Saturday, January 5, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.1: Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire/shorts

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

As Paul Thomas Anderson once said, “We’re all children of Kubrick and Welles”. For many cinephiles and directors, Stanley Kubrick is perhaps the most important director of his generation. Few other directors have had as far ranging influence, level of perfection of form, or thematic density. Few had the same desire to reinvent cinema with every film. Few tried as hard not to repeat themselves. Kubrick is one of the universally acknowledged geniuses of the medium, and one could spend an eternity listing off the filmmakers influenced by him- Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Terry Gilliam, Nicolas Winding Refn, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Guillermo Del Toro, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Lynch, the Coens, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Lars von Trier…and that’s only scratching the surface.

For me, Kubrick represents one of the gateways to my love of cinema. Sure, I had taken notice of the importance of the director before with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, but a marathon viewing of the Stanley Kubrick box set made me recognize film directing as an art form unto itself. With that in mind, it’s time to revisit the films that turned me from casual movie buff to cinephile.

Before he revolutionized cinema, Stanley Kubrick was the intelligent young man with no interest in school but plenty of ambition. Kubrick got his start in 1945 at the age of 17 when he took a photograph of a newsvendor reacting to news of the death of FDR. That heartbreaking photograph got young Kubrick a job at Look magazine, where he spent the next five years as the youngest photographer in the magazine’s history. It’s easy to see why: the photograph captures the raw emotion of the scene, of a man too despondent with grief to hide it, and Kubrick has a perfect frame of newspapers to give the shot all the context it would ever need.

Kubrick’s background in photography is often treated as periphery, an anecdote leading up to the main event, but its influence on his film career should not be understated. Even at an early age, Kubrick’s mastery of photography is evident. Kubrick has a preternatural understanding of how to contrast shadows and light, as seen in an early photograph of the New York train station. The left side of the photograph captures the blinding brightness of the sun, while the right side captures the darkness of the train station, which obscures the faces of the New Yorkers just enough to give the photo a mysterious quality. There’s a photorealism to the scene that would carry over to his finest works- this guy’s got one hell of an eye.

Day of the Fight Grade: 83 (A-)

Kubrick’s gift with photography eventually met with his love for film. Had Kubrick’s ambitions been lower, he still could have been one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived. But Kubrick was an avid cinephile who spent days watching and rewatching the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Max Ophuls, and Elia Kazan. Kubrick eventually teamed up with his friend Alex Singer to work on a short documentary.

Based on Kubrick’s 1949 photo essay “The Prizefighter”, 1951’s Day of the Fight follows welterweight boxer Walter Cartier over the course of a day as he prepares for a fight with Bobby James, which he wins by knockout. Kubrick was fascinated by boxing, and Day of the Fight is as remarkable for its intellectual analysis of the sport as it is for its technical accomplishment. Kubrick frames Cartier not as a hero, but as a man stuck in a difficult and often dangerous career just trying to make ends meet. Kubrick follows Cartier and his twin brother/manager Vincent as they go to morning mass and contemplate the possibility that Walter could be seriously injured. Some of Robert Rein’s narration is purplish and overwritten (a line referring to boxing gloves as “upholstered fists” would make Oliver Stone blush), but the film deserves credit for taking an often brooding and meditative look for what’s ostensibly an educational film. The idea that Cartier is fighting for his very existence might sound overdramatic and unsubtle, but then Kubrick’s films were always in favor of grand gestures even when ambiguity was concerned.

But as Rein’s narration points out, the fascination of boxing is less in “competitive sport and scientific skill” and more in ACTION. Above all else, Day of the Fight is alive. Kubrick makes great use of fast-paced editing in both an early montage of knockouts and during the frenzied main event, where Kubrick and Singer cut between a variety of wide shots and exciting close-ups. Kubrick even stuck his camera into the ring to capture the immediacy of the moment- it works like gangbusters. The young director even manages to sneak in a few key themes (dehumanization, theatrical violence), homages (rapid-cutting to faces that’s reminiscent of Eisenstein), and technical tropes (a reverse tracking shot of the twin brothers, which plays off his obsession with symmetry and with dominance-implying tracking shots). It may only be a sixteen-minute short documentary about boxing, but it’s one hell of a promising start.

Flying Padre Grade: 40 (C)

Kubrick sold Day of the Fight to RKO for an unprecedented $4,000, and while that only barely made a profit from a $3,900 production, it established Kubrick as a young filmmaker with talent. The director was then commissioned to make another short documentary for $1,500. The result, the eight-minute short Flying Padre, is a well-made but forgettable documentary that doesn’t match Day of the Fight’s pulsating life. The film follows Reverend Fred Stadtmueller, who travels by plane between his 11 churches, performs burials, tends to the community, and makes an emergency flight to take an ailing mother and child to an ambulance. The film isn’t totally without interest- a few impressive shots of the airplane play like something the director would build upon in Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the director still pays homage to Eisenstein with his use of faces, and the final shot of an ambulance speeding away is rather strong. Still, this is more valuable as a learning experience for Kubrick than anything the director was passionate about. The director would later refer to the film in an interview as “silly”. That’s about right.

Fear and Desire Grade: 45 (C)

Flying Padre only just broke even, but it gave Kubrick the confidence to quit his job at Look and pursue filmmaker full time. With a script by future Pulitzer-winner Howard Sackler (The Great White Hope) and further funding from his uncle and other investors, Kubrick made his debut feature film, Fear and Desire. The film has, if anything, become more of interest in recent years than it was during most of Kubrick’s life, due to its unavailability. Kubrick hated the film so much that he dissuaded filmgoers and fans from attending a 1993 showing of a rare print- needless to say, it didn’t work out so well. The film’s recent re-release by Kino meant that Kubrick fanatics could finally see just how bad the directorial debut by one of the all-time masters could really be. The truth: Kubrick’s was a little hard on himself. Fear and Desire isn’t the calamitous exercise the director purported it to be, and in fact has more than a handful of rather striking moments. So does that mean it’s good? Oh, lord no.

Four soldiers (Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, and future filmmaker Paul Mazursky) crash behind enemy lines during an unnamed war. The group tries to evade enemy capture and build a raft to get back home, but they’re discovered by a young woman who doesn’t speak their language. The group takes her hostage before the youngest member (Mazursky) kills her in a bout of lust-fueled insanity. The remaining soldiers then kills enemy soldiers, only to discover that the soldiers look just like them.

Fear and Desire was described by Kubrick as “pretentious” and an “amateurish exercise”, and he’s not entirely wrong. The film badly strains for profundity (THE ENEMY SOLDIERS LOOK JUST LIKE THEM!), and it isn’t helped by bad performances and poor audio quality (the result of Kubrick’s decision to dub the dialogue in later to offset production costs, which ended up not working anyway). The film has elements of black comedy (Mazursky’s descent into madness for sex-related reasons) and irony (the line “nothing so good as waking up behind enemy territory) that would become frequent Kubrick tropes, but it feels more ham-fisted here than in later Kubrick outings. Kubrick’s also still learning how to effectively stage certain scenes and edit film to music, and the results are often clumsy.  The film is never worse, however, than when Sackler’s script doesn’t shut up. The amount of clunkers in the dialogue or the narration could be used to play a drinking game:

“Enemies do not exist unless we call them into being!” (drink)
“Fear and doubt and death form our world!” (drink)
“There is no country but the mind!” (drink)
“You kids and your ideas!” (drink)
“We spend our lives looking for our real names in lists and directories” (drink)
“No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the ice age. The glaciers have melted away and now we’re all islands” (jesus fucking hell, drink)

But the film isn’t a total loss, if only because even as a novice Kubrick is a born filmmaker. The director’s gift with photography is as strong as ever, and he manages to capture some striking images throughout the film, such as a man slurping stew amidst dead bodies, a woman tied to a tree, or soldiers covered in fog (achieved by using an insecticide machine that nearly killed the crew). Some of Kubrick’s experimental methods don’t work- the use of overlapping interior monologues is a good idea but it isn’t executed well- but between the use of deep focus and the rapid-paced editing during an assault on enemy soldiers, there’s a sense that the guy behind the camera has huge talent. And while the film certainly doesn’t have the thematic resonance of later Kubrick works, it’s exciting to see him dealing with themes of war, dehumanization, and madness so early in his career. If nothing else, the guy’s really going for something.

The Seafarers Grade: 41 (C)

Kubrick’s final documentary, 1953’s The Seafarers, was a work-for-hire bit that Kubrick put together in order to recoup some of Fear and Desire’s losses. The thirty-minute promotional film for the Seafarers International Union is the least-distinguished of Kubrick’s works- his job is basically to make the scripted material look engaging to anyone who might want to join a sailor’s union- but it’s his first in color and his first to make use of the sideways dolly shot that he’d bring to many better films. It’s another valuable technical exercise that otherwise doesn’t stand out much.

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