Saturday, August 06, 2005

Strike while the irony is hot

The films of Stanley Kubrick

At first thought, it seems a little strange to be compiling a list of my Top 10 Kubrick films - after all, the man only made some 16 films in his life, and I personally have only seen 12 of them, so it's not like picking out the top 10 is much of a challenge* - not like picking my top 10 Bergman films (an impossible task) or my top 10 Woody Allen films (a task I will eventually get to). The reason it's a feasible task (aside from the vicarious thrill of having to rank order the films) is the incredible quality of Kubrick's work. It's a tribute to the man's talent that every single one of these movies listed below genuinely deserve to be in a top 10 - you could add a hundred movies by Kubrick's american contemporaries to the sample, and most of these movies would still be up there.

Here, then, are my top 10 Kubrick films:

1. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I stopped worrying and learned to Love the Bomb

Forty years after it was first released, Dr. Strangelove remains both the funniest and most powerful indictment of nuclear warfare ever made. Dr. Strangelove is the very definition of dark humour - a movie that both chills you to the bone and makes you laugh out loud with its sheer insanity; a movie that takes every cliche, every stereotype about the heroism of war and turns it on its head. The undoubtable star of the movie is, of course, Peter Sellers, who plays a multiplicity of roles - the most chilling of which is the part of Dr. Strangelove, the former Nazi scientist who comes to personify the evil mania that drives men to world annihilation. Dr. Strangelove isn't a long part - in the entire movie he's probably on screen for all of ten minutes - but the mad evil he generates in those minutes is enough to make him one of the most memorable screen villains of all time. Don't miss also, George C Scott's incredible performance as a paranoid, narrow-minded general (a wonderful inversion of his role as Patton) and Sterling Hayden's hilariously understated performance as Brig Gen Jack D Ripper, the man who sets off nuclear Armageddon because he's convinced that flourination of water is a dirty commie plot to rob him of his sexual potency!

2. A Clockwork Orange

As a general rule, I'm always sceptical of great books that have been made into movies - I find that rarely, if ever, does the film manage to match up to the brilliance of novel (just watch Peter Jackson's travesty of LOTR and you'll get the picture). There are only three exceptions** to that rule that I've come across so far - and the most notable one is Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. If someone had told me, before I watched this masterpiece, that any film could do justice to Burgess's incredible, visionary novel, I would have laughed. Yet justice is precisely what Kubrick does - Clockwork Orange is as mind-altering, savage and beautiful as the book it is based on. Overflowing with sublime music, the film has a dream-like, nightmare-like quality; scenes that will burn themselves onto your brain forever, a sense of sick, almost nauseous elation, the feeling of being high on something. I won't say that the film enhances the experience of the book - that would be too much to ask - but it certainly helps make clearer and starker what you thought you had imagined when you read it.

3. Full Metal Jacket

I've already talked about Full Metal Jacket in an earlier post, so I won't spend too much time on it now. Suffice to say that this is Kubrick at his visual and allegorical best. The humour here is subtler than in Dr. Strangelove, the overall feel of the movie is more sombre and serious, but Full Metal Jacket remains a scathing critique of war and one of the most compelling and moving films ever made about the struggle in Vietnam.

4. Lolita

It would be tempting to say that Kubrick does as good a job with Nabokov's Lolita as he does with A Clockwork Orange - but it just isn't true. In the end, Nabokov is too rich, too fertile a writer to be trapped in any film, no matter how well made, and Kubrick's movie fails, overall, to deliver both the intelligence and the deeply emotional aestheticism of the book (despite having Nabokov to do the screenplay!). The problem is simply that much of richness of Nabokov is in his prose, and all the wonderful scene settings in this film are a poor substitute for the sheer splendour of his language.

For all that, Lolita is an exceptional film, that pales only when compared to the book it is based on. James Mason does a more than competent job as Humbert Humbert and Peter Sellers odd-ball appearance as the school psychologist as well as the writer makes for entertaining viewing. There are some beautiful scenes here - I found the ending particularly well done - and for those who are genuinely interested in Kubrick's work, this movie is a must watch.

5. Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon has to be the most under-rated of Kubrick's movies. I, for one, had never heard of it. Yet Barry Lyndon is an accomplished and compelling film, that traces the rise and fall of a young Irishman into and from the ranks of nobility. Based on a Thackeray novel (you can't fault Kubrick for his literary taste!) the movie is at once a telling satire of 18th century mores and manners, a hilariously funny romp and a sombre, almost symphonic exploration of the nature of human desire. This is probably Kubrick's quietest work - its final hour tinged with a sort of melancholy mellowness that seems quite out of character. Yet for all that it is a beautiful film, a wonderful meditation by a master at the peak of his form.

6. Paths of Glory

The third among Kubrick's great anti-war films, Paths of Glory is a less complex, less flamboyant film than any of Kubrick's later work, but for all that it packs a powerful emotional punch. Set in World War I, the film tells the story of three men who are to be executed for 'cowardice' in the face of the enemy because their entire regiment refused to follow out the suicidal task set them by their politically motivated general, and their CO's (played by Kirk Douglas, who manages not too over-act too much for a change) struggle to save these men from execution.

Paths of Glory is a bitter exploration of the politics of war, of young men sacrificed on the altar of old men's ambitions. Yet for Kubrick it is a surprisingly uncynical work - there is no mercy here, but there is justice, of a sort, and Kubrick takes a more humanistic view of the soldiers than he does in much of his later work. As the movie closes, we are shown a group of soldiers sitting in a bar, laughing and mocking a pretty young german girl who stands crying on stage, forced to serve as 'entertainment'. Just as your heart begins to harden against these pigs, however, the girl starts to sing, and the words of her song move these men first to silence, and then to tears. That's the message Kubrick leaves you with - that war is harsh and people can be heartless and cruel, but inside all these devils is a great font of suffering and as long as we are still able to connect to that crying inner self, we are still human.

7. 2001 A Space Odyssey

If you don't know much about Kubrick, you've probably been wondering when this was going to show up. 2001 is certainly one Kubrick's most acclaimed (if not the most acclaimed) works, but it's a movie that I personally have always been a little underwhelmed by. Okay, so I really loved the starting - Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra swelling from the speakers, that incredible, unforgettable vision of our ape ancestors. And much of the rest of the movie is well made too - the menace of HAL comes out incredibly clearly, and some of the scenes in space are brilliant.

Part of my problem with the movie, I suspect, is that I've never been a big fan of Arthur C Clarke (give me Asimov any day) so that the plot itself doesn't really move me. Plus I can't help feeling that of all of his movies this is the one in which Kubrick relies too much on visual spectacle rather than on character development and while the special effects in 2001 may have been quite impressive for their time - seen forty years later they seem quaint and clumsy. If the movie continues to be even as high as it is, it's primarily because I love the score and the way that the music sharpens the effect of the film (this is true in much of Kubrick - but it's especially true here).

8. The Shining

I'm not, in general, a big fan of horror films - largely because they either seem obvious and tacky (if they're bad), or they scare the hell out of me (if they're good). The truth is, I'm extremely susceptible to scary images - I had to give up TV for a week after I saw The Ring, because I was too afraid of turning it on and finding a blank screen staring back.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that after I watched The Shining I spent weeks either using the stairs or waiting till someone else was around before I pressed the button for the elevator. The Shining is a powerfully imagined, deeply visual film. The plot (taken from the Stephen King novel) is fairly stereotypical and unexciting - there are a few surprises, a few nice touches, but overall it's not quite Kubrick quality. But the movie has some scenes that are visually stunning and a superb performance by Jack Nicholson helps to vault this film pretty much to the top of the good horror films I've seen. There is none of the subtlety or humour that Kubrick usually brings to his craft here, instead there is just exceptionally good film craft - a powerful score that heightens the emotional impact of the film, some wonderful cinematography and scene after memorable scene that makes this movie a true classic.

9. The Killing

One of Kubrick's earlier films, The Killing is classic film noir. A group of unlikely men come together to plan and execute a daring race-track robbery. This is a classic suspense film - as the plans of the men are developed and go forward, the tension mounts and mounts. Kubrick catalogues in loving detail the events on the day of the robbery, drawing out the suspense, and finally releasing it in a massive explosion of an ending that is as fulfilling as it is dramatic.

There is, to be fair, very little of the Kubrick touch here. Oh, there are some stray touches of dark humour here and there, but overall this feels more like a Hitchcock film than a Kubrick. It's an eminently watchable and exciting film however, a brilliant demonstration of how, in the old days, you could create a tense crime thriller without having to resort to special effects of high octane action sequences.

10. Spartacus

Let me start by saying that I don't like Spartacus. It's not that it's not impressive - it's just that it represents precisely the sort of over-blown, formula film making that I love Kubrick for avoiding. If William Wyler had made this film, I would have applauded, coming from Kubrick, it feels like a betrayal.

The problem is that Spartacus is too larger than life a figure - Kubrick's great gift is for a denial of heroes - for creating characters who are as flawed and human as the rest of us, but who, in that crucial moment when it really matters, end up doing the right thing. Kirk Douglas' Spartacus is a travesty of this idea - a nauseatingly perfect figure, more ideal than man, more caricature than personality. Because of him, Spartacus is perhaps the only Kubrick movie that is, at least in part, actively insulting to an adult intelligence.

Having said that, it's not all bad. The action sequences are grand and entertaining enough, and the view of the political climate in Rome is so much richer and more sophisticated than you would find in the average epic (just watch Spartacus back to back with Gladiator, and you'll see what I mean). What saves the movie (and makes it come in at number 10 on this list) is all the scenes where Spartacus doesn't make an appearance. While Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons are busy hamming their way through their screen epic, there is a clever and more subtle battle being played out in the corridors of the Roman Senate, a battle in which Spartacus is little more than a pawn. The performances here, helped by an impeccable cast - Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier - are gripping and superb, and Spartacus's final irrelevance in this larger scene is perhaps the best and most cynical dark joke that Kubrick has ever played.

Unfortunately, it's a joke that's too long in coming, and having to watch Douglas prance and trip around the stage and spout idealistic homilies is not something I would wish on anyone. Watch this movie, if you watch it at all, for Laughton, who is superb - the quintessential senator of Rome's soon to decline empire.


* The two I've left out - Eyes Wide Shut (why? why? what was he thinking?) and Killer's Kiss (which is a fine enough movie in it's own way, but a little flat)

** The other two are a) the 1961 version of Guns of Navarone (just check out the cast) and David Lean's superb 1965 version of Doctor Zhivago .


Blogger anangbhai said...

Yes..The men died wonderfully!

Or as I like to call it...the shinnin'!

The one thing I absolutely love about Kubrick is his use, or rather nonuse of lights. The way he uses ambient lighting is genius, but I can never replicate that look.
I also liked how in the beginning the man was just a regular film director, nothing special, but all of a sudden he's doing personal cinema and it turns out to be even better than his earlier films.

9:49 PM  
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Come and see it when you get time.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Jabberwock said...

Excellent post. But you do know, don’t you, that Spartacus wasn’t a Kubrick film in the strictest sense? It was an ego project by Douglas as producer and Kubrick was hired only at the last minute, after the original director Anthony Mann had been fired. He didn’t have any real control over the project, though he still managed to inject some of his own favourite themes, like machines/mechanisation (represented here by the battalions of Roman soldiers) overwhelming humanity.

5:12 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

anangbhai: I know what you mean - that's why with some of his earlier films I'm always like "it's nice, but is it Kubrick".

anonymous: thanks.

jabberwock: No, I didn't know that, but suspected as much from the fact that Douglas was producer and the way the film played out - I mean it was pretty clear that large parts of it were just an ego-trip for Douglas. The reason I rant about it a little here is that I've met at least a couple of people who really like Kubrick because of Spartacus, and that's just WRONG!

9:08 AM  

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