Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 12/03/2016

Would I be such a naysayer if I said that I didn’t find Paths of Glory very moving?  Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war WWI film is aesthetically astounding, well-done, striking, and really echoed again in many of Kubrick’s later films, visually.  But as an emotive force, shaking its fist in the face of the mucky-mucks while innocent men are condemned to death, it just wasn’t so engaging.

I think this is a common criticism of Kubrick in general, that his film’s have an iciness and a lack of real humanity, even when defending humanity.  And it’s not that this lack in Paths of Glory by any means was a terrible thing.  It’s just I didn’t have that magic spark of empathy in particular for the characters.

I was slightly put off by how American these French soldiers were.  Voices and accents that are meant to portray social class, I suppose could transpose, but seemed awkward in a movie very much based on real events in France during WWI.

Aesthetically, it’s a masterpiece.  Those shots in the trenches, tracking the leaders as the march through the ranks.  The suicide mission attack on “the anthill”.  The framing of the massive interiors where the higher ranking generals meet and discuss fates of plebeian men as if they were tin soldiers.

This was one of my last unseen Kubricks, longstanding in my queue.  Wonderfully concise, it’s a remarkable film, if not quite an impassioned one.  The final scene of the German girl singing in the cafe, though.  That was pretty nice.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 01/18/2016

Though it’s landed on many “Greatest films” lists, including last year’s BBC list of Best 100 American films (through which I’ve been working my way), Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period drama, Barry Lyndon was a film I had never seen.  Adapted from a picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, it stars Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson in a story about an Irish “adventurer” who wriggles his way from one event to the next, country to country, from poverty to nobility, while never being much more than a cypher at heart.

Kubrick is sometimes criticized for a coldness and formality to his works, and Barry Lyndon exemplifies that in ways, though starkly different from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or A Clockwork Orange (1971), still readily apparent.  At 3 hours in length, the film has a slow and measured pace, and as Barry Lyndon, Ryan O’Neal is almost entirely inscrutably blank, his only real emotion for his one natural child.

The most evocative thing about the film are its sets, framings, and costumes, crafted with painterly detail and often shot at distances that keep the viewer from entering too deeply, held back at room’s length.  It’s been referred to as if created as a story “within a gilded cage” and so it’s no accident, this distance and artifice are fully intentional.  Did Kubrick ever do anything by accident?

It’s also said that Kubrick fell back on this film when other projects, including his would-be film about Napoleon failed to come together, putting to use all the period research he’d acquired in the planning of the never-made film.  Whatever the case, it seems a bit the opposite of a “passion project” rather maybe a “dispassion project”.

Kubrick wrote the script himself, which was apparently unusual for him, and setting the tone and style, departing from the novel’s 1st person perspective, a story of Barry Lyndon told in his own voice and possibly suspect, is instead instilled with a distant omniscience and cold irony, as narrated by Michael Hordern.

I suspect I’ll be musing over Barry Lyndon for some time to come.  It’s funny how some films strike you right away and others require time and contemplation to take their place in your mind.  My son has decided that Stanley Kubrick is his favorite director, so we watched this together, all three hours.  I’m not sure that he knows where to place it yet either.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 08/22/2015 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Still mind-blowing, even after all this time.

Actually, I think I can say that I found it far more mind-blowing than when I first saw it in the 1980’s, no doubt on a TV, most likely un-letterboxed in some pan-and-scan format.  This knowledge has kept me from re-visiting the film for years, waiting for a chance to see it on the big screen.  And finally chance offered itself.  And I daringly took my 11 year old daughter and 13 year old son to one of the classically confounding films of the 20th century.

My son has developed a taste for Kubrick, so I figured that he would be more up for it.  I did try to prime them with information about the film and tips that it was long and slow and not utterly clear.

Interestingly, they both kind of enjoyed it, though were completely confused by the ending and the black obelisks and ultimately what it’s all about.  But then again, hasn’t that also been the case for adults all these years?

Me, this might have been the perfect timing to see the film.  It’s such a visual and aural feast, a sensoria strange and open-ended, with the luminous and mind-bending ending that has you wonder, “What was that I just saw?”  I don’t know what to add to the infinite discussion that already exists about this film, other than to say that I was immensely wowed by it, seeing it big (the only way to see it) and being struck by its immensity and wild far-reaching vision (even knowing what it was going in.)

Amazing.

The Shining (1980)

 

The Shining (1980) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 07/25/2015

I’d last watched The Shining over a decade ago.  This viewing of the horror classic was spurred by my son’s interest in Stanley Kubrick, which began a short while back when I took him to see A Clockwork Orange (1971).  He’d since gone and watched Full Metal Jacket (1986) on his own (a film I’ve been meaning to re-watch for a while).

The Shining is a brilliant movie, no matter what Stephen King thinks.  In a lot of ways, it seems to do what movies fail to do these days: diverge successfully from the source material and create something entirely their own as well.  I’ve never read the King novel, but I’ve read a brief analysis of the film’s divergence from the original material.  I guess my response is: “Who cares?”

Brilliant as it is, it still has some quirks and flaws.  But it’s a mesmerizing, amazingly-photographed masterpiece.  The last time I wrote about it, I mentioned the oft-cited and radically innovative steadicam work, the amazing axe-swinging shots that follow the movement of the blows, and the amazing set that is the Overlook Hotel.  In the 12 years since I last wrote about it, the internet has made information more readily available.  It’s quite amazing to realize that most of the film is shot on a sound stage in London.  The amazing interiors are all sets.  While the original hotel that was used for the exteriors was shot in Estes Park, CO and is often referred to, the larger reality of the stunning locations are pure artifice.  Pure and amazing artifice.

I watched The Shining with both of my kids.  We’ve certainly been watching some material that might be considered dubious for a tween and a young teen, but when I asked my daughter what she thought about it, she was quite impressed by the film but said that it wasn’t the kind of thing that scared her or gave her nightmares.

Unlike, perhaps, a generation ago.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 05/24/2015 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My parenting could certainly be called into question.  Whose couldn’t?  But taking my 13 year old son to a science fictiony double feature of our own making, beginning with the slick and contemporary Ex Machina (2015) and following it up with a little of “the old ultra-violence” in Stanley Kubrick’s landmark A Clockwork Orange, is probably not exactly what the average parenting guide recommends for young teens.

But it was about the age of 13 or 14 that I myself first encountered Malcolm McDowell’s evil Alex and the stark visions of near-future dystopias in Kubrick’s visionary interpretation of Anthony Burgess’s novel.  I was reading the book by the age of 15.  And between the film and the book and the cult iconography of the material, I had fallen upon a touchstone, not just for myself, but for underground culture everywhere.

All that said, it had probably been 30 years since I’d seen the film, those heady teenage years of cable television and lots of downtime.  But I’ve been eager to see it again and the opportunity to see it on the big screen is just the scenario in which to see it.

The movie is nearly as old as I am, pushing 45 years.  While it’s not science fiction, as in no scientific points of significant development appear in the film, it is a form of speculative fiction about the then near future, a world in which thugs and gangs of depraved youth torment a society of isolated individuals in extraordinarily modernistic houses, apartments, and cafe/bars.  The vision is so stylized that it almost transcends its time of production, neither outwardly dated nor anywhere predictive, rather a vision of something that has come to signify itself.

I’ve always personally abhorred rape and its depiction in films has always bothered me.  Perhaps A Clockwork Orange was the first film in which rape is explicitly depicted that I recall having encountered.  Of course, it’s critical to the material, and is both decadent and shocking as well as impactful and core to the ideas of the film.  By contrast, it’s almost chaste compared to things that have come since it came out.  But it still has power.  I’d say the film stands out as visionary as it was in its day.  Which is saying something.

I’m not entirely sure what Felix thought of it.  It’s probably one of those things that he’ll process over time.  It’s not a film for immediate reactions but for sustained impressions.  That said, it’s iconic qualities stand out in images completely emblazoned upon one’s cultural psyche.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Dr. Strangelove (1964) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/28/2014

I decided to watch Dr. Strangelove with the kids.  I hadn’t seen it in forever.  I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be a huge success with them.  Maybe Felix a bit more than Clara.

Clara commented, “I thought you said this was a comedy.”

The did appreciate the classic line “You can’t fight in here!  This is the War Room!”  They had a hard time fathoming Peter Sellers being three different characters.  I will be interesting to see how it sits with them over time.

Didn’t realize this poster was designed by Tomi Ungerer.  That’s cool.

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/22/2014

Ah, Man.  Spartacus.

This was another one of those movies that I’m not sure how I managed to go 45 years without seeing.  It’s Stanley Kubrick.  Most film dudes (and dudettes) have seen every Stanley Kubrick movie, right?

Me.  Not even.  I still haven’t seen Killer’s Kiss (1955), Paths of Glory (1957) or Barry Lyndon (1975) and oddly enough, it’s been eons since I’ve seen most of them.

Epics are a slog.  I mean Spartacus is over three hours long.  And you know from the opening moment that you are in for a long haul.  It opens with a title card of “Overture” and a black screen plays back a rather forceful musical theme for quite a while before the pictures and title come.  If you didn’t know before that, you know pretty quick that this is one long movie.

It’s got a great cast.  Kirk Douglas leads with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton playing the Roman leads.  It came at a time of a lot of big Biblical epics were cramming the screens, so this piece of historical cinema jogs just aside of the Christian story but still gets to pit itself against ancient Rome.  That while it’s more subtly about the Hollywood blacklist and the import of the Civil Rights movement.

It was interesting to see Olivier because I don’t think I’ve recently watched any movie that he was in.  And Peter Ustinov.  He’s very appealing as well.  Douglas seems a little long in the tooth for the role of the slave revolt leader, but he produced the film and dammit, that’s just how Hollywood works.

Apparently, Spartacus was the only of Stanley Kubrick’s films that he did not have final cut on and one which he dismissed from his oeuvre.  You can kind of see that.  It’s more a Hollywood epic than a personal vision, though it’s good, well-made entertainment.  Maybe that’s it.  It’s good, well-made entertainment.

The Killing

The Killing (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/17/10

After watching Michael Winterbottom’s latest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel from pulp page to big screen, The Killer Inside Me (2010), I felt somewhat interested in venturing down Thompson’s other cinematic forays, such as they’ve been.  Most of Thompson’s work that has been adapted, I have seen, but what was also compelling was that briefly, in the 1950’s he worked with notable auteur Stanley Kubrick on two films, the 1956 low-budget, highly stylized noir film The Killing and then again on 1957’s Paths of Glory.

Kubrick is such a popular auteur, a big cult hero with several films that people just love to watch over and over, that it struck me as odd that in the nine or so years that I have been writing and keeping my film diary that I’ve only actually watched one of his films.  I mean, I’ve seen a lot of them varying numbers of times but the only one that I’d seen in the last decade or so was The Shining (1980).  A lot of that is just circumstance.  I almost went and saw Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) last month at the Castro.  Anyways, I still only had seen one of the films recently enough to have written about it.

I’d seen The Killing before, but for some reason had some sort of mental block about it, getting it confused with whether it was Kubrick’s previous film, Killer’s Kiss (1955) (which I do not believe that I’ve seen) and also perhaps with the two versions of The Killers Richard Siodmak’s 1946 version and Don Siegel’s 1964 version.  Now that may seem just silly to you, but believe me, I think I’ve found confusion there.

Perhaps no more, however.

The Killing is a terse heist film, a bit of an ensemble picture in which even star Sterling Hayden is as much of a character actor as much of the rest of the cast.   It’s told in a not completely linear fashion, though with a loud, pedantic narrative voice over to give us “just the facts”, so to speak, reminding me quite significantly of Sgt. Joe Friday’s dull monotone from Dragnet.  But like almost every heist story, things go wrong, as much as they go right, as much precision is brought to bear, the whole crew is due for dissolution and death.

Not being a Kubrick scholar or having even read up on him much, I can only speculate at the experimentation that was going on in this film, from its narrative hopscotching to its often very interesting camerawork to the rich character actor performances that give this film its particular flavor.  It’s funny to me that it always failed to register more significantly in previous viewing or viewings in that there is so much specific here from the horse race (filmed at local Bay Meadows) to the unusual ethnic identities and racial slurs of some of the characters.   And even especially a couple of key scenes, Hayden in the clown’s mask, robbing the crew at gunpoint to the penultimate image of the wads of stolen money blowing wildly about on the tarmac at the airport, swirling away into nothing.

It’s an excellent film.  Hard to say about the Thompson dialogue, since I know little of the production of the film (he’s credited for dialogue, not the screenplay), though there are lots of colorful barbs and backs-and-forths.  I suppose that this is a film that can be seen in a number of contexts, and perhaps the Jim Thompson angle is one of the smaller ones.  Still, it’s well worth the re-visit for any number of reasons.  And it might finally do me some good to make sure that I can finally lay claim to having seen all four of the films that I conflated with one another so as to never have that problem again.

The Shining

The Shining (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 07/14/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

Seeing The Shining on the big screen was quite a treat, as I had only once before seen it, on a tiny little television in the UK probably about 10 years ago. The film is moody and extremely visual, building tension with its slow pace and dissonant music, the film builds and punctuates with powerful and striking images that have almost all gone on to having an iconic impact. In fact, seeing a film like this in an environment like The Castro Theater, with what was probably a crowd comprised largely of film enthusiasts, knowing what to expect at each turn, when the film builds to its infamous “Here’s Johnny!” line, there is almost a sublime sensation of familiarity that permeates any sense of tension that the film could concoct.

The steadicam work is still stunning. The interiors of the hotel are utterly mesmerizing. There is something hypnotic about the cinematography all the way around. The amazing shot of Jack Nicholson as he is swinging the axe, chopping at the door, really jars the viewer. The camera mimics his movement, swinging back and forth with him, and coming to rythmic, abrupt stops as it strikes the door.

The film’s images stay with you long after the film is over. I always remembered the flying camera shot over the car as it twisted up the heavily forrested road to the hotel. The funny thing is that I had forgotten some of the early part of the film, the little boy, Danny Lloyd, his little talking finger and the visit from the social worker. Actually, the little talking finger thing really edges on hilarity, perhaps one of the film’s weaker elements. There are a couple other weird little things that seemed pretty crappy, too. When Jack goes up to the evil room and starts to make out with the naked woman from the tub, the mood is very creepy. But when it turns out that she is a rotting corpse, it seems really silly and she make-up looks poor and dated. Also, that weird throw-away image of the people in animal costume having some sort of sexual situation reminded me poorly of later less successful weirdness as comprised much of Kubrick’s uneven final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), attempting to be shocking and arresting, but merely feeling stagey and odd.

After having watched the visceral and hyperkinetic 28 Days Later… (2002), it was interesting to see another horror film that approached its material from such a different angle, building slowly to powerful images, rather than creating ALL of its tension from mood.