Friday, March 4, 2011


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb came out in 1964 and presented an absurd and satirical narrative about the Cold War and the possibility of a Nuclear Holocaust. It was the 7th film by Stanley Kubrick and was the first of three consecutive masterworks he would create. Next would come 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, followed by A Clockwork Orange in 1971. Kubrick was an American, but lived in England for most of the last four decades of his life. He was known for being obsessive and for his slow method of working, and for being a perfectionist. He maintained complete artistic control over his projects and worked at his own pace, but still had big-studio financial support. 

Kubrick's films are characterized by a formal visual style and meticulous attention to detail. He was a photographer before moving to film and each frame displays a great compositional sense. His later films often have elements of surrealism and expressionism and don't always contain a linear narrative. Man becoming dehumanized by war and technology is a recurring theme in his work and his films have both an ironic pessimism and a cautious optimism at the same time. 

Dr. Strangelove centers around an unauthorized American nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, initiated by a deranged US General named Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden. 

The film takes place in three different locales. The first is Ripper's Air Force Base, where RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) tries to stop him by obtaining the codes to call off the attack. Ripper is a rapid anti-communist and thinks the reds want to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

The second location is the Pentagon War Room where The President (also Peter Sellers) and General Buck Turgidson (a hilarious George C. Scott) try to develop a strategy with the Soviets to stop Ripper's bombers from dropping their nuclear bombs on Russia. Turgidson gets in a fight with the Russian ambassador prompting The President to proclaim, " Gentleman, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"

The third location is the B-52 bomber that is commanded by Major Kong where the crew attempts to carry out their mission. Slim Pickens plays Kong as a cowboy, a good old boy patriot who wants the folks back home to be proud or their actions. A young James Earl Jones plays one of the crew members on the plane.

In the War Room, The President calls Russian President Kissoff and explains their predicament and gives him info on the attack so the Russians can defend themselves. But the Russians have a doomsday machine that will destroy all life on the planet as an automatic reaction to a US nuclear attack. Turgidson thinks it is all a load of commie bull.

About halfway through Dr. Strangelove (again Peter Sellers) appears in the film. With wild hair, sunglasses, a German accent, and constantly holding and smoking a cigarette, and living in a wheel chair, Sellers creates one of the most disturbingly hilarious characters in cinema history. 

He is an advisor to the President and the military in the War Room. After a while it becomes clear the B-52 commanded by Kong has evaded the Soviet attempts to shoot them down. Turgidson becomes excited and wants to attack and wipe out the Ruskies. The cowboy Major Kong rides the bomb to its target like he riding a bull. Then we have the mushroom cloud.

In the final scene Sellers gives a crazed and brilliant performance as Strangelove proposes an elite group of humans go underground, where they will survive by breeding and slaughtering animals and have ten women for every man so they can start a new society. His arm seems to have a life of its own as it constantly tries to rise into a Nazi salute. He calls the President Mein Fuhrer and raises to his feet from his wheel chair at the end. 

Dr. Strangelove is crafted in black and white and presents a hilarious satire on the absurdity of the arms race and both the US and Soviet ways of dealing with a potential nucelar war.

Kubrick's first feature film was Fear and Desire which came out in 1953. It was a war story about a team of soldiers caught behind enemy lines. While it got respectable reviews, Kubrick later dismissed it as an amateur effort. His next film Killer's Kiss (1955) is about a boxer at the end of his career who gets involved in a love triangle in which his rival is involved with organized crime. Both films were produced and made independently by Kubrick.

In 1956, Kubrick made The Killing which followed the conventions of a film-noir in both its cinematography and narrative. It was written by Kubrick and the crime novelist Jim Thompson. The story centers around a meticulously planned racetrack robbery gone wrong after the mobsters get away with the money. Starring Sterling Hayden it was Kubrick's first feature with a professional cast and crew. The narrative is told out of sequence as a non-linear story told from the perspective of different characters. It was a major influence on films to come including Quentin Tarantino's Resevoir Dogs (1992).

His next film was Paths of Glory (1957) which starred Kirk Douglas. It is set during WWI and follows a French army unit ordered on an impossible mission by their superiors. After the mission fails, three innocent soldiers are charged with cowardice and sentenced to death as scapegoats. Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a humanitarian officer who tries to prevent the soldier's execution. The film was critically acclaimed and admired in the industry, establishing Kubrick as a major up-and-coming director. Paths of Glory was praised for its unsentimental and spare combat scenes and its raw black-and-white cinematography.

Kubrick took over the helm of Spartacus (1960) after Anthony Mann was fired by the studio two weeks into the shooting. The film was based on a true story of a doomed uprising by Roman slaves. Kirk Douglas was instrumental in bringing Kubrick onto the production but they argued throughout the filming and it ruined their relationship. Still the film was a critical and commercial success and established Kubrick as a major director.

In 1962 Kubrick made Lolita based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The book was about a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) who has an affair with his 12 year old stepdaughter (Sue Lyon). Obviously, the book and the film were controversial and Kubrick tried to tone down the material especially when referring to Humbert's lifelong obsession with nymphets. Sue Lyon was only 14 when the film was made and Shelly Winters plays the mother whom Humbert has only married so he can be close to the young girl. Lolita was the first film of Kubrick's that Peter Sellers would act in, and would be followed by his triple role in Dr. Strangelove.

After Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick spent five years developing 2001: A Space Odyssey which came out in 1968. The film was photographed in Super Panavision 70. Kubrick wrote the screenplay with science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, expanding on his short story The Sentinel.

The film begins 4 million years in the past when a group of apes encounter a mysterious black monolith, which seems to trigger their ability to use a bone as both a tool and a weapon. The new knowledge allows them to reclaim a watering hole from another group of apes. The victorious ape throws the bone in the air at which point Kubrick cuts to an orbiting satellite around the year 2000. A group of Americans have dug up a monolith on their moon base that is similar to the one encountered by the apes. The monolith sends a signal to Jupiter and months later astronauts are sent on a mission to explore Jupiter, not aware that their true purpose is to investigate the mysterious signal. During the mission the ship's computer Hal 9000 malfunctions but resists disconnection. Hal terminates life support for most of the crew before it is shut down by the surviving astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea). Bowman uses a space pod to explore another monolith in orbit around Jupiter. He is hurled into a portal in space at high speed and has strange cosmological experiences. His interstellar journey ends with his transformation into a fetus-like new being enclosed in an orb of light gazing at Earth from outer space.

2001 had striking cinematography and groundbreaking visual effects including a moving abstract light show known as the Star Gate sequence that was a psychedelic journey into the infinite reaches of the cosmos.

The film was also famous for its use of classical music including Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss and The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss. Kubrick also used the music of contemporary avant-garde Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti to great effect with the images of the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey portrayed a future humanity largely dissociated from a cold machine-driven environment. The film contained very little dialogue and most of it was between the computer Hal and the astronaut. The film's ambiguous and perplexing quality has always fascinated audiences. The meaning of the film is subjective and open to interpretation. 2001 influenced all science-fiction films that followed.

In 1971 Kubrick released A Clockwork Orange which was an adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel that was a dark and shocking exploration of violence in society. The film was originally rated X and provoked much controversy.

The story takes place in a futuristic version of Great Britain that is chaotic and authoritarian. Malcolm McDowell plays Alex DeLarge, who is a teenage hooligan and along with his friends, known as "droogs", happily torment, beat, rob, torture, and rape others without remorse. Alex winds up in prison after beating and killing an older woman. He is put into an experimental program where the treatment, known as the Ludovico Technique is used to try to inhibit his violence tendencies. He is conditioned by watching hours and hours of violence put to the music of Beethoven whom he loves and was his one human feature. After the treatment he no longer can stand to hear classical music. At a public demonstration he is treated cruelly, but does not fight back and his sex drive is now gone making him less human. After being freed he runs into his old friends who are now policeman and they kick his ass without mercy.

He then goes to live with a political writer who is initially sympathetic to Alex's plight until he recognizes Alex as the one who brutally raped his wife and left him paralyzed. Alex then becomes a pawn in a political game.

A Clockwork Orange was controversial because of its explicit depiction of teenage gang rape and violence and blew up when copycat crimes happened in England by criminals wearing the same costumes of the characters in the film. Still, A Clockwork Orange was a unique, provocative, and powerful film about how far should the government go when dealing with violence and again displayed great cinematic technique by Kubrick.

Barry Lyndon came out in 1975 and was period piece about an 18th century Irish gambler and social climber. He insinuates himself into English high society, eventually marrying a countess. The world of aristocracy turns out to be a shallow, dull, and decaying. He falls from grace after a series of persecutions.

The film uses innovative lighting techniques where by using a high-speed Zeiss lens interior scenes are shot with only candlelight giving the film an 18th century painting quality. Kubrick also uses traditional Irish songs performed by The Chieftains, as well as the classical music of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, and Schubert. Barry Lyndon is a long slow film but very beautiful and again creates a unique viewing experience.

Five years later Kubrick released his next film The Shining which was based on the best-selling horror novel by Stephen King. The film starred Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence, who is suffering from writer's block and takes a job as an off-season caretaker of a high-class resort deep in the Colorado mountains. The job requires spending the winter isolated in the hotel with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his telepathic son Danny. As winter sets in and the family's isolation deepens, the demons and ghosts of the hotel's dark past emerge in the phantosmagoric visions of Danny and drive his father into becoming a homicidal psychotic. 

To emphasize the claustophobic oppression of the haunted hotel, Kubrick made extensive use of the newly invented Steadicam which allowed smooth camera movements in enclosed spaces. The film is full of beautiful compositions and has many memorable scenes including one in an outdoor garden maze.

In 1987, Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket which was set during the Vietnam War. The film begins in a South Carolina boot camp where the drill instructor relentlessly pushes the recruits through basic training in order to transform them from worthless maggots into motivated and disciplined killing machines. A private played by Vincent D'Onofrio is unable to cope with the program and slowly cracks and murders the drill instructor and then kills himself.

The film jumps to Vietnam and follows Joker played by Matthew Modine, who is a reporter for a military newspaper and uses wit and sarcasm to detach himself from the carnage around him. The platoon advances through Hue City which has been decimated by the Tet Offensive and the film climaxes in a battle between the platoon and a sniper hiding in the rubble. In the end Joker is made to confront the horrors of war.

Kubrick's final film was Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a wealthy Manhattan couple on a sexual odyssey. The film is based on Arthur Schnitzler's Freudian novel Traumnovelle (Dream Story). The film takes place in 1990s New York while the novel was set in 1920s Vienna.

The film follows Cruise into the sexual underworld after his wife shatters his faith in her fidelity by revealing her fantasy to give him and her daughter up for one night so she can be with another man. This generates doubt and despair in Cruise's character and he roams the streets acting blindly on his jealousy.

He trespasses into a ritual of a mysterious sexual cult which causes him to think twice about seeking sexual revenge. After this experience he sees he has no moral high ground on his wife and they begin to mend their relationship. The film is full of slow methodical dream-like sequences that are visually arresting in the typical Kubrick fashion.

Stanley Kubrick was a great filmmaker who made work of great precision and beauty and still had the ability to make interesting and powerful statements about the society in which we live.

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