Stanley Kubrick Tag

Review: A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

It’s traditional to save comments about video quality until the two-thirds or three-quarter point of a review, but I have to cut right to the chase: This is a stunningly gorgeous transfer of a deliberately ugly film—the best I’ve seen Kubrick’s picaresque stroll through depravity look since I watched an archival print on a Moviola.

 

From its opening image on, Kubrick meant Clockwork Orange to be the anti-2001. After doing a big-budget Cinerama epic full of elaborate sets and effects for MGM, he decided to go lean and mean with his first project for Warner Bros., opting for a 

minimal crew and existing locations, except for one simple small set. And he completely rethought his approach to cinematography, using Orange as a kind of laboratory to experiment with, and essentially reinvent, the whole aesthetic of commercial film.

 

Kubrick had been trying to recreate the look of practical lighting since his first efforts in the early ‘50s, and various directors—most notably Godard—had made great strides with that approach throughout the ’60s; but with Orange, Kubrick finally nailed it, coming up with a way of presenting and perceiving “natural” lighting that not only defined all of his films from then on but has been the go-to look of Hollywood filmmaking ever since—for better and, often, worse.

 

Clockwork Orange is deceptive—so much so that, even though I know it well, it misled me when I watched it in HD a few months ago on Netflix, where it looked like hell. All of

CLOCKWORK ORANGAT A GLANCE

The future turned out to be even bleaker than Kubrick imagined it—but societal decay has never looked more appealing than in this gorgeous 4K HDR transfer.

 

PICTURE

The transfer restores the essential puckishness that’s missing from all previous home releases, making the grim imagery not only palatable but exhilarating.

 

SOUND 

Everything sounds fine—but even the stereo mix is a distortion of what Kubrick originally intended.

that dimness and grime just made the subject matter that much more unpleasant, and I regretted I’d taken the time to check it out.

 

Seeing it in 4K HDR took me back to my early experiences with, and excitement for, the film. And that changed perception all hinged on seeing the cinematography done absolutely right. Kubrick was indisputably aiming for grunge—a goal he achieved 

in spades. But he did it with a subtle, and puckish, elegance and elan that makes the images not dispiriting but thrilling. Watch this film in anything other than 4K HDR and you’ll miss the twist the whole experience pivots on.

 

A couple of examples among an abundance: In earlier releases, the lettering could look painted onto the milk-bar walls; here, the letters stand out in distinct relief, enhancing the tactile sense of the environment. There are closeups and medium shots throughout that are literally breathtaking, but the closeup of Malcolm McDowell as he dresses down his gang in the lobby of his sub-human apartment building is jawdropping in its clarity and immediacy. Yes, there are some soft frames here and there, but they existed in the original film.

 

See this movie as just about the subject matter and you can be in for a miserable time. Just as important is getting on the wavelength of the astonishing creative energy Kubrick poured into the project. You can actually both sense and see him throwing out the remaining rules of the studio system and discovering filmmaking anew, and clearly enjoying every second of it. Orange is not his best film but it’s probably his most inventive, and seeing that unbridled virtuosity on display can make it a very heady ride.

 

Sure it’s dated as hell—any time you riff on the future, you’re going to date your film. But Kubrick showed he was aware of that by not really imagining a future, like he did in 2001, but by imagining an even more grotesque present—which is why Orange’s future has aged better than 2001’s. No point in presenting a lot of examples to back up my point—just look at the old women in the film walking around in purple wigs and then the old women in the present doing the same, and I’ll rest my case.

 

Probably the most ironic thing abut Clockwork Orange seen today is how wrong Kubrick got its crux, violence. For someone so deeply cynical, he assumed that people in the future would still maintain some kind of essential repugnance toward violent acts. In other words, he saw 

some residual, positive value in a shared sense of decency. He couldn’t have been more blind to that vast act of social re-education and desensitization called the ‘80s, which replaced the deeper and more skeptical cynicism of the ‘60s with a far more facile “everything sucks” version that would just roll violence into the overarching oppressive apathy and see it deliberately deployed as yet another cultural wedge. This would all eventually mutate into the even more facile, and

juvenile, current fascination with “dark.” Kubrick was often accused of presenting his characters as dehumanized—even he didn’t see how quickly we’d get to that point, let alone how enthusiastically we’d embrace it.

 

Orange can no longer shock—the pornographic, in all its forms, has since become commonplace, accepted, and encouraged—but it can still entertain. Malcolm McDowell doesn’t have complete control over his performance but his sometimes reckless careening leads to some giddy highs. And Patrick Magee’s turn as the “writer of subversive literature” who becomes grotesquely unhinged from watching McDowell’s rape of his wife is masterful—the kind of thing Sellers pulled off over and over in Strangelove but done here with a kind of dada collage feel that’s astonishing to watch.

 

And it’s a thrill just to savor Kubrick’s mise en scene—how he found unsettling ways to convey essential moments of the film without once stumbling into the arbitrary wackiness and poor-man’s surrealism that marred—and sank—so many late ‘60s/early ‘70s movies. In none of his films was he ever more of a punk than he is here, and it’s a cause for celebration because it shows how deeply expressive and subversive commercial film can be—and has rarely been since.

 

As for the extras—sorry, but I’d prefer to refrain from any comment, since they’re 

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

by the same inept team of ne’er-do-wells that’s plagued the other Kubrick releases, and the best word for their efforts—if I may call them such—is inexcusable. Criminally so.

 

From Strangelove in 1964 to The Shining in 1980, Kubrick produced a sui generis string of genius films, all clearly cut from the same cloth but all, in very fundamental ways, radically different. And along the way, he completely changed how movies are conceptualized, made, and perceived. No one has ever equalled that accomplishment, and I think I can safely say no one ever will. The whole history of the movies pivoted on Clockwork Orange. But forget all that—just cue it up in 4K and savor it as the dangerous act of pure film it very much is.    

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Killing

The Killing (1956)

The staging is often stilted, the acting often laughably bad when it’s not just mismanaged, it’s a concatenation of crime-drama clichés that leans almost to the breaking point on John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the whole punctuated by pretentious, even silly, compositions and tracking shots that convey nothing, and yet Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is one of the seminal works of American filmmaking, poised right on the pivot into what would become, for better or worse, the modern era of the 

movies. This is Kubrick’s first real feature, and he freely admitted that, in that time before film schools, he still had his training wheels on—and it shows. But, determined not to be a studio hack, aiming to be the first true independent within the studio system, he pushes the boundaries throughout. The results might be ludicrously mixed, but they’re a damn sight more interesting than what almost any other director was doing at that time, and their implications were, in retrospect, huge.

 

Critics did dismiss The Killing as a low-budget Asphalt Jungle knockoff—an accusation that was true as far as it went. And Kubrick might have seen himself as more of a Hustonian director at that point (although his affinity lay more with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but as he hit his stride as a filmmaker, it became obvious that if you created a Venn diagram of the two directors, any common 

THE KILLING AT A GLANCE

Kubrick’s first real feature is a bit of a mess—it’s also one of the seminal works in American film.  

 

PICTURE
Lots of grain, lots of noise—but not so much to make it unwatchable, and with enough clarity to allow you to appreciate Kubrick’s photojournalistic roots.

 

SOUND     

Oddly uneven dialogue levels that would be worth fixing if the film ever makes it to 4K.

ground between them would be minimal, and suspect. The more plausible explanation is that, in a bid to be palatable to the system, Kubrick donned a Huston disguise and used it as a Trojan horse to insinuate himself with the studio elders.

 

I can’t begin to do the film justice in this short review, just point out some things that might make the experience more interesting if you decide to revisit it—beginning with the fact that, while Jungle was a character-study-driven crime drama that was also about process, Kubrick decisively shifted that emphasis, not unsympathetically showing that his characters were pawns of much larger forces—not metaphysical but post-war societal ones defined by increasing dehumanization (a 

viewpoint well captured in the many meanings of the title—all but one of which is lost on contemporary viewers, with their blinkered fixation on bloodshed).

 

While Kubrick wanted to garner the largest possible audience, he had no interest in feeding them A-list pablum. He instead drew from the fertile muck of the B- (and often C-) movie world—a vital perspective on his work that’s rarely (actually, as far as I know, never been) explored. In many ways, his movies owe far more to Ed Wood and Burt I. Gordon than to William Wyler or Cecil B. DeMille. Just consider the recurring presence of actors like Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel or those godawful Gerald Fried scores (with Fried joined at the hip to the equally obstreperous Albert Glasser). And while it wasn’t deliberately placed there for the production, it’s not just pure chance that a poster for “Lenny Bruce and His All Girl Review” can be glimpsed on a seedy downtown LA wall when Sterling Hayden goes to buy a pawn-shop suitcase for hiding the loot. In a sense, Kubrick always showed an affinity with Bataille, constantly reminding us of the fetid underbelly that was essential to creating the Hollywood sheen—and driving the American engine.

 

And then there’s Jim Thompson, the roman noir King of the American Underbelly, whose work went through a very much lauded revival thanks to a seemingly endless string of film adaptations from the 1990s into the new millennium. Accepted wisdom has it that moviemaking wasn’t equal to Thompson’s material at the time he was an active writer. The truth is that none of those recent adaptations are worth the spit it took to make them. None of them grasped

Thompson but just pushed the more lurid elements for all they were worth. If you want to know his work, read his books—or watch The Killing or Paths of Glory. Or The Shining.

 

True, Kubrick didn’t know what to do with what Thompson was handing him—the scenes between Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. were great on paper but beyond what Kubrick was then capable of as a director. But they’re still meaningful, and amusing in ways that go beyond their status as kitsch, because they make it clear that Cook’s put-upon George Peatty is very much the heart and fulcrum of the film (which you would never know by looking at Kaleidescape’s cast list, where his name is oddly omitted.) 

 

There’s also Lucien Ballard, who’s a bit of a curious case. Known for shooting Three Stooges shorts, he lensed for Kubrick here with mixed but sometimes inspired results, then went on to do both Blake Edwards’ The Party and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch—which officially qualifies him as a kind of subversive chameleon. The Blu-ray-quality transfer of The Killing—like the hit-and-miss 4K one for Dr. Strangelove—helps highlight the huge impact Kubrick’s photojournalistic work had on his films—something that was a lot harder to discern in earlier, lower-res releases. That documentary aesthetic lends an authentic grit to

the action that more polished studio noir could never capture.

 

Brace yourself for a lot of grain, along with a lot of digital noise, but The Killing is definitely viewable on a big screen, and it’s worth making the effort for the shots where those forces aren’t as much in play, such as the many tight shots, a lot of them—like most of the closeups of Sterling Hayden and those key exchanges between Cook and Windsor—quite striking. (As with most older films, the opening titles are overly enhanced. When is somebody going to figure out how to make those stop looking like bad student video and more like film?)

 

Not much to be said about the audio, except that nothing can really be done to ameliorate the impact of Fried’s clangorous blaring except to scrub it from the film completely. I noticed on this viewing, though, that there were big disparities in the levels of the actors’ voices, which I’m sure is a baked-in problem but one someone should address if this ever makes it to 4K.

 

I don’t mean to dump too hard on The Killing, but it’s in no sense a great film—but it is an infinitely intriguing one, with moments of undeniably bold camerawork, editing, design, sound, and acting that still hold up. And of course there are all those early indications of the filmmaker Kubrick would eventually be. Maybe what 

The Killing (1956)

most redeems the movie is that you can sense him trying to claw his way above all the then-current melodramatic and romantic clichés in an effort to find higher, more authentic ground. (The contemporary equivalent would be trying to make a film that’s not hopelessly fouled by adolescent fantasy and its attendant fascist notions of power.) He would continue that parlous ascent all the way through Paths of Glory and Lolita, with decidedly mixed results, before emerging a master artist with Strangelove. (Even Kubrick freely admitted that Spartacus doesn’t count.)

 

You don’t have to be a Kubrick—or Jim Thompson or Sterling Hayden—fan to enjoy The Killing. But you do have to leave most of the current cultural biases at the door—and there are so many of them—to even begin to appreciate it. It’s not mindless entertainment, a diversion—it’s a movie.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo ReviewSound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Michael Gaughn’s 4K HDR Wish List

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List

Trying to come up with a reasonably brief list of titles worth upgrading to 4K HDR is as maddening as lopping off hydra heads. Once you have one nailed down, up pops another equally worthy contender until you feel like you’re going to be devoured by the damn things. So what follows is far from exhaustive and is being put forth knowing full well there are scores of other titles that should have made the cut as well. To help keep things manageable, I’ve limited the list to:

 

♦  Movies from before digital filmmaking went mainstream. These are the efforts most likely to benefit from 4K HDR, if done right.

 

♦  Ones where the elements are likely to be in decent shape. As we’ve said often, UHD can work wonders but it can also be merciless at revealing flaws, so there’s little point in prioritizing titles that will just leave you asking “Why?”

 

♦  Movies as vital and relevant as anything of more recent vintage, as opposed the kind of musty old museum pieces that are easily filed away under “Classics”.

 

And there’s one other criterion: There seemed little point in pushing titles based on their popularity. Blockbusters and fan favorites will inevitably get leapfrogged to the front of any upgrade queue because, while they rarely reflect well on the filmmaking art, they’ve got the built-in advantage of fan rabidity to help ensure ROI.

 

I’ve instead focused on movies based not on their box office but their influence—especially their influence on other filmmakers. These tend to be the films that innovate instead of replicate, that are more likely to be the (sometimes awkward) expression of an individual viewpoint than of a corporate collective. “Big” movies tend to be able to fend for themselves, while more human, inherently, not accidentally, creative efforts need all the advocates they can get.

M.G.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

All of Douglas Sirk’s subversive soap operas from the mid ‘50s should be upgraded immediately. Their influence on filmmaking has been undeniable and huge; by being so true to their era, they’ve aged well; and they’re still reliable roadmaps to how to effectively screw with the system. All That Heaven Allows goes to the head of that list, though, thanks mainly to the genius cinematography of Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus), who might have done his best work here, somehow both respecting the subject matter while puckishly revealing its cheesiness.

 

THE BAND WAGON

Technicolor from the ‘50s can look garish if not handled right—partly because the original films already looked pretty gaudy and even the slightest misstep can push that completely over the line. Of course, Technicolor got goosed hardest of all in musicals, many of which have such amped-up palettes that they can be painful to watch now. (I pity the poor tech fool who gets assigned The Pirate.) But The Band Wagon is often considered the best musical ever not only because Comden and Green’s script opts for wit over jokes—an intelligence that tends to spill over into the production numbers as well—but because Vincente Minnelli deployed his Technicolor resources with taste if not always with restraint. Upgrading The Band Wagon could give it an unfiltered immediacy it hasn’t had since the day of its release.

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
BARRY LYNDON

Given the phenomenal job Warner Bros. did with The Shining, it’s impossible not to be antsy to see what they’ll do with what might be the most masterfully photographed movie ever. Clockwork Orange is due out over the next few months, but that won’t give us many clues about how Lyndon will fare, since Kubrick went deliberately low-fi for Orange. But if they can pull this off, it could easily become the reference disc for judging films from before the digital era.

 

BRAZIL

How can you not? Terry Gilliam, with this film, created a style that influenced practically every film and cinematic TV series since. The trick would be upgrading it while staying true to its very deliberate messiness. This is not a film you want looking like it was shot yesterday.

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
CONTEMPT

Not only is Raoul Coutard’s cinematography brilliant, but this film—and specifically, the look of this film—has been so influential that it deserves to be pushed to the top of the Godard list. If you want to cut straight to what was coolest about the look and feel of the ‘60s, watch Contempt. Godard was mocking epics shot in widescreen (in the film, Fritz Lang famously says widescreen is only good for shooting snakes and funerals), but makes an indelible case for it here.

(A quick digression: Foreign films tend to be treated like the Miss Congeniality of lists like this—and I’m pretty guilty of that here as well. Their influence on filmmakers, though, is on par with—and often exceeds—the influence of the stuff from their squeaky-wheel American cousins. But because they’re not big, loud, and stupid, eager to slap you on the back or punch you in the face, we don’t offer them up for consideration as often as we should.)

 

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

How do you pass over the film that single-handedly defined noir? People are still reinterpreting, and outright stealing from, John Seitz’s groundbreaking cinematography to this day. As films like Psycho and Dr. Strangelove have shown, it can be a gamble whether older black & white films will hold up under the upgrade process. But Indemnity was a prestige project for Paramount, so hopefully there would be a decent source to work from.

 

THE GENERAL

Silent films tend to be as easily overlooked as foreign films but many of them are as visually compelling as anything shot today. Singling ones out for upgrades can be a tough call, though, because who knows what kind of shape the elements are in? I’m throwing The General out there because it’s as much an exercise in style as it is in genius comedy—like Matthew Brady photos come to life.

 

THE LONG GOODBYE

Robert Altman’s both affectionate and cynical reimagining of Raymond Chandler continues, like Once Upon a Time in the West (see below), to be hugely influential, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s deliberately funky cinematography could look gorgeous in 4K HDR (despite the flashing). A lot of films aim for grit—this one has it on display in every frame.

 

MANHATTAN

There are at least 15 Woody Allen films from Annie Hall on that deserve to be done in 4K HDR, but given the opprobrium that’s been heaped upon him it’s likely to be a struggle just to get couple of them upgraded. It might seem to be perverse to be pushing for what has become, decades after the fact, his most controversial film, but this is his most ambitious and satisfying work and Gordon Willis’s widescreen black & white cinematography, which isn’t particularly well served by the current HD incarnation, could look spectacular in UHD.

 

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
OR
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN

John Ford was such a consummate filmmaker that at least one of his films needs to be bumped up soon—but which one? The obvious choice would be The Searchers, but that

seems too obvious. I’d opt instead for either one of these—partly because they don’t carry as much extraneous baggage as Searchers so you can appreciate Ford as an artist without getting dragged into faux notions of myth. (If we were just talking about visuals, a case could be made for the Greg Toland-lensed Long Voyage Home, but that’s not really Ford at his best.)

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

The influence of Sergio Leone’s epic, cheeky western is pervasive (Tarantino wouldn’t have a career if he couldn’t constantly pillage this film) and its reputation grows with every year. It’s not the most subtly photographed movie, but 4K could make it sublime just by staying true to its sheer widescreen filminess. And then there’s that Morricone score . . .

 

VICTOR/VICTORIA

Blake Edwards was a solid but only occasionally brilliant filmmaker, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and even The Party would all seem like good candidates for upgrades. Many film enthusiasts would vote for The Great Race, and parts of that would look spectacular, but it’s just too ungainly a film, and not that funny. Victor/Victoria is solid, beautiful, and the laughs still work—4K HDR, in competent hands, couldn’t help but enhance the experience.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

“Dr. Strangelove” and the Power of Blackness

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

I wasn’t going to review the latest release of Dr. Strangelove. After having basked in the 4K HDR editions of 2001 and The Shining, it didn’t feel right to underline that this newest upgrade isn’t all it could or should be. Reviews of older films should focus on the ones worth watching, not the ones to avoid. But, on a whim, I watched Strangelove again a few nights ago and experienced it in ways I never have before, and ultimately decided that, transfer quality be damned, it’s well worth encouraging others to go check it out.

 

Keep in mind, before we dive into this, that I’ve seen this movie countless times. I’ve studied various drafts of the screenplay and pored over every relevant comment from the cast and crew. I’ve even watched on archive print on a Moviola at the Library of Congress. But this last time around, the film, for whatever reason, revealed things that had always been hidden to me before.

 

The biggest revelation—and what will be the crux of my comments here—is that Strangelove is only superficially a comedy. At its heart, it’s a film noir—and, at the end of the day, might even represent the pinnacle of that genre.

 

For that conclusion to make sense, you have to be willing to roll with my definition of noir in “Who Killed Film Noir?”—that the crime element is just a pretext and that these movies are instead always about chumps—more specifically, male chumps—

guys who think they know the score only to find they really don’t have a clue, only to then have everyone and everything conspire against them, usually with fatal results. If you accept that definition, then noir fits Strangelove as snugly as the mad doctor’s Rotwang glove.

 

Yes, the film is heavy on noir atmospherics—dark recesses, menacing shadows, closeups that make it look like the subject is being interrogated under hot lights, etc.—but dwelling on that kind of misses the point, because Strangelove pulls just as many stylistic elements from crime dramas, war films, horror films, psychological thrillers, documentaries, and newsreels. The one genre it doesn’t look anything like is comedy, and that is central to what I’m positing here.

 

Strangelove is really comedy by other means. Its laughs—which are many and legitimate—spring almost solely from the extreme gruesomeness of the situation, from a kind of squeamishness and disbelief that ultimately reinforces the dominance of the Death Drive over the Pleasure Principle, and that people will blindly follow through on the inherent logic of their institutions and devices—all the while believing they’re exercising intelligence and will—even if it will result in their own annihilation.

 

This movie is satire first and comedy second. And it’s stunning, on reflection, what a serious film it is, that it trumps all of the more sophomoric movies that consider 

themselves satires by diving down deep into the same disturbing roots and unblinking take on humanity that motivated Swift. This is satire with some real meat, with more than a little gristle, on its bones—definitely not for the SNL crowd.

 

It’s also stunning to realize what a leap it is beyond the mess of Lolita. You can sense Kubrick trying to recover his creative integrity after the rout of his previous film, where the material, the censors, and, most importantly, the narrative tradition all got the better of him. Knowing most filmmakers far overrate the importance of story, which causes them to lean on it as a crutch, he had tried to subvert the conventions by notoriously moving Humbert’s murder of Quilty to the beginning of the film—a huge

miscalculation that only served to deflate the whole enterprise. He was way bolder with Strangelove, exposing the sheer contrivance of narrative by taking a clockwork-type suspense plot and twisting it around to serve ends no one would have thought it could ever possibly serve, and along the way exposing storytelling for what it mainly is: A manipulative mechanical device for efficiently getting you from Point A to Point Z, which in this case is the end of the world.

 

With Strangelove, Kubrick hit on the formula that would serve him well for the rest of his career of mimicking just enough genre conventions to entice and enthrall the groundlings and ensure the studio’s ROI, while having the movies actually function at levels that ultimately made hash of their seeming reasons to be. So Strangelove has just enough silly comedy and thriller elements to keep the masses in their seats but continuously moves up a creative chain, subsuming the more rudimentary elements along the way, until it ultimately arrives at noir—but noir in a way no one had ever seen it before.

 

To put it another way: Having been too conservative with Lolita, Kubrick 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHERE IN HELL IS MAJOR KONG?

Another thing that jumped out at me watching Strangelove this time around was the missile attack on the B-52, which is primarily an extremely believable documentary-style moment (especially for 1964) with nothing remotely funny about it. Of course, I’ve noticed this scene before—it’s kind of hard to ignore—but I realized this time how unique it is, since the list of comedies that can afford to go full-bore dramatic for a good chunk of the film without losing their momentum or completely throwing the audience is so short it probably doesn’t exist. One of Kubrick’s most brilliant set pieces, it convincingly places you inside the plane with the crew as they fight for their lives, so you identify with their efforts and then root for them to complete their mission—which has to create extremely conflicted emotions in all but the most cold-hearted since the crew’s ability to overcome is the thing that seals the fate of the world. The scene is also worth savoring for the way its chaotic handheld camerawork goes from documentary to abstract, turning it into a mini art film. Most movie scenes are too stage-bound or veer too close to radio—even today. This one is pure cinema.

M.G.

decided to completely trust his gut with Strangelove, and his gut told him to make a suspense thriller that was, incongruously, a comedy, but was actually, ultimately, a film noir. But that’s not the genius part. The genius part is that he made all three dovetail so seamlessly that the transitions from the cheap seats on up don’t feel so much perverse as inevitable.

 

Watch Strangelove through the lens of noir—noir stripped of most of its genre cliches in order to expose its white-hot core—and it becomes a different, much more nuanced and brilliant film. Noir wasn’t new to Kubrick. Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both overt takes on the genre, the latter unapologetically feeding from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. (Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre was another Kubrick favorite.)

 

But there’s another dimension to this that also deepens the experience of the film and that hadn’t been obvious to me until this most recent viewing, when I realized how heavily Kubrick tapped into his photo-journalistic beginnings. Fresh out of high school, he had been the youngest staff photographer ever at Look magazine, and it was his experiences there that supplied 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHY THIS ISN’T A REVIEW

I ultimately decided to not review this release of Strangelove because 4K HDR takes away as much as it brings to the experience, so while there’s no great harm in watching it that way, there’s no real benefit either.

 

One of the biggest problems is one common to many 4K upgrades of older films. Nobody has figured out how to accurately translate backdrops and matte paintings that looked convincing when run through a projector and shown on a big screen. Here, the opening painting of Burpleson Air Force Base and the later one of the Pentagon are so obvious that they pull you out of the film. Similarly, the model shots of the B-52, which were only borderline successful on film, look too clean and sterile and model-y now.

 

While someone could argue that the HDR increases the impact of the nuclear bomb blasts, I would have to counter that this isn’t an action or war film and that, since Kubrick relied on archival footage rather than effects shots, that’s not what he was after. Pumping the shots up that way is akin to adding cannon blasts to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—which I’m sure has been done, but not by anybody who deserved to live afterward. A more accurate example might be someone deciding to improve the impact of the Scherzo in the Ninth by doubling all the orchestral lines with synthesizers. I suspect that would make the work more compelling for those listeners with duller nerve endings but it would be an egregious violation of Beethoven’s original intent and a travesty of his work. Sure, anyone’s free to reinterpret Beethoven—or Bach or Stravinsky or Mahler—but don’t pretend you’re presenting the original piece. Leaning too heavily on HDR is like deciding this already virile composition needed an injection of testosterone.

 

And then there’s the kerfuffle over the aspect ratios. The best I can determine, Kubrick shot the film 1.33:1 and then matted it for 1.66:1. The original theatrical release was 1.85:1. But for the Criterion edition, he asked from some scenes to be shown full frame and some to be matted to 1.66, apparently in an effort to create a better viewing experience on pre-HD TVs. Yes, the ratios for home displays have since changed, and his similar tack with the release of The Shining was a disaster, but the point is that with Strangelove it worked, and I don’t get why this current release goes with a consistent 1.66.

 

But, again, this isn’t a review. It’s just an explanation of why I didn’t want to do one.

M.G.

the subject matter for his early documentary shorts and for Killer’s Kiss, which look like photo essays come to life.

 

He returns to those formative experiences and that style in Strangelove, with much of the film resembling his magazine work, most obviously in the faux documentary attack on Burpleson Air Force Base, but far more subtly and strikingly in the War Room. He went there mainly to underline that no matter how surreal, irrational, and immature a lot of the behavior and actions are in the film, they have very real consequences.

 

(But there are more layers to it than that, because Kubrick hired the controversial tabloid photographer Weegee—whose body of work essentially transformed sordid reality into noir—as his on-set photographer. That led to Peter Sellers, fascinated by Weegee’s edgy hardboiled patois, using his voice as the inspiration for Strangelove.

 

(And to complete my digression, It should be mentioned that Kubrick got to know fashion-turned-art photographer Diane Arbus well during his Look years, and later referenced her work explicitly in The Shining—which raises the point that his films are far more autobiographical and personal than the cliché take on him as cold, detached, clinical would allow.)

 

Rather than give a complete recitation of all the ways noir permeates and defines the film, I’ll just highlight a couple of key moments and you can work backward from there. Right before Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper sleepwalks off to the bathroom to commit suicide, Kubrick just holds on an uncomfortably close shot of his face, rimmed so tightly with shadows that it already resembles a death mask. As Seller’s Group Captain Mandrake sits next to Ripper, prattling on about the recall code, Kubrick just stays on the general. And although there are no obvious changes in Ripper’s expression, you 

can tell he’s realizing the full enormity of what he’s done right before disappearing completely into madness. But this is done with amazing restraint, with Kubrick resisting the temptation to go to the kind of crazy stare he would later cultivate with Jack in The Shining and Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. You just sense the descent happening—almost imperceptibly, but undeniably. It might be the ultimate film noir moment.

 

That shot could have been Hayden as Johnny Clay in The Killing or as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle—it wouldn’t have looked out of place cut into either of those films. And Kubrick uses that commonality to create a through-line that traverses all 

of noir, pointing inevitably to Strangelove as its culmination.

 

Comedies usually rely on master shots instead of closeups, but Kubrick comes in similarly close on Strangelove to emphasize how much he’s caught up in, and boxed in by, his own calculations and obsessions, his own form of culturally sanctioned insanity. You’re placed just inches from a madman, and it’s as frightening as it is funny.

 

The most outrageous noir before Strangelove was Robert Aldrich’s beyond cheeky Kiss Me Deadly, which took the hugely popular Mike 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

Dix Handley

Hammer character and exposed him for the clueless goon he was. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Strangelove seems to riff on Deadly, seems to devour and digest and regurgitate it, taking the cocksure bumbling of an L.A. detective and projecting it onto the whole world, making chumps of us all.

 

Watching Strangelove today is hardly just an exercise in either nostalgia or film appreciation, something only tangentially relevant to our present. The basics of human nature haven’t changed since 1964—if anything, the blind, primal aspects have only become emboldened as the machines have taken over and we’ve become free to play. It’s not like the methods of the West have changed all that much either—except that they’ve been so successfully exported that a YouTube video from Adelaide looks identical to a YouTube video from Bhopal looks identical to one from Des Moines. And it’s not like the world doesn’t continue to bristle with nuclear arms. And it’s not like it’s become impossible for a madman to ascend to the highest levels of power.

 

Noir is who we are when we have the guts to face ourselves squarely in the mirror. And it says a lot that it’s been more than five decades since the last time any one’s bothered to take a good look.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1968 (as I mentioned in my review of Rosemary’s Baby) was the year Hollywood, no longer able to lure people into theaters, blew everything up and started all over again. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most radical product of that very radical year—not only because it flouted all the conventions of mainstream storytelling but because it went full-court Brecht to subvert the audience’s addiction to identifying with the protagonist, refused to use dialogue to Mickey Mouse viewers through the action, openly pissed on the convention of the traditional Hollywood music score, and stubbornly refused to be wedged it into any identifiable genre.

2001 is utterly sui generis—no film had looked anything like it before; no film has looked anything like it since. It exists in its own, somewhat rarefied, universe.

 

Kubrick would never do anything that overtly adventurous again. Sure, Clockwork Orange was more outrageous, but kind of in the same way as Dr. Strangelove; and “outrageous” isn’t the same thing as “adventurous.”

 

But neither adventurousness nor outrageousness on their own, or even together, are enough to make a film great. (The path from 1968 to the present is littered with the corpses of films that managed to do both, but little else.) 2001 is great because it sets an impossibly high bar and almost achieves it. Adventurousness and outrageousness are symptomatic of that ambition, but neither is essential to realizing it.

 

Which is why—to again return to an earlier review—I have to give The Shining the edge as Kubrick’s most 

2001 AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s utterly unique and still radical big-budget experimental film is almost as compelling as its original Cinerama presentation in this 4K HDR release.

 

PICTURE     

So well done that the film is on par with The Shining as a reference-quality download. HDR in particular helps enhance the impact of space travel, celestial bodies, and Bowman’s hallucinatory hotel room.

 

SOUND     

A faithful reproduction of a deliberately pared-down soundtrack that was always meant to complement and comment on the action, not mimic it.

accomplished work. Almost everything he does big and bold in 2001 he achieves quietly and more deftly in that later film. 2001 is the product of an artist so giddy he can’t help but show off; The Shining is the work of a master so confident in his abilities that he can just quietly drop clues and then wait as the rest of us scurry to catch up.

 

But why even go into all this? Because both 2001 and The Shining hinge on the experience of pulling you deep inside the film—not in a superficial, escapist way but so you begin to have the sensation of actually occupying the same physical space as the characters.

 

That the 4K HDR presentations of both films are reference-quality seriously ups the “you are there” ante—but with a crucial difference. And there’s the rub. The Shining is almost one-to-one true to the movie Kubrick created. When you watch it at home on a high-quality system, you’re seeing what he wanted you to see. 2001 in 4K HDR is just as extraordinary—but as a title card in the closing credits reminds you, this was originally a Cinerama presentation. And, unlike most of the other filmmakers who dabbled in Cinerama, Kubrick didn’t deploy it as a gimmick (Grand Prix, anyone?) but made it absolutely central to creating that sensation of taking an epic voyage into space.

 

So, is 2001, viewed in 4K HDR, in any meaningful way inferior to The Shining? On the technical level of the transfer, no, they’re both excellent—almost flawless. But since you can’t do Cinerama at home (at least not without a hell of a jerry-rigged

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The Shining (1980)
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setup that would have to verge on absurd), The Shining is truer to the original film.

 

All of the above is really just an exercise in praise by faint damning. The Kaleidescape download of 2001 is one of a handful of films so well served by the 4K HDR treatment that it has to be part of the foundation of any serious film collection. If there’s a single significant hiccup in this presentation, I didn’t see it.

 

Cinerama quibbles aside, to get lost in 2001 today, you have to get beyond ticking off what has and hasn’t come to pass and look past all that Swinging ‘60s clothing and furniture and get on the wavelength of the film Kubrick actually created, which exists in an elaborate and self-consistent world that merely uses the trappings of reality to achieve escape velocity.

 

The 4K resolution can’t reveal every detail of the original 70mm print, but it shows so much more than any previous home video incarnation that it’s shocking to realize to what 

extent Kubrick created outside his era, how unencumbered he was by the stylistic ticks of that time (or even of the future). On the level of film technique and film grammar, 2001 still holds.

 

What really takes the experience to a new, truer level is the HDR. Yes, many of the special effects now even more obviously look like still photos traveling across painted backgrounds. But shots of actual physical objects in motion, like the space station, The Discovery, and most of the extravehicular footage of the pod, are stunning. The brightness of objects in space is one of the things 2001 got basically right and the HDR makes them look so crisp and cold they’re almost tactile.

 

Three scenes in particular will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, beginning with the shot of the scientists walking down the ramp into the lunar excavation, where Kubrick shoots directly into a large worklight, with the light so intense you almost have to look away. Next, the beginning of the final act, where the floating monolith guides Bowman into the Stargate, is especially compelling because of the convincing luminosity of Jupiter and its moons. And, finally, the virtual hotel room where Bowman goes through his transformation, which Kubrick created to mimic the look of early video, is more convincing with the white and other light tones pumped just enough to glow without becoming bloated or diffused.

 

As for the audio, talking about the soundtrack of 2001 has always been kind of a ticklish business because this is essentially a silent movie. Kubrick rediscovered and then reinvented the core grammar of silent film, much of which had been glossed over and obliterated by the tyranny of the microphone during the Studio Era, and used it to not just drive this film but all of his subsequent efforts. It’s not that the audio is superfluous; it’s just not redundant with the visuals, the way it had been since the introduction of sound—and continues to be.

(Curiously, another product of 1968—Blake Edwards’ The Party, which, like 2001, was much maligned at the time and is now revered—is also basically a silent film. Edwards, on a parallel track with Kubrick, dipped back into silent comedy to bring a sense of grace and redemption that had been missing from movie comedies since the Chaplin era.)

 

So, things like The Blue Danube, the heavy breathing, and the various warning sounds all sound perfectly fine. But this is a film of stripped-down and barren environments, without warfare or roaring engines, so there’s, thankfully, little audio-demo fodder to be found.

 

As for the extras—all I can say is “beware.” I’ve already sufficiently dumped on the team that created (although that seems far too kind a word) the promotional videos disguised as mini-docs included with Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Their efforts here are equally awful. Unfortunately, the other videos are just as irritating and, for the most part, pointless. 

 

The trailer included here isn’t the one from the film’s initial release or even its 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

legendary initial re-release but a decidedly contemporary stab that feels like a cliché film-school exercise (people are going to look back 20 years from now at our addiction to dips to black and laugh their asses off) and indulges in exactly the kind of manipulative melodrama Kubrick despised.

 

The only extra worth going out of your way for is a 76-minute audio-only interview Jeremy Bernstein did with Kubrick in 1966. You get to hear the director walk through his whole career to that point, beginning as a failed high school student who became the youngest photographer ever at Look magazine and then went on to learn filmmaking, in a world without film schools, by making his own features. Not only is it better than anything any writer has ever done on Kubrick, it confirms, beyond a doubt, that Peter Sellers’ Quilty in Lolita is basically an extended Kubrick impression—which puts that deeply flawed film in a whole new light.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The critics hated The Shining. Some of the more prominent, and dubious, ones put it on their “Worst of the Year” lists. Some pointed to the first Friday the 13th installment, released around the same time, as the future of horror and dismissed Kubrick’s effort as quaint and out of touch. Stephen King famously damned the film—then went on with his own adaptation to prove that he knows nothing about filmmaking.

 

The Shining has, of course, since become a classic. But films are usually deemed “classic” more for their ability to pander to mass taste than for any inherent worth. The more important question is: Is it Kubrick’s best film?

I’m not completely sure about that, but I would tend to argue yes. In The Shining, his technique is in perfect sync with his ambitions, his execution fully, inventively, and surprisingly realizes his themes, and he dives deep enough into the much-abused but still fecund roots of the culture and returns with enough gold to craft something that might still survive when almost every other movie has been forgotten. The Shining is so well done it makes even the best of Kubrick’s previous efforts seem a little callow.

 

There’s no point in hashing out its merits as a traditional horror movie. While he does deploy some conventional elements, Kubrick primarily pursues horror through other, more effective, means—by using the very nature of film technique to keep the audience uneasy and to pull them into the action against their will.

 

The most obvious instances are well known by now, the two most famous being seeing the hyper-realistic manifestation of the old woman rising out of the bathtub at the same time 

SHINING AT A GLANCE

This 1980 horror classic is arguably Kubrick’s greatest film, presented here in an inarguably stunning transfer that’s one of the best 4K HDR efforts to date.

 

PICTURE     

Absolutely faithful to the original film, filling the frame with so much sharp detail and so accurately evoking the cold winter light that you feel like you’re trapped in The Overlook with the Torrances.

 

SOUND     

The appropriately subtle DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix enhances the various sonic signatures within the hotel and convincingly creates the sense of an enveloping winter storm.

her cackling horror-movie double is already chasing Jack Nicholson from the room, and Nicholson asking Shelly Duvall “Which room was it?” only to have the film cut to a cold open of a Miami newscast. (Kubrick intentionally placed that cut at a reel change so the audience would think the projectionist had screwed up.)

 

Things like that and the infamous title cards make you wonder “Is this supposed to be joke?” while baffling you why it should be, eventually inducing a skittish sense of “I can’t trust anybody here.” Taking a puppet-master’s delight in messing with the audience, Kubrick’s cunning runs the gamut from puckish to perverse, dancing right up to the edge of sadistic.

 

More relevant for our purposes is his astonishingly successful effort to transport the viewer into the film. It’s a cliché to say that The Overlook is a character in The Shining, but going there kind of misses the point. Kubrick took the strategies Roman Polanski used in Rosemary’s Baby to give The Black Bramford a palpable presence and seriously upped the ante by grafting them onto the medieval Art of Memory to achieve not just the sense of being lost in the film but trapped inside a labyrinthine hotel with a madman.

 

But anyone who’s only seen The Shining at less than 4K resolution—even on a cinematic home theater screen—has never had this experience—which means they’ve never really seen this film. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that this 4K HDR release is the first time anyone has had the chance to experience The Shining at home with the impact Kubrick intended.

 

That impact hinges on a number of things, but primarily on accurately reproducing the naturalness of the artificially created outdoor light, matching the resolution of the original film print so all of the detail—especially in the landscape shots—is faithfully reproduced, and having enough resolution so the movie can be experienced from the proper viewing distance, without distractions.

 

That last point is the most key: Sit at the right distance, and you begin to experience The Overlook the way the characters do. You accurately feel the scale of both the large and smaller spaces and can mentally navigate the corridors the same way they do—even when they’re not around. After a while, you begin to have this sensation independently of the action on the screen. You feel haunted, in real-time—which is what makes the film uncanny and horrific in a way no other movie has been able to achieve.

 

None of that would be possible at home without this transfer, which is the most beautifully done, and faithful, 4K HDR translation I’ve seen of any movie. Nothing is overemphasized; all of it is in the service of the film.

The Shining (1980)

And you can feel the full impact from the very first shot, where the faint ripples on the surface of the lake create the sense the small island is rushing toward you, and where the detail deep in the landscape makes the shot seem almost 3D—an effect maintained throughout the opening sequence, where the images have so much detail in the distance that they border on vertiginous. With HDR, the landscapes seem not just grand but crisp and cold and almost nasty.

 

This carries over to the interiors, where the ability to perceive even the smallest details reinforces the reality of The Overlook, adding to that sense of being trapped within it. I was especially awed by the wide shots of the gold ballroom, where you can clearly see the variations in the metallic surfaces and on the parquet walls way in the back of the room, and where all the lighting sources and reflections are properly balanced without being blown out. The movie hasn’t looked this good since the pristine prints from its initial release.

 

The quality of the transfer is just as important in the many striking closeups, with their natural skin tones and often uncomfortable intimacy. Letting yourself get lost in those shots helps reinforce the sense of being a complicit member of the highly dysfunctional Torrance family.

 

I really can’t fault the transfer for anything—except two somewhat inadvertent things. The HDR is so revealing that it gives away how Kubrick was able to achieve the seemingly impossible overhead shot of Wendy and Danny walking through the middle of an improbably elaborate version of the hedge maze. And Kubrick relied on the random variations of film grain and the motion of the film through the projector gate to sell the shot of Jack sitting frozen in the snow. Seen as it is here, with no film or grain movement, it’s all too obviously a photo still.

 

I don’t mean to shortchange the film’s soundtrack, but the images are so beguiling that you have to force yourself to really focus on what’s going on there. First off, the music score is to be savored. Without question the most effective use of existing cues in any film ever, Kubrick so carefully wedded and molded its elements that most viewers probably assume it’s an original score.

 

As for chest-thumping explosions, window-rattling gunfire, and the other aesthetically dubious bombast we’ve come to expect from a contemporary surround mix, there’s none of that here. Kubrick was too much a master of his craft to resort to gratuitous jolts. Intent on keeping you inside the action, he wouldn’t have wanted viewers thinking about the potential seismic damage to their homes.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as deft as the visual transfer, enhancing the atmospheric sense of inevitability without drawing attention to itself or doing anything that would make you wince. The best stuff is the most subtle—the contrasting sonic signatures of the hotel’s rooms, lobby, ballroom, and other spaces, and the first hints, and then rising presence, of the winter storm. It’s like a perverse twist on New Age pablum, using the sounds of nature to lull you into a nightmare.

 

I feel obligated to mention the extras while kind of dreading it. To save the best for first, there’s “Making The Shining,” a documentary by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian that Kubrick suppressed during his lifetime but couldn’t keep from popping up on

YouTube and elsewhere from time to time. Because of his daughter’s unrivaled access and her skill, even at 17, as a filmmaker, it’s really the only portrait we have of Kubrick as a director. It’s also surprisingly revealing about Nicholson, Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, and the whole dynamic on the set. If you’re even casually interested in Kubrick or The Shining, it’s a must-see.

 

“Wendy Carlos, Composer,” available only on the DVD version, is mildly interesting for both the casually curious and for students of Carlos’ work. The audio commentary, also only available on the DVD download, is a very mixed bag. Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown has a decent number of insightful remarks about his work on The Shining, but Kubrick biographer John Baxter is nothing but a train wreck. You’d think a biographer would be strong on details, but he gets so much wrong you get the sense he’s just making it all up as he goes along. And his Felix the Cat recounting of the action while we’re watching it play out on the screen is so dumb and pointless that it becomes funny after a while. It’s like he’s narrating the film for a group of incredibly gullible blind people.

 

“View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining” and “The Visions of Stanley Kubrick,” by the same team that perpetrated Full Metal Jacket’s “Between Good and Evil,” manage to neutralize the impact of any interesting comments by 

The Shining (1980)

various actors, directors, studio executives, and authors through their appallingly inept editing of footage from the film. Like the Full Metal Jacket travesty, they’re a textbook example of what happens when you give people with no discernible taste or talent free rein to butcher brilliant material.

 

But don’t let any of that cause you to hesitate to download this film. This release of The Shining will quickly become the jewel of any serious film collection. But it’s not there to be revered but watched. This film’s impact hasn’t diminished a jot since the day of its release. And this 4K HDR version takes us all the way back to that first day without compromise. It’s kind of like the movie just keeps repeating itself in an infinite loop without ever aging. Right . . ?

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket

It’s obvious in retrospect that, sometime around 1962, Stanley Kubrick sold his soul to the devil. In Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, he was able to tap into a level of filmmaking no mortal had been able to access before, and none have come even close to since. His work during that period made every other movie, no matter how seemingly well-done, feel cliché, compromised, and inept.

 

Then, in the early ‘80s, his deal with the Dark Prince began to go sour. By the early ‘90s, they had clearly parted ways, and with Eyes Wide Shut, Satan exacted his revenge.

With Full Metal Jacket (1987), you can clearly sense the Master failing—but keep in mind that’s compared to the best of his own work. He was still way ahead of what any other mainstream director was doing.

 

During the Strangelove-to-Shining period, you might not have always been able to fathom some of his creative choices but, even when they were inexplicable, they felt like they were somehow a part of the whole. With Full Metal Jacket, you have entire passages that, both upon viewing and reflection, feel inert, like they’re keeping the movie from being what it wants to be.

 

Just to be clear: Jacket is a great film—it’s just not quite one of the greatest Kubrick films. The boot-camp sequence, from the second R. Lee Ermey appears on the screen though Vincent D’Onofrio’s self-inflicted head wound, is, if 

JACKET AT A GLANCE

Vincent D’Onofrio’s and R. Lee Ermey’s breakout performances continue to provide the fuel for Stanley Kubrick’s uncanny anticipation of the age of urban warfare.

 

PICTURE     

An astonishing 4K HDR transfer that might be just a touch too pretty, given the film’s gritty documentary aesthetic.

 

SOUND     

Jacket has an unusually subtle mix for a war film, and this version presents it clearly and crisply without overhyping the gunfire and explosions.

not flawless, undeniably compelling and even exhilarating. But the movie then sputters throughout the second act, trying out various stuff just to see what will stick, before recovering its stride for the conclusion in Hue.

 

It’s easy to re-edit Jacket in your head, removing the dead spots, and seeing it as a much tighter 90-minute affair that wouldn’t have been any less sardonic or bleak or exhausting, but wouldn’t have so many things that would make you cringe. (“Paint it Black”? Really?!)

 

I’m not at all saying you shouldn’t watch it—in fact, there are some pretty compelling reasons to put it above anything you currently have on your Watch list. It’s worth it just to savor Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman and D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Pyle, two of the most iconic film performances ever. Kubrick is often shortchanged as an actor’s director, but you just need to consider that D’Onofrio had never acted in a film before and Ermey had never had a major role to appreciate just how masterful he was.

 

It’s also worth watching for its (and I’m about to say a dirty word here) ambiguity. At a time when you’d be hard pressed to name a film that doesn’t ultimately reinforce accepted beliefs, no matter how convoluted it might be in getting there, it can be bracing to watch something that pushes back so hard against the status quo.

 

Consider Pvt. Pyle’s blanket party. Kubrick has been using Matthew Modine, with his Wonder Bread blandness, as the traditional point of audience identification, but he’s been increasingly making Pyle’s plight the focus of the action. And, for all his abuse, Ermey has been serving as comic relief and the volcanic source of the film’s energy. By the time of the assault on Pyle, Kubrick has put the audience in an untenable position where Pyle’s suffering, the recruits’ contempt for him, and the Corps’ impersonal need for steely discipline all have equal weight. If you can watch that scene and not feel that wrenching tension, and not be thrown by it, you should probably just stick with Wes Anderson.

 

The other main reason Jacket is worth revisiting is for its intimacy—a term that’s hardly ever used in connection with war films, but it defines Jacket and sets it apart from almost every other entry in the genre. There are no epic battle scenes, never the sense of massed forces colliding, and none of the fetishistic portrayal of war machinery that’s defined the genre (and practically every other genre) since militarization, weaponization, and armoring became de facto cultural norms. You are in close quarters with every character here for the duration, and since this isn’t a particularly warm and fuzzy, or even articulate, bunch, it can be an incredibly uncomfortable feeling.

Full Metal Jacket

Finally, Jacket is worth watching just to appreciate that something like this could never be made today. It features an unvarnished, unromanticized, and unblinking portrayal of racial and sexual attitudes no contemporary filmmaker, too busy anticipating the outraged squeals of various pressure groups, would ever have the balls to attempt. If Jacket was in heavier rotation on cable, it would probably get slapped with the kind of silly, titillating, reality-denying warning labels that now precede any film that doesn’t toe any number of faddish political lines.

 

And, O yeah, one more thing—Kubrick had the stupefying ability to make his films look like they were created from somewhere beyond their era. Jacket was made in the mid ‘80s, but it has none of the excessive grain, contrast, saturation, or softness of most films from that time. The 4K HDR transfer faithfully reproduces what he wrought—which isn’t always easy, especially in the final third, most of which was shot during the Magic Hour and is filled with smoke and flames.

 

I do have two nits, though. The HDR tends to overemphasize the gold rims of Joker’s glasses and the silver dog-tag chains, especially during the boot-camp sequence, which can briefly pull you out of those shots. And I have to wonder if, given what Kubrick was going for here, the film doesn’t look just a little too pretty. Watching the Blu-ray version to check out the audio commentary, I couldn’t help pondering if that flatter, more documentary look wasn’t closer to what he was after. But that’s not really a criticism—more a matter of taste. And I don’t think I would ever opt for the Blu-ray over the 4K HDR, especially for the finale in Hue.

 

The sound mix is so subtle—especially for a war film—that it’s hard to appreciate just how good it is. There are no elaborate surround effects, mainly because Kubrick tends to keep the action squarely in front of you. Where it really pays off is with

the steady, almost subliminal, succession of explosions heard at a distance once you’re in Hue. Often little more than muffled thumps, they’re meant, like the breathing in 2001 and the heartbeat in The Shining, to represent the pulse of the film.

 

All of that is presented cleanly and effectively. My only criticism is with the distortion in some of the dialogue tracks. I suspect this stems from the original tracks recorded on location, but it’s hard to believe Kubrick ever signed off on the results.

 

The extras can be summed up in two words: Don’t bother. The promotional film “Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil” has some interesting comments from Kubrick’s collaborators, but you have to fight your way through a lot of annoying, and often silly, manipulation of footage from the film and strictly amateur motion graphics.

 

The commentary is a slice-and-dice affair involving D’Onofrio, Ermey, Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), and critic Jay Cocks, with everyone in isolation and no one getting a chance to speak at length. And it just gets painful once Ermey drifts away and D’Onofio goes off to the sidelines and you’re stuck with the obsequious 

Full Metal Jacket

Cocks for most of the duration. If you really want to know more about the film, read Modine’s Full Metal Jacket Diary or check out the extremely uneven Netflix documentary Filmworker.

 

It was once a big deal to try to figure out who had created “the” Vietnam film. Given how big a trauma that war was, I can kind of see why that used to be important. Ironically, no one has ever made a truly great Vietnam film. Full Metal Jacket isn’t really about Vietnam but about America’s obsession with war, and its whole second half feels much more relevant to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other recent exercises in empire than it ever did to the jungles of Southeast Asia. It’s worth a good, long look for anyone who can handle a little truth.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Filmworker

Two hundred years from now, the equivalent of the medieval monks—be they human, cyborg, robot, or virtual mass—will look back at this slice of time and decide Stanley Kubrick was the best American movie director and Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest filmmaker. They’ll then chuckle for a moment over the absurdity of the immense energy and emotion our culture invested in the fleeting and ultimately silly phenomenon of film, and then—assuming there’s any worth left—shift their attention to weightier things.

Or at least one can hope.

 

Leon Vitali was Kubrick’s steadfastly loyal No. 2 from the time Kubrick cast him to play, exquisitely, Barry Lyndon’s petulant nemesis Lord Bullingdon, through Kubrick’s death during post production on the unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut, and apparently up to the present. The Netflix documentary Filmworker 

Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon

seems to want to paint Vitali as somehow delusional, someone deeply oppressed, a fashionable victim. But Vitali, thankfully, won’t have any part of that.

 

Anyone who’s ever paid any real attention to Kubrick and his work is already aware of, and grateful for, Vitali’s extraordinary efforts on the director’s behalf. So why, then, try to shine a bright enough light on him that he’s seen by a broader audience of the merely curious?

 

“Masochism” would be the simplest answer. Vitali is an apt poster child for an age when everyone’s a victim and no one wants to take responsibility for their actions. And the roots of that go back farther than the current “I’m strong because I’m weak”

Filmworker

Vitali (left) with Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining

fetishism to the Soviet era and the apparatchiks, determined to obliterate all extraordinary efforts and ensure no one could ever rise above the mediocre middle.

 

So, yeah, you can feel bad about some of the hell Vitali must have gone through at his boss’s hands. But then there are those brief, tantalizing clips from Kubrick’s movies—and from Barry Lyndon in 

particular—and you realize, yeah, that’s worth whatever pain and neglect and slights and abuse it took to get there.

 

This isn’t a particularly well-made film, relying on redundancies and cliches that run completely counter to Kubrick’s whole aesthetic, a documentary more concerned with fashionable truths than The Truth. But it’s worth a look—if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of a wilder, messier, more fruitful and forgiving age, before a vast army of J Crew models took over filmmaking, when the ambiguity of depths mattered more than the distracting glitter of the surface.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Full Metal Jacket

Netflix Full Metal Jacket

Received wisdom thinks dark, gritty movies are a recent phenomena, but they really began working their way into the mainstream right around the time the studio system began to unravel, beginning with Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly. They hit their peak—along with a lot of other styles and genres—in 1968, the year of Night of the Living Dead, and have had an insidious influence on just above every kind of film ever since.

 

Lynch, seeing the culture take the reactionary turn he wanted but sensing it couldn’t hold, took them someplace new in 1986 with Blue Velvet. But the film that’s probably had the biggest influence on contemporary grim is Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket.

 

It’s a troubling film in more than one way—partly because you can sense the master starting to lose his grip. But it’s also fearless—something you can’t say about practically any of the noisy and abusive but heavily risk-averse stuff that’s come in its wake.

 

Don’t expect to see a pristine image when you watch Jacket on Netflix—but this isn’t a pristine movie, so that’s not the end of the world. Kubrick wanted it to have a washed-out, documentary feel, and I suspect even a print as distressed as the Vietnam combat footage he was aping would be really compelling to watch. But streamed, the darker the film gets, the more the various artifacts come to the fore until by the infamous sniper scene there are whole mosaics of tiling to distract you.

 

But even Kubrick on the wane is a better investment than just about any film made by anyone ever, so this is worth watching under just about any circumstances. And Netflix’ streamed version isn’t awful—it’s just not as good as it should be.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

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