Wednesday, April 1, 2009


'How did he do it, how did he become Stanley Kubrick?' I found myself wondering that last Friday night as I watched The Killing (1956), a film directed by Kubrick early in his career, screened as part of a mini retrospect at Yale’s Cinema at the Whitney, to honor the director at the tenth anniversary of his death. A B-movie all the way, it’s got minor character actors (Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook, Jr. are the biggest names in the cast); it’s got that low budget 'hard-bitten' look to it, and it suffers from the bane of the ‘50s film, the need to have some corny resolution that stops Hayden’s character from getting away with it. Enter poodle to make suitcase full of money fall onto the airport tarmac, open, and cause bucks to blow away. I kid you not. Treasure of the Sierra Madre it ain’t.

Seeing The Killing on the big screen at Yale sorta made it seem important and of course if it is it’s because it’s early Kubrick. And what exactly is the claim to fame of Kubrick? In other words, asking how Kubrick became Kubrick also presupposes the question of who or what Kubrick is. And the answer becomes clearer when you see some of the early work. Kubrick is the American film director who managed somehow to make masterpieces of genre films, films that fit into categories overrun by numerous B-level productions.

Kubrick was not an 'arthouse film maker'; he had no interest in creating films that would only be appreciated by intellectuals and cineastes and aesthetes. And one way to avoid that fate is to make films in popular genres: The Killing is a heist film; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; shown on Saturday night with the film’s star Keir Dullea on hand to talk about the experience) is a sci-fi movie; Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a Vietnam War movie; The Shining (1980) is a horror film. Others -- like Lolita (1962) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) -- are film adaptations of notorious novels; Barry Lyndon is a period film; Dr. Strangelove (1964) is a slapstick black comedy; Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is, I believe, Kubrick’s version of a romantic comedy.

The other film screened Friday night -- Paths of Glory (1957) -- is a bit more mixed in its genre: a war film that becomes a trial film, while at the same time being an even more devastating critique of the military than Strangelove. It’s the film where certain trademark elements of the Kubrick visual style begin to manifest themselves: like tracking shots through corridors, or, in this case, trenches; like important moments depicted in long shot; like close ups as moments of truth; but, even so, we’re not yet at the breakthrough that was and is 2001.

That film is a film like no other. Unforgettable, influential, breathtaking, mind-bending, yes, but also classical. The pacing of the film -- its epic unfolding -- must be something Kubrick learned from making Spartacus (1960; what used to be called 'the swords and sandals' genre), even though he disowned the film because he wasn’t given final cut. 2001 moves even more slowly than Spartacus if such a thing is possible, but the difference is that every frame of 2001 is loaded with portent, is a meditation on shapes and space. It’s pop art minimalism come to the big screen, and the story – featuring certain well-worn sci fi cliches like the machine that runs amok, and the secret mission that is more fearsome than expected, and the alien life form that causes us to question 'life as we know it' -- veers off into space age psychedelia with the trappings of Nietzschean metaphysics. Wow, man. Some on hand Saturday referred to viewers of the film who claimed a religious experience while watching it.

But is the film dated? Only in its late ‘60s attempt to imagine the 21st century -- in terms of style and in terms of a geopolitics where Russia and the U.S. are still the big guns in space exploration as they were in the ‘60s. But in some ways the film is wonderfully prescient: the computer HAL (acronym for ‘heuristic’ and ‘algorithmic’) would no doubt get along wonderfully with today’s counterpart CADIE (Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity). But what makes the film magnificent is its direction -- the way that Kubrick’s eye and ear (amazing cinematography and soundtrack) dominates a world he largely constructed himself. It’s an essay in cinamatic make-believe and sleight-of-hand with no computer-generated effects and with still the most convincing evocation of space travel ever presented.

After Friday night’s screening I watched on DVD the first part of Barry Lyndon (1975) and on Saturday night, part two. At various times in watching that film -- both on its release and in subsequent screenings and on the small screen -- I have felt that its distinctive distancing from the pacing and editing of other ‘70s films could be said to work to its disadvantage. In other words, I tended to be sympathetic to those who find the film 'too slow,' or 'too minimal in dialogue and action,' which most accept in 2001, because of its manifest originality, but not for a tale of an 18th century Irish upstart and ne’er-do-well. But watching it this time I felt it might be in a sense Kubrick’s most personal film.

Barry Lyndon is a timeless rendering of the early modern period that, unlike the future of 2001 or Clockwork Orange, never dates, and, unlike the settings of his other films, doesn’t suffer from the imagery that makes a film contemporary with its era. Barry Lyndon recreates the 18th century as represented by master painters of that era; it is the closest any film comes to inhabiting a world that existed long ago. The films that were its contemporaries, with rare exceptions, seem like effects of their time while Barry Lyndon remains closed in a time capsule, a living museum. That effect has been criticized (every era likes to believe its daily anxieties and joys are ignored by art at its peril), but the film stands now as a singular achievement. Which, as a phrase, sums up Kubrick’s career as well as anything I can think of.

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