Stanley Kubrick, in a 1970 interview with Playboy:
How much would we appreciate La Gioconda [the Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth or because she's hiding a secret from her lover? It would shut off the viewer's appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.
I. The Essay
I don’t remember why I decided that watching all of Stanley Kubrick’s films in order was a necessary task. I mean, I know why—I like making lists and I like watching movies and I have a respect/fascination for/with perfectionists. I somehow convinced Danielle, my wife, that this project was a good idea—she was nine months pregnant with our daughter Luna at the time—and I think that I’d also subconsciously decided that if the fetus was subjected to so many hours of an auteur like Kubrick, she would emerge predisposed to greatness.
So I take that back—I do know.
To write this piece, I scrolled back through my Instagram photos only to see the exact date we started what I referred to over and over again as a marathon (even though I realized early on that this was the wrong word, and that perhaps retrospective was the proper term, I stuck with it).
As I thumbed back, I got a wonderful visual reminder of just how much has transpired between March 22, 2013 (we watched the first three titles that night) and January 24, 2014, the day we finished Eyes Wide Shut. There was a baby and boat rides and time spent at home and too many firsts to recount here. There was a book released and a new book to be worked on. And of course, all of the holidays—all so much more meaningful now, if not more complex to travel to and spend time at.
My biggest discovery as I went back and then forward in time was Luna’s hair—the hair she had when she was born, which she then lost, and has now gained back and then some.
We’re forever debating the notion of art imitating life. I didn’t find an answer to that while watching all of Kubrick’s filmography. But I do know now that art can provide you with a set of markers to help you to reflect back on life with, to help you take one more look at all of the things that whizzed by as you, head down, were just trying to make it through another day.
With so many changes, I realize now that we didn’t fit Kubrick into our lives as much as we fit our lives into Kubrick.
Let me tell you what else we learned.
II. The Ranking
The filmography we used:
- Day of the Fight (1951) (Watched 3/22/2013)
- Flying Padre (1951) (Watched 3/22/2013)
- The Seafarers (1953) (Watched 3/22/2013)
- Fear and Desire (1953) (Watched 4/1/2013)
- Killer's Kiss (1955) (Watched 4/2/2013)
- The Killing (1956) (Watched 4/3/2013)
- Paths of Glory (1957) (Watched 6/2/2013)
- Spartacus (1960) (Watched7/21/2013)
- Lolita (1962) (Watched 6/22/2013—a Netflix shipping issue forced us out of order)
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (Watched 8/18/2013)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (Watched 9/7/2013)
- A Clockwork Orange (1971) (Watched 9/27/2013)
- Barry Lyndon (1975) (Watched 11/15/2013)
- The Shining (1980) (Watched 1/4/2014)
- Full Metal Jacket (1987) (Watched 1/17/2014)
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999) (Watched 1/23/2014)
- Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) (Watched 2/4/13)
- A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) (Watched 2/5/13)
Joe’s Kubrick Ranking
1. Barry Lyndon
It has everything—an interesting story, huge set pieces, great costumes, solid performances. There’s nothing else remotely like it that I’ve seen.The lighting in the indoor scenes using only candles is literally like nothing you’ve ever seen before—Kubrick built the lenses to capture the scenes and never used them, or gave them to anyone to use, again.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
In many ways, 2001 is really 1B for me, but I don’t believe in that kind of listing. The only reason I put Barry Lyndon above 2001 is because 2001 requires digging/reading outside of the movie to “understand” it. And even then—who knows. What’s amazing about 2001 is how fresh it looks. The only dated component is the spacesuits.
3. Full Metal Jacket
My first Kubrick. I’ve loved this film for a long time. It never gets old and I always discover something new to appreciate about it. The voiceover grates on my nerves a bit (Kubrick’s use of voiceover might be my only knock on him overall), but it is only used to inform us about big narrative jumps that, without it, we would have had no ability to understand.
4. The Killing
The Kubrick film that I knew nothing about and enjoyed the most. I knew Barry Lyndon was thought to be his “lost” masterpiece, but I’d never even heard of the The Killing. Fans of The Usual Suspects will enjoy this. The end will elicit an audible gasp.
5. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
My new favorite trivia about this film is the piece that I linked to recently by Eric Schlosser, which debunks the coverage this film received when it originally was released, that it was totally unrealistic and guilty of fear-mongering because of it. I understand that the humor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (e.g., my wife), but I think the more well-known lines can at least be smirked at by all.
6. A Clockwork Orange
My main quibble with this film is that, because I’ve seen it a couple of times and I’ve read the book, I don’t remember if it’s as easily understood by those who come to it fresh. I tried to distance myself for this viewing, but it was tough. Malcolm McDowell might be the best acting performance of all of Kubrick’s work.
7. Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory is a good war film—it feels old though. The opening tracking shot through the bunker is just great, though.
8. The Shining
The middle of this list was tough to make and I admit that The Shining dropped so low simply because I’ve seen it so many times and with each viewing, I like it less and less. Shelley Duvall has aggravated me from the first time I saw it, and my hatred for her character and her performance is palpable now. I just can’t stand the sight of her flapping her rubber arms and screeching as she runs. And those sissy swings of the baseball bat on the stairs. Also, this film makes a mockery of the book (search online to find out why Kubrick had a red Volkswagen Beetle smashed under an eighteen-wheeler towards the end). Normally something like that wouldn’t bother me, but the changes here feel almost—malicious.
9. Eyes Wide Shut
I liked this movie more than the ranking would have you believe. I love how every interior shot is always punctuated by an overly blue glow in the windows. I just can’t stand Nicole Kidman in this—I don’t know who she learned how to act drunk/high from, but I hope that person is okay. And Tom Cruise, while good, is still Tom Cruise. It’s hard to appreciate when he’s doing his it’s okay—I’m a doctor moments because you can’t help but feel like that’s just his natural default setting. Also—everyone knows Tom Cruise is contractually obligated to do the Tom Cruise Run in every movie he makes. But I don’t think enough attention is given to the Tom Cruise Head in his Knees/Run His Hands Through His Hair move. Nobody runs their hands through their hair like Tom Cruise does.
If you had told me before we began that Lolita would rank this low, I wouldn’t have believed you. At the same time, I’m not shocked, since I didn’t go weak in the knees for the novel either (not that the two should be seen as mirror images, because they aren’t). Part of the problem (for the movie as well as the book) is that much of the shock value of Lolita seems to have dissipated a bit over time. To be fair to the movie, some of the shock value of the book was removed to appease the standards of the time. Overall the acting in Lolita just felt so—melodramatic.
After watching Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, I felt somewhat justified in my distaste for Spartacus. This was a project that Kubrick himself wasn’t in love with, the only director-for-hire of his career. It seems that he only took it to capture some attention. Everything in Spartacus just screams Movie Set—all high key lighting and backgrounds painted on canvas. The individual performances are great, I will admit that. If ancient period pieces are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this much more than I did.
12. The Seafarers
See my note below.
13. Killer’s Kiss
The feature I remember the least.
14. Day of the Fight
15. Flying Padre
Both of these felt like deleted scenes, DVD extras. It wasn’t that they were bad so much as they just weren’t able to stand on their own on a list like this.
16. Fear and Desire
Kubrick sought to have Fear and Desire literally stricken from the record. Somehow, one remaining print remained and is now being distributed again. Let me just say—we should have listened to Kubrick.
Danielle’s Kubrick Ranking
2. Barry Lyndon
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
4. The Shining
5. A Clockwork Orange
6. Full Metal Jacket
7. The Killing
8. Paths of Glory
10. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
11. Eyes Wide Shut
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Day of the Fight
14. Flying Padre
15. The Seafarers
16. Fear and Desire
III. The Conclusions
There are some easy conclusions to draw from our (admittedly unscientific) rankings and some opinion-based conclusions to draw from watching one director grow over time:
-Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey are probably his two best films, although I’m not sure that I would recommend either to start someone off on Kubrick. For me, that film is either The Shining (for more mainstream film fans) or The Killing (for those who are a bit more adventurous).
-Kubrick was still finding his footing with his early work. I’ll repeat what I said above—he sought to have Fear and Desire disappeared and he was right. It is really, really bad.
-Speaking of his early work, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 5 of the top 10 films on both of our lists were films 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15—5 of the last 6 films he made (note: the final film, Eyes Wide Shut, was in my top ten and was 11th on Danielle’s list).
-Spartacus was the biggest gulf between Danielle and me—I thought it had some redeemable qualities, but it was ultimately undone, for my taste, by the love story. The film smacks of Big Hollywood Production. Some people like that; some don’t. Danielle was a Classics minor in college, so I think that should be taken into account. That being said, I still think she’s nuts for ranking it where she did.
-If you want to care about only one piece of Early Kubrick nostalgia, go for The Seafarers, which has a cool technicolor feel and is exactly the kind of odd documentation of The Seafarers International Union that you’d expect from Kubrick. Also—you can watch it (with French subtitles) on YouTube.
-Stanley Kubrick really, really hated women. I know his family and friends have stated otherwise, and maybe Stanley Kubrick, The Man didn’t hate women, but Stanley Kubrick, The Director consistently put women in incredibly shitty positions in his films, if he put them in at all. And I’m not kidding. Every woman in every one of these films is either a sex object; a flimsy, rubber-armed damsel-in-distress; or a Nurse Ratchett-esque bitch in power who wielded that power simply to get back at men.
-We watched up to The Killing on April 3, 2013 before pausing for two months to have a baby and acclimate to sharing our lives with her. After that, our pace slowed to about one movie a month. The only time it picked back up again was when we started the cluster of Kubrick’s more well-known films and as we neared the end.
-January ’14 was the only month in which we watched three features.
-Included in the list above was Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The former was included as a summation and the latter was included since it is the only one of his unfinished projects that we can judge. A Life in Pictures actually flowed pretty cleanly for a 142 minute documentary. It held Danielle’s interest and she was pretty skeptical about it going in. If you take the time to watch all of his films, you should definitely watch it.
-I happened to read about Michael Phillips hosting Turner Classic Movies’ “Friday Night Spotlight: Future Shock,” and that one of his picks was A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a movie that is not widely available or easy to come by. The completist in me was glad that I recorded it, but after watching it, I’m glad that I was able to see it, regardless of the director, as it really is a good film—searingly sad and futuristic, with a great performance by Haley Joel Osment, and a really tricky and interesting narrative to tell. You can see where the film is Steven Spielberg’s (the look and the score) and where it is Kubrick’s (the themes and the relationships) and maybe it’s because it’s the freshest in my brain, I don’t know, but this was one of the films, if not the film, that moved me the most emotionally over the course of the entire marathon.
-I followed up each movie with the appropriate episode of The Auteur Cast. It was a great way to give each film some historical perspective as well as help to piece together Kubrick’s patterns and put a name to the face, so to speak, of the feelings I had about each film. Highly recommended.