(British Film Institute, 272 pages, $24.95)
By James Naremore
In the years since his death in 1999, the reputation of Stanley Kubrick has become considerably less forbidding and mysterious than it was for much of the last 30 years of his life, when he shrouded himself in self-imposed seclusion. That long sojourn out of the public eye has now been countered by the admirable openness of the Kubrick estate, a fine documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, and a flood of accounts poured from the pens of his many collaborators. This wealth of new detail makes it the perfect time for a serious critical reassessment, and there could be no better candidate for the task than James Naremore. Naremore proved his credentials as a cultural historian of cinema with his masterpiece, Film Noir in Its Contexts, which brought a wealth of literary, political, cultural and social knowledge to bear on the genre. The same powers are directed here, to continuously revelatory effect, at the work of Kubrick, whose films are so distinctive that they almost constitute a genre of their own. Naremore battles both our familiarity with Kubrick’s indelible, iconic imagery and the misleading notion that his work is as straightforward as it appears. Almost every page in this readable, jargon-free book contains some startling new fact, nuance or connection, and the result undermines any simplistic understanding of Kubrick as a dour pessimist or right-wing misanthrope. Naremore presents Kubrick as perhaps the last Modernist—that is to say, the last serious (and commercially successful) practitioner of the emotionally withdrawn, bleakly funny and form-obsessed approach to art that had its origins in Joyce and Kafka. He convincingly situates the films within the three-century history of the Grotesque in art and literature. Naremore’s evaluations of A Clockwork Orange (which he dislikes) and Barry Lyndon and The Shining (which he deeply admires) can compare with the finest critical writing about Kubrick. And, taken as a whole, it’s the best thing to happen to our understanding of the director since Michel Ciment’s groundbreaking study back in 1980. This is the state of the art in deep Kubrick appreciation.
Review written by John Patterson.