Known for his fastidious approach to filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick is the embodiment of an auteur. Each of his films sits atop their respective genre and continue to draw debate and controversy.
Coming from a photography and documentary background, Stanley Kubrick’s move into narrative filmmaking utilised his inquisitive nature. A notoriously keen chess player, Kubrick’s meticulousness impacted on every aspect of his life.
Well known as a demanding perfectionist, he was extremely selective of his collaborators and casting, later going on to employ teams of readers and researchers to assist in finding his future projects. The source materials for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon were all masterfully adapted and expanded on by Kubrick, with exceptional attention to small details, and close collaboration with the respective novelists.
Jon Ronson’s 2008 documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes gave incredible insight into the painstaking preparation that went into each of Kubrick’s projects. Thousands of photographs, index cards and books all catalogued and spanning years cluttered Kubrick’s vast Hertfordshire estate.
Napoleon was Kubrick’s passion project, with years worth of research going into French military history, costumes and location scouting to accompany his eventual 186-page screenplay, with Jack Nicholson in mind for the title role. He even kept index cards to detail what Napoleon was doing on every day of his life. Unfortunately, the release and box office failure of Waterloo derailed Kubrick’s plans and studios withdrew their support. This becomes a common theme due to the gaps between his films becoming longer and longer; films on similar ideas were simply being made quicker. A career spanning nearly 50 years yielded just 13 films, each one of them a sequential obsession. Kubrick was judicious on the subjects he wanted to tackle but frustrated he couldn’t do more. He’s on record for greatly admiring Woody Allen’s prolific output as a director.
Kubrick also wanted to make the definitive film on World War Two and the holocaust based on the book Wartime Lies called Aryan Papers. But just as production was readying, Schindler’s List was released. Just before his death, his work developing A.I. Artificial Intelligence would eventually be turned over to Steven Spielberg, with Kubrick’s blessing. Even Full Metal Jacket arrived in cinemas hot on the tail of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
Early Kubrick was clearly drawn towards noir-like ideas of existentialism through Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, and The Killing. It’s a theme that continues alongside nihilism and detachment in later films, and even in war satire Dr Strangelove. The dark comedy juggles impending nuclear war with the futility and absurdity of the ‘war room’, and characters with cartoonish fixations beyond reason. Kubrick’s adaptation of the book Red Alert, along with an iconic collaboration with Peter Sellars, turns a genuinely frightening selection of stories into arguably the best anti-war satire ever made.
The anti-heroes of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining provide unsettling, unflinching views on what humanity is capable of, the duality of man, and the decent into madness. Kubrick’s characters also struggle to deal with the impact of their knowledge on society; with Barry Lyndon’s titular hero scrapping to the top of the aristocracy through questionable means; Alex dealing with his programming in A Clockwork Orange, and Jack being influenced by a spiritual presence in The Shining. This also feeds into the idea of a primal detachment and emotional withdrawal underlying Kubrick’s filmography. Eyes Wide Shut sees Bill set out for a night of sexual and moral discovery when he discovers his wife almost cheated on him. Despite being ‘not the jealous type’, Bill plunges deep into a dangerous subculture as emotional retaliation and almost sleeps with a prostitute immediately after having his sexuality questioned.
Kubrick used his concept of ‘non-submersible units’ in lieu of a traditional narrative, which represented the key beats of the film. With these sequences immovable, the rest of the action was built to support character and represented a typically scientific approach to storytelling from Kubrick. A range of genres and settings are used to explore all the facets of human nature. The diversity of war, the future, love, dystopia and history are unified into a complex but digestible vision. Kubrick’s protagonists slip from conventional society and are left to ponder their very existence.
The vivid colours of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining; 2001’s monolith; the crucial bathroom scenes of Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket are all Kubrickian motifs. The rousing classical music of Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange soundtrack everything with an atmosphere of grace – paradoxical or not.
From a technical perspective, Kubrick’s photography experience was a huge influence on his approach to cinematography, lighting and editing. Barry Lyndon particularly lingers on the picturesque, with some beautiful individual shots akin to oil paintings.
Released a year before the moon landing, 2001: A Space Odyssey represented technological advancements way ahead of its time, and not just cinematically. The Earth had not yet been photographed from space, yet Kubrick’s special effects (which won him his only Academy Award) were dazzlingly accurate. So accurate that conspiracy theorists would have you believe Stanley Kubrick choreographed a staged moon landing.
Long tracking shots and the reverse zoom are also staples of Kubrick’s repertoire. A Clockwork Orange opens with a reverse zoom of the droogs in the milk bar; tracking shots follow Colonel Dax through the trenches in Paths of Glory, and Danny through the ominous hotel hallways of The Shining. They’re used in scenes that underpin Kubrick’s technical style and are instantly recognisable to audiences.
As much as Kubrick’s films were deeply personal, his vision unquestionably impacted pop-culture and generations of writer/directors. The transition shot of the bone thrown into the air to the space station in 2001; the ultra violence of A Clockwork Orange; The Shining‘s “Heeere’s Johnny!”; the drill sergeant verbally destroying new recruits in Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick’s legacy is truly intwined with that of world cinema.