Monday, January 21, 2013

A Journey in Kubrick or: Kubrick's Cube

January 2012 marked my first visit to the violent, ruthless and magic world of Stanley Kubrick's movies. 
„Here you are, sir, main level please.“ were the cold welcoming words that drew me into a film that I have declared to be one of my favourites - without having seen it another time since then. And now, almost a year later, I happen to have seen all there is to see of Kubrick's work, my journey ending with a word equally precise as the welcoming ones: „Fuck“.

The two quotes are, as you might know (if not, you've missed two great films), from the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Open - respectively. The ironic side of this is that they share the rank of being my favourite Kubrick films. 

"Kubrick". Just listen to the sound of that name. It's a name I've associated with crazy brilliancy even before watching one of his movies. And each movie I saw before accepting the challenge of watching his whole filmography, confirmed this association. The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon - all great films. All favourites. 
It shouldn't come as a surprise then, that I wasn't able to develop the same feelings towards the remaining Kubrick films I watched in the last few weeks. Out of 13 feature films and three shorts, some must be less brilliant than the others. Indeed, only three of those recently watched films are ones I consider to be exceptional or brilliant; Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket and Lolita.

Has my picture of Kubrick being some kind of holy God-like film master changed? Yes, it has. I've seen his (not very impressive) beginnings, development of an own style and voice, as well as I've seen his brilliant side. But while my admiration may have faded a little, my fascination has grown. For Kubrick is one of the most fascinating filmmakers I know - and so are his films.
Perhaps every filmmaker becomes fascinating or interesting once you dig a little deeper - I think this is true for many things in life.

What you should know is that I haven't been researching a lot on Kubrick's personal life. I know that he wasn't good in school, and that he was a friend of Kirk Douglas, until they had a big fight. He also became more independent through his career, but that's not very unusual. And he disappeared for many years.
I'm sure all these things and many more are interesting, but what I want to focus on in this post is really Kubrick's work - his films - not his private life.

Those who haven't seen many of Kubrick's movies and want to be surprised, beware of spoilers, while those who have seen many of Kubrick's movies might think I'm just repeating stuff I've read on the internet - which I haven't. I intentionally haven't researched on the movies, because so much has been written about it and I am afraid of just repeating some of that massive material. 
Whatever, bla bla, here's what Kubrick's movies have touched, moved or provoked in me.

Symmetric warfare
One thing I noticed when thinking about Kubrick's work as a whole, was his love of or focus on two things in particular: symmetry and war.

Now, what is symmetry? To many people, it's perfection. The more symmetric our faces are, the more beautiful we look. Religion uses symmetric symbols such as the cross, the Indian sign that Hitler mis-used, the star - just as examples. Symmetric pictures symbolize harmony and discipline - symmetry calms us down when we're upset.
Such as in times of war - what would an asymmetric army look like? It certainly wouldn't spread fear. Symmetry causes respect and reverence. Symmetry is power.
Then again, as much as asymmetry may surprise and puzzle us, symmetry isn't always just a calming force. It may as well be something to lean up against, a symbol for the system you fight against - such as in times of war. 
In that way, symmetry and war are closely linked, they can be united or they can be opposites. This conflict plays an important role in Kubrick's films.

Take Full Metal Jacket, a film that most people (including myself) consider split into two very different halves. The first half depicts life in a military school? academy?, anyway, soldiers training. We have many symmetric shots here, with the soldiers lining up in various formations, running, training and so on. This visual aspect reaches its peak in one scene: the trainer (don't know the proper word for him) discovers that the chubby soldier has been hiding doughnuts in his clothes. To finally teach him a lesson, he forces the soldier to eat the doughnut while all other soldiers have to do push-ups until he's done eating. The shot of this sequence is breath-taking in its perversity and visual perfection.
Anyway, after that peak a horrible and very bloody incident takes place, after which we are transported to the actual war in the actual Vietnam. From here on, asymmetry and with that, chaos, takes over.

Another example can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Beginning with a rather asymmetric sequence of primitive life on earth, the movie is filled with beautifully, no; ravishingly symmetric pictures of the interior of a spaceship. It is in this symmetry, this perfection though, that the enemy and the war lies hidden. 

Actually Kubrick himself answers the question of why one would link war and symmetry (read: peace) together, in one of these example movies; Full Metal Jacket. 
So in a nutshell, I guess he was basically „trying to suggest something about the duality of man“.

The other sex
At least when you've seen more than five of Kubrick's films, you might find yourself asking: „Where the hell have all the women gone?“. Or, depending on the ones you've seen: „So, he hated/ worshipped/ feared women or what?“

Perhaps none of these suggestions are right - or all of them. It is a matter-of-fact at any rate, that women are a minority in the universe of Kubrick's films. They may have short appearances as hot hostages (Fear and Desire), hot femme fatales (Killer's Kiss, The Killing) or other hot objects of desire (any other movie) though. Whatever their role may be, they remain mystic and aloof in a way. 
There are exceptions of course, as the hysteric mother in The Shining and the dull love-of-my-life from Spartacus.

The two most interesting examples concerning this topic are, in my opinion anyway, Lolita's same-named teenage nymph and the frustrated yet seductive Alice from Eyes Wide Shut. Most people agree that these two movies are the most erotically charged ones Kubrick ever made.
Both Lolita and Alice have a naive and naturally erotic charisma, however we soon realize that they have a will of their own too. Lolita, whom her pedophile adoptive father saw as an innocent object of desire, is the one who actually triggers their sexual relationship. And Alice, whom her husband was never jealous about because he has faith in their marriage and her loyalty, reveals her darkest secrets and desires to him when she can't take his lack of jealousy anymore. The two females prove to be controlling yet helplessly innocent at the same time - and I'm quite sure that this made out a great part of Kubrick's own view on women, as it's an image that keeps repeating, always slightly changed, in his movies.
The outcome of course, is confusing. None of the male characters can make any sense out of the respective situations. 

Kubrick takes some kind of revenge on women in Barry Lyndon, in which the main character is dumped by the love of his life and later on marries a rich girl himself, whom he doesn't love and only takes advantage of. The ending isn't very happy though, as the man realizes that he shouldn't have lost his faith in love - or at least shouldn't have broken someone else's heart just because his own was broken.

It should be mentioned though that Kubrick also showed the unfair and weak position women have had, or in some cases still have, in society. This is something he focusses on in Full Metal Jacket for example, where we see a lot of poor vietnamese prostitutes, but also a rare vietnamese female fighter. They soldiers also discuss how to shoot women and children.
Or take the sad ending scene of Paths of Glory in which a German hostage sings a song that makes all the soldiers - who had been expecting a sexy dance - cry. She didn't only melt their hearts actually, as she was destined to become Mrs. Kubrick.

If there's anything to conclude, then it's that Kubrick - no matter how male-dominated his films may seem at the first sight - never underestimated women, although perhaps he even feared them. We'll never know.

And the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay goes to...
Apart from his first two feature films and the shorts, Stanley Kubrick based all of his screenplays (he didn't write Day of the Fight, The Seafarers and Spartacus himself) on already written books or short stories.
You got me - I had to do some research to be able to draw this conclusion. But I think it's interesting that a director/ screenwriter as acclaimed and adored as Kubrick wrote only two of his screenplays "free-handedly". Especially these times, when people are complaining about un-originality in movies and too many movies being based on literature, I think Kubrick is someone who shouldn't be left out of the discussion.
Personally, I don't have a problem with adapted screenplays. Screenplays, stories, novels - everything is basically adapted from something else. Be it the writers own experience, something he/ she heard or read somewhere, dreams, a movie, music... there's a lot to be inspired of. People don't freak out when they hear that a novelist took inspiration for his latest novel from a Beatles album, do they? So I really don't see the point in complaining about movies being adapted from books.
In the best case, the movies can make you want to read the books (A Clockwork Orange), in the worst case you're disappointed because you loved the book and didn't like the movie. 

Here's a list of Kubrick's literary inspiration:
(of which I haven't read anything myself)

The Killing - Clean Break (Lionel White)

Paths of Glory - Paths of Glory (Humphrey Cobb)
 nominated for Writer's Guild Award

Spartacus - Spartacus (Howard Fast)
 nominated for Writer's Guild Award

Lolita - Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
 nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

Dr. Strangelove - Red Alert (Peter George)
 nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

2001: A Space Odyssey - The Sentinel (Arthur C. Clarke) short story
 nominated for Best Original Screenplay Oscar

A Clockwork Orange - A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
 nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

Barry Lyndon - The Luck of Barry Lyndon (William Makepeace Thackeray)
 nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

The Shining - The Shining (Stephen King)

Full Metal Jacket - The Short-Timers (Gustav Hasford)
 nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

Eyes Wide Shut - Dream Story (Arthur Schnitzler)

Be free to take any inspiration for your next read. Perhaps these books may inspire you to write an A+ chemistry assignment or produce a wonderful presentation at work or whatever. In any case, don't be ashamed of being inspired.

The movies 

What I expected, what I got, and what I can conclude.

Film I (short), Year 1951

Expectation: Kubrick in short.
Delivery: A bland short.
Conclusion: Practice makes perfect.

Film II (short), Year 1951

Expectation: Another Flying Padre.
Delivery: Kubrick in short and without experience.
Conclusion: Can't get anywhere without talent (that shines through already at the beginning).

Film III, Year 1953

Expectation: A notable debut.
Delivery: A weak debut.
Conclusion: I understand why he wanted to destroy every copy of it.

Film IV (short), Year 1953

Expectation: Blandness.
Delivery: A half-an-hour commercial for some company.
Conclusion: He was young and needed the money.

Film V, Year 1955

Expectation: Anything, really.
Delivery: Finally something pointing into the right direction.
Conclusion: Who would've thought there was such a Hitchcock-ish side to Kubrick.

Film VI, Year 1956

Expectation: A fun and sexy film noir like the previous one.
Delivery: An even better film noir than the previous one.
Conclusion: Starting to remember why I like this guy.

Film VII, Year 1957

Expectation: Men shouting and shooting, probability of boredom.
Delivery: Suspense and heavy moral value - and a strike of genius.
Conclusion: That's my Kubrick.

Film VIII, Year 1960

Expectation: Boredom but with a tiny hope for a surprise as with the previous one.
Delivery: Hybrid. Well-made and -shot but very long-drawn.
Conclusion: Must've been Kirk Douglas' fault (as a producer).

Film IX, Year 1962

Expectation: A terrific and dangerously ambiguous filmatization of one of my favourite novels.
Delivery: Check.
Conclusion: Strawberry explodes in 10, 9, 8...

Film X, Year 1964

Expectation: Awesomeness beyond any boundaries.
Delivery: Some comic scenes and a great idea, but with too much slapstick-ish humour for my taste.
Conclusion: No matter how sure you are of your reaction to a movie, you can always be disappointed.

Film XI, Year 1968 
seen before directorathon

Expectation: Nothing at all, as this was my first Kubrick film.
Delivery: Speechlessness.
Conclusion: Forever a favourite.

Film XII, Year 1971
seen before directorathon

Expectation: Shocking and nightmare-ish brilliancy.
Delivery: That and much more.
Conclusion: Kubrick really never stopped being awesome from 2001 until his death.

Film XIII, Year 1975
seen before directorathon

Expectation: Something Tarantino style - the cover reminded me of his films.
Delivery: The most beautiful historic film I've ever seen.

Film XIV, Year 1980
seen before directorathon

Expectation: A good scare.
Delivery: My second favourite movie scare in the world.
Conclusion: Not sure whether I'll ever be able to trust Jack Nicholson playing a "good" character.

Film XV, Year 1987

Expectation: War again, again... hoped for something like Paths of Glory though.
Delivery: If it wasn't for Schindler's List; the best anti-war film I've ever seen.
Conclusion: With war films, it's either really hit or miss. And this was a hit right into the... heart.

Film XVI, Year 1999

Expectation: Something very different from his previous movies.
Delivery: Different indeed - and (along with 2001) my favourite.
Conclusion: The perfect way to end this journey.

And with this, I wave goodbye to Kubrick land and walk towards a horizon full of other great movie adventures. But fear not, for I will return to this fascinating place - and who knows, perhaps things will look different then. Whatever may come, I'll remember all the great things I learned and saw in the magical land of Kubrick.


  1. I love these "A Journey in..." events, it really must give you a great insight into a director's work/life.

    1. Jack L. (who sadly has left the blogging world a long while ago) inspired me with the director posts he used to make. Yeah, well, I do feel I've learned a lot from this, not only about a specific director but about film in general.

  2. Wow, what an expansive and remarkable post on one of my favorite directors. Loved your analysis throughout - on the novels he based his films on, on the movies themselves - everything.

    Really solid work here!


Let the discussion begin!