Stanley Kubrick 1928–1999

Welles: Among those whom I would call “younger generation” Kubrick appears to me to be a giant.
Interviewer: But, for example, The Killing was more or less a copy of The Ashphalt Jungle?
Welles: Yes, but The Killing was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model… What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his… Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.
Orson Welles, from a 1965 interview.

kubrick.jpgONE OF THE MORE notable things about the obituaries following Stanley Kubrick’s death in March this year was the lack of consensus with regard to his achievements. All were agreed that the man had made great films, but which films those might be varied widely, the choices spanning his entire career: Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, even The Killing was mentioned. A lack of accord would seem inevitable given such a varied career. Critic David Thomson has always chosen The Shining, citing its fairy tale qualities and a perceived autobiographical subtext about artistic crisis (“Why does Jack Nicholson look and dress like Kubrick?” he asks). In France the often vilified Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange (L’Orange Mecanique) still receive cult veneration.

After the death of Orson Welles in 1985, Kubrick became (arguably, of course) the greatest living filmmaker, the dubious status of “living legend” having been achieved a decade earlier. (In Sight & Sound‘s 1992 Critics Top 10 2001 crept into tenth place, the only film listed by a living director.) The international acclaim, his presence on English soil and a refusal to barter with hacks was, no doubt, one cause of the extraordinary level of carping in the March notices. Another would be due to a common syndrome, that of intelligence and popular culture being seen as mutually exclusive. Where cinema is concerned we live in times which, as Robin Wood once said, “regards Heaven’s Gate as ‘a disaster’ and Return of the Jedi as ‘a triumph'”. Orson Welles himself is rarely mentioned without reference to sherry commercials and, in other quarters, James Joyce is routinely described as ‘unreadable’ (this, from people who buy Nick Hornby books). In an atmosphere of elevated mediocrity, Kubrick’s powerful intellect and artistry, combined with an understandable reluctance to talk to people who think Ossessione is a brand of perfume, formed unavoidable provocations. The media landscape has changed enormously since the days when Kubrick would still appear at the premier of Lolita; it’s hard to imagine John Ford or Sam Peckinpah tolerating an interrogation from Jamie Theakston or Magenta DeVine. The voracious appetites of style mags and entertainment TV demand a constant drip-feed of interviews, talk show appearances and promo tours (backed by massive PR budgets). Anyone who doesn’t play the game is regarded as insane or as some kind of traitor. To be a name director working with ‘stars’ verges on the suicidal. Those two great elusive Thomases, Pynchon and Harris, both also taking years between works, escape censure by being mere writers. No one cares about Pynchon (he’s in Joyce’s ‘unreadable’ camp) while Harris has film gossip and a miscast Anthony Hopkins to deflect attention.

Nearly all the post mortem articles managed to repeat the standard litany of Kubrick complaints which have dogged him like the sherry ads dogged Welles. One of the worst, repeated in a recent biography, was that he was the bane of actors. If so, then Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, Peter Sellers, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Patrick Magee, Godfrey Quigley and Steven Berkoff et al, were gluttons for punishment, having come back for more when asked. Philip Stone, presumably bidding for a BFI endurance award, appeared in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Leon Vitali, who played the elder Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, had such a terrible time of it he left acting completely to join Kubrick’s permanent production staff. It seems significant that most complaints about Kubrick from the acting side came from those with prodigious egos: Kirk Douglas (who described him as “a talented shit”), Malcom McDowell (“inhuman”) and, on One Eyed Jacks, that paragon of flexibility Marlon Brando. No one who was as difficult as is so often claimed would have had talents such as Ken Adam and John Alcott returning constantly to work on his films, nor inspired such loyalty in those around him (see Anthony Frewin’s remarks in the current issue).

Invariably these kind of ill-informed comments say more about the critic than about Kubrick or, more importantly, his films. A metropolitan media that measures artistic success by the quantities of cocaine snorted in a Dean Street bar has few terms of reference for dealing with someone who chooses to sit at home for most of their life. Hence the recurrent headlines: “Kubrick the recluse”, “Kubrick the secretive, paranoid control-freak”.

Focus on Kubrick’s eccentricities often ignored the accuracy of his artistic choices. What is still seen as perversity in making a Vietnam film in the ruins of Beckton gasworks is, when the equivalent scenes are compared with Gustav Hasford’s novel, a stroke of brilliance which improves on the original by taking it out of its over-familiar jungle locale and into an area of potent metaphor. The entire last quarter of Full Metal Jacket has an nightmare quality as the film spirals through multiple deaths into darkness (with a Rolling Stones’ coda of ‘Paint It Black’). The flaming ruins seem to reach to infinity; where a jungle setting would connect only with Vietnam, the rubbled streets are the theatre of all present and future warfare, corresponding to Berlin, Beirut, Sarajevo and wherever the apocalypse is scheduled to visit next. And what other director anywhere, having shown his matchless ability to choose the perfect classical selection, would have the audacity and consummate good taste to pick out ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by The Trashmen?

This ability to crystalise ideas and metaphors in unforgettable images (the bone to spacecraft transformation in 2001) set Kubrick apart from his contemporaries, and his concentration on ideas as well as story makes him seem increasingly unique. Even acknowledged admirers like Michael Mann and Ridley Scott are unwilling or unable to compete on this level. Fortunately we have a final film left to see (setting aside the troubling presence of Tom Cruise; Ryan O’Neal was also pretty wooden during his Seventies’ heyday). Eyes Wide Shut seems to bring Kubrick’s career to a fitting close, based as it is on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. Schnitzler also wrote the play La Ronde which was filmed in 1950 by Max Ophüls, virtually the only director Kubrick ever referred to in interviews as a subject of admiration (by coincidence, Nicole Kidman was acting in The Blue Room, Howard Brenton’s version of La Ronde, shortly after completing her duties on the film). Eyes Wide Shut has already caused a stir in the US by having to be altered to secure an ‘R’ rating (as A Clockwork Orange was before it).

To be controversial to the last is the least one can expect of any artistic maverick. Kubrick, king of the Hollywood Mavericks, was always more than that.

John Coulthart, 1999. First published in The Edge.