Director Stanley Kubrick is one of the more paradoxical of major filmmakers. A photographer who became a self-taught movie maker in search of a realist style (Killer's Kiss), Kubrick would eventually become a dedicated formalist making epics (Barry Lyndon). Although he was an American director who began by shooting in real locations (The Killing), he spent most of his late career in a self-imposed hermitage in England inventing locations for his pictures (Full Metal Jacket).While Kubrick is an acclaimed auteur (2001: A Space Odyssey), his films rarely got good reviews when they were released (Eyes Wide Shut). Controversy continually followed him (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange), too.
Given the perplexities of Kubrick's relatively small body of work, Cinema Scope and Grid Weekly film critic Adam Nayman, who has previously lectured on other controversial directors such as Paul Verhoeven and Catherine Breillat at the JCC Miles Nadal in Toronto, tonight begins a fascinating epic exploration into the long contradictory shadow that Kubrick has cast over the last half-century of American film-making. The Kubrick series is being held every Monday night until June 25th from 7-9pm. Adam and I recently had the opportunity to talk about the series and why he believes that Stanley Kubrick's work still continues to matter thirteen years after his death.
kc: Given the paradoxical career Kubrick had what attracted you to building a lecture series around him?
an: Whatever one's opinions of his movies, Stanley Kubrick had one of the major filmmaking careers of the 20th century, and I figured he'd be as good a candidate for this sort of in-depth study as anybody. The fact that so many people showed up for what were basically mini-auteurist studies for my other classes seemed to bode well for something bigger and more ambitious. And the fact that Kubrick was Jewish made it a good fit with the JCC, though there's not much to say about that aspect of his work: there would have been more if he'd ever made The Aryan Papers, of course. There's no real "hook" to the class – no major anniversary, no new discovery of any previously unknown work, no impending remakes of any of his films. It did strike me, though, that Eyes Wide Shut is fifteen years old this summer, which means it's been fifteen years since I saw it in a small theatre in Minden, Ontario – the first time I'd seen a Kubrick movie in a theatre! I've since seen most of his films in a theatre at least once, and while he's not my all-time favourite director, I'm hard-pressed to think of another filmmaker whose work can be so overpowering when it bears down on you from the big screen. So I thought that trying to take that style apart, scene by scene, would be fascinating – I only wish I could be showing my clips on a huge screen instead of a medium-sized projector.
kc: It does seem ironic that Kubrick has to have the small screen treatment. Given that you've already done talks on a number of controversial filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven, Roman Polanski and Catherine Breillat – How would you similarly characterize Stanley Kubrick?
an: Well A Clockwork Orange was certainly controversial in the moment of its release, as was Eyes Wide Shut (the last American studio film seriously threatened with an NC-17). But Kubrick was never really any kind of oppositional figure; he worked within the Hollywood establishment, with big stars and big budgets, where most of the other directors on that list had to migrate from the margins to the mainstream (if they made it there at all). In a way, the director he's most like from my previous series is Woody Allen in that he fought for and achieved total creative independence and distance while making the movies he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them – and never got called on the carpet for how he spent studio money. A better word for Kubrick than "controversial" might be "polarizing" since so many critics were hostile to his films upon their release – and then usually changed their mind just in time to use the last film as a club to pound the new one. He also got his share of rave reviews too, though most of the most substantial appreciations were years after the fact.
|The "Kubrick Mask" in The Killing|
kc: When I look at Kubrick's early work – like The Killing and Paths of Glory – there's an interesting mix of documentary realism and formal style. How significant a combination was that to his first films?
an: Kubrick's work as a photographer was marked by its blend of seeming spontaneity and obviously composed aestheticism, and I think that tension animates Killer's Kiss and even The Killing. Killer's Kiss is a kind of visual record of New York in the mid 1950s with interstitial bits patterned on Look magazine photo essays, and yet it's also a surreal, dreamlike film; he finds a way to shoot the city that's at once true to its geography and heightened so that it becomes a sort of psychic space. Forty-five years later, he got the same effect with his recreation of New York in Eyes Wide Shut – another story of jealousy and obsession (with an almost identical scene in which a man watches his beloved sleeping and dreaming). I've always found it interesting that a director with such a supreme visual facility insisted on documentary narration even when he moved to his features; in The Killing it's a necessary component of the time-shifting plot (inconsistencies and all) but moving forward, it's a bit odd: Kubrick's images are so loquacious that they don't seem to need that sort of authoritative explanation. On the other hand, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon merely retain the first-person storytelling mode of their source material.
|Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty in Lolita|
an: His masterstroke was shifting the focus from the Humbert/Lolita relationship to the Humbert/Quilty relationship – making in it effect a film about that duality I alluded to earlier. Not only did this honour one of Nabokov's most sensitively (and hilariously) developed themes – the contrasts between Humbert Humbert (the redundantly named mope) and Clare Quilty (whose moniker suggests a patchwork identity of quick changes and impersonations) – but it also made sense given the fact that he'd have never been allowed to adequately stage the eroticism of the book – or make a movie long enough to encompass all of the regional, European-abroad satire. By making it a movie about a man obsessively pursuing his own grotesque mirror image, Kubrick communicated much of what made Lolita the book so brilliant and enduring: the shot of Quilty being gunned down from behind the painting (a change from the book, where he dies on the stairs) is an eloquent, economical visualization of the idea that art (and Humbert is nothing if not a frustrated artist) can be a facade placed over our base desires. I think it's brilliant.
kc: I agree. Although I enjoyed some of the clever anti-war satire of Dr. Strangelove; in fact, preferred it to the more earnest Fail-Safe, I was still left feeling uneasy by the picture's cozy acceptance of military madness – Do you feel that Strangelove marked a turn in Kubrick's work?
|Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper|
|The final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey|
kc: But it's from 2001: A Space Odyssey onward, I think Kubrick's work becomes more formal and abstract and, for myself, less emotionally engaged with the subject than in his previous films – Is there a significant change in his style of working from 2001 onward?
an: I would agree with that assessment insofar as the work definitely becomes more formal; the difference is that I don't see that as an inherently bad thing – so long as the approach lines up with the material. In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which takes a macrocosmic view, that sort of remove is totally germane, and doesn't mute the underlying themes in my opinion. I think that 2001 takes off from the apocalyptic pondering of Dr. Strangelove and expands upon Kubrick's eternal theme of grand systems malfunctioning; it's another film about humanity at the mercy of the technology it has developed. And yet I have always found it an optimistic and oddly tender movie, especially in the scenes where Bowman watches himself going through the stages of aging and senescence – a visual cue that was echoed later in the last scene of The Sopranos (David Chase copped to the steal in an interview). In terms of changing his working style, I think 2001 made Kubrick feel like he could achieve anything he wanted on a technical level – and it's hard to argue with that sense of confidence considering how brilliantly achieved most of the film's visual and sonic (and musical) effects are. With the possible exception of Citizen Kane, 2001 is probably the most oft-cited and parodied American movie ever made.
|Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange|
an: Well the question of how "insulated" Kubrick was from the real world remains very much open: most of his biographers and close family members and friends describe him as a social, gregarious person who just happened to value his privacy and preferred living in England. Unlike Orson Welles or Luis Bunuel, Kubrick was a voluntary exile, and I don't doubt that removing himself from the epicentres of American filmmaking – namely Los Angeles – gave him an increased sense of autonomy and freedom, the very things he'd always valued most even before his move. Certainly, there's a hermeticism in his work – a sense of self-containment – that seems to tie into him living and working on his own terms. I suspect that many filmmakers – if not the majority – envy the kind of space that he carved out for himself and would probably cite it as a major factor in why his films seemed to stand apart from so much of what was being produced in that same budget range.
kc: Perhaps the other element that bothers me more about his later films – like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining – is how he dramatically alters the meaning of the novels they're based on. For instance, rather than a satire on the cost of conformity, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange presents the psychopath as the only real human being in the picture. The Shining becomes a metaphysical study of evil rather than a thriller about a writer driven to act out his latent violence due to cabin fever. Why do think he feels inclined to alter the material in the manner that he does?
|Jack Nicholson in The Shining|
kc: How do you think Kubrick's Vietnam War film, Full Metal Jacket, compares to other film studies on the conflict?
|R. Lee Ermey drilling the grunts in Full Metal Jacket|
kc: You've included his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in your series. I couldn't see how he could adapt an early 20th Century Freudian novel (Dream Story) about imagined infidelity and make the behaviour believable in a contemporary context – What do you think attracted him to adapting Schnitzler's novel as a contemporary story and how does it work for you?
|Kubrick directing Sydney Pollack and Tom Cruise|
kc: It's been thirteen years now since Kubrick's death. Do you think his legacy is still alive today, and which directors best reflect that legacy?
|director David Fincher|
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.