Kubrick: The First Film Nerd

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


After the July 11 screening  of Lolita, both the Museum of Modern Art and the Anthology Film Archives concluded their early career tributes to Stanley Kubrick. These mini-fests are part of what TheNew York Times has described as mounting expectation for this week’s opening of Eyes Wide Shut. But seeing Kubrick’s 1956 racetrack thriller The Killing for the first time proved to be an eye-opener—about Kubrick and his remarkable influence on modern filmmaking. The Killing fits a mini-genre tradition of the psychosocial crime film. Situated between John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), it pulls even with those sharp-eyed, keen-eared dramatizations of American economic anxiety. But it also stands equal to Jean Pierre Melville’s lyrical existential thriller Bob Le Flambeur (1955) through Kubrick’s hypnotic black-and-white chiaroscuro, a visual equivalent to the period’s jazzflavor, hinting at a new, lasting pop temperament.

(photo courtesy of Wiki)

In the best recent writing on Kubrick, Gregory Solman at DVDExpress.com argued that his films express a consistent satirical view of Hollywood genre and human foible. It’s important to realize that Kubrick, like any serious filmmaker, was not a prisoner of genre (which is essentially a mere commercial categorization). His films bent narrative form as much as Godard’s or Altman’s ever did while also depending upon audience identification of generic archetype (the heist film, antiwar film, sex comedy, sci-fi flick, historical drama, horror movie, Vietnam flick, etc.). The Killing, which is simultaneously a caper and an examination of post-WWII malaise, expressed that period’s search for new alternatives to traditional values. “All the
elements of American contemporary culture were in place by the year 1955,” scholar William Lhamon wrote, citing “what beleaguered people could fashion to encompass their materially different experience.” Kubrick’s pitiless humor was a modern response to generic conventions and novel life attitudes similar to the seemingly affectless protagonists in Godard’s 1959 Breathless.


Always stepping back, seeing the absurd in the horrible, Kubrick gave an impression of cold, impersonal detachment. But the lower-depths characters in The Killing are a poignantly human bunch. The cuckolded cashier (Elijah Cook Jr.) and his unfaithful wife (Marie Windsor), the immigrant chess-playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani), the crooked cop (Jay Adler), the oppressed bartender (Joe Sawyer), the isolated sharpshooter (Timothy Carey), the racetrack deadbeat (Jay C. Flippen) and the cynical mastermind (Sterling Hayden) comprise an unforgettable rogues’ gallery. But Kubrick wasn’t content with echt-Hollywood caricature; his dialogue individualizes them, filling in those great battered-flesh faces (grim visages Dick Tracy exaggerated). He also fit them into a devious, startling plot structure that jumbles and repeats the time and sequencing of the robbery.


This innovation is what Quentin Tarantino imitated in Pulp Fiction and even less well in Jackie Brown. Apparently all of the 90s film critical fraternity overlooked Tarantino’s theft. But even worse, they forgot Kubrick’s innovation. On top of The Killing‘s mock-documentary narration, Kubrick (later famed for his emphasis on a scene’s duration, especially in the magnificent Barry Lyndon) toyed with the audience’s sense of inevitability, causality and consequence. By simply announcing each out-of-sequence, backtracking scene, Kubrick eliminated the conventional flashback (an irreverent repudiation of Fred Zinnemann’s acclaimed adherence to strict time unities in the 1952 High Noon). The Killing‘s composer Gerald Fried told Peter Bogdanovich that Kubrick frequently smirked “at the tasteless sentimentality of most pictures” and this time-shift is a key esthetic example. Ridding himself of the useless nicety of narrative order, Kubrick evoked existential chaos and—more remarkably—kept audiences on their toes.


That’s the significance of his uncanny filmmaking technique. It’s been a pleasure to revisit it recently, especially in proximity to Lincoln Center’s ongoing retrospective of Max Ophuls—the filmmaker whose meticulous, impressive camera movements inspired the mise-en-scene Kubrick favored. Kubrick emerged from Ophuls, and other filmmaking of his day, with a new-generation energy similar to the French New Wave but spiked with an American intellectual’s sophomoric wit. He saw beyond Ophuls’ opulent, sensual flow to its mechanical, scientific capacity for probing analysis (“His camera could pass through walls,” an awed Kubrick was quoted). As much as the New Wave’s numerous explicit literary and film references, this was the homage of an American film nerd. Technical fascination remained part of Kubrick’s style and his legend. His post-Ophuls tracking shots (almost innumerable in Paths of Glory) became a bold profession of cinematic excitement. Self-conscious and thrilling. In The Killing the uncommon emphasis on natural light sources (first tried in Killer’s Kiss) became a Kubrick signifier years before 70s American directors discovered “available light.”


This nerd aspect of Kubrick’s genius explains his film-buff magnetism, rivaled only by Hitchcock. But to appreciate Kubrick simply for his technical ingenuity, as Tarantino does, misrepresents his artistry. It can be startlingly precise—as in The Killing‘s robbery scene, where the guard sloppily fills a laundry bag with cash spilling over the sides to foreshadow the fateful blowout (Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style) at the airport finale. But Kubrick’s precision was also moral, albeit formal: A racial/homosexual encounter between sniper Carey and a black parking attendant (James Edwards) rings with provocative symbols—a lucky horseshoe and a hateful epithet. The emotions are so extraordinary the scene’s drama is unhinged—like that uncanny moment in The Shining when Jack Nicholson repeats a bartender’s slur, twisting its bitterness into lunacy. But Kubrick uses the parking lot symbols thoroughly, letting the phenomena of human interaction realign the cosmic order, asserting justice in all its strange beauty. That’s something Tarantino and 90s film nerds have yet to learn—how Kubrick combined his moral and technical knack into strange, hilarious beauty.


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Do All Music Videos Go to Heaven?, my video lecture/presentation at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on Monday, July 19, will address the fantasy phenomenon that has overtaken music videos. As young filmmakers and film-conscious pop music artists use music video to visualize the emotional states abstracted on disc, the form has changed into a medium of reverie. Instead of drug-induced hallucinations, we get visions deliberately detached from reality—reality heightened into manageable, nonthreatening chimera, like TLC’s No Scrubs or Madonna’s Ray of Light—and yet unmistakably derived from stress and unease.


This is the same therapeutic use of media that the inspired new German comedy Run, Lola, Run illustrates so well, treating modern tension through a parody of high-speed film-video-animation techniques. It also occurs in Lauryn Hill’s new music video, Everything Is Everything. Like the heroine of Run, Lola, Run, Hill sprints for the lives of her loved ones—all of us. Hiphop’s first Earth mother (fittingly a young, sexy one), she takes on the responsibility of loving. There’s an oratorical pomposity to Everything Is Everything (“Now hear this mixture/Where hiphop meets scripture”). It’s a jeremiad—not the similarly titled love ditty Diana Ross recorded in 1970—because Hill revives rap’s sense of mission. Pumping One-Love energy into finding an appropriate visual representation of her conscientious spirit, Hill’s video almost redeems this unstructured track.


Since her lionized album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out a year ago, she has made only two other video clips—Big TV’s stereoptical coup Doo Wop and Malik Sayeed’s Ex-Factor. But Everything Is Everything benefits immensely from Hill’s director, the Indian-born artist Sanji. This the first Hill clip to visualize a philosophical concept. Hill and Sanji adapt the karmic notion of universal connection and cyclical experience to details of the 90s urban marathon. Street life is depicted through its animated pace and by Sanji literally grooving its energetic to-and-fro:


Hill is seen running Lola-like through New York as the huge arm of a phonograph swings over the city. It casts an ominous Independence Day-like shadow, then plants its diamond-tipped stylus into gray pavement. RPM rhythm becomes the video’s metaphor for life; so while Hill dashes about in a long skirt and pink velour t-shirt and tosses her fluffy dreads, her movements—stylish and portentous—represent everyone’s.


The largeness of Hill and Sanji’s visual concept encompasses the multiplicity of New York, various lives intersecting or in parallels. The worldview Hill raps (“I wrote these words for everyone/Who struggles in their youth”) suggests a level playing field that spins and shakes folks up through someone else’s control—represented by the hands of a black DJ. This unnamed hiphop deity makes the earth quake and the city speak (in Hill’s voice) by mining its subterranean resources. Observing the lives of anxious, working people, the video strikes veins of ambition, chagrin, humility.


Run, Lola, Run does the same thing with less poetic technique. Director Tom Tykwer imagines a punkette-and-slacker love story to describe the era’s coarse realities. Lola (Franka Potente) and Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) are compelled by arbitrary plot circumstances to act out their unspoken feelings. But like Everything Is Everything‘s Deus Ex Hiphop, Tykwer, following Lola’s marathon, scores the layout of her German hometown. He (subtly) finds philosophical patterns in Lola and Manni’s tergiversations—and in the probable destinies of people they pass, shown in several snapshot montages. In addition to Tykwer’s ambidextrous direction (he utilizes film, still photography and cartoon animation as if master of all), he’s written an ideal techno score that gives Lola’s breakneck race an amusing, metronomic precision. And Lola’s theme song (“I wish I was a heartbeat that never comes to rest”) makes Tykwer’s Wittgensteinian premise a passionate one. It’s when the film does rest—for two rose-tinted pillow talk confessions between Lola and Manni—that Tykwer’s conceit peaks emotionally. He reveals, at its throbbing center, orbiting notions of love: male need and female devotion vibrating as in an atomic reactor.


Lauryn Hill’s solitary song of agape unites that duality. Sanji plays with the spatial distinctions between mundane human activity and its magnified appearance (also seen in the Rolling Stones’ Love Is Strong video and a current Sunny Delight commercial). These images (including whip pans of time-lapse horizons moving between skyscraper canyons) suggest that the everyday experience we take for granted is part of an even larger design—a point humorously conveyed by the video’s grandest symbol, the Empire State Bldg. seen as a spindle with New York bustling around it with centrifugal force, like a vinyl record.


The fantasias of Everything Is Everything and Run, Lola, Run reflect a unique sensibility—the contemporary need for outsize, spiritual and mathematical projections of the confounding urban world. Sanji and Tykwer express ideas that go to heaven theoretically. Meet me at “Heaven” on Monday night. I’ll show you more.

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