Image Credit: Warner Bros.
With the 20th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s passing, the time perhaps feels right to revisit some of the most well-known films of one of the world’s most reclusive and brilliant film directors. Kubrick’s films were an eclectic mixture of genres, but all found common ground in his signature attention to production design, use of music, and ability to structure. These memorable shots are so iconic that even if you haven’t seen his films chances are you’ll recall the image of a cowboy riding atop a plum-meting nuclear warhead from Doctor Strangelove, a gurning Jack Nicholson sandwiched between a shattered door frame from The Shining, or maybe even Malcolm McDowell’s milk-slurping, top-hat wearing Alexander DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange.
One of the most unusual aspects of Kubrick’s filmography, however, is not the fact that 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to attribute human evolution to the sudden appearance of a supersize iPad, or that A Clockwork Orange essentially ruined Gene Kelly’s ‘Singing in the Rain’ for most people, or indeed that Eyes Wide Shut took over five years to make and still somehow manages to be a bit boring; it’s that he was able to create what were essentially laboriously paced and decidedly non-crowd pleasing art-films by today’s standards, and garner a reputation as not just a brilliant filmmaker, but a commercially successful one too.
Whatever genre they work in, ‘Kubrickian’ is a label most filmmakers working today would bare-knuckle their way through half the academy’s members to have applied to their work. A question worth asking though is how exactly Kubrick’s films have inspired this sort of devotion, how well they’ve aged in all their unconventional glory, and how the legacy of one of the world’s most influential directors has come to impact popular culture in a variety of unexpected ways today.
There are many aspects of Kubrick’s childhood that make him an unusual fit for one of the most famous filmmakers of his generation; he claimed never to have read a book for pleasure until his late adolescence and was described by his contemporaries as a loner with minimal people skills. These were characteristics that did not vanish completely in his later life and Kirk Douglas discussed at length the friction he had with the director when making Spartacus (a film Kubrick subsequently disowned.)
Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
If he was prickly on a personal level however, Kubrick was demonstrably one of the best in understanding the filmmaking craft. His childhood love of chess and cameras would manifest itself in the outstanding technical proficiency of his films as an adult; they are perhaps defined more as achievements in filmmaking craft than emotional hard-hitters in a storytelling sense. The Shining sticks in the mind through a thrumming musical score, an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson, and the iconic diamond-pattern carpet tri-cycled across by the young Danny Torrance. It’s al-most an afterthought that its story is maybe hampered by the fact that Jack Nicholson’s character practically seems insane even before he starts being tormented by the hotel’s demonic entities.
Although he is renowned for the opposite, Kubrick’s films were rarely concerned with realism. His characters lack characteristics of the conventional protagonist in any of his work and his films seem to be very deliberately lacking the empathy that proved lucrative in the sort of films made by the likes of Spielberg.
This is not to say that his films were all about surface level appeal, when rewatching them they offer up new secrets on every single viewing. The messages of his films are rarely spelled out clearly for his audience, and it is for this reason that some have been prone to fairly spectacular misreadings of his work (despite what the lizard-people theorist and former BBC football pundit David Icke may claim, Eyes Wide Shut is not secretly an expose of the Hollywood illuminati.)
The prize for the most outrageous theory goes to the one debated ad-nauseam by film nerds and within the documentary Room 237; the theory being that Kubrick had faked the moon-landings in partnership with NASA (an idea fuelled by some of the more obscure Apollo-related visuals scattered throughout The Shining.) As head-bangingly stupid as the theory itself is, it highlighted how Kubrick was, and still is in the eyes of many, not just a film director but a figure who had become part of the governing elites who controlled what the American public viewed and believed.
The distribution and release strategies of Kubrick’s films were every bit as important as their content, and 1971’s A Clockwork Orange would forever change ideas surrounding censorship in cinema. The film found itself banned in the UK until 1999, and that is hardly surprising when watching it today. The subsequent wave of tasteless B-horror titles that have been rife in recent years has meant that seeing gross imagery is not some-thing audiences are unaccustomed to, but few films even today have been able to capture the profoundly disturbing nature of some of the grimmest scenes in Kubrick’s 1971 film.
Image: Columbia-Warner Distributors
Despite the censorship furore over A Clockwork Orange, it would go on to be an immense critical and commercial success with multiple Oscar nods. Today that is an almost unthinkable prospect, with modern films that dabble in the strongly controversial rarely are successful (see-the-lame-box-office-returns-for-modern-day film provocateurs like Nicolas Winding Refn or Lars Von Trier.) As a director, Kubrick was never afraid to challenge his audiences and make films that went beyond simply being entertainment.
The most notable example of this ethos can be seen in his most famous but also arguably most inaccessible film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the history of cinema, it is perhaps alone in its classification as being the sort of film that is prone to be a bit languorous and incomprehensible, but still something that you might be driven to watch more than even the most epic entry in the MCU. The film paved the way for most modern science fiction as we know it with its landmark visual effects and even its use of Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube’ which influenced the musical scores of Hans Zimmer in Interstellar and Justin Hurwitz for 2018’s First Man.
Parts of the film are so weird that they remain unparalleled in even the ‘ballsiest’ of sci-fi films made today. Some have attempted, with Alex Garland’s head-spinning Annihilation shows clear nods to 2001 in its final moments, but we’re yet to see a film that could compare to Kubrick’s. A film that opens with men in primitive monkey suits, segues into a futuristic space station scene, and ends with the birth of an omniscient alien foetus is perhaps something even David Lynch would struggle with and something only Kubrick could make work.
As a director, he was known for uncompromising endings and a laudable lack of pandering to exposition; 2001 is both of these attitudes taken to their most radical extent and a trend across the majority of his films. The benchmark of genius ambiguity set by 2001 is something that many filmmakers today have attempted to replicate with an obvious example being the ending to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but more unconventional ones being the head-spinning finale to Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Robert Eggers’s The Witch. Kubrick’s films have had their influence on cinema today not just through their visuals but also their pioneering methods of storytelling.
What everyone takes from his films is different, but it is rarely as straightforward as them being simply an okay way to kill a few hours from which viewers can detach themselves. They are as infuriating as they are astonishing and have influenced popular cinema in ways that are as subtle as the dialogue in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, apparently being inspired by the ‘Nadsat’ street-speak of the gangs in A Clockwork Orange, or the way the camera moves in methodical fashion in The Favourite. Even in an era where comic book film universes and huge franchises have taken prominence and dominate the box office, Kubrick’s directorial shadow continues to hang heavy.
On a personal level, Kubrick’s behind the scenes tyranny and behaviour leaves much to be desired (his behind the scenes bullying of Shelley Duvall in The Shining has infamously been on record.) Nevertheless, his talent is without question: an enigmatic, slightly creepy and undoubtedly brilliant individual whose films were also of this very nature. Kubrick is someone who was as vital to the varying cultural trends of the twentieth century as Lennon or Orwell ever were. His legacy will likely continue to baffle, amaze and confound for many years to come and it remains to be seen if he will, if ever, truly be surpassed.