A Kubrickian Odyssey

Dave-and-Earth-from-Stanley-Kubricks-2001-A-Space-OdysseyLast month the Ipswich Film Society showed Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, in part to commemorate the hundred years that have elapsed since the commencement of the First World War. I say ‘in part’, since we are, after all, a film society and there can be few self-respecting societies across the land that do not from time to time make obeisance to the master cineaste, that is, those that take seriously their role to educate their members as to the glories of yesteryear!

Paths of Glory, as I wrote in my booklet notes (available on my website under: http://www.cinefileonline.co.uk/publications/, if you are interested – I have no desire to repeat myself here), was the picture that confirmed the promise of his film noir, The Killing, and his earlier sophomore effort, Killer’s Kiss. There was a classical mastery of narrative shape, and precision of delivery; but there was also the fatalistic view of the human condition that would sometimes lend itself to accusations of merciless objectivity (2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon), and the unmistakable cinematic language: the tracking shots, sequence shots and dynamic compositions using screen space in depth that resonate throughout his work.

There is thus a continuum from the reverse tracks of General Mireau, or Colonel Dax, through the trenches, through the forward and reverse tracking shots of Dave Bowman, as he jogs around the command module of the Discovery in 2001, to that of Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, wandering the streets of the city, lost in his liebestraum.

This month sees the re-release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the most iconic, to use that well-worn term, of his creations. He was a notorious perfectionist, often spending years on a project and discarding others after considerable injections of time. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. De Mille and David O. Selznick before him, he insisted on controlling almost every stage of the film-making process, producing and co-writing, as well as directing, many of his films, and supervising the photography and editing. He also benefitted from major studio backing, so that when he took on Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, in collaboration with the author, a project which lasted for five years and to some extent had to wait for the technology necessary for its realisation, he had access to the necessary funding. Also, peculiarly, from Lolita onwards, he chose to work in England rather than Hollywood.

2001 contains moments that trumpet Kubrick’s arrival as a bona fide auteur: the momentous use of pieces of classical music that would recur in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining; the ambitious subject matter, nothing less than a rumination on Man’s destiny, from cave-dwelling ape to spacechild; and the accompanying obscurantism that was all but de rigueur for an arthouse director in the 1960s. The prologue, with its superb ape makeup and first appearance of the monolith, is a standalone masterpiece of cinema that the rest of the picture is at pains to match, but the duel between Dave and HAL is another sequence to savour. Having said that, it is a colder work than Paths of Glory, say, with none of the humanity of Kirk Douglas’s performance in that film, not to mention Menjou’s and Meeker’s. (With the exception of Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson, whose grandstanding turns he arguably turned to his own manipulating ends, he would never allow himself to be challenged by a star presence again – Cruise and Kidman were far too much in awe of him by the 1990s to be much of a threat.)

However, for all its frosty – and at times ponderous – expanses, 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly demands (re-)viewing in a cinema, and I would urge all to go along and marvel at its sense of vision, to look back at its looking forward, and consider how, compared to Avatar, say, Kubrick’s techie innovations at least served some cerebral purpose.