Eyes wide open
Known for cold, manipulative films, Stanley Kubrick actually turned up the heat
Icy, controlling, misanthropic: When filmmaker Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, cinema scholars dipped their pens in liquid nitrogen to write their remembrances. Beyond universal awe for Kubrick's mastery of the camera, what else was there?
The Brooklyn-born Kubrick made a streak of critical and popular hits (Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001), one controversial one (A Clockwork Orange), then retreated to an English country estate. Every Kubrick movie thereafter—the highbrow horror of The Shining, the urban warfare of Full Metal Jacket—was an event, a virtuoso display.
It seemed he'd already written his own epitaph: Lolita, in Kubrick's 1962 film, explained it best: "He wasn't like you and me. He wasn't a normal person. He was a genius." (The nymphet was describing her idol, Clare Quilty, but who really knows?) Even the director's widow, Christiane Harlan, did little to uncloud the Kubrick mystique when she authorized the massive Stanley Kubrick Archives (Taschen, 2005), a book/CD-ROM compendium.
The Gene Siskel Film Center is organizing a 13-film retrospective of Kubrick's work, so it's time to take another look at an elusive artist who let his images speak for themselves. From Killer's Kiss (1955) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), a project handed over to Steven Spielberg, Kubrick envisioned a cinematic world unlike any other: frightening, fascinating. But passionless? Hardly.
Kirk Douglas, one of Hollywood's most hot-blooded leading men, starred in both Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). The settings are centuries apart—WWI France and Ancient Rome—but Douglas, in both films, portrayed a maverick soldier struggling against ruthless, dictatorial power. Kubrick's visual style often overwhelmed his actors, but that couldn't happen with the with vibrant Douglas.
Indiana University film scholar James Naremore disputes the cliche about Kubrick's icy touch, and claims that the filmmaker's work is highly emotional. "You see it from his earliest work as a photographer for Look magazine," Naremore says. "It's just that the emotions he brings up are conflicted and confusing. Art historians call that sensation 'the grotesque.' With Kubrick, it has to do with how he represents the human body. You don't know whether to be scared or disgusted or amused." He cites Killer's Kiss, with its bizarre fight scene set in a storeroom full of female mannequins, and Dr. Strangelove, in which Peter Sellers can't control his Fuhrer-worshipping limbs.
Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final film, had its share of the grotesque. Tom Cruise, as a do-gooding doctor with a prurient eye, revives a partygoer who's suffered a drug overdose; "You're a very lucky girl," he tells her, as though she's been a naughty child. Promoted as a sophisticated thriller, the teaser trailer showed the movie's stars, Cruise and Nicole Kidman, making out, ad nauseam, in front of a mirror. Both Time and Newsweek ran advance stories wondering if the then-married actors were actually "doing it" in the film. Yet Janet Maslin, film critic for the New York Times in 1998, still praises Eyes Wide Shut for its "fascinating motifs and missed connections" and for following the "strange logic of a waking dream."
Like Eyes Wide Shut, 1975's Barry Lyndon was initially rejected by audiences and critics, but it has grown in stature over the years. Warner Bros., Kubrick's longtime studio backer, marketed the film as both a major cultural event and a sexy, lavish costume drama for adult moviegoers. Yet the tale is a bitter one: A social-climbing gambler-soldier (Ryan O'Neal) rises high, marrying a noblewoman and taking her surname. But he eventually loses everything, including their beloved young son. As Lady Lyndon, Marisa Berenson is as lovely and fragile as a Gainsborough painting (the whole film looks like a gallery come to life), and she's deeply moving when she mourns her child. The audience, expecting a Tom Jones–style romp, felt cheated. And critics, of course, blamed Kubrick for the contrast between pretty pictures and harsh manipulation.
Yet William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote the book upon which Barry Lyndon is based, was as shameless a puppeteer as Kubrick ever was. The novelist opened his most beloved book, Vanity Fair, by introducing himself as "the Manager of the Performances," saying "the famous little Becky [Sharp] puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints and lively on the wire." In other words: The entertainment you're about to see may seem real, but it's not. It's only a story.
Who's to blame if we, the enraptured audience, get too wrapped up in the marionette's strings? As a storyteller, Kubrick's greatest feat is that he made those strings invisible.
"Stanley Kubrick: American Master" runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center Friday 1 through August 3.