Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Favorite Stanley Kubrick Film

The one and only time I was ever carded going to a movie was in 1999, upon the release of "Eyes Wide Shut." I went with a group of friends who were curious about all the controversy over the adult content, and none of us were really sure what we were in for. Coming out of the theater, after two and a half hours of obtuse erotic imagery, and very little of the actual nudity or graphic sexuality many were hoping for, I remember one friend vocally expressing his displeasure with the film. I countered that "I kinda liked it."

He responded, wearily, "You would." And thus, on that day a pretentious cinema geek became self-aware.

This is not the only thing I have to thank Stanley Kubrick for, not by a long shot. I didn't see many of his films until I got to college. In fact, I specifically warned my freshman roommate that I was determined to find copies of "A Clockwork Orange," "Lolita," and all the other controversial Kubrick films, since I was finally out of my parents' house. If she didn't want to be there when I watched them, I'd be happy to give her plenty of forewarning. She ended up watching "Clockwork Orange" with me, having heard plenty about the film herself.

It's difficult to pinpoint the origins of my high regard for Stanley Kubrick. From a very young age, I recognized Kubrick as a director who had this rare aura of power and menace around him. He made films that were considered classics, but some were very controversial, perhaps even dangerous. Multiple viewings of "The Shining," really the only Kubrick film I had regular access to as a kid, confirmed his reputation for me. It's still my favorite of his films, and the one most directly responsible for my seeking out his other work when I was older. Oh, I know "Dr. Strangelove" was better written, "2001: A Space Odyssey" was more visually iconic, and as far as I'm concerned, the first half "Full Metal Jacket" is the most perfect piece of film Kubrick was ever responsible for, and still "The Shining" is my favorite.

I wasn't a brave kid, and not much of a horror fan until much later, but "The Shining" fascinated me. I didn't find it scary, but it impacted me deeply. There was such a deliberateness about the filmmaking, such a distinct style and attitude that came across so clearly to me onscreen. "The Shining" was one of the first films where I could recognize many of the tactics that the director was employing to provoke the viewer - crashing piano cues, the hypnotic long shots, the sound design - and yet that didn't spoil their effectiveness in the least. I was so caught up in what was happening to the characters, and at the same time so aware that the film was being presented to me in such a ruthlessly efficient and artful way, somehow it never occurred to me to be scared. I was too intent on seeing what happened next - and more importantly how it would happen.

The most compelling character in the film is the Overlook Hotel, thanks to Kubrick. Many cinema locales have their own distinct personalities, but the Overlook is one of the few that seems to exert its own will, without ever being too obviously anthropomorphized. I love how deceptive the visuals are in this regard. At first the Overlook appears to be an empty hotel that has nothing but space, but when the snow comes down and the monsters emerge, you realize the pattern on the rug just keeps repeating, and repeating, and there's no way out. There is plenty of room to run, and many places to hide, but you never know when you're going to stumble across a madwoman in a bathtub or a pair of twins who just want to play with you.

It's hard to think of another horror film staged on such a grandiose, almost operatic level. Most of the others I remember from my childhood were low budget slashers or spent their money on eye-popping special effects. Kubrick, on the other hand, built enormous, stately sets and used the new Steadicam technology to create elaborate moving shots. Ever a perfectionist, a seventeen week shoot ballooned to nearly a year, and his leading lady collapsed at one point from stress and exhaustion. You can feel the weight of the experience while watching the film itself, that feeling of creeping, endless tension. All the images of repetition, of labyrinths, of quiet mundanity, coupled with the slow pacing, become an itch in the brain until the viewer is more than ready to go a little crazy.

And "The Shining" has such an absurdly simple premise - it's a haunted house film! But the twist is that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) face the most danger from the specters of madness and domestic abuse, which the paranormal may have had little or nothing to do with. Most horror films are so concerned with getting a rise out of their audience on an emotional and visceral level, few go as deep as Kubrick do into the realms of the psychological. And no surprise that there turned out to be so much fertile ground for Kubrick to explore while digging up the roots of common funhouse scares, and turning over those deeper hidden fears that still keep us up at night. Then again, who else would have gone looking for human insight in the horror genre, of all places?

I've read the Stephen King novel and enjoyed it, but I always appreciated the film a little more for its ambiguity. Perhaps the visions of the dead experienced by Jack and Danny are only delusions. Perhaps only Danny's ESP was real, and his projected fears were responsible for what happened to his parents and poor Scatman Crothers. I never did trust that Tony, even as a little kid up way past her bedtime to see if Jack was going to make it out of the hedge maze or not. The smash cut reveal that answered my question, coupled with the crashing pianos, got me every damn time.

I guess even Stanley Kubrick wasn't above a jump scare.
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What I've Seen - Stanley Kubrick

Killer's Kiss (1955)
The Killing (1956)
Paths of Glory (1957)
Spartacus (1960)
Lolita (1962)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Shining (1980)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
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