Stanley Kubrick is one of those ‘marmite’ directors – people seem to either love or hate his films. Some people will grudgingly acknowledge that Kubrick was an auteur who commanded respect but they just can’t love his movies. I however, admire his work more than that of any other mainstream English-speaking director before or since (I love marmite as well).
Was Kubrick really a genius?
A genius can be considered to be anyone with exceptional intellectual ability, creativity and/or originality. If we accept this simple definition then Kubrick undoubtedly was a genius, an opinion well supported by the testimonies of many people who worked with him. And even if you only look at the films – which is after all what matters most – it’s possible to see that there was a genius at work.
However, Kubrick is by no means universally loved or admired. His films are often criticised for being cold and unemotional and it’s acknowledged that he could be extremely demanding and difficult to work with. Nevertheless, most of his films have an undeniable iconic power, producing images and sounds that are instantly recognisable. Here’s a summary of why, for me at any rate, Stanley Kubrick was truly a genius filmmaker:
War, love, historical epic, film-noir, heist-movie, dystopian vision, satire, science fiction, horror, psychological thriller – Kubrick made important films across a broad range of genres, whilst at the same time making markedly fewer films than other directors of similar stature. He made only 13 features in 40 years, yet they are some of the most memorable and influential movies ever made.
So how did he realize those iconic moments and characters that have gone down in movie history? What made a Kubrick film a Kubrick film?
Choosing a great story
All of Kubrick’s films, apart from the very early ones, are based on novels or short stories. Someone else had done the initial ‘heavy-lifting’ of creative story telling. His genius here is to choose the right story – often fairly obscure – and hire the right people to turn it into a script worthy of the great man’s time and effort to film.
A photographer’s eye
Kubrick’s first job was as a photographer for Look magazine in New York in the 1950s – the golden age of photo-journalism, epitomized by people such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. As a professional stills photographer Kubrick possessed a keen eye for composition and the powerful static image that would later come to characterize his movies.
He knew how to move the movie camera for dramatic effect when necessary but also how to frame a shot and create static compositions that had the power of great photographs. So many films are visually unremarkable – Kubrick’s never are.
Attention to detail
The word ‘obsessive’ is often used pejoratively to describe Kubrick’s filmmaking style. For some of his collaborators, there’s no doubt that his attention to detail could sometimes seem absurd. He would often ring people in the middle of the night to discuss an idea as it occurred to him. He famously used to visit movie theatres to check that the sound and picture were technically correct before they screened one of his films. No detail escaped his gimlet eye.
Science and technology
As well as a keen interest in music and art, Kubrick also loved science and technology and because of this he strove to depict science accurately, as in the weightlessness and silence of space in 2001, or the remarkably accurate recreation of a B52 cockpit in Dr Stangelove.
He also pushed the limits of film technology. For Barry Lyndon Kubrick sourced and adapted super-fast f/0.7 lenses (the largest lens aperture in film history) from NASA.
And for The Shining Kubrick was a very early adopter of the Steadicam camera stabilizer invented by Garrett Brown a few years earlier. The Shining was the breakthrough movie for the use of Steadicam and which has become ubiquitous ever since but it’s never been used more memorably or to better effect.
Collaboration with exceptional people
Garrett Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, Peter Sellers, Douglas Trumbull, John Alcott, NASA – Stanley Kubrick was noted for seeking out exceptional talent to realize his vision. He would think nothing of contacting the world experts in different areas to ensure that his vision was historically or technically accurate.. Kubrick had a reputation for using people to further his own ends but I suspect that most of them felt privileged that he considered their opinion worth hearing.
Use of music
Another characteristic of a Kubrick movie is the soundtrack. His attitude to music in films was similar to the storylines – why go to the trouble of composing inferior ‘film music’ when the world was full of sublime music already such as that written by Beethoven, Vivaldi, Bach and Strauss? He used music playfully in his films often in bizarre juxtapositions such as Singing in the Rain to accompany a violent scene in A Clockwork Orange…
…or Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again as a nuclear warhead detonates in Dr Strangelove. Quentin Tarantino has since built a career doing something similar.
Few other directors can match the amount of enduring iconic scenes as those created by Stanley Kubrick. If you take just one film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and measure its cultural impact more than 40 years later, its influence is remarkable with imagery and concepts still used today in popular culture from commercials, to The Simpsons and countless parodies on YouTube.
Kubrick was often controversial – even if he didn’t always intend to be. Most of his films, from Lolita onwards, created varying degrees of debate and unease as he explored forbidden love, nuclear war, killer computers, ultra-violence, madness and dystopian futures. Making controversial films inevitably pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable, often helping to drive debate within society at large, therefore going beyond mere entertainment.
In 1972 Kubrick took the unusual step of withdrawing A Clockwork Orange from circulation because he was disappointed by the public’s reaction to it and disturbed by the incidents of alleged copycat violence that had occurred in the five years since it’s release. He never intended to glamorize the violence in the film and for nearly 30 years, until after his death, it was not legally publicly shown in the UK. The film has fostered much debate about violence in film and whether films like A Clockwork Orange are merely a reflection of society or in some way go about helping to create the world’s they depict.
Kubrick and the Movie Industry
For even more proof of Kubrick’s genius you only have to look at the fact that although his films did win many awards, Kubrick never won an Oscar for best director or best movie. If Hollywood doesn’t like you, you must be doing something right! He might not have been particularly popular with the Academy but his peers gave him two lifetime achievement awards towards the end of his life. He largely worked outside of the Hollywood system but had a unique deal with Warner Brothers who pretty much let him do what he wanted with little or no interference.
Kubrick’s films are often unsettling at a deep psychological level. They don’t provide easy answers to questions about the human condition; they are not comforting; they provoke endless debate about their meaning and his intentions; and even after repeated viewings have new things to offer.
I can understand why many people prefer the comforting films of people like Spielberg where generally everything is nicely resolved at the end; the knowing cleverness of Tarrantino; the ambition of Cameron; the ingenuity of Hitchcock; or the scale of Lean; but for me nobody else comes close to matching Stanley Kubrick’s status as a genius filmmaker.