There's Something About Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick, 1964

Stanley Kubrick, 1964

From the time of his sudden death on March 7 to the opening last week of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been the subject of innumerable essays and conversations. A cult director to the cinephiles, a chilly stylist to his critics, Kubrick was always an original. An American-born, self-taught moviemaker, he chose to reside for the last 35 years with his family on an estate outside London, creating in his home his offices, editing facilities, and communications hub through which he kept in constant contact with his associates around the world.

The stories about his perfectionist and uncompromising working methods are as legion as interpretations of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. His death unleashed a flood of tributes and analytical pieces that tried to get at the essence of the Kubrick phenomenon. The posthumous release of Eyes Wide Shut (which Kubrick had completed but for a few finishing touches only five days before his death) has ushered in another media wave of Kubrickiana. In one sense it is understandable, since the conclusion of the filmmaker's career allows the summary judgments to begin. There is now a finite body of work to assess and catalog in our thoughts. But the rash of commentary seems to address something else: It is as much about the enigmatic Kubrick mystique as it is about the films. Kubrick made only 13 feature films between 1952 and 1999 (as time went on the length of time between films grew longer and longer -- he made only six films during the last 35 years; Kubrick's last film before Eyes Wide Shut was 1987's Full Metal Jacket). Love him or hate him, Kubrick and his work meant something to this culture, and the prematurity of their absence has us racing to define their significance.

still from Lolita


Most of these attempts are like the blind man describing the elephant: Each teller only describes the fragmentary portion with which he came in contact. Some prominent accounts (the July 4 issue of The New York Times Magazine and the August issue of Premiere) relied on oral histories, leaving it to a number of voices to provide a rounded portrait of the man. Most of the major magazines and newspapers weighed in with some kind of story or analysis, but in the end so much of it was filtered through the lens of personal reportage.

Kubrick's films touched a wide number of people. His appeal crossed generational boundaries and surpassed the mere appreciation of film craft. The films he made spanned a variety of types. There are the war (or, more properly, anti-war) movies, Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987); the epic Spartacus (1960); a heist film, The Killing (1956); the science fiction works, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971); a period adaptation of a literary work by Thackeray, Barry Lyndon (1975); a political satire, Dr. Strangelove (1964); a psychological horror adaptation of a Stephen King novel, The Shining (1980); and a couple of love stories, Lolita (1962) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

still from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Everyone seems to remember his or her first encounter with a Stanley Kubrick movie. Many of us were initiated by a friend or family member. For me, it's a vivid memory of my dad rushing me in to Manhattan when he noticed one of the first reprise engagements of Dr. Strangelove and knew that this black comedy was must-see viewing for his adolescent daughter. Others remember tripping out to 2001, the dazzling spectacle of Spartacus, or the popular debates over violence and sex that accompanied the releases of A Clockwork Orange and Lolita.

Kubrick's death and the idea that we have now seen this artist's last film is something that has saddened a great many people. The Sunday morning I learned of his death I burned up the e-mail wires sharing the news with friends and family. In my note to Dad, a lifelong Yankees fan, I also commiserated about the death of Joe DiMaggio that had occurred the day before. Dad fired back: "The difference is that one of them was retired." Right. One of them was still producing while the other long ago had become simply a figurehead. But something was going on that was greater than my father's sympathetic recognition that Kubrick, who died at the age of 70, was a mortal member of his own relative age group. People a generation younger than myself were also mourning Kubrick's passing. Several of them commented on how this was the first "celebrity death" that carried deep cultural significance for them.

So what is it about Stanley Kubrick's films that make so many despair of the idea that in the future there will be no further films of his to anticipate? A statement issued by Steven Spielberg may come closest to explaining what it is about these movies that has affected so many people. Kubrick, said Spielberg, "created more than just movies. He gave us complete environmental experiences that got more, not less, intense the more you watched his pictures. He copied no one while all of us were scrambling to imitate him." His final film, Eyes Wide Shut, with its focus on one man's long journey through the night, provides a good example of that complete environmental experience. But Spielberg is also referencing more than Kubrick's variety of settings -- be they a futuristic space module, boot camp or the battlefield, the subterranean Droog world, the White House war room, or the Overlook Hotel -- which offer a wealth of detail and sensory realism. Kubrick created his total environments with a near-omniscient (and legendary) precision. Even as astute a critic as Pauline Kael, who described Kubrick as having an "arctic spirit," could hardly deny the comprehensiveness with which that spirit infused every aspect of his films.

It's the death of Kubrick's total vision and commitment that I suspect we mourn most, his "personal" dedication to the art of making movies. Kubrick was an independent filmmaker way before it became a fashionable term or aspiration. He taught himself to make movies by going out and shooting them and proudly gave himself screen credit for virtually every aspect of the filmmaking except the acting. He made his first feature film, Fear and Desire, in 1953 at the age of 25 and soon went to Hollywood, where he made The Killing and Paths of Glory. This led to his big studio feature, Spartacus. But he found the foundering studio system of the Fifties irksome and the experience the least satisfying of his professional career. Not long after, he moved permanently from Hollywood and devised his own maverick system of making movies on his own terms. It's not a model that can be followed or imitated; the secret of its success lies in its odd and distinct originality. And whether you find Kubrick's films the stuff of cinematic genius or the distanced marionette play of an "arctic spirit," we have lost a true original, one of the few modern filmmakers who can honestly say that he made all his films the way he wanted.

jack nicholson looking through door

The Shining

kidman & cruise

Eyes Wide Shut

Filmography: Day of the Fight (1950), Flying Padre (1951), The Seafarers (1952) -- shorts. Fear and Desire (1953), Killer's Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) -- features.

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