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Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)

 

American self-educated director, one of the most critically acclaimed auteurs of the modern cinema, who made films both in Britain and America. As with John Huston, Kubrick's films had a strong literary basis – nearly all of his projects began as adaptations of novels. In addition to his cinematic legacy, Kubrick left behind hundreds of archive boxes containing material relating to his films.

"Just because you're a perfectionist doesn't mean you're perfect." (Jack Nicholson on Kubrick's working method.)

Stanley Kubrick was born in New York City into a middle-class Bronx family. His father, Jack, was a doctor. Kubrick's sister, Barbara, was born in 1934. "Stanley was a very jealous brother," she later said, "but he was very good to me." Gertrude, Kubrick's mother, encouraged him to read and he spent much of his time with books. Kubrick was educated at Taft High School, but his plans for college studies were ended by low grades. His first camera Kubrick got at the age of thirteen from his father. At home he had also a darkroom. Kubrick took photographs for the school newspaper, and at the age of sixteen he sold his first photograph for Look magazine. After graduating he joined Look as a staff photographer. In an interview by Arthur Juntunen, Free Press Camera Writer, he was called "a boy genius". "Shoot a lot of pictures... not just a dozen or two... I mean hundreds," he advised.

In 1950 Kubrick quit his job at Look, moved to Greenwich Village, and made his first documentary film, Day of the Fight (1951), about the world of boxing. During this period he also played chess for the prize money. His second short, The Flying Padre (1952), Kubrick sold to RKO-Pathe. As a feature director Kubrick debuted with Fear and Desire (1953), which was made with the financial help of his father. "He was not a Bohemian, or an avantgarde-left bank figure," recalled the director Paul Mazursky, who played in the film. The work, an existential anti-war allegory, was later suppressed by Kubrick himself. His next film, Killer's Kiss (1955), starring Frank Silvera, Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, and Jerry Jarret, was also privately financed. Kubrick was still a struggling filmmaker. On Fridays he stopped shooting for a couple of hours when he went to collect his unemployment check.

Kubrick formed in 1954 a production company with James B. Harris, and made his first big picture, The Killing (1956), starring Sterling Hayden. With his grisly World War I story Paths of Glory (1957), based on Humphrey Cobb's novel, Kubrick established his reputation as the most promising of the postwar generation of Hollywood directors. The script was rewritten by Jim Thompson and Kubrick, but Kirk Douglas demanded, that they return to the original work. Some critics were not happy with the result, however, among them Louise Bruce: "Those who have admired the motion picture work of this erstwhile still photographer will regret that in Paths of Glory camera angles seem to preoccupy him less than political ones, which, in view of the present state of the world, seem, to put it gently, immature and irresponsible. Kirk Douglas, whose own producing company is responsible for this tendentious film, plays Colonel Dax... His acting limitations are not obscured by Mr. Kubrick's direction." (Films in Review, January 1958)

In 1958 Kubrick married Christiane Susanne Harlan, an actress and artist, and moved for a few years to Hollywood with his family. After he withdrew from the unit about to start shooting One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's independent production, he planned to make another war film, titled The German Lieutenant. When the director Anthony Mann resigned from Universal's Spartacus (1960), Kubrick was hired for the job. The casting included Kirk Douglas, who was also in Paths of Glory, and such other stars as Lawrence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. The screenplay was written by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Spartacus became a big international hit, including the Soviet Union, in which the uprising of the slaves against the masters supported more or less official Marxist views. But also President Kennedy sneaked out of the White House to see the film right after the Hollywood premiere at the Warner Theater.

"Stanley could be exasperating, but what a talent. And a tremendous ego. Nothing was wrong with that. Ego, carried to excess, is healthy. I'm intrested only in talent." (Kirk Douglas in his autobiography The Ragman's Son, 1988)

Anticipating censorship problems with his next project, Kubrick moved to England to direct for M-G-M Lolita (1962) from Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel. The director described the book as "one of the few modern love stories". James Mason was Humbert Humbert, who marries his plump landlady (Shelley Winters) to be near her 12-year-old daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon). Lolita is for Humbert "light of his life, fire of his loins" – he is obsesed with her. After Winters is run over, nothing stops Humbert from taking Lolita to a trip from one motel to another. However, Lolita runs off with the openly perverse director Quilty (Peter Sellers). Lolita's 'Yi Yi' bubble-gum theme song is considered one of the most sexually provocative pieces of music. Nabokov later called the film a disappointment. In America it was restricted to audiences over the age of 18.

Dr. Stangelove (1964) was a black comedy of nuclear catastrophe. At the end of the film Slim Pickens rides a bomb in the sky and Vera Lynn sings 'We'll Meet Again' – a WWII song. And again critics found much to say about the director: "While a few of the critics are now calling Stanley Kubrick a 'boy genius, 'I'm wondering if the emphasis shouldn't be more on 'boy' and less on 'genius.'" (Philip T. Hartung, Commonweal, February 21, 1964) At that time the "boy genius" was 36 and had directed several films. Kubrick's next project, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was a philosophical science fiction journey to inner and outer space.

2001: A Space Odyssey has been called one of the greatest achievements in the history of film, although its premiere was a disaster: The New York Times called it "unbelievably boring" and Arthur Schlesinger Jnr summarized it as "morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long..." The film was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's short story 'The Sentinel' (1948), but most of its material was wholly new. In the opening sequence a dark monolith appears on a prehistoric scene and mysteriously inspires a family of apes to use bones as tools and weapons. Richard Strauss's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' (1896) plays on the soundtrack; 'Blue Danube' by Johann Strauss  II accompanies the dance of spaceships later on in the film.

The story jumps from past to 2001. Now a similar alien artifact is found on the moon. It sends a piercing signal to Jupiter. A spaceship, Discovery, run by a computer, HAL 9000, is sent on a mission to investigate it further. HAL is programmed to experience human emotions. It has a nervous breakdown and tries to dispose the crew. Dave Bowman dismantles HAL who confesses: "Dave, I'm afraid. My brain is growing empty..." Eventually Dave reaches the destination. After a journey through inner space, a series of spiritual and physical changes, he becomes an embryo, a star child. – Part of the fascination of the film is that it could have made also a great silent film, relying only on picture and music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss and György Ligeti. – "The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fantastical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring." (Renata Adler in the New York Times, April 4, 1968) – Clarke's idea in 'The Sentinel' was that strangers who have visited our planet in some distant past would guess that one day intelligence could arise on the Earth. "They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved out fitness to survive – by crossing space and so escaping the Earth, our cradle. That is the challenge that all intelligent races must meet, sooner or later." (Clarke in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, 1999)

In A Clockwork Orange (1971), based on Anthony Burgess' ninth novel, the director continued his examination of tomorrow's world. The film was withdrawn from circulation in Britain at the director's request. Although the work is considered now a classic modern film, it received mixed critics. Stanley Kauffman wrote in New Republic: "Something has gone seriously wrong with the talented Kubrick. I won't hazard guesses as to what it is. But the one thing that, two films ago, I'd never have thought possible to say about a Kubrick film is true of A Clockwork Orange: it's boring." (January 1,1972) Alex (Malcom McDowell) and his droogs (frieds) spent their time at the Korova Milkbar, when they are not beating, raping , and terrorizing other people. Alex kills a woman, and betrayed by his friends, is caught by the police. In the prison he undergoes the "Ludovico treatment", aimed to cure his anti-social behavior. Alex is then cast back into the streets, unable to hurt a fly – violence makes his nauseous. In the hands of his former friend, now policemen, and his former victims, Alex suffers from beatings and torture. After trying to commit suicide Alex says: I was cured all right!" with the original evil gleam in his eye. As with all Kubrick's film, music again has a central role. Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' it the leitmotif, but nearly as important is Gene Kelly's 'Singin' in the Rain', heard when Alex attacks a pregnant woman, and over the end titles. "If we are going to love mankind, we will have to love Alex as a not unrepresentative member of it," Burgess has said. "It is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness – violence chosen as an act of will – than a world conditioned to be good or harmless."

In 1974 Kubrick settled permanently in England, partly because he desired a greater creative freedom, but he remained a New Yorker all his life. During this period of 25 years he made two films based on European novels and two films dealing with American history and horrors. He also planned a film on the life of Napoleon. Kubrick was fascinated by Napoleon's personality – that a person so talented could make such fatal mistakes. Kubrick's backers withdrew from the project when Waterloo (1971), directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and starring Rod Steiger, failed at the box office. Kubrick's next film, Barry Lyndon (1975), starring Ryan O'Neal , Marisa Berenson, and Patrick Magee, was a period piece. It was adapted from Thackeray's minor novel, and mocked as Tom Jones with the projector set to half speed. Quote: "I have taken the ribbon from around my neck, and hidden it somewhere on my person. If you find it, you can have it. You are free to look for it anywhere you will, and I will think very little of you if you do not find it." Although the film won four Academy Awards, it was a commercial failure. "Kubrick's images add nothing but a dazzling illustration of the narrator's words," wrote Jon Landau.

The Shining (1980), a visually stylish horror film, was based on Stephen King's novel. Jack Torrace (Jack Nicholson) is a writer who is hired as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel during the winter season. The stunning opening shots of the Colorado Rockies are underscored by the medieval chant 'Dies Irae' (Day of Wrath), which also has featured in numerous other horror films. Jack goes mad in the empty hotel – if he is not already – and tries to kill his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), and wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall).  Except for British interwar dancehall songs heard in a hallucinatory episode, Kubrick chose avant-garde music for the score of the film. Severalexcerpts are from Krzysztof Penderecki's works, three from Béla Bartók's 1936 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celestra,' three from György Ligeti's 1967 'Lontano.' King himself was unsatisfied with Kubrick's treatment of his story, and turned his novel into a television miniseries in 1997. With Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick challenged Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) as the best film dealing with the Vietnam war.

Kubrick died at home in his sleep from a massive heart attack on March 8, 1999, in St. Albans, North-London. His last film was Eyes Wide Shut, a story of sexual restlessness, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The title music was the 'Second Waltz' from Dmitry Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No. 2. Kubrick himself thought that Eyes Wide Shut was his best film ever. It centers on a tale of sexual obsessions, following the central characters, William Harford and his wife Alice, through sexual encounters with sailors, prostitutes, and strangers in their imagination or on the screen. Some of the sex scenes have been re-edited for U.S. audiences. Hindu organizations considered the film offensive, because it features a verse from The Bhagavadgita, one of the most important Hindu scriptures, during an orgy scene.

Eyes Wide Shut was based on Arthur Schnitzler's (1862-1931) book Traumnovelle (1926, Dream Story), which was earlier filmed by Wolfgang Glück (1969). Schnitzler was an Austrian playwright and novelist, known for his stylistic experiments and psychological observation. Before turning to writing, he had studied medicine and done research in psychiatry. Schnitzler's amoral attitude toward erotic situations form the atmospheric background in many of his works. His best-known works include La Ronde, a play consisting of ten scenes, each ending before the ten different couples have sexual intercourse. The play was filmed in 1950 by Max Ophuls and in 1964 by Roger Vadim.

For further reading: Listening to Stanley Kubrick: The Music in His Films by Christine Lee Gengaro (2012); Kubrick's Hope: Discovering Optimism from 2001 to Eyes Wide Shut by Julian Rice (2008); Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures by Christiane Kubrick (2002); Moonwatcher's Memoir by Dan Richter (2002); Eyes Wide Open. A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut by Frederic Raphael (1999); Stanley Kubrick. A Biography by John Baxter (1997); Stanley Kubrick. A Biography by Vincent LoBrutto (1997); The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick by Norman Kagan (1995); Stanley Kubrick. A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis by Mario Falsetto (1994); Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze by Thomas Allen Nelson (1982); Stanley Kubrick Directs by Alexander Walker (1971); The Making of Kubrick's 2001, ed. by Jerome Agel (1970); Film Director as Superstar by Joseph Gelmis (1970) 

Films:

  • Day of the Fight, 195. Documentary short.
  • Flying Padre, 1952. Documentary short.
  • The Seafarers, 1952. Documentary short.
  • Fear and Desire, 1953. Screenplay by Howard O. Sackler.
  • Killer's Kiss, 1955. Directed, written, photographed and edited by S.K.
  • The Killing, 1956. Screenplay by S.K. from Lioner White's novel Clean Break. Suom. Yksi tuhannesta (1964).
  • Paths of Glory, 1957. Screenplay by S.K., Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb.
  • Spartacus, 1960. Screenplay Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast's novel Spartacus.
  • Lolita, 1962. Screenplay Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel. Suom. Lolita (1959).
  • Dr. Strangelove, 1964. Screenplay by S.K., Terry Southern, and Peter George, based Peter George's book Red Alert.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. Screenplay by S.K. and Arthur C. Clarke, based among others on Clarke's short story 'The Sentinel' from Encounter in the Dawn (aka Expedition to Earth, 1953).
  • A Clockwork Orange, 1971. Screenplay by S.K. from the novel by Anthony Burgess. Suom. Kellopeli appelsiini (1991).
  • Barry Lyndon, 1975. Screenplay by S.K., adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray's novel The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.
  • The Shining, 1980. Screenplay S.K. and Diane Johnson, based on Stephen King's novel. Suom. Hohto (1985).
  • Full Metal Jacket, 1987. Screenplay S.K., Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford, based on the novel The Short-Timers by G. Hasford.
  • Eyes Wide Shut, 1999. Screenplay by S.K., Frederic Raphael, based on Arthur Schnitzler's book Traumnovelle (1926). Suom. Tohtori eksyy erotiikkaan (1928); Unikertomus (1999).
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, 2001. (Idea only.) Directed by Stephen Spielberg, based on a short story by Brian Aldiss.


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