“Kubrick can’t die,” said Carmen Ficarra, my friend and fellow writer for this magazine, “because every 80 years he has to make another film.”
I had the same reaction when I first heard of Kubrick’s death. Wasn’t he immortal, hadn’t he adapted to some higher level of intelligence, of breathing? Here he is dead, and Eyes Wide Shut, a film perhaps more eagerly anticipated than Malick’s The Thin Red Line, hasn’t even been released. We don’t yet have the chance to deconstruct his latest opus and now we are suddenly, and wrongly, forced to eulogize him. All the words used to describe him in the past-reclusive, eccentric, obsessive-now seem even more vague and pointless, since no artist as inscrutable as Kubrick can be reduced to mere adjectives.
When I learned he’d died in his sleep from natural causes, the first image I had was of David Bowman from 2001, resting in his interstellar bed and slowly rising to greet the star baby who beckoned him to his final frontier. The next image was of Kubrick simply dead. I wondered for a moment if he had somehow planned this exit, having completed editing
on his last film, unwilling to suffer through the marketing strategies and ratings controversies. Perhaps he was in despair, since one of the predictions he made 20 years ago in 2001 had finally come true. On this eve of the millennium, the most interesting character in our lives is a computer.
When I checked the web for information about Kubrick, I found several personal home pages dedicated to minutiae about the filmmaker (his collections of cameras, his skills as a chess player), as well as hundreds of others with biographical data and detailed behind-the-scenes information about all of his films. There was one that included
photos from his days as a staff photographer for Look. The pictures were unremarkable, except for the cool distance he maintained from his subjects. Another site responded to questions from users seeking trivia about Kubrick.
Many of the pages repeated material. All of them, however, reached a dead end at the closed gates of his rural home in Hertfordshire, England. In a culture that loves to desiccate our celebrities and hang them in the wind, Kubrick chose retreat with a finality that begged us to storm its walls. It makes sense that a recluse who, in his films, so brutally ignored compassion would inspire such intense fan adoration. At one point an Englishman successfully impersonated
him, as if that was the only way to imagine what his life was like. The film historian and critic David Thomson wrote that
Kubrick withdrew to “an abode of paranoia, and the cunning suggestion of being grander than others could dream of.” He invited our awe by making a show of his misanthropy. It’s interesting to note Kubrick’s respect for Spielberg, a gregarious extrovert who has admitted he makes films to please his family, friends, and fans.
Thomson savages Kubrick in his book, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, deeming his films “devoid of artistic personality” and his style as “meretricious, fussy, and detachable.” He refers to his “trite sensibilities,” his “defects as a storyteller,” and the “vulgar baroque of Kubrick’s mind.”
All of which are reasonably astute criticisms shared by many who found Kubrick’s frame-by-frame compulsiveness a pompous scam to cover up his genuine lack of feeling. But as Robert Phillip Kolker writes in his book, A Cinema of Loneliness, Kubrick’s films offered “insight while giving immediate pleasure; they are beautiful to watch, funny,
and spectacular.” Kolker believes Kubrick calculated everything, including the response of his viewers. With that in mind then, did he deliberately point up the superfluity of narrative structure in 2001, or was he incapable of sustaining one? Is the violence in A Clockwork Orange brilliant commentary or gleeful self-indulgence? Are the numbing boot camp sequences in Full Metal Jacket his report on the lobotomizing of the warrior, or was he enjoying the degradation? Kubrick’s genius may rest ultimately in his creation of an ambiguous aura of genius. When talking with my friend, Carmen, we stopped ourselves from getting into a long discussion about Kubrick when we found ourselves unable to get past our disagreement over a simple driving scene in The Shining. Kubrick sparked such contradictions.
In my own personal collection of tapes, I have five Kubricks, more than any other director. When I watched 2001 again recently I found it frustratingly inert and indecipherable, but I still speak of it in hushed tones, remembering the wide-eyed, confused rapture I succumbed to when I first saw the film with my dad more than 30 years ago. The
brutal abandon of the “Singing in the Rain” sequence in A Clockwork Orange still troubles me.
What director could conceive of such blasphemy? The disgusting harangue of Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket I find embarrassing and funny, but I’m never sure whether to laugh. It’s a movie that still unsettles me. I watched the first 30 minutes of The Shining the night Kubrick died, turning it off when I realized I was viewing Jack Nicholson’s prior romance in a different light: not as a man going crazy but as an actor who either couldn’t abide another take, or who simply wanted to get away from Shelley Duvall. That’s not true. The truth is that I turned it off because it was late and I was alone and I wasn’t prepared to be so deeply frightened.
I still embrace Barry Lyndon as my favorite color Kubrick the black and-white, The Killing, is my second favorite).
The pace, which infuriates so many people, takes my breath away, and the first time I saw it I felt I’d never before been so completely transported by a film.With my mother’s permission I skipped school to see it in 1975 so I Gould write about it for our high school paper. It was an event. It played in one of the new mall theaters in Tacoma,WA, a huge, plushly carpeted auditorium with five aisles and a thousand seats (this was before muki-plexing), and an intermission,
during which I thought deep thoughts about what I was seeing and simply could not wait until the picture started up again. I watched it for the 10th time the night he died and found myself moved by it (an un-Kubrickian emotion if there ever was one), moved because now I realized that a mere mortal had made this film, and he would never make another one.
A decade ago my wife and I took a trip around the world, and it seemed as if the world was screening Kubrick. We
saw Dt Strangelove in Seville, Full Metal Jacket in Nice, and A Clockwork Orange in Sydney. I still have on my wall a Thai-language poster of Full Metal Jacket I picked up in Chang Mai. I wrote my first paper in film school on the opening sequence of 2001. I told my son the plot of The Shining and now when he wants to scare his sister he Oexes his index finger and growls, “Redrum.” Part of the Kubrick enigma was his ability to touch us tangentially while remaining so aloof, so secure in his “cold, humorless authority,” as Thomson puts it.
And he has touched us. All of us. He made what some consider the greatest anti-war statement ever filmed with Paths
of Glory. He pushed satire into the orbit of the deranged with Dr. Strangelove and his you-are-there staging of the combat footage in that film no doubt inspired the same approach in Saving Private Ryan. He forever altered our perception of the universe and the filmic effects to express it with 2001. In A Clockwork Orange, he took violence absurdly beyond the slackness of Bonnie and Clyde and the elegy of The Wild Bunch. He was perhaps the last of the authors, controlling everything, divulging nothing.
I don’t believe he’s really dead. He’s just playing chess somewhere wfth that alien fetus, forcing him into game after game after game. MM