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Ian Haydn Smith on Stanley Kubrick

Posted in Film on Sep 28, 2017

The following piece by Ian Haydn Smith was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema for The Luminaries programme.

Stanley Kubrick’s place in the pantheon of great filmmakers was assured mid-way through his five-decade career. His early features attracted acclaim for both their technical prowess and ambition, but after taking Hollywood by storm with //Spartacus// (1960) – then the most expensive film ever made – Kubrick forged his own path, producing an eclectic body of films whose overarching themes coalesced into one complete vision. He increasingly worked to the beat of his own drum, removing himself from the hubbub of Tinseltown and occupying that rarefied position of a filmmaker with complete artistic control. His influence is wide, but the aura that surrounds him – the near-holy reverence that mention of his name elicits from fans, as well as admiring filmmakers and critics – plays as much a part in his legacy as the work he produced.

When the legend becomes fact, the saying goes, print the legend. Delivered by Carleton Young’s newspaper man in John Ford’s //The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance// (1962), this statement also encapsulates the many stories that surround Kubrick’s life and work. These myths are bolstered by details of his exacting approach during production, as well as his reticence to speak about his work and his (understandable) desire for privacy. But the danger inherent in so much discussion of these stories is that they may impede an evaluation of the work itself – often startling and unsettling explorations of human nature and the flawed project of humanity.

Kubrick’s interest in both the still and moving image began early. He took to photography at a young age, seeing his work published in //Look// magazine by the time he was 16. He excelled at picture stories – narrating a topic through a series of images. One item, a profile of the boxer Walter Cartier, became the subject of Kubrick’s first film, the 12-minute documentary //The Day of the Fight// (1951). Its modest success – the film cost $3,900 to make and was sold to Pathé for $4,000 – led Kubrick to give up photography and focus on film full time. He directed two more documentaries – //Flying Padre// (1951) and //The Seafarers// (1953) – before embarking on his feature debut //Fear and Desire// (1953). A rudimentary account of soldiers caught behind enemy lines, which Kubrick subsequently disowned, the film features a number of striking shots and hints at the director’s fascination with violence and sadism.

//Killer’s Kiss// (1955) and //The Killing// (1956) followed. The former is a B-movie crime drama whose limited resources in production are eclipsed by its moody atmosphere, particularly the eeriness of the climactic sequence on a factory floor populated by mannequins. In //The Killing//, Kubrick made use of his photographic and documentary experience to capture the thrill of the racetrack. He’s aided in no small part by Jim Thompson’s terse dialogue and Sterling Hayden’s lead performance. (The actor would subsequently be a commanding presence as the psychotic Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in 1964’s //Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb//.) If //The Killing’s// plot is a little too calculated to be wholly convincing, the film was a leap forward for Kubrick as a director and became the calling card that led to MGM signing him up to helm //Paths of Glory// (1957).

Generally regarded as his first great film, //Paths of Glory// found Kubrick at the height of his powers, employing technology – most famously the use of lengthy tracking shots – to further his exploration of our capacity for inhumanity; in this case, it was not the brutality of battle, but the casual sadism of middle management – the officers who were spared the indignities of the Front but played with soldiers’ lives like pawns on a chess board. It is a theme that recurs in //Spartacus//, //Dr. Strangelove//, //Barry Lyndon// (1975) and //Full Metal Jacket// (1987). For Kubrick, representing war provided “an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual or our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value… which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation.” The film’s take on the French military command attracted opprobrium in Europe, particularly France where it was banned until 1975. (The acclaimed first section of //Full Metal Jacket// also caused a sensation following the film’s release, resulting in the US military reviewing the way new recruits were trained.)

After replacing Anthony Mann on //Spartacus// and turning in a commendable rather than inspired historical epic, Kubrick examined social mores with his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s //Lolita// (1962). Toning down the more outré elements of the book (Nabokov was credited as screenwriter, but the publication of his original screenplay revealed how much Kubrick and producer James B. Harris had changed it), Kubrick’s film is a delicious provocation to a morally straightjacketed middle America. Like his later adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ //A Clockwork Orange// (1971), Kubrick explores the disparity between the values a society projects and the way it exacts control, particularly when it deals with power and sex, no matter whether the latter is consensual, illicit or violent. It’s no surprise that both films remain the director’s most controversial works. A similar territory was also explored in Kubrick’s last film //Eyes Wide Shut// (1999), albeit unfolding within the parameters of a more ‘conventional’ relationship.

Kubrick’s finest work has few equals. Global annihilation and the inanity of military intelligence have been a frequent staple of cinema since the late 1960s, but no film has been able to match the ferocity of //Dr. Strangelove’s// satire. Splintering its narrative across three defined arenas (the President’s War Room, a Military base on lockdown and a plane unwittingly delivering its nuclear cargo to a Soviet target) could have diluted the power of the film’s message, but Kubrick’s approach to each segment, from the verité style of his early documentary work to beautifully composed tracking shots of bureaucrats in a state of mild-to-manic hysteria, only helps to increase the power of the film’s message.

Kubrick was no less bold in his adaptation of a Stephen King bestseller. Jack Torrence could have appeared as a mild-mannered blue collar worker at the beginning of //The Shining// (1980), with Kubrick gradually upping the ante to increase the suspense. Instead, he had Jack Nicholson play him as a borderline sociopath from the outset, thus challenging our assumptions regarding the horror genre and moving the film into the arena of a nightmare where narrative coherence is inconsequential. (Again, there is a link here to //Eyes Wide Shut//. Is Bill Harford’s journey into the night a physical one or a hallucinatory dream brought on by sexual jealousy?) //The Shining’s// famous Steadicam shots, prowling the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel, only add to the suspicion that nothing we see is real.

Kubrick excels in his most meditative moments, of which //2001: A Space Odyssey// (1968) and //Barry Lyndon// (1975) are almost entirely comprised. Their extraordinary technical achievements aside (which have been thoroughly documented elsewhere, in critical monographs, interviews and documentaries), both films are compelling for their ambition and scope. And the detail with which Kubrick presents these worlds to us is breathtaking; more than any of the other films he produced, //2001// and //Barry Lyndon// immerse us completely in their worlds. They couldn’t be more different – a visionary sci-fi and meticulously constructed period drama – but their aim is the same: an attempt to understand who we are, what drives us and why we so often fail. But also, how our very existence – for all its flaws, basest desires and cruelty – is something to marvel at.

Ian Haydn Smith is the writer and Editor of Curzon Magazine. He is also a Contributing Editor at the Quintessence Publications where he is leading on the editions off ‘Movie Star Chronicles’ and ‘Movie Director Chronicles’, as well as assuming the role of Editor on the annually revised publication ‘1001 Films to See Before You Die’.

Join Ian for an Illustrated Talk about Stanley Kubrick on Sunday 15 September at 14:30.

The Luminaries: Stanley Kubrick season takes place throughout October at Tyneside Cinema.

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