7. Stanley Kubrick
For a filmmaker to be considered an auteur, the theory is that their work must achieve technical perfection, their own personal creative vision and a deep, interior meaning. No film director has ever been more worthy of that accolade than Stanley Kubrick.
Shooting with natural lighting, exciting camera movement, extreme angles and wide lenses, regardless of the concept or setting he brought an atmosphere and aura of majesty into all his films. Kubrick cinema is like grand opera- the artistry and elegance of his work is unnaturally flawless in a way that we know what we're watching is not real life but deliberately on another level. He continually set new standards and in doing so broadened horizons, changing the form of cinema, and the scope of how we look at films today. He dealt with big topics, asked difficult, sometimes unanswerable questions, and took painstaking preparations to create films that wrapped those deep issues in a shell of plot and imagery, so that even the most perceptive viewer has to watch his films several times, contemplate what they've seen, think long and hard about the characters, images, events and contradictions before beginning to uncover the big idea.
Kubrick wasn't a successful academic. As an adolescent his two passions were photography and chess, a combination of technical and artistic excellence with patience and logic, which he would bring to each of his 13 films. Throughout his life he was also an obsessive perfectionist: in every possible way Kubrick set impeccable standards, over his 45 years in filmmaking he put his actors and crews through their paces every time, and got the perfect result with every film.
At 17 he got a job as a photographer for Look magazine, where he stayed for five years, during which time after much research and discussion about movies, he calculated that he could make a film for £10,000. His first filmed production was an independent documentary, Day Of The Fight, based around the career of a boxer he had interviewed at Look. After quitting his job, aged 23, he spent some time making another documentary, The Flying Padre, about a priest who had to fly a plane around New Mexico in order to preach to his large parish, and after gaining some hands-on experience Kubrick was ready to put his £10,000 theory to the test, when he was approached by a friend with a script.
The script became Fear And Desire, an allegorical story set in a forest behind enemy lines in a fictional war. The anonymous location and time allowed the film to represent of the psychology of any soldier and the loneliness and abandonment of any war. There are only five actors in the film, and some days on set Kubrick was the only member of his tiny crew present. He directed, produced, shot and edited the film, and in doing so he learned more about filmmaking than he had making documentaries, and got a lot of mistakes out of his system throughout the production.
The film got an art house distribution and despite moments of greatness, particularly one memorable scene with a female hostage, it wasn't particularly well-received, but Kubrick panned it worse than any critic, calling the whole thing "pretentious and boring", "a bumbling amateur film exercise", and likening it to “a child’s drawing on the fridge.” He would later try to destroy every copy of the film in circulation; it's believed that other than Kubrick's original print, only two copies of it remain, one of which was only discovered in 2010.
Fear And Desire was cheap to produce but it didn't make any money either, so, tight for cash, Kubrick took a job directing a documentary short entitled The Seafarers, for the Seafarers International Union, which helped fund his next planned feature. That was Killer's Kiss, a crime story told, in flashback, by a man waiting in a train station. With a much more distinct visual style and the underlying low-key mood of classic film noir, although slightly more conventional, this was a step closer to the exploratory style Kubrick wanted to develop.
His third film was another tense noir, The Killing, a dark thriller based around a horse racing heist. The criminals involved only know their own parts in the robbery, making the action a matter of trust, and as the con men prepare for the scam of the century we remain unaware what's going on, but amongst the crime plot Kubrick takes the time to show us the contrasting personal lives of the main characters, played by many typecast noir actors, explaining their motives and making us doubt whom exactly each of them is trying to con, all leading to a glitch, a fatal twist and a dramatic climax. Unravelled and photographed clinically, the film was one of the earliest displays of genius from 28-year-old Kubrick, who considered The Killing to be his first mature feature. It was a landmark film in his breakthrough to popular cinema, released in 1956 to worldwide distribution and critical praise.
After his first big hit Kubrick's distributors, MGM, offered him the chance to direct a war film, the unforgettable Paths Of Glory, which as well as capturing the horror of the front lines in World War I shamed the imperious French high command in their treatment of their own soldiers, sending an entire unit of men on a suicide mission and making examples of the objectors. The soldiers are defended only by one man, an apparent rarity: a colonel who wants the best for his men, and the ensuing tensions between ranks have drastic consequences, all leading to an emotional final scene which reminds us that soldiers are still men, in war and peace. The courage and power of Paths Of Glory can still be appreciated 57 years on, but equally as striking is Kubrick's presentation of the drama- the sharp black-and-white cinematography and masterful placement and movement of the camera were more ambitious and emphatic still in a perfectly-directed film.
Paths Of Glory was a resounding hit, and it was its star who helped Kubrick get his next job. After Anthony Mann's sacking at the beginning of production, Kirk Douglas, as producer, hired Kubrick to take the reins of his first epic; a story of a hero, persecuted and enslaved, but empowered by his physical and moral strength enough to inspire a revolution. It was released in a time of many Biblical/Roman epics, but Spartacus offered more than swords and sandals.
With an examination of Roman aristocracy, the Senate and the complexities of the powerful antagonists as well as following the main character and his story, Kubrick offered an ideological and emotional aspect that ran beneath the spectacle and gave Spartacus a depth and realism unseen in most other films of its genre. Kubrick's well-directed action sequences stunned audiences and the moral revolution against the corrupt upper classes drew a strong sense of sympathy, but the plight of Spartacus also draws parallels to the American slave story, which was a relevant piece of history for Americans to consider at the time, and perhaps most refreshingly the film offered an unconventional ending: a conclusion that's tragic but still offers a degree of hope and optimism.
Star-studded, told on a huge scale and filmed in the three-strip Technicolor format, everything about the film was epic. In fact, at the time of release Spartacus was the most expensive production made in America, and it quickly became the biggest ever box-office hit, but despite the new-found success, and partly to avoid the increasing Hollywood producer pressure, Kubrick made a decision to move to the UK, and would live here for the rest of his life.
He set to work straight away on his next project, an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a strange, sick noir in which a man, in love with a 14-year-old girl (an upgrade on the 12-year-old in the book), hatches a wicked plan to marry her mother and adopt her. As dramatic and humorous as it was controversial, Lolita was and still is subject to mixed opinions. Some see truth beyond the controversy, some just get hung up on the weirdness of it all, but no one can deny the film's mysterious genius. Some consider Lolita more of a comedy than a drama but that point became harder to argue when Kubrick indulged his sense of humour with his seventh feature film.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb is not only an all-time classic, but possibly Kubrick's bravest film. Released at a time when the nuclear bomb was considered a genuine threat, this film was the first to dare to make light of it, and in doing so, for better or worse, it shook the world.
It's a comedy of manners, combining farce and slapstick with satire, word play, contradiction and paradox, all set in the hysteria and madness of Cold War paranoia, but powered by its eccentric characters. Silly, sarcastic and sardonic, Dr. Strangelove is one of Kubrick's best-loved and most ionic pictures- a frantic story, told in real time, which immerses us in the heat of the situation so fantastically that by the end of the film the idea of learning to Love The Bomb seems almost genuine, and the idea of destroying the Earth conjures a strangely beautiful image.
After Strangelove Kubrick took a much longer break from filmmaking than he had done previously, rather than jumping into his next project secretively scaling up, entrusted by his American financiers, who after a few years themselves became anxious about what exactly Kubrick was doing in England, with a big budget and no movie stars. In 1968 came the answer, a monumental film which uncovered a road never explored before. A road from the dawn of man, through evolution, discovery, innovation, artificial intelligence, exploration, imagination and beyond, into a world unknown.
2001: A Space Odyssey begins with man's earliest discovery in his most primitive form,
then embarks on a great quest, a true odyssey through time and space, adventuring through its visual phenomena:
and trying to find some kind of human meaning at the end of it all.
2001 is not only a thrilling space adventure but at its heart a transcendental and meditative examination of life in all its forms. Visionary and beautiful in all its ideas, original imagery and special effects, it inspires everyone who sees it, and from its release has become not only one of the most important and influential films of all time but a source of universal fascination and infinite wonder. Thousands of children who saw 2001 immediately wanted to become astronauts, some were inspired to be artists. It gives its viewer a gift: an urge to explore and create, and a reminder that anything is possible. One of Kubrick’s mentees described it as the “big bang” of his generation.
2001 is, of course, a super-production and a masterpiece, but it left Kubrick a predicament in that it was a tough, nigh on impossible act to follow. He had an idea in mind: throughout his career he had a great interest in Napoleon I, and throughout the 1960s he had kept working on a script for a biographical film. The project could have gone ahead but for the timing- Kubrick's project coincided with the release of Waterloo, which wasn't a great financial success, and this put the major studios off from backing the film. While looking for a new project, Kubrick had been given a copy of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, a borderline prophetic imagination of the idea of crime and punishment in a violent future society, where unruly youths revolt for pleasure, and mind control and brainwashing are being developed as criminal deterrents. It struck a chord with Kubrick straight away- he was very interested by the book's social and political statements and its anti-institutional message and so, with a few tweaks, some of his greatest visual mastery and some of the most memorable uses of his trademark familiar classical music, he created a very faithful adaptation the novel for the screen.
The film's anti-hero, now an icon of '70s popular culture, is one of Kubrick's most complex and original characters: Alex DeLarge is intelligent, looked-after at home and able to seduce women with ease, yet he joins his delinquent Droogs at night to burgle, assault and rape, with smiles on their faces and without a glimmer of remorse. A Clockwork Orange generated two long-lasting ideas: of a criminal underworld and of a state-controlled public, both of which, although fictional, have remained relevant since the film's release, and although parts of society and authority weren't ready for the film at the time, it has become one of the longest-lasting cult classics of the 1970s.
A Clockwork Orange also acted as something of a fundraiser, because Kubrick had thought he might need to partly self-finance his next film. Actually, with so many hits under his belt he received full financial backing, for a project bigger, and in a way riskier still, a beautiful epic, Barry Lyndon.
Set across 18th century Europe, Barry Lyndon tells the tale of a fictional Irish adventurer whose social and family circumstances lead him to various escapades and adventures in several countries. The story is told in a unique, patient style, but most importantly about the film is its spellbinding visual achievement. Practically every shot was designed to match the neoclassical and romantic art of the period, and with much use of Kubrick's trademark slow zoom and, miraculously, several indoor scenes lit entirely by candlelight, it has been accepted as one of the most daringly elegant and beautiful films ever made:
This film is astonishing in its beauty. It's long, but Barry Lyndon rewards and inspires with every shot.
By this time Kubrick no longer felt compelled or obliged to conform to any expectations, and answered only to himself. He was financially secure personally, as well as being so consistently successful and such a safe pair of hands that getting studio financing was no longer a problem, so he was free to take his time at all stages in the game and set about making the films he wanted to make, in his own style. He had earned that luxury.
He didn't return to screens until five years later, with The Shining, an unsettling film, disturbing and hallucinogenic, which terrified audiences and reinvented the horror as an art form, with a very complex and ambitious visual package. Just as 2001 changed the future of special effects, and Barry Lyndon achieved the impossible in set lighting, The Shining was a pioneering film, and remains a prime example of the use of the Steadicam. There was no shortage, either, of big-budget shots of pure horror that took an entire day to film (see trailer).
The story, of course, follows a writer and his family who gradually go mad during a winter in a stately hotel, under a supernatural influence. Spooky and eerie in the build-up as cabin fever slowly sets in, The Shining keeps a precise balance of shock and suspense, creeping up each corridor but leaving no shortage of scares around every corner. It wasn't a massive immediate success but has now been appreciated and accepted across the board as one of the most effective horror films ever made.
Vietnam has been one of the most inspirational wars on American cinema: it was interpreted in film as it was going on, with a later wave beginning after the war, in the late seventies, and another resurgence in the mid-eighties. After seven years without releasing a film Kubrick, having handled the Roman servile rebellion, WWI and the Cold War, returned to the genre with his unique interpretation of the conflict.
Full Metal Jacket is an experimental war film like no other. Told in two distinct sections, it takes the time to introduce its characters as men, and then follow them on a downward journey. In the first half of the film we see a platoon of Privates' heads shaved, muscles overworked and souls crushed as we experience the drills, insults and unique trauma of their training on Parris Island, before following some of them in the thick of battle. With a bizarre placement of comedy and popular culture amongst the violence and horror it's another Kubrick film which bases itself on contradiction: Full Metal Jacket packs an element of surprise as well as a complex moral compass, but the focus throughout remains on the men who are turned into killing machines, and the different ways they are influenced by America's lost war.
After making only two films per decade in the '70s and '80s Kubrick only made one in the '90s.
Twelve years after his previous release, he completed a profound, strange and utterly Kubrickian film called Eyes Wide Shut. An intimate epic, from its opening shot it's naked in its honesty and openness: the plot begins very naturally with a wealthy married couple who attend a party and later get into an heated conversation, which aggravates the man and sets him off on a journey through the sexual underworld of New York, feeding his curiosity but coming in contact with increasing danger, highlighted by edgy music, an unusual atmospheric tension and a hypnotic, dream-like quality as the content seems to go beyond reality, particularly during a key scene in an out-of-town mansion. As well as bringing out a sense of mystery about the secret lives of those who walk among us, the film takes us deep into the mind of the protagonist, forcing us to consider the same moral questions he asks himself.
Eyes Wide Shut is an experiential film; an up-close examination of love and marriage, sex, trust, jealousy, insecurity, honesty and dealing with the temptations and unwelcome truths that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Stanley Kubrick finished the film early in 1999, and died of a heart attack only a few weeks later. He believed it was his greatest contribution to cinema, that rare thing: a genuinely thoughtful and original film, which challenges reality and surpasses genre and classification, that could only be born from the mind of a time-honoured genius, and which completed his catalogue of extraordinary films, of which almost every one has become a classic.
No other director has ever been so relentless and ambitious in making such a number of masterpieces quite so distant from each other. Each Kubrick film stands individually, every one is a unique work of art, designed and crafted to perfection. Kubrick's knowledge of cameras, lenses and lighting was encyclopaedic, his use of them was possibly the best there's ever been, but on top of that he shot his films with a style that was purposeful, intense and stunning. A master of images, a grandmaster of cinema, with an ever-changing style that still flies in the face of every modern convention, Stanley Kubrick created films which have lived through generations, kept all of their sharpness, style and philosophy, and remain as relevant and effective to audiences today as they were to the generations that first saw them.
One great director said: "We are all the children of D.W. Griffith and Stanley Kubrick." - both were not only massively influential filmmakers but necessary innovators in the creation of the art form we see today, and just as Griffith gave cinematic language its grammar, Kubrick was its first visionary poet.