Monday, April 16, 2012

Lens Wide Open: Adam Nayman Presents The Films of Stanley Kubrick at the Miles Nadal JCC

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?

Stanley Kubrick
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
kc: Even though Kubrick took certain liberties with Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, he definitely caught the comical erotic obsessions of the book  How do you think he achieved this?

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
an: I don't think the film is any cozier in its acceptance of military madness than Paths of Glory. It just pushes its depiction of power-mad generals and buck-passing subordinates further into the realm of burlesque, and looks to an uncertain, apocalyptic future instead of communing on the present through a presentation of a past war. If comedy can be a release valve for anxiety than I think Strangelove loosed the motherlode, but I actually think it's less subtle in its satire than some of Kubrick's subsequent work, and while I think Peter Sellers is absolutely phenomenal, some of the other performances tilt a bit too far in the direction of grotesque exaggeration (i.e. Sterling Hayden, who humps his one-note joke a little too hard). Its biggest impact career-wise was that it was a hit  a huge hit   and thus allowed Kubrick, at a very young age, to write his own ticket   and make a film like 2001.

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
kc: How do you think his increased insulation from the larger world affected his films?

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
an: In the case of A Clockwork Orange I tend to agree with you; Burgess' twenty-first chapter, which Kubrick omitted, offers a much more hopeful and humanistic conclusion than Kubrick's cynical climax, and it's no surprise that the author was miffed. I think that Kubrick's satirical impulses, so strong in Dr. Strangelove (and arguably later on in The Shining) got bound up in his typically contradictory attraction/repulsion to modernist aesthetics  the film is basically an exercise in seductive ugliness, and while I think there's real power in that combination, it's not a coherent work. I think that McDowell is remarkable insofar as he gave the performance Kubrick wanted from him  and yes, he's made to look better (by design) by the grotesquerie of the other performers. As for The Shining, I think Kubrick glommed onto the metaphysical potential of the story and didn't have time for King's psychodramatics: it's pulp horror via Alain Resnais. There's something high-handed about that approach, but since I find King such a turgid writer  and The Shining such an incredibly overwritten book  I can appreciate a lot about the film version, particularly its diabolical sense of humour. The miniature axe on Ullman's desk, for instance, or the Roadrunner cartoon on the television that presages Jack's demented pursuit of Danny  or even the casting of Jack Nicholson, who is so obviously harbouring homicidal thoughts that it's less about watching the character devolve into madness as simply waiting for the mask to drop.The Shining isn't "faithful" but I don't think it's a travesty, either. You can feel its impact on the last thirty years of horror filmmaking, which is doubly impressive since it owes no debts itself to earlier horror movies  whatever you think of Kubrick's effects in that picture, most of them were invented out of thin air (i.e. the elevator overflowing with blood, which is a truly surreal and unforgettable image). The exceptions  like those thrift-store skeletons near the end  are arguably part of the satirical conception, placing the silliness of those standard ghost-house tropes in stark relief. I don't think Kubrick got any sort of ego boost from bending the material he chose to work with to his will, but at the same time, I don't think he could ever have been self-effacing as a filmmaker  his manipulation of his source texts may not have been arrogant but it surely was deliberate.

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
an: Full Metal Jacket reminds me in some ways of Fred Wiseman's documentary Basic Training, an obvious influence: its power lies in the documentary quality of even its strangest moments. Structurally, I think Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick's most interesting film, and also his most misunderstood; I've always hated the idea that the second half is "worse" than the beginning or out of left field  there's a total continuity between the two parts, exemplified in something as small (but significant) as each segment's musical cues: the first begins with "Hello, Vietnam,"a farewell to a beloved female presence; the second with "These Boots are Made For Walking," an aggressively feminine track that counters the utter absence of women in the barracks segments. In some ways, Full Metal Jacket is a continuation/enlargement of Fear and Desire; its sniper is a descendant of the girl tied to the tree in the earlier film, a catalyst for the contradictory feelings of a platoon of soldiers. (The same can even be said of the warbling prisoner in the final scene of Paths of Glory). I don't think Full Metal Jacket has much to "say" about Vietnam; I think the war is a framework for the kind of metaphysical inquiry he was always making regardless of his chosen genre. Some might find that problematic; I myself think that the material in this case dovetailed more tightly with those concerns than it did in The Shining or A Clockwork Orange. I think it's an amazing movie  and that R. Lee Ermey's Sergeant Hartmann is the ultimate Kubrickian antagonist because he's so funny he's terrifying, and vice versa. And unlike the grotesques in A Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut, he's not really an invention  watch Fred Wiseman's Basic Training to see how closely Kubrick was hewing to reality.

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
an: It's an imaginative leap to take such a severe fin de siecle vision and set it after the myriad sexual revolts and revolutions of the 20th century, but it's one I'm willing to take with the director. In James Naremore's book On Kubrick, he quotes Tom Gunning as saying that Kubrick was "one of the last of the Viennese artists"  which means he was interested in the twin turns of modernism and psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century. I think Dream Story was appealing material for Kubrick because it supported themes he'd been exploring his whole career  i.e. fear and desire  and also because he'd always wanted to make a movie that pivoted on jealousy: that's why he was such a fan of Albert Brooks' Modern Romance (1981), which he thought was a masterpiece. For me, Eyes Wide Shut is a sumptuous subconscious comedy that's closer to David Lynch than anything else Kubrick made  the difference being that Lynch embraces irrationality while Kubrick, ever the chessmaster, meticulously controls everything. I think the casting of Tom Cruise as a passive, dazed young professional who can't get laid is quite witty (though I'd have loved to have seen Steve Martin in it, as originally planned) and I love Sydney Pollack's performance as a typically Kubrickian monster  one of "all the best people" who started becoming his eternal antagonists after the 1970s. I love its surreal evocation of a New York City of the mind  not a realistic city, but something like the hyper-real Nantucket of The Ghost Writer  and its color-coded images; I love its swirling, Ophulsian camerawork in the opening party scene (which hearkens back also to the dancehall of Killer's Kiss) and I love the orgy where the masks externalize the ugliness of their wearers  the ultimate "Kubrick Faces."

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
an: The obvious candidate for "new Kubrick" status is David Fincher, an admitted fan who has some of his master's finickiness and obsession with visual detail   as well as a productively and provocatively ambivalent attitude towards technology (best expressed for me in Zodiac and The Social Network, although you made the case for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). I don't think Fincher has Kubrick's humour, though (it was Aaron Sorkin who made The Social Network so funny) and that's ok because it's kind of a mug's game to try and find "version 2.0s" of great filmmakers  which I know is not what you were suggesting. I will say that it's hard to think of too many American studio movies made in the last fifteen years that even attempt  much less achieve  the synthesis of formal rigour and philosophical ambition that was Kubrick's M.O. Maybe The Tree of Life, but once again, Kubrick would have never produced something so essentially humourless  though in that case, it's hard to argue that Terrence Malick is being anything but true to his own sensibility. Maybe I'd like to do a class on him next…

– 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.

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