Stanley Kubrick: Master of Contradictions

Apr 9th, 2012

Who are the great American film directors? More to the point, who do we think are the great American film directors? Well, there’s Ford, of course, the Zeus of the American pantheon, by turns comic, epic, maudlin and humane. Then there’s Welles, the ill-fated genius, abused by producers but beloved of critics. Spielberg, even in his seventh decade, is still the boy wonder; Scorsese the mad scientist. Griffith is the wise forefather, deeply flawed but idolized nonetheless, while Hawks is ageless, just as sly and self-assured as he was at the time of “The Big Sleep” (1946).

Kubrick, however, beats them all.

Is there anyone more respected or, with the possible exception of Hitchcock, recognizable? Turn on any Stanley Kubrick movie and you should know instantly, whether you’ve seen it before or not, who the film’s director is. The peerless, pristine images; the long, empty corridors; the upturned, dead-eyed stare of the madman; the hypnotic tracking shots, so smooth they seem to be gliding on ice; and, of course, the music: Kubrick’s telltale motifs as distinctive as a photograph by Ansel Adams. In some ways, this is not such a good thing. It would be nice, for instance, to return to a time when “The Blue Danube Waltz” didn’t evoke the image of a giant white hamster wheel tumbling through space. Yet such is the scope of Stanley Kubrick’s influence. Reading “Lolita” today, we can’t help but picture Sue Lyon, contrary as she may be to Nabokov’s description of the nymphet, peering out over the tops of her sunglasses, just as we can’t remember the Cold War without thinking of Slim Pickens, Stetson in hand, bull-riding an A-bomb to the point of impact. Kubrick’s hold over our imaginations is simply too great.

And so the myth of the director grows. His eccentricities are the stuff of legend: how he shot at any solicitor who came on his property (untrue), refused to film a movie more than ten miles from his home (semi-true), carried a hunting knife in his briefcase (true), planned to film a multi-million dollar porno movie (also true). As are the contradictions: he loved sports cars but insisted on driving no more than 35 miles per hour; held a pilots license but, after the early sixties, refused to go near a plane; craved recognition but hid from the limelight, rarely doing interviews and stowing his family away in a walled mansion in the Hertfordshire countryside. His desire for perfection was insatiable, frequently demanding as many as eighty or ninety takes for a single shot. Yet he loved improvisation, filming several of his movies without a working script. He was the kind of manic genius that only comes around a couple times a century, like Dostoevsky or Bobby Fisher, teetering between madness and brilliance. By the late 1960s, the high watermark of Kubrick’s career – the era of “Lolita” (1962), “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) – filmgoers had come to view the director, not as a mere mortal, but something closer to a living god. “By that time, I knew that Kubrick was the one,” Martin Scorsese reverently explains, as if describing his favorite saint. “We had to wait for a Kubrick film, and we knew that, when we went to see it, that it was extremely special and…we expected a lot from it.”[1]

Not that any of this should deter newcomers to the director’s work. If anything, Kubrick’s films – for all their aspirations to grandeur – remind us that nothing is sacred. Who else, after all, would make a movie about nuclear holocaust using characters with names like General Jack D. Ripper and President Merkin Muffley? This, of course, is the same film that features a drunken Russian premier, a conspiracy theory involving water fluoridation and a curiously-gloved Nazi scientist who ends the picture by climbing from his wheelchair and declaring to the President of the United States, “Mien Fuhrer, I can walk,” before the bombs begin exploding to the joyous harmonies of “We’ll Meet Again.” For those familiar with the movie, however, it is a veritable cinematic treasure, its primacy in the American canon as firmly established as “Red River” (1948) and “The Godfather” (1972). Moviegoers quote lines from it the way the faithful recite passages from the New Testament: “Look, Colonel Bat Guano, if that really is your name…” “You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.” And the perennial favorite: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.”

Attempts to summarize the plot almost always prove futile but here goes anyway. Insane U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), convinced that Communists are contaminating America’s bodily fluids, uses a little-known loophole in air defense protocol to launch a first strike against the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, the President (Peter Sellers), along with his staff of advisers – including the eponymous Dr. Strangelove (also Sellers) and the comically warmongering General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) – try to avert nuclear war by informing the Russians of the attack, only to discover that the Soviets have built a self-destruct device that will irradiate the entire planet should a single bomb fall on their country. With no way to shut the device off, both countries do their best to shoot the planes down, at the same time, of course, jockeying for any advantage they can get in the post-apocalyptic world. Meanwhile, back at Ripper’s besieged headquarters, Colonel Lionel Mandrake (Sellers yet again) attempts to extract the recall code from the mad general. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned. And though the earth may end a smoking ruin, the abiding sentiment of the film is not one of misery but of levity, the idea being: in the face of nuclear destruction, what can you do but laugh? No wonder the more avid among us greeted our demise with protestations of delight. “I had a kind of giddy exhilaration at the end,” director Sydney Pollack recalls. “I thought, man, what kind of an imagination came up with this?”[2]

The man was Stanley Kubrick, born July 26, 1928 in New York City. A poor student, with few friends, he developed more solitary interests, in particular, chess, for which he showed an early aptitude, and photography, after his father gave him a Graflex camera for his thirteenth birthday. The Graflex, soon to be made obsolete by more portable competitors, was a cumbersome piece of equipment, about the size of a shoebox, into which the photographer framed his shots at the top end. It’s weight (nearly eight and a half pounds) and the awkward shooting position it necessitated, made it the ideal tool for low-angle shooting: the knee-level view, peering up at his subjects, that Kubrick was to later use to such great effect (think General Ripper puffing on an obscenely long cigar). At the age of fifteen, Kubrick sold a picture to Look Magazine: a shot of a lachrymose news vendor framed by headlines announcing Franklin Roosevelt’s death. He told friends that it had just been a lucky shot but admitted later to having coached the man to give him the doleful look he wanted, an early example of his demanding methods with actors. Thereafter, he began selling pictures regularly to Look, and upon graduating from high school, joined their staff as an apprentice photographer. For fans of his films, habituated to the director’s orderly perspective of the world – the formalized compositions of “Barry Lyndon” (1974), for instance, or the neat rows of recruits in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) – his photographs should come as something of surprise. In them, life spills off the frame in a manner unseen in his films, a style more akin to Robert Frank than Ansel Adams.

Of all the roads that lead to the director’s chair, photography is perhaps the most direct, though not necessarily the most efficacious. This is because the photographer, trained to see the world one cell at a time, already has the cinema’s most basic building block wired into his brain. What a photographer must acclimate himself to, however, are cinema’s other foundational elements – dialogue, story, character, sound, and movement – so familiar to the screenwriter, the actor, the musician and the editor but uncharted territory for a young man used to simply working with a Leica. Thus Kubrick’s first fumbling forays into the world of movies: his short “Day of the Fight” (1951) and his first feature, “Fear and Desire” (1953), the latter of which Kubrick recalled as “a very inept and pretentious effort…little more than a 35mm version of what a class of film students would do in 16mm.”[3] What spurred the budding photographer to make this leap, this abrupt stride from glossy page to silver screen? No one, not even Kubrick, could say for certain. What is certain, however, is that by the mid-fifties (when he was then only in his mid-twenties) he had already given up working for Look and determined to become a film director. How did he do it? Simple: hard work, determination, luck and an unwavering faith in his own greatness. He made ends meet during this period hustling chess games in Washington Square.

His first major picture was “Killer’s Kiss” (1955). Strapped for cash as ever, he simply jotted down a list of the possible filming locations he could use within a few blocks of his apartment – a rooftop, a jazz club, a garment warehouse, a theater in the Village – then had a friend knock out a script using those same locations. Not surprisingly, the finished film has a somewhat Frankensteinish feel to it, the disassembled parts of a dozen film noirs pieced together in one seventy-minute picture, complete with a down-on-his-luck boxer, a violent nightclub owner, and a sexy dancer as the femme fatale. Yet the Kubrick signature is already distinct: the sinister, low-angle framing, the omnipresent voice-over and, of course, the ever-present threat of violence. The movie did well enough to attract the attention of James B. Harris, a young producer who shared Kubrick’s drive, as well as a belief in his path for glory. Their first venture together was “The Killing” (1956), a low-budget heist movie centered around the racetrack. The story, even in 1956, was fairly worn, lifted mostly from John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950): a crack team of cons assemble to pull off the ultimate caper, only to be done in by misfortune, paranoia, greed, and, most dangerous of all, women. (The film even has a patently Hustonesque ending, with the money being scattered to hell and gone by the rush of an airplane prop, just as Sterling Hayden makes his flight for safety.) But imitation is hardly a transgression for the budding artist. Just ask Brian De Palma, who, before developing his own style, cut his teeth imitating Alfred Hitchcock, who in turn began his career copying F.W. Murnau, the silent German master. Indeed, part of the fun of following a young filmmaker like Kubrick or De Palma is watching them hone their craft over time, to observe the formation of a creative mind: the technique borrowed here, the storyline lifted there, until, eventually, their own artistic sensibilities emerge. The most striking thing about “The Killing,” in fact, is how far Kubrick had already come. If he’d been playing for nickels before, he was now in the Olympiads.

Then comes “Paths of Glory” (1957), the soundest refutation to Francois Truffaut’s dictum that an anti-war movie can’t be made because you can’t make a war movie without making war look fun. Winston Churchill called it the most accurate portrayal of World War I ever shown on film, and with his experience on the Western Front, he was certainly in a position to know. The film follows Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a former attorney, now serving as an officer in the French army. Forced by his glory-seeking commander, Mireau (George Macready), into a futile assault on the German line, Dax then has to defend three of his men against charges of cowardice after Mireau attempts to make them scapegoats for the operation’s failure. Though Dax puts up an admirable defense, proving that each man is individually innocent – or in the case of one man (Ralph Meeker), vindictively framed – all three are put to death at dawn the next day. A small bit of justice is meted out after the execution when Dax reveals that, during the battle, Mireau attempted to fire on his own troops, thereby getting him removed from command. Rather than take his job, though, Dax chooses to instead rejoin his men in the trenches.

It’s hard to think of another film that captures the horror of the First World War so aptly. The trenches are muddy and fetid, the landscape a barren waste, scarred with craters and barbed wire. The military objective, such as it is, for which the battle is fought and lost, is equally unappealing: a craggy bluff known as the Ant Hill, shown, most appropriately, only through the eye of a telescope. The generals are scheming hypocrites – thus the casting of the aquiline George Macready and the ponderous Adolphe Menjou – while the enlisted men are little better, lying, drinking on duty and fighting amongst themselves. Even decent and dignified Corporal Paris breaks down in tears, clutching the earth for safety, when he is told he is going to die. If the film has a flaw, in fact, it is not that is succumbs to the pathos of the subject matter but rather that its world-view is so bleak as to border on misanthropy. The genius of a film like “Breaker Morant” (1980), which owes much to Kubrick’s trailblazing example, was that it made its protagonist both a hero and a villain, genuinely guilty of the crimes for which he was tried, though no less admirable because of it. The generals in that movie, likewise, had our sympathy; though mendacious and deceitful, they were nonetheless attempting to avert an even greater tragedy, namely the entry of Germany into an already vicious war. Yet, for all its brilliance, “Breaker Morant” remains stalwartly true to Truffaut’s axiom. Watch Edward Woodward ride across the South African veldt and you’ll wish you were sniping Boers from the hills, too. Take one look at Kirk Douglas, trudging through the trenches as shells rain around him, and you’ll thank heavens you never saw the bloody battlefield of the Marne. If this scene, not to mention the anarchic battle that follows, doesn’t move you, doesn’t stir you, doesn’t frighten you in some way, then nothing will.

What leavens the film, though, what saves it from utter desolation is the ending. All the way up until filming began, Kubrick struggled to find an appropriate conclusion for his picture, fearing that executing the three soldiers would scare off his audience but knowing that to do otherwise would seem patently false. Then, in the final draft of the script, he found his denouement. Preparing to depart for the front, Dax comes upon his men in a bar. Standing outside the tavern, Dax watches as the men taunt a captured German girl, demanding she sing them a song. As she falteringly begins to sing, however, the men gradually fall silent and, one-by-one, begin to sing along with her, some weeping. Moved, Dax orders his men be given a few more minutes and, with that, departs. The genesis of this conclusion remained a matter of contention for years, with both Kubrick and screenwriter Calder Willingham clamoring for credit. Whoever the progenitor was, though, it is the ideal endnote for the film, managing to strike the perfect harmony between hope and despair.

How Kubrick actually felt about combat is an entirely different matter. Though he shied from physical violence in his own life, his films positively revel in it, from Malcolm McDowell caning his own buddies in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) to Adam Baldwin charging through Hue City screaming and firing an M60 machine gun. A full five of his thirteen features deal with combat in some way or another – “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) only obliquely, of course, but then again that picture ends with the nuking of the entire planet. “War is too important to be left up to the politicians,” General Ripper tells us in that film, by way of justifying the slaughter of millions, yet there are times when we feel Kubrick, far from quailing before such hawkishness, actually siding with the mad general:

“Napoleonic battles are so beautiful, like vast lethal ballets…They all have an aesthetic brilliance that doesn’t require a military mind to appreciate…It’s almost like a great piece of music, or the purity of a mathematical formula.”[4]

Kubrick is contemplating here his great unrealized dream: the filming of the life of Napoleon, a project he planned for years but never managed to finance. Directors love to see themselves in military terms, and Kubrick was no different, even going so far as to model his eating habits on the famous French general. “If Kubrick hadn’t been a film director,” Malcolm McDowell said after observing him in action, “he’d have been a General Chief of Staff of the US Forces. No matter what it is – even if it’s a question of buying a shampoo – it goes through him. He just likes total control.”[5] But total control, for the director as much as the general, can be frightening to contemplate. When, on “2001,” Kubrick worried that his crew was shirking duty behind his back, he considered setting up hidden cameras to spy on them, stopped only when he was told that such a move could lead to a union strike. When “A Clockwork Orange” was playing in theaters, he personally called movie houses around the world to make sure they were projecting the film in its proper aspect ratio, demanding corrections if they were not. Such attention to detail, while reassuring in a way, can border on psychosis. During a design meeting on “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick ordered that a bell system by rigged up to give everyone present exactly sixty seconds in which to speak. “Get me a catalogue of bells,” he shouted to his assistant. “No, better, get me every catalogue of every bell manufacturer.”[6]

All of which makes “Spartacus” (1960) such an oddity for him to have made. The only film in his oeuvre that he neither conceived nor developed, it consequently has the feel of another man’s handiwork, like a blonde giant born to a family of African pygmies. The man in question is Kirk Douglas, the film’s star, executive producer, and the financial powerhouse behind the project. Dissatisfied with his original choice of director, Anthony Mann, Douglas, still basking in the warm reviews he’d received on “Paths of Glory,” brought in Kubrick to replace him, figuring the younger director would be easier to manipulate. Big mistake. Kubrick began by effectively firing the cinematographer, Russel Metty, telling him to stay out of the way while he personally took over his job. Little did he know it, too, but he’d walked into a veritable hornet’s nest of egos. Each of the three British stars (Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov) was paranoid that he might be outshone by the others, while Douglas was paranoid that the three theater-trained Brits were mocking him behind his back, which, in fact, they were, after he showed up to a script reading in full gladiatorial armor. Ustinov, with a hint of relish, described the scene, “As full of intrigue as a Balkan government in the good old days.”[7]

Not surprisingly, the finished film is a mess, a motley array of bloody battles, rousing speeches and scenes of slaves marching across stretches of southern Italy more prone to echoes than the inside of the Pantheon. In short, it has everything that a mid-century epic should, excepting perhaps Charlton Heston. (Douglas’s decision to make the film was instigated in part from his failure to win the lead in “Ben Hur” (1959).) “Spartacus” is portrayed as a kindly saint, “proud, rebellious,” like Moses freeing his people from the bonds of cruel slavery. Appian, the second-century historian, however, paints an entirely different picture, describing a man who burned and looted cities, sacrificed three-hundred Roman prisoners to avenge the death of his friend Crixus and “made for Rome with 120,000 foot soldiers after burning the useless equipment and putting all the prisoners to death and slaughtering the draught animals to free himself of all encumbrances.”[8] That’s more like it! The period of the picture is, likewise, dubious. The film’s narrator tells us that it takes place in “the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity,” though thanks to Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter, the dialogue has a tendency to suggest otherwise:

CRASSUS: The enemies of the state are known. Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.

To which you almost expect him to add, “I have in my hand the names of fifty-seven card-carrying Communists in the Roman Senate.” Olivier, of course, is brilliant as the demagogic Crassus, as is Ustinov as the wily slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, stealing scenes with his usual effervescent glee. But neither of them can make up for the presence of Tony Curtis, as handsome as a marble statue but just as stiff, intoning his lines as if he was back home in the Bronx. The lack of a cohesive screenplay is an even weightier dilemma. The accounts of Spartacus’s life given by Plutarch, Appian, and Florus can be breezed through during a quick stroll round the Coliseum, while the finished film stretches to a lengthy 184 minutes, leaving plenty of room for dramatic digression. “It had everything but a good story,” Kubrick admitted later, confessing his own ultimate disappointment with the picture.

“Spartacus” may have done poorly with critics but it made Kubrick’s career, grossing $14.6 million at the box office and establishing him as a major Hollywood director. This is the crossroads that every successful filmmaker must face, the point at which you try something bold and new or, finding your imagination empty, you make “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003). Kubrick chose the former path and never looked back. His first venture was “Lolita” (1962), certainly one of the most daring literary adaptations in the history of cinema. Publicity posters at the time hyped the sexuality of the book, posing the question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” But the challenge of transmitting Nabokov’s sumptuous prose to the screen is even more daunting. Adrian Lyne’s 1998 “Lolita” was infinitely more faithful to the novel, lifting, with touching exactitude, even the minutest details from the page, from the big pink bubble of blood that pops from Quilty’s dying lips to this exchange, between Humbert and his bête noire, on the veranda of The Enchanted Hunters hotel:

“Where the devil did you get her?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: the weather is getting better.”

“Seems so.”

“Who’s the lassie?”

“My daughter.”

“You lie – she’s not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: July was hot.”[9]

The problem is that, unlike the novel, it isn’t funny, which brings us to the uneasy heart of the matter: how do you portray a love affair between a twelve-year-old girl and a thirty-six-year-old man without shocking the socks off your audience? Well, first off, you cast James Mason as the man. The great thing about Mason, with his sibilant mid-Atlantic purr – all the better to capture Humbert’s deracinated origins – is that he so perfectly fills and broadens our image of who Humbert is; we both love and loathe him, warming to his shy smile while, at the same time, recognizing the lecherous intent behind it. Second, you make the girl fourteen, certainly a less blatant, if still reprehensible, profanation, and make him the victim of her amorous advances. This both takes the edge off the lechery while neatly confirming Humbert’s most insidious of assertions: “It was she who seduced me.”[10] When Jeremy Irons leered down at Dominique Swain, lounging beneath the sprinklers on her mother’s sodden lawn, it genuinely was creepy. Sue Lyon, on the other hand, practically rapes Mason with her eyes when they first meet, staring him down over the tops of her sunglasses, her gaze revealing the same hungry contempt the raptors showed Sam Neil in “Jurassic Park” (1993).

The real masterstroke of Kubrick’s movie, though, is that it goes for the spirit rather than the body (so to speak) of Nabokov’s book. To some degree, the director had no choice in this matter. In 1962, to do anything more than hint at a sexual liaison between Humbert and Lolita was to risk having the production shut down. (The Legion of Decency, for example, was adamantly against the scene in which Humbert, while kissing Charlotte, fixes his eyes on her daughter’s photo beside the bed, though somehow the neighbors’ wife-swapping activities slipped under their noses.) It also makes for good common sense. Why compete with the book, a confection, like “Ulysses,” of distinctly literary flavoring, when you can use its ribald stage, taut as a bowstring and primed for comedic folly, for wholly new delights? The pleasures of the film are distinctly cinematic pleasures, as, in the opening, when Humbert shoots Quilty through the painting, or this scene, between Humbert and Lo in the car, as he drives her home from camp:

HUMBERT: You know, I’ve missed you terribly.

LOLITA: I haven’t missed you. In fact, I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you. But it doesn’t matter a bit, because you’ve stopped caring anyway.

HUMBERT: What makes you say I’ve stopped caring for you?

LOLITA: You haven’t even kissed me yet, have you?

The camera holds on the two for a moment while Humbert stares, stricken, out the window. And then, without ado, we cut to the car tearing down the highway. This scene, with a few alterations, appears in the novel as well, but in the novel we can’t see Humbert’s reaction, somewhere between exaltation and terror, his greatest dream fulfilled, nor hear the roar of the car engine, loud as a fighter jet, its racing matched only by the beating of our hero’s heart.

By now Kubrick was flying so high it was hard for others to keep pace. Harris-Kubrick broke up later that year, Harris wanting to jumpstart his own directing career, and it could be argued that, with this parting, Kubrick lost an invaluable restraining influence. Sometimes, the artistic mind needs fetters just as much as Peter Sellers needs that wheelchair and the single black-gloved hand. The five giants that followed, “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon” (1975), and “The Shining” (1980), branded his name permanently on the pages of movie history but so too did they reveal the first cracks in the Kubrick façade: the growing penchant for the epic, as if, with each new film, attempting to outdo the last, and, along with it, the uncomfortable flavor of pretention. To his critics, Kubrick’s films are detached and impersonal, technical wonders, each as beautiful as a Swiss watch but just as cold and mechanical within. And certainly, in the aftermath of “2001,” this is difficult to refute. Set alongside it’s contemporaries – not just bona fide classics like “The Graduate” (1967) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969) but average late-sixties fare such as “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and “You Only Live Twice” (1967) – the film is about as warm and alluring as an operating table. Watching it for perhaps the fourth time, I tried to imagine what other filmmaker would dare such an ode to spotless beauty, until, suddenly, it hit me: Leni Riefenstahl. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to the concentric rows of SS men in “Triumph of the Will” (1934) to find a film so in love with its own sense of cleanliness and symmetry. One of the great pleasures of “Alien” (1979) and, to a lesser extent, “Star Wars” (1977), was the very appropriate attention paid to dirt and grime. The starships in those films, beat-up and soot-blackened, looked used, thereby implying that the future, despite a few technological advances here and there, remained essentially the same as our own time. When Tom Skerritt crawled into an air duct with nothing more to protect him than a flame-thrower and a homemade motion censor, it felt authentic, not because it’s a situation we encounter everyday but because even when you’re battling the alien queen, it’s typical of a multi-national corporation to pinch pennies on your equipment.

Sadly, “2001” offers no such tethers to reality. The dialogue is humorless, the vehicles as pristine as if they’d just come off the assembly line. (To achieve the flawless, bone-white look of the interiors, Kubrick dumped so much light on the set that it eventually caught fire.) A giant, rotating drum was built to accomplish one of the movie’s most famous sequences, in which actor Gary Lockwood jogs, shadowboxing with the camera, around the rim of the cylinder. Cleverly, to further enhance the illusion of zero gravity, or ubiquitous gravity, as the case may be, Lockwood was strapped into a chair upside down, allowing for the impression that, at one point, Keir Dullea was descending a ladder onto the ceiling and then walking down to meet him. Yet, for all the technical ingenuity, “2001” is as vacant as an echo chamber. Famously, no big name actors would go near the script, so devoid was it of character development; Lockwood, who gets the most screen time of anyone, had, up until that point in his career, been known mainly for his stunt work. The most memorable thing in the film, in fact, is neither a character nor, strictly speaking, a scene but a cut. It occurs at the end of the Dawn of Man sequence. An ape, having first discovered that a bone can be used as a tool – a weapon, for instance, with which to brain another creature – hurls it end-over-end into the air. The camera follows the bone as it tumbles in slow-motion through the sky, and then, suddenly, we cut to another tool of Man falling in its place: a futuristic spacecraft dropping into position above the earth. And with that you have it, the most concise of visual metaphors, a million years of evolution summed up in a single cut.

Which brings up the central question of the film: can you build an entire movie simply around spaceships and Strauss? Or, to put it another way, can you make the universe interesting without humans in it? Certainly, it is a tempting challenge for a filmmaker to undertake, and a worthy one at that, one that must have particularly piqued Kubrick’s interest. “I think that silent films get a lot of things more right than talkies,” he once said.[11] Take one look at a film like “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) or “The Man with a Movie Camera” (1929) and you’ll be liable to agree with him. One fascination that Kubrick shared with his silent forbears (Eisenstein, Lloyd, Vertov and, most notably, Keaton) was a love of all things mechanical. All his life, Kubrick was a gadget freak, starting with his Graflex camera and going on to include radios, tape recorders, computers and the sports cars he loved but never raced. “Stanley would be happy with eight tape recorders and one pair of pants,” his wife Christiane said. It is typical of the director that, to achieve the flat, canvas-like look he wanted for “Barry Lyndon,” he ripped apart priceless antique Mitchell camera bodies and mounted them with Zeiss 50mm f/0.7 lenses, originally designed by NASA to photograph in space; thus his ability to light the 18th century interiors solely with candlelight.[12]

Nothing fired Kubrick’s imagination so much as the mechanics of the medium, both behind the camera and before it. The same man who pioneered the early use of the Steadicam and slit-scan imaging also filled the screen with the contraptions of his fascination, from the bomber planes at the beginning of “Dr. Strangelove,” coupling in midair like giant insects, to all the hardware in “Full Metal Jacket,” tanks and helicopters and M-14 rifles, neatly assembled and disassembled by the grunts before our eyes, to the robotic boy in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (2001), a project directed by Spielberg but developed by Kubrick before he died. And then, of course, there’s HAL, a PC with a Dual Pentium processor, plenty of RAM and software designed by Norman Bates. Rather than make use of blue screens as other films were doing at the time, the effects on “2001” were all done in the same manner that technicians had been employing since the days of Buster Keaton. They simply wound back the camera after each shot and re-exposed the negative, adding layer upon layer of new elements each time. It was a painstaking process for the crew, who had to individually paint all the stars in the universe, but one that provided untold benefits to the finished film, whose special effects are light-years beyond contemporaries like “Fantastic Voyage” (1966) and “Barbarella” (1968), which look as dated today as the lunar landscapes of Georges Melies. Air Force personnel who visited the set of “Dr. Strangelove,” likewise, were convinced that Kubrick’s team had stolen classified military secrets, so detailed and accurate was their mockup of the B-52 cockpit, right down to the encoding box that authorized nuclear strikes.[13] Not surprisingly, it is the men in that film that fail, not the machines, subtly indicating where the director’s sympathies lie. Computers could be counted on to keep up with Kubrick’s intellect; people were a different matter. Is it any surprise that he broke his actors down by first crushing their minds at chess? “That’s what Stanley can never understand,” Malcolm McDowell said. “It’s the human element. If only he could eliminate that, he could make the perfect movie.”[14]

“Dr. Strangelove” is certainly not a perfect movie – it would take a bold critic to make that claim on any film – but it comes close. A couple years ago, when the American Film Institute voted on the best comedies of all time, “Dr. Strangelove” came in third, which, by deductive reasoning, makes it slightly worse than “Tootsie” (1982) but far better than “Ball of Fire” (1942), which somehow placed ninety-second. Clearly, such lists are meaningless. Nonetheless, it would be as self-defeating to deny its iconic status as it would be to explain exactly what is so funny about a man in a wheelchair being strangled by his own hand. Of course, it helps if the man in question is Peter Sellers, who could extract funny from even the barest of responses:

RIPPER: Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream. Ice cream, Mandrake, children’s ice cream.

MANDRAKE (shocked): Good Lord.

If “Dr. Strangelove” is Sellers’ most beloved film, it is because Kubrick was perspicacious enough to rein him in. Originally, for instance, Sellers came out with a limp-wristed rendition of the president so funny a whole afternoon’s work had to be scrapped because the cast and crew were laughing too much. Kubrick, however, spotted the problem. Sellers was being too funny; the War Room scenes had no straight man for the crazies to bounce off of. So when they came back the next day, Kubrick told him to play Muffley as a mixture of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson – not exactly paragons of hilarity. In retrospect, though, I think we can say it worked. George C. Scott, all by himself, has enough manic energy to light up Chicago. Add Strangelove and a lisping, gay president and you’re getting dangerously close to comic meltdown.

Since the movie came out, a debate has opened up about whom the real genius behind “Strangelove” is: Kubrick, Sellers, or Terry Southern, the film’s screenwriter. Famously, Kubrick conceived the picture initially as a straight drama, only to switch to comedy when he and his co-writer, Peter George, realized the comic goldmine they were sitting on. It was at this point that they called in Southern, a writer for Esquire known for his wicked sense of humor and taste for drugs, who had never penned a screenplay before. It is hard to gauge precisely what we owe the Texan, besides the film’s mock Edwardian title (originally the film was blandly called “Two Hours to Doom”) but much of what we cherish today smacks of pure Southern: the satiric naming of characters, a penchant he shared with Evelyn Waugh; a distinctly sixties brand of black humor, redolent of Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer;[15] and a fondness for sly ribaldry (how they got “Merkin Muffley” past the 1964 Legion of Decency is anyone’s guess). Almost as soon as the picture hit the screen, however, the battle for credit began. Kubrick fired the first shot by giving himself top screenwriter billing, insisting that Southern had merely polished an already finished script and that he, Kubrick, had only given him credit in the first place out of generosity. Southern immediately fired back with a salvo of his own: “Stan may be long on ‘generosity’ (ha-ha), but I’m afraid he’s a bit short on humour (not to mention memory). And what he neglected to say about his ‘completed script’ is quite simple; it wasn’t funny.”[16]

This is probably true. Kubrick, while adept at nurturing comedy in others, was famously dour himself. The fact of the matter was that Kubrick had long harbored prejudices against screenwriters, whom he saw as merely getting in the way of the real genius behind the camera, the all-important director. “I don’t mean to minimize the contributions of others involved,” he said, “but the director is the only one who can authentically impose his personality onto a picture, and the result is his responsibility – partly because he’s the one who’s always there.”[17] Such blatant self-promotion smacks of pure egoism, and at any other time it might have simply been dismissed. In the sixties, however, thanks to auteurists like Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol, it was gospel, and Kubrick was more than happy to follow the French example when it came to improvisation on his sets. On “A Clockwork Orange,” he didn’t even bother to write a script but simply used the novel as a guide during shooting, a method of filmmaking that may have increased his own control but sent budgets skyrocketing and left even novelist Anthony Burgess perplexed:

“The filming sessions were conducted like university seminars, in which my book was the text. ‘Page 59. How shall we do it?’ A day of rehearsal, a single take at day’s end, the typing of the improvised dialogue, a script credit for Kubrick.”

On “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick actually did manage to sit down and write a bare-boned script, assuming that Thackeray’s novel would fill in any gaps in plotting, only to find himself on location in Ireland frantically rewriting scenes the night before they were to be filmed. (One day, as the crew set up a shot, Kubrick’s copy of the novel fell open to the very scene they were about to film. Taking it as a favorable omen, he shot the scene just as Thackeray had described it over a century before.) Not surprisingly, production on “Barry Lyndon” ran for more than three hundred days. Yet, rather than scaring off financial backers, Kubrick’s profligacy only seemed to put them deeper under his spell. When “Barry Lyndon” stalled out in mid-production, harried by bad weather, labor strikes and threats from the IRA, Warners simply threw more money into the project. As producer John Calley explained at the time, “It would make no sense to tell Kubrick, ‘OK, fella, you’ve got one more week to finish the thing.’ What you would get then is a mediocre film that cost, say, $8 million, instead of making a masterpiece that cost $11 million. When someone is spending a lot of your money, you are wise to give him time to do the job right.”[18] And people wonder how “Heaven’s Gate” bankrupted United Artists! Yet even by the prodigal standards of the time, such directorial freedom was unheard of. When “A Clockwork Orange” drew criticism for its level of brutality, Kubrick pulled the film from British theaters rather than face further personal disparagement. Incredibly, the studio said nothing, preferring to take the financial loss rather than anger their star director. One assumes that, had they known that Kubrick would only make three more movies in the next quarter century, they might have acted differently.

The most incredible thing about “Barry Lyndon,” however, is not its exorbitant cost (over eleven million dollars all told), nor the fact that Kubrick filmed this epic without the aid of artificial light (some scenes necessitated the use of as many as two-hundred candles burning at once) but how good it is. Considering the febrile circumstances under which it was filmed, it is a miracle that a coherent story emerged at all, let alone one so calm and stately. The entire film, in fact, is the picture of serenity: elegant and tranquil, yet luscious, like the landscapes of Antoine Watteau and Thomas Gainsborough, upon which Kubrick modeled his compositions. The images, needless to say, are stunning, some of the most gorgeous ever caught on film, from the verdantly undulating hills of Ireland to the lambent interiors of the Georgian aristocracy, so richly evocative of Hogarth, stacked with the idle rich at play. The film stars Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry, a feckless Irish youth who flees his hometown after killing a British officer, joins the army, fights in the Seven Years’ War, deserts, is forced to join the Prussian army, becomes a professional gambler, marries a beautiful heiress and settles down to the life of wealth and privilege he always dreamed of, only to be destroyed, in the end, by his own pride and stubbornness. The story drew Kubrick for the same reason that he was drawn to “The Killing” and the life of Napoleon: he liked the idea that, no matter how meticulous the man, even the best laid plans go awry. Perhaps he saw something of himself in such men, the perfectionist forever dreading the slightest misstep, or perhaps he just enjoyed setting up a pristine world, only to knock it to bits in the end, like a boy smashing sandcastles on the beach. Indeed, if any era called out for Kubrick’s attention it was the 18th century, with its worship of neatness and order, where human interactions were as formalized as the movement of pieces on a chessboard and emotions lay smoldering within. Not surprisingly, the most touching scenes in the film, as well as the most disturbing, are those where passions manage to peek through the shroud of social protocol, as when Barry sits by his son’s deathbed, vainly trying to repeat the boy’s favorite story with his usual brio or when, mid-dual, Lord Bullingdon stumbles to a nearby corner to vomit. My own favorite sequence has always been the one in which Barry, having quit the army, stops at the home of a Prussian woman for the night. When the young lady, who could possibly be the most beautiful creature east of the Rhine, makes a pass at Barry, we think, What luck! But Kubrick, ever immune to sentiment, slips in the ironic twist, sharp as a rapier’s point. As the lovers tenderly depart some days later, the narrator informs us, with charming understatement, “A lady who sets her heart on a lad in uniform must be prepared to change lovers pretty quickly or her life will be a sad one.” Adding, “This heart of Lischen’s was like many a neighboring town that had been stormed and occupied many times before Barry came to invest it.”

As to the director’s own heart, it remains, like the black obelisk in “2001,” enigmatic. Married and divorced twice before the age of thirty, he finally settled down with Suzanne Christian, the pretty young actress who played the German girl at the end of “Paths of Glory.” Together, they had two children, daughters, and settled in the British countryside. Watching Kubrick in their home movies, one sees a man, though not incapable of warmth, so driven by his intellect that he finds it difficult to shut off his own mind. In one reel, he loudly castigates Vivian, his elder daughter, for ruining the composition he is trying to create with the camera. This, of course, would be understandable, if the girl was, say, seventeen. Vivian, however, looks not a day older than three at the time. Friends, however, remember Kubrick as a kind and devoted husband and father. In another, more amusing clip, taken a couple years later, Kubrick films his daughters seated before the family piano:

KUBRICK (off camera): Do you often find me in a temper?

DAUGHTERS (together): Yes!

KUBRICK (incredulous): Oh, I don’t believe that. I can’t believe that.

VIVIAN: Well, you better believe it, ‘cuz you went into a temper just a couple minutes ago.

ANYA: You can’t do a stupid film because everyone giggles.

VIVIAN: And because I can’t play like that…

She demonstrates how to play the piano with a funny face.

KUBRICK: I think I’m one of the most even-tempered people you’ll ever meet.

A sudden explosion bursts from Anya’s tiny lips: “Ha!” she cries with adorable contempt.

He must have passed on some of his enthusiasm for filmmaking, though, because Vivian went on to become a talented film composer, starting with the haunting score for “Full Metal Jacket,” its eerie synthesized notes, like the sound of metal being rent in two, perfectly mirroring the twisted landscape of Hue City. Perhaps the greatest triumph of that film, besides washing the icky, sugarcoated taste of “Platoon” (1986) out of our mouths, was that it made war movies fun again, and not just gung-ho fun like “Patton” (1970) but gritty, frightening and, perhaps for the first time in American cinema, morally ambiguous. Until Kubrick came along, every other American filmmaker was so cowed by the Vietnam War that he either turned it into metaphorical nonsense – “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Apocalypse Now” (1979) – or sentimental schlock – “The Green Berets” (1968), “Coming Home” (1978). This is not to denigrate the hearty souls who tried. But it takes a cool, unblinking eye to make a movie about a hopeless war, as it does to tell the drill instructor you don’t love the Virgin Mary. No one who has seen the film can forget R. Lee Ermey as Drill Instructor Hartman, partly because he’s so terrifying, drilling the souls out of the Marine recruits with enough gusto to intimidate James Cagney. (For his audition, Ermey, who had been a genuine drill instructor, extemporized fifteen minutes worth of obscenities, never once repeating himself, all the while being pelted by tennis balls and oranges thrown by Kubrick’s assistant.) No less impressive, though, is Vincent D’Onofrio as Pile, the ponderous recruit whose mental decline can be charted simply by the look in his eyes, morphing, over the course of basic training, from goofy stupidity to utter madness.

The trouble is, of course, that Ermey and D’Onofrio are too good. They force the movie to peak a quarter of the way through. How, after all, can you transition from Pile’s disturbing suicide to the streets of Da Nang, ten thousand miles and a million emotions away? Easy: play some Nancy Sinatra and fade up from black. Kubrick cuts from Pile’s brains on the wall to a Vietnamese hooker with as little ado as he cuts from monkeys to spaceships. Incredibly, though, it works. In large part, this is because Kubrick, unlike Francis Ford Coppola or Oliver Stone, doesn’t festoon his film with pathos or bombast. Indeed, the scenes in Vietnam are so stark that it’s easy to miss how funny they can sometimes be. At one point, for instance, Joker (Mathew Modine) runs afoul of an Army colonel who can’t understand why he’d write “Born to Kill” on his helmet and, at the same time, wear a peace button on his jacket:

JOKER: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.

COLONEL: The what?

JOKER: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.

There is a pause while the Colonel, gruff and surly as an old football coach, tries to make out what to think of this.

COLONEL: Whose side are you on, son?

This, I think, is the best rebuttal to the notion that Kubrick was simply cool and aloof, a superb technician with neither heart nor humor. Kubrick’s films are cool and aloof, but they are hardly heartless. Just watch Humbert swig ravenously at a bottle of whiskey rather than make love to Charlotte and try not to laugh or look on as Corporal Paris marches stoically to his own execution and see if you don’t feel a stab of pity. There is a fine line between callousness and sangfroid, artistically speaking that is. While the former obscures your view of humanity, the latter allows you to see it more clearly, free from undue sentiment, as any artist should. “Dr. Strangelove” is remarkable because it manages to walk this line perfectly, balancing the doubly high wire of horror and comedy. It is common wisdom to state that the great stroke of genius in that film was to make it funny. True, but this occludes another pertinent fact: it is also incredibly scary, much more so than more serious films about nuclear war like “On the Beach” (1959) and “Fail-Safe’ (1964). This is because Kubrick gives it to us straight; the humor only sneaks in on the coattails of suspense. When the bomb doors open beneath Slim Pickens, part of you gasps in shock (the sudden rush of wind beneath his feet, the overwhelming height of the drop, the inevitable worry, What if he should fall?) while the other half of you grins with ill-concealed delight. Bombs Away!

So how do we reconcile the different Kubricks: the workaholic and the family man, the perfectionist and the improvisator, the independent filmmaker who came to be the most popular director in Hollywood? Of all the paradoxes in Kubrick’s career, maybe this last is the most peculiar. In another life, he might have been one of cinema’s obscure heroes, a Terrence Malick or a Jim Jarmusch, beloved of the art-house crowd but unknown to less pallid members of society. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to tear down the wall that separates these two worlds, to meld the aesthetic with the popular: there is nothing more crystalline and fragile, for example, than the opening shot of “The Shining,” the camera gliding soundlessly over the top of an alpine lake like a hawk, just as there is nothing more atavistic and visceral, not even from the bombastic mind of Michael Bay, than Jack Nicholson felling Scatman Cruthers with a fire ax. “Stanley wanted to make successful movies,” his former partner James B. Harris explained. “Movies that people went to see. Box-office hits. However, to achieve that, he would never ever take anything away from the way he wanted to do the picture. He wanted to have it all.”[19] If so, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Early in Kubrick’s career, when production began to fall behind on “Spartacus,” Kirk Douglas and the production manager came to him in a panic. The sun was going down. Hundreds of extras were standing around. Money was evaporating before their very eyes. Why, they wanted to know, was he wasting time trying to get each and every shot just right? Hadn’t he been told it was only another Hollywood epic? What was so important about doing it like this? Because, Kubrick explained, “That’s the way I want it.”[20]


Graham Daseler holds a degree  in Film and Digital Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He currently works as a music video director in Los Angeles.


Appian. Civil Wars, 1.116-120; Trans. John Carter.

Baxter, John. Stanley Kubrick. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1997.

Harlan, Jan. Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Warner Brothers Pictures. 2001.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Random House; Second Vintage International

Edition, 1997.


[1] Harlan

[2] Harlan

[3] Baxter, p.56

[4] Baxter, pp.236-237

[5] Baxter, pp.6-7

[6] Ibid, pp.284-285

[7] Baxter, p.128

[8] Appian, Civil Wars, 1.116-120, trans. John Carter

[9] Nabokov, p.127

[10] Nabokov, p.132

[11] Baxter, p.293

[12] Baxter, p.283

[13] Baxter, p.182

[14] Ibid, p.169

[15] Baxter, p.178

[16] Ibid, p.194

[17] Ibid, p.151

[18] Baxter, 280

[19] Baxter, p.71

[20] Baxter, p.3

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Teresa Tannahill
Teresa Tannahill

For Goodness sake! Since we've GOT to have empathic dinosaurs in the movie, why not just go the whole Rex and admit that it was what it was. The dinosaur holds the ailing dinosaur's head down so that it does not get spotted by the rest of the pack. It's compassion. Pity. Reptilian kindness - whatever that is. "Keep your head down or they'll see you!" Durr.

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