Stanley Kubrick and His Influence on Film

Elyakim Suissa - December 13, 2018

2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the theatrical release of director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In celebration of such a monumental milestone in film history, I look back on Kubrick’s filmography, including 2001, and dwell on his influence on the art of film.

Kubrick started out with two short films released in 1951, Day of the Fight and Flying Padre, in preparation for his debut feature film, Fear and Desire (1953). Fear and Desire is a hypothetical war film that lies “outside of history,” and focuses on the effects of war on archetypal characters. Its message may be too on-the-nose and its fictional setting lends it an odd sense of aloofness, but the film is not as disastrous as Kubrick would later believe, as he unsuccessfully attempted to destroy every existing copy of the film. Fear and Desire doesn’t display much of Kubrick’s later directorial skills, but it does begin his long-lasting attraction to anti-war films.

This attraction continued with Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Paths of Glory is the most emotional of the three and the least known. The film represents Kubrick coming into his own with filmmaking, as he depicts a haunting message of the sacrifice of one’s humanity for glory. Meanwhile, Dr. Strangelove; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the opposite, giving up any serious message for comedic absurdity, as the Cold War accidentally becomes a heated war and a secret “doomsday” machine is about to destroy all of humanity. The most astonishing element of Dr. Strangelove is how iconic the titular character actually is compared with the minimal screen time he gets. The archetypal German mad scientist in a wheelchair, only one of three roles portrayed by Peter Sellers in this movie, produces such a stamp of imagery on the mind of the viewer, and it’s a testament to Kubrick’s visualization.

Full Metal Jacket is, to say the least, a very strange war movie. It is divided into two acts, and follows the same character. A shocking sequence happens at the end of the first act, and goes unreferenced and seemingly ignored through the rest of the movie. Both parts are entertaining and poignant, as the inhumanity of war, both in the cadet stages and on the battlefield, is constantly emphasized. Private Joker’s character, one who wears both a peace sign on his chest and a helmet inscribed with “Born to Kill,” is someone that most of us can relate to. We love the glory, yet despise the ugliness of war, and Full Metal Jacket always reminds us of this.

Kubrick never contained himself within a genre. In addition to his war films, he dabbled in erotic drama. In attempting to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, into a film, Kubrick committed a serious mistake, as he himself later admitted. Lolita (1962) is so heavily censored that there’s no resemblance of what made the novel so shocking and scandalous. The film is so tame and the plot so thin that the only thing really making it worth watching is Peter Sellers’ wonderfully off-beat performance as Clare Quilty, two years before topping himself in Dr. Strangelove. Whereas most of Kubrick’s movies are adventurous and boundary-defying, this one pales in comparison.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the last movie that Kubrick lived to make, has a very different sexual tone from Lolita. Whereas Lolita solely relies on implications and forced dialogue to work around censorship, Eyes Wide Shut reveals everything with a cold and distant manner, befitting of the emotions experienced by Tom Cruise’s character. The haunting piano score exists both as part of and besides Todd Field’s piano playing as a plot point.

In the crime genre, The Killing (1956) is underrated, given that it is only Kubrick’s third feature-length film. Released a year after Killer’s Kiss, a movie with a humdrum plot and weak characterization, The Killing marks a sharp spike in talent, following an organized mob scheme dedicated to cashing in on a horse race. The plan is so clever and well-thought that it’s a joy to watch it unroll like clockwork, forgetting who you’re supposed to be rooting for.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a very different crime film. Whereas a crime like the one featured in The Killing focuses on obtaining money, the crimes in A Clockwork Orange only exist for the psychopathic thrill of the act. Kubrick uses narration to a strong effect in most of his films, and the narration in A Clockwork Orange is his best use of the technique. Alex, the main criminal and leader of a gang, frequently refers to himself as “your humble narrator,” repeating all his actions with a calm voice, clearly not taking anything seriously. The film introduces some frightening scenarios, including a rehabilitation program intended to remove the “crime element” from one’s body, a program which is itself a blatant crime.

Always refusing to be categorized, Kubrick took on massive period pieces as well. Spartacus (1960) is one of the great epics in film history, coming close to possessing the same spectacle and character journeys as Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In hindsight, it lacks polish in the handling of secondary characters and lets its political subplot take over the intimacy of the main narrative. However, Spartacus is not really Kubrick’s movie so much as it is producer-star Kirk Douglas’s movie. As a producer, Douglas fired his first director and hired Kubrick after working with him on Paths of Glory. As an actor, Douglas overshadows everybody on screen, presenting a simultaneous feeling of hope and despair at all times which is impossible to replicate.

Like Spartacus, Barry Lyndon (1975) is a character epic and period piece, but this time functions at a much smaller scale and with much more ambiguous messages. Ryan O’Neal, starring as the poor Irishman who strives to make something of himself, has such a soft and vulnerable look in his eyes at all times that it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Barry, although his actions do as much as they can to make him unlikeable. This ambiguity, coupled with a cold and distant cinematography and musical score, revolutionizes how to paint a protagonist and how to depict a lifetime. Surely, Barry Lyndon is one of Kubrick’s greatest and most overlooked masterpieces.

Perhaps surprisingly, given Kubrick’s diversity, The Shining (1980) was Kubrick’s only horror film. When it came out, the reviews were very mixed. It’s radically different from the Stephen King novel it is based on, and it seems to do away with all characterization. What’s more, it makes no sense. But what matters is that it’s scary. The atmosphere, the performances, the music, even the “redrum” scare: all of it is horrifying. In any other movie, things would move along much quicker. As it is, there’s barely any plot development, and everything is stretched out over a 146-minute runtime. It should be a slog to sit through, but somehow I’m unable to look away from the screen.

I had the privilege to see 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on the silver screen, preserved in its 70mm, original archival form. The only thing missing from this time capsule was a Cinerama widescreen projection. This experience compelled me to see the film in a new way. I was forced to watch the whole thing in one go; there was no pause button. Usually this isn’t a problem, except 2001, as amazing as it is, is always a test for my attention span. But at the same time, it was hypnotizing. I had seen the movie before; I knew what was coming. But despite, or because of, that, every moment was transcendent. I honestly felt as if my body ceased to exist and only my consciousness was left in space, whose only purpose was to watch this movie. In addition to no pause button, there’s no volume control in a cinema. When the monolith appears on the moon, the score rises in pitch to a terrifying shriek: it was so loud that many audience members had to cover their ears. Because I did not, I had a sharp headache all through the rest of the movie. That didn’t matter to me. I was too absorbed.

So much has been said about 2001 by much more knowledgeable people that I won’t spill out my theories or pick apart shot angles here. It’s always difficult for me to think about this movie as taking place in a “futuristic” setting; maybe the apes are what throws me off. But all the same, everything feels so authentic and true that I can’t help but see it as a history of humankind told by someone living in the future, instead of someone speculating about the future from the 1960s. And it’s comforting to know that the Blue Danube Waltz can still exist so far away from where we are now.

I can try to pick a theme from one of Kubrick’s movies and connect it to another, but in the end it’s all useless. Every film that Kubrick made was almost entirely unique from the next. He was such a versatile director that there’s no such thing as the “Kubrick style” in the sense that, say, Scorsese has his own style. If anything, the main thread between Kubrick’s filmography is a constant pushing of film boundaries, changing what we perceive as a narrative and how a story can be told. As Hollywood is becoming more franchise-driven and more risk averse, looking back on a director whose next film you can never predict is always refreshing and exciting, and reminds me why I love movies.