Goodbye, Mr Kubrick. Well, no-one thought to say it so far. Goodbye, and let’s
hope your passing will inspire other filmmakers to think boldly and walk bravely into
imaginative new terrain on film. You made films with visceral impact.
"Some of his best work combined intellect and emotion
There are perhaps a few too many eulogies to Kubrick that raise the odds in his favour
to absurd heights. I guess it happens on death; artists who have languished in backwaters (financially speaking) are suddenly acclaimed as legends in their own downtime. And while
Kubrick deserves enormous praise and respect, he was not an infallible filmmaker –
just a very diligent and detailed one. Meticulous or pedantic? Is 75 takes of a scene
obsessive or perfectionist? (Or was that 95 takes; Tom Cruise complained about it during
Eyes Wide Shut.) And why did it take a year to shoot? Unsure of vision or too inflexible
With 2001: A Space Odyssey
(death barely cheated Kubrick out of seeing the dawn of that year that will always be
associated with him) he created pioneering effects (in great detail) that served the film
and elevated it to a shelf of its own. Some of his best work combined intellect and
emotion vehemently - Clockwork Orange, say, or Full Metal Jacket.
Kubrick’s only comedy – Dr Strangelove – is
a black one that came out of the fear and loathing of the cold war. Peter Sellers, who had
just made Lolita with Kubrick, playing the ubiquitous Quilty, extended himself to play
three larger than life characters in what many saw as the ultimate weapon against nuclear
war – a film that ridiculed it all. Especially the men who controlled the weaponry.
Fact is, the stupidity and inefficiency of large organisations and government departments
is probably the greatest danger as well as the greatest deterrent…but that’s
another story. Kubrick’s talent was well used here, as was Sellers’, in making
cinema both enormously relevant and enormously entertaining at once.
"..as capable of being myopic &
avaricious as any Hollywood producer"
Dr Strangelove was one of four Kubrick films (he made 13 features, including Eyes Wide
Shut) which dealt with war in some form. The other two were more conventional in the sense
they were drama: in 1957, when the world was tearing itself in two (East and West, the
Russian Bear and the American Eagle, oppression and freedom) Kubrick made what many
regarded as the most effective and powerful anti war film ever made (at least until Saving
Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, but then we’ll start an argument). Paths of
Glory, with Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, defends men who refuse
an order to take a hill, in what is certainly a suicide mission. It’s only 84
minutes, but the economy is part of its power.
(A short aside: Paths of Glory,
based on the novel by Humphrey Cobbs, was financed by Kirk Douglas himself, who was
furious when he arrived on set in France to find Kubrick had rewritten the script with
elements aimed at making it more commercial, complete with a Hollywood ‘up’
ending. "It was a bewildering reversal, and one which adds dimension to
Kubrick’s myth. Stanley Kubrick was as capable of being myopic and avaricious as any
Hollywood producer," wrote Bjorn Thomson of Savoy magazine. "Douglas went
berserk, screaming at Kubrick: "You came to me with a script. I told you I
didn’t think this would be commercial, but I wanted to make it . . . I love that
script . . . I got the money, based on that script. Not this shit!" Paths of Glory
came out to be banned in France where the Government thought it was anti French army,
effectively proving Kubrick’s view of the generals’ hysterical reaction to
criticism. Oh yeah, and despite the shouting match, Kubrick’s next film was Spartacus
with Douglas in the title role. )
Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s other major war film, is
an indictment of the dehumanising required to turn young men into efficient killers. As
such, it is both riveting cinema and effective editorial. Although set in the Vietnam era,
it is not about Vietnam.
"The film becomes anything the viewer sees in it,"
"The film becomes anything the viewer sees in it," Kubrick once said –
referring to his own films, but equally to any other film. This was a Kubrick tenet, and
it seems a poignant one to attach to his adaptation of Lolita,
made in 1961. In my view, this was Kubrick’s least successful film, yet it still
ranks as a classic. It deserves consideration, especially in light of Adrian Lyne’s
new and controversial adaptation. To have both films in your movie library is highly
recommended, and back to back viewing is instructive; play Kubrick’s first. Among the
most dramatic comparisons is the scene where Humbert confronts Quilty near the end. What a
difference in style, mood, resonance. You may like a big red from Coonawarra to sip with
this. (Lyne’s Lolita is released on video in August 1999, by Fox Video.)
Born on July 26, 1928, Stanley Kubrick would be 71 this week (as I write); he died on
March 7 1999, with his last film poised to intrigue the world, possibly the highest
profile film of his life, with the biggest budget, the longest shoot, the most
controversial production process, the biggest release and perhaps the only blockbuster of
his career. The irony of it would no doubt irritate him.