Friday 22 November 2019

Kubism, Epilogue:
Stanley Kubranked

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You probably thought you'd seen the last of my Stanley Kubewaffle, what with Eyes Wide Shut being his last film and all. Well, I didn't come all this way just to make phenomenally incisive and original observations into each of his thirteen features and three shorts, you know: this is a film blog, so I am bound by convention to rank each of those films in order of my irrelevant preference. So here we go, and if you want to start at the start, head this way!

Catatonically boring corporate video for life on the ocean waves, shot entirely on dry land. It's literally ridiculous that you have to include this in the films of Stanley Kubrick, yet here we are. Completists gonna complete. Review

A dull and amateurish doc about a priest with a plane that struggles to wring interest out of its dry subject matter. Little wonder that this wasn't the film that would help Stanley Kubrick's career... (*puts on sunglasses, leans into mic*) take offReview

There's a clear eye for the dramatic and an experimental approach to temporality in this short documentary, but Kubrick's first foray into filmmaking reveals more about his past as a photographer than his future as as a cinematic genius. Review

Stan's first feature is an admirable failure: saddled with ponderous, preposterous dialogue, Fear And Desire examines the absurdity of war through a filter of pretentious pseudo-intellectualism. Primordial elements of Kubrick's future are there to be discovered, but my goodness you have to shovel a lot of shit out of the way first. Review

Kubo finds himself accidentally in charge of somebody else's film, and the results are predictably unhappy. Kirk Douglas looks great in his spray tan and weird underpants, but after three and a quarter hours you wish the film had concentrated on its real MVPs: Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton. Review

The Kube's Cold War-era-defining satire is admirable and often brilliant, but its uneven comedic tone and one-note characters make it a tough sell. I'm virtually alone in this viewpoint but give it a few more decades and history will doubtlessly catch up with me. Review

A second-rate film noir with a standout visual aesthetic, Killer's Kiss shows Stanley Kubrick very much learning on the job. It looks fantastic, but in a genre where most films do, that's not enough. Review

A film of two halves, the first of which is top-notch, balls-out, classic Kubrickian eye-and-ear-candy that's arguably the last truly great thing he made. The second, sadly, is a bog-standard war flick which, in the shadow of Part One, could only ever disappoint. Review

Slow, boring and totally lacking in incident are just three of the wrongest opinions about Stan's artfully realised, 18th century take on toxic masculinity. A lavish treat for the eyeballs, Barry Lyndon contrasts visual beauty with mannered beastliness in minute, subtle detail. Review

A decent budget and a savvy producer helped Kubo make his first great film: a taut, experimental heist movie laced with the themes of hubris and absurdity that would distinguish much of his career. Characters sleaze off the screen and you could crack the dialogue with the back of a spoon. Review

Kubrick ponders free will, state control and the effects of violence on screen in the cinematic equivalent of a ferocious kick in the yarbles. Absolutely unique in concept and execution, A Clockwork Orange is the work of a fearless filmmaker that really make u think. Review

Stan signed off with his most mature, and arguably most misunderstood, work of art. Far from the A-list fuckfest its (mis)marketing suggested, Kubrick's meditation on marriage, fidelity, temptation, jealousy and sex people in daft masks took him in a new direction but stayed true to his lifelong preoccupations. Review

Stanley Kubrick makes you pity a paedophile in this indefinable oddity. Controversial, sure, but more importantly funny as fuck, with fully-drawn characters that blow The Kube's false rep as a cold, dispassionate director out of the water. Review

The Kube's first masterpiece is a devastating, furious assault on the injustices committed in wartime in the name of patriotism. Staggering in all the best and worst ways, with Kirk Douglas magnetic as one of Stan's few heroes. Review

Aided by a holy trinity of flawlessly OTT performances, Kubrick crafts the purest expression of psychological horror in all of cinema. The setup might have become cliché but the execution is timeless: after forty years every scene still oozes dread, every shot still spawns unease. Review

It's impossible to overstate the mesmerising fear and wonder 2OO1 elicits on every viewing: Stanley Kubrick's greatest achievement is a beautiful, terrifying mindfuck that asks all the biggest questions and answers precisely none (except how to do a poo in zero gravity). When highly evolved mankind looks back at its own primitive daubings, this will be the only clue that we belong to the same species. Review


OK, that really is it for Kubism. Thanks for your indifferent tolerance!

Title cards stolen from Christian Annyas

Friday 15 November 2019

Kubism, Part 13:
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick might not have released any films between 1987 and 1999, but it wasn't for the want of trying. Holocaust movie The Aryan Papers, a long-gestating project (is there any other kind with Kubrick?), was abandoned partly because it was depressing the shit out of him and partly because Steven Spielberg beat him to it, knocking out Schindler's List in roughly the time it took Kubrick to make a sandwich. And after a frustrating experience with unsatisfying screenplay drafts and crap special effects tests, Kubo also gave up on the futuristic robo-Pinocchio fairytale that would become A.I. Artificial Intelligence, handing it over to Spielberg in order to stop him pinching any more of his ideas.

But languishing at the back of the Kubemind since the late '60s was an idea for an adaptation of 1926 Austrian novella Traumnovelle: a weird and mildly horny parable about jealousy, faithfulness and - to quote Alan Partridge's PA Lynn Benfield - "sex festivals". With half an eye on the success of films like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Kubrick decided it was time for his own take on the erotic thriller, so he grabbed the sexiest Hollywood couple he could get his hands on, hid all their clothes and made them stand around in the nip for over a year. The result, surprisingly, was his most mature film, and one which - were it not for the matter of his subsequent and really quite irritating death - should have heralded the beginning of Kubrick's late period.
Eyes Wide Shut begins with a full length shot of Nicole Kidman getting her bum out, and fap-happy cinemagoers the world over must have been overjoyed - and possibly a little daunted - at the thought of 165 more minutes of this kind of thing. But the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was luring you into a film with the promise of nearly three hours of uninterrupted clunge-plunging betwixt Kidman and her then-husband Tom Cruise, only to deliver a long and almost comically slow study of marital stamina and the nature of temptation. This is almost certainly the reason for Eyes Wide Shut's general reputation as a weird, unsexy disappointment, but the film benefits enormously from the recalibrated expectations of repeat viewings. I've only seen it three times, but it's a much more satisfying experience now than when I first saw it twenty years ago. Being married probably helps, but being older is the key.

Cruise and Kidman play the wealthy, beautiful and crushingly dull Bill and Alice Harford, a couple sleepwalking towards the end of their first decade of marriage. Bill is a doctor, and they're off to a Christmas party thrown by one of his obscenely super-rich patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Separated during the course of the party, an increasingly tipsy Alice is the amused recipient of a silky smooth come-on from a Hungarian lothario, while Bill receives the flirty attentions of two models who seem entirely undeterred by his cringingly awful small talk, his insistence at laughing at his own shit lines ("That is the kind of hero I can be sometimes") and his freaky central upper incisor. It's our first hint that there are exterior forces threatening the Harfords' marriage, but while Alice declines to discover exactly how well Hungarian her admirer is, Bill seems quite happy to see how far his own morals will let him go.
He never finds out though, because the adulterous Ziegler needs help with Mandy, the nearly-dead, stark-naked prostitute he's been thrusting his ugly old self into in his bathroom while she - quite understandably - ingests massive amounts of narcotics. Ziegler and Mandy's affair, and her surprisingly matter-of-fact nudity, are early indicators of a secret, permissive society that exists outside Bill and Alice's (and, in the majority, the audience's) contained, rule-driven world. While Bill appears to take it in his professional stride, Pandora's box has been opened and his interest piqued. Kubrick's gallery of flawed male protagonists has acquired its final exhibit.

The following evening, Bill and Alice argue over the relative potential of husbands and wives to cheat on their spouses, which leads to Alice's confession that the previous year she came super close to leaving her husband and daughter for some random bloke in a sailor suit. Bill's pride is shattered, but before he can process what he's just heard the phone rings, precipitating the film's centrepiece: a nocturnal odyssey that sees him haul his wounded ego around New York (or at least a Pinewood-based, woozily unreal version of it), half-heartedly planning extramarital revenge on Alice for daring to think about another man.
This sequence takes in a bewildering array of events and emotions, shifting effortlessly from awkwardness in the presence of death, through uncomfortable will-he-or-won't-he with a prostitute, to outright farce as Bill attempts to stealthily procure an outfit from a costume shop while the proprietor catches his teenage daughter in flagrante delicto with two old Japanese transvestites. Its culmination, though - the centrepiece of the centrepiece - is the masked ball into which a curious Bill inveigles his way, and which sees Eyes Wide Shut taking a turn for the (literally) balls-out bonkers. Lynn: these are sex people.

Kubrick stages the orgy and its rituals with his maestro's ability to push absurdity to the very point just before it tips over into comedy. It helps that everybody in Eyes Wide Shut talks and moves at a glacial pace, as if they're wading through treacle, because if anybody got a shift on we'd be in Benny Hill territory by now. But Jocelyn Pook's ominous, backward-chanting score and Kubrick's stately command of the Steadicam imbue proceedings with deadly seriousness; it's probably why the sight of dozens of naked bodies (mostly women, it should be pointed out) and assorted organ-grinding feel about as sexy as a cup of cold tea. But it does feel dangerous, exciting and tempting, because we're in Bill's boots, not to mention his robe and mask. We've finally gained access to that secret world where anything goes, guilt doesn't exist, and the line between fantasy and reality is a murky, sexy blur. Kubrick taps into our basest, most dangerous desires, offering everything on a plate, and reels us in, helpless; he is truly a master baiter.
The orgy is so heightened and dreamlike that it could almost be a figment of Bill's imagination; a metaphor for temptation. It's certainly no coincidence that the password for entry is FIDELIO, Latin for 'fidelity' (although look closely when Bill's pianist pal writes the password on a napkin: Kubrick's penchant for multiple takes is evident in at least three different napkins intended to be the same one - the third of which actually says FEDILIO). But things come crashing back down to Earth when Bill is literally unmasked as an intruder and embarrassingly ejected, on the condition that a female guest takes his punishment. Bill seems uncharitably relaxed about this turn of events, but then that is the kind of hero he can be sometimes.

Bill's actions the following day are those of a man who doesn't seem to grasp how lucky he is to be alive (even though it's spelled out to him in a blaring headline on page one of the New York Times), but like all Kubrick's men, his notion that he's somehow in control of events is short-lived. Further attempts to get his end away are pathetic failures, death stalks him at every turn (a little over-dramatically, with that hammering piano following him around) and his old pal Victor reminds him exactly of his place, which is - as he's known all along - by his wife's side. The doors to Pandora's box are firmly shut in Bill's face and the poor bastard has to make do with his ludicrously fit missus offering to fuck him in Hamley's.
Stanley Kubrick died just a few days after finishing Eyes Wide Shut, thereby avoiding having to see it spectacularly misunderstood by audiences gagging for a glimpse of Cruisepeen and Kidmuff. True to form, every mystery his final film threw up remains resolutely unanswered at its climax, but the messages are clear and as perfect an epitaph to Kubrick's canon of visual essays on humanity as you could hope for. Never underestimate your own cosmic insignificance, never assume you're in control and never forget that man's eternal fate is self-destruction through hubris. But, in the words of Sydney Pollack's faux-wise old man: "Life goes on. It always does... until it doesn't. But you know that, don't you?"