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
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
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,
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.