Kubrick - a season of genres
In April and May this year, the British Film Institute is running a Stanley Kubrick season celebrating his work. There is an additional exhibition at the Design Museum, from the end of April to September, exploring his creative design and process of film making.
If you can get to the BFI, you can see all of his films on the big screen, with A Clockwork Orange receiving a nationwide release on 5th April. The exhibition at the Design Museum will be exploring his creative design process.
Kubrick has been a fascination for me since my teenage years having watched 2001: A Space Odyssey by accident!
I was sucked in and mesmerised by the visual and aural experience. Last year I was lucky enough to finally see it on the big screen in the original format, including the intermission, which seemed to confuse an awful lot of people. It was awe-inspiring, and I’m so pleased I got the chance to experience as Kubrick had visualised it on the big screen.
Because of the way he worked, the variety of genres he covered, and the small number of films produced, he has become an enigma. Not only is he held up as one of the greatest film directors and auteur, but as something of a curiosity because of the way he worked, his process, and his famous boxes.
What made him seen as one of the greatest ever film directors, but by many as an eccentric and a recluse?
During a directing career of 46 years, he only created 13 films. He made six in the first ten years of his career, the gaps grew larger between each film, and as the gaps grew, so did the mystery developed around him.
Between 1953 and 1962, he made Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960) and Lolita (1962), the first of his films to be made in the UK.
Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas opened him up to a broader audience, even though The Killing is now highly regarded and influential, especially for the non-linear narrative. Directing Spartacus, he stepped up a league and received six Oscar nominations, winning four, including Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov and cinematography.
You can view Lolita as the start of his career where he took a slightly alternative view, films sitting on the edge of what many people considered acceptable and understandable. His adaptation had to remove much of the more ‘erotic’ relationship between Humbert and Lolita than in Nabokov’s novel to avoid censorship.
The other fundamental change from the book was the amount of time spent with the character of Quilty, played by Peter Sellers.
Kubrick uses the role of Quilty as a mirror of Humbert. Sellers was able to form the character as he felt worked best in the story.
It is easy to see why he let Sellers build the character. Sellers interpretation of Quilty draws attention away from some of the more difficult elements involving Lolita, and the issues they would have created for rating the film.
At the time it received neither critical or commercial success but has since found critical success, even though it still feels very jarring in places.
With Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb released in 1964, Kubrick again featured a showstopping performance from Peter Sellers, with him taking on three roles.
The film also continued the constant change of thematic direction which remained throughout his career. With this film seen as a political satire and black comedy, it took him away from his previous films with a great deal of success.
The film received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, but My Fair Lady won all three.
It continues to this day to be highly regarded and is nearly always found in Top 100 polls.
From the release of Dr Strangelove, there was the first of the growing gaps between films. However, when you consider the film that next arrived in 1968, it is no wonder. With its strapline being ‘an epic drama of adventure and exploration’ it could only be 2001: A Space Odyssey.
From the opening to closing shot, it was unlike anything ever seen before, which many would suggest has never been seen again.
It is considered to be one of the most influential films ever made. Its style, visual effects, use of sound and camera work continue to inspire filmmakers today. Without 2001, would we have had Star Wars, Alien or Bladerunner, and would Christopher Nolan directed Inception and Interstellar?
I could write a whole piece on this film (note to self - hold that thought); however, this is just a part of the journey. Without this film, would Kubrick have gone on to have been so celebrated and held in such high regard?
One last thing, I’d like to touch on is the sound design of the film.
If you watch it again and I urge you to, you need to bathe in the aural experience. No spoken words in the first or last 20 minutes of the film, the use of speech, sound and music are vital to the narrative and the immersive experience.
If 2001: A Space Odyssey became his most celebrated film, his next was undoubtedly his most controversial, and even years after his death continues to be.
A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971, based on the Anthony Burgess novel. It was not planned to be his next film; he was preparing the most famous of the films he never made, the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.
For all the controversy that the film gained after being released, it was the shortest shoot of Kubrick’s career. Considering his precise nature and shooting predominately on location this was quite an achievement.
Kubrick used unusual lenses to achieve some of the more dream-like sequences by using an extreme wide-angle lens, but without suffering a fish-eye effect. He also used fast and slow motion to convey both the direct violence and sexual violence featured in the film.
Following on from 2001 the visual aesthetics of Clockwork Orange were as important as the narrative.
It was released to critical and commercial success worldwide, and like 2001 it received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The issues that dogged it did not arise until a few months later.
The film was brought up in a manslaughter trial of a 14 year old boy, and later it was mentioned again in a rape case. Kubrick started to receive death threats and was held responsible for copycat violence. In 1973 Kubrick ordered the film to be withdrawn, and it was not available to view in the UK until after his death in 1999.
Like all culture that is banned or removed from publication, the folklore and urban mythology around it grew.
Though it was unable to be seen for 26 years, its cultural impact was still as vivid and clear as the day it went on general release. If you don’t believe me, check out this video here, that formed part of The Simpsons. These videos do of course contain other Kubrick influences, but the iconography of the Droogs seems as fresh today as it did over 40 years ago.
Many people consider this period of his film-making to be his best before many viewed him as being more ‘isolated’. Prior also to the increased gaps in his filmmaking due to the years of research that he made on each project.
Barry Lyndon was released in 1975, and again this was made instead of the film on Napoleon. This time he was able to use some of the research from that film, and transpose to Barry Lyndon.
By this time he was being seen as an auteur, and when creating his films, it was him that was the star, the reason people wanted to go and see his films. Maybe that’s why choosing Ryan O’Neal as his leading man wasn’t such a shock because he was starring in a Stanley Kubrick film.
Many critics consider this is to be his most authentic film; certainly, the methodology used to shoot it was to mirror reality as closely as possible.
Entirely shot on location, in Ireland and then in England after Kubrick received a death threat from the IRA, the film was shot at the height of the Troubles. The film won Oscars for Production Design, Costume Design and Cinematography, and once you watch the film, you can completely understand why. The interiors and exteriors are rendered beautifully through his shooting methods.
All of Kubrick’s films seem to become known for a technical device or innovation, and in Barry Lyndon, it was the use of lighting and lenses.
He wanted to light the interior shots as they had existed in the 18th century, so either natural or candlelight. For still photography, this would have been hard enough, but for moving imagery, Kubrick had to go further than before to achieve his goal.
I’m not going to get into the technicalities of what he did and how he achieved it, there is so much out there about it. To achieve his desired effect he had to use lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA to use on the Apollo missions!
These were super fast lenses, with the widest aperture ever used in filmmaking with a fixed focal length. The combination of using these lenses, ensuring the light was correct, placing everyone in the frame correctly, and then the actors had to deliver their lines to his satisfaction. With this level of detail, it might explain why it took 300 days to shoot.
Many scenes were shot over 30 times to ensure that everything was just right.
The film resembles a painting, the lighting, and ultra wide long shots. You feel as if you are stepping into the world through a picture frame wholly immersed in the 18th century.
On release, it was seen as a beautiful piece of work, but its commercial and critical success did not match his previous films. It also confirmed many critics thoughts of Kubrick as being cold and detached from his subject matter. In recent years it has been re-evaluated and seen as a far more complex film than just a thing of beauty. For example, Martin Scorsese declared it as his favourite Kubrick film.
However, the reception of the film at the time left Kubrick disappointed and is maybe one reason why he chose to adapt The Shining as his next film. He spoke of wanting artistic and commercial fulfilment.
Released in 1980, The Shining is based on Stephen King’s book of the same name. However, King was never happy with the adaptation, how it handled many of the themes in the book, especially the character of Wendy.
Even though the author didn’t approve of the adaptation, the film is seen by many to be a horror masterpiece. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
If the level of dedication on Barry Lyndon was detailed and meticulous, on The Shining, it reached another level with the way he created the film, both in pre-production and during the shoot.
As Kubrick did not travel outside of England, the Overlook Hotel, the complete interior of the hotel was created at Elstree Studios.
It was built over several stages so the film could be shot chronologically rather than as and when the sets were ready. The exterior shots were completed by a second unit in the US, including the aerial shots used at the start of the film, as that landscape was not realistically available in the UK.
With everything else shot at Elstree, Kubrick had complete control over all aspects of the shoot.
The shoot lasted over a year, with long working days for the cast and crew. Shelley Duvall suffered more than most; she was made physically ill and suffered from severe stress. Her hair started to fall out as a result of the filming schedule and her difficult relationship with Kubrick. The script was constantly being changed on the fly, with new versions generated throughout the shoot.
With his desire to produce a more immersive and realistic experience, Kubrick was the first director to make full use of a Steadicam. Rather than use it for ‘trick’ shots, he used it in combination with 18mm lenses to allow for close manoeuvring through doors and inside rooms, most famously following Danny on his tricycle along the corridors of the hotel. By Kubrick’s desire to push the technology further to achieve his goals, the Steadicam evolved during the production of the shoot into something more of just a way of moving up and down stairs, a la Rocky.
While the film is seen as a classic of the horror genre, it is seen by many as much more than that.
More than any of his other films, it is seemingly full of double meanings, hidden messages, and conspiracy theories. Check out the documentary Room 237 if you want to lose 100 minutes of your life you’ll never get back!
After the release of The Shining, Kubrick unusually returned a genre he’d worked in before, war.
In 1981 he started work on the adaptation of The Short-Timers, which came to be Full Metal Jacket. It took over a year to shoot, that included a four-month shutdown due to R Lee Ermey breaking all his ribs on one side during a severe car accident.
With each film he made, his reputation on how he worked grew, and this film was no different.
The film was shot in England including all the Vietnam scenes. To achieve the look and feel, the shoot representing Vietnam took place at the disused Beckton Gas Works in East London. The gasworks were due to be demolished, Kubrick helped this along, removing whole sections of the location as he quite literally shot the movie.
He imported 200 palm trees and 10,000 plastic tropical plants to make it feel more realistic. Watching the film, it would never occur to you that your location was East London rather than South East Asia.
The film was released in 1987, a year after Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and potentially the film suffered as a result of this, both critically and commercially. The film is brutal and doesn’t hold back on the horrific nature of war on all the people involved. However, the more ‘simple’ narrative means that the film has not been as discussed as much as his other films.
Sometimes it almost feels like the forgotten Kubrick film.
The film poster for his last film, released after his death in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut, probably says more about Kubrick than any other film poster. He is listed as if he is the film star.
Taking 400 days to shoot (still a world record), and Kubrick dying six days after completing the final edit; Eyes Wide Shut will never be watched purely on its own merits.
On a personal level, I cannot bring myself to watch the whole film, only due to my issues with Tom Cruise. I have never managed to get through an entire Tom Crusie film that he made before Minority Report in 2002; there is something about his face… Ok, enough of the issues with Tom Cruise, I can’t watch the film, but I can’t find anyone I know who has watched it and ‘enjoyed’ it either.
When describing a film as an ‘erotic psychological drama’, it places it in a slightly odd position for most film-goers. Many people probably saw it for two reasons; firstly it was a Kubrick film.
Also, it would potentially give a window into Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s relationship, possibly the biggest celebrities in the world at the time.
Even though the film was set in New York, it was all shot in England, with Greenwich Village recreated at Pinewood Studios. Like Barry Lyndon, Kubrick aimed to use ‘natural’ lighting as much as possible, and through push processing, he also enhanced the colour within the scenes. Some people have commented that this makes the film look garish, but not necessarily in the way that Kubrick would have wanted.
It received moderately good reviews, and commercially it did better than expected, but was this the film that Kubrick wanted to release? Much has been made of the fact that he died just after he’d shown his ‘final’ cut.
But, he was renowned for editing up to the last minute and make changes, especially with the sound. We will never know, and more than anything this film is more likely to be seen as his last film, rather than a Stanley Kubrick film.
When you break down his films, look at his methodology, his desire to innovate and push filmmaking it is easy to see how he became so influential.
Last year the OED added ‘Kubrickian’ to their dictionary, it’s definition being;
Of or relating to Stanley Kubrick; resembling or characteristic of his films.
Kubrick is particularly noted for his meticulous perfectionism, mastery of the technical aspects of film-making, and atmospheric visual style in films across a range of genres.
Those elements helped to build his films and career.
When I look at filmmakers and directors who are creating original work today, such as Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, you can see his influence; the tiny details, the character studies, the grand sweeping gestures.
The BFI have created a new video looking at this to tie into their season on him.
For me, Kubrick was a researcher and an artist, and by bringing the two together, he created something never seen before in film-making, and only elements of which have been seen since.
I would love to point you to the perfect example of his research, which is the Jon Ronson documentary broadcast in 2008 on Channel 4. Sadly you can’t find it anywhere now, but you can read the accompanying article in The Guardian. For me, this separates the man from the myth and shows that being obsessed with getting things right is not something of which to be afraid.
I believe had he been born 30 or 40 years later; most people would consider that rather than being a recluse, unemotional and detached; he would have been seen as being on the autistic spectrum. Everything about his working style suggests that to be the case.
As an artist working in film, he was able to fulfil his potential across every film he wanted, which is probably why he moved across genres. It is also why you can consider that the definition of ‘Kubrickian’ is more about his working style rather than his output?
If you ask most people to name three Kubrick films, you will rarely hear Barry Lyndon mentioned, a film so much like an old master you can almost feel the texture of it.
If you can see A Clockwork Orange later this week on the big screen, grab the opportunity and let me know what you think of the world he created. Immersing you in a violent society that wants to manipulate young people’s minds…