In A Life in Pictures, the 2001 documentary on Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, in his luxuriously seductive drawl, says, “everyone pretty much acknowledges that (Kubrick’s) the man.” A parade of notable American filmmakers concur; Martin Scorcese talks of the excitement with which he would wait for the next Kubrick picture; Woody Allen explains that after his third viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he realised that Kubrick was years ahead of him; and Steven Spielberg, who famously took A.I. over from Kubrick, speaks of how the late auteur would start his films by taking a broad canvas upon which he would add his inimitable brushstrokes: Spielberg gives us the filmmaker as artist, as the making of beautiful images.
One may argue that A Life in Pictures, produced and directed by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long time collaborator, is dangerously close to hagiography. As an authorized documentary it gains from its access to family, friends and fellow filmmakers, yet refuses to allow much of a voice to Kubrick’s detractors; of whom there were many. The great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael considered 2001: A Space Odyssey ‘monumentally unimaginative,’ and of the most boring films ever made; Eyes Wide Shut was lampooned by many reviewers and the British critic Mark Kermode considers Kubrick overrated. Many continue to see the director’s films as cold and cynical, as being somehow stripped of heart and sentiment, as being products of a hard and rational intellect. To a degree there is some truth in this belief. Taken as a whole, Kubrick undoubtedly reveals the black side of mankind; casual violence, destructive individuality, mistrust and suspicion feature highly throughout his work. Yet there are the scenes in The Shining between Danny and Hallorann when Danny explains his psychic ability which are full of tenderness and real human care. In Full Metal Jacket, Private Joker helps Private Pile to dress and shows him how to assemble his rifle. In doing so he demonstrates a patience and tolerance which is in marked contrast to the behaviour of the drill sergeant. This last instance reveals the manner in which the director would place emotionality within the specific context of his film. Kubrick was not concerned with trite parades of easy sentimentality but rather with the holding up of a mirror to the realities of the human experience: our brutal, violent tendencies, our unexpressed or repressed desires, our lusts, rages and multiple vanities.
Kubrick has also been attacked for eschewing convention for the sake of formal and structural innovation, a charge which can be defended if one recognises the importance of those who push boundaries in art. Kubrick wished to challenge the very form of cinema itself, and in 2001: A Space Odyssey, he achieved this, producing something entirely new: a mood picture, an impressionistic waltz which was made almost ten years before Star Wars and yet is far more impressive as a technological achievement. Kubrick exalts in the vast beauty of his spacescapes, using music, as he always did, to quite extraordinary effect, and in doing so providing us with a completely convincing picture of the stillness and quiet calm of the universe, putting our own world, quite literally, into a very humble perspective.
There is a very strong case to be made for Kubrick as the most vital of all twentieth century filmmakers. As an image-maker he has no rival. There is his astonishing ability to produce such different films in a wide range of genres; his minute attention to detail; his ability to get inspirational once in a lifetime performances from his actors. Although the apprehension of art and the appreciation of it are, in any final analysis, matters of personal taste, one is tempted to respond to those who consider Kubrick as an overrated director by quoting that great eighteenth-century Irish satirist Jonathon Swift, “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
Born into a middle class family in the Bronx, Stanley Kubrick first became captivated by the transformation of reality into images when his father bought him a camera. The young boy took it with him wherever he went. It was this object, and Kubrick’s use of it, which was to change his life and alter the course of cinema history. The day after President Eisenhower’s death, the sixteen-year-old Kubrick was on his way to school, when, upon noticing a glum looking vendor surrounded by newspaper headlines reporting the passing of the Commander in Chief, he removed his camera and took a photograph of the scene. Deciding against going to school, he went home, developed the photograph and sent it off to Look magazine. They bought it immediately and were impressed enough to offer the young Kubrick a job as a photographer. That Kubrick achieved this at an age when most boys are running around after girls and getting into trouble with their parents, offers us an insight into this most singular of minds. Here was a boy full of conviction, imagination and dedication. Within him there was already the need to express himself through images, to present a visual portrait of the world, to create.
Kubrick spent two years working for Look magazine, traveling extensively and learning his craft. By his early twenties he had begun to develop an interest in film. With his savings he produced The Day of the Fight, a documentary focusing on the boxer Walter Cartier. With the financial help of his family he wrote and directed his first full-length feature film, Fear and Death, about a fictitious war, a picture he was later to disown. By now having quit his job at Look he directed Killer’s Kiss, a heist movie based on a popular novel. It established Kubrick’s interest in the adaptation of books for the screen.
His experience with Kirk Douglas (then one of Hollywood’s most powerful stars) on Spartacus, a film Kubrick took over from Anthony Mann, taught the 32 year-old director a very valuable lesson: never to cede authority over his pictures. Astonishingly, given the power of the big studios, Columbia and Warner Brothers were to give Kubrick complete control over his productions from this moment on. Although he always relied heavily on extremely talented collaborators, Kubrick’s dictum: “one man writes a book, one man composes a symphony, it is essential for one man to make a film,” is never more true than in his own case. His phrase is not the expression of an arrogant intelligence at work but rather the belief of a perfectionist and someone who understood that having total control over a project displayed your deep respect for it. Why make mistakes when they can be avoided? Why compromise? Why not reach beyond limits and set new ones?
In Jane Austen’s phrase, it is a truth universally acknowledged that true art deserves this title if it exerts such a powerful hold over us that it makes us return to it. There are many wonderful films, great books, songs and paintings which offer us pleasure. We enjoy them whilst watching, reading, listening to or looking at them, yet when the experience comes to an end they are easily forgotten. They are throwaway, existing more to divert than to offer insight and commentary and alternative ways of seeing. And then there is that to which we are forever connected, that which remains within us, that to which we return time and again, only to discover something entirely new and hitherto unperceived. Kubrick’s films have just this quality. They demand to be re-watched, re-experienced, relived. No matter how many times one sees the bone thrown into the air at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, only to watch it transform into a space capsule, one cannot fail to be astonished by the audacity of the imagination which conceived of it. There are so many moments: the steadicam following Danny around the corridors of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining; Major “King” Kong riding the bomb into atomic oblivion in Dr Strangelove; the deranged expression on the face of Private Pile at the turn of the two-act Full Metal Jacket as he sits in the eerie dawn light of the mess bathroom; the threesome in A Clockwork Orange, sped up and played out to the William Tell Overture.
Film is a visual medium, of course, and to truly reach out beyond itself it has to show us the world in ways we had not previously imagined. Kubrick’s vision, in both senses of the word, was unique. It is no surprise that many actors who worked with him commented upon his intensely powerful gaze, black, penetrating, missing nothing. With Kubrick we see things from perspectives which alter out perceptions, which jolt us out of the comfort zone within which so much of cinema closets us. In The Shining, as Jack Torrance hammers on the door of the walk-in store cupboard, the camera looks up at his face from the floor. The choice of camera position magnifies the manic terror of the moment as we focus on the slavering grin and the sweaty, tussled hair hovering above us. In Eyes Wide Shut, as the Hartfords embrace each other we watch them, as they touch each other in front of the mirror, naked, at the point of desire. And then Alice looks in the mirror, watching with us, and in a moment, the uncertainty on her face transforms the scene, lust fades into doubt. With brutal economy Kubrick communicates that there is something wrong between this couple, something unexpressed, but something which is there nonetheless, underlining everything. In the underrated Barry Lyndon, an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s tale of an eighteenth century Irish rogue, Kubrick produces as much a series of paintings as a film. Watching the picture is like entering into a work of art and it is mostly done through the use of candlelight. One forgets that one is watching a cinematic reconstruction of a time and imagines that one has been transported back through the centuries to a period in which the very beat and rhythm of life was so much slower than in our modern mechanised light-speed world.
Film has become the most dominant of all modern art forms precisely because it offers a unique combination of words, music and images. At his very best, and to my mind Stanley Kubrick’s most satisfying films are Doctor Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, the director pulls off an extraordinary trick. He entertains and delights with inspired screenplays: in Doctor Strangelove President Merkin Muffley shouts at the American General Buff Turgeson and the Russian Ambassador de Sadesky as they engage in a scuffle, “gentleman, you can’t fight in here, it’s the war room.” He uses music not as mere adornment or for the purposes of telescoping the obvious, but to drive and comment upon the narrative, setting up ironic counterpoints and unsettling juxtapositions. No one who has seen A Clockwork Orange will ever forget the horrifying rape sequence. We watch in appalled fascination as Alex, played in sublime and unforgettable fashion by Malcolm McDowell, attacks the couple, all the while singing Singing in the Rain merrily to himself.
With Kubrick one learns to expect the unexpected. A satire on World War Three and the nuclear arms race released just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis; the tale of an ‘ultraviolent’ teenager who commits unspeakable acts of violence in which the viewer, through observing the effect of institutional terror and cruelty, is actually able to sympathize with the character, a true feat of moral subversion; a three hour epic of science fiction in which the first words are not uttered until almost thirty minutes have elapsed; an adaptation of Vladamir Nabakov’s Lolita, the story of paedophile Humbert Humbert’s affair with his stepdaughter, made at a time when it was considered unmakeable. The film may appear chaste to the modern sensibility but then, in an odd way, what we don’t see, makes it all the more unsettling.
There have been many headlines screaming news of Kubrick, news to arouse suspicion, distaste and voyeuristic interest in the man himself, and stories adopting a certain dismissive tone with regard to his work.
Anthony Burgess furious with Kubrick’s fudged ending to the film version of his novel A Clockwork Orange.
Stephen King rails against the wholesale liberties the director has taken with his adaptation of The Shining and vows to make his own film.
Eyes Wide Shut is a pretentious spectacle of middle class sexual angst.
Director blamed for copycat killings removes A Clockwork Orange from British cinemas.
Stanley Kubrick: a mad reclusive control freak.
One may go on and on.
But for now I shall be content with a memorable line taken from one of Kubrick’s most controversial films as an expression of my own feelings; for the moment I first watched a Kubrick film, “I was cured all right.”