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Stanley Kubrick’s Cinema of Failure

Stanley Kubrick’s Cinema of Failure
by Maria Pramaggiore

Maria Pramaggiore is Head of Media Studies at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth. She has published four books, two on Irish cinema, and one a co-authored textbook, Film: A Critical Introduction (2011; with Tom Wallis), now in its third edition. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781350996328.0004

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Stanley Kubrick’s formally rigorous, visually precise and profoundly satirical films offer an uncompromising view of the masculine obsessions that define Western culture, from phallic bombs, mammary milk bars, and classical music (Dr Strangelove, 1964, and A Clockwork Orange, 1970) to military mantras (Full Metal Jacket, 1987) and the rape and abuse of women (Barry Lyndon, 1975, and The Shining, 1980). His production methods straddled the studio era, a period in which directors were contracted and major studios assumed financial risks, and New Hollywood, which ushered in the reign of director auteurs as stars in their own right.

Figure 1. Stanley Kubrick, Tony Curtis, and Laurence Olivier on the set of Spartacus (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960). Credit: Mary Evans/AF Archive.

Stanley Kubrick (1928–99) is frequently lauded as one of the most influential US filmmakers of the twentieth century. Revered by film directors from Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan to George Romero and Akira Kurosawa, Kubrick’s films are also likely to crop up in the music of David Bowie, Kate Bush, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West, as well as in a seemingly endless stream of references on the animated TV program The Simpsons (1989).

Although he directed only a modest number of features—just fourteen in all, between 1956 and 1999—the rigorous visual style of his films and their consistent focus on human folly, not to mention his secretive, quasi-independent production methods and much-mythologized controlling personality, have all contributed to an auteurist legend that casts Kubrick as a feline-friendly, chess-playing mastermind. An artifact from the Kubrick archive that has loomed large in the popular imagination is a fifteen-page cat care manual entitled “Care Instructions: How To Look After The Animals” that he left behind when he and his family went to Ireland to shoot Barry Lyndon (1975).

The first book of film scholarship to analyze Kubrick’s oeuvre was Robert Kolker’s Cinema of Loneliness (originally published in 1980, with a 4th edition in 2011). Unlike the film school-trained male auteurs of the 1970s among whom Kubrick is situated in that book—including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma—Kubrick learned his craft by doing. In this respect his career trajectory is more akin to that of figures such as Robert Altman and Arthur Penn, who started out in television. Kubrick and Altman shared an interest in the politics of masculinity in postwar America, with Altman overtly exploring feminist themes in many of his thirty-four feature films, but their visual and narrative approaches and working methods were vastly different.

A still photographer with a sophisticated understanding of lenses and light, Kubrick was hired as a staff photographer at Look magazine at age 17. Covering circuses, street life, and prizefights, he discovered his métier at the intersection of the absurd and the everyday. His first short film, a stagey documentary following a boxer’s mental and physical preparation for a bout, entitled The Day of the Fight (1953), anticipates several signature features of what would become Kubrick’s cinema: a hyper-masculine milieu, the inevitability of violence, the visual transformation of gritty realism into the surreal (a bent he shared with his fellow New Yorker, photographer Diane Arbus), juxtapositions of music and image that provoke thoughts (a nod to his reading of Sergei Eisenstein), and an emphasis on the problem of time.

Production history

At first glance, Kubrick’s working methods seem to reinforce his uniqueness as a director in that he distanced himself from Hollywood, locating his production activities outside London after filming Lolita (1962) at Elstree Studios to avoid oversight by Warner Bros. and to take advantage of tax breaks enabled by the Eady levy in Britain. From this point forward, Kubrick seemed to exercise an unprecedented degree of artistic freedom at a time when the role of the film director was already moving away from that of the contracted employee of the major studios, which themselves were disintegrating or being absorbed into larger conglomerates by the end of the 1960s as a result of the Paramount Decree.

Yet the reality was far more complex: Kubrick always made his films in conjunction with a studio, and after the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), made with MGM, he brokered a three-film deal with Warner Bros. through the 1970s. He made his last five films with that studio, including Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The relationship granted him some autonomy but demanded concessions as well; for example, control over the casting of stars in Barry Lyndon, The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut. Rather than proclaiming Kubrick a pioneer of IndyProd, then, it may be more accurate to say that his filmmaking practices straddled the studio and post-studio eras, allowing him to take advantage of the vast resources of a surviving major studio–especially important for costly marketing and distribution–while at the same time asserting artistic control based on his reputation as well as his personal relationships with Warner Bros. studio executives such as Terry Semel (who would later become chairman and CEO of Yahoo).

A cinema of failure

On the surface, Kubrick’s films, all of them adapted from novels, memoirs, or short stories, explore global and even cosmic questions such as enslavement and rebellion ( Spartacus 1960), the apocalyptic endgame of mutually assured destruction ( Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 1964), and the meaning of evolution at the dawn and demise of humankind (2001).

Yet at the same time, Kubrick’s profoundly satirical films insistently probe the fault lines of Western culture, testing the gender, race, and class fissures that differentiate the soldier in the trenches from the elite general in the chateaux ( Paths of Glory 1957), and the general from his secretary (Dr Strangelove). By offering an uncompromisingly analytical view of the high and the low, they diagnose profound and gendered anxieties. In Kubrick’s films, masculine obsessions define Western, European culture from its phallic bombs (Dr Strangelove) and mammary milk bars ( A Clockwork Orange 1970) to its military mantras ( Full Metal Jacket 1987) and its objectification, rape, and domestic abuse of women (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut).

What is often missed in the celebration of Kubrick’s symmetrical framing and virtuoso tracking shots is that his men inevitably fail. Kubrick relentlessly exposes their weakness—with characters such as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, or George Peatty in The Killing (1956)—and even his “good guys”—Col. Dax and Lt. Joker—are ineffectual. Humbert Humbert loses his Lolita not to Claire Quilty but to the inevitable aging process; Redmond Barry, who rises precipitously and falls even faster in Barry Lyndon, Jack Torrence in The Shining fails to complete his novel, and Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut learns that the wealthy in America disdain the Nouveau Riche, no matter how earnest. The HAL 9000 effectively aborts the Jupiter mission, leaving the human astronaut Dave to fend for himself alone, both an aged man and star child. The Beethoven-loving and violent psychopath in A Clockwork Orange, a possible reference to Nazi Germany, defies rehabilitation, and the world as we know it ends at the conclusion of Dr Strangelove. All that’s promised as an encore is a eugenicist’s dream of Western cultural rejuvenation orchestrated from mineshafts populated by decrepit male leaders and supermodels.

The grim outcomes of Kubrick’s films do not belie their power to move generations of audiences, intellectually and emotionally. In a testament to the enduring impact Kubrick’s work has had on humanity’s visions of itself, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001 in 2018, the International Astronomical Union named a mountain on one of Pluto’s moons (Charon) Kubrick mons after the film director.

References and further reading

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: MGM.

A Clockwork Orange (1970), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: Warner Bros.

Barry Lyndon (1975), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: Warner Bros.

Castle, Alison (2016), The Stanley Kubrick Archives . London: Taschen.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: Warner Bros.

Full Metal Jacket (1987), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: Warner Bros.

Jenkins, Greg (1997), Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation: Three Novels, Three Films , West Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Kagan, Norman (2000), The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick , 3rd edition, New York: Bloomsbury.

Kolker, Robert (2011), A Cinema of Loneliness , 4th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramer, Peter (2010), 2001: A Space Odyssey , London: British Film Institute.

Kramer, Peter (2011), A Clockwork Orange , Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kramer, Peter (2014), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb , London: British Film Institute.

Kuberski, Philip (2014), Kubrick’s Total Cinema: Philosophical Themes and Formal Quandaries , New York: Bloomsbury.

Ljulic, Tatjana, Peter Krämer and Richard Daniels, eds. (2015), Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives , London: Black Dog.

Lolita (1962), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: A.A. Productions Ltd., Anya, and Transworld Pictures.

McKie, Robin (2018), “Kubrick’s 2001: The Film that Haunts Our Dreams of Space.” The Guardian: International Edition, April 15, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/apr/15/2001-a-space-odyssey-film-haunts-dream-space (accessed December 30, 2018).

Nelson, Allen (2000), Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze , Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Paths of Glory (1957), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, USA: Bryna Productions.

Pramaggiore, Maria (2014), Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: Art, History and Empire , New York: Bloomsbury.

Spartacus (1960), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, USA: Bryna Productions.

The Killing (1956), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, USA: Harris-Kubrick Productions.

The Shining (1980), [Film] Dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK and USA: Warner Bros.

The Simpsons (1989–), [TV Series] FOX, December 17.