Sunday, July 26, 2015

Happy Kubrick Day!

Kubrick was a prodigy from the age of two. At 20 he had achieved more than most hope to do in a lifetime, and none of us were prepared for what he had up his sleeve next. 
Every once in a while someone comes along and changes the scope of the entire industry in which they practice. I honestly don't think there will ever be someone more unique and important to the landscape of cinema than Stanley Kubrick. On this day in 1928, in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, Stanley was born to well-to-do middle class parents. He was a bit of a genius from the word go, and though he never excelled in school (in fact would regularly cheat off of his fellow classmates because as he said 'he just wasn't interested) he was a prodigy. By 18 he had quit school and was hustling chess in Washington Square Park, and eventually made enough to buy his own camera. On April 12, 1945, when the world mourned the loss of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stanley, at 16 captured one of the world's most famous photographs. A newspaper vendor sitting in his kiosk hear the West Village surrounded by the headline that one of the greatest presidents was no more. This catapulted his career, and by 19 he was working for Life magazine. He was taking some of the most beautiful and timeless photos that usually it takes a few degrees and decades to achieve in terms of talent. 
The photograph Kubrick took at 16 that landed him a job with Life Magazine.
By his mid-twenties, his parents sold their life insurance and coupled with his chess winnings, Kubrick was finally able to afford to make his first film; a boxing caper called The Day of the Fight. It was pretty abysmal as a freshman filmmaking effort but started to get him noticed and within two years he was signed to a small but reputable production company for which he made Killer's Kiss, The Killing, and Fear and Desire. Now, I know these films sound like nothing you've heard of. I'd like to think they were basically Stanley in training. But it they were instrumental in getting him noticed by Hollywood and they hired him to direct the much troubled production of Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas. Stanley would later say it was the most difficult experience of his life (second only to Lolita) because he was so stagnated by the studios, and being a child prodigy and an unquestionable genius, it wasn't easy for him having everyone else tell him what to do, especially when he was the director. 
Every image Kubrick put on screen has become iconic and unforgettable. This is the infamous still from Lolita when Delores Hayes is first introduced. 
The pain paid off and gave him license to finally do what he wanted on his own terms, and thus starts what we now know as Kubrick the auteur. His next film, was also arguably his most controversial, adapted from the equally controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov; Lolita and ending with the insanely polarizing Eyes Wide Shut. There's my history lesson for ya'll. If I start blabbing on about Kubrick I'll never stop, so in the interest of saving time I'd like to touch upon just one of his films how ever hard that might be for me because every single one is so unbearably brilliant and creative, it literally hurts my soul that I can't talk about all of them. But as I always say, the films speak for themselves, so after you read this, go ahead and rent 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, or my personal favorite, Barry Lyndon and do yourself a favor. 
The film I've chosen to talk about is Eyes Wide Shut. I wanted to challenge myself and not gush about a film that I'm deeply in love with nor indulge in the aesthetic brilliance of Dr. Strangelove. I'll just speak from the heart on this one. 

The masks we were as adults, quite literally translated in Eyes Wide Shut with haunting imagery.
Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick's last film, and also arguably his most polarizing, and what a way to go. It was released posthumously, and my dad and I snuck in to a packed theater and sat on the stairs to watch it in 1999. Now, I know it's the last film you want to see with your parents, and at first I have to say the 16-year-old me didn't really dig it, what 16 year old would? One time, an ex-boyfriend of mine once asked; 'what's that film about?' I kind of ignored that question because how can that be answered without a full on dissertation? I think Scorsese describes it best; it's a film about illusion. The way it's photographed suggests that everything might not be in happening in the conscious world. It seems like New York, but it's surreal in a way, it seems like your wife, but what is she hiding behind that smirky stare, what is she trying to tell you? It's that dingy grey area that we all ignore within a relationship. It's not just secrets and lies, and its not disillusion with the person that you once fell in love with. It's us as human beings and that very grey area as to whether we are inherently good or bad. Do we act upon urges? Do we almost? Is that almost just as bad? That's just scraping the tip of the iceberg. Let's talk about aesthetics. 
Both Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as principal actors gave the performance of their careers, and were basically put through hell in order to do so. I'm sure that considering those two were still married at the time went home at the end of every day and asked themselves those very questions that they had to explore as the fictional Dr. and Mrs. Hartford. It's not an unraveling or a disillusion of marriage; in fact it's quite the opposite. In the end the two decide to stay together for what reason? It's something we can't possibly rationalize or reconcile, all of which is in tune with the whole mystery aspect of every choice each character makes. We don't know why Bill Hartford goes to that infamous sex party. Perhaps it was because his manhood was threatened, perhaps it was in retribution to his wife telling him that she once lusted after a stranger even while having sex with him. But the truth of the matter is that we don't know. Kubrick is not one to give you easy answers or a way out. 
In my opinion, Kubrick is telling us that we will never be perfect people, and in fact there is no such thing, and even though we think we might lead the ideal life; be a good wife to a successful husband, live in opulence comfortably on the Upper East Side, and on the surface have everything we might ever want or need, below the surface is a festering stench of mendacity, insincerity, and frustration with all of that perfection. Perhaps he's saying that we are all inherently bad people, and we don't act on those impulses that we desperately want to because of one reason or another; in this case it's to save a marriage, but the irony is, the marriage is not even one worth saving. 

Kubrick slowly meditates on this static image of Alice Hartford (Nicole Kidman) as if to scream at his audience; what exactly is behind that devilish smile of hers??
My favorite scene is when Bill and Alice (Cruise and Kidman respectively) smoke pot and she in a haze of anger and frustration fueled by a drug-induced frenzy finally tells her husband exactly what she thinks of him, and of the life that they've built together. 'If you men only knew' she bellows. And the expression on Bill's face says it all; he finally realizes that he was never a husband, and barely even a man and has no right to pontificate about the human condition.
Back to aesthetics, because Kubrick started out as a photographer, he knew exactly how to window dress the mise-en-scene with clever lighting so that everything would appear ominous and somehow dreamlike.  Bill and Alice weren't living a dream, they were living a nightmare which interspersed itself constantly with their waking life of banal dinner parties, small talk, and that daughter of their that neither of them really pay attention to, and once the two worlds collide, the truth comes out. Anyway, that's my half baked theory. And the beauty of the Kubrick catalogue, everyone has one. Watch Room 237; it's a documentary about everyone in the woodworks that has some kind of weird theory about The Shining. And considering it was made in 1980 and people are still arguing about it today as if it was the holy gospel, that shows you how timeless and untouchable every single one of his films was. That's the genius of Kubrick, and that is why his presence in cinema changed its history. Happy birthday sir. Instead of shy away from controversy, he embraced it. And in doing so was met with a great deal of opposition, but in the end we can all acknowledge that he was the one who won. From a satire about the Red Scare to a romantic interpretation of a love story between a middle aged man and a 12 year old girl, Kubrick found the beauty, the comedy, and the pathos in every story he retold. There are a lot of imitators, but there will always only be one.

Below...clips to drive my point home.


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