Stanley Kubrick, by his meteoric rise to the top of the industry, has so far managed to outpace critical appraisal. At first he was greeted as the regenerator of the thriller; suddenly he turned to good causes and social content. And then no sooner had he won new friends with Paths of Glory than he strained their allegiance to the limit by choosing to make a blockbuster, Spartacus. Next, Lolita confirmed Andrew Sarris in the dark view he had taken of Kubrick, but was welcomed by Jean-Luc Godard in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema as ‘simple and lucid’, a ‘surprise’. Finally, Dr Strange-love split the more orthodox critics as unexpectedly as Lolita had split Sarris and Godard. To some it seemed a deeply serious film, courageous and progressive; to others, sick and nihilistic. By and large, two broad currents of opinion seem to have formed. One the one hand, Kubrick can be seen as trying bravely—and more or less successfully—to make ‘serious’, non-conformist films which, at the same time, reach a mass audience and benefit from all the resources usually available only to the mere ‘spectacular’. Or, on the other hand, Kubrick can be seen as stretching his powers too far, as dissipating his talent in grandiose projects and ‘big ideas’, attractive for their scope, but which he can mark with his own personality only in quirks and fragments. But either way, uneasy doubts remain.

One crucial ambiguity in Kubrick’s work lies in the relationship between his bien-pensant liberalism and his obsession with disaster. Kubrick has mentioned that Max Ophuls is his favourite director: most critics have thought this a stylistic preference and noted it alongside his addiction to tracking-shots. But there is another, more profound, common quality: Kubrick’s films are pervaded with the Ophulsian bitter-sweet. Lolita, of course, is bitter-sweet through and through. In Killer’s Kiss, the two lovers, Gloria and Davy, are both failures—a failed dancer, overshadowed by her ballerina sister, and a failed boxer, whom Gloria watches on the tv pummelled ignominiously onto the canvas. Two of Kubrick’s films, Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove, end with sentimental songs, used to counterpoint total defeat. In Paths of Glory the song mocks the order for battle-weary troops to return to the front after the execution of three among them for cowardice—three who were, in fact, innocent, who were arbitrarily chosen as scapegoats to cover up the blunders and savagery of a high officer. In Dr Strangelove, the irony is even more fierce: a Vera Lynn song accompanies a long sequence of atomic explosions and mushroom clouds. Yet there is a vital distinction to be made between Ophuls’s pessimism and Kubrick’s. Ophuls was a romantic—indeed, an arch-romantic. In Lola Montez, his greatest and most pessimistic film, the myth of Lola is that of Icarus: Lola’s aspiration to an ideal, individual freedom is shattered by the reality of human history, a reality which since her own vision remains pure, she cannot grasp even after her fall. She ends up in a cage in a circus menagerie, imprisoned, degraded, fallen—but still attached to her broken dream, which she re-enacts each night. The re-enactment— fictive and theatrical—is a heroic reassertion of the value of the aspirations of her wrecked life: the triumph of myth over reality through art. But for Kubrick, there are no myths, no freedom, no hope: only their absence. The counterpart of Kubrick’s jejune liberalism is a jejune nihilism. Kubrick’s Lolita is dominated not by the quest for an impossible passion (impossible because Lolita must live in time) but by the search for Quilty, tracking him down and killing him. Kubrick’s world is dehumanized; human passions are fatuous. His pessimism is cold and obsessive.

For Kubrick, the bitter-sweet easily spills over into the grotesque and into black farce. This streak showed itself very early and it has gradually grown dominant: the fight with fire-axe and fire-pole between Davy and Rapallo in Killer’s Kiss, in which a roomful of tailor’s dummies are hacked to pieces by huge swipes, limbs and heads flying everywhere; Nikki’s conversation with the negro car-park attendent in The Killing; the ping-pong before Quilty’s murder in Lolita. Dr Strangelove, evidently, is the ultimate in black farce. Increasingly, Kubrick recalls Welles—the baroque setting and chiaroscuro of the end of Lolita, the grotesque Pentagon war-room sequences in Dr Strangelove. Expressionism is pushed towards surrealism—bizarre juxtaposition, macabre undertones, the triumph of the irrational. But Kubrick goes much further than Welles, particularly in his choice of actors. It is entirely logical that Kubrick should have fixed on Peter Sellers for his two latest films: an actor with almost no human essence, an impersonator and a caricaturist. And whereas in Welles caricature-actors are used as foils for the massive, perverted, but very human quality of Welles himself, in Kubrick there is nothing but caricature. The real logic of Dr Strangelove is that Sellers should play, not just three, but all the parts. For Welles, the world is a nightmare which perverts man’s Faustian aspirations into Mephistopholean evil: the only authentic response is stoicism and scepticism— Welle’s favourite writer is Montaigne. For Kubrick, everything is diseased, all human qualities are caricatures, there is no authenticity. (Even his apparently positive characters—Dax and Spartacus—experience nothing authentically but defeat: hope, for them, is just ignorance.)

Before he went into movies, Kubrick worked as a still photographer for Look. His first films were praised by critics for their ‘visual flair’: Killer’s Kiss is full of care fully composed shots—reflections, shadows, silhouettes, etc. The general effect is rather fussy and over-ornamental. The Killing is a much cleaner film. It tells the story of a race-track heist; the tasks of each member of the gang are slotted into a precise schedule. The cutting is brilliant; the plan of the film reflects the plan of the robbery in its precision. Some sequences are repeated twice, from different viewpoints, as the different roles of different actors in each operation are followed. The camera is very mobile. This mobility becomes over-obvious in Paths of Glory: the camera tracks endlessly down trenches full of exhausted soldiers—the trench-walls circumscribe the camera’s range too blatantly. In another scene the camera tracks back and forth across the end of a large hall as Colonel Dax, defender in a court-martial, paces back and forth with it. All Kubrick’s films tend to be over-directed. In his later films, the construction becomes much looser, the camera-work more expressionistic still. The retreat from naturalism is very obvious in Lolita, which was made in England: the paean of praise to the American landscape—motels, tollgates, clover-leafs, neon, etc—which light have been expected from Nabokov’s book, was completely foregone by Kubrick. In Dr Strangelove the plot develops very loosely and schematically—it does not seem to matter how much time there is left; the point is that there is not enough.

Kubrick is an ambitious director. But his more grandiose projects do not seem to have forced him to deepen his thought: fundamentally, Dr Strangelove is an advance over Killer’s Kiss only insofar as its pessimism is spread much wider, more universalized and more cosmic. Certainly, this makes a more sensational effect: the end of the world is necessarily sensational. But, at the same time, it is not the end of the real world; it is the end of a monstrous caricature. For, the more universalized the pessimism becomes, the more it is necessary to dehumanize the world and to caricature mankind. Thus Dr Strangelove has no real bite. On the other hand, Kubrick is certainly not a Preminger. The claim of ‘daring’, of ‘confronting problems’, is obviously hollow with Preminger: even though he has made films about drug-addiction, rape, Israel, homosexuality in the United States senate, the Ku Klux Klan and so on, he has never been more than a parasite on controversy. Indeed, his two latest films have been apologias for the American constitution and the college of cardinals. Compared with Preminger, Kubrick is a genuine non-conformist. Indeed, he seems increasingly anti-American: he has even gone into voluntary exile. But the more Kubrick retreats into expressionism and caricature, the more his pessimism becomes merely a question of mood, rather than the outercome of a confrontation of real problems.

In the last resort, perhaps, Kubrick shows no more than the easy way out of the liberal impasse. He sees the it inadequacy of liberalism, its impotence when it comes to a crisis, but he cannot abandon it. He goes on repeating its platitudes. Each time they taste sourer in the mouth. Dalton Trumbo gives way as script-writer to Terry Southern. And as the platitudes become more and more bitter, more and more farcial, so does the world. Everybody becomes Peter Sellers. Humanity becomes the most grotesque platitude of all. Meanwhile, his best film remains The Killing, where the human quality of the characters (Sterling Hayden, Kola Kwarian, Tim Carey, Ted de Corsia, Jay C. Flippen), seen in relation to each other and to their work, is as yet unmatched. Yet, despite the facility of Kubrick’s development, it would be wrong to discount him altogether. Somewhere inside him is lurking a Nathanael West, struggling to emerge. If he does not succeed in releasing him, Kubrick will end up as fatuous as the world he depicts.