The End of an Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick, 1928 - 1999
March 7, 1999
The 20th Century has been a revolutionary time period unrivaled, yet for all the revolutions, none can match the art of motion pictures in nature or scope. Yes, the telephone, the airplane, the computer and other inventions certainly changed things radically, but it is the art of film that has transformed the souls of millions. Motion picture captures the imagination of civilizations like nothing before it, in part thanks to the fact that cinema is an artistic mutt, combining nearly all art forms in a delicious blend which, when done by a master of the craft, entices and manipulates the senses like no other medium. That said, there are few who could even begin to rival the craftsmanship and revolutionary work of Stanley Kubrick, who died today at the age of 70.
After directing a collection of short documentaries and low-budget art films, Kubrick released his first studio-backed work, The Killing, in 1956, a gritty film about a robbery. The film was well received, and he next attempted to adapt Humphrey Cobb's anti-war novel Paths of Glory. In the 1950's, a film about insidious beliefs - like being against the brutality of war - was a dangerously subversive idea, and the project languished in developmental hell, turned down by every studio. Fortunately for Kubrick (and filmgoers), cleft-chinned movie star Kirk Douglas became interested in the project. Douglas signed on, and soon after Kubrick got his film in 1958, still considered a classic. For most lesser directors, it would be a crown jewel in their career. For Kubrick, however, it was only a start, and he never looked back.
In 1960, Kubrick again directed Douglas in Spartacus, a gladiator epic about a slave rebellion against the Roman empire written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Following in the footsteps of Ben-Hur, Spartacus was a box-office hit and critical smash. Kubrick, however, was dissatisfied with his lack of control over the project. Nonetheless, the success of Spartacus allowed him more freedom, and in 1962 he exploited that freedom to adapt Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, the still scandalous novel of a middle aged man's shameful obsession for a teenage girl. The film itself is perhaps a bit of a disappointment, but given that it was 1962, the mere presentation of such a taboo matter was like opening a floodgate, and today Lolita is considered one of the first shots fired in the great cinematic revolution of the sixties and seventies.
At this point, Kubrick was already considered among the finest of filmmakers. Yet nothing would prepare viewers for what was to become. Over the next dozen years, he would only make three films. Yet, in terms of quality and influence, these twelve years were the most productive of his life, and the trio of masterpieces he made have left a mark on cinema that may be unequaled.
The first came in 1964, an adaptation of the Cold War thriller Red Scare. The appeal of making a film about the terror of nuclear holocaust is obvious, but at some point during development, Kubrick came up with something even more twisted: a dark comedy about the potential annihilation of mankind. The result was Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Never before or since has black comedy been so black or so comedic. From Sterling Hayden's deranged and paranoid General Jack D. Ripper, George C. Scott's power-obsessed Buck Turgidson, Slim Pickins as Major "King" Kong (who rides the bomb to its doom like a bucking bronco) and a trio of great performances by Peter Sellers as uptight British Captain Lionel Mandrake, effete egghead President Merkin Muffley and Paperclip Nazi-scientist Dr. Strangelove, the film offers up a delicious number of hilariously memorable performances, all furthering the point of the film: that mankind is most certainly too irrational and too easily manipulated by impulses to be trusted with weaponry that could obliterate itself, and given the ability to do so, it shouldn't be surprising when we actually follow through. The film turns upside down all conventional dramatic manipulation, the virtues and vices of the characters both leading to mankind's self-destruction. In the end, Kubrick practically dares viewers to cheerfully root on the impending holocaust, and he succeeds to such a disturbing level, that there is a sick sense of satisfaction by the time the credits roll.
It took him another four years to return to the screen, but when he did, Kubrick did his magic once again with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on a short story by sci-fi genius Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 was highly anticipated when released 33 years before the date in the film title. When it premiered in Los Angeles to a very eager crowd, the result was major disappointment, utterly baffling many of the viewers with its pedestrian pace and cryptic message. Certainly it wasn't helped by expectations: just what the hell is a film about the future doing following around a bunch of ape men? Slowly, the reason is revealed, as the apemen, inspired by an enigmatic monolith which appears out of nowhere, come up with the first invention from higher consciousness. The invention, naturally, is a weapon, using a bone as a club to viciously beat to death competitors. After savagely using the discovery to full effect, a victorious apeman throws his tool into the air, and as it slowly twirls in the sky, the greatest transformation in film since Dorothy moves from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz occurs: the bone becomes a space shuttle, effortlessly floating through zero gravity. For those with the patience, the payoff was like no other, but even in 1968, the instant gratification mentality was too strong for most to wait. The film was immediately declared by many a colossal bore and a flop, and word was Kubrick had gone off the deep end. Fortunately for Kubrick, however, a cultural phenomenon saved the film from the label of failure: LSD acid trips. The psychedelic craze was in full effect, and hippies didn't seem concerned that the film took so long to get where it was going and refused to tell viewers where it was in the first place. As it turned out, 2001 became a huge commercial hit for the time, and in a slow pace only Kubrick could appreciate, the mystical tale of the transformation of man from beast to Star Child became not only his most well-received of films, but the rare film that rivals even Citizen Kane in terms of admiration and influence.
Three years later in 1971, Kubrick hit paydirt once more, making a film which exceeded even his abnormal levels of manufacturing shock and outrage in the viewer. To this day, A Clockwork Orange, based on the Anthony Burgess novel, remains arguably the most disturbing film ever made. It is disturbing not merely because of the story, about a gang of nihilistic youths living in a violently destructive future, nor because the future it predicts appears closer to reality with each passing day. Rather, it is because Kubrick dared the viewer to participate in atrocity, to enjoy watching the torture and abuse by and of a charming but vicious youth named Alex. Even worse, Kubrick succeeded. The most chilling part of seeing Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) and his pals viciously beat a man to the point of crippling him, then forcing him to watch them rape his wife (all while "Singin' In the Rain" is sung), is just how entertaining it is. A Clockwork Orange seems almost a response to the complaint of 2001's restraint: you want action, Kubrick seems to say, I'll GIVE you action. What he gave was a level of intensity beyond gratification to the point of gluttony: if this is what you want, Kubrick seemed to warn, rest assured soon this will be all you get. The violent and titillating films used in the brainwashing sessions to "cure" McDowell of his urges seem to mirror the more popular brain candy that now occupy our cinemaplexes: last summer's hit Armageddon would fit in perfectly. Perhaps because A Clockwork Orange worked so hard at making the detestable attractive, many accused the film of actually encouraging senseless violence, and the copycat crimes which followed in England so pained Kubrick he pulled the film from circulation in the UK. The charges were baseless: Kubrick no more enjoyed senseless violence than he enjoyed nuclear destruction. Despite these unfair criticisms (or more precisely because of them), to this day, A Clockwork Orange remains his single most controversial film, the one that seems to light the fire of people, both pro and con, like no other.
As Kubrick became more and more obsessive about his filmmaking, he became more and more reclusive. Kubrick seemed to shut himself off from the real world, perhaps too horrified by what he saw in it. The personal transformation translates in his movies, 2001 being the turning point, where the only character he could provide any sense of a human soul being, ironically enough, the malfunctioning computer HAL 9000. With A Clockwork Orange, the transformation was nearly complete, as the contempt for society and humanity drips from each shot. At moments, A Clockwork Orange appears almost to be a black comedy, but unlike with Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick no longer seemed to be laughing. By the time Barry Lyndon came around in 1975 (a story taking place in the 18th century story based on a William Makepeace Thackery novel), he seemed so turned off by humanity that all he could focus on was costumes and set decorations.
His output has been meager ever since: however, though he no longer achieved the quality of his greatest works, the Kubrick touch was still there to a lesser degree. Barry Lyndon may not be his most admired film, but it still received seven Oscar nominations (including one for best picture), the most for any Kubrick film. The Shining (a 1980 film starring Jack Nicholson based on a Stephen King novel) is now considered one of the finest horror films ever made. And his 1987 film Full Metal Jacket may not match either Apocalypse Now or Platoon when it comes to Vietnam War dramas, but it had its moments, and holds the curious honor of inspiring the 2 Live Crew's shameless hit "Me So Horny", which samples a snippet of dialogue from the film.
Now, twelve years after his last release, Kubrick was hungry for more: this summer, Eyes Wide Shut, a psychosexual thriller starring Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman, is set to be released. Not much is known about the film, except that in predictable Kubrick style, it took much longer than expected to be filmed. There are rumors that in the film, Cruise wears a dress, which would probably be worth the price of admission alone. That rumor aside, there is a belief (partly a wish fulfillment) that Kubrick, after his long sabbatical, was back in top form. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but no doubt Kubrick's death will only increase the anticipation for the film, one which nearly approaches Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in terms of eagerness to be seen.
More intriguing is the rumors swirling around his project AI. Officially this was an idea that was shelved in favor of his Cruise vehicle. Others have suggested another explanation: the film, the rumor maintains, WAS being filmed, but would be filmed over a twenty year period, using young Jurassic Park's Joseph Mazzello (or his fellow Jurassic Park actress Ariana Richards, according to other versions of the rumor) as a artificial being who ages twenty years during the film. The idea seems dubious: Kubrick would have been too old to start on an expensive project that would take twenty years to finish. Still, if anyone could have earned the freedom to work on such a project, it would have been Kubrick. Whatever the truth is, it appears we are left without the opportunity to view how this experiment (if it was indeed taking place) would turn out.
Still, it is difficult to lament a film by Stanley Kubrick that was not finished, as certainly his cinematic career was complete by any standards. From comedy to war to epic to science fiction to horror and so on, there was little that he didn't tackle. And the subjects he tackled were almost always a step ahead of everyone else. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he began Dr. Strangelove, which awakened people to the absurdity of cold war sentiments (however, a pie fight seen in the War Room where President Muffley dies was left on the editing room floor after the JFK assassination.) At the time when the ideas of an Aquarius age that was dawning and Von Daniken's Chariot of the Gods ancient astronaut theories were blooming, he released 2001. And when the cheery optimism of the flower children start souring, A Clockwork Orange was released. Further, even before Lolita, a little scene was edited out of Spartacus (later included in a later release of it) of Laurence Olivier being given a bath by a stripling Tony Curtis, as they discuss the respective merits of eating snails versus oysters. Sometimes, perhaps he was a little too ahead of his time.
Kubrick is often considered a bleak pessimist, and for the most part he certainly was. He had little faith in the ways of man, and knew that even the smarmy, East Coast intellectual elite who praised his work and their "good" liberalism would eventually turn into just another sinister form of totalitarianism (a message made quite clear in the benevolent fascism of A Clockwork Orange, which perhaps explains much of the film's criticism.) And yet, for all his darkness, he had his hope: in Spartacus, a slave who would lead a daring revolt against a decadent, bloated empire, and in the Star Child, the most optimistic image for mankind ever presented on celluloid. It may be fairer to call Kubrick a romantic who was saddened by the reality that he saw, a man with deep concern for humanity yet sickened by what it was capable of. Through it all, Kubrick could still see beauty where others could not, hearing the melodies of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and "Blue Danube Waltz" as a soundtrack for a New Age and not of a day long past.
Now, Kubrick has entered into his final Odyssey. All that is left is his final curtain call, the four-plus months leading up to the release of Eyes Wide Shut. Watching the film will be an odd farewell, and it will seem somewhat incomplete, as Kubrick was infamous for editing his films up to (literally) the last second. But a perfect farewell it shall be: no doubt Kubrick wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
Stanley Kubrick Links
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