Kubrick

Note: The following was written shortly after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, and is reprinted here in honor of what would have been his 83rd birthday.

Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, to be released posthumously on July 16, will be Eyes Wide Shut, which many people otherwise know as the new Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman vehicle. Had the notoriously exacting director finished it in time? Yes. According to industry reports, Kubrick’s cut of the film was screened on March 2 for Warner Bros. executives, then shipped back to Kubrick in England; on March 7, he was dead. I can imagine him holding out just long enough to receive the reels back into his waiting hands; I can further imagine Kubrick, after two tortuous years of tinkering, recasting and reshooting, finally letting go of his movie and his life in the same breath. Not quite a Kubrickian notion (the image owes more to Welles), but a comforting one to us nonetheless.

I will spare you the conceit of Kubrick on his deathbed, pointing at the monolith and ascending to the heavens, born again as the star child. Few deaths in his films were so poetic; people tended to die abruptly, violently, even comically, but seldom romantically. “I can hack it,” sputters the dying Arliss Howard in Full Metal Jacket, spitting bile from a sucking chest wound. Those are his last words — nothing profound, just the fear of death disguised as unfounded optimism. For Kubrick, death was a sick joke; life was a sick joke. The protagonists of his films over the last 30 years have all been detached in some way, removed from all suffering except their own — a direct line connects the blank astronauts in 2001 to the blank soldiers in Full Metal Jacket, and both Dave Bowman and Private Joker perform what can only be called mercy killings. Death: the big switch-off, the ultimate trigger-pull. Kubrick himself was something of a private joker: Only the initiated, the sardonic like-minded, could really dig his midnight-black view of humanity — though underneath it beat a true humanistic heart, the sensibility of a man who felt we could be better. His job wasn’t to provide answers or suggestions as to how we could be better; he just illuminated the areas in which we have a lot of work cut out for us as a species. As saddened as I am by Kubrick’s passing, to get sentimental about him now would be to violate the lessons of his work, which will survive all of us.

The main program on Kubrick’s hard drive was dehumanization — men devolving into beasts or being turned into cold hard machines (which is another kind of devolution). In Kubrick, we are given intellect and will, only to use it to dominate and control others, to indulge in some ultraviolence or the old in-out in-out. The use and misuse of language also fascinated Kubrick — the lingo that distances us from the implications of what we’re doing, and dehumanizes others so we can justify victimizing them. “Enough of words. Action speaks louder than,” says a politician in A Clockwork Orange, and there is a definite tension in Kubrick’s films between the word and the image; almost all his movies feature narration (fittingly, The Shining — about a blocked writer — is a notable exception). Clockwork offers the most delirious linguistics, with sights to match (Anthony Burgess, author of the original novel, is responsible for the lingo), but Kubrick was just as pleased with real-life doublespeak, particularly the military sort heard in Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory (a Kubrick masterwork sorely due for reappraisal), and Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick’s movies, especially Dr. Strangelove on, are distinguished by an intellectual rigor as well as a dynamic purity of design. No movie announces itself quite so boldly as a Kubrick film; it gets in your face right at the start and then pulls back — literally, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, which opens with plain credits against bright mod colors, accompanied by Walter Carlos’ mischievous Moog-rape of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” the first image being Malcolm McDowell leering up into the camera (the famous “Kubrick crazy-face”). The camera then zooms out slowly, encompassing the whole of the Korova Milkbar. It’s as if to say, Here is your guide, and here is his world. I am willing to say that nobody started a film better than Kubrick; think of the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001 (what the hell does this have to do with space travel? we are compelled to watch and find out), the ominous mountain shots in The Shining (with the credits oddly scrolling), the borderline slapstick head-shaving montage wedded to the mournful country-tinged “Hello Vietnam” in Full Metal Jacket (what the hell kind of war film is this? we are compelled to watch and find out). Kubrick hooked you and kept you hooked.

He wasn’t too shabby at endings, either. For here was where Kubrick’s mordant wit really came out to play; he took care to seal things with a perverse joke, usually accompanied by an incongruous yet somehow brilliantly appropriate melody. He killed us all off to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Strangelove; he reprised “Singin’ in the Rain” at the close of Clockwork, leaving us to imagine the cured Alex loose in the streets, kicking his heels (among other things) in a cracked mirror image of Gene Kelly; he left us with two shots of Jack Torrance in The Shining — one mortal, frozen in the snow, one immortal in a roaring-’20s photograph, with period music to match; the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket marched out singing the “Mickey Mouse” theme song, which faded into the Stones’ “Paint It Black” — as good a summing-up of Kubrick’s philosophy as any. Then, of course, the baffling final reel of 2001, destined to be debated long after Kubrick and the rest of us are dust.

In a Kubrickian circular motion, then, we return to Kubrick’s own ending — the master falls after completing his last work. As a director’s fantasy, this perhaps runs a close second to actually dying on the set after calling the final “Cut!” The sad ironies pour in: He never got to see the movie open, never got to see Warner’s batch of DVDs of his films come out, never got to finish that much-talked-about A.I., which he was rumored to be filming four months at a time every five years. And he never got to make his dream movie, a biopic of Napoleon, in which Jack Nicholson was once interested, and for which Anthony Burgess had written a screenplay rejected by Kubrick. No matter how good Eyes Wide Shut may turn out to be, one can’t help feeling that Napoleon would have been a much grander finale. Damn him for being so slow! The movies he never made would wipe the floor with most movies that do get made. Unlike Welles, Kubrick couldn’t point to unfriendly studios as an excuse for his lack of productivity; he had Warner Bros. by the balls, having earned their hands-off, unequivocal support for any project he chose to pursue.

That he chose not to pursue much over the last 20 years is as much a blessing for us fans as it is a curse. There were no Kubrick bummers, no movies he did for the money, no movies he didn’t have his black heart in. Eyes Wide Shut might seem the exception, a conscious sell-out with two big box-office stars, but it’s important to remember that Jack Nicholson wasn’t exactly an obscure dinner-theater actor when Kubrick hired him for The Shining, and Kubrick must have caught the first faint whiff of the mid-’80s Vietnam craze in the air (initiated, one could argue, by Rambo) when he began production on Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick was a businessman as well as an artist. As for Eyes Wide Shut, it’s said to be based on the Arthur Schnitzler novel Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, which he had talked about adapting since the early ’70s. Why not cast Hollywood’s cutest couple as a debauched psychotherapist couple having affairs with their patients? The endlessly perverse Kubrick would have cast Tom Hanks as a leprous child molester — and Hanks, like Tom Cruise and every other actor in his right mind, would have leaped at the chance to fondle toddlers for Kubrick’s camera.

Kubrick was also, it must be said, a pain in the ass. If there is any comfort in his prerelease death, it is that he won’t be around to micromanage every aspect of Eyes Wide Shut‘s distribution, marketing, and exhibition; he won’t be around to inspect each theater and approve the footlights, the projectors, the cushions on the seats, the tiles in the bathrooms. Above all, he won’t be around to demand yet more reshoots or diddle with the footage for another two years. Then again, maybe it isn’t a comfort. All wise-ass comments aside (and wise-ass comments are appropriate when eulogizing our premier wise-ass filmmaker), Kubrick gave a damn. He took years and years between projects, and he took years on each project. He took hundreds of takes, he took the energy of his cast and crew, he took and took. But he also gave. The proof is on your shelf, if you own most of Kubrick’s films on video. Stack them side by side and scan the titles; ask yourself if there’s a turkey in the bunch. There isn’t. Eyes Wide Shut will be his final gift to us; some will inevitably slam it as an unworthy swan song, while others will lionize it as a fitting coda. Either way, the fact of his death will only add weight and anticipation to the movie. Stanley Kubrick’s final film! Way to steal George Lucas’ thunder, Stan! Good planning!

After the movie is gone from theaters, we may feel his passing a second time, a pang of renewed grief when we see the sad words EYES WIDE SHUT: FINAL DAY in the theater listings. Then, some months later, it will take its place alongside its siblings, on the shelf with Kubrick’s other films. After that, there will be no more. Having broken his decade-long silence, Kubrick has fallen silent forever. His work will continue to speak eloquently on his behalf.

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