*Play Beethoven’s Symphony 9, Op. 125*
We all know of Stanley Kubrick, legendary director, famously anal-retentive perfectionist, and focal point of many conspiracy theories. He is one of the first big characters you come across when entering the world of film. Kubrick’s influence on culture and the film industry is mammoth; many see him as the greatest director of all time, and it is easy to see why. He is one of the few people ever to cross the boundary between commercial, cultural success and auteur filmmaking. He was in both realms of art-house and blockbuster filmmaking at the same time. The only other director who also managed this, and to the scale that Kubrick did, is Hitchcock.
With an exhibition of artists’ work, drawing from Kubrick’s unique vision, now at Somerset House, and a rerelease of his forgotten period epic Barry Lyndon, I decided it is time for a reassessment on the man, and his “greatness”.
But what could possibly be said about this man, which has not already been spoken?
Perhaps first try and get to why he is held in such high-esteem. To start at the beginning; Kubrick came from a humble youth in the Bronx, New York. He was a weird kid, didn’t get very good grades, but he had an eye for film and photography, and he ran with it. He started as a magazine photographer and entered the film industry making short films out of his own pocket. You can see this experience in photography in his films; there was always a flare to his films, which stood them apart from the rest. His first break into the mainstream was in the form of The Killing (1956), a usual ‘heist gone wrong’ film. He then made a WW1 film Paths of Glory (1957). After the moderate commercial success and critical acclaim of these two films, he was contracted to work on a blockbuster, which at the time meant a Greek epic. Kirk Douglas, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, and Charles Laughton, all huge names, were contracted onto the film. With this larger budget and studio backing, Kubrick found that the film’s producers interfered too much into his unique directing process. Despite the film’s success, Kubrick wrote the film off as his own and vowed to only ever work in his way. This is a key moment in his career, and one that shaped him into the subversive director he came to be.
He then decided to adapt a famously controversial book about pedophilia, Lolita. This controversy became a common theme to his films; Kubrick seemed to have a morbid curiosity of humanity, and it resonated with audiences. After exploring pedophilia, he went onto make a film on nuclear armageddon at the height of the cold way, Dr. Strangelove; and then onto a space film at the climax of the USA/USSR space race, 2001: A Space Odyssey. After this the controversy didn’t end, although I’d like to focus more on a different nuance of his career, possibly the most prominent – the fall of man.
All of Kubrick’s films have a male lead. But none of these leads are heroes – more anti-heroes. The films all revolve around their shortcomings, or corruption. The only female characters are either 1. helpless to the man (like Shelley Duvall in The Shining), 2. neglected trophies (like in Barry Lyndon), or 3. seen as objects of desire (like in Lolita). It is only in Kubrick’s last film, on dreams, sexual desire and sexual contempt, Eyes Wide Shut, that a female character, Alice (played by Nicole Kidman), is fully released and has power over her husband William (Tom Cruise, who were actually married at the time, and later divorced).
What does this reflect on Kubrick, the man? I cannot say, but it is evident through his work that he was obsessed with exploring the male psyche through film.
Was he a sexist? I don’t think so, because all his films show men in a negative way. Dr. Strangelove is the best example of this; it is about a man, and whole system built up by men, and controlled by men, who because of the men ends in the demise of them all. (Although I could perfectly see why someone would think Kubrick was a sexist, due to his lack of female representation and the overall weakness of female characters at the hands of the evil men.)
Was he one of the greatest directors of all time, and should you now reassess his work? Yes, and certainly.
For the Somerset House exhibition on Kubrick:
For the rerelease of Barry Lyndon: