5. Spartacus (1960)
OYSTERS AND SNAILS
Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat oysters?
Antoninus: When I have them, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat snails?
Antoninus: No, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Marcus Licinius Crassus: No, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?
Antoninus: Yes, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.
Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.
There is little to recommend in Spartacus.
Constant bickering and fighting with Kirk Douglas and writer Dalton Trumbo, not to mention its high-powered British cast, resulted in a less-than-satisfactory directing experience for Kubrick and a muddled film that does well to stay afloat, despite its many obstacles of ego and power grabs.
A vanity project for Kirk Douglas, who was also Executive Producer and star, he was not reticent to voice his opinions if things did not go his way. A volcanic, man’s man, he already fired his first director and was in desperate search of another. Kubrick, as it turned out, was available, for good or for ill, and the two were joined at the hip once again.
Kubrick, as was his wont, also had ideas about the project, most of which never saw the light of day. Douglas never let him forget he was a director-for-hire. Kubrick was miserable but gamely persevered.
The gladiatorial training first section of the film is nicely done. The second part of the film following the gladiatorial revolt is somewhat less so and plodding. Rome and Senatorial scenes are not much better.
The battle sequences that close the third section are exciting and spectacular and the “I am Spartacus” scene after the gladiator’s defeat has entered into the realm of popular culture. The “oysters and snails” conversation was a clever way of skirting the Production Code but was still cut out of first release.
What scene screams ‘Kubrick’ in this odd amalgam? The answer is not much.
Kubrick inserted his directorial presence in the gladiatorial section more than any other. Already quite conversant with how to stage a fight or ambush or revolt, he gravitated towards the origin story of Spartacus much better than exposition or the grand, Hollywood hambone style that allowed his theatrical actors room to flex their scene-stealing chops. Only Peter Ustinov seemed to be having a good time.
Overall, I think the restored ‘oysters and snails’ scene, which suggests, parodies, and celebrates Roman decadence in one fell swoop is quite clever and bitingly satirical. It was a small scene but aptly demonstrates Kubrick’s willingness at literary gamesmanship – a trait oft repeated in many films. He became a master of these short one-liners or odd conversations.
6. Lolita (1962)
Once again, outside forces frame and oppress the production of this film to a degree that intention and outcome never meet nor, because of the time and strictures in place in the early 60s, nor could they ever meet. Why other filmmakers or critics like this bland representation of an incendiary, legendary book is beyond my comprehension.
So much pressure from Hayes Code censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency officials were exerted that this movie bears little resemblance to its source material except in periphery and basic plot outlines. Much was changed – too much to make any sense or relevance as Nabokov’s Lolita. As a censored, disemboweled work from a modern masterpiece of 20th century literature it has much in common.
Spartacus and Lolita represent the artistic low point in Kubrick’s career. Other people were making decisions about how a scene could be shot or what the actors could or couldn’t say. Sexual subtext was greatly discouraged. What remains is an almost non-film, an invention, a glossing of one of the great descent into hell road novels ever written.
Kubrick said afterwards that if he knew the restrictions that were going to be placed on him he would not have attempted the project. He realized only later the time was not right. Thank god he got that out of the way and continued to persevere to make films his own way.
The essence of the film is embodied in the opening credits. Lolita’s feet fills the frame. As a metaphor, it was as close Kubrick could come to suggest any kind of sexual tension or innuendo. Unfortunately, the film could not sustain the visual humor and quickly became a labored, almost tiresome affair. This was unfortunate only because the source material was rich for a deeper exploration. Kubrick was simply stumped and black comedy was not the right approach.
How different Adrian Lyne’s 1997 Lolita remake? A lot.
It is important consider that Lolita is not a sex film – even though the intent to have sex is real and palpable – it is a relationship film. The escalating violence between Humbert and Lolita has everything to do with the increasing sordidness and moral relapse of a tragic pedophile who over-intellectualizes his love for the nymphet in order to mask his own, black-as-pitch soul. Sex is just the last straw of a descent into Dante’s inferno.
And yes, Lolita preferred another man – Humbert wasn’t even the first! – or perhaps she didn’t even care in her adolescent, schoolish ways. The two Quiltys – between Peter Sellers and Frank Langella – couldn’t have been more different. The two Humberts – James Mason and Jeremy Irons – accommodated their performances very well and are the highpoints of both films.
But Irons’ Humbert is titanic, ethereal, devastating – an emotional and fearless investment that was absolutely real and believable. As great as his role was, it would be three years before Irons worked again. The stigma of any association with this story will perhaps never disappear. Even in the publishing world it freaked people out.
Lyne’s Lolita is far more faithful to the source novel – in both tone and content. Kubrick’s Lolita wavers and wavers some more. Kubrick and his partner James Harris re-wrote Nabokov’s 1st draft, 400-page screenplay. Little was retained even though Nabokov still retains screen credit more out of courtesy to a literary titan than actual contribution. Nabokov suggested, in interviews, that the film was like “the swerves of a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.”
Kubrick’s version was a mostly studio-bound interpretation limited in context and scope. Kubrick could not master Nabokov’s dense prose or find visual solutions to the novel’s moral decay. Sellers’ Quilty was foolishly feline who seems to act in a different film than everyone else. This is perhaps the only instance where Kubrick’s larger-than-life visual style was hobbled by a variety of factors despite best intentions too numerous to list in this forum. I do not consider this a masterpiece.
Some stories are not a very good fit, and Lolita and Kubrick’s ‘marriage’ was never consummated. He would encounter similar difficulties when adapting Eyes Wide Shut – another female-centric bedroom drama about infidelity and desire.
7. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
B-52 BOMB RUN
Dr. Strangelove is one of the most perfectly constructed films ever made.
It is a profound examination of the Mutual Assured Destruction dogma that prevailed during most of the Cold War that prevented USSR (then very much our enemy) attacking us – or we attacking them – causing a nuclear Armageddon that literally ended life as we know it. That the film did it as a scathing black comedy – and not reverentially with loads of portent – makes Dr. Strangelove the stuff of legend and genius.
Dr. Strangelove also initiated a string of masterpieces by Stanley Kubrick unequalled by any other director ever. Whether by design or a perfect-storm unleashing of creativity, Kubrick seemed in a different universe than other directors and one-by-one the standard storytelling tropes were forever changed. This string ended, in my opinion, with Full Metal Jacket (although many would say The Shining.)
Dr. Strangelove runs at a brisk 90-minutes. There is no waste. The film builds in a series of escalating tensions as it cross-cuts between Burbleson Air Force base, the “War Room” at the Pentagon, and a B-52 flying towards its intended target. Soon, fear turns to reality and reality into inevitability as the fate of the world rests on finding and destroying the rogue B-52 before it releases its nuclear payload. This sequence, fully the last third of the film, is marvelous and filmmaking at its best.
As Johnny Comes Marching Home plays incessantly on the soundtrack, as the B-52 continuously faces and overcome numerous challenges – missile attacks, damaged equipment, fuel running out, primary and secondary target choices –we find ourselves rooting for the crew and against the politicians (and the world) in the War Room.
So skillfully directed was this scene, Kubrick succeeds in turning the nightmare outcome that is very bad for everyone (well, most everyone) into something surreally positive, as well as makes heroes out of its ragtag B-52 crew just trying to survive, unaware that their success – and our hopeful cheering – spells doom for all.
Pure cinema. Pure joy.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In a film where every sequence is genius and could be picked, this is a difficult choice. This film is so unusual, so mind-bending, so inscrutable, so extraordinary, to say that x is better than y is ridiculous. So I’ll go back in time to when I first saw this film and recall several sequences that, at age 8, just blew my mind.
I grew up an Army brat, and traveled extensively. As a family, we went to a lot of movies. On a typical Saturday, I would spend the morning watching a cartoon, serial and double-feature matinée, play in the afternoon with friends, and go to the movies with my folks Saturday night. While in Würzburg, Germany, 2001: a space odyssey came to the theater. Even by 8-years-old I had seen a lot of movies but never one like this. It was magical. It was confounding. I didn’t get any of it but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
There are moments in your life that change your perceptions about the world around you – especially in the arts and humanities. You remember these moments forever. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn changed my perception of literature. Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann first introduced me to opera, which was impressive enough, but Wagner’s ancient world in Der Ring des Nibelungen resounded deeply and forever.
The first film I remember seeing was My Fair Lady and Hammer horror films were my most recent obsessions but, as I sat watching 2001, all I could think of was how childish I was. This was a film that challenged. This was as film that asked why, not just show how.
The one sequence that blew me away when first seen was the intro to the spacecraft Discovery and Frank Poole exercising in the centrifuge. Round and round it went and I kept waiting for a cut that never came. Where were the dolly tracks? How could Poole keep running upside down? Where were the wires? How could they be upside down so realistically and not fall? How could they fit it all in what appeared to be a very confined place? How? How? How!
I was transfixed and cinema, to me, was never the same again. I knew somehow this was a very difficult shot but I was unable to reconcile what I saw to the reality of expectation. Somehow, I suddenly became adult and swore off Hammer horror films forever. (Well, until the double feature of Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper showed me horror can be transcendent too.)
So, Poole runs around his centrifuge, which, an hour later in the film, seems like child’s play compared to the journey across the infinite undertaken by Bowman. In this film, every succeeding sequence ups the ante, so to speak and bends time and space and audience preconceptions.
This film is such a work of genius it is impossible to pick any one sequence and single it out as better than anything else. Internally, the film asks questions it never bothers to answer. Externally, it invents a new form of cinema that never stops inventing, creating a largely non-verbal journey that admonishes Mankind to live up to its potential in a visual personification of the purest form of Nietzschean philosophy ever created.
From the moment of its first release, every future science fiction film would have to live in its very long shadow. It set a benchmark impossible to eclipse.
9. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
SINGING IN THE RAIN
While there are several outstanding choices, by far the most electric moment in the film was the rape of the writer’s wife while Alex sings Singing in the Rain from the eponymous movie.
This scene was so audacious, so violent, and so surreal that one remembers little else in this remarkable, adult-oriented Grimmsian fairy tale of philosophical consequentialism. While we don’t see the rape itself, the lead up to it is seared on our brain. It’s painful to watch.
Several other scene are equally audacious – the threesome to Puccini’s William Tell overture, the Ludovico treatment, the final, redemptive shot of a cavorting Alex, as well as the opening reverse track in the Korova Milkbar, not to mention any or all of the brutal violence. A Clockwork Orange is the 3rd and last film that forms Kubrick’s dystopian trilogy. It is by far the most nihilistic and most unabashedly unbridled film ever made.
Kubrick held nothing back, unaware of, or oblivious to potential consequences. Rated-X upon its release, it deserved it. The film became a lightning rod for many self-interest groups who often criticized it for whatever it was supposed to contain without even having seen it. The story itself – an Augustinian interpretation, that Man’s capacity for goodness is dependent on his freedom to sin – was lost in the maelstrom of bad tidings.
I’ve written elsewhere that Kubrick ushered in modern American cinema with this film and truly changed they way we look at film, filmmakers, and ourselves by proxy. Full of metaphor and allusion and Brechtian irony, it is difficult to see this film beyond the miasma of ultra violence and mythological popular culture that surrounds it like caged heat. No film up to that time looked anything remotely like it. The entire film is one long ode to genius.
Unfortunately, it did its job too well and there is a fine line between entertainment and cruelty. After A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick would never be as intellectually cruel, or daring, again.