Last night, Matt, Ben, and I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey with our good friend Mart. It’s a film we’d all seen before more than once, but none of us had seen it for several years. Yes, we’re a couple of years late for the 50th anniversary of the film’s debut (1968), but life gets busy, right? Anyway, it was a good opportunity to revisit what I consider to be Stanley Kubrick’s high-water mark, and to share my thoughts on Kubrick’s work in general.
There’s simply no overstating what a watershed moment 2001 was in filmmaking. It revolutionized film technology and cinematic storytelling, and it even managed to predict technological innovations in our daily lives. I guess we can forgive the fact that the film’s costumes and hairstyles (especially for the women) remain locked in the 1960s — otherwise we might start to wonder whether Kubrick himself was one of the omniscient aliens who oversee and guide humankind’s development in 2001. The movie holds up as a stellar mind-trip that is endlessly open to interpretation.
Matt and I watched Barry Lyndon (1975) for the first time a couple of months ago. This is one of Kubrick’s lesser-known films — not a hit when it was first released, but one that some critics have praised in recent years. It’s probably my least favorite Kubrick picture. The film is gorgeous to look at, packed with stunning, painterly scenes of the Irish and English countryside, featuring fabulous sets and costumes. Kubrick famously used only natural light from candles for the interior scenes, which gives a rich chiaroscuro to the proceedings. But the film is also self-indulgent, arrogant, and a bit boring. Scenes stretch on for much too long. Ryan O’Neal plays the title character, a man who is buffeted by life’s travails as he makes his not-always-honorable way in the world. Ryan O’Neal? The all-American boy next door from Love Story? Yes, that Ryan O’Neal. He wasn’t known for his acting chops, and his Irish accent is inconsistent, to say the least, but he comes through with the emoting when he needs to. However, evidently Kubrick didn’t want us to become too attached to Barry or his (mis)deeds. The audience sits back and watches a life play out in an uncaring world where nothing really matters — a nihilistic world-view that doesn’t resonate with me.
For another viewpoint, I’ll let the late, great Roger Ebert have his say: “Perhaps Kubrick’s buried theme in Barry Lyndon is even similar to his outlook in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films are about organisms striving to endure and prevail — and never mind the reason. The earlier film was about the human race itself; this one is about a depraved minor example of it. Barry journeys without plan, sees what he desires, tries to acquire it and perhaps succeeds because he plays roles so well without being remotely dedicated to them. He looks the part of a lover, a soldier, a husband. But there is no there there.”
As I mentioned in my earlier post about the marvelous Kubrick aide Leon Vitali, Film Worker, I think Kubrick was a genius, but he was not without his blind spots. He doesn’t “get,” or isn’t interested in, women. Granted, many of his movies take on figures of authority and power, which have historically been men, so his narratives naturally focus on male characters. But even in something like Eyes Wide Shut, which is ostensibly about sexual desire both inside and outside a marriage, Nicole Kidman’s character is really just a catalyst for the journey of Tom Cruise’s character. I’ll end by quoting my earlier post: “(Kubrick) sometimes softened the harsher details of his source material, making despicable figures such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange more palatable. He also seems to have been a bit of a perv, always finding a way to include at least one scene of a scantily-clad or nude woman in most of his films. That said, I think The Shining is the quintessential horror film, and it’s one of my top five favorite movies.”
Bowman: You know, of course, though, he’s right about the 9000 series having a perfect operational record. They do.
Poole: Unfortunately, that sounds a little like famous last words.
— 2001: A Space Odyssey