Born: July 28, 1928 New York, USA
Genres: Psychological Drama, Science Fiction, War, Historical Epic, Dark Comedy
Academy Awards: Best Effects, Special Visual Effects (1968) 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another 12 Nominations
Must See: The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove, or…(1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Recommended: Spartacus (1960), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the history of contemporary American film. He is one of those few artists that rejected the Hollywood limelight and concentrated on developing his craft. Kubrick’s wayward attitude towards Hollywood probably hurt his image as a director; however, there is no denying that he was an exceptionally skilled and influential figure in cinema.
Kubrick was born into an upper middle class family in New York City in 1928. Irritated and bored with his school studies, Kubrick sought refuge in films and photography. At age 17, young Stanley was already working for Look, a photographic magazine in the United States. Stanley’s coverage of heavyweight fighter Walter Cartier lead him to film a short documentary on the boxer in 1951. The documentary received little attention.
His big break came in 1956 when Kubrick decided to film an adaptation of Lionel White’s novel Clean Break, which turned into The Killing. This crime thriller eventually became a landmark heist film that influenced Quentin Tarantino in his films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, among many others. It did well enough to get Kubrick noticed in Hollywood as a promising 28-year-old director.
Kubrick always had a pessimistic view of human nature, which is easily noticeable in his films. In one of his very rare interviews, Kubrick said to The New York Times: “One of the most dangerous fallacies which have influenced a great deal of political and philosophical thinking is that man is essentially good and that society is what makes him bad.”
Kubrick was also a very thematic director. His most prevalent theme was one of dehumanization, featured in almost every full-length film that Kubrick made, including A Clockwork Orange.
In this highly controversial film, the main character, Alex, agrees to be a guinea pig by undergoing the Ludovico treatment, meant to turn him from a prolific criminal into a model citizen. The treatment eventually fails and Alex is an inhumane monster once again. The irreversibility of human nature is what was in focus.
His first true commercial hit, Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, is about a Roman slave who rose up against authority and succeeded, at least for a while, to liberate himself. Many parallels could be drawn between Spartacus and Kubrick; the director himself was seen as a rogue in Hollywood.
Sexual rapture is a theme that many directors shy away from, but Kubrick was always willing to push boundaries. In his 1962 film Lolita, a university professor named Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, is infatuated with a 14-year-old girl. Like Vladimir Nabokov’s famous book, Kubrick was striking at the heart of post-war America’s conservative values.
Likewise, his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, pushes those boundaries even further. Based on a book by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (Traumnovelle in German), Eyes Wide Shut stars Tom Cruise and then wife Nicole Kidman. The story centres around an upper middle class New York couple whose marriage is turned upside down when Kidman’s character, Alice Harford, admits to having sexual fantasies about another man. Eyes Wide Shut even explores the idea of gender roles and expectations in a marriage.
Another important theme in Kubrick’s films is war. Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb explores a possible scenario at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The major message being that mankind has abused the concept of “progress” so much that one day, it might even destroy itself in the name of it. He also made a Vietnam War movie (Full Metal Jacket), an anti-war movie (Paths of Glory) and even 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange take place in post-war periods.
Kubrick died in his sleep of natural causes in 1999, just a week after finishing Eyes Wide Shut. Less than a week later, well over a 100 people, according to the London Evening Standard, attended his funeral.
Stanley Kubrick is one of those few artists who was able to channel what he felt was wrong with this world and put it into his films. Many of his greatest admirers would have liked him to be more gregarious and media savvy, but his personality would never have allowed such a thing. The idea of celebrity was far exceeded by his desire to share his talent with the world.
Note: This article was originally published in the 18 October, 2006 edition of York University’s Student Newspaper The Excalibur. It was written by the author of this blog.