One of the more vivid memories I have from my early childhood is sitting on the couch with my father one Saturday afternoon watching a movie on television. He had called me in, sat me down and informed me that I wasn’t getting up for the next two hours. I sat there expecting to be subjected to an episode of “Star Trek,” but there were no tribbles on the schedule that day. Instead, the most wondrous images played before me: apes throwing bones high in the air, monoliths as tall as the sky, the most singularly striking music I had ever heard. It was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
I was nine. And I was in awe.
Two weeks ago I sat at this computer working on a class assignment, compulsively checking the news wire on the web as I am wont to do. At 2 p.m., my heart stopped. A story came across the wire with the headline, “Film director Stanley Kubrick dies in Britain.” I thought that maybe it was a mistake; after all, last summer the wires picked up a false story that Bob Hope had finally checked out, but he’s still teetering around at the ripe old age of 95. Kubrick is young!, I thought, only 70. He couldn’t be dead. He still had a film to finish.
But it wasn’t a hoax. The man who was unequivocally the greatest living American filmmaker – despite the fact that he hadn’t left British soil for decades – died of “natural causes” (later determined to be a heart attack) in his sleep. It’s ironic that Kubrick died that morning, mere days after the first true screening of his final gift to the world, “Eyes Wide Shut” played for two Warner Bros. executives and the film’s stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. After two and a half years of production and post-production, the film was nearly finished, allegedly needing some looping and clean-up done on it (although as any Kubrick buff knows, it’s likely that he probably would have been tinkering with the print up until the final hour before its July 16 release date). For all intents and purposes, his work was done. He knew it was time to go.
When the news of Kubrick’s demise trickled in, I was too stunned to do much of anything. And I stayed that way for the next several days, lamenting the state of the world and of film, trying to contemplate and digest the great loss. And it may seem silly – after all, I didn’t even know the guy. But I knew his work. And to Stanley Kubrick, the work was everything.
So when the first images from “Eyes Wide Shut” were released to the public three days after his death, I held my breath as I waited for their unveiling. I watched, not breathing, as never-before-seen footage from the film that took more than 13 months to shoot (and that’s not even including re-shoots, which resulted in some roles having to be completely recast due to the unavailability of actors committed to other projects) and another year to edit played on the television. And I wept. Because that’s the Kubrick I know: the man behind the image. I don’t know the man that all of the obituaries describe, because Kubrick was such an intensely private person that he hadn’t given an interview in twenty years (although he had intimated that he would give interviews for “Eyes Wide Shut,” something I had been looking forward to). More than anything, reading that sad news made me numb.
What I do know is the man who made several of the scariest and blackly comedic films I’ve ever seen. I know the man who created whole universes and post-apocalyptic futures without the aid of today’s advanced computer effects. I know the man who directed one of the most powerful Vietnam films ever made without even setting foot in Asia, let alone outside of London. I know the man who shot scenes by candlelight simply because he just knew it could be done, no matter how difficult it was. I know the man who had the audacity and the genius to show 90 seconds of uncut footage to the world of mega-stars Cruise and Kidman, both naked before a mirror, engaging in explicit foreplay – Cruise completely into Kidman, Kidman completely into watching in the mirror Cruise be into her – as an announcement of what his final film was to be.
And I wept.
This might seem like an extreme reaction. It is, I freely admit. It’s also nothing less than what Kubrick deserves. No other director had such autonomy over his work (and I doubt that any director ever will) to the point where Warner Bros., the studio where Kubrick had an exclusive production deal, basically just handed him a bunch of money and allowed him to go off, make his film, and come back when and only when it was finished. And no other director demanded such autonomy; Kubrick had, contractually, control over every detail of the making and distribution of his films right down to how the film was matted by projectionists in theatres, often including written instructions. He would cut his own trailers and had approval over artwork and advertisements for each film he made. He was able to command who saw what and when; he pulled “A Clockwork Orange” from distribution in the UK for years.
Aside from complete and total artistic control, no other director made as many classics (and I speak not just from my own opinion, but of critics everywhere) in such a span of time while making so few films. Kubrick made only 12 feature-length films during his nearly-50 year career; in the last 20 years, he made only three including “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is to be released 12 years after his previous film, “Full Metal Jacket.” (For comparison, Steven Spielberg directed 12 films between 1983 (“Twilight Zone: The Movie”) and 1998 (“Saving Private Ryan”) alone; Martin Scorsese, heir to the title of greatest living American film director, made 12 between 1983 (“The King of Comedy”) and his upcoming fall release, “Bringing Out the Dead.”)
Each of those 12 films is the work of a painstaking craftsman – it’s no coincidence that nearly every article and obituary for Kubrick contains the word “meticulous” – an amazing visionary and a technical innovator. He worked closely with his cinematographers and other techies to create the look of his films, and he knew every lens and film stock by heart. He started out as a teenager shooting pictures for Life Magazine, a job which he eventually parlayed into his film career. He was known to run the cameras on his films himself.
I spoke with two film and video studies professors who have been following his career since its beginning about Kubrick’s work.
Prof. Hugh Cohen spoke of the ageless quality of Kubrick’s films. “They seem to be out of time. There’s a sense of a masterpiece, almost when it’s made, and he’s got so many,” Cohen said. “Very few filmmakers have that kind of satirical, critical approach to life.”
“Stanley Kubrick for me was one of those filmmakers whose small body of work was always greeted with great excitement. Whether I liked the new one as much as the previous one, one thing you always knew was that you weren’t going to be bored by his films. They took chances,” said Prof. Frank Beaver. Prof. Beaver feels a very personal attachment to Kubrick’s work, having served in Vietnam. “I think that ‘Full Metal Jacket is one of the greatest war films ever made,” he said. “I liked the way the particular idea of a moral dilemma for humankind became one of Kubrick’s central themes.”
There’s a definite thematic unification to Kubrick’s work, and he often tread a slim wire suspended somewhere between horror and hilarity. There were images of terrible violence and abhorrent actions, but he was like as not to reverse the tables on the viewer and make us question who really was the villain in films like “Lolita” or “A Clockwork Orange.” It’s not so much ambiguity as active participation and decision-making that Kubrick seems to want from his audience.
There are so many Kubrickian images stamped indelibly on my brain that he shot with those cameras that he loved so dearly. Major Kong riding the bomb to kingdom come in “Dr. Strangelove.” HAL9000, lights aglow, ominously singing “Daisy” in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Alex DeLarge being deprogrammed after all of his evil deeds, eyelids clipped open, to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth in “A Clockwork Orange.” Elevator doors releasing a tidal wave of crimson blood in “The Shining.” Pyle in the barracks, about to blow his brains out, in “Full Metal Jacket.”
And finally, there’s a picture in my head of Kubrick directing, face full of unbridled anger when something has not gone his way, when the most miniscule detail has gone awry, balding, bearded and incomparably, unequivocally brilliant.
These are the pictures that I will never forget, the ones that I will take to my grave as their creator did. Kubrick was more than just a filmmaker – he was an artist, a man who took mere imaginings and made them visible. He was a magician, a technician, a man of grand vision. And after all of that work done in secret, ultimately, he gave those visions to us.
Thanks for the memories, Stanley.