::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The Yawn-Inducing Films of Stanley Kubrick

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Stanley Kubrick sucks.

I have nothing against the man personally, mind you, I’m sure he was a kind, if not timid, man. I just hate his movies. They are long, plodding affairs featuring unremarkable, one-dimensional characters, dialogue about as rich as your average bachelor party porno, and featuring a heavy-handed, process-oriented style that induces narcolepsy.

There is no doubt that Kubrick created some visually stunning films – that he broke new ground in both content and process. I understand his use of a non-linear narrative in “The Killing” (1956) was unheard of at the time. I know that his use of special effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) was groundbreaking. I also appreciate the way he pioneered the use of music in film. I give him kudos for all of that achievement.

And on that level alone – one could argue that he’s a noteworthy and influential director.

But that’s not why I go to movies. I watch movies for the story. And Kubrick was a terrible storyteller.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Let’s consider the film most critics consider his classic: “2001.” I have forced myself to watch this yawn inspiring thud of a movie on three occasions. I appreciate the realistic space setting, the incredible special effects (still impressive even by today’s standards), and stunning cinematography. I even admire the way Kubrick’s film rightly predicts things like flat-screened computers, the use of credit cards, and portable mini TVs.

But the film sucks.

While I understand Kubrick’s goal in using limited dialogue is to illustrate space as a giant vacuum of silence – he failed to recognize that dialogue is crucial to creating character and propelling the plot (although there really isn’t
a plot in “2001” to propel). And that’s the great failing of “2001” – it delivers neither character nor plot. I didn't care about the people on the screen and the plot is simply a philosophical musing.

The action in the movie is primarily watch
ing a bunch of astronauts eat lunch, exercise, and play chess. Generally, at this point in the movie, you wish you had more popcorn and start to wonder if you might be able to catch a “Price is Right” rerun on the Game Show Network.

I’ve read the glowing reviews and critical analysis of “2001” where they throw around phrases like: “Its unrivaled integration of musical and visual composition, its daring paucity of dialogue and washes of silence, its astonishingly creative psychedelic sequence and its still-gorgeous pre-digital special effects.” (Salon.com) and “Part space opera, part cinematic symphony and part horror story, the film is a shape-shifting painting.” (Arizona Daily Star).

Blah, blah, blah.

Yet in Roger Ebert’s fawning review he actual writes (without irony, mind you): “This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention.” Exactly! Perfectly and wonderfully put, Roger. However, you misinterpreted what that telling observation meant.

It meant the movie sucked.

A Clockwork Orange
This, unfortunately, was a pattern that plagued Kubrick’s films. Take another of his highly-reviewed films: “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), a film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name.

During the first part of this movie, I thought (hoped?) Kubrick might finally be on to something – the visual style and envelope pushing content had me paying close attention. But per usual, Kubrick’s movie lapses into periods of incredible boredom, shaky narration, and a lack character development.

However, the real problem with “A Clockwork Orange” is the amazing lack of subtlety (and this from the guy who made “2001”).
How about the scene where Alex and his “droogs” murder a sex-obsessed, rich industrialist with a porcelain penis? How about the fact that Alex’s beloved Beethoven’s “Ninth” becomes linked to his cure and makes him violently ill? Oh, my!

The scenes of Alex’s therapy are so drawn out I felt like standing up, fist shaking, and shout: “For the love of God, let’s m
ove on!” The movie becomes so ham-fisted and preachy and my first reaction was one of profound disappointment.

The Shining
That’s the same emotion I experienced watching “The Shining” (1980). Stephen King’s novel was a chilling, look-behind-your-shoulder horror novel. The power of the book came from King’s ability to make you care about Jack Torrance, his wife, and young son. Jack is a flawed character battling alcoholism, but King brings you inside his struggle to be a good husband and father.

That success, however, isn’t mirrored in Kubrick’s film.
Here we get more plodding, unimaginative dialogue, and a portrait of Jack as edgier and surprisingly disconnected from his family. I just didn’t become emotionally involved with characters because Kubrick doesn’t spend anytime at all developing the relationships – except of the most superficial levels. The characters are tools to move around the screen and not the central part of the story.

The movie’s slow-rolling plot naturally becomes predictable – to the point where I was generally two steps ahead of Kubrick. Ultimately, the film is saved from complete disaster by the over-the-top performance by Jack Nicholson and the film sequences of the creepy woman in the bathtub and those disconcerting, ghostly twins (admittedly two of the creepiest, unnerving scenes ever put on screen).

Yet it’s not enough to safe the film and I was left with one lasting thought: this could have been so much better.

Full Metal Jacket
This brings us to “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). Here I ran into the same, old Kubrick problems – the characters are nearly indistinguishable and it’s difficult to keep track of who is who throughout the film. Even the protagonist, James T. Davis (wrongly nicknamed “Joker” despite being a morose extrovert with philosophical leanings) feels like part of the scenery.

Again there's
a lack of subtlety – how the U.S. Marine Corps transforms average young men into “killing machines.”

“Full Metal Jacket” plays like a series of vignettes about the Vietnam War rather than a feature film. For example, how does the boot camp sequence where the pushed-to-the-edge Private Lawrence murders his drill instructor connect to the end of the film? But even worse – I felt like I’ve seen this all before. The movie has a recycled quality to it.

But one set of kudos to Kubrick on this one – it’s not as boring as his other films.

“Full Metal Jacket” doesn’t come close to matching the emotional impact of “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” or the “Deer Hunter” – all far superior movies about Vietnam.

That may be Kubrick’s greatest flaw. While he made visually stunning movies – the content and characters never lived up to their potential and you're left with a sense that the films could have been done better by someone else.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
At first I didn't want to agree, but now I have seen the light. You are correct on all fronts!


Blogger GFS3 said...
Thanks. It's the secret of my genius!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
shame u dont dig his films. they're quite rewarding when u do.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Rewarding in what way? Fans of Kubrick often fall back on the notion that he's deep. What is so earth shattering complex about "2001" or "Eyes Wide Shut?"

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