Hooray for Kubes

6/09/2010

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By Christian Wilkinson

IF notoriously demanding director Stanley Kubrick was still alive (he died of natural causes in 1999 aged 70), he would have hit the ripe old age of 82 on July 26, 2010.


While 82 isn’t generally regarded as a milestone figure, this blog isn’t waiting for a round number to come up before paying tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. 



Kubrick’s vision and dedication produced one of the most individual and recognisable styles of any filmmaker. 


His framing was exquisite: he favoured carefully laid-out symmetrical images to turn a scene’s background into a work of art in itself. 


Check out the job interview scene at the start of The Shining to see how Kubrick could turn an otherwise ordinary scene into something extraordinary.


His attention to detail was unrivalled, forbidding staff to touch sets between shoots to maintain strict continuity, endless reshoots of scenes until they met Kubrick’s approval as well as other methods that tested the patience of cast and crew.


This attention to detail meant Kubrick released only 13 feature films over a career of almost 50 years, but what he lacked in prolificacy he made up for in quality (a more noble outcome). 


He also touched on just about every genre in that set of 13.


Almost every Kubrick film was adapted from a novel except his first two films and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which became a novel afterwards with Arthur C Clarke.


 


Born 1928 in New York, Kubrick received a camera for his 13th birthday, becoming a keen amateur photographer and picking up a job as an apprentice photographer at 17. 


A keen moviegoer, Kubrick decided film was the way forward, self-financing his first film, 1951 boxing documentary Day of the Fight, before being commissioned to produce several documentary shorts.


His first feature was 1953’s Fear and Desire, the first of many war-related films made by Kubrick mainly in the first half of his career. His stubbornly dedicated methods claimed their first victim: first wife Toba Metz had left before shooting was complete.

Following 1955 thriller Killer’s Kiss and 1956 crime flick The Killing, he directed his most high-profile film yet, war film Paths of Glory (1957) with Kirk Douglas, who invited Kubrick to direct historical epic Spartacus (1960). 


It was here Kubrick’s notoriety as a control freak came to the attention of industry people. 


Instead of being daunted by the scale of his new venture, Kubrick took charge of just about every facet of the film, reputedly instructing highly-respected cinematographer Russell Metty to sit down and stay out of the way while Kubrick took control of all the photography (funnily enough, Kubrick’s work scored idle Metty a Oscar for Best Cinematographer).


Kubrick moved to England in 1961, where his career shifted up a gear with the release of a couple controversial films now regarded as classics: 1962’s age-gap relationship story Lolita (Kubrick bumped up Lolita’s age from 12 in the novel to 14 on screen) and 1964 black comedy Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which boldly used nuclear holocaust as a platform for comedy.


Between the late 60s and mid-80s, he had honed his methods and style resulting in an unmatched run of classic films, all essential viewing for film lovers, and including arguably the greatest films of the colour era in the genres of horror and science fiction.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) 

 

It’s amazing to think the film that tops many film fans’ greatest-ever lists only picked up a Best Special Effects Oscar. 


It didn’t even get a Best Picture nod, and Kubrick lost Best Director to Carol Reid for musical Oliver! Not that Kubrick would have cared too much.


Co-written with science fiction luminary Arthur C Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey is unrivalled in scope in terms of time (its starts in prehistoric times before moving to the then-futuristic year of the title), space (the stargate sequence takes us beyond the known universe) and some crazy metaphysical stuff transcending both time and space.


Psychotic computer HAL is the film’s most famous element, and he/it is an incredible creation that must have blown them away in the 60s, but Hal's story is just one of the film’s threads.


Divided into three parts, the film has long, long sections without any dialogue at all, including the entirety of the final act. 


2001 probably has the best example of Kubrick’s habit of using previously composed music that would at first seem an odd choice for scoring certain scenes (in this case, The Blue Danube during the shuttle dock sequence) but would prove to be an inspired choice.


Yes, it’s challenging and tough to understand at first, but it only gets better with repeat viewings. Reading the book before returning to the film can also help. Or you can just cut yourself adrift and enjoy floating through the void, just like you were the victim of an articulated pod remote-piloted by a murderous computer.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)



There’s no mistaking the campy visual style and casual yet extreme violence of futuristic thriller A Clockwork Orange, or its iconic image of Malcolm McDowell’s eyeliner and bowler hat wearing protagonist Alex. 


Set in a dystopian future maybe a decade or two ahead of its time (the stolen car was named as a Durango 95, but the 95 is actually a model number, not a year of production as many assumed), A Clockwork Orange explores a culture of violent self-gratification, complete with some shockingly violent and sexual rape scenes. 


It’s this blurring of the edges between sex and violence that is perhaps the film’s most confronting element, especially as the thugs seem to be having a ball while committing these unspeakable acts.


The bold visual style makes the most of the brutalist architecture of the times combined with a lurid 70s-futuristic aesthetic in the décor and in some of the costumes. 


Kubrick used Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to starting effect not just as part of the score but as an plot element of the film, when Alex’s “reprogramming” produces the side effect of mental torture every time he hears his favourite piece of music. Singing in the Rain is also used in a way that would make Gene Kelly trip over his feet with shock.


Controversial for its violence, the film did inspire some copycat violence in Britain, and some of the soccer thugs of the day took up Alex’s look, prompting Kubrick to withdraw the film from British distribution until after his death.

Barry Lyndon (1975)



The relatively restrained tone and long running time of historical drama Barry Lyndon caused some murmurings of discontent from critics and audiences not quite prepared for Kubrick’s abrupt shift in style.


Ryan O’Neill put in an understated but compelling performance as the titular common man whose adventures in 18th century Europe culminate in his attempts to become part of the aristocracy through marriage to the Countess of Lyndon, much to the horror of the Countess’ young son from her first marriage Lord Bullingdon, who sees the commoner as a destructive influence.


A typically dark Kubrick affair, Barry Lyndon gains from Kubrick’s tight control of photography and his penchant for innovative shooting techniques. 


The film has some visually splendid sequences, including some shot with no electric lighting whatsoever, relying on candlelight to provide illumination. 


The opportunistic purchase of some rare old film cameras with unique lenses helped Kubrick set new standards in working with light.

The Shining (1980)



For many the best horror movie of the colour era, haunted-hotel story The Shining could be Kubrick’s greatest visual achievement, with his framing and use of colour rising to new heights to make every scene an individual work of art. 


And what terrifying art it is. 


The twin ghost girls will burn themselves into your mind for their sheer creepiness. The wraith woman in the shower recess is even worse. 


The elevator releasing the tidal wave of blood is disturbing in it’s hyper-real depiction of a surreal nightmare sequence. 


Gun actor Jack Nicholson put in possibly the most iconic performance of his career as caretaker Jack Torrance, driven to insanity and murder by malevolent supernatural forces.


Despite it’s surreal nature, Kubrick’s film actually toned down some of the more fantastical elements of horror author supremo Stephen King’s story, though King was reportedly unimpressed by Kubrick’s liberties with his novel.

That King didn’t like it is somewhat surprising (and disappointing for fans of both masters of their crafts), as it is perhaps the only King film adaptation to hit similar artistic heights to it's corresponding novel.

Late Career



It was another seven years before visceral Vietnam flick Full Metal Jacket came out in 1987, representing a return to the war genre that Kubrick favoured early in his career. 


It remains an excellent film, though perhaps not as stone-cold classic as the preceding films, but well beyond the capabilities of ordinary directors.


1999 thriller Eyes Wide Shut with then-married coupleTom Cruise and Nicole Kidman was Kubrick’s last completed film, polarising audiences as Kubrick often did. Kubrick said it was his best film, but there's a good chance he was just being his irascible self when he made that comment.

Kubrick began working on dark robot Pinocchio tale Artificial Intelligence: AI but died in his sleep of a heart attack on March 7, 1999. 


Steven Spielberg took over the project, but Kubrick’s influence can be clearly seen in the first half hour, particularly when robot boy David malfunctions in truly creepy fashion at the dinner table.

Hooray for Kubes. We are richer for having known him. Go and watch his stuff.


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