Stanley Kubrick Directs:  Expanded Edition
Alexander Walker
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ), 1972

A brief internet research about the best books written about the life and works of Stanley Kubrick gave me quite a few results with Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs (Expanded Edition) topping the list. Since there wasn’t any book called Kubrick on Kubrick, I had to go for this one! Stanley Kubrick Directs is literally a page-turner, for it contains more images than text. The book is divided into six sections – The Man and Outlook, Style and Content and four chapters dedicated to four of Kubrick’s most famous films.

stanley_kubrick_directsA friend once remarked that there was spirituality in the way Max Ophüls’ camera moved. I was reminded instantly of Kubrick then. But surely, not for the same reason. Kubrick’s tracking shots are anything but spiritual. I should label them “satanic”. These bewitchingly ominous shots, in my opinion, are the essential sequences from each of the films – be it in the French war trenches, in Korova Milkbar or aboard the Discovery space shuttle. And reading that Kubrick was impressed by Ophüls’ films forced a smile on my face. This is not the only reason that I find the opening section of the book – Stanley Kubrick: The Man and Outlook – fascinating. Walker presents us all of Kubrick’s preoccupations as a child and as a teenager and later establishes how the reverberations of these influences find their way to most of Kubrick’s films. As a film buff, it is rewarding to dig deeper into Kubrick’s films after reading these facts.

But Walker follows it up with the most disappointing of all sections in the book. In this section, titled Kubrick: Style and Content, Walker aims to present us the working methods of Kubrick. Unfortunately, this part turns out to be nothing more than a briefing of Kubrick’s early films, till Lolita (1961), interspersed with elaborations of some obvious facets of Kubrick’s films. Walker’s digresses without hesitation and adulterates the section with facets not in line with the chapter’s objective and analyses that at times seem downright speculative.  As a result, this section seems like a poor excuse for a ramp up to Kubrick’s masterpieces that were to follow.

The book then presents us illustrated analysis of Kubrick’s Big 4 that followed – Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). The first two films here take up two thirds of the analysis section and ironically are the least satisfying. Both the analyses of Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are fraught with screenshots (by Halcyon) that are subsequently verbalized. Having presented the early influences of Kubrick, Walker should have let the audience connect the dots and interpret the film their own way. But he starts deconstructing Kubrick’s mise-en-scene frame by frame and strips us completely of the joy of discovering a film. No, I’m not cribbing, but it is a bit discomforting to see such great films presented cut and dried, preventing further exploration the reader may otherwise be tempted to perform. I know this is an analysis, but why at such grassroots level?

Surprisingly, Kubrick’s most profound film is given the least space. A big positive for this section is that it does not go over the top like many an analysis written on the film. Walker sticks generally to the technical and narrative aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and discusses “2001 that could have been” citing various choices made by Kubrick with respect to the script. However, it is dissatisfying to see the film grossly ignored in comparison to the earlier two films and sidelined to a smaller status. The film by itself warrants elaborate literature and any analysis should most definitely include the higher aspects it tries to encompass. Walker just grazes through those notions and it never looks like it is for the good of the audience.

But, comes the essay on A Clockwork Orange to salvage the book’s pride. This is the best of the four analyses and serves as a grand climax to an otherwise dissatisfactory book. This is one section that respects the complexity of the film but never once shirks discussion. Walker makes a great move by not just diluting the mise-en-scene by deconstructing it to particulars. He seamlessly integrates multiple ideas the film presents and provides us a solid critical analysis that clearly shines in comparison with the previous three. And it is this section that provides a sense of comfort when one closes the pretty ordinary book.

This book is widely considered the best book on Kubrick till date and that worries me. Kubrick’s canvas is visibly vast and if this is the best of literature available on him, there is a long way to go. Stanley Kubrick Directs does present considerable detail for people who are confused why he is the most critical Hollywood director on a technical level, but the treatment of the content of his film leaves a lot to be desired. May be I expected a bit too much.


Note: This is a section where I will be blogging on books on films and filmmakers. The entries will be far and few, but this will at least provide me an opportunity to read text – a thing that I used to hate till now.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Dev D: Shaken, Not Stirred (pic: Sify)

Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D begins with a special thanks to Danny Boyle. Poor Danny Boyle has been tormented for some time now for supposedly attempting to expose the “underbelly” of the nation. But if the people are fair and they are able to see what Mr. Kashyap is attempting here, Slumdog Millionaire is going to look like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)! But wait, Anurag Kashyap isn’t a foreigner and so Dev D is just a film, right? Dev D has already created much hoopla thanks to the bizarre promos, “Emosional Athyachar” and Kashyap’s own blog. With one universally praised and one universally panned film behind it, Dev D is more or less a litmus test faor the director. 

The classic Devdas story is a ready made platform for endless psycho-analysis and study of social framework of the age. How does the revamped version fare? Quite well to start with I must say. The original tale relied on the notions of platonic love whereas Dev D is all about physical love. Devdas is a coward who succumbs to social prejudices and carries over the guilt through out his whole life without a chance for atonement. He drinks in order to forget his cowardice. Dev D, on the other hand, isn’t hampered by the social norms. As a matter of fact, none of the characters in the film are. Even Dev’s father Satyapal has thoughts of Dev’s betrothal with Paro (totally opposed to the original story). Dev’s only inhibition is himself – his bloated opinion of himself and his excessive narcissism – a point that Kashyap reinforces regularly. Caste becomes a lame excuse and a sheath to hide from one’s own insecurities. In fact, the society is completely devoid of control on the character’s decisions unlike the book. Dev drinks to hide from the guilt of his hasty decision. This alone, in my opinion, is where the script scores. 

Dev is played to near perfection by Abhay Deol, thanks to Anurag Kashyap who managed to elicit an impressive performance even from John Abraham in No Smoking (2007). His performance is quiet and confident. Consider the scene where he listens to the servant maid Sunil. Mr. Deol does not widen his eyes or show signs of shock. He keeps shaking his feet till he gets uncomfortable. And then, bam! This one scene can show how far this guy can go. Paro’s character (Mahie Gill) isn’t as much revamped as Dev’s although she is no more the sacrificial damsel who lives physically and mentally with different men. And Chanda’s (Kalki Koechlin) isn’t either. She is still the hooker with the heart of gold. And the writing further suffers in the end stages of the film. The script tells us that Dev has finally realized his mistake and turned over a new leaf. But how? A lucky escape from an accident can work for an anti-drinking campaign (which could well have made its way into the film), but not for one’s guilt. There’s more, but I’ll stop, for cinema isn’t just about the characters

Dev D is produced by UTV Spotboy and is presented in three parts – one dedicated to each of the characters. The first section titled Paro is the brightest of them all and is shot almost entirely in rural Punjab. The second one is called Chandra and grazes over various locations of the country. And till the end of this section, the form of the film remains conventional and Mr. Kashyap’s weaknesses lie open. The second part is the weakest of the three in the film and he goes over the top with his ideologies. It is only at and after the end of this part that Mr. Kashyap feels completely at home. He now can happily use his “tools” – the bleak production design, gothic soundtrack (a pretty snazzy one at that) and the Wong Kar Wai colour palette that we have seen in No Smoking. Mr. Kashyap maintains the audience’s distance from the characters with the help of their actions and behaviour. He never asks/expects/allows the audience to empathize or sympathize with the protagonists (even if he intended to in some scenes in the first couple of sections). And that serves as one of the very few strong points in the film I could struggle to come up with.

[Video: Emosional Athyachar, The best part of Dev D]

In engineering parlance, there is a word “library”. It refers to a set of already developed subsystems that is utilized for the design of custom systems. These entities are taken by faith and are employed without questions in the super-design. What Mr. Kashyap has got here is an engineering marvel and mind you, that is not exactly a compliment. He generously uses the groundbreaking technique from Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) to generate the same kind of atmosphere. There is the A Clockwork Orange (1971) written all over in the way he designs his indoors in the film. His use of soundtrack that conflicts with the imagery is a regular trend in world cinema. And mind you, these are not signals of plagiarism or of homage but of considerable knowledge of world cinema – Knowledge that has been obtained by one of the biggest cinephiles of our country. Unfortunately that is the biggest problem for Dev D. 

I believe there are three facets of creation – science, engineering and art. Science is purely a product of the brain. A supplier of perpetual innovation. Directors like (early) Spielberg and George Lucas are great technicians. They make up for the one-dimensionality of their scripts with their sweeping visuals and methods. Art is something that is very personal and one that should come from deep within. Scorsese and Cassavetes aren’t what they are just because they shot on the streets or because they took the camera in their hands. What they portrayed on screen was an extension of their own personalities. And in between these two lies the clever device called Engineering. Assembling the innovations provided by scientists to “assemble” a customized product. And that is why Mr. Kashyap comes out as an engineer at the end of Dev D. 

So what does Mr. Kashyap want to “design” here? Well, from what we get from it, it looks like Mr. Kashyap is making a broad commentary on our obsession with sex. That every gesture and action oozes with what has been considered a taboo for long. Of course, there is considerable inspiration from L’Âge d’or (1930) here. And perhaps even from the subtle undertones of Dr. Strangelove (1964). But neither does Mr. Kashyap drive home his point explicitly like the former film, nor does he tease the audience with whatever they make out of it as in the latter. The gestures and innuendos that he presents are forced and inserted out of place. Consider the scene where Paro, in a fit of rage, starts out on the hand pump. Now, obviously, there is no reason for the inane sequence to be there other than to reinforce the obvious (which the audience easily did get). Or the numerous sign boards presented as double entendres. The camera sacrifices a pretty good conversation or comedy in order to accommodate Kashyap’s “subtle” allusions. So do his metaphors. The whole film, as a result, seems like carefully engineered and assembled to look like an allegory. Only that it is neither subtle nor effective. 




The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick

“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line…”


The KillingWhenever Kubrick’s canon of films is discussed, this quiet little early gem is invariably lost out amidst the mammoths like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). But very much in the same way the latter films defined cinema of their decades, The Killing (1956) forms a vital film of the 50’s Hollywood.

The Killing follows a group of men who plan to carry out a robbery in a race course booking center. The group includes a cop in financial distress, an ex-convict who dreams of getting away to a remote place with his all-trusting girlfriend, the bumbling cashier at the booking counter, an employee at the course and a couple of other contract hires. They carry out the plan as per the text book alright, but the real trouble begins later, as usual. Things deviate from the schedule and needless to say, go awry. Thus follows a Tarantino-esque proceeding towards an immortal climactic scene.

When viewed today, it is inevitable that one is reminded of films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and similar movies of the Tarantino age. The ultra-solemn genre of heist films is considered to be resurrected by the wry humour of Reservoir Dogs. But Kubrick had done the same even during the inception of the genre. Consider the scene where Sherry (Marie Windsor) is shot by her husband George (Elisha Cook). She goes down saying “It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”. Now which director (but Kubrick) in his right senses would have made such a move in the age of Rififi (1954) and Asphalt Jungle (1950)?

The Killing is perhaps the oldest film with non-linear narration that I have seen. Multiple points of view give rise to different visual segments that overlap temporally and evoke a sense of thrill that is so uncharacteristic of the 50’s. I don’t know how the audience would have reacted then, but when viewed today, the film seems to have grown with time and its potency to enthrall audience has visibly become enhanced, considering the slew of films based on similar structures that flooded the 90’s. The film provides ample scope for a remake, for it seems tailor made for the new audience.

Black comedy, that would go on to become a strong point in many Kubrick films, clearly shows its roots in The Killing. The movie’s intense plot never becomes heavy handed, thanks to the presence of a comic thread throughout, be it in the strained relationship between the Peatty couple or be it in the intriguing arrogance of Nikki Arcane. Though the explicit oral narration becomes irritating at places, the film’s dynamics have enough to overcome that. At a time when film-noir had become a genre and heist films had become a sub-genre, The Killing sought to break away from rigid rules and provide fluidity and hence novelty to the genre.

It is fascinating to see what Kubrick has churned out without the use of even one A-list actor. The Killing was enough to launch Kubrick big time and tell the industry that he had arrived. There was no stopping the master now.