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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick
Several months ago (06-17-12) I wrote proposing my own list of top ten movies of all time. I won't list them here nor list the artists who produced them. I will mention those I've written about including most recently (number one on my list) Schindler's List producer, Steven Spielberg (he was robbed at the 2013 Academy Awards, but that's another matter). I've also written on Orson Wells (#2 on my list), David O. Selznick (#3), and D.W. Griffith (#8). Stanley Kubrick came in at number 9 on my list with his low-budget, 1963, satire Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). If nothing else, Kubrick's full film title, at thirteen words in length, undoubtedly wins the award for the longest in history. I could spend this entire blog writing about just this one film. (I may do just that someday with not just this one, but each film on my top ten list.)
Kubrick learned all there
was to know about film making
all in an effort to save a buck.
Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928 of Jewish parents, the older of two children. At the age of thirteen, Kubrick took up still photography, though in high school he barely made passing grades. After WWII Kubrick became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine and shortly thereafter joined the full-time staff. It was during this time he began unofficially studying film making at the Museum of Modern Art through their screenings of the work of directors Max Ophuls and Elia Kazan, both of whom were to influence his later directorial work. By 1951 Kubrick was directing March of Time newsreels. He made his first film the same year, the sixteen-minute-long Day of the Fight in which he was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, and sound effects man all rolled into one, all in the name of saving money. However, more important than the money he saved was the broad experience in film making he gained. The early 1950s found Kubrick making documentaries, one of which (on Abraham Lincoln) became a part of the Omnibus TV series.
Early Kubrick, early Douglas.

Kubrick reprised his one-man-band act in making his first feature film Fear and Desire (1953), a war film in which Kubrick and his wife comprised the entire crew. As in the case of most first films, it was not a success at the box-office and Kubrick was forever embarrassed by what he termed a "bumbling and boring" first effort. However the film demonstrated his interests in the conflict between rational and irrational elements in warfare planning that were to show up in later films, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket. By the mid-1950s, Kubrick was making low-budget feature films with a full crew and rising young actors like Sterling Heyden (the Killing) and Kirk Douglas (Paths of Glory), a WW I anti-war film where he demonstrated for the first time his trademark long tracking shot.
Kubrick found himself in the awkward position
of working for the star of his film. Kirk Douglas
owned the movie rights to Spartacus.
By 1960, Kubrick had hit the big time. Working with a cast of 10,000 and a million-dollar budget, Spartacus, also starring Kirk Douglas, was only his fourth feature film...and it showed. His low-budget one-man-band approach rankled the Hollywood pros, creating numerous conflicts on the set. Though the film was a critical and financial success, winning four Academy Awards, it was the first and last film Kubrick ever made not having complete financial and creative control of the project. His next film, Lolita, in 1962, was as far removed from the epic Spartacus as could be imagined. And even after having removed most of the eroticism of Vladimir Nabokov's steamy, pedophilic novel, the film was his most controversial. It was also his first time working with Peter Sellers.
Kubrick discovered Peter Sellers
and Sue Lyon. Lolita made them stars.
Lolita proved Kubrick's dark comedic talent. Dr. Strangelove and his genius in casting Sellers in all three major roles of the film proved his mastery of the genre. Despite his numerous other outstanding works, Strangelove I consider to be the cumulative epitome of Kubrick's career. His name in the hand drawn opening credits rolling up the screen occurred so often as to be embarrassing were it not for the fact Seller's name appeared almost as often (click the link below, right). The film was a satiric rewrite of the Peter George novel, Red Alert, controversial if for no other reason than Kubrick turned it into a black comedy at a time when the public found little amusing about nuclear warfare. Kubrick and Sellers changed all that. Even "mutually assured destruction" had its lighter side in contrast to the darker side of bumbling generals, statesmen, and policy wonks. Together with British screenwriter, Terry Southern, they penned such outrageous, "strangelovian" dialogue as: "You can't fight here, this is the war room."
Despite the outstanding performance
of Peter Sellers in three roles, it was
this iconic image of Slim Pickins wildly 
riding an H-bomb to his death which
has become forever associate with
Dr. Strangelove.
If Dr. Strangelove changed forever the way we looked at the cold war, Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey forever changed the way we looked at the future and particularly space exploration. Kubrick took the science fiction genre from silly hubcap flying saucers on fishing line into what has proven to be the 21st century cinematography, though his timeline regarding space travel has proven to be ridiculously optimistic. However, his 1968 predictions as to computer development have tended to be quite accurate (below). And, though Kubrick's (and Arthur C. Clarke's) subtle, tripartite, screenplay proved to be too erudite for most movie goers at the time, needless to say, George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Kubrick for his ground breaking, mind-bending visuals which, even today, almost fifty years later, appear to be state-of-the-art.
Irony has always been Kubrick's stock
in trade and never more so than in
2001: a Space Odyssey in which the
stunning visuals and a computer
named HAL 9000 upstaged the actors. 

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