Kubrick on the set of Killer’s Kiss

Flawed paean to a heartless auteur

A lack of empathy goes to the hollowness at the heart of so many Kubrick movies


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Stanley Kubrick was born in New York, but lived more than half his life in the Home Counties. Even after reading Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams’ brick-thick Kubrick: An Odyssey, with its claim that “England offered him a freer intellectual life”, this move still seems curious.

Kubrick: An Odyssey, Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams (Faber, £30)

Kubrick had fixed on moviemaking at a very early age. Most movies were and are made in the country of his birth. Kubrick’s choosing Hertfordshire over Hollywood made as much sense as Joshua Reynolds seeking to extend his painterly range in Rotherham rather than Rome. My guess is that Kubrick crossed the pond the wrong way because of the auteur theory. We Brits fell for this French idea — that film is an art and the director the artist — far more than the Americans ever did. And right from the off Kubrick was determined to be thought an artist.

To an impressive extent he was. Moviemaking is nothing if not collaborative, but Kubrick came as close to creative autonomy as any director before or since. He had a hand in the scripts of the movies he directed. A brilliant photographer, he was forever telling cameramen and lighting technicians how to do their jobs. He oversaw everything from prop placement to lens length, from set décor to credits sequences. When his old movies became available on rental videotape in the 1980s, Kubrick even had his say over the fonts used on their packaging.

Raised in the Bronx by a well-to-do Jewish family, Kubrick was an over-smart kid, bored by the school he quit at 17. Having already learned the rudiments of darkroom work, he talked himself into a gig as a trainee snapper on Look magazine. Kolker and Abrams don’t reproduce any of his pictures, but a quick Google search shows that the lad already had an eye for mordant framing and a Chaplinesque interest in the huddled masses.

Such an interest implies narrative, and Kubrick, who never came away from a movie without saying he could have made it better, was soon set on a filmmaking career. One of the old-timers at Look lent him some books on the grammar of film. From Eisenstein he realised the importance of the close-up. From Pudovkin Kubrick deduced how editing — the way a story is assembled from disparate, not necessarily related images — was unique to the form. And from Chaplin’s own movies he took the lesson that content wasn’t enough. A work of art had to be of formal interest if it were really to hammer home its deeper import.

Kubrick was a quick learner. By 1949, the year he turned 21, he and a friend had set up a documentary film company. A couple of years later he made his first feature, a sententious anti-war movie with the Sturm und Drang title Fear and Desire. Kubrick rightly disowned it as soon as he could — though it should be said that his compositions and camerawork were already on point.

Shelley Duvall in The Shining

And anyway, he hit his stride immediately afterwards. In short order he made his two most fully satisfying movies, the weirdly similar sounding Killer’s Kiss and The Killing. Heavily influenced by the iconography of noir, both pictures were made on the cheap — which was good, because Kubrick couldn’t, as he would so often later do, run away from the real world.

Anyone who wants to know what downtown New York looked like in the age of Abstract Expressionism should check out Killer’s Kiss. Anyone who knows Kubrick only through his slow, swollen late work should watch The Killing and marvel at how lean and taut a cheapie thriller can be.

The Killing didn’t do much business, but it made many a critic’s top 10 list for 1956. Emboldened, Kubrick embarked on a more personal project, another peacenik picture based on a novel he’d read as a teenager. There are some great moments in Paths of Glory, in which Kirk Douglas plays a Great War lawyer defending a bunch of French soldiers accused of cowardice.

Kubrick sets the trial in a vast chateau, and there is nothing better in his work than the sight of Douglas strutting around this opulent courtroom, Kubrick’s camera both paralleling and probing the line of his argument, like a quadratic equation solving itself.

Alas, Kubrick’s weakness for speechifying lets things down. When Douglas begins his summing up by saying the case has made him “ashamed to be a member of the human race” he not only goes over the top — he speaks to the louring misanthropy that would mark the rest of Kubrick’s career.

Sue Lyon as Lolita and James Mason as Humbert Humbert

Hence his movie version of Lolita catches none of the shamed rhapsodic passion of Nabokov’s original. Dr Strangelove, another anti-war threnody, fancies itself a satire but is so devoid of fury it comes over like a Goon Show rewritten by the Carry On team. A Clockwork Orange transforms Anthony Burgess’ dystopic black comedy into an existentialist celebration of violence. As for 2001: A Space Odyssey, this High Sixties monument to technophilia and tripping was best summed up by that great critic Rock Hudson: “What is this bullshit?”

Kolker and Abrams are having none of this. Taking Kubrick at his own estimation, they are convinced he was an artist of the highest order. Fair enough, though their book would have rather more clout if it had persuaded doubters to take another look at Kubrick’s work. Yet whilst they discuss in depth his tireless (not to say tiresome) research, whilst they tell you all about his lighting rigs and ultra-wide-angle lenses, their comments on Kubrick’s finished films are so perfunctory as to be pointless.

And then there are Kubrick’s unfinished films — a life of Napoleon, a movie about the Holocaust, an adaptation of a Radio 4 sci-fi drama about a space virus — projects he spent years pondering and planning, each of which came to nought. There were always more books to read, more groundwork to be done.

Kubrick was assisted in his procrastinations by, of all people, Warner Brothers. Having fallen hook line and sinker for his claim to be an auteur, the studio granted him creative carte blanche from A Clockwork Orange on. If this wasn’t exactly a licence to print money, it was certainly a licence to burn it.

The producer Paul Hitchcock once tellingly compared Kubrick with Warners’ other big-shot director, Clint Eastwood. Whilst Clint felt as if he’d “borrowed money from a bank” to get a movie up and running, Kubrick never “consider[ed] repaying to be his first priority”.

A poster for Clockwork Orange

No indeed, because Kubrick’s first priority seemed to be auditioning any actress with a “spectacular bust”. Anyone who knows Kubrick only through his work will be astonished by this revelation. Up to and including his Freud-inflected swansong, Eyes Wide Shut, his movies are amongst the most sexless in the history of cinema.

The closest Kubrick got to the bedroom was A Clockwork Orange’s hideous “Singin” in the Rain” rape scene. But no man is a hero to his valet, and Clockwork’s Adrienne Corri, whom Kolker and Abrams quote to blistering effect on several occasions, is clear on the matter: “Stanley has a fixation about tits.”

Certainly he was nobody’s idea of a feminist. When Shelley Duvall told Kubrick that her unusually heavy period meant she needed a day off The Shining shoot, Kubrick ordered that she be examined by a nurse. And when Matthew Modine begged for a break from Kubrick’s ’Nam epic, Full Metal Jacket, because his pregnant wife was about to have an emergency Caesarean, the director snapped “Why do you want to go?”

This lack of empathy goes to the hollowness at the heart of so many Kubrick movies. Like Hitchcock (who said actors should be treated as cattle), Kubrick had no interest in working with his players. He would demand retake after retake, without ever making clear to anyone what had gone wrong the last time.

After 148 takes of a simple scene in The Shining, that marvellous character actor Scatman Crothers implored “What do you want, Mr Kubrick? What do you want?” “I know what I don’t want,” came the reply. Yes, and one day a monkey might type Hamlet.

Then again, Kubrick could have used a little of its subject’s perfectionism. Kubrick’s jokey working title for 2001 was How the Solar System Was Won. This book could have been called How the Solecism Won.

“Uninterested in what he wore, it was his mother who bought clothes for him”, means pretty much the opposite of what Kolker and Abrams think it does. “Once wrapped, in spring 1951, after a six-month shoot, Stanley began working on post-production.” Well no wonder it took him so long! Cut! Go again! Cut!

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