10. Barry Lyndon (1975)
What a magnificent film this is.
Easily one of my favorites, every frame is perfection, a glory of color and light, mise en scène, of shadow and candlelight, of painterly composition and devotion to detail. Redmond Barry’s journey is an emotional one, and the full force of Kubrick’s creativity comes to bear on this opulent costume drama shot in near cinéma vérité – truthful cinema – or a serenely truthful a fiction film can be.
The film unfurls in long, languid takes, allowing the viewer to soak up the ambience and be, paradoxically, constricted by it opulence and openness. Candlelight as metaphor is both an excuse and a curse. The super-rich of Barry Lyndon are so constricted by their habits, their social mores, the extreme size of their estates, it’s a mystery why Barry, born free in a wide open country of Ireland, wants the stultifying life of landed gentry so much? But wants he does, and his quest, started under false pretenses, has dire consequences for many.
The scenes shot by candlelight thoroughly define this film, and no director working today can shoot in candlelight without knowing that Kubrick did it first.
Thought technically unfeasible at the time, Kubrick had engineers adapt a super-fast f0.7 lens used by NASA for the moon missions to a Mitchell motion picture camera. The depth-of-field was measured in inches if not centimeters. The actors or camera could barely move otherwise everything would be thrown out of focus.
If one remembers little else, the first, enveloping glow of deep ambers and burnt umbers from the candlelight is breathtaking in its intensity and as close to pure cinematic porn for its own sake as any frame ever imagined. They were so beautiful they were almost a great distraction.
In its original release, the 35mm print was simply astonishing. Time has faded the film and digital DVDs are mere replicas of the real thing. If there is ever a candidate for 8K restoration, this film is it.
11. The Shining (1980)
The Shining is visual fugue on steroids.
Where Barry Lyndon was all about the Zeiss f 0.7 lens, The Shining is about the Steadicam, a relatively new invention at the time.
The Shining was not the earliest adaptor (Bound for Glory, Marathon Man, and Rocky in that order have that honor), but The Shining turned technology into a visual metaphor and leitmotif – other filmmakers could always show us how but Kubrick would always define why.
From the opening screen credits, that camera is a malevolent being, omniscient, omnipresent. And no use of this technology demonstrates this better than the camera following Danny riding his Big Wheel mere inches off the floor. Kubrick pushed Garrett Brown, the device inventor, into extending its range. Only a waist-high mount existed at the time and that wouldn’t suit Kubrick’s purposes. To this day, it still represents the most important modification to the system from its first inception.
The Shining is cinematic shape-shifting. It rarely stands still and, when it does, it comes almost as a shock. The entirety of the film is molded by its relativistic space and defined by camera movement.
The best scene that encapsulates this is the “all work and no play” set piece. Penderecki’s Polymorphia for 48 strings thunders in the background as Wendy leafs through hundreds and hundreds of pages, typed in endless variation, of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” She is surprised by Jack. Malevolently, he starts to approach and confront her. She meekly swings her bat as his tauntings become increasing louder and more threatening.
Visually, Kubrick cross-cuts between both a reverse and forward tracking shot, as it proceeds in a long “S”-curve through the large hotel lounge and on up the stairs. Their dialog is a masterstroke of exposition and subtext that encapsulates an entire marriage – indeed, an entire life – of regret and missed opportunities. Clearly, they are both miserable, and the hotel does nothing but bring out the truth in all of its inhabitants. As they proceed up the stairs, Jack, impatient, lunges.
Wendy, too, tired and about to crack, makes one final swing and it’s a home run, striking Jack on the skull. He falls backwards, tumbling down the grand staircase, knocked out. It’s a brilliant, brilliant scene, memorable on so many different levels, from technological to metaphysical, that has entered the visual lexicon as an example of cinematic genius.
Invention was part of the game that drove Kubrick to greater and greater heights. He was certainly a self-confessed technology geek and, because of his influence, had access few others had. The Shining was not the first to use the Steadicam but it is the best – even 32 years removed from its premiere.
His worst films are those that lacked technological invention that complemented their subjects – Lolita, Spartacus, and Eyes Wide Shut. When it clicks, it clicks big and genius is made. Even Kubrick on his off day is better than most on their best.
It would be another 7 years before the next Kubrick film.
12. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
What invention would Kubrick come up with this time?
From Dr. Strangelove on, Kubrick affixed on technology to lend relevance to his story with almost fetishistic obsession. Technology provided impetus in the way musical chromatics and larger orchestras elevated Richard Strauss. Special effects, lenses, camera mounts, music innovations, smaller camera gear, sound recording advances – all lent a distinctive look and feel to his films, as Kubrick was often the first or near first to employ new things.
Full Metal Jacket, uncharacteristically, displayed no affection for new technology. What Kubrick mashed up this time was the traditional concept of story. Full Metal Jacket is the great, bicameral picture where the two halves couldn’t be more distinct in tone, structure, and concept. Robert Wise famously called the first half boot camp section the greatest film he ever saw. While the rest of the world was as perplexed as anyone else what the second section meant or even why it was there.
I was initially caught off guard too, at first. The more I thought about it, however, the more it began to make sense in relation to the larger picture – the concept of opposites.
The film is forever deconstructing and rebuilding. New recruits are made into men and men into killers. Proper names are instantly changed to derogatory descriptions. A single sniper takes down a whole platoon. “Peace” is written on a helmet next to “Born to Kill.” Joker, a rifleman in the Marine core, fails to fire a single shot during the whole film.
And, just in case we didn’t get it, Kubrick stages a whole conversation between a Colonel and Pvt. Joker – perhaps the key conversation in all of Kubrick’s career much less this film – about the duality of man and his ability to love and kill at the same time – this – while overlooking dozens of dead in a mass grave covered in white lye. The scene has an otherworldly attitude about it and is an extraordinary moment in a career of individually great moments.
This conversation is the work of the ultimate ironist, the ultimate “Pvt. Joker” – Kubrick – who plays havoc with genre and routinely pokes fun at his audience’s predilection for safe, easy-to-understand films.
Even though, for shock value, nothing compares to the killing of Gny. Sgt. Harman in the “head” at the end of the Parris Island section by Pvt. Pyle, it is largely valueless except as a greater expression of Kubrick’s nihilism and fetishism (an argument too lengthy to be expressed here) – we all knew Pvt. Pyle’s destiny from the beginning so no surprise there, and sometimes hard men – even necessary hard men – get in their own way and suffer the consequences of their hard lifestyle.
The real exploration of morals and dogma occurs in the quieter conversations of the second half, and none more effectively than the scene at the graveyard. In fact, there are many conversations in the second half that take place hovering over the dead, which is a clear and direct visual motif that can be traced to Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire – at the mass grave of the NVA, when Joker runs into his ‘bro’ at a compound where the soldiers are toasting a dead VC soldier, the platoon hovering over a dead Pvt.
Handjob, the mortally wounded woman-child sniper who begs for a quick death (and receives it), that in whose frequency one cannot help but look for meaning in the madness of the moment.
In Kubrick’s many worlds, the living stare at the dead with the dead staring right back! This leitmotif is like an ourorboros – a world endlessly feeding on itself – and in no small way similar to how Allan Quatermain describes in the ineffable nature of the jungle in the film King Solomon’s Mines (1950): “There are no souls in the jungle. There’s little justice and no ethics. In the end you begin to accept it all… you watch things hunting and being hunted, reproducing, killing and dying, it’s all endless and pointless, except in the end one small pattern emerges from it all, the only certainty: one is born, one lives for a time then one dies, that is all… all the rest is Yeey Saba… a game the natives play.”
13. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but this is really Nicole Kidman’s movie.
For only the 2nd time in 13 films does Kubrick have anything resembling a leading lady. Sue Lyon in Lolita, Jean Simmons in Spartacus, and Marissa Berenson in Barry Lyndon are not large enough rolls to be considered leads. Berenson, for instance, says only a dozen or so lines in the entire 3-hr film and Lyon is supporting at best. Shelley Duvall is the only other female character of note who is nearly asked to carry the picture. Kubrick is a decidedly male-oriented director with rare exceptions.
Even though Kidman is perhaps in only ¼ of the film – if that – her monologs drive the action and resolution. Her “arias,” if you will – the first where she describes her sexual attraction to a man she barely saw and never knew, and the other a reaction to a nightmare she had dreamed and was awakened by – are the core conversations of the film, and everything her husband does is a reaction to her venting. These monologs are classic Kubrick that both reveal and reflect, unduly honest and find their intended mark with pinpoint, unapologetic accuracy.
It is essential to the film that dreamstates and reality are interchangeable. Dr. Harford’s journey may not have actually taken place! Much of what happens could be construed as a fantasy coping mechanism for his sexual impotence. Conversely, Alice, if she let herself go just a little more, could be a raving nymphomaniac. She, too, is repressed but for different reasons.
Eyes Wide Shut is also unique to Kubrick in that for the first time since Lolita, here was a film virtually gimmick-free unless, of course, you think the fetishistic reconstruction of a large New York City block somewhat extreme; or the nearly two years in continuous production; or the hundreds of takes demanded of Cruise even of the simple act of walking through a door.
Kubrick’s attempt to break down the concept of performance to its most elemental fragments in order to rebuild the character into something else entirely has its limits in application – limits Kubrick never seems to have reached. In an artistic enterprise, there really is such as thing as diminishing returns – actors are human after all – and utter commitment rendered from utter exhaustion usually has a bad downside. Heart attacks, breakdowns, or drug and alcohol abuse usually ensue.
I understand now why Kubrick chose to burn all of his negatives – he didn’t want us to know, or maybe he didn’t want his actors to know – that take 1 was no different from take 100.
You would think no actor would want to work with him again? But in Picassian defiance, come they would – in droves. It was considered the highpoint of everyone’s career to have been in a Kubrick film. He drove everyone to produce the best work they’ve ever done.
Perhaps it’s very fitting, then, that Kubrick’s career comes to end not with a bang but a whimper, and the last word spoken in a Kubrick film is ‘fuck.’
That the first words in a feature film directed by Kubrick are, of course, narrated, is no accident: “There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being. This forest, then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear – and doubt – and death – are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.”
That is really an amazing bit of prose, written so long ago but so prescient, so clear. It could even be called a Mission Statement.
It explains so much about Kubrick’s approach to story, character, and mise en scène of every film made thereafter. His films look different because they were always intended to do so. We waft indiscriminately between inner and outer, nightmare and waking, inches or seconds from death. His worlds are worlds of the mind’s eye, our inner demons, not what it is but what the character thinks they are.
The neo-classicism of the Kubrick oeuvre is a world of icy cold stares and brooding sensibilities and ultra violence. It’s a nihilistic world of uncommon death and sordid love. Kubrick coalesced a visual style to complement that world and show Man for what he is – an animal striving for Nietzschean heights but barely reaching higher that Dante’s lowest depths.
This article is the 5th in a series of 7 articles devoted entirely to Stanly Kubrick, auteur & filmmaker. The previous articles published in Taste of Cinema are: 10 Reasons why Stanley Kubrick is the greatest Filmmaker who ever lived, 10 greatest uses of Music in a Stanley Kubrick film, 10 greatest Performances in a Stanley Kubrick film and 10 greatest Myths in a Stanley Kubrick film.
Author Bio: Mark Krasselt is a writer, designer, and all-around creative who reads too much and has seen too many movies. He has been fascinated with Stanley Kubrick since his first saw 2001: a space odyssey at age 8, and this fascination has never abated. He has even written a long thesis on the famous director, titled “Stanley Kubrick: lessons of a Sentient,” which he hopes to expand into an even longer book.