Filmmakers You Should Know: Stanley Kubrick

– by JD Westfall, VW’s Film Connoisseur 

I often find myself raving to friends about how amazing a particular filmmaker is, only to realize by time the conversation ends that they have no idea who this person is that I’m talking about. Sometimes this isn’t too surprising, since I’m pretty open to art films in other languages (in this series I’ve so far covered French, Japanese, and Spanish directors). But what really astonishes me is when people don’t even recognize influential English-speaking filmmakers. For example, one Stanley Kubrick, who stands as being one of most important directors of all time.

Kubrick’s Two Best Films, according to JD

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

If I had to name a single film genre as being my favorite, dark comedy would definitely be my pick. Something about the delicate balance between tragedy and humor fascinates and entertains me to an endless degree, especially when done right.

Dr. Strangelove does it perfectly.

When a paranoid American military general instigates an unauthorized nuclear strike on Russia, the remainder of the generals struggle to put a stop to it as soon as possible. When the President finally informs Russia of the impending attack, they tell him about a secret weapon they’ve developed that will automatically cause worldwide devastation as soon as they’re struck.

Originally intended as a thriller about the threat of nuclear war, director Kubrick gradually inserted more and more humor into the screenplay until it became an outright comedy. It’s claimed that many of the actors weren’t even aware they were filming a comedy until after it was released.

Of course, adding to the comedy is the fact that comic legend Peter Sellers was cast to play three distinctly different roles – the President of the USA; a long-suffering British soldier serving on the same base that instigated the nuclear attack; and finally the titular Doctor Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist recruited to deal with the eventual nuclear fallout.

The film is hilarious all the way through, but also sobering and terrifying. In fact, the film was so realistic that the government launched an investigation to discover how Kubrick was able to create this scenario (and the military’s theoretical reaction to such a threat) with such realism.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Since its creation, science fiction was viewed as a low form of art, one that populated pulp magazines, trashy comic books and low-budget films. Two men frustrated by this perception of the genre decided to do something about it. Those two were Stanley Kubrick and beloved novelist Arthur C. Clarke. Together they developed an intelligent, challenging story concept, and simultaneously turned that story into a film and novel, respectively.

About that story: I’m not going to tell you what it is. One of the most joyful things a cinephile can do is watch 2001 and try to piece it together. The film was originally meant to have narration to explain what was going on, but Kubrick opted to leave it up to the audience to decode. If you’re really desperate, read the novel, which lays it all out plainly. But watch the film first.

Beyond having a unique and philosophical plot, the film is extraordinary in its efforts to portray space travel in a realistic manner. No film since has managed to improve on this one (Gravity may be a long distant second) in regard to scientific accuracy in a science fiction film.

Additionally, the visual effects broke the mold. The costumes in the first third of the film were so impressive that many thought they were using real monkeys, instead of stunt men dressed up. The space travel sequences still look convincing today (much more so than the $200 million CGI fests the industry is puking out), and the light tunnel in the last third is a pure psychedelic mind trip, one which deservedly won the FX crew that year’s Oscar.

Further Recommendations

Literally every other film by Kubrick. He is one of a very rare breed, that breed being directors who never made a single bad film. Here’s a selection:

The Killing (1956): A gang of criminals plots a heist at a horse racing track, but everything goes wrong. The film shows the plot in a nonlinear fashion, upping the tension and paving the way for future similar films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Paths of Glory (1957): Kirk Douglas leads a film about a group of soldiers who disobey a direct command (essentially a suicide mission) and face the consequences. A harrowing and brutally realistic look at warfare, especially shocking given when it was made.

Lolita (1962): An adaptation of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov about two pedophiles and the girl who becomes the object of their affection. How this movie was ever made, I’ll never know, but Kubrick somehow manages to make it disgusting, hilarious, and yet also tame enough to be released in the early ’60s.

A Clockwork Orange (1971): A horrifying dystopian crime film that you should absolutely not attempt watching unless you’re sure you are ready for it. Malcolm McDowell puts in a legendary performance as the villain, Alex DeLarge.

Barry Lyndon (1975): One of the most accurate and beautifully done period pieces of all time. Kubrick made the insane decision to light the film without electricity, giving every scene a haunting candlelight vibe.

The Shining (1980): Commonly named as being one of the, if not the, scariest films ever made. Jack Nicholson shines (ha!) as a man slowly going mad in a secluded, haunted hotel.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): Alongside Platoon and Apocalypse Now, one of the greatest movies ever made about the Vietnam War and the effect it had on the men fighting there.

Obviously the man made many more films, but these are some of the more commonly discussed. Hopefully this will be enough of a collection of highlights to motivate you to dig deeper into the man’s directorial output.

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