[31 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s like picking through diamonds. Some are flawless. Others have minor imperfections that do little to damage their luster. As for the rest, well, there are a couple that could pass for precious, but beyond that, they’re more industrial than iridescent. That’s what it’s like looking over Stanley Kubrick’s amazing output. In the lexicon of film, few stand as tall or as iconic as this renowned genius. He’s the agreed upon gold standard, the definitive talking point when the subject of cinema as art comes around. Few have reached his level of reverence. So imagine the difficulty in ranking his work. With so many great entries to go through, so many mythic movies to consider, it is like being a jeweler. One has to take into consideration the entirety of the catalog, as well as the standing of each object, before plowing through and putting them in order.
There is a caveat, however. For starters, we have purposefully left out Kubrick’s first two “films”—1953’s Fear and Desire and 1955’s Killer’s Kiss. The former was disavowed by the director and has not had a legitimate home video release. The latter suffers from some technical issues and is considered a mere shadow of the filmmaker’s future genius. We also aren’t addressing his days as a photographer or his work in newsreels and short subjects. While important, they don’t fully explain this director’s lasting appeal and influence. Instead, this is an exercise in examining Kubrick’s ‘critical’ output—the titles that took him from unknown New York novice to internationally recognized auteur. Each step along the way, each aesthetic leap, leads to one inevitable conclusion—as an oeuvre, few are more impressive. As a craftsman, none can match him.
So whatever your preference, here is our placement of Kubrick’s definitive directorial efforts. In retrospect, it is a bit like picking through gemstones. All are gorgeous, some are just less blemished than others.
As a final film, many believed Kubrick would return to the source of his greatest achievement (science fiction, as in the long rumored A.I. ) or toward a subject he had never tackled before (as in the Holocaust, and the proposed Aryan Papers). Instead, he became obsessed with Arthur Schnitzler’s Freudian novella Traumnovelle, updating the tale of a young doctor’s sexual awakening from 1920s Vienna to 1990s New York. Shot entirely on London soundstages and featuring then Hollywood supercouple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, it promised to be enlightened and experimental. Sadly, it came off like a high class erotic thriller—beautiful to look at, but vacant at its core.
At the time, Kubrick was still considered a photographer turned filmmaker. His initial efforts had met with indifference and the director was hoping his next project would pull him out of obscurity. As luck would have it, TV distributor James B. Harris came along and soon the two formed a partnership. The result was Kubrick’s first fully realized work, a fine film noir based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break. With pulp crime specialist Jim Thompson along as co-writer, he was finally able to apply his developing technique towards something substantial. While not the hit that everyone thought it would be, The Killing showed that Kubrick was indeed ready for the big time. His next effort would offer incontrovertible proof.
How, exactly, do you adapt one of the most controversial books of the 20th century to the big screen - and do so without completely diving into the main narrative element of said tome (a love story between a middle aged man and a 12-year-old girl)? If you’re Kubrick, you take massive liberties with Vladimir Nabokov’s considered classic, turning many major elements on their head while crafting a kooky comic tour de force for British funnyman Peter Sellers. Like two dispirit movies thrown together, Lolita suffers a bit from this idiosyncratic identity crisis. On the one hand, the main material has a power and allure. On the other hand, much of it seems like an audition tape for Sellers future work in the seminal Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick lucked into the job of directing this monumental epic when, simultaneously, he left the Marlon Brando western One Eyed Jacks over creative differences with the star and friend Kirk Douglas was looking for a replacement for the recently fired Anthony Mann. Without the usual pre production preparation and control he enjoyed, Kubrick found the shoot difficult and his relationship with his pal deteriorating. The results, however, speak for themselves. This influential period piece proved that Kubrick could handle scope as well as deliver on both an artistic and commercial level. Not surprisingly, it would represent his last real stab at Hollywood acceptance and respect.
Fans of Stephen King hate this adaptation of his famous novel and with good reason. Aside from the basic plot elements and the character names, this otherwise interesting take on terror bears little resemblance to the beloved book. On the other hand, horror aficionados agree that, within the confines of the literary master of fear, Kubrick created a masterpiece. The levels of tension he achieves are palpable and the disassociation and psychological trauma of isolation and madness are magnified and made real. In fact, when he sticks to King, he comes up a bit short. But left to his own disturbing devices, Kubrick argues for the scary movie as something all together different… art.
With a wealth of Vietnam-based films hitting the market in the mid-‘80s, fans were eager to see how their favorite auteur would address the subject. Deciding to adapt the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, he hoped to take a neither pro nor anti war approach. While the book argued for the everyday issues of the fighting man, Kubrick once again heighten reality by turning the first half of the film into a study in mental instability while the second part played around with the notions of life on the line. From a visual standpoint, the England as South Carolina/Asian landscape is spectacular. As a narrative, it’s an unusual journey into Hell.
It was no secret that Kubrick always wanted to make a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic with either David Hemmings or Jack Nicholson as his star. When two other Russian themed epics “failed”, the studio cancelled the project. Angered, he would return to the era with this languid, lovely look at an 18th century Irish gambler and social climber. Filmed on meticulously recreated sets and utilizing a camera technique that featured only natural light, the movie often plays like a documentary lifted directly from the era. While some critics have harped on the naturalistic pace and lack of real dramatics, over time it has become one of the director’s revered works… and rightfully so.
Having remembered reading Humphrey Cobbs’ stirring anti-war novel as a kid, Kubrick set about bringing the book to the big screen. The story, about a group of innocent French soldiers executed for cowardice (as an example of the other less than eager fighting men) had already been an unsuccessful play, but the filmmaker saw something important in the “rule by example” idea. With Hollywood star Kirk Douglas in the lead and cold Bavarian locations for a backdrop, Kubrick immersed himself in the material, beginning the process of perfectionism and meticulousness that would come to define the rest of his career.
Perhaps the most contentious movie of Kubrick’s entire career, this lighting rod of social commentary and reaction resulting in death threats to the director and the film being pulled from distribution in Britain. It would not be seen again for almost three decades. Many didn’t like the liberties taken with Anthony Burgess’ dystopian diatribe about youth violence and government control. Some couldn’t handle the graphic sex and violence. For Kubrick, this fascinating bit of future shock allowed him to once again indulge in the kind of precise political satire he had explored previously. In this case, however, the message was more gut wrenching than side splitting and stands as one of his purest, most precise visions.
Leave it to Kubrick to come up with a way of making the growing nuclear arms race between the United State and Russia hilarious and still horrifying. As yet another potent anti-war statement (a real theme throughout much of his career), this farcical Fail Safe took on all targets: the military; the industrial complex it created; the madmen behind the scenes; the politicians in power; the bumbling bureaucrats; the soldiers struggling to keep sane. About as bleak as a black comedy can get and still remain likeable, it represents Kubrick at his complicated best. It’s funny and frightening, as current as a criticism can get while still true to the genres it is deconstructing.
Stanley Kubrick was never afraid to use his films to speak to the big picture issues and here, he addresses the most massive one of all: man’s place in the entire cosmic order. Originally planned as an attempt at “serious science fiction”, this collaboration with forward thinking author Arthur C. Clarke went through many significant stages, from pure thriller to unmanageable mindf*ck. With his meticulous post-production pliability, and a wealth of intriguing footage to work with, Kubrick confounded expectations and delivered the first interstellar treatise on humanity and its purpose in the universe. From evolution to extraterrestrials, he never deviated from his goal. The results continue to resonate among the stars.