Interlude 1: Michael Herr’s Kubrick

19 Jun

(I’m working on fiction again, in earnest, I can feel my brain slipping into the obsessive writing mode, where every thing I read, see and hear filters into the subconscious, on its way to the artificial world of the new manuscript, so it’s taking me a bit longer to post. When I get like this, my brain becomes a sieve, my thoughts slippery; I’m often distracted and distractible, irritable when interrupted, I slide into automatic writing, pounding out thousands of words in a sitting if I’m left alone. I’m trying to finish up the manuscript tentatively titled, The Taunting Light.)


I just finished Michael Herr’s insightful, superb (almost) book-length essay on Stanley Kubrick, Kubrick. Herr wrote the definitive book on Vietnam with his Dispatches, and co-wrote Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. (Not a bad resume.) This little book is a stunning example of how to write a biography without spending sixty pages on the person’s usually dull childhood. Instead, Herr applies a razor focus to Kubrick’s personality, narrowing his films through Herr’s personal relationship with him. Herr had known Kubrick for years, with a running telephonic dialogue with him that ran at sporadic intervals. The phone calls were often late-night, rambling affairs, with Kubrick’s encyclopedic autodidacticism on magnificent display.

Books of this type can be screwy, narcissistic and thin. But Herr captures the essence of Kubrick in this lucid, thrilling series of anecdotes about his relationship with one of the great directors.

Here he is, explaining how Kubrick’s mind worked:

“He had more compartments in his head than anyone I ever knew, he would open or close them selectively to the people he was working with, or to each of his friends; the one with the money in it, the one where he kept all his toys, the one where he kept his most personal things, like his hopes and his fears, that sort of thing, and whatever he loved most besides work, his family and friends, his dogs and cats. And however adroitly he manipulated the doors to those components, now open, now closed, essentially Stanley was a very open guy. Still, none of these compartments ever sprang open accidentally.

“Beyond those compartments, and governing them, was a capability to take his intelligence up or down as circumstances required, without ever being either obscure or patronizing, a rather beautiful quality of mind.”

Herr wrote this shortly after Kubrick died, in the aftermath of the swirling, negative shit-storm trashing Eyes Wide Shut—you’d have to have been there to really get a sense of it, the endless left-handed compliments as obituaries, brutal negating assessments of Kubrick’s entire body of work, through the prism of his final film.


I’ve always admired Kubrick. He resists easy interpretation, all of his movies are intriguing, but they aren’t so much of a piece that they are predictable or boring. I find Herr’s aggressive defense of Eyes Wide Shut to be an exhilarating piece of criticism. I think Eyes is a great film, too, and I didn’t quite understand people’s negative response to it. Paths of Glory remains one of my favorite films, as does The Shining. I’ve never forgotten 2001, even if it’s a brilliant slog at times, and I never forgot watching Barry Lyndon, either, perhaps the first “serious” movie I can remember watching.

Full Metal Jacket is wild, wooly, uncontrollable in a way, propulsive, devastating and then interrupted by that late ironic self-awareness—like Coppola shooting war footage on the beach in Apocalypse Now—that doesn’t quite work, but it remains like a scar in the mind of everyone who watches it.

I never forgot A Clockwork Orange or The Killing either. Orange in particular remains an unsettling experience, still shocking, oddly moral despite the claims to amorality.

His Lolita is fabulous, drawing all the dark humor out of the novel[1]. James Mason is revelatory as Humbert Humbert. And then there’s Dr. Strangelove, his oddest film in many ways, funny and serious, two films really, a slapstick comedy and an austere military procedural rattling around in the space between George C. Scott and Peter Sellers.

Why anyone dislikes Kubrick strikes me as bizarre. Herr’s essay rescues him from the calumny, the over-attention on his phobias, obsessions and mistreatment of actors—this last one particularly odd because he gets the best performance out of so many actors, including Shelly Duvall—and instead delivers a full view of one of America’s towering movie directors.


[1] Adrian Lynne’s version took all of the humor out.

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