Stanley Kubrick – he’s the Man

“The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.”

Stanley Kubrick would become one of the most respected and unique filmmakers in American cinema in the 20th century.  Never one to conform, Kubrick’s films are unique simply because they are Kubrick films.  Although the number of films his body of work holds is not large in number, the scope of the genre he completed outshines the legacies of most other directors.  Arguably, no other director has managed so many memorable films that range from science fiction to war films to historical drama to comedy and to horror.  Yet, despite the differences between them, a Kubrick film has a distinct Kubrick signature that makes them instantly recognizable.

Stanley Kubrick was born in New York City on July 26, 1928.  His father, a physician with a passion for photography, encouraged his son to use the dark room in the family’s home.  Stanley did so with increasing enthusiasm leading him to a life-long interest and love of the camera, something that would be evident in his work for the rest of his life.  At the age of 16, while still in High School, Kubrick shot a photograph of a news vendor the day after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and submitted it to “Look Magazine.”  “Look” printed the photograph and hired him as a freelance photographer.  After taking shots for a journal of boxing for the magazine, Kubrick became very interested in the sport and made a 16-minute documentary, Day of the Fight.  It was 1950 and Kubrick quit the magazine to dedicate himself to filmmaking full-time for the 16-minute film had planted a seed.  For a time, Kubrick tried to finance his next film by playing chess, another life-long passion for him.  However, the winnings from the game weren’t enough so his father cashed in his life insurance to assist Stanley on his next film, and first feature, Fear and Desire, in 1951.

By all accounts Stanley Kubrick was intense, very confident and fiercely driven by his life’s work from the very beginning.  With up and coming producer, James Harris, Kubrick created Harris-Kubrick films in the early 1950’s.  Harris found a book about a robbery at a racetrack, which lead to their first project, The Killing, in 1955.  Kubrick was 28 years old.  Due to his familiarity with the camera, Kubrick set up very specific shots, dolly shots, prepared the lighting, etc., which caused a lot of friction between himself and the film’s photographer who had already won an academy award.  Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for difficulty and perfectionism would continue for the rest of his career, but from this early stage he told the photographer that he either set up as he was told or he could leave.  The Killing was not a commercial success; however, it did help build Kubrick’s reputation as a director who knew what he was doing.  The story-telling style of the film, unique in that he plays with time by telling the story over and over from different character perspectives, would be just one of the ways Kubrick would not conform to what film fans and critics had seen to that point.  His films would always, from that point, have elements that challenge everyone who sees them.

Kubrick’s next major work was his first major studio film, Paths of Glory, in 1957.  Of this film, director Martin Scorsese, a war film fan has said that he’d never seen such an honest film and what made it honest was the objective way Kubrick shot it.  Again here, specific mention goes to particular dolly shots along the trenches as Douglas walks through.  These dolly shots are another Kubrick staple, present in all his films and nobody ever uses the camera in the same way to make an audience member feel they are a part of the action.  Scorsese said that, because of how the film was shot, Kubrick told us the story and then allowed us to make up our minds about it.

On the set of Paths of Glory, Kubrick met Christiane, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his three daughters.  They were together until his death in 1999.

Paths of Glory was banned in France for nearly 20 years due to its damning portrayal of a French officer.  But now Kubrick was front and center in the mind of all that is Hollywood.  In a 1958 interview with CBC radio, Kubrick said, “Hollywood offers the best opportunity and possibilities for young people.”  He was specifically referring to the upheaval the insurgence of television caused for the film industry in the 1950’s.  In order to prove itself outstanding and unique, Hollywood was offering ways for young filmmakers to make their mark.  Although Kubrick would encounter countless problems with censors, the mark he made was brighter and he made it before anyone else.

Kirk Douglas approached Harris-Kubrick to work on Spartacus after the film had completed 3 days of shooting, which had produced nothing.  Kubrick agreed to step in as director replacing Anthony Mann but was unhappy with the production from the onset.  Kubrick is said to have had major clashes on how the story was to be told with the film’s star and producer, Kirk Douglas.  Kubrick had become used to having script approval, which he did not have on this film.  Here he had no say on anything and hated the experience.  Despite the unhappy experience, however, in many ways this was the film that turned everything around for him.  On one side it cemented him and his reputation in Hollywood and on the other it turned him off to it completely.  After this film was over Kubrick would only do films where he had final cut.

Spartacus turned out to be a critical and commercial success.  According to his wife, Christiane, it was after Spartacus, that Kubrick felt he had the official title of “film director” and felt now he could make the stories he wanted, the stories he had “a crush on.”

When Kubrick made his next film, Lolita, Hollywood was opening up as far as allowing for slightly more scandalous stories to be made.  Scorsese said that at a time when American cinema was on its way down, due to the collapse of the studio system, with Lolita, Kubrick made a film that made people “stop and look” at the possibilities or at what American cinema would become.

Despite still strict Hollywood standards and ethics, Kubrick pushed the envelope with Lolita as its subject matter was racy – an older man infatuated with a young girl.  Due to this, the film had a terrible distribution problem.  The Catholic Church succeeded in holding it back for over 6 months.  Kubrick had to re-cut it and later said he would have had chosen not to do it had he known the limitations that would be placed on him and his film.  Despite the troubles, though, Lolita performed well in the box office.

For his next project, Kubrick again tackled a subject that is controversial.  Dr. Strangelove, released in 1964, coincided with what was happening in the world with the Cuban Missile Crisis and as such it had great timing for a satire of current world events.  With a clear message that the entire matter was insane, Kubrick uses the song “We’ll Meet Again” as images of bombs exploding fill the screen.  These images are both poignant and irreverent and even a novice can say only one man would have conceived to use the images he does as a backdrop to this song.  I have to interject that even today these images and song with its message seems pertinent.  And this was one of the gifts of a Kubrick film.  He was so often dead-on that a film made nearly 50 years ago is still right on target.

Not surprisingly, this film caused uproar.  Young audiences loved it but the “establishment” thought it subversive and Kubrick sick and deranged.  Scorsese again commented about what his impressions of Kubrick were after this film was released and that impression was that he now knew Kubrick was “the one,” meaning that despite other world renown directors, Kubrick’s films came to offer more and his were the ones to wait for.

In the mid-sixties Americans and Russians began space exploration and again Kubrick was topical in the subject matter of his next film.  However, well beyond just the subject matter, which he takes to the limit of everyone’s imagination, Kubrick broke through many barriers and with 2001: A Space Odyssey he wrote a new chapter in cinema history.  Of seeing this film for the first time Steven Spielberg said he remembers being instantly aware that a new “motion picture form, genre” had just been created.  He said this was “not a documentary, not a drama, not even science fiction.  It was more science eventuality.  The first film that many people agree depicted the future as “unknowable”.”  Stylistically, 2001 made huge strides in filmmaking.  Almost everything seen and heard in this film had not been done before.  Doug Trumball, Visual Effects Designer on this film said that Kubrick gave him carte blanche to create effects never before seen on the screen – and Kubrick’s use of music, coupled with long periods without dialogue are all also unique.

The release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, like other Kubrick films, split audiences and critics.  Lines formed around theaters and one newspaper article exclaimed, “Take a trip with Kubrick, the new wonder hallucinogenic.”  Meanwhile, Kubrick was heart-broken when, during the first exhibitor screening 241 people walked out during the showing.  He had indeed counted them.  Woody Allen, who really disliked the film the first time he saw it, said that years after the film’s debut he saw it for the 3rd time and loved it suddenly realizing that “this was one of the few times in my life that the artist was much ahead of me.”

Interestingly, Kubrick, who had so upset the Catholic Legion of Decency with Lolita, won the National Catholic Award for “Best Film of Educational Value” for his “imaginative vision of man” in 2001.  Also, Kubrick won the first and only Academy Award of his career for “best Visual Effects” for this film.

Stanley Kubrick’s next film, A Clockwork Orange, became yet another controversial undertaking.  Despite the film’s playful nature, the violence depicted in it caused it to be brutally attacked as a film in Britain.  Crime sprees by youths who claimed to have been inspired by the film sprang out and Kubrick himself was accused of inciting violence.  Fearful for the safety of his family he was forced to remove the film from theaters after 61 successful weeks of showings.  This was, by all accounts, an astonishing display of director power.  No other film director had ever been given the power to stop distribution or exhibition of a film.  Further, in areas outside of Britain, Kubrick became very involved in how the film would be marketed to audiences.  As a result, A Clockwork Orange became the second highest grossing film ever for Warner Bros. after My Fair Lady.

By this time Stanley Kubrick had become a force whom many in the film industry were jealous of.  He worked outside of Hollywood and was left alone as far as creative control of his projects but he also had the complete backing of a major film studio, Warner Bros.  Despite the fact Kubrick shot films for extraordinarily long periods of time he also shot cheaply.

Kubrick’s next film, Barry Lyndon, 1975, starring Ryan O’Neill was a huge period drama that takes place in the 18th century.  Though not a commercial success at all, many people seem to find historical detail in this film as they’ve in no other.  The innovations Kubrick made with lighting in this film were of particular interest to other filmmakers and they were by now his greatest audience.  Richard Schickel of “Time Magazine” said “the people who loved Stanley’s movies were mostly movie people who were astonished by each frame.”  Such accolades, however seemed to not mean much for Kubrick who according to his wife was extremely saddened and disappointed by American critics’ reviews who mostly called the film “boring and tedious.”

The Shining was Kubrick’s next film and he felt the topic could be both artistic and commercially successful.  The film received mixed reviews upon its release.  Having recently seen this film for this course I can attest to the fact it is easily the scariest and creepiest film I’ve ever seen.  And all that is felt, often while experiencing chills, is a result of Kubrick’s direction.  This film is literally all about where he takes us and how he takes us there.  The camera movements, in particular the steady cam, hallway sequences and those in the maze, coupled with the music used throughout make a perfectly chilling experience where we are in the hotel with those people.

After completing The Shining, Kubrick and his family moved to a large mansion in the Hertfordshire countryside in England.  This is where he would now do all his work except when filming on location.  He also worked almost exclusively from then on with a small but very dedicated team.

In 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick completed another war film (the first was Paths of Glory).For this film though, he attempts and succeeds in making an objective war film, a film that takes no sides (where as Paths was an anti-war film).  Unfortunately, by the time Full Metal Jacket is released several other films about Vietnam were also available to the public – and a few had been very successful.  This time Kubrick’s timing as an innovator was off – but his film about this war is still compelling and is as thought-provoking and artistic as are his other films.

By the time Kubrick’s next and last film was announced he had worked on other projects he subsequently abandoned for many reasons.  The announcement of Eyes Wide Shut then brought immense focus on the man behind the camera, by now enormously mysterious since he hadn’t made a film in more than ten years.  Articles resurfaced about Kubrick’s being a half-mad recluse who tortured actors.  According to his wife and daughters those stories bothered Kubrick a great deal but he never answered the accusations himself.  Instead, many of those who worked with him through the years did speak out on behalf of an extremely focused and dedicated man who was absolutely unflinching about his vision.

In Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick again deals with the dark side of human nature.  Here he focuses on passion and commitment and again shows us in a distinctly unique visual style.  Though the studio and actors were very enthusiastic about this film, it was a disappointment, both critically and commercially.  Stanly Kubrick died in his sleep a week after completing this film, on March 7, 1999.  There is some dispute as to whether the final version of Eyes Wide Shut shown in theaters worldwide was indeed finished.   Known for editing or re-cutting films after initial releases, it is possible Kubrick’s final vision of the film is not available to us.  Possible.  Speculation on this controversial final film by our most controversial director will continue.  I just read great commentary on the film by Norman Buckley posted on his site, The Buckley Bulletin.  Take a look here.  Insightful stuff.

Stanley Kubrick’s wife, Christiane said that he was deeply disappointed that he’d been so slow in directing his films, that he hadn’t made more.  In his defense director Alan Parker said “so much was expected of him every time.  He wasn’t allowed to just make a movie, it had to be an amazing movie ‘cause so many of us were waiting for the next Stanley Kubrick film.  It had to be an event.  That thing on his shoulders therefore was a terrible responsibility in a way.”  And by all accounts his life revolved around whatever film he was working on 24/7.  Doug Trumball would say of his experience working with Kubrick “He took possession of all, everything and everyone on his set, the art, the set, the people, the cameras, the technology – he embodied it all.”

As a result of his unflinching dedication and the clear signature he left on his films, Stanley Kubrick would become the first true auteur of American cinema in the post-studio era.  He had no doubt himself that directors should be the authors of their work as he would say, “One man writes a novel.  One man writes a symphony.  It is essential for one man to make a film.”   Of Kubrick Jack Nicholson said “Everyone pretty much acknowledges he’s the man.  I still feel that underrates him.”

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent piece. It’s worth noting that Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was a Kubrick project at one point and it certainly looks as if the director shot the movie like a Kubrick film in some scenes.

  2. Thanks for the introduction to the film “The Killing”. Not being that familiar with Kubrick’s work, I hadn’t even heard of it. But I’ll be tracking it down soon.

    All the Kubrick films that I have seen are thought-provoking, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I do not get. I’ve read many reviews of this movie and still – nada. But maybe it’s time to try it again. Maybe, like Woody Allen’s experience, the 3rd viewing will be when I finally Get It.

  3. Thank you for a very interesting overview. “The Killing” is probably my favorite Kubrick, a sadly overlooked film. I was surprised to see you describe “Full Metal Jacket” as “objective” in regard to Vietnam. This may be a case where my own past serves as a blinder – the movie came out when I was a radical in High School and it seemed to me to clearly demonstrate the hypocrisy and innate contradictions of that war. I found it much better than “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now,” and certainly “Born on the Fourth of July” which came a few years later. It seemed to me the ultimate counter-argument to the nationalistic “Rambo” films that were popular at the time.

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