Stanley Kubrick - The Man. The Myth.
How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas : "This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth"?
-- Stanley Kubrick
I'm under no delusions that Stanley Kubrick could be encapsulated sufficiently on these or any pages, and thereby conveniently "explained". As with the woman's smile, attempting to do so would rob his admirers of an opportunity to share what it is they personally covet about this man and his work that, to the greater fortune of the film world (and the world in general), was daring enough to invite us out on the precipice of the human psyche. My regret is that I have come to appreciate Kubrick this late in the game, and so consider this an invitation to a shared enthusiasm - even if Kubrick is not your "style" (versus, say, Cassavettes), I hope you can take from what's to follow even a sliver of my growing Kubrick fervor.
With 2001, I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pidgeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.
On the first read, the above quote hit me like a ton of anything. This idea that his film, and by extension art in general, ultimately has the potential (if not the responsibility) to dismantle the social constructs which consume our daily lives was staggering. I'm hard pressed to look back on an idea I've come to cherish which has, for my life, greater implications.
For a filmmaker like myself, the challenge then becomes one of understanding how this end is met. Fortunately, Kubrick offers a great deal of insight in this regard.
In a Kubrick film, a seemingly nebulous question about the nature of man is put to inquiry, and the whole of a filmmaker's tools are trained on provoking a shared set of valid perspectives on the topics at hand. His revised narrative "structures" take the viewer through situations which put the facets of the film's themes and issues through their paces. His use of color symbolism, and semiotics in general, serve to underscore the themes, always helping to corral the viewer into asking the questions which matter most. Even the titles of his films, like the titles of great works of literature, grant insight into the central philosophic thrust of the film. All and well for the theory behind his work, what of the methods which aided in Kubrick's realization of his ends?
First, I find it interesting to note that Kubrick never wrote an original screenplay. He can be found quoted as respecting fictive writing as a monumental undertaking. For a man acutely aware of his own mortality, and none-too shy about asserting a materialist's view of the world and his ultimate demise, this may have been a wise gambit to expend less energy on story and more on how the story was to be brought across on film. I find it interesting too, that the sort of critical distance that Kubrick so treasured may have been more easily obtained by not writing original material.
Once a story was chosen, Kubrick mounted exhaustive research campaigns, often covering a subject with a greater dearth of material than the experts in a given field. But at the same time, while Kubrick rode into a film with a mountain of information at his back, he was often willing to throw it to the wind in favor of "the feel" of a scene. This sort of rigorous intellectualization and artistic freedom is a potent combination - it is often the case that one person has only the capacity for either or, and to see the deft marriage of the two is encouraging.
My attention now turns to specific Kubrick films, which I'd like to address individually in later columns.