He was a film director who invented himself. Positioned between the directors of the Hollywood studio system and the generation trained in university film schools, Stanley Kubrick was an autodidact and a 20th century filmmaking pioneer. He completed only 13 features in a half-century, but his larger-than-life status was achieved by his consistency of vision, fierce dedication to total control, and mastery of the cinematic medium. Citing his unique contribution to the most popular art form of the 20th century, Steven Spielberg called Kubrick the grand master of filmmaking and observed that “He created more than just movies. He gave us complete environmental experiences that got more, not less, intense the more you watched his pictures. He copied no one, while all of us were scrambling to imitate him.”
Kubrick was a poor student with low grades when he became captivated by still photography as a teenage boy in the Bronx. His obsession with the photographed image led to filmmaking. Kubrick was a wunderkind staff photographer for Look magazine when he decided he was going to make a film short. The film Day of the Fight, based on a Look photo story, was 22-year-old Kubrick’s first venture into the medium. Working with his documentary subject, middleweight boxer Walter Cartier, Kubrick created the screenplay and learned how to operate a movie camera by countertop instruction from a rental house salesman. Later, to edit the film, he taught himself how to operate a Moviola and then constructed the soundtrack frame by frame during the sound editing process. The project led to Kubrick’s second short subject, Flying Padre, and an industrial commission, The Seafarers.
Kubrick made the leap to independent feature filmmaking by convincing his uncle Martin Perveler to finance a low-budget film. Kubrick co-wrote the existentially drenched script with Howard O. Sackler, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Great White Hope. Kubrick photographed the film himself in black and white without studio assistance or Hollywood professionals. Although the film is crude, it reveals the raw beginnings of his dynamic sense of cinematic composition and introduces themes he tackled throughout his career-the
futility of war and the cruel nature of man.
Kubrick’s second feature film, Killer’s Kiss, was also a totally independent venture. The film was shot on location in New York City with Kubrick behind the camera. A testament to guerrilla filmmaking, it is a noir portrait of a down-and-out boxer photographed in bleak black and white. Though Kubrick later referred to the film as the equivalent of a student undertaking, Killer’s Kiss achieves a documentary environment with haunting, surreal overtones.
After two features Kubrick moved beyond his self-proclaimed amateur status and formed Harris-Kubrick Pictures with producer James B. Harris. Their first collaboration was The Killing, an adaptation of the novel Clean Break, the story of a racetrack robbery which was structured in a time-shuttling narrative presenting multiple points of view by moving back and forth in the timeline. The film starred Sterling Hayden and featured a cast of veteran crime film actors.
Kubrick again wanted to photograph the film, which was being produced in Hollywood, but the cameraman’s union wouldn’t allow it. Instead, Kubrick hired master director of photography Lucien Ballard and stood up to the venerable cameraman for every shot of his dynamic uncompromising vision. The Killing is the first mature Stanley Kubrick film. The hopelessness of crime is portrayed by the noir narrative and the existential style. The characters are entrapped by the use of space and camera movement. The Kubrick aesthetic of meticulously symmetrical compositions gives The Killing an austere visual style.
The second Harris-Kubrick production was Paths of Glory, an adaptation of the Humphrey Cobb World War I novel. The two filmmakers managed to entice Kirk Douglas to star in the film and to produce the project under the aegis of his Bryna Productions. Universally acclaimed as one of the great anti-war films, Paths of Glory reveals the ugly politics of war as three innocent French soldiers are sacrificed for the explosive egos of their superiors. Kubrick continued to evolve his decisive visual style. Shots were centered and carefully counterbalanced. Kubrick had long admired the fluid camera movement of Max Ophuls and the gruesome trench scenes which open the film and fuel the narrative are shot with a relentless tracking camera. Kubrick’s powerful use of the dolly shot leapt into cinematic parlance as a “Kubrick dolly shot” defining the technique of moving the camera either forward or back while shooting straight on to maintain a pristinely center-framed composition.
In 1960 Kubrick directed Spartacus when star Kirk Douglas asked him to take over for Anthony Mann who was removed from the production. Although Spartacus ranks amongst the best of the “epic” genre, Kubrick’s lack of artistic control convinced him to turn away from Hollywood, a decision that lasted the full extent of his career. Kubrick’s displeasure with his limited authority caused friction with Douglas on the Spartacus set. “He’ll be a fine director someday, if he falls flat on his face just once. It might teach him how to compromise.” Next, Harris-Kubrick took on the scandalous literary masterwork Lolita. Kubrick mounted the production in England, far from Hollywood, for several logical reasons. The studios were well-equipped, the technicians well-trained, the budget costs restrained and he could exercise total control over the film. Lolita was a handsome production in black-and-white. Kubrick’s challenge was to maneuver Nabokov’s erotic and verboten sexual matter past the Code Seal censors and the all-mighty and omniscient Catholic church. Kubrick and Harris acted on high levels of diplomacy to pull off the feat while imbuing their Lolita with rich black humor and layers of double entendres.
Lolita ended the 10-year Harris-Kubrick relationship and began Kubrick’s residency as an American film director who worked exclusively in the UK. Kubrick next chose to tackle the subject of nuclear annihilation. He began by researching the science and philosophy of nuclear war and optioning Red Alert, a serious dramatic novel by Peter George. Although Kubrick had long been personally terrified by the potential of an all-out nuclear war, he eventually turned his devilish sense of black humor on the project. Novelist Terry Southern turned the original story on its head and the film was renamed Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Shooting in black and white on a soundstage in England, Kubrick was in supreme command of the content and the visual style of the film. Production designer Ken Adam who had created the look for the James Bond film series, invented the circular-structured War Room and recreated the interior of the U.S. bomber cockpits without receiving official permission to examine the real thing. Based on intensive research in military magazines Adam brought realism to the outrageous comedy and imagination to the notion of a War Room used to plan global conflicts. Adam and Kubrick were so successful they even fooled President Ronald Reagan, who at the dawn of his first term, anxiously asked to tour the White House War Room which only existed in movieland.
In 1964 Stanley Kubrick embarked on a four year odyssey to make a new kind of science fiction film. He collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on a novel to be adapted into a screenplay. Kubrick was not happy with any of the special effect technology available so he set out with a team of four effects innovators and invented the technology to bring his vision to the screen. The result, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a landmark film on many fronts. The non-narrative structure which relies on issues/34/images and sound to communicate had a substantial impact on commercial filmmaking. The look of the film inspired countless films of the genre-notably the Star Wars series and Blade Runner. With 2001 Kubrick established a new working method. He began taking more time between projects. He would decide on a topic or genre and research the field totally. Now living permanently outside of London, he would develop the visuals down to the most minute detail. Exercising total and complete authority over all the crafts involved in his movies, Kubrick was now operating on his own terms. His take ratio began to climb. Soon his only contact with Hollywood was in connection with the distribution of his work. After 2001, Kubrick made a deal with Warner Bros. which would last for the rest of his career and life. Warner’s would distribute his films with no questions asked. Kubrick had final say over subject, content, cast, crew and, of course, the director’s beloved final cut. Kubrick’s “no compromise” reputation was burgeoning at the same time as mythology was developing around his personality traits and work methods. Keir Dullea, who starred in 2001, tried to set the record straight. “H’s a very quiet man and your dealings with him were intimate in that sense. Good directors are wonderful con men. The best directors all have that facility. He had a quiet power. He was such a stickler for detail, but there was nothing tyrannical about him. Stanley was a true Renaissance man. He knew about so many things having nothing to do with filmmaking.”
Often Kubrick used the adaptation process to completely revise the narrative of a novel to tell his own story, but his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was absolutely faithful to the author in story and visualization. Kubrick was attracted to the idea that a person’s nature and will could be altered by applied science. The violence and language are presented in over-the-top comic book fashion, creating a disturbing impact on the audience. The point of the film is to support free will wherever it surfaces, including in violent and sexual impulses. A Clockwork Orange is structured in three sections and is rendered in precise and vivid pictorial detail. The film was originally rated ‘X’ in the U.S. and Kubrick himself banned the film in the UK when copycat crimes began to surface. The film continues to speak directly to young audiences even after over 25 years in release.
Next Kubrick chose to make the ultimate period film, selecting Barry Lyndon, considered a minor Thackeray novel by scholars. Barry is a common thief and a rogue who marries for wealth and power. Kubrick tells his story with dark humor in the style of an English novel. A proper English-accented narrator and title cards give the film a literary illusion. The visuals are highly pictorial, perfectly centered and adorned with lavish details gathered from the exacting study of paintings from the period. Barry Lyndon is the first film to shoot scenes exclusively lit by candlelight. Kubrick had a still photography lens mounted to his Panavision movie camera. The result is not only realistic, but transports the viewer back in time as it illuminates the patina of the period environment. The constant narration, repetitive classical music score and lack of action and dramaturgy played poorly in the United States, but the film was well-received throughout Europe. Eventually Barry Lyndon began to be recognized and appreciated by critics and re-evaluation has placed it on international best films lists.
Kubrick’s next project began as a quest to make the most terrifying horror film ever made. Kubrick read through the classic and contemporary canon of horror fiction and selected Stephen King’s The Shining. The novel was very loosely adapted into a film that explored the horror of family violence and the ghosts of a haunted hotel. Kubrick’s work always combines a dark narrative of ideas with technical virtuosity that brings the vision to life. King’s Overlook Hotel was actually built to full scale on a soundstage in London. Kubrick had learned of the Steadicam, a new device invented by Garrett Brown, which allowed free and smooth movement of the camera. The massive and realistically detailed set was built with the Steadicam in mind even though Kubrick had not yet seen the prototype. Brown’s work on the film following Danny Torrance around on his Big Wheel trike helped expand the grammar of the moving camera. The Shining is an unconventional horror film which provokes the audience with its creepy sound design and well-positioned title cards as well as traditional effects like ghosts and gore. The Shining has enduring popularity; the Jack Nicholson’s perennial star power memorialized Jack Torrance’s “Here’s Johnny” in modern film vernacular. Nicholson praised Kubrick’s perfectionism. “Stanley’s demanding. He’ll do a scene 50 times and you have to be good to do that. There are so many ways to walk into a room, order breakfast, or be frightened to death in a closet. Stanley’s approach is, ‘How can we do it better than it’s ever been done before?’ It’s a big challenge. A lot of actors give him what he wants. If you don’t, he’ll beat it out of you. With a velvet glove, of course.”
Kubrick’s obsession with war led him to take on the Vietnam conflict even though major filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone had explored the subject from emotional, psychological and realistic vantages. Kubrick used Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers as an armature for Full Metal Jacket. Never one for realism at the expense of what he found truly interesting, Kubrick took the film’s language and violence to a heightened actuality. Kubrick and his production designer, Anton Furst, built the Marine training camp on a soundstage and backlot. The barracks were created down to the last meticulous detail, but Kubrick’s center-perfect compositions and the fluid forward and back dead-on positioned dolly shots gave the environment a surreal quality as real-life drill Sergeant Lee Ermey articulated his training lingo at absurdist levels. Other filmmakers took on the jungles of Vietnam, Kubrick went into the heart of the city, mobilizing his camera and the Steadicam through the rock and rubble he created.
Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987 and was a modest success. To the public, Stanley Kubrick went into a long silence, but the secretive and reclusive filmmaker continued to work every day on numerous projects. In 1993 Kubrick was ready to put Aryan Papers into production in Europe. The film, an adaptation of Louis Begley’s Holocaust novel Wartime Lies, was canceled, many speculate because of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning production of Schindler’s List. Kubrick also was in pre-production on A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), based on a short story by science fiction master Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt the special effect technology was not advanced enough for the film and put it on the back burner.
Next up was Kubrick’s longtime fascination with Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novel, a film he’d been developing since the early ’70s. Kubrick sent a fax to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and immediately got the power couple on board as his stars. Even in the “communications” age, Stanley Kubrick had the capacity to keep Eyes Wide Shut shrouded in secrecy. Prior to its July 16, 1999 release only select factoids were confirmed. The adaptation brings Schnitzler’s story into contemporary times and transplants the European locale to New York (built on a London soundstage and backlot). The scenario is an erotic thriller and tantalizing trailers show an unadorned Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in compromising positions.
Shortly after the completion of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick died suddenly in the early morning of March 7, 1999. For his fans worldwide, the unthinkable had happened. Although Kubrick rarely gave interviews, almost never left his residence in England and was absent to a hungry multimedia, his presence was always felt. Stanley Kubrick was always out there making movies, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, the definition of a legend. He leaves Eyes Wide Shut as his last major work. We will never see Aryan Papers or A.I. or his production of Napoleon, one of the cinema’s great unmade potential masterworks. After his death a tearful Steven Spielberg announced he had been working with Kubrick for three years on a project he would direct to be produced by Stanley Kubrick. Out of respect for the master, Spielberg wouldn’t elaborate on the project or even reveal the subject matter.
Stanley Kubrick has now taken his place in the international pantheon of celebrated 20th century film directors. His legacy is 13 feature films and some of the greatest moments in all of world cinema. Though he left moviegoers with so many unforgettable images (the Star Child in 2001, the trenches of doom in Paths of Glory, the mesmerizing maze of The Shining and a hundred others) most of all he has left us with the confirmation that film is not only an art form, but perhaps the greatest of art forms. MM
(Image courtesy Warner Bros.)