“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness we must supply our own light.”
Ten years ago today, Stanley Kubrick – for me the greatest American Film Director – died peacefully in his sleep leaving behind a body of work that by turn is beautiful, complex, funny, maddening & above all unmissable. Between 1956 and 1999 he produced eleven films in almost as many genres and left behind a legacy of almost films that might have been that are Holy Grail-like in their possibilities to film fans. He was both praised and reviled in equal measure, but never ignored. The increasing amount of time between his productions meant that the release of a film was always an event for those interested in film, even if they didn’t always agree with his methods.
My first encounter with Kubrick was in the early Eighties, the VHS boom just beginning Warner Bros released The Shining and the delights of “Mad Jack” to a wider audience. I could only half remember it but it stuck with me enough to realise when I was older that it was worth watching again. It remains one of the few horror films that I’ll always regret watching, its claustrophobic presence never quite sitting right, but I love it. Years later when I became truly interested in film I found it hard to believe that this was directed by the man responsible for 2001, Dr Strangelove and a raft of other films that I had come to love. How could he be comfortable in so many genres? Soon I began to seek out the rest of his films, a decision I’ve never regretted.
He started work as a professional photographer (a fact clearly visible in the clarity of his films) before moving on to make cheap, exploitation style films and documentaries which he would later dismiss as unworthy. However The Killing and more importantly Paths of Glory (which was deemed so controversial in its depiction of the military that the French government asked that it not be released in their country for a further two decades) marked him out for greater things.
He was at his most productive during the sixties and seventies, producing six of the eleven films he recognised and being linked to even more. He had his one dalliance with mainstream Hollywood (Spartacus) before scandalising it (Lolita), produced everyone’s favourite comedy about nuclear obliteration (Dr. Strangelove) re-invented the special effects industry (2001), gave birth to the scandalised Daily Mail Crowd (A Clockwork Orange) and finally turned to NASA for help (Barry Lyndon). He was also fired by Marlon Brando (One Eyed Jacks) and failed to make Napoleon with Jack Nicholson or a film about The Holocaust (a subject he would finally decide to leave having seen Schindler’s List). He also found time to help with a James Bond film (The Spy Who Loved Me), although he demanded that the fact not be publicised (a promise kept until after his death). No wonder he took more than twenty years to make his final three films. By this reckoning we’d have been waiting for his latest film to emerge about now.
Often dismissed as cold and emotionless, more concerned with artistic construction than people, it should be remembered that this was a man who withdrew his most infamous work from distribution in the country he called home for fear for his families safety. That Warner Bros released it with such alacrity following his death was a cause for both celebration and dismay, sure we were finally able to see it again but for a generation it had become a film first illicitly seen on grainy VHS, adding to it’s mystique and we wanted it to remain that way.
The beauty of his films is that they are never quite what you expected. Full Metal Jacket was advertised as a war film, but by the time we get to Vietnam it is almost a relief to be away from training camp (far more horrific than anything which is to come). Similarly Stephen King argued that as a director Kubrick did not understand the horror genre, ditching most of the supernatural elements from his vision of The Shining. On later watching King’s version it’s not difficult to see why, concepts that work fine within a novel would seem out-of-place with Kubrick’s vision of a family disintegrating. He even had the vision to turn A Clockwork Orange into a comedy (albeit one as black as pitch) in order to reinforce the horrors to come.
He was the first director whom I travelled more than a half-an-hour to see one of his films; a planned showing of 2001 in Manchester meant I finally had a chance to see it on the big screen. It’s become a common occurrence for me now but when I was sixteen it was more difficult without access to a car. Afterwards I found it impossible to watch on TV for years and I’d still travel to see it today if I knew of a screening and had the time.
Following his death he still had a few surprises. His final film, Eyes Wide Shut, continue to divides opinion, but has a beautiful, dream like quality and one of his best set pieces, the weird half ritual / half orgy that is the centrepiece of the film and the catalyst for much of what is to happen. For many it summed up what his films had become, technically astonishing, weird, thought provoking and distant. However watch it again and the other side of Kubrick emerges; the weird, child-like humour (the Japanese Sex Tourists being pure slapstick), his ability to push actors outside of their comfort zone and lastly his hope in humanity (Kubrick hopes that come the end of the film they will remain a family, despite what has possibly happened).
A further surprise lay in store as Steven Spielberg announced that his next film would be AI, based on a project he had been collaborating with Kubrick on. It remains the oddity on his CV, strangely emotional but with the bleakest ending imaginable in a Spielberg film. Kubrick had originally looked at directing it himself, but began to collaborate with Spielberg when he noted the director’s talent for working with children. Jurassic Park finally provided the impetus that special effects had caught up with his vision and the two began work on what for both of them was just another future project. It sits oddly on both of their CV’s, neither a true Kubrick film nor a true Spielberg one, the sense that it was being directed from beyond the grave always there.
Finally, Kubrick gained the ultimate film accolade in becoming an adjective – Kubrickian has since been used to describe every film where intellectual and philosophical ideas are pursued at the cost of a traditional narrative. Whether he would have agreed with this description is besides the point (all of his films have a very clear narrative on one level, it’s only when you look deeper that the rest emerges), however it’s nice to think that he’s still being recognised for his influence on generations of filmmakers.