General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) knows that the Communists want to contaminate his precious bodily fluids. His jaw clamped on a cigar and his chin cocked at an obscene angle, Ripper outlines his nuclear-war-precipitating conspiracy theory with ferocious calm. His snarling face fills the frame, suggesting that, for the top brass, there is no difference between a threat to one’s sexual potency and a threat to the nation.
This scene, along with many others in Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 1964 Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, is not just amusing and kind of terrifying. It also challenges the audience to think: about this character and his profound insecurities, about his embodiment of broader national obsessions with violence and victory, and about the strategies that filmmakers use to communicate certain ideas. Kubrick’s movies are dense with these types of moments, continually blurring the boundaries between entertainment, art, and biting social commentary.
This Sunday at Best Video, Dr. Mark Schenker will host the first of four lectures in a series dedicated entirely to understanding the rich and diverse cinema of Stanley Kubrick. A dean and English lecturer at Yale who has traveled the state giving public lectures on literature and film, Schenker has crafted a short course on how to read a movie. Designed for amateurs with no prior technical or historical knowledge of film, the series looks closely at four of Kubrick’s movies to help demonstrate how and why a good movie affects us in the way that it does.
“These lectures try to apply the techniques of attentive reading to a film,” Schenker said. “They encourage an understanding of how perspective or camera angles or camera movement works, but all within a very specific context of a particular movie.”
Each session is roughly an hour and a half, featuring an introductory lecture by Schenker in which he places a movie in the context of a director’s larger body of work. After this opening presentation, Schenker proceeds to analyze scenes from the movie, playing clips and commenting on certain themes or filmmaking techniques at work.
The first lecture in the series will focus on The Killing (1956), Kubrick’s breakout film noir about a heist at a horseracing track. The other three films included in the series are the WWI drama Paths of Glory (1957), the political satire Dr. Strangelove (1964), and the sumptuous, acerbically funny period-piece Barry Lyndon (1975).
Although this series is just Schenker’s second at Best Video, following up on a four-part installment in January that took Alfred Hitchcock as its subject, Schenker has been giving public lectures about movies for over five years. “It arose when the movie Inglorious Basterds came out,” Schenker said, “and some of my book group participants wondered whether it was a great movie or a mess. I said to them, ‘If you knew something about film genre, you’d recognize what an accomplishment Inglorious Basterds is at being a Western, a war movie, a comedy, an adventure story. And one of them said, ‘Why don’t you teach a course on that?’”
So Schenker did. He put together a series at the Fairfield Public Library on how to read a film genre, using Rear Window, The Searchers, and Some Like It Hot to establish a foundation for the genres that Inglorious Basterds would go on to play with. The series proved so popular that Schenker quickly put together more, shifting his focus to specific directors like Hitchcock, Kubrick, Billy Wilder, and John Huston.
“I try to pick films that people either will know or should know, by popular, impressive filmmakers,” Schenker said. “I’m trying to engage people who might say, ‘If I’m going to see a movie like Inglorious Basterds or Spectre, how might I understand this movie better than as just entertainment?’”
For Schenker, the films of Stanley Kubrick represent a uniquely diverse output that nevertheless bear a strong authorial imprint and a clearly legible approach to filmmaking. Although The Killing is a film noir and Paths of Glory is a war drama, reverse tracking shots are prominent in both, giving characters momentum while at the same time drawing them towards something dark and seemingly inevitable. Similarly, Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon are original exercises in their own genres of satire and Bildungsroman, but also carry shared interests in an obsessive male desire and the way that a camera can frame, exaggerate, and undercut such urges. Kubrick’s movies contain a wealth of information to read, enjoy, and understand, Schenker argues, and this lecture series offers one entry point to a slightly deeper level of cinematic understanding.
“Mainly what I want is for people to come who are prepared for what the course will give them, which is not just something interesting for an hour and a half accompanied by a little bit of trivia,” Schenker said. “I would like a person who leaves and remembers why a reverse tracking shot is different from a tracking shot. Or why it changes the tone of a movie if the camera is at people’s hips instead of at eye level. I’d like them to say, ‘Wow, I can actually look for that in another movie.’”
Click on the audio player below to listen to a conversation on a recent episode of “Deep Focus” with assistant manager Hank Hoffman and founder Hank Paper about the past, present and future of Best Video.
The Stanley Kubrick lecture series starts with The Killing on Nov. 29, continues with Paths of Glory on Dec. 6 and Dr. Strangelove on Dec. 13, and ends with Barry Lyndon on Dec. 20. Each session starts at 2 p.m. and costs $7 to attend. For more information, please visit Best Video’s website.