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Big Time Directors! The Stanley Kubrick Series

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Most of my favorite big time directors have a deep catalog of varied movies. Like most people, I have seen what is considered their “important work.”  But what about their other movies?  What about the movies that hide on their IMDb pages, snuggling in between their hits?  So here are a few omissions that I aim to rectify.  There is no real reason that I have missed these movies until now; they have just slipped between the cracks.

Until now.

People love themselves some Stanley Kubrick.  He was one of those directors who directed, like, two movies a decade, and when one of his new projects was coming out, people got really, really excited. I remember when Eyes Wide Shut was about to be released- there had been stories of Kubrick’s eccentric behavior, that it would be a near-porn, that the filming had gone something like a year over schedule.  Then he died before it was released! The curiosity was at a fever pitch for a movie that ultimately sucked.  But the point is, Kubrick was able to generate a whole lot of interest with zero participation in the promotion game.

The movies I will look at are from early in his career, before he became STANLEY KUBRICK.  Absent (for the most part) are his trademarks- the Kubrick stare (a facial closeup of an unraveling character in which the character’s head is tilted down and his eyes are tilted up), the epic length (although Lolita fits that bill), and the use of pre-recorded music as a soundtrack.

Here is an idea of where I stand on the Kubrick movies I have seen.

Loved:  Dr. Strangelove, 2001:  A Space Odyssey, The Shining, the first half of Full Metal Jacket

Liked: Spartacus, A Clockwork Orange, the second half of Full Metal Jacket

Hated:  Eyes Wide Shut

So let’s take a look at Paths of Glory, Lolita, and The Killing.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Is it better to attempt accents or just bail on the idea altogether?  In Paths of Glory, which is about the French army during World War I, they decided to not even try to go French. Instead, we have British, American, and so forth.

I don’t know- it seems like when an actor tries an accent, it is a risky proposition.  Think of Costner in Robin Hood, or Tom Cruise in Far and Away. Is it better to try for that authenticity, or just throw in the towel and get on with the plot of the movie?  Kirk Douglas, who plays the French colonel who is at the center of the action in Paths of Glory, doesn’t even bother. It is probably the right idea.

Then there is Jake Gyllenhaal, who is an American actor doing a British accent as a middle-eastern character in Prince of Persia:  The Sands of Time.   Not sure what to do about that info.

Paths of Glory is pretty awesome early Kubrick.   I was under the impression that it would be primarily a “soldiers in battle” movie, but instead the battle scenes are fairly brief and early on. Instead, this is a movie about passing the buck, about scapegoating to avoid blame for failure in battle.

As such, Paths of Glory is more relatable that most war movies. Everyone can understand the idea of those in charge blaming their subordinates for their bad decisions- this is a phenomena not relegated to the military, nor World War I.  And Kubrick’s stance here is fairly obvious- his villain, General Mireau opens the movie by accepting a no-win mission for his troops solely for his own promotion. He then goes on to slap a shell-shocked soldier and denying the existence of post-traumatic syndrome, followed by ordering the bombing of coordinates where he knows his own troops are.  Oh yeah, then he lies about the whole thing and demands a court martial and execution of randomly picked grunt soldiers to take the blame for the failure of the mission which was based on his decisions.

He doesn’t twirl his moustache or tie a damsel in distress to traintracks, but he may as well have.  Yeah, this movie is pretty anti-war, and an extremely effective example of the genre.

My only other observation is that Kirk Douglas has a pretty severe chin cleft, emphasized by Kubrick’s patented close-ups throughout.

Rating: Loved

Lolita (1962)

Having never seen this, but knowing what it was about, I was wondering how a 1962 movie was going to pull off the subject matter.  How could they do a nearly three hour (for it is so- Kubrick’s first epic?) meditation on near-pedophilia?  The guy who wrote the book (Vladimir Nabokov) also did the screenplay, so I doubted there would be some sort of plot-shifting compromise, such as advancing the age of Lolita from 14 to 18 or some such.   So… did Kubrick and Co. pull it off?

Pretty much, and they did it by being very, very delicate.  Kubrick basically only hints at the main character’s (Professor Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason) desires for 14-year-old Lolita, who makes her first appearance sunning herself in a bikini, sucking on a heart-shaped lollipop.  Kubrick actually has the character of Lolita always sucking or blowing on something, one of the ways he suggests rather than overtly shows carnality in this movie.  And it comes off as pretty funny.

Yeah, this movie reminded me how funny Kubrick can be.  The drill sergeant’s tirades in Full Metal Jacket, the escalating madness of Jack Torrance in The Shining, the sheer weirdness of the Droog’s world in A Clockwork Orange– these all were big laugh-providers at pretty dark shit.  And laughs don’t get darker than an adult falling in love with a minor and marrying her mother to stay close to her.

Shelly Winters plays mother, and man, does she come off as a pain in the ass. One of the hilarious things that Kubrick does is show exactly how Humbert feels about her.  He frames the three of them at a drive-in horror movie, with Humbert sitting in the middle.  A scary part hits, and both mom and daughter put their hands on his thigh for comfort.  Humbert removes the mom’s hand and clasps both of his hands on Lolita’s.

He does this a lot- subtly (and I guess sometimes not so subtly) hinting rather than showing.  Here are some of the things I noticed and laughed at:

  • The mother offers Humbert a cherry pie at the exact moment that he first sees Lolita in her bikini.
  • Humbert makes a sandwich for Lolita, “loaded with mayonnaise, just how you like it.”
  • As the mother begins to nag at Humbert, he picks up a nutcracker and violently cracks a nut.
  • When the mother is trying to tell Humber how she feels about him, she says, “When you touch me, I go limp as a noodle.”  His response:  “I know the feeling.”
  • Finally, the mom decides to send Lolita away to summer camp.  The name of that camp is Camp Climax for Girls.  Come on!

One more thing needs to be mentioned, and that is Peter Seller’s role as the writer Clare Quilty.  I’m not sure this performance fits in this movie, but… wow.  No one ever mentions this role for Sellers- I didn’t even know he was in it.  But what you get here is one of those Swing-For-The-Fences, Crazy-As-Hell, Nicolas Cage in the 80s performances.  I wrote about spin-offs a couple days ago, and this is a character I would like to see in a spin-off (although the ending of Lolita might make that difficult).

Rating:  Liked

The Killing (1956)

I guess The Killing is the most un-Kubricky movie I have seen. It is a pretty straightforward film noir about a crew of petty criminals knocking over a racetrack. Yeah, I’ve seen this type of movie a whole bunch of times, but I am a sucker for a good Heist Movie (almost as much as for an Inspirational Sports Movie or a Prison Movie). And The Killing is a pretty good one, but it is more than that- I saw a lot of things in this that were the inspiration for later movies.

Sterling Hayden (the policeman who gets shot in the throat at the Italian restaurant in The Godfather) plays the main criminal, the guy who hatches the plan.  These types of movies always make me feel like I should hatch a plan, mainly so I can use the expression “hatch a plan.”  But I digress. The plan is already in motion as the movie opens, and Kubrick uses one of those flat narrators to keep the audience up-to-date on who is who and where we are in terms of the clock.

This being a noir, we get some of that great hardboiled dialogue (“You got a great big dollar sign where most dame’s have hearts”) and, of course, a femme fatale.  In fact, this particular femme fatale, Sherri, is the downfall of the entire plan.  This got me to thinking- at least in his movies, Kubrick doesn’t seem to think much of women.

Women in a Stanley Kubrick movie exist to be bitches (The Killing, Lolita), temptresses (Lolita again, Eyes Wide Shut), physically tortured (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining), or almost completely absent (Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and Full Metal Jacket).  No judgment- just an observation.

The Killing is everything you’d want from this type of movie- it moves fast, the plan is clever, and the characters are great.  The whole idea was “borrowed” wholesale by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs, and the clown mask that Hayden wears during the final robbery looks exactly like the ones worn by the Joker and his crew at the beginning of The Dark Knight.

I also liked the cruel irony of the ending, as Hayden is so close to escape, but the airline won’t let him carry his bag of money aboard because it is too big for carry-on. Man, can I relate.

Rating:  Liked


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