Three Key Films: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Underrated: Full Metal Jacket (1987). A naturalistic tour into the dark heart of modern war, preceded by a disquieting tour into the darkness of the hearts that prepare our soldiers to survive there. The second section, on the front lines, a surreal sort of cinéma vérité, is more plodding than cathartic, which is probably the point. The first part of the film, devoted entirely to a group of Marine recruits at Parris Island, is a quicksilver tour de force—at turns riotous and harrowing. It is some of the most assured, affecting work of the decade: not too many movies can take you from hysterical laughter (the initial scenes where drill instructor R. Lee Ermey lambastes the boys is piss-your-pants funny) to disgust and, inevitably, despair. The blanket party scene, where the incompetent “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) is savaged by his fellow cadets lingers in the mind as one of the most disturbing scenes in movie history. It manages to illustrate a great deal about conformity, the military, the perceived necessity of truly breaking someone before they can function and what we must kill inside ourselves in order to survive. Most directors would inexorably play this scene for pathos; Kubrick films it matter-of-factly and his shrewd use of subtlety makes it many times more disturbing.
Unforgettable: Kubrick’s films are celebrated precisely for their myriad iconic moments, but if obliged to pick the single scene we could call “Kubrickian”, it would have to be the unforgettable sequence where “our humble narrator” Alex is given the Ludovico Technique. Presented as a revolutionary—and quite controversial—form of behavior modification, the subject is given a daily dose of medicine and obliged to endure scene after scene of depravity and violence. During one of the more intense treatments Alex—eyes forced upon with metal prongs—must watch Nazis marching while Beethoven, his favorite composer, plays on the accompanying soundtrack. He cringes and then screams as he realizes not only is he being “cured”, but listening to Ludwig Van (the one civilizing influence from his former life) will henceforth be verboten. The image is at once ironic, amusing and appalling, and speaks volumes about science, sadism and the ill-effects of cynical sociology. From A Clockwork Orange.
The Legend: Has any director covered more ground, stylistically and historically, than Stanley Kubrick? From Lolita (1962) to The Shining (1980) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999) he made movies from books few directors could—or would—even consider adapting for the big screen. Incredibly, he made movies thatarguably transcended the source material; however much viewers (or the original authors) loved or loathed them, they most definitely were not deferential reproductions of the text.
Kubrick is famous—or infamous—for his meticulous, some might claim obsessive quest for “the perfect shot”; anecdotes abound of actors being forced to produce take after take to the point of exhaustion or distraction. His control freak tendencies may have had a great deal to do with the fact that he “only” made thirteen films over the course of a career that spanned five decades. On the other hand, it’s difficult to name many directors who made as many works that are today considered masterpieces, or a director who is cited more frequently for his innovation and influence. Detractors have claimed that his perfectionism resulted in films that were too cold or clinical; some find his work pretentious. Interestingly, if not revealingly, his work has aged well and seems to attract more converts (inside and out of critical circles) than detractors.
Is it even necessary to review the films? There are none that are not worth seeing at least one time; there are several that can be watched anytime, and there are a handful that must be revisited often, for all the right reasons. Is it possible to get tired of a tour de force like Dr. Strangelove? Understanding that Kubrick intentionally asked George C. Scott to add one “over the top” take for each scene (knowing full well that those were the takes he planned to use) causes one to further appreciate the perfection. Speaking of irony, how about the use of Rossini during a rape scene, or Purcell post-modernized as early—and eerie—electronica in A Clockwork Orange?
Special mention, of course, must be made for 2001: A Space Odyssey. As time passes and computers make special effects ever easier to produce (and less satisfying to watch), the scope of what Kubrick achieved remains hard to fathom. It’s one thing to reasses an older film and marvel at how impressive it was for its time; we can—and should—watch 2001 and still be astonished, today. It’s probably not possible, nor is it important to isolate Kubrick’s best film. His ultimate achievement, aside from the steady craftsmanship and originality, might be the realization that Dr. Strangelove had to be a comedy. The novel he adapted, Red Alert was a dead-serious potboiler; Kubrick instinctively understood how poorly that would play on screen (at least in most director’s hands) but also how crucial it was to satirize. The results,equally a tribute to the considerable skills of that remarkable cast, are a testament to Kubrick’s intelligence and vision.
Where so many of our most renowned directors cultivate a particular style, Kubrick—perhaps because of his fixations—made movies about so many different people and places it seems impossible (in a good way) that the same man was responsible for them all. Of course, there are the familiar nuances and compulsive touches that connect certain moments as Kubrickian. There is the long, disconnected stare (think Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Jack from The Shining or Leonard from Full Metal Jacket). There is the soundtrack music: aside from Scorsese, has any other director made more songs indelibly associated with specific scenes? There is, above all, the irony. Some see pessimism, but attentive viewers understand that Kubrick, for all his precision, always removed himself from the acting and the action. If his films have moments that are more aesthetically perfect than emotionally convincing, Kubrick could never be accused of being cynical. Like our very best directors, he consistently conjures up other times and places while offering profound comment on the here and now.