In honor of Somerset House’s current Stanley Kubrick-inspired art exhibition in London, we will take a look at the director’s formative years and some of his most brilliant and important films. The exhibit, which is supported by Kubrick’s surviving wife, Christiane Kubrick, and his long-term executive producer, Jan Harlan, is meant to showcase new perspectives and inspiration from the legendary director’s films, characters, and scenes.
Kubrick is without a doubt one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, taking his inspiration from various forms of literature, art, design, and film history, and in this exhibit we get a rare chance to see how Kubrick’s oeuvre has influenced other artists in a variety of mediums. It’s definitely worth a visit.
“The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.”
Early life and getting into film
Stanley Kubrick was born in New York City in 1928 to Eastern European parents who came from families that migrated to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. His parents were rather successful themselves – his father a respected physician in the city. Although Kubrick was born Jewish, he wasn’t raised religious and later professed to an atheistic view on life. Throughout grade school he was an average student, but never picked up an interest in any subject or seemed to work hard towards any goal, explaining later in life his disdain for the American education system and its inefficiencies.
“I never learned anything at all in school and didn’t read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old.”
In 1940, Kubrick’s father thought it would be best to send him to California to live with his uncle. While there, he developed a passionate interest in chess, which remained with him throughout his life and work. “Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” In his twenties, Kubrick would earn a few extra dollars a day playing chess for a quarter per game. A few dollars “goes a long way when you are only paying for food.”
At the age of 13, Kubrick’s father bought him a Graflex camera, which would launch him into the world of photography. He became an avid photographer in his teens, wandering the city snapping photos, developing pictures in his neighbor’s apartment, and perusing old photographs. He sold his first photo to Look magazine at the age of 18, pursuing photography with an apprenticeship at the magazine, and later with a several-year stint as a photojournalist, traveling the U.S. for assignments.
Throughout this period he continued to show a dedication to cinema, reading film theory books and watching a multitude of films at local cinemas. However, he often withdrew from many social interactions and was considered a quiet, hard working and dedicated soul. Some people would even consider him and his manners deeply troubling.
In the late ’40s, with some of his savings, Kubrick managed to produce a few documentary films, most notably one about a local boxer on fight day. Kubrick found that the only way to make a film was to dive in and just do everything.
“Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.”
He quit his job at Look and focused on filmmaking, spending more time with professional filmmakers and continuing to make short films. None were commercially successful, yet he often made his money back and showed incredible promise and talent with the little resources he was given.
In 1953, at the age of 25, Stanley Kubrick self-funded (with help from his family) his first feature film, Fear and Desire, a fictional war film shot in California. The shooting of the film was not a pleasant experience – his first marriage did not survive, nor did the initial investment in the film, and a producer who recognized his potential had to bail him out.
His next few features, Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956), while not commercially successful, brought him to the attention of Hollywood. On the set of The Killing, his first film with a professional cast and crew, Kubrick clashed with the veteran cinematographer on set. It was often said that because of his extensive knowledge of photography, he had a hard time working with other cameramen, often trying to do both the directing and camera work on set.
His first big opportunity came from MGM in 1956 when they offered him $75,000 to write, produce, and direct a film, which would become Paths of Glory (1957). He and producer James B. Harris (whom Kubrick met while playing chess in Washington Square Park), convinced Kirk Douglas to play the main role and the film went on to be a significant commercial success, opening the doors for Stanley Kubrick into the elite Hollywood system.
Visual, stylistic & thematic trademarks
“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
As an auteur, Kubrick’s style can be difficult to elucidate because it developed significantly over his career; however, one thing is clear – he lived and worked on his own terms, often butting heads with anyone who got in the way of his creative choice and freedom. From his early fascination with photography, he focused heavily on visual arts and perspective in his films. He is known for the one-point perspective shot, in which a scene’s art direction, action and camera movement lead a viewer’s focus to a very specific point.
“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.”
The cinematography in his films is always innovative, stunning and aesthetically pleasing, often making use of strong primary colors or a sharp contrast between black-and-white. For dramatic tension, Stanley Kubrick loved to use the long tracking shot and later in his career the newly developed Steadicam system.
Because almost all of his films are adaptations of books, Kubrick developed an understanding of literary translation into a visual world, often structuring his films into distinct acts. He is famous for prolonging sequences and slowing down the rhythm of the film, building emotion and suspense in the plot.
“A filmmaker has almost the same freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper.”
In terms of music, Kubrick is very picky in his choice of score and sound design, hoping to create a sensory experience for the viewer.
“Music is one of the most effective ways of preparing an audience and reinforcing points that you wish to impose on it. The correct use of music, and this includes the non-use of music, is one of the great weapons that the filmmaker has at his disposal.”
As for influences, Kubrick loved the work of Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Carols Saura, Woody Allen and Edgar Reitz. He considered Elia Kazan the best American director of all time and his list of favorite directors included at various times David Lean, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Max Ophüls and François Truffaut.
After the original director of the film was fired, Kirk Douglas, who was playing the lead role of Spartacus and had starred in Kubrick’s most recent film Paths of Glory, approached the 30-year-old Kubrick to take over the reins in this Roman slave revolt epic. It was a daunting project for the young director, with a budget of 12 million USD (equivalent to nearly 100 million USD in today’s standards), a cast of 10,500, and gargantuan battle scenes.
It was quite the historical commencement to a career, with the Hollywood-blacklisted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo secretly behind the project (for a modern day version of this event check out the recent film Trumbo). U.S. president John F. Kennedy famously walked through American Legion picket lines to see the premiere of the film, effectively ending the 13-year anti-communist blacklist of entertainment professionals in the industry.
By all accounts, Kubrick demanded control of the cinematography, even once telling veteran cinematographer Russell Metty, “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.” Surprisingly, Metty won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and never complained afterwards. While the film was commercially and artistically successful and launched the commercial career of Stanley Kubrick, he later disowned the film as part of his canon because he did not retain complete control.
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
This political and satirical black comedy was the second of Kubrick’s films made in England, after the very successful and highly controversial 1962 film Lolita. Columbia Pictures credited most of Lolita’s success to actor Peter Sellers, and agreed to finance Dr. Strangelove only on the condition that Sellers played four main roles (he wound up playing three characters after having trouble with a Texan accent and injuring his leg on set, so Kubrick brought in western star Slim Pickens for the fourth role).
The film is a must-see, listed in AFI’s top 10 for all-time comedies – quite ironic considering Kubrick first conceived of the anti-Cold War film as a drama, based off a serious book. Throughout the writing process, he realized comedy and satire were the most effective ways to tell the story. The film had quite a political impact, even influencing future American international policy on nuclear tactics. While on set, Kubrick had many disputes with main actor George C. Scott, yet the two often played chess to alleviate tension and to determine who would make the final decision (Kubrick almost always won).
In response to criticism of the film and of his role, Kubrick retorted, “A satirist is someone who has a very skeptical view of human nature, but who still has the optimism to make some sort of a joke out of it. However brutal that joke might be.”
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“On the deepest psychological level, the film’s plot symbolized the search for God, and finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God.”
After the success of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick spent several years researching and developing his next film with Arthur C. Clarke, the futurist and science fiction writer. The two worked well together, basing the material off of Clarke’s earlier 1948 story, The Sentinel, and concurrently writing a script and more detailed novel. The film focused on the themes of extraterrestrial life, existentialism, technology and artificial intelligence.
Stanley Kubrick shot 2001: A Space Odyssey in Super Panavision 70, intending to hypnotize the audience, and claiming the film was “basically a visual, nonverbal experience that hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting” – and it is indeed quite a visual trip. While not an immediate success, it became a cult classic over time with its dazzling mix of imagination and science, groundbreaking visual effects, minimal dialogue and sound design, and epic classical music score. During this period, Kubrick moved full time to London and would live there until his death in the late ’90s.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Based off of Anthony Burgess’s novel of the same name, this near-future dystopian film follows Alex (Malcom McDowell) and his group of friends as they set off on a sociopathic, ultra-violent gang spree through a bleak London. The second act continues with his attempted rehabilitation in a psychiatric facility.
Made for just 2.2 million USD, the film was incredibly faithful to the novel, save for a slightly different ending imposed upon Kubrick by the studio. It even used bits of Nadsat, the fabricated Russian-influenced street language that Burgess invented, however it was later criticized for its extreme use of violence. Burgess even called the film brilliant, but perhaps brilliant enough to be dangerous.
Indeed, the film spawned several copycat murders and rapes throughout England, and Stanley Kubrick subsequently had the film pulled from British cinemas only three months after its premiere. In response, he said to numerous critics and threats, “To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life.”
The Shining (1980)
The Shining, based off of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, follows a writer and recovering alcoholic (Jack Nicholson) who takes his family to an isolated mountain lodge to become caretaker for a season and attempt to finish his latest novel. While Jack slowly devolves into madness and grows increasingly violent, his telepathic son sees disturbing and gruesome visions.
Although not widely praised after its release, and not well-received by King himself, the film has since been considered a classic in the horror genre and one of the scariest of all time, and is also referenced as an important influence to many later filmmakers. For the production, Stanley Kubrick made extensive use of the newly invented Steadicam, a camera stabilization mount used for smooth tracking shots (it was apparently one of the first six films to use the system). The production was long and arduous, as Kubrick’s methodical nature often required hundreds of takes for the actors with intense camera choreography and constant script changes.
Speaking about the theme of the film, Stanley Kubrick stated that, “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Full Metal Jacket
“This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun.”
This 1987 British-American war film follows a platoon of soldiers throughout their grueling training and into their experiences during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. It was conceived as a hyper-realistic view of the struggles and sufferings of army recruits, focusing on the brainwashing needed to shape them up for war. Stanley Kubrick based the script off of a favorite book of his called The Short-Timers (1979), but collaborated with another writer in order to craft the script to his liking.
As usual, shooting was grueling and even longer than usual. This was mostly due to Lee Ermey (the main sergeant in the film who is constantly yelling slurs at the recruits), who got in a serious car accident, broke most of his ribs, and was forced into a five-month break. Again, the film was not a huge commercial success; however, for Stanley Kubrick it was an achievement and he was immensely proud of the film – as usual, he set out to do exactly what he wanted and wouldn’t let anything get in his way.
“From the very beginning, all of my films have divided the critics. Some have thought them wonderful, and others have found very little good to say. But subsequent critical opinion has always resulted in a very remarkable shift to the favorable. In one instance, the same critic who originally rapped the film, has several years later put it on an all-time best list. But of course, the lasting and ultimately most important reputation of a film is not based on reviews, but on what, if anything, people say about it over the years, and on how much affection for it they have.”
- Lead Image: Warner Bros.