He lives reclusively in rural Hertfordshire, and hasn't had a hit in 25 years. But Stanley Kubrick remains one of the movies' most intriguing figures. David Thomson investigates
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David Thomson

He has never won an Oscar for himself; and even if the Academy decides that he merits a special award, he is unlikely to go to LA to get it. Though a connoisseur of advanced technologies, he is afraid of flying. So he hasn't been in the movie capital in 30 years. And yet, he has one of the great studios there as his loyal patron and backer. Year after year, they cover his overhead, waiting and hoping for pictures he is not obliged to discuss with them.

He must be golden, you say. Not quite: in the last 21 years he has delivered only three films, not one of them a hit. But his deal goes on. Have no doubt about it: this is one of the most remarkable assertions of Genius in the history of Hollywood. But if Stanley lived in LA, he'd not get away with it. So he stays at home - here, in Hertfordshire.

It's understandable that an American with talent in the movies may need to feel an outsider, "beyond infinity". After all, Hollywood is a squalid walled kingdom where "genius" is regarded as a threat to profit, entertainment and everyday iniquity. Orson Welles is often taken as the first outcast. But DW Griffith, von Stroheim, von Sternberg and Buster Keaton had pioneered the dismal process. They had their Xanadus of ignominy and failure. We can measure Stanley Kubrick's magnificent, enigmatic retreat by the fact that after 35 years in the English provinces, with a diminishing flow of work, some of it perilously free from "genius", his authority seems none the less. He casts a great shadow still. Hollywood takes his calls. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have lately visited the outer regions of the galaxy to see whether they have a place in what might be his next movie. Stanley is his own Napoleon, not so much exiled as mythical in Childwickbury Manor, near St Albans.

His private place is an 18th-century house equipped with every possible modern advantage in the way of security systems and communications technology. (We may recall at the end of 2001, the lithium-like serenity of a spacecraft in the bright, windowless, French 18th-century hotel room where the several ages of Dave, the spaceman, coexist.) Kubrick refuses interviews. Even if located by some remote-controlled tracking camera, he is hardly the type to provide a provocative "Rosebud" or "Rhubarb". He is as emphatically mysterious as the black obelisk from 2001, much more a question than an answer. His unique brilliance has never relished story-telling, or the more warming forms of showbusiness. Rather, he presents riddles and hovers in their uncertainty. Portentousness is one of his most natural styles.

In the days when he did give interviews, he was plainly very intelligent, very articulate, but awesomely impersonal. No study of his films can miss the fascination with soulless intellect - and as a story, 2001 is rescued by the appearance of HAL, that strangely neurotic computer without whom the movie is all light, marvel and creeping mystery. There is a kind of unease in Kubrick, but is it enough to call it paranoia, shyness ... or some entropic, inward urge? And isn't it odd to find such reticence in someone who wishes to make movies for millions of strangers - for everyone, even?

After all, in 2001, "man" has become as bland and neutral as a shop-window mannequin: the "heroes" are played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as zombies, tamed and smoothed by contact with machinery. But the "mankind" posited in the film's metaphysical pondering is supposedly driven by curiosity and the desire to learn the Secret of Existence. Equally, in The Shining, Jack Torrance wants nothing more than to abide for ever amid the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in an eternal showbound winter (Kubrick loves winter light). Yet he also wants to be a great writer, if he can persuade the world to go for a one-sentence novel, endlessly repeated, perfectly typed. It's akin to someone wanting to be the Greatest Film Director and not making films. This Stanley is a curious mix of Bonaparte and Bartleby, the great dictator who would rather not. Perhaps it's just that old Howard Hughes syndrome that beckons so many American genuises.

Once upon a time, he was conventionally productive and self-promoting. He was a precocious kid, a doctor's son, born in the Bronx in 1928. Photography was his passion as a youth, and by his late teens he was working for Look magazine. He is still an expert on photography, and likes to be his own operator in hand-held scenes. He made a short documentary about boxers and then, at the age of 24, with private money, he wrote, photographed, directed and edited Fear and Desire, a feature film about a group of soldiers lost in the field.

That was the first of seven pictures made between 1953 and 1964 (with only five more in the three-plus decades since). But even in that first, most active decade, it was easier to be astonished by Kubrick's command than to read his character. Killer's Kiss was an awkward, sentimental romance which Kubrick would later dismiss as juvenilia.

He came of age, and attracted critical attention, with The Killing, a fatalistic film noir about a plan to steal money from a race track. This was a man's world, with a rapt feeling for outlaw intelligence trying to defeat the system. In a way, it is a movie about packing a suitcase and seeing the case explode because of a daft accident. Kubrick is obsessed with the theme of designs that are thwarted by human aberration, and there is a musical eloquence to The Killing as the nagging structure backtracks, going over the plan again and again. But within that framework, The Killing has rapid character sketches that fill in a world of paranoia, hopeless dreams, homosexual yearning and ultimate bitterness. For intelligence doesn't work: Sterling Hayden has to watch $2m blown away in the wind.

A year later, with Kirk Douglas getting the funding, Kubrick moved to First World War France for Paths of Glory. The army here was depicted as a rat community in which the officers imposed their ambition and their failures on the ordinary ranks. It had spectacular battle scenes, with a tracking camera surveying a shell-blasted, lunar landscape, or hurtling along packed trenches. The facility was overwhelming, and Douglas was the very man to be the agonised conscience defending three luckless (and unappealing) soldiers in the ensuing court martial. Yet the ethical stance was cut and dried, and not quite consistent with the authoritative camera- style. Indeed the movie seemed driven by a sense of power and fate - as opposed to liberal outrage. The larger implication of the film was that corruption is inevitable, beyond protest. The pessimism was not assuaged by an ending in which a plaintive German girl tries to sing to a group of French soldiers. That rather calculated reaching out for a touch of Renoir, say, seemed slick and hollow - but the actress, Suzanne Christian, would become the third and present Mrs Kubrick.

Neither The Killing nor Paths of Glory did well commercially, despite critical praise. That and Kubrick's early reputation for insisting on being in charge led to a period of unemployment. So he was ready to fill the vacancy when Kirk Douglas fired Anthony Mann from Spartacus, and quite able to deliver a respectable epic, as good in the Senate as on the battlefield, that also indulged its star's wish to be crucified in 70mm on behalf of slaves everywhere. It wasn't a Kubrick film (though it did have a sneaking pro-Roman attitude) but it showed his professionalism, and it made money.

He was only in his early thirties, but he was clearly remarkable and when he said he would film Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (with Nabokov doing the screenplay) that was very earnest and very showy. The book was so literary as to challenge the movies. It was also a dangerous, sexy sensation, a novel known all over the world. The result was not Nabokov: he kept a credit, but Kubrick drastically rewrote the novelist's profuse, poetic script. Nor was it the love story it needed to be so much as a chess match between Humbert and Quilty (Kubrick adores chess) with Sue Lyon's Lo as the trophy. Worst of all, the book's wondrous evocation of motel Americana was lost in the decision to shoot the film in England. Kubrick had moved, with a vengeance: he might send second-units to real locations, but only with minutely precise instructions, and the determination to send them back if they didn't deliver images he had foreseen.

So the movie Lolita is not that great book. Who thought it could be? On the other hand, the movie is entertaining and likely to send any alert viewer to the novel. It is the warmest Kubrick has ever been: for Lyon is both touching and ordinary, while James Mason's Humbert is the richest performance in Kubrick's work, as well as the most poignant example of that flawed (or misled) intellect that so intrigues the director. To say nothing of Shelley Winters or Peter Sellers.

Dr Strangelove followed, with its too-easily-mislaid subtitle, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Of course, the joke is sardonic - isn't it? Strangelove now epitomises nuclear anxiety. Moreover, Kubrick is drawn to worry. I suspect he came to England in part out of fear of America and its rampant arsenal. Strangelove is a rather raucous, overly forced black-comedy in which Peter Sellers' versatility distracts us from the film's stunned calm. But it does begin to love the Bomb - or, rather, to feel less commitment to the varieties of life that could be snuffed out by it. Kubrick has never conveyed much enthusiasm for people and life, and in Strangelove there is a bleak, but lucid perspective, a sense of infinity, in which we wonder whether anything matters.

So it's a prelude to 2001, in which life as we may come to know it is so sterile, so inert, that there may have been a nuclear holocaust before the "story" starts. Alas, story has been a leading casualty in such a disaster, and 2001 piles on beauty, cinematics and ... big questions. To this mind, the "heaviness" is half-baked and pretentious; and the visual splendour is a terrible warning as to where cinema was going once directors and effects departments disdained narrative.

But 2001 was a huge success and a cultural event. In 1968, its rental income in the US exceeded $20m. The movie coincided with the heady days of the space programme. It established new realms of special effects - and, some say, it was the perfect light-show for stoned audiences. Above all, it fused movie technology and computer mechanics in a way that pointed to the future. Many movie people regard the film as a milestone and an inspiration. In 1992, when Sight & Sound polled critics and film-makers, 2001 was in the Top 10 movies of all time (it had not been there in 1972 or 1982), and it had many directors on its side: Fellini, William Friedkin, Jean-Jacques Beineix, John Woo, Michael Mann and Terry Gilliam. More than that, I suspect that the George Lucas of Star Wars and the whole culture of expensive futurism now sees 2001 as the crucial innovation.

2001 was made for MGM, and its success ensured Kubrick's status and liberty. He then moved to Warner Brothers who agreed to his odd English operation and guaranteed his funding. Granted the scale of his projects, and the intricacy of his perfectionism, Kubrick had been working steadily. A Clockwork Orange opened only three years after 2001. It is, so far, the only film this resident has ever set in a version of England.

Kubrick scripted Clockwork Orange alone, but he benefited from Anthony Burgess's book as much as he had done from Nabokov's. (Kubrick has generally relied on written originals, plus an old-fashioned use of voice-over narration.) The idea of the droogs and their talk was on the page; still, he had newcomer Milena Canonero to do their startling clothes - Kubrick is very good at choosing designers, and, since 2001, he has seemed increasingly preoccupied with decor. He also had Malcolm McDowell to supply a Cagney-like energy to nearly every image. But what is Clockwork Orange about?

I looked at it again this week, and I guess you could say it is just cinema, or art, or genius, or even a necessary outrage in the face of the bourgeoisie. Many were troubled by the violence - especially the merry rape - the seeming contempt for women and the more pervasive, if unconscious, alignment with fascistic style. Kubrick defended his own film against censorship - in very conventional terms. But then something happened; some fear struck back at the film-maker. There were killings in life that might have been copied from the film. Some say Kubrick was personally threatened. At any event, it was within his own contractual power to have the film withdrawn in Britain - and it has not played here since the late Seventies.

Of course, Clockwork Orange had been a hit long before the withdrawal, and it plays elsewhere in the world (I rented it in San Francisco). But its significance still seems to me as obscure, or as open, as that of 2001, Barry Lyndon or The Shining. That's a way of saying that the mature Kubrick has never tidied up or tied down his movies. The very beautiful filmic expression spreads like a mist of possibility. Barry Lyndon had 300 days of shooting, with a hiatus, when Kubrick had something like a major loss of confidence or purpose. The break doesn't show, but the uncertainty cries out for mercy killing, just as the usually cocky Ryan O'Neal seems trapped in the quicksand of costume, candlelight and sucking zooms. Lyndon won Oscars for its looks, but many viewers needed to be woken by theatre staff.

From Strangelove to Clockwork Orange, Kubrick had gauged the public pulse: accordingly, those movies have passed into common household reference. By contrast, Barry Lyndon seemed to come from limbo: it could have been spaceman Dave's retirement hobby (just as Pauline Kael, not its supporter, said that 2001 might have been made by the David Hemmings character in Blow-Up).

Kubrick has never regained his audience or his sense of the moment. The Shining failed because it wasn't good Stephen King, it wasn't properly frightening, and yet it was portentous in a weird, deadpan way. Perversely, I like it a lot, for its insight into the mind of a reclusive tyrant. But the misogyny is marked: Shelley Duvall behaves like a grotesque ninny, an intrusion on the macabre life of her warped genius husband.

And then there was Full Metal Jacket, a film in two parts - training and combat - that tells us military life is brutalising. It contrived to recreate the Vietnamese city of Hue in an abandoned London gasworks - but so what? Here was a film beyond explanation in which meticulous style seemed grinding and self-imprisoned.

What next? Kubrick is approaching 70. He has a project, written by Frederic Raphael, called Eyes Wide Shut. It is said to be erotic in nature - which would be very fresh ground for a man who seems unimpressed by women, passion or excitement. But suppose it had Tom and Nicole, and one of Raphael's best scripts? Or suppose the project lapsed, with Stanley turning back (again) to Napoleon, or his steady interest in artificial intelligence?

The Channel 4 season (beginning next week) offers all the major films, except for Paths of Glory, Strangelove and Clockwork Orange, and it comes with a useful documentary introduction made by Paul Joyce. Television is far from ideal for Kubrick: he commands a wide screen, and both the size and shape of his imagery are as arresting as his booming music - he also made "Thus Spake Zarathustra" household music. 2001 needs to make us feel very small; while in The Shining we should be awed by the immaculate enclosure of the Overlook Hotel. But look at the white light, study the men whose minds get the better of them, and feel the tension in Kubrick between his distaste for people and the stunning order of his style. His example to world film may not be healthy. But sometimes he makes magic with the great photographic shining of the world - like that scene in the Gold Room at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, when a depressed Jack Torrance goes to the empty bar, covers his eyes, vows to sell his soul for a drink, and discovers not just rows of waiting amber, but Lloyd, the perfect barman (Joe Turkel, a Kubrick favourite), with "What'll it be?" That's a wicked offer I can never refuse, and one that might have kept Napoleon on St Helena.

! David Thomson is a contributor to the 'Cinefile' documentary, 'Stanley Kubrick: The Invisible Man', which kicks off Channel 4's Kubrick season at 10.55pm on Thursday 20 June.