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Dissecting Kubrick: Jan Harlan’s A Life In Pictures

How do you even start to dissect and surmise the works of Stanley Kubrick? A Life in Pictures is perhaps the best attempt in charting the many rises and falls in Kubrick’s career. The controversy that not only surrounded some of his most critically acclaimed pictures such as A Clockwork Orange or Paths Of Glory but the uproar caused by the man or the myth as many declared him. His apparent reclusive nature and his failure to co-operate with colleagues and even family on occasion has left people mulling over his peculiar behaviour. Was it simply who he was? Or was he an artist so focused and fixated on each individual project that anybody who tried to get close to the man felt shunned by his dedication. A Life in Pictures explores that notion as do I, as I try to gain some invaluable clarity over a career which spanned many decades across various genres but with the same artistic merit. Provided by former colleagues, family, friends and peers all of whom discuss the lasting impressions left by him and his films.

A Life In Pictures opens with the traditional Warner Bros. logo. Instantly there is meaning, Warner Bros. was the home of Stanley Kubrick for the last three decades of his career. Unusually for a major studio they provided Kubrick with the time, the freedom and stability for all of his latter projects. Without that, many of Kubrick’s pictures more often than not would have suffered from studio interference because of the wealth of time spent in production. Orson Welles another formidable director suffered from this. This is a major theme for the documentary as countless colleagues recall the extensive periods spent on set and on research in order for his pictures to regain a sense of meticulous truth. I recall Shelley Duvall in The Shining segment of the documentary, who goes into great detail of her tedious overbearing experiences on with working Kubrick. Her performance consisted of crying and being scared and repeat again and again through the entire duration of the shoot, “it was exhausting”. Be that as it may she concludes that despite her hostile relationship with Kubrick, it was an experience she would never change. Jan Harlan the Director of A Life In Pictures and long time Kubrick collaborator is perhaps the best man for the job. He worked with Kubrick since 1975 and that years Barry Lyndon, so you should immediately feel at ease. It was always going to be a mammoth under-taking to destabilise the Kubrick enigma, it remains a parasite in audiences minds and peers and colleagues alike to determine the master behind the camera but you have to admire the attempt.

We’re immediately thrown into the picture by Rossini’s Thieving Magpie as a series of newspaper head lines frenziedly hammer the screen as if we were Alexander De Large himself from A Clockwork Orange subjected to his redeeming propaganda video. Its done playfully to show how the media deemed Stanley Kubrick, ‘obsessive’, ‘perfectionist’, ‘reclusive’ are the words used repeatedly but no were does it acknowledge the man as a genius. The film will get to that point: In order to deem the man as a genius one must show how we come to such a notion. The music is spectacularly utilised, all segments from his own body of work for the documentary. Music is a motif and discussion point that arises consistently through the film. His unique operatic selections are a pantheon of iconography through each one of his films, everyone a talking point. Chronologically structured the film gradually covers his early childhood to his final days. Fittingly narrated by Tom Cruise who appeared in Kubrick’s last motion picture, Eyes Wide Shut, it’s story after story from each one of his peers all of whom commending Stanley’s innovative and tenacious approach to his medium. It got me thinking that a more fitting title for the picture would be Stanley Kubrick: A Celebration of His Pictures. I mean Jack Nicholson who is rarely so complimentary says, “Everyone pretty much acknowledges that he’s the man, and I still feel that underrates him”. Even as the film attempts to divulge into the more darker aspects of Kubrick, his faults, his peeves, his negativities no one can refrain from faulting his visions and his attitude to the task in hand. I again refer to Shelley Duvall’s experience with Kubrick during The Shining. One trend during the film that is constantly recurrent is, despite all of his critical acclaim it was a great deal of time, effort and hard work.

Kubrick enthusiasts will no doubt revel in the early years of his life during the documentary. Whether its a series of stills or fascinating early footage from Kubrick’s childhood whilst he playing the piano, its seems like a sensational pre-cursor to the man he was to become. Secondly during his teens you learn of Kubrick’s knack for photography during his time at ‘Look Magazine’. Many feel that his artistic eye would inspire Stanley to pursue a career in motion pictures and his photographic visual sense would provide the pillar-stone to many of his pictures. Which of course they did, Kubrick’s varied visual style ranging from the sheer awe of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the harsh subjective outlook effectively used in Paths Of Glory is a result of his cultural youth. Unfortunately the film moves quickly and bluntly past his earlier years and his earlier pictures far too briskly. Fear and Desire up to The Killers Kiss are briefly touched upon. The critically successful The Killing is again only a skimmed talking point. Apart from rejoicing stories and conflict from the set there isn’t much to take you back. However you do learn one vital fact which would shape Kubrick’s career which is he would demand the utmost control and power on all of his films from then on. Stanley Kubrick would tell The Killing’s cinematographer Lucien Ballard that if he didn’t want to do it Stanley’s way then he should leave the set. Unfortunately Kubrick didn’t have the same artistic freedom or success when he was asked to do Spartacus. A film that was already a mess when Kubrick arrived and would continue to be a mess till the shoot culminated. Whilst still being a solid piece of public friendly entertainment, it’s not a Kubrick picture. It is a producers picture pieced together by an excellent film-maker for audience satisfaction, but it doesn’t quite hit you, it doesn’t move you, it doesn’t educate you in the same way a Kubrick film should. There is a consensus that you should leave a Kubrick picture still enthralled and feeling that little smarter.

But it was The Killing that enticed Kirk Douglas in the first place. Many admired Kubrick’s none linear structure as a variation to traditional storytelling which would go on to influence the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Producers objected at first, but Kubrick was adamant and fought to retain his vision, to his avail. Kirk Douglas used that admiration to lure him on board for Paths Of Glory several years prior to their conflicting Spartacus shoot. The harsh World War One trench drama which brought round Kubrick’s first taste of controversy. The picture from one perspective was innovative through its series of steady cam shots and harsh visual aesthetics or as Scorsese dubs it, “It was so honest, it was shocking”. Be that as it may the film came in for some harsh criticism from the French Government, particularly the army for its less than flattering portrayal of World War One soldiers. Such controversy would plague many Kubrick pictures from then on. But interestingly it was Kubrick’s lack of response to the hostile critiques that perpetuated widespread media anger and criticism. But this is vintage Kubrick, perhaps it was simply the media hoping to gain an emotional response from a man who’d made himself immune from the media’s advances (probably both). A Clockwork Orange most famous of all was heavily punished by the media, many deeming it too violent for it’s negative depiction towards violence and youth adolescence in society. Kubrick in a powerful position at that point in his career eventually pulled the picture from circulation to avoid further uproar. But as you know Kubrick was already used to such criticism. He’d had it with Dr. Strangelove because his ill timed satire on Nuclear destruction, a picture which was clearly ahead of its time. Secondly Lolita was certainly not immune to criticism because of its attitudes towards sex and voyeurism. Even though Hitchcock and Powell had done it a couple of years earlier with Psycho and Peeping Tom it was still a taboo topic. A Life in Pictures doesn’t make any ill-fated attempt to disguise the controversy, on the contrary it plays on it, it heightens the mystique surrounding the genius.

Fans of Kubrick may go through a transitional period when watching it. On the one hand its thrilling to see a director who is a personal favourite for many film fans bigged up in a sense of the word by other movie legends such as Scorsese and Spielberg but it doesn’t offer anything refreshing. Audiences are well aware of the hostility surrounding A Clockwork Orange, and the genius of the tracking shots adopted in Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket not to mention the on set antics of The Shining between its stars and director. This has all been well documented. At the end of the picture Kubrick still remains the same intensely private film-maker who prohibited journalists and the public from straying too close. It it is best summed up by Malcolm McDowell who described their relationship as a growing friendship, but whilst a friendship blossomed for McDowell it was strictly business for Kubrick. ‘I loved him one minute then hated him the next’. This is the clearest indication yet of how Kubrick operated between film to film: Friend one moment a stranger the next. The short relationships he had with his colleagues ultimately represents the bleak sensibility of all his characters. Perhaps we are seeing Kubrick’s pessimistic alter-ego’s on screen? Again this remains to be seen. The mystique surrounding him however remains as static as ever.

The most interesting portions of the piece arise during Kubrick’s  [none films]. The ins and outs of his films are well documented and unfortunately anything fresh is rarely discussed apart from some interesting facts and details about individual pictures. For example the meticulous attention and research by Kubrick to find a specific lens which resulted in him contacting NASA for Barry Lyndon was fascinating. But the none starters like his long overdue Napoleon project is rarely drawn upon or his fascination with Nazi Germany which prompted many film ideas is again rarely divulged.

Conclusively Kubrick fans like myself will enjoy going through the works of a true visionary film-maker, a constant reminder to us that his passion and dedication are truly reflected in each one of his films. You can detect a great deal of cynicism upon reading my piece which was primarily due to the lack of new information surrounding Kubrick. Whilst there is essential footage from his childhood with some intriguing additional contributions if only minor from his family about his behaviour and hobbies. There is still very little to offer about the man himself. He may have enjoyed living in solemn in the English countryside but you don’t know why, which is the point you don’t why he did a lot of things. Perhaps that is all you need to know, it is evident that he was a family man and enjoyed them being close. Perhaps the bleak, existential recluse the press had been documenting all them years was merely his alter-ego reflected in his pictures. The austere nature of his protagonists and his pictures is exactly what prompted such media outcries. If his films were feel-good family movies then you feel the media wouldn’t react in quite the same manor. However the alienated nature of his movies deemed him as a threat to social solidarity as we seen with A Clockwork Orange or as Peter Ustinov delightfully puts it: “He was originally known as a kind of future threat – a future threat to peace and quiet”. On a final note the lack insight of in A Life of Pictures is an ironic one. He purposefully escaped the limelight and even this feature length documentary can’t uncover the man and for this he continues to remain elusive and and immune to definition. Maybe nobody ever understood the man, but what it suggests is that Kubrick can be seen through all of his pictures and this ultimately is what shaped the legend. For better or worse that’s for people to decide, but on a personal note its for the better because his pictures and art will live on forever and anything else surrounding him is irrelevant.

Carl Copeland is a writer on film, and can be found on Twitter

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3 Comments

  1. A very good article, however, Kubrick worked for LOOK magazine, not Love. Methinks that work experience would have produced a very different Kubrick! ;-)

    • Thanks for pointing that out Tim, I’ve tidied it up; it’s been a busy week, and editing at 4am might not be the best of ideas!

  2. Carl Copeland

    June 12, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Thanks for pointing that out guys. Last time I watch a movie at 3 am whilst taking notes.

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