Stanley Kubrick is one of the most talked about directors, not only for his great talent, but also for his mythical image as a control freak despot.
What is true? And what not? What is so peculiar about him? We tell you about all in this article, 23 years after his death on 7 March 1999.
The beginnings: chess and photography
Stanley Kubrick was born in Bronx, New York, on July 26, 1928. From the age of 13 he developed a passion for jazz, chess and photography, through a gift from his father: his first camera.
But chess, for the young Kubrick, was much more than just fun. This activity allowed him to better develop his ability to think about an idea before realizing it. In fact, chess and film-making shared some similarities. Chess taught the young Kubrick to observe, analyze and act. In chess there is always a better move to play, we cannot leave everything to chance.
Stanley Kubrick’s passion was such that in many of his films we find references to chess, both direct and indirect. This is the case, for example, of his 2001 film: A Space Odyssey where Franck plays chess against the computer HAL 9000.
Returning instead to photography, at the age of 17, then a high school student, the young Kubrick sold photos to American magazines, especially Look. Once he finished high school, unable to go to university, he was hired by this magazine as a photographer. This job, which he kept until the age of 21, allowed him to travel across the United States and learn the basics of his new interest: cinema.
Stanley Kubrick and cinema
In 1951, having become the most famous photographer in the USA, Kubrick shoots his first short film with his savings: Day of the Fight. He is a director, screenwriter, cameraman and editor. Two years later, he made two more: Flying Padre and The Seaferers, once again embodying all of these roles.
After a few short films, in 1953 he faced his first feature film, Fear and desire, largely financed by his uncle. Once again Kubrick combines the functions of director, producer, editor, director of photography, operator, and also personally takes care of the printing of copies, immediately showing the need to control every aspect of his films, from their genesis to distribution. This inclination will earn him, over the course of his career, a reputation for intransigence and frenzied perfectionism, even authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, these first three feature films met an identical fate, in this case a commercial failure, which, however, was applauded by critics. A story similar to that of Walt Disney when you think about it.
His next film, Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas, which demystifies the heroes of the War of the 14, is this time a great commercial success. It was only in France that the film would come out later, as the topic of mutinies was still a taboo in the early 1960s.
In 1962 Stanley Kubrick left for England where he bought the rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, for his next film, and had him write the screenplay, of which he then used only a few dialogues. England thus becomes a land of predilection for the film, to avoid American censorship. It is also in the UK that it will be shot and produced by Kubrick himself, to gain more freedom on set.
The director’s best movies
The success continues with 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968, which he co-wrote with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. This epic film, a true monument of science fiction, traces the confrontation between man and a superior intelligence. At the beginning of the film, the first men discover a monolith, as a result of which they engage in their first properly intelligent actions. Humanity is just born. The sequel to the film takes place immediately in the future (in 2001). Another monolith is discovered on the Moon and a mysterious signal comes from Jupiter. A mission, Discovery, is then sent there, with a team that includes Dave Bowman, Frank Pool, and the humanized computer Hal 9000.
The production of the film requires a year and a half of shooting and the use of very high quality models. Stanley Kubrick will win the Oscar for Best Special Effects for this film (the only one of his career), and will only be nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Director. This film reevaluates the science fiction genre (hitherto despised). He innovates not only with the revolution of the techniques used, but above all with the use of immense and grandiose music such as “The Blue Danube” or “Also Sprach Zarathustra” which give another dimension to his work.
A Clockwork Orange, Napoleon and Barry Lyndon
In 1971 Stanley Kubrick made one of the greatest films of his career: A Clockwork Orange, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. This film traces the story of Alex, a young Englishman fond of extreme violence and classical music (Beethoven, 9th Symphony). Alex engages in acts of physical and sexual brutality in a futuristic version of London. Then, arrested, he is subjected to inhumane treatment by a totalitarian government, in order to be treated, not to say reprogrammed. This film shocked society at the time a lot, as it shows impressive scenes on screen and is considered to be Kubrick’s most controversial work.
After these two futuristic films, Napoleon should have been the next. Autobiographical film, from a screenplay written by Kubrick, this film preserves the elements of the Emperor’s life closest to him. Kubrick had in fact always identified with him, as evidenced by some rare interviews with the director. Jack Nicholson is selected for the role. However, the film will not be successful, due to too limited a budget for a high-risk film: the last film starring Napoleon was also a failure.
Finally, Kubrick pinned his hopes on Barry Lyndon, in 1975, a costume drama that is the antithesis of A Clockwork Orange, and which traces the story of adventurer Redmund Barry (Ryan O’Neil), who, through various adventures, married the Countess of Lyndon (Marissa Berenson), to become Barry Lyndon. A monumental work lit by candlelight for some interior scenes, Barry Lyndon is an essential reference in historical cinema.
In 1980 the genius of Stanley Kubrick intimidates everyone with Shining (1980), a film inspired by the homonymous work by Stephen King. Filming was not easy. Furthermore, the controversy with lead actress Shelley Duvall further helped to strengthen his image as an uncompromising and cold director.
Stanley Kubrick’s productivity declined in the 1980s after The Shining was released. Seven years passed before the appearance of a new film, Full Metal Jacket, a film with which he once again explored the genre of Paths of Glory, denouncing both the intervention in Vietnam and the training of soldiers to turn them into killing machines.
Stanley Kubrick: last film, death and legacy
After Full Metal Jacket, from 1987, the next (and last) by Stanley Kubrick dates back to 1999.
Today’s protagonist dies on March 7, 1999, two days after completing his latest work, Eyes Wide Shut, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman: a sort of psychological and erotic thriller about jealousy and sexual obsession.
Closing an outstanding career with this film, we can observe that Kubrick has distinguished himself in almost every genre known from the Seventh Art of which he has been an admirable servant.
It is easy to recognize Kubrick’s scheme, that of a man who believes himself to be the master of his own life and of himself but who, following a small error with respect to what was planned, realizes that he is nothing, and abandons himself to the catastrophic consequences. of this discovery, which can sometimes be humanity’s renunciation. Except in 2001 A Space Odyssey, where it is the tiny mistake that leads man to overcome humanity.
Kubrick was buried without any religious rite, in his garden, right next to his favorite tree as part of a private funeral.
Either way, there is no doubt that the director left us an important legacy. Stanley Kubrick is a huge talent in the world of cinema. Some of his films have never seen the light of day, such as Napoleon and even a pornographic film that would be called Blue Movie.
In his book, Kubrick (2000), journalist Michael Herr partly belies the director’s negative image. There he shows a more human image. However, he does not stop describing him as a rather particular character who has a very particular vision of cinema.
Controversial, incomparable, neurotic or brilliant… What is certain is that Stanley Kubrick has given us some of the most interesting films in the history of cinema.