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 ,...
(This entire section contains 328 words.)
and the rooftop chase, apart from recallingThe 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 dancer, Kubrick illustrates this simply by a series of shots of the dancer … performing on an empty stage, and the evocative lighting, the dancing and the choreography … are in themselves too interesting for one to be able to absorb what is being narrated on the soundtrack—apart from the irrelevance of the images for most of the time. All the same, this is the reverse side of the freedom, the experimentation, that runs through much of the film and affirms that its maker has a talent to watch.
Gavin Lambert, "In Brief: 'Killer's Kiss'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1956 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 25, No. 4, Spring, 1956, p. 198.
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 preferred an absolutely cinematic exposition. The documented effect that is obtained invades the unique privacy of events and becomes negligible when we are told what we do not really need to know…. (p. 30)
Professionally speaking, Stanley Kubrick has grown older…. [The Killing] bears evidence of a fresh and maturing talent and completely belies the impression given by his earlier efforts—that of a college boy who, in a semester's turning, had gone from comic books to Oedipus Rex. (p. 31)
Arlene Croce, "'The Killing'," in Film Culture (copyright 1956 by Film Culture), Vol. 2, No. 3, 1956, pp. 30-1.
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 is meaningful as well as brilliant. (p. 144)
Gavin Lambert, "Film Reviews: 'Paths of Glory'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1957 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 27, No. 3, Winter, 1957–58, pp. 144-45.
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 emphasis is now on the whole rather than isolated parts. Paths of Glory is a dedicated, passionately honest, angry film told with great visual eloquence.
Jonathan Baumbach, "'Paths of Glory'," in Film Culture (copyright 1958 by Film Culture), Vol. IV, No. 2, February, 1958, p. 15.
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 conception; the film has done nothing to clarify matters. As before, I got the feeling of some kind of dualism (Lo-Lo, Humbert Humbert, Humbert-Quilty, Europe-America) and there are double-entendres aplenty: Camp Climax for Girls, the lecherous town of Ramsdale, Charlotte's promise to Humbert (as he looks at Lolita) to make him "cherry pies"; her attempt to seduce him with "a magnificent spread." All that the film adds is the notion (new, I think) that Quilty has a sort of Oriental intelligence, so that maybe now it is not just Europe-confronts-America, but a Kiplingesque East-meets-West. Or is the film dealing with a sort of Through the Looking-Glass learning of the local folkways, the curious captivities in American freedom? I don't know, and probably I shouldn't ask.
The strength of the novel was its deft, swift satire of Americana, and this Nabokov and Kubrick do translate—no mean trick in film, where the slight exaggeration into satirical absurdity, when rendered forty feet across, can easily become too broad…. There are a few delightful bits, Lolita eating potato chips no-hands; a grandmotherly type in a plastic raincoat flitting over a fatal accident with a candid camera. But alas! in the nature of the case, most of what made the novel fun cannot be translated into film: Nabokov's sleight-of-pen and his lovingly physiological descriptions of Humbert's little ecstasies. Those made the novel a best-seller and therefore a movie—but, of course, they cannot be put in a movie. And this is the sorry and inevitable outcome in the game of the un-film. (pp. 411-12)
Norman N. Holland, "Film, Metafilm, and Un-Film" (copyright © 1962 by Norman N. Holland; reprinted by permission), in The Hudson Review, Vol. XV, No. 3, Autumn, 1962, pp. 406-12.∗
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. (pp. 208-09)
There is a paradox involved in the film Lolita. Stanley Kubrick shows talents in new areas (theme and dialogue and comedy), and is at his worst at what he's famous for. The Killing was a simple-minded suspense film about a racetrack robbery, but he structured it brilliantly with each facet shining in place; Paths of Glory was a simple-minded pacifist film, but he gave it nervous rhythm and a sense of urgency. Lolita is so clumsily structured that you begin to wonder what was shot and then cut out, why other pieces were left in, and whether the beginning was intended to be the end; and it is edited in so dilatory a fashion that after the first hour, almost every scene seems to go on too long. It's as if Kubrick lost his nerve. If he did, it's no wonder; the wonder is, that with all the pressures on American moviemakers—the pressures to evade, to conceal, to compromise, and to explain everything for the literal-minded—he had the nerve to transform this satire on the myths of love into the medium that has become consecrated to the myths. Lolita is a wilder comedy for being, now, family entertainment. (p. 209)
Pauline Kael, "Broadcasts and Reviews, 1961–1963: 'Lolita'" (originally published in Partisan Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Fall, 1962), in her I Lost It at the Movies (copyright © 1955, 1962, 1963 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1965, pp. 203-09.
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 new about the film: its wry, mordant, destructive, and, at the same time, cheerful, unmoralistic tone. (pp. 3-4)
Dr. Strangelove is a work of comic anarchy, fashioned by a totally disaffected and disaffiliated imagination: it is thus the first American movie to speak truly for our generation. Kubrick has managed to explode the right-wing position without making a single left-wing affirmation: the odor of the Thirties, which clung even to the best work of Chaplin, Welles, and Huston, has finally been disinfected here. Disinfected, in fact, is the stink of all ideological thinking. For although Dr. Strangelove is about a political subject, its only politics is outrage against the malevolence of officialdom…. [It] releases, through comic poetry, those feelings of impotence and frustration that are consuming us all; and I can't think of anything more important for an imaginative work to do. (p. 4)
Robert Brustein, "Out of This World" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 12, February 6, 1964, pp. 3-4.
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. Nabokov's Lolita begins with Humbert's bitter-sweet recollection, his story already over, of his past joy and pain…. Kubrick's Lolita begins with the end itself, the brutal act of murder which is the inevitable outcome of Humbert's sense of guilt. And whereas the novel is in effect an epic poem on the love of Humbert and Lolita in which the ambiguous Quilty, who swells into an avenging Fury in Humbert's mind, appears only halfway through, in the film Quilty is an immediate, tangible presence throughout, teasing and terrifying Humbert into destroying him.
It is thus the nature of the obsession and its consequences which interest Kubrick; and each of his films charts an obsession—or, more precisely, charts an action in which a fatal flaw in human nature or in society brings disaster. In Killer's Kiss (1955), a young boxer falls in love, and because his girl is involved with a lecherous crook, becomes enmeshed in a round of violence and murder. In The Killing (1956), five men in desperate need of money plan a perfect robbery, and end in a maze of betrayals and killings. In Paths of Glory (1957), three soldiers involved in an impossible attack, initiated because a general's reputation is at stake, find themselves arbitrarily selected as scapegoats and shot for cowardice. In Spartacus (1959–60), the hero instigates a slave rebellion against Rome, the ranks close against him and he ends up crucified, his revolt a total failure. In Lolita (1961), Humbert Humbert indulges his forbidden love for his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, is caught up in a fantasy of retribution, and brings about his own doom by shooting his ambiguous pursuer. And in Dr. Strangelove (1963), of course, "a single slip-up" brings the end of the world.
If each of the films ends in defeat, it is not so much because Kubrick is cynical or pessimistic, as because the mechanism of human nature, operating within the structure of society, creates a vicious circle which can permit no other solution. If Spartacus, or Colonel Dax (in Paths of Glory), tries to right an injustice from the noblest of motives, then society in the shape of Roman senators and slave merchants, or the military hierarchy, will have to stifle the impulse in order to preserve its status quo; if Humbert Humbert loves a minor then, even though she technically seduced him, and even though he was not even her first lover, society must label him a criminal, a corrupter of youth; if a young boxer (Killer's Kiss) braves the under-world to rescue his girl, he will spark off a recoil of violence likely to strain her courage and make her betray him; if mutual trust and co-operation is required to carry out a plan, then conflicting interests and suspicion will wreck it (The Killing). (p. 69)
Life, in Kubrick's films, is a dilemma in which people are trapped by the mechanics of expediency—their own, other people's, or society's. The trap is set at the beginning of each film, and as we watch the mouse making his pitiful, obstinate attempts to steal the cheese before the steel closes in on him, we know that by the end the trap will be sprung. Although there is no point in pushing the comparison very far, it is perhaps worth noting the similarity of approach in Sophoclean tragedy, where malign Fate inexorably prevents the hero from escaping or attaining his goal; where a point of crisis is dramatised, and all action is pared down and deployed so as to illuminate the scope and significance of that crisis….
Kubrick has often been called a cold director, but his purpose in Paths of Glory is not to make one weep for the three innocent puppets who are shot. In the condemned cell scenes, for instance, there is an almost Buñuelian avoidance of sentimental identification in the varying levels of hysteria in the three prisoners, in the pious platitudes of the priest, in the struggle which breaks out between the priest and one of the men; and above all in the preparation for execution of the prisoner with the fractured skull ("Pinch his cheeks a couple of times … it may make him open his eyes"), and the sudden squashing of the cockroach ("Now you got the edge on him") which Corporal Arnaud has just sadly remarked will be alive when they are dead tomorrow—the first mature examples of the humour noir which flowered in Lolita and Strangelove. Instead of tears, Kubrick wants his audience to break out in a cold sweat at the intricate, ruthless manipulations which make the three men's deaths inescapable. Throughout, therefore, he has adopted an almost mathematical style, fairly obviously though effectively in his use of contrasts (cutting from the elegance of the château to the mud and smoke of the trenches), and more subtly in his overall style. (p. 70)
Although Killer's Kiss is only partly successful, and meanders too much to achieve the taut, driving inevitability of the Kubrick "film as trap" which I have tried to define, it is a curiously attractive film, evidently made under the dual influence of neo-realism (the sequences in Davy's room, or when he wanders quietly in Gloria's room, looking and wondering at her things) and Wellesian baroque (the fight among the wax dummies hanging in a storeroom, the beating up in the alley, a good deal of chiaroscuro lighting in the dancehall scenes and elsewhere). The film, too, reveals Kubrick's brilliant talent for pictorial composition, here perhaps a little mannered, and later kept severely in check….
[It] was with Lolita that Kubrick demonstrated that, despite the failure of Spartacus, it was possible to adapt his style to both complexity and blockbuster length. Lolita, in fact, is a perfect example of Kubrick's film as trap, with the added complexity that although society closes its ranks in disapproval of perverts like Humbert, in this case society is ignorant of his activities, and the trap which closes in on him is a product of his own mind…. [As] we see in the brilliant opening sequence following the credits, Humbert is already caught in his trap and is impelled to kill Quilty. These twin prologues—the airy toe-painting and the long, tortuous track through the baroque jumble of packing-cases, statues, bottles, glasses and paintings in Quilty's house—are the two halves of the film in microcosm as it drives through on its firmly single, though tortuous line of Humbert's fantasy/obsession….
The film grows heavier, more abrupt in style, matching the increasing violence of Humbert's obsession, and culminating in the swift track along the loweringly dark facade of the hospital where he finally loses his Lolita for ever.
Here, and in Dr. Strangelove, with its brilliant balance between choppy newsreel urgency and the darkly brooding, flowing menace of its interiors, Kubrick has evolved a style which allows him to range with perfect freedom from utter seriousness to the wildest slapstick, without ever loosening the film's claw-like grip on the audience. (p. 72)
Tom Milne, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stanley Kubrick," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1964 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1964, pp. 68-72.
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)
[In Fear and Desire] a powerful and complex emotion is conveyed, and a vision of the vexing conflicts of virtue and authority and the uncertainty which swathes every moral choice. It is a vision of clarity (despite the vapidity of the lines assigned the lieutenant) and depth and dignity, and it is conveyed by means of image. This vision, in fact, is more effectively and simply stated by one central shot from the film than by any possible paraphrase or declaration, and that is in the scene of the shooting of the general, who is the type of authority and age, by the lieutenant, the type of youth, rebellion and moral yearning. (pp. 5-6)
The figures of authority take it on the chin in Dr. Strangelove…. But at whose hands?…
The curious thing about Dr. Strangelove as a satire is that General Ripper, Col. Kong, "Bat" Guano—the ones who effectively blow up the world—are shown not as incompetents or villains but as lovable lunatics, and when the fireballs unfold in the final frames and the girl begins to sing "We'll Meet Again" the picture has allied itself with their lunacy, leaving the viewer all by himself with no place to stand. (p. 9)
Dr. Strangelove mocks not only militarism, Edward Teller, and the Pentagon, but all pretensions to moral judgment on the part of men (all of us) who have delivered their environment into the hands of totally amoral technological Science and their decisions (the very stuff of morality) to gamesmen aspiring through amorality to Science. (p. 10)
[If] Dr. Strangelove has a message I think it is that human fallibility is less likely to be fatal than pretensions to godlike infallibility, or abdication of moral responsibilities to "infallible," passionless, machines or machine-logic.
I think that what has drawn Kubrick to war as the subject-matter for three films is not anti-militarism, specifically, but a concern with public morality….
[It] is not alone the size and seriousness and complexity of Kubrick's moral vision which makes him the finest of living American directors, but his ability to express his vision in a coherent structure of images: the "paths" of Paths of Glory, the maddening machines of Strangelove, belong to the poetry of the film. (p. 11)
Jackson Burgess, "The 'Anti-Militarism' of Stanley Kubrick," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1964 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 4-11.
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, efficient without ever being inspired….
Kubrick can be faulted occasionally for blatant overstatement. The sign reading PEACE IS OUR BUSINESS has an ironic kick, however obvious, the first time it is shown in a strife-torn Air Force base, but when repeated a half dozen times more, the effect crosses the thin line between satire and propaganda. (p. 182)
Some of Kubrick's most admired effects are not quite as original as they may seem to the unschooled eye…. The Hiroshima and Christmas Island explosions constitute the most dog-eared footage for "peace" movies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Consequently it is never clear whether Kubrick's "doomsday" ending is actually representational or merely rhetorical in the time-honored symbolism of antibomb movies.
Dr. Strangelove is more effective, if less consistent, when it probes the irregular sexual motivations of its crazy generals. It is hilariously unfair to ridicule one officer for keeping a tootsy on the side and then ridicule the other for conserving his precious fluids from hordes of women seeking his depletion.
Ultimately, Dr. Strangelove is not a bad movie by any standards, and I would feel much more kindly toward it if it were not so grossly overrated…. As it is, Dr. Strangelove can serve as a comic testament to the death wish of many American intellectuals. The world may still come to an end, of course, but the current odds are not with a bang but a whimper. (pp. 182-83)
Andrew Sarris, "Dr. Strangelove," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1964), February 13, 1964 (and reprinted in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis, Grossman Publishers, 1977, pp. 181-83).
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 commits suicide with his pistol. (See Seymour Glass's suicide in J. D. Salinger's Perfect Day for Bananafish for an interesting parallel). (p. 55)
Meanwhile, the womb-like War Room is the scene of other action. The President, Merkin Muffley, is trying to reach Premier Dmitri Kissoff in Moscow to tell him what is happening. Stanley Kauffmann, in his review in the New Republic has called attention to the President's name with the words "erotica students, observe." Merkin means female pudendum (Oxford English Dictionary), which shows the femininity of the President, illustrated by his lack of action. Premier Dmitri is off somewhere with female companionship. Eventually, Muffley gets through and gives Kissoff the news. Although Mandrake relays the code and Kissoff is warned, it is too late. (pp. 56-7)
Meanwhile, back at the War Room, Dr. Strangelove—and this name captures the essence of the film—has made his appearance….
Strangelove is in a wheel chair, impotent. He is a product of German science, talking in a measured, clipped accent; he is mechanized, his arm snapping at his throat and his crotch in an uncontrollable attack. He is the end result of science….
The film concludes with a panorama of beautiful mushroom clouds destroying the world, as Vera Lynn sweetly sings We'll Meet Again. Impotence is no more. Warped sex has been eased. Civilization can go back to its beginnings. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ends in an orgiastic purgation…. [The real Doomsday Machine is not men. The] real Doomsday Machine is sex. As King Kong, Buck Turgidson, and Dr. Strangelove himself would chorus, "What a Way to Go!" Love that bomb. (p. 57)
F. Anthony Macklin, "Sex and Dr. Strangelove," in Film Comment (copyright © 1965 by Lorien Productions, Inc.; all rights reserved), Vol. III, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 55-7.
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)
[Kubrick] contrives some startling effects…. [And the] detail work throughout is painstaking….
But all for what? To make a film that is so dull, it even dulls our interest in the technical ingenuity for the sake of which Kubrick has allowed it to become dull. He is so infatuated with technology—of film and of the future—that it has numbed his formerly keen feeling for attention-span. The first few moments that we watch an astronaut jogging around the capsule for exercise—really around the tubular interior, up one side, across the top, and down the other side to the floor—it's amusing. An earlier Kubrick would have stopped while it was still amusing…. High marks for Kubrick the special-effects man; but where was Kubrick the director? (p. 41)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Lost in the Stars" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 158, No. 18, May 4, 1968, pp. 24, 41.
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 able to see beyond that may take a few years. When we have grown used to beautiful strange machines, and the wonder of Kubrick's special effects wears off by duplication in other Hollywood films, then we can probe confidently beyond 2001's initial fascination and decide what kind of a film it really is. (p. 20)
Tim Hunter, with Stephen Kaplan and Peter Jaszi, "'2001: A Space Odyssey'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1968 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1968, pp. 12-20.
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 character, is one of the most controversial features of the film…. Although some may construe it as that eternal quotient of mystery before which Man and beast are alike helpless, I see it as a symbol (akin to the Jungian four-sided mandala, the most fundamental of all archetypes) of that inspirational force through which life eternally renews itself, for it is upon its appearance that the apes discover and perfect the use of the first tool—a skeletal relic shaped into a club. A perhaps crude beginning, yet in terms of what we know, one that ushers in a completely new evolutionary mode of existence characterized by intellectual development, political experimentation, spiritual growth, heroic action, and dominated by spiritual rather than instinctual impulses. (pp. 7-8)
The last part of the film, wherein the hero is catapulted from Jupiter into the infinite and undergoes a series of transformations—first into an old man, then into a newborn baby—defies precise analysis…. [However, we may surmise that the hero in the form of a new born infant, catapulted back to earth, brings the message that] will usher in an age as different from ours as our own has been from that of the primates. Once again the eternal process of death and renewal, wherein evolution reaches out to new and higher forms, has been set in motion.
The intellectual content of the film, particularly its vision of evolution as a spiritual non-Darwinian process precipitated by mythical objects, visions and transformations, may strike some as quaintly poetic. Yet, in its sensitive probing of Man's desire for transcendence; in its artistic recreation of a future dominated by science and automation; in its view of evolutionary development and indeed of the cosmos itself as a single unit of which all processes are but parts—Kubrick's 2001 is one of the most entertaining as well as insightful films ever to have appeared on screen. (p. 8)
Elie Flatto, "'2001: A Space Odyssey': The Eternal Renewal," in Film Comment (copyright © 1969 Film Comment Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved), Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1969, pp. 7-8.
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 moral resonance of the book is reduced: partly because of certain small changes, like converting a murder victim from an old woman to a sexy broad and killing her with a giant ceramic phallus (thus changing sheer heartlessness into sex sensation); mostly because Kubrick has to replace Burgess's linguistic ingenuity with cinematic ingenuity, and he doesn't. The story as such is thin, so the picture thins. (p. 88)
Inexplicably the script leaves out Burgess's reference to the title: it's the title of a book being written by a character in the novel, with an excerpt provided to clarify. That author's book-inside-the-book is a protest against "the attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness … laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation," the attempt to make a growing thing into a mechanism, even—as Stanley Edgar Hyman said—to eliminate his freedom to sin.
Now this is hardly a staggeringly new concept or protest, but Burgess makes it mildly interesting because of the linguistic acrobatics he can perform while expounding it. Kubrick is stuck with the message and, for this work, the wrong medium. We simply see the working-out of the design, the spelling of the lesson, with very little esthetic increment along the 137-minute way. (pp. 89-90)
[The] one thing that, two films ago, I'd never have thought possible to say about a Kubrick film is true of A Clockwork Orange: it's boring. (p. 90)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'A Clockwork Orange'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 166, Nos. 1 & 2, January 1 & 8, 1972), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 88-90.
[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 intellect. From a young man fascinated by the power and technique of filmmaking, he has grown into an artist with a deep concern for the fate of a species increasingly caught between the sweet orange of humanity and the cold clockwork of technology. It is a tribute to his artistry that this concern produces, not an arid cinema of ideas, but an ironic, galvanizing vision of those aspects of modern life that frighten us all. (p. 33)
Paul D. Zimmerman, "Kubrick's Brilliant Vision," in Newsweek (copyright 1972 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXIX, No. 1, January 3, 1972, pp. 28-33.
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 … Lolita. Heeding some internalized form of conventional sanctions (with Nabokov's collusion), Kubrick prettifies Humbert's sordid obsession and captures the novel's grotesque comedy only in the secondary roles of Mrs. Haze and Quilty. The result is neither the pathetic May-December romance that major casting and composer Nelson Riddle's arpeggios seem designed to achieve nor Nabokovian satire, but an incompatible mixture of the two….
Nevertheless, flawed as Kubrick's first films are, they clearly established him as more than an entertainer willing to adorn any project offered him with the standard quantity of kinetic thrills. His preeminence among American filmmakers was subsequently assured by a film consolidating all the best in its predecessors. Dr. Strangelove combines the critical plotting of The Killing, with the pacifist and anti-institutional themes expressed in Paths of Glory, by perfecting the comic style marginally evident in Lolita. As a result, Dr. Strangelove holds up to devastating ridicule values that a film like [Sam Peckinpah's] Straw Dogs deplorably celebrates.
Beginning with the shot of two bombers copulating in midair, Dr. Strangelove presents America's fascination with might as an absurd confusion of libido. (pp. 440-41)
Dr. Strangelove is exceptional not only for placing this self-criticism before us but for doing so with an hilarious relentlessness that takes us laughing right through Armageddon. Moreover, while exposing the ultimate destructiveness of a culture perversely in love with machines, the film itself avoids mechanical flourishes, making direction reticently serve the content….
With some of the critical alertness displayed in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick's … 2001 speculates about what life might become. Numerous details reveal the underside of futurist technology: the insipidity of cosmic cuisine, the colossally disproportionate effort and boring experience of space travel, the atavistically banal human behavior that makes the film's one colorful figure a computer programmed to feel. Yet, Kubrick's critical voice eventually seems to be crying in the wilderness, drowned out by the alluring special effects with which he fills up the vastness of space.
Thus, the last sequence suggests a faith that man will ultimately transcend whatever follies still cling to him as he enters the era of total mechanism. We are, however, never told why. Nor can we explain how an artist who distinguished himself by satirizing mindless, heartless mechanization can suddenly find it promising….
Suggesting some fundamental ambivalence, 2001 is so obscure that it has become a cult object for those who argue that a film should not mean but be. It doesn't signal a shift in Kubrick's thinking so much as a new fascination with the sheer joy of making images.
This fascination renders Kubrick's [A Clockwork Orange] "sensational" in both senses of the term: "outstanding" and also a work dependent on "exaggerated or lurid details."…
But A Clockwork Orange is no Straw Dogs; love of violence is not its problem. Although detractors argue that Alex, the film's antihero, is too charming and clever, this charge is shortsighted…. Kubrick and Burgess want to make Alex sufficiently valuable, however, so that we can feel that the methods used to repress him may be as deplorable as Alex himself. (p. 441)
In Straw Dogs violence isn't charming; it is necessary. In A Clockwork Orange it lacks appeal because it is so manifestly unnecessary…. [Violence] is never presented as a response to any threat that might justify it. (pp. 441-42)
Kubrick's film … [is] artful for finding cinematic means to display Burgess' ironic equation between lawlessness and the presumed alternatives. Most strikingly, Kubrick signals a breakdown of value distinctions by accompanying the violence with musical and sometimes decorative elements that are ostentatiously benigh. A gang rape takes place to the strains of Rossini in a baroque theater. (pp. 442-43)
What Kubrick does not emphasize is the novel's theme; the unreality of goodness when not freely chosen…. But before he is charged, as he has been, with desecrating a superior work of fiction, we must remember how localized the theme is in Burgess' novel, where it exists alongside far more striking details that articulate a nearly contradictory point: good and evil have become equivalent….
Kubrick finds brilliant cinematic equivalents for Burgess' gimmicks, but he is limited by the original's intellectual and emotional thinness. As a result, grand show that it is, A Clockwork Orange simply reminds us that Kubrick is a master visualizer. Visualization is, of course, the essence of cinema, but it is not the whole of the art…. Kubrick seems intent merely on showing us how to embody filmically a world first imagined in words. His expertise is undeniable, but it is also narrow and unedifying. If, as everyone claims, he is the best American filmmaker, this fact merely reminds us of the terribly limited achievement of his native context. Once in his career Kubrick transcended his tradition; now, entertainingly but to our ultimate disappointment, he seems to be going the way of his predecessors. (p. 443)
Charles Thomas Samuels, "The Context of 'A Clockwork Orange'" (copyright by the Estate of Charles Thomas Samuels; reprinted by permission), in The American Scholar, Vol. 41, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 439-43.
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 eroticism is embarrassingly grotesque and perverse, but not unrealistic—an attitude that persists through all his work, though the next few films are relatively sexless. Mac, obsessed by his desire to justify himself by killing a general, and the most effective soldier, is driven half-consciously to self-destruction. This pair of homicide-suicides—Sidney and Mac—is typical of nearly all of Kubrick's films: Lolita (Humbert Humbert, Quilty); Dr. Strangelove (General Ripper, Major Kong); and 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL-9000, Astronaut Bowman). But the portraits of such characters, driven by passions and compulsions they only half understand, are never so clear.
All these concepts—the world as a dream, intelligence as futile, emotion as suspect—are rather pessimistic. There are two more ideas in the film that are more encouraging.
One is the notion of a journey to freedom, an Odyssey. It is possible to move toward knowledge and safety, and though the men flounder and run in circles, their concern is always such an escape. Individually, each man travels along the road to self-knowledge…. In a way, the four soldiers are like the exploded fragments of a personality: intellectual thought and playfulness, emotional drives like lust and fear, emotional control and self-discipline, and the self-maintaining functions. At the end, they have triumphed, survived, and rejoined each other. (pp. 19-20)
Killer's Kiss is certainly the most untypical of Kubrick's films. It is a weak, naturalistic thriller, shot from Kubrick's own screenplay. The story line shows Kubrick's early errors as a dramatist: It wavers and lacks the obsessional drive and energy of the later films, as do the characters. Killer's Kiss is most successful at creating the ambiance of lower-class New York life, realistic touches and urban types. (p. 21)
An interesting aspect of Killer's Kiss is that, although straitjacketed by his genre, Kubrick still included [themes which would be found in his later films]:
The imaginary worlds. Though Killer's Kiss deals in the shabby details of lower-class life, the characters give little attention to their economic and social plights. They focus on dream worlds which provide specious relief. (p. 29)
Futility of intelligence, errors of emotions. Alice, the brilliant artist, kills herself. Vince's passion drives him to self-destruction. Davy almost dies for his love. His manager is destroyed by a coincidence. Gloria, who thought she could hurt her sister, degrades herself in remorse.
The journey to freedom. The train trip to Seattle is hopefully such a journey, but so is Davy's search for Gloria through shabby New York.
Triumph of obsessional dedicated hero. Davy's winning of Gloria.
The pair of suicide-homicides. Vince has the manager killed, then dies, and Davy (who kills Vince) is allowed to live on for a "happy ending." (pp. 30-1)
In the perspective of the seventies, both [Mike Nichols's] Catch-22 and Paths of Glory can be seen as products of the stifling anti-intellectualism, smugness, and paranoia of the Eisenhower-McCarthy years. Both are full of pointless brutalization, absurd and arbitrary power, and smothering conformity. Criticism of Catch-22 (both the book and the film) suggests the less obvious absurdity of Kubrick's hero: trying to stay always within the limits of the military system, Dax winds up arguing the defense of his men against the judge who arranged the trial so they would be put to death. You can't become more of an absurd hero than that! For better or worse, Dax can be seen as an absurd, impotent character who won't or can't rebel, even staring into the face of evil itself.
[A] heuristic critical approach is to see Paths of Glory as a dramatized model of society (clearly created by a brilliant nihilist). Gavin Lambert has pointed out the class structure of this society. Its cruel, dehumanizing, and pointless "work" is production in a consumer economy, allegorically intensified. The lives of its citizens are "mean, nasty, brutish and short"; they tend to advance in proportion to their wits, endurance, aggression, and tolerance for inflicting pain. The closer to the top, the worse they are. But the men on the bottom have no nobility—of the three chosen to die, the shrewd, vengeful hater endures the wait; the brave man chosen at random cracks up and becomes a babbling child; the criminal destroys himself in a clumsy escape attempt. There is no law or justice, of course, and the trappings of civilization—the exquisite chateau—are used for displays of vanity, ambition, treachery, and monstrous "public relations stunts" like the trial. (pp. 64-5)
Along with … this, Kubrick's [aforementioned] themes are present in full force…. (p. 66)
[In Spartacus] the character Spartacus is to me incompatible with Kubrick's films, for he is a man who undergoes a profound personal transformation, from good bright tough to heroic democrat-general. Such a character shift is unknown in all the director's films: The very most a person can change his point of view is to fall in love, and that is almost always fatal. (Sidney in Fear and Desire, Vince in Killer's Kiss, all the couples in The Killing). Kubrick's characters are driven or passive. They cannot change. It takes extraterrestrial intervention before a Kubrick person is significantly altered.
A second trouble with an all-Kubrick Spartacus is that the story violates his vision of human relations. Human relationships in Kubrick's films are rarely satisfactory, and never warmly democratic. Spartacus and his fleeing comrades, living in a sort of ideal socialism, are an optimistic comment on human community, a topic Kubrick always approaches with distrust, pessimism, and futility (the natural confluence of reason and emotion). (p. 80)
[Dr. Strangelove may] be considered as the logical extension of Kubrick's other two war films: Fear and Desire and Paths of Glory. The parallels between the Kirk Douglas film and Dr. Strangelove are striking: a catastrophic attack and the subsequent debacle; levels of command fighting and destroying each other; a comedy of irony and contradictory responses; the basic problem—the survival of anonymous individuals; a never-seen enemy.
In other ways, Dr. Strangelove resembles Paths of Glory driven to the ultimate limits, jet-propelled as it were: The emotional commander is now not just vain and spiteful but psychotic; the battlefield is again sundered—bomber, base, and War Room—without access or even communications among them until it's too late; the top command is divided into weak fragments—decent, powerless Mandrake, reasonable President Muffley, computerlike Dr. Strangelove; the prize in the balance is not three drab Everymen, but all humanity. (p. 138)
Kubrick's films are fascinating as consistent stories of one psycho-social model of the world. Each takes place in an ambiance of great tension and deviousness, typified by cover-ups, diversions, masquerades. Every film is a prolonged contest conducted under duress in which characters' beliefs are often mocked, exploded, or prove lethal.
Of all Kubrick's films, Paths of Glory and A Clockwork Orange are probably the most complete pictures of Kubrick's social vision; Lolita and the subsequent works dealing mostly with the elite, The Killing and those before mostly with the desperate and victimized dregs.
Life for the characters in thse films resembles an existence in a human version of an "environmental sink," in which animals are allowed to multiply and crowd together far beyond what is healthy. In such a situation, any social order disintegrates; instead of the life patterns involving courtship and pairing off, a few sleek, powerful animals collect harems in privileged territories, dominating and terrorizing the rest of the creatures, or crowd together in desperate uncertainty and fear, or wander about in a daze, refusing to accept the realities of their degenerate environment. A few, in their desperation, become predators on their own kind, clawing or sexually attacking at random.
Such is the society of Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, and, to a large degree, all of Kubrick's films. The great masses of men live lives of quiet desperation and/or vulnerable twitchy unreality; Fletcher and Sidney in Fear and Desire; the hold-up gang in The Killing; the troops of Paths of Glory; the soldiers and the B-52 crew in Dr. Strangelove; Astronaut Poole and the killer man-apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the droogs, bums, and civilians of A Clockwork Orange. Theirs is a hard lot; the worst or weakest become predators on their own: Sidney in Fear and Desire, Sherry Peatty in Killer's Kiss; Lieutenant Roget in Paths of Glory; Georgie, Dim, and the Leftist writer of A Clockwork Orange.
Dominating and controlling these submissive masses at the highest levels are the generals and politicians and communicators: Generals Broulard and Mireau in Paths of Glory; Quilty the television writer in Lolita; General Turgidson, President Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove; bureaucrat Heywood Floyd and HAL-9000 in A Space Odyssey; the chief psychologist and Minister of the Interior in A Clockwork Orange. These so-called leaders may be foolish, proud, sly, headstrong, brilliant, decisive, but they are all somehow tainted by their own knowledge and power—they are all either amoral or partly ineffectual, corrupt or corrupted.
Finally, between these two groups is a third, a sort of spirited middle class of characters—capable, intelligent, independent, from which most of Kubrick's heros are chosen: Johnny Clay in The Killing; Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory; Humbert Humbert in Lolita; Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove; Astronaut Bowman in A Space Odyssey; even Alex of A Clockwork Orange.
In terms of this psycho-social approach, all of Kubrick's films are really about just one subject—finding a third alternative to impotent weakness or the corruption of power. Johnny Clay doesn't want to be a working stiff or a cop; Colonel Dax won't resign his commission or try to be a general; Humbert Humbert isn't interested in an "ordinary marriage," but never uses Quilty-type tricks; Major Kong shows again and again the initiative that made him an officer, but wouldn't want a War Room post; astronaut Bowman carries out his mission, but wouldn't want Heywood Floyd's big job; Alex couldn't stand just staying home at night, but neither could he be a schemer in the Minister's government. In a world of very limited personal consciousness, where intelligence is often futile and emotion not to be trusted, Kubrick's obsessive hero searches for another way out.
In the end, nearly all are defeated: Johnny Clay loses both his new wealth and new freedom; Colonel Dax dooms his career in a vain search for nonexistent social justice; Humbert dedicates himself to true love and is left alone; Major Kong is vaporized because he blindly followed his social role. Mission Commander Bowman succeeds only in becoming a "star child," an eerie nonhuman being whose activities Kubrick does not reveal; Alex seems about to return to his life of perverse unmotivated violence, now with the unspoken toleration of society.
Kubrick's moral seems clear: There is no "way out." To find some pure purpose or meaning in life, one would seemingly have to become nonhuman, or, alternately, be so mentally disposed that, like Alex, the question never arises in the first place. While Alex may be seen as a living "psychological myth," he is surely at the same time the most rigid of Kubrick protagonists. Through betrayal, confinement, brainwashing, suicide, rebrainwashing, whitewashing, he never changes, never questions himself…. (pp. 189-91)
Kubrick has made his life into an artist's odyssey, a search for new freedoms and powers with which to illuminate the world. "The very meaninglessness of life," he has said, "forces man to create his own meanings…. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light…." (p. 192)
Norman Kagan, in his The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (copyright © 1972 by Norman Kagan; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1972, 204 p.
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)
The Kubrick world is not exactly a pleasant place. It is marked by belief in the badness of human nature, and the suggestion that there is at work in the universe some malevolent force, whose chief aim is to destroy human beings and their expectations. Even in 2001: A Space Odyssey, certainly his most optimistic film, salvation does not come to man as man, but through man's evolution into something else. In Lolita Quilty personifies that force, in Dr. Strangelove it is the film's namesake, but in other films it goes unspecified and unnamed. But one knows that it is there because things never work out. It is something like the Lord of the Flies. As the head asks Simon in Golding's novel, "I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are what they are?" Maybe in Kubrick's work as in Golding's, the problem is that the beast is in all of us. Kubrick is a chess lover, and critics often point to chess motifs in his movies. In general the comparison holds up—Kubrick's movies are like chess games with an unseen opponent who always wins. (p. 6)
Because Kubrick's films are set in his own world, and because he sees man as a loser, one sometimes misses humanness in his characters…. Thus his movies are more stylized than realistic art. If one is partial (as I am) to humanist art, he tends to think of Kubrick's anti-humanism as a limitation, although, seen more objectively, it is probably merely a matter of taste. (p. 7)
Daniel De Vries, in his introduction to his The Films of Stanley Kubrick (copyright © 1973 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; used by permission), Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 5-7.
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 hostile to it, the escapist fantasies of the popular arts. He achieves the paradoxical McLuhanesque mystery of transforming his medium, film, a popular art itself, into his message. (p. 234)
Kubrick takes sides in Paths of Glory. He sees things literally, to a significant extent, in terms of blacks and whites, good and evil. His uses of blacks and whites, light and darkness in the film illustrate this. Like Shakespeare in the destructive worlds of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, Kubrick reverses the conventional meanings of light and darkness. Light is associated with the generals, the men who destroy individuals, who send them to their deaths in battle or before firing squads. The chateau in which one almost always sees the generals is bathed in light in contrast to the darkness of the trenches and the prison in which the three men are waiting to die. (pp. 234-35)
What Kubrick is discovering in Paths of Glory is how to make his visual content express his theme. But the problem is that he does in fact see things in this film in terms of black and white, that is, in terms of having to choose between one side or the other. We are never allowed to see the complexities and contradictions of the French officers, never allowed to view the validity—at least from their perspective—of their struggle. The officers are evil, the men, even though imperfect, are good. In order to make his characters conform to his theme, he has had to rob them of complexity. He has had to show that creativity and complexity can reside only with the individual men, most specifically with Ralph Meeker as the Sisyphus-like individual who transcends his death at the hands of the firing squad by freely choosing death gracefully. The generals, on the other hand, are reduced to totally inhuman manipulators. (p. 237)
When Kubrick makes Dr. Strangelove, however, he substitutes archetypes from popular literature and film for institutions. In so doing, he frees himself to allow the complexities and contradictions implicit in his archetypes to be utilized to their fullest. Dr. Strangelove abounds with popular characters. Their very names imply their contradictory archetypal functions. General Jack D. Ripper suggests a guardian of order turned homicidal maniac; Bat Guano, a combination of Bat Masterson and manure; Mandrake, a sleight of hand artist. In fact, he is, because we see Peter Sellers, the actor who plays his part, playing two other parts, those of the president and of Dr. Strangelove. This shifting of roles by Sellers is a perfect expression of the way the use of archetypes from the popular arts frees Kubrick to indulge in invention and performance. He has shifted from visuals as expressions of thematic argument to visuals as expressions of sheer performance. (pp. 238-39)
[The character of Dr. Strangelove] allows for a synthesis of comic delights and horrible awareness. We recognize that any scientist who wears glasses and speaks in an ominous foreign accent must be a villain. We expect his villainy to emanate from his super-rationality. Instead, Dr. Strangelove's villainy derives from a series of Freudian slips and the movement of uncontrolled parts of his body. He speaks rationally, almost like a computer, but his arm and leg move irrationally, as if by their own will. And his speech adds up to a comic revelation of his own sexist consciousness. What we get is both a delight in the reversal of the stereotyped scientist-villain and a sudden horrible awareness of the subjectivity and arbitrariness that underlies supposedly objective and rational behavior.
In his treatment of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick has stumbled on a technique that will become indispensable in his last two films. He has discovered a way to preserve and express the need embodied in the stereotype, the truth and vitality expressed in the popular arts, without succumbing to a stereotyped response. Paradoxically, he shows the validity of the stereotype of the scientist. According to the stereotype, we distrust the scientist because he dehumanizes through excessive objectivity. Kubrick shows that, paradoxically, what we take to be extreme objectivity and rationality is extreme subjectivity and irrationality. He has preserved the validity and vitality of our perception while expanding our consciousness of its underlying meaning and significance.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, he follows the same pattern, expanded to cover the whole story through its science-fiction metaphor. In following this pattern he is following the archetypal Odyssey plot from Homer through the frontiersman moving west, through the cowboy, through even the gangster. In essence, the hero moves out searching for knowledge of the external world, but ends by gaining awareness of the world inside himself. (pp. 239-41)
The archetype of the voyage tells us that discovery is never complete until it includes both external and internal revelation. It engages our vital, primitive responses, our sense of wonder, and if handled right as Kubrick handles it, it satisfies our longing for confrontation with the mysteries of existence. What is wrong with most science fiction stories is that they content themselves with external discovery or, at most, with a mere moral lesson. Kubrick, on the other hand, comples us in 2001 to desert the mechanistic, supposedly objective order of the world and to create our own subjective reality. (p. 241)
In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick uses the con-man archetype from popular arts instead of the pure science fiction archetype, and superimposes it on a futurist base. (p. 242)
We like the hero, Alex, not for any sentimental reasons, but only because he embodies the primitive vitality captured in his stereotyped con-man role; he survives as sheer con-man, by his wits and vitality. Unlike the astronaut in 2001, Alex may not discover himself, but we nevertheless discover ourselves in discovering the nature of the world in which he and we move. We are jarred into making this discovery for ourselves through the complex responses that Kubrick evokes in us. When we discover that a thief, rapist and murderer is more human than the supposedly sane and moral society in which he lives, we must become imaginatively engaged in making sense of the situation….
Kubrick violates us, shocks us, into recognizing the violation of human vitality we practice, or at least condone, by sanctioning and creating a society in which the only way to survive, the only way to be vital, is to be a con man. (p. 243)
Kubrick is reducing life in this film literally to its primitive source, its very roots, survival and sexuality. In reducing Alex to the embodiment of this primitive source of human vitality, Kubrick shows us better than any other artist the essential vitality and limitation of the pornographic impulse. He shows us that sexuality is a vital impulse without which man cannot survive and yet one which, divorced from the total person, is merely destructive. As with all of his successful uses of the popular arts, Kubrick has now passed the supreme test. He has both affirmed the essential truth of the roots of man's vital impulses embodied in the popular arts, and he has shown us the perversions to which that truth can be twisted. He has achieved the miracle of using pornography, that most escapist and fantasy-inducing popular art, as a way of forcing us to confront the reality of our escapist behavior. In achieving this miracle, he has not only created a significant work of art, he has revealed to us the capacities and limitations of the popular tradition itself. (pp. 243-44)
Harriet Deer and Irving Deer, "Kubrick and the Structures of Popular Culture," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1974 by Sam L. Grogg, Jr., Michael T. Marsden, and John G. Nachbar), Vol. III, No. 3, 1974, pp. 232-44.
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 edge of melodrama into the sort of black farce which sometimes seems implicit in Fear and Desire if only he would or could let himself go. (p. 104)
The Killing (1956) is a disappointment. Not absolutely, for it is at the very least a superlatively well-crafted thriller, tight, sharp, and almost painfully vivid. But for all its virtues it comes across, particularly if seen again today, as the least personal of all Kubrick's films (except perhaps Spartacus)…. (p. 107)
The Killing is a superior example [of the crime film] in its slickness, tautness, and ruthless machine-like precision. But it is not greatly superior to others in its genre, and it lacks (deliberately, no doubt) the ambiguity, the expansiveness, the unexpected touches of poetry which distinguished its nearest competitor, [John Huston's] The Asphalt Jungle. Nevertheless, there are moments vividly exemplifying Kubrick's taste for or interest in the bizarre and peculiar, the unreality or surreality lurking at the heart of the seemingly normal and everyday…. In general, though, The Killing, while perfectly acceptable and even distinguished within its own rather closely circumscribed genre, seems, because of its very perfection in its chosen form, curiously impersonal, an exercise and a demonstration rather than a personal statement.
[Paths of Glory, 1957] is a very different matter. It is as though Kubrick, having made two films with the accent on feeling, self-expression rather than precision, and then one film in which tightness, precision, and a rather cold, impersonal finish were of paramount importance, was able triumphantly to combine the two sides of his cinematic nature. Paths of Glory creates its extraordinary effect not only by the intensity of its feeling but, even more, by the way the intensity is kept under scrupulous control. The emotional Kubrick, the man who has an attitude toward life and its issues that he wishes to convey to his audience, is perfectly matched here by the technological Kubrick, the man who is fascinated by the sheer logistics of filmmaking, the way the pieces fit together, the adaptation of means to ends. (pp. 109-10)
[Lolita, 1962] stands up as the first full, mature expression of Kubrick's personality and point of view—more decisively, certainly, than Paths of Glory, fine though that is, because it enables us to appreciate fully for the first time the comic aspects of Kubrick's vision. Like Nabokov's, it is an anguished, violent, sometimes ugly comedy—the comedy of a man who has to laugh in order not to cry, who has to use a distancing frame of reference in order to make sense of an experience that could otherwise lead to black despair. (pp. 115-16)
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is obviously in many ways … a logical sequel to Lolita…. (p. 119)
Kubrick's intention in Dr. Strangelove is clear enough—to express the absurdity of the arms race in a form equally absurd, taking up the theme of Paths of Glory in a fantastic register, or for that matter accepting the moments of Fear and Desire where the action declines from being existentially Absurd to being merely absurd in a more basic sense as a viable means of expression…. If the tone can be seen as deriving from Lolita, where Kubrick seems to have learned the secret of playing comedy in deadly earnest and not being afraid to plunge right into outrageous farce when it suited his purpose, the character outlines can be traced back to Paths of Glory and even more unmistakably to Fear and Desire (no doubt because the four characters there are intended as permanent stereotypes anyway). The intricate dovetailing of parallel actions into a clear piece of exposition refers back to the construction of The Killing, and indeed in all sorts of ways Dr. Strangelove has the air of being consciously a kind of summary of Kubrick's work to date, a rehearsal of the lessons he had learned from film to film throughout his career. (p. 122)
[But] Dr. Strangelove is frequently not funny enough to be accepted as really funny, and because of that, because it seems not to take its own comedy seriously enough, does not come across either as serious enough to be serious. (p. 124)
Up to [2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick] had always been particularly remarkable for his skill in telling complicated stories on screen, juggling the elements of several intrigues at the same time, as in The Killing and Dr. Strangelove, or showing the pieces of a plot fall into place like a steel trap, as in Paths of Glory and Lolita. Certainly, either way his films had been very story-oriented. Now he was to go to the other extreme, to build a major film not on a complex intrigue, but on simple gestures with a minimum of words, and leave the psychological, emotional, and philosophical ramifications up to his audiences to provide. The master of the cut-and-dried, the precise, the forcefully explicit, had chosen to seek the vague, the general, the ambiguous; the filmmaker who had always approached his audiences very importantly through their minds was now looking to approach them "at an inner level of consciousness just as music does." (pp. 124-25)
[This] is a roundabout way of describing the self-transformation of a prose artist into a poet, a psychologist into a myth maker. I think that any lingering doubts I may have about the effect of the finished film come from one basic doubt—that of whether one can become a poet simply by taking an infinitude of pains. It seems to me that the one big distraction the film presents, as far as the operation of its intended mode of communication is concerned, is the underlying awareness one has that it is a construct, intellectually arrived at, with a certain design on us which the creator perfectly understands but we are supposed not to. (p. 125)
[In his best film, A Clockwork Orange,] Kubrick, back refreshed after his experiments with minimal plotting in 2001 to apply the skills of nonverbal filmic expression to a perfectly explicit story line, uses a technique which it is tempting to call comic-strip. Episode follows episode brusquely, with no lingering over transitions: the stages of our hero's accumulating misfortune following his indulgence with his three mates, or droogs, to use Burgess's argot, in a bout of ultra-violence—a therapeutic beating up of a shambling drunk, an all-out tangle with a rival group, a rape-cum-beating-up of a couple of country-dwelling intellectuals—are economically sketched in, with overwhelming logic. Each episode in the first half, when he is up, finds its mirror image in the second half, when he is down, drained of his violent and sexual impulses by a new conditioning course of cinematic forced feeding. (p. 133)
In A Clockwork Orange Kubrick seems to have found his ideal subject and his ideal form of expression. In all the lofty discussion occasioned by 2001 we have tended to forget … that Kubrick is essentially a popular artist, one skilled in adapting the latest techniques to the task of communicating complicated ideas to the largest possible audience. The look of A Clockwork Orange, contrasting the Pop/Op/Kinetic art trappings of the brave new world with the grubby makeshift of everyday life in a world run to seed, is smart and modern, but also perfectly functional, all there to convey something rather than indulged in for its own sake. Kubrick the master of dramatic-cinematic narrative is again functioning at full power, and it is arguable that 2001, whatever one's reservations about its total success, was a step necessary for Kubrick to take in order to get to this point. Whether or not he has in the process proved himself an auteur, an inspired filmmaker, or merely, as I tend to believe, the brilliantly gifted cinematic intelligence who can occasionally turn out an inspired film, does not seem to matter too much at this point. (pp. 134-35)
John Russell Taylor, "Stanley Kubrick," in his Directors and Directions: Cinema for the Seventies (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; in Canada, by A D Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1975 by John Russell Taylor), Hill and Wang, 1975, pp. 100-35.
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.∗
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 subjectivity and toward classical perspective. (But then why does he use so much Schubert on his sound-track?)
Even this method might have had some limited result if Kubrick showed any sense of rhythmic force—in effect, some awareness of the viewer's presence. Mile after mile of countryside rolls before us, scene after scene is played with a lengthy pause after almost every line. (I can hardly remember a cue that was promptly "picked up.") Scene after scene is written as extendedly as possible. (p. 22)
Sometimes we are told, and sometimes by Kubrick himself, that to dissent from the mode of his recent work is to show a "literary" bias, to lack response to cinema as such. My view is precisely the opposite. All this museum-imitation of 18th-century painters, all this adoration of the sheerly photographic seems to me destructive of the vitality and uniqueness of the whole film art, a kind of esthetic echolalia in the middle of a vast new linguistic possibility. It is all facile, glib, reductive, hobbling film's addition to our artistic means of dealing with experience. Beautiful pictures are not film style…. Kubrick's latter-day work is solipsist and smug, isolated and sterile. For me Barry Lyndon is an antifilm, a gorgeous, stultified bore. (p. 23)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Films: 'Barry Lyndon'" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1976 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 174, Nos. 1 & 2, January 3 & 10, 1976, pp. 22-3.
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.
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 feelings of others. It simply is. Kubrick's fascination with this aspect of human personality can be traced from the prehuman creatures that achieve the miracle of conceptual thought at the beginning of 2001, through the character of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, to the sublimated savages who inhabit the fashionable courts of Europe in Barry Lyndon.
Kubrick's trilogy is a disturbing study of a decadent civilization, decadent because the life-forms it has established for man to achieve the expression of his essential self are founded upon a false conception of the nature of man. Yet for all the bleakness that the critics have argued informs Kubrick's view of man, for all his negativism and pessimism, Kubrick is nevertheless struggling to strike an affirming note. Rebirth, renewal, the regeneration of the adventurous human spirit is the major dramatic point of 2001. The civilization that begins when the prehuman creature, sitting before the skeleton of an animal, conceptualizes the thought that he can use an element in his environment as an extension of his will to gain dominion over his environment inevitably culminates with the astronauts voyaging through space on a mission to contact the suprahuman intelligence responsible for the monolith that has been uncovered on the moon. (pp. 12-13)
Conceptual thought, first used for used for the immediate gratification of the instinctual need for food, has ultimately delivered mankind to the threshold of some cataclysmic discovery about itself and about the universe which is its home. (p. 14)
The assumption upon which the argument of 2001 is based is that Western civilization is moribund, that its cultural forms and social institutions no longer provide man with the significant order that makes life meaningful experience. In his next two movies, Kubrick's principal interest is to study the relationship between the individual man and the cultural forms through which that individual must achieve the expression of himself. At the heart of A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon is the great philosophical question that is at the heart of all great art: What is man, and what must he do with his life?… Kubrick continues to sound the life-affirming note with which he concluded 2001 in both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. (p. 15)
[Anthony Burgess] has lamented that Kubrick failed to understand the point of his novel. The fact is that Burgess, as well as the many movie critics who have appreciated the novel, has failed to understand the point of Kubrick's movie, which is grounded in a Freudian view of the dynamics of civilization…. Kubrick's discontents with civilization's forms are not only because they frustrate the instinctual man, but also because they deny that the instinctual self is intrinsic to man's nature. Kubrick insists upon this point throughout A Clockwork Orange by juxtaposing the brutal enactment of instinctual urges with sublimated expressions of those urges. The popular song "Singin' in the Rain," for example, is a sentimental, sublimated expression of the same urge that is compelling Alex to the act he commits while singing it. (pp. 15-16)
That the forms and institutions of Western civilization deny the Alex in every man, and therefore can only deform the social man as he seeks to express his essential self through them, is the central theme of Barry Lyndon. Redmond Barry's failure to achieve selfhood in the terms prescribed by his society is his tragedy, and by extension the tragedy of Western man. Eighteenth-century Europe, the world in which Barry must achieve self-hood, represents for Kubrick, as it had at the end of 2001, Western civilization at its most formal stage of development. Conformity to the innumerable codes of ritualized social conduct was essential for any man wishing to establish his value as a man. Barry, in his effort to become a "gentleman," accepts the validity of all the institutions of his day. Only once does he fail to act according to form, and that once destroys all his efforts to achieve his peerage, the highest life-form then available to man. (p. 17)
The charge that Kubrick's later movies are devoid of meaning is … nonsensical. The charge that he is ponderous and dull is comprehensible only if his ideas are ponderous and dull. The evidence of his trilogy on Western civilization supports the claim that he is one of America's top film directors. He is more than that. Stanley Kubrick is a critic of his age, one of its interpreters and one of its artists. (p. 19)
Hans Feldmann, "Kubrick and His Discontents," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1976 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXX, No. 1, Fall, 1976, pp. 12-19.
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….
Never has color, light, and motion been employed more brilliantly in a narrative film to signify nothing, only to astonish, amaze, entrance. And that's what Barry Lyndon is for me: a trance film, a trip film, a luminous machine for meditation. It is irresistibly hypnotic and dreamy, transcendent in the classic sense of the word. This is a film that respects the sovereignty of the observer. Its vast silence is a gift, a place for the imagination to do its work.
Of course the independent experimental cinema has for decades been concerned with precisely these issues. In this sense Barry Lyndon is related more closely to Michael Snow's Wavelength or to Brakhage's Text of Light than it is to, say, Tom Jones….
The similarities between Karl May and Barry Lyndon are uncanny. Both are three hours long, both examine in tedious detail the lives of characters who represent the descent of myth into popular form, both are transcendentally beautiful, both invite the observer to enter and make them complete.
Gene Youngblood, "Flamingo Hours: Luminous Machines," in Take One (copyright © 1977 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 5, No. 6, January, 1977, p. 27.
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 collection of paintings," but the invention of an autonomic culture. And what might otherwise have appeared as the woolgatherings of an archivist has been transmitted by a film-maker into a tribute to the farraginous nature of his medium.
Each image seals off direct access to its content by converting content into an object of formal admiration; the formalism, that is, insures the image as both visual enticement and proof against further intimacy. The beauty of the film is indeed strange as the formalism of the image sequestrates not only its dramatic, but also its historical utility. (p. 199)
What is true of history is equally true of the narrative that Kubrick has extracted from Thackeray's novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon: neither history nor novel serves the film as its subject; rather, both provide materials out of which a subject is to be shaped…. Thackeray has made of these events a picaresque for cynics, a social satire which charts the rise and fall of a jackanapes. Kubrick, by contrast, has made not a satire, but a virtually abstract contemplation of human suffering and loss: the story of a man who cannot get what he wants or keep what he gets as the function of a formalist construction. The film's true subjects then become mortality and art, grief and cinematographics, human ruin "ingested" by the plenitude of an aural-visual ordering of film. Actually these motifs generalize upon a current of imagery that has flowed through all of Kubrick's work, and the dialectics of his present film recall sequences and icons from the past: for example, a great baroque chateau that harbors the death-dealing decisions of the French high command (in Paths of Glory), or a wizened and dying astronaut smashing a dish in a Louis XVI drawing room (in 2001), or perhaps most memorably, a love-sick James Mason pumping bullet holes into a Gainsboroughlike portrait of a lady (in Lolita). But in Barry Lyndon, the fusion of art and human suffering is more than a matter of isolated images: it has become a structural concept that both determines and permeates the emotional ambience of an entire film…. (pp. 199-200)
The director has thoroughly neutralized his hero's identity to create neither a rogue nor an innocent, but a human shape that approaches the conditions of an artifact. Who Barry is, what he wants, and what we are to make of him, are issues of psychology and morality that resolve and finally conciliate themselves into how and where Barry stands in film time and film space; his career and character development translate into exteriorized patterns of posture, gesture, choreography within a frame, and position within a tableau. (p. 202)
Everywhere the methodology of the film attempts to transform a continuous action into a finished design, something happening into something remembered, a subject enacted into an object contemplated. To effect this transformation, the film makes special use of two devices—the camera and a narrator. Thackeray immerses the reader in the events of his novel by allowing Barry to tell his own story. Kubrick removes the viewer from the events of his film by rarely allowing the commentary of his anonymous narrator to synchronize precisely with any given action. The voice of the narrator, genial, ironic, and remote, is the voice of a collective memory, a public recollection of private passions…. The primary function of the commentary … qualifies, challenges, and "mutes" the present tense condition of the visualized action; finally determines the status of the action as the ineffable, transient, and sometimes irregular inflection of lives already packaged by memory. (pp. 202-03)
If the temporal provenance of the action is the present and that of the narrator is the past and the future (i.e., the historical overview), the stance of the camera itself—the third active presence in this multiplex work—seeks to elude the temporal continuum altogether, and reside in the condition of formal meditation, of timeless repose as a maker of self-reflexive images. The provenance of the camera is the provenance of art, and indeed at certain times, this provenance is threatened: during the boxing match, the fight with Bullingdon, and Lady Lyndon's attempted suicide, as if "overcome by grief" or "shattered by violence," the camera capitulates to the human turmoil, enacts its subject, shifts to hand-held position, and dramatizes a dizzy, rushing space. But once the moment is past, the camera quickly "composes" itself and proceeds, as before, to propitiate and formalize the action in a regular succession of elegant, even-keeled compositions. (p. 203)
Characters and situations are taken away from us even in the midst of their happening; the camera withdraws from that to which we would cleave close—and in this respect, our sorrow is collateral to Barry's: we too can never get what we want or keep what we get, and the motion of the camera is the measure of our bereavement. (p. 204)
Alan Spiegel, "Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon'," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1977 by Skidmore College), Nos. 38-39, Summer-Fall, 1977, pp. 194-208.
[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 brought to it. Kubrick is a virtuoso technician, and that is part of the excitement that is generated by a new Kubrick film. But he isn't just a virtuoso technician; he's also, God help us, a deadly-serious metaphysician. (pp. 130, 132)
Kubrick seems to be saying that rage, uncontrollable violence, and ghosts spawn each other—that they are really the same thing. He's using Stephen King's hokum to make a metaphysical statement about immortality. The Torrances are his archetypes; they are the sources and victims of monsters that live on.
Kubrick mystifies us deliberately, much as Antonioni did in "The Passenger," though for different purposes. The conversations between Jack and his demons are paced like the exposition in drawing-room melodramas of fifty years ago; you could drop stones into a river and watch the ripples between words…. "The Shining" is also full of deliberate time dislocations…. The film is punctuated with titles: suddenly there will be a black frame with "Tuesday" on it, or "3 o'clock," or "Saturday;" after the first ones, the titles all refer to time, but in an almost arbitrary way. Jack says that he loves the hotel and wishes "we could stay here forever, ever, ever." And at the very end there's a heavy hint of reincarnation and the suggestion that Jack has been there forever, ever, ever. I hate to say it, but I think the central character of this movie is time itself, or, rather, timelessness. (pp. 139, 142)
But we don't know how to read Kubrick's signals; it may be that he simply doesn't know us well enough anymore to manipulate us successfully. Again and again, the movie leads us to expect something—almost promises it—and then disappoints us. Why give us a tour of the vast hotel kitchen, with an inventory of the contents of the meat locker, when nothing much takes place there? (p. 142)
"The Shining" seems to be about the quest for immortality—the immortality of evil. Men are psychic murderers: they want to be free and creative, and can only take out their frustrations on their terrified wives and children…. Apparently, [Jack] lives forever, only to attack his family endlessly. It's what Kubrick said in "2001": Mankind began with the weapon and just went on from there…. The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack's axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape.
What's increasingly missing from Kubrick's work is the spontaneity, the instinct, the lightness that would make us respond intuitively. We're starved for pleasure at this movie; when we finally get a couple of exterior nightime shots with theatrical lighting, we're pathetically grateful. (pp. 144, 147)
Pauline Kael, "The Current Cinema: Devolution," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 16, June 9, 1980, pp. 130-47.