Chasing Kubrick

One of my personal markers of the importance a movie has for me is whether I can remember where I saw it. According to this system, about half of Stanley Kubrick's movies rank right up at the top. I saw "Paths of Glory" as a teenager hooked on staying up late and watching old movies on television. I saw "A Clockwork Orange" as a college student visiting London. I saw "Barry Lyndon" on a long afternoon in a theater in North Carolina with about three other people, "Spartacus" in a tiny revival house that doubled as a Catholic church on Sundays in an upstate New York resort area. What's noteworthy here is that I don't like or even admire all these movies. In the case of "A Clockwork Orange," I dislike it intensely. But that's the thing with Kubrick: you can't just not care. He never gave you that option. Good or bad, what he put up on the screen is indelible.

If you toss "The Stanley Kubrick Archives," published this month by Taschen, onto the scales weighing directorial greatness, there's no doubt that Kubrick would emerge as the best director of all time. This latest literary wet-kiss to Kubrick is a very heavy book. It is also beautifully and copiously illustrated, full of hundreds of still images from his films, and packed with essays, interviews with the director, notes for unmade films and a couple of posthumous tributes. Smartly edited by Alison Castle, this coffee-table tome with an intellect dissects Kubrick's output in an exhaustive, film-by-film analysis. The first half is given over to copious still images from each of his movies. In the case of many directors, maybe most, this might be a waste of time. But in the case of Kubrick, who made only 12 movies, it makes sense, because his camera sense was so strong--and, in many cases, so static--that a still can bring a whole scene to life.

I can't think of any director who routinely held shots longer than Kubrick. When it worked--as it does in the duel scene in the barn in "Barry Lyndon," for example--the tension he created by not cutting away was truly marvelous. We're accustomed as moviegoers to a certain rhythm in cutting. Some directors and editors cut a little faster or slower than others. Some, like Orson Welles, would mount tour de force shots that go on forever, like the opening of "Touch of Evil." But most shots like that are fluid and they're bravura; they call attention to themselves. Kubrick wasn't above the occasional TA-DAH! moment--watching the camera track forever in front of the little kid on his Big Wheel in "The Shining," you can almost hear him exclaiming, "Look what I can do with this Steadicam!" But mostly he put his technique in the service of something more profound than a drum roll. He set the camera up, turned it on and shot the scene. And shot and shot. One take might last five minutes. The interesting thing about this is how it makes you, the viewer, squirm. You almost look away from embarrassment because, well, you're staring and it's not polite to stare.

"Archives" is a physical marvel, just like Kubrick's movies. It comes with a little CD-ROM with an interview with the director, and a piece of 70mm film from "2001" is tucked into a sleeve on the first page. You could use it for a bookmark if the book didn't already have one of those cloth bookmarks sewn into its spine. But there's lot of text, with original essays by Kubrick experts like Gene D. Phillips, memoirs by Kubrick friends like the writer Michael Herr and lots of reprinted interviews with Kubrick himself, who was so articulate that he could almost talk you into thinking that you like a film that you didn't like.

Defending the nasty, poor, brutish and short view of life that pervades "Full Metal Jacket," he told an interviewer, "You don't have to make Frank Capra movies to like people. Capra presents a view of life as we all wish it really were., But I think you can still present a darker picture of life without disliking the human race. And I think Frank Capra movies are wonderful. And I wish life were like most any one of them. And I wish everybody were like Jimmy Stewart. But they're not." And perhaps because he was so strong-minded, he was becomingly unafraid to criticize himself: "I don't much like 'Spartacus' ... As for 'Lolita,' I'm aware that it doesn't manage to capture the magic of Nabokov's book, the magic that is in the style. 'Lolita' is a major example of how there are great books that just don't make great films."

"Archives" forces us to realize that Kubrick was much more than just a technique geek. He was a storyteller who spun his yarn in a uniquely cinematic fashion. The technique is a form of storytelling, or it was storytelling with film and editing, with less emphasis on dialogue and not a lot of emphasis on acting. The most famous example of what Kubrick could do with so-called pure cinema is the elision of several thousand years when a bone thrown into the air by an ape comes down as a spaceship in "2001: A Space Odyssey." There are other, subtler touches that are no less important, such as the use of candles as the sole light source for the interiors in "Barry Lyndon." You never doubt that this is indeed how it looked in the eighteenth century. More important, because we are spared the fake studio lighting of most period movies, the mind is not required to make allowances. One more veil between us and the story has been removed. These are small things, but when they are added together, they produce stories that could have been told no other way.

Later Kubrick movies-from "2001" on-move in great big chunks. At their best, their power is not so much propulsive as cumulative; at their worst, it's like watching a boxcar occupy a railroad crossing, then slowly trundle off so another boxcar can take its place. So it's easy to like a section here and there in a Kubrick movie without having to like the whole thing. I love the first half of "Full Metal Jacket." I find the last half uninspired. I like the hominids in "2001" and the scenes with HAL on the spaceship. And here's a marker for you: It has been pointed out by more than one critic that we owe our idea of what outer space looks like, at least in movies, to Kubrick. No filmmaker has seriously altered that look since "2001," (although Ridley Scott did at least scuff up the spaceship part for 1979's "Alien"-making it more like long-haul trucking, less like EPCOT). The intensity with which Kubrick imagined space as far back as 1968 is still our template.

He wasn't perfect. He often allowed actors to ham it up so outrageously that you wonder if you aren't watching a high school play. For every carefully modulated performance by a Sterling Hayden ("The Killing") or a James Mason ("Lolita"), there is the scenery-chewing of a Jack Nicholson ("The Shining") or a Patrick Magee ("A Clockwork Orange" and "Barry Lyndon"). Ryan O'Neal is famously clueless in "Barry Lyndon," but since he's playing a clueless man, it works. In fact, that is the one film in the last half of Kubrick's career that I think works without qualification. It is achingly slow, but if you settle in and adapt yourself to the movie's stately pace, it takes you over. People have complained, and rightly, about Kubrick's chilliness. It's a fair criticism for a lot of his work. Certainly he wasn't sentimental. But given the appropriate material, his dourness permitted a kind of grudging, and therefore more persuasive, humanity to flourish. That's why, in "Barry Lyndon," arm's-length is just the right length. We are always observing these people, never identifying with any of them, yet when the one-legged Barry, as battered by life as a man can be, emerges from that coach at the end of the movie, it is all but impossible not to sigh and say, "There but for the grace of God go all of us."

"The Stanley Kubrick Archives" did not radically change my opinion of the director, but it did force me to respect him more. All of his movies are worth seeing at least once, and none is altogether without merit. His work can be airless and sometimes downright repellant, but you won't mistake his work for anyone else's, and in this age of cookie-cutter movies, that's saying a lot. But having said that, I'll still go out dancing with the ones I came in with: "Barry Lyndon," "Dr. Strangelove" and "The Killing." Of all these, "The Killing" is my favorite. A noir B-movie in its general outline-pulp fiction novelist Jim Thompson wrote the dialogue--"The Killing" is only Kubrick's second commercial film, dating from 1956, and it is rarely mentioned by fans as one of his best, perhaps because it would embarrass them to admit that it may be his best. The editing, the long shots-all the trademarks of later Kubrick films-are here. And he never had a better pack of actors, led by Elisha Cook Jr. and Sterling Hayden, whose ravaged face alone was a performance-a creased roadmap to every dead-end life there ever was. Claustrophobic, misanthropic and quick as a trapped rat in a corner, it is a great movie and reason enough for me to always love Stanley Kubrick.

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