Thursday, February 07, 2013

Early Kubrick at the MFA: Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, The Killing

I didn't really plan to spend the entire day at the Museum of Fine Arts watching Kubrick's movies. Originally it was going to be Fear and Desire, most likely Killer's Kiss - though I wasn't sure, what with there being a roughly 80-minute gap between the screenings - with The Killing a "what the heck, I haven't seen it in a while" last minute addition. Though that's only a bit north of three hours of movie, it's almost six hours of a Saturday and time on the T, which is not ideal.

(Oh, sure, I could have gone and looked around the museum, but that's not a great thing to do in one-hour chunks, especially since I tend to get lost when the movie there is in the Alfond Auditorium rather than the Remis. Or at least, that's what I told myself.)

It made for a pretty strong triple-feature, though - it shows just how strong Kubrick was technically from the very start, as well as how he learned to reconcile the weird, experimental things that grew in his mind for Fear and Desire with the commercial simplicity of Killer's Kiss to eventually come up with The Killing: Something that you can sell to a mainstream audience that will nevertheless burrow into their brains and stir something unexpected. I can't say I've always been a particular fan of Kubrick's - to be totally honest, I'd seen just five out of his thirteen films before adding two more on Saturday - but looking at how The Killing coalesces, it's not a particular surprise that he's the filmmaker that mass audiences grew to appreciate.

I kind of wonder if the fact that he was not terribly prolific helped his perception there. Although these early films came out in relatively rapid succession, it was twelve years between his last two, and half-decade gaps were not uncommon. Like Terrence Malick, his films became events, and both the perception and reality of all the time in-between being spent to get every little detail right doesn't hurt. It just means that we never got the Napoleon movie that Kubrick supposedly researched for decades, or his version of A.I. (though I'm quite fond of Spielberg's; not his fault that his real movie can never be as good as a hypothetical Kubrick masterpiece).

Ideally, I'd be reviewing the whole series, but the combination of the Boston Sci-Fi Film festival and a threatened snowstorm makes getting there, let alone having time to write, unlikely. I still highly recommend getting to the rest of the MFA's series, which runs through the last weekend of the month and covers his entire career. Many (Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut) will be showing in beautiful 35mm; Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, Lolita, 2001, A Clockwork Orange are projected digitally.

Yeah, 2001 will likely be off a Blu-ray. Just not right, I know.

Fear and Desire

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2013 in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Films of Stanley Kubrick, digital)

Fear and Desire would have enough of a place in history for being Stanley Kubrick's first film; that he found it embarrassing and thus did all he can to keep it out of circulation probably made film fans more curious about it. Over a decade after his death, it's easily available, and there's no reason not to satisfy one's curiosity.

Four soldiers have survived a plan crash behind enemy lines: Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), a well-educated officer; Sergeant "Mac" (Frank Silvera), a grizzled veteran; Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit), quiet and laid-back; and Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky), a nervous new recruit. The lieutenant thinks they can build a raft and float down the river to the other side of enemy lines under the cover of darkness, while Mac has spotted a plane and a general, and thinks they should strike a blow against the enemy even if they only have the lieutenant's pistol for weaponry.

The nationality of the soldiers is not merely kept vague, but entirely hypothetical, as an opening bit of narration states that this forest and this war exists entirely in the mind, and things like language and names have been presented as they are for nothing but convenience. It's a bit of a pretentious affectation, Kubrick wouldn't so much grow out of such things as stop announcing them in such a clumsy manner. He's still got a bit of growing to do as a filmmaker in other areas, too - for a movie that's just over an hour long, Fear and Desire can bog down at times, as abstraction doesn't involve the audience quite so much as detail.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Killer's Kiss

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2013 in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Films of Stanley Kubrick, 35mm)

Killer's Kiss is the sort of crime flick that filled out the back end of a double feature, a true B-movie just long enough to satisfy the "feature" part of the term. It's notable because it was written, produced, photographed, directed, and edited by Stanley Kubrick, who would go on to make movies that didn't just fill out a program. And while it doesn't have the grand sweep of his later films, it's got the interesting choices and attention to detail that make it stand out among its peers.

Its story is told by Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a prizefighter of some one-time potential about to hop a train from Grand Central Station back to his family farm in Idaho, but waiting until the last minute. There's a girl, of course, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who lives in the apartment facing his, works in a dance hall, and is one of the favorites of proprietor (and gangster) Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). One night, Davey sees a fight start to get ugly and rushes to break it up, and while it might be nice to be on Gloria's radar, being on Vinny's more than makes up for that.

Aside from the peculiar Fear and Desire, most of Kubrick's work up until this point had been as a photographer for the magazine Look, and that part of his career isn't far behind him here. Killer's Kiss is just a wonderful movie to look at, whether it's the nighttime photography of a busy New York City where the grain makes the scene feel even more alive, sharp black-and-white images like the tiled entryway to Rapallo's club, or rooftop chases and boxing matches that are shot in long takes from a camera giving a God's-eye-view. Kubrick knows exactly what to do with a movie camera, and the beauty of his work certainly enhances what could otherwise be a standard bit of pulp.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

The Killing

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2013 in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Films of Stanley Kubrick, 35mm)

The plan in The Killing isn't a great one, but it looks like one that a group of crooks looking for a big score might think has potential. The real prize is in the telling, which doesn't so much tweak its genre trappings as much as find the most entertaining version of them.

As laid out by professional crook Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the plan is reasonably straightforward despite featuring a large number of moving parts: He's going to rob the racetrack during a big race, with the help of a couple of major drawing the guards away from the vault and a little help from inside man George Peatty (Eisha Cook Jr.). There's space for things to go wrong even if Peatty didn't tell his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) what he was in on, so there's a good chance that things will go wrong at some point.

Crime stories like The Killing, especially while the Hays Code was in effect, were sometimes clumsy affairs, reconciling the excitement of breaking the law with the mandatory admonition that the culprits will not get away with it. Screenwriter/director Stanley Kubrick plays with that somewhat here, peppering the story with narration that sounds like a police report whose author wants to be a pulp novelist, or the true-crime magazines popular at the time. The narration may have come as the result of the studio fearing the audience wouldn't keep up with Kubrick's jumping back and forth in time, and some say that he made them sarcastically obvious as a way to get the studio to reconsider, but that seems unlikely - not so much because Kubrick wouldn't antagonize the studio on his first major feature, but because it works, camouflaging the movie's wit on the first viewing and providing amusing contrast afterward.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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