Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1968)

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey

“2001: A Space Odyssey” occupies a rare place in pop culture history. It's frequently regarded as one of the best films ever made, easily topping most lists devoted to the greatest science-fiction films. The film has been referenced and parodied more times than anyone could count. As a young movie fan interested in science fiction, I had read a lot about the film before ever seeing it. This was the film that made me understand who Stanley Kubrick was. When I finally sat down to watch perhaps the greatest sci-fi epic ever, my initial reaction was boredom, frustration, and bafflement. I didn't get it, simply put. Over the years, I've revisited the film a few times, my estimation of it rising every time.

In the early centuries of the human race, ape-like proto-humans cower in caves. Until a mysterious monolith appears to them, allowing the apes to leap forward on the evolutionary ladder. Millions of years later, man has reached the stars. A similar monolith has been uncovered on the moon, producing a screeching sound in the astronaut's ears. A few months later, the Discovery One leaves on a mission to the moons of Jupiter. The computer aboard the ship, HAL 9000, has been given conflicting orders. As a result, he turns on the human crew, murdering them one by one. Dr. Bowman, the only survivor, must make it to Jupiter alone. There, he uncovers the mysterious creators of the featureless monoliths.

Following the release of “Dr. Strangelove,” Kubrick became interested in making a science fiction film. He sought to make a sci-fi movie that would be taken seriously by critics, that would elevate the genre, rising above its pulpy roots. This would be a movie whose goals were no less ambitious than tracking the evolution of the entire human race. Kubrick would team with Arthur C. Clarke, creating a plausible future. The ray guns, robots, faster-than-lights, and outrageous aliens of other sci-fi films were not found here. Instead, we see a space without sound or gravity and realistic cosmic travel. The real year 2001 didn't quite live up to this film's vision. We didn't have artificial intelligence, commercial space travel, or discovered unknowable alien monoliths. However, compared to the usual excesses of the genre, “2001” was an incredibly realistic, grounded sci-fi story whose ideas are just as huge as its special effects.

And it's really, really slow. The pacing problems evident in “Lolita” have grown into a real problem with Kubrick. With “2001,” the director sought to create a primarily visual experience. There's minimal dialogue and many long scenes. Yet this approach also makes the movie seem incredibly distant. The audience often seems as far away from the events of the film as the monoliths are from humanity. At times, the movie feels less like a flowing narrative and more like an extended experiment. The result is a movie that feels much longer than its already extensive 142 minute run time. “2001” is undeniably a great film and it is also, undeniably, ponderously paced.

Perhaps “2001” is most impressive as a technical achievement. The film's special effects were unlike anything people had seen in 1968. Nearly fifty years later, they still hold up extremely well. Douglas Trumbull and the rest of the film's team would essentially birth the modern age of special effects. The model work is incredibly detailed and realistic looking. Down to the tiniest aspect, everything serves a purpose. Moreover, the way the models are shot are incredibly impressive. The camera moves around them like an elegant ballet, brilliantly suggesting movement and their place in space. Using elaborate camera tricks, people and objects moving around a zero gravity environment look completely real. There's a reason those conspiracy theories about Kubrick faking the moon landing refuse to go away. “2001” looks real.

The director also continues to experiment with narrative structure. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001” is essentially split up into three parts: The opening sequence devoted to proto-man's first encounter with the monolith, the segment detailing the discovery of a monolith on the moon, and finally the doomed Jupiter mission. However, this presents challenges of its own. While “Dr. Strangelove” evenly separated its run time among three different locations, “2001” presents three more-or-less unrelated stories. The decision contributes to the detached feeling. The unknowable alien monoliths are the only through-line in a story that crosses the boundaries of time and space. This choice also doesn't help the slow pacing. The main point of the story, the Jupiter mission, doesn't begin until nearly an hour in.

If Kubrick perfected his style with “Dr. Strangelove,” he applies that same perfection to an even wider canvas in “2001.” The director is unwavering in his documentary style approach. There are many long shots, displaying characters walking from one location to another. The humans often appear as bit players in a large landscape, as if recorded by a far-off cameraman. Even the Dawn of Man scenes feel captured from actual events, contributing to the film's overall realistic tone. Kubrick's camerawork is often incredibly still, moving slowly and steadily. This, combined with the minimal use of dialogue, creates a somewhat eerie feeling. Yet the film is also characterized by movement. A sudden edit of a tapir crashing to the ground or the balletic way the spaceship scenes are shot show that every move Kubrick made was precise and planned.

The movie's scientific approach is most apparent in its human characters. Which is to say, they barely exist. The human cast members are seemingly interchangeable. We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd in the moon sequence. We spend some time with him, seeing him communicating with his earthbound daughter. Yet these scenes exist less to develop Dr. Floyd and more to show off the movie's futuristic setting. Floyd exits the film soon enough, replaced by David Bowman. The actors, William Sylvester and Keir Dullea, even look a little alike. We learn almost nothing about either man's interests, life, or goals. They are simply pawns, designed to move the story along. It's not even that bad performers are involved. Dullea gives Bowman some personable touches and Gary Lockwood's Dr. Poole is also vaguely humanistic. Kubrick is interested in the grand themes and the technical minutia, not the people. This is yet another reason why “2001” can be a slow watch.

This was obviously intentional on the director's behalf. Emphasizing the thinness of the human cast is the status of the film's one truly captivating character. You know who I'm talking about. HAL 9000 would become the prototype for dozens of mad supercomputers. His calm, nearly monotone voice would be widely imitated, as would his logical disregard for human life. Despite this, HAL is a compelling character. He shows a subtle humor. He expresses confusion to the events around him, a surprising humanity creeping into that cold voice. The exact reason why he turns on the Discovery One crew is kept vague, in keeping with Kubrick's mysterious tone. Yet his descent into madness seems all too understandable. Most chilling, HAL's death is oddly touching. He expresses fear at the thought of dying and slips into a child-like state, almost like a form of senility, before the end. HAL may be a computer but he's ultimately the closest thing “2001” has to a human heart.

Which may, indeed, be the point. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is directly concerned with the definition of humanity. In its opening minutes, the ape-like proto-humans do not resemble men. After interacting with the monolith, discovering that a bone that be used as a club, their body language becomes more expressive, more human-like. The brilliant way Kubrick connects the ape-men to modern man, via that widely reference transition, shows how far humanity has come. Yet the chilly people of the future seem to lack the animal instinct of their ancestors. Enter HAL, a computer that acts more human than the humans that built him. And all this behavior is contrasted with the barely understood aliens, beings so far above humanity that they can't even be comprehended. Does HAL's fear of death make him human? Does the role of violence in the film – the apes bludgeoning each other with bones, HAL turning on the astronauts, Bowman murdering HAL by pulling his mind apart – connect the characters in a common humanity? The final scene shows Bowman seemingly transcending humanity, further addressing the film's central question. By tracking the evolution of humanity, from the soil to the stars, Kubrick finds himself wondering what humanity even means.

The only element of “2001” that has been referenced more than “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” is its soundtrack. After this movie, Richard Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra” would always be associated with sudden revelations of greatness or massively important change. The use of classical music furthers “2001's” feeling of an elaborate documentary. Yet the contrast between the beauty of the music and the cold, mechanical world adds some warmth to these images. When played against the Blue Danube Waltz, the shuttles and stations moving through space become a ballet. The elegance of the music is certainly a release from the throbbing, inhuman soundscape. The brain-piercing hum of the monolith or the utter silence of space characterizes many scenes, further emphasizing the film's eerie atmosphere.

As I said, my very first viewing of “2001: A Space Odyssey” was characterized by boredom and bafflement. The boredom came from the movie's first 132 minutes. The bafflement came from its last ten. Simply put: What the hell is up with that ending? The narrative intent is widely known now. Dr. Bowman passes through a star gate and is abducted and observed by the same aliens that built the monolith. Knowing this now, the scene reads a little differently. The flashing lights, extreme iris close-ups, and swirling colors are an admittedly fascinating depiction of transcending dimensions. The film's final images – Bowman appearing in an opulent bedroom – stand out against the sterile, scientific setting of the rest of the film. In its extended last act, Kubrick overturns the standards of time and space, pushing its themes past human understanding. Which is equal parts brilliant and, yes, baffling.

Ultimately, it's impossible to deny the power of “2001.” The film's ambitions are so far reaching, that the viewer must truly admire what the movie is trying to do. The special effects were groundbreaking and are still impressive. Kubrick and Clarke set out to make the greatest science fiction film ever made and, by many accounts, they succeeded. It's a difficult watch, long and dry, with a story that is equally tedious and incomprehensible. Yet the images and use of music have endured over the decades, still influencing new films and filmmakers to this day. It's never going to be my favorite Kubrick film but it is undeniably brilliant. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1964)

7. Dr. Strangelove 
or: How I Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Throughout the sixties, the Cold War threatened to get hot several times. Tensions were running high. The nuclear arms race showed no sign of slowing down. Many feared that the world was teetering on the edge of complete destruction. Pop culture reflected these fears. Two separated novels, “Red Alert” and “Fail Safe,” both presented dramatic scenarios where a nuclear war breaks out. Stanley Kubrick read “Red Alert” and became interested in adapting it. As he worked on the screenplay, absurdities in the premise kept jumping out to him. Over time, the hyper grim thriller “Red Alert” developed into “Dr. Strangelove,” a comedy of previously unseen darkness. An absurdist satire about the all-too-plausible end of the world might seem like an unlikely premise but resulted in an immediate critical success. I'm far from alone in this opinion that “Dr. Strangelove” must be one of the best comedies ever made.

It's the height of the Cold War and someone has done the unthinkable. Jack D. Ripper, an American air force general, has come to believe that a Communist conspiracy is taking over the country. He concocts a plan to incite nuclear war. He sends the secret codes to a bomber flying near Russia. The pilots intend to deliver the apocalyptic payload. Deep beneath the Pentagon, the President and his top men hope to undo Ripper's plans before it results in mutually assured destruction. Once the Russia ambassador assures them the Soviets have a Doomsday Bomb – an apocalyptic nuke that will destroy the world and will be automatically triggered by an attack on Soviet land – it becomes a race against time. This, however, is easier said than done because everyone involved is very, very nervous.

“Paths of Glory” was so effective as an anti-war movie because it hinged about the inherent inhumanity of warfare. “Dr. Strangelove” is equally effective by pointing out the absurdity. The film zeroes in on how the Cold War was a massive, elaborate dick measuring contest between two superpowers. The film is rife with sexual symbolism. It begins with the phallic image of an airplane's fuel pump, continuing on to a mid-air coitus of plugs inserted into openings. Next, we meet a scantily clad woman and the unfulfilled sexual desires between her and her lover. Later, we learn that General Ripper instigated this war to protect his precious bodily fluids. That this insight came to him during an unfulfilling sexual act. The film concludes with Major Kong riding a phallic-shaped nuke down to an explosive detonation, screaming all the while. The last scene is men discussing the possibilities of repopulating the Earth. The names – Strangelove, Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper – drip with connotations. Pornographic magazines pop up in the movie's margins. Phallic imagery – guns, cigars, bombs, even bald heads – reoccur throughout. “Dr. Strangelove” makes the point that international war is tied up with sexual frustration. That the cause of all conflict is geopolitical blue balls.

“Dr. Strangelove's” satire also works so well by zeroing in on the smaller details in such a situation. Even as the planet hurdles towards complete annihilation, it's impossible for men to let go of petty rivalries. Turgidson and the Russian ambassador, famously, fight in the war room because Turgidson fears espionage. In the film's final moments, we discover he was right to be concerned. What benefit would photographs of the big board do after the world is destroyed? The planet isn't even devastated before Turgidson and other military officials start to go on about a mine shaft gap between America and Russia. This further feeds into the film's thesis that global actions like war are rooted in petty, humiliating, human foibles.

“Dr. Strangelove” also sees Stanley Kubrick perfecting his visual style. If anyone asked me what a Kubrick film looked like, I would point them towards this one. The director's calm but fluid camerawork takes dominance here. We frequently move between static shots of men talking, the film slowly moving into the spaces around them. Close-ups on faces make up much of the film. The notorious Kubrick Stare finally emerges, in the form of General Ripper's madly starring face, his cigar extending from his mouth, erect. Shadows are used extensively, the players often silhouetted across darkened backgrounds. The titular doctor often appears, partially shrouded in darkness. As controlled as “Dr. Strangelove's” visual palette is, Kubrick's background in documentaries also become apparent. The scenes of soldiers fighting around Ripper's office, before a billboard that ironically says “Peace is Our Business,” feel like real war-time newsreel, providing a gritty, on-the-ground feel. All these elements combine to make the ideal Kubrick presentation, which the director would continue to pursue throughout the rest of his career.

Scripting wise, “Dr. Strangelove” presented a tricky task. The film's narrative is split in three. Captain Mandrakes' attempt to communicate with General Ripper occupies one part of the run time while the conflict in the war room, where President Muffley and his aides attempt to decipher the situation, occupies another. Finally, the scenes set aboard the bomber plane, of the men flying a nuke into Soviet territory, ties the separate threads together. The editing in the film is excellent, cutting between these three scenarios in clean, precise ways. This manages to build tension, showing us one series of events influencing another across the globe. The script is beautifully balanced. The film's construction follows that elegant form.

Telephones feature prominently on many of “Dr. Strangelove's” movie posters. This is fitting, as large sections of the movie are devoted to tense phone calls. One of the film's greatest comedic moments happens when President Muffley calls up the Soviet Prime Minister. What follows is a masterclass in one-man comedy, as Peter Sellers hilariously plays a milquetoast politician attempting to explain to his drunk rival that nuclear war is imminent. The way Muffley attempts to soften the blow, or how childish his reactions are, further point to the absurdity within international conflicts. It's notable that, in a film filled with images of frustrated sexuality and orgasmic explosions, President Muffley comes off as totally impotent and asexual. He's a perfectly hilarious but utterly spineless politician.

Peter Sellers liked playing dress-up and assuming multiple identities. His characters' habit of role-playing was distracting in “Lolita.” In “Strangelove,” Sellers' multiple characters show different comedic strategies. President Muffley is a somewhat child-like buffoon, woefully unprepared for the responsibilities thrust upon him. Captain Mandrake is an increasingly nervous fellow, paired up with a succession of increasingly dryer straight men. Sellers' perfects the baffled reaction as a comedic device after listening to an utterly committed Sterling Hayden spout off insane nonsense about fluoridation and precious bodily fluids. After Hayden suddenly exits the film, Mandrake faces off against the hilariously literal “Bat” Guano, a soldier who is a little too by the book. Sellers' befuddled reaction to some obstruction is a highlight of the film, one of its most reliably hilarious antics.

Lastly, Dr. Strangelove represents the film as its most unabashedly silly. Everything about Strangelove is weird or goofy. His German accent is uproariously exaggerated. His name is funny, as is his original German moniker. The clenched, strangled way he croaks all his dialogue is off-kilter in the best way. By the end, Sellers goes for full-blown physical comedy. His failing attempts to control an arm with its own minds produced laughter even in the other cast members, who a sharp-eyed viewer can spot cracking up. Strangelove's not-so-secret Nazi tendencies is not only a comment on the former Nazi scientists who were employed in American science sectors but also a sly criticism of the fascism inherent in all government. Strangelove's final shouts of “Mein Fuhrer!” is the perfect comedic non-sequitur to conclude the film on. Each of Sellers' characters are delightful comedic creations.

Not all the laughs belong to Sellers' three-pronged performance. It's a well known anecdote that George C. Scott disliked his performance in the final film. Scott would perform scenes two ways: In a ridiculous way and a more serious way. Kubrick assuring him that the latter would be used but the director had no intention of keeping that promise. Regardless of what Scott thought, his performance as Buck Turgidson is one for the history books. The character blusters through all of his scenes, commending the strength of the air crew that will bring about the end of the world. This is Buck's usual reaction, a doubling down on macho bullshit no matter how severe the situation gets. Scott's physicality is commendable, the actor turning a simple stumble into a delightful full-body roll. It's a brilliant display of buffoonery from one of America's most craggy character actors.

In the third part of “Dr. Strangelove's” triptych narrative, you can most see its roots as a serious thriller. The sequences above the bomber plane are mostly played entirely straight. The men are going about their mission, determined to see things through. Kubrick's camera gently roams around the tight spaces of the plane, emphasizing the tension of the scenario. Normally, it would be a pretty intense sequence... Except for small things that push the scenes towards comedy. Such as Slim Pickens' deeply goofy performance. Rumor has it that Pickens thought he was making a drama but his acting is so wildly silly, a full-blown cartoon character introduced into a serious situation. Especially since the other members of the bomber team, including a very young James Earl Jones, play things entirely straight.

Pretty much every element of “Dr. Strangelove” is precisely constructed. The set design is legendary. The war room set – its circle of lines, round table, and big board – would go on to influence real world politics. The musical score, meanwhile, never lets on that the film is supposed to be a comedy.  Natural sound is utilized in many scenes. Laurie Johnson's soundtrack features a terse rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” during the scenes devoted to the air crew. Of course, mention must be made of the closing montage of nuclear annihilation set to Vera Lynn's “We'll Meet Again.” It's a hilariously poetic note to take things out on, the music providing an ironic contrast to the apocalyptic images.

You probably already know that “Fail Safe,” the rival nuclear apocalypse novel, also got made into a movie. By all accounts, it's a good film. However, I've never seen it. Truthfully, considering how many times I've watched “Dr. Strangelove,” how ingrained its gags and dialogue has become in my mind, I wonder if I'd even be able to take “Fail Safe” seriously. “Dr. Strangelove” has been one of my favorite films for years, as it still makes me laugh incredibly hard every time I watch it. Considering the grim films Kubrick would soon specialize in, it's interesting that he would also direct one of the funniest comedies of all time. [Grade: A+]

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1962)

6. Lolita

Stanley Kubrick's films would attract a huge amount of controversy over his fifty year long career. “Spartacus” certainly was contentious, receiving protests from organization that deemed it to be Communist propaganda. Yet “Lolita” would prove to be Kubrick's first truly controversial movie. Vladimir Nabokov's novel is one of the 20th century's greatest literary works but it might also be one of the most polemical novels of the century too. The decision to bring the book to cinema screens, especially in the still young 1960s, must've seen especially inflammatory. “Lolita” was basically sold on that fact, with the tagline asking audiences how anyone could've dared to make the book into a film. We live in a less puritanical time now, making “Lolita” an interesting artifact: An adaptation of a still incendiary classic novel during a time when the basic premise was practically illegal to even discuss in a movie.

Humbert Humbert, a scholarly professor of French literature, travels to Ramsdale, New Hampshire to teach at the local college. He becomes a tenant at the home of Charlotte Haze, a middle-age widower. Charlotte doesn't know that Humbert is a hebephile, a man with a sexual attraction to girls in their early teen years. Charlotte's fourteen year old daughter, Lolita, immediately becomes Humbert's new obsession. He manipulates the mother, quickly marrying her, in order to get closer to the daughter. When Charlotte discovers this, she kills herself, giving Humbert unsupervised access to Lolita. Soon, the eager pervert realizes that the teen girl is not as innocent as she appears. And that he's not the only man interested in her.

Nabokov's “Lolita” is a difficult, multi-layered work that is still discussed and debated to this day. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is a classic example of an unreliable narrator. The literary Humbert often painted the picture of a willing, even conniving, Lolita. The first time someone reads “Lolita,” they might accept this treatment at face value. Multiple re-reads reveal a more complicated work, portraying a grown man manipulating and assaulting a twelve year old girl. Kubrick's film adaptation almost seems a simple reading of the source. This is still Humbert's story, showing an adult man carrying on a willing sexual relationship with his pre-teen stepdaughter, who often pulls his strings. One assumes that Kubrick didn't see “Lolita” as a quirky, albeit deeply unconventional and potentially disturbing, love story. Yet he didn't feel the need to incorporate much ambiguity into the finished film. This is a shockingly shallow adaptation of a very complicated story.

Of course, maybe this wasn't entirely Stanley Kubrick's fault. In the years after “Lolita” was made, the director admitted that he probably wouldn't have made the movie if he knew the strict censorship he'd face. The decency standards of 1962 prevent the director from frankly covering the material. Instead, Kubrick was forced to rely on suggestion and innuendo. There's a frequent winking naughtiness on display in “Lolita.” At Lo's school dance, a couple that are friends of her mother suggest they are swingers. The exact details of Charlotte and Claire Quitly's prior affair are obscured as a hushed whisper. Lolita also expounds on the naughty games she played at camp in a whisper to Humbert. The perverse sexuality existing under the film's suburban settings, revealed in Nabokov's book, can only exists as muted rustling in Kubrick's film.

However, if you're willing to dig beneath the surface a bit, “Lolita” can be read as a sly commentary about the way men abuse women. Humbert Humbert is a master manipulator. He clearly despises Charlotte Haze, finding her obnoxious and vulgar. He puts up with her only so he can get closer to her daughter. When he realizes Charlotte is attracted to him, he happily tricks her into thinking he reciprocates. Later, when Lolita braces against Humbert's rules, this aspect becomes clearer. Humbert is both obsessed with Lolita's nymphet purity and disgusted by her status as a sexual being. His attraction is seemingly based in contradictions, valuing the girl for her innocence but eager to sexualize her. Something our society is also guilty of, even back in the early sixties. So Humbert's personal hang-ups become a criticism of the culture at large. Assuming the director intended any of this.

Seemingly uncertain of what else to do, Kubrick makes his “Lolita” an outright farce at times. The film occasionally degrades into clumsy slapstick comedy. Such as in an out-of-place sequence where Humbert and an employee attempt to set up a cot in the hotel room, a few feet away from a sleeping Lo. The two stumble over a cot that refuses to unfold properly. It's a halting sequence, Kubrick proving that this level of slapstick is not necessarily his forte. There are other scenes built on similarly pedestrian antics. Such as Quiltly dressing up as a German psychologist or an embarrassing encounter between Humbert and a nosy next door neighbor. The film's lurches between travesty, polite comedy of manners, and salacious love story often leaves the audience with whiplash. 

In later interviews, Stanley Kubrick would say James Mason in “Lolita” gave one of the best performance he had ever seen. Kubrick was a fan of Mason before casting him, as he appears in several films by Kubrick's hero, Max Ophuls. Mason captures one aspect of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert brilliantly. Mason embodies the character as a pompous, erudite genius. We get a clear image of Humbert as someone overly confident in his own intelligence. Mason obviously has fun mocking stuffy intellectuals, playing Humbert as someone so stuck-up he can barely move. Yet this overlooks the inner complexity of the character. Once again, the film wasn't able to truly explore Humbert Humbert's erotic obsession with Dolores Haze and other nymphets. So Mason's character is an amusing caricature but lacking in more complexity.

Despite the limitations of the time, James Mason is still a pretty good Humbert Humbert. Yet a pretty good Humbert pales in comparison to the film's pitch perfect Lolita. Fourteen year old Sue Lyon was plucked out of obscurity to play the titular character. Except for being a few years older, Lyon is an accurate vision of the character as depicted in Nabokov's text. Lyon's Lolita has a coying sexuality, a young girl only just now becoming aware of her body and what it can do to men. Yet she's also a kid. Lo eats too much junk food, reads only comic books, and is frustrated by the lack of control in her own life. You can see what someone like Humbert would see in her while also glimpsing the reality of her being a fourteen year old child. Lyon's performance may strike some as slightly unpolished but this fits the role of a rowdy teenage girl, pulled apart by two different sexual predators.

There's one cast member in “Lolita” who overwhelms the material. Peter Sellers was a comedic performer beyond reproach and a great actor in general. Soon enough, Kubrick would bring him the perfect vehicle for his unique shenanigans. In “Lolita,” however, Sellers destroys every scene he's in. His Claire Quilty is a deeply off-putting character. Which makes sense on one level, since Quilty is an unrepentant sexual predator. Yet he's also a well respected writer, a local celebrity. It's hard to believe anyone this off-putting could ever reach that level of fame and respect. He's really annoying. When he tries to convince Humbert he's a police officer, Sellers' stuttering performance makes you deeply uncomfortable. Moreover, Sellers' attempts at broader comedy conflict badly with the film's general tone. Funny accents and one-sided ping-pong games probably don't belong in a film about a man statutory-raping his stepdaughter, even if it is a dark comedy.

If Stanley Kubrick's films had a re-occurring flaw, it's their length. Even “Spartacus,” a shockingly well paced film considering how long it was, ran into this problem. At two and a half hours long, “Lolita” definitely drags in spots. The build-up to Charlotte's death wares on the viewer. The last third condenses a long portion of Nabokov's book, devoted to Humbert and Lolita's road trip, into a sometimes laborious paced hour or so. One deviance from Nabokov's text especially drains the movie's pacing. The film begins in media ras, opening with Humbert's murder of Quitly. This is a mistake. The movie's robbed of an explosive climax, the ending feeling like a foregone conclusion. That the film tacks on a text wall, detailing Humbert's fate, also feels like a dismissive kick out the theater door.

“Lolita” feels like more of a Stanley Kubrick movie than “Spartacus” did. However, the Kubrick style mostly manifest in the somewhat chilly atmosphere. The camera often adopts a distant, far-off perspective, making the director feel more like a scientist dispassionately watching the bizarre sexual habits of the human race. Kubrick's trademark tracking shots are less flashy than in “Paths of Glory.” There's a fantastic shot, where the camera pans down from Charlotte's upstairs bedroom to Humbert in the kitchen. Another good moment involves the camera slowly tracking Humbert as orderlies march him out of a hospital. Yet the director's habits are more visible in how the film feels than in how it looks.

For all its polarizing aspects, one element of “Lolita” is universally beloved. The music is pretty great. Bob Harris' main theme, “Lolita Ya Ya,” captures the attitude of the titular character fantastically. It's a breezy upbeat piece of music, the lyrics made up of the mindless yammering of a young girl. It's exactly the kind of pop – catchy but meaningless – that would appeal to Dolores Haze. Fittingly, it would become a hit on the radio. The rest of the score is from Nelson Riddle and is a gorgeous, sweeping piece of instrumental music. The lush piano theme fits in with Humbert's self-aggravating ideals of romantic love. In fact, the music is so rich, so thematically broad, that it almost feels like a parody of romantic film music. This also fits the subversive world of “Lolita.”

Ultimately, “Lolita” is a compromised film. If Kubrick had made it only ten years later, he probably could have created a motion picture truly worthy of Nabokov's book. Or at least one that wouldn't have to back down from the unsightly union at the center of the story. Stuck in the early sixties, his hands were too often tied. The resulting film uncomfortably settles between a serious adaptation of the novel and a more farcical riff. The performances are usually excellent. The photography is solid, the music is great, and the film comes close to capturing the heart of the book. Yet the writing is often uncertain, resulting in a frustrating adaptation. [Grade: B-]

Friday, August 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1960)

5. Spartacus

In 1959, “Ben-Hur” was released. It became the biggest film of the year and was, at the time, one of the highest grossing films ever made. Historical epics were hotter than ever in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas wanted the title role in “Ben-Hur.” When he lost out on the part, he decided to develop his own Roman Empire epic through his own production company. “Spartacus,” a sprawling epic based on a novel by Howard Fast that was loosely based on reality, was originally meant to be directed by Anthony Mann. Douglas disagreed with Mann and had him fired from the film. Recalling the positive collaboration they had on “Paths of Glory,” Douglas brought Stanley Kubrick onto the film. “Spartacus” would also become a huge commercial and critical success. Kubrick, however, felt the film was a work-for-hire gig and would later – you guessed it – disown it.

“Spartacus” is certainly a fondly recalled part of cinematic history. However, it's production background may arguably be more interesting than the actual finished film. I'm not talking about how filming rolled on for over a year. Or how Kubrick and Douglas argued on set, with the actor nearly attacking the director with a chair at one point. I'm referring to the film's role in ending the Blacklist era. It's a well-known story now. The film was written by a still blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Douglas, however, insisted the screenwriter be given proper credit. This would essentially break the blacklist, ending a dark period in Hollywood history. President Kennedy publicly went to see the film, in solidarity with Trumbo and everyone else on the blacklist. Compared to such political and creative intrigue, the story of a revolting gladiator seems less vital.

The historical basis for “Spartacus” is largely dubious. The real life Spartacus was born a free man, was a veteran before winding up in the gladiator camps, and probably died in combat. The fictional Spartacus was born a slave. He's sent to be a gladiator after biting a slave overseer, enraged at the cruel treatment of his fellow prisoners. From there, “Spartacus” makes its own path.  After seeing a fellow gladiator put to death, and being separated from his beloved, Spartacus leads a uprising among Rome's slaves. Spartacus and his army travel the country, striking back against the empire and freeing every prisoners they encounter. Spartacus soon comes into conflict with Marcus Crassus, a power-hungry general. Crassus soon becomes obsessed with destroying Spartacus.

As I said, Stanley Kubrick ultimately dismissed “Spartacus.” He considered the film the property of Douglas and Trumbo. So this film is essentially a work-for-hire project from one of the highest regarded auteurs in cinematic history. No matter how he felt about the film, you can still see some of Kubrick's trademarks in “Spartacus.” Early scenes in the slave camp features the director's smoothly moving tracking shots, the camera effortlessly sliding into the baths of the compound. That habit crops up a few times throughout the film. Otherwise, “Spartacus” is more defined by those gorgeous, classical Technicolor colors. There are several moments, composed with bright purples and dark blues, that are simply lovely.

Another problem Kubrick had with the script was the titular hero. He thought Douglas' portrayal of Spartacus was overly flawless and bland. This may be true, as Douglas' performance is as heroic as can be. The only flaw Spartacus really has is that he cares too much, putting a friend out of his misery rather than see him suffer on the crucifix. However, Douglas' Spartacus is still a memorable character. Kirk says a lot with a look. When Spartacus is paraded before rich aristocrats, Douglas glares in silent outrage. After escaping and beginning his rebellion, Douglas allows a warmer streak to shine through. He treats his fellow soldiers like family.

Douglas' hero most comes alive when paired with Jean Simmons' Varina. The two don't meet under the best of circumstances. Both are slaves in the gladiator camp, Varina forced to sleep with different men. Despite the scenario, Douglas sells Sparacus' fascination with her beauty. Upon meeting her, his bold admission that he's never been with a woman before is touching. Later, the two share more playful scenes. After being reunited, the two are positively giddy. There's a sweet scene, by a lake, when Spartacus hears that he'll be a father soon. Simmons' performance plays off Douglas extremely well, the two being a charming couple. Their love story adds an effective emotional heart to the epic story.

In some ways, “Spartacus'” treatment of sex and sexuality is surprisingly frank. Varina is ordered to display herself to Spartacus, the audience only seeing her nude back. Later, we see a little more of Simmons during a bathing scene. Pretty salacious stuff for 1960. More notorious is a moment where Crassus, during a bath, reveals his bisexuality to Antoninus in an attempted seduction. The script uses coded language, as Crassus talks about his preference for both “oysters” and “snails.” Yet the intent of the scene must have been obvious even to viewers back then. At the very least, the censors got the gist. Infamously, the conversation was clipped from later prints. When the film was restored in the early nineties, the scene was reinstated. However, the original audio was lost and Olivier's dialogue was dubbed in by none other than Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins' impersonation is uncanny enough that, unless you know he dubbed the lines in, you probably wouldn't notice.

Being an epic production from 1960, “Spartacus” has a loaded supporting cast. Of the notable performers, my favorite is probably Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the slave trader. Ustinov brings a certain comedic energy to the part. Batiatus is involved in a dirty business but considers himself a man of style and grace. Ustinov's humor and clear command of the flamboyant character makes him one of the most memorable characters in the film. I wasn't alone in this estimation, as Ustinov would win an Oscar for the part.

Also appearing in the film is Laurence Olivier as Crassus, the story's villain. Olivier plays the part as a obstructing bureaucrat, self-involved in his own goals. At least until his outrage against Spartacus grows uncontrollable. Charles Laughton is amusing as  Gracchus, playing the part as a mostly bored senator. More often, he does things primarily to spite his enemies. Tony Curtis appears as Antoninus, who is more poet than warrior. Curtis' performance has a certain detached grace, which fits the character. Lastly, I barely recognized a very young Herbert Lom as a pirate envoy. I guess I'm only used to seeing him as an old man.

As you'd expect, “Spartacus” has an epic run time. The most complete version goes on for three hours and fifteen minutes. Impressively, the film rarely ever drags or feels excessively long... Except for the extended scenes devoted to the bureaucracy of ancient Rome. There are quite a few scenes focused on what the Roman Republic should do about this slave uprising. These moments tend to distract from what really drives the film, which is Spartacus himself and his quest. Beyond that, the discussions about ancient Roman politics are quite dry. These are the only scene that dragged down what is, otherwise, an excellently paced motion picture.

Due to the nature of its production, many have seen “Spartacus” as a covert critique of McCarthyism. The topic was likely on Dalton Trumbo's mind. You can see certain aspects of this interpretation, in the story of an individual bucking an oppressive regime. Yet, within Kubrick's overall career, “Spartacus” emerges as another anti-war film. A key moment has the gladiator forced to watch two of his friends fight to the death, the audience seeing more of Spartacus' reaction than the actual fight. Kubrick keeps many of the war sequences off-screen, often focusing more on people's reaction. When the violence is on-screen, it tends to be especially brutal. A guard is stabbed in a bath. Soldiers are set ablaze by a flaming wheel rolling across the battlefield. Another has his arm cleaved right off. Following the film's biggest battle scene, we see a field choked with dead bodies. “Spartacus” focuses on the brutality of war and the cost of combat.

“Spartacus” is an iconic film but in an interesting way. One scene has reverberated through cinematic history, still being referenced and parodied to this day. Yes, I'm talking about the “I'm Spartacus!” scene. And it really is a fantastic sequence. The silent tears on Spartacus' face as his men show such bravery, solidarity, and selflessness is genuinely moving. That one moment is hugely iconic. What's odd is that the movie around isn't nearly as well known or ubiquitous. The scene cast such a shadow over the whole film that, after it comes, “Spartacus” starts to waver a bit, the script heading into an extended denouncement that simply isn't as compelling as the famous moment proceeding it.

Learning that Stanley Kubrick would discard “Spartacus” is clearly another indication of the director's perfectionism and fierce independence. You don't immediately notice the filmmaker's fingerprints on the finished project, though you can find them if you're looking for them. This doesn't mean “Spartacus” is a bad film. It's actually quite beautifully executed, full of fun and polished performances, gorgeous cinematography, and powerful or interesting moments. Though destined to be discarded as a lesser Kubrick, “Spartacus” still functions are a thoroughly successful picture. [Grade: B]

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1957)

4. Paths of Glory

“Paths of Glory” began as a novel, written by Humphrey Cobb. The story was based off a real incident in World War I, where four French soldiers were executed for cowardice. Later, the book was adapted to stage, its anti-war message proving unpopular. As a boy, Kubrick read the novel and it made an impression on him. After “The Killing,” Kirk Douglas expressed an interest in working with Kubrick. Kubrick brought him “Paths of Glory” as a possible project. Douglas admitted the film probably wouldn't make any money but decided the material was too important. He was right. Like the prior stage adaptation, “Paths of Glory” didn't connect with audiences. In time, it would be reevaluated as Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece.

The year is 1916 and World War I rages on. Blood and death fill the trenches of Europe. In a protected chateau, a pair of generals devise a suicide mission to take “The Anthill,” a much-sought piece of German land. A colonel named Dax is left to carry out the mission. As expected, the mission is a massacre, most of the French soldiers dying in the charge. The remaining soldiers refuse to march to their death. This infuriates the general, who wants to fire on his own men. When this plan is refused, he instead decides to try three men for court marshal, to be put to death if found guilty. Dax argues for the men's innocence, against the stubborn incompetence of his superiors.

“Paths of Glory” is one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. It's been said that it's impossible to make a truly anti-war film, as war is an inherently exciting action to portray. Maybe so but Kubrick comes awfully close. The director emphasizes how terrifying combat is. The soldiers are frequently brave but are always scared. The film's central thesis is laid out in a brief scene of two soldiers, talking in the trenches before falling asleep. One solider outright says that everyone is afraid to die. By focusing so clearly on the humanity of those involved, “Paths of Glory” makes it clear that the very act of war – asking someone to die for any cause – is inhumane.

Inhumane and stupid. Something the film especially criticizes are the generals and military leaders that tell soldiers to march off and die. The film begins, not on the battlefield, but in the comfort of an administrative building. There, generals in uniforms covered with medals, in a relaxed manner, decide to send men to their deaths. Later, they nonchalantly devise a random poll to determine which men will be executed, calmly and without much concern. The film is highly critical of military leaders like this, portraying them as avaricious and ignorant. They are more concerned with maintaining appearances than protecting their soldiers' lives, with projecting childish concepts of “bravery.” This is why they threaten to fire on their own men, why they can't conceive of challenging authority for any reason other than getting a promotion. “Paths of Glory” portrays war as horrible but saves must of its venom for those at the top.

Probably the most effective tool “Paths of Glory” employs in de-glamourizing war is how filthy it makes the battlefield look. The trenches, as they were in real life, are damp. It often rains, making sure the area is even more waterlogged. Characters are often streaked with mud and ash. More than once, the horrible stench is mentioned. The battlefield is always cloudy and overcast. When the soldiers die, they do so with blood on their shocked, unmoving, horrified faces. The surroundings are desolate. Bombs are often hear exploding in the distant. The film goes out of its way to emphasize the reality of trench warfare: Filthy, miserable, and awful.

Kubrick's techniques have continued to evolve over his first three features. “Paths of Glory” is the first of Kubrick's film that feels like it belongs to him one hundred percent. The film features most of the director's most famous trademarks. There's a long tracking shot through the trenches early on, establishing how miserable a location that is. This is in comparison to the scenes set in courts and offices. Kubrick often utilizes wide shots here, looking down on the action like a scrutinizing scientist. Yet close-ups are also featured. “Paths of Glory” contains maybe the first instance of the Kubrick Stare: Kirk Douglas, his face shadowed, looks up from under a heavy brow, infuriated and angered by those around him.

The most impressive visual feat Kubrick pulls off in “Paths of Glory” is the sequence devoted to the charge to the front. The scene cuts between brilliantly executed long shots and closer shots of soldiers dying, tossed by explosions. It's a spellbinding moment, because of the technical expertise on-screen. The scene flows with a powerful sense of motion, drawing the viewer in. Yet it's also a horrifying sequence, as it puts the viewer right in the middle of combat. We feel the shattering power of the blast. Nearly every soldier around Dax is cut down, quickly and without mercy.

“Paths of Glory's” Colonel Dax was an ideal part for Kirk Douglas. Douglas' frequently came across on-screen as the thinking man's hero. His cleft chin and iconic jawline gave him a suitably heroic appearance, seeing him often cast in adventure films. Yet Douglas always brought a compassionate and thoughtful quality to his protagonists. This is especially apparent in Dax. Douglas spends the entire movie, hoping that empathy and common sense will proceed. Up until the end, he attempts to keep hope. After the soldiers are executed, Douglas' unleashes rage on the commanding officers, a deeply cathartic moment. Douglas' Dax is a rare hero, one that stands for his fellow man, for loyalty and reason.

Opposing him is one of the most simpering, infuriating villains in cinema history. General Mireau is played by George Macready. Mireau's establishing character moment occurs early on, when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier, demands the clearly traumatized man's condition doesn't exist, and orders him to be taken away. Every one of Mireau's actions are petty. He demands the cannon operators fire on his own soldier when they start to retreat from the Anthill. Mireau's performance might appear to be over-the-top but the character is so chilling precisely because it's not overdone. Evil like this – mundane evil motivated by greed and ego – is all too real.

The film's cast is excellent, over all. The actors playing the condemned men are especially impressive. Ralph Meeker, sporting a distinctive scar through the film's second half, seems to maintain his composure at first As the days before the execution stretch on, his strength begins to weaken. When faced with a Champlain, he has some choice words for the man. Joe Turkel's Private Arnaud stands before the court, chosen at random to die despite a lauded war record. Turkel's indignation at suffering this fate clear, up until he's even robbed of that by an injury. Lastly, Timothy Carey's performance as Private Ferol is heartbreaking. At first sardonic, Ferol unravels more and more, as the date of the execution draws closer, exposing a raw humanity.

The biggest blow against the concept of a heroic war that “Paths of Glory” makes is the idea that there's any glory, any dignity, in death. Kubrick draws out the execution as long as possible. We see the condemned men walk slowly to the shooting gallery. Carey's Ferol spends the entire walk crying out, weeping, collapsing into an emotional wreck. He faces death like a real human being: Terrified and desperate. He is still weeping when the bullets hit him. There's no pomp or circumstance to the deaths themselves. The rifles cry out and the men collapse. Kubrick portrays the death as senseless and ugly, which is exactly what they are.

“Paths of Glory” is a grim film but not an entirely pessimistic one. The film's final scene is uniquely powerful. Douglas' Dax looks into a rowdy bar, the soldiers yelling at a captured German girl brought out to sing. Yet the girl's beautiful voice eventually silences them. Soon, the men are singing along with her, some of them shedding tears. It's a scene that suggests empathy isn't impossible, that the cruelty of war does not necessarily flatten a sense of compassion. Unlike the tacked on happy ending of “Killer's Kiss,” the slightly hopeful conclusion of “Paths of Glory” is earned and powerful.

Like many of Kubrick's films, “Paths of Glory” has only grown in esteem over the years. Initially, the film was controversial, some contemporary writers bristling at its obvious anti-war themes. The film was even banned in France, due to its depiction of the country's military. In time, “Paths of Glory” would be recognized as the startling condemnation of war that it is. While sometimes overlooked due to the high place in film history Kubrick's later films occupy, the movie is certainly one worth seeking out. Few other films draw attention to the senselessness of war with such grace and power. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1956)

3. The Killing

Stanley Kubrick's “The Killing” happened almost by accident. The director struck up a friendship with James B. Harris over chess. The two would form a production company together. Legend had it that the team, originally, wanted to adapt “The Snatchers” by Lionel White. However, censorship at the team prevented a film about kidnapping from being made. As a last minute replacement, Kubrick and Harris decided to adapt another White novel, “Clean Break.” Kubrick butted heads with United Artist, the film's distributor, who feared the film was too confusing and didn't star a big enough name. Out of adversity emerges greatness. “The Killing” was the director's breakthrough film.

A quartet of men plan a daring daytime heist. Johnny orchestrates a scheme to steal two million dollars from a race track. It's an inside job, the teller and bartenders helping to carry out the plan. A horse will be shot on the track and a wrestler will start a fight in the bar, helping to distract the cops. One of those cops is also part of the deal. The heist goes off with only a few problems, the thieves grabbing the money and making it out of the race track. However, there are outside factors to consider. The teller's wife becomes privy to the plan, disrupting things. Fate will have its say too.

“Killer's Kiss” was Kubrick's first experiment with film noir. That movie had the look but dialed back on the genre's typically cynical worldview. “The Killer” functions in the other direction. Most of the movie is set in daylight, leaving fewer opportunities for stylish, urban shadows. (Though Kubrick still sneaks in some.) “The Killing's” opinion on humanity, however, is black as pitch. It's a movie about thieves, scoundrels, liars, and killers. The lives of animals or other humans mean little to them. The only reason the men have to trust each other is their mutual greed. Love between husband and wife is no guarantee. Betrayal is commonplace. Violence is intense. When a man attempts to reach out in friendship, he's greeted with a racial slur. In short: The world of “The Killing” is not a nice one.

Throughout his career, Kubrick would often call upon his history as a documentary filmmaker, adding realism to his film. This habit begins in earnest with “The Killing.” A narration was added to the film by the studio, against the director's wishes, in hopes of making the story clearer. However, the narration has the effect of making “The Killing” seem like the record of real events. Adding to this effect is the way the story plays out. “The Killing's” construction is non-linear. The film often cuts to the events as they happen, before cutting back later to portray them from a different perspective. Now imagine a news article that pieces together witness testimonies, giving an impression of something from multiple view points. The effect is the same in “The Killing,” the movie feeling like a beat-for-beat recreation of an actual heist.

Kubrick's visual design, already strong in “Killer's Kiss,” makes another huge leap forward in “The Killing.” The contrast between stillness and movement seen is further emphasized here. There are long scenes in “The Killing” devoted to people having tense conversations. Kubrick will film the talks in a wider take, showing everyone sitting at a table. These stiller moments are broken up with smooth transitional shots, the camera rolling towards the door of an apartment. Another of the director's trademarks – the Kubrick stare – appears in an embryonic form here. We see a dying man, his face spotted with bullet wounds, glare in a shadowy corner of a room. Proceeding that moment is an impressive point-of-view shot, tracking the same injured man as he walks through a room littered with dead bodies. Added to this already impressive visual mix are some noir-ish shadows, a lone lamp punctuating the darkness of a seedy room or a parrot chirping in a shaded nook.

During pre-production, Stanley Kubrick wrote an outline of “The Killing.” He then passed the outline to veteran crime writer Jim Thompson. Thompson fleshed out the characters and the dialogue, further contributing to the film's hard-boiled atmosphere. The film's memorable dialogue is obviously the work of Thompson. There's a number of quotable lines in “The Killing.” When Johnny meets a snooping Sherry, he threatens to put her head in her hands. She counters by saying it would look better “on his shoulder.” A minute later, he tells her she has “a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.” The dirty cop is called “a funny kind of cop.” The opera “Pagiliacci” is memorably referenced at one point. It's not exactly realistic but the stylized dialogue is undeniably unforgettable.

The title of “The Killing” suggests violence. Fittingly, the film is a pretty violent movie for 1956. At first, Kubrick's approach to physical violence is more subtle. We only hear a woman being slapped in one scene, the actual blow left off-screen. However, as the film goes on, as the situation becomes graver, the action becomes gorier. The hotel room shoot-out explodes into graphic violence. Buckshot is left in a man's face, his cheeks spotted with bloody wounds. The floor is strewn with dead bodies, the camera lingering on their fatal injuries. Life is cheap in “The Killing.” The violence, both realistic and blunt, reflects this.

At least, it does in all but one scene. As part of the set-up, Johnny hires Maurice, a former professional wrestler, to start a bar fight as a distraction. That fight scene is surprisingly theatrical. Maurice knocks people across the bar. Several flips are performed on the security cops, moves that wouldn't look out of place on the wrestling mat. Maurice even gets his shirt ripped off, in a moment that borders the absurd. On one hand, a fist fight this elaborate probably doesn't belong in a grounded, gritty film like “The Killing.” Yet it's such a striking sequence. Kubrick's direction is fierce, getting right into the action as blows are traded and men topple.

Sterling Hayden was the star that United Artist argued wasn't a big enough name to carry “The Killing.” Whatever his box office value, Hayden's performance is an excellent one. He plays Johnny as a hardened man with his eyes on the prize. Hayden brings a fantastic threatening power to several of his scene. Most notably, in the scene where he sticks up the race track tellers, his stern voice coming from behind a rubber hobo mask. Johnny is a hardened crook but the film attempts to humanize the character by giving him a girlfriend. Colleen Gray as Fay gets second billing and is charming enough. Despite this, she only appears in the beginning and ending scene. I honestly forgot about her by the time she reappeared. The character isn't distracting but is unnecessary. Johnny doesn't apologize for his criminal ways and neither should the movie.

The most compelling subplot in the film concerns George and his philandering wife, Sherry. George is played by Elisha Cook Jr. Cook's demeanor is weaselly and nervous. He seems to be the most morally upright member of the gang. He nearly quits the scheme several times before the heist. On the day of, his nervousness is visible. Cook's performance is wide-eyed, his terrified flop-sweat palatable. Playing Sherry is Marie Windsor. Windsor's beauty hides a malicious streak. She only married George becomes she thought he would be rich one day. She's only stays with him after hearing about the heist. Even then, she plots to steal the money with her boyfriend. Sherry is the femme fatale in this noir, a wicked woman only interested in her own neck. Yet Windsor's performance gives her further depth, making her almost seem like a victim of circumstance.

The rest of the cast is solid too. Joe Sawyer plays Mike, the bartender. Mike is a sympathetic character too, caring for a bed-ridden sick wife. He also considers leaving the heist behind, in a scene where he asks Johnny if they should run off together. (Feel free to read into the romantic possibilities of that statement.) Sawyer has an everyman quality, seeming like a normal guy dragged into something frightening. Ted de Corsia as Randy, the dirty cop, is less sympathetic. De Corsia effectively cuts the shape of a scumbag. Kola Kwariani plays the wrestler, which is fitting since Kwariani was a pro-wrestler in real life. Interestingly, Kwariani actually gives off an intellectual vibe in his few scenes. Lastly, Timothy Carey is suitably sleazy as the lying, racist sharpshooter. Having Carey hold a puppy, before marching off to kill a horse, was an interesting choice.

Another tantalizing element of “The Killers” is the role luck plays in the story. In any story where a criminal plan is explained to the audience, you expect it to go wrong. It wouldn't make for a very interesting film is everything went according to plan. Yet the monkey wrenches “The Killers” throw around are especially random. Nobody could have prepared for Sherry's treachery in the last act. Bad traffic leads to Johnny arriving a few minutes too late to make a difference. The stolen money is revealed after falling off a cart at the airport, a random act no one could've prepared. Kubrick hints at this early on. A discarded horseshoe becomes a symbol of inverse luck, piercing a tire and leading to a death. This makes bad luck a theme of “The Killing,” showing how even the best laid plans can't compensate for arbitrary chance.

“The Killing” was not a box office success upon release in 1956. Unsure of what to do with the picture, United Artists stuck it on the back-half of a double feature with a forgotten film named “Bandido!” Despite this, “The Killing” would become a critical favorite. The praise attracted the attention of Kurt Douglas, making Kubrick's next two films possible, and effectively birthing the director's career. Unlike his previous two features, Kubrick would not disown “The Killing,” suggesting he was satisfied with the finished product too. By the way, “The Snatchers” would be adapted to screen eventually, in 1969 as “The Night of the Following Day,” a picture that isn't discussed much. Unlike his characters, it seems luck was with Kubrick on this one. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1955)

2. Killer’s Kiss

Following the release of “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick would return to the world of documentary shorts. After making one more of those, he would take a second whack at feature filmmaking. “Killer's Kiss” was shot in a similar fashion as the director's debut. It was made with little money, most of the budget being raised by Kubrick himself. The film was shot in locations the crew sneaked into, as they couldn't afford permits. However, “Killer's Kiss” would be far more widely seen. United Artist would acquire the film, giving it a decent release. Later, Kubrick would also dismiss “Killer's Kiss” as the work of an amateur. Unlike “Fear and Desire,” he allowed the movie to remain in circulation, suggesting he must've thought it wasn't too bad.

Davey Gordon is a boxer but not a very good one. After loosing another fight, he decides to retire. He becomes infatuated with the girl who lives in the building across from his. He learns that her name is Gloria and she works as a taxi dancer in a nightclub. The two begin a whirlwind romance and make plans to get out of New York City. Gloria's boss, a thug named Vincent Rapalla, is also romantically obsessed with the girl. After discovering the two are leaving town, he attempts to have Davey killed. Davey's manager is killed by mistake, forcing the washed-up boxer to take the fight to Rapalla.

With “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick aimed for the art house. This release pattern did not allow the film to be seen by many people. With his second feature, it seems the director decided to make a movie in a popular genre. Broadly, “Killer's Kiss” is a crime film, full of tough guys, thugs, hoods, and floozy dames. The film is also set in the back-alleys and abandoned buildings of New York City. These elements combine to place the film squarely within the film noir genre. The result clearly didn't please the director very much and I have no idea how successful “Killer's Kiss” was at the box office. However, this did earn the filmmaker a deal with United Artist, so I'm going to say this strategy worked out better.

By taking the already precise eye he displayed in “Fear and Desire” and adapting it to the film noir genre, Kubrick creates some truly memorable images. The film is thick with shadows. When the hired thugs corner Gordon's manager, we are treated to a series of shots in an alleyway. The men's shadows are projected against an brick wall which is nearly obscured by shadows itself. A chase across an abandoned building features a masterful shot of the protagonist standing atop the structure, a barely distinct man among a black outline. Kubrick is determined to put the noir in film noir, creating a film characterized by dark corridors and shadowy outcomes.

Kubrick's visual pellucidity is apparent in other ways. The layout in “Killer's Kiss” is almost playful at times. When Davey enters his apartment, Gloria is visible through the window of the neighboring building. His apartment is dark while Gloria's room is brightly lit, which visually illustrates how large the girl looms on the man's mind. In rage, Rapalla throws something at a mirror. The audience is given a POV shot of the mirror shattering, seeing the broken glass fall over the screen. The stand-out moment in “Killer's Kiss” is almost totally divorced from the narrative. Gloria explains her backstory to Davey, talking about a sick father, a dead mother, a ballerina sister, and a sudden windfall of money. While this blatant exposition is laid on the audience, we are treated to the image of the ballerina performing on-stage. Combined with the increasingly grim words and the mounting music, a sense of unease is added to the graceful dancing. It's an intriguing way to subvert typical genre expectations – the exposition might be boring so here's a neat visual – while also establishing the movie's tone of uncertain dread.

While Kubrick's absolute control over his films is already apparent even in his sophomore film, “Killer's Kiss” is also surprisingly loose at times. While Davey waits for Gloria to exit the dance club, there's a scene of him milling about on the streets. I'm sure it was perfectly planned this way but, in practice, this scene comes off as partially improvised. There's this sense of back-and-forth in “Killer's Kiss,” with some scenes being perfectly constructed and others being more natural. The boxing scenes take place in the ring, full of quick cuts and sudden movements. The fight feels both spontaneous and meticulously executed. This contrast is present in the story too, as “Killer's Kiss” takes place in a world of both brutality and gracefulness.

Kubrick manages to put his own spin on a genre film with “Killer's Kiss.” There's only one aspect of the film that the director was clearly not invested in. The film's central love story is not entirely convincing. Davey and Gloria fall in love over the course of two days. They only have two scenes together before the story begins really moving. It's hard to believe that a couple would run off together after such a short time. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that Davey would be willing to kill to protect Gloria after such a short time. In order for the film to work, you just have to swallow certain narrative contrivances.

The film is built around three performances. Jamie Smith stars as Davey Gordon. Smith's only other film role is something called “The Faithful City” from 1952. The rest of his acting career was spent on television  In “Killer's Kiss,” Smith is a reliable lead actor. Smith mostly strikes the viewer as an everyman, a normal guy roped into something way over his head. He also gets a decent character arc. Davey goes from a underachieving boxer to a guy fighting for his life, the film's final scenes of violence contrasting nicely with the earlier boxing match.

Irene Kane co-stars as Gloria. Kane, who would go by Chris Chase later in life, also had a limited career in film. She has four television credits and would appear, years down the line, in “All That Jazz.” Kane plays a classical femme fatale in “Killer's Kiss” and is probably the film's most interesting character. As the story continues, the viewer is left wondering if Gloria actually does having feelings for Davey. Is she just manipulating him, using the naive young man as a way to escape her abusive boss? It's not until the last scene that we know for sure. Kane does a good job of playing this ambiguity.

Frank Silvera returns from “Fear and Desire” as Rapalla, the film's villain. The tough guy image Silvera displayed in Kubrick's previous film is still shown off here. Silvera is, after all, a heavy and plays his character as fittingly thuggish. Yet there's another layer to Rapalla. He's not motivated by greed or anger but love. Granted, it's a twisted, obsessive, and selfish love. Still, that characterizes him as somewhat different from your usual crime movie bad guy. Silvera adds an extra layer of grease and sleaze to his part, drinking too much in a few scenes, making the character extra memorable.

To call “Killer's Kiss” an action film is charitable. However, the movie does show the director's approach to violence changing for a more stylized direction. The film's latter half is occupied with a decent chase, Davey being run around the building This leads to the movie's impressive conclusion. Kubrick picked a mannequin factory for the climax, which was an inspired choice. Framing our hero's run around disembodied limbs and faces is effectively eerie. When Davey and Rapalla come to blows, they swing the mannequin parts as bludgeons. The weapons they chose for their final fight is an axe and a harpoon, emphasizing once again the brutality of the movie's world.

We don't know what kind of resolution Kubrick envisioned for “Killer's Kiss” originally. We just know that United Artist insisted he give the movie a happy ending. It's pretty easy to picture what the director had in mind initially. The ending rests on whether Gloria will meet Davey at the train station, whether or not her feelings are true. In the version that was released, she does arrive and the film ends with the lovers embracing. I suspect Gloria's affections were less than genuine in Kubrick's original ending. As it is, the happier ending works okay. After what Davey has been through, it's nice to see him get a positive outcome.

Considering what a deciding perfectionist he was, Stanley Kubrick being dissatisfied with “Killer's Kiss” isn't shocking. The director might have considered the film a disappointing effort but it's actually a sturdy little noir. The themes are standard but the execution is above average, Kubrick already bringing a unique visual and narrative style to his films. It emerges as a somewhat experimental take on the story of a dangerous woman and shaky loyalties, all among the seedy streets of New York City. [Grade: B]