Kubrick Films

Copyright © 2007, 2011 Glenn Story

A self portrait of Stanley Kubrick with his daughter, Jack Nicholson and the crew on the set of The Shining.

This is the moment I have been waiting for: the screen is filled with a sequence of breathtaking, but stark, still shots at sunrise. The lower-third key reads “Dawn of Man”. We hear the trumpet fanfare of the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

This is of course the opening sequence of 2001, a Space Oddesy, the great science-ficition classic by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. I am watching it in the course of watching all of Kubrick’s films from earliest to last.

2001 is one of my favorite films, partially because of the (now somewhat dated) science-fiction themes, but also because of its breathtaking visuals and use of classical music for the film score.

I originally saw 2001 when it first came out in the summer of 1968 (Am I dating myself?) at the Cinerama theater in Hollywood. I needed no introduction to Clarke; I had been reading his short stories and novels since I was a boy. Kubrick’s name, on the other hand was new to me. I had in fact seen one of his other movies earlier, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the satire on World War III. When I had seen Dr. Strangelove, I neither knew nor cared who the director was.

Later a co-worker convinced me I had to see The Shining, Kubrik’s oh-so-scary thriller, based on the Stephen King novel.

Shining, like 2001, makes extensive use of classical music, especially 20th Century classical music. I ended up getting the albums of both film’s music. I even got the album for A Clockwork Orange, a film I have not seen. It too uses classical music, but in this case mostly from the 19th Century.

Last year, my wife and I watched Kubrik’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, a dark and frank commentary on human sexuality. That film uses both rock music and classical music. Visually it is breathtaking as are the previous films I had seen. (When I say “visually breahtaking” I’m not necessarily talking about the naked women–although Kurbirk includes plenty of those. Rather I refer to the way he frames shots and the panoramic backgrounds he chooses. (Kubrick was a photographer before he became a director.)

Eyes Wide Shut made me realize fully what an artist Kubrick was–not just in that one film, but in all the films I had seen previously.

I decided to create my own miniature film festival and watch all of Kubrik’s films in chronological order.

I won’t critique each film. But I will say that it was fascinating to watch Kubrick’s career unfold. His career spans from the late 1940’s to the 1990’s — fully half a century. In watching these films, one can see the development of the film industry as a whole unfold as well as his own career.

His first two features are black-and-white film noir tales, one about a race-track robbery and a romance about a has-been boxer. These films are very commercial and don’t show the full artistic development that we will see in his later works. Yet, even here there is one attribute of great artists: Just as Beethoven deviated from classical symphonic form, Kurbrick violates the typical form of film noir by having a happy ending to the romantic film. (Many of you may know that I strongly prefer happy endings in romantic films.)

Soon the films are in color (starting, I believe, with Spartacus) and it isn’t long before we see the breathtaking scenery and picture composition that I have come to love about his work. It isn’t until 2001 that Kubrick starts using classical music exclusively for his film score.

But in addition to seeing the development of Kubrick’s style, there is also constant evidence of his artistry, for Kubrick truly is an artist.

Yet there is another constant theme throughout his films: sex and violence. Wait, you say, that’s exactly what people complain about in commercial movies. It cheapens them and makes them less artistic. True. And paradoxical.

Of course one can make films about sex or violence and treat those subjects in an artistic or intellectual way. I would argue that Eyes Wide Shut does just that with the subject of sex. And Kubrick’s war movies have an anti-war flavor to them which, at least in my view, ennobles them.

Yet it is clear that Kubrick (or at least his studio) exploits both sex and violence to boost sales. “How could they make a movie out of Lolita??!!” the headline screams in the trailer. That film, after all, was based on a novel about a man who seduces and has sex with a fourteen-year-old girl–taboo even now, and probably more so in the 1950’s when it was written.

So how did they make such a film? Well, first, Kubrick changed Lolita’s age from 14 to 17–still under-age, but only barely. Of course they show no explicit sex scenes or nudity–this was the 50’s after all. In fact they show no affection or touching between the couple at all. They never even kiss on screen. Reminds me of contemporary Bollywood movies.

This seems all very tame by today’s standards. Compare it to Eyes Wide Shut which contains lots of full frontal nudity, liberal use of the “F” word, and very explicit scenes. But for the 1950s Kubrick was pushing the envelope. Truth is, he was still pushing the envelope in the 1990s: there are scenes in Eyes Wide Shut that had to be toned down to qualify for an “R” rating.

Just as our culture has become more liberal regarding what can be shown about sex in a movie, so too have they gotten more liberal about the portrayal of violence. This can be seen as an increase in blood and gore from Kubrick’s early to his later films.

Let me be clear about my own values. (These are not intended to be moral judgments–I am merely expressing my own views.)

I don’t mind sex in movies. I generally don’t pick a movie for its sexual content, but if the content is there, it doesn’t bother me; in fact, to be frank, I often enjoy it. And anyway, I wouldn’t call any of Kubrick’s films “erotic”. They depict sex but don’t glorify it. I will say that if I see sex (or violence for that matter) in a movie that appears to be present just for commercial exploitation, then I feel, well, exploited.

Violence is an entirely other matter. I don’t like watching violence in movies. Period. the bloodier it is, the less I like it. As a matter of fact, I stopped watching Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange part way through and said “enough!”.

Because of my plan to watch all of Kubrick’s movies in order, we are about to watch Eyes Wide Shut a second time. Is there sex? Plenty! Violence? minimal and off-camera. Visually beautiful? You bet. Great music? I bought the soundtrack album. The movie’s flawed characters and dark tone make it a kind of latter-day film noir, and thus in the end, Kubrick has come full circle.

Steven Spielberg has said that he watches Kubrick films for inspiration and encourages other directors and would-be directors to do the same.

I have no desires to become a director. (I have directed single-camera ( i.e. movie-style) videos, and it was damned hard.)

But I do like to be entertained. And I enjoy and admire art in any form. Stanley Kubrick provides both.


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