Down the Rabbit Hole with Stanley Kubrick

By: Scott Alic

I had ticket regret: I had only just come out of a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 epic Barry Lyndon, and perhaps hopped up on the film’s sumptuous, painterly visuals, had apparently agreed to pick up a ticket for the screening immediately after:  Kubrick’s 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange. I stared at the ticket, barely recalling the process by which it was now in my hand, and sighed: this was, after 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one Kubrick film which I really didn’t need to see again, knowing it backwards and forwards, having written papers on it in high school and rewatched it on a regular basis across my adolescent years and 20s. What surprises could the film still hold for me?

I briefly considered pawning off the ticket, but in the end, took my seat. The lights went down, and without warning, sensory shock: the screen glowed blood red, as Wendy Carlos’ synthesizer score blared; while I would say that Carlos’ take on Purcell’s “Funeral Music for Queen Mary” is inherently unsettling, there’s something about the colour red that I’m sure goes back to our early days as apes (“The Dawn of Man”, shall we say) that gets the pulse racing, and as the seconds passed (25 before the opening titles, actually), I found myself growing increasingly tense, aware that the film and its filmmaker had already begun working on me, and was completely pulled into the world of Kubrick’s film for the next 137 minutes.

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Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The packed screening rooms of the TIFF Bell Lightbox during its Kubrick retrospective, and the queues for the attendant exhibit featuring a host of amazing photos, production materials and props from across Kubrick’s filmography, attest to the filmmaker’s enduring popularity; he was my first favourite director, and perhaps the director that made me aware of film as a craft, and a means of conveying ideas, rather than being purely a source of entertainment. I stumbled across a commercial-free airing of 2001: A Space Odyssey on PBS sometime around age 10, and perhaps the only thing I’d seen to that point to which had a similar effect was Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqaatsi. Both films have a general lack of dialogue, yet clearly are works of great intelligence, using intense visual imagery and poetry to make statements about humanity. The first of many late-night viewings of The Shining followed, and again, I could feel Kubrick plying his craft to create a deeply unsettling psychological mood – an art-suspense film that only sporadically breaks through into full-on horror.

Kubrick was, of course, renowned for exerting control over even the smallest details of his films, and the sense that every element of every frame is exactly the way that Kubrick wanted it makes him a favourite filmmaker among filmmakers; Kubrick earned enough respect and adulation (and money for his studios, let’s be real) that he was eventually given complete creative control of his productions; he pushed his actors and crews to achieve some of their greatest work. Famously, he put his actors through countless takes and retakes, to capture actors in just the right emotional state; Shelley Duvall’s manic performance in The Shining surely owes itself to the wearying act of maintaining a fraught demeanour for endless hours and days of takes[1].

Kubrick’s exacting fidelity to period detail was evident in Barry Lyndon, where actual 18th century dresses were used, and recreated painstakingly elsewhere; famously, Kubrick wished to shoot the film using natural lighting, including candlelight for the night scenes, and obtained a lens made by NASA for use on the moon, adapting it to a camera for his purpose. The Vietnam scenes in Full Metal Jacket bore a distinct hand-held documentary quality which convincingly resembled the newsreels of the day; these were shot not in Southeast Asia, but in a square mile of marshes and old gasworks slated for demolition in Beckton, England, not 30 miles from Kubrick’s own home. Kubrick selected 200 palm trees from photographs and had them flown in from Spain.

Barry Lyndon at night.

The gaming tables of 18th century Europe by candlelight, courtesy of Stanley Kubrick and NASA.

Kubrick’s clear intelligence, general lack of exposition and tight control over all elements of his films have created a cottage industry of obsessive filmwatchers dissecting Kubrick’s films for symbols and clues pointing to sub-textual meanings. Rodney Asch’s excellent 2012 documentary Room 237 pairs footage from The Shining with commentary from a number of Kubrick enthusiasts, each of whom has devised their own theories as to Kubrick’s “true intent” in making the film, often seizing on some small side detail in a scene, and following it down a rabbit hole to a greater “understanding”; here, the positioning of cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the pantry of the Overlook Hotel is a reference to broken peace treaties with Native Americans, and the appearance of other American native imagery points to the film being about the First Nations genocide. Another commentator ties the film to the Greek myth of the Minotaur, seeing the mythical creature in a skiing poster in a room of the film, and throws the paradoxical floor plan and topiary maze of the Overlook Hotel into the mix. The Shining is Kubrick’s apology for faking the moon landing, it’s Kubrick’s Holocaust film; some of the theories seem dubious at best, while others prove more compelling, if not convincing.

Of course, Kubrick’s frames are rich with details, many of them barely perceptible. A telling Kubrick quote from the exhibition describes how bits of torn fabric were thrown into pits in the battlefields of the Paths of Glory set, and that while they might not be visible to an audience, they were meant to be “felt”, in some subliminal way[2]. From the recent AGO exhibition of the paintings of Alex Colville, I discovered that Kubrick hung four of Colville’s paintings in the Overlook. Colville’s paintings share a certain sense of geometrical exactitude with Kubrick’s imagery, as well as an uneasy entente with stasis that threatens to explode at any time. However, the paintings are only ever part of the background of scenes in the film, and key elements are sometimes obscured entirely.

On the large screen in crisp digital (or 70mm in the case of 2001), there were details of Kubrick’s films I realized I had never picked up on in all of those small-screen viewings: I don’t know if I’d ever realized that the glass from which Alex’s truant officer Mr. Deltoid drinks when he confronts the teenaged thug in his parents’ bedroom in A Clockwork Orange actually contained a soaking pair of dentures for instance, and thought that his cringing behavior upon realization was some artifact of their homoerotic encounter. I also don’t know that I picked up on the gorier details of the outfits of Alex and his droogs: bloody eyeballs as Alex’s cufflinks, bleeding nipples on Georgie’s shirt. Also, I picked up on the fact that Alex states his last name as ‘Delarge’ in prison, but when he appears in newspapers after being tortured by the writer whom he and his droogs terrorized earlier, his last name is listed as ‘Burgess’, which is a nod to Anthony Burgess, who wrote the original novel. I also had a laugh and a small Room 237 moment to myself when I spotted a pack of dates in a get-well fruit basket for Alex, when his parents come to see him in the hospital; the brand name is only slightly obscured, but still readable: “EAT ME.” (I bought a package of said date for sustenance while travelling through Europe in 1996, and was so amused by the packaging that I affixed the label to my guitar back home.) Surely an uber-minor detail, but I couldn’t help but feel privy to a cheeky Kubrick visual joke.

This guy.

This guy.

My recent Kubrick retrospective screenings affirmed that the immersive environment of the theatre is still the best place to appreciate the man’s films.

Despite A Clockwork Orange being well-worn territory for me, I still felt genuine horror and uneasiness where I hadn’t before, especially during the film’s rape scenes. Did the large-screen setting make the scenes feel more “real”?  Or have I become more sensitive to the true toll of sexual assault on real people since my youth? Even the final shot of the film, where Alex has had his Ludivico Technique conditioning reversed and he is back to his violent ways, is chilling in that while we are made privy to Alex’s fantasy of frolicking forcefully with a naked woman, it is in the presence of an applauding audience of men and women in Victorian dress, signifying state approval and legitimization of Alex’s acts, no matter how violent.[3]

Inasmuch as I found Kubrick’s films as thought-provoking as ever, it’s been interesting to find that my essential feelings towards the films haven’t changed as much over time. Barry Lyndon is a visual feast, eminently watchable and Kubrick’s attention to detail is on full display, but after the visionary trifecta of Dr. Strangelove, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, the perfectly-rendered period piece still feels surprisingly staid for Kubrick; the three-hour runtime gave much space to ruminate on the idea that Kubrick’s films often make statements that men, for all of their rules of etiquette (Barry Lyndon) and technological advancement (2001, Dr. Strangelove), are still bound to their most primal nature and desires.[4]

While Kubrick proclaimed that Eyes Wide Shut was his greatest film, it still struck me as ponderous, and actually dull in parts. Much of the dialogue is delivered in a stilted, languid, dream-like fashion, which may be the point – much of the dialogue in Kubrick’s films is banal small talk, masking the true desires of the characters. Some even theorize that Tom Cruise’s whole night quest to get laid to avenge his wife’s fantasies of infidelity is itself only a dream. (Plenty of theories abound regarding the Illuminati, as well.) There is clear primary colour-coding to the film, but did I care enough to hammer out a theory, or speculate as to how Tom Cruise’s mask from the orgy ended up in his apartment, next to his sleeping wife, or whether it existed at all, or was a symbol of his character’s guilt? The answer, sadly, is no.

While there is much to like with A Clockwork Orange, I’m still conflicted by some of the stylistic choices made by Kubrick (that were not in Burgess’ truly terrifying novel), undermining some of the more horrific scenes: I’m thinking, again, of the first (attempted) gang-rape scene, which Kubrick sets on the stage of an old playhouse, with classical music playing on the score, lending the scene a theatrical, distancing effect. Alex’s rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” during the home invasion scene, which was not in the original shooting script but which was improvised by Malcolm McDowell, adds a jarring comic note to the scene. Perhaps Kubrick felt that without these touches, the film would be too bleak to release, but they’ve always stuck in my craw, as though the stylized visuals of the film add a strange seductiveness to horror. British newspapers reported on copycat cases of ultraviolence, and while Kubrick defended his work, saying that art lacked the suggestive qualities to make people do things which were against their natures, he ultimately prevented the film from being shown in the UK; the film was only shown in theatres there in 2000, after Kubrick’s death.

All in all, one can only see it as encouraging that these films are still drawing crowds and provoking discussions and wild speculation in 2015, a year where the two leading Oscar nominees share Kubrick’s style on a superficial level (precise details and mathematically perfect framing; technical virtuosity), but precious little of his substance and keen insight on human nature.

Marko Manev -- Dawn of Man

[1] In this regard, Kubrick wasn’t necessarily as obsessive as he has been assumed to be:

“An actor can only do one thing at a time, and when he has learned his lines only well enough to say them while he’s thinking about them, he will always have trouble as soon as he has to work on the emotions of the scene or find camera marks. In a strong emotional scene, it is always best to be able to shoot in complete takes to allow the actor a continuity of emotion, and it is rare for most actors to reach their peak more than once or twice. There are, occasionally, scenes which benefit from extra takes, but even then, I’m not sure that the early takes aren’t just glorified rehearsals with the added adrenalin of film running through the camera.” – Kubrick, in interview with Michel Ciment, 1980

[2] Kubrick was a believer in ESP, which of course played a major role in The Shining.

[3] Kubrick clearly favoured open endings to his films; he did not shoot the epilogue to Burgess’ novel, wherein Alex grows out of his ultraviolent ways and considers settling down, nor Arthur C. Clarke’s ending to 2001, where the Star Child, as the next step in the evolution of intelligence, detonates all of the atomic weapons on Earth, eradicating his fleshy forebears from existence.

[4] As brilliantly exemplified by 2001’s jump-cut between Moonwatcher’s flung bone and the space ship, signifying that man’s accomplishments in the intervening two million or so years haven’t amounted as much as we might like to think.

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