Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures


Warner Brothers ( as a 2001 release) offers a rather lengthy documentary about one of its most famous and visionary directors, "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures" (2001, directed by Jan Harlan). Kubrick (1928-1999) was born in New York but lived much of his life and did some of his most important work in Britain.

Kubrick developed such “power” in his area that no one could contest his vision. His movies were always so much more than the sum of their parts. There was always an attitude about things that transcended the words and pictures. His work expressed ambiguity for its own sake, a concept generally not previously accepted in the movies, where storytelling (“beginning, middle and end”) had become its own end.

He also made music, often drawn from the classics, like a “character” in his films. He used the music of Ligeti to great effect in “2001” and later in “Eyes Wide Shut” (with the two-note piano motive).

One of his early masterpieces was “Paths of Glory” and the documentary excerpts the famous line about cowardice, in a story where the charge is vented at soldiers by drawing lots. Many of his early masterpieces were in black and white. One of the most famous is “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1963). I actually saw that with a friend in a little theater on 8th Street in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. People watch this film over and over because of its odd way of being funny, beyond the obvious moral satire of the Cuban Missile Crisis world. A general talks about being “funny in the head” and the “silly thing” of attacking a country.

Another black-and-white masterpiece was “Lolita” (1962) which Kubrick agreed to trim in the US because of the strenuous objections of the Catholic church of its promoting licentiousness (and of the underage girl). The movie generates the name of an important psychiatric syndrome.

I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story—Clarke appears in the documentary) at the Uptown Theater in Washington shortly after finishing Army Basic training myself in 1968. There’s irony, to be sure, in what the year “2001” finally represented. The Strauss tone poem opening is used to stunning effect, as is the abstract symbol of the monolith. At the time, it seemed logical that Howard Johnsons would offer accommodations on a space station, and that Pan Am would offer space travel like air travel. Look at what happened. Instead of ready-made space travel and computers that run our thoughts like HAL, we have the Internet.

One of the most controversial and violent films was “A Clockwork Orange” (1971, based on the novel by Meredith Burgess). There were a number of imitation “Clockwork” beatings in Britain, and many accused Kubrick of inciting youths to violence. Kubrick himself had the film pulled from British theaters after a year, and found himself unable to live there or protect his own family in the climate of hostility that followed. The experience raises moral questions about the influence of media creators on the actions of others. The documentary does show a minimal amount of the “X” footage from the movie.

Some of his other films, like "Waterloo" and "Barry Lyndon", did not attract a wide audience, although they were certainly visionary. In the lengthy Lyndon, Kubrick made the clothing almost like a character in the movie. He would use one of Schubert’s piano trios as a “character” in the movie. In adapting Stephen King’s “The Shining” he would make the Overbrook hotel a character, with the rooms (especially the lavatories) turning into monochromatic menace.

“Full Metal Jacket” would recreate the traumatic experience of an ordinary man’s draft and service in Vietnam, and provide a somewhat dreamlike memory of the horror of the experience rather than a straightline story.

The documentary shows a little of the “initiation” scene from “Eyes Wide Shut”, but points out the ambiguity of the film. It is shot in a place that looks like New York, but isn’t (it’s London(. It is like a dream. Remember Tom Cruise's last word in that film?

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