(On Cable TV, November 2018) Before Stanley Kubrick became The Kubrick, he did have an apprenticeship of sorts in the early 1950s—a few documentary shorts, two crime movies that I haven’t yet seen, and then, finally, The Killing—a thriller that was commercially ignored but really brought Kubrick to the attention of Hollywood and launched his career as we know it. Compared to his later filmography, it’s a bit of an outlier: a straight-ahead film noir, featuring an ensemble cast of characters working toward a heist that doesn’t go as planned … especially after it’s carried out. The familiar set-up is more than redeemed by good execution: The Killing has a number of unusual moments that stick in mind even when compared against so many other similar mid-1950s crime thrillers. The budget is low but the expertise is high, and the movie is a great deal of fun to watch even today, with an ironic finale that caps it all off. There’s a perceptible (and acknowledged) influence here on Reservoir Dogs and many other subsequent movies. Many viewers will approach the film as part of a Kubrick filmography, and leave it having seen an essential noir.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) There are movies that are going to be seen no matter their subject matter, simply by dint of being part of someone’s filmography. You can watch Paths of Glory because it’s one of Kirk Douglas’ better roles as an officer stuck between loyalty to his men and duty to his superiors. Or because it’s one of Stanley Kubrick’s most humanistic movies, with great battle sequences and a powerful ending. Or you can watch it because it’s a terrific film, at once indignant about war and decent in its depiction of characters forced in impossible circumstances. Some sequences already showcase Kubrick’s film mastery: The lengthy uninterrupted shot through WW1 fortifications is a thing of beauty, and the editing of the film is top-notch even by contemporary standards. It has endured today not simply because of its pedigree or its exceptional performance, but perhaps because its perspective on war—as an incredible waste that makes monsters out of everyone including the most principled—stands sharply at odds from other war movies of the era. Blending it with a legal drama (even a pseudo-legal drama) adds more opportunities to explore its theme than a strictly combat-focused film would have. Comparisons with other war movies of the era are instructive. Well worth watching today, Paths of Glory is the film where the Kubrick magic starts happening and it still stands as one of the director’s strongest features.
(On TV, April 2018) The fifties were big on sword-and-sandal epics, and Spartacus is in many ways just another link in the chain that goes from, at least, Quo Vadis (1951) to Cleopatra (1963). That it happens to be a Stanley Kubrick film (directing a script by the equally legendary Dalton Trumbo) is almost immaterial—Kubrick famously disliked the end result, and reacted to his experience making the film by staying as far away from Hollywood as possible for the rest of his career. Still, there’s a lot to like here, starting with Kirk Douglas’s spectacular performance as Spartacus, or Laurence Oliver sparring with him as Crassus, or notables such as Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov (back in sandals!) Tony Curtis or Jean Simmons in other roles. Trumbo’s script is quite good (the “I’m Spartacus ! ”scene lives on) and the execution does live up to Kubrick’s exacting standards. As historical epics go, Spartacus is one of the better ones, and it warrants watching as more than a historical reference.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I’m not going to overstate how important 2001: A Space Odyssey was in my developing a taste for Science-Fiction, but it’s a movie that does show up a few times in my early memories. As a kid, seeing it in the early eighties when 2001 was still in the future, I remember seeing snippets of the film, being fascinated by it, disappointed that they didn’t show more of future life on Earth and rather confused by the whole thing. (My father, for all of his benevolence in allowing me to watch the movie, wasn’t much help in trying to make sense of it.) As a slightly older kid, I remember being told that the answers to the movie were in the Clarke novel. As a somewhat older teenager, I remember reading the book in the middle of a solid Arthur C. Clarke binge. I must have seen the movie again sometime in the early nineties because I have more recent memories than watching it as a kid, but anyway: Watching it now, nearly fifty years after its release, having read countless SF books and even written a few … is a different experience. I’m weirdly fascinated by the movie, for what it does well as for what it doesn’t, for the chances it takes and for the impact it has. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s insanely ambitious from a time when SF movies were not usually considered ambitious. (Keep in mind that 1968 is before the moon landing, before desktop computers, before CGI. The other big Science-Fiction movies of the year were Planet of the Apes and… Barbarella.) It’s still frustratingly ambiguous in terms of narrative, although reading the novel does help quite a bit making sense of it and relaxing enough to appreciate the rest of what the movie does well. I find it fascinating that it has both moments of intense cinematic poetry, while delivering a solid hard-SF thriller in its middle section. I’m more amused than annoyed at the way 2001 doesn’t say anything about its biggest mystery, but will babble on at lengths about the nuts and bolts of its setting. I’m still astonished at the quality of the special effects, the scientific verisimilitude of its middle section or the realism of its setting—all of which remains rarely equalled even fifty years later. Stanley Kubrick was a certifiable genius, and 2001 proves it as much as any other of his movies: just take a look at the million-year cut, the long segments without dialogue, the way even small details show how much the filmmakers cared. 2001 remains a cultural fixture for a reason, having invented, codified or popularized a bunch of the clichés largely associated with Science-Fiction by the general public. I’m struck by how there’s something in this film to appeal to a wide variety of viewers, both as the very prosaic level, and at a more metaphorical one. More narrative-driven viewers will appreciate having read the book for hand-holding through the roughest patches of the narration. More trippy viewers will be happy to be taken for a ride. (And I think that having read the book is one way to watch the movie as both kinds of viewers.) I’m not going to say that 2001 is the perfect SF film, or even among my top favourite ones. But it’s still a rich experience with a lot to offer, and that makes it almost just as good today as it had been for the past five decades.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I ended up reluctantly watching Lolita (Kubrick completionism…) over a few days, those days being in the middle of a national debate in the United States about the suitability of an Alabama senatorial candidate with a long history of pursuing teenagers. This did nothing to help me see Lolita more favourably, given its premise in which a middle-aged college professor ends up pursuing a teenager. Even the film’s explicit black comedy didn’t help matters, nor the almost arbitrary plotting choices made during the film’s second half. While there’s something semi-amazing in how a film from 1962 was able to tackle such a charged subject matter, the result, seen from today, seems to skirt around the issue to the point of having little purpose. The cinematography, fortunately, is crisp, and Kubrick’s directing skills shows through. James Mason manages to be incredibly creepy in the lead role, while I’m not sure what Peter Sellers was trying to do in some scenes. The karmic retribution of the story feels unsatisfying, although there is something highly appropriate in ultimately seeing a flighty teenager casually dismiss the lovelorn older man. Still, I don’t feel any better from having seen Lolita—subject matter notwithstanding, the plot doesn’t flow naturally and even pointing back in the direction of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel as justification for the narrative hiccups isn’t much of an excuse when Kubrick reportedly changed so much in his adaptation. At least I can check Lolita from the list of movies I still had to see, and never look back.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) For a nearly three-hour long movie from legendary director Stanley Kubrick, there is an unexpected levity to Barry Lyndon that I didn’t expect from the film’s reputation. It’s also a very unusual film in that its second half manages to completely undermine the triumphs of its first, suggesting that some characters are made to achieve success but not maintain it. Adapted from a nineteenth-century novel by William Thackeray, Barry Lyndon feels far more modern because of its somewhat satirical nature. Our protagonist spends the first section of the film stumbling and scheming himself in positions of higher power, eventually marrying rich and acquiring some measure of nobility despite a checkered past. Ryan O’Neal isn’t necessarily as charismatic as the character deserves, but there is a sense of adventure to the protagonist’s upward trajectory. The hammer hits after the intermission, as the protagonist finds himself unsuited to the work required to remain a decent noble. His mismanages his finances, alienates himself from his step-son, suffers through his son’s death, turns to alcohol and eventually loses it all. Such a narrative arc is still relatively unusual, and so Barry Lyndon remains distinctive even today. It certainly helps that it’s a film that features all of director Stanley Kubrick’s hallmarks, from stylized cinematography that still looks modern today, to an abundance of filmmaking effort that clearly shows on-screen. I thought, based on running time and subject matter, that Barry Lyndon would be an unbearable bore, but the result is far better than my expectations.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, November 2016) I remember watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket as a teenager in the early nineties, on VHS in the basement of a friend’s house—and at the time, the conclusion of the training sequence was gory enough to upset me quite a bit. I caught the second half of the film years later, which didn’t feel as unfulfilling as it should considering the difference between the two chunks of the film. So it’s a bit of a reunion between two or three different periods to watch the film from beginning to end more than twenty years later. It also feels very interesting to watch it (by happenstance) two days after seeing Platoon. While Platoon is a more cohesive portrait of the soldier’s experience on the ground, Full Metal Jacket does offer stronger individual moments. It’s cynical about war in slightly different ways, and clearly shows director Stanley Kubrick’s mastery of craft. This comes at the expense of a stronger plot and/or a convincing portrayal of Vietnam itself—despite the heroic efforts of the production crew, the truth is that nearly everything was shot in England (!!!), and that the scenery usually associated with the Vietnam era is not to be found in the film. (On the other hand, depiction of urban warfare in Vietnam are rare and to be appreciated as a change from an endless time spent in the jungle.) Strong moments from the film include vivid training sequences, barracks dynamics, and a sustained urban warfare sequence. It does not amount to a cohesive film, but the highs are high and the lows are absent. It’s an essential war movie … but I’ll acknowledge my earlier self by stating that sensitive audiences should brace themselves.