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The Story of Stanley Kubrick

March 21, 2017
15 min read

His very name conjures a near instant reverence among film audiences who know anything about film, and also among critics, professors, film students and filmmakers. To this day, eighteen years after his sudden, unexpected death, there are many who believe Kubrick to be the greatest director in the history of the cinema. There is no question his work was audacious, bold, often perverse, groundbreaking and many of his films are for the ages, but it cannot be denied some of his work was flawed. They show the weaknesses of a brilliant man, who when in absolute command of his many gifts was undeniably brilliant, but like any great artist, he was possessed of flaws.

Not every film was a masterpiece. No one can do that, but his ten finest were all interesting in diverse ways, and not once did he ever repeat himself. The first five on my list of ten are, no question, masterpieces of the cinema. The other five? Not so much, though they have their moments of undeniable power, performances and imagery. Kubrick’s best films are remarkably cerebral works in that must not only be seen but experienced. You must not only see a Kubrick film with more than your eyes, ears and mind, but your entire being must be in tune with the film as it is unfolding before you. Without that, you will never truly understand a Kubrick film and what makes them great.

In 1980, at the first screening I saw of ‘The Shining’, I remember audience members laughing when Jack Nicholson came through the door with an axe, saying with deadly intent, “Here’s Johnny!” Laughing! I was stunned! Did they not understand the film? Imagine you are on the other side of that door with poor Shelly Duvall, and suddenly it is not so funny anymore, is it? Watch Duvall in the scene, the absolute visceral terror she exhibits is how the audience is meant to feel, as if they are in fact experiencing the film. You could never just watch a Kubrick film because there is so much going on, so much more than what we could see and hear, every single detail in the moment matters, have a purpose. But it is what is underneath the surface of the scene that matters, the subtext.

What I came to love about Kubrick films was the perversity of man that was explored in every film, a moment when we should be repelled, when we should look away in horror, but we cannot, because the director so beautifully draws us in. He was fearless as an artist. Meticulous, and even a task master when he knew what he wanted, and there never seems to have been a time when he did not know what he wanted. His confidence as a filmmaker was intoxicating, addictive even.

His treatment of his actors was often a means to an end, which is not to say he was always fair with them, but he certainly knew the buttons to push to get outstanding performances out of them. His harsh treatment of Shelly Duvall during the making of ‘The Shining’ (1980) was part of drawing out her consistently hysterical performance that captures raw, unbridled terror to perfection. The actress was emotionally battered, but respected what he was doing, the treatment and exclusion adding to her performance. She may not have liked it, but she understood.

The mind games Kubrick played with his actors was more often than not merely silence. But they were glacially cold silences that could extend for weeks till he got what he needed. Then he was warm, chess loving Stanley again. His strange behavior often left his actors confused and perplexed. Malcolm MacDowell was amazed that Kubrick encouraged him to go out on a limb with his performance, to go further than any other director had asked. He never felt safe, but stated that Kubrick was with him every step of the way.

His search for “the moment” in a scene which would then define the scene, even the film, was relentless. It might be a scene between two or more actors, it might be a look from an actor, it might be a gesture or a piece of action, you just could not predict what it might be. Walking into a Kubrick film you never know what to expect, except to expect the unexpected, and that he was never going to repeat himself, and he never did. Not once.

His close personal friendship with Steven Spielberg was made public after his passing in 1999; Spielberg speaking of long conversations on the phone, Kubrick’s loving admiration of ‘E.T. the Extraterrestrial’ (1982), his many discussions with Spielberg about his long gestating project ‘A.I. : Artificial Intelligence’ (2001) which they had planned to make together. Spielberg fast-tracked the film into production, directing the film with the remote chillness of Kubrick, merged with his own warm humanity. It is a masterpiece that audiences are beginning to discover, a film that will stand tall in the years to come.

The time between films became longer, not because he was not working; he always was, but because he would not begin a project until he was ready. Consider the three year gap between ‘Paths of glory’ (1957) and ‘Spartacus’ (1960). He was fired by Marlon Brando from ‘One Eyed Jacks’ (1961), and his next two films came out in 1964, then 1968, followed by 1971, and then 1975. Then five years went by to 1980, another seven to 1987 and finally twelve to 1999, his last film. In between films he worked on a long awaited project on Napoleon, which he wanted to make with Jack Nicholson, the one which HBO is now making, without Nicholson obviously. He wanted to make several other films that never came to pass, but what he did make would be legend.

His relationship with Warner Brothers was such that when he was ready to make a film, he made a call, got his budget, and was left alone for however long it took. The trust between the studio and the director was extraordinary; very few directors have ever enjoyed such a free and liberating relationship with a studio.

Yes, it is stunning that he did not ever win an Oscar for Best Director, though he was nominated four times, and won a slew of critics awards. However he did not make films to win awards, he made them to tell a story. I suspect he would have valued an awards from the DGA more than Oscar, as he was an active film watcher and a fan of the movies.

There is of course great mystery surrounding Kubrick, many crazy stories. It was said he never returned to the U.S. after making ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) because he feared flying, which is ridiculous. He simply loved England, which was far removed from Hollywood which he disdained, and his agreement with Warner Brothers was such that he could make the films he wanted to make with no interference and at his own pace. His meeting challenges was equally remarkable, devising many of the Oscar winning visual effects in ‘2001’ (1968) and approached and secured special lenses from NASA to shoot the candlelight sequences in his exquisite ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975).

Long an admirer of his work, you must understand that I do not believe he was or is the greatest director in film history any more than I believe Hitchcock was a great director. However, Kubrick gave us an exceptional body of groundbreaking work that redefined American cinema and the language of film.  He is certainly among the greatest directors in cinema history, and his films, at least some of them, among the finest in history.

For me, his best are as follows.

10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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The least of his films; the strangest, but one lacking in power. More than two years of filming and they could not find a narrative. Though impeccably made, with beautiful cinematography, there is no question as to the film’s beauty, but we never care about the characters, and frankly I grew tired of listening to Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise repeat one another’s lines back to each other. Tedious, easily the most disappointing work of his career. Sadly self indulgent and though Cruise and Kidman are game, it amounts to a whole lot of nothing. After twelve years waiting for a new Kubrick film, we expected something more than this.

 

9. Lolita (1961)

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Based on the infamous novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the controversial film explores the forbidden relationship between a man in his forties and a fourteen year old girl. James Mason gives a daring performance as the man obsessed with a child, portrayed as a gum smacking, lollipop loving flirt by the precocious Lolita. His obsession will take over his very existence until he loses himself in his strange connection to her. The film, if nothing else, proved Kubrick was never going to be controlled by Hollywood and would make the films he wanted to make.

 

8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

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Just a year after Platoon (1986) brought the war in Vietnam back from its comic book mentality, Kubrick adapted a novel entitled The Short Timers to the screen as ‘Full Metal Jacket’, a sometimes astonishing film about the manner in which young men are made into killers. Flawed in that the first half is far better than the second, the training sequences on the island are extraordinary, as a tough drill instructor portrayed with chilling realism by R. Lee Emery turns young Americans into killers. The sequences set in Hue are less effective though still powerful. One of the better films in exploring the futility of the war, the shocking images of swift, sudden death linger in the memory long after you see it.

 

7. Spartacus (1960)

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Kubrick stepped in after star Kirk Douglas fired the previous director, trusting the younger man after the work he did on ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957). Douglas hired banned writer Dalton Trumbo to write the script based on the Howard Fast novel, which deals with the uprising and revolt of the slaves in Ancient Rome. Kubrick took over for the fired Anthony Mann and at once began scrapping scenes with reams of dialogue he knew he could get with a single, silent shot. Douglas went with whatever the young director did, and though it is the most genre based film of his career, it is a powerful, thinking man’s epic.

 

6. Paths of Glory (1957)

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A unique film, an anti-war film that broke the Hollywood tradition of war films, exploring French officers in World War I. When a group of French soldiers refuse an order, they are court-martialled for their actions and branded cowards. The soldier defending them, Dax (Kirk Douglas) knows they are anything but cowards, but is unclear on how to defend them on such trumped up charges. Should men defy an officer when they know he is sending them to certain death? Should men, in war, have that sort of power over other men. Douglas was outstanding, and Kubrick established himself as a director to be taken seriously.

 

5. Barry Lyndon (1975)

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An exquisite adaptation of the William Thackeray novel of 1844, Kubrick fell into this when funding from MGM fell through for his Napoleon film. He cast Ryan O’Neal, then a major star as the hero of the film, a womanizing lout who seeks wealth, title and position and manages to sleaze and sleep his way through the aristocracy of the time. Set during the Seven Years War, the film offers a  panoramic view of Europe, following our opportunistic hero in his scheming climb up the social ladder. The cinematography is truly breathtaking, capturing the stunning greens of the landscape, bringing the land to startling life. With Academy Award winning design and costumes, the film is as authentic as anything of the period ever put on screen. The film requires patience, one must fall in and allow the place and time to wash over you. Truly remarkable.

 

4. The Shining (1980)

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When Kubrick bought the rights to the Stephen King bestseller The Shining, people might have forgotten that once he bought the rights it was no longer a King zoom, it was now a Kubrick film. Yes the writer has publicly disowned the film, which did not hurt the picture one bit, and in fact, since its release more than thirty five years ago, it has grown in reputation. A horror film, the movie explores a family settling into a resort hotel, The Overlook, high in the Colorado mountains that shuts down for the winter. Hired as the caretaker, Jack (Jack Nicholson) will connect with ghosts of the hotel and the eerie claustrophobia that sets in. Nicholson is brilliant in one of his finest performances, walking the fine line between being genuinely terrifying and over the top. That he is frightening is a credit to him as an actor. Shelly Duvall is terrific as Wendy, his wife who becomes the target of his madness and wrath. Beautifully shot, the film is easiest the most gorgeous horror film ever made. Blood may flow freely in other horror films, but ‘The Shining’ gets under your skin and is frightening in a way few films have ever been.

 

 3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Imagine a year or two after 9/11 someone decides to make a black comedy about it. There would be such public outcry that the film would either be a minor hit, banned or fail outright. Kubrick displayed staggering courage, making a black comedy about the end of the world only a couple of years after we came close to nuclear war with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the film, a rogue pilot believing we are under attack, takes a loaded nuclear warhead and heads to Russia to launch it. At home, the President must tell the Russian President what had happened and prepare for the counterattack, which is inevitable. The scenes in the war room, where no fighting is permitted, are hilarious yet disturbing in how dark the filmmaker chose to go. Peter Sellers in multiple roles deserved the Oscar, George C. Scott is exceptional, Slim Pickens hilarious as the redneck who takes the bomber to Russia,  and Sterling Hayden is sublime. A true black comedy, the film remains dark through to its bleak and perverse ending. Truly startling that it still packs a punch.

 

2. 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968)

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The language of the cinema evolved with this film, which opens with the Dawn of Man sequence and will end centuries later with the birth of a star child, floating in space, on his way to earth. Challenging, demanding, intellectual, breathtaking and cerebral, the film dares the audience to go on a journey, and then decide for themselves what the film has been about; nothing is spelled out for anyone. Throughout the picture we see the many characters face-to-face with a monolith, a black rectangular object standing straight up. Each time this object is encountered, there is an advancement in intelligence, from the ape-man learning how to to kill with a bone, therefore food, or using that same bone as a weapon to defend the waterhole, to man finding their way to Jupiter with the intellect the object provides. The visual effects are miraculous for 1968, and today are equally remarkable. With classical music on the soundtrack, the images in space are wonderful. The villain in the film is the HAL 9000 computer, which attempts to sabotage the mission. The disconnection of HAL is haunting as we hear it die, all the more frightening because the computer knows it is dying. For me, the film is about the advancement of intellect. Masterful.

 

 1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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Forty six years after its release, the true genius of this dark futuristic film is that the future portrayed in the dystopian society still looks possible. With a bouncy, jaunty performance from Malcolm McDowell as Lex, the leader of a vicious gang of thugs known as the Droogs, who speak in a futuristic merging of English, Russian and street speak. They pillage, steal, rape and eventually murder, which finally lands Alex in jail. He volunteers for a program that sees him undergo a form of near torture that makes the very things he did sickening to him, thereby taking away his choice, which makes him the darling of anti-government groups. He is cured, he tells us the end of the film as he dreams again of criminal activities, his dark smile drawing us in, a reminder that he is anything but a victim. The film has a genuine light feel to it despite the darkness of its subject matter that brings a perversity to it. Much of the violence has a balletic feel to it though no less shocking and real. The scene where Alex, beating an old man, about to rape his younger wife, bursting into song, crooning to Singin in the Rain, punctuating each stanza with a kick and a punch is shattering, yet I challenge anyone to look away. Timeless and complete genius from the actors, the cinematography, design, editing, sound, score, writing and most of all the direction.

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