I have the privilege of teaching a class this year called “Major Directors.” It focuses on the works of four filmmakers and emphasizes the ideas of auteurism and authorship. The filmmakers this go-around are Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Spike Lee. Now that the semester has concluded, let’s take a look back at this rewarding ride.
In installment #1 of “Adventures in Teaching,” I want to discuss the unit on Stanley Kubrick: how I designed it, what I’ve taught my students, and what my students have taught me. If interested, you can find the syllabus here.
Let me start out by stating my firm belief that Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker to ever walk the Earth. He had to be in here. So, how do you design a 4-week unit on Kubrick?
A bittersweet element of Kubrick’s work is how limited his filmography is. Bitter because he only has 13 feature films — relatively few for a man who started making movies in the 1950s up until his death in 1999. Sweet because it provides a nice “package,” a tidy collection of works which span across decades (bold indicates films screened for class):
- Fear and Desire (1953)
- Killer’s Kiss (1955)
- The Killing (1956)
- Paths of Glory (1957)
- Spartacus (1960)
- Lolita (1962)
- Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- A Clockwork Orange (1971)
- Barry Lyndon (1975)
- The Shining (1980)
- Full Metal Jacket (1987)
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The most straightforward way for me to design each week of the entire course was by director’s biography and filmography. For Kubrick, that meant basically covering a decade or “era” each week.
Week #1 focused on his beginnings and early work (photography, documentaries, independent filmmaking), and ended with Paths of Glory.
Week #2 would roughly cover much of the Sixties, Spartacus to Dr. Strangelove. This strikes me as a time where Kubrick really cements his status in Hollywood. I also conceptualize Strangelove as a turning point; it’s after this film that we see the Kubrick “slow down” happen, the obsessive focus on research, preparation, control, and craft.
Week #3 gets us into the 1970s, largely dedicated to A Clockwork Orange.
Week #4 closes things off with Barry Lyndon through Eyes Wide Shut. In his final 25 years, Kubrick only directs four films. I always find this “slow down” remarkable. The majority of his films were actually made in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now that we have our framework established, what movies do you actually show to students?
This can be a tough decision to make. There are a lot of factors to consider. What film can exemplify the era and Kubrick’s themes and style? Is the film interesting? How will students react? Is it short enough to fit within the actual time constraints? Is it a mainstream choice, or can this be a chance to see something that’s underrated? Oftentimes this can be like killing your darlings.
For week #1, it was clear that Paths of Glory should be the film to show. The Killing would be a strong second choice. Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are both noteworthy, but it isn’t outrageous to say they are not the greatest Kubrick films.
Week #2’s movie could be a toss-up between Dr. Strangelove and 2001. Spartacus and Lolita are both too long to show in a class setting. In the end, I chose Strangelove. It has a very friendly running time of 95 minutes, plus it’s such a wonderfully dark satire.
I do regret skipping over 2001. It certainly does get talked about in class, but there’s only so much time to cover material. To be honest, I’m not sure how 2001 would have gone over in class. Many of my students found A Clockwork Orange to be off-putting and confusing, and many found Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) very boring. Using these as barometers, methinks 2001 would have been poorly received.
With Barry Lyndon topping out at three hours, only A Clockwork Orange and The Shining remain for 1970s Kubrick. I settled on showing A Clockwork Orange. Originally I thought The Shining would be too long to show — but I’ve now reconsidered that.
And finally, what to show of Kubrick’s last films? Both Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut are worthwhile, but the former has the friendlier running time.
Class is in Session
Paths of Glory
After 60 years, Paths of Glory is still a powerful film. My students really took to it.
Set during the First World War, a French Army company is ordered to carry out a near-impossible mission: take and hold a highly-fortified German post known as the “Anthill.” After the mission fails, three soldiers are selected for court-martial. The charge: cowardice in the face of the enemy. Their Colonel (Kirk Douglas) defends the men, but fails. In the end, they are executed by firing squad.
Truth is stranger than fiction, and this story is based on an actual event that happened in the French Army during WWI. This inspired Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 book.
What I emphasized for my students was Kubrick’s signature challenge to authority systems. The twisted logic and arbitrary nature of the court-martial becomes darkly comic. The generals are cold and aloof, covering their own hides.
The film’s atmosphere stood out to many students. They were sucked in, placed into the trenches. Take a look at this clip of the attack on the “Anthill.” Kubrick’s long tracking shots feel almost documentary. Fitting since he started out in documentary photography and filmmaking.
Paths of Glory, thematically and cinematically, is where Kubrick comes into his own. I’m a strong advocate for film appreciation and film history, so the successful screening was quite a reward.
Finally, Kirk Douglas — is there a classic star greater than he? I don’t think so.
1964: smack dab in the middle of a hot streak in the Cold War. Only a few years earlier, Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution, establishing a Communist government 100 miles away from Florida. In 1961, there was the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Soviet Union detonated the Tsar Bomba – the most powerful bomb in human history. One year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly launched World War III. Needless to say, these were pretty tense times.
Kubrick, always a timely man, decides to capitalize on the political climate and the growing number of nuclear anxiety films hitting theaters. A black comedy about nuclear war and US-Russian relations. O, how far we’ve come since 1964!
No pun intended: this class period was a blast. A perk of a class which requires attendance is that it ensures an audience, and Strangelove really comes alive when watching it as a group. Laughter is contagious, and we were thoroughly infected. We had a jolly ol’ time as we watched the end of the world on screen.
Strangelove obviously keeps with Kubrick’s theme of challenging authority figures, but it also dives deep into masculine sexual metaphors and subtext, something also seen throughout much of his work.
A Clockwork Orange
“It’s good, but I never want to watch this movie again.” That was the most common reaction from my students to A Clockwork Orange. I can’t blame them – it is a really weird movie.
The costumes, set design, dialogue, narration, plot, and music are all so weird. But when we understand that “weird” can mean strange, uncanny, and unsettling, we can fully embrace and appreciated the weirdness. A Clockwork Orange is meant to be disturbing. I hope you find it weird and disturbing! If you don’t, we may have some pressing things to talk about. One of my students actually left the screening early because of the film’s upsetting content.
It’s a film that came about during an interesting time in Kubrick’s career. The 1960s cement his status as a director who gets box office and critical results, especially with Spartacus and Strangelove. However, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, he gets lukewarm to downright cold reactions. After a bloated budget and years-long production schedule on 2001 (not to mention his never-realized production of Napoleon which fell apart soon after), Kubrick wants to make a film quickly and cheaply. With the Hollywood Production Code largely eroded by this time, A Clockwork Orange becomes his first film to utilize swearing, bloody violence, and nudity. Kubrick seemed to have near total freedom on his films now.
Few things are sacred in A Clockwork Orange. The film depicts sexual violence and rape, physical violence in many forms, fascist and dystopian politics, Nazi imagery, and Christian iconography in a blasphemous way.
In one particular scene, our protagonist fantasizes himself in Biblical times, dressed as a Roman soldier, literally scourging Jesus Christ as he carries the cross. And of course, there is the masterful “dancing Christs” sequence.
Like many of his films, the movie was controversial. In spite of that, or perhaps partly because of it, the film was a commercial and critical success. A box office smash in its day, it took in more than $26 million in the US (when adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $150 million today). It received four Academy Award nominations, three of which were for Kubrick himself: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
During the screening, we ran into a little issue.
All of the DVDs used for the class were my personal copies. Most of the DVDs had been pre-screened by me to both get a refresher on the film and to check the discs for any issues. Unfortunately, I had never actually played this particular DVD of A Clockwork Orange before.
Right after Alex meets with the prison warden about his release, the DVD skipped the entire Ludovico treatment sequence and landed right on the image of the nearly nude woman who is meant to tempt Alex. Needless to say, this was frustrating.
The Ludovico sequence is essential to the film and is perhaps its most iconic part. This clip from The Simpsons illustrates the point perfectly, and it is one of my favorites. I’m proud to say it became class tradition to incorporate a Simpsons clip in each unit.
To get to the quick of the story, we watched the last half of the film by streaming it from Amazon Prime Video. Cost me $3.99, but that’s a small price to pay to show students this film in its full, weird, violent, controversial form.
Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket‘s legacy is mixed. It doesn’t yet have the esteem other Kubrick films have received. Critical reaction in 1987 was mixed, exemplified by Siskel and Ebert’s opposing views (Gene said thumbs up, Roger said thumbs down).
The students liked Full Metal Jacket a lot. In a survey asking which films they thought were the best of the semester, Full Metal Jacket ranked in the top 3. Their favorite element of the film was hands down R. Lee Ermey’s performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.
This is the Kubrick film I’ve seen the most times, and I’d place it among his best work. It’s an amazingly well-crafted film; a pitch black satire about war, military indoctrination, identity, violence, and masculinity.
Here’s a rarely seen behind-the-scenes video for Full Metal Jacket — we get to see the man himself in action.
Of course, this is where I’ll get hokey, so let’s keep it brief. I am very proud of this course and of my students. I’ll miss teaching it and seeing them each week. There were a few road bumps along the way, but the journey was a good one.
I’m not sure if I will actually cover the other units (Scorsese, Tarantino, Lee) in their own posts, or maybe just have a single comprehensive follow-up. We shall see…
If anyone out there is reading this, I thank you. Let me know what you think!
Ryan Pumroy is an advisor and occasional instructor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. He is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of The 2 Shot. His other writings have appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture and In Media Res.