$5 Bin Film School: Stanley Kubrick

Hi, my name is Jake and I have a problem. I have entirely too many unwatched films just laying around my apartment. Those of you who know me well also know this problem well, and have told me many times to cull the collection down. That’s what this blog series is all about. $5 Bin Film School is my attempt to work through the bargain bin/Half Price Books discount DVDs and Blus that I have accrued over the years. Some posts will be composed of short thoughts about a film; others might be deep-dives into multiple films joined by a theme; some might be essays about a film’s influence. At the end of each post, I’ll decide if I want to keep the film or get rid of it, and hopefully whittle my collection down to a more manageable number.

The first entry into this series is a trilogy of films from director Stanley Kubrick: 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”; 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and 1971’s “A Clockwork Orange”…

‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’

Dr. Strangelove
George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove.” Photo from Flickr.

I first saw 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove” as a freshman at Texas Christian University in 2010. I needed one more English class to complete my degree requirement (Hooray, AP tests) and I chose a course called “Approaches to Film.” Our curriculum was all over the filmic map, but this was the first film we watched and analyzed as a class.

That analysis focused mostly on the phallic symbols and sexual humor contained in this Cold War satire (of which there are many, but, as Freud himself supposedly once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). I was more intrigued by the paradox of control the film presented: In order for America to protect itself against Russia, it has to look like it is ready to strike with a bomb at any given minute. If they do strike, it automatically ensures mutually assured destruction.

That anyone could mine such a situation for humor is impressive. That Stanley Kubrick managed to create a blistering satire that is still relevant and funny today is masterful.

Every shot in this film is concerned with power — who has it, who’s lying about having it, what lengths men will go to to obtain it, the lies men tell themselves in the hopes that they are more powerful than they seem.

It’s also bitingly funny in hindsight, but must have been terrifying at the time of its release, when the Cold War was still raging. The “war room fight” scene still made me laugh years after seeing it for the first time because it was so absurd that laughter is the only response. The “Can you hear me now?” bit on the phone still rings prescient as a spoof of the mindlessness of red-tape bureaucracy. It stops being hilarious and becomes a pointed barb when you remember that Kubrick is wrestling with the fact that humanity might not live through this conflict.

Combine all that with a career performance from Peter Sellers in three roles as the titular doctor, Capt. Mandrake and the U.S. president, and you’ve got a film with staying power that still stings more than 50 years later. I watched this two days after President Trump had a summit with Kim Jong-Un. I wasn’t necessarily comforted, but it was a weird kind of comfort to know that our 2018 nuclear fears are not wholeheartedly new.

Blu-Ray, Criterion Collection edition.

Keep or Toss? Keep.

‘We’re seven years from the millennium, that’s a science fiction fact/Stanley Kubrick and his buddy HAL now don’t look that abstract’ — Jimmy Buffett, ‘Fruitcakes,’ 1994

2001: A Space Odyssey
A still from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Photo republished with Creative Commons License from Flickr.

I finally saw “2001” about a month ago. I was 26. It’s odd watching it now, in 2018, on its 50th anniversary. The film has permeated so much of American pop culture at this point that I’m almost more familiar with its imitators and spoofs than I am with the actual film.

(I must confess that upon hearing the opening refrains of “Sunrise” from Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra,” my immediate thought was “Oh, it’s the music from that Zurg joke on ‘Toy Story 2.'”)

I started watching it at 11 p.m. on my couch. Probably not the most ideal viewing situation, but oh well.

I was in awe from the first scene. It was like watching your own dream logic on film; I was so familiar with HAL and that match cut and the spaceship sequence toward the end that a first viewing of “2001” almost felt like returning to something I’d known all my life.

Much has been said about Kubrick’s coldness or his unsentimentally, a criticism that’s been levied against “2001” a lot. While “2001” is a film that absolutely favors style over plot and visuals over dialogue, there is a lot that this film says about humanity. Our need to worship something until we feel we can move beyond it (again, the power dynamic) is a key tenant of the film.

While I won’t posit any theories on What That Ending Means (because there are plenty of those interpretations out there), the ending made me feel awe, fear, introspection and hope all at the same time. A month later, I’m still thinking about certain shots and certain scenes and visual cues.

I can’t wait to see it again.

DVD, 4-pack Wal-Mart Bargain Bin edition (Comes with “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “A Clockwork Orange”)

Keep or Toss? Keep.

‘I was cured, all right’

A Clockwork Orange
Malcolm McDowell as Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Photo republished with Creative Commons License from Flickr.

Hoo boy. I feel like if I had first seen this film when a lot of my friends did, at 16, 17 years old, it would have struck me as a little bit more novel. I saw a tweet a while ago that said something to the effect of “If you meet a guy who says his favorite film is ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Clockwork Orange,’ ‘(500) Days of Summer’ or ‘Scott Pilgrim’ and doesn’t grasp the deeper meaning, then run.”

The #edgy and #itsreallydeep reputation that “Clockwork” had among my teenage peers kept me from watching it back then. I was a precocious Southern Baptist kid with a guilt complex and I wasn’t about to watch some X-rated film that featured a rape set to “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Watching it now, I see that the form and function of the film is the same, and I appreciate how it is a simulacra of the type of repulsion that the film itself depicts with Alex. He is too repulsed by his past deeds, but he can’t look away; we are repulsed by what we are seeing, but we can’t pull our eyes from the screen either.

I also appreciate the technical acumen and art direction on display here. This is one of Kubrick’s most visual films, with the Technicolor leaping off the screen. The function of the on-screen beauty paired with “ultraviolence” and rape and hedonism mirrors the Beethoven classical music and “Singin’ in the Rain” diagetic scoring of Alex’s crimes. I get it.

All of this doesn’t mean anything if the film isn’t reaching to say anything deeper. I think it attempts to. It poses thoughtful questions and conflicts, like: If we eliminate free will and the choice to be good or bad, can we call ourselves human? If we can’t act violent but still feel the urge to be violent, does that make us good because we don’t act on it? Is everyone violent, and the only thing keeping us from outright hedonism is a flimsy social contract with the government? And why doesn’t the government actually try and rehabilitate its criminals, anyway? (Power, power, power.)

However, I think Kubrick wants us to side with Alex by the end of the film, even though there’s an abundance of reasons not to. In the end, I’m with Roger Ebert in his initial review: “Alex is violent because it is necessary for him to be violent in order for this movie to entertain in the way Kubrick intends. Alex has been made into a sadistic rapist not by society, not by his parents, not by the police state, not by centralization and not by creeping fascism — but by the producer, director and writer of this film, Stanley Kubrick.”

DVD, 4-pack Wal-Mart Bargain Bin edition (Comes with “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”)

Keep or Toss? Toss.


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