REALITY IS GOOD, INTERESTING IS BETTER
– Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick is the master of the cinematic ‘money’ shot.
Say what you will about his style, story, or concepts, the man knew how to string a series of images together to form an indelible visual and aural landscape not soon forgotten.
His was not a film school education, but education on streets first as a still photographer, wielding his camera for Look magazine as a weapon of war. His photo are extraordinary for their depth, framing, precision, and subtext. Interestingly, they are not always freeform but are often directed and posed and made to look improvisational.
If he had never become a filmmaker, he would have been lauded as one of the great still photographers the world has ever known – right up there with Adams, Bresson, Arbus, or Stieglitz. How lucky for the world he chose film.
He surprised many, I am sure, who thought this moody, loner-of-a-kid would go nowhere. He turned into the classic late bloomer. In the end, he devoted his life to his craft in a decidedly obsessive-compulsive way that few filmmakers ever have. His obsessive compulsiveness achieved mythological status.
He became the ultimate auteur – a director’s director. His life and films were inexorably intertwined with almost religious fervor and almost every waking minute was spent thinking about them. It’s why he worked out of his home and lived by the telephone and fax machine – commuting, other than during principal photography, was a huge waste of time.
His major influences are Sergei Eisenstein (mise en scène, placing on stage), Vsevolod Pudovkin (montage), Max Ophüls (camera movement), Nietzsche (dogma), Freud (repression), Jung (duality), Brecht (Verfremdungseffekt, defamiliarization or distancing effect), Antonin Artaud (Theater of Cruelty), and perhaps even Richard Wagner (Gesamtkunstwerk, total work of art.)
No matter which writer, cinematographer, or editor he used, there was no mistaking a “Kubrick” picture, such was his level of control. He made every decision and cut every film himself. A new film from Stanley was an event because it meant something unique and a work of art, like a new building by Frank Lloyd Wright or car by Enzo Ferrari or opera by Wagner.
Mise en scène is theatrical term loosely defined as placing on the stage. In filmmaking it means that contained within the frame. This includes framing of the scene and the objects contained within it, and more loosely the blocking of actors.
Leitmotifs are recurring themes – visual or pedagogical – that are used as a type of cinematic shorthand developed over time that can also be a type of directorial clue or signature as well.
A director inspires to find meaningful coherence between mise en scène, leitmotifs, and story in a way the audience can respond to positively. Kubrick wasn’t always perfect – it’s hard work to make films and sometimes the story doesn’t fit the director quite that well. But most of time he was and the results were extraordinary.
1. Fear and Desire (1953)
FACES OF DEATH
There is a lot to be feared and desired, pun intended, in this small featurette that was the ‘main event’ on a double bill, along with The Male Brute, when it first appeared. Feared for what it announced with almost arrogant authority. Desired because Kubrick, more or less, pulled it off.
It is, as Kubrick described, not much better than a very well made student film. The dialog is hardy but too literary and almost continuous; the acting competent but without much finesse. As a first-time director with zero experience, he had no idea how to coax a performance out of an actor and the film lost money for its principal investor – Kubrick’s uncle.
Given all its challenges, it still outperformed most other first efforts. Since Kubrick knew how to frame a picture, it is the cinematography that elevates this picture far and above the typical low-budget potboiler. Variety, the main industry trade paper whose opinion was important for future filmmakers, concurred, singling out the photography as a key feature.
While the film as a whole is not very compelling, overlong even at 1 hour in length and rather clunky, there are three or four sequences that are quite nicely conceived and not without talent. Even geniuses have juvenilia that point to greater talent.
But what makes this film properly important are not the sequences so much as the still image aspects of this moving picture. Only a year removed from Look, Kubrick shoots the dead in framed perfection, the camera lingering much longer than necessary – mostly for the need to fill time – that somehow becomes a surprisingly valid motif. His use of near realtime voice over with characters talking about events they are immediately witnessing was unusual for a film like this and creates a kind of disembodied secondary character.
The dead look like mannequins – glassy eyed, pasty. The movie’s three sequences of killing are abrupt, cathartic revelations from the first two during dinner and the second two waxing rhapsodic on the infinite.
When Pvt. Sidney, played by future director Paul Mazursky, allows the insanity of war get the better of him and starts to espouse a mashup of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – a modern interpretation of which he would direct 30 years later with John Cassavetes as Dimitrius (the erstwhile Prospero) and Raul Julia and Calibanos – he shoot his girl-prisoner dead after a failed rape attempt. Her death is the most tragic and her death mask face is framed at least 6 different ways.
What makes Fear and Desire so unusual, visually, is it appears to have used infrared film – filtered and unfiltered – for many scenes. It is known Kubrick also used infrared film as a still photographer, so it would make sense he would borrow the technique. This gives his dead an effervescent, preternatural glow. His dead are alive with portent. His eerie tableaus are the original Faces of Death.
2. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
MANNEQUIN FACTORY FIGHT
Kubrick came back to New York City for his next project. Since he had already fully explored New York as a still photographer, the familiarity of the city and the ease to which it folds into the narrative is self-evident. For whatever other merit the film lacks, the interactions the actors have with their environment – be it their tenement flat, the boxing ring, or just walking the streets – constantly engages the viewer.
This film, unlike most of Fear and Desire, is never boring to look at and uses the city to its full advantage. In fact, much appears shot surreptitiously on the city streets without permit. The real people walking the streets seem unaware a camera is shooting a scene.
The cinematography, overall, is excellent and was still done by Kubrick. It’s a dark, brooding picture that wants to be a film noir but inexplicably ends on a high note and a happy ending – the last and only truly happy ending in his illustrious career – that disqualifies it from true noir status. The script and story by Kubrick and Sackler is a significant step up from Fear and Desire, as is the most of the acting.
The one scene that stands out in this film is the fight in the mannequin factory. Kubrick’s sense of visual irony and wicked humor is on full display as the two men are brawl for the hand of the same woman surrounded by dozens of nude mannequins in various stages of amputation. In fact, Killer’s Kiss expands on the frozen-in-place human form leitmotif started in Fear and Desire – a face, and arm, a disembodied torso.
Mannequins make another appearance in A Clockwork Orange as psychedelic drug dispensers in the form of breast milk. “Ghost” mannequins litter the hallways and bedrooms of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Sex mannequins populate Eyes Wide Shut. These human-form still lifes are a natural extension of his years with Look.
3. The Killing (1956)
By now, Kubrick’s path as a director was assured. Blooming with confidence, he was given his first big break in Hollywood. The Killing would springboard his career into far greater heights. Working for the first time with “A” list actors and a bona fide Hollywood crew, The Killing will become his most accomplished film to date and the first film Kubrick considered worthy of his name
The Killing is a tight, taught neo-noir heist film with Sterling Hayden as “Johnny Clay,” the hardboiled leader of a band of misfits who wants to rob a horseracing track when it will be flush with cash from an up-coming premiere race. The major set piece of the film is the heist itself, filmed in an almost documentary style, which was unusual and unique at the time.
Composition is pure Kubrick, who fought with his traditional Hollywood cinematographer constantly over lens choice, camera set up, and lighting. Unfortunately, little else of what is recognizably “Kubrick” comes through. Even though the film is well done – even better than average – it remains a cold, distant film.
This would all change with the next picture.
4. Paths of Glory (1957)
HIGH NOON EXECUTION
Corporal Paris: See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.
[Ferol smashes the roach.]
Private Ferol: Now you got the edge on him.
Little did anyone expect this film would turn into one of the greatest mainstream anti-war statements in film ever made. Based on the eponymous book that detailed true events during WWI, certainly the potential was there for greatness. Filming in Germany away from Hollywood somehow galvanized the young director and the independence did some good.
There are several great sequences in this superb film and, for the first time, introduces the world to an Ophülsian-like reverse track that becomes one of major leitmotifs of his career. But by far the greatest sequence is the lead-up to and the execution itself. Here, Kubrick does not shy away, and exerts an almost enhanced neo-realistic shooting style that never blinks. There is no shading, no hazy mellifluence, no moral gray area.
The images are clean and crisp, the contrast high. These men are going to die and nothing and no one can stop it, not even God. Framed in one-point perspective, the symmetry squeezes the scene into a kind of visual, geometric vice grip that increases the tension to almost unbearable limits. Near the moment when the trigger is pulled, the camera snaps to the point of view of the executioners. In effect, we are implicated in their tragic, wrongful execution. The frame is wrapped by rifles, the dead men directly center frame.
The film was a bold indictment of the perception and mistreatment by generals and officers of what they considered was a largely expendable infantry force. This view was not the exclusive domain of the French but they took the brunt of the criticism during WWI for it. Needless to say, the film was banned – or deliberately not exhibited – in France for decades depending on your point of view. Political pressure finally relaxed 20 years later and the film was shown in 1975.
With this film, Kubrick hit critical and commercial pay dirt.