Kubrick, Stanley (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Stanley Kubrick 1928–
American director and screenwriter.
Kubrick's are among the most ambitious and original films of the past three decades. A controversial director of outlandish subjects and eccentric cinematic styles, Kubrick derives an artistic identity from his natural bent for novelty and inventiveness. As a youth he took a keen interest in photography. While in high school he sold some of his photographs to Look; and after graduation became a staff photographer for that magazine. His first film short, Day of the Fight, was originally a picture story in Look, and his increasing preoccupation with cinema led to a second short documentary entitled Flying Padre. Kubrick sold these films to RKO at a slight profit and, after borrowing additional funds, made his first feature, Fear and Desire.
Stylishly imaginative camerawork and a somewhat erratic structure are the identifying traits of Fear and Desire. It received critical approval but not commercial success. Killer's Kiss is also characterized by an interesting visual style and structure supporting a conventional storyline. Less conventional is The Killing, a crime caper distinctive for relating its story with impersonal and efficient objectivity. Of the early films the most highly regarded is Paths of Glory, its favorable critical reception promoting Kubrick to the stature of an important American director. After directing Spartacus, a project on which he considered himself only hired talent, Kubrick chose to make a film from Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita. Though criticized for its various divergences from the novel, Kubrick's film nonetheless proves artistically adventuresome in its own right, containing at times a surreal quality foretold by certain scenes in his early films and pursued further in his later ones.
The sometimes grotesque farce in Lolita is amplified in Kubrick's next film, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This work, like all its successors in the Kubrick filmography, received dramatically varied critical estimates and interpretations. 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the most outstanding example of this mixed reception, being alternately viewed as a work of cosmic prophecy and an attempt at gratuitous mystification.
A Clockwork Orange, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, is the third Kubrick film concerned with a hypothetical reality. Some critics see this story of ultra-violence in a decaying society as further evidence of the pessimistic undercurrents present in all of this director's films. After his three scenarios of the future, Kubrick recreated William Thackeray's novel of romance and adventure in the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon. Despite the apparent departure from the previous themes and subjects of Kubrick's work, critics have observed in this film the same emphasis on stylization and strictly formal elements, along with a skeptical perspective on societal pretenses.
Kubrick is an idiosyncratic artist whose work nevertheless has wide appeal. Perhaps his greatest strength as a filmmaker lies in his ability to make films that are readily accessible to the viewer while providing abundant matter for critical speculation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
The difference between [Fear and Desire] and [Killer's Kiss] is striking; although Killer's Kiss is a melodrama too full of familiar and not always skilful contrivances, it has a simplicity of outline, an atmospheric power, a directness in its characterisation, that suggests a maturing and distinctive personality…. [The] melodrama is the least successful, most derivative aspect of the film; its real originality lies in its approach to characterisation and atmosphere….
By contrast the action sequences seem not only derivative but dramatically less strong. The attack on Davy's manager in the deserted yard at night reminds one too directly of The Set-Up, and the rooftop chase, apart from recalling The Naked City, fails to excite. One would be tempted to say that all this represents something more theoretical, obligatory, for the director, were there not some explosions of physical violence that seem personally characteristic, and also a restlessness, an occasional jaggedness, that contribute to the film's inner tension. At its most obvious and questionable this results in female models being weirdly truncated during the fight in the warehouse; the diversion with the two drunken conventioneers in the street, though, is a curious and effective touch. But when Gloria relates the story of her early life (which includes a starkly Freudian relationship with her father), and of her sister who became a...
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Stanley Kubrick's [The Killing] is an estimable entry into that small field of well-made crime films that expose the modus operandi of the colossal caper. Like Rififi and The Asphalt Jungle (after which it is principally patterned) its action is thickly and informatively plotted, possessed of that classic fatality that insures retribution, and dependent for its thrills upon a network of smooth calculation severed by fey circumstance and mislaid trusts….
His film lacks the pervasive knowledge and control of John Huston's masterwork, and although his material has absorbed him utterly, he has been wise to remain detached from it. His camera is relentlessly objective, cool, economically observant, and capable of an unusual rhetoric, as when, at the film's end, the hero's captors advance upon him and are framed to remind us of the menacing gunman targets that had filled the screen a few reels before…. [The] visual authority of The Killing consistently dominates a flawed script. In a film that is largely a crescendo of detail and preparation, Kubrick has found it necessary at the peak of tension, to resort to cutbacks in order to fill in information and set his sprawling scene. Thus the action at its climax knots and unravels, knots and unravels. This is done in the name of clarity, but a certain cumulative suspense is thereby sacrificed. Kubrick has also used an off-screen narrator where one would have...
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There is much in [Paths of Glory] that powerfully illustrates the physical horrors of war, but even more impressive and frightening is the study of its social structure. The world seems cruelly divided into the leaders and the led. The officers conduct their foxy intrigues in the elegant rooms of a great chateau, and the setting somehow emphasizes their indifference to human life. The men go to the trenches and into battle as in peace-time they went to offices or factories. The sequence of the attack itself, done mainly in a series of vivid, inexorable, lateral tracking shots, is a fearful reminder that war, simply, kills a lot of people; and the film finds an eloquent visual contrast between the grim carnage of the battlefield and the spacious luxury of headquarters.
We are in fact a long way from the emotional pacificism of All Quiet on the Western Front, which was made twelve years after World War One. Paths of Glory, made twelve years after World War Two, never openly attacks war as an abstraction, neither does it examine causes. I suspect it will be the more lasting film, certainly it is difficult to imagine a film about war that could have a more stunning impact today….
This is not only a film of unusual substance but a power-fully realised and gripping work of art. In The Killing Stanley Kubrick's talent was operating within the limits of familiar melodrama; Paths of Glory...
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In an age characterized on the one hand by a cult of happy mediocrity and on the other by the growing power, prestige, and necessity of the military, Paths of Glory is a specter from our unsophisticated past….
Directed with obvious sincerity and restraint, Paths of Glory is an explosion upon our consciousness. The locale is France and the time is 1916 but the film has an insistent immediacy that is at once stunning and upsetting. Though unfashionable it is timely and also timeless, the especial qualities of art. The military, committed to the game of wholesale destruction for personal glory, is, by definition, petty and corrupt. But that is an irreverent thing to say about our fatted protector. Paths of Glory is only permissible, though deemed unfashionable, because it deals with the French army…. The American myth of military purity remains inviolate….
Paths of Glory like no other film save All Quiet on the Western Front shows war in its naked ugliness, stripped of glory, heroics, and high-sounding causes….
Stanley Kubrick seemed, on the basis of his three previous films, a young director of extraordinary facility and promise. But Paths of Glory is a notable advance, a fulfillment of earlier promise. The gratuitous virtuosity of his technique is less in evidence than before. He no longer demonstrates pyrotechnical brilliance for its own sake, and the...
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Norman N. Holland
It used to be idle—or scholarly—to compare films to the novels from which they were taken; now, one can scarcely avoid it. The index to the change is the difference between Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) or Paths of Glory (1957) and his Lolita (1962). The earlier films were real films; Lolita is in the current style of the un-film.
The only truly cinematic effect I noticed was a cut from somebody's face to a face in a horror movie at a drive-in, a cut so drastic I cannot even remember what face Kubrick cut from. In the absence of cinema, such details as Charlie at the girls' camp or Dolly's husband's hearing-aid are dutifully lugged over from the novel; they make a film à clef for those who are "in" on the novel, but never become part of the film as such, and this, despite the fact that Nabokov himself did the script.
My respect for Nabokov makes me doubt my own judgement, but even so, it seems to me he tore down a richly redolent roadside diner to put up a Howard Johnson's. Lolita herself is putsched rather farther along the straits of puberty than her fictional counterpart. James Mason finely conveys the shyness and reticence of a cultured European (he reads "Ulalume") confronted with the barbaric yawp of American motel culture; but he projects no more passion for his erstwhile nymphet than a ping-pong paddle.
The novel seemed to me somewhat blurred in...
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The surprise of Lolita is how enjoyable it is: it's the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick. Lolita is black slapstick and at times it's so far out that you gasp as you laugh. (p. 205)
Perhaps the reviewers have been finding so many faults with Lolita because this is such an easy way to show off some fake kind of erudition: even newspaper reviewers can demonstrate that they're read a book by complaining about how different the movie is from the novel. The movie is different but not that different, and if you can get over the reviewers' preoccupation with the sacredness of the novel … you'll probably find that even the characters that are different (Charlotte Haze, especially, who has become the culture-vulture rampant) are successful in terms of the film. (p. 208)
Lolita isn't a consistently good movie but that's almost beside the point: excitement is sustained by a brilliant idea, a new variant on the classic chase theme—Quilty as Humbert's walking paranoia, the madness that chases Humbert and is chased by him, over what should be the delusionary landscape of the actual United States. This panoramic confusion of normal and mad that can be experienced traveling around the country is, unfortunately, lost: the film badly needs the towns and motels and highways of the U.S....
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Dr. Strangelove possesses a great many distinctions as a work of the imagination, but I should like to cite it, first and foremost, for valor: I think it may well be the most courageous movie ever made. It is certainly one of the funniest…. [There] is something extraordinarily liberating in the nature of the movie itself. It is the kind of total theater that Antonin Artaud would have admired, with its dark humor, its physical and anarchic dissociation. Dr. Strangelove is a plague experienced in the nerves and the funny bone—a delirium, a conflagration, a social disaster.
What Stanley Kubrick has done is to break completely with all existing traditions of moviemaking, both foreign and domestic. While the European art film seems to be inexorably closing in on the spiritual lassitude of certain melancholy French or Italian aristocrats, Dr. Strangelove invests the film medium with a new exuberance, expansiveness, and broadness of vision; compared with the sweep of this masterpiece, the weary meanderings of Resnais, Fellini, and Antonioni seem solipsistic and self-indulgent. Moreover, Kubrick's film is fun—this is its one debt to Hollywood. It is enjoyable for the way it exploits the exciting narrative conventions of the Hollywood war movie—say, Air Force or Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo—and even more, for the way it turns these conventions upside down, and cruelly scourges them. This is what is arrestingly...
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Some directors possess an instantly recognisable signature; others, merely a consistency of style and treatment; but the worrying thing about Stanley Kubrick was the way he once made excellent films which seemed to reveal so little of their director's personality that they might almost have come out of a vacuum. While admiring The Killing and, even more, Paths of Glory, one couldn't help wondering whether Kubrick might not turn out after all as simply a brilliant packager of artistically viable merchandise, giving the turn of the screw of his clever talent to the production of something several shades more incisive, but no more personal, than the gangster films or anti-war films which were in the commercial air….
Looking back after Lolita, however (the film which, capped by Dr. Strangelove, finally removed any reservations about Kubrick as a director), the pattern of Kubrick's personality and its development emerged quite clearly….
[Kubrick's] films tend, like Bergman's, to follow a characteristic pattern.
Most reviewers complained of Lolita, for instance, that it was too cold and calculating, that is completely missed the eroticism of Nabokov's novel. While true enough, this is irrelevant as criticism, because what Kubrick was after was not an evocation of Humbert's sensuous joy in his nymphet, but of his obsessive fear of what his tabooed love will bring....
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Kubrick films are very bloody and cruel. For savage assault upon the viewer's nerves and hopes, there is little in modern film to match the protracted death-march in Paths of Glory, and the Kubrick canon includes also Lolita, with its murder shown lovingly and lengthily not once but twice; the explosive massacre in The Killing; the Spartacus bloodbath; and the unforgettable "thump" of the dying general's nose hitting the floor in Fear and Desire. This virtually sadistic treatment of the audience must be accounted for, along with the numerous ambiguities of Strangelove, if Kubrick's particular brand of anti-militarism, and its effect on his work, is to be understood. One must account, above all, for the generally gloomy tone of his work….
[Kubrick's first feature, Fear and Desire,] is a painfully amateurish picture. (p. 4)
Cinematically, Fear and Desire shows some of the rag-bag quality one expects from a novice director who has studied his art: a couple of Rashomon shots, a Renoir shot. But on the whole it is surprisingly personal and original. Despite its several particular badnesses and its general fuzziness, the film has a striking purity and honesty and is unmistakably the product of a single man's striving. Its processes are governed by decisions of thought and feeling rather than by formulae or the counsels of caution. (p. 5)
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The great merit of Dr. Strangelove is its bad taste. It is silly to argue that we have the right to say anything we want but that to exercise this right is the height of irresponsibility. Responsible art is dead art, and a sane (no pun intended) film on the bomb would have been a deadly bore.
Given the basic premise of nuclear annihilation, the zany conception of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George has much to commend it. Where my critical fallout with most of my colleagues occurs is in the realm of execution. Aided by the tightest scenario since Rashomon, and the most deceptive as far as directorial exercises go, Kubrick has been hailed in many quarters as the greatest director since D. W. Griffith. (p. 181)
Since Kubrick's major shortcoming, like Kurosawa's, is in structuring (or rather in failing to structure) his films with a consistent camera viewpoint, a scenario like Dr. Strangelove comes as a godsend. All the action is divided neatly and plausibly into three main sections, separate in space and concurrent in time. With the fate of the world riding on every twist and turn of the plot, suspense is virtually built into the theme of the film. Kubrick could sit back and let the clock tick away without reducing the tension in the audience. In this context the feeblest jokes gain added vibrations from the nervous relief they provide. Still, Kubrick's direction is, on the whole,...
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F. Anthony Macklin
In all of the varied critical opinion, much has been said about the purposes of Dr. Strangelove, but a dominant theme that pervades the film from beginning to end has been ignored…. Dr. Strangelove is a sex allegory: from foreplay to explosion in the mechanized world….
Like Jonathan Swift, who employed Master Bates in Gulliver's Travels, the creators of Dr. Strangelove … gave special significance to names that represent various aspects of sex. General Jack D. Ripper …, commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, initiates the attack on the Soviet Union. General Ripper, a sex fiend in his own way, is obsessed by the idea of "bodily fluids" and what is happening to them; he is certain that fluoridation is a Commie plot to destroy the strength of America by undermining her bodily fluids. Ripper's description of the act of love has been described by one woman I know as the sexiest moment in any movie she has seen.
Ripper possesses two objects that are obvious sex symbols. The first is his cigar, which is a dominant fixture. Secondly, there is his pistol. When the President discovers Ripper's attack plan, he orders Ripper's capture. Only Ripper's code can halt the planes heading toward the U.S.S.R. As the army tries to unseat him, Ripper barricades himself in with the unwilling Captain Mandrake, a British exchange officer. While the enemy fights toward him, Ripper enters the bathroom and...
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Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey took five years and $10 million to make, and it's easy to see where the time and the money have gone. It's less easy to understand how, for five years, Kubrick managed to concentrate on his ingenuity and ignore his talent. In the first 30 seconds, this film gets off on the wrong foot and, although there are plenty of clever effects and some amusing spots, it never recovers. Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is a major disappointment….
2001 tells us, perhaps, what space travel will be like, but it does so with almost none of the wit of Dr. Strangelove or Lolita and with little of the visual acuity of Paths of Glory or Spartacus. What is most shocking is that Kubrick's sense of narrative is so feeble. Take the very opening (embarrassingly labelled The Dawn of Man). Great Cinerama landscapes of desert are plunked down in front of us, each shot held too long, with no sense of rhythm or relation…. [We] are painfully aware that this is not the Kubrick we knew. The sharp edge, the selective intelligence, the personal mark of his best work seem swamped in a Superproduction aimed at hard-ticket theatres. This prologue is just a tedious basketful of mixed materials dumped in our laps for future reference. What's worse, we don't need it. Nothing in the rest of the film depends on it. (p. 24)
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TIM HUNTER, with STEPHEN KAPLAN and PETER JASZI
As a film about progress—physical, social, and technological—Stanley Kubrick's huge and provocative 2001: A Space Odyssey remains essentially linear until its extraordinary ending. In the final transfiguration, director Kubrick and co-author Arthur Clarke … suggest that evolutionary progress may in fact be cyclical, perhaps in the shape of a helix formation. Man progresses to a certain point in evolution, then begins again from scratch on a higher level. Much of 2001's conceptual originality derives from its being both anti-Christian and anti-evolutionary in its theme of man's progress controlled by an ambiguous extra-terrestrial force, possibly both capricious and destructive….
2001 is, among other things, a slow-paced intricate stab at creating an aesthetic from natural and material things we have never seen before…. (p. 12)
If Kubrick's superb film has a problem, it may simply be that great philosophical-metaphysical films about human progress and man's relationship to the cosmos have one strike against them when they attempt to be literally just that. Rossellini's radiant religious films or Bresson's meditative ascetiscism ultimately say far more, I think, than Kubrick's far-more-ambitious attempt at synthesizing genre and meaning.
Nevertheless, 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be easily judged if only because of its dazzling technical perfection. To be...
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Essentially, the space-odyssey described in 2001 represents, I believe, Man's eternal quest for spiritual meaning and self-renewal. Man, as such, seems to have come to the end of a long journey begun with his inception as a species on earth. Having maximized his control over nature, he has reached a deadend in the evolutionary process, and in a circuitous manner, he has returned to his primordial conditions. Man may continue to invent, create, discover—yet he is no longer capable of fulfilling and renewing himself. In short, Man is ready for a new step in the evolutionary process in order to re-experience the excitement and adventure of a meaningful life.
Going back in time, the film recreates the conditions from which Man originated, and it begins with the era when apes, the highest product of evolution, huddled about in collectivized security and were completely integrated in their surroundings. Despite their sporadic fights over territorial possession, their life had achieved a state of perfect stasis and boredom not unlike that to be experienced later by the overly sophisticated human community of the year 2001…. Suddenly, the stability of their drab environment is disturbed by the appearance of a strange, oblong and darkly luminous object, about which the apes crowd in fear and wonder—the first faint glimmering of an authentic emotion. This strange object, giving 2001 its structural unity and highly symbolic...
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In one way Stanley Kubrick's [A Clockwork Orange] is cheering. This time, as in all his work before 2001, he sticks to a narrative, depicts character, opts for "literary humanism"—does all the things that some critics claimed he had deliberately abandoned, in the space picture, for a new esthetics. Perhaps the new esthetics was only a wobble? Revised editions of various pronunciamentos may now be in order.
But there isn't a great deal more to celebrate in A Clockwork Orange. Certainly there are some striking images; certainly there is some impudent wit, some adroitness. But the worst flaw in the film is its air of cool intelligence and ruthless moral inquiry, because those elements are least fulfilled. Very early there are hints of triteness and insecurity, and before the picture is a half-hour old, it begins to slip into tedium. Sharp and glittery though it continues to be, it never quite shakes that tedium.
The screenplay, by Kubrick, follows Anthony Burgess's novel fairly closely in story, but that's not much of an advantage. This novel of the near future hasn't got much of a story, as such; Burgess relies principally on an odd language he has devised….
Kubrick's first mistake may have been to select a book whose very being is in its words. The film is inevitably much weaker. Kubrick uses the verbal texture as far as possible, which cannot be far…. The modest...
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Paul D. Zimmerman
[At] its most profound level, "A Clockwork Orange" is an odyssey of the human personality, a statement on what it is to be fully human. Alex's adventures are, in one sense, the adventures of the id itself. Alex embodies all of man's anarchic impulses. Shorn of his individuality in the penitentiary and of his fantasy life in the conditioning program, he ceases to be a human being in any real sense. His resurrection at the end, as he regains his ability to act out his lusts and aggressions, represents an ironic triumph of the human psyche over the forces that seek to control or diminish it.
Control has been a continuing theme in Kubrick's movies: control of time and the environment by the gangsters who must rob a racetrack within the limits of a single race in "The Killing"; control of the men in the trenches by the officers in the chateau in "Paths of Glory"; Lolita's control of Humbert, Humbert's battle to control his passions and Quilty's playful manipulation of Humbert in "Lolita"; control of nuclear weaponry in "Dr. Strangelove"; the battle for control of the spaceship in "2001"; and, in "A Clockwork Orange," control of the human personality itself. (pp. 29-30)
Stanley Kubrick's unique contribution to contemporary film—what makes him loom larger than other directors who may make more "perfect" films—is [his] capacity to tackle essential and awesome questions that intimidate filmmakers of lesser nerve and...
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Charles Thomas Samuels
From the beginning, most American filmmakers have been idiot-savants: technically brilliant but unintelligent about life. (p. 439)
Although Stanley Kubrick began his career within [this] artistic tradition …, he soon displayed signs of rejection. After two obviously apprentice films …, Kubrick made a tightly plotted action movie that nevertheless subverts some of the genre's basic assumptions. So far from showing a meticulously planned heist as the expression of human adroitness, The Killing reveals how poignant an error it is to neglect needs and feelings in one's dependence on technique. Without departing from the crime-does-not-pay formula, The Killing humanizes its characters just enough to produce a modest critique of faceless organizational efficiency.
[In] Paths of Glory, Kubrick attacks one of American filmdom's most admired exponents of action. He depicts the army unheroically, as a vainglorious organism that thrives on the sacrifice of weaker members, adding vindictiveness to brutality when its methods fail. The particular army in question, however, is French rather than American; thus the native relevance of the criticism is somewhat qualified….
Paths of Glory muffles its pacifism by locating evil in a single class. The result is a tendentiousness never quite overcome by the graphic portrayal of war's horrors. Timidity also mars Kubrick's …...
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Fear and Desire is a fascinating effort containing a host of ideas, images, and themes which continue to appear in Kubrick's later films. (p. 18)
The first theme in Fear and Desire, stated in the poem at the opening, is that the story is made up of "imaginary worlds": each man's "war," "enemies," and "conflict" are his mind's way of dealing with the enigmatic events and inconsistent behavior that surround him. This is objectified throughout the film: in the powerful shocking images of animal-like passion, in the dreamlike retreats, chaotic killings, idle and absurd "philosophical" conversations. The images of the dead men are grotesque, eerily backlighted—they are no longer real men, but "pure enemies"—corpses stylized into ideas. In the end, Corby sums up life this way: "It's all a trick we perform, because we'd rather not die immediately." It recalls T. S. Eliot's "Human beings cannot stand very much reality."
Two other linked ideas are the futility of intelligence and the distrust of the emotions. The most intelligent man, Lieutenant Corby, is so detached he doesn't know why he is alive, but just collects reasons ("like butterflies"). He uses his brain mostly to make "intellectual jokes" nobody else gets. (pp. 18-19)
The emotions are equally useless to everyone in Fear and Desire. The boy, Sidney, is driven to assault and murder by his fear and lust. Kubrick's treatment of...
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DANIEL De VRIES
One might often disagree with Kubrick's ideas, at times even find them a bit silly, but none of that detracts from the fact that Kubrick puts together picture shows which are entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, and provoking, all at the same time.
Kubrick is, among other things, a true screen poet. He knows how to use visual images to communicate. Movies should probably never communicate anything with words that could be communicated with a picture, and Kubrick's rarely do. Kubrick characterizes a gangster by the way he handles a gun in The Killing, a strange family triangle with a peck on the cheek in Lolita, a mad general by the way he chomps his cigar in Dr. Strangelove. What is wonderful about Kubrick's imagistic skill is that theme and image conjoin so naturally in his movies. In Paths of Glory soldiers attacking a hill called "The Anthill" really look like ants and Kubrick has the good sense not to have anyone verbalize the comparison. In Dr. Strangelove the top half of the screen above a group of government officials is completely black and one does not have to say or think "impending doom"—one feels it. The genius in all of this is that none of it is artificially imposed upon the movie…. This is one facet of Kubrick's genius—his ability to project theme without using symbols, by creating visual images which are the themes of his films. (pp. 5-6)
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HARRIET DEER and IRVING DEER
Stanley Kubrick's major films reveal his search for an unrestricted form through which he can communicate with his audience without coercing them into mistaking his particular structures for reality. Increasingly, he has come to use the popular arts as his central means for expressing that search. He does this by showing us the contradictory meanings and implications of the popular arts, their escapist as well as their life-asserting implications, the ways in which they reveal the contemporary tendencies to run away from the complex, concrete uniqueness of life, and the ways in which they reveal the desperation of our search for the complex, concrete, uniqueness of life, our search for being itself. Kubrick recognizes the primitive, vital roots of the life-asserting impulse itself, the roots that give rise to and are reflected in all the arts including the popular arts, as well as the contradictory tendencies so clearly expressed in the popular arts, the tendencies to conform, to give in to the accumulated baggage of public and traditional meanings and to lose the self in cliché and stereotyped responses to life. For Kubrick, the popular arts in fact become grand metaphors of contemporary experience, visions of contemporary man struggling desperately to reconcile his life-affirming and his life-denying drives. And in creating such metaphors, Kubrick miraculously creates art in a time most inimical to art out of the very material that would seem most...
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John Russell Taylor
Kubrick's is a unified, coherent oeuvre, in the best auteur tradition. And yet, for myself I find there is always something in Kubrick's films, brilliant though most of them are, that seems to stop short of the total creative involvement of the true auteur. Is it perhaps that he is keeping back something vital of himself, that the films seem in a way like so many masks assumed by their maker rather than various aspects of his own face?…
Technically [Fear and Desire] leaves little to be desired: Kubrick's own camera work has considerable polish and a good professional finish spiced here and there with touches which suggest that his hours at the Museum of Modern Art were not ill spent—in particular the evocation of the dream-like forest landscape in a way which suggests some Japanese films, specifically Kurosawa's Rashomon for the sunlight flashing through the leaves; but also perhaps his Tora-No-O for the placing of the soldiery within this landscape.
Occasionally Kubrick goes a little overboard with flashy camera effects …, but, considering his youth and inexperience, the film has surprising coherence—even its lurches into melodrama are interesting and indicative, pointing the way (without the application of too much hindsight) to the mature Kubrick who has shown in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange a unique gift for playing drama on and over the...
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Barry Lyndon is a curious choice for Kubrick, who has become more and more estranged from the taste and smell of human experience….
[Watching] the movie is like looking at illustrations for a work that—partly through Thackeray's, but more through Kubrick's, negligence—has not been supplied. Striking as some of these illustrations, often in long or extreme long shot, are, they do not encourage our getting involved with the characters in the story. This has something to do with the episodic nature of the film, but mostly with the fact that the director seems more concerned with landscapes, architecture, period interiors, costumes, etc., than with what happens to the people in them. (p. 84)
[The] film is almost entirely cool to the point of near-tonelessness, exuding, along with visual splendor, an aura of detachment if not indifference out of which the death of Bryan resonates with a doubly plangent, and so particularly inappropriate, note. (p. 85)
John Simon, "Million-Dollar Blimps," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1975 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 9, No. 1, December 29-January 5, 1975–76, pp. 84-7.∗
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Barry Lyndon very nearly accommodates Zeno's paradox of motion: it seems to remain—at least for long periods—in one place while actually it is moving ahead. Kubrick has produced three hours and four minutes of pictures….
Why was Kubrick interested in [Thackeray's] book? I infer, not by remote psychoanalysis but from what we are shown on screen, that the warping of innocence by experience was not the concern of his screenplay. We are told by the narrator …, whose voice is important in the proceedings, that Barry became skillful in chicanery and guile. We see nothing of this process, any more than we see him become skillful in the swordsmanship he later displays. All through the film we are told a great deal about the changes in Barry's character; we see only his actions before and after….
A certain lame rationale is soon apparent in Kubrick's method. Many sequences begin with a close shot of an object or person, then the camera pulls back slowly to set the initial subject in a vast environment. Over and over again this strophe is repeated. When it's not used, often a sequence begins with the subject in the middle distance of a broad vista. Kubrick has opted strongly for context as subject, possibly to create a tension between the heavenly serenity of the places and the intrigue-cum-butchery they contain, or possibly in the dubious belief that this perspective works against Romantic...
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The movies could make their maximum contribution to culture by following the lead of Stanley Kubrick's unread literature. (p. 1)
But Kubrick's "Barry" is a lot more than a substitute for an all-but-forgotten tale. The movie also translates the printed page into art for the eye and the ear by coordinatings, music and landscaping of the period. The adventures of Barry, by this time commonplace and threadbare, are delivered in a faultless esthetic package…. The laggard unfolding of the plot permits one to lose oneself in countrysides that imitate paintings, in classically composed and toned interiors, in the placement and lighting of the figures. Kubrick's salvage job turns out to be a vessel filled with brand new 18th-century treasures. I could have watched "Barry Lyndon" for another two hours without the slightest interest in what was happening to its hero…. (p. 15)
Harold Rosenberg, "Notes on Seeing 'Barry Lyndon'," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 29, 1976, pp. 1, 15.
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In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick is making a significant statement about his age. In fact, along with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon completes a trilogy on the moral and psychological nature of Western man and on the destiny of his civilization. 2001 itself is perhaps an emotionally and psychologically necessary response on Kubrick's part to the nihilism of Dr. Strangelove. The basic argument of the "Space Odyssey" is that mankind will survive the impending collapse of Western civilization. The film ends with an affirmation of life, an affirmation of the adventurous human spirit. Kubrick's affirmation, it is true, takes place outside of his cultural tradition, and the basic philosophical assumptions of the movie reject the Hebraic-Christian ideology that has functioned as the cohesive center of Western civilization for the past 2000 years. But if Kubrick rejects the Christian idea of God, he nevertheless believes a civilization can develop only if it is rooted in an idea of God…. The "Space Odyssey" predicts man's imminent effort to re-establish contact with that divine intelligence….
His view of man is clearly Freudian: the primal facet of the human personality is the id, the completely self-oriented structure that demands immediate gratification of its instinctual urges for food, shelter, and the propagation of itself. It is not moral or intellectual or sensitive to the needs or...
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I think Barry Lyndon is the most intelligent, most amazing, most radical movie Stanley Kubrick has made—which is to say it's among the great achievements of contemporary cinema. I think the "failure" of this film is a failure of the collective imagination and I'm ashamed at the incomprehension and hostility with which our illustrious critics and noble citizens have dismissed it. Ashamed but not surprised. For at the heart of Barry Lyndon there's a silence that challenges the strength of the imagination, and imaginative courage is these days in exile….
I can think of few films of such intrinsic existential power, sans ideology and melodrama. This is pure cinema at full force, miraculous to behold. It may be the most "beautiful" movie ever made, but the beauty is in its logic as much as its images—which are so colored and distinguished as to defy description. This is beauty carried to ecstatic extremes, and it makes the petty rituals of mere mortals seem as absurd as they are. The fops and fools in this movie play out their follies against an earth so resplendent, in rooms so overarching and vaulted, that anything they do becomes ludicrous, utterly insignificant. That, of course, is the "subject" of the film, if it has one at all. Kubrick doesn't think much of the human race but he does appreciate the quality of light; and it's the light dancing in the chambered air that this movie is really about….
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The events in Barry Lyndon, while dramatic in themselves, are not presented in the form of a drama, but rather in the form of a spectacle for the senses. A beguilement of eye and ear precedes the customary seizure of the emotions. As in so much of Kubrick's best work—indeed, it is perhaps his defining quality—the images that you see exist not simply as vehicles for a story, but as vibrant indicators of a film-maker's commitment to his medium….
While all of this is true to some degree of each one of this director's films, it is true to the greatest degree of his present film: Barry Lyndon is Kubrick's most extravagantly beautiful creation. Opulent and solemn, jewel-like and lucid, profuse and lordly, the beauty of the film is not at all unlike the beauty of Handel's music (of which we hear the majestic and sweeping Sarabande in various guises and emotional contexts throughout the film). (p. 197)
[The] deliberation of the effort is matched and finally surpassed by the originality of the achievement. The source of this originality is the singularity of the film's beauty—to come back to this—the special way this beauty makes its meaning to eye and ear. By this I mean precisely the strangeness of the way things are seen and heard, and for this reason, the imperviousness of the film's beauty to a comfortable assimilation by the viewer. (p. 198)
Barry Lyndon isn't "a...
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[In Kubrick's "The Shining," though] we may admire the effects, we're never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we're not frightened, because Kubrick's absorption in film technology distances us. Each shot seems rigorously calculated, meticulous, and he keeps the scenes going for so long that any suspense dissipates. Kubrick's involvement in film technology led to the awesomely impressive effects of "2001," and to the tableau style of "Barry Lyndon," which some people found hypnotic, but it works against him here. (p. 130)
It took nerve, or maybe something more like hubris, for Kubrick to go against all convention and shoot most of this gothic in broad daylight…. But the conventions of gothics are fun. Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens? We go to "The Shining" hoping for nasty scare effects and for an appeal to our giddiest nighttime fears—vaporous figures, shadowy places. What we get doesn't tease the imagination. Visually, the movie often feels like a cheat, because most of the horror images are not integrated into the travelling shots; the horrors involved in the hotel's bloody past usually appear in inserts that flash on like the pictures in a slide show…. Clearly, Stanley Kubrick isn't primarily interested in the horror film as scary fun or for the mysterious beauty that directors such as Dreyer and Murnau have...
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