desire, fear, joy – and he approaches them with a unique mix of empathy and clinical curiosity, meanwhile juxtaposing them against the larger tides of history, nature, and the perplexities beyond Earth. His oeuvre, though regrettably slim, comprises an attempt to transpose all the thought capable by a single human being onto the cinematic medium.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Whether or not there can ever be a film as culturally earth-shattering as 2001 is tough to say, but what is certain is that the impact of this provocative, lunatic space essay is no less visceral or significant today. What Kubrick was ever-so-majestically hinting at with the film – that the so-called technological "progress" of man could in fact be the very downfall of the species, that in order to move forward we need to reconnect with some primitive concept of self, and that what we know about the universe is very likely only a puny sliver of the vast sea of what can be known – won't become irrelevant until something cataclysmic, something like what happens to Bowman at the trancelike close of the film, jolts the entire human race into some new, higher stage of existence. What else can be said? It's a leap forward, and in some cases, in all different directions, for humanity, for philosophy, for cinema, for Kubrick's career, etc., and it's also the filmmaker's most ambitious, visionary, and transcendent moment.

2. Barry Lyndon (1975): The impressive balancing act of Barry Lyndon is that, even as it features Kubrick at his most analytically removed from the material, it maintains a vivid dramatic impact. As the film progresses, Kubrick's central character, the unremarkable farmhand-turned-aristocrat Barry Lyndon (Ryan O'Neal), becomes increasingly dwarfed by his surroundings, merging into Kubrick's decidedly stiff mise-en-scène as if a figure in an oil painting, yet at the same time he grows into a more tragic and lonely figure. Through its witty, detached narrator, its exaggerated costuming, and its rambling narrative defined by acts of role-playing and phoniness, Barry Lyndon explicitly calls attention to the flaws inherent in shaping history into linear narratives, as well as the absurdity of sentimentalizing any one individual over another. It's curious then – and indicative of the internal counterargument at the core of the film that plays very much to its advantage – that these characters do ultimately emerge as real, flesh-and-blood human beings with their own insignificant hopes and dreams. This is cinema that both acknowledges humanity's endless loss to the flow of time and seeks to discover something lasting, beautiful, and permanent in the impermanent.

3. The Shining (1980): When I think of the ever-intangible quality of "atmosphere," I think first of The Shining, which has as unique and memorable an atmosphere as any film ever made. I think of big band music wafting through cavernous hallways (apparently, so too does James Kirby, who has made several brilliant albums inspired by these sounds under the pseudonym The Caretaker). I think of the acres of thick snow encasing the Overlook Hotel. I think of glowing table lamps surrounded by thick cigarette smoke, around which ghostly flappers convene. The Shining's gloomy, enveloping atmosphere becomes the central guiding force of its narrative, as the mansion develops a mysterious aura that drives Jack Nicholson's writer-father to violent insanity. The performances here are suitably larger-than-life, all shrieks and glowers and varying states of hypnosis that culminate in a harrowing implosion of familial security, and the camerawork and set design is hallucinatory, emphasizing the imprisonment of the central characters to fate and history. The Shining also gets bonus points (as if it needed them) for having the most tantalizing trailer ever made.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Like Collateral five years after it, Eyes Wide Shut is a film that takes fascinating, knowing advantage of the different dimensions of Tom Cruise's screen persona. His aloofness, his slickness, his arrogance, his cool eroticism, is picked apart by Kubrick in this 2-hour-plus exposé of the self-destructive male id, wherein Cruise's slim marital complacency is demolished in the face of encroaching, socially repressed instincts. Also like Collateral (not to draw any parallels between Mann and Kubrick other than superficial ones, mind you), Eyes Wide Shut is a powerful subjective representation of a city, in this case the Big Apple. New York's grimy, heavily populated reality is not what interests Kubrick; rather, he extracts something in the mood of New York around Christmas time, a sense of endless possibility and endless danger, a place where constant surveillance is taken for granted. All of this leads to the famous orgy sequence, one of Kubrick's most memorable set pieces and one that hearkens back vaguely to The Shining while also providing a haunting conclusion to the career of a director who was otherwise never known for delving directly into sex.

5. Paths of Glory (1957): The sequence of events that concludes Paths of Glory is incomparably moving, enough to singlehandedly put to rest claims of Kubrick's misanthropy; the film's humane perspective on wartime injustices reaches near-Renoir levels of compassion. It's been a long time since I've revisited this one, but I can still vividly recall the expression of sadness on Timothy Carey's face as his fighting companion is shot down by a firing squad, or the sound of Christiane Kubrick's ethereal singing voice as she temporarily entertains a horde of under-sexed, overworked soldiers, or the sense of firsthand immersion in those prolonged tracking shots through crowded bunkers in the midst of combat. Paths of Glory is such an all-encompassing war film that it seems an afterthought for Kubrick to have even made Full Metal Jacket; here we have the camaraderie, the bureaucratic nonsense, the anger, the deprivation, the madness, and the senselessness of war presented in a far more charged, compact package.

6. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): For a film that deals with issues of cosmic proportions, Dr. Strangelove is uniquely low-key, like a Shakespearean chamber drama filtered through the madcap verbal sensibilities of Leo McCarey. Kubrick always had a devilish sense of humor that could sneak through the cracks of even his most somber works, but I still wish he was able to find more outlets for his bottomless wit. Dr. Strangelove is the only film in his career that can comfortably be labeled a black comedy, and what a comedy it is, boasting extended dialogues that are as philosophical as they are absurd (Sterling Hayden lecturing Peter Sellers on his "precious bodily fluids," Peter Sellers navigating awkward small talk on the phone with Dmitri, the Soviet General, before informing him of the steps necessary to prevent blowing his country to smithereens). This is a savage and all-too-relevant skewering of the absurdity of the war machine, in which the only buffoons responsible for making decisions that will effect the human race can hardly carry a coherent conversation.

7. A Clockwork Orange (1971): Seeing The Master twice recently helped put into further perspective what Kubrick was doing in 1971 with A Clockwork Orange. PTA's new film is much tamer, and far less prone to offend in its representation of sexual and violent instincts run amok, but both films, by pitting unrestrained masculine animals against law-abiding social structures, pose similar existential questions that cannot be adequately answered about the nature of man and its perversion through social progress. Because of A Clockwork Orange's varied, almost playful stylistic gloss, many (including critics as sharp as Dave Kehr) have found the film to side with the morally repugnant Alex (Malcolm McDowell, in his finest performance), but I think sympathetic involvement is far from the level Kubrick's working on here. The film reflects the feverish perspective of Alex, but it also maintains a disturbing distance, not just to Alex but to everything that is filmed, rendering the world a strange, unsettled landscape where medical "correction" can seem as abhorrent as one of Alex's rapes.

8. The Killing (1956): As the oldest film on this list, The Killing marks a pivotal turning point in the artistry of Stanley Kubrick. Like the movies that came before it, it showcases the director working out his chops, trying to smoothly manage the transition from photography and figure out this other thing called motion pictures. It's clearly the most successful of those attempts, and it paved the way for Kubrick to confidently make as bold a statement as Paths of Glory only a year later. Interestingly enough, it has become one of the quintessential heist films, a taut, detailed crime caper that barely wastes a second. Fittingly for a director who would become such a master of mounting tension, the build-up to the racetrack robbery is more compelling than the robbery itself, which devolves into an almost slapsticky set piece that hasn't aged well, but the biggest pleasure here is the impression of a young filmmaker suddenly realizing the wealth of his talent.

9. Full Metal Jacket (1987): It's a cliché by now to complain about the bifurcated structure of Full Metal Jacket, but even as I see Kubrick's intention in dividing the film into two disparate parts, the momentum that is lost when the movie shifts directions has always been a tipping point for me. Both halves are powerful and purposeful on their own, but when placed together there's something lost (rhythmically, not necessarily thematically) that I haven't been able to account for in subsequent viewings. The first part, at a recruitment boot camp, has the building tension and character-focused texture of many of Kubrick's best films, while the second part adopts the freer, broader perspective of Barry Lyndon, or, to use another Vietnam-based film, Apocalypse Now. Conceptually, it's brilliant, erecting sympathetic involvement before ripping it away to focus on the dehumanizing effects of an aimless war, but in execution, it feels half-formed and static, as if struggling to cohere into an overarching viewpoint. Generally, this searching quality in cinema is something I love, but here not so much. To be frank, I'm still grappling with this one.

10. Lolita (1962): Kubrick made a career out of mining the unseen depths of literature, extracting moods and atmospheres that are all but hidden in the source material. Lolita lacks a bit of the magic of Kubrick's other adaptations because it fails to some extent in bringing anything distinctly Kubrickian to Vladimir Nabokov's text. The themes explored by Nabokov are very much of a piece with the concerns that would mark Kubrick's career – the meeting place of civilization and human nature, confusion over social roles, sexuality as a matter of existential importance – but Kubrick does little more than preserve the innuendo inherent in the book, otherwise failing to translate the radical spirit of Nabokov's prose through cinematic means. Sue Lyon is a charmer as the titular character, and James Mason is appropriately snotty, but the film misses the life and vigor of Kubrick's best work.

Further Reading:

-Loren Rosson's list over at The Busybody.


Loren Rosson III said...

I'm delighted (and a bit astonished) that we're so close in our top 5 choices. Aside from the shuffle of Barry Lyndon, they line up exactly. A Fb friend also insisted on Barry Lyndon at #2, and I certainly respect the reasons why.

You probably have the right of it by ignoring Spartacus in favor of The Killing, which I saw so long ago and need to revisit. Full Metal Jacket does remain the wild card of the Kubrick canon, doesn't it? Like you, I find it difficult to get closure on, and placed it (relatively) high (#6) for the first part. That boot-camp drama had such a profound impact on me: along with Blue Velvet and Taxi Driver, it shaped my cinematic outlook more than anything else in early college years.

Carson Lund said...

Same choices! What must this mean?! I think it has something to do with the fact that the progression of Kubrick's output is relatively clear. He wasn't a director who followed a success with a bomb or vice versa; once he hit his stride, he was fairly consistent, and surely the time he took between films may have helped that.

As you probably know, Barry Lyndon was one I came around to fairly recently. I'm generally skeptical of costume dramas, fearing that they will just be banal Oscar bait. But how mistaken I was with a Kubrick costume drama!

My Spartacus relationship is like your The Killing relationship: haven't seen it in a long time, found it OK, and feel like a revisit won't really yield any new layers.

Loren Rosson III said...

I didn't realize you saw Barry Lyndon only recently, but it's funny about that one. Not only does it often get passed over, people have curious predisposed feelings about it. A friend of mine, for instance, has seen six of the ten films here, wouldn't mind seeing three others, but has no intentions of ever watching Barry Lyndon, even after reading your and my commentary. I'm not clear as to why it's so off-putting in advance, though yes, the costume aesthetic could make one fear an overwrought stage play.

I'm sure you know, BTW, that Barry Lyndon was Scorsese's favorite Kubrick film.