No director seems less likely to inspire consensus than the late Stanley Kubrick, who would have turned 80 this year. He left behind a body of just 13 features, and as Kubrick himself noted, none was embraced unanimously. Skatepunks who worship the hardcore jollies of A Clockwork Orange wouldn't sit through Barry Lyndon without needle-propped eyelids. And yet the same voracious intellect, sardonic wit and, yes, skeptical humanism run through all his films. In Kubrick's movies, men attempt to rule themselves and their passions with the inhuman precision of machines, while the machines they build—doomsday devices, all-seeing computers, aversion therapies, governments, armies—take on their makers' fallibility. The most foolish thing in a Stanley Kubrick film, from the racetrack noir The Killing to the hugely underrated erotic nocturne Eyes Wide Shut, is a foolproof plan.
Over the next six weeks, The Belcourt presents the entire Kubrick feature repertoire—including a free, likely never-to-be-repeated showing of his 1953 debut Fear and Desire, the film he hoped would stay hidden. (Not available on DVD, it screens 4:30 p.m. Sunday at The Frist Center courtesy of the invaluable George Eastman House archives.) That gives local moviegoers an unprecedented chance to immerse themselves in his wide-ranging work. Not even the Scene's pool of writers could agree on a single Kubrick masterpiece—hence the cases below for five must-see films.
Adapted from the one Stephen King novel even non-fans agree is great, The Shining (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) may be the most recognizable film in Kubrick's broad pantheon. King's readers (and King himself) have long criticized the director for stripping away the novel's nuanced exposition and the redemption of its central character. But the movie's desolate imagery and near-perfect casting make it the most chilling tale of cabin fever in American cinema. With its labyrinthine corridors and forebodingly gargantuan Gold Room, the fictitious Overlook Hotel—a setting that evokes the tilt of a diseased mind as surely as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—functions as the movie's most sinister character. Kubrick stalks its hallways in long, grandiose tracking shots: Impatient viewers may find them excessive, but the hypnotic takes suck us into the nightmare.
Kubrick was known for his demands upon actors: Of Shelley Duvall, he reportedly ordered 127 takes of her breakdown with a baseball bat. But his perfectionism paid off. Her doe-eyed countenance and country-mouse delivery are strangely mesmerizing; Jack Nicholson's troubled alcoholic writer remains one of the most identifiable (and heavily parodied) characters of all time; and the small but entrancing cast is rounded out by Scatman Crothers as the ill-fated sage in cook's clothing and the wunderkind Danny Lloyd, who mysteriously never again appeared on the silver screen. However much King's fans balk at his changes, Kubrick turned the haunted-house movie into a relentless glide down all-too-real corridors of sickness. —D. Patrick Rodgers
The conventional wisdom regarding Full Metal Jacket (Nov. 5-6), Kubrick's 1987 adaptation of Gustov Hasford's The Short-Timers, is that the film is lopsided and front-loaded. Split into two parts, with the first half focusing on the central character's infantry training and the second on his tour in Vietnam, Kubrick creates an arch showing his soldiers' dehumanizing progress from "ladies" to trained killers. If the first half outshines the second, it's mostly because of R. Lee Ermey's movie-stealing performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, whose wickedly vitriolic degradation of his troops into kill-on-command clockwork oranges (especially Vincent D'Onofrio's doughboy Gomer Pyle) pushes the film into black-comic Dr. Strangelove territory (see below). However, the back half attempts a riskier if less entertaining effect, essentially undoing the first half's conditioning by removing our narrative bearings and reducing comrades and enemies alike to braying, gutshot humanity. Like Coppola adapting Conrad's Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now, Kubrick equates the Vietnam war with American imperialism and folly. Case in point: The film's final sequence of troops marching into the night singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme—an ending as anti-climactic as the end of the war itself. —Adam Gold
Dapperly coordinated hoodlums, ultraviolence, drug-laced milk, the demolition of classical ideals—Kubrick's darkly marvelous A Clockwork Orange (Nov. 13-14) will always hold great appeal for us counterculture youth. In Malcolm McDowell's Alex, we get a smirking deviant who spouts highly quotable Russo-Cockney slang, has a thing for Beethoven, and scratches his malicious itch with gang rumbles, assault on the elderly, theft, rape and murder. We empathize with our attractive, charismatic antihero as he goes from thrill-seeking reprobate to convicted murderer to behavior-modified marionette; we rejoice when he emerges as an insincerely reformed criminal. In essence, we delight in all the elements that shocked and outraged the generations before us—as the movie did in 1971, when Kubrick became the poster boy for nihilistic mayhem. And if we didn't watch it in defiance of their moral values, we'd watch it simply because, from script to sets to costumes to soundtrack, it's so damn stylish.
To be sure, there are moral issues in there somewhere, about mechanical "good" vs. free will and blah blah blah. Anthony Burgess' book is much better for all that. The appeal of the film is the mirror we fancy it holds up to us: cool, cultured, ruthless youth with a lust for extreme overindulgence, punished by society for defying its laws yet ultimately glorified for doing so. Punk on arrival, Kubrick's movie will always be adored by us vain young intellectuals. So here's to violence, sex, drugs and Beethoven rolling back over. As Alex would say: horrorshow. —Sarah Brown
An object of widespread derision back in 1975—anyone remember the Mad magazine parody "Borey Lyndon?"—Kubrick's magisterial Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon (Nov. 15-17) now stands as one of his greatest and most savagely ironic films, not to mention one of the few period pieces on celluloid so transporting that it seems to predate the invention of cameras. For this 18th century mock-epic of a rake's progress and punishing downfall, Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott used NASA-caliber lenses to capture the sense of a world untouched by electric light. At first Ryan O'Neal, then Hollywood's reigning male ingénue, seems too contemporary for Barry, the Irish scoundrel who marries into fortune after a string of picaresque wartime adventures—all rendered with the director's usual high regard for military posturing and institutional bombast. But O'Neal's gauche inability to fit into his surroundings ultimately suits the role.
In his late films, Kubrick experimented with abrupt breaks in story and tone. Here, the title card that announces the grim second half is essentially a coffin lid slamming on boisterous Part One, as Barry's one act of mercy guarantees his slippage into oblivion. With a god's-eye omniscience echoed by Michael Hordern's narration, Kubrick uses slow reverse zooms to move from the human dramas at the forefront, long discarded by history, to recreations of the landscape paintings that endured. The film's greatness can make a viewer feel like a speck in the cosmos—like Barry, who shrinks down to one tiny particle in Kubrick's featherbed of light, then vanishes altogether. —Jim Ridley
The tag "black comedy" gets thrown around quite a bit without much thought about what it means. If a film marries grim and funny in reasonably equal doses, perhaps it qualifies. But some genres are best construed by example, and as black comedy goes, Dr. Strangelove (Dec. 13-15) borders on definitive. Based on Peter George's novel Red Alert about the ultimate premise for hilarity—accidental nuclear war—Strangelove weathers the decades so nimbly by aiming its satirical missile at the timeless (alas) conjunction of military-industrial paranoia and insanity. The film for many is best remembered for Peter Sellers' remarkable trio of roles as a British military officer, the U.S. president and the sinister uni-gloved Dr. Strangelove himself. But certainly Slim Pickens' celebrated A-bomb ride to kingdom come (which would have been Sellers' fourth role but for apprehensions about cowboy accents) leaves an indelible impression, not least of all on Russia. Writing in 1964 for The New York Times, reviewer Bosley Crowther summed up Strangelove as "the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across." Was he describing the film, or anticipating its upcoming Best Picture Oscar loss to My Fair Lady? —Bruce Barry
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