Perfection is in the eye of the beholder.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
(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.
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.