Paths of glory and a clockwork ego

STANLEY KUBRICK by John Baxter, HarperCollins pounds 20
Few Directors have made such a high proportion of memorable films as Stanley Kubrick. He discovered his vocation early, after managing while still at school to sell photographs to the magazine Look. By his twenties, he had graduated from photo-reportage to documentaries, then a decent film noir, The Killer (1956), and in 1957, before reaching the age of 30, one of the best American movies about the First World War, Paths of Glory.

This can already be seen as a typical Kubrick movie, if only for two reasons: it stirred up controversy (the French government, displeased with the image of the country's military, banned it for many years); and it led to a dispute over credits between the director and one of his scriptwriters. As John Baxter makes clear in this new biography, Kubrick has always had a capacity to upset people and likes to be in control of his films, from script to final edit. Reputedly a difficult man to work for, he has often taken over the jobs of his technicians, replacing the cameraman, lighting cameraman and others nominally in charge. Since Dr Strangelove, he has been his own producer.

After Paths of Glory (1957), came Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001 (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). The last three films in the Kubrick filmography, Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), suggest at the least a slackening in the power to shock. He was upset by the row over A Clockwork Orange and by the readiness of the British press to pin the "Clockwork Orange" label on real-life crimes (in one case regardless of the fact that the criminal had not seen Kubrick's film).

The filmography is very impressive, but does it amount to more than a list of big movies? There is no preference for a particular genre (as with Hitchcock or John Ford) or an obvious delight in storytelling (Spielberg). Kubrick, who has lived in England since the early 1960s, belongs more to a European tradition than to the Hollywood one, and it is not surprising to learn that the directors he admires are mainly Europeans, notably Max Ophuls. He has expressed his disgust with the pressures of working in Hollywood and with its "low-level malevolence".

All his films have a literary source, but it is sometimes so far back that the connection has become almost unrecognisable, especially so in the case of the book by Peter George that the author himself, with Kubrick and Terry Southern, adapted as Dr Strangelove. John Baxter is not the first critic to suggest that Kubrick has a suspicion of language: his films, Baxter says, "exalt the image, but short-change the intellect". The word most often used to describe the work is "cold", by critics who acknowledge the beauty of the images and the director's skill in choreographing them. He apparently sees the script as a necessary evil, and tends to make films where the dialogue is pared down almost to less than the essentials and dehumanised in some way: army slang, various kinds of jargon or the speech of HAL2000, the computer in 2001. In Dr Strangelove, the memorable lines are those about General Jack D Ripper's "vital bodily fluids" or President Merkin Muffley's blundering attempts to convey his government's regrets down the hotline to the Soviet leader - language that is either ludicrously inappropriate or pathetically inadequate.

It is significant, then, that Kubrick actually disliked A Clockwork Orange for the very reason that most people value Burgess's novel, namely the language. Burgess was to find himself in a dilemma with respect to the film, having his own reservations about it, but feeling obliged to defend Kubrick against the charge of inciting violence. A huge increase in sales of the book resolved some of Burgess's doubts. For Kubrick, a novel was just an idea. It had to be mulled over to find the five or six crucial scenes around which the movie would be constructed. The scriptwriting process seems to have been largely one of discarding dialogue.

All this, Baxter describes very well. He is (in the best sense) a professional of the movie book, having written several about Hollywood and biographies of Fellini, Bunuel, Spielberg and others. Since Kubrick remains incommunicado (having always been very protective of his private life), Baxter has had to rely on evidence from those who have known and worked with him. This is fine when it comes to the films: the background to each one and the production process are followed in convincing detail. But the discussion takes place behind Kubrick's back: the man himself seems always to have just left the room. The personality that does emerge sounds like a character from a Kubrick movie: a power freak, a neurotic with delusions of grandeur, prey to consuming obsessions - in any case, a man seen by others, often no doubt those whose egos he has trampled.