Saturday, April 23, 2005
The first time I watch a Stanley Kubrick movie, I'm thrilled by its ambition and clarity.
The second time, the anticipated moments of humor, beauty, and shock re-arrive precisely in order, but thinner, like an anecdote that's outlived the memory it tells. Actors who'd conveyed life in other roles are played like tokens. My laughter and startles are a bit forced, as though I'm trying to put a lecturer at ease.
The third time, after the first ten minutes or so, there's no more movie. Just an idea I already know.
Only two Kubrick movies have interested me past that point. Both are literary adaptations, and in both, the ideas are formal. I watch them as literary analysis. With a 100-to-1 shooting ratio.
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"How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?"
Well, Lolita is a story of European guile in crass America. To make a highbrow book of it, European artist Nabokov told it guilefully. To make a commercial movie of it, American "they" told it crassly. In Nabokov's medium, Humbert Humbert takes advantage of a decadent tradition of ambiguously angst-riven confession. In Kubrick's medium — Hollywood film, c. 1960 — if you wanted to show middle-aged men lusting after girls, you made a leering sex comedy. And so that's the movie Kubrick made: The Twelve-Year Itch.
The logic is undeniable and, for me, anyway, irresistable. And James Mason makes an ideally sophisticated Tom Ewell, although Sue Lyon seems better suited to play the good-humored attractive wife than the drool-bespattered fantasy. (Tuesday Weld turned the role down after playing a similar part in a less prestigious movie and before playing similar parts in less prestigious movies.).
The problem is that Kubrick, as heir to Stroheim's flesh-loathing joylessness, isn't good at sex comedy. Even within the esoteric sub-sub-genre of leer noir, Lolita was bettered by Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.
Maybe if they'd gotten Tony Randall for Clare Quilty?
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The single Kubrick movie which rewards me with pleasure viewing after viewing is Barry Lyndon.
I realize this reaction isn't universally shared. It's not, however, unique. I've watched the movie with others who've enjoyed it — I remember one very successful pan-and-scanned commercially interrupted viewing on late-night television.... Maybe it's even helpful to see it in such irreverent circumstances. I laugh pretty much all the way through, but acolytes seem to find (or seek and not find) a different experience — "a fresco of sadness" — described well by Mark Crispin Miller.
Although I admire Miller's argument, do I really care about Barry's sad fate? Or the sad fates of all who surround him?
Of course not. It's a Kubrick movie. I don't care about them any more than I cared about the fates of the Haze females, or HAL's or Alex's victims, or all life on Earth. And, in this case at least, Kubrick's coldness is no betrayal of his source material.
William Makepeace Thackeray attempted at least four simultaneous goals in The Luck [or Memoirs] of Barry Lyndon, Esq.:
- A tribute to eighteenth-century picaresque fiction.
- Nineteenth-century realistic social satire.
- As first-person narrator, a very active protagonist...
- ... who was utterly unobservant, unreflective, unrepentant, and unappealing.
This was extraordinarily ambitious for a second novel. It was also kind of a mess.
Being more a pastry chef type, Kubrick instead neatly separated each ingredient and layered them in a tidy pattern.
To resolve the mix of fictional conventions, his movie splits down the middle. Its first half, naturally, is assigned the eighteenth-century: the painlessly ironic misadventures of a young man, fairly good-hearted but amoral and far from bright, attractive through sheer boisterous health. This picaresque story ends in the hero's ascension to landed prosperity and a good marriage.
After an intermission, we enter the nineteenth-century: domestic melodrama, the horrors of class mobility, cross-generational tensions building and snapping, tragic accident, and villainy brought down, with lingering regret.
The problematically unreliable narrator was resolved by making him omniscient third-person, translating selected out-of-character quotes into the authorial voice of Vanity Fair or Trollope's novels. The feeling of unreliablity was maintained by a persistent discord between his spoken tone and what's shown.
This kept Barry's character inarticulate and opaque, well within the scope of Thackeray's original blundering creep (or Ryan O'Neal's acting), and able to inhabit both halves of Kubrick's new scheme without dissonance. The new narrator was similarly at home, perhaps a bit more detached and worldly in the first half and a bit more censorious in the second. As eighteenth-century narrator, he undercuts anything which might be miscontrued as heroism or sentiment. And in turn his dismissiveness is undercut by the nineteenth-century focus on character.
Other shared techniques help bind the two halves. Kubrick's slow zoom-outs begin scenes as formally as chapter titles and introductory paragraphs. Natural lighting, location shooting, and period costumes push material reality forward; the meticulous care lavished on them reinforce the abstraction of an earlier style. As with Barry's character, so with others: Kubrick tones down Thackeray's caricatures (which, photographed directly, might give us something more like Fellini's Satyricon or Welles's Don Quixote than like Richardson's Tom Jones) and adds flaws to Thackeray's few admirable (and almost blank) characters, resulting in fairly even affect.
The result, I admit, is cold and schematic — but also intellectually engaging and very funny. It even induces, yes, a pleasant melancholy.
Not directly, though; not through parodic extravagances such as The Death of Little Bryan, with its "sad music" (that one piece of sad music, used whenever "sad music"'s needed), its angelic pain-free child, and its bravely tear-choking parents. That scene is pure clip art, like the "scary house", "soul-shattering perversity", and "horrors of war" sequences in other Kubrick movies.
No, the sadness is one uniquely suited to Kubrick's abilities. It's the sadness of distance. The distance between these dehumanized figures, each forever their own framed portrait, nailed to the wall, untouched and untouching. The distance between them and us, separated by time and telling. The implied identity. Even the voiceover dies as we watch, and a printed epilogue emphasizes the point:
It was in the reign of George the III that the above named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.
"... and do not the Sunday papers and the courts of law supply us every week with more novel and interesting slander?"
Excellent review of Kubrick. Regarding “Barry Lyndon”, I think the distance Kubrick generates is intricately tied to the central themes we see repeated throughout his body of work. In “Barry Lyndon” Kubrick’s obsession with tribalism and systematic violence, which in the case of modern man (Kubrick would argue) is exercised through a kind of rigid formalism, is on display. Kubrick, very much influenced by Freud-via-Trilling, uses Thackery’s novel as a gateway, of sorts, into the soul of modern man. The late 18th century setting, which for the purposes of the film is a time period sufficiently modern for us to relate to but one also characterized by vestiges of ‘uncivilized’ behavior, allows Kubrick to set up end-points in the film that depict the aforementioned formalisms (e.g., wherein duels were carried forward or halted if/when the offending party found “satisfaction”; flags; troop formation while entering battle; the preposterously regimented forward-marches-into-slaughter; the flogging of soldiers & Barry’s flogging of his own children; Barry receiving coins of honor; etc.).
BTW, I think “The Shining” is his best work, the one that best sustains his ‘Kubrickian’ themes.
I teach Michael Herr’s Dispatches in my literary journalism classes, so proximity to the text might influence my view of the film, but Full Metal Jacket works for the very reasons you would condemn it. (As I assume you include its entirety among the “‘horrors of war’ sequences” you dismiss.) Actors played like tokens; forced and strained laughter; flesh-loathing joylessness; cold and schematic; all of these add up to an uncomfortable experience with a film, and unlike most uncomfortable experience with films (AVP: Alien vs. Predator, Con Air, etc.) this film demanded that its viewers humanize characters as they watched them being dehumanized. It demanded its viewers accept that witty banter from the mouth of a child-killer, and unlike most war films, didn’t excuse this behavior on account of the war. In fact, it condemned these kids for the decisions they make even as it forces its viewers to accept why they made them. In other words, I’ve seen a lot of war films, but none capture “the horrors of war” so well as this one. You can dismiss the genre as a whole, which is where you seemed to be going, but I don’t think you can consider the genre seriously and not consider Kubrick’s achievement in Full Metal Jacket as anything less than brilliant.*
Full disclosure: I had been turned off to Full Metal Jacket for some time because I thought the humor pulled off too well. Too often had I heard kids discuss it as if it were a comedy. It wasn’t until I saw it splayed on a wall with full surround sound during a screening for my kids did I realize that this movie, unlike many others, had to be experienced in a theater to be understood. When Kubrick fills the screen with Gunnery Sargeant Hartmann’s screaming mug, the experience overwhelms; the only laughter I heard was the uncomfortable laughter of people who knew what they heard was funny but were too shocked to laugh. When I saw that same seen on television a few weeks later, it had become funny again. I could laugh because it was a screaming head in a box and not a screaming head occupying the entirety of my field of vision.
*I meant for there to be an argument in there. If my febrile mind deceives me, I’ll be more than happy to elaborate.
Full Metal Jacket as clip-art… heh. A. Cephalus, I’m sure you know that Herr only worked on the screenplay and that FMJ is based on Gustav Hasford’s Short Timers (and that he and Kubrick also share screenplay credit w/Herr).
And in FMJ I think it’s fair to say that Kubrick was up to a hell of a lot more than “clip-art.” Or the too-easy work of making an “anti-war” film. As against the brain-dead manicheanism of Stone’s <em>Platoon</em>, Kubrick’s cold analytic & its service to his mimetics of sinistery allows him to pull off (aided greatly by Hasford’s text and Herr’s reworking of the script) in <em>Full Metal Jacket</em> the best-ever representation of the experience of Marines going into war.
From its willful flaunting of narrative (and, it should be noted, PTSD is nothing if not a forced violation of moral narrative by those who do so while also stripping the victim of all possibility of personal agency) to its understanding that every trope of war gets incorporated back into the culture of the Marine Corps in ironic service to the task of killing, Kubrick gets the tone and the images right. Tony Swofford’s short riff on anti-war films as a kind of happy porn for grunts in Jarhead is instructive here--and yet, it’s also true that these tropes become can also become embodied in an uneasy complication against our use of them… as Kubrick (aided by brilliant performance of former DI Ermey) wisely makes Hartmann a sympathetic character rather than a stock goon. He is relentless in failing to let us (or his characters) off the hook.
From the blank stares of recruits under the buzzing shears to the final scene of the young Marines singing Mickey Mouse club theme in the burning streets of Hue, Full Metal Jacket is a continuous assault on our expectation of narrative, empathy, and judgement--as war is also such a thing: and if you’ve never sat in a tent laughing while L/cpl Wachowski screamed, after getting a “Dear John” letter, that he should have “shoved a grenade up that bitches cunt!"--well, then Kubrick’s film is the closest thing you’ll ever get to the simultaneous hilarity and horror of war in the Marine Corps.
Oh yeah--Barry Lyndon is damned good, too (and underappreciated at large).
Herr not only worked on the script, the second half of the film is based, almost exclusively, on the events Herr chronicles in Dispatches, with Joker occupying the role Herr himself occupied in Vietnam (and the book). When I have the time, I’d love to examine in more detail the interaction of the fiction of the first half of the film with the non-fiction of the second half; it’s strange to watch a fictional character (Joker) transform into a non-fictional person (Herr). I’m not sure why Herr grafted his own experiences in Vietnam onto Short Timers, nor do I know (outside of a simple calculation of narrative continuity) why he transposed his experiences onto a member of the Corp...especially considering that one of his major accomplishments in the book is to break down the distinction between journalist and soldier--most notably when he claims to have taken up arms during the Tet Offensive--and that’s lost in film. After all, there’s nothing unusual about a Marine who happens to work for the Stars and Stripes picking up a rifle; there’s something very unusual about a journalist writing for Rolling Stone to do that.
All that aside, I agree with your assessment of the film and wish I had put so concisely.
I wish more film criticism was as well written as these comments.
To clear up two misunderstandings: I do like quite a few war movies, though not the Vietnam-as-high-art set—it may be true that Full Metal Jacket is the best of those. And I wasn’t thinking of the entire film as “horrors of war”. I remembered its major impact as the basic training sequence, with the war itself a by-the-numbers anticlimax. I won’t defend that opinion, but it was fairly conventional at the time of the movie’s release. I’ll give it another try.
You make as good a case for BL as I’ve seen. What you say about the “distance” between the characters and the viewer, “separated by time and telling,” is true of most of Kubrick’s films. It works better in some than in others. In my opinion, it doesn’t work in BL because the essence of 18th/19th century picaresque is liveliness. BL is the anithesis of liveliness. In this film Kubrick’s coldness freezes solid. But then again, I liked Eyes Wide Shut, which everyone else seems to have hated.
Ah yes, Eyes Wide Shut, the quintessential film. Period. Which is to say, its tediousness is the whole point. Kubrick takes all of one’s cinematic fantasy expectations and shows them up for what they are: totally banal. He had been preparing to realize this his whole career. It’s no accident that EWS was his last film, and, upon finishing it, he exhaled all the energy that had kept him going - and died…
I’ve already posted on this, at CPROBES.