For several decades, Stanley Kubrick was the most revered director working in the English language. British and US critics consistenly gave him the kind of awestruck deference they reserved for Yasujiro Ozu, for Ingmar Bergman, and other impenetrable but clearly brilliant foreigners. Only after Kubrick’s death last year - and the subsequent release of his film Eyes Wide Shut - did the tide turn.
The critics’ poor response to Eyes Wide Shut was only part of the reason for these waves of reassessment: they were hastened by what appeared to be a Kubrick bandwagon which Warner Bros, the Kubrick estate and Steven Spielberg suddenly appeared to be riding into town.
Spielberg is adamant that he was Kubrick’s valued confidant and ideas man. “In the 1980s, Stanley took me into his creative confidence to tell me an absolutely beautiful story that was impossible to forget,” he says. “I think it was the careful blend of science and humanity that made me anxious for Stanley to tell it and, after he was gone, led me to want to tell it for him.”
Spielberg omits to say that Kubrick’s cleverness was very political, and that he entertained all manner of timewasters on the phone and in his country house, because that is what a director does to get money and to entice people to work for him. Perhaps Spielberg is not such a political director - though he never seems to want for money for his movies. Some say, in the context of AI: Artificial Intelligence, that Spielberg is unsuitable - because he is the “opposite” of Kubrick, naive and Rockwellesque rather than cynical and Kubrickian. Again I’m not sure: it takes a lot of cynicism, of a darker kind, to make McDonald’s crowd-pleasers for the studios. There is cynicism in Spielberg’s Duel and worse in 1941. We shall see, as the project Spielberg was talking about, AI: Artificial Intelligence, opens in Britain next week.
Kubrick’s films don’t seem in any way targeted at a British audience. A Clockwork Orange unleashed a celebrated controversy here but its appeal was international. Unusually, especially for American studio releases, they were marketed as if they possessed substantial intellectual gravity. They were the rarest thing: American art films.
Most US film directors dream of someday making a personal film - an art film - while spending their careers grinding out studio-dictated crap. Some of America’s best directors - Coppola and Scorsese - have struggled to balance personal projects with the studios’ demand for sequels and Robin Williams vehicles. Until the early 1960s, Kubrick looked set to meet the same fate as his peers. After working as a news photographer in New York, he made a low-budget war film, Fear and Desire. It was not well received: another young director, Curtis Harrington, recalled seeing Stanley in tears after the first screening. But Kubrick persisted and his next low-budget feature, Killer’s Kiss, won favourable attention. Kubrick moved to LA and made a slick and clever thriller, The Killing, and a magnificently photographed anti-war film, Paths of Glory.
Marlon Brando hired him to direct a script Sam Peckinpah was working on for him - The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. Kubrick made daily journeys to the Brando mansion for script meetings, at which Brando would bang a little gong. Brando fell out with the writer and sacked him; he then decided to direct the film, now called One-Eyed Jacks, himself. Reeling from that disaster, Kubrick took over from another sacked director, Anthony Mann, and completed a bland studio epic, Spartacus.
Myth has it that flying back from the shoot in Rome, Kubrick changed planes in London and said he’d had enough of aeroplanes and of the studio system, and was staying put. The story seems apocryphal (he still had months of editing awaiting him in Hollywood), but it points the way. In the States, Kubrick was viewed as an employable, journeyman director. If he was lucky, he could have a career like Anthony Mann, being manipulated, moved around, fired, and re-employed. If he was unlucky, he could be an independent, on the industrial periphery, like his friend Harrington.
Neither would have been an appealing prospect. So Kubrick, embarking on his next feature - an adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita - managed to convince the studio that while the story took place entirely in the US, it would be best to shoot in England. It was impeccable Kubrickian logic - the same logic that later made London’s Docklands the “ideal” location for a deep south boot camp and the ravaged cities of Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket. It wasn’t logical. It wasn’t even a good idea.
With his move to England, Kubrick became an exile. He was not like Joseph Losey, blacklisted and forced to work in London and Paris; not like Fritz Lang, fleeing the Nazis; not like Bunuel, endlessly booted from pillar to post. Kubrick’s exile was voluntary, aesthetic. He liked the English crews, it seemed, but more importantly he benefited from the physical distance between himself and his paymasters, the mental distance between himself and a set full of gorblimey limeys calling him “guv’nor”. He was inventing himself, as people often do when they go abroad. And with the bit of mystery that distance conveyed, he became adept at the director’s greatest skill - convincing people.
Clearly, Kubrick was a very clever man. And since he had grown to dislike planes, he didn’t go to the location - he had the location brought to him. His next film, Dr Strangelove, took place in US military installations, hi-tech bunkers, and B-52s. Again, the logical place to shoot it all was in a British studio a few miles from home. This time his mad logic worked: the poorish back-projections of Lolita were replaced by sophisticated matte paintings; the designer, Ken Adam, found not constraints but opportunities; and an extraordinary film was made.
Dr Strangelove seems to say the same thing as Kubrick’s later masterpiece, 2001: that we humans can make aeroplanes and doomsday devices, but emotionally we are just children in the playground. Or apes. This is a pretty serious theme, worthy of a weighty treatise or a gritty, terrifying documentary that would be banned. Who but Kubrick would have thought of making a comedy out of it? Starring Peter Sellers? And got it past the studio executives?
For many years, influenced by the “Kubrick as God” school of film critics, I had believed the director capable of the most extraordinary acts of mind-control, or Machiavellian manipulation, on the basis of his having pulled off Dr Strangelove - the great, anarchist-pacifist comedy about thermonuclear war. So it was fascinating to read, in the US magazine Grand Street, a memoir by Terry Southern, Kubrick’s co-screenwriter. Southern says that Dr Strangelove was made precisely because it was a comedy - starring Peter Sellers.
Kubrick’s adversary on Dr Strangelove was one Mo Rothman, whom Columbia had sent over to England as executive producer. One day, while Kubrick was out of the office, Rothman insisted to Southern that “New York does not see anything funny about the end of the world!” But the studio could not have it both ways. One of Columbia’s conditions for making the picture was the presence of Peter Sellers, whose presence reassured the studio that Dr Strangelove was going to be funny, especially if - as Columbia insisted - Sellers play four roles.
Sellers was supposed to portray the US president, the mad Dr Strangelove, the stiff-upper-lipped RAF officer, and the B-52 pilot Major “King” Kong. But just before the shoot began, Sellers had a crisis of confidence. Claiming he could never master the required Texas accent, he sent Kubrick a telegram refusing the play the role of Kong. If Sellers played three parts, not four, Kubrick would be in breach of contract with Columbia, who could pull the plug. Kubrick’s solution was a hi-tech fix. He kitted Sellers out with the latest portable tape recorder, on which he could hear the voice of Terry Southern - a Texan - repeating Kong’s dialogue. Sellers was mollified and all went well - until the second morning of production, when Sellers fell off one of the huge replica hydrogen bombs and broke his ankle.
At that point the bond company stepped in, taking the view that three roles was more than enough for Sellers, now in a wheelchair. Columbia was obliged to agree, too. When Kubrick went out to the actor who played Hoss on Bonanza - an inspired choice - Hoss’s agent wired him back, “Sorry, but the material is too pinko for Dan [Blocker]. Or anyone else we know.” Southern says Kubrick was genuinely surprised that Dr Strangelove was perceived as “pinko”. Kubrick’s anxiety seems to have intensified following Columbia’s response to the finished film: predictably, they hated it. The studio’s publicity department attacked Dr Strangelove, saying it was “just a zany novelty flick which does not reflect the views of the corporation in any way”.
In despair, Kubrick discovered that his nemesis, Rothman, was a keen golfer. As Southern reports, in a trice the director phoned a sporting goods shop and purchased a “surprise gift” presentation of an electric golf cart, to be delivered to Mr Mo Rothman at his exclusive Westchester country club.
It was a terrible move. Rothman sent the bribe back, declaring it “bad form”. Kubrick’s little comedy about the end of the world received a limited initial release, and was unscreened until the 1980s, when nuclear war became an issue of depressing relevance, Dr Strangelove was rediscovered; the Library of Congress declared it should be preserved as one of the 50 greatest US films of all time.
A great American film-maker he may be, but Kubrick defiantly remained in Britain. Fed up with one studio, he had already signed up with another, MGM, to make a science ficton film called Journey Beyond the Stars. With a script by Arthur C Clarke - another self-made exile - the project became 2001: A Space Odyssey - the greatest science fiction movie of all time, maybe one of the best films ever, and the one which cemented Kubrick’s reputation as an artist of exceptional ability.
Far from avoiding publicity during the making of 2001, Kubrick encouraged it - with good reason: as the costs and schedule grew, so did the mystique of the film, and its maker. I remember reading in one contemporary article that Kubrick had 20 blue blazers, 20 pairs of black slacks, and 20 white shirts, so that he would never have to waste time in the morning wondering what to wear. 2001 is the first modern special-effects movie, dependent not on stars but on amazing, never-before seen visuals and speculation. In other words, dependent on the intellect of the director. And on its incredible, pessimistic message: that to achieve higher consciousness, to become human, means to kill.
While still in production on 2001, Kubrick was already giving interviews about his next project, Napoleon, which might star Ian Holm, or Jack Nicholson. He began to create a massive archive about the emperor and his cohorts, and, according to some, to imitate his habits. Even after Napoleon had been put on hold, Malcolm McDowell reported Kubrick following Napoleon’s dining quirk of eating meat, then pudding, then meat, then pudding. This was during A Clockwork Orange - a damned good film about English mobbery, bad eating habits, and the thuggery of the state. And, at the time, the epitome of cinema screen violence, which laurels had previously been held by Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde. One tends to forget now that the 1970s were a liberal time, and that there was very little objection to A Clockwork Orange when it first came out. The philosophy of Clocky Orange, in contrast to 2001’s, is fairly simple and unarguable (free will is risky but best); its real virtue was its aestheticised violence, especially if you were a teenager.
If we were making a film about the life of Kubrick, I think this is what we would call the “high point”. After three (possibly four) great films in a row, Kubrick was now critically unassailable. He was compared, interestingly, not to the older pantheon of American directors (Ford, Huston, Welles) but to the international directorial elite - Kurosawa, Ophuls, Renoir, Bunuel. At this stage in a drama, of course, something has to go wrong. Yet what “went wrong” was in a way Kubrick’s best work of all - Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon had the largest budget he would ever work with, and an immensely long shoot. The trade papers were full of articles about the production - new lenses had supposedly been manufactured so that the director could shoot large interiors by candlelight. The only concession to commerce was the casting of Ryan O’Neal, and even he was good.
I found Barry Lyndon marvellous, powerful, beautiful and unexpected, and couldn’t understand why my local ABC was playing it on the smallest screen in the tri-plex. Well, actually, I could. Here was an authentic recreation of an old book by somebody called Thackeray. Not much violence, no sex, very slow, very lovely. It was the opening day, and I was the only person in the cinema. The glowing reviews poured in, but the audience stayed away. And Kubrick, praised but failing to deliver at the box office, entered his Official Recluse Mode, as he embarked on the most difficult phase of his career.
In our fictional saga, the character of Stanley would now come up with another Clockwork Orange or The Killing at this point - low-budget, fast, violent, full of thrills - and return to the top of the popular heap. Instead, Kubrick returned to Napoleon, which would, of course, be even bigger and more expensive than Barry Lyndon and impossible to finance. Perhaps the challenge was the attraction; though it was becoming hard to say, since Kubrick was now reputed to be developing projects just to throw rival film-makers or reporters off the scent.
And we were used to waiting a goodly long time for the next Kubrick film. The wait had always been worth it. So it was a surprise when The Shining was announced as Kubrick’s next project. The what? The Shining. One of those Stephen King novels. You know, like Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary. Oh. Yes. I know there is nothing wrong with popular fiction, by which I mean potboilers written according to a formula. I know bad books can make good movies. But was it necessary for Kubrick to make The Shining? Was there an intellectual message in the long-drawn-out display of Jack Nicholson acting increasingly nuts and axe-murdering Scatman Crothers? The Shining, after its extraordinary opening second-unit aerial sequence, settled into a not particularly good or interesting film - which is a terrible thing to say about a Kubrick picture.
Times had changed by the time he chose to make it. Directors’ autonomy was increasingly restricted. Fewer films were being made as the independents were bought up, and the studio bosses decided to “shrink their inventory”. And the critics of the 60s and 70s - Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, et al - were being sidelined by a newer generation of TV pundits who essentially acted as cheerleaders for American studio product. This new generation thought the sun shone out of Hollywood’s arse, anyway: Kubrick’s directing a “classy” potboiler ratified their own co-optation and the whole sad McDonald’s production line.
So it was no surprise that after a Stephen King movie, Kubrick announced that he was going to make a Vietnam film. Of course! A genre even more well-worn than the last one! The Docklands-as-South-East-Asia switcheroo took place, a “director as genius” decision from which no film, unless a comedy, could recover. Apocalypse Now is a good film about the Vietnam war partially because it is shot in locations which resemble the actual, or imagined, place. Dog Soldiers/Who’ll Stop the Rain is a good film about Vietnam because it is shot in the actual LA of its war profiteers and drug dealers.
Full Metal Jacket can’t equal either film in vision, in cynicism, or verisimilitude. It is inferior not only to these two great films, but to any number of the Vietnam-genre movies . It is as if Kubrick, rather than watching and learning from earlier films, was content to drift into the hazy but comfortable nether regions of his own earlier work.
Full Metal Jacket returns to Dr Strangelove for the choreography of its battle sequence: the hand-held street-fight in Hue is almost shot-for-shot a copy of the attack on Burpleson air force base. It returns to Clockwork Orange for the character of the drill sergeant (for all Lee Ermey’s sterling acting, it is a mere redux of the prison officer in Kubrick’s earlier film). And it reaches all the way back to Fear and Desire to recreate its arch close-up monologues of exhausted men of war.
Why bother doing this? The laudatory reviews poured in, en masse, following a single Kubrick interview in the pages of Newsweek. Kubrick was great - but for the second time he had come up with a mediocre, less-than-successful film, and the media were letting him get away with it. The Shining and Full Metal Jacket did not remotely compare to the brilliance of the director’s previous films. Why pretend they did?
I think now that a self-fulfilling prophecy had been fulfilled. The press, puzzled and intrigued by the undeniable brilliance of Kubrick’s middle films and by the increasing reticence of their creator, had created The Legend of Stanley Kubrick. We have all read that article, heard those stories. The paranoid, the recluse, the man who drove at five miles per hour, the American who lived in an English country manor surrounded by security gates and computers, on the phone to Hollywood honchos at all hours, speaks to no one, the infallible mega- control-freak-genius.
I think Kubrick was complicit in the creation of this version of himself, a version which - by emphasising aloofness and intellectuality - left him culturally unclaimed by us, the Brits, who should have had him down the Palace and gonged years ago. “But he claimed not to live anywhere!” Kubrick the Cultural Asylum Seeker! Brilliant - or Bogus?
If this was our biopic of the man, the short third act would start with his next project, based on a story by another notable British science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss. The collaboration was first called Supertoys Last All Summer Long, then became Artificial Intelligence, then AI. Our fantasy film’s plot goes like this: struggling Stan is abandoned long-distance by his American superagent, Mike Ovitz, who’s off to head the world’s most menacing media supercorporation, Disney. Mike: “Stanley, I love you but there’s nothing I can do for you. You’ll never get AI on. Nobody could get that picture on but Spielberg. Take my advice and do this Tom and Nicole project - they’re a lovely couple! You’ll love ‘em!”
And so on, into the closing minutes of our film. Another long shoot where an English studio tries to pretend it’s New York. Like all his films, Eyes Wide Shut is remarkably cheap by contemporary standards - even when the director orders whole sequences to be reshot, and actors to return from LA and New York to do their work again. Two of them refuse. But Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman remain keen; they seem to enjoy playing the same scene 100 times. The film is reputed to be sexually provocative in the extreme. There is the threat of US censorship, and a ruck between Kubrick and the writer Frederic Raphael, with the director (as directors are all too often wont to do, and as this particular director had just done with Brian Aldiss) trying to secure sole screenwriting credit.
After Kubrick died, the bad news came fast. Eyes Wide Shut is rubbish! Kubrick makes bad film! Director Emperor Has No Clothes! And, of course, nowhere were the anti-kudos and the revisionism quite as fast and furious as in the recluse/genius/fraud director’s beloved Britain.
The jury, for me, is still out on Eyes Wide Shut. It seems to be rubbish, but so what? The Emmanuelle films which it so resembles are rubbish, yet they have endured and are of considerable interest. And it is quite intriguing, light, and a little odd, after the dull certainties of his Stephen King and Vietnam excursions.
After the death of Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director’s family embarked on a possibly ill-advised scramble to get films based on his scripts into production, and to exploit his name. The Kubrick camp has behaved a tad more decorously. Just one three-hour documentary (broadcast here by the BBC), a re-edited American version of Eyes Wide Shut (“Stanley would have given it his blessing!”), and a re-release of A Clockwork Orange. Some thought the return of Clockwork to be over hasty, given the director’s unease about the project. But who was he to say, anyway? Directors are not usually allowed to judge the worth of their product. It is very unusual for them to be handed control of distribution, especially to suppress their own films.
Kubrick wouldn’t be the first person to be fooled by his own grandiloquence, or to take seriously a fool’s estimation of his worth. Look at the way our politicos and royals behave. To be hoist with your own petard comes with the territory of being an artist, unless you are uniquely restrained, or ironic, or grounded.
Lolita, Dr Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon - to have directed only one of them would have been a remarkable achievement. To have directed all five is grounds for cinematic sainthood, or at very least a huge and handsome bas-relief in the pantheon. What if their maker helped mythologise himself? He might have preferred the vision of the astute, icy control freak. But there is also Terry Southern’s version of the anxious, insecure and fated film-maker who sent Mo Rothman a golf cart.
And Southern’s version jibes with the one I encountered, second-hand, one afternoon a couple of years ago when one of Kubrick’s assistants called me, out of the blue. Someone was taking advantage of Kubrick’s reputation as the Man of Mystery, it seemed. A confidence trickster, aware of the mystique surrounding Kubrick (who was actually quite often photographed, and highly recognisable) was passing himself off as the great director, securing dinners, drinks and sexual favours. The police having proved unhelpful, Stanley had come up with a plan: he would commission a film to be made about the scoundrel, exposing him in his nefarious works.
It was potentially an interesting commission, if a bit navel-gazing. But I had heard that Kubrick was renowned for his reclusiveness and privacy. How would he feel about being portrayed as a character in this film? There was a pause as my question was relayed to someone off-instrument. Then Kubrick’s man came back on the line. “Impossible! Stanley says neither his name nor likeness can appear in the film! He insists that he be fictionalised!” I said I thought that without Stanley Kubrick’s moniker, the point of the film would be lost. They asked me to consider fictionalising Kubrick, and get back to them. But how do you fictionalise a fictionaliser who insists on being fictionalised?
Which brings us back to that other, younger, bearded American with a baseball cap, channelling this greater, lonelier director via his “Stanley Kubrick” movie. But is it Kubrick? Could Spielberg be Kubrick any more than that other, poor, false Kubrick, wangling dinners and sexual favours in the West End?
Kubrick was neither here nor there, neither American nor British, neither friend nor foe. Most film-makers do not attempt to make a comedy about Mutually Assured Destruction. Kubrick gave it a go. In the words of the general in the Bunker with the president: “Toe to toe with the Russkies, Mr President! Toe to Toe!”