Kubrick, as Colored by HimselfBy Greg Gerke
November 30, 2011
In discussing Stanley Kubrick and his influence, I often point people to three interviews with renown French film critic Michel Ciment. After 2001, Kubrick gave very few interviews and these serve as his only extended statements on Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Recently, audio portions from these conversations turned up.
In 1966 Jeremy Bernstein profiled Kubrick for The New Yorker. The 75-minute audio interview, along with the profile, are now available. This might well be the most candid Kubrick ever was on a recorded device, with the exception of him directing in The Making of Shining. In it, he details his early years–skipping out on school to work as a photographer for Look Magazine, his chess playing days in Washington Square Park, and how he made his first films. (After making his first short, he says: “I thought I’d get millions of offers, of which I got none to do anything.”)
The pivotal exchange in the interview is when Bernstein starts asking about the 1955 film, The Killing. Bernstein confuses the film with The Asphalt Jungle from 1950, which also stars Sterling Hayden. Kubrick quickly figures out that he has not seen the film (one of seven he had directed at that point). Kubrick’s response is as follows:
You probably haven’t seen the picture…You’re thinking of The Asphalt Jungle, that’s why you thought Marilyn Monroe was in it…You’re thinking of the wrong picture. You never saw The Killing. If you want to see it, there’s a print at the Museum of Modern Art.
That last directive is completely Kubrickian. He knew the MOMA film vaults well, as he watched the films they screened over and over again before directing his own.
Stanley Kubrick 1928-1999
Kubrick is the most financially successful maker of art films–something he strove for, vigorously. From overseeing advertising campaigns, as well as the paint color in movie theaters he would never visit, he brandished an inordinate amount of control over his product. Today, there remain thirteen films (plus three shorts) from his nearly 50 years of filmmaking.
On the surface he might not be as blatantly autobiographical as an Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes, but he saw himself in the lead roles of each his final three masterpieces. Barry Lyndon displays the cheating rogue who fights to get to the top of society’s upper echelons, as Kubrick himself had done to become a filmmaker, borrowing money to finance his earliest work. In The Shining, Jack Torrance is a failed writer (Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, had just failed at the box office) as well as a failed husband/father, (Kubrick’s wife and family speak adoringly in interviews but one can never know what happened behind closed doors). Finally, in Eyes Wide Shut, the pompous doctor who is financially independent (Kubrick was regarded as eccentric and pompous by the media, he became very wealthy) but still struggling as a husband–very ignorant of who his wife is.
Because he was able to center his breakout films around such zeitgeist topics as nuclear war and space travel, he secured an audience and close to complete independence, the likes of which no filmmaker ever enjoyed (the five Warner Brothers films after 2001 are the only such motion pictures in post-war Hollywood history where the director had so much control). No other art films (made as an expression of one soul but told through narrative means) have had such an enormous popular appeal.
Kubrick’s world is darkly humorous. Besides the obvious comedies (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange), there is no doubt he was laughing as he constructed HAL’s egotistic banter with the astronauts; Jack Torrance’s screaming to his wife (“Wendy, darling, light of my life, I’m not going to hurt you…I’m just going to bash your brains in, I’m gonna bash ’em right the fuck in.”); Doctor Bill telling everyone he is a doctor in order to get special treatment; or Barry Lyndon’s fatuous commentary on paintings he might buy with his wife’s money when he has no artistic appreciation about him (“I love the painter’s use of the color blue.”).
After all the presentations of madness in his films (and contrary to the critical catchword “cold” he was so often pigeonholed with), Kubrick did sometimes show humanity as warm and loving. This is best exemplified in the scene where Barry’s son is on his deathbed, while his aggrieved parents stand by. Early in the same film, Kubrick presents Barry’s first meeting and seduction of his soon to be wife.
The establishing shots of the imperial castles punctuate the film (as do the long shots of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining). The fluid dolly shot across the rich garden gives way to a zoom (there are many zooms in the film, but often they start on particulars and back up) as a Schubert Piano Trio and the English narrator’s lilting voice prepare the viewer for the introduction of the main character’s soon-to-be wife. After these introductions, the narrator disappears and Barry and Lady Lyndon exchange desirous glances over cards (in the famous candle-lit scenes, for which Kubrick used the fastest lens in the world, from NASA, to shoot in such low levels of light), a fact that the Reverend to her side soon discovers, to his chagrin.
At 4:16, watch Barry Lyndon saunter behind Lady Lyndon. She has set herself up by announcing her withdrawing for air–she knows exactly what she’s doing and Barry does not miss a beat. I’ve always wondered if the wind ruffling her hat just before the kiss at 5:27 was intentional, if Kubrick had a wind machine ready, because it adds so much to something already so pregnant with provocative meaning. And then, after all that silence, the narrator bursts back in with a detail only God could know: “Six hours after they met, her ladyship fell in love.” Nothing about Barry’s feelings, only about how he “found innumerable occasions to improve his intimacy,” a direct quote from the source material, the Thackeray novel.
This dark and uncompromising look at human beings and how they connive typifies many moments in Kubrick’s films. Barry Lyndon doesn’t care about love and maybe can’t even summon it in himself anymore after his experiences in Ireland, the two armies, and working undercover both for a Minister of the Interior and the Chevalier.
Kubrick’s words to Ciment about this scene are most enlightening: “It’s very romantic, but at the same time, I think it suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow in their relationship.”
[…] Guest Post by Greg Gerke […]
I enjoyed your article on Kubrick. When I was a young man, the premier of a Kubrick film was wonderful, the anticipation, going downtown with a sports jacket, the talk about the ‘film’ later in a coffee house. I liked this “Kubrick’s world is darkly humorous.” and saw evidence of that in the prologue to 2001, where our simian forbears beat on the monolith with their ass jawbones, howling and hooting as they expended their territorial rage. I don’t know about the other folks in the theater at that time, but I was howling with laughter. Fortunately the musical score was really loud.
Well, I’m off to Netflix now. I’ll have to rent a few Kubrick. There are at least three I’ve never seen. Isn’t that great? I’m stoked.
Thanks much Paul! Oh for the days of a Kubrick film opening. I remember my anticipation for Eyes Wide Shut. I believe it came out on July 16th, but I was in Europe that summer and had to wait until September to see it. Walking out of the theater, I thought, well-I don’t know about this one. But pretty much instantly, I realized that there was so much going on in that film that is unanswered – it’s fascinating. How did the mask get there? What does the wife know before he tells her everything.
Fascinating article on a brilliantly uneven artist. I was amazed, watching Clockwork Orange recently, not only by K’s aesthetic, but at his direction.
Thanks much JS.
Without a doubt my favorite film artist of all time. The day news broke of his death I was working at an ad agency in El Paso. One of our writers came in my office and lowered the boom. I had to ask him to leave. You can’t just tell me he died and then sit there to gauge my reaction. Wah.
I don’t find 2001 funny. It’s deep and powerful. Silent and poetic. And Clockwork an orgy of color and movement. Toss in any third of your choice (Strangelove, Shining, Lolita) and his body of work is so signature and visionary. Thanks for the piece and the links!
Thanks Pete! I did cry a little when I found out he died. If he’d lived 90 more days, Eyes Wide Shut would be a little different movie. He always tinkered till the end and sometimes after the premiere.
Good stuff on one of my favorite directors. The Kubrick Archives on Taschen books is worth acquiring if you have the cash and back strength to lift it. Funny stuff on Asphalt Jungle, but at least it’s also a great film in its own right. Barry Lyndon? How many big budget films have ever been shot in large part by candle light? For that level of balls alone, K deserves respect. Paths of Glory is worth its own essay, but might be his best. Or most pure.
I have to disagree a bit with this sentence though: “the five Warner Brothers films after 2001 are the only such motion pictures in post-war Hollywood history where the director had so much control.”
Woody Allen? Cassavetes? Robert Altman? Herzog?
Thanks Sean. Well, I’m talking Hollywood films, system films, however much that still means. I mean money. Cassavetes filmed weren’t financed by studios, but by himself. Altman didn’t have the final control Kubrick had – Popeye was a bad experience and lead him to go independent for almost 12 years. When a studio did back The Gingerbread Man, they took away control and cut the film the way they wanted. Herzog’s Hollywood films I don’t know so much, I don’t think he’s had final control, but I could be wrong. Woody Allen does have a lot of control, true – the only difference seems Kubrick controlled after the films were released (notes to projectionists – http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/some_came_running/2011/06/test.html ) and to a degree beyond the grave. A Clockwork Orange was banned in England till 2001 and the battle of aspect rations continues. Also, I don’t think a studio would let Allen shoot a movie for 400 – which is the case with Eyes Wide Shut (the longest in film history) or keep two of the most bankable stars (Cruise and Kidman) at the time off the scene for that long. An inordinate control. A magnifico.