Archive for category Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick #1 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The movie that taught the world not to fight in the war room.

The Film: A rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) hatches a plan to nuke Russia in preemptive defense of his precious bodily fluids. President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and defected German scientist Dr. Strangelove (all played by Peter Sellers) scramble to call back the bombers, but Ripper’s plan is foolproof and, worse, it’s likely to trigger a Russian doomsday device that will destroy the world. A combined American/Soviet effort brings down most of the planes, but nuclear peace is narrowly averted by the brave efforts of Major TJ “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) personally riding a bomb down to its target. As the leaders await the end, they hatch rival plans to become the undisputed world power of underground bomb shelters.

Pictured: an opportunity

The Production: The early 1960s was a weird time. The end of the human race never seemed closer than it did in the first few years of the decade, and yet new sexual and civil freedoms brought hope to young people who had otherwise lived their lives ducking and covering in school hallways. In the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kubrick—riding the surprise success of his supposedly toxic project, Lolita—acquired the rights to the novel Red Alert by Peter George, a serious thriller about the flaws inherent in automated nuclear war. Unfortunately, Kubrick ran into problems adapting the screenplay; the situation was too damn absurd.

Kubrick felt that the real Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction was, to put it mildly, incredibly stupid, so he shifted Red Alert onto an entirely different track, where it became a dark satire. Columbia Pictures, eager to stay in the Kubrick business but nervous about the film’s tone, agreed to handle the picture only if Kubrick could convince Peter Sellers to play the leads—all of them (the studio believed Sellers had been the major draw for Lolita.) Sellers signed on to play four roles, but he had to abandon the part of Major Kong when he sprained his ankle and couldn’t fit in the pilot’s seat. Slim Pickens took over.

And he did his own stunts, may he rest in peace.

President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas delayed Dr. Strangelove for months and hindered its box office. Since its release, however, Strangelove has been universally embraced by frikkin’ everybody. Many (including this writer) consider Strangelove to be Kubrick’s best film and possibly one of the greatest films of the last ever. And he did it without the pie fight finale.

Best Moment: Peter Sellers made his millions playing lunatics—there’s a reason this film is called Dr. Strangelove and not Lionel Mandrake—but the actor spent much of his career trying to squash this stereotype and find success as a complete performer, not just as a living cartoon. Sellers was an equally talented straight man, as he proves in his phone call to the unseen (and drunk) Russian premier. This is probably one of the funniest scenes in all the movies.


Lasting Impact: Please. Dr. Strangelove cast the nuclear conflict in a new light and may have played some small part in shifting the conversation away from the saber-rattling of the Red Scare and towards the dramatic peace movement of the late 60s. On a pure movie level, Strangelove invented its own damn genre. Every satirical war movie, from Canadian Bacon to Wag the Dog, to War, Inc., has been slapped with the label of “the new Dr. Strangelove,” which of course they aren’t. The film’s shadow is very wide.

And we haven’t even mentioned the young Darth Vader yet.

Overall: As we’ve discussed, Stanley Kubrick took flak throughout his career for being a fairly bloodless character. His best films came from a place of clinical curiosity, little experiments where he ran his characters through twisted mazes to see how far they’d go for some tiny piece of happiness. Films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange were not strange digressions, but close approximations of how Kubrick really saw the world. Strangelove is different and unlike anything else in Kubrick’s catalog, and not just because it’s hilarious. Not at all. It’s furious.

Great comedy comes from anger, and there is hardly an angrier film anywhere than Dr. Strangelove. The film is a plea from the peasants for some sign of sanity at the top. I don’t think the film’s proximity to the Cuban Missile Crisis can be overstated. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the entire world was hung up between two countries seemingly willing to wipe billions of people from the map rather than lose face in front of the world. Sure, each side made the usual case about white hats and black hats, and we can debate politics forever, but ultimately the planet came within a “Press A” of snuffing out over, basically, a sticky public relations crisis. Two years later, Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is on screen whining about a “mine shaft gap.”

Mine shafts laugh at danger.

So, assuming he’s the “I” in the subtitle, how did Kubrick learn to love the bomb? I think Kubrick decided that, hell, if the world can be taken to the very brink by posturing and bravado, then why not give up your sanity and, like Major Kong, enjoy the ride? This is a movie about grown men measuring their members and calling it war. I mentioned Turgidson above, definitely my favorite character in the film not played by Peter Sellers (who was brilliant in all three of his roles). Observe the way Turgidson squirms and fidgets while President Merkin Muffley (with two names referring, of course, to vaginas) works to call off the war that Ripper started. Turgidson humors the president the same way a football coach might wince at a child asking why he doesn’t throw it at the goal line on every play.

“When you’re dealing with nukes, you can’t play man-to-man, you have to go with a general zone defense. In this case, a zone would be, let’s say… Houston.”

Or what about Ripper, a general willing to go to war because of fluoride in our drinking water, clearly a communist plot to destroy our bodies from within. We laugh now at Kubrick’s absurd invention, forgetting that this was a totally real thing that people thought. And what was the role of women in this war? I mentioned the onset of new sexual and cultural freedoms in the 60s, but it hadn’t yet hit the war room. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only woman in the film is seen in a bikini, with no thoughts or role of her own except to relay information between two men.

Kubrick’s grand finale was intended to be a gigantic pie fight, but I think that may have been a bit too on the nose (why spend the money on all these pies if we’re not going to throw them!?) As it is, he settled for a romantically bittersweet ending in which the bomb, the true protagonist of the film, wins the day.

Also, Peter Sellers just wins in general.

Kubrick never returned to broad comedy. It’s as if dealing with these misfits, facing his dark opinion of human nature, changed him. After Strangelove, his films became increasingly detached, kicking off the second half of his legendary career, from 2001 all the way to the alien and alienating Eyes Wide Shut. Did he burn out his funny bone? Or did confronting these clowns, outsized avatars of the worst of our instincts, push Kubrick that much further away? If there is any truth behind Strangelove’s satire, are we even worth saving? With a planet like this, who could blame Kubrick for falling in love with the end of the world?

The Stanley Kubrick Project

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

3. The Shining

4. Full Metal Jacket

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #2 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Possibly the greatest film ever made that doesn’t make sense.

The Film: A group of pre-humans at the “dawn of man” lose their favorite watering hole to a rival gang. The losers sulk and hide in the rocks, but wake up in the shadow of a sleek, black monolith that appears literally overnight and that (coincidentally?) heralds a major discovery. Realizing a bone can also be used as a weapon, one wily ape leads the group in a violent raid and reclaims the watering hole. Presumably, they get to mating.

With one cut, we jump to our near future. (Well, sort of. Today, it’s actually like a decade into our future past. Stay with me.) Mankind has colonized the moon and a government official arrives at the base to lock down a situation with the mining team. The miners show him what they’ve uncovered in the lunar dust: a black monolith. When the sun hits it, the thing sends a signal into space.

18 months pass; it’s 2001. Two Jupiter-bound astronauts decide that the advanced AI running their ship, HAL, is getting glitchy. They consider shutting it down but, much like the tragic Johnny 5 case of 1986, HAL is alive (or at least self-aware). HAL murders the crew in self-defense, but can’t finish off scientist Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). Dave shuts HAL down just as the ship encounters a monolith waiting in space. Dave is transported via acid trip to a space bedroom where he lives, ages, and dies in the span of a few minutes or several decades or both. He’s reborn as a gigantic star child and returns to Earth, seemingly to bring a new understanding of life, the universe, and Douglas Adams. Or maybe he doesn’t. The end.

His first words will be “Collision Course!!”

The Production: Stanley Kubrick usually treated his writers like overrated word monkeys, but his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke seems like one of the few times where the stars aligned (sorry). They were a smart match, both famous for having a chilled intellectual and technical style. Really, the only surprise is that it took these kids so long to get together.

Dr. Strangelove had been a financial disappointment and Kubrick sought a radical change with his next film, settling on the idea of exploring hard science-fiction with an adaptation of Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.” Let’s just say they got along. The pair exchanged ideas and epiphanies and gradually developed the story into a larger tale about evolution and advanced intelligence. They decided to present the same story in each of their respective mediums. Clarke wrote the novel and Kubrick began production on the film, then titled Journey Beyond the Stars.

Marketing hated his first choice, “The Adventure of Looking at Stuff.”

Kubrick was obsessed with authenticity; even today, most scientists agree that the film pretty much nails its depiction of space travel. Kubrick had to spend millions of dollars and two full years in post-production to make that happen, but still the film (now renamed 2001: A Space Odyssey to give it a sense of grandeur) hit theatres on April 2, 1968 to harsh reviews. As usual, Kubrick took hits for ignoring the human characters in favor of visuals and special effects. On the other hand, young people (possibly lured by the tagline “The Ultimate Trip” and the psychedelic star gate sequence near the finale) turned the film into a cash bonanza, despite its almost total lack of explanation or sense.

Depending on who you ask, this sequence lasts 10 minutes or “like, forever, man.”

Best Moment: It’s become a cliché to think of HAL 9000 as the most expressive and interesting character in 2001, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I don’t think there’s a better place to find proof than in HAL’s famous death scene.

Of course, it’s a tribute to the power of the writing and Douglas Rain’s voice performance that we consider this a “death” at all. HAL may be developing sentience, but it’s a stretch to consider it alive. But even if he it is alive, if we go that far, then it’s a mass murderer and it deserves what it gets. And yet there’s a comment on that page from a person who shed tears as a child for HAL, but not Bambi’s mom. It’s no Turing Test, but if a faceless computer can top Disney and his nightmare factory in the field of traumatizing children, then we should all prepare to accept our robot overlords. Viva mechanica.

I already know your porn preferences.

Lasting Impact: Uh, yeah. To say that 2001 changed everything is maybe underselling it. One of the most influential films in American history. Full stop.

Overall: I’ve had an up and down history with 2001 over the years. I’m one of the lucky few — fewer all the time — to first experience the film as it was intended to be seen, in gorgeous 70mm. I knew before I left the monkeys that this would be one of my favorite films of all time, but then Kubrick threw a heavy bucket of ice water on my lap in the form of a giant space baby. If we’re clear about nothing else, let’s be crystal about one thing: I hated the giant space baby.

I want the space bedroom, though.

Why? Simply put, I was confounded. I was beaten. I couldn’t describe what the hell I had just seen in any terms that made sense. A friend brushed my complaints aside by explaining that everything makes sense if you just read the book. I countered that a movie should stand on its own terms, not as a companion piece and, besides, the movie came out before the book. How was a fresh audience in 1968 supposed to unpack that mess?

Pictured: the premiere

I’ve since come around, which you probably guessed by the big number 2 next to the title. It took years, but I finally realized that 2001 is a dare. The challenge, the “ultimate trip”, is to forget the big lie that great movies have to make sense and to realize that sometimes it’s just about how a movie makes you feel. Kubrick goes to great lengths to provide atmosphere through image and music, not plot. He wants you to feel the story, maybe even intuit the story. 2001 is from a relic age, before studio executives decided our movies had to be spoon-fed to us like pureed peas. 2001 will give you nothing that you don’t work to take.

I could spend paragraphs talking about my personal theories about the story (I know because in a previous draft, I did), but 2001 isn’t about what it’s about. It’s designed as an experience, and it begs to be watched. Just try to do it on a movie screen if you can. Even on a high-definition TV, the screen just isn’t big enough to hold the universe.

Or this.

So, if I’ve got nothing but praise for this film, why only number 2? Because 2001, as perfect as it is, only changed the movies. With his number one film, Kubrick may have helped to change the world. And he did it with a movie like nothing else he ever made.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

1. ???

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

3. The Shining

4. Full Metal Jacket

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #3 – The Shining (1980)

Kubrick only made one horror movie, but I think one was enough.

The Film: Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker for the remote Overlook Hotel, thinking that he’ll finally have time to finish his novel. Jack’s son Danny (Danny Lloyd) hates the hotel instinctively and with good reason; the Overlook has a bloody history and seems to be infested with spirits attracted to Danny’s latent psychic powers (his “shining.”) The isolation and the hotel’s will slowly drives Jack mad. The hotel convinces Jack that Danny must die and, during a harsh snowstorm, Jack takes up an axe and goes on the hunt. Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) narrowly escapes her husband, but it’s Danny who leads Jack out into the snow and loses him in the hotel’s hedge maze. Jack dies of exposure and his family escapes.

Note: The Shining not to be confused with Shining.

The Production: After the financial failure of Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick needed a hit and he wasn’t in the mood to make friends. Hoping to tackle something more commercial, Kubrick agreed to adapt new horror rock star Stephen King’s novel The Shining into a film. It seemed like the perfect choice. The book had been a runaway best seller and the project felt like a great fit for Kubrick’s visual eye. To everyone except King, that is.

For some reason, King didn’t see an everyman here.

To Kubrick, King was just another writer he had to work around. The author watched as Kubrick stripped away all but the bare story from the novel and remade it in the director’s own image, choosing to focus on the family over the scares. Kubrick even inserted his own horror scenes, many of which (the twins, the bloody elevator) would became as famous as any scene from the novel. King disapproved of casting Nicholson, changing the hotel location, and pretty much every major deviation from his work. To this day, King has never fully endorsed the film.

The interiors for The Shining were shot at Elstree Studios in England under difficult conditions. In addition to the usual stories of long days and endless takes, Kubrick also clashed with his lead actress, Shelley Duvall. Kubrick criticized Duvall’s acting and methods, cut most of her dialogue, and forced her into extremely long shoots, even by his standards. There’s some evidence that Kubrick did this deliberately to influence her performance, although Duvall has said that while she wouldn’t trade the experience, she’d never want to do it again. Another big event at the shoot was the debut of the Steadicam, an invention that took Kubrick’s trademark tracking shots off the rails. The Shining was the first major film to utilize the Steadicam, and the shots Kubrick used it for, such as the hedge maze chase, remain among some of its very best applications.

Now?  Creepy.  In a few years?  Hot.

Best Moment: There’s your “Here’s Johnny!” and your “All work and no play”, but for my money there is no better moment in the film than Halloran’s (Scatman Crothers) return to the Overlook.


Halloran’s death scene is a major break from the novel, which depicts the cook as the family’s savior in the final chapters. The change is Kubrick’s little twist to his audience, who was familiar with the novel and expecting Halloran to save the day. In its way, this bit is equally as subversive as Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho, playing off expectations to shock and terrorize. With the expected hero dead on the floor, there’s no one left to help Wendy and Danny. They’re on their own against Jack.

Lasting Impact: Easily the most on the list so far. Is there anyone in the world that doesn’t recognize Jack’s face bursting through the bathroom door, or doesn’t know text of his “novel?” What’s really insane is that the film has been chewed up and commandeered by pop culture over the years, turned into everything from Simpsons episodes to 30 Seconds to Mars songs, and yet it’s lost exactly zero of its impact on the viewer. After 30 years, the movie still gets under the skin.

And hits a gusher.

Overall: The Shining is a ghost story that may not have ghosts. The ghosts certainly exist in Stephen King’s novel and the actors in the film definitely react as if they’re at Grand Spook Station, but Stanley Kubrick didn’t believe in the supernatural and the movie that he made leaves a lot of room for doubt. Jack might be having drunken delusions. Danny might be seeing flashes of the past through his “shining” instead of vengeful spirits. Wendy barely sees anything at all, but when she does it could simply be panicked hallucinations or, as some have suggested, Danny projecting his own mind into hers.

“I love Mommy because she lets me write while she sleeps one off…”

All we know for certain is that Jack is a ticking bomb before he even gets to the Overlook. King’s story was more about an everyman looking for a second chance and corrupted by dark forces, but Nicholson seems so tightly wound that you half-expect him to go axe-happy on the car ride up the mountain. The tension in the movie doesn’t come from questions of what might happen, but from when. This is primarily why King opposed Nicholson’s casting, but I think Jack’s performance exactly fits the movie that Kubrick wanted to make.

The Shining doesn’t just scare, it unsettles. There is power in every frame. The film is one of the last prestige horror films, made back when scripts like these drew A+ talent. Within a few years, campfire slashers and babysitters in danger would convince studios that they didn’t need to spend a lot on horror to make a hell of a lot back. Even today, three decades later, most horror movies feature teenage victims and favor “gotcha” moments over atmosphere. Thrills instead of chills. Sure, teens can make good victims, but they bring so little to the table. No teen characters, and very few teen actors, can hope to bring the kind of baggage that the Torrance family takes to the Overlook, baggage that’s critical to making the movie work. Unpacked and strewn around, the house (sentient or not) twists the proper screws and forces this family to eat itself. They seem like real people, and we relate. How would our parents have held up in the Overlook? How would we?

My folks couldn’t handle a Motel 6, even with the light left on.

The Shining retains its power because of a rare alignment of artists at the peak of their talents. Kubrick was at his best during this late period, routinely cranking out masterpieces. King was still in ascension when The Shining hit theatres, quickly becoming a national phenomenon. He’s released reams of material in the years since, but even his detractors usually admit that his earliest work (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand) was his best. And then there’s Nicholson, coming down off a decade of exploding superstardom that began with Easy Rider (1969) and ran through Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) just for starters. By the time he agreed to play Torrance, he was just about the most famous and effective movie star in the world.

I tried to think of a recent film that combined so many peaking stars to such amazing effect. The first to come to mind was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with its combination of Nolan’s arrival (Nolan is fielding a lot of Kubrick comparisons these days) and Heath Ledger’s mythic performance as The Joker, but maybe the better Nolan example would be the recent Inception, featuring Nolan, Marion Cotillard in her best English role to date, and a score by Hans Zimmer that’s so good it’s hogging a large part of the discussion.

Seriously, you should see the repair bill at the Holiday Inn Express.

I’m sure there are better examples and time will tell if Nolan’s films hold up half as well as Kubrick’s little horror movie, but that speaks to the power Kubrick captured. Like the Overlook itself, the movie seems capable of soaking up whatever the viewer wants to bring inside. Ghosts or no ghosts, The Shining haunts the horror genre, proving that scares and art can work together and that, in capable hands, even a story about a man and his novel can keep us up at night.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

2. ???

3. The Shining

4. Full Metal Jacket

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #4 – Full Metal Jacket (1987)

I’m traveling this week, so here’s an early update addressing a timeless question: What IS all this Mickey Mouse shit?

The Film: Marine recruits on their way to Vietnam first pass through Parris Island, where they are stripped, shaved, and delivered into the hands of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who grants the soldiers demeaning nicknames and trains them alongside a routine of verbal and physical abuse. One soldier (Vincent D’Onofrio), nicknamed Gomer Pyle, suffers the most and cracks up after graduation, killing Hartman and himself. Some time passes and we catch up with Private Joker (Matthew Modine), now a Corporal and a journalist for Stars and Stripes. After surviving the Tet Offensive, Joker situates himself with a squad that includes his old friend Cowboy (Arliss Howard). Later, a sniper kills Cowboy and several members of the group, forcing Joker into combat. When the squad catches the sniper, Joker makes the decision to end her life.

The Production: Stanley Kubrick waited a full seven years after finishing The Shining before attacking his next project, a faithful adaptation of the war novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford. The resulting film, retitled Full Metal Jacket, would be Kubrick’s fifth and final movie about war (sixth if you count Barry Lyndon).

And when we count Barry Lyndon, people die.

Nobody who sees Full Metal Jacket can ever forget the jaw-dropping performance of R. Lee Ermey as Sergeant Hartman. He’s so good and so raw that he overshadows the rest of the picture, and in fact some fans feel that the real movie ends when his character dies. Ermey, a former real-life drill instructor, was hired as a consultant but didn’t like the actors cast as the D.I.s, so he made an infamous audition tape where unseen extras pelted him with fruit while he unleashed creative curses and insults for 15 minutes. The tape won Ermey the job. Kubrick knew he had stumbled onto something exceptional and actually gave up some of his trademark control to capture it. Kubrick allowed Ermey to improvise over half of his dialogue and, extremely rare, required only a few takes of Ermey’s rants before calling it and moving on.

Full Metal Jacket hit theatres in 1987, the same year that Oliver Stone’s Platoon rampaged through the industry. The success of Stone’s film, a more realistic and emotional look at the war, overshadowed Kubrick’s take. Full Metal Jacket flopped and only found its audience much later on home video, removed from Platoon‘s shadow. Many critics now consider FMJ to be the better film.

Pictured: the guy who doesn’t.

Best Moment: The Kubrick stare. Hell yes, the Kubrick stare. No shot in his toolbox better sums up the way Kubrick saw the world and the often insane people he chose to populate it. The most famous stare is probably Alex in the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange, but you can find it in most of Kubrick’s late-period films, including this one. The scene takes place after graduation, as the troops spend their last night in the barracks before being sent to war. Joker is on watch, and he finds Private Pyle out of his bunk. (The whole scene is worth watching, but the stare is at 3:23).

D’Onofrio is a bit hammy here, but there’s tremendous power in the scene, a transition from the brightly lit training footage into the darkness that hangs over the rest of the film. I always enjoy Hartman’s final moments here, shitting on Pyle until the end. Hartman has no fear or hesitation. In a way, this is what Hartman wants. Pyle came to him as a lump, a man too useless for the military. Hartman made him a killer, and so this is more of a vindication than a murder. By giving his last breath, Hartman proved he could make a monster in his own likeness, even from the weakest stock.

Heh… did I say weak stock?  Um… shit.

Lasting Impact: Big, but mostly for R. Lee Ermey. Sergeant Hartman was written as an evil figure, but he’s developed into a cultural icon. Like Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, Hartman has become a comic figure known more for his one-liners than for his crimes. Ermey has made a career out of spoofing his persona in shows like Mail Call, and he even appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners as almost the exact same character. . . only dead.

Matthew Modine didn’t benefit in the same way, nor did D’Onofrio. In fact, the only character in the film to receive the same level of cultural notoriety is the Da Nang hooker played by Papillon Soo. Her come ons to Joker (“Me so horny. Me love you long time.”) were picked up by 90s hip hop artists and sampled into several hit songs.

“I swear, I don’t even know that woman.  Hi, honey.  Be home soon!”

Overall: Full Metal Jacket is a story in two parts. Rather than use a traditional three-act structure, the film has two separate acts only loosely connected by a couple of characters. Nobody in the second half talks about the events in the first, although they must have made an impression. Either part could stand on its own as a complete story, but neither would be the same without the other. What good is a film about the crafting of weapons if you can’t see the weapons at war?

The first half of the film gets all the love, and not entirely without reason. Ermey’s performance as Hartman is a minor miracle, one of those happy accidents that develop on film sets and become actual movie magic. Ermey is at all times equally authentic, hilarious, and terrifying. It’s hard to believe his actions are legal. In his long introduction scene, Hartman forces Private Pyle to choke himself, but using Hartman’s hand. If Pyle wanted to complain, who would he talk to? Hartman is god, but even if he weren’t, the men upstairs clearly condone his abuse. He makes boys into men and sometimes, as in the case of Pyle, something more. Pyle, already barely in control of his mind, becomes confused and looks to his gun for comfort. The gun won’t betray him like Joker or hate him like Hartman. In the novel, Pyle comes to think of the gun as his wife, and sees killing as the only way to make sense out of his place in the world. What if Joker hadn’t found him in the head? He might have been shipped to Vietnam, probably to become the exact kind of soldier the anti-war crowd was so worried about. A psychopath in military green, leaving only atrocities in his wake.

Of course, this is Hartman’s goal. He’s not just teaching these boys a lifestyle. Read the text of his graduation speech, which includes the following:

Some of you will not come back. But always remember this: Marines die. That’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means YOU live forever.

That isn’t a battle cry, it’s religion. Hartman, and by extension, the Corps., doesn’t want soldiers so much as he wants zealots. Pyle converted, but he overshot the edge. If he’d maintained his balance he might have been like Adam Baldwin’s character, Animal Mother, who Joker meets in the film’s second half. Animal Mother is a killer to the core and will barely tolerate any plan that doesn’t end in bloodshed. I get the sense that Animal Mother stays with his unit mainly for expediency; they always find targets, sooner or later.

And, also, he likes to be a big damn hero.

Animal Mother inhabits the film’s second half, which seems more like a straightforward war picture and is often accused of lacking focus. Some blame the loss of Hartman, but the real problem is Joker. He’s the great unknown of Full Metal Jacket; despite his narration, we never learn very much about him. What can we guess about his motivation? We learn that he wanted to kill, joining the Marines with the hope of being the first on his block to notch his gun. Under Hartman’s abuse, Joker takes pity on Pyle and tries to help him along, but then beats Pyle savagely in the “blanket party” hazing ritual. It seems that there’s a killer inside Joker that’s eager to emerge, but then we move ahead to Vietnam and find him as a non-combatant, a journalist wearing a peace button. He was witness to Pyle’s becoming as a monster. Did Pyle change Joker’s perception about killing, or is it the peace button that’s insincere? I’ve seen the film several times and I’m still not sure about Joker’s final act, the killing of the sniper (and presumably his first confirmed kill, the one he wanted to boast about in the neighborhood.) His face suggests disgust, and his motivation could be revenge for the killing of Cowboy and his squadmates, but it can’t be ignored that shooting the sniper is a mercy. The cruel act would be to let her die slowly in the filth. Is it truly murder, or kindness?

Joker’s final lines are all we have. “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I’m in a world of shit… yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.” It’s not coincidence that he repeats Pyle’s line. I think Kubrick’s script doesn’t want to draw distinctions between killing for pleasure and killing for kindness. I think the film suggests that no matter the motivation, a man must trade a piece of his humanity to kill another. Joker may have his sanity and his conscience, but he is still Private Pyle, clutching his rifle and donning that full metal jacket to survive this world of shit he’s in. Joker has accepted Hartman’s religion. He wants to go home, but even if he doesn’t, he knows he is a Marine. He knows he will live forever.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

3. ???

4. Full Metal Jacket

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #5 – A Clockwork Orange (1971)

What is the point of all of this ultraviolence? Is it for the story, or just for us?

The Film: Alex (Malcom McDowell), a psychopathic gang leader who enjoys rape, drugs, and random assault, accidentally murders a woman during a robbery and finds himself in prison. Eager for freedom, Alex volunteers for the Ludovico method, an experimental treatment that promises to cure his violent nature. It works too well; Alex is set free, but conditioned to experience debilitating sickness whenever he engages in violence, sex, or (in an accidental side effect) hears his favorite Beethoven track. Weakened, Alex falls prey to his earlier victims, including an activist writer who tortures Alex with music until the teen attempts suicide. The government, eager to cover up the incident, “fixes” Alex back to his psychopathic ways and rewards him with a cushy government job.

“I’m here for the census, and I really hope you’re going to lie to me.”

The Production: The failure of the film Waterloo in 1970 forever killed Kubrick’s dream project, a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to do something completely different before returning to the Napoleonic age (which would result in Barry Lyndon), Kubrick chose to adapt a curious dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess titled A Clockwork Orange. The book, a withering essay on violence and free will, had once been optioned by Mick Jagger (who intended to take the lead role and cast the rest of the Rolling Stones as his droogs), and adapted by Andy Warhol in the mid 60s into an unrecognizable movie called Vinyl.

“It could have been worse.  Eight hours of just the Empire State Building?!  WARHOOOOOOOOOOL!!!”

The London shoot was a standard Kubrick show. The director exhausted his cast by demanding extensive takes, causing at least one actress to quit over the emotional toll of performing a rape over and over again. Somehow, though, the shoot ended up as one of Kubrick’s fastest. The film was shot and released in about a year, making it to screens by December 1971. It was an instant cult favorite, but critics argued over the film’s merits, and although the movie was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director), it failed to win any.

Best Moment: There are several candidate scenes for the “best” scene in A Clockwork Orange, but none are more (in)famous than an early, ugly bit of suburban violence. Drugged on stimulants, Alex and his gang invade the home of a married couple, attack the husband, and prepare to rape the wife. Then Alex takes this already horrific event to another level of disturbing by setting it to song. (This is somewhat SFW… the video ends before the roughest stuff.)


That Alex would gleefully rape and assault is awful, but that he could find such boisterous pleasure in it is especially chilling. Incidentally, legend states that the song was an improvisation by McDowell trying to spice up the scene, and that years later, Gene Kelly stiffed McDowell at a party for what the actor did to Kelly’s most famous musical number.

“Mr. Kelly says SING NOW!  SING NOW, FUNNY MAN!”

Lasting Impact: Culty, but far-reaching. Copycat crimes in England sparked a public outrage, leading Kubrick and Warner Brothers to yank prints from British screens, and the film remained hard to find in England until after Kubrick’s death. The “banning” of the film spiked worldwide interest and the movie became a major underground success with the youth of the 70s and 80s, who saw it (correctly) as an attack on overreaching government and (incorrectly) as a celebration of rebellious youth. The novel’s author, Anthony Burgess, regretted what the film had become. Burgess always considered Orange to be the least of his novels, and he suddenly found his name synonymous with it. He persistently criticized his book and Kubrick’s film until his death in 1993.

I wonder what his problem was?

Overall: I recently attended a revival screening of A Clockwork Orange at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, and as I viewed the film with a small, appreciative audience, two observations struck me.

  1. The movie still shocks. Orange is one of only two X-rated films to be nominated for Best Picture. The other is Midnight Cowboy, a movie that barely registers as an R today, and has content more sweet than scandalous. Orange still has a handful of grotesque and sexually charged scenes, and hasn’t lost an ounce of its power when making an audience squirm.
  2. It’s really, really funny.

Pictured: Laugh Riot

Yep. Despite the outrageous violence and the gauntlet that the film’s female characters have to go through, A Clockwork Orange is a biting satire, skewering human nature and its shifting standards of morality. But, you know, using comedy. In the silent comedy classics, the hero rarely changes. Whatever he wants, that is all he wants, and the world conspires against him. If Buster Keaton needs to cross a street to deliver a flower to his sweetheart, he’ll find open manholes, careening cars, and anything else he can imagine blocking his way, but he never stops trying. Alex is the same here, although obviously darker. All he wants is to rape, beat, and maim, but his way is blocked by politicians, prisons, activists, and thugs. They all say they want to help him, but they never agree on how, and the only agenda they ever advance is their own. Poor Alex is stuck in the middle, confused and single-minded. Why, a person might even (gasp!) sympathize with him.

That’s Kubrick’s game, of course, and he rigs it by making key changes from the novel. Alex is the same in both novel and film, but his victims are very different. In the book, the cat lady is a defenseless old woman, but in the film, she collects bizarre pornography and attacks first. The writer’s wife dies of her injuries in the novel, but succumbs to the flu in the film, making the writer seem insane when he blames Alex for her death. Each change lets Alex off the hook a little bit and undermines his victims. These people, alongside the pawing social worker and the barking, bureaucratic prison guard and many others, are as sick in their way as Alex is. Some people, like me, see the humor in this. Others reject it completely.

Is it the violence? Surely Kubrick could have made his points without such graphic, uncomfortable portrayals of rape and murder. Some critics, including the legendary Pauline Kael, accused Kubrick of lingering on these shots as a way to excite his audience. The exploitation seemed an hypocrisy, a way to take a stand against violence while ensuring the “thugs” in the audience got their money’s worth. Your own opinion of A Clockwork Orange is likely to turn on whether or not you think there’s a reason for all of this ultraviolence.

The US Supreme Court sided with Larry Flynt in his pornography trial because they believed that free speech rules are in place to protect all citizens, not just those currently in line with the day’s moral code. Christians dogged Flynt for years, desperate to shutter Hustler magazine and protect America’s moral character, never realizing that if the government had the power to stop Flynt, that power could then be turned on the Christians if it became politically convenient to do so. The same principle applies to Alex DeLarge. Here Kubrick gives us the lowest form of human being and asks us to care about his plight. It would be simple for us to choose in favor of free will if we know the person would choose good. Alex won’t. We’ve seen how rotten he is in every frame of film, and yet still (like the prison chaplain, the one sensible character in the story) we must protect his ability to choose evil if we want to retain the choice at all. The weight and impact of this decision simply isn’t there without the cold, clinical violence we’ve witnessed from the start.

Not to mention the occasional awesomeness.

The original novel contained one final chapter. It showed Alex, now older and cured of the Ludovico treatment, spontaneously giving up violence because he’d like to have a baby someday. Kubrick knew about the chapter, but claimed he never even considered putting it in the movie, choosing to end instead on the bleak idea of a psychopathic Alex back on the prowl. Burgess believed this dark ending was totally inappropriate for his story, but I think it’s the only way to end the film as Kubrick shot it. The happy ending is too quick, too comforting. Kubrick gave us a world with no soul and a protagonist with no heart and then asked us to decide where the moral yardstick should go. A Clockwork Orange is one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest films because everyone finds a different answer and, thankfully, there are no easy ones.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

4. ???

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #6 – Paths of Glory (1957)

Stanley Kubrick’s first truly great film.

The Film: When an overwhelmed French regiment refuses to advance during a suicidal attack, three soldiers are randomly selected to be shot as examples. Their commanding officer, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), defends them in court to no success. As the execution date draws closer, Dax discovers that one of the men was witness to a drunk lieutenant’s cowardly murder, and that the man’s selection was less random than it seemed. Dax brings this evidence to light, but it doesn’t stop the execution. The men are shot, and Dax receives orders to return to the front.

The Production: Kubrick’s The Killing found modest success in 1956 and opened a few doors, but the film wasn’t enough to establish Kubrick as a money director. Eager to maintain momentum, Kubrick and his producer James Harris looked to adapt a powerful, but challenging war novel written in 1935 by WWI soldier Humphrey Cobb. The novel, Paths of Glory, had been a success at release, but a stage adaptation flopped and film studios, already twitchy about downer endings, labeled the novel as unfilmable.

“OK, fine, they die.  But then maybe everybody gets candy?”

Kubrick and Harris worked with screenwriters Calder Willingham (The Graduate) and Jim Thompson (The Killing) to fashion a script strong enough to draw a major Hollywood star. That star ended up being Kirk Douglas, who famously predicted that the movie would never make a profit, but that he had to do it anyway. He was right. Paths of Glory was a box office failure, but it became an instant classic, immediately acknowledged as a major artistic success.

The project was key for Kubrick. Paths of Glory convinced Douglas to hire Kubrick for his career-making megaproject, Spartacus.  Kubrick also met a lovely actress named Susanne Christian and cast her to play the film’s sole female role. Kubrick would marry Christian the following year and they remained married until his death in 1999.

“You’re welcome, Stanny.”

Best Moment: The showcase scene in Paths of Glory also happens to be its last. By the end of the movie, Dax’s soldiers have survived a brutal, suicidal assault, only to watch as their leaders execute three of their unit on trumped up charges. On edge, the soldiers gather in a bar for a few fleeting moments of relaxation. Their entertainment comes at the expense of a German peasant girl (Susanne Christian), “liberated” in combat and dragged onstage to perform for her captors. The men jeer and holler while the emcee makes lewd comments. This seems like it could go very south, very soon. Instead, something unexpected happens.

The scene is the film’s most famous and adds a poetic flourish to an otherwise efficient and harrowing attack on the military mindset. It isn’t clear if these French soldiers know the words to the German song, a tale of a soldier who loses his love while fighting in a foreign land, but they seem to intuit the meaning anyway, and their humming turns it into a funeral dirge. And so it may be, as they are heading back to the front where many of them will die. It’s a haunting end to the film, delivering one last emotional punch to a film filled with so many.

Lasting Impact: Huge, but strangely quiet. As of this writing, the film has a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a whopping 8.6 rating on the fan-driven IMDB, good for #50 on the all time list, but for some reason, the movie is rarely mentioned in the canon of great films (for example, the film has never made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American movies, despite having a pedigree exactly in line with the types of films the AFI prefers to honor.)

“We lost to Yankee Doodle fucking Dandy?!”

My only guess to this odd silence is that Paths of Glory is one of those rare films identified as a classic in its own time. There’s never been a critical rediscovery (like, say, The Searchers) or a slow buildup of audience support (It’s a Wonderful Life) that can sometimes bring a movie back to the spotlight. It’s just good, it’s always been good, and everyone knows it. How boring.

Overall: Paths of Glory serves as a gateway film on this countdown, bridging the gap between some of the flawed or polarizing movies we’ve looked at and the pantheon of major classics that await us in the top five. The film also served as a gateway in Kubrick’s personal life and career, a nice bit of symmetry that we writers get off on. Before Paths of Glory, Kubrick was just another up-and-comer. After Paths of Glory, he had a career (and the love of his life.)

Here’s a dirty little secret that most film nuts hate to admit. Despite all of our bluster about the Golden Age of movies and how nobody has gotten it right since, deep down we all know the truth: movies age. Film is a language and, just like the one you’re speaking, prone to dialect. A movie from 1957 reflects the film language of its time, and fits in with today’s media about as well as a teen with a flat top and a letter jacket who says golly and gosh. (For an example, look no further than James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, a movie that defined the rebellious youth of its time but has since become hopelessly square.)

Paths of Glory defies this rule. The movie cuts right to the heart, and would do so with any audience at any time. Compared to today’s dramas it might be a little stiff or a bit too zealous, but no modern redo could be more effective. The story is the key. It’s a tale about a war almost a century old, but it’s about all wars and all injustice (in a way, this is the movie Kubrick had been trying to make with Fear and Desire). No one has to know the broader details of Franco-Prussian politics to see that something terribly wrong is being done to these men, or to understand why it’s being done at all. This is a story that happens every day, from the highest levels of power all the way down. Quiz any group of workers and you’ll hear at least one horror story of a clueless boss whose decisions make life worse for the people he leads.

These decisions get made because the men who fight the wars never control how they are fought. As in the film, the decision makers are often miles away because they are paid to plot, not fight. Anyone can fight. And, truthfully, this system works if winning wars is the kind of thing you want to do. A general might have a harder time sending his men into battle if he knew the name, face, and backstory of every soldier killed by his order. If that was the way it worked for everyone, we might just have to make due with fewer wars.

From the bunker, this looks like Call of Duty.

Instead, the generals learn to think of their men in theory. They can lose up to 55 percent, one of them explains to Dax, and still hold the target. Another speculates that the executions should be great for morale: “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.” Dax doesn’t belong with the plotters. He’s in the trenches, he knows his men, and he can’t stomach to watch them wasted like a resource, not for such a silly goal as the ant hill. Dax suffers greatly because of this. From the stupid assault to the kangaroo court, he fights and fails to save his men because the power to do so isn’t his to give. The men who make the decisions have put Dax on the other side of the line, and hate him for pointing out their mistakes.

Kubrick manipulates our allegiance by placing us in the trenches with Dax’s doomed soldiers via groundbreaking camera work. The tracking shot, soon to be Kubrick’s trademark, hadn’t yet exploded in popularity, but Kubrick chooses it here to bring us into the soldiers’ world. One spectacular shot shows us life in the trenches before taking us along with the soldiers advancing through hell.


Shots like these align us with the soldiers. We know what they’re up against, and we see the impact of a rash decision. Unlike the generals, we have no need for theory.

Kubrick would follow up this film about soldiers with one about the decision makers, again showing the insanity of war by framing a Roman slave revolt as a jealous spat between Spartacus and Crassus, two men with power who want the same woman. It’s a theme he would continue to revisit, each time producing another classic, beginning here in Paths of Glory, an exceptional story told exceptionally well, and one that’s relevant to its war, this war, and every one between and since.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

5. ???

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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Kubrick #7 – Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise joins a cult. No, seriously!

The Film: Eyes Wide Shut, an update of the 1926 novel Traumnovelle (Dream Story), follows successful doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) through 24 hours of bizarre encounters and psychosexual weirdness in the aftermath of his wife’s confession that she once fantasized leaving him for a stranger. Bill wanders New York looking for sexual revenge, but stumbles into a mysterious and possibly dangerous masked sex cult. After narrowly escaping, Bill spends the next day tracking the cult, finding only more mysteries, but eventually learns that the danger is mostly in his head. Bill returns home, but learns that his wife (Nicole Kidman) has found him out. He confesses, leaving the marriage strained, but intact.

“…duck, duck, duck…”

The Production: A major contributor to Eyes Wide Shut‘s cultural infamy is that so much hype and effort seems to have been devoted to so relatively little. Eyes Wide Shut is a small, intimate movie. With a few exceptions, the story takes place in modest rooms and with groups of two or three people. And yet the film took a whopping 400 days to shoot on a bloated $65 million budget. It filmed behind Orwellian security at Pinewood Studios in England, an ocean away from the film’s New York setting, while the press scratched and clawed for any dirt they could find. Eyes Wide Shut stands proud next to Cleopatra, Waterworld, and Apocalypse Now as one of the most storied and sprawling film shoots in movie history.

So what happened? Vinegar and baking soda, or, in this case, Kubrick and the Cruise family. The director’s exacting, exhaustive shooting style mixed with the casting of the most famous married couple on the planet and created pure dynamite for the media. What was going on behind the security lines? What kind of sexual deviance was Kubrick putting these movie stars through? Rumors were everywhere. One had Cruise and Kidman as married psychiatrists one-upping each other by sleeping with their patients. Another had Cruise wandering through the film in a dress.

In some alternate reality, this would totally be him.

And then the shoot ran so long that supporting actors Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh had to leave and be recast. And then word leaked that digital edits were required to avoid an NC-17 rating. Kubrick’s shocking death only four days after submitting the final cut sent the already frothing press into a frenzy.

Finally the movie arrived, and that thud you heard was the audience reaction. The prevailing opinion seemed stuck between people who hated what they saw and people who couldn’t believe that this was all there was. Audiences felt like they had been tricked. The movie died, failing to recoup the studio’s budget and putting a temporary black eye on Cruise’s status as the world’s biggest movie star. The film’s negative reputation lingers to this day.

“That’s it, no more masks, ever!  OK, fine, Vanilla Sky, but then no more!”

Best Moment: The movie’s centerpiece is the ritual sex party, a kind of Girls Gone Wild VIP fuckfest for the power elite. Bored with being the richest people in the galaxy and screwing around as they please, these people spice up their orgy by turning it into a black mass to which no one is admitted without a cloak, a Venetian mask, and a password (fidelio, or fidelity.) Bill wanders his way through the rooms, watching bug-eyed as masked prostitutes submit themselves to the group but, despite his precautions, he’s almost immediately revealed as an outsider.


Lasting Impact: Small. Eyes Wide Shut is a movie that’s still struggling to find its place with audiences and anyone looking to be inspired by Kubrick has too many other classics to choose from. Hardcore Kubrick fans still have hope that the movie will grow in status over the years.

Overall: If A.I. is Stanley Kubrick’s orphan, then Eyes Wide Shut is that unhappy looking kid in the family photo that nobody wants to talk about. Critics gave the movie a mild pass at its release, but audiences who had been prepped to expect the greatest sexual mindjob in the history of cinema roundly rejected it. Although Martin Scorsese listed Shut as one of his favorite movies of the 90s, even he admits that it can take decades for a Kubrick movie to sink in as a classic. Eyes Wide Shut is still waiting.

There’s some kind of metaphor here, but I’m just not seeing it…

I really like the film, although I recognize that it isn’t necessarily Kubrick’s best . It’s too stark and weird to be taken seriously as a drama, but Kubrick’s famous stars take their characters about as seriously as can possibly be arranged. It’s an unhappy mix. (Although what do I know? Reportedly Kubrick himself thought it was the best film he’d ever made.)

The popular critical line is that Eyes Wide Shut is about the gulf between men and women and how neither sex can truly know the other, but I’ve always read the film as being particularly hard on men. Bill’s odyssey and his crisis of faith is specifically male in nature. If the roles were reversed, there is no way that Alice would be out on that same street or looking in the same dark corners. After half a minute in the sex cult, Alice would have called a cab.

“Is that what you think?”

I’m not saying that Alice is chaste, not after she goes to so much trouble to make her husband aware that she is a sexual creature, powered by the same lusts and impulses that drive him. “If you men only knew,” she threatens. But Alice seems to have a clearer image of how their marriage works and how easily it can be unmade. The journey belongs to Bill because he seems to be the only one who actually needs it.

But what exactly is it that he needs? His motives are never clearly stated. Bill is out for revenge, sure, a bit of petty justice against the woman who has dared to shake his view of how the world works. He married her, didn’t he? He gave her a daughter. Isn’t it her job to settle in and enjoy her security? Bill has a childish need to hit back, but finds that nothing is that simple anymore. Alice stirred the pot and his dormant, poisonous beliefs are bubbling up. Each encounter seems to lunge for where it hurts and lays bare a traditionally male notion about marriage and sex. There’s the prostitute (sex as a business transaction); the shop owner who negotiates with men he has already kept from his teenage daughter (sex as a male-driven exchange); a gang of gay-bashing thugs (straight sex equals masculinity). The orgy is the most telling as it buries sex beneath masks and lavish rituals. A cynic might see a marriage.

Pictured: Marital Bliss

The film’s third act is its weakest. Bill enters a Hollywood cat-and-mouse game complete with a chase scene and a dead body. Then Bill’s inhumanly wealthy friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) appears and tells him that he was there, and all the bad stuff is in Bill’s imagination.

But is it? That scene doesn’t exist in the novel, where the main character’s danger is very real. Kubrick added it, perhaps to make it obvious that Bill’s head is the source of his problems, and that his thoughts will destroy his marriage, if they haven’t already (by the end of the film, Alice won’t use the word ‘forever.’ It’s too scary for her.)

By the end of the movie, the plot has given up and left us alone with Bill and Alice once more, which seems to be Kubrick’s final point. In the end, people are people and they will do what people do. Rather than wrap their life in mysteries and riddles, Kubrick’s married couple decides to be honest and, to paraphrase Alice’s last request, simply enjoy one another’s company. Maybe for them, and the rest of us, that’s enough.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

6. ???

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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