Hold Onto Your Precious Bodily Fluids

City Paper

Stanley Kubrick didn’t just make movies, he pursued visions. He never cared much for accommodating Hollywood stars; he wanted to involve them in galaxies heavy enough to absorb everything—including you, dear viewer. For the most part, he succeeded. His films glide within their genres like sharks among anchovies. “The Killer’s Kiss” and “The Killing” both honor and defy film noir. “Spartacus” is the toga movie of toga movies. “Lolita” and “Eyes Wide Shut” are ambitious (if flawed) attempts to use film to think seriously about sex. People who don’t like science fiction or horror movies still like (or pretend to like) “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “The Shining.” “Barry Lyndon” is Masterpiece Theater worthy of that label. And “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “Full Metal Jacket” are perfect depictions of the collective insanity of war, both hot and cold.

These films all suggest that humans are subject to forces greater than the individual will, whether the logic of war, the soft bondage exacted by technology, the invisible tangles of law and bureaucracy, or the possessive powers of sexual infatuation. But his directing also wants to transcend this predicament. Institutions may possess individuals—corporations aren’t people, my friend, people are corporations—but Kubrick possesses institutions. This drive to contain systems can sometimes make his films feel airless. He threatens to conquer rather than engage minds, and command rather than involve emotions: The astronaut gasping silently for oxygen, spinning off into space in “2001,” is as much Kubrick’s victim as HAL’s.

But Kubrick is also frequently witty, inspiring, and at times even sweet. If there’s an undetected breeze blowing through his films, this sentimental romanticism is it. Behind the robots beats a tender heart. Many of his best performances come from children, including Danny Lloyd in “The Shining” and (barring the awful late scene where she is “all grown up”) Sue Lyon in “Lolita.” Like most romantics, Kubrick much prefers the child’s perspective to the almost-always-corrupted adult’s. And like most children, he prefers building imaginary places to living in real ones.

The Charles Theater and The Senator play host to five Stanley Kubrick movies this September: “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “The Shining”—about half of his total body of work. (You could also have caught “The Killing” at the Charles last month.) 

There is no anniversary to celebrate, no special Kubrick occasion—which itself makes this run remarkable. At the same time, it’s not so surprising. More than any other director save Hitchcock, Kubrick holds the big screen with an air of casual inevitability. The films playing this month trace both the evolution and the realization of Kubrick’s drive to create worlds increasingly distant from but intimately linked to ours. 

“Lolita” (1962) & “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

“Dr. Strangelove” plays at The Charles Theater Sept. 27 at 11:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.; “Lolita” plays at The Charles Theater Oct. 2 at 9 p.m.

The oldest Kubrick films in this group, “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove” show him still working within the studio system, managing (not yet programming) his actors,  and practicing contemporary social caricature. The results are mixed.

Hampered by studio censorship and bad casting, “Lolita” falls well short of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about an outwardly elegant college professor, Humbert Humbert, with a loathsome inclination to rape just-pubescent girls. Granted, this is a tremendously difficult novel to adapt—and Nabokov, who collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay, reported himself pleased with the result. But time has not been kind to this one. James Mason’s Humbert veers between practiced dignity and maudlin self-pity without ever touching the ferment of lust and narcissistic madness that should drive his obsession. Shelley Winters, playing Lolita’s clinging and foolish mother, Charlotte Haze, mostly provides Kubrick with a nasty occasion to ridicule adult female sexuality. And Peter Sellers, in one of his master-of-many-disguises roles as playwright-pornographer Clare Quilty, is pointlessly virtuosic.

Released two years later, “Dr. Strangelove” does much more with some of the same elements. It wraps together farce and tragedy just as intimately as the Cold War itself. The unhinged General Ripper (Sterling Hayden), convinced that fluoridation is a communist conspiracy to pollute “our precious bodily fluids,” manages to circumvent the chain of command and order a nuclear attack on the USSR. Sellers gives the performances of his life as three different figures trying to foil Ripper’s plot: Lionel Mandrake of the RAF, the American President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove, a German nuclear physicist now working for the Americans.

“Strangelove” uses showbiz gags as a path into terrifying surreality, pulling contemporary tangles such as residual European fascism and American nuclear cowboyism, into concrete knots: Sellers as Strangelove vainly struggling to hold down his Hitler salute; Slim Pickens riding an H-Bomb to doomsday like it’s a bucking bronco. This is also the first film in which Kubrick hits upon the key to his subsequent worlds—the total integration of sound and vision. Here he matches beautiful, blossoming mushroom clouds and Vera Lynn’s wistful “We’ll Meet Again.” This mix of light corn and apocalypse enhances rather than trivializes the film’s tragic vision of technological invincibility guided by political morons with manhood fixations.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) & “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)

“2001” plays at The Senator Theatre on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m.; “A Clockwork Orange” plays at The Senator Theatre on Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.

Kubrick transforms the sublime gags of “Dr. Strangelove” into guiding aesthetic principles in “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange.” 

He treats sound, color, and action as sides of total shapes. These films are also set in the vague region of “the future,” which allows Kubrick the temporal freedom to access and jumble all past ways of life. Hence the feng shui of mature Kubrick—the combination of antique baroque and sleek plastic; the rococo ottoman next to the oblong egg table; Edwardian diction in lime-green bellbottoms. Both films are stunning.

“2001” is possibly the most nakedly ambitious movie ever conceived—a journey from “The Dawn of Man” to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” that reimagines God in the image of evolutionary science. On the way, it gives us the unblinking red eye and soothing baritone of HAL 9000, the artificially intelligent computer shepherding a mission to Jupiter to investigate the possibility of alien contact with Earth. HAL is a perfect vehicle for the fear that our technologies might one day enslave us—or worse, stop needing us. But the film drifts, once radically, now aimlessly (if somewhat endearingly), into a parody acid trip. This last psychedelic movement of the film, with its beautiful, oddly colored landscapes and its Dali-esque apartment out of time, feels like both the de facto invention of the screen saver and the director’s mischievous attempt to involve his superfans in a bottomless interpretive morass.

“A Clockwork Orange” presses the two primary aspects of Kubrick’s world-building, the mixture of past and future temporalities and the productive tension of vision and sound, into especially tight service. It follows the story of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge—a teenage de Sade whose predilection for “ultraviolence” lands him in jail, leading him to pursue an experimental course of vice-aversion conditioning in exchange for early release. The film imagines a return both to the lawlessness and cultural-aesthetic fulfillment of past eras—perhaps especially Elizabethan England. This is a world ruled by young thugs largely free to terrorize the old, the meek, and (especially) the female. Violence and art are here not just equal but complementary forms of pleasure, a marriage consummated in the total sublimity of Beethoven, or as Alex calls him, “Ludwig Van,” who is often present in the tubular electronic arrangements of Wendy Carlos. As a feat of world-creation, “A Clockwork Orange” is unrivaled. But this is a ghastly world. Nowhere else is Kubrick so entirely in control of plotting and mise en scene. And nowhere else is the result so entirely nihilistic. It is perhaps the only Kubrick system that escapes and devours its mastermind.

“The Shining” (1980)

“The Shining” plays at The Senator Theatre on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m.

“The Shining” might be Kubrick’s most heartwarming film. It follows the Torrances, a family of three—Jack (Jack Nicholson), a writer looking for a productive retreat; Wendy (Shelley Duvall), his optimistic and resourceful wife; and Danny (Danny Lloyd), his psychically sensitive 6-year-old son—as they spend a winter in an old, massive, demon-haunted hotel in remotest Colorado.

After inventing a god and a dystopia, the scale of “The Shining” perhaps seems limited. But this also makes it work. Relieved from insisting upon the cosmic or social significance of his story, Kubrick interrogates the domestic roots of horror, tapping into anxieties so deep that most of us spend our lives either avoiding or forgetting them: that our goofy fathers and husbands (“Heere’s Johnny!”) might snap and murder us, that our bodies will one day rot. He gives moments in the Overlook just as much weight as he gave epochs off Jupiter. And the trick of twisted temporalities, in which long-ago layers interrupt the present, moves beyond a world-making technique, reminding us (and we can’t be reminded too often) that murder, madness, and systemic hatred haunt every moment of human time.

And yes, the movie is ultimately heartwarming. Somehow, between Jack’s intense fever dreams and encounters with racist murderer ghosts, this film confirms the strength of the love shared by Wendy and Danny. They are the film’s true center. And while their enemies are surely terrifying, they are also oddly powerless to claim the pure at heart. This is a film finally with a guardian angel and a providential safety net—which reveals the murdering father to be little more than the ventriloquist’s dummy of the past.

This affirmative optimism beyond the bizarre is more often than not the sense one takes away from Kubrick—though rarely so directly as in “The Shining.” Perhaps it helps to account for his enduring popularity. Kubrick is something like a cross between Richard Wagner and Stephen Spielberg, bridging the solipsistic German romantics whose music he uses to such great effect and the Hollywood masters of collective consolation who take a hard look at the worst in order to affirm our inner children. He was able to find and make a new kind of film: total atmosphere punctuated by sudden revelations of—with apologies to General Ripper—deeply meaningful “life essence.” 

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