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STANLEY KUBRICK (1928–99)
US filmmaker, cinematographer, screenwriter, film editor, and photographer, based for much of his career in Britain.
“After working as a photographer for Look magazine and as a documentary filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick began directing feature films with the self-funded war film Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), about a washed-up boxer involved with petty criminals. His first professional feature, the heist movie The Killing (1956), brought him to the attention of Hollywood, where he directed the anti-war Paths of Glory (1957), starring Kirk Douglas, who then brought Kubrick in to replace Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus (1960). The experience of working on such a major picture left Kubrick unhappy with Hollywood. When he moved to the UK to film Lolita (1962), his relocation became permanent. He spent the next decade making three sf films: Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Kubrick’s long pre-production process, and several abandoned projects, meant he would direct only four more films: Barry Lyndon (1975), which recounts the picaresque rise and fall of an eighteenth-century adventurer; The Shining (1980), about a haunted hotel, madness, and patriarchal violence; the Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket (1987); and the oddly muted erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut (1999). In 1982 Kubrick optioned Brian Aldiss’s “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (1969), which was in development for 18 years, with story input from Ian Watson (and, uncredited, Arthur C. Clarke and Bob Shaw), while waiting for necessary advances in special effects technologies. On Kubrick’s death, the project became Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).
If Dr Strangelove had been faithfully adapted from Peter George’s straight-faced thriller Two Hours to Doom (1958), it would have been just another in the cycle of well-crafted liberal melodramas about nuclear war which included On the Beach (Kramer 1959), Fail-Safe (Lumet 1964), and The Bedford Incident (Harris 1965). However, while writing the script, Kubrick began to find the rhetoric of nuclear deterrence and the strategies for waging and surviving nuclear war increasingly absurd, pushing the film toward black comedy. Paranoid General Jack D. Ripper orders nuclear bombers under his command to strike Soviet targets, hoping to force President Merkin Muffley into launching a full-scale attack before the USSR can retaliate. Over the protests of General Buck Turgidson (modeled on General Curtis LeMay), Muffley instead liaises with Premier Kissoff to bring down the planes if they cannot be recalled. The USSR, however, has a Doomsday Device: an automated system that will wipe out life on Earth and make the planet uninhabitable for a century if a single atomic bomb explodes on Soviet soil. A lone bomber, the Leper’s Colony, commanded by Major “King” Kong, evades all attempts to stop it. As nuclear annihilation looms, Muffley’s scientific advisor, Dr Strangelove (based on Americanized Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the RAND corporation’s Herman Kahn, and Rotwang, the mad scientist from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)), argues that they need to establish shelters in deep mineshafts, with ten sexually stimulating women to every man, so as to breed a massive population capable of defeating any surviving Soviets in the postapocalyptic world.
Kubrick’s satire has four main thrusts. The first concerns modes of thinking rendered inappropriate by the nuclear age: the Leper’s Colony enters Soviet airspace to the Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (1863); climactic nuclear war is accompanied by Vera Lynn’s recording of Second World War morale-booster “We’ll Meet Again” (1939). The second focuses on strategic planning’s tendency to normalize the incomprehensible and insupportable: Turgidson urges an all-out attack because calculations suggest that it would produce an acceptable loss of only 20 million, rather than 150 million, Americans. The third is concerned with our subordination to arbitrary systems. Procedures which dictate future actions are set in place even though they cannot anticipate every possible circumstance: when the damaged Leper Colony abandons its mission in favor of a target of opportunity, the bomber cannot be located. Kubrick’s use of sets with ceilings and of wide-angle lenses, which extend the depth of field and horizontal plane of action, leaving figures isolated in immense surroundings, accentuates this sense of entrapment within systems. The fourth identifies the infantile phallic sexuality of the arms race: the celebrated opening sequence, spoofing the technoeroticism of flag-wavers like Strategic Air Command (Mann 1955), depicts a B-52’s mid-air refueling as a seductive dance between planes, to the tune of “Try a Little Tenderness” (1932), and as an act of penetration; the War Room staff quickly seize upon the sexual opportunities presented by Strangelove’s mineshaft proposal; Ripper launches his attack because he can feel the communist conspiracy to fluoridate water sapping his purity of essence. These and other psychosexual revelations trouble the supposed rationality of nuclear strategy – just as punning character names and outrageous performances push against surface realism, and as the transitions from formal compositions to verité-style camerawork disrupt the sense of a single dominant aesthetic.
One draft of Strangelove’s screenplay depicted aliens trying to reconstruct the events that led to the Earth’s destruction. Retained in Peter George’s novelization, this framing device resonates with the final act of A.I. and with Kubrick’s next film, 2001. Inspired by several of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories, especially “The Sentinel” (1951), it was initially conceptualized as a Hollywood historical epic – a space-age version of How the West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, Thorpe 1962). Kubrick developed the script over several years with Clarke, beginning with a coauthored draft of a novel that could be used to raise funding and upon which the screenplay – and ultimately Clarke’s own novel – could then be based. Unlike Clarke, who despite transcendentalist impulses typically explains everything in his fiction, Kubrick, who generally favored voice-over narration, removed all such exposition late in production, rendering his film all the more challenging and elusive.
A mysterious black monolith appears on a prehistoric African plain and apparently teaches prehuman apes to use bones as tools. Four million years later humans unearth a similar monolith on the moon. When sunlight strikes its surface, it beams a powerful radio signal toward Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the Discovery is en route to the gas giant when its infallible computer, HAL 9000, suffers a psychological breakdown and murders all but one of the crew. Venturing out toward a giant monolith orbiting Jupiter, astronaut Dave Bowman falls into a tunnel of lights, races over alien landscapes, and eventually – it seems – dies and is reborn as hyper-evolved posthuman Starchild, who returns to Earth.
Kubrick’s future is equally an extrapolation from and a satire on 1960s corporate America, its banal inhumanity emphasized by the stilted conversations of depthless characters, many of whose exchanges are constrained by political agendas, checklists, and other predetermined procedures. The remorseless blandness of this futurologically scrupulous world is further demonstrated by Kubrick’s muted eroticization of technologies, here a commentary on the gestation and birth of posthumanity rather than an opportunity for tittering. His wide-angle cinematography makes the various immaculate built environments even more unhomely: characters pass through such spaces, as emphasized by the astronauts’ endless jogging around the Discovery, rather than inhabit them, and human characters never exchange conventional shot/reverse-shot sequences. Despite this element of critique, 2001’s countercultural status has long been attributed instead to the trippy-ness of the psychedelic “Stargate” sequence.
2001’s significance for the development of sf lies in its formal and technical achievements. Few, if any, prior sf films exhibited its artistic ambition. For example, when Kubrick matched images of docking spacecraft to Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz (1867), he returned film to the possibilities that opened up with the coming of sound before its relationship with the image became merely explicatory. Kubrick sections the soundtrack so that extra-diegetic music never accompanies dialogue scenes, leaving the audience bereft of normative emotional cues. This sense of being adrift in front of ambiguous images is captured in the film itself when a screen in Bowman’s space-pod, tracking Poole’s drifting corpse, imposes a three-dimensional Cartesian grid over space which we have repeatedly been shown has no fixed vertical or horizontal planes.
Half of the shots in 2001 are effects shots. They cost over half the budget and involved the development or invention of new techniques and equipment. Indeed, Kubrick’s greatest influence on the genre was, arguably, to fuel the desire to produce a spectacular cinema of attractions. This can be seen in the career of Douglas Trumbull. A key member of 2001’s effects team, he became one of the most influential figures in special effects, working on The Andromeda Strain (Wise 1971), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg 1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979), and Blade Runner (Scott 1982), as well as directing Silent Running (1972) and Brainstorm (1983). Since the 1980s he has concentrated on developing exhibition technologies and theme park rides. It is also evident in the shortcomings of the films which attempt to ape 2001’s aspirations, such as The Black Hole (Nelson 1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Contact (Zemeckis 1997), and Mission to Mars (De Palma 2000). Often visually stunning, they are every bit as banal as the future 2001 depicts.
A Clockwork Orange, adapted from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel about juvenile delinquency, original sin, and free-will, begins with a slow zoom out from the protagonist’s eye and down the entire length of the Korova Milk Bar. This might lead one to expect another measured and stately film. But if 2001 abandoned Strangelove’s ribaldry to emphasize oppressive orderliness, A Clockwork Orange instead delights in bawdiness, vulgarity, and violence. Alex beats up tramps and rapes women for fun, but when he alienates his gang, they abandon him to the police. In exchange for his freedom, he volunteers for behavioral conditioning, which renders him incapable of stomaching violence. It also destroys his ability to listen to his beloved Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824). Former victims use this music to force Alex to attempt suicide, causing a political scandal. Alex’s brainwashing is reversed in exchange for his endorsement of the government.
Kubrick’s exuberant, disorienting handheld camera symbolizes the chaotic energy of the amoral, self-knowing but unashamed Alex, who himself represents for the state all that which must be suppressed. Like Alex in his over-the-top dress sense and performance of violence, Kubrick refuses restraint, peopling his film with stereotypes and grotesques, music-hall and sitcom humor, and a childish fixation on sexual organs, especially breasts. He joyously exhibits the filmmaking craft: a montage sequence that makes a row of porcelain Jesuses seem to dance; the gleefully artificial back-projection and fast-motion threesome; the tendency to present scenes rather than create more conventionalized spaces and character interactions; the excessive pop-art mise-en-scène; the badly done and utterly inappropriate images (religious and prehistoric epics, vampire films, orgiastic excesses) Alex envisions when he hears Beethoven or reads the Bible. While sf films such as Wild in the Streets (Shear 1968) celebrated the hopefulness of the counterculture, and Privilege (Watkins 1967) critiqued its complicity with structures of power, A Clockwork Orange’s irreverence and self-conscious poor taste sounded a warning of the backlash to come. Although Kubrick made only three sf films, they are all among the most highly regarded in the genre. Probably only Andrei Tarkovsky, the rather more meditative director of Solaris (1972), Stalker (1979), and The Sacrifice (1986), equals or exceeds this achievement.”
Arthur C. Clarke, David Cronenberg, Fritz Lang, George Lucas, Oshii Mamoru, and Steven Spielberg
- Agel, J. (1970) The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, New York: New American Library.
- Baxter, J. (1997) Stanley Kubrick: a biography, New York: Carroll & Graf.
- Chion, M. (2001) Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey, trans. C. Gorbman, London: BFI.
- Clarke, A.C. (1972) The Lost Worlds of 2001, New York: New American Library.
- Freedman, C. (1996) “Kubrick’s 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema,” Science Fiction Studies, 25(2): 300–17.
- Kolker, R. (ed.) (2006) Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: new essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- McDougal, S.Y. (ed.) (2003) Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Naremore, J. (2007) On Kubrick, London: BFI.
- Schwam, S. (2000) The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, New York: The Modern Library.
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