Filmmaker Retrospective: The Cinema Of Stanley Kubrick

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Distant and Detaching Storytelling 


Jacques Rivette once said that Kubrick was “a machine, a mutant, a Martian. He has no feelings whatsoever.” That of course is an overstatement, but one can clearly see why Rivette was able to make such an accusation and gather so much attention over it: the way Kubrick handled with dialogue, pacing, and tone often creates the sensation that Kubrick, who always enforced the advantages of adapting a story to film, drew his ideas so strongly on the impressions he had when first reading his inspirations that we get to feel much less than what we were supposed to feel and what he had already felt.

What’s to many a virtue and a mere filmmaking tool that marked all of Kubrick’s films and set his oeuvre apart from all others is also one of the main polarizing issues on film criticism regarding such preference. One need just take a look at his films at Rotten Tomatoes to realize that many critics actually prefer his pre-2001 phase, often the least revered by audiences. After 2001, his pacing grew calmer and even less emotional, reaching its peaks in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, films which rely on much less on star power and pathos.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’re more distant than ever, as Kubrick showcases spaceships, apes, monoliths, robots and so on while there’s hardly any appeal to human emotion. Most of the key scenes of the film’s final segments deal with a notoriously cold relationship among the astronauts, HAL 9000 and the aliens. It forces you to withstand and admire the film rather than enjoy it, but then comes the question: is it necessarily a problem?


7. A Clockwork Orange (1971): Bold Musical Choices 


Sergio Leone once said that when Kubrick was working on his musical choices for Barry Lyndon’s soundtrack he asked why was it that Kubrick only liked the Ennio Morricone soundtracks mad for Leone’s films, to which Leone answered, “Don’t worry, I didn’t think much of Richard Strauss until I saw 2001!”

The final soundtrack for the film would be one of the most beautiful and calculated non-original ones I have ever heard and made me acknowledge Kubrick’s immense musical powers for good. In the totality of his films, he always had great interest in the role of soundtracks, gradually becoming a connoisseur and improving on what’s one of his most captivating stylistic devices.

From the creepy Marseillaise in Paths of Glory to Mickey Mouse and Nancy Sinatra in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick is notorious for the use of seemingly incompatible music genres (most notably pop music) to create a contrast between the ongoing scenes and the background songs to great effect.

He was also a great crafter of musical scenes through classical music, employing iconic themes from composers like Shostakovich, Schubert, Beethoven and Strauss to various degrees of seriousness, yet steady degrees of perfection.

Although practically all of his mature films are great examples of the use of music in a film, A Clockwork Orange places as one of his best for Wendy Carlos’s magnificent rearrangement of some of the most iconic classical tunes of all time, including Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Rossini’s Overture of William Tell, Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

The use of such easily recognizable compositions with the alternating editing with a Moog synthesizer creates a tone of subversion and energetic rebellion that’s not only magically entrancing, but also essential to ease the viewer’s experience of watching such an edgy film.


8. Barry Lyndon (1975): Kubrick’s Internal Quest for Originality 

Barry Lyndon

As said before, Kubrick was a director whose work always blended recurring stylistic devices with a personal eagerness to never follow his previous movie with its direct descendant. He craved for innovation in order to set his name in film history, to address his themes with efficiency and pleasant storytelling, and, most of all, to expand the boundaries of cinema as he knew them.

While heavily deriving his shooting techniques from Orson Welles and Marcel Ophüls, he worked repetitively, painstakingly hard to add his own touch to his films. Barry Lyndon, especially when compared to his previous film A Clockwork Orange, heavily stands out in Kubrick filmography as both one of the most beautiful films ever made and as a stroke of creative genius.

In Barry Lyndon, the principles behind Kubrick’s filmmaking style – always moving towards not towards the masters who gave him his basis, but on the essence of what they aspired to and found out throughout their journeys – are wonderfully clear: instead of literally adapting the film’s visual style from the paintings that marked the story’s period, he instead decided to recreate it, simply borrowing from the paintings and the costumes.

The lighting, the clothing, and the colors belong to 18th century art and life, but everything else is his. If that wasn’t enough, Kubrick went as far as acquiring special lenses to film with natural light and candlelight: the result is so magically fascinating you wonder why directors don’t try it more often (maybe because they’re on a quest for originality themselves).


9. The Shining (1980): Lights, Tracking Shot, Action 

The Shining

Kubrick’s signature moves are intimately related with the concept of exactitude and geometric perfection. Not only was he a very demanding director – many actors suffered in his hands while going through dozens of takes for the same shot -, but he was also passionate about one point perspective and smooth camera movements (think of him as a reverse Lars Von Trier in that sense), which unavoidably him to heavily rely on tracking shots, both horizontal and vertical.

His most memorable signature move is certainly the reverse tracking shot, as the actors follow his camera throughout very straight lines all along the way. It’s certainly done to a greater effect in Paths of Glory, when the camera patiently goes back as the main officers walk through the trenches while re-evaluating the conditions of their men and the possible outcomes of the war.

His horizontal tracking shots are also very present in his filmography, frequently used to introduce sets and characters in a quick turn. Arguably his most memorable use of such feature is in The Killing, during the scenes inside the box office hall.

The most iconic Kubrick film in terms of camera movement is The Shining, one of the first pi-ctures to seize the possibilities of the then groundbreaking Steadicam. From the long shot of Danny riding his tricycle through the hotel corridors to the endless pursuits in the labyrinth, The Shining features a myriad of penetrating tracking shots, heavily symmetric and hauntingly glorious in their perfection.


10. Full Metal Jacket (1987): The Dehumanization of Man 

Full Metal Jacket pyle

While the malfunctioning brain and the contrast between reason and chaos are the most important features in Kubrick’s films, the idea that man is unable to overcome and deal with his instinctive nature (I here use the word ‘man’ as a reflection on the fact that all of Kubrick’s main characters were male) is complemented by his further inability to fight the degenerative nature of his downfall through malfunctioning.

Man’s ignobleness is revealed through the imperfections of his plans and methods, and the dire consequences that follow to varying degrees of impact and denouement deconstruct his life and ultimately bring things to a psychological collapse: both action and transformative reaction are important.

After the fabricated happy ending of Killer’s Kiss, no Kubrick film ended without the main character’s ultimate defeat: Johnny Clay doesn’t even care about the consequences of his actions after his plans falls down; Barry Lyndon struggles to survive and prosper through gambling, cheating, falsifying and punishing, only to resign and surrender after a noble moral choice destroys his life for good; Alex DeLarge is perhaps a luckier character in Kubrick’s filmography, as the movie unavoidably -searches for the restoration of the status quo.

In Full Metal Jacket, Vincent d’Onofrio is Private “Pyle”, a friendly, lighthearted prospective marine who suffers in the hands of Drill Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Erney, in an improvisational performance for the ages) and is asked to replicate the archetypal joie de vivre of the marine, annulling his previous ideals and personal attitude to become a “masculine”, ruthless killing machine. All of this starts with Hartman ordering Pyle to demonstrate what a “war face” looks like, but the private fails to accomplish the feat.

Pyle then succumbs to the ideology introduced to him in Parris Island, and, by the end of the first half, shows a real war face, haunting to all but to Hartman, who’s ultimately destroyed by such lack of logical perception. Pyle drastically changes throughout his jo- urney and ends it with a suicidal act, an inevitable consequence of his malfunctioning.


11. Eyes Wide Shut (1999): His Own Films 


Finally, in a set of so many thematic repetitions, one realizes that Kubrick was perhaps the master of such practices, taking it further to the level of several internal repetitions, which got more aggressive in A Clockwork Orange, when he signalized his abandonment of external references with a simple set item: the CD of 2001: A Space Odyssey for sale in the record store where Alex DeLarge meets the two girls. From them on, the similarities and the differences in his films grew larger and more intense.

Possibly the most famous example of such repetition is the reference to Dr. Strangelove’s CRM-114 device, responsible from preventing communication between the bomber planes and the rest of the world: it appears two more times, as the serum used to stop Alex from using violence (Serum 114) and as the room where Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) discovers a key relationship between two characters, both in great danger, in Eyes Wide Shut.

In the bathroom repetition, the reconciliation of Barry Lyndon with his wife and Jack Torrance’s phantasmagorical “discovery” in The Shining resonate to two of Lolita’s key scenes: the one in which Humbert plays with the idea of killing Charlotte Haze in the bathroom, and the resulting scene, when he’s told that she indeed died, yet in a terrible, unrelated accident. Such self-references go miles along, and can be found practically anywhere from 2001 onwards.

Eyes Wide Shut, which Kubrick considered his greatest contribution to film, Bill Harford goes on a marathon of discoveries in the underworld of sex in the city after he’s forced to face the unexpected possibility that Alice (Nicole Kidman) may be cheating on him.

The structure of his journey, a two-part adventure into the heart of darkness, ultimately recalls the whole duality of Kubrick’s later films, from the post-Ludovico downfall of Alex DeLarge to Private Joker’s re-discovery of the problem with the military mind in Full Metal Jacket to Barry Lyndon’s two-part rise and fall.

As Bill returns to the same places he visited in the previous night in the light of day, a whole new perspective of his anterior choices strike his newly acquired ideas down, and he succumbs to his own conception of what happens between him and Alice.

Author Bio: Lucas de Barros Silva is a rising sophomore in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. After an Oscar season craze which lead him in his moviegoing marathon, he’s kept an enormous interest in filmmaking through his personal review blog, The Hand Grenade, and his ultimate plans to engage into the wonders of directing and screenwriting his beloved Brazil.