Friday 15 March 2019

Kubism, Part 1:
Fear And Desire (1953)

Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning. So goes the tagline for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a film so bad that Stanley Kubrick literally died just a few months before its release in order to avoid watching it. Stan's first step on his own journey to becoming a legend for many generations was almost as fraught with bad decisions and terrible acting as Anakin Skywalker's, but is arguably more worthy of your time. He'd got all that unfortunate documentary business out of his system, thank God, and was all set to launch his career as one of the greatest, most innovative and exciting directors OF ALL TIME. But first: Fear And Desire.

Artistically ambitious and naive (or, to quote one S. Kubrick forty years down the line, "boring and pretentious"), Fear And Desire is a near-perfect example of an unfocused talent learning on the job. There are the striking visual compositions and classy lighting you'd expect from an accomplished photographer; lots of gigantic close-ups; daring editing choices, and evocative sound design being deployed to tell a deeply human story concerned with flawed masculinity and mankind's boundless capacity to overestimate his own control over the universe: all signature elements of the future Kubrick's oeuvre. But we pay for all that with a film student's idea of issue-led narrative, reckless abuse of visual grammar, a misogynist's approach to female characterisation (or, more accurately, lack of) and - most egregiously - colossally ponderous dialogue. Kubrick was yet to learn to trust in his instincts as a visual storyteller, and as a result Fear And Desire probably contains more dialogue in its 70 minutes than in the 160 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fear And Desire begins mysteriously: a small platoon of four stock military characters (Lieutenant Handsome, Sergeant Warmachine, Private Babyface and Private Unremarkable) in an unidentified war are stranded on an island, six miles behind enemy lines. The time is also unidentified, as is the island, because the island is everywhere and everywhen. The island is man. The island is hell. A polar bear appears, and the pilot is abducted by a smoke monst- wait, no, sorry, I was thinking of something else. Lost in the hostile terrain of an inhospitable forest that looks suspiciously like southern California, the quartet make plans to get back to safety. Their lieutenant's idea to float down river on a hand-made raft seems staggeringly optimistic - especially when his first action is to lead his men uphill, which is traditionally not where rivers are found - but off they trot nevertheless.

What follows owes a small debt to the Greek mythology of Homer's Odyssey, and Kubrick is keen to let you know it: the soldiers' journey takes the form of a series of episodic encounters; the first stranger the group meet is a dog called Proteus; a siren (kind of) lures one of the men to madness. It would be churlish to criticise Kubrick or his high school friend Howard Sackler (who wrote the script) for their highbrow intentions, but when they present their ideas via some of the most flowery, flatulent guff you'll ever hear you would be well within your rights to shout "NERRRRRRD!" at both writer and director and pull their shorts down in front of the girls in the next P.E. class. Good luck, for example, making it through this philosophical cabbage-wank without audibly groaning:

It’s better... it's better to roll up your life into one night and one man and one gun. It hurts too much to keep hurting everyone else in every direction and to be hurt with all the separate hates exploding day after day. You can't help it. A curse buzzes out of your mouth with every word you say and nobody alive can tell which is which or what you mean. Yeah... you try door after door when you hear voices you like behind them, but the knobs come off in your hand...

Faulty doorknobs aside, the soldiers' journey continues. They make a brief stopover at an enemy hut where casual death and loss of humanity (a future Kubrickian preoccupation) feature heavily, almost as if war is some kind of violent and dehumanising process. One of the aforementioned sirens - actually a simple but spectacularly hot fisherwoman - is captured by our guys and is forced to watch while Private Babyface, who was clearly never the full metal jacket in the first place, goes increasingly bananas; eventually he shoots her to ensure she performs no further useful narrative function, before declaring the river to be flowing with blood and leaping off for a swim while cackling like The Joker. War Is Hell, evidently, and you can almost feel Kubrick squirming with the obviousness of it all - so much so that when he came to make his three other war movies, he just flat out said it (War Is A Humanity Vacuum in Paths Of Glory; War Is A Bad Joke in Dr Strangelove; War Is Madness in Full Metal Jacket) rather than wrapping it all up in pseudo-intellectual literary and cultural references.

There's more to come though, when we get to meet "The General" - the de facto villain of the piece - only to find that he's played by the same actor who plays Lieutenant Handsome, and his right hand bastard is played by the same guy who plays Private Unremarkable. The General muses portentously on death and his role in dispensing it, lamenting that he has become war, and it's a blessed relief when Lieutenant Handsome and Private Unremarkable put an end to his eye-rolling wittering with a few well-placed bullets. There's just time for them to recognise themselves in their enemies' faces though (because we are very much alike, you and I), before successfully escaping to their own HQ where they are free to ponder further on the physical and spiritual casualties of war because this film definitely needs more of that.
It's easy to pick on Fear And Desire for its heavy-handedness - fun, too - but it's still absolutely worth checking out as a formative piece of Kubrickery. Its formal sloppiness and narrative hamfistedness are hugely at odds with the meticulousness we've come to expect from Stan, but there's an undeniably trippy atmosphere to the piece and enough flashes of cinematic bravado to suggest that this guy might be worth watching in the future. Themes that would eventually be more fully developed lie dormant here, waiting for geeks like me to stumble across them years later, and besides, it's never not fun to witness the birth of a legend. Unless it's in The Phantom Menace.
Next time: Kubrick goes noir in crime drama Killer's Kiss. Will he still have his head up his arse? There's only one way to find out! (Watch it yourself, Jesus, why do I have to do everything around here)

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