The DVDs Audiences Forgot: the films of Stanley Kubrick

After inserting the appropriately qualifying statement (something along the lines of 'In my humble opinion' will do nicely), I will happily say that I believe Stanley Kubrick to be the single greatest film director of the twentieth century, producing a body of work that was certainly rivalled on occasion by other highly able directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Bergman, Kurosawa, Wilder and Scorsese all have claims to have produced as many great films as Kubrick), but has never been equalled in consistency; from the flawed but undeniably original and interesting Fear and Desire to the magnificent Eyes Wide Shut (which I shall return to in more detail shortly), he never made a film that was less than intelligent, thoughtful, and often poetic. Compared to the vast majority of his hack competitors, he was an outstanding artist in a field often populated by semi-skilled craftsmen. Of course, had Kubrick directed a film such as, say, Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark, it might have been appalling, but it would be more likely to have been, like Spartacus or The Shining, a stunning attempt at combining populist thrills with an altogether darker and more interesting undercurrent.
Unfortunately, the more unimaginative critics have all but fallen over themselves to take pot shots at Kubrick through the years, with many claiming that his films since the stunning A Clockwork Orange lacked any kind of interest or coherence, with each one coming in for more criticism than the one before; even Full Metal Jacket- arguably Kubrick's most conventional film- was roundly sneered at for having a first half of a wildly differing style to the second. In fact, it's only with Kubrick's death and the ability to reassess his work as a coherent unity that it becomes possible to see that, far from such a decline taking place, his work became even more assured and stylistically accomplished throughout his life. His version of A.I would, it is fair to say, have been similar to Spielberg's eventual realisation of the material; however, given the obvious flaws in his protégé's film, it is tempting to hazard a guess that his own 'vision' would have been a more compelling one.
Although there are many films of Kubrick's that could easily be described as underrated (and, who knows, I may yet return to The Shining and Spartacus), the two that stand out the most as undeserved recipients of scorn are Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, which I will now attempt to defend from the scorn that they have (unjustly) received; after cannibalism and Kevin Costner, I suppose I can't really be picking a more difficult task…

Barry Lyndon
To say that critical reaction has been cool towards Barry Lyndon would be something of an understatement; in Empire magazine's review of David Hughes' 'The Complete Kubrick', an otherwise glowing series of comments was thrown into relief by the words 'He even likes Barry Lyndon!', as if showing affection for the film was some sort of weakness. Even the excellent 'Stanley Kubrick: a Life in Pictures' documentary included in the DVD boxset has little positive to say about the film, with the various interviewees expressing mild surprise at the film's failure at the box office, and little else. For a film of this quality to be so disparaged and underrated is, for me at least, one of the greatest failings of modern criticism; tellingly, Martin Scorsese has stated that he believes it to be Kubrick's finest achievement, a far more ringing expression of approval than the whining of some would-be 'intellectual'.
As based on the critically admired but little-read novel by Thackeray, the story concerns the picaresque adventures of Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal), an Irish young man of charm, intelligence and great ambition, following him from his disastrous love affair with his cousin Mary, across Europe with various different armies, his career as a gambler and cardsharp, and his eventual marriage to Lady Lyndon, and his subsequent fall from grace. Given the novel's comparative obscurity, audiences might have been forgiven for expecting a rambunctious romp along the lines of Tom Jones, which succeeded admirably as a light-hearted and bawdy comedy. Given that Kubrick's only comedies to date had been the oh-so-black Dr Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, an exercise in breeches-dropping seemed unlikely, and so it proved to be.
Having said that, the first half of the film is remarkably accessible as a fairly conventional period drama; although Kubrick's stylistic innovations of shooting interior scenes entirely by candlelight, and attempting to stage many shots as if they were Impressionist paintings, might seem rather 'arty' to those largely unimpressed by their measured effect, there is no denying that the various battles, love affairs, intrigues and skulduggery are depicted in a vivid and exciting manner; again and again, the effect is not dissimilar to looking at a Hogarth engraving, as we watch this particular rake progress his way into English high society with little more than his wits and courage as his accomplishments. If the film ended with Barry's assumption of the title of Barry Lyndon, it would still rank as a superb piece of filmmaking.
However, where the film elevates itself to the level of timeless cinematic masterpiece- but almost certainly loses a vast amount of its audience in the process- is in the second half, which mostly eschews the worldview of the opening scenes in favour of a frighteningly controlled and intellectually rigorous look at virtually every human fault known to man, set in a location that is so apparently alien to the average viewer that, for much of the film, one might almost be watching science-fiction. On a technical level, Kubrick's sheer skill and virtuosity are utterly breathtaking; there is something exhilarating about the man's ability to stage shots, scenes and set-pieces with such complete control that the film represents a defiant riposte to all those who would argue that the auteur theory is untrue. However, many of Kubrick's detractors also claimed that the film was little more than a dry exercise in pretty pictures. If one was utterly unmoved by the film, this would appear to be true; however, there are two extended set-pieces- a deathbed scene and a duel- towards the end which, as scored by Handel's doom-laden 'Sarabande', produce a feeling of emotional intensity which can leave even the hardiest viewer alternatively forcing back tears and watching the tension mount to an almost unbearable extent. There is much, much more to say about the film, but it is best to see it, albeit with the proviso that many will hate it or find it dull. Those who do not are in for a revelatory experience.
After a disastrous early DVD R1 release, Warners undertook a restoration on the film's print for their Kubrick reissues, meaning that the new R1 and R2 versions eventually released on DVD looked extremely impressive indeed, even in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 ratio; of course, it's a moot point as to how much anamorphic enhancement could possibly have benefited the film. The 5.1 remix is moderately impressive without being desperately exciting- the battle scenes certainly come across as more impressive, but the music and dialogue sound much the same as the original mono soundtrack- and the absence of extras is both a disappointment and fully understandable, given Kubrick's distaste for supplementary material and the minor matter of his death. All the same, if there is any film that I have ever felt the urge to write a would-be scholarly thesis on, it is this one, so watch this space…

Eyes Wide Shut
Given that most rumours about films in production tend to be accurate, by and large, the utter disinformation that arose during the making of Eyes deserves to be sneered at with the benefit of hindsight. It was commonly reported that the film was about two married psychologists (untrue), who were both having affairs with patients (untrue), as played by Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh (untrue, as both were eventually replaced by, respectively, Sydney Pollack and Marie Richardson), that Tom Cruise's character was a drug addict (untrue), and that it contained scenes of hardcore sex between him and Nicole Kidman (untrue). In fact, the only shreds of truth were that it starred Cruise and Kidman, that it was set in New York, and that it contained an orgy scene.
Whether it was as a result of disappointment with the comparatively low-key nature of the final film- to many people's surprise, it was not a loose adaptation of Terry Southern's hilarious satire on mainstream hardcore films Blue Movie- or because it returns to the slow, meditative pace of the second half of Barry Lyndon after the more mainstream 'thrills' of Full Metal Jacket, the result was widely derided as the work of a man who had lost his touch. Certainly, the film had the misfortune to come after a sextet of films which, for better or worse, were all instant classics of their kind, and the rambling and unfocused storyline undoubtedly irritated many. However, if one makes the assumption that Kubrick's intention was to make a period film- specifically, the early 19th century- and then set it in present-day New York, the apparently anachronistic preoccupation with the social rites and rituals of a certain strata of society makes a great deal more sense.
The plot, with echoes of both Schnitzler's Dream Story, the nominal source material, and Joyce's Ulysses concerns Dr Bill Hartford (Cruise), who, stung by feelings of sexual inadequacy after an argument with his wife Alice (Kidman), travels round a sinisterly under populated New York one Christmas night, eventually becoming embroiled in an orgy scene that instantly takes its place amongst great set-pieces of the cinema for its sheer, terrifying strangeness. However, even when things seem to be back to normal, the use of Lygeti's music and the fact that Hartford appears to be being followed soon negate that, with the famous pay-off line another expression of sexual cynicism. Although it would be coarsening the film to suggest that it was simply about sex, it would be fair to argue that it is a film about repression; Hartford is positively unable to consider any of the partners he finds himself potentially paired with in the course of the film, from the sublime (a pair of models at a nightmarishly opulent and sinister party at the film's opening, with heavy echoes of The Shining's Gold Room) to the ridiculous (Leelee Sobieski's knowing semi-Lolita), while Alice's sly confessions of her sexual fantasies about a dashing naval officer are (presumably) merely representations of an unconsummated dream. Like Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, the film suggests that, while it may well be acceptable to indulge in extra-marital affairs, it is equally unacceptable to indulge in them in any manner other than the ones 'approved' by society; thus, Hartford's inability to participate in the orgy scene becomes a source of potential downfall for him.
The film is full of this intelligent and subversive kind of dissection on the foibles of human nature; perhaps the greatest credit that can be given to it is to call it an example of a film that treats its audience like literate, thoughtful adults, without any of the spoon-feeding that viewers in 1999 had come to expect. It's worth stating, almost incidentally, that Cruise and Kidman's film choices since they made the film have been far more interesting than the bland but successful mainstream fodder that they made before (with, admittedly, the odd exception, such as Cruise's Interview with a Vampire and Kidman's To Die For); it is, perhaps, going too far to attempt to ascribe this to Kubrick, but it remains an intriguing idea. The R1 version of the DVD, infamously, was subject to computer masking of some of the more explicit orgy shots to retain an 'R' rating, so the R2 version is the one that purists will wish to go for; although there is little practical difference, the CGI additions are rather obvious, and fairly out of place. Extra features are the same on both; a couple of TV spots (as edited by Kubrick, apparently) and a trio of interviews with Cruise (thoughtful and appreciative), Kidman (verbose and emotional) and Steven Spielberg (dry and professional), on their feelings about the shooting process, the film and their own involvement with Stanley Kubrick. A commentary track would have been nice, given the number of potential participants, but, unfortunately, it was not to be. All the same, with a little hindsight, the film is now at a point where re-evaluation of it is certainly a good idea, and it certainly benefits from such an appreciation.

Next week:
Next week, I shall be looking at a couple of underrated examples of the vampire film, without a single reference to Nosferatu, Bela Lugosi, Hammer Horror or Christopher Lee…well, at least not apart from the introduction…

Category Feature

Latest Articles