Archive for category Stanley Kubrick
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire