When you ask someone who their favorite filmmaker is, you can gather a lot about them as a person. Spielberg seems to be an obvious choice for many from my generation, mainly because his films can be universally enjoyed by adults and children. Scorsese and Coppola seem to be the favorites for the baby boomers, especially my father who grew up in the crime-ridden New York City of the 70’s. For me, it’s Stanley Kubrick. Now before you go off on me for being some sort of stoner with a college sensibility and an affinity for cynicism, give me a chance to explain myself.
At the ripe age of 7, my father was watching a movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey on the family TV. I was somewhat agitated by this, because I had just gotten back from school and wanted to watch Batman: The Animated Series on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. I was prepared to throw a tantrum and tell my dad to take a hike when the famous ape monolith scene occurred. At first my young fragile eggshell mind was confused, yet intrigued. What was with this big black thing? Why are we in space now? What happened to the apes? Why did he turn into a baby? After I finished it, I was hooked.
I needed to know what was going on. I needed answers, and by the end of it I only had more questions than answers, but for me that’s the beauty of Kubrick’s films. He makes you think. He allows you to create your own thoughts and ideas behind his work. Not to mention that you’re in for some of the most beautiful shots ever put to film. This can be likely credited to starting off his professional career as photographer. I remember hearing a drunk uncle of mine say that “every shot in a Kubrick movie can also be a photograph.” While obviously this is not true 100% of the time, my good old drunk uncle isn’t that far off, because the vast majority of shots in his films are framed like that of a photograph, almost everything in the frame is in focus.
He’s considered by many as one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, with a keen sense of cinematography and an extreme attention to detail that often caused many of his projects to go over-budget or be cancelled. His films have ranged throughout almost every genre, and the films are often definitive examples of whichever genre they are in. But he didn’t start out that way, not everyone can be like Quentin Tarantino and knock it out of the park immediately. There was some muck to grind through before he became the icon he’s known as today.
In this retrospective I aim to watch all of his work. Yes I even watched his early documentaries that he made for RKO in the early 50’s. In this part I’ll be covering his early works, his first film Day of the Fight to The Killing. With that said, let’s open this can of worms.
Day of the Fight-1951
This is a short documentary profiling professional boxer Walter Cartier. It’s pretty standard early 50’s newsreel fare, with that cheesy deadpan narration that these shorts are known for. The film chronicles Cartier’s daily routine before getting ready for a fight. There’s some adorable shots of the boxer’s dog at around the 3:15 minute mark, for all you readers out there looking for some cuteness. During the boxing match you can see some pretty good cinematography from Kubrick. But really there’s not much to it. Kubrick made these early shorts for money, and to try and break into filmmaking from photography. Unless you’re some sort of masochistic completionist like myself there’s no real need for you to watch this.
Look at this dog tho.
This one is about a Mexican Priest who owns a plane and flies it throughout the Mexican countryside to do Priest things. Once again, not much to this one. The whole point is to show that the Padre is a local hero of sorts, a man of the people, righting the wrongs of the Mexican countryside one very obviously scripted scenario at a time. The first instance is of a young boy teasing a young girl and the Padre coming and drop kicking that little shits face through a brick wall. Man, I wish that was real. Instead, he makes the boy apologize and the two youths walk away happily holding hands. For the climax, the Padre gets a message from a frantic neighbor that a baby who lives on a far off farm is sick. Here’s where his dope ass plane comes into play. He gets in there and picks up the mother and baby and flies them to a hospital. What a guy. When you break it down, it’s kind of fascinating that even back in the 50’s hollywood was creating B.S. stories and selling them as reality. This of course raises the question, is Stanley Kubrick indirectly responsible for reality television? Christ I hope not.
What have you done, Stanley?
Fear and Desire- 1953
Fear and Desire was Kubrick’s first feature length film and the first one he disowned. Apparently this movie was so bad, Kubrick’s wife Christiane Harlan once said “[he] would have happily gathered together every print and neg and consigned them all to an incinerator had it been possible.” Well, after finishing it, I can understand why he hated it so much. It’s a very amateur film, almost like a student film thesis. Kubrick was very anti-war, as evident in Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, as well as Fear and Desire. The film follows a group of soldiers in an unnamed war in an unnamed country. Kubrick doesn’t attach countries or clear good vs evil ideals to either side because his whole thought process was that war is evil and turns men into monsters regardless of what side they’re fighting for. He essentially lays his theme out for you in a very ham-fisted narration at the beginning, “There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.” Deep, yo. I have to give credit to Kubrick for trying to make something this thought provoking and philosophical for his first feature, let alone in the early 50’s when this sort of message would’ve been lost on post WWII America. However, his execution was less than stellar.
The characters are bland and uninteresting, and the plot is barely there. This group of stereotypical soldiers, including the leader, the battle hardened hot-head, the timid and meek one, and the one you forget about instantly, are behind enemy lines and are trying to escape back to their men. They happen across a beautiful young peasant girl who does not speak their language, and tie her up. Thanks to watching Game of Thrones for the past five year my mind immediately assumed the darkest thing imaginable would happen next, then I realized the movie was made in the 50’s. But what happened next was still in the vein of what my twisted mind conjured up, fortunately not as disturbing. The leader entrusts the timid meek soldier to keep an eye on the peasant girl while the other three go off in the woods. Now the timid soldier, who I’ll refer to as “Meek” for word count purposes, starts talking to the girl and being generally weird and creepy. This is where character development would’ve been nice, because at no point earlier in the film do we get the impression that this dude is creepy, rapey, and insane. Before this girl shows up he’s just the stereotypical “Oh gee Sarge, you really think we should do that? Oh golly” dude. Meek goes from 0-100 real quick as soon as the other three leave. The scenes involving Meek and the girl are uncomfortable not because of the obvious subject matter, but mainly because it’s very poorly acted. Meek thinks he might be getting lucky after he forces a kiss on the poor girl and unties her. Naturally she runs away, hopefully because he was such a trash actor, Meek gets weirded out and mad and then shoots her. War is hell, bro. I talk about this scene in such length because it’s really the only interesting part of the movie. After that Hot-head goes off on his own to try and kill a General. It ends with Leader and the other one you totally forgot about reflecting on how war is meant for no man.
No, dude. I’m still not over Sansa.
Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy this. It took me back to Film school, having to sit through my classmates garbage shorts with ham-fisted messages. It was fascinating and humbling to see someone I hold in such high regard truly start at the bottom. It’s nice knowing he didn’t start out great and that there was a growth. It’s available to watch on YouTube and it’s pretty short clocking in at about an hour. If you’re of a creative mind and consistently get in your head, like me, check this out for a look at humbling your heroes. They didn’t start out as the masters you know and love.
The Seafarers- 1953
This one really tested me. This was another gun for hire job by Kubrick made for the Seafarers International Union. About five minutes into it, I started questioning my life choices. Why didn’t I apply to more colleges in High School? Was I seriously that lazy? Jesus man, I could’ve went to Arizona State and been getting drunk at football games with Sorority chicks. I could’ve gotten some generic ass desk job, worked my way up the business ladder, and became some sort of unaware financial scumbag with no regard for human life. My wife would probably be hot, but cheat on me with co-workers or my sons shitty friends because of my broken penis. My son would also probably be some kind of jock that picks on the kind of kids I used to hang out with. Then I’d start questioning my existence, and why I even procreated in the first place if I’m such an insufferable loser. Then I’d probably disappear for awhile and live in Alaska, breeding Huskies. Maybe have a jacuzzi. Who knows?
After that daydream of how miserable my life would be in an alternate universe, I found that I was only seven minutes into The Seafarers. And then I shut it off. Seriously, I didn’t finish it. It’s thirty minutes long! It’s the equivalent of the training videos they show you if you start a job at Target or McDonald’s. It’s not worth talking about. The only interesting thing about it is that it features a long sideways tracking shot that Kubrick is known for in later films. Another thing worth mentioning is that there’s absolutely an alternate universe where I finished this and became a Seafarer.
Here’s the Earth-12 version of me.
Kubrick has been accused of making films that lack emotional depth. Those critics aren’t wrong, Kubrick’s films are very cold and beautiful, you might not tear up or get angry, but he’s not making films to get some standard emotion out of you, he’s challenging you intellectually. I often like to imagine when I watch his work that I am some sort of celestial deity incapable of feeling emotion and that I’m simply here to watch events play out, much like the Marvel Comics character Uatu the Watcher. Killer’s Kiss is the closest thing to an emotional love story Kubrick as ever put to film. It’s a noir love story, but not in your typical girl walks into a P.I.’s office and starts off a chain of mysterious events. It’s noir in the sense of poor folks trying to make it in the seedy crime ridden underbelly of a big city.
The Earth-616 version of me.
The story follows Davey Gordon, a boxer who’s getting ready to retire out to the country. His neighbor, Gloria, is a dancer who works for a sleaze-ball named Vincent, the same actor who played Hot-Head in Fear and Desire. One night, Davey hears Gloria screaming from her room being assaulted by Vincent. Davey runs over to save her and Vincent bounces. Naturally the two fall in love instantly because plot. It’s hard to believe that they both fall in love instantly and Kubrick raises a doubt in the climax.
During the kidnapping scene, Gloria tells Vincent, while Davey overhears, that she never loved Davey. At this point it could be interpreted either way, which I believe plays into Kubrick’s original dour ending more than the ending the studio wanted. Davey jumps out a window and Vincent’s goons chase him. The chase ultimately ends with a beautifully corny fight scene in a mannequin factory between Davey and Vincent. The beauty of this fight scene is the effort the actors went through to really convince you these two guys were actually fighting. You feel that there’s a real struggle between these two. Mannequins are constantly thrown, there’s an axe, the bad guy gets stabbed by a wooden spear. It’s just fantastic. Not to mention that it’s beautifully shot.
As I mentioned before this film originally ended in a very Kubrickian and cynical manner (not sure if that’s a term or not leave me alone). Davey goes off to the country and never sees Gloria again after this incident. This ending plays more into the story Kubrick was trying to tell throughout. The fact that Gloria might have been using Davey for protection against Vincent and that she didn’t actually care about him at all. It’s also evident when she tells Vincent she never loved Davey anyway, seemingly to save her own skin when the tables finally turned out of her favor. However, the studio wanted a more typical happy ending and that’s ultimately what made it into the picture. Just as Davey has given up all hope, Gloria comes to the train station with open arms and the two embrace. So, ironically this being Kubrick’s most emotional and romantic film was a complete accident.
I enjoyed Killer’s Kiss, my only real discrepancy with it is that I wish the relationship between Gloria and Davey was more fleshed out. It would’ve been nice to have a clearer understanding of Gloria’s intentions. Also that fight scene is fantastic and beautifully shot. I’d love to see an up and coming indie director remake this and flesh things out a bit. There’s definitely a very interesting story you can tell. You can see Kubrick come into his own with this one, he’s starting to learn what works and what doesn’t work. This is available as an extra on the Criterion Collection’s release of The Killing, but I’m pretty sure you can find it online somewhere.
Labeled as a noir for some reason, The Killing is actually a heist movie through and through. Starring Sterling Hayden (Captain McKlusky, you rat shit!) as Johnny Clay, a career criminal planning one last big job before settling down with a woman in the country, an idea Kubrick seemed to dig in his early works. Johnny’s last big job involves bumping off a race track, and with the help of a bartender, window teller, a sharpshooter, a corrupt cop, and a former wrestler.
The film follows the standard tropes of heist films, the gathering of the crew, the third party that finds out about the plan and wants in, and something going wrong during the heist that threatens the whole operation. However, it’s a smart movie, and the most interesting part of it is seeing how the heist actually ends up happening, because Kubrick doesn’t go into great length about everyone’s role during the planning stages. A side note, the bum mask that Sterling Hayden wears is awesomely creepy, the way the mouth on the mask moved while he was barking orders to the track employees looked really awesome and stuck out to me, I’d love to see someone use this kind of mask in a horror film and run with that creepiness.
Despite one character getting got, for being racist, the heist goes smoothly and everything works out, not for the crew however. I won’t spoil it, but by the end Johnny is ready to move out to the countryside with his woman. Are things gonna work out for this guy? Of course not, this is a Stanley Kubrick movie.
The ending is my main gripe with this movie, Johnny ultimately does himself in by making a silly mistake, and by an annoying little dog. I understand this was the best way to end the movie, but I just wish that it got to that point in a more clever way. It doesn’t fit in with the character Hayden was playing either, throughout he’s calm, cool, and calculating. There’s a narration throughout the film that is constantly giving exact units of time that people arrive at places and what times they are supposed to be at other places. The whole movie is very rigid and unyielding with how well thought out and executed everything is. Especially with Johnny. I don’t believe that this guy wouldn’t go to better lengths to ensure his plan works until the very end. It also suffers from the Kubrick trope of having characters that are uninteresting blank slates. In most of his films his characters serve a purpose to the story and are not meant to be fleshed out. Sometimes it works, 2001 and Dr. Strangelove come to mind, and sometimes it doesn’t, like this and Killer’s Kiss. If Johnny Clay had a little bit more depth and emotion to him I might’ve actually felt bad for him at the end.
Well that does it for part 1 of my Stanley Kubrick Retrospective. This batch had some rough patches for me, but I keep reminding myself that the master is still the apprentice at this point. Next time I’ll be covering the Kirk Douglas years, with Paths of Glory & Spartacus. Thanks for reading.