The prints of darkness

Stanley Kubrick

December 5, 1997

In the late summer of 1971, I was summoned to Stanley Kubrick's redoubt on the edge of Barnet for an interview. He was editing A Clockwork Orange and wanted someone to supervise its showing in the main theatres in the United States and Europe to ensure perfect projection: that is, a pristine print without scratches or dirt, the correct aspect ratio, the screen at full brightness and the sound volume and balance just so. Not a difficult job: any assistant film editor with the threatening manner of a gangster - to persuade projectionists and laboratory - could have done it. Surprisingly, Kubrick gave me nearly two hours of his time with a tour of the cutting rooms and lunch. To Kubrick no problem was too small and no appointment too insignificant. Among other things, he spoke of the day when there would be only one print of a film, transmitted to theatres all over the world via satellites from a central point controlled, naturally, by the director. I turned down the offer (and became head of production at the British Film Institute instead) - but what if I had accepted? John Baxter's lively, at times racy, biography of Kubrick mentions two others who did accept and whose experiences were very different: Andrew Birkin (director of The Cement Garden), who started as a runner but whose resourcefulness at finding a "desert" location in England - near Liverpool - catapulted him up the ladder; and the director Bertrand Tavernier, who became Kubrick's assistant publicist in France. After a few months, Tavernier sent a famous cable: i resign stop as a film-maker you are a genius but as an employer you are an imbecile stop.

Kubrick's latest film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, has now broken the record for being longest in continuous production, having passed the 239 days set by Heaven's Gate a few weeks ago. Baxter probably would put this down to Kubrick's quest for perfection. But it may also have to do with his creative process. Kubrick is the very antithesis of Hitchcock, who claimed that he made his films in his head and affected that turning these ideas into celluloid was a wearisome routine. Kubrick, by contrast, seems to start from zero, or at most an ill-defined idea, and his every step is fraught with doubt and difficulty. His scripts seem never to settle and are more like a series of ever-changing notes than fully worked-out structures and narratives. Making a film Kubrick-style means stepping into total darkness, trailed by anxious and perplexed writers. He eschews story-boards and is famous for his number of takes while shooting, often without explanation or guidance to the actors. He covers a scene from every conceivable angle and spends months in the cutting room exploring endless variations before committing to a final cut. But each Kubrick film made in this way has been a unique event. His best films have the force of revelation.

Baxter cites Kubrick's comment about chess, at which he is intimidatingly good, and which provides a clue to his method: "It is necessary (in chess) to have perfect intuition - and this is something very dangerous for an artist to rely on." Kubrick's ideal is "to wrap up after every scene and go away for a month to think". Failing that, the next best thing is to have Warner Brothers fund the purchase and development of your projects sight unseen, without deadlines, and to have the final cut. Kubrick has negotiated complete independence and a blank cheque from a major studio without having a record of consistent commercial success. In fact, Kubrick's career challenges the notion that in Hollywood you are only as good as your last picture. His first three films, Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss and The Killing, were noir-ish thrillers that attracted attention and lost money. The turning point came when he met James B. Harris, a producer, and they set up a company together. It was an interesting partnership: Kubrick, the director/producer (Kubrick has produced all his films since Dr Strangelove) and Harris the producer/director (later Harris became a director, his best known film being The Bedford Incident, a straight version of Strangelove).

They were blooded on Paths of Glory, which was based on a true story of five French enlisted men executed unfairly for mutiny during the first world war. In the film, the number is reduced to three men, supposedly chosen by lot. In some of the early drafts of the screenplay Kubrick wrote a happy ending in which the men were reprieved at the last minute. Baxter relates that Kubrick told Kirk Douglas, who stars in the film, that he wanted to make a commercial film, "to make money". And he accepts Douglas's view that Kubrick was reluctant to have a downbeat ending. But in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, the film-maker and film historian, Harris gave a slightly different version: "Kirk had agreed to do the picture based on an old script I he read the rewrite (with the reprieve) and almost vomited. He got so upset and so angry that he claimed to be going homeI At this point Calder (Willingham, the screenwriter), Stanley and I had dinner together and decided that the only way to do this picture is to shoot the men, execute them - the whole point of the picture is lost if we don't do that I Kirk said 'Great!' " Paths of Glory was a commercial failure but established Kubrick as one of Hollywood's most gifted young directors. He was approached by Marlon Brando to direct One Eyed Jacks. According to Baxter, Kubrick was a stalking horse and Brando had always intended to direct the film himself. In any case, Brando dumped him, but before Kubrick had time to be disappointed he was approached by Kirk Douglas, star and executive producer of Spartacus, to take over from Anthony Mann, who had been given the push. The shenanigans surrounding Brando, Douglas, Mann and Kubrick make entertaining reading. One of the unwritten rules of dramatic writing is that no character should tell the truth unless it involves trouble, threat or a climax. Hollywood sticks pretty closely to that rule in real life. Its saving grace is that its denizens show little of the self-righteousness that comes so easily to people in our own film industry.

Baxter says that Douglas took on Kubrick because he was young - 32 at the time - and malleable. (If so, Kubrick must have laid low during the making of Paths of Glory.) That view did not last long. Kubrick started his assignment by replacing Sabina Bethmann, a German actress, with Jean Simmons. But before firing Bethmann, he suggested to Douglas and Edward L. Lewis, the line producer, that she might do an improvisation: "Tell her she's just lost a part in a movie. Eddie can play the producer and (Kirk) can be the film's star and executive producer." Bethmann froze during the exercise.

Spartacus was a success and Baxter thinks it still stands up well, but in later years Kubrick half-disowned it. I think he is right to do so. Kubrick the auteur is to be found after Spartacus: in Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Each one of these films belongs to a different genre and, whatever the flaws, they are original in conception and epic in scale.

None more so than 2001. Baxter deals fully with the extraordinary achievements of this film and how it transformed the science fiction film genre. At the technical level, it added a new dimension to the use of special effects. In the realm of ideas, no other film in popular cinema has dealt so boldly with matters that are essentially ineffable. The Jupiter sequence with the birth of the Star Child was described - not unfairly - by one of my former students as "something strange that goes on for a long time". But while the psychedelic images are not particularly startling in themselves, Kubrick's control of rhythm, his stately rather than hectic pace, is such that one is held, even if one does not fully understand. 2001 has gravitas and grandeur.

Baxter finds the characterisation weak, and it is true that the only motivated "person" is the over-sensitive and devious computer HAL. Kubrick cares no more for the humans in the film as individuals than he does for any one of the humanoid apes in the opening prehistory episode. He is primarily interested in the theme, in what Terry Southern, one of the writers of Strangelove, referred to as "Death I infinity I and The Origin of Time". Indeed, Kubrick's films are distinguished not by their characterisation but by their themes and images: images whose enormous narrative power Baxter explicates. Satyajit Ray, one of the few directors rated by Kubrick, wrote an illuminating letter about 2001 to Kubrick's collaborator Arthur C. Clarke, just after the release of the film. Ray admired it - "the kind of SF film I've always dreamed about" - but made a number of pointed criticisms: about the basic idea ("not enough resonance for a three-hour film"), about the music ("I applaud 'The Blue Danube' the first time, but not the second I Strauss reduces the impact") and about the scale ("I wish there was something in the film that would still seem good in a 16mm print"). His most intriguing remark, however, concerned the film's famous black monolith: "I found it particularly difficult to accept a rectangular stub (however 'golden' its proportions) as a Source of Intelligence. Maybe because we have been conditioned to think of intelligence as something radiating, or emanating, or aspiring - spheres and cones are what come to mind."

There are no long straight lines in nature, which tends to fashion curved or circular shapes. (The - incorrect - observation of straight lines on Mars was taken to be evidence of the presence of intelligent life.) Kubrick, and perhaps Clarke, too, were probably thinking of intelligence as not entirely natural but as an expression of something controlling, malevolent and deviant; Ray seems to have wanted the monolith to be life-enhancing. But it is nothing of the sort. It is not a benign object; its first appearance, among the apes, leads to violence and death. Furthermore, of course, curved is feminine and straight is masculine. Ray's female characters are some of the most diverse and complex created for the screen; Kubrick deals with the world of men. His women, even or especially in Lolita, are alluring, dishonest or weak - tarts, sirens or frumps. There are two exceptions: the German girl in Paths of Glory singing a sentimental song, "The Faithful Soldier", to the French troops in a bar after the execution of their comrades; and the Vietcong sniper in Full Metal Jacket, paralysed and lying prostrate on the ground, looking up at the men standing threateningly around her whose three comrades she has killed, and whispering repeatedly "Shoot me".

Baxter likes Kubrick the man - although perhaps he shows too much relish at some of Kubrick's more outrageous behaviour. It is more fun to read about than to endure (an assistant on one of his films was seen kicking the scenery and repeating "Think of the mortgage"). He admires the films too, although he mixes a few curses with his blessings. What I miss in the book is a sense of where in the history of the cinema Baxter places Kubrick's work. Maybe it would have been different, had he been able to interview Kubrick. Sadly, his subject refused to play.

In 1977, Kubrick moved to a rural estate in Hertfordshire, which, in its way, is as isolated as any star's mansion in Beverly Hills or Bel Air. Here he is the king-in-(self-imposed)-exile. He lives in Britain, but he keeps American time, sleeping during the day and working partly at night. Whatever catches his attention, he studies obsessionally. When I met him, his mania was for not wasting time. (When a friend of mine sent him an admiring letter and asked to be kept in mind if a job came up, his letter was returned with "No chance. SK" scrawled across it.) Kubrick gave me the impression of a man who thought that every minute he saved would be added to his lifespan.

Lindsay Anderson commented after seeing Paths of Glory: "A bit cold, isn't he?" Yes, he is. But Kubrick has created some of the defining images of the past four decades: Kirk Douglas, grim faced, walking past the trenches (Paths of Glory); Lolita in her bikini, sucking on a lollipop (Lolita); Slim Pickens riding the Bomb (Dr Strangelove); the Ferris-wheel space station revolving gracefully in the sky (2001); the droogs in the subway, backlit and with long black shadows, beating up an old derelict (A Clockwork Orange); and Jack Nicholson's grinning face, manic and malevolent (The Shining). Every one of these images is part of the story of our troubled century.

Mamoun Hassan was formerly head of directing and editing, National Film and Television School, and managing director, National Film Finance Corporation. As a film-maker, he produced the series Movie Masterclass for Channel 4.

Stanley Kubrick: A Biography

Author - John Baxter
ISBN - 0 00 255588 3
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 399

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