Weekly Top Five: We're all a little bit Spartacus—the best of Stanley Kubrick | Bleader

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Weekly Top Five: We're all a little bit Spartacus—the best of Stanley Kubrick

Posted By on 02.17.13 at 09:00 AM

Stanley Kubrick takes a selfie for Look magazine
The plethora of quality revival screenings in Chicago has made these blog posts easier than I could have imagined. Each week, it seems a film from a major filmmaker is screening somewhere, providing me with opportunities to explore myriad directors, styles, and genres. Now that the Music Box's 70mm Film Festival is in full swing, there's even more to see, appreciate, and write about.

I plan to do all three with regard to Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey plays as part of the festival. For me, Kubrick is a director I appreciate more than I admire—his prowess as a craftsman is undeniable, but I often find his work tedious, and his misanthropic style hard to swallow. A Clockwork Orange, for instance, seems to me an arbitrarily angry films that takes its frustrations out on an unwitting audience. By comparison, 2001 always felt hollow, an pseudo-academic piece of navel gazing praised by those who confuse technological innovation with artistic achievement. That said, I'm eager to see the film in its intended format, with hope that whatever it is I've been missing over the years appears onscreen.

As much as I may dislike aspects of Kubrick's work, I find a good number of his movies quite enjoyable—five of them, in fact. Check them out after the jump.

5. Lolita (1962) Despite the obviously controversial subject matter, this seems to me Kubrick's least morally contentious work. Sexual taboos aside, the film also has much—I would argue more—to say in the way of class indifference, ageism, and generation gaps. It's also Kubrick's most outwardly funny film. He injects Nabokov's already humorous text with his own sardonic wit, turning a tragicomedy into a scathing piece of social satire.

4. The Killing (1956) One the finest noirs ever made, this remains Kubrick's purest piece of entertainment. While he may not yet posses the formal rigor of his later work, there's a distinct method in the common if not slightly crude camerawork. When he does try his hand at some stylistic technique, the results are charmingly haphazard. The real pleasure here is the story, a true crackerjack of a heist movie that's just gritty enough to steer clear of pessimism.

3. Full Metal Jacket (1987) Full disclosure: I actively loathed this film upon my initial viewing. To me, it seemed unnecessarily cruel, misanthropic, and the consummate example of Kubrick's antihumanism. However, a second viewing revealed a more sympathetic outlook than I initially noticed, and the impeccable technique Kubrick displays here makes the film nearly impossible not to appreciate. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his capsule review, the film is "full of subtle inner rhymes (for instance, the sound cues equating a psychopathic marine in the first part with a dying female sniper in the second)," making the film one of Kubrick's most lyrical and formally inventive.

2. Barry Lyndon (1975) Though I've seen it only once, this strikes me as Kubrick's most personal film. It illustrates his love of art as well as his curiosity for the Old World, but more than anything, it's his fascination with technology that seems to imbue nearly every scene. This may seem contradictory considering the film is set in the 18th century, but like any film, its method of production is inextricably tied to the nature of its content. In order to properly photograph his film, which was shot under candlelight during interior sequences, Kubrick had to use specially modified high-speed camera lenses originally developed for NASA in order to achieve his desired aesthetic of two-dimensional, low-light images reminiscent of 18th-century paintings. The tension between space-age technology and old-age visual design gives the film a subtext aptly labeled Kubrickian.

1. The Shining (1980) Not only my favorite Kubrick film, but easily one of my favorite films ever. I won't deny that I have my own harebrained theory as to what's really going on, but I'll keep that to myself in order to hold on to whatever credibility I might have. More than anything, I appreciate the film as perhaps the ultimate betrayal of conventional genre filmmaking. Kubrick pits the film's deliberately opaque narrative up against its sternly realistic visual design, keeping the audience on their toes as the action sits front and center while the story seems just out of their grasp. It's fiendish, artful, and altogether maddening, only growing more mysterious with time.

Honorable mentions: Not sure I have any. I suppose I like Dr. Strangelove, and Eyes Wide Shut is interesting as a case file for the Tom Cruise mythos, but that about shakes it.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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