FIRST WORKS (1951)
There’s not much more to write about director Stanley Kubrick than what’s already been written. His work has been analyzed, pored-over and dissected as long as it’s been around. He’s held up as the gold standard in filmmaking—the benchmark by which all other directors aspire to, and all critics compare against.
Each of his major films, from 1956’s THE KILLING to 1999’s EYES WIDE SHUT, can be considered masterpieces in their own right, possessing lurid qualities that continue to draw us into Kubrick’s meticulously crafted worlds and beckon us to uncover their secrets.
He was a calculating genius in every sense of the term, seemingly born as a fully formed artist— suited particularly to the moving image. Had film school existed when he was a young man, he probably wouldn’t have gone out of principle alone.
Kubrick’s sterling legacy is somewhat ironic, considering that most of his films were misunderstood, controversial, and lukewarmly received upon their release. It wasn’t until many years later that his work achieved the kind of cultural value and respect it holds now. Considering that his career spanned five decades, Kubrick’s filmography is surprisingly small, consisting of just thirteen features.
This can be attributed to his reputation as a demanding perfectionist and obsessive researcher. He was notorious, especially later in life, for taking several years between projects, which he spent amassing obscene amounts of research. For instance, in compiling information for his long-gestating (but never-made) passion project NAPOLEON, he constructed a card filing system that was so thorough that it had entry for every single day of Napoleon’s life.
He wasn’t just a master dramaturge however—his storytelling prowess extended to the technical side of the craft, and many of his films are famous for their groundbreaking innovations in cinematography. 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY pioneered realistic space effects that are still unrivaled today.
BARRY LYNDON (1975) broke new ground in low-light photography by using specialized NASA-designed lenses, often filming gorgeous tableaus by nothing more than candlelight.THE SHINING (1980) introduced the ethereal, floating specter of Steadicam to audiences around the world and freed the camera from its heavy constraints.
The controversy over his work’s challenging subject matter would turn Kubrick into a recluse late in life, which projected a great air of mystery and myth about him—indeed, many of his fans didn’t even know what he looked like. While the details of his advanced are closely guarded family secrets, Kubrick’s early life is well documented in the public forum.
He was born in New York City in 1928, to Jacob Leonard Kubrick, a prominent doctor, and his wife Sadie Gertrude Kubrick. The Kubricks were of Polish, Austrian, and Romanian descent, and they identified as ethnically Jewish, although they did not raise Stanley as religious. As a bookish lad growing up in the Bronx, Kubrick wasn’t interested in the normal, mischievous pursuits of boyhood.
He was obsessed with chess, which his father taught him at the age of twelve—he appreciated the game’s emphasis on patience and discipline, traits that would mark his filmmaking style later on. His love of visual art began at age 13, when his father gave him a still camera and encouraged an interest in photography.
The teenage Kubrick was more interested in jazz drumming and catching double features at the local cinema instead of attending school, where he wasn’t much of a model student. His poor grades, combined with the influx of returning World War 2 vets in 1945, pushed him out of the opportunity to attend college after graduation.
To compensate, he took night classes at City College of New York while working as a freelance photographer by day. In 1946, he became an apprentice photographer for the prestigious Look Magazine, and it wasn’t long until he was promoted to full-time staff. He married his high school sweetheart Toba Metz in 1948, and they moved into the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan.
It was around this time that Kubrick began frequenting film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and became enamored by the work of directors like Max Ophuls and Elia Kazan. While most of his formative years were spent developing a love for image-making, it was only around the late 1940’s that his ambitions coalesced into a firm desire to make cinema.
DAY OF THE FIGHT (1951)
Kubrick’s first foray into the moving image is relatively nondescript and pedestrian— an independently financed newsreel intended for distribution by the MARCH OF TIME series. Essentially working on spec, Kubrick based DAY OF THE FIGHT off of an earlier photo feature he had done for Look Magazine in 1949 on Irish middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. The short film follows Cartier on the day of his big fight against fellow middleweight Bobby James on April 17th, 1950.
Kubrick and his small crew shot DAY OF THE FIGHT using specialized, daylight-loading cameras that took 100 foot spools of black-and-white 35mm film. The camerawork is extremely conservative, confined to a static tripod except for a single shot that is executed with a subtle dolly. What Kubrick lacks in style and finesse, he makes up here in an excellent visual sensibility.
His background in photography Kubrick gives him the capability to imbue a compelling depth in his compositions, as well as an inherent understanding of light and its importance in storytelling. Narrated by Douglas Edwards and scored by Kubrick’s childhood friend Gerald Fried, DAY OF THE FIGHT falls very much in line with newsreel shorts of the day, incorporating a musical sound that’s very civic and MATLOCK-sounding in its jaunty sense of self-seriousness.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that Kubrick’s signature themes and storytelling fascinations are fully formed on his first time at bat, but Kubrick’s long exploration with man’s relationship to creation and religion sees modest roots in DAY OF THE FIGHT with a sequence that shows Cartier and his twin brother attending church and receiving communion before the match.
Kubrick’s efforts turned out successful when he sold DAY OF THE FIGHT to RKO for four thousand dollars. He only made a profit of $100 after his out-of-pocket production expenses of $3900 were recouped, but he had managed to establish himself as a working director and start his career off on a strong note.
FLYING PADRE (1951)
Kubrick’s second newsreel short, FLYING PADRE, was also created in 1951 and features Father Fred Stadtmuller as its subject—a priest whose parish is so spread out (400 square miles to be exact), he must fly a small plane to get wherever he’s needed. Produced by Burton Benjamin and narrated by CBS announcer Bob Hite, FLYING PADRE is similar in style to DAY OF THE FIGHT and other newsreels of the day.
Shooting again on black and white 35mm film, Kubrick makes use of the bright, even light of the prairie, evoking the earnest sensibilities of a western film (whereas DAY OF THE FIGHT’s treatment of light resembled film noir). The camera, locked to a tripod, is observational and unobtrusive save for one striking shot at the very end where it tracks backwards away from Father Stadtmuller and his plane.
This is the earliest instance of a shot that Kubrick would employ (to striking effect) throughout his work, helping to define his style as a director. Aside from the religious aspect of his subject, Kubrick’s other defining signature—the exploration of man’s relationship to technology—begins here in FLYING PADRE with an in-depth look at how the modern miracle of flight enables Father Stadtmuller to overcome the intimidating challenges of tending to such a large parish.
DAY OF THE FIGHT and FLYING PADRE are highly representative of Kubrick’s humble, journeyman beginnings. These newsreel shorts are devoid of style, feeling very much like a bland product of “the establishment”—a nebulous entity that Kubrick would very soon turn on and stake his career against.
While not particularly notable in their own right, these two newsreel shorts would firmly establish the arrival of one of cinema’s most important and treasured auteurs and enable the opportunity for his first feature.
FEAR & DESIRE (1953)
Aspiring directors making their first features under scrappy, shoestring budgets and/or a shallow pool of production resources is a grand tradition within the art of cinema. Oftentimes, directors’ first films are their most electrifying—a shrill cry of independence and assertion of artistic existence wrought from a primal desire for expression.
Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavettes, Lynch, Malick…. any major director born after World War 2 that you could think of, odds are they have a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges feature at the beginning of their filmographies (with Cassavettes in particular, that’s pretty much ALL you’d find). All of those films– and their maverick makers—owe a debt of gratitude to what could perhaps be considered the original indie debut, Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE (1953).
Kubrick’s body of work needs no introduction—indeed, he intentionally deprived us of one by writing off his debut feature as a “bumbling amateur exercise” and barring it from public exhibition. He was a director who valued total artistic control over all else, and he would rather have the film world’s first true taste of his talent be something much more polished, like 1955’sKILLER’S KISS.
However, time has shown that Kubrick himself served as his own worst critic when it came to passing final judgment on FEAR AND DESIRE—the film certainly has its share of major flaws, make no mistake, but today’s critics regard it not as an albatross, but as an intellectual curiosity that exposes Kubrick’s vulnerabilities while establishing a platform for future greatness.
FEAR AND DESIRE started out like any other new film project from a burgeoning young director—pregnant with optimistic hopes, excitement, and visions of greatness. Just twenty-five years old at the time, Kubrick quit his job as a photographer at Look Magazine to focus on the project full-time, acquiring the financing when his father cashed in his life insurance policy and his uncle chipped in some earnings from his pharmaceutical business.
Kubrick recruited Howard Sackler, a high school classmate and aspiring poet, to write the screenplay (which probably accounts for the ham-fisted internal monologue voiceovers that pervade the film). Kubrick shot the film silently as a way to stretch his meager $13,000 budget, but he hadn’t planned on the expensive necessity of redubbing the actors’ lines in a studio.
Kubrick was initially proud of his completed first feature, with critics at the time praising the young directors evident promise and talent if not the film itself.However, as Kubrick developed as an artist, he came to see FEAR AND DESIRE as an embarrassment, denouncing it as such in public interviews and burying any possibility of further public screenings by burning the negative.
For decades, FEAR AND DESIRE was touted as Kubrick’s “lost” film, and the only way to see it was via the Kubrick estate or, more recently, a poor-quality VHS bootleg (with Italian subtitles) that was uploaded to Youtube. Thankfully for us—and unfortunately for Kubrick—a print was found recently in the George Eastman Kodak archives and restored to its original glory and released publicly through Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress.
While the ethics of going against the wishes of a deceased filmmaker is another conversation unto itself, FEAR AND DESIRE is nonetheless an important document in the history of cinema that should be preserved.
Set in an unnamed country during an unnamed conflict, Kubrick’s approach to FEAR AND DESIRE uses the generic idea of combat to better access the psychological underpinnings that fascinate him. The story begins when a combat plane crashes in the mountains, and a small squadron of four men must find their way back home safely.
Complicating matters is the fact they’re miles behind enemy lines without any gear, food, or weapons. As they follow the riverbanks towards home, they encounter a lovely native girl, who they tie to a tree so she can’t escape and reveal their presence to the enemy (whose base they’d discovered during a scout).
When one of the squad members loses his self-control and forces himself on the girl– only to kill her as she makes her escape– the squadron recognizes the sincere existential threat of their situation. With mounting desperation, the squadron comes up with a plan to make a last-ditch escape that involves stealing one of the enemy base’s airplanes while leaving behind one of their own to distract guards by firing on them from the river.
As the squadron sets its plan into motion and storms the enemy base, they are confounded to find that the enemy general and his soldiers are their exact look-alikes, further deepening the existential mystery at the heart of FEAR AND DESIRE.
Kubrick’s cast is comprised mainly of unknowns, headed up by Kenneth Harp as Lieutenant Korby and Frank Silvera as Sergeant Mac. Korby is styled in the vein of the traditional romantic hero archetype common in midcentury American cinema— confident and virtuous, but ultimately quite vanilla and devoid of any sort of edge.
Silvera imbues Sergeant Mac with another archetype—the gruff and tough military man, disgruntled by his long experience in the armed forces. Paul Mazursky, who would later go on to become a film director in his own right, plays Private Sidney—a squirrely young recruit who is so affected by his transgressions against Virginia Leith’s Native Girl that he ultimately goes mad (think shades of the Renfield character in DRACULA).
Finally Stephen Coit plays a small, rather unobtrusive role as Private Fletcher, the fourth member of the squadron. In a move befitting a shoestring-budget indie feature, Kubrick performed most of the duties of a film crew himself, with only his wife, Toba Metz, serving as script supervisor, Herbert Lebowitz working as the production designer, and a crew of Mexican day laborers acting as impromptu grips.
In the beginning development of his penchant for total control, Kubrick served as his own cinematographer and editor, shooting the film in black and white mostly for budgetary reasons, but also because he could maximize his experience in lighting for black and white so as to achieve more of a “professional” look. Kubrick and company shot in southern California’s San Gabriel mountains, their shooting style severely limited by a lack of resources.
Special effects were improvised with unconventional equipment, like a crop sprayer that was used for smoke and fog (which naturally made the cast and crew violently ill), or a baby carriage standing in for a dolly. Kubrick’s eye, for the most part, is quite competent and is able to recognize compelling framing.
However, it’s evident that the young filmmaker hadn’t quite grasped the concept of eyelines and spatial geometry. This translates to a rather jarring and incoherent edit, where Kubrick routinely cuts away to close-ups that are framed in awkward angles or brazenly cross the 180 degree line. When combined with a thick layer of overwrought, existential voiceover that tries hard at sounding “profound” only to come off as hackneyed and trite, it’s easy to see why Kubrick would strive so hard to keep FEAR AND DESIRE from being seen by mass audiences.
Childhood friend Gerald Fried, who provided the music for Kubrick’s first newsreel shorts DAY OF THE FIGHT and FLYING PADRE (1951), composed the score for FEAR AND DESIRE, utilizing a bombastic, orchestral sound headlined by an elegiac oboe as a recurring motif.
Low, arrhythmic drums rumble like distant thunder, indicating far-off battles and keeping the tension on a simmer. Kubrick would later be well known for his musical taste, but his scrappy beginnings here don’t show any notable evidence in that regard.
Despite being something of a crash-course in feature filmmaking for the young auteur, several of Kubrick’s long-running thematic explorations make their first appearance in FEAR AND DESIRE. Kubrick’s main fascination was the deconstruction of the human condition, rooting out and exploiting those primal forces that compel us to act for– or against– our fellow man.
He was most interested, ultimately, in what makes us “human” and how fragile and tenuous those circumstances really are. Violence and sex, admittedly, are two polar extremes in the spectrum of human experience, and two of the most potent, uncontrollable forces we will experience in our own lifetimes.
Kubrick would later go on to explore the psychological nature of warfare and combat to much greater degrees in films like PATHS OF GLORY (1957) or FULL METAL JACKET (1987), but FEAR AND DESIRE serves as our first true taste into Kubrick’s mentality towards violence.
As it stands, the violence is FEAR AND DESIRE is rather surface-level, but Kubrick films it in a particularly expressionistic, impactful, way. One memorable instance occurs halfway through the film when the squadron storms a small guard outpost and kills the guards within.
Instead of showing us the explicit act of a knife sliding into the belly of a hapless soldier, Kubrick shows us an extreme close-up of the orange the soldier had been eating prior to being unexpectedly ambushed. His fist squeezes the orange ever tighter until it bursts, spilling juice all over his hand and the floor. Frankly, it’s hard to think of a more graceful and fitting way to communicate the traumatic explosion of a soul as it’s extinguished against its will.
The other thematic pole– sexuality—again better explored in later films like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), receives the most examination in FEAR AND DESIRE during the sequence with the Native Girl tied to a tree.
Kubrick makes his audience complicit with Private Sidney’s most primitive instincts and desires by repeatedly cutting to close-ups of The Girl’s lips, eyes, hands, etc. Kubrick casts each body part in the harsh light of the male gaze, and it is this same sexuality that The Girl uses to free herself from her bonds and make her ill-fated escape.
The consequences of this development cause Private Sidney to lose himself in the grips of madness, which is yet another big theme present throughout Kubrick’s work: dehumanization and mankind’s mental frailty against forces that are much larger than them, forces which are more often than not supernatural in origin.
In FEAR AND DESIRE, for instance, the squadron encounters their look-alikes at the enemy base, which references the folklore of dopplegangers. The subsequent murder of their look-alikes at their own hands throws the surviving members of the squadron into an existential funk at the end of the film, where they ruminate on the true cost of warfare and whether they can ever truly bring themselves back from the brink they experienced behind enemy lines.
Admittedly, the use of dopplegangers to convey this rather trite philosophical idea screams “film school”, but Kubrick’s sheer commitment to the idea makes it effective. The release of FEAR AND DESIRE came amid a tumultuous period of Kubrick’s life.
He had divorced Toba Metz shortly after production wrapped, and by this point had remarried to an Austrian-born dancer and theatrical designer named Ruth Sobotka. The finished feature was well-received by critics of the day, who offered much more generous praise than the film probably deserved, but it fell far short in what the industry considers “true” success: box office.
Shortly after its release, Kubrick would grow mortified of its shortcomings and suppressed any further release of the film by burning the negative and prohibiting the public exhibition of any bootleg copies or prints. Long considered all but lost, prints of the film began popping up in archival vaults—the most famous case of which was its discovery inside the George Eastman House vaults.
These bootleg prints began to circulate among film circles, helped by the fact that FEAR AND DESIRE had entered into the public domain and couldn’t be recalled by its owner any further. After a long existence locked away in dark basements and vaults, FEAR AND DESIRE is now widely available to the filmgoing public and serves as the intriguing, long-denied introduction to one of the greatest filmographies to ever grace our screens.
THE SEAFARERS (1953)
Following the release of director Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE (1953), the burgeoning auteur might have been dismayed to find that his first feature-length narrative effort didn’t generate a great deal of forward momentum for his career.
While he gained a good deal of new friends in the critic’s circle, his phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with calls from Hollywood. For Kubrick, there was no turning back– he was now committed as a full-time filmmaker, and until he found success in that line of work, he would have to put food on the table with commissioned work instead.
Luckily, he found such work fairly quickly in the form of THE SEAFARERS (1953), an industrial film for the Seafarers International Union. Hosted by CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck , THE SEAFARERS exists as a way to articulate SIU values and ideals while enticing prospective new members. Using an unnamed East Coast headquarters location as a reference point, the short film provides an in-depth look into the seafaring industry from a worker’s perspective.
Kubrick’s treatment of the SIU headquarters makes it seem like something of a clubhouse, and considering the fact that the SIU’s members are transient by the nature of their work, the headquarters would essentially need to function as such—a home away from home. The seafaring union and industry as a whole is treated as a very noble entity, committed to the betterment of its members and their families.
As an industry film, it’s fairly unremarkable, but it takes on a much more fascinating aura when viewed in the context of Kubrick’s canon. Shot by Kubrick himself, the film is the director’s first to be shot entirely on color 35mm film.
Kubrick’s confidence in cinematography comes from his background in black and white photography, but that confidence wavers somewhat in the transition to color. Kubrick understands that the way subjects are lit will change in the switch from black and white to color, but his inexperience in the matter causes the image to suffer.
Utilizing a broad, even lighting scheme, Kubrick creates an image that’s a little bit over-exposed, but that also could admittedly be due to the print transfer or the film stock itself. To my eyes, the way that the colors are rendered suggests THE SEAFARERS was shot on cheaper reversal stock instead of negative.
Industry films are by their nature very dry and informational, and THE SEAFARERS is no different in its emphasis on the communication of helpful information at the expense of Kubrick’s personal artistic aesthetic. However, one of Kubrick’s favorite camera moves—the slow, long dolly shot—pops up during the cafeteria segment and gives us a clue as to the identity of the wizard behind the curtain.
THE SEAFARERS is also short on Kubrick’s thematic fascinations as an artist, but there are glimpses into the young director’s developing psyche for those determined to wring meaning from insignificance.
For instance, those wanting to see how Kubrick’s exploration of technology (and mankind’s relationship to it) is depicted in THE SEAFARERS could look to the brief section on how the SIU incorporates machines into their daily operation.
Likewise, one could point to the close-up of a poster in the barbershop featuring a pin-up girl’s breasts as evidence of Kubrick’s fascination with complicated sexual mores. However, this is probably reading way too much into things.
THE SEAFARERS is, ultimately, a minor curiosity in Kubrick’s body of work– notable mainly because of its color photography seven years prior to his first major color work, SPARTACUS (1960), as well as its status as the master filmmaker’s very last short-form work. In terms of the director’s development, THE SEAFARERS doesn’t give us much to go off of, but from a historical standpoint, the film serves as an interesting artifact of a bygone, romantic and idealized era.
The release of 1953’s FEAR AND DESIRE did not bring director Stanley Kubrick the kind of career momentum he might have hoped for. Instead of jumping on another feature straight away, Kubrick took a detour with a short industrial film called THE SEAFARERS (1953) as a way to pay the rent.
He wouldn’t make another film for two years, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t busy. He was actively developing the story for his follow-up and scraping the resources together, all the while navigating a divorce from his first wife Toba Metz and taking a second—a prominent New York City ballerina named Ruth Sobotka.
For his follow-up, Kubrick looked back to the world of boxing, which he had depicted in documentary newsreel form in 1951’s DAY OF THE FIGHT (his first filmed effort). Working with FEAR & DESIRE’s screenwriter and aspiring poet Howard Sackler, Kubrick spun a tough, gritty yarn he ultimately called KILLER’S KISS—at once both a noir thriller and a romance whose mainstream sensibilities he hoped would bring him the success that had so far eluded him.
Despite his ambitions, Kubrick’s efforts were not on the most solid of foundations—the twenty-six year old director was on welfare during production, and most of the financing was borrowed once again from his wealthy uncle, the owner of a prominent drug-store in the city.
This time, Kubrick’s gamble paid off with a remarkably accomplished low-budget feature that solidified his talent and applied the lessons he had learned on FEAR AND DESIRE, paving the way for further opportunities and giving the young director a decent platform to build from.
KILLER’S KISS begins inside New York’s iconic, now-demolished Old Penn Station, with a man pacing and smoking as he waits for a train to arrive. His internal voiceover monologue (no doubt the work of Sackler, judging by a similar conceit used in FEAR AND DESIRE) introduces us to his predicament—he’s waiting for a girl that may or may not ever arrive, a girl he’s wrecked his entire life for.
The bulk of the film is a flashback, with Kubrick showing us everything that leads to this point. The man is a boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), living a spartan existence in a small, dumpy studio apartment within a dilapidated New York neighborhood.
The one window in his place looks out onto the apartment of Gloria (Irene Kane), a beautiful young taxi dancer that he is pining after. One night, he witnesses her being attacked, so he dashes over to save her as her assailant makes his escape. Davey helps Gloria calm down and clean up, with their mutual attraction becoming quickly apparent.
Before they know it, they’ve fallen in love and are making plans to run away together and escape their hardscrabble Gotham existence. But there’s just one problem—her boss, a slick cigar-chomping businessman named Vincent Rapallo (FEAR AND DESIRE’s Frank Silvera)—loves her too, and he’s not going to let her go without a fight.
Davey finds himself drawn deeper into New York’s criminal underworld as he attempts to extricate Gloria from it, and this boxer will have to fight like hell for his happy ending. The performances in KILLER’S KISS are rough and unpolished, much like the film itself, but are leagues beyond the talent on display in FEAR AND DESIRE.
Frank Silvera is the only holdover from Kubrick’s earlier effort, and he shows a decent amount of range as the seedy boss Vincent Rapallo. His worldly, weary cynicism serves as a decent foil to Jamie Smith’s idealistic, naïve boxer. As Davey Gordon, Smith plays well at looking like he’s in over his head, which adds some spice to a character with fairly uncomplicated values and ethics.
As the love interest Gloria Price, Irene Kane fills a necessary void in the story with a soft-edged femme fatale archetype that leaves a lot to be desired. Kubrick’s wife, Ruth, makes a short cameo as Gloria’s deceased sister and accomplished ballerina in a flashback sequence.
Much like FEAR AND DESIRE before it, the shoestring nature of KILLER’S KISS’s production meant that Kubrick himself had to serve as both the cinematographer and editor. Kubrick’s background in photography serves him well here, with the cinematography being one of the film’s strongest assets.
The 1.37:1 black and white 35mm film image might be cheap by its nature, but Kubrick imbues it with dark, rich shadows and a fantastic sense of depth that suggest a budget three times its size. Kubrick lights KILLER’S KISS like a polished Hollywood noir film, creating evocative compositions whose deep focus draws us further into his world.
The camerawork matches this approach, such as in a moment when Kubrick slowly dollies down the length of a dance hall to add grandeur and scale despite the relative cheapness of the technique. Indeed, many of these shots were achieved from the back of a pickup truck, which came in handy when Kubrick’s inability to secure location permits often necessitated a covert approach.
KILLER’S KISS stands out amongst Kubrick’s filmography in that the polish is countered by a measure of spontaneity, a trait that Kubrick would abolish entirely in later works. The film cuts away to gritty street details quite frequently, giving us a sense of place and liveliness that one could see influencing a young John Cassavettes.
Kubrick’s on-location depiction of New York stands as the most potent example of this dynamic—he makes great use of the dramatic skyline and looming architecture to add drama and grit, in the process capturing an authentic, lived-in cityscape.
Contrast these images with Kubrick’s last work, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), with New York streets being recreated on a soundstage so Kubrick could exert complete control over his shot. This approach extends to the boxing sequences, where Kubrick opts for a handheld documentary look and expressionistic point of view angles that predate Martin Scorsese’s dreamlike fight scenes in RAGING BULL by twenty-five years.
The expressionism on display also extends to a short dream sequence in which the camera screams down a long urban corridor at breakneck speed, the black and white image flipped to its negative. Visually arresting on its own, the shot anticipates the famous space tunnel sequence in 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and is one of the earliest instances of Kubrick’s fondness for one-point perspective in his compositions.
Much like FEAR AND DESIRE before it, Kubrick was forced to re-record the dialogue and sync it to picture in post-production due to the limitations of his production resources. As such, Kubrick relies heavily on the musical contributions of his FEAR AND DESIRE composer, Gerald Fried, to even out an otherwise-awkward sound mix.
Fried’s score is not unlike his previous work with Kubrick, utilizing an orchestral, romantic, and brassy sound. Kubrick and Fried also incorporate a lively mix of jazz and samba music that provides an urban edge and must have felt very contemporary and daring when the film was released.
KILLER’S KISS serves as a neat little distillation of Kubrick’s two main thematic fascinations, violence and sex. The boxing world is inherently violent, of course, but Kubrick’s story seems to merge the two acts—one an act of destruction and the other an act of creation—until their boundaries blur ambiguously.
In the world of KILLER’S KISS, sex is violent and violence is intimate. Nowhere is this blur more apparent than in the film’s climax, where the hero and the villain savagely duke it out against a backdrop of mannequins. Their cold, statuesque beauty echoes Gloria, and on a literal level, we’re visually reminded that the two men are fighting over her as the ultimate prize.
However, their presence underscores the intimate, feminine aspect of violence—the aspect that requires the two fighters to lose themselves in the moment and express their feelings up close with their bodies. The climactic chase sequence also serves as an exploration of dehumanization, with the characters framed in wide shots, dwarfed by monolithic structures and cold, unfeeling cityscapes.
Endless brick walls tower over them in an almost abstract fashion, heightening the hero’s need to escape the city because his relative insignificance within it threatens to consume him entirely. For the longest time, KILLER’S KISS was Kubrick’s first “official” feature, having taken the print of FEAR AND DESIRE out of circulation and burning the negative.
Despite it being shot very similarly, Kubrick did not seem as embarrassed aboutKILLER’S KISS’s roughness and lack of polish. The film itself was received modestly well, enough so that it generated significant momentum into the production of his third feature, THE KILLING (1956).
It’s not hard to see that KILLER’S KISS is a marked improvement over his earlier work, with his evolution very apparent in every frame. We can see that Kubrick’s direction is much more confident, having grasped concepts like pacing and geography while coming up with creative, bold compositions.
KILLER’S KISS shows us a gifted young man coming into his own and starting to find his aesthetic, solidifying tastes that would inform one of the richest and most compelling filmographies the art from would ever see.
THE KILLING (1956)
The release of 1955’s independently-produced KILLER’S KISS made a small splash in film circles, gaining its young director, Stanley Kubrick, a modest amount of attention in the process. An upcoming young television producer named James B. Harris found his own attention particularly captivated by this bold new voice in American cinema, and he felt compelled to help that voice grow louder.
Working together as a producing team, Harris and Kubrick pored through mountains of material in search of their next story—eventually finding it in Lionel White’s crime novel “Clean Break”. After successfully licensing the film rights, Kubrick crafted the story into a script he called THE KILLING, which Harris then took to his contacts at United Artists.
Only a year after the release of KILLER’S KISS, Kubrick found himself prepping his next big project with the support of a respectable studio— a development that Kubrick must have found was equal parts blessing and curse.
While the budget was barely enough for Kubrick to successfully realize his vision, he had access to the studio’s expansive resource pool and was able to inflate the production value using better cameras, lenses, and production design.
However, this also meant that Kubrick now had to deal with unions, permits, and all the other aggravating aspects of filmmaking that kill creativity. Despite these new challenges, Kubrick’s third feature proved the young auteur’s innate talent to a broader audience.
THE KILLING may not be Kubrick’s most famous film, but it serves as a high quality genre exercise told in a challenging, unconventional way. More importantly, it marks Kubrick’s emergence as a mature filmmaker and unparalleled storyteller.
Tied together with an omniscient narrator speaking in the third person, THE KILLING weaves a fractured narrative from multiple points of view. The centerpiece character is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a seasoned criminal on the verge of retirement.
Before he settles down and marries his beloved Fay (Coleen Gray), there’s one last score to take down: a two million dollar payday at the horse track. He assembles a team of bent cops, ace shooters, musclebound bruisers, and compromised bookies to help him orchestrate and execute the elaborate heist.
It’s the perfect crime, both in conception and execution, and Kubrick’s take on the story plays like something of a procedural, detailing the actions of each team member down to the minute. Unbeknownst to Clay and his crew, however, one of his team members, George Peatty (played by Elisha Cook Jr), has leaked word of the heist to his adulterous wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor).
Thinking the promise of untold riches would finally make her love him, George doesn’t anticipate that Sherry will turn right around and inform her secret lover, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), in a bid to intercept the crew’s big payday. Kubrick’s churning narrative builds to an explosive finale that’s capped by a twist of dark irony when Clay finds that all the meticulous planning in the world can’t account for the unpredictability of chance.
THE KILLING marks the first time in which Kubrick’s cast is comprised mainly of well-known, professional actors and actresses. While this is ostensibly an ensemble film, the story belongs to Hayden, who ably portrays handsome crook Johnny Clay as cool and confident.
As Johnny’s girl, Fay, Colleen Gray does a serviceable job but can’t rise above the limitations of her stereotypical “dependent, supportive love interest” archetype. Seasoned character actor Elisha Cook Jr proves just as captivating to watch as Hayden, injecting an anxious energy into his role as George Peatty, a beta male who lets his wife walk all over him.
Jay C Flippen lends a warm, paternal presence as Marvin Unger, a kindly old bookkeeper and the heist’s financier. Contentious character actor Timothy Carey, in the first of multiple performances under Kubrick’s direction, plays Nikki Arcane – an expert marksman with a wild, unpredictable element to his personality.
As George Peatty’s wife Sherry, Marie Windsor excels at taking advantage of her husband’s adoration and adopting a cynical, bored demeanor. The handsome, cocksure Vince Edwards rounds out the cast as Val Cannon—Sherry’s lover, a young hood, and the one development that Johnny Clay’s meticulous planning couldn’t anticipate.
THE KILLING is notable in the context of Kubrick’s early filmography by virtue of having personally shot everything that came before it. His background in photography provided him with the competency to expose film properly and his eye for visuals allowed for compelling, artistic images— essentially, he had all the hallmarks of a good DP.
With THE KILLING, however, its mere existence as a United Artists film meant that the production was a union job, which further meant that Kubrick had to hire an external director of photography for the first time in his career. His choice was Lucien Ballard, a veteran cinematographer whose work he greatly admired.
Their collaboration, however, was anything but harmonious. Director and cinematographer reportedly did not get along at all, with Kubrick’s pursuit of visual perfection frequently ruffling Ballard’s feathers. Despite this contentious relationship, THE KILLING’s black and white 35mm film visuals are a thing of beauty.
The first of Kubrick’s works to be shot in the widescreen format, THE KILLING’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio allows ample room for the young director’s striking, depth-filled compositions. A low-key, high contrast noir lighting approach gives the film a high-end pedigree, matched by elegantly complex camera moves.
In his essay “The Killing: Kubrick’s Clockwork” (included on Criterion’s 2011 Blu Ray release of the film), writer Haden Guest makes a clever observation about the hidden meaning behind the film’s fluid dolly work:
“Ballard’s gliding camera cuts a neat cross section through a series of connected rooms in its path, transforming the apartment interior into a type of controlled tunnel that exactly describes and limits the possibilities of movement—a striking illustration of entrapment that subtly parallels the camera’s and actor’s “tracks” with those of the horse race.”
Indeed, the interior sets of THE KILLING, artfully designed by Kubrick’s wife Ruth Sobotka as production designer, are reminiscent of a labyrinth—an idea that Kubrick would continue to revisit throughout his career.
The layout of the rooms seem to suggest a finite number of paths for the characters to take, dictating their movements and actions while assimilating them into a complex, cosmic machinery that ultimately renders these same characters insignificant to the grand sweep of fate (or just as potently: chance).
Kubrick routinely takes what would otherwise be several shots and strings them together into one fluid take, and in the process discovers a proclivity towards complicated, yet understated, camerawork that reinforces a story’s themes and that would fundamentally inform his future work.
A further innovation that THE KILLING makes potent use of is a fractured, nonlinear narrative. As assembled by editor Betty Steinberg under Kubrick’s supervision, we see the same scenes several times, but each revisit brings with it a new perspective from the vantage point of another character.
As the drama and tension mount, we see conflicting details and snippets of crucial information that had previously (and strategically) been withheld. The narrator even gets in on the fun, becoming increasingly unreliable and contradictory.
To their dismay, Kubrick and Steinberg were forced to go back and re-edit the film in chronological order after test audiences couldn’t follow their original edit. Thankfully for us, their “conventional” edit proved to be even more of a mess, and their nonlinear cut was reinstated and released to theatres.
THE KILLING’s radical story structure proved to be highly influential in the decades since its release, with Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) in particular owing a huge debt to Kubrick’s trailblazing.
Kubrick’s career-long exploration into the psyche of violence and sex enjoys a brief respite in THE KILLING, with Kubrick toning down those fascinations to focus instead on delivering a taut genre picture. Kubrick’s film is most assuredly a crime thriller, but he frequently finds opportunities to color outside the lines and subvert our expectations.
This undermining of genre while simultaneously upholding it would be a trademark of Kubrick’s for the rest of his career, a tangible method by which he could elevate the subject matter and make salient psychological points about the human condition.
Additionally, Kubrick’s knack for regularly creating indelible, iconic imagery begins in earnest with THE KILLING—not so much in specific shots, but in visual ideas. One of the film’s most compelling images is the simple sight of the hauntingly-blank clown mask that Hayden wears during the heist, which one could easily see influencing Christopher Nolan’s bank heist introduction of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).
There’s also the image of a vast fortune of cash sucked up by a vortex of air and billowing away into nothing—a poetic and elegant visual metaphor for the film’s central conceit that chaos and chance will always be there to ruin our best-laid plans.
THE KILLING is revered as an indispensable classic today, but few remember that it was effectively dumped by United Artists when it made its original release on the second half of a double bill (the equivalent of today’s January/February release window).
For most filmmakers, this would be death by poor box office—but Kubrick was not most filmmakers. The film didn’t make much money, but those who saw it were blown away by the 28 year-old director’s undeniable talent, and word of mouth spread through the upper echelons of Hollywood until it reached Kirk Douglas, the man who would take Kubrick’s career to the next level.
Watching THE KILLING with the luxury of hindsight, it becomes immediately apparent that this is truly Kubrick’s first mature, fully realized film. More so than any other film in his canon, THE KILLING makes the case for Kubrick as the link between the old-school, consummate craftsmanship of Old Hollywood (a generation that influenced him immensely) and the radical innovation of New Hollywood (a generation that he would inspire directly).
PATHS OF GLORY (1957)
The war film has long been a staple of cinema, from 1930’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT to 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Almost every major war in human history has been depicted in some form onscreen, yet the genre persists because the high-charged, ideological nature of warfare makes for compelling drama and action.
While most mainstream works in the genre are romantic glorifications of combat, the most potent stories have taken a distinct anti-war tack, arguing against warfare as a means to solve conflict.
The trend began in earnest during the widespread disillusionment that the Vietnam War engendered and gave us the likes of such classics as THE DEER HUNTER (1978), but one of the strongest anti-war films in cinematic history had already been made almost two decades prior by a rising wunderkind director named Stanley Kubrick.
1956’s THE KILLING put Kubrick on the radar of Hollywood movers and shakers. Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris, needed to capitalize on their momentum and get another project into development, and in short order they acted on Kubrick’s desire to make another war film after the self-perceived failure of his last go at the genre (1953’s FEAR AND DESIRE).
He remembered a book he had read when he was fourteen, Humphrey Cobb’s seminal World War 1 novel “Paths Of Glory”, and subsequently enlisted Harris to license the film rights. The resulting screenplay, written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and THE KILLING’s Jim Thompson, aroused the fervent interest of Hollywood superstar Kirk Douglas, whose participation afforded the filmmakers a budget of one million dollars.
While it was the biggest budget Kubrick had worked with to date, it still wasn’t a huge amount of money (even by 1957 standards) with which to make a sweeping war film. Nevertheless, Kubrick and company found themselves in Germany shooting PATHS OF GLORY, a feature that performed modestly at the box office but would come to be heralded as an “important film” and solidify Kubrick’s reputation as a major new voice in the art form.
PATHS OF GLORY takes place in France during World War I. The two warring factions—France and Germany—have dug themselves into sprawling networks of trenches while enduring an agonizingly long stalemate.
A decorated French general, Paul Mireau (George Macready) is tasked by his superior general Broulard (Aldophe Menjou) to break the stalemate and organize a charge through No Man’s land to take The Anthill—a small, heavily fortified enemy encampment.
The land gain is only a few acres at best, but Mireau agrees that it is a worthy endeavor. He selects a promising young colonel named Dax (Kirk Douglas) to plan the offensive. Despite his initial misgivings about the mission’s futility and the likelihood of a staggering casualty rate, Dax accepts the assignment and leads his men up and over the top of the trenches towards certain death.
The charge fails spectacularly, the men falling back like a tidal wave—that is, if they even got out of the trench in the first place. In a bid to save himself from massive embarrassment, General Mireau orders the execution of three men from Dax’s battalion by firing squad for the crime of cowardice.
Dax volunteers to defend these men—who were chosen by lottery—at the mandatory court martial, but he soon realizes that the trial is more akin to a kangaroo court, and these men’s death warrants were signed long before their names were ever chosen.
As the prisoners languish in prison and await the final verdict, Dax races against the clock to exonerate them and deliver justice. When the story draws to a close, PATHS OF GLORY reveals itself as a hard-hitting examination into wartime ethics and the moral conundrums that arise when there is too much investment in an ideological struggle.
Kubrick’s cast for PATHS OF GLORY represents an impressive collection of cinematic heavyweights delivering career-best performances. Douglas takes every opportunity to chew scenery as the idealistic and virtuous Colonel Dax.
Principled and heroic, his former criminal defense lawyer is sharp as a tack and doesn’t let any injustice get past him without condemning it. His working relationship with Kubrick, while paying dividends for both men’s careers, was reportedly contentious at best.
They challenged each other in a way that only two men who truly shared a mutual respect could. Unlike a great deal of directors, Kubrick rarely worked with the same actors over multiple films, and when he did it was only during the first half of his career.
Yes, he collaborated with Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel and Peter Sellers more than once, but their second efforts with the director were in supporting roles. Only Douglas has the distinction of headlining more than one Kubrick film, which speaks volumes as to the nature of their stormy, yet fruitful working relationship. Menjou and Macready form something of a two-faced antagonist, with Macready being the cold, pragmatic yin to Menjoy’s warm, grandfatherly yang.
Macready’s performance as the scarred, ruthlessly vindictive General Mireau is particularly notable for its’ dark, Kubrick-ian irony—that of a man who will dress himself up in the colors of honor and patriotism to justify his twisted agenda.
Kubrick’s supporting cast is well-assembled, with Ralph Meeker gaining the most screen time as Corporal Philippe Paris, a disgruntled idealist chosen for the firing squad. His uncompromising masculinity reminds me of a proto- Josh Brolin, and his is easily one of the most memorable performances in the film.
As the second doomed man—Private Pierre Arnaud— Joe Turkel brings an unconventional physicality to the role, one which would help him greatly when Kubrick called on him to play the ghostly bartender in 1980’s THE SHINING. THE KILLING’s Timothy Carey plays the third man—Private Ferol—a self-described “social undesirable”.
Something of an overgrown man-child, Ferol regresses to a simpering, childlike state when faced with the immediate prospect of death. Carey’s second performance for Kubrick would also be his last—his increasingly difficult behavior and bad habit of scene stealing and unpredictable performances led to Kubrick souring on him.
A run-in with the law during the shoot was the last straw for Kubrick and Harris, and they subsequently fired him before he had shot all of his scenes, requiring the use of a body double to finish his performance.
Finally, there’s Christiane Harlan, who plays the small role of the captive German girl singing a packed beer house of French soldiers during the film’s closing sequence. Her unsteady yet ethereal performance is captivating simply because she is the first female presence that we encounter in the film, and the story literally stops in its tracks to lose itself in her beauty.
This part of the film might’ve been no more than a footnote in Kubrick’s filmography had it not been for the fact that he ended up falling in love with this woman, and would divorce his wife, Ruth Sobotka, a year later in order to marry her instead. This time, the marriage would stick, with Christiane and Stanley remaining together until his death in 1999.
Kubrick’s filmography is littered with unforgettable images, but PATHS OF GLORY is the first instance in his canon where the cinematography is truly gorgeous. Shot by cinematographer George Krause, the black and white 35mm film image is artfully composed to fill the 1.66:1 widescreen frame.
The film’s camera movement is notable in that it is where Kubrick’s signature aesthetic truly coalesces and emerges. His use of the dolly, for instance, is compelling and purposeful, often letting such moves go on for a long time in order to establish scope and mood.
One instance is the Anthill charge, which unfolds almost entirely in one lateral-moving dolly that tracks parallel to the action. Another moment takes place shortly beforehand, with Douglas marching down the long trenches in an unbroken shot while a flank of soldiers look on and explosions rock the ground above him.
This shot in particular also shows off Kubrick’s affinity for one-point perspective compositions, employed as a way to lure the audience deeper into his meticulously-crafted world. Furthermore, Kubrick makes subtle use of zoom lenses during the charge sequence, which introduces an element of documentary to the proceedings while linking Kubrick to the directors of the New Hollywood school—a generation of filmmakers who made frequent use of zoom lenses in a bid to inject reality and immediacy into their work while rejecting the polished techniques of their Golden Age forebears.
In his fourth feature, Kubrick focuses quite acutely on music and its effect on storytelling, acting with a conviction and sense of purpose that was missing from his previous work. More than five decades removed from the film’s release, we know that Kubrick would become well known for his excellent ear for classical music and its placement in his work.
More often than not, such moments have become some of cinema’s most enduring combinations of sound and image. Later works would increasingly do without an original score entirely, with Kubrick himself publicly stating that nothing new could compare to the masterworks of the great classical composers, so why use anything else?
PATHS OF GLORY marks the earliest instance of this aspect of Kubrick’s aesthetic, with Kubrick opening the film with a rendition of the French national anthem, “Marseillaise”. He then goes on to include a small number of other classical cues, like Johann Strauss’ “Kunsterleben Op. 316” during an Officer’s Ball sequence.
This image in particular—aristocratic men and women waltzing to classical music in large, opulent spaces—would itself become a recurring motif throughout Kubrick’s career. For the most part, however,PATHS OF GLORY relies on Gerald Fried’s original score. Having scored all of Kubrick’s films up to this point, Fried drastically departs from his usual swelling, orchestral sound for the film. Instead, he opts for a minimalistic and militaristic snare drum/trumpet combo that keeps the energy up and the tension roiling.
PATHS OF GLORY ruminates quite heavily on the nature of war and violence, a topic that held Kubrick’s interest his entire life. The film looks at violence as an agent of discipline, as well as how conflict rooted in ideology causes us to dehumanize the opposition as “the other” and justify actions that would seem outright barbaric in the cold light of day (like sending three innocent men to their deaths so that a high-ranking officer can keep his reputation untarnished).
Interestingly enough,PATHS OF GLORY is the rare instance in Kubrick’s filmography where the perspective sides with the moral and virtuous character—in other words, the traditional “hero”. His later works would examine similar ideas about dehumanization and madness, but from the perspective of the afflicted, ultimately giving into the darkness within.
PATHS OF GLORY also sees the beginning of Kubrick’s on-screen fascination with baroque architecture, most notably in the choice of location for the French army’s chateau headquarters— eagle-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau location as the same one used for Alain Resnais’ fundamentally haunting LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961) .
Kubrick often frames his subjects in a wide shot during these scenes, allowing the ornate, gilded interiors and echoing marble halls to overwhelm them with insignificance (while also providing an ironic visual counterpoint to the officers’ admittedly barbaric, uncivilized judgment of three innocent men).
Kubrick also contrasts the spacious, royal nature of the chateau—home to the well-fed and well-dressed elite of the French leadership—with the gritty, mud-soaked trenches in which the rank and file grunts carry out their orders.
The soldier vs. officer/pawn vs king metaphor at play here is quite deliberate—Kubrick’s love of chess profoundly influences his sense of dramaturgy. PATHS OF GLORY is the first of Kubrick’s films to use baroque imagery to convey salient points about class conflict, but it wouldn’t be last—from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), to BARRY LYNDON (1975), all the way to EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), Kubrick’s filmography is dominated by this distinct architectural style and the cultural attitudes it engenders.
PATHS OF GLORY marks a huge step up in Kubrick’s development as an artist and a filmmaker. In terms of scale alone, Kubrick proves himself to be the real deal. The complex staging of the central charge sequence shows that Kubrick could handle a grand epic just as well as an intimate heist thriller—indeed his next movie gig came about precisely because he proved he could handle a large scale.
While it performed as expected at the box office (read: not well), PATHS OF GLORYnonetheless holds up today as one of the best war films ever made—an assertion backed up by the Library of Congress when it was added to the National Film Registry in 1992.
A filmmaker’s development happens gradually, over the course of a lifetime. His or her aesthetic is informed by a series of experiences, experiments, and ideas that coalesce through repeated trial and error. Once in a while, however, a singular event or experience can have such an impact that it can alter the course of a filmmaker’s development almost instantaneously. In the case of Stanley Kubrick, the events of the year 1960 proved to be such an experience.
Everything he had done up to that point had suggested an artist who ultimately aspired to large-scale, conventional Hollywood epics—each of his first four features had eclipsed the other in scope and ambition, and his successful rendering of World War I trench combat and collaboration with superstar Kirk Douglas in 1957’s PATHS OF GLORY suggested that he had the chops to successfully take on a big, old-fashioned Hollywood epic.
For all intents and purposes, he proved his bonafides and delivered a successful, Oscar-winning picture in the form of 1960’s SPARTACUS. The success of the film undoubtedly boosted Kubrick’s reputation and invaluably helped in solidifying the course of his career—but not in the way we might expect.
The seed of SPARTACUS was planted when screen icon Kirk Douglas lost the title role to Charlton Heston in William Wyler’s BEN-HUR (1959). The blow to his ego compelled Douglas to set up his own project to rival Wyler’s, one that would focus on the classic tale of a slave revolt led by slave-turned-gladiator Spartacus.
He would produce the film through his own production company and take the title role for his own. His choice for screenwriter proved highly controversial—blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who by this point had been living in exile from the studio system after his outing as a Communist sympathizer during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare hearings, sustaining himself by writing under a series of pseudonyms.
Douglas hoped to deal a fatal blow to the integrity of the anti-Communist movement by allowing Trumbo to use his real name, proving himself every bit as virtuous and idealistic as the screen heroes he regularly portrayed.
Trumbo and Douglas envisioned the biblical-era story of SPARTACUS as an allegory for modern-day concerns like the Civil Rights Movement and the McCarthy hearings (best epitomized during the film’s iconic “I Am Spartacus!” sequence), a tactic that undoubtedly gave the film some much-needed relevancy and immediacy.
Director Anthony Mann was originally hired to direct SPARTACUS, but after a week of clashing with Douglas and the film’s considerable scale, he was unceremoniously fired. Douglas remembered the fruitful, if contentious, working relationship that he had with Stanley Kubrick during the production of PATHS OF GLORY, and so he called on the young auteur to step in and save the film.
Kubrick’s subsequent realization of SPARTACUS is a peculiar albatross in his filmography, mainly because it is the only one that doesn’t feel like it bears his stamp. Admittedly, it doesn’t—for the first—and only— time in his career, Kubrick’s contract under Douglas severely limited his creative freedom and mandated the toning down of his aesthetic in favor of an old-school, Hollywood epic style.
While the film is absolutely stunning from a technical standpoint, the result of Kubrick’s muzzling is a film that lacks genuine heart and soul. SPARTACUS is set in ancient Rome during the year 70 B.C. A proud, stubborn slave named Spartacus is taken from the salt mines of Libya and sold to Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a well-known gladiatorial trainer who runs a prominent school outside the Roman capital.
Forced into Batiatus’ fleet of burgeoning gladiators, Spartacus is disgusted by the idea of killing another man for the mere entertainment of others, but his talent for fighting and bravery is undeniable. His conviction and sense of morality makes him an admired figure amongst the other gladiators, and when a revolt unexpectedly flares up inside Batiatus’ compound, Spartacus becomes the slaves’ de facto leader, tasked with delivering them to freedom.
Spartacus and his charges ride toward the sea, freeing the slaves along every town and accumulating a devoted army of their own. Simultaneously, he finds love and happiness with Varinia (Jean Simmons), a slave girl from the gladiator school.
They take each other as man and wife, and begin dreaming of a world where their child will be born free. As word of Spartacus’ exploits reach the marble halls of the Roman Senate, a ruthlessly pragmatic politician named Crassus (Laurence Olivier) draws up plans to suppress Spartacus’ slave uprising before it ever begins.
With his back to the sea and the Roman armies closing in on him from all sides, Spartacus will have to fight for not only his freedom, but for the freedom of his family and his people. At first glance, Douglas and Kubrick’s second consecutive collaboration appears to be even more fruitful than their last— Douglas’ towering performance as the proud, virtuous Spartacus is one of the best of his career, after all.
However, their collaboration in SPARTACUS quickly fell prey to a collision of egos and stubbornness. Kubrick allegedly had a fundamental issue with the fact that the Spartacus character had no compelling faults or quirks, his ire further stoked by his complete lack of creative input on the script.
Douglas’ impression of Kubrick’s artistic integrity took a substantial hit when Kubrick was quick to volunteer his name to replace Trumbo’s if the script were to run into trouble with the blacklist gatekeepers. This war of opinions between the two men festered throughout the long, arduous shoot, ultimately ruining their working relationship, if not their friendship, for good.
Kubrick had no fear of spurning his collaborators for what he perceived as the greater good of the project, but in the case of Douglas—the man who had almost single-handedly turned Kubrick from a nobody into a major Hollywood director—perhaps Kubrick went too far. It’s a miracle that the film turned out as cohesive and confident as it did.
Kubrick’s collaboration with the rest of the cast was not as dramatic, thankfully. Master thespian Laurence Olivier plays the primary antagonist, Crassus, with a cool, smoldering demeanor. In the infamous “snails or oysters” deleted scene, Crassus is revealed to be a bisexual—perhaps one of the earliest instances of such a character in cinematic history.
Jean Simmons plays Spartacus’ love interest, Varinia, with a maternal, feminine air that’s perhaps a little too glamorous for a slave (but effective all the same). Rounding out the cast is Charles Laughton as the portly senator Gracchus, John Gavin as a young Julius Caesar, and Tony Curtis as Spartacus’ best male friend and fellow slave, Antoninus.
Last but not least, there’s Peter Ustinov as Batiatus— the slave trainer and unexpected benefactor in Spartacus’ quest— whose sweaty, breathy performance earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. As it stands, Ustinov would be the only actor to win the gold statue for performing in a Kubrick film—a fact that must have incensed Douglas to no end judging by the ambition that compelled him to make the film in the first place.
As befitting a grand Hollywood epic, SPARTACUS’ cinematography is sweeping and colorful. One might even mistake it for a David Lean film, which is ironic considering that Lean was initially approached to direct and turned down the opportunity.
The cinematographer, Russell Metty, was already in place when Kubrick came aboard, and the two men clashed almost instantly. Reportedly, Metty was infuriated by Kubrick’s demanding pursuit of visual perfection and lack of regard for the cinematographer’s creative input.
As a result, Kubrick personally shot most of the film himself, his brilliance with light and composition earning SPARTACUS an Oscar for Best Cinematography—ironically, it was Metty who took home the gold statue on awards night instead of Kubrick. Shooting for the first time in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Kubrick (and Metty) use every available grain of the Technicolor 35mm frame to render a lush, expensive-looking image.
Kubrick’s first feature in color employs a copious amount of sweep crane and dolly shots to sell the film’s scale, but it doesn’t contain the same kind of alluring energy that similar shots have in his other, more personal work.
Indeed, the film appears to be the work of another director entirely. Many of Kubrick’s thematic explorations that have made his other works so rich and creatively potent are mostly discarded here in favor of a straightforward, un-ironic and earnest narrative.
Like the short THE SEAFARERS (1953) before it, SPARTACUS sees Kubrick working mainly as a director for hire, with little control over the script or the production. The film’s violent aspects allow Kubrick to indulge in his visual meditations of man’s inhumanity to man in the form of fighting to the death for sporting and entertainment’s sake.
Working solidly within the “swords and sandals” epic genre, Kubrick nonetheless manages to subvert it in the film’s climax, which sees Spartacus and Antoninus fighting to kill each other—not for the entertainment of others, however, but so as to save the other from an even-worse fate on the cross.
SPARTACUS was a monster success when it released, easily becoming Universal’s biggest moneymaker in history until it was dethroned by 1970’s AIRPORT. It received widespread critical praise and won four Oscars, but more importantly, it made history when Trumbo’s employment effectively ended the Blacklist and prominent politicians (including President John F. Kennedy) disregarded the cries of anti-Communist protesters as they stepped inside the theatre.
Despite the film’s success, Kubrick personally disowned the film (obviously to not as far a degree as he did with his first feature, FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)). However, SPARTACUS marks a crucial turning point in Kubrick’s development as an artist—whether he acknowledged it or not.
Had he been happy with the final product and his overall shooting experience, Kubrick quite easily could have made a career of making supersized epics and become a David Lean-type for a new generation of filmmakers. Instead, his need for directorial control—a need that trumped cooperation or compromise—would lead him down a very different path.
SPARTACUS marked the end of Kubrick’s “Old Hollywood” phase of conventional filmmaking techniques, with his disappointing experience on the film causing his attention to gaze towards the wave of experimental art films trickling out of Europe—films that would revolutionize Hollywood and place Kubrick himself at the cutting edge of an evolving art form.
The exhausting production experience of 1960’s SPARTACUS left its young director, Stanley Kubrick, in a state of profound disenchantment. He found that he could not peacefully work within the rigid demands and expectations of the American studio system, which understandably poses a fundamental problem to an artist who simultaneously values complete control while aspiring to direct large-scale Hollywood films.
After some deep reflection, Kubrick found that the answer to his malaise didn’t lie in his native United States whatsoever—it laid across the Atlantic in Europe, where a new wave of filmmakers were enjoying total artistic autonomy and creative freedom and, as a result, creating radical, groundbreaking films.
In looking for his next project, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris settled on Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel “Lolita”, about a man’s torrid relationship with a barely-teenage girl. They hired Nabokov himself to adapt the novel into a screenplay, and set up their production camp in England, far from the watchful eye of the American studio system.
As Kubrick’s first outright stab at the comedy genre, LOLITA (1962) is laced with the kind of cheeky black humor that only a deviously mischievous man such as Kubrick could dream up. After the grandiosity of SPARTACUS’ production, Kubrick used LOLITA to scale down his aesthetic for a back-to-basics approach.
In tackling such extremely sensitive subject matter, Kubrick must’ve known that he was making a controversial film, but what he couldn’t have anticipated was just how much he would have to compromise his vision to even get it released. Whereas other directors might falter or back down in the face of controversy, Kubrick doubled down in his adaption of lurid LOLITA, thus establishing his reputation as one of the boldest, most controversial voices in cinema.
Though filmed entirely in England, LOLITA is set in the fictional town of Ramsdale, located somewhere within the state of New Hampshire. A sophisticated, well-read college professor named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) has just moved to town, having taken a teaching position at the local college.
He rents a little room in the upstairs of a home owned by one Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters), an eccentric middle-aged widow. Almost immediately, Humbert finds himself intensely attracted to Charlotte’s nubile teenage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). As he settles into his new home, he dances around the line of appropriateness with Lolita, who’s aware enough of her effect on men to use it to her advantage and tease Humbert’s yearnings.
To keep Charlotte’s suspicions at bay, Humbert marries her and takes Lolita as his stepdaughter—but it’s only a matter of time until Charlotte discovers Humbert’s true feelings about her daughter and, in her grief, throws herself headlong into the path of an oncoming car.
Humbert, who is now perhaps the happiest widower there ever was, sets off with Lolita on a cross-country road trip to find a new town to settle in. However, even a change of scenery isn’t enough to obscure their torrid affair from the prying eyes of neighbors and friends, especially those of one man in particular—Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers), an eccentric playwright and television writer with designs of his own to secure the affections of alluring young Lolita.
LOLITA is, admittedly, stuffed with truly reprehensible characters possessing significant moral shortcomings. It’s a credit to the cast’s talents and Kubrick’s eye for performance that they end up coming across as undeniably charismatic. James Mason confidently takes on the dangerous, potentially career-ending role of Professor Humbert Humbert.
His urbane, sophisticated sensibilities appeal to the audience in a reassuring, paternal fashion, making it easier to forgive his monstrous qualities while simultaneously making us complicit in them. Shelly Winters is inspired casting as the widow Charlotte Haze, a vain aging beauty who is so desperate for love and companionship that she flaunts her insecurities in loud, tacky clothing.
Sue Lyon imbues the titular role of Lolita with a bored, sultry affection and wisdom beyond her years. With her calculated manipulation of Humbert’s emotions, she’s every bit as deceitful and mischievous as her elders— if not more so. Legendary character actor Peter Sellers, who pioneered the idea of disguising oneself in multiple personas in a single project, plays avant-garde playwright Clare Quilty with a pretentious, anxious affection.
An aristocratic hedonist, Quilty reflects the shifting mores and liberal attitudes that shaped the counterculture of the 1960’s. Sellers is easily the most entertaining member of the cast, indulging in his love of disguise by having Quilty orchestrate various personas (most notably the proto-Dr. Strangelove German psychologist, Dr. Zempf) in a bid to steal Lolita out from under Humbert’s nose.
Sellers’ irreverent performance extends all the way to his peculiar dialect and manner of speech, which he reportedly modeled after Kubrick’s own. Shot by cinematographer Oswald Morris, LOLITA marks Kubrick’s return to the black and white 35mm film format.
Oswald and Kubrick enrich the image with a high contrast, polished look that belies the film’s independent pedigree. While the visual presentation itself is relatively minimalist and sedate, Kubrick’s impeccable eye for composition graces his composition with compelling depth and meaning.
The camerawork is low key and subtle, favoring graceful dolly and crane movements that don’t call attention to their inherent complexity. For instance, Kubrick built the Haze house set in such a way that he could dolly and crane through floors and walls to establish a sense of spatial continuity.
This technique can be seen in many modern films, especially in those of Kubrick acolyte David Fincher, who used his 2002 feature PANIC ROOMto build upon Kubrick’s foundations with similar, yet highly stylized and exaggerated, movements.
Funnily enough, this is not the only cue that Fincher took from LOLITA—the film’s poster tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” would be repurposed by Fincher for the 21st century in the advertising for THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).
Kubrick completes the tone of his acerbic, pitch-black comedy by incorporating the music of Nelson Riddle, who trivializes (in a good way) the characters’ sordid actions with a lighthearted, bouncy jazz score that also incorporates a playful “cha-cha-cha” samba theme for Lolita—an apt musical reflection of Lolita’s dual nature as innocent and seductress.
The film’s winking tone is absolutely a product of its time—a necessity of its making under the oppressively restrictive Hays Code and the stern, watchful eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency. Even if the film were to be made again today, freed from the constraints that Kubrick personally felt neutered his vision, it could be argued that LOLITA wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
The playful skirting around of abject indecency with thinly-veiled double entendres and innuendo is directly responsible for LOLITA’s charm, and allows Kubrick to explore complicated sexual ideas from a space of relative social safety.
By highlighting sexual deviancy and quirkiness within otherwise well-adjusted people, LOLITA predicts the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s, incorporating barely-disguised references to swingers and pornography (it’s revealed toward the end that Quilty wanted Lolita to shoot an “art film”). At other times, Kubrick doesn’t even bother to hide the innuendo—the name of the summer camp that Lolita attends is Camp Climax, for god’s sake.
LOLITA affords ample opportunity for Kubrick to explore other thematic and aesthetic fascinations. His love for one-point-perspective images results in a recurring shot that follows Humbert’s car as it drives away from us en route to Quilty’s house, full of purposeful malice.
The climactic murder of Quilty is staged in an artful manner that stays consistent with Kubrick’s artful depictions of violence. Instead of directly showing Humbert shoot Quilty to death, Kubrick stages their actions so that Quilty first crawls behind the meager cover of a painting depicting Victorian-era woman, with the image bullet tearing a hole in her cheek and presumably continuing along its trajectory into Quilty’s body.
LOLITA’s baroque imagery, evident in both the Victorian portrait as well as the opulent mansion that surrounds it, calls to mind similar occurrences throughout Kubrick’s career—notably BARRY LYNDON (1975) and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Additionally, his usual depiction of the bourgeoisie—aristocrats waltzing in ballrooms to classical music—receives a modern American twist in LOLITA in the form of a high school dance.
Kubrick only made two outright comedies in his career—LOLITA and its 1964 follow-up, DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB—and its worth noting that both films are decidedly dark in their comic sensibilities.
As an artist, Kubrick valued pitch-black irony, and both LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE are absolutely dripping with them. Made close together, chronologically speaking, and under similar conditions, LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE exist as companion pieces, complementary to each other in surprising ways.
Kubrick’s artistic explorations throughout his career can be charted according to the opposing poles of sex and violence. LOLITA is ostensibly a film about sex, the ultimate act of creation, whereas DR. STRANGELOVE is a film about war, the ultimate act of destruction.
Their shared comic affections and visual style bind them together, giving us perhaps the most straightforward insight into Kubrick’s artistic profile before he would obscure it with the expressionistic, experimental works of his later career.
LOLITA found commercial and critical success when it was released in 1962, but more importantly it marked the beginning of Kubrick’s reputation as an auteur provocateur and subverter of genre. His expatriation to England gave him an artistic freedom and expanded worldview that he never could have had on American shores.
He was free to work as he saw fit, a development that allowed him to create one uncompromising masterpiece after the other.
DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
The second half of the twentieth century was marked by a profound existential malaise brought about by the rise of the atomic bomb and its ability to throw the world into a nuclear holocaust at the drop of a hat. The Cold War transcended conventional notions of armed conflict and became a permanent state of tension and caution where the slightest miscommunication could set off the end of the world as we knew it.
When faced with such a morbid, seemingly hopeless existence, what can one do but simply laugh at the absurdity of it all? Enter director Stanly Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, released during the height of nuclear escalation in 1964 and arguably one of the most defining films of the twentieth century.
After finishing 1962’s cheeky sex comedy, LOLITA, Kubrick grew fascinated with the idea of mankind’s demise by our own hands through nuclear warfare. Ever the dutiful researcher, Kubrick read everything he could find on the subject and found a story he wanted to tell in Peter George’s cautionary thriller novel, “Red Alert”.
In securing the film rights, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris initially planned to create a straight adaption in the thriller genre. However, Harris was at this time beginning to aspire to a directing career of his own, and he amicably ended his partnership with Kubrick during preproduction.
Left to his own devices, Kubrick started toying with the idea of transforming the film into a black comedy, finding that the acknowledgement of the utter absurdity inherent in voluntary nuclear warfare actually enhanced the effectiveness of his message.
Towards this end, Kubrick brought in noted playwright Terry Southern to fashion his script into satire— in the process, creating the eccentric titular character of Dr. Strangelove and giving the film its absurdly long name. Half a century after the film’s release, DR. STRANGELOVE still holds it own as a relevant and entertaining piece of pop culture and makes a case as Kubrick’s first true masterpiece.
DR. STRANGELOVE details an utterly absurd—but no less plausible—scenario in which mankind might meet its end. At a nondescript Air Force base, General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone rogue and ordered a full-scale nuclear strike on Russia without authorization from his superiors or the President.
A paranoid conspiracy theorist, Ripper’s motivation for the strike is crystal clear only to him— the Communists are out to steal our “precious bodily fluids” and will most certainly gain supremacy through them if they aren’t totally destroyed immediately.
He barricades himself in his office with a British RAF Captain named Mandrake (Peter Sellers), who attempts to avert crisis by tricking the stubborn Ripper into telling him the recall codes. Meanwhile, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) tries to regain control and diffuse the situation in the War Room.
His efforts are derailed by the over-aggressive warmongering of General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) as well as the wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more) who can’t quite shake his old Nazi convictions about genetic purity and welcomes the nuclear holocaust as an opportunity to create a new master race underground via prestigious breeding with sexually desirable and genetically perfect women.
As the masters of the universe seek to avert Armageddon on the ground, a lone B-52 manned by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) takes a direct hit from an incoming Russian missile, which damages their communications systems.
Unable to receive the recall commands from the ground, Major Kong and his crew of bombardiers fly on into the heart of Russia to deliver their nuclear payload—a mission that Pickens will personally see to its completion. Kubrick’s message is clear—the slightest miscommunication can spell our doom, and in the case of DR. STRANGELOVE, that miscommunication results in a comedy of disastrous proportions.
DR. STRANGELOVE boasts one of the most eclectic and talented casts to ever assemble under Kubrick’s supervision. Peter Sellers headlines the film in multiple roles, a development caused by studio mandate. Columbia Pictures—rightly or wrongly— attributed the success of LOLITA to Seller playing multiple roles, and decreed Sellers do the same in DR. STRANGELOVEas a contingent of their financing the film.
Sellers arguably turns in the best work of his career here, giving Captain Mandrake the requisite fussy airs of a British serviceman while modeling his President Merkin Muffley off the self-serious affectations of Presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson, and Dr. Strangelove off of the grand traditions of German Expressionist cinema (and in the process creating one of the most indelible and unique characters in film history).
Sellers hits it out of the park with every character he plays in DR. STRANGELOVE, and while he would never collaborate again with Kubrick, his work in the film serves as a fitting sendoff to their fruitful partnership.
To fill out the rest of his mostly-male ensemble, Kubrick turned to actors both old and new. After their successful collaboration in 1956’s THE KILLING, Kubrick was able to lead Sterling Hayden out of retirement to play General Jack Ripper, an all-around alpha male typical of the midcentury military-industrial complex.
Venerated character actor George C. Scott plays the ornery, blustering role of General Buck Turgidson. Turgidson has such a personal axe to grind against the Russians that he’s practically eager to initiate a nuclear war, dismissing the massive American casualties such an act would create as a small price to pay for ensuring his beloved country’s dominance.
The role of Major Kong was originally supposed to be also played by Sellers, but was ultimately filled by American actor Slim Pickens. Pickens essentially appears here as he was in real life—a flamboyant Texan and blindly loyal straight shooter. James Earl Jones also appears in the small role of Lt. Zogg, one of Kong’s bombardiers and the only man on the B-52 to question the validity of their command.
Kubrick’s films are normally praised more for their technical proficiency than their acting, but DR. STRANGELOVE’s cast more than holds it own against Kubrick’s considerable visual flair, bringing it all home with a manic energy unparalleled in even most screwball comedies.
The cinematography of DR. STRANGELOVE finds Kubrick in a transitory phase of his visual style. His aesthetic arguably serves as a bridge between the polished glamor of Old Hollywood filmmaking and the rough edges of the New Wave, withDR. STRANGELOVE in a sense becoming a bridge inside of that bridge.
While Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shoot DR. STRANGELOVE on black and white 35mm film and give it a relatively straightforward, polished presentation, the maverick director peppers the film with experimental, cutting edge touches— like rack zooms that highlight information inside the B-52 plane, or the chaotic, handheld cinema verite rendering of the Air Force base battle (which predated the style popularized by Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN by nearly thirty four years).
When working inside a studio set environment, Kubrick favors high contrast, low-key lighting and compositions that favor depth and minimal camera movement. The striking visual presentation, however, owes less to the cinematography and more to the iconic set design by legendary production designer Ken Adam.
Famous for his larger-than-life supervillain lair sets on the JAMES BOND series, Adam proves to be an inspired choice to realize Kubrick’s outsized vision of absurd grandiosity. He echoes Kubrick’s propensity for depth, designing hard, angular sets like The War Room and General Ripper’s office with strong lines that converge onto a singular point.
The War Room in particular is an unassailable icon of set design, perfectly reinforcing the characters’ delusions of grandeur and in the process becoming one of the most recognizable sets in cinematic history. The idea of DR. STRANGELOVE as a transitory film in Kubrick’s filmography also extends to his treatment of music.
While Laurie Johnson is credited as the film’s composer, the majority of the music stems from either pre-recorded material or adaptations of preexisting material. What original score appears does so mainly during the B-52 bomber sequences, but even then it is an appropriation of preexisting material—the military hymn “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, rendered with snare drums, trumpets, and men humming in low unison that suggest the steady, unstoppable encroach of war.
Kubrick’s mischievous nature also results in bookending DR. STRANGELOVE with a pair of cheeky and cheery pop songs that make ironic counterpoints to the images they accompany.
An instrumental cover of “Try A Little Tenderness” opens the film under stock footage of jet fighters refueling in mid-air, further emphasizing the sexualized nature of the process while also foreshadowing one of the film’s key themes (sex as a fundamental motivator behind conflict).
Kubrick then closes DR. STRANGELOVE with the mother of all showstoppers—a cataclysmic nuclear war (again realized using stock footage of nuclear tests) set to Vera Lynn’s romantic ballad “We’ll Meet Again”. Only a sense of humor as perverse as Kubrick’s could’ve thought of this juxtaposition of sound and image, and he found it so effective that he would continue to break new ground with this technique for decades to come.
While Kubrick never really established a concrete visual style for himself like, say, David Fincher or Wes Anderson, he nonetheless managed to make his stamp on his work using recurring themes, camera techniques, and an overbearing sense of dark irony.
In that regard, DR. STRANGELOVE is the first point in Kubrick’s filmography where everything coalesces into what is unmistakably “a Kubrick film”. Certain storytelling techniques—the omniscient narrator speaking in the third person, or favoring one-point perspectives in his compositions—are present throughout DR. STRANGELOVE and point to Kubrick’s decidedly unique worldview.
However, it’s in the exploration of the duality of sex and violence that the director’s mark is made apparent. The film explores the idea of violence as a response that ultimately stems from sexual frustration. All the characters in DR. STRANGELOVE are sexually frustrated in one fashion or another—General Ripper equates the male orgasm in intercourse with losing his “essence” and denies his “precious bodily fluids” to those who seek it.
General Buck Turgidson is caught in a distracting, schoolboy-esque affair with his secretary. Dr. Strangelove is obsessed with the morbid idea of playing a central role in repopulating the earth with a bevy of beautiful women in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Even the pilots in the B-52 are seen ogling Playboy centerfolds as they fly towards their target.
The characters’ sexual dysfunction bleeds over into their professional lives as leaders of the free world, and the relatively easy access to nukes make for quick, convenient, and effective bluffs when their fragile egos are threatened.
Kubrick was well known for his brilliance at playing chess, and he draws the story of DR. STRANGELOVE as a game of chess writ large where we are the pawns, beholden to the whims of our kings and knights who are too involved in their petty affairs to realize that they are actually court jesters instead.
DR. STRANGELOVE was originally supposed to debut to test audiences on a very fateful day: November 22nd, 1963— the day that President John F. Kenney was assassinated in Dallas. Naturally, this had a profound effect on such a politically charged film.
The biggest casualty was Kubrick’s original ending, which would’ve seen an epic pie fight break out in the War Room and George C. Scott exclaiming that “The President has been struck down in his prime!” after Seller’s President Muffley took a pie to the face.
The film was also delayed until January of 1964, where it was released to critical and commercial acclaim, as well as a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. As the last black and white film that Kubrick ever made, DR. STRANGELOVE’s importance—not just to cinema but to twentieth century history— cannot be overstated.
The Library of Congress presumably felt the same way, selecting it as one of the first films to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. No other film encapsulates the hopeless absurdity of the Cold War as perfectly as DR. STRANGELOVE, and as long as nuclear weapons continue to exist— squirreled away by the hundreds in hidden silos and ready to launch at the push of a button—Kubrick’s blackly comic, cautionary masterpiece will remain as relevant and important as ever.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
A few days ago we celebrated the forty-fifth anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, an event that captured the imagination of the entire world and heralded the arrival of a Space Age that, regrettably, has yet to fully materialize.
We haven’t been back to the moon since 1972, and our collective dream of becoming a spacefaring civilization living amongst the heavens has gone essentially unrealized—bogged down firmly by the mud of warfare, urgent domestic issues, shuttle disasters, and budgetary neglect.
The dream of space is a dream delayed, a fact that was made painfully apparent at the dawning of the twenty first century. The year 2001 came and went, but we were nowhere near living on giant, spinning space stations and flying on commercialized commuter spaceships, let alone undertaking missions to Jupiter and beyond.
All of these things were promised to us in a film released the year before we stepped foot on the moon for real and discovered that it was, in fact, not made of cheese. That film was director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), and its matter-of-fact, realistic (yet no less romantic) depiction of our spacefaring future captivated the imagination of millions.
It became one of the most influential films of all time, and even today it remains a benchmark of craft and design. It is a cultural touchstone, its enigmatic storyline and mysteries sparking an endless debate about our place among the cosmos in addition to smaller (but no less important) matters like the development of artificial intelligence.
Kubrick himself was fascinated by these ideas as well as the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and began a series of discussions with noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in the mid-1960’s. Their conversations gave way to serious collaboration, with Clarke offering up several of his novels and short stories as source material for Kubrick to adapt.
Kubrick aspired to make, in his words, the “proverbial good science fiction film”, and fashioned his narrative from a combination of Clarke’s short stories, arranging them into an examination of mankind’s evolution as a process aided by extraterrestrial intelligence.
In making 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kubrick acted as his own producer, and thus had no one that would object to his dropping of traditional story structures and dialogue conventions while rendering the film instead as an enigmatic audiovisual experience.
The financial and critical success of Kubrick’s previous film, DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), gave the visionary director a significant amount of momentum and leeway in getting his follow-up off the ground, and by the following year he was in back in England (where he had since relocated with his family full-time), rolling camera on the film that would cement his legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY unfolds against the sprawling expanse of space, but at its core, tells a very concentrated story about mankind’s evolution and taking our rightful place amongst other intelligent civilizations in the stars.
Kubrick begins his examination with The Dawn Of Man— the point in which humanity branched off from the line of apes to become the dominant species on earth. Their evolution is kickstarted by the discovery of a massive black obelisk, which bestows superior intellect upon them.
Their rapid development is charted quickly and wordlessly— it’s not long until they are walking on their hind legs, and the first use of tools allows the apes to transcend their scavenging ways while empowering them with the means to create their own meals.
When a rival group of apes tries to push in on their territory, the newly-evolved apes turn their tools into weapons, and ensure their dominance through violence and murder. Kubrick then cuts to the year 2001, where space travel is commonplace and a similar black obelisk has been found buried underneath the moon’s surface.
After laying inert for millions of years, it emits a single piercing radio wave out towards Jupiter before falling silent once again. Excited by the first indisputable evidence of intelligent life outside the Earth, a research mission is organized and sent to Jupiter to see what might be waiting for us there.
Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) heads the five-man mission, assisted by his deputy Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) while the remaining three men hibernate in cryosleep. The ship is guided by a state-of-the-art, artificially intelligent computer named HAL 9000.
HAL 9000 is essentially self-aware, and is treated like a sixth member of the crew by the humans until the possibility of a flaw in its computations is suspected. The HAL 9000 series of computers were supposed to be perfect and utterly incapable of error, so the Jupiter mission’s HAL was given complete control of every single system on the ship.
Naturally, even the smallest of computational errors on HAL’s part could mean that the entire mission might be compromised. When Bowman and Poole attempt to re-assert manual control of the ship and shut HAL down, the self-aware computer uses the ship itself as a weapon against the humans in a defensive bid to keep itself operational.
What neither Bowman or the all-knowing HAL 9000 can predict is that they are on a crash course with the next stage of human evolution, a stage that lies outside the space-time continuum and within a different dimension entirely.
Kubrick’s films have always been noted more for their craft and style than their cast, and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY reinforces that notion almost to an extreme, scaling back the characterization to the barest of minimums. Dialogue is almost nonexistent, with the first spoken line not occurring until we’re already twenty-five minutes in.
What little dialogue there is serves either as exposition or as a means to move the story along in the simplest of strokes—anything else is banal and ordinary, emphasizing Kubrick’s thesis that space travel would be so commonplace by the year 2001 that any novelties would have worn off.
This idea is personified in the character of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), who is introduced to us early in the film as a travelling businessman en route to the moon, his lack of wonder at the whole enterprise suggesting he’s made this trip several times before.
He’s more attached to his life back home on earth, at one point even making a video call to his daughter on her birthday (played by Kubrick’s own daughter, Vivian). Keir Dullea plays the Jupiter mission commander Dr. Dave Bowman, who can be considered the film’s conventional protagonist.
However, his personality is downplayed considerably, achieving a blank, emotionless slate that tells us absolutely nothing about who he is as a person. The same can be said for the Gary Lockwood’s slightly more-aggressive deputy, Dr. Frank Poole.
Since this is a Kubrick film, we should know by know that his story choices will always skew towards what’s most poetically ironic. In that respect, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a stroke of genius in its depiction of the self-aware, artificially intelligent supercomputer HAL 9000.
Voiced by Douglas Rain and represented only by a red light inside of a large glass lens, HAL 9000 is perhaps the most emotional, relatable character in the entire film, a strange claim considering that as a computer it can’t physically emote.
HAL 9000’s omniscience gives way to something resembling neuroses, and its ability to acknowledge its own existence leads to it actively protecting said existence at any cost. One would be hard pressed to find a villain in cinematic history that’s more fundamentally chilling and iconic than HAL 9000.
The sequence where HAL 9000 begs in its characteristic monotone for Dr. Bowman to not disconnect it is especially haunting, simply because its lack of a physical body renders it ultimately unable to defend itself against Dr. Bowman’s particularly monstrous determination.
The visual style of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY marks a radical shift in Kubrick’s aesthetic, not the least notable aspect of which is the director’s return to glorious color after 1960’s SPARTACUS. Shot by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth in the staggeringly wide 2.20:1 Super Panavision aspect ratio, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a film that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible.
My first experience with the film was on a regular consumer television, but shortly after I moved to Los Angeles, I caught a screening of a 70mm film print at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre and the experience was nothing less than a revelation.
Kubrick’s panoramic vistas are rendered in large swaths of vibrant, searing color (or, alternatively, inky blotches of black). He makes excellent use of the color red in particular, using it as a recurring visual motif to distinguish man from the colorless voids of space and technology.
Red, as we all know, is the color of blood—the essence of life, so to speak. In the film, it is a color that belongs firmly in the domain of the humans—it is the color of Bowman’s spacesuit, for instance, as well as the interior of the reconnaissance pods—the only part of the ship safe from the watchful eyes and ears of HAL 9000.
However, as HAL 9000 becomes more human-like in its expression of concern, the balance of red’s ownership tilts decidedly in the computer’s favor. It starts off with only the little red right in its “eye”, but much like the inside of the human body, Kubrick eventually reveals that HAL 9000’s interior memory mainframe is literally drenched in red.
Kubrick’s camerawork in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY echoes HAL 9000’s supposed infallibility in its compositional precision, deliberately set back from its subjects so that it may observe the action in a cold, clinical manner devoid of subjectivity.
Kubrick’s frame makes excellent use of depth, frequently incorporating one-point perspective compositions whose lines all converge towards a singular point in the distance. The pacing is glacial—at times unbearably so—but it also reinforces the endlessly patient, calculating nature of its antagonist.
Despite the plodding nature of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s storytelling, Kubrick and editor Ray Lovejoy still infuse it with punches of New Wave expressionism, like jarring jump cuts that radically disrupt the visual continuity.
The most famous example of this is perhaps the most famous jump cut of all time, where Kubrick jumps forward four million years within a single frame by cross cutting from a bone in the air to a similarly-shaped satellite suspended in orbit above the Earth. Nearly fifty years after the film’s release, this cut in particular is still breathtaking in its sheer audacity.
Kubrick’s inventiveness extends to other aspects of the film, such as sound design. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was groundbreaking in its realistic depiction of the sonic aspects of space travel. Most science fiction films tend to value entertainment over realism, and thus blatantly disregard the well-known fact that space is a vacuum, and sound needs air in order to travel and be heard.
Recent films like Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY (2013) have re-introduced us to the idea of the silent cosmos, but Kubrick’s realistic treatment of the phenomena in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY blazed the trail in using the lack of sound as an asset. Long stretches of the film are just simply the sounds of the astronauts’ breath inside their own helmets, and they are just as tense and exciting, if not more so, than they would be if accompanied by a richer soundtrack.
Kubrick approached the film’s visual effects from a similar standpoint. Whereas CGI-laden films from a few years ago now look dated and fake to our eyes, the effects of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY hold up, even looking arguably more realistic than the best that modern CGI can offer.
Kubrick was praised throughout his lifetime as not just a gifted storyteller, but also as a pioneer in filmmaking technology. His inherent knowledge of the film medium gave him the confidence to create 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s striking effects in-camera, fully rendered onto the original negative so as to preserve the highest image quality.
Despite having a team of visual effects artists at his disposal, it was Kubrick himself who accepted the film’s sole Academy Award win (out of thirteen nominations) for its visual effects. The irony of the only Oscar Kubick ever won being the result of work he couldn’t fully claim as his own surely must not been lost on the master filmmaker.
As an artist who demanded complete control over his projects, Kubrick prized shooting his films in the manageable isolation of studio sets. This also allowed Kubrick to impose his own design aesthetic on the sets themselves. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY must have been a very appealing project to Kubrick in that the demands of the story dictated shooting entirely on soundstages.
After all, it’s not like they could exactly go up into space and shoot “on location”. This, combined with the need to create the various miscellanea of a futuristic existence results in what is perhaps one of the most meticulously designed films ever made.
I’m not exaggerating—Kubrick even placed detailed instructions on how to use the space station’s toilet on the front of the bathroom door even though it served absolutely no story purpose. Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, and Anthony Masters share the Production Designer credit under Kubrick’s vision, creating a distinctly-1960’s vision of the future.
Kubrick and his designers incorporate banks of pure white light into their sets as a recurring motif throughout the film, such as the walls of the briefing room on the moon, the floor of Bowman’s baroque-style apartment suite in the “stargate” sequence, and the entire interior of the earth-orbiting space station.
This has the effect of creating a cold, even light that eliminates all shadows and allows Kubrick to objectively examine his subjects like they were exhibits in a museum. The technology on display in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is remarkably prescient.
While full-scale space travel is not yet a reality, we do have several things (albeit about thirteen years late) that the movie predicted would be commonplace by the dawn of the twenty first century: portable computer tablets (iPads) and video calls (Facetime), for instance.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find the research and development facilities at Apple looking like they were straight out of this film. If anything, it just proves how highly influential 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY continues to be.
Of course, any projection as far into the future as 1968-era Kubrick made is bound to have missed a few marks. Kubrick rather accurately predicted that space travel in the twenty first century would give way to private corporations and commerce rather than remaining strictly government or military endeavors.
While this is now in the infancy of becoming a reality thanks to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, Kubrick erroneously (yet logically) predicts that major airlines would have made the natural expansion into space—Dr. Floyd is seen flying to the moon in a Pan-Am branded spacecraft.
Since Pan-Am wouldn’t last as an operating company long enough to even see the year 2001, it’s easy to look back on Kubrick’s inclusion and laugh. However, that would be losing sight of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s design as a valid historical document—an expression of our dreams and hopes for the future during the romantic era of space flight.
Given that we have been firmly grounded here on Earth ever since, that aspect becomes more poignant than ever. A dream unrealized. Kubrick’s reputation as a fuser of indelible image and inspired music really begins in earnest with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Whereas his previous films might have augmented an original score with adaptations of existing classical material, here Kubrick eschews a composer and a conventional score entirely. However, that was not always the intent.
Kubrick commissioned an original score from his SPARTACUS composer Alex North, but quickly dumped it when it didn’t meet with his satisfaction. Inspired perhaps by the graceful pirouetting motions of the space station, Kubrick yet again made film history by pairing the sequence introducing mankind’s technological advancements in the year 2001 to the dizzying waltz of Johan Strauss II’s “Blue Danube”.
This pairing had such a profound impact on our collective social psyche that I defy you to find someone who doesn’t think of spinning space stations when they hear it. Similarly, Kubrick uses Richard Strauss’ bombastic classical piece “Also sprach Zarathustra” throughout the film to symbolize the wonder of mankind’s evolution.
We hear it when the apes realize that bones make great tools, and we hear it again when Bowman re-enters our dimension and is reborn as a star child. Much like “Blue Danube”, this piece is also ingrained into us and paired with visions of space and the cosmos.
In addition to using classical music from romantic, Victorian eras, Kubrick turns to compositions from modern maestros like Gyorgy Ligeti, the man behind a fundamentally unnerving suite of cues that accompanies the terrifying appearances of the black obelisk.
Primal and dissonant, the piece features a building chorus of men’s voices seemingly scrambling over each other in a bid to escape some unseen evil emanating from the bowels of the earth. It’s the kind of music cue that makes one’s skin crawl, so of course Kubrick uses it as his beginning musical overture, filling the screen with an impenetrable blackness for several minutes before the story begins in earnest.
Just as radically as Kubrick deviates from the straightforward visual style of his previous films in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, so too does he loyally adhere to the same set of themes that have fascinated him as an artist. He uses the film’s storyline about evolution as a conduit into further explorations of violence, essentially stating that it is a natural byproduct of the evolutionary process.
If evolution can be described as “survival of the fittest”, then it stands to reason that those who can assert dominance over the ecosystem will prosper—and the only way to assert said dominance is by force. The apes’ discovery of tools allowed them to take charge of their own development, but it was only a short matter of time until they perverted the tool’s original purpose for warfare.
Mankind built its civilizations on the foundations of violence and war, and as such, it is an inextricable component of our humanity. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY filters its ideas about personhood and evolution through the lens of technology, another major theme in Kubrick’s body of work.
The character of HAL 9000 represents the countless ethical conundrums surrounding the concept of artificial intelligence, but most importantly raises the question: “at what point does an artificial intelligence achieve personhood?”.
The ship’s human inhabitants view HAL 9000 as another crewmate, and they entrust their lives to its stewardship. We know that the computer is as intelligent—if not more so—than humans because Kubrick shows it winning a game of chess against Dr. Bowman (a none-too-subtle nod towards Kubrick’s own dominance at the game).
As intelligent as it may be, HAL 9000 is still not a human, and cannot emote—yet it shows increasing signs of paranoia and neuroses as trouble mounts during the mission. It stands to reason that a self-aware entity would fight to defend its own existence, which the story of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY makes more than clear when HAL 9000 pleads with Bowman before being shut down.
Throughout history, man has fashioned technology in service to its needs, but it’s the tipping point in which technology itself emerges as a dominant species that captivates Kubrick’s interest. Just as we now bear little resemblance to the apes from which we descended, it stands to reason that the next link in the chain of evolution will appear quite dissimilar to humankind. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY raises many questions, but it is here that its core line of questioning becomes clear—will humanity’s successor come in the form of cold machines, or does our destiny instead lie out in the vast expanse of the cosmos?
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY also makes potent use of several of Kubrick’s signature storytelling conceits as a way to imprint his stamp despite the radical tonal departure from his previous work. While Kubrick formally dispenses with the omniscient voiceover narration that peppered throughout his previous films, he essentially achieves the same purpose here with the incorporation of the all-knowing, all-seeing HAL 9000 computer.
This is also the film in which Kubrick perfects his use of one-point perspectives compositions, hypnotically luring us deeper into his world by travelling down the length of claustrophobic tunnels. An extreme version of this is evident in the infamous “stargate” sequence in which Bowman travels to another dimension entirely.
Additionally, the rendering of Bowman’s enigmatic apartment suite in the gilded style of baroque décor points to Kubrick’s fascination with the era and serves as a link to a common thread that runs through his filmography and its disparate genres and styles.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is no doubt a massively influential work, but it didn’t achieve that status overnight. The film debuted in 1968 to severely mixed critical reception. Kubrick’s intentionally obtuse storytelling frustrated countless old-school critics, but more “enlightened” critics immediately recognized the film’s brilliance and importance.
The film also had something of a slow start at the box office until it caught on as a cult hit among young adults, who would come to late-night screenings—stoned out of their gourds no less—to lose themselves in the psychedelic “stargate” sequence.
The idea of the film as a cinematic milestone began catching on in earnest when the next generation of filmmakers—the generation that brought us STAR WARS—credited 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as a key inspiration in their work. Over time, the film’s legacy has only grown stronger, and its induction into the National Film Registry in 1991 ensured its preservation for generations to come.
Perhaps his best known and most widely-viewed film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY rocketed Kubrick to the top of his field, cementing him as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Though Kubrick would not live to see the year 2001 himself, his groundbreaking work here assured that his legacy would carry on well into the twenty first century and beyond.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
The human race is inherently violent—one only needs to pull up CNN at any given moment to see the proof. The building blocks of society are laid on a foundation of violence—the land on which our cities sit was either taken by force or successfully defended against those who wished to take it by force.
Anger is a natural human emotion, and we can all cite a time when we wanted to inflict physical harm on another person. What matters is whether we actually follow through—a personal choice that we call “free will”, and its one of the principles that the definition of “personhood” is established upon.
So if we were to find one day that we could condition violent inclinations out of a person entirely— to the point that violent thoughts would make that person physically sick— would we consider such a development to be taking away a person’s free will, and by extension, their very humanity? It’s a potent question; one that director Stanley Kubrick tackled in brilliant fashion with his challenging, divisive 1971 masterpiece, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
After the success of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Kubrick started working earnestly on a long-gestating passion project—NAPOLEON, an epic biopic starring Jack Nicholson as the infamous French emperor.
He had spent most of the 60’s conducting an exhausting amount of research for the project, and by the time he was finished he had an elaborate notecard system that detailed Napoleon’s exact movements—one notecard for every single waking day of his life.
However, right as cameras were preparing to roll in 1969, the project fell apart, and the failure of Sergey Bondarchuk’s similarly-themed Napoleon film WATERLOO a year later killed any chances Kubrick had at reviving the project. Even today, Kubrick’s unrealized NAPOLEON project still haunts the film community as one of the greatest films never made.
Kubrick was now faced with the task of finding a new project to develop in the wake of NAPOLEON’s failure, and he turned to a book that Terry Southern had recommended to him on the set of DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)—a book he had initially dismissed as incomprehensible.
That book was Anthony Burgess’ seminal novel, “A Clockwork Orange”. Looking at it with new eyes, he was drawn to the book’s dystopian setting and its examination into the psyche of a violent young man as a byproduct of his environment.
As he had done with2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kubrick served as his own producer as well as his own screenwriter in adapting A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to the screen. The film is a curiosity within Kubrick’s body of work in that it is very faithful to its source novel, whereas Kubrick had a reputation for dramatically altering source material to fit whatever given movie he wanted to make.
This can be credited to the fact that Kubrick disregarded his own script and worked on set using the novel itself—an uncharacteristically haphazard approach for the notoriously disciplined director, but it fit with the lo-fi, improvisational nature of the shoot.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE tells the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a young man living in a dystopian future Britain with one hell of an extracurricular activity: dressing up in menacing attire by night and terrorizing the town with his gang of like-minded buddies.
They beat hobos senseless, brawl with rival gangs, and break into the homes of decent, upstanding citizens for “a bit of the old ultraviolence”. Alex and his so-called “droogs” are seemingly unstoppable—that is, until a routine nocturnal break-in goes awry and Alex murders a woman he had intended to rape.
When his gang of droogs betrays him and enables his capture by the police, Alex is thrown into prison for his heinous crime. However, instead of languishing in a jail cell for the rest of his life, he’s given the opportunity to participate in an experimental new form of aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique.
He is forced to watch several days’ worth of horrifying, gruesome footage as a way to condition him against his own violent impulses. In return for his participation, he is given an early release back out into society and hailed by the media as a cured man.
However, his transition back into society proves harder than he expected, and his inability to cope with his natural violent tendencies leaves him a broken shell of a person—and vulnerable to retribution by all those who he had previously harmed.
The story raises a salient question that cuts to the core of Kubrick’s message: Alex’s crimes were horrible yes, but by depriving him of his free will, could the government’s conditioning of his very identity be considered an even worse transgression?
Despite all the flash and theatrics, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is at its core a character study, which places a significant burden on the shoulders of young Malcolm McDowell. Under Kubrick’s steady hand, McDowell turns in a career-defining performance as Alex, the twisted, psychopathic antihero at the center of the story.
While his crimes are vile and reprehensible, it’s a testament to both Kubrick’s vision and McDowell’s boyish charms that we as an audience ultimately find him sympathetic, and—dare I say it—relatable. McDowell’s devious characterization of Alex results in one of the most influential and iconic film characters of all time—a status that still stands today judging by the cues Heath Ledger took from McDowell for his portrayal of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).
McDowell isn’t the only actor in the film, but his performance towers every other cast-member to the point that one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. That’s not to say that the other cast members don’t pull their weight and help fill out Kubrick’s nightmarish, dystopian vision of the future (Patrick Magee and future Darth Vader, David Prowse, are notable standouts).
Working with cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick trades the polish and gloss of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s visuals for a decidedly lo-fi, indie aesthetic in bringing Burgess’ novel to life. Tonally, the visuals of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE play like a hybrid between Kubrick’s clinical, restrained classical style and a hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon.
For instance, Kubrick and Alcott exposed most of the 35mm film image using only natural light, resulting in a lifelike, down-to-earth look that features pops of color amid drab, neutral backgrounds. However, in those same shots he also uses wide-angle lenses to distort and exaggerate reality to unrealistic proportions.
This is also reflected in the camerawork, which alternates between static wide shots that observe the action dispassionately and up-close, handheld shots that bring the objective point of view firmly into the subjective.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s reliance on natural light seems peculiar—if not entirely out of character— for Kubrick, whose reputation for controlling every aspect of his image was infamous. However, this development can be ascribed to two defining aspects of Kubrick’s artistic aesthetic. Kubrick was well aware of his superlative talents, and saw each project as the “definitive” film in its particular genre.
So when he saw the wave of scrappy, low-budget youth films streaming out of Europe and America during the late 1960’s—films like Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969)—he decided that he would adopt the same affectations in an effort to deliver A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as the “ultimate” youth picture, much like he had done for the sci-fi genre in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Additionally, Kubrick’s interest in natural light didn’t stem from light itself, but rather in the technological advancement of lenses that required less and less of it to properly expose the film negative. This speaks to the pioneering aspect of Kubrick’s craft: his constant push to eliminate technical limitations on the realization of a filmmaker’s vision.
In later years, he would make significant strides in this regard, working directly with NASA to develop a lens that could expose a film image using only candlelight for 1975’s BARRY LYNDON.
This approach is mirrored in the edit, where Kubrick and editor Bill Butler brazenly cut from distant, observational setups to dynamic handheld shots that bring the action up close and personal. Kubrick uses the expressionistic nature of his edit to creatively portray the film’s most violent aspects, such as the murderous bludgeoning of the cat lady.
Instead of showing us the act itself, Kubrick cuts away to a series of rapid shots of the cat lady’s paintings, strung together in such a fashion as to suggest animation (specifically, those colorful flashes one would see in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon after dynamite explodes).
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s editing was highly influential, forecasting the rise of rapid music video-style editing popularized by films of the 90’s and 00’s, as well as the stylistic flourishes of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.
Like his previous three films, Kubrick shot A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in England—both in London and around his home in Elstree. He recruited John Barry as his production designer, who adapted existing locales to fit the needs of the story rather than build entirely new sets.
To convey the dystopian feel of Kubrick’s vision of a future Britain, Barry sought out socialist-style housing projects and municipal buildings built in the Brutalist school of architecture. The cold, uninviting concrete structures stand like oppressive symbols of the society that has allowed youths like Alex to run amok—a society that’s lost any interest in civic infrastructure or betterment.
Kubrick contrasts this with the interiors of Alex’s family flat, a garish mishmash of bright colors and patterns that suggests a counterculture struggling for its voice in the absence of a unifying message. The production design of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE suggests a very different future than the one Kubrick depicted in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY—indeed, this future is decidedly earthbound and considerably more cynical.
Wendy Carlos, credited here as Walter because the film was made before her sex change operation, fashions the score for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as a blend between baroque classical compositions and computer-age instrumentation.
Alex’s love for classical music is reflected in the appropriation of works like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, filtered through the inspired use of a Moog synthesizer and vocoder that makes it sound as if it was being sung by a computer.
This perversion of music’s inherent beauty extends to the inclusion of “Singin’ In The Rain”, which runs over the end credits in addition to being sung by Alex as he brutally rapes a woman during a home invasion. Kubrick’s filmography is littered with music that plays counter to the actual image it accompanies, but A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is really where he perfects his surprising, brilliant concoctions.
Our perception of “Singin’ In The Rain” has been permanently discolored, seared into our collective memory as the sound of impending doom. Kubrick peppers the soundscape of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with this sort of audiovisual irony, giving a twisted elegance to the carnage on display.
The world of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE affords Kubrick several opportunities to develop his aesthetic. The frequent usage of narrative voiceover, one-point perspective compositions and extended tracking shots (sometimes even the combination of the two, such as the shot of Alex roaming his beloved record store) are the clearest visual indicators of Kubrick’s hand.
He also experiments with a few new techniques, like the breaking of the fourth wall, or filming from the floor up at someone leaning over a closed door—a very unconventional, somewhat disconcerting angle that Kubrick would later use to great effect in 1980’s THE SHINING.
Kubrick’s career-long meditation on sex and violence takes center stage in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, what with its depiction of a seemingly-lawless future society and explorations of conditioned behavior. The character of Alex is the result of a hypersexual culture—a culture that is implied through the pervasiveness of penis popsicles and pornographic pop art displayed in the homes of otherwise respectable, upstanding citizens.
Perhaps as a prediction of the nascent birth control movement, Kubrick’s vision of a future Britain is a world in which sex has been stripped of consequence, and thus exists merely for titillation and self-serving gratification. In other words, it is simply for entertainment.
Whereas bored teenagers of the 1970’s would find entertainment in hanging around drive-in movie theaters and cruising the main strips of their hometowns, the bored teenagers of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE get their kicks in the form of indiscriminate rape and torture.
Rape is a particularly salient theme for Kubrick to explore, precisely because it is the intersection of sex and violence—it perverts the act of love into an act of hate, and Kubrick’s somewhat-humorous (yet ultimately horrifying) depiction of it forces us to reckon with the darkest parts of our own humanity.
Man’s capability for inhumanity towards his fellow man (and woman) is reinforced by Kubrick’s exploration of the inhumanity capable of institutions—civilization’s invention to protect man against himself. The Brutalist architecture of the socialist housing blocks—cold, concrete structures with no personality or history reflective of their inhabitants—reinforces the purely utilitarian reasons for the existence of institutions.
In their efforts to create a stable civilization and strip man of his wild nature, they overreach and subsequently take away a man’s ability to govern his own behavior. This sacrifice on behalf of the individual for the greater good of the societal whole is a common theme that runs through Kubrick’s work— films like PATHS OF GLORY (1957), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, andDR. STRANGELOVE all examined the inhumanity of institutions towards the individual (albeit DR. STRANGELOVE did so in an inverted way that saw the government sacrifice the masses for the few—themselves).
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE stills stands today as Kubrick’s most controversial film, by any standard of measure. The violence and carnage on display was shocking, and far exceeded anything that had been made up to that point.
In the wake of its release, public furor over its content and real-world copycat crimes prompted death threats on Kubrick and his family, leading to his voluntary withdrawal of the film from UK cinemas—an embargo that would last until his death in 1999.
In America, the film was a runaway hit, and secured a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With the divisive success of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick’s reputation as a daring maverick auteur was assured. If he wasn’t already the figurehead of the new wave of radical filmmaking sweeping the world, he was now.
BARRY LYNDON (1975)
Director Stanley Kubrick made a career out of confounding expectations. Each work in his filmography belongs firmly within its genre, yet at the same time also acts as a blatant subversion of said genre. PATHS OF GLORY (1957) turned the romantic war epic into an ethics debate.
DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB(1964) twisted the conventions of the sex comedy by giving it cataclysmic, end-of-the-world stakes. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) traded the cheesy pulp tropes of midcentury science fiction for a sweeping sense of ominous wonder towards creation and the unknown.
After the highly-controversial, ultraviolent A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), Kubrick again surprised the film community by swinging another 180 degrees in his choice for a follow up: a stuffy costume drama based on an obscure 1844 picaresque novel written by William Makepeace Thackery and titled “The Luck Of Barry Lyndon”.
Knowing what we do of Kubrick’s career up to this point, however, the selection of Thackery’s novel isn’t surprising at all. Kubrick had spent years exhaustively researching the life and times of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for an epic film that fell apart shortly before cameras could roll, forcing him to channel his energies instead into A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
A film adaption of “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” afforded Kubrick the opportunity to repurpose the mountains of research he had amassed for NAPOLEON, given the similar time era and cultures depicted in both works. Working from his own script and with his brother-in-law Jan Harlan as an executive producer, Kubrick set about making BARRY LYNDON (1975)—an oversized production that took two years to film and endured no less than two shutdowns as its budget swelled to $11 million.
Despite Kubrick’s great difficulty in getting the film made, BARRY LYNDON’s mixing of old school costume dramaturgy and the filmmaking techniques of the New Wave results in one of the best films of the 1970’s, and arguably the finest film of its illustrious director’s career.
BARRY LYNDON unfolds against the backdrop of the United Kingdom in the 18th century. Kubrick begins his three-hour story in Ireland, where a headstrong young peasant named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) loses his cousin’s romantic love for him to a British officer stationed in their town.
Enraged, Barry challenges the officer to a duel and wins, necessitating his exile from the town for having killed a British officer. He hides away in Dublin for a bit before joining the British Army as an inspired means to keep a low profile.
When he sours on the hardscrabble military life and tries to desert, he’s found out and pressed once more into service by the Prussian Army. They assign him to monitor a wealthy aristocrat named Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), who they suspect to be an Irish spy.
Barry’s shared kinship with the Chevalier compels him to deceive the Prussians and form an alliance with his countryman that sees them roam the countryside and scam aristocrats out of their money in rigged games of cards and chance. Their adventures bring them into the social circle of Lord Lyndon, whose wife, Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), catches Barry’s eye.
Determined to live out the rest of his days as a wealthy gentleman of leisure, Barry begins a not-so-secret affair with Lady Lyndon that strategically positions him to benefit the most from her ailing husband’s impending death. Surely enough, Lord Lyndon kicks the bucket and Barry weds Lady Lyndon, assuming the new mantle of Barry Lyndon.
He commences living the leisurely life he aspires to, but his hedonistic pursuit of pleasure leads to domestic troubles and new enemies—the most formidable and underestimated of which is Lord Lyndon’s son, Lord Bullingdon, who seethes with hatred for Barry over the careless squandering of the family fortune and his inheritance.
In the 1970’s, Ryan O’Neal was at the peak of his career, and his performance as the titular Barry Lyndon remains perhaps the very tip of that peak. As Lyndon rises from rags to riches, only to fall back to rags once more, O’Neal applies a composed nuance to each stage of the journey.
Lyndon’s decades-long growth from stubborn, idealistic lad to disdainful, hedonistic adult is given a convincing sense of the passage of time by O’Neal, who excels at projecting a world-weary countenance onto his boyish face. For Lady Lyndon, Kubrick looked to model Maris Berenson, who isn’t required to do much besides standing around in a silent, statuesque fashion.
However, Berenson imbues the character with a layer of fundamental sadness masked by stoic composure that serves the story well as it draws to a close— when she signs off on an alimony check for her disgraced lout of a husband, she pauses and looks up for only the briefest of moments, but in that moment she lives a lifetime.
Supporting performers of note include Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon, who would later go on to become Kubrick’s personal assistant and casting director on his final two films, as well as two veteran Kubrick performers on their second tour of duty: Patrick Magee and Philip Stone.
Magee, who played the crippled political dissident in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, appears in BARRY LYNDON under an eye patch and a pound of white makeup as the aristocratic libertine and charlatan Chevalier de Balibari. Stone, who likewise appeared in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as Malcolm McDowell’s father, plays Graham, a meek banker for Lady Lyndon and an unexpected conspirator against Barry.
BARRY LYNDON is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful films ever made, and for good reason. Working once again with cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick puts his prior experiments with natural light to masterful use in rendering the pre-electric world of BARRY LYNDON.
Kubrick’s visual presentation differs radically from his previous works in that he presents scenes as carefully staged tableaus, expertly composed to provide staggering degrees of depth and resemble the paintings of 18th century artists like Thomas Gainsborough.
The romantic feel of Kubrick’s compositions are further emphasized by the use of soft focus, which diffuses the frame’s highlights and adds to the film’s sense of Victorian glamor. Kubrick’s subjects and locales, impeccably designed with a careful eye to authentic period detail by DR. STRANGELOVE’s production designer Ken Adam, are lit almost entirely with existing natural light— an aesthetic choice that really accentuates the red and blue pops of color from British and Prussian military uniforms (respectively) against the golden earth tones of pastoral England.
Kubrick was so intent on creating an authentic pre-industrial world that, in the process, he managed to pioneer an entirely new technology that would change filmmaking forever. Working with NASA, Kubrick developed a specialized lens that could capture a beautiful exposure using only a few candles.
Many nocturnal scenes in BARRY LYNDON are lit entirely by candlelight, and the organic feeling of these scenes would be highly influential in the continued development of low-light technology, while its groundbreaking use in BARRY LYNDON would become one of the cornerstones of the film’s legacy.
Kubrick’s supreme confidence in his mastery of visual language is on full, flagrant display in BARRY LYNDON—the fact that he presents his scenes almost entirely in masters while rarely cutting away to other coverage speaks to the sheer audaciousness of Kubrick’s vision and technical prowess.
The effect is staggering and stately, a reflection of the pompous rigidity of his subjects. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this approach would be endlessly boring, but Kubrick incorporates the unconventional filmmaking techniques of New Hollywood—techniques he himself helped to popularize—in order to breathe immediacy and energy into the proceedings.
While there are a few characteristic tracking shots (one scene in particular recalls Kirk Douglas’ trench run in PATHS OF GLORY) as well as several instances of handheld, documentary-style photography, BARRY LYNDON mostly plays out in the aforementioned master tableaus, aided by the frequent use of zoom lenses to zero in on a particular detail within the scene or vice versa.
Kubrick uses this conceit repeatedly; creating a hypnotic mood that pulls us deeper and deeper into his baroque vision. At this point in his career, Kubrick had fully embraced the use of classical music over an original score, and to this end he enlisted Leonard Rosenman to create new arrangements of famous works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franc Schubert in addition to several Irish folk songs.
BARRY LYNDON’s most memorable piece of music—George Frideric Handel’s “Sarabande”—was re-appropriated as a theme song of sorts, thundering along as Barry’s fate unfolds. While on the surface, the musical character of Kubrick’s classical selections does not run counter to the images they accompany (indeed, classical music seems to be a very conventional and appropriate choice for a story about the European aristocracy circa the 18th century), he nonetheless uses it subversively.
The operatic “Sarabande” march in particular suggests the trials and tribulations of a great king—someone like, say, Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Kubrick bestows this theme not on a king or emperor, but on a peasant who lived large for a while and ultimately died as a penniless nobody who had contributed absolutely nothing to history.
The sense of history and importance that Sarabande conveys runs counter to Barry Lyndon’s actual life, reflecting only his supreme narcissism. Despite its regal, stuffy aesthetic, BARRY LYNDON contains all the visual hallmarks of its subversive maverick director.
The combination of one-point perspective compositions and an omniscient narrator places the audience at an observant remove from the action. The story’s examination of Victorian culture in its heyday allows for the indulgence of Kubrick’s fascinations with baroque architecture as well as the ineffectual pageantry and customs of the aristocracy.
Lyndon’s stint in the military also provides an opportunity for Kubrick to further explore violence in the circumstance of warfare, specifically the strangely self-sacrificial rituals of battle in the pre-Industrial era. In those days, antiquated notions of honor and valor were attached to leaving oneself open and exposed to enemy fire, as if taking cover to protect oneself was an act of cowardice.
This can be seen in the gorgeously colored and decorated (yet highly visible) uniforms worn by soldiers, which certainly made them appear as magnificent gentleman but had the unfortunate side effect of advertising their location to their enemies from a great distance.
The style of combat reflected this as well, with armies advancing on each other while politely taking turns in their exchange of fire—- effectively leaving the entire front line vulnerable and willingly exposed to a volley of musket balls. Under Kubrick’s hand, these notions of “civilized” warfare among gentlemen become highly curious and ironic.
This idea is echoed on a smaller scale in the sequences wherein Barry participates in turn-based duels. In the world of BARRY LYNDON, violence has been institutionalized by the civilized as a means to resolve disputes or inflict disciplinary punishment, but in the process has lost the emotion and intimacy that makes it meaningful. Instead of violence being a reflection of our inhumanity to our fellow man, it is violence itself that has become inhuman.
Kubrick’s body of work is held in such high regard today that it’s easy to forget the release of his films were regularly met with something of a mixed bag in terms of reception. They were, understandably, ahead of their time, and many people didn’t quite know what to make of them.
Many outright hated them, but nonetheless they knew they had to also respect them. This can certainly be said of BARRY LYNDON, whose release was met with modest box office success and mixed critical reception.
A three hour-plus non-epic about the 18th century European aristocracy may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but damned if they didn’t respect it—- and respect it they did, all the way to the Oscars (where the film took home golden statues for Alcott’s cinematography, Adam’s production design, Rosenman’s score, and costumes and Kubrick himself was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay).
Kubrick’s achievement here is nothing less than masterful, and while he would never get to make his long-gestating NAPOLEON film, he was able to channel that passion into making BARRY LYNDON a stone cold masterpiece—one that very well could have stood head and shoulders aboveNAPOLEON had he made it (and that’s not just because the French Emperor was a short man).
In a filmography composed almost entirely of masterpieces, BARRY LYNDON stands out as quite possibly the finest of the bunch.
THE SHINING (1980)
Many films lay claim to the title of “scariest movie of all time”, but only a select handful can truly call themselves as such. Of this elite group, you’ll find movies about demons, ghosts, serial killers, and zombies, but there is one film that defies easy explanation—whose horror derives from its very inability to articulate its evil in tangible form.
We fear the unknown, so if we are presented with a presence or force that we can’t ever hope to know, then it stands to reason that it will terrify us in endlessly fundamental ways. Stanley Kubrick’s blood-soaked masterpiece of horror, THE SHINING (1980), is just such a film, still talked about in hush whispers by those it terrified.
Kubrick’s film is a giant, labyrinthine puzzle where no two viewings are ever the same. Its secrets continue to present themselves, with these new revelations factoring into the continuing conversation about the film and continually reshaping our perceptions of its meaning.
The typical horror film by its nature is fleeting and ephemeral— for all intents and purposes, they are roller coaster rides. THE SHINING, however, has touched a nerve in the deepest part of the human psyche and endures in our collective unconscious. Much like the ghostly specters that haunt its halls, we have never quite left The Overlook Hotel.
Stanley Kubrick was unique among filmmakers in that he didn’t specialize in any one particular genre. Rather, he liked to sample from all of them—like one would a craft beer flight—and deliver a final product that would serve as the gold standard within its respective genre.
By the late 1970’s, the horror genre was phenomenally popular; a reflection of turbulent, uncertain times and a fundamental distrust of authority. Kubrick sensed his irrelevance within the horror genre and sought to rectify the situation while bringing artistic legitimacy to otherwise schlocky fare.
This meant finding subject matter that was completely different from the usual assortment of zombies, ghosts, and vampires. After poring through mountains of prospective material as per his custom, he found what he was looking for in “The Shining”, Stephen King’s seminal novel about a man driven mad by the spooks residing in an old Colorado hotel.
Kubrick was infamous for radically changing his films’ source material, and his treatment of King’s “The Shining” is perhaps the most egregious example of that. King’s initial screenplay draft was thrown out by Kubrick, who disagreed with the author’s supernatural-heavy take, and instead hired Diane Johnson to help him rework the story into a tale about malevolent energy and its effect on the human psyche.
Working once again with his brother-in-law Jan Harlan as executive producer, Kubrick set about making his version of “The Shining” in England—a production that would bog down cast and crew for over a year while the director battled his way through the shoot’s frequent and frustrating speed bumps.
The final film initially met with lukewarm critical reception and a scathing dismissal from King himself, but Kubrick’s hypnotic take on the horror genre would grow in esteem and notoriety until it became considered as one of the master filmmaker’s finest films and, quite possibly, the scariest film of all time.
THE SHINING begins when writer and unemployed family man Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) agrees to take on a caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel while it closes down for the winter. He uproots his family—wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd)—from their humdrum apartment in the suburbs and moves in to the grand old Overlook, looking forward to the promising amount of writing that several months’ worth of solitude will afford him.
He ignores warnings about the hotel’s supernatural phenomena- ghosts lurking in the corridors, the ancient Indian burial ground that sits below the foundation, and the very real tragedy of a previous caretaker who went mad with cabin fever and slaughtered his family with an axe.
For a while, the Torrances are happy in their new home, but all is not what it seems. Danny becomes acutely sensitive to the dark energies, and his ability to “shine”—that is, the ability to manifest said energies into visions of the past, present and future—results in increasingly disturbing hallucinations.
The Overlook’s ominous malevolence then begins to work its dark charms onto Jack, who finds himself losing his grasp on his sanity and seeing and hearing things that he shouldn’t, or having conversations with people who—by all rights—should not be there.
These evil entities succeed in tempting Jack back to the bottle after months of sobriety, further impressing upon him that his wife and son are to blame for his own state of internal torment and must be punished.
As a freak snowstorm descends on the mountain and strands the Torrances inside The Overlook without transport, telephones, or radio, Wendy and Danny must evade their murderous father while also dealing with the blood-soaked terrors that lurk deep in the hotel’s interior.
THE SHINING isn’t the first time that Jack Nicholson crossed Kubrick’s orbit—the director previously had Nicholson in mind to play the titular role in his failed passion project NAPOLEON. Instead, Nicholson makes his Kubrick debut here as Jack Torrance, the frustrated protagonist turned antagonist.
An actor well-known for his brilliantly unhinged performances, Nicholson turns in the work of his career by channeling a fundamental twitchiness, as if he’s uncomfortable in his own body. His spiraling psychosis is at once both riveting and terrifying to witness. Shelly Duvall is also effective as the ineffectual, meek, and needy wife to Nicholson—a woman whose mundane blandness is almost oppressively so.
Duvall famously had a rough time on the production, where Kubrick tormented her with constant verbal abuse. If it was all done to get a certain performance out of Duvall, it certainly worked—Duvall’s exhausted shakiness projects a hopeless demeanor that adds to the film’s overall tension.
As the young, innocent Danny Torrance, Danny Lloyd doesn’t fall prey to overacting—the bane of all child actors— and it is precisely this restraint which makes his “redrum” trance so bone-chilling and memorable.
Famously, Kubrick avoided the possibility of exposing such a young boy to the horrific subject matter of the film by convincing him it was a family drama, even going so far as substituting doubles or a dummy in scenes that would’ve shattered the illusion and revealed the true nature of the project. Kubrick even showed Lloyd a heavily edited version of the film when it was released—Lloyd reportedly did not see the real film until well into his teenage years.
For his supporting cast, Kubrick reunites with a couple familiar faces—Philip Stone and Joe Turkel. In his third consecutive appearance for Kubrick, Stone assumes the persona of Delbert Grady, the ghostly waiter of The Gold Room, whose distant politeness and manner is uncomfortably creepy.
Turkel, who last worked with Kubrick on 1957’s PATHS OF GLORY, plays Lloyd, the Gold Room’s bartender. Turkel is particularly inspired casting, as his gaunt visage already resembles that of a skull. Turkel adopts an emotionless, painted-on smile that sears itself into our retinas, like a morbid Cheshire Cat.
Scatman Crothers, who used his friendship with Nicholson to get into the casting room, plays The Overlook’s head chef, Dick Hallorann. Crothers’ role is an important one, as he shares Danny’s ability to “shine”, and explains the phenomenon to the young boy (and by extension, explains the title to the audience). Crothers plays Hallorran as a jovial, energetic middle-aged guy, but he also incorporates some minstrel overtones into his performance that date the film quite considerably.
THE SHINING marks Kubrick’s third consecutive collaboration with director of photography John Alcott, and their groundbreaking work together on 1975’s BARRY LYNDON translates here into a horror movie that looks unlike any other. Beginning with the sweeping, rock-steady helicopter shot that opens the film with the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, Kubrick and Alcott immediately signal to us that this won’t be just another cobwebs-and-candelabras creepshow.
THE SHINING, perhaps more so than any other Kubrick film, features the near-constant use of one point perspective compositions, which imbues the 35mm film frame with an evocative sense of depth. By setting up the Overlook Hotel as a three-dimensional space, Kubrick and Alcott then introduce the idea of exploring every nook and cranny via their camera.
While THE SHINING features lots of conventional dolly camerawork, its legacy lies in its introduction of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam rig to audiences. Kubrick was fascinated by the organic, yet serenely smooth, nature of Brown’s groundbreaking camera innovation, and he uses the technique here almost as if it were its own character.
Indeed, many of the shots in THE SHINING give us a distinct sense that a foreboding, unseen entity (or even the hotel itself) is alive and watching the Torrances’ every move. Instead of relying on the gothic imagery of horror films past, Kubrick employs the Steadicam to generate the film’s unnerving creepiness. His expertise with various lenses also helped him considerably as far as this new tech was concerned—by placing an extremely wide lens on the Steadicam, he could create an exaggerated sense of momentum, speed, and gravity, which served to better place the audience in the point of view of malevolent ethereal entities.
Kubrick and Alcott also utilize a host of camera techniques popularized by the New Wave in the service of amping up the horror and tension—flash cuts, rack zooms, the breaking of the fourth wall, and Kubrick’s own signature shot that looks up from the ground at a subject while he or she is at a door. All of this adds up to a highly stylized, yet naturalistic, visual presentation.
Also returning to the Kubrick fold is musician Wendy Carlos, who teams up with Rachel Elkind to deliver THE SHINING’s score. This being a Kubrick film, their work isn’t necessarily comprised of new, original cues—rather, Carlos and Elkind appropriate and manipulate dark, existing works from contemporary classical artists, weaving them into a foreboding tapestry that underlines and enhances Kubrick’s images.
Most of the film’s music is filtered through the prism of a Moog synthesizer, previously used to equally chilling effect in Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). The electronic synths are worked into an ominous music bed, peppered with disembodied, chanting voices and the rhythm of a throbbing heartbeat.
Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of THE SHINING’s musical soundscape, however, is the use of the Ray Noble Orchestra’s vintage recording of a slow love ballad called “Midnight, The Stars And You”. Used in the background of the scene where Jack may or may not be hallucinating a 1920’s-era ball, it gives us a peek into the glamor of the Overlook’s heyday while underscoring the tragedies that doomed it to ruin.
Kubrick was a master of ironic song choices that served as counterpoints to the images they accompany, and his juxtaposition here of a glamorous old-fashioned love ballad echoing in the foreboding emptiness of the Overlook creates an irony that is distinctly chilling.
A significant reason why THE SHINING has endured over the decades within a genre that seeks to top itself with every new entry is Kubrick’s inclusion of heavily-coded visuals and clues. The Overlook Hotel is presented as a giant puzzle that requires multiple viewings to solve—a reflection of Kubrick’s own love for the intellectual stimulation provided by chess.
A documentary film released in 2013, ROOM 237, examines the various interpretations and hidden messages inherent in THE SHINING. These “conspiracy theories”, for lack of a better term, range from the reasonably sound (the film being a metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans) to the utterly ridiculous (the film being Kubrick’s confession that he faked the moon landing for NASA). It’s a veritable master class in how to “read” a film.
The documentary itself is well worth watching to see all the various interpretations of meaning that THE SHINING has given birth to since its release, but two interpretations in particular bear legitimate explorations. Ever since Nicholson uttered the line, “White man’s burden, Llloyd.
White man’s burden.”, to the ghostly bartender in the Gold Room, academics and fans alike have drawn allusions from Kubrick’s film to the massacre of the Native Americans—a genocide upon which modern American is founded and barely acknowledges. The Overlook is stuffed with Native American imagery—from decorative quilts to the cans of Calumet baking powder that line the stock room.
This interpretation was first popularized in 1987 by former ABC reporter Bill Blakemore in an essay entitled “Kubrick’s ‘Shining Secret: Film’s Hidden Horror Is the Murder Of The Indian”, where he points to the closing image of Nicholson’s face among the revelers in a photograph of the Overlook’s 1921 July Fourth Ball. He writes:
“…most Americans overlook the fact that July Fourth was no ball, nor any kind of independence day for native Americans; that the weak American villain of the film is the re-embodiment of the American men who massacred the Indians in earlier years; that Kubrick is examining and reflecting on a problem that cuts through the decades and centuries”.
The second interpretation that suggests THE SHINING as a massive puzzle is the inconsistent and conflicting layout and geography of The Overlook itself. King famously modeled the novel’s version on the infamous Stanley Hotel in Colorado, a purported hive of paranormal activity and spectral spooks.
Like he did with King’s story, Kubrick rejected King’s suggestion to shoot at the Stanley in favor of his own design, basing it on the Timberline Lodge, situated at the peak of Oregon’s Mount Hood (a point of pride for us Portland-bred cinephiles). Kubrick shows us the Timberline in wide shot during bright daylight towards the beginning of the film, allowing us an unadulterated, extended glimpse of it.
This isn’t merely an establishing shot, however—it’s the setup of an extremely subtle deception on Kubrick’s part. For the rest of the exterior scenes, Kubrick built a condensed-scale version of the Timberlines’ façade outside a soundstage in England. The effect is a hotel exterior that looks the same upon first glance but under closer scrutiny reveals dramatic inconsistencies.
This approach extends to the interiors, all built on a soundstage in such a way that allows Kubrick to run a Steadicam through its grand halls, residential corridors, and industrial kitchen spaces seamlessly. What we don’t realize as an audience, however, is that if one were to map the layout of Kubrick’s Overlook on a sheet of paper (and many have done so), one would find an impossible geography pockmarked by dead-end corridors, windows where there should be walls, etc.
Kubrick’s Overlook is like one of those haunted house mazes where the door disappears behind you the moment you enter the room. Architectural design aesthetics vary wildly from room to room, creating a mishmash of jarring colors and styles from drastically different time periods. By rendering the Overlook in such a way, Kubrick is subtly suggesting that the hotel itself is a living, breathing entity of evil that exists outside of normal space-time.
THE SHINING, more so than any other film in his filmography, illustrates one aspect of Kubrick’s work that becomes clear only in retrospect—a recurring motif that incorporates imagery from the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. In Greek folklore, the Minotaur was a beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who dwelled in a massive maze-like labyrinth.
The labyrinth itself was designed to test the fortitude of those who would attempt to slay the Minotaur. Mazes, labyrinths, and tunnels play a huge role in shaping Kubrick’s aesthetic worldview. Ever since he sent a camera careening down a narrow New York city street in a dream sequence for KILLER’S KISS (1955), Kubrick has made potent use of “the tunnel” as a visual allegory.
There’s also another allusion to the Greek myth in KILLER’S KISS, in the form of an opening credit that reads: “A Minotaur Production”, or the name of Kubrick’s production company at the time. This could hardly be construed as coincidental, especially when such similar “tunnel” imagery reappears in PATHS OF GLORY’s embattled trenches or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s claustrophobic spaceship corridors.
Kubrick’s protagonists always seem to be descending into an underworld of sorts, where they will have to confront a supernatural enemy. THE SHINING is easily Kubrick’s most overt reference to the Greek myth, what with the long, languid takes that roam the Overlook’s countless nooks and crannies. He even places the climax inside a literal maze, just in case we were incapable of picking up on his earlier signals.
The horror genre serves Kubrick well in his explorations of sex and violence, allowing him to indulge in more lurid meditations of each—see Jack’s psychotic axe murder spree or the ghostly naked woman in Room 237 (or even the fundamentally unnerving shot of a ghost getting fellated by another ghost wearing a warthog costume for that matter).
THE SHINING is no doubt a film about a man’s swift downward spiral into madness, but Kubrick’s particular ideas about the fragility of the human psyche make for an utterly original film that bears his unmistakable stamp. He never quite tells us what exactly is causing the hotel’s unexplainable phenomena. Are these ghosts simply a manifestation of Jack’s growing psychosis, or are they authentically supernatural?
Michael Ciment, a leading Kubrick scholar, has pointed out in his writings that whenever Jack converses with the ghosts of the Overlook, he is always situated so that he is talking into a mirror. This would seem to definitely suggest that Lloyd the bartender and Grady the waiter are simply manifestations Jack’s psychological state, but then later on in the film Grady is depicted physically releasing Jack from the meat locker that Wendy has trapped him inside.
When this happens, we’re forced to admit that the real source of the Overlook’s evil is ultimately unknowable. This is where the true horror of Kubrick’s THE SHINING lies.
THE SHINING is held in such high regard today that it’s easy to forget that Kubrick’s first (and only) horror film was not well-received when it was initially released. Critical reviews were unfavorable, and box office receipts were lackluster before picking up steam quite some time afterward.
In setting out to conquer the horror genre, Kubrick created an enduring classic that continues to not only to chill us to the bone, but to awe us with its impeccable craftsmanship. Very few horror films can be rightfully called masterpieces, but THE SHINING is just that: a stunning, reference-grade work of cinema that dares to show us that true horror comes from within
FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
The experience of the Vietnam War had soured America on the prospect of warfare, mostly because the widespread adoption of television allowed the war to be broadcast into the homes of every family— punctuating their supper with gunfire, explosions and the anguished cries of wounded men.
Kubrick felt a desire to make a war film that reflected this new paradigm, and selected author Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel “The Short-Timers” as the source material upon which he’d base the story for what would eventually become FULL METAL JACKET. Working once again with his brother-in-law and producing partner Jan Harlan, Kubrick recruited a novelist and Vietnam veteran named Michael Herr to help him craft the script.
The shoot audaciously (but not really convincingly) faked rural England for the humid jungles of Vietnam, with the production timetable ballooning longer than a tour of duty in the military. Where most actors and craftsmen would quit in anger over the prolonged schedule, this element of Kubrick’s shooting style had become so well known by this point that his collaborators willingly signed on knowing full well it would happen.
They placed their utmost faith and confidence in Kubrick, and that trust and passion shows through in the final product. FULL METAL JACKET may be a flawed, uneven film, but that can’t stop it from enduring as one of defining films in the war genre as well as Kubrick’s own body of work.
In an attempt to do away with conventional modes of cinematic structure, Kubrick employs a two-act structure in FULL METAL JACKET. The first half takes place at a military base in South Carolina, where a band of new recruits are being trained to become the latest wave of efficient killing machines.
They are under the command of Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), a relentlessly abusive disciplinarian who has placed a special focus on an overweight recruit he dubs Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). He never misses an opportunity to remind Pyle that he is a worthless fat-ass and a disgrace to the Marine Corps. One of the other recruits, who Hartman has dubbed Private Joker (Matthew Modine) takes pity on Pyle and helps him shape up to Hartman’s superhuman standards.
Under Joker’s positive encouragement, Pyle shows remarkable growth—but that growth comes at a cost, and on the eve of their graduation, Pyle murders Hartman before firing a rifle round into his own skull. The film’s second half is set in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, one of the defining moments of the war.
Joker is now a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes, the military-owned newspaper distributed to the troops. On a routine assignment, he runs into a buddy from his days in South Carolina, Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who is now running with a squadron making their way through Hue City. They eventually become lost and try to take refuge in the city’s abandoned ruins. They’re ambushed by relentless sniper fire, but there’s no retreat.
If they want to live, they must forge ahead by any means necessary. By film’s end, we are left only with one question—what is the cost of warfare? Kubrick’s thesis posits that the answer lies not in the form of dollars, but in our very souls.
Kubrick’s cast is comprised entirely of unknowns, and it’s a testament to their talents here that they all went on to respectable acting careers afterwards. Matthew Modine headlines the film as the gangly Joker— a mischievous subversive who pairs his military fatigues with a peace symbol decal, which makes his story arc of lost innocence all the more potent.
He carries a smug grin on his face throughout the entirety of the film, but you better believe by the end that Kubrick will have wiped it right off his face. Vincent D’Onofrio makes his film debut in FULL METAL JACKET as the fat, uncoordinated Gomer Pyle. He purportedly gained seventy pounds to play the role, offering a hint of those“dedicated thespian” affectations his career would later be known for.
Arliss Howard plays Cowboy, the squad’s flustered, short-lived leader. His performance is unremarkable in and of itself, but it took three screenings of the film for me to realize that he also plays the antagonistic role of John Hammond’s nephew in director Steven Spielberg’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997).
Spielberg was, of course, a close friend of Kubrick’s and his casting of Howard for his dino sequel speaks to how much he admired Kubrick and his work. The real star of the show, however, is R. Lee Ermey, who plays the hardass drill sergeant Hartman. Prior to the film, Ermey was a real-life retired Marine drill sergeant, and was brought onto the project as a tech consultant.
His dedication to authenticity was so intense that he outright stole the role of Hartman from the guy who had been originally cast. His relentless abuse and creative grasp on insulting profanity approaches the level of performance art, and his particular showing in FULL METAL JACKET kickstarted a second career as an in-demand character actor that continues to this day.
By this point in his career, Kubrick had built up a strong working relationship with cinematographer John Alcott, who shot his previous three features. When Kubrick began to assemble his crew for FULL METAL JACKET, Alcott declined a fourth go-round with the maverick auteur. In hindsight, this would prove to be a serendipitous move for both parties, considering Alcott died during the middle of production.
Douglas Milsome, who had previously worked on Kubrick’s films as a focus puller, stepped up to assume the role of cinematographer on FULL METAL JACKET instead. Milsome and Kubrick craft a relatively straightforward visual presentation that’s high on style and low on flash. Kubrick’s compositions retain his signature one-point perspectives that emphasize depth and symmetry, while his camerawork builds on THE SHINING’s innovations with the Steadicam by incorporating it as often as possible.
Kubrick has always favored extended tracking shots as a way to convey mood, and the rise of the Steadicam allowed him much greater flexibility and versatility in that regard. No longer bound by dolly tracks, he could mount the camera on a Steadicam rig and follow his subjects right into the maelstrom without so much of a hint of handheld jitter.
Like BARRY LYNDON or THE SHINING before it, Kubrick counters the formalism of his camerawork with New Wave techniques like slow zooms and flash cuts. FULL METAL JACKET’s naturalistic aesthetic isn’t as lurid or evocative of other Vietnam classics like Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1987) or Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), yet its visuals are just as (if not more) iconic due to Kubrick’s legendary eye for composition and considered movement.
The music of FULL METAL JACKET marks an abrupt departure for Kubrick, who was well known for using prominent classical works to accompany his visuals instead of original scores. Instead of baroque concertos, Kubrick opts for the iconic sound of the Vietnam War: rock and roll.
Beginning with Johnnie Wright’s crooning country ballad, “Hello Vietnam”, Kubrick uses an inspired selection of late 70’s-era rock music to reflect the dark, subversive and unpredictable nature of Vietnam’s combatants. A particular standout is the use of The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black” over the end credits—a musical echo of the darkness that Joker now dwells in after the completion of his character arc.
Despite the heavy presence of rock cues, Kubrick does make potent use of an original score written by his daughter, Vivian Kubrick (credited here as Abigail Mead). Vivian creates a suitably foreboding, industrial sound using electronic instruments that appropriately reflect Kubrick’s pitch-black portrait of institutionalized destruction.
While Kubrick’s films defy easy explanation, they can be distilled into the examination of two primal, opposing forces: violence and sex. His last two films—FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT—would become companion pieces in that they each dealt with their respective theme (violence for the former, sex for the latter) in a singularly summative manner.
Kubrick was no stranger to war films, but whereas PATHS OF GLORY dealt with the ethical conundrums of warfare on a collective scale, FULL METAL JACKET is more concerned with the psychological consequences of warfare on the level of the individual.
The film focuses on the military as an institution not only capable of perpetuating man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, but one that needs such devastation in order to thrive. Kubrick doesn’t depict the military so much as an institution, but as a machine—devouring countless scores of boys whole and spitting them out the other end as robotic killing machines devoid of compassion and empathy.
The machine is kept fed by a surrounding culture that commodifies and glorifies violence; Joker’s iconic line, “I wanted to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill”, is terrifying precisely because it hits so close to home.
Vietnam was more than just a war for the American public—it was an existential crisis that introduced the idea of cynicism and irony into warfare. It was, for lack of a better term, The Hipster War. Having peppered it throughout his filmography to extremely potent effect, Kubrick was no stranger to the concept of irony, and FULL METAL JACKET is stuffed to the brim with it.
Joker complements a peace symbol decal with a helmet that has the words “Born To Kill” scrawled across it. The big bad sniper of the film’s denouement is revealed to be a scared twelve-year old girl. Soldiers march against fiery scenes of devastation while cheerily singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. A young recruit is trained into such an effective killing machine that he turns his rifle on the man who created him.
FULL METAL JACKET came out the same year that Oliver Stone’s PLATOON did, and while Kubrick’s final statement on war and violence would eventually lose out the Best Picture Oscar to Stone’s breakout film, it now overshadows its former rival due to the legacy of its genius creator. It may not be the definitive Vietnam film, but it is certainly one of the most definitive films of the war genre.
For Kubrick himself, FULL METAL JACKET serves as a fitting, yet, haunting conclusion to a topic that he spent a lifetime exploring.
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
After his permanent relocation to England in the mid-1960’s, director Stanley Kubrick began accumulating a reputation in the media as an eccentric recluse. He valued his privacy as well as time it took to perfect his vision on a given work, which the newspapers regularly embellished as the controlling nature of a megalomaniacal artist.
Because Kubrick didn’t do anything to dispel these rumors, this false reputation only grew until it attained the power of myth. It would take Kubrick twelve years to realize another project after 1987’s FULL METAL JACKET, and the long period of silence from the maverick auteur led the film world to wonder just what exactly he was up to all this time.
The hype machine kicked into overdrive when Kubrick announced his next project (and unbeknownst to him, his last) would be EYES WIDE SHUT, a cautionary tale about infidelity and sexuality set among the strata of the New York City’s elite.
Kubrick based the film on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler titled “Traumnovelle”, or “Dream Story”, which he had optioned way back in the 1960’s. Collaborating with writer Frederic Raphael and his producing partner/brother-in-law Jan Harlan, Kubrick began rolling film on his fourteenth and final feature in 1996. EYES WIDE SHUT, starring Hollywood’s superstar couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, found its high production profile both a blessing and a curse.
Kubrick’s shoots had a reputation for going absurdly overlong, but when the production of EYES WIDE SHUT broke Day 400 (and a new Guinness World Record for longest continuous shoot), many wondered whether Kubrick had finally gone too far. In 1999, three years after he had commenced principal photography, Kubrick handed in his final cut of EYES WIDE SHUT to Warner Brothers.
Before he could reap the fruits of his labor, he died of a massive heart attack in his sleep only a week later. With the successful release of EYES WIDE SHUT in cinemas, Kubrick left us with a complete set of masterworks and ensured his legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived.
EYES WIDE SHUT is set in contemporary New York City during the Christmas season. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), are a wealthy couple living in an expansive New York penthouse with their young daughter and running in the social circles of Gotham’s elite class. We catch up to them as they attend a glamorous Christmas ball hosted by Harford’s colleague Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack).
Kubrick shows us that Bill and Alice are comfortable with each other, yet boredom is beginning to creep into their lives. Alice entertains an extended flirtation with the human equivalent of Pepe Le Pew, while Bill is called upstairs to help rejuvenate a nude hooker who has overdosed in Ziegler’s private bathroom. Back in the comfort of their own boudoir, Bill and Alice get high and have a truthful reckoning with each other.
Alice admits that while she has never cheated on him, she’s had unbearably strong fantasies about a young army man who she had only seen once in real life. Bill is unexpectedly called out to attend to a patient whose father has died, but Alice’s revelation has spooked him so much that afterwards he wanders Greenwich Village in a daze.
He meets an old medical school buddy for a drink, where he learns about an intriguing costume party that night at a mansion out in the country. Bill finds a costume and sneaks into the mansion (note that it is the same mansion that Kubrick acolyte Christopher Nolan used as Wayne Manor in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS), but what Bill finds there is something he could never have predicted: a costumed orgy.
After Bill’s presence at the exclusive affair is made known, he is mercifully let go with a warning. However, Bill can’t quite let go of what he saw that night, and as he makes inquiries around town in an attempt to figure out just what happened, he becomes embroiled in a deepening mystery with far-reaching consequences. However, because this is a Kubrick film, nothing is quite what it seems and Bill begins to question his grasp on reality and wonder whether what he saw really happened, or if it was all just a terrible dream.
Kubrick had a habit throughout his career of picking leading men there were just left of center, in terms of popularity or stardom. The two biggest stars he had worked with up to that point had been Kirk Douglas and Jack Nicholson, and even then both men paled in comparison to the blinding luster of Cruise’s celebrity.
Cruise was already a superstar before he was cast in EYES WIDE SHUT, but he would lay down any affectations of vanity in full service to Kubrick’s harrowing vision. As wealthy Gothamite Dr. Bill Harford, Cruise explores the darker side of his charismatic psyche—his iconic toothy grin now becoming a hollow façade for the tortured soul behind it.
Kubrick’s canny harnessing of Cruise’s manic intensity and dedication results in one of the finest performances of Cruise’s career. The same can be said of Cruise’s then-wife, Nicole Kidman, who plays Alice Harford. The role of Alice is a particularly vulnerable one, as it requires her to be completely nude throughout a good deal of the film, but Kidman shuns any sense of modesty and flaunts her stuff confidently.
She’s perfectly believable as the glamorous wife of a wealthy doctor, but Kubrick has the good sense to give her a nuanced role all her own. Her pragmatic sensuality exerts an unspeakable power over Bill, and while Cruise and Kidman would not pan out as a couple in the long run, their charged chemistry in EYES WIDE SHUT is captivating.
For the supporting roles of Nick Nightingale and Victor Ziegler, Kubrick turned to two fellow directors: Todd Field and Sydney Pollack. Field, a Portland native, wasn’t exactly a director himself during the making of EYES WIDE SHUT, but he would prove his bona fides with his later award-winning works, IN THE BEDROOM (2001) and LITTLE CHILDREN(2006).
In EYES WIDE SHUT, Field plays Nick Nightingale, a med school buddy of Bill’s who dropped out to become a jazz piano player. Field doesn’t have much to do in the way of characterization, but the role is instrumental in pushing Bill headlong into his dark adventure.
By contrast, Pollack was already an Oscar-winning director at the time, having helmed 1985’s OUT OF AFRICA and 1982’s TOOTSIE, and had previously directed Cruise himself in THE FIRM (1993). As Victor Ziegler, Pollack proves that he’s equally adept in front of the camera, channeling a mild-mannered kind of antagonism towards Cruise as the good doctor threatens to expose his participation in the secret sex cult. Furthermore, cult character actor Alan Cumming appears in a brief cameo as a hotel concierge.
The visual style of EYES WIDE SHUT, besides being inherently Kubrick-ian in conception and execution, reads like a baroque, old world nightmare. In selecting his director of photography, Kubrick continues his tradition of pulling from John Alcott’s camera crew.
Just as he promoted focus puller Douglas Milsome to lens FULL METAL JACKET, Kubrick calls up Larry Smith, who served as the gaffer on BARRY LYNDON (1975) and THE SHINING (1980). After twelve years away from a film set, Kubrick manages to retain all the visual conceits he has made into his signature: alluring one point perspective compositions, the frequent use of Steadicam rigs, zooms (both slow and fast), extended tracking shots and elegant dolly work.
The camera floats dispassionately as it observes the action, creating the distinct impression of an omniscient observer. Indeed, the floating nature of the camera echoes the floating nature of dreams themselves, and Kubrick’s kinetic perfection here— when combined with a sumptuous blend of oranges, reds, purples, soft focus setups, and Christmas lights everywhere—generates a hazy, ethereal patina.
Kubrick’s production designer on THE SHINING, Roy Walker, returns to provide his exceptional set-building talents in collaboration with Leslie Tomkins. The director’s preference for controlling every single aspect of his shoots often meant that soundstages were the only option. The deception of theatricality is a major theme of EYES WIDE SHUT, which is reflected in the fact that the film was made entirely on soundstages—even the streets of New York City were recreated in painstaking detail.
At the same time, Kubrick doesn’t bother to hide the artifice of the process—instead he embraces it as an aesthetic conceit. The streets of New York in EYES WIDE SHUT feel like less of an actual place and more like someone’s memory of the city, recalled in a daydream. That same dreamlike approach extends to the intense, unnaturally blue moonlight that filters through windows, or the blatantly-fake taxicab sequences (or even that one very-noticeable walking shot) that employ rear projection to give the illusion of movement.
By 1996, rear project was already an obsolete technology, but Kubrick’s inspired use of it subtly reinforces our suspicions that all may quite not be what it appears.
Contemporary classical composer Jocelyn Pook is credited for the film’s music, but Kubrick once again uses a variety of pre-existing classical works. Some are appropriations of Pook’s existing work, like the creepy piano chord plunks that symbolize the ominous watch of the secretive sex cult. The orgy sequence itself is scored with a recording of an Orthodox Mass in Romanian played backwards, lending a spooky, Satanic vibe to the ritualistic nature of the party.
Kubrick also uses a piece by Dmiti Shostakovich—“Jazz Suite Waltz 2” as the de facto theme of the film, continuing his streak of forever linking underappreciated classical music with his indelible images. Quite simply, no one ever has (and perhaps ever will) use classical music as effectively as Kubrick. Finally, Chris Isaak’s brooding rock track “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing” is used during a brief sex scene between Cruise and Kidman, adding an edgy modernism to EYES WIDE SHUT’s musical landscape.
Just as FULL METAL JACKET devoted itself solely to the exploration of violence, so does EYES WIDE SHUT single-mindedly attack the other end of the totem pole: sex. Whereas previous films like LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) danced around the subject of sexuality with winking innuendo, EYES WIDE SHUT confronts it head-on from the opening shot of Kidman’s nude backside and all the way up until the closing shot where she informs Cruise (in no uncertain terms) of their immediate need to make love.
EYES WIDE SHUT defines its exploration of sexuality through the prism of marriage and the institutions built around it. Kubrick makes a stark contrast between the lurid, rampant promiscuity of the mansion sex party and the quiet, comfortable intimacy of Alice and Bill’s bedroom. In the mansion, secrets are created, and in the bedroom, secrets are divulged.
The spectre of infidelity cleaves like a dagger through the Harfords’ marriage, setting them each off on a journey of self-exploration and discovery to ultimately arrive back at a stronger place than they were before. The nature of said journeys also reflects the differences in gender in terms of arousal—Alice’s fantasy dreams reflect the psychological, intangible aspects of attraction (a trait often described as feminine), while Tom’s close calls with the hooker played by Vinessa Shaw or his experience at the mansion party reflect impersonal, transactional attitudes towards sex that are often attributed to the masculine psyche.
The placing of Alice and Bill among the social circles of New York’s elite can be read as a distinctly Kubrick-ian move that affords him the opportunity to indulge in gilded, baroque production design and images of dancing aristocrats.
Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or THE SHINING before it, a supernatural mystique courses through EYES WIDE SHUT. The coded iconography of dreams allows Kubrick to cast a naturalistic eye on spooky images like the hedonistic ritualism of the mansion sex party or the ominous masks worn by its attendees. The masks themselves were based on those that one might see at the Carnival of Venice, which coincides quite nicely with the Old World supernaturalism that Kubrick is after here (along with the not-so-subtle allusions to the Illuminati).
Indeed, masks play a key role in the story of EYES WIDE SHUT—the film is a commentary on the masks that we wear: that of the loving wife, or the devoted father, or the principled member of society’s upper crust. These masks give us our identity—without them, we are anonymous, and our anonymity reveals us as we really are: mere animals vulnerable to our primitive instincts and desires.
EYES WIDE SHUT takes place on the city streets and in the sky-high apartments of New York City, but Kubrick’s fascination with the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth still informs the film on a fundamental level. It’s no coincidence that Bill Harford is beckoned to “where the rainbow ends” by two drunken, seductive models during the film’s opening at the Christmas Ball, only for him to later wind up buying his costume for the mansion orgy at a shop literally called “Rainbows”.
He’s followed the rainbow to its end, only to find a rabbit hole that leads deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. As Harford meanders the cold city streets on his many head-clearing walks, Kubrick shows the streets themselves as something of a maze. Like the hedge mage in THE SHINING, Harford’s surroundings look the same at every turn, and he never quite understands that he’s walking in circles.
As long as he allows himself to be consumed by the mystery, he will never escape this labyrinth. Only, he’s not on a confrontation course with the Minotaur—Bill’s internal battles with his jealousy and suspicion means that HE is the Minotaur. Whereas Kubrick’s prior films have been about his protagonists entering the labyrinth to slay their Minotaurs, his final film allows the Minotaur to free himself from the tyranny of the labyrinth entirely.
Kubrick was immensely proud of EYES WIDE SHUT—he allegedly considered it to be his best film. It was a homecoming of sorts for the director, taking place in his native New York City despite him never shooting a single frame outside England (not counting the second unit footage). Sadly, he would not live to see the success of EYES WIDE SHUT firsthand.
On March 7th, 1999, Stanley Kubrick died of a massive heart attack in his sleep—only days after he had turned in his finished cut of the film to the studio. After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, EYES WIDE SHUT opened to strong box office receipts and a mixed critical reaction. Some saw a profoundly flawed film while others saw an unfinished masterpiece.
The general perception at the time was that the infamous perfectionist had ultimately succumbed to that bittersweet brand of irony he spent his career exploring and closed out his life’s work with an incomplete, half-baked film. However, much like Kubrick’s other work, time and repeat viewings have eroded that notion and revealed a thoroughly considered and impeccably crafted work that ranks among the best of the director’s filmography.
With EYES WIDE SHUT, Kubrick’s life work was complete, and for all the innovation and excellence he had given the art form, he was rewarded with perhaps the best parting gift a filmmaker could hope for: a pitch-perfect finish.
In November of 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted the first ever exhibition of director Stanley Kubrick’s career. I went with a good friend of mine—a fellow aspiring director—to marvel at the artifacts of Kubrick’s work up close. We got to see models of the iconic war room set of 1964’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB.
The slightly decayed monkey outfits used in 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The giant NASA-designed lens used to capture a scene by candlelight in 1975’s BARRY LYNDON. We even saw the famed file cabinet that held a card for everyday of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life that Kubrick assembled in his research for the failed project on the French emperor.
However, the most powerful item for me to have seen with my own eyes was located right at the entrance to the exhibit: Kubrick’s directing chair—a weathered, battered canvas seat flanked on either side by a wooden box stamped with the word: “KUBRICK.” The director’s chair is perhaps the most iconic and clichéd image that comes to mind when one thinks of the profession, but I was captivated by this chair in particular and all the groundbreaking decisions that had been made on it.
Every living filmmaker today works under the shadow of Stanley Kubrick. When one first expresses an interest in pursuing a career in the art form, they are almost always pointed towards the work of Kubrick. He is the reference-grade gold standard in filmmaking, and even though many find his films unlikable, they admire and respect the total command of craft on display in every single one.
No other director, living or dead, can claim as many true masterpieces in their filmography. Okay, maybe Hitchcock. Even in my own early explorations of Kubrick’s work in college, I didn’t necessarily love them butdamn, did I admire them. I’ve grown to appreciate every single one, and every time I watch a Kubrick film, I discover something I never picked up on before. Kubrick’s legacy endures because no two viewings of a given film are ever the same. They’re always withholding a new secret, beckoning you deeper down the rabbit hole.
Kubrick’s roller coaster ride of a career lasted forty-five years and spanned two continents, leaving fourteen features and countless innovations in its wake. Even as a young boy growing up in New York City, Kubrick’s intimidating intellect was immediately apparent— despite the fact that he performed poorly in school.
His love for photography and chess would fundamentally shape his worldview as he grew into a young man. Indeed, he approached his life’s work like one big game of chess—every move must be thoroughly considered and planned for if one had any desire to beat his opponent.
The stark naturalism of his early black and white works—KILLER’S KISS (1955), THE KILLING (1956), and PATHS OF GLORY (1957) reflected his time as a documentary photographer for Look Magazine, where he honed his talents for evocative lighting and cinematic, depth-filled compositions. His fluid, graceful camerawork suggested the influence of director Max Ophuls, whom the young Kubrick admired for his tracking shots and eye for movement.
His love for film was all-consuming, and by the mid 50’s he had already burned through two marriages. His marriage to Christiane Harlan, who he met on the set of PATHS OF GLORY, would be the love that stuck and transformed him into a devoted family man. As the Kubrick family grew, they relocated from New York to Los Angeles for a brief time in the late 1950’s. Being located in the heart of Hollywood gave Kubrick his biggest career opportunity when Kirk Douglas recruited him to helm 1960’s SPARTACUS.
It was a crucial development in Kubrick’s life, but not for the obvious reasons—the unfavorable experience only served to push him away from Hollywood, solidifying his desire to work outside of the studio system as a means to exert total artistic control. He found this autonomy in England, where he shot LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE, eventually deciding that it would also be a good place to permanently relocate his family to.
Kubrick’s move to England was also a catalyst for a change in his filmmaking style—he became inspired by the innovations and transgressions of the New Wave coming out of Europe and incorporated them into his own work. As a result, his films increasingly took on a distinct sense of surrealism.
Kubrick’s considerable talent is immediately apparent to everyone who watches one of his films, and his power over the Hollywood studio system never has and never will be repeated. He had full artistic independence with his projects, in addition to the full backing of studios. It’s almost impossible to comprehend this scenario in today’s filmmaking environment.
This total autonomy turned Kubrick The Man into Kubrick The Myth, with legends of his demanding eccentricities spreading like wildfire in the media. They said he was a control freak. A secretive recluse. A mad scientist. They said he went to insane lengths in researching his projects and drove actors to the brinks of insanity themselves with the countless number of takes he would demand from them. In truth, these reports were gross embellishments, designed solely to sell newspapers.
The reality was that Kubrick was an intensely private person who prized his anonymity and cared deeply about his work because he knew would have to answer for it for the rest of his life. His voluntary withdrawal of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from UK cinemas in the wake of a wave of copycat crimes inspired by the film wasn’t just a display of his astonishing directorial power, but a prime example of his sense of social responsibility and foresight. His life and his work was one big game of chess, and he was playing the long game. He was playing for keeps.
In making his films, Kubrick ultimately wanted to change the form of cinema itself. His exploration of alternative story structures and new forms of expression resulted in several groundbreaking contributions to the development of the craft itself. He pioneered realistic visual effects with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, generating what director Steven Spielberg called “his generation’s Big Bang”, and inspiring a legion of upcoming filmmakers to push those boundaries even further.
Kubrick’s supreme command of his craft and knowledge of trick photography would result in the only Oscar he would ever win—for 2001’s groundbreaking visual effects. The gold statue for Directing or Picture would evade him for his entire life.
Other groundbreaking innovations that Kubrick popularized are well known: the specialized low light lenses on BARRY LYNDON, or the graceful gliding of the Steadicam on THE SHINING, to name just a few. Some of his innovations are less well-known—his endorsement of video assist, a technology that allowed filmmakers to view a take immediately after filming it, directly contributed to its quick adoption throughout the industry.
He also popularized the idea of shooting dozens of takes as a way for actors to let go of their preconceptions about “technique” and reach a deeper, fundamentally authentic style of performance—a practice that Kubrick acolyte David Fincher would claim as his own calling card. It’s important to remember, however, that accumulating mountains of footage wasn’t just a means to wear his actors down to raw nubs.
Kubrick often found the final form of his films in the editing room, sifting through the dozens of takes and various angles he had explored on set and stitching it together into a unified whole. In that sense, he was a perfectionist in the best way— making sure that he left no stone unturned in realizing the full potential of any given project.
Indeed, when he accepted the most prestigious directing award of his life from the DGA shortly before his death, he invoked the myth of Icarus in a videotaped speech that alluded to his perfectionism—Icarus may have failed in trying to touch the sun, but that only means that we must build better wings.
Kubrick is unique among other directors in that he had very few constant collaborators. Whereas some directors continue to work with one particular actor again and again (see Martin Scorsese and his string of films with Robert DeNiro—or Leonardo DiCaprio for that matter), the only leading man that Kubrick used more than once Kirk Douglas, and even then it was only because Kubrick had no say in the casting of their second collaboration together.
Kubrick’s regular confidantes stayed firmly behind the camera, with producing partners James B Harris and Jan Harlan being the most significant in terms of their contribution to Kubrick’s films, as well as cinematographer John Alcott who shot three consecutive films (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BARRY LYNDON, and THE SHINING) for the maverick auteur.
Other craftsmen (and women) like production designers Ken Adam and Roy Walker or composer Wendy Carlos can only count two collaborations with Kubrick. Out of all the people who wandered on and off Kubrick’s sets over the decades, only one person could claim a lifelong collaboration with him—his wife, the love of his life, and the woman who inspired him on a daily basis: Christiane Kubrick.
In a video interview, Kubrick’s late-career executive producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan states that Kubrick’s work is fundamentally about the conflict between emotion and intellect. His protagonists are often painted as men railing against the confines and impersonality of civilization’s institutions.
Kirk Douglas raged against the uncompromising imperialism of both France and ancient Rome in PATHS OF GLORY and SPARTACUS (1960), respectively. DR. STRANGELOVE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are both about mankind fighting to preserve itself from the cold objectivity of our own technological innovations. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s Malcolm McDowell manages to free himself from the institution of prison only to land firmly within the prison of his own mind and body.
FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT each deal with the institutions of military and marriage, respectively—specifically the internal destruction that can be wrought upon the individual when the idea of moral ambiguity is introduced.
For Kubrick, storytelling was ultimately about the cycle of creation and destruction. He knew that people always have a visceral response to violence and sex, and he filtered his narratives through these two prisms as a way to challenge our own preconceptions and hang-ups. This is a brilliant tactic because while the content may turn us off, it actively engages us and forces us to confront the darkest, most base impulses of our humanity.
Another defining trait that can be seen in all of Kubrick’s works is his presentation of his films as puzzles. Kubrick’s background in photography was immensely helpful in this regard in that it trained him to get across his message in a single, static shot. Towards this end, he had to use every available tool to tell the story: lighting, composition, depth of field, etc.
His mise-en-scene is comprised of coded messages left open to interpretation, and it is Kubrick’s refusal to elaborate on the meaning of his films that bestows the air of mystery on his work. Kubrick’s films mean different things to different people and it’s because they see what they want to see. People watch THE SHINING and see an allegory for the genocide of the Native Americans, or they watch EYES WIDE SHUT and see nothing but references to masonry and the Illuminati.
This alluring ambiguity is the key to his work’s longevity and ensures that his films will be studied and dissected for decades, if not centuries, to come.
This idea of the puzzle, or the maze is crucial to our understanding of the dark, seductive power that Kubrick’s work holds over us. Kubrick was profoundly influenced by the Greek myth of The Minotaur and the Labyrinth, which saw brave men descend into a maze-like underworld to face the demon that was torturing their community.
He was so inspired by the myth that the imagery of tunnels or mazes makes it way into nearly every film. THE SHINING, with its labyrinthine tangle of halls and grand open spaces (as well as its literal hedge maze) is the most visible example, but the idea pops up in places one wouldn’t expect. In EYES WIDE SHUT, the grid-like streets of New York City become an underworld that Tom Cruise must navigate.
The confined spaces of the spaceship in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY render the crew unable to hide from an omniscient intelligence. The supernatural mystique that exudes from Kubrick’s work suggests the lurking Minotaur—a force that threatens to destroy Kubrick’s protagonists either physically or mentally.
In the nearly five-decade span of Kubrick’s career, he only completed fourteen features. That may seem like a lot, but pales in comparison to directors like Woody Allen, whom Kubrick admired for churning out a new film without fail every single year. Kubrick’s perfectionism meant that he had to spend long amounts of time on any given project, and he always regretted his slow pace.
Like most other filmmakers, Kubrick abandoned a few projects over the course of his career, but unlike those other filmmakers, his unrealized works are regarded as great gifts that we’ll never receive. Funnily enough, these films all involve his close friend and fellow director Steven Spielberg in some fashion. Kubrick’s lifelong ambition to make a film on Napoleon Bonaparte is well known, so much so that it widely called “The Greatest Film Never Made”.
In a way, it would have been the most autobiographical film that Kubrick ever made—both Kubrick and Napoleon were master strategists that were well aware of their brilliance. He no doubt would’ve drawn many parallels between the art of war and the art of filmmaking, seeing as both men approached their respective work with a totalitarian mentality.
Kubrick’s shooting script for NAPOLEONis now reportedly being developed by Spielberg as a television miniseries, so we may end up seeing The Greatest Film Never Made after all. Kubrick’s other big failed project was a planned film about the Holocaust called THE ARYAN PAPERS, based off Louis Begley’s book “Wartime Lies”. In a nod to his companionship with director Steven Spielberg, it would have starredJURASSIC PARK’s Joseph Mazzello as a young boy hiding from the Nazi regime as they persecuted Europe’s Jews.
Ironically, Kubrick abandoned the film after Spielberg released SCHINDLER’S LIST—perhaps the definitive narrative film about the Holocaust—in 1993. SCHINDLER’S LIST was a tough act to follow, and Kubrick wasn’t keen on reliving the disappointment he experienced when FULL METAL JACKET was eclipsed by Oliver Stone’s PLATOON that same year, so he abruptly stopped development on the ARYAN PAPERS and turned his attention to EYES WIDE SHUT.
And finally, there’sA.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—- a long-gestating project that Kubrick sought to make himself but ultimately decided to pass on to Spielberg to direct. After Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg was compelled to honor his old friend and made the film as closely as he could to Kubrick’s original vision.
Kubrick continues to be a highly influential filmmaker because his work continues to be extremely relevant, even today. His career holds countless lessons for both aspiring filmmakers and established ones. In watching Kubrick’s body of work in chronological order and charting the ebbs and flows of his career, I came away with several distinct observations that I intend to apply to my own work.
Kubrick was well-known for working out of his home, which served to bring him closer to his material and make it more personal for him. As an art form and a mode of self-expression, filmmaking should be an intensely personal endeavor. Kubrick always trusted his instincts, even when they veered off the beaten path and out into the deep end.
As a filmmaker, the courage of conviction is a necessity. A director must have the presence of mind to follow his or her vision, but not at the cost of rigidly adhering to it. Contrary to his authoritarian reputation, Kubrick would solicit advice from anyone who cared to give it, whether they were the lead actress or the set janitor.
He demanded many takes and took an inordinate amount of time during the shooting process because he wanted to explore every possible angle in a given scene. No stone must be left unturned lest it hides brilliance underneath. If we are to take away any lessons from Kubrick’s illustrious, controversial career, let it be this: a script isn’t a rigid document—it’s a blueprint for collaboration with performers and craftsmen, each one bringing their experience and technique to the project and enriching it to a degree that a director cannot achieve on his own, even if he is a genius.
As arguably the single most influential filmmaker of all time, Kubrick leaves behind a substantial number of heirs and acolytes, and he will continue to do so as long as cinema remains as viable art form. While Steven Spielberg was greatly influenced by Kubrick and even became a close friend later in life, it could be argued that Spielberg’s own distinct aesthetic disqualifies him as a true “heir” to Kubrick’s cinematic legacy.
Rather, he is more of an immediate beneficiary. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have modeled core conceits of their careers and aesthetics on Kubrick’s example, but I, for one, would argue David Fincher as Kubrick’s most-direct successor. Yes, both men are infamous for their meticulous attention to detail and countless number of takes, but it’s really their shared thematic explorations of the fragile human psyche as well as their almost-clinical observations of mankind’s inherent darkness that bonds both artists to each other.
Fincher’s career simply wouldn’t be possible if not for the paths that Kubrick so bravely paved a generation earlier.
Like a large storm cloud, Kubrick’s shadow looms large over the cinematic landscape—he was a force of nature that permanently altered the art form, and while we may never get the gift of a new Kubrick film ever again, his legacy will continue to endure as long as there are uncompromising artists who are unafraid to gaze directly into the dark side of human nature.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To support Cameron’s work – Subscribe on Special.tv.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———
Welcoming Indie Film Hustlers to a very special episode of the indie film hustle podcast. I am your humble host Alex Ferrari. Now guys, you know I’m all about sharing information and trying to get as much information out there to the indie film world, and as if anybody has ever seen my site or seen the articles I write, or anything like that, or listened to the podcast, they know that I am a huge! And I cannot express enough how huge of a fan I am of the late great master, Stanley Kubrick. And the influences he had on my life and on my work as an artist, as a director and as a human being as well. And I did have the pleasure of going to the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the LACMA here in Los Angeles a few years ago. I went like three or four times, I would literally just sit there for hours, just soaking it all in, soaking in, the man’s genius. And I know a lot of people might not like his film, some people like him, some people love him, he’s that kind of artist. Either you love him or hate him there is no middle ground with Stanley Kubrick but regardless, if you love him or hate him you can’t deny the man’s impact on cinema; and not only on cinema but probably if you are like a director or like a filmmaker, more likely than not, they have been influenced in one way, shape or form by Stanley Kubrick. He created amazing ripples in the film business and the film industry and he definitely moved, pushed and sometimes dragged the film medium forward; and he was always ahead of his time with every single one of his movies. It took people years to understand his movies. When I was young and I saw ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ for the first time when it came out in theaters, I was asked “what did you think?” I’m like oh, I didn’t understand it, but I’ll probably understand it in about 10 years, and it took a little longer for me to get it and now it’s actually one of my favorite Kubrick films. I know a lot of people disagree with me on that but I absolutely love love love love ‘Eyes Wide Shut’; and I think Scorsese has also said it’s one of his favorites as well but I wanted to bring this interview, this his extremely rare interview by Stanley Kubrick, because he was a very private man and he did not talk a lot about his process as an artist and as a filmmaker, and a reporter by the name of Jeremy Bernstein back in November 27 of 1966, got a 37 year old Stanley Kubrick to sit down for about an hour and 16 minutes or so (76 minutes) and It’s the one of the rarest interviews with Mr. Kubrick and he tells his entire story up to that date, how he got started, his troubles, struggles, the hustle that he had to do, how he was a chess hustler, and how he used to hustle people for money in the parks of New York; and that’s what he used to do to make a living for a while, actually supported himself hustling chess games, and a lot of other stuff. And I really found it’s so valuable that I really wanted to share it with the indie film hustle tribe, and I wanted to just bring it to you. So please, do me a favor and share this with as many people as you can; talk about it with as many people as you can, because I think it’s so important that masters like this who give rare insights to their story and their struggle is an inspiration to all of us. Because he was coming up in the 40s, 50s, 60s, he was already who he was in the 50s and the 60s but, he was coming up in the 40s and the 30s, and his struggle is sound. When you listen to the interview, you find out that his struggle as an artist and as filmmaker was not that much different than many of ours; you know. He was trying to get his movies made; he was trying to get his voice heard; he was trying to find financing for his movies. It’s all very unfortunately a little too dejavu for filmmakers to listen to, but I just wanted to bring this interview to you guys because, it was so impactful to me and I think it will be impactful to you. So, I really am so proud to present this amazing interview by Jeremy Bernstein of Mr. Stanley Kubrick.
TESTING 1234 – JEREMY BERNSTEIN’S TAPE, NOVEMBER 27, SIDE A.
Stanley Kubrick: Born July 26, 1928, New York City. My father was a doctor. One sister, Barbra; Married; two children; lives in New Jersey; six years younger; her husband is a lawyer.
I was taught to play chess at the age of 12, but did not play seriously until about age of 17 when I joined the martial chess club in New York; on west Elm Street between 5th and 6th and 7th and whatever came along.
Did you happen to pick your intellectual interests as a child or was it as an adult that you did all of that?
Stanley Kubrick: Ah, No. I had a few intellectual interests as a child. I was a school misfit and considered that you know, reading a book, schoolwork, and I don’t think I read a book for pleasure until after I graduated high school.
Well, what were you doing that you always did well?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I had that one thing I think that perhaps helped me get over being a misfit in school. It is that I became interested in photography about the same time, 12 or 13, and I think that, if you get involved in any kind of problem-solving and depth on almost anything, it is surprisingly similar to problem-solving of anything you know. I started by just you know, getting a camera and learning how to take pictures, and learning how to print pictures, and learning how to build a dark room, and learning how to do all the technical things; and so on and so on. And then, finally trying to find out how you could sell pictures and become a proper; you know, would it be possible to be a professional photographer and sophomore. So I think that photography, though it seemed like a hobby and up but, and ultimately led to a professional job – photography, might have been more valuable than you know doing the proper things in school
Were you sort of despaired of your family at that time, because of your schoolwork or did you?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, it wasn’t a real drama you know, I imagine so, but it was never completely apparent until I graduated from high school that I couldn’t go to college, because I graduated in 1945 when all the GI’s went outpouring back on the GI Bill, and I had a 67 average and it turned out, that there wasn’t any college in the United States, even of the lowest caliber that would take a student with less than a 75 average in that year. So I couldn’t get in. I failed to pre-get into college.
Did you take all the required classes, the aptitude tests and so on?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah, there were but they wouldn’t consider you. In other words they wouldn’t even accept your application if you didn’t have a 75 average in that particular year.
Looking back and sort of retrospective is not going to college and its circumstances sort of an unfortunate thing all?
Stanley Kubrick: Tremendously because, what happened was that, well I had developed myself as a photographer and prior to graduating high school, I had sold two still-picture stories to LOOK.
What were they about?
Stanley Kubrick: One was about a teacher in high school named Mr. Traister, who taught English and he used to dramatize Shakespeare. He would read the parts and act it out. he made it very interesting you know, it was one of the few courses that were interesting, and you know most of the English courses that I had, consisted of the teacher saying, “you would read five pages of Silas Marner tonight”, and the next day the class was spent in sitting at the book like ‘arnold Channing’s in the blue angel’, Looking up over the book and saying “you know, Mr. Kubrick”, and then you’d stand up and I say “when Silas Marner walked out of the door what did he see?” and if you didn’t know what he saw, you got a zero. And that was it. And this is why I failed English once and had to make it up in summer school.
Did you show aptitude to things like mathematics and so on?
Stanley Kubrick: Actually, the only courses that I got good marks in were science courses. Yeah! I think I got, I can’t remember now but I think I got about an 87 in physics, and not in mathematics though but in science courses, I liked and did reasonably well. But anyway, ‘Traister’ was one, and I’ve forgotten what the other one was now. But they bought these two picture-stories. Oh and I also sold them a picture. I just told him to “put your stories and a photograph of a news dealer sitting on a 170 street on a grand concourse, right across two blocks away from Taft High School.
Was that when the headlines quoted you?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah. With all the headlines saying Roosevelt dies, or FDR dead, yeah. And he was sitting there Looking depressed and they liked this picture and used it in a whole series about Roosevelt. You know, sort of the final picture of the series.
Were you interested in extracurricular activities apart from photography, that’s while you were still in school, you know. Did you do like sports and stuff like that?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I used to play but I mean, I wasn’t on any of the school team.
Stanley Kubrick: No. I used to play everything you know, but basketball in the concrete, you know, outdoor, what do they call them again? The playground, the city playground and the stickball in the street and the odd softball game in the Taft dirt – Jim yard. They had a very large dirt Jim yard, things like that.
Would you say that the fact that you didn’t go to college has given you a certain sense of performance over graduates, college graduates who don’t meet up to what you could say to be specific intellectual standards and thought process for guys who got a lot of degrees but doesn’t seem to relate to your thought process, have you?
Stanley Kubrick: No, I don’t think I look at it that way. You know, the reason I think it was an advantage for me is that I went back got into this, fantastically good job at the age of 17. I went, I can’t really remember where I was but I took some pictures down there. What happened is that I could not get into college, and all sorts of things. My father who was an alumni of NYU uptown, took me to see the Dean and said “this is my son” and I was the student here and sophomore and nothing worked. So I started going to City College at night under the hope that if I gotta be average for so many credits, I remember now, that I could then get into day school; a day college. but within about a few weeks of this, I was down at LOOK with some other pictures and there was an extremely nice picture editor then, his name was Helen O’Brien, and the managing editor at the time was Jack Gunter who was some time later killed in the Bryce Canyon Utah plane crash, and she asked me what I was doing and I told her “nothing”, and that I was gonna try whatever; and she said something about, that she thought she might be able to get me a job as an apprentice photographer. So I went up to see Jack Gunter and said to him “I got a job”.
And how long were you working for them, or did that relationship work?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I was the apprentice photographer for six months, and then I became a staff photographer, and I was there for four years.
I see you were actually there as it is?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah. and of course that would have been the period I’d spent a college, and I think that the things, what I learned, and the practical experience in every respect including photography, what I learned in that period pretty exceeded what I could have learned in school. and also, getting out of school, I can’t remember what was the particular turning-point, but being out of school, I began to read and within a relatively short period of time, I would imagine caught up with where I probably should have been, had I had a monochrome of interest in things in the high school. Because I mean, after all you really only miss, I mean before you’re 12 or 13, how many serious books can you read? So I only really blew four years of part-time reading. How much time? You go to school all day, play a certain magic, you do your homework. So in retrospect, I don’t feel that I missed reading that many books and I felt that I caught up pretty quickly when I became interested in singing in general
Well, what first gave you the idea of actually going to the movies as opposed to work?
Stanley Kubrick: Like everybody else you know, I was always very interested in movies and I used to go to see films and I’d say probably every film and I used to see all the films at the museum of modern art and the failure and actually at that time. You know when I was a teenager the so-called art palace didn’t really exist to the extent it does now. It was the post-war Italian sort of the Mussolini pictures which brought the art houses into existence; so they weren’t that many good films that were played and the theaters around except the museum. Anyway I used to see all the films and I knew I’d seen them all a number of times at the museum.
A friend of mine who subsequently has become a phone directory Malik Singer was working as an office boy at the march of time and one day, he told me that it cost $40,000 to make a march of time and it was a one reeler and I said to him “geez! That’s a lot of money”. I said I can’t believe it cost that much to make eight or nine minutes of film”. So I called up basement Kodak and checked on the price of film, and then I called up the laboratory to know how much it costs to develop it, and I checked on how much it costs to rent 35-millimeter movie cameras, and then I check the cost of the other facilities sound and editing and score; and I forgot what it added up to, but it was something that I could do a documentary film with an original music score and everything for about $3,500 so I thought “geez! If they’re making these pictures of 40,000 I can make them for 3500, surely I must be able to sell them and at least get my money back and probably make a profit. So I think we thought that we could make a considerable profit because we assumed but if they were making them for $40,000 apiece, that they must be making a profit.
So I rented a 35-millimeter EYE-MO camera, which is a spring wound camera, produces a professional picture, and I did a documentary film about a boxer named Walter Cartier who I had previously done a picture story for LOOK about, on him and it was called ‘day of the fight’. And I got the whole thing, and I did everything, Alex helped me you know, sort of carried lights around and assisted me and I did the whole thing just myself and Alex and Walter and his people. And I cut it and another friend of mine who subsequently has become professional movie composer named Gerald Fried did a film score and got the whole thing finished with $39,000. And then when we began to take it around to the various companies to sell it. They all liked it, though they were offering things like $1,500 and $2,500 and self-worth.
This is about the time you were still aged 21 right?
Stanley Kubrick: Well less than that, but I did this about I’d say maybe 9 months before I quit LOOK about 20 or plus, and at one point I said to them “Christ! Why you want you offering us so little for this?” You know, one reel should get you more than $40,000 and they said “wait, you must be crazy” and I said “why do you think that?”, and so I told them about ‘the march of time’ and anyway, they said it was ridiculous and shortly after that, ‘the march in time’ got out of business (laughs) for the reason we’d later find out that they were spending approximately, I mean you know if ‘the march of time’ those me for this Ally just somehow found out when he was working there that that it was costing $40,000 plus to make one of their own reelers and that was not business.
Well anyway, I finally sold the film to RKO cafe who are no longer in business either. And I sold it for about a hundred dollars less than it cost me to make it. I knew it was a small loss, but I had the pleasure of seeing it shown and I remember I went to the paramount theatre where it was playing with some Robert gardener Robert vision picture and you know it was very exciting seeing it on the screen, and it got a nationwide and worldwide distribution. And so I thought everybody liked it and I thought it was good and I thought that this would be, I’d get millions of offers from which I got none to do anything. So I made another documentary, this time about a flying priest ‘Father Stock Muller’ or something in New Mexico, who flew a Piper Cub around to Indian parishes in arcadia. It was a colorful subject and so I went there and pretty much on my own again made this short, and still you know nothing was happening.
They would release of work through this?
Stanley Kubrick: No. they gave me a $1,500 and of which I had to pay for the film, the travel, and I made nothing. I think I lost money on that too. But I had been making a reasonably good salary at LOOK for 4 years, so I had a certain amount of money and I was still working. So then I quit LOOK because I decided that there obviously wasn’t any money in shots, but that I would find out how much feature films were being made for, and they were millions! And I had calculated that I could make a feature film for about $10,000.
I bet you got excited by that?
Stanley Kubrick: Going by, projecting the manner of film I’d shoot, figuring that I get actors to work for probably nothing, you know work with, I mean at this point I was the whole crew: cameraman, assistant cameraman, director, everything; so I had no cost. So a friend of mine in the village did a script.
You were living in the village at that time?
Stanley Kubrick: I was living on 16th Street, 56 avenue. And he needed a script which was a terrible kind of dull, undramatic, but very very serious allegorical story about four soldiers from an unnamed country lost behind enemy lines trying to find their way home again. It had the lines in it like we spend our lives running our fingers down the list of names and addresses, looking for our real. No running the fingers down the list of something-or-other, Looking for our real names are our real addresses. I came in line with this. It was that kind of a thing you know. and of course, I totally failed to recognize the, what I didn’t know about making films or anything you know, I just thought well these are the two things have turned out pretty well; but they were documentaries.
And the second thing that turned out pretty well?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah. but I didn’t really know what I didn’t know and I thought well Christ there really wasn’t very much more to making a feature film and I certainly couldn’t make one worse than the films that I kept saying every day. But I wasn’t satisfied to just make an interesting film, I wanted it to be a very poetic and meaningful film. And it was a little bit like the favorite story about the midget who wouldn’t take the base on balls and decided to swing. So I got the film made, but it was a very very dull, and it got an art-house distribution; was called ‘Fear and Desire’, distributed by Joseph Bernstein, who was at one time, I think he was the distributor for first-brand and Russell pictures. It got a few reasonably good reviews. It got a nice blurb from Marc Van Doreen who was very kind about it. I had a few good moments in it, but with the exception of one or two of the actors they were all terrible actors and I knew nothing about directing and actors.
How did you go out to recognize the sort of?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I just, I don’t remember you know. It was really just actually from some of the so-called professional efforts I have subsequently seen people doing, I would say didn’t go that much differently than a lot of people do but I didn’t really know anything. But there were some good moments in it, and I said, it even got a few good reviews but it never returned a penny of its investment.
Was it your own money that you put up?
Stanley Kubrick: No, I raised the money privately and then while this picture was, it took a long time to edit the film and get all the, you know. I spent over a year on it all. It opened at the guild theater in New York and it was pretty apparent that it was terrible. while it was still playing, I decided well I better uh I’d better get another script very fast and try to promote some more money on the strength of just the fact that the thing was playing, because it wasn’t apparent to me how he’s going to earn a living I do anything you know, again. Not one single offer to do anything from anybody. So I in about two weeks, got together another script with somebody and this time it was sort of reaction to the other one. This was nothing but action sequences and mostly mechanically constructed of action-gangster plot.
Was this the time that you were hustling Chess?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I wasn’t hustling chess. But I was playing chess for quarters. I mean, I wasn’t a hustler but I pretended not to be a good player and beat people. I just was playing in the park you know for quarters, quarter again.
But were you actually doing this for the fun or?
Stanley Kubrick: No. I was doing for the fun of it but I also didn’t make about two or three dollars a day which really goes a long way if you’re not buying anything except food.
Well do you still retain a lot of acquaintances from that stage, growing-up?
Stanley Kubrick: What there’s only one person, one friend who I still see, a boy named David Miller who is an operations research analyst, and who I’ve remained friendly with. I still know all the people there, you know, like Arthur and Feldman and there’s a guy named Edmund Packover but the regulars at the park don’t change too much.
But were they in the category of people playing for money or not?
Stanley Kubrick: But yeah, I mean there were the regulars you know, like the real regulars used to be Arthur Feldman who was really the best player there.
You also pay for money?
Stanley Kubrick: Oh!! yeah, I mean, all the regulars play for money and it was Arthur Feldman who I’d say was the best player, then there was a guy named Joe Richmond, who was probably the next-best player, then there was a guy named Edmund Peckover, I would have put him say third and another regular was a guy named Amos Kaminski, who was a physicist, he would have been next, then I would say myself and David Miller, about equal and then it was descending, I mean, I was only interested in the people who were better than I was, you know, so those are the ones that I particularly remember because, they were enjoyable appeal and there was a whole lot of Potters and semi-potters, you know, and people who put up a fierce struggle but who invariably lost.
How many hours in a day were you putting in down there?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, when I was waiting for things to happen, you know, waiting to get an answer on something which went on for months, sometimes I would go there about twelve o’clock and stay there until you know midnight. I would say, look at 12 hours a day, with breaks for food
You were just playing with the lights?
Stanley Kubrick: Oh!!! yeah in the summer it was marvelous, you know.
Did they still have the concrete tables?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah, in the daytime you get a table in the shade and at night you get a table by the light and if you made the switch the right way, you had a good table all the time but you know, there are those two end tables where the light is by the fountain, that have the best light at night and that was always the tables at night that you would try to get.
Did you have a regular clientele guys or you know, just sort of misguided pride and provide and?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I used to play of course a lot with the better players because, they give me odds and because, you know, they couldn’t get a game really. For instance, Feldman used to give me a pawn and move and with a point and move, I never really kept track but it was pretty even, I mean Feldman didn’t make his living off me, you know, but when there was no sort of real patches around, then the better players would play each other and with it would give you know fair odds so there would be a pretty good game, like there was some players that will just give you always white which was a small advantage but it was an advantage, point and move of course, is well, is the smallest advantage would be white, then the next advantage would be two moves, you know, and then the next one would be point and move.
How do you stack up in the Marshall Chess Club, how did you stack yourself up in the Marshall Chess Club?
Stanley Kubrick: I won the B- tournament and I played in one A-tournament and finished around in the middle.
Well, but did you think that…?
Stanley Kubrick: I would like to point out to you that the A tournament that is not the top 10, the top tournaments, that’s the club championship, so, you know that’s that, you can figure out where I stand.
But did you think you could get to do the point and move, was that a serious point appraisal?
Stanley Kubrick: Oh!!!, absolutely yeah.
That’s kind of impressing. When did you get launched after this point into the movie?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, as I say, when Feldman and I was still playing the gill fitter, I spent about two weeks lashing together this all action script and let’s say, you know.
What is the relation to the family?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, the guy’s name was Mo Boulcel and he has two drug stores in the Bronx. Mo Boulcel co-produced and put up the money to make killer’s kiss, his name is Morris Boulcel, M o r r i s B o u l c e l.
Now, it’s not a great financially thought…
Stanley Kubrick: That was at that time that I was playing chess for four quarters in the park, speaking of Jimmy Harris.
There was a guy in the village who was making films by himself, just doing everything together and then you thought that you and he should get together and reduced you and then I remember Jimmy suggested that, this is the impression I got, which may be wrong and he suggested that he could take the producing burden of the films, Is that right, the finance technologist?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah, well, I had made killer’s kiss the second feature film and substantially that’s what happened well first you mean I made the killing and
You made that by yourself?
Stanley Kubrick: No, well, we formed the company which is called Harris Kubrick Pictures Corporation and after looking for a story we bought a book called The Clean Break by Lionel White and this was the story that we made into the killing for United Artists. The United Artists had bought killer’s kiss, well, first of all, United artists function was only to finance and distribute the film so, it was up to us to hire the people and make the film and I presume that generalized thought that, if the killer’s kiss could be made and I mean, on the semi-professional basis it was, that with an adequate amount of money which was fairly minimum anyway that, you know, we could make a film. Jimmy had to guarantee completion of the movie which means that, if the movie ran over the budget, he had to put up all the extra money, which is a great safeguard and especially since financially he was responsible to make this kind of a guarantee. It wasn’t that much of a risk on the part of an artist but we had a very good cast but none of the people were big stars in the sense that they were extremely choosy about what they were in and I would say that, all of them had probably been in worst films than they might have even at the beginning thought this one might turn out to be.
Wasn’t Marylyn Monroe…?
Stanley Kubrick: Keep the principal cast was Sterling Hayden, Colleen Gray, Marie Windsor, Elijah Cook jnr. John Sawyer, Techno Cassia, Vince Edwards.
I saw that film that…
Stanley Kubrick: who later became Dr. Kilda
So long ago that I’m just trying to remember, was it the one where Sterling Hayden dies in the end?
Stanley Kubrick: No, he gives up, the money blows away at the airport and he gives up.
I’m getting confused
Stanley Kubrick: You probably haven’t seen the person.
No, I remember Sterling Hayden very clearly but I can’t…
Stanley Kubrick: You’re thinking he’s the asphalt jungle, that’s why some element and rolls on it, he dies at the NPS world angle, in a field with a horse.
Oh!!! That’s right now.
Stanley Kubrick: you’re thinking about another person; you never saw the Killing.
Maybe that’s right
Stanley Kubrick: If you want to see it, there’s a part of the Museum of modern art, the artist could give you the painting. So, anyway we made the killing and the somehow, Durry Sherry saw it and he liked it and he was the first one who really showed any interest in us, you know, to the extent of offering us any sort of a deal to make another picture and so we went to MGM and look through, the deal was that we could look through all their backlog of story properties and if we found one that they liked, we could do it and I think I tell you this, it’s kind of with his burning secret by Stefan Wine and I did the screenplay with Colder Willingham, about which time Durry Sherry had not taken out of his job and the project came to an end I mean, just about the time script was finished.
It was at that point that you were run across with your war story?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, it was really sort of kin kind with us that I remembered reading Paths of Glory as one of the few books that I did read.
Is it a fair description of German descent, is it independently wealthy?
Stanley Kubrick: Yes, you have to have patience because, if you don’t, your own frustrations proved to be too much of a distraction, it is a slow, you know, it’s like those games we had to jiggle all the balls into place, sometimes, as more balls are jiggling than others but, it’s likely that and if you allow yourself to become irritated then it’s just another distraction.
Well, how do you keep yourself amused when we always admire the way sometimes breaks and girls sometimes…
Stanley Kubrick: Because, I keep thinking about the next things that I’m doing, I try to use all the time, that’s why I found Francis one all these people, there I found myself and slightly up in a year feeling luckily, this stuff was quite simple but then, I usually, I would imagine to anyone sort of looking at me, I have a sort of, they withdraw and look at my face because, what I’m just doing is thinking about what I’m about to do, what other scenes, when I just use the time to think a little, like sitting in the park playing chess.
You think about how to work, manipulate the actors and that sort of thing?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I think about whatever problems as problems, I mean, sometimes many of the actors aren’t the problem, so now, the problem is the story or the schedule or asset that isn’t completely designed something but whatever it is, I always have plenty to think about.
How close do you prove yourself to get to the actors as friends, you have to be traveling with guys working for you?
Stanley Kubrick: I mean, if you can, I mean in other words, it’s bad if you don’t like somebody, to have a bad social situation occur, like an attempt at friendliness which turns out to be sour or you know, his wife goes away saying how terrible you are, isn’t like that but I mean, if you like the people, it’s it helps to know the minutes enjoyable filming them.
Is not that offer quite disappointing or anything?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, it isn’t disappointing anyway because, unless the actor is, it’s so rare that you would ever get to the point where you said the actor; look this is my picture and you’re working for me and you do it the way I want or go home because, what you really want him to do is to feel confident and enjoy what he’s doing, otherwise, he’s not gonna do it very well. So, somehow, you have to be clever enough or be more persuasive enough, although persuasive isn’t even the right word because, I tend to believe that if you’re right, people realize it.
Are you usually right?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I try to be. I have found that when I am right, you know, when it went in retrospect it turned out to be always right and in doing it, it seemed always right. You do not usually find difficulties arising if you’re right unless the actor is incapable of doing what you’re asking him to do. To limitations of his talent, there is emotional range or something and he gets insecure and thinks of a lot of reasons why you’re wrong but really what you are trying to do is avoid failing but then really, you should try to figure out what the limitations of the actors are and put him in a spot like that. After leaving MGM and the burning secret trip pride of this to me and I had bought Paths of Glory, I did a screenplay with Jim Thompson and Colder Willingham and nobody wanted to do it, it was turned down by every company until our agent Ronnie Lubin interested Kirk Douglas on the project and through Kirk’s interest, United Artists put up the money on the basis of it being done for very low budget in Europe. The picture was a moderate success but it was nothing to create opportunities for us because of big grosses or profits. The reviews on it were very good, many reviews were supportive and from that point of view was an enormous success. The greatest virtue of the films that I met my wife, Christina, who was an actress. I was watching a television broadcast looking for an actress, was actually watching someone else and saw her and got in touch with her agent, she came over to the studio we met and I began dating her and we subsequently got married a year later. she is a marvelous actress, she had done a lot of work in Germany, I would like her to act but she has no interest in doing dull routine acting things in this march and painting. If I ever have a part, a decent part for women which for some reason I never seem to write into my films, she would certainly do it. This is followed by about six months been working on a script for Kirk Douglas which he didn’t like and was abandoned and some more months working on something which Gregory Peck was supposed to do for us, which was also abandoned because, it wasn’t liked and followed by the offer from Marlon Brando to direct his Western which resulted in six months of work again abandoned, as far as I was concerned because, I left the project two weeks before it started, this was followed by a script called The German Lieutenant, which again no one liked and followed by Kirk Douglas’ offer to take over Spartacus after weeks of shooting, which I did.
And you found yourself?
Stanley Kubrick: Yes, and my narrative criticisms which were at first so enthusiastically received, began to grow pale as time went on due to the counter pressures of the writer, Dalton Trumbo and co- producer Amy Lewis, who did not see eye-to-eye with me on the story work between the shooting and the editing of Spartacus. Two children were born to me, to Christina, Vivian and Renata, I was on the picture almost two years. Children’s names; Vivian Vanessa age five, Anya Renata age 6, Katherine Susana, Katherine spelled K, age 11. Only if about eight weeks were spent in Spain during the battles in the Big March Buys, the whole picture was done on the back lot of universal
Did you get any sense of intellectual satisfaction of those particles at all?
Stanley Kubrick: No but, it was, you know, again an opportunity to work and it was interesting to, from a purely, as an exercise, you know, to try to do scenes that you thought weren’t very good and to try to make them interesting. I thought the first 45 minutes of the film, of the life in a gladiatorial school which was simple, turned out quite well, as far as I’m concerned but then, the rest of the story from the slave rebellion onto the end, I thought seemed a bit silly.
That’s the event and then what happened?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, during the making of Spartacus, we bought Lolita, Jimmy and I and now nobody wanted to make Lolita, actually the history of all the film proudly that I’ve done is, no one ever wanted to particularly make them and we just sort of running out the clock, managed to put the picture together someplace, you know, well nobody particularly wanted to make Lolita and finally, Seven Arts, a company named Seven Arts, put up the money and we made it, it was made in one.
Did you yourself do the rewriting of the book?
Stanley Kubrick: Yes, well, Navicoff and I, well, I believe get along very well and I know he liked the film very much when he saw it.
Is there anything that is particularly striking about making that film that you remember?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, you mean, antidotes, not really. I think the only thing that is regrettable about the film is that, due to the incredible pressure against making the film and put on by the carload by all sorts of groups, although I think the film was faithful psychologically to all the characters and captured I think the sense of them, I think that the total lack of eroticism in the story, in this film presentation of it, spoil some of the pleasure of it, you know, you can apply all the eroticism you want but there’s nothing like delivering some to help understand a little more the enslavement, you know, that Humber Humber was under. I think that I would consider that a criticism of the film but one that was, you know, the film could not have been made and nobody would have met it at all and it would never have been distributed. There were some criticism by some people that said that she looked too old but I never thought that was a valid criticism because, it was one of those books where nobody bothered to really read the description that Humber Hummer gave of Lolita and they got this, somehow there is, it was a rare interesting example of sort of mass delusion because, it’s all inevitably, people imagine her as being about nine years old and looking about nine or ten years old and yet there’s a very clear description in the book of Annabelle, his childhood sweetheart and he says in the narrative that were not for Annabelle they would never know Lolita and then when he sees Lolita, he says that she was a perfect reincarnation of Annabelle and Annabelle is described as a, you know, a pretty sexy 12 and a half, I forgot, actually i don’t exactly remember Annabelle’s age but I know that Lolita was something like 12 years and three months when he meets her and then the story progresses through quite a few years will sue line was actually just 13 or mental picture and I thought this criticism was not valid. Many of the people who voted, I think, well, I know didn’t bother to really read how old he said she was and what she looked like and there was this peculiar example of a lot of people imagining her as being about 10 years old.
It was strange, it was the first film work which proceeded really from an intellectual, a great intellectual premise rather than from a story or from an intellectual situation rather than from a specific story curiosity about the possible outcomes of nuclear strategy, how did that that come about after the leaders…?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I was interested in whether or not I was going to get blown up by an H-bomb prior to Lolita but my interest intensified itself sort of concurrently with that, I believe that the Berlin crisis took place during Lolita and about that time I became keenly and started reading up on all the, you know, literature of which there’s a terrific extent, you know, tremendous a lot, am I getting fucked up on it, had a tremendous a lot and you know, I read, I would say, I pretty much read the spectrum, I began finding afterwards that I wasn’t reading anything new and I decided I knew the whole thing, you know and it was then that I began to, the thing that struck me most of all about it was that, at first when you read the brilliant analyses and the games theories and Herman Kahn, you’re very reassured because, you start off by thinking gee!!! you know, God!! there are these bumps and you get an image vaguely observe a world war two mentality and then when you read the literature in the field, your first reaction superficially is your very encouraged because you suddenly realize there’s this whole body of thought that’s going into the whole thing in it and you think, ahh!!!, yes, well, now I know and then as you read on and on, you become more involved than it began to realize that all these things lead to very paradoxical outcomes and reviewing the whole thing, every line and it leads to a paradoxical point and I suppose this was the most dramatically obvious thing about Dr. Strangelove was the paradoxical outcome of any particular line of thought.
If it really is true, in real world every line proves paradoxical outcome, what hope is that?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, personally I think that the hope is basically just luck, the situation is simply fist for just luck reasons, is never really put to getting particularly great strain, a lot of course had, you know, a lot has been done, a lot keeps being done about trying to prove the situation against accidental war and better command and control and more sophisticated threat technique of trying to graduate threat into as many steps as you can, to leave as many alternatives and back away points but the depressing thing is that at every period of history, the people always thought that they had, I mean, the power structure and the leaders always look back on the previous period of history and thought that they had learned something and I think that ,you know, the old thing about, the only thing you can learn about history is that, you can’t learn from history is it’s probably true and that this illusion that you get that you’re much more sophisticated and that it can never happen that way again maybe true, but the thing you don’t realize is, it will happen a different way, you know, I know that everybody’s very convincing don’t ever have another 1914-type situation, you know, they may have a 1985-type situation that they are not prepared for.
What’s up with a set of the pressure you’re perfectly prepared for the last?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah, well, most armies are, you know, you’d find the occasional exception like Nazi Germany but inevitably, I think that as time goes on, the danger increases because, the thing becomes more and more remote, I mean the problem to begin with is that, people do not react to abstractions, you know, they only react to direct experience. Very few people are even interested in the abstractions and even fewer people can become emotionally involved or emotionally react to an abstract thing. The only reality that nuclear weapons have are a few movie shots of mushroom clouds and a few documentaries that occasionally showing our houses about the effects of Hiroshima but that the atomic bomb is much of an abstraction as you could possibly have. I mean, it’s as abstract as the fact that you know that someday you’ll die, it’s something that you know but you really do a very good job and you do an excellent job of denying it psychologically. To begin with, because of the very effective denial and the lack of any evidence, there’s almost no interest in the problem, I mean, I would say in the minds of most people, it’s less interesting even than city government, you know and the longer the time goes on without the thing happening, this illusion is created that somehow it’s like money in the bank or you’re building up security, in fact I think you’re just becoming more accustomed to it and more liable to think that at some point that you’ve been taking these wonderful precautions and that chances are minimized and so forth and finally you will get confronted with a situation that you couldn’t anticipate. For instance, even now I think that, it surprises me that the Russian and United States could do a lot to almost completely eliminate the possibility of accidental nuclear war without any real loss of security, both of them could allow observers and key places to instantly authenticate whether or not a nuclear war was in progress you know or it seemed to be in process of happening and that if there were some nuclear accident or a screwball, you know, nuclear psychotic, you know, the Mad Major or the missile it gets away, you can instantly authenticate this might be true. I know that United States seems anyway, geared not to respond to say a single nuclear explosion anyplace, at least that’s what they say, that they now have, they feel invulnerable retaliatory capabilities and that the single City taken out would not start a nuclear war but you know, again, you never know that panic that happens when suddenly all the lights go out like you described in New York City, you know, that indefinable something that might just make the senior decision-maker abandon all his previously beautifully worked out graduated steps of response, you never know and it depends on who he is and what his personal state of mind is, what information is available to him and so forth. The fact that a lot of effort has been going to try to work out possible accidents and I suspect that great precautions have been taken to protect against these accidents but whether the human imagination is capable of really devising the subtle permutations and psychological variance to all those things, I doubt the people who make up these war scenarios are not really as inventive say as a great writer or as reality. I think Herman Kahn is a genius and I think that he can envision certain situations but when you read the many of the sort of war scenario possibilities, they don’t strike you as being the work of a master novelist, they don’t really seem real, you know, their political possibilities but they don’t have the real trappings of reality that might, you know, confuse and panic the decision maker in the real circumstance.
Were you surprised that the reaction to Stranger on the fact that was so widely discussed and so widely reviewed and did you have any feelings of responsibility to it?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I mean all films are reviewed, the discussion went beyond reviews but it was quite obviously something that might become a controversial issue.
Well when you got finished with the digit, did you have some set, was a winner?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I was very pleased with it, I mean, when you say a winner, I mean I thought, I was very pleased with the film, it happens to also be a very successful film commercially.
How did Terry Southern get into the act?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, Terry came to interview me for Show Magazine shortly before I was leaving for London to make the picture and I became friendly with him. I had read the Magic Christian and Flesh and Filigree and I thought he was a terrific writer and I came to London and started the script.
Did you get along with the script pretty well?
Stanley Kubrick: The script was done and it was done in its black comedy form, a fact which a certain amount of confusion has been created about in certain areas. The script was done, Peter Sellers was cast and I was coming over here to prepare the film and you know, Southern Terry was very talented, I never stopped working on a script, I like to work with somebody else because we’re under the time pressure that you’re under you can’t afford these sort of laps of intensity that if you work by yourself you might suffer and then Terry seemed like an ideal person because, the style of the script was similar, you know, to his sense of humor and so, about six weeks before the picture started, I asked him if he wanted to come over here and work on it with me and do some more dialogue and revision and he came over, he worked for six weeks and that was it. I started the picture and he went off and did some other things.
Has any of the pictures been as intellectually complicated as the present one as in 2001 causes many intellectual problems, I mean, that’s a repeat, it’s terrific undertaking prime creating future?
Well, I don’t know, intellectually complicated isn’t really the right description for a thing, I mean trailer was more intellectually complicated picture and you know, it involved complex arguments and quite a few, you know, abstract ideas clearly or comically stated, this is not as complex a picture, it’s not as complicated a picture in terms of, you know, ideas represented. There are ideas actually spoken in praise of Arthur C Clarke, this true that, he is I think, the most poetic science-fiction writer.
He’s also really the best informed?
Stanley Kubrick: Right, he is scientifically the best informed, his narrative ideas I think from my tastes, the most appealing and he has this rather unique poetic sense of the sort of nostalgia for the, you know, the mountains that have eroded away over millions of years and the millions of years in the future and people looking back and forward and you’ll have to fix this up because, it sounds like crap but it’s very hard to, you know, define it nicely but it is true.
I’ve found out that every time I was reading some story like that Barker’s book, I always feel sad as I go, it’s either he made the venusaur, compounded venusaur, they all had a vision of something in the future which you’ll never ever see.
Stanley Kubrick: Or something in the past that you can never know about. Well, but I think that’s marvelous, you know, I think that somehow without trying to, without making it sound too pompous or precious, that he captures the hopeless but admirable human desire to know, you know, these things that they never will, you know, can never really know and to reach for things that they can never, you know, really reach back and you know, it’s very hard to say exactly but the sense of sadness and this poetic sense of time passing and this sort of loneliness of worlds, I mean, he manages, I tell you what he also manages to do, he can take a star, a Sun, say and in that one story, I’ve forgotten the name of it, where the sort of Sun creatures come towards mercury, he can take an inanimate object like a star or a world or even a galaxy and somehow make it into a very poignant thing which almost seems alive. He has a way of writing about mountains and planets and the world with the same point to which people write about the children or love affairs and also although you haven’t read the script and you should really try to refer to the story there is that without underlining it there was a contrast in the story between a giant orbiting bombs, which you might say is the negative use of nuclear energy and this particular spaceship which leads to great fantastic accomplishments which is also another good use of nuclear energy.
But I think one can talk about the Orion, it’s something I wanted to do for a long time and finally…
Stanley Kubrick: Have a standard way of pounding that, yeah
I have a set of notes somewhere which I wanted to put down for just writing a piece on the Orion, showing why, showing sort of logically speaking, why it’s the only propulsion system that’s worth considering if you talk really about the interplanetary missions, that doesn’t make any sense fundamentally because, its operating temperatures is that the escape velocity that’s really the crucial element in it and so, that would be very nice, I actually should talk about the part about the Orion and he’s absolutely magnificent, the paintings which the guys have been doing over there and because the other thing that strikes if you compare making such a fictional space mission with the real thing, the thing that amazes one is how fast everything is done, in the sense that, if you make a decision whether it’s on costume or on lettering or on all of that, you get the satisfaction of seeing it created in some form almost immediately, I mean, it is not sort of if you’d say
Stanley Kubrick: It doesn’t seem almost immediately to me but if I was used to another time
Yeah, compared to the scientific timescale
Stanley Kubrick: It must be seen very quick
Yeah, I mean, in a scientific project, you make any suggestion just like that and maybe it’s six months or more and take a typical experiment physics, that’s a good idea for an experiment, by the time you get an answer these days, typically, it’s a year-and-a-half, so, it’s a completely different order.
Stanley Kubrick: It’s interesting that you would feel that way because to the average person, the timescale of a movie seems like time has stopped. Most people are so bored and so astonished when they see the pace of things, somehow, they have an image in their mind that it’s all done in a week or something like that and most people that I found who don’t come from your side of the fence, think that everything works incredibly slowly, you know it just depends what you used to.
There’s this thing you know, when you shoot me over to watch a television thing of course but
Stanley Kubrick: That’s right, you tell too
But that’s a different side of it, that’s the side of making these sort of Quaffle sequences, which you would you work for three hours to extract 30 seconds of something, that was driving me off my head but the technological side of it, where you get an idea, say from propulsion system or Christ knows where and within three days, well, you’ve got a drawing there, you’ve got some guys making a model and you have a lot of thought on a different size, I mean, like what time scale these guys are using, the Eastern Standard Time or all sorts of stuff but all these goes fantastically fast, I mean, the number of problems that you deal with and solve in a half an hour is more than what you would deal with in a comparable scientific project in six months, because, of course, you’re just working in a different media in the sense that you don’t really have to worry say, in the case of a spaceship about the structural stability of these things, you might spend six months or a year computing something out of machines, well, you know it’s going to work, that it can be designed, so, you take that as a premise that you put something there which in principle is going to work, then you can stop at that point, that’s what really cause the difference in the, it’s very interesting, I find it extremely remarkable.
Stanley Kubrick: If these things do work that quickly, the thing that does take all the time is to abstract a 2 hours and 15 minutes of the story and really keep distilling and distilling and distilling and distilling and distilling, I would say that, if you count the time that spent during the shooting day, also working on the story in rehearsal and rewriting, so, I would say that an average of at least four hours a day has been spent on this story much more than of course, in the real solid writing period was like, you know what I mean but let’s just say average four hours a day for two years, that’s an average of six days a week, that’s 24 hours a week times maybe a hundred weeks, I’d say that’s a good 2400 hours spent on, call it two hours and 40 minutes of the story, so, that’s about a thousand to one on the story and that’s what a real crunch is put.
One doesn’t get the impression that film directors do think you’re great though.
Stanley Kubrick: You said that on purpose, you know, they’re supposed to. Let’s get this going, I think we running. The analogy of using the frustrating wasted time periods on the set with thinking on your opponent’s moving chips.
The tiring thing about the daily working with or without colors, which I didn’t completely understand, he said that when he directs, that he has a quarter of works every day and that you do not have a quarter of works every day and this is somehow a good thing.
Stanley Kubrick: With the exception of a few directors like David Lane and well, let’s not say who, with the exception of a few directors, most people have their film edited by film editors as they go along and then when the film is done, they look at the film and dictate the notes about it and the film editor tries to do what they say and maybe they look at it again and they do it again but basically, it’s like trying to, say, redesign a city by driving through it in a car, you can notice a few things and say, put that traffic light in the middle of the street or those buildings over there are like kind of shabby or something, but if you really want to do it right you must do it yourself, piece by piece, so, I think by now I have enough, sort of, ability to imagine the way a scene will come out, that I can tell without looking in the material if I have enough film coverage and you know, what I can do with it and then I edit the film with the editor myself, when the film is, when it’s all finished.
But you are back to editing after that, I didn’t know about that.
Stanley Kubrick: Just the thing, just linking together that thing, it’s all
Because I don’t see how you, I mean, you have these you know a couple of these few minutes sequences, now, I don’t see how you cook all of that, really.
Stanley Kubrick: Well, you haven’t seen them but that’s only a fraction of the material there is, anyways, what you’ve seen is only the comings and goings of other scenes to just show you what the set looks like, I mean, we’ve shot about 80,000 feet of film already.
What’s 8,000 feet in time?
Stanley Kubrick: It’s about, well, it’s 5,400 feet an hour, it’s 6 x 9, yeah, 54 in an hour.
How much film will you shoot before the all pictures?
Stanley Kubrick: By the way, that is a lot of film. People have shot a million feet actually.
You mean in our lives?
Stanley Kubrick: No, I mean in the film. Let’s just say a picture is three hours long, it would be 16,200 feet, so what ratio is that, that’s about the 50-1 or something, 50-something to 1.
It almost like a thousand to one.
Stanley Kubrick: No it isn’t, ninety percent to one, that if it’s up to. Film directing I think is a misnomer for anybody that seriously want to make films because, directing the film is only, you might say, one-third of the process, you know, writing the film, directing the film and then editing the film is, you might say, the whole job and it was really it’s only the old major studio sort of image of how film was made that the producer held in his hand on the palate, you know, the various people, the artist, the cameraman, the actors, the film editor, the director and director is really just sort of like a senior member of the crew and that he had no real integrating status and what happened, I mean, they were the few exceptional characters even in the great days of the Hollywood studios, who somehow exerted their authority of working on but and even today, you know, you talk about directors have the right, they call the first cut, which means, they must approve the first cut but they have to bend the producer can do it every once, virtually and it’s a right to try to persuade someone because, I mean, if you don’t even have the right of the first cut, you can’t even explain what you want but, I do the cutting this off.
You have a picture of yours at this stage, is your picture, has it always been like that or is that, you know?
Stanley Kubrick: Yeah, let’s say, it was like that Dr. Strange’s Love and Lovely night and I think there’s a, I don’t remember, subject to delivering the minimum censorship requirements to play in it and the way the way you make deals the way you make that arrangement as you say the picture will not be longer than a certain period of time and that you will be deliver the minimum required censorship so that’s picture can be played. I mean, if they’ll just say, give it to us any way you want and you deliver a picture that it’s legally unplayable, they have to protect themselves against that.
What do you feel like your pictures being shown on Television?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, I wish that they didn’t put the commercials and the worst thing that they sometimes do is cut the films.
You don’t retain the rights over that?
Stanley Kubrick: Well, in some of the films I know but then, it’s terribly difficult to police it because, unless you see the film yourself, there are very few people who are qualified to tell you what was cut from it, I mean even if a friend calls up and says, “you know, I saw your film and it looked cut”, you said, “what was cut out?”, they say, “well, I don’t know, but I think it was cut”. Well, it’s almost impossible to find out what was done that’s peculiar problem.
Roger just lost a court case over that.
Stanley Kubrick: I believe his case was against interruption of commercials, I don’t think it was the cutting issue, I don’t know.
Commercials are certainly the key thing huh but Ross got a piece about that case and Yorker, there she described the reason why he lost which is basically, he knows what he was doing when he signed the agreement.
Stanley Kubrick: Well, that’s it, I mean, they have the right to do what they’ve done.
Well, I really hope you guys enjoyed this real extra special edition of the Indie Hustle Podcast because, Stanley is one of my heroes, he’s up there with of course, Hitchcock, Scorsese and many other filmmakers as well but, Stanley stands at possibly the very top of my list but I really hope you enjoyed this interview. If you want to see a couple of great interviews, if you want to see anything, first of all, if you want to see what was, hear more about Stanley Kubrick, head over to Indiefilmhustle.com/Stanley–Kubrick and it will take you to an insane amount of documentaries, of breaking down of his style, everything like that and I just uploaded a new article about the Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes Documentary, which is also in that link, which is amazing, it’s about how he kept all of his work, he kept every piece of paper, everything since the beginning of his career, he had just amazing amount of information about his process but it’s all boxed up. So, it’s now in an archive and they did this amazing little documentary about the boxes and what’s in the boxes and how they became there, his process and all that stuff and that’s also at that link as well, and of course, if you want any more information about this episode you can go to indiefilmhustle. com/112, I’ve put a bunch of links there as well for more Stanley Kubrick stuff. I got some other cool Stanley Kubrick articles and stuff coming up in the coming weeks that I’m working on because, I’m again such a big fan, I really do believe that he has changed cinema, he’s one of those masters that change cinema and I do think that his work can benefit us, as in, indie filmmakers, if we even understand even a percent of a percent of a percent of what he was doing, it might be able to help us as filmmakers tell better stories and definitely by studying the Masters you do so. So, this is just one of the many masters but he’s definitely high on that totem pole. So, thanks for listening guys and as always, keep that hustle going, keep that dream alive and I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks for listening to the Indie Film Hustle podcast at indiefilmhustle.com, that’s, I n d i e f i l m h u s t l e .com
Stanley Kubrick – The Cinematic Experience
Born July 26,1928, New York City. My father was a doctor. I had few intellectual interests. As a child I was a school misfit and I don’t think I read a book for pleasure until after I graduated high school. I had one thing I think that perhaps helped me get over being a misfit…a school misfit, and that is that I became a student of photography, I mean at this point I was the whole crew, cameraman, assistant cameraman, director, everything.
You have to have patience because if you don’t your own frustrations prove to be too much of a distraction. It is a slow…you know it’s like those games where you jiggle all the balls into place, sometimes there’s more balls you’re jiggling than others but it’s largely that, and if you allow yourself to become irritated then it’s just another distraction.
Narrator: Your first experience with a Kubrick film will be a somewhat perplexing one. The distinguished approach to film making can make it difficult to comprehend let alone analyze what you’ve just seen. However if you do find yourself delving into this artist’s …then you’ll discover a filmography comprised not of accessibility but experimentation, headed by a director whose craft becomes established through a desire to reshape cinematic form itself defined by his constant need for continual change in technique where everything becomes centered around reinvention.
It’s a strenuous task to look at the works of Stanley Kubrick without coming across as panegyric, but I have to make that preference when discussing possibly the most celebrated visual artist of the 20th Century.
Speaker: You know everybody pretty much acknowledges he’s the man and I still feel that underrates him.
Narrator: So what is it about Kubrick’s films that escalate them to the highest tier of cinema? Well you’ll find that every project is received as an artistic revolution, not just in the context of his other work but in the domain of film itself. His filmmaking techniques are striking, but these salient approaches define the man as a director of extremes both in content and execution. His films don’t deal with intimate dramas, they examine the grandiose characteristics of life, exploring the deteriorating effects of war or the secrets kept by society so they may partake in their darkest fantasies. High concept subject matter and filmmaking techniques delivered with such ferocity that it redefines the cinematic experience. Redefine to such a degree that logic almost dissipates and pure experientiality takes over.
Few other filmmakers match Kubrick’s attention to detail in his work, and his process to think of work as ways to reshape lives could be seen as the origin of this because to think of art as having responsibilities other than just to be art elevates its importance in the mind of its creator. When it must convey a message it must have a purpose, this created a style of directing for Kubrick wherein every single element on screen was motivated, from character movement to costume design everything had a meaning. There’s an immeasurable degree of depth in Kubrick’s collection of work due to his refined conscientious filmmaking style because when every detail becomes a necessary intellectual component of a narrative it becomes simpler to understand its prestige in the medium.
Speaker: When I first saw 2001 I didn’t like it, three or four months later I was with some woman in California and I went to see it again and I liked it a lot more. A couple of years later I saw it again and I thought, “Gee this is really a sensational movie!” And it was one of the few times in my life that I realized that the artiste was much ahead of me.
Narrator: In order to research this project I decided to visit the Stanley Kubrick Archives in London. My time there was spent rummaging through boxes upon boxes of research material, script and story book, it’s a haven of everything from his films that you could possibly imagine. What I discovered was the procedure of how Kubrick would make a film, learning that every stage required a meticulous approach in the molding of them. Few rivaled his research and his work ethic bordered on the obsessed. This experience was how I imagined it is to see a great painter’s brushes, it was a way to gain a brief glimpse into the mind of a master at work.
Across all phases of Kubrick’s projects diligent attention to detail can be found, here was a man who even though he was financed by the studios, he gained a good enough reputation that meant he could maintain full creative control and he took this advantage into every area of every project.
Speaker: I remember one of the visits that I had with Stanley was at his home when he was working on Napoleon and he had a grid, a very detailed grid, and this covered the wall, he was counting the figures in each of these little squares that made up the grid.
Narrator: Pre-production may have meant location scouting an entire city just to find the perfect doorway. During filming it wasn’t unknown for one scene to have over 50 takes, and once the film was finished the editing may have been the most demanding task. Kubrick would have countless reaction shots and instead of setting simply with one that worked, he would go through every single take. The intense control even continued to Kubrick’s involvement with distribution, checking all the prints sent to cinemas and even visiting a few theatres himself.
Many may look upon his work ethic and find it extensive but this need to complete his vision and the determination he pursued it with is what gave Kubrick films such depth. But what exactly are people referring to when they refer to depth in a Kubrick film?
Speaker: Many artists when they put a canvas up which is blank, they start with very detailed pencil strokes, very small delicate pencil strokes. Stanley started conceptually in all of his movies, from my point of view, with large primary colored brush strokes and he would just like beat out these concepts.
Narrator: What was the culmination of this method? Well it’s one thing to have control, but to fuse this with Kubrick’s tendency for dynamic visual storytelling, granted every visual aspect of the frame an almost sacred quality. If there’s one thing Kubrick should be remembered for is that he changed the way visual stories were told.
By manipulating the…on sand in a way that hadn’t been done before, he was able to communicate through his own unique methods. Backgrounds and supporting areas of the main narrative contained some of the most vital information through its imagery. A majority of the film’s thematic presence thus became hidden in plain sight. This resulted in films with a multitude of narrative layers.
Kubrick’s narrative focus existed perpetually in a grey area. He would never sacrifice the main subject story; however his ostensible subject matter conceal the true messages within his film. With Kubrick a camera movement was more than just a camera movement and an action was more than just an action. This method of articulating ideas was one wherein everything seemed to contain a double meaning, one that serviced a narrative and another to deliver a symbolic connotation.
Speaker: He reaches over to shake Jack Nicholson’s hand and so step through that scene frame by frame and the minute that he and Jack Nicholson touch hands and right after the line which is “Nice to see you,” you can see a paper tray on the desk, turns into a very large straight on hard on coming out of Barry Nelson.
Narrator: For instance…character intentions were disguised in their actions. Victor’s two taps on the red table…matches the two taps of …staff on the red floor, and Kubrick carefully choreographed the sequence down to each step. Similarly in Clockwork, Alex’s enjoyment of …is demonstrated through his two kicks on the writer…matched with the two taps in the battle. And these are the less extreme examples
Because of Kubrick’s fascination with the visuals this transcended to their usage in his films to be implemented in a most abstract form, pure symbolism. Kubrick’s manner of filmmaking was to deliver all of the information to the audience, just not tell them that that information is there because he found that the least effective way to tackle ambitious themes was to do so directly, so instead subtle scenes had to be planted into the audience’s consciousness.
Kubrick raises the importance of the symbolic narratives to equal that of his main subject narrative, and in doing so his films blur the line of the conscious and the unconscious.
Kubrickian storytelling can be summed up by saying that it’s the audience’s job to discover meaning for themselves and it’s accomplished by complementing with those two opposing forces.
The most important part of watching a Kubrick film is how the experience feels, not the analysis of its reasoning. His films are puzzles that the viewer must assemble, reporting…and all things mysterious never explained.
Kubrick avoided offering answers in his work, each film is merely a hypothesis. Never abandoning the key subjects of his films, they always remained his main focus; however one of their duties was to be a vessel for the filmmaker to explore greater themes. His films are methods of expressing an idea without offering explanations for them because when an audience must create meaning for themselves it tests them to think on a higher plain of consciousness. Remember Kubrick wanted to reshape lives, we see this even in his subject matter. Writer Michele Simon said that Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining are opposite in intention, one is about the dangers of being pent up in family life whereas the other is about the dangers of straying too far from the family. These could be viewed as contradictory ideals but Kubrick doesn’t say that either is right, the themes don’t offer a conclusion, the filmmaker is holding a mirror to us and asking that we figure it out.
Many of Kubrick’s films can be viewed as allegories. His first film Fear and Desire is a very obvious example, the title itself is the themes of the film. But over the course of his career Kubrick learned that the key to his idea of cinematic experience is ambiguity, for instance take how transitions were used in his early work. (Insert)
And here they are later when pure experience was the priority.
Kubrick understood that exposition isn’t always necessary, first work on the content of the scene and then figure out how that message can be translated cinematically. For Kubrick this could be injected in the subtlest of ways because of his fastidious control. Character relationships surreptitiously conveyed through the art department and positioning displaying paradigm shifts or perhaps that things have remained the same. There’s a circularity of the film’s details throughout Kubrick’s work, techniques would re-emerge later in the piece so that scenes ought to be compared and contrasted with one another. This is how Kubrick dealt with his grand themes, by envisioning his films as self-contained ideas that grow and morph throughout their expression as ideas do in real life. Visuals were Kubrick’s biggest ally, he utilized the notion that all elements within an image had the capacity to convey something, something that the audience must figure out. They’re jigsaws where a piece is not so much missing as it is purposefully concealed. This is how cinema is done.
As an artiste is nothing without film, and filmmaking techniques are the trademarks of any director. So what was Kubrick known for?
I referred to Kubrick earlier as a director of extremes, and I used this definition because of the frequency as well as the intensity of his techniques. Kubrick’s films often feel very distant and that’s because they’re supposed to be, you can sense a certain barrier between the viewer and film’s universe, a barrier that’s strengthened by the film’s cinematic methods to disengage the viewer from personally identifying with the world. Techniques that stand out are essential because Kubrick was creating a unique perspective, this wasn’t our world, this world is exclusive at the movie.
Speaker: One of the things he said to me that I’ve always remembered was in movies you don’t try and photograph the reality, you try and photograph the photograph of the reality.
Narrator: First we need to examine the artistic decisions that Kubrick made, and we can categorize the purpose of many as methods to exaggerate and distract. The camera carried a frenzied need to amplify whatever was on screen, wide angels become extreme wide angles, low angles become extreme low angles.
The reason behind this penchant for the excessive was because Kubrick emphasizes a reality that presents a warped representation of humanity and the universe of the film replicates this. This is a metaphoric reality, a cinematic reality, his methods always reminded us of this fact therefore it was crucial that they be distinctive. Take a look at zooms for example, they’re an almost absent tool in cinema nowadays just because of how distracting they are, yet Kubrick used them religiously.
There are certain rules that filmmakers typically follow so that they can retain audience emersion but Kubrick sought to continually break these rules. He utilized the technique that were unique to cinema,, the camera movement, the editing, and heightened them so that he could distinguish his world as separate from our own. In turn they acknowledge and embrace a symbolic nature. This can be seen even further with the inhabitants of these worlds.
Because Kubrick’s focus revolved heavily around humanity, the acting was watched with heavy scrutiny. Kubrick typically let shots ride out with very little editing to not only build to a climax but to focus on an actor’s performance. Often during dialog scenes sometimes the only thing shown would be the reaction shots. Kubrick felt it more important to show people deal with their situations rather than the situations themselves. Focusing on the reaction gets this message across very well as you isolate the effect. Kubrick could even forgo what the character was looking at just to focus on their face, removing what would typically be a close-up, another example of reducing information delivered to the audience. But whenever possible action and reaction would be in the same shot.
But displaying the exaggerated depiction of humanity becomes evident in the performance itself. Kubrick once said that it can be very difficult not to have a cynical view of human relationships, and his pessimistic view can’t be ignored from his work as it becomes very visible in his characters’ expressions and performance.
We see the infamous Kubrick glare where faces contort into the most sinister forms imaginable and character interactions can feel stilted and cold, that’s because these characters are products of the environments they populate. The denizens of each universe simple exist in the most discernible part of the moral spectrum and their actions are intensified to match Kubrick’s extreme view of the darkest parts of the human spirit, the area he was so interested in exploring.
The methodology of Kubrick centered on developing a cinematic world whose self-awareness mimic the extreme tone that his characters lived in. It all serves us as creating an atmosphere that would make it believable that the situations we see could occur. The techniques of Kubrick weren’t just there to be obnoxious and show off, they were complementary of this belief, whether this meant the destabilization of the camera during the most thrilling moments or the action on screen practically choreographed to the music that’s played.
It’s important that the filmmaking of a movie matches its tone and Kubrick did just that as well as create a much deeper significance. He assembled films of tonal excellence because every possibility was exhausted in order to find the correct way to relay these messages. The multiple narratives were complemented by Kubrick’s filmmaking because every decision was galvanized by his desire for artistic expression.
Kubrick was once asked on how much he planned a scene, he responded, “As much as there are hours in a day and days in a week.” This pretty much sums up how Kubrick thought of movies. He was a known perfectionist, but how can you argue with the results? Nothing was out of the realm of possibility for Kubrick, if something seemed impossible, he’d simply work on propelling the technology of the medium forward so he could get it done because everything Kubrick did had a sufficient reason. Through his stylization of every filmic element he was able to communicate through all facets, through an audience that he treated with respect because in order to test the audience you must first test yourself.
Stanley Kubrick didn’t just make films, he defined the cinematic experience.