When Pierce Brosnan drove onto the lot at the legendary Pinewood Studios, England, to shoot scenes for Tomorrow Never Dies, he might have noticed a lighter than usual press platoon. Bond movies had been filming at Pinewood since, well, ever and usually dominated the eyes and pens of the British movie press. But for this shoot, all focus was on another building on the lot where a tiny, intimate marriage drama was in principal photography. All the press wanted to know was what Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were up to. What was the plot of Eyes Wide Shut? What was Stanley Kubrick making? By this point, Kubrick had become a myth and a legend. He had lived in seclusion in the English countryside longer than he had ever lived in his native America. He was a recluse who had made his last picture at Pinewood 13 years earlier, and that one nearly a decade after the one before. It didn’t matter what he was making; Stanley Kubrick behind a camera was a headline.
Kubrick is a tough sell for some people. He made personal movies that moved to his own internal rhythms, and he didn’t really care if a mainstream audience could follow along. And so, in response, many audiences didn’t. I can relate. My first real experience with Kubrick came when I was 18 years old and on the very edge of welcoming my daughter into the world. My wife and I had rented movies to wait out another sweltering Georgia summer weekend inside, a necessity since she was overdue and carrying ten pounds worth of extra person around her waist. We chose horror movies for reasons that probably made sense at the time, and one of those was The Shining. I had never seen it before and I remember feeling lost and alienated and more than a little put out by this movie that refused to be a standard romp through a haunted house. I paused it at the halfway point and got up for a soda. Before I could start the second half, my daughter arrived. It would be nearly ten years before I finished the film.
By that time, The Shining was (almost) the last Kubrick film that I hadn’t seen. A front row, 70mm viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey had changed my entire outlook on Kubrick, film storytelling, and pretty much everything. I’d started devouring Kubrick movies and watching them on loop, feeling like I’d cracked some kind of code. The funny thing about Kubrick the filmmaker and, by some accounts, Kubrick the man, is that the closer you get to an answer, the more you realize how little you actually know. His movies are like puzzles that have questions for answers.
I’m not alone in this. Kubrick never won an Oscar, his movies were rarely huge blockbusters, he infuriated writers whenever he was forced to work with them, and critics and audiences argued the value of his films for years or even decades after release. He divided his audience, always. And yet, of his small resume of feature films, four appear on the AFI’s list of the 100 best American movies ever made, and nine of them show up on IMDB’s top 250 user favorites, surprisingly suggesting that audiences have embraced his work even more than the critics. It’s not a strange thing to hear Kubrick singled out as one of the best American filmmakers. Ever.
I tried once before to launch a Stanley Kubrick Project, but I chickened out. I didn’t feel up to the task of ranking a batch of classic and near-classic films from such an intellectual filmmaker. I felt like maybe I should stick to sci-fi and spy movies until I got my sea legs, but then realized that if I waited around to feel adequate in the shadow of Stanley f’n Kubrick, I’d be writing this piece through a Ouija board. Fuck it, I’m going in.
Name: Stanley Kubrick
Birth: July 26, 1928 in New York City
Death: March 7, 1999 (heart attack)
Parents: Jacques and Gertrude Kubrick
Life: Stanley Kubrick grew up in the Bronx, the son of a doctor. From all accounts, Stanley was an intelligent student, but struggled with his studies. Kubrick’s difficulties caused him to bounce around between relatives and school districts, and when that didn’t work, Kubrick’s father introduced his son to a variety of hobbies to encourage focus. These hobbies included jazz, chess, and, most interestingly, photography. Kubrick became fascinated with the camera, and while his grades didn’t improve, he showed enough aptitude to sell an unsolicited photo to Look magazine and soon earned his way onto the publication as a full-time photojournalist.
Kubrick married his high-school girlfriend, Toba, in 1948, but the couple grew apart during the filming of Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire. Kubrick would marry twice more in the next few years, finally settling with actress Christiane Harlan, and he would stay with her for the rest of his life.
Frustrated with the Hollywood environment, Kubrick moved to rural England in the 1960s and rarely left again, reportedly due to an intense fear of flying. He was famously private, hiding his life the manor walls and obsessing over his work.
His quiet life ended just so. He died in his sleep of a heart attack just four days after screening a finished cut of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut.
- Most of Kubrick’s films are based on novels, and he worked on the screenplay adaptations for all but one of them (Spartacus).
- He liked to use wide shots, long tracking shots (and reverse tracking shots), and often used a close-up that features a character staring directly into the camera to reveal madness or anger.
- Famously used classical music to score his films and frequently juxtaposed the music with unusual elements, such as space travel or violence.
- Sex, war, and dark comedy are subjects in most, if not all, of his films.
Number of Eligible Films: 13
What’s Out: We won’t be looking at Kubrick’s early short documentary work, such as Day of the Fight (which he based off a photo essay he produced for Look magazine) or The Seafarers (an industrial film promoting a sailor’s union.) Also out is Flying Padre, a short documentary about a priest/pilot that sounds like it could make for a pretty bitchin’ TV show. Short films, especially industrial commissions, just don’t compare well to his feature work.
Notes: I’m sure that were Kubrick alive he’d hate the idea of someone reducing his life’s work to a series of rankings, but that’s what we do here so I’m going to give it a shot. Still, there will be a few format changes to accommodate the subject.
First of all, Kubrick has a shitload of ideas and themes and just… business going on in his movies, and I’m never going to have the room to talk about it if I tie myself up with bullet points. I’m going to have a few, and maybe some headers, but I’m going to go freestyle for a lot of these essays.
I’m also switching to a Mondays-only format for this Project and the foreseeable future. I’ve been struggling lately to find the time for my personal projects in between posts here, and I don’t want my work here to suffer. Cutting back on posting seemed like the best solution.
That’s it. I hope you’re as excited as I am to dig into Kubrick’s work and please check in next Monday for the first film in the Stanley Kubrick Project.
(Note: The Stanley Kubrick Project is complete. Please enjoy the links below, which will take you through the project a film at a time.)
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire