Nurse the Tooth

There's an eerie commercial for Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT (still a couple of weeks from release as I write) that's been running on TV as of late: images of Tom Cruise and a visibly preoccupied Nicole Kidman about to have sex, their arrival at some kind of pagan costume ball intercut, a rolling blues (Chris Isaak?) about having done a "bad, bad thing" overtop. It's the best thing I've seen all year, leaving me as anxious as everyone else to see the final film of a director I've always regarded with ambivalence. If EYES WIDE SHUT turns out to be as provocative as its trailer, for me Kubrick's filmography will finish with a symmetry that runs counter to most people's estimation of him: his greatest work at the beginning and end of his career, with the middle--the films for which he was all but elevated to sainthood-- given over to the obscure, arid fantasies of an imperious technocrat. Here's hoping. THE KILLING (1956): An obvious forerunner of RESERVOIR DOGS with its jumbled narrative and disparate gallery of petty criminals, brought together by Sterling Hayden to rob a racetrack during a big stakes race. Hayden is always great--Nick Nolte at his most bearish is the closest parallel today--and here he's matched by one of Elisha Cook Jr.'s withering patsies, Marie Windsor as the wife who messes with Cook's mind, and Tim Carey doing what must be some kind of bizarre Kirk Douglas parody. True to Kubrick's subsequent career path, the robbery is a success and everyone goes home rich....not quite: Hayden's "What's the difference?" is maybe the grimmest closing line ever. PATHS OF GLORY (1957): My favourite Kubrick film, my favourite Kirk Douglas film, my favourite war film. It's short (86 minutes), without cliche (except for an ironic but nonetheless awkward singalong at the end), and almost mathematical in the way it depicts bureaucracy closing in on three hapless soldiers who are handpicked to take the fall for a hopeless WWI military maneuver. The choreography of the Attack on Ant Hill is brutal but economical, highlighted by a series of claustrophobic tracking shots through the trenches, and the trial that follows is marked by a carefully reasoned illogic that anticipates CATCH-22. As one of the accused soldiers, Tim Carey turns his closed-mouth seething from THE KILLING upside down and comes out even weirder: he always seems ready to fall asleep mid-sentence. SPARTACUS (1960): I saw this in a swank Toronto theatre when it was rereleased to great fanfare a few years ago: orchestral overture, intermission, restored "Super Technirama 70" print, and the return of Laurence Olivier's infamous oysters-and-snails seduction of Tony Curtis. I've seen similar presentations of GONE WITH THE WIND, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, VERTIGO, and A STAR IS BORN over the years, and SPARTACUS was the one that most lived up to the promise of such projects--three hours-plus of lively, voluptuous biblical spectacle in which to lose yourself. Peter Ustinov's bumbling obsequiousness is hilarious, but my favourite performance is given by Nick Dennis, who gets to shout about nine words in various crowd scenes. Dennis was a cousin of my dad's who also had speaking parts in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and KISS ME DEADLY; I'm only three degrees of separation from Kubrick. LOLITA (1962): James Mason has Humbert Humbert down cold: with only a minimum of interior voiceover to work with (thankfully), he conveys the intricacies of Humbert's criminal obsession through his eyes, an impatient stammer, and his special brand of urbane weaseliness. Shelly Winters and Sue Lyons are almost as good, while Peter Sellers is all over the place--I like his Clare Quilty best when he's dancing near the beginning. The languid pacing and cinematography are excellent. Everything's in place, except what can't be translated. Nabakov's Humbert, observing a kindred spirit: "There he was devoid of any talent whatsoever, a mediocre teacher, a worthless scholar, a glum repulsive fat old invert, highly contemptuous of the American way of life, triumphantly ignorant of the English language--there he was in priggish New England, crooned over by the old and caressed by the young--oh, having a grand time and fooling everybody; and here was I." DR. STRANGELOVE (1964): Every few years that I go back to this, I'm more and more able to get into the spirit of it. It's schizophrenic enough (sometimes deadpan, sometimes wildly over-the-top) that it might throw you the first time, but recently I found myself laughing out loud at things like the look on George C. Scott's face after he's dressed down by Peter Sellers' President Muffley, or the way that Keenan Wynn vigilantly watches out for the interests of Coca-Cola Ltd. The Beatles were a more brazen release from the Cold War tensions of 1964, but you can see where DR. STRANGELOVE's talk of "deviated preverts" and "precious bodily fluids" helped shape the rest of the decade. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968): Voted the 10th-greatest film ever made in SIGHT AND SOUND's most recent historical poll (1992), with Kubrick's death probably ensuring it will rank even higher next time around. I've given it my best shot three or four times now, but I still feel much like James Mason in LOLITA: given the choice between another go at 2001 or the opportunity to look after a toothache, I'd rather nurse the tooth. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971): I saw this years ago and didn't care for it, so I rented it out for this piece and had the same reaction. Screen violence was a huge topic of conversation among film critics in the early '70s (the conversation still goes on, but it's been moved into the arena of presidential campaigns), as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, STRAW DOGS, DIRTY HARRY, and a litany of key titles were passionately championed or attacked by John Simon, Pauline Kael, and other critics of the day. I'm not sure what Kubrick is trying to say about violence here: if a film doesn't reach me in ways that register deeper than whatever message it might have--I'm definitely at the passive, against-interpretation end of the spectrum as a viewer--I'm too lazy to do the necessary thinking to figure things out. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE doesn't. It does seem as if all the thought and creativity went into the set and costume design. For a truly sobering adaptation of a famous dystopian novel, I much prefer Michael Radford's version of 1984. BARRY LYNDON (1975): One of three Kubrick films I haven't seen--the others, 1953's FEAR AND DESIRE and 1955's KILLER'S KISS, are hardly (if at all) ever screened. I take it that watching BARRY LYNDON on video would be beside the point, so I'll hold off until it turns up at a local rep theatre. THE SHINING (1980): Some people place this on the short-list of greatest horror films ever made, others think it barely deserves to be called a horror film. Stephen King, who thought so highly of it he felt compelled to direct a TV remake himself in 1997, once traced the film's fatal weakness to a late- night phone call during production wherein Kubrick confessed his atheism and then hung up; to render evil convincingly, reasoned King, you have to begin with a belief in God. Myself, I think it's garbled, overlong, a work of some condescension ("I'm here to prove that the genre can be elevated to the level of art"), and scary, most memorably in the Steadicam shots of Danny Lloyd careening through the halls of the Overlook on his bike. I still look warily down the corridor outside my parents' apartment for fear of encountering those Diane Arbus twins. FULL METAL JACKET (1987): Bad timing (which will happen when you take two or three presidential administrations between films) saw Kubrick's Viet Nam movie appear in the midst of PLATOON, CASUALTIES OF WAR, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, and a half-dozen others. Oliver Stone's films were bigger with audiences and CASUALTIES a better film, so FULL METAL JACKET came and went fairly quietly. The first third, where Lee Ermey's tightly-wound drill instructor zeroes in on Vincent D'Onofrio as his personal hand-puppet, is as pure as PATHS OF GLORY, the balance a sometimes ponderous assemblage of moments. Good soundtrack, highlighted by "Surfin' Bird" and "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." Actually, Kubrick was two-for-two in the '80s when it came to inspiring pop music himself: THE SHINING was commemorated on a Husker Du B-side, "All Work and No Play," and FULL METAL JACKET provided 2 Live Crew with the sample for "Me So Horny." Maybe Britney Spears or Ricky Martin will come away from EYES WIDE SHUT with something. [I wrote the above a couple of months ago for a friend in New Zealand. I've seen EYES WIDE SHUT by now, but I'll leave what I wrote as is. I'm in- between on EWS, leaning toward the side of the more negative reviews that have appeared. I don't have anything really new or interesting to add to all that's been written already; good places to start are reviews by Stanley Kauffmann, Charles Taylor, and Andrew Sarris, and a series of shorter pieces by Greil Marcus and some other people in SALON.]

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