“To have not seen a Stanley Kubrick movie is to have courted ignorance.”
It is believed that one can like Stanley Kubrick and one can dislike Stanley Kubrick, but one can never deny Stanley Kubrick. In his lifetime, he achieved paramount success and recognition from around the world of cinema. His methods of madness gained him widespread notoriety among co-workers and the Hollywood film fraternity.
So what made this extremely reclusive and whimsical genius of a person become a giant in an industry where people feed on publicity and controversies, on photo-shoots and interviews in order to survive another day? He was even more reclusive than Greta Garbo and there is a funny little anecdote to support such a claim – a person once came to meet Kubrick at his house in England where he was told that Stanley Kubrick was out of station. It was later revealed that the man who communicated the same was Kubrick himself. There are several other anecdotes from his life that make you look at Kubrick with dumb amazement and horror.
What really set Stanley Kubrick apart from his contemporaries were his constant pursuit of cinematic perfection and the kind of profound and overpowering philosophical movies he made. A Stanley Kubrick movie is not about Kubrick’s emotions or experiences or struggles, it is about grand sweeping ideas and philosophies of war, power, sex, sadomasochism, dystopia, artificial intelligence and the third kind. Although Kubrick’s films are often very heavy and overbearing intellectually, they were commercial successes and earned good money at the box office. Maybe, this is because his films appeal to the subconscious and the emotions of the people more than their intellect ironically.
In a completely random order, here are 10 of my favorite Kubrick films that you can take up as a viewing-challenge for the month.
Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Made during the peak of the Cold War, this movie gave a shockingly real picture of the then Cold War diplomacy and its politics, leaving people feeling threatened after the movie. Martin Scorsese in an interview recalls watching the movie and feeling frightened about the possibility of a nuclear war. The movie saw stellar performances from Peter Sellers (who played 3 roles), Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and Slim Pickens.
The world is suddenly threatened when a mad general, who has the keys to a nuclear bomb, decides to use them because he fears Russian intervention by fluoridation of the United States water supplies. What follows after that is a hilarious scuffle for power and an arrest of diplomacy between the two superpowers of the world. Shot in black and white, the movie is a must watch for its hilarious dark comedy and its historical and political significance.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Adapted from the now famous Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name, A Clockwork Orange had a huge impact on the public because of its gruesome portrayal of violence and anarchy. Later on, many incidents similar to the ones portrayed in the film were repeated by criminals in and around the United Kingdom, and this was all blamed on Stanley Kubrick who gained much notoriety for the film.
A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian crime thriller about the horrific crime spree of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his “droogs” and its aftermath. The film established Kubrick’s love for classical music and also introduced certain subversive concepts like sadomasochism and anarchism, which would be integral to most of his subsequent films. It has, what I believe, to be the best sex scene in the history of cinema (watch it before you jump to conclusions). He even uses sex which is so trivially used by filmmakers, in order to invoke an idea, a thought of his own, to further his movie. The film is a must-watch for teenagers and adults alike.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey established Stanley Kubrick as a filmmaker of rare originality and mettle, catapulting him to world fame and reverence, and at once, he was being talked about as one of the greats of world cinema.
Think of 2001 as the big bang for science-fiction films. Written by Kubrick and the visionary sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, the film is often considered as one of the greatest films ever made. It went on to influence many-a-great subsequent science fiction films both thematically and stylistically.
A first-time viewer would be justified in wrongly assuming that 2001 is a 21st century film. The film might have been made in the late-mid 60s, spurred by the Russo-American race to conquer space, but it is a film way ahead of its time. It is a scientifically accurate and a highly technical movie, a very realistic document of space travel, which is perhaps more relevant today than the times in which it was made. The moon docking sequence, which preceded the actual moon landing by a year, looks remarkably accurate, which is why you will hear countless conspiracy theorists claiming that NASA employed Kubrick to fake the moon landings.
This film is a work of a massive intellectual and needs reviewing. The movie does turn out to be a bit boring in the first viewing but that is the thing with Kubrick’s movies, they’re so profound that they need a first viewing just to appreciate the cinematic excellence and further subsequent viewings to understand the movie itself.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Based on the 19th century William Thackeray novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, the film tells the story of an 18th Century Irish commoner, Redmond Barry’s ascent from a mud house to a palace. The film is a critical commentary on the 18th Century English social hierarchy and politics, power struggle, exploitation and greed. The most striking aspect of this movie is the usage of light through its many candle scenes. Grand passageways and corridors are employed to imply Redmond Barry’s eventual rise to power.
Redmond Barry has no regard for any allegiances. As a commoner, he desires great power and the riches of the kings. He eventually gains what he desires only to lose it due to his lavishness and peasantry idiocy.
The Shining (1980)
It might seem an odd field for an intellectual like Kubrick to venture into, but his 1980 film The Shining is often hailed as a masterpiece in the horror genre. The film was adapted from a Stephen King novel of the same name. Its lead is the great and erratic Jack Nicholson, known for his portrayal of neurotic characters on screen.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family move to the Overlook Hotel in an isolated hilltop as he takes up the position of the winter caretaker. Despite warnings about the previous caretaker, who developed cabin fever and ended up killing his family in a bloody massacre, Jack takes up the job only to realise that the place and the job are not as simple as he had assumed. The film is full of ambiguities and twists and is sure to leave the audience spellbound.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Often described as an anti-war film, Paths of Glory is the story of four French soldiers who refuse to take orders for what they think is a suicidal attack during World War I. The movie raises the old military debate of following your own common sense over following a superior’s nonsense. To put it in perspective, what the film tries to answer would be addressing the phrase from Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” The film is somewhat of a strong reference to the poem itself, a regiment following the general’s order into a suicidal attack, only that in the film, the four soldiers refuse and hence are tried and executed.
The film is remembered for one of the longest and the most beautiful long takes – of Kirk Douglas, who plays the regiment’s colonel, walking through a trench. Other memorable scenes include the fight scene, which is singularly shown from the French side (the Germans are never shown) maybe because Kubrick didn’t have enough resources to fund for the same. But that is how he tries to build in the threat of the enemies, by never showing them, by concealing them throughout the film while using the sound of bombs and bullets incessantly to remind the audience of their presence. Another memorable scene is the trial scene, which is essentially the second half of the film, where you see the colonel (Kirk Douglas) arguing for his soldiers, trying to convince the court on grounds of morality, good conscience and common sense, but only in vain.
Lolita, the light of Humbert’s life, the fire of Humbert’s loins, his sin, his soul.
Lolita will forever remain a classic of literature and also, of cinema. Adapted from the 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita made the headlines for all the wrong reasons when it was released.
The film doesn’t make much of the sensuality of the book due to the obvious objections it would face, which it did face despite it not showing any such scenes. James Mason plays the pedophile author Humbert Humbert who falls in love with his tenant’s daughter, Lolita and he goes to the extent of marrying the tenant in order to stay close to her daughter. The plot is perhaps one of the most scandalous love stories of all time in the history of art and culture. If you’ve read the book, don’t miss out on the movie and vice-versa.
The Killing (1956)
Now considered as a noir classic, The Killing tells the story of a veteran criminal Johnny Clay (played by Sterling Hayden) who before marrying his fiancée plans on one last heist with his thug friends. He plans the heist at a racetrack and everything goes according to plan until…(see for yourself)
This was Kubrick’s first major movie and his first collaboration with producer James B. Harris with whom he ended up having a very successful long-time partnership spanning many films. The Killing failed to make money at the box office but was critical acclaimed and the world saw a young aspiring Stanley Kubrick making his mark on Hollywood.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Kubrick, finally, succumbed to the prospect of making a film on the Vietnam War. He was late to the scene, with films like Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978) already being deemed as classics by then. Full Metal Jacket was overshadowed by the success of Platoon, which was released a year later to critical acclaim, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture along the way.
The movie is a rather sardonic commentary on the Vietnam War with Kubrick employing the comedic, yet tyrannical Sergeant Hartman (played by R. Lee Ermey). The film explores the psychological development of a soldier in a war, from being recruited to being out of the war – the process of dehumanization – to a point where they stink of apathy. It is a dark comedy in the first half and a very dark drama in its second half, thus successfully projecting the “duality of man”, as iterated by Private James “Joker” Davis (played by Matthew Modine), and the irony of war.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Kubrick’s last film holds the Guinness World Record for the ‘longest continuous film shoot’ at 400 days. The film starred the then fresh Hollywood talents Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
The film explores the sexual life of the couple, Dr. Bill Hafford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman). Bill’s life is turned upside down when one night, his wife tells him that she suffers from a strong infatuation for a man with whom she had once contemplated an affair and later another night, when he hears of a secret society meeting from a pianist friend at a bar and he decides to explore the society. He finds himself at a harrowing castle of a house; he is escorted in with the Vienna party masks wherein he witnesses a sexual rite of some sorts and a massive orgy thereafter. The idea behind the secret society has never been revealed, which has led to people forming theories that Kubrick was a part of the Illuminati and he tried to expose them through this movie, for which he was poisoned to death soon after.
The film uses music brilliantly in the recurring form of the second movement of György Ligeti’s piano cycle “Musica ricercata”. The film addresses the sexual instinct of a man and sadomasochism, themes that had become a constant refrain in Kubrick’s work by then. All in all, the movie is a must watch for it is the final masterpiece of one of the greatest artists of all time.