Studio was kept in the dark while he spent the money

THERE HAD been rumours in the past couple of years that Stanley Kubrick was ill; and even that his organism might be housing the error that would eliminate him.

That is a Kubrickian way of putting it, not a bad joke; he saw human beings and our social groupings as machines or games in which some mad rule might carry the system out of control. But if you waited long enough you could hear nearly any rumour or story about Stanley Kubrick.

His saying so little about himself only urged the rest of us into speculation. Did he intend that? Was it even his most personal way of transmitting story to the world? Or was he just a very shy, guarded, not to say obsessive and paranoid figure who hardly trusted himself to speak?

He meant everything to the world of film, not least because, in times when great films are few and far between, he was in possession of a new work, Eyes Wide Shut, that might count among his greatest, and most controversial.

For this time, Kubrick was taking on maybe the human being's most passionate and essential "error" - sex. If there was anyone not counting the days to the announced July opening of Eyes Wide Shut, wondering with true curiosity and every lewd anticipation, how much the film would reveal of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, there is now added this great mystery: was the film finished; or did he die with some last questions, cuts or marvels of sound as yet undecided?

There will be time for critics and historians to dispute whether Kubrick was a boy wonder, a master, a genius, a wizard manipulator, or a great artist. There is the same sort of debate over Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

However one elects to answer the question, Kubrick from a very early age insisted on being the maker and master of his films. Whether he liked or wanted it or not, he became known as the epitome of single-minded dedication, of the search for perfectionism, having everyone do it all over and over again, until he was satisfied with the result. If he was ever satisfied.

As such, he made large films - huge subjects, with new techniques, enormous budgets and seemingly indefinite schedules.

He came to Britain from America in part because of dismay at America, because he might be hidden in the countryside north of London, and also because the maker of 2001 was afraid of flying.

But the decision had another result - Kubrick was thousands of miles from Warner Brothers, his invariable source of funding, unwilling to tell it what he was doing or why, or what progress he was making, but so sure of himself that he defied it not to keep paying the bills.

The real wonder lay in the fact that no Kubrick film had made real money since the Sixties. Yet no one had the courage to raise doubts.

It was easy to argue with some of Kubrick's films: Full Metal Jacket seemed broken on the decision to shoot in Britain, and on its limited view of military dehumanisation; the prettiness of much of Barry Lyndon hardly seemed commensurate with the passing of its hours; even 2001 can be regarded as empty, pretentious and helplessly infatuated with machinery.

But Kubrick saw our time falling for the same mistakes, and he may have intended 2001 as a model of waste and doodling introspection. Never mind: no film so marked our own need to consider space.

Then there were masterpieces, some as small and intricate and self-sufficient as The Killing; some as vast, infinite and gloomy about creative enterprise as The Shining. Some were simply as clever and droll as Lolita, Dr Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange, films that did the impossible and managed to present underground anxieties we were supposed to keep in the dark.

No director knew more about photography, lenses and film emulsion. Others argued that no other great director was so little interested in people. But perhaps that is the way the world and our discourse are moving.

In many ways, I hope not. Yet in others, I wonder whether Stanley Kubrick wasn't part of the new advance guard, remorselessly moving towards the soul of a machine.

Will Eyes Wide Shut have final answers? If it is true to its maker, and if he knew it was his last testament, it will have questions that will make us deeply uneasy.

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