About halfway through writing for the Stanley Kubrick Project, I found myself taking a highway trip straight through the heart of rural South Carolina. Somewhere between Anderson and god-knows-where, in a little town where seniors declare school pride via water tower, I stopped to fill up at one of those gas stations built for bored truckers and foggy-eyed travelers seeking distraction, a place carrying even more cheap entertainment than heart-stopping snacks. I always get a little thrill when I visit one of these places because I know that somewhere between the dingy video arcade and the attached Dairy Queen, behind the rows of sleazy books-on-tape and bagged porno mags, there exists a bin of exiled DVDs. This is Brian Bosworth’s kingdom. This is the last stand of Skinimax. And, every now and then, this is where I’ll find a mind-blowing oddity. This time, I discovered Stanley Cuba.
Stanley Cuba is a micro-budget indie film that seems to have stripped Stanley Kubrick’s career for parts. Unlicensed and unrepentant—the film opens with a giant “you can’t sue me” disclaimer—Cuba is about a young photographer in Brooklyn who may or may not be an alternate-universe version of Kubrick himself. Three demons in Hell certainly believe he is, so they invade his life to attempt to broker a standard Faustian contract that the original Kubrick had refused to sign. Cuba resists and there’s cross-dimensional stuff that seems to matter to somebody, but the whole production is really just an excuse to play “spot the reference” as bits of Kubrick’s movies and personal life fling past the screen like so much shrapnel.
The movie doesn’t work. The script wasn’t ready to shoot and the pro bono actors mostly just drift through the shots while looking lost, obviously praying to the acting gods that their nonsense dialogue will magically make sense in the final edit. (Although I can’t rule out that the script is some kind of genius meta-joke referencing Kubrick’s critics; they always did say he preferred image over story.) Still, Cuba is notable for being an entire feature film constructed out of what amounts to Kubrick’s highlight reel. There are scores of legendary filmmakers who have left larger bodies of great work, but almost nobody has enjoyed the kind of blanket, near-perfect success record that Kubrick enjoyed. The man only knew how to make classics.
Stanley Kubrick has been dead for over a decade, and that distance has changed our perception. When he died, the film-loving community was staggered. The feeling was that we’d lost something important; we lost not only Kubrick but all of the films he never made. (This sense that Kubrick had died too early ultimately led Steven Spielberg to complete their secret collaboration, the science-fiction film AI, a movie that angered audiences and bewildered critics. Kubrick, in other words, would have approved.) Today, however, the wound has healed and the agony has faded. Film lovers and critics have accepted that the Kubrick we have is all the Kubrick we’re going to get. The director has transformed from a human being into a shelf at your local indie video store—a batch of visual keywords to be cribbed and cradled by the Stanley Cubas of the world.
I’ve said before that I came late to Kubrick’s films, and this is the environment in which I’ve studied him. I regret that. I wish that I had been into his work while he was alive, when I could have joined the rest of the film nerds living and dying on any news of his next project. Or, who knows, maybe I would have been one of the many wishing he’d foster a little more humanity in his work.
Kubrick suffered that knock his entire career, but what’s so wrong with inhumanity? There’s a reason why Star Trek always found room in the cast for a Spock or a Data. By drawing differences between their thinking and the rest of the cast—by being inhuman—these characters gave us a clearer picture of what it actually means to be human . Each time Spock made some maddeningly logical observation to send McCoy into a sputtering rage, it would force Kirk (and us) to think through the meanings and motivations behind the human instincts we take for granted, and not always in our favor. Although I’m fairly sure his blood ran red, Kubrick and his films have the same effect. Kubrick was an intellectual and an observer of human nature. He didn’t want to placate his audience with feel-good stories. When he made films, he shoved the mirror right up to our noses. Sometimes we liked what we saw, but more often we didn’t. Sometimes we saw ourselves flirting with destruction (Dr. Strangelove) or aroused by our violent impulses (A Clockwork Orange.) Sometimes we saw the traps and silliness circling our two great human pursuits, war (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket) and sex (Eyes Wide Shut, Lolita.)
Of course, this analysis fits nicely with the popular myth of Kubrick as a mad recluse, living out his days in paranoid seclusion and taking shots at the rest of the human race from atop his private tower. Bullshit. Kubrick may very well have been some kind of mad genius, but he was no hermit. Kubrick loved life and he loved people. He certainly loved his wife and his children. He loved to laugh, to read, and to play chess with his actors (when he wasn’t driving them to fits.) He was flawed, but he desperately pursued perfection. He had fears, annoyances, joys, and a great, lifelong romance.
Most of all, Stanley Kubrick loved to take pictures. This wasn’t a man who lived inside dusty books. This was a boy from Brooklyn who received a camera and raced outside to document the wonders that he saw through his window every day: people, with all their faults and glories. Until the day he died, Kubrick never stopped taking those pictures, or shining that mirror. He loved the world and the human race, but he knew we could improve. We could do better, strive harder, and reach farther—perhaps all the way to that last monolith just outside the stars.