A Brief Guide to Stanley Kubrick’s Oeuvre

Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick

If there is a filmmaker who continuously switched genres with his every directorial venture, but could still show consistency in terms of quality and style, it’s none other than Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was an eccentric perfectionist who used to take control over all the aspects of filmmaking including direction, editing, cinematography and even sound & music, and that’s what makes him an auteur. However, the most significant parts of his films were research and an omnipresence sense of satire.

Stanley Kubrick is revered as the most influential filmmaker in World Cinema. With an IQ above average, Kubrick started showing precocity and deep interest in literature at a very tender age. He started his career as a photographer and also went on to make short films, revenues of what could finance his first feature film. It is impossible to pick out 5 best films from the illustrious filmography of Stanley Kubrick. However, it will be more interesting to read about his outstanding oeuvre and how he evolved as the most distinguished director in the history of cinema.

1. Fear and Desire [1953] –

Fear and Desire
Fear and Desire

It tells a story of four soldiers including a young lieutenant, a sergeant, a tough GI, and an afraid young recruit, who are trapped behind enemy lines. Fear and Desire is Kubrick’s first feature film with 62 minutes runtime. The film is an anti-war allegory and looks more like an impetus that led to Kubrick’s later masterpieces like Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. The performances are quite unimpressive, but photography and sound make an impact. The film has many things that are common in all Kubrick films – the recurrence of satirical episodes and plans taking a tall because of humanly errors (read stupidity). Apparently, Stanley wasn’t quite impressed with his first film and tried to surface it. However, the print has also surfaced on YouTube now.

2. Killer’s Kiss [1955] –

Killer
Killer’s Kiss

It is a story of a washed up boxer, who tells about unusual events that happened within the past couple of days. Killer’s Kiss imparts all the traces of Kubrick’s undeniable brilliance that his first venture Fear and Desire fails to. However, looking at rest of the films in Kubrick’s filmography, this film has some aspects that are characteristically non-Kubrick in nature. For instance, even though, Killer’s Kiss is a gritty noir, it has an archetype of a love story and compromises with an unnecessary happy ending. Moreover, it has a narration that is absolutely needless. What’s best about Killer’s Kiss is its cinematography that captures viewers’ attention even without notable moments. Killer Kiss is more like an introduction to Stanley Kubrick’s style of filmmaking.

3. The Killing [1956] –

The Killing
The Killing

The Killing is a story of some crooks that plan and execute a ballsy robbery. Basically a heist movie, The Killing is Stanley Kubrick’s first mature film. It has the absolute feel and looks of 1950s’ film noir. The film also displays Kubrick’s impeccable attention to detail – a characteristic feature that followed in each masterpiece by him. It also has elements of Kubrick’s dark sense of humor that became his signature style in all the films that followed. Writing and editing are salient features of this film because the events are not in chronological order, but somehow every action seems important right from the beginning. Moreover, there is a voiceover in the background that narrates all the events and mentions important dates and time.

4. Paths of Glory [1957] –

Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory

There is a scene in Paths of Glory wherein a corrupt Divisional Commander of a platoon visits the bunker. While instructing the soldiers, he snarls something similar to – “Our platoon is all about fearlessness”. The very next moment, sound of a bomb shakes his guts. It’s not like, the scene is the most important in the film, but an audience gets an idea of Kubrick’s dark humor that he finds in worldly paradoxes. The film, majorly depicts the hypocrisy and degeneracy of Army leadership and is set in the backdrop of World War I.  The best part of the film is how Colonel Dax tries to defend the survivors of a deadly mission, who are accused as cowards by his superiors and there is also a well-written scene in which he loses his cool in front of the Brigadier General. The film ends at an emotional note with a song.

5. Spartacus [1960] –

Spartacus
Spartacus

It is a story of a slave named Spartacus who leads a revolt against the decadent Roman Republic. With Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick took his filmmaking to another level. It was shot in larger-frame cinematography, unlike his previous films. Moreover, the film is an intellectual epic and in a way, set a platform for Kubrick to make higher budget films – all thanks to Kirk Douglas who showed faith in him after the success of Paths of Glory. The best part of Spartacus is how Kubrick shows the parasitical side and also moral bankruptcy of the upper class and the inherent ethics of slaves. In the end sequence, Spartacus dies on the cross, just like Jesus, which is also a metaphor that shows what “leading a revolution” leads to.

6. Lolita [1962] –

Lolita
Lolita

Based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov of the same name, Lolita is an unabashedly told story of a pedophilic middle-aged college professor who gets attracted to a fourteen years old girl named Lolita. Lolita has elements of tragedy, comedy, and crime. Furthermore, the film gets quite disturbing with the progression of events and has elements of abuse, corruption, greed, and power. This is by far the most controversial film by Stanley Kubrick as it seems to be glorifying pedophilia in some instances. However, apart from Kubrick’s satirical portrayal of episodes and black and white texture, what’s good about Lolita is that it conspicuously and more importantly disambiguates the narrative and imparts a message that crime (sex crime in this context) never pays. The film faced censorship limitations.

7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1964] –

Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove, opulently overflown with Stanley Kubrick’s satirical sense of humor is a war comedy in which an insane General triggers the doomsday machine, which everyone in the “war room” tries to stop. The screenplay is full of dialogues like, Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is a war room!”, and The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”  Kubrick hones his filming skills with some of the panoramic frames, the style that is taken to pinnacle in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. With that, some rollicking scenes juxtaposed with paradoxical frames make this film a hilarious account on the war and the doomsday machine, which from a perspective, only goes to elucidate the futility and meaninglessness of war, which also makes it a perfect anti-war film.

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] –

2001 A Space Odyssey
2001 A Space Odyssey

Films on space have always fascinated audiences; and films of that genre have some things in common – great visuals, incredible background score and evoke an obscure feeling of fantasy. What’s different in this Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is that, with its panoramic photography and moving camera shots, takes you to the world of a spaceship – something that only this film can make you feel. Stanley Kubrick’s authentic research about the subject, squeaky clean set-up (that adds up to the visual delight), evocative background score and its indecipherably ambiguous philosophy collectively make 2001: A Space Odyssey a staple watch for Cinephiles around this planet.

9. A Clockwork Orange [1971] –

A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange

Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess of the same name, A Clockwork Orange is the most disturbing film ever made by Stanley Kubrick. It is a story of a young gang that gets into the whirlwind of obsessive violence and absurdity. Narrated by the protagonist himself; the film progresses with episodes of cold-blooded violence which are also followed by a failed attempt at rehabilitation. The background scores are mostly Beethoven’s symphonies. What’s so interesting about ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is how Kubrick victimizes the protagonist (who is rather sadistic) and the way he portrays the atrocities behind the medical innovation.

10. Barry Lyndon [1975] –

Barry Lyndon
Barry Lyndon

The film is an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Barry Lyndon. It is a story of a man who falls in love with a widowed woman, and goes on to assume the late husband’s aristocratic position. However, the man destroys himself because he lacks the class and character to survive in that position. Apart from its visual excellence and gripping screenplay, Barry Lyndon is also a movie that demands audiences to totally get into Kubrick’s world – a world full of emotional detachment and bloodlessness. Otherwise, it gets a complete bore.

11. The Shining [1980] –

The Shining
The Shining

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, The Shining is perhaps the most Freudian film ever made in the history of cinema. What’s interesting is Kubrick diverges from Stephen King’s horror story. According to Kubrick, The Shining is an account of a family experiencing a complete mental breakdown and going absolutely crazy in the realms of isolation and solitude of the Hotel Overlook. However, Stanley Kubrick has introduced a lot of layers with ambiguity, innuendoes and cultural allegories into it and made the film open to multiple interpretations. The background score also contributes to make the aura even eerier.

12. Full Metal Jacket [1987] –

Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket

The film tells a story of a group of marine grunts who undergo a training under a lambasting commander. Full Metal Jacket is perhaps one of the most gripping films by Stanley Kubrick. The first 40 minutes of the film is an incessant laughter riot. It ends up with a psychologically complex plot point. The film, set up in the backdrop of the Vietnam War, happens to be one of the better-looking war movies.  However, the only part that is disappointing is the absence of two main characters in the second half. The second half also covers the Vietnam War in the most satirical way with an emotional depth. Incredible performances and Kubrick’s signature style satire makes it a must watch.

13. Eyes Wide Shut [1999] –

Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut

It is a story of a New York City doctor who is married to an art curator. She admits that she had almost cheated on him. What follows is a night of sexual and moral discovery. The film is based on Dream Story – A 1926 German novella by the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. Kubrick had taken the rights in the 1960s to create a motion picture based on it. However, the project could only start in the 1990s. It went on to be the last feature film of the legend. The best part of the film is its editing. The editor has also arranged the scenes in such a way that they have their own dramatic value. Moreover, the film has an archetype of a dream, which makes it a surreal watch.

Stanley Kubrick is such an elusive director that it gets impossible to define his weltanschauung. However, there is a common pattern in all his film. His films are full of satirical episodes which reproach general notions in a subtle way. With a career spanning over 5 decades, Stanley Kubrick has directed only 13 films. However, his out of the box ideas, eminent filmmaking, and inscrutable philosophy has made him the most interesting subject in the world cinema.

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