Perfectionist, my ass!

Perfection is in the eye of the beholder.

the colours are all wrong!

‘I’m getting a little weary of the “crazed perfectionist” tag.’ ~ Stanley Kubrick.

This is about KUBRICK’S MISTAKES. I like mistakes. As Lars Von Trier’s T-shirt said during the making of BREAKING THE WAVES, “Mistakes are good.” Only sensible thing he ever said.

“A director is someone who presides over accidents,” as Welles said.

And all the talk about Kubrick’s meticulousness, while it certainly describes a real phenomenon, can get rather predictable, can become a barrier to seeing the films. So this piece is about the OTHER Kubrick, the goofy bungler whose films are a collection of cock-ups and fumbles.

Crazed old-timer

Yeah, right.

But let’s see what we can find. Evidence of errors in Kubrick’s work would point to a filmmaker willing to allow a bit of slippage as long as it’s in the service of creating an interesting scene.

EYES WIDE SHUT. Start at the end — because early stuff might look like youthful inexperience. This movie has a real beaut: during the bathroom scene early on, where Cruise treats a girl who has overdosed, Kubrick and the camera crew are reflected in a bathroom mirror on the far right of the frame. No mistaking it.

When David Wingrove saw the film with his partner Roland Man, Roland was incandescent at this aggravated howler: “They — had — over a year — to — shoot — it!” he hissed.

Wardrobe malfunction.

But by the time the film came to video and DVD, the offending edge action was gone, either masked out by the transfer to 4:3 framing, or removed by some digital jiggery-pokery by the Kubrick heirs. Yet they had been adamant that the film was “finished” at the time of SK’s death — if so, what business did they have tinkering subsequently? Either Kubrick somehow missed the offending material not only during filming, but all through post, or he decided it didn’t matter to him, or he had some plan to eliminate it but neglected to tell anyone: any way you cut it, this was an amusing Ed Woodian slip-up, and that just makes me like Stan more.

Kubrickians either love or are embarrassed by EWS, but what of FULL METAL JACKET? One correspondent to a film magazine pointed out that Kube’s careful reconstruction of Viet Nam in London’s docklands failed because the cloud patterns were all wrong, and they have a point — if what we’re after is complete realism. South East Asian skies, as seen for real in South East Asian films, look hazy and diffuse compared to those of Southern England.

The IMDb lists 59 mistakes in the film, mostly continuity but several factual and a few anachronisms. This kind of stuff can get pretty boring to enumerate, but I like the fact that Private Pyle shoots himself on different toilets according to different camera angles, and that there’s a crewmember in blue jeans lying in the rubble during a long steadicam shot going into battle.

Some continuity problems may stem from the delay in shooting during the training scenes: R. Lee Ermey caved in his rib cage crashing his motorcycle in Epping Forest and shooting was suspended until he’d recovered. So the fact that extras swap places while standing to attention, for instance, is not altogether surprising.

The numerous errors listed with firearms, such as full cartridges than should be empty, and guns firing without being cocked, mainly suggest that Kubrick was not so very concerned with technical accuracy in minor details, unless it helped his dramatic purpose — he would play fast and loose with authenticity when it made life easier, and during the “battlefield” of shooting there would be numerous minor screw-ups which were not worth re-shooting.

(PLATOON has only 29 mistakes listed, surprising when you consider how low the budget and short the schedule were, compared to FMJ, and also when you consider how many drugs Oliver Stone supposedly takes.)

Only idiots really care passionately about continuity mistakes (and blog about them). Kubrick was no idiot.


THE SHINING. I swear to God, when the camera crash-zooms in on the slain Scatman Crothers, he blinks.

Typo: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull bot.” There are LOTS of typos, and of course I’m being silly, they’re meant to be there.

When the phone rings in the kitchen (Jack’s got the job), Shelley Duvall moves smoothly to answer it as if she knew it was going to happen. It’s not quite a gaffe, but it suggests the downside to all those retakes: things can get a little too rehearsed-looking.

The really nice, suggestive one, is how the previous caretaker is named as Charles Grady when he’s first discussed, then Jack Nicholson calls him Delbert Grady when they meet, and Grady is fine with this. What’s going on? How does a filmmaker get a major character’s name wrong? It just adds to the weirdness, so I’d argue that it WORKS, but I don’t think it’s intentional.

Shadowplay: There are lots of camera shadows visible in Kubrick’s films, because he moves the camera a lot. I never used to notice camera shadows until I started making films, then I realised what a nightmare they are. In one shot on a student film, I edited, the crew put an actress’s wig on the camera, transforming a camera shadow into a character shadow.

Weak dancing.

BARRY LYNDON. A few minor anachronisms: the term “strychnine” is used, a Yellow Labrador appears (not bred until 1899). The intriguing one is the car driving through shot in the duel with Leonard Rossiter — I’ve never managed to see it, but more than one source insists it’s there. My T.V. is not that small, plus I’ve seen the film projected several times. But I’d love the rumours to be true.

you can see the crew!

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Patrick Magee’s entire performance is one glorious misjudgement.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. During the Russian Leonard Rossiter blather on the space station, Kubrick is guilty of one of the most egregiously ugly shot changes ever. It’s just a slight jump in shot distance, but it’s really LOUSY film-making. It’s about the only thing of note. Oh, when Heywood Floyd is on the vidphone to his/Kubrick’s daughter, the phone-camera TILTS to keep her in frame as she wriggles about. Pretty clever phone!

lights reflected in shot!

DR. STRANGELOVE. My favourite here is Peter Bull, as the Russian ambassador, struggling to keep a straight face behind Sellers’ Strangelove monologue. People laughing is never funny, but people trying NOT to laugh is delicious torture.

Gorgeous George

I like how George C. Scott falls over in mid-spiel. It feels like it HAS to be either an accident (nobody would script that, it just wouldn’t be funny on the page) or, possibly, Scott goofing around to keep himself entertained during the countless retakes. It’s said that his rather extreme performance came about through boredom, and he was a trifle dismayed when Kubrick cut together the film using only the most exaggerated and grotesque takes. A lot of those re-takes appear to have been motivated by a DESIRE for something to go wrong, for something fascinating and unrepeatable to happen. Thus, Kubrick’s most famous directions: “Do something remarkable,” or, as he liked to quote Cocteau, “Astonish me.”

LOLITA. I like this one — the IMDb suggests that Kubes can be seen walking through frame right at the start, as Humbert enters Quilty’s house. It’s certainly a mistake, but it’s not SK onscreen: why would he be in front of the camera at the start of a take? It’s the clapper boy, running for cover. SOMEBODY made a mistake when editing the dissolve from the previous scene. When you edit rushes for a 48-frame dissolve, you simply cut in the centre of where the dissolve will be, then mark the timing of the dissolve with a chinagraph pencil (I learned old fashioned film cutting just before it died out), 24 frames on either side. Whoever cut this part made the cut right after the clapper boy left, instead of waiting another 24 frames. So even though he wouldn’t have been visible in the cutting copy, when the dissolve came back from the lab, there he is in all his inappropriate glory, disappearing from view exactly halfway through the mix. So either there was no money to recut, or Kubes didn’t notice, or BETTER, didn’t mind. (It’s very brief.)

the phantom clapper

(You can see the Clapper’s arm at bottom right here.)

SPARTACUS. A truck definitely DOES drive through this one! Plus Tony Curtis wearing a Rolex, and the full panoply of Hollywood anachronism and discontinuity.

PATHS OF GLORY. The IMDb lists four goofs, including another blinking corpse. One character says he’s unmarried at the start and talks about his wife at the end. This makes me pbscurely happy. A whirlwind engagement!

John Gavin is cast in the film, despite not being a very good actor.

THE KILLING. A few continuity and firearms goofs. Supposedly most of what the V.O. says is inaccurate because Kubes didn’t want a V.O. in the first place.

KILLER’S KISS. The warehouse fight. SK “crosses the line” repeatedly during the fight in the dummy warehouse. He does this deliberately in other films, jumping exactly 180º in odd ways in FULL METAL JACKET and THE SHINING, but here the effect is disruptive and confusing, all but ruining the film’s most promising sequence. A beginner’s mistake.

FEAR AND DESIRE. Too many screw-ups to list. I think Stan should have cast his hot wife, Toba, in it. That would have helped.

Mrs K

We could take the Malcolm McDowell view: “The human element will trip you up every time. If it wasn’t for that, he could make the perfect film,” which presupposes that the “perfection” aimed at is chimeric and the quest for it quixotic. But Kubrick was well aware of the problems. Steadicam operator Garrett Morris has said, “We would have long conversations about the elusive nature of perfection. After ten takes the thing falls off the wall because the tape holding it there peeled, entropy takes over, we’re all getting older…”

I prefer to think that the obsessive repetition was just what Kubrick always said it was: a desire to keep filming until something happened that was worth putting in a film. It’s not a futile quest for an unattainable ideal, just the desire to keep going until something wonderful occurs in front of the lens. Kubrick’s opinion of what’s wonderful may differ from yours, sometimes, but it’s perfectly commendable to strive for it, and to not care too much how many mistakes are made along the way.

30 Responses to “Perfectionist, my ass!”

  1. Cocteau called this sort of thing “spelling errors.”

    That’s Paul Mazursky in the bottom row in that shot of the Fear and Desire unit. Paul’s the soldier without a helmet.

  2. There’s a curious story about him seeing Kubrick crying when the film previewed badly. Mazursky’s first film had just flopped too (I think) and it hadn’t even occurred to him that you COULD cry. But then, poor Stan’s first marriage was breaking up too.

    The first Mrs K doesn’t ever seem to have given an interview.

  3. Kubrick’s taste in actors seems to see-saw between larger-than-life over-the-top-showboats (Kirk Douglas, George MacCready, Adolph Menjou, Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, Jack Nicholson) and bland pretty boys (Kier Dullea, Ryan O’Neil, Matthew Modine, La Cruise) Women are of little interest to him save in Lolita with Shelley Winters at her most overwhelming and Sue Lyon so cooly nonchalant she seems to have merely wandered into the movie.

    Only James Mason and Sidney Pollack give steady normal performances in Kurbrick — neither “too much” nor “barely there.”

  4. I find Shelley Duvall interesting too, but looking at the Making of documentary, it’s not certain Kubes did. I get the impression he’s interested in Kidman, and not just as a decorous nude. But that’s about it. One reason I find his eroticism so unerotic is that most of the women aren’t people.

    McDowell combines the two kinds of SK lead, both showboat and dreamboat (if your tastes run that way). He certainly isn’t bland.

    There’s also the greaten wooden guys — Kubrick made great use of the kind of US actors available in the UK, playing to their weaknesses.

  5. How dare you blaspheme! Every goof in a Kubrick movie was put there intentionally! :P

  6. I’ve thought for a while now that the main reason why I love Kubrick films is that you can take any one frame (within reason) from a film , frame it and proudly hang it on a wall. Perhaps the reason for Kubrick doing so many takes is because he knew that he knew how to make the film look great but also knew that he didn’t know how to get what he wanted from the performances due to the interpersonal problem you alluded to. Take after take was required so that hopefully among all the many variations he forced his actors to go through he could find a combination that would form the film he saw in his head.

  7. What a delight! Kubrick is my obsession – just look at my bookshelves, go on, look – but even I cringe at these. The Eyes Wide Shut back-projected Manhattan street-scape with Cruise moonwalking on a treadmill is just embarrassing. What was he thinking? In fact, Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut is embarrassing period. I’d love to have ben a fly on the wall if Cruise attempted to convert SK to scientology between takes. I wonder if the supposed CCTV footage of him shopping in M&S in Hertfordshire has a boom in shot or 45 previous takes.

  8. Dan: SK, like Wyler, seems to have proceeded with his actors on the basis that he DIDN’T know what he wanted, or how to ask for it but would proceed to shoot until he got something he liked. Sometimes the actors’ mistakes would tell him what he was looking for by showing what he wasn’t. But if you have to eliminate every bad choice, it can take a while.

    Tellingly, this is how computers play chess: by playing out every single possibility.

    Mike: it’s been argued, and I’m prepared to consider it, that the cringe-factor in Cruise’s perf is intentional. It’s a variation on what Cruise is normally like, but it relates to the stiff Americans in Lolita, 2001 and The Shining.

    Celebrity Shadowplayer Graham Linehan wrote a brilliant parody of a continuity report from the set of EWS: 300 takes of Cruise coming in a door. “Take 245: a fly landed on Tom’s nose. Take 252: Kubrick decides he liked the fly. Fly wrangler is hired.”

  9. incorrectly regarded as goof: peter sellers

  10. Yes, goon rather than goof.

    One theory has it that all Kubes films are about systems that fail. This requires quite a bit of stretching to fit EWS and some of the others, but I like it because it suggests that The Shining is really about errors in hotel management, a sort of psychic Fawlty Towers. “Sybill, I’m home!”

  11. McDowell is definitwely more showboat than dreamboat in Clockwork Orange.

    Kubrick is the first filmmaker to turn obsessive compulsive disorder into mise en scene.

    Cruise is definitely playing a doofus, who doesn’t know he’s a doofus, in EWS. Sydney Pollack uses him to cover the sex crime he commits, try as he might he can’t get laid, and the look of erotic contempt on Leelee Sobieski’s face tops it all off.

    Great scary stuff.

  12. I like the conversation reported between Lindsay Anderson, who hated A Clockwork Orange, and McDowell.

    “It’s not a humanist film in any sense.”

    “But Lindsay, *I’m* the humanist element in it!”

    Nevertheless, I find Anderson’s Britannia Hospital infinitely bleaker: it seems to be about the failure of humanism, and unlike in A.I. the artificial successor to mankind doesn’t work either.

  13. Brittania Hspital suggests a cross between Carry On Nurse and Frankenstein and The Monster From Hell

  14. I should write something about it soon. I met a few of the actors — mad scientist, representative from the palace (in drag), administrator’s assistant — so I picked up a few stories. And while the film is more accepted now, it still deserves more praise than it’s ever had.

    I suspect Anderson rather approved of the Carry Ons and Hammers as good working-class entertainments.

  15. The key films about Thatcher-era Great Britian are Brittania Hospital, Bloody Kids, The Last of England, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

  16. Yeah, I think that covers it. I’m not too fond of anything by Hanif Kureishi, but he was definitely aiming for the zeitgeist.
    The Cook the Thief his Wife and her Lover was also meant to be an attack on Thatcherism but it’s maybe too indirect.
    Britannia Hospital comes out of the collapse of Britain under Labout and the rise of Thatcher, and its “plague on both your houses” attitude caused it to win few friends at the time. If it had come out before the nauseating surge of patriotism in response to the Falklands War, it might have had slightly better luck.

  17. i would probably include rita, sue and bob too in that list

  18. Yes! I wonder how known Alan Clarke’s stuff is outside the UK. Gus Van Sant got some good publicity for Elephant when he re-used the title, but has there been a non-UK retrospective? I can’t imagine RSABT travelled very far at the time it was made…

  19. david wingrove Says:

    Strangely enough, the two films that best sum up Thatcherism for me are not even set in the 80s. The first is Christine Edzard’s 2-part adaptation of Little Dorrit, which spells out what Maggie meant when she talked about “Victorian values”. The second is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Its mixture of surreal futurism and retro dinginess reminds us how The Lady was not a conservative at all, but rather (as one commentator put it) “part radical and part reactionary”. Any film where a child demands “my own credit card” for Xmas, and crime suspects are charged for the privilege of being arrested (Poll Tax, anyone?) just has to be a comment on that whole loathsome era!

  20. Yes, and yet the film has since COME TRUE in a whole new way, with susepcts bagged and tagged and locked up without trial as part of an endless war against largely fictional terrorists. So I always think of it as being about NOW. Maybe that film is always going to be about every era? It’s certainly so full of STUFF that whenever I see it I always spot something from the film as I leave the cinema.

  21. david wingrove Says:

    I didn’t even want to get into that, but am very glad YOU did.

    Yes, quite!

  22. Probably time I revisited Brazil properly, I wonder what other corners of the real world it’s crept into in the last couple of years.

  23. […] Anyway, Stan’s difficulties with this sequence illustrate again my ground-breaking thesis re Kubrick. […]

  24. […] long championed the notion of Kubrick not as a perfectionist machine-mind, but as a kind of shambling, dopey muddler — but I’ll reward anybody who locates it for me. But I *did* notice that one of the […]

  25. Thanks for mentioning the posthumous re-edits to Eyes Wide Shut. It was the only film of his that I got to see in the theaters, and though I missed the crew’s reflection, one revision that irritates me is the re-dubbing of “We made love” to “You and I made love” in Kidman’s first great monologue. I think I read it was done because some viewers thought Alice was admitting to sleeping with the sailor. It IS ambiguous at first, but the rest of her monologue makes it clear she’s referring to her husband (“and we made plans about our future, and we talked about Helena…”).

    Anyway, just a random gripe on my part. I agree that the little errors add to the enjoyment of Kubrick’s carefully-calibrated films rather than detract from it.

  26. I didn’t know about that one — that’s pretty heinous. You can argue that SK often altered his films after release, but where are the instances of him redubbing, or striving to remove ambiguity?

    Jan Harlan seems a very nice man, but the trouble is, Kubrick was surrounded by well-meaning duffers and one vast corporation — there was nobody in his organisation who thought remotely like him, who could genuinely protect Kubrick’s work.

  27. Wikipedia says that in the U.S. Kubrick made cuts to A Clockwork Orange so it wouldn’t receive an X rating, and the CGI masqued ball figures in EWS are at least consistent with that process, even though they weren’t overseen by him. The problem is, as time went on and standards relaxed, the Clockwork footage was restored and the masquerade ball-blockers were removed. But the Kidman dialogue change seems to be more of an editorial decision that isn’t going to get reversed. By no means is it a big deal, but once you notice it you can’t un-notice it. It’s right at 1:52…

  28. To change that back we probably have to wait for someone else to die, and for the new man in charge to milk the estate for more profit by re-releasing the movies in the authentic versions — including a Barry Lyndon in the right screen ratio.

    I *think* Kubrick was around for the digitally added cock-blockers in Eyes Wide Shut, but I’m not sure of that. It may simply be that they said he OK’d the decision but “they” might not be being entirely truthful.

  29. […] Burgess. I was just remarking on this evidence of Kubrick’s perfectionism having marked (and strange) limits, when the film cuts to his dad, played by Philip Stone, who suffered a similar gnomic […]

  30. […] In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler. […]

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