Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)

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With commentary from Hollywood stars and narrated by Tom Cruise, who starred in Eyes Wide Shut, over outtakes from his movies and footage from his childhood in a happy New York family, this documentary looks at cinema master Stanley Kubrick’s life and films in 15-minute segments. Director Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long-time assistant, interviews heavyweights like Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack, who discuss his output from his debut Fear and Desire onward and explain the influence of acknowledged classics like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and how he absorbed visual clues from disposable culture such as television commercials. It’s a marvellous biographical and personal account with information previously unavailable and funny, telling home movies. Not so much about the working process but with sufficient on-set detail to satisfy the neophyte to his work and tantalising insights about his home life and interests. Born to a doctor father who liked making home movies the young Stanley hated school where he was clearly gifted but bored. He started taking photographs as a teenager and was only 16 when he sold a photo to Look magazine of a street vendor’s reaction to President Roosevelt’s death. He hustled chess games and sold more pictures, sometimes of movie stars like Montgomery Clift.

Perhaps the most intelligent person I ever met:  Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  

There’s still a part of Stanley that’s a great mystery to me:  Steven Spielberg, director of A.I.

Day of the Fight (1950) A boxing documentary that came from his love of taking photographs of boxers and led to his father funding his debut fiction feature after cashing in a life insurance policy. Fear and Desire (1953) He knew nothing about acting. It’s the intensity that impressed me:  Paul Mazursky. Killer’s Kiss (1955) was made while he was on unemployment cheques and brought him to the attention of producer James Harris and they set up a company, Harris-Kubrick.  The Killing (1956) Marie Windsor describes Kubrick’s tremendous confidence. He employed legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard and when Ballard ignored Kubrick’s precise lens and framing orders on the first day Kubrick threatened to fire him. Ballard stayed and never disobeyed him again:  Kubrick knew his cameras. Paths of Glory (1957) You cannot see it without weeping:  Martin Scorsese on the masterpiece Kubrick made when he was just 28 years old. Spielberg says Kubrick did the opposite to other filmmakers, painting obvious ideas in big brush strokes but then his attention to detail was meticulous beyond anyone else’s. It was on this production that Kubrick met Christiane (who sings the song to the troops) who moved to Hollywood with him, became his wife and the mother of his children. Spartacus (1960) He inherited it from Anthony Mann and was working again with star Kirk Douglas. The script for this epic production had no battle scenes. The film had to be re-cast. He had an extraordinary ability to see what is important: Christiane Kubrick. To make a film like without Jesus but with Kubrick is already an achievement [for Kirk Douglas]: Peter Ustinov. The narration then informs us, The process had taught him he had to have full control over his films. He moved to England and obtained the rights to a controversial book that he loved,  Lolita (1962) which Spielberg declares is much more about the human condition than the novel ever was. It had to be re-cut for release.  Dr Strangelove (1964) Everything wonderful about that movie is because of the way it was directed:  Woody Allen. 2001 (1968) After working for Stanley on 2001 I swore I would never work for anybody again… I think probably he had a hard time keeping up with his intellect:  Gary Trumbull. 241 people walked out of the first exhibitors screening. Kubrick was devastated and Christiane couldn’t find him to let him know the great reviews a few people were giving it.  It was one of the few times in life I realised the artist was much ahead of me:  Woody Allen who had to watch it three times before he could acknowledge its greatness. And the Napoleon project that remained forever unmade? Stanley was fascinated by the idea that somebody so intelligent and so talented made so many mistakes. With the failure of Waterloo, Warner Brothers didn’t want to fund a loss-maker.  A Clockwork Orange (1971) I never know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want, Kubrick told Malcolm McDowell.  He exploited these extreme subjects that you sometimes recoil from:  Sydney Pollack. Alex Cox now describes him as a film director who’s given up being influenced by others. The devastating impact that the negative press coverage had on the Kubrick family led the director to withdraw it after 61 weeks on release. Warner Brothers agreed, Terry Semel says, because globally 2001 was the second greatest moneymaker in their history after My Fair Lady. Having Stanley under contract for the rest of his life was more important to Warner Brothers. It was a unique relationship in the film business and although he took time over his films, they were low cost – when you walked onto a Kubrick set there was nobody hanging around eating donuts. There was only ever a handful of crew. Barry Lyndon (1975) I knew it was a costume picture … I hoped he was going to take it somewhere else. He took it back in time:  Scorsese. Critics were looking for something that wasn’t in the move:  Richard Schickel. Whatever movies Stanley made, what I love about them is that they are completely conscious:  Jack Nicholson. The Shining (1980) He recounts a very different experience of collaboration than that of Shelley Duvall with on-set footage of Kubrick shouting at her that makes for unpleasant viewing. There are things in The Shining that still wake me up at night:  John Calley.  When he was away from home for a couple of weeks he left one 15-page document alone on how to care for his cats. Anthony Frewin says, He was kind of the ultimate Jewish mother. He was never happier than being at home with wife, daughter, friends, animals. British journalists labelled him a weirdo and it bothered him but he didn’t engage with the press following the Clockwork Orange experience. He returned to filmmaking with Full Metal Jacket (1987) which he’d been working on for 7 years during which time several Vietnam movies had been released and he’d been overtaken. It seems so still and removed, comments writer Michael Herr. He doesn’t deal with traditional dramatic structure, which is good.  He keeps experimenting:  Scorsese.  He welcomed everyone’s ideas on the set. He’d try anything. There were many ways in which he was not controlling. He was fascinated by World War 2 and Goebbels and the Holocaust and was preparing to make The Aryan Papers from Louis Begley’s book but when Spielberg announced Schindler’s List he gave up. His wife was pleased, describing him as very depressed throughout the prep. He approached Spielberg to make A.I. from a Brian Aldiss story because I think this movie is closer to your sensibility than mine. He wanted to postpone production to wait for technology to keep up with the film’s ideas and of course Spielberg eventually made it (commenting elsewhere that everyone got it wrong, believing that Kubrick’s ideas were his and vice versa, again proving that critics know nothing). Eyes Wide Shut (1999) starred fabled husband and wife team Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and she says the great luxury that Kubrick had and gave them was time. His understanding of humans is that we are very bittersweet. The whole process of the film was a discovery.  It’s about relationships and it’s about New York but it’s about a dream of these subjects, shot in London, close to home in Hertfordshire. Who among us would be anything but envious about the way he set up his life:  Schickel. One thing people have a hard time with in the cinema is ambiguity. Ambiguity is great but in the cinema it’s almost verboten:  Alex Cox. He never gave an inch on anything: Sydney Pollack, whom Kubrick cast in the film and agreed he was done in two takes yet Pollack was still shooting his scene three weeks later. The film screened to a good reception in New York on 1 March 1999 and his wife said it had taken a toll, as though it had become a part of his physicality. He died 6 days later, aged 70. It was one man’s vision, and no one interfered with that vision:  Alan Parker.

Either you can or you don’t:  Stanley Kubrick. Respect.

Happy 70th Birthday Shelley Duvall 7th July 2019!

That wonderful, singular actress Shelley Duvall celebrates her 70th year today. Some performers remain in our consciousness for the overwhelming character they project, others inhabit their roles with such power they are just legends for a kind of inimitable genius. While Duvall belongs to the latter category she possesses a kind of eccentric consistency that means she is out on her own, beyond conventional representation.  She was not only the muse of Robert Altman so for me she is always the mysterious Millie of 3 Women; she also became the most important actress in the world of Stanley Kubrick when he terrorised her on our behalf in The Shining. I will always love her in Joan Micklin Silver’s F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, Bernice Bobs Her Hair. More than an actress, singer and even set decorator, she became a highly successful TV producer with Faerie Tale Theater.  We are not worthy. Many happy returns.

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!  U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely insane and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He thinks that the communists are conspiring to pollute the ‘precious bodily fluids’ of the American people and takes hostage RAF Commander Mandrake (Peter Sellers) before blowing his brains out when Mandrake wants the code to stop global catastrophe. Meanwhile in the War Room President Muffley (Sellers again) tries to reason with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and has to make an embarrassed call to the Russian premier while the Russian ambassador tries to sneak photographs on the premises and the creator of the bomb (Sellers – again) reveals it simply cannot be stopped …  Peter George’s serious book about nuclear proliferation, Red Alert, got a blackly comic workout by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, producing one of the great films and one that seems to get better and more relevant as the years go by. Sellers’ triple-threat roles were a condition of the financing after his work on Lolita. The spectre of him as the wheelchair-bound Führer-loving kraut by any other name mad scientist failing to control his sieg-heiling arm and utilising an accent familiar to fans of The Goon Show is not quickly forgotten, nor the image of Slim Pickens astride the nuclear bomb, rodeo-style. It’s not just Sellers’ appearances that are brilliant – Hayden is weirdly convincing when talking about depriving women of his essence due to the fluoridation of water;  and Scott’s expressivity is stunning. Apparently it was Spike Milligan’s idea to use Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again over the apocalyptic closing montage in which the nuclear deterrent has deterred absolutely nothing and blown us all to Eternity. The end of the world as we know it. A staggering tour de force.

Ready Player One (2018)

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People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.  In 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves a video in which he promises that his immense fortune will go to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest as his avatar Parzival, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. He finds romance and a fellow rebel in Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and they enter a business war led by tyrannical Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelson) who used to make Halliday’s coffee and is now prepared to do anything to protect the company … Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s cult novel, this blend of fanboy nostalgia with VR and gaming works on a lot of levels – and I say that as a non-gamer. There are a lot of things to like once you get accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of the narrative takes place in the virtual ie animated world yet it is embedded in an Eighties vista with some awesome art production and references that will give you a real thrill:  Zemeckis and Kubrick are just two of the cinematic gods that director Steven Spielberg pays homage in a junkyard future that will remind any Three Investigators reader of Jupiter Jones, only this time the kid’s got a screen.  This being a PC-VR production it’s multi-ethnic, multi-referential and cleverer-than-thou yet somehow there’s a warmth at its kinetically-jolting artificial centre that holds it together, beyond any movie or song or toy you might happen to have foist upon you. There are some of the director’s clear favourites in the cast – the inexplicable preference for Rylance and Simon Pegg (sheesh…) but, that apart, and delicious as some of this is – it looks like it really was made 30 years ago – you do have to wonder (and I say this as a mega fan), Will the real Steven Spielberg please stand up?! This is the real Easter Egg hunt.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.  An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future. When Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission to investigate an object hidden beneath the lunar surface their ship’s computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behavior, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time… One of the great auteur works that has the courage to make an intellectual (and visual) leap that would elude lesser writers and filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Sentinel (they wrote the novel and screenplay simultaneously in their unique collaboration) has not lost its oddly intimate power and remains the benchmark for everything that followed in science fiction with its take on evolution and man’s relationship to the universe.  The Star Gate sequence, zero gravity scenes and visual effects are transcendent. Kubrick abandoned Alex North’s commissioned score for the existing recordings of classical music which he had used for the guide track. A film of utter audacity.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks. Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled;  good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. An Irish lad on the make in eighteenth century English society. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, this is Stanley Kubrick’s most sumptuous production and my own favourite among his films (that poster dominates my dining room) and close to being my all-time favourite movie. Rarely appreciated, Ryan O’Neal is just perfect and wholly sympathetic in the role of the impoverished and ambitious social-climbing soldier who romances a wealthy widow. The candlelit interiors, the narration, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances – with so many striking cameos – all combine to create an incredible sensory achievement. Much misunderstood over the years, this was re-released to the big screen over the past year to fresh appreciation. It is stunning and enriching, in ways you have to see to believe.

Room 237 (2012)

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Peace pipes. Baking soda. The end of history. Impossible windows. The Holocaust. Subliminal sexual imagery. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is bloody scary. And for some people who have a nitpicking obsessive completionist brain,rather like the 200 IQ Kubrick himself, there’s a world to be found in this idiosyncratic film, frame by frame. Rodney Ascher’s documentary issues a disclaimer clarifying that nobody that ever had anything to do with the production of The Shining was involved in this in any way. Arranged in nine categories, the voice over theories are matched to (very) repetitive sequences from both The Shining and other Kubrick films (and referenced works). This is nutsville, on one level, and then you find yourself agreeing with … a lot. (Isn’t repetition and protein deprivation what the Moonies do? I digress).  Kubrick’s phenomenal intellectual breadth and depth leads you to conclude that maybe everyone here is right. And not to get too postmodern about it, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, regardless of the auteur’s intentions. He’s not around to confirm or deny, and in the words of Scatman Crothers, Room 237 is nothing. Maybe …