Obituary: Stanley Kubrick
Tuesday 09 March 1999
His last film, Eyes Wide Shut, so long in the making, so teasingly announced and coyly delayed, was the apotheosis of this hide-and-seek mentality. The stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and even the bit players, had to agree to a contract stipulating no fixed time limit for the movie's completion, and that put the actors at the total mercy of the director's unpredictable caprices.
On the Internet, rumours were more than rife - they were ripe. The film is based on a story by the Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler, in which Nicole Kidman plays a drug-sniffing society woman with nymphomaniac tendencies. In a particularly steamy scene, Harvey Keitel was making love to her and suddenly ejaculated on her costume, after which Kubrick dismissed him and his place was taken by Sidney Pollack. An actor should simply act, and be in control of his emotions, not the slave of them. That was the Kubrick ethic.
We have waited 12 years for this new movie, since Full Metal Jacket (1987). If that film had been brought out in time, it would surely have beaten Oliver Stone's Platoon to the post for a directorial Oscar. As it was, Kubrick was never rewarded with that highest honour, and could not have cared less.
Kubrick was born and bred in the Bronx in New York in a family of Central European immigrants whose roots were in Romania, Hungary and Austria. Stanley was a rebel at school, so his father enrolled him in a chess academy to encourage serious thought - an institution of which he became the champion.
On his 12th birthday, his father presented him with a Graflex camera. This was the trigger to his future fame as a cineaste. On the way to school, carrying the camera in his lunch bag, he would snap local street scenes, and stared selling his work to magazines, until he was hired by Look magazine. With a friend he made his first low-budget films, documentaries about boxing and a flying preacher.
In 1953, with the cash he won from a chess contest, he made his first "cheapie" feature, Fear and Desire, prophetically a war story set in an imaginary kingdom. It already showed his allegiance to great film noir creators Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, Robert Siodmak, artists of violent expressionism Kubrick was to exploit in the crimes of A Clockwork Orange and the assassination of Quilty in Lolita. This early work led to his being placed under contract in Hollywood where he made his first big feature, The Killing, in 1958.
Unlike many other directors, Kubrick did not allow himself to become manipulated by the studios. He oversaw all his scripts, made his own final cut, always maintained his personal style of film-making, and insisted upon the originality, often shocking at the time, of his subjects. He did not limit himself to one genre.
In 1960 he launched into a lavish peplum, Spartacus, starring an actor, Kirk Douglas, who was to become his friend, and closely associated with his future work. "I tried with only limited success to make the film as real as possible," he commented. "But I was up against a pretty dumb script" - by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo - "which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus." Nevertheless, it is a great spectacle, with interesting touches of outrageous kitsch reminiscent of the best Ricardo Freda.
But it was Kubrick's 1962 version of Nabokov's erotic thriller Lolita that made his name a household word. Because of censorship problems in America, it was shot in Britain. "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" was the leading come-on in the extravagant studio publicity. It drew the wrath of small-town America and British blue-noses. Accusations of incest and paedophilia have haunted the movie to the present day: a limp new version ran foul of a society recently reawakened to the perils of paedophilia, and that condemned it outright before it had ever been shown.
At the time, the project seemed insane. One of the century's greatest novels, it did not really lend itself to convincing scripting, because Nabokov's voice is so unique, so immaculately personal, so brilliantly literary in its evocation of certain weird aspects of American social life. The book is too funny to be really disturbing, and this is partly what made Kubrick's version less sulphurous than it might have been.
Nabokov's prose is so enthrallingly persuasive, but much of it was lost in the simple portrayal of plot and character. Kubrick worked closely with the novelist on the script, and Nabokov was appalled by what happened to his studied aesthetic tone, although the actors, James Mason with his seductive Cambridge drawl, goofy Sue Lyon as Lolita, and the immense Shelley Winters as the eternal vivacious middle-class American widow, were perfectly directed, totally in Kubrick's control.
In 1963, the really great Kubrick period took flight with the immensely popular Peter Sellers in the multi-personality roles of Dr Strangelove with its ironically throwaway subtitle "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb". (The enormous success of the film did not, of course, stop the arms race or end the Cold War - our leaders are impervious to irony.) Dr Strangelove satirised the military unmercifully, as if it were a black comedy version of his 1958 film Paths of Glory.
Kubrick's peculiar sense of humour in Dr Strangelove expressed clearly the anti-war, anti-nuclear spirit of the times, much as Oh What a Lovely War! derides the almost sacrosanct First World War. So he shows us images of nuclear disaster backed by Vera Lynn belting out "We'll Meet Again".
The same highly personal feeling for the appropriateness of inappropriate music is found in the space-docking sequence in 2001 with "The Blue Danube" waltz, and in a sickening punch-up in A Clockwork Orange in which Malcolm McDowell warbles "Singin' in the Rain" - a criticism of popular sentimental song as well as a pointed sigh for irresponsibility in the young.
Full Metal Jacket ends with the jaunty rhythms of the Mickey Mouse Club. It begins with pictures of young recruits being shorn by a Marine Corps demon barber to the tune of an insipid lyric reminiscent of the syrupy ditties of the Second World War. One gets the feeling that nothing has changed in the army. The helpless young innocents are simply cannon fodder. Here, too, the music plays a significant atmospheric role: "These Boots were Made for Walkin' " and "Surfin' Bird", with the "kiddies" song at the close.
Dr Strangelove was followed in 1968 by 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a scenario by the magnificent SF master Arthur C. Clarke. It was the first of a long series of outer space movies, now regrettably cheapened by overdoses of special effects and loud explosions.
Nineteen seventy-one saw A Clockwork Orange come under attack. Set in a violent future, it provoked outrage in Britain, and the anti-hero of Malcolm McDowell was accused of perverting clean-living youth, of encouraging violence and the sort of picturesque hooliganism that has now become commonplace everywhere. One of the most shocking episodes was for many people a rape played as a youthful romp. It seemed to suggest a total contempt for women and for sexual mores at that period, and even held ominous intimations of neo-fascism.
Kubrick spoke out against the censor in defence of his film. But in the curious fateful fashion of uncharted and unconnected events, soon after it was screened there were rapes and killings and gang confrontations between unemployed youths that might have been taken to be inspired by the violence in the movie.
Though it was totally irrational, Kubrick lost his cool at the reports and had the film withdrawn. He had also, it is said, been personally threatened. His contract stated that he could have the power to withdraw the film from the public domain, and it has not been played in Britain since the late Seventies. Its harsh vision of a London of the future has now well and truly entered the present of all our cities.
In 1975 Kubrick surprised everyone by making Barry Lyndon, on the surface a pretty period film seemingly entirely lit by candlelight. Behind the charm, however, lies the true Kubrick vision of humanity's ineradicable beastliness. This vision was raised to even greater heights of genuine horror in The Shining (1980) with a maniacal axe murderer played by the insanely grinning Jack Nicholson.
The literary sources of Kubrick's films are varied. He obviously was a discriminating and widely read lover of books. But his adaptations of great literary works and minor ones - from Nabokov's Lolita to Terry Southern's Dr Strangelove, with the strange branch of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon sticking out from among the moderns - were sometimes, under his close scrutiny, far from the originals. For example, Nabokov's work is pure language play on a banal love-and-murder framework, but for Kubrick the film-maker the sense of language did not really exist.
He makes the deliberately flimsy plot more important than the words, and in doing so gives us superb satirical pictures of American daily life and speech, only hinted at by the original text. His use in other films of army slang tends to dehumanise the characters, almost as in 2001 the robot Hal's deformed speech makes him appear to be on the level of a true sub-human, though with a sense of humour lacking in the crew of the space ship. Similarly, we value Burgess's novel for the sake of its language, a new dialect that we take pleasure in deciphering and coming to terms with. But this is missing from Kubrick's concept of the book, and that lack depressed Burgess until the sales suddenly shot up to phenomenal heights. His author's honour had been redeemed.
Kubrick had been planning a new interpretation of the Napoleonic campaigns. But in 1987 he directed the only real masterpiece on the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket. The basic training episodes and later sequences in which the men have to confront their first prisoners and express their homesick feelings about the land they are trapped in form some of the best documentary moments of a brutally realistic film. The title refers to a shell casing representing the soldier who is outwardly tough but inwardly empty, the sort who can survive such inhuman ordeals.
This troubling sense of the frailty of human character becomes even more pointed in the deeply moving portrait of a sensitive misfit, a figure of deep anguish, superbly portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio. The drill sergeant is an awesome brute with a voice that could shatter the sound barrier: he is a racist and a sexist whose only aim is to humiliate his men. Recent revelations prove that he is no fiction.
Full Metal Jacket was made in England, where Kubrick had lived in exile since Lolita. He had become a virtual recluse - who can blame him? But one of the reasons for this self-immurement was his very understandable dislike of air travel.
The years in England were not wasted. They saw the incubation of what was to be Stanley Kubrick's last film, the oddly titled Eyes Wide Shut, for which we shall have to wait until July to pass judgement. Whatever it is, it will be Kubrick through and through, unmistakably original. The master who did not live to see 2001 will be remembered that month with this posthumous birthday present to his devoted fans.
Stanley Kubrick, film director, producer and scriptwriter: born New York 26 July 1928; married three times (three daughters); died Childwickbury, Hertfordshire 7 March 1999.
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