Blatantly recognisable, but with a style which never overwhelms the content, his films are individual, personal - yet awesome in scale and power. So protective was he of his artistic vision that he lived for most of his career in self-imposed exile from the Hollywood system in Britain, even reconstructing Vietnam here because he didn't like flying. He was idiosyncratic, maverick, reportedly very difficult and perfectionist; but that is frequently the mark of an artistic genius.
Beginning with small, noirish thrillers, Kubrick made his first major feature, Paths of Glory, in 1957. It's a war film; but here there is none of the platitudinous sentimentality of Saving Private Ryan or a host of other, even lesser stuff. During the First World War, a French general given impossible orders passes the buck down, and the buck is continually passed until three men, one of them black, are on trial for cowardice. It is the task of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to defend them at the court martial. In a beautifully simple drama, the horrors and evils of the battlefield are evoked - but more importantly, the evils of the powers behind the war are centre-stage. Unlike the standard "war film", Paths of Glory doesn't just condemn war for its brutality, or pay homage to the ordinary Joe caught up in terrible events: it puts the system which caused the war on trial. Like all Kubrick's films, it is innovatively shot, almost expressionistic, but never just as a gimmick.
When Douglas was executive producing Spartacus and the original director, Anthony Mann, was sacked early in production, he turned to Kubrick to fill his place. Kubrick was still largely unknown, and Spartacus was the only film he was ever hired to direct (as opposed to seeing it through from its inception). Evidently Kubrick's experience on the film, and particularly with Douglas, were so bad that he resolved never to be controlled like this again, and from then on did his own thing this side of the Atlantic.
But Spartacus is one of the most astonishing, powerful, marvellous socialist films ever made. Kubrick achieves in it one of his characteristic tricks: to take a well-known, hackneyed genre, and utterly, unrecognisably transform it (he was to do the same, for example, with science fiction in 2001, and horror in The Shining).
Based on the novel by Howard Fast (and of course on historical events in the first century BC), with a script by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who went to prison rather than testify to McCarthy, Spartacus is the well-known story of the slave revolt. It's in the tradition of all those sword-and-sandals fifties epics, the best of which is Ben Hur. But no Bible-story this. I've seen Spartacus more than a dozen times, and every time it reduces me to tears. It is a marvellous story of the unquenchable human struggle for freedom, even against impossible odds, which culminates in an extraordinary dramatic feat: we want the hero to die.
It is a deeply intelligent, humanistic film, in which all its central characters are multi-dimensional and fundamentally honourable. The antagonist is Olivier's Crassus; but even he is motivated by his sense of honour, and we are asked to condemn not the evil man, but the evil system which he cannot but support, and which makes him terrified of slaves, who he must destroy.
The climax, the extraordinarily staged battle on the hillside between the slaves and the Roman legions, is vintage Kubrick -spectacular, terrifying. We know the slaves are doomed, but understand why they have to fight. It is followed by the famous scene in which the entire vanquished slave army declares "I am Spartacus!" rather than allow their leader to be crucified, one of the great moments in film.
Kubrick's next work was the opposite end of the scale, and no doubt closer to his natural instincts - his weird, quirky adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita. In Kubrick's hands (Nabokov wrote the screenplay), this becomes a tragi-comic satire on smalltown America. If you saw Adrian Lyne's awful recent version, put it out of your mind and see Kubrick's funny, discomforting little gem.
Then came Dr Strangelove (Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), Kubrick back again in anti-war territory, and once again focusing on the insanity of power. A lot of the energy comes from the virtuoso performance of Peter Sellers (in three roles); but notice also little touches like the documentary style in which the siege of the US army base is shot. It's cheaper, and a lot more effective, than the lauded opening of Saving Private Ryan - a savage indictment of imperialism's world-destructive drives, done with anger but wit.
2001: A Space Odyssey, made in 1968, has been blamed for everything bad that's happened since in American film because of its use of state-of-the-art special effects. Yet there is no other science fiction film anything like it. It's an enigmatic, awesome, philosophical account of the first meeting between humanity and extra-terrestrial life. Some people complain they don't understand it: but a civilisation this advanced would seem magical and beyond understanding. The idea of staging the meeting between astronaut and aliens in a familiar little room, without meeting the aliens at all, is to my mind a stroke of brilliance.
The film has dated somewhat, rooted as it is in the days of moon-shots and the Space Race. But at its heart is a prescient meditation on the nature of artificial intelligence which is more relevant now than it was in '68. HAL, the computer (a warm red light in a cold human environment), goes mad, while the human beings rarely show any emotion at all - and goes mad because its/his creators were unable to grasp the moral complexity of his programming.
Mention should be made of the tremendous cut from the distant past to the near future. An early hominid, who just discovered the use of tools, tosses a bone into the air; as it spins in the sky, the image is transformed into a spinning space station. It's a fantastically economical cinematic image. But more than that, it expresses the very essence of humanity - the role of labour, so to speak, in the transition from ape to man.
Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange (1971) from circulation in the UK because of fears of copy-cat killings. As a result, in this country it can only normally be seen on crappy pirate videos (when a London cinema screened it a few years ago, Kubrick sued) - which is the only way I've seen it myself. Based on Anthony Burgess' novel, the film is an almost cartoonish stylisation of inner-city violence, of moral emptiness, and of the equal moral void in the state's efforts to address the problem. Again, Kubrick goes for complex, ambivalent material: who is worse - the violent thug, or the state which "deals with him" by robbing him of emotion, of humanity?
Barry Lyndon, based on Thackeray's novel, is one of Kubrick's least seen and least liked movies, because it is extremely long and slow (and it bombed commercially, I think). But it deserves to be seen. Once again, you have the distinctive Kubrick style and attention to detail - here addressed to lavishly recreating on the screen eighteenth century paintings, even where this required technical breakthroughs in lighting.
It was followed by one of his most popular movies (although at the time it didn't do that well in the cinemas): The Shining, adapted from a Stephen King novel. Kubrick takes a traditional and rather corny ghost story, and turns it into a terrifying indictment of the nuclear family. A man, his wife, and possibly psychic child spend the winter looking after a hotel. There, the conflicts, frustrations and repressed emotions of their family group erupt into violence. For most of the film, you can read the progression of the father (Jack Nicholson) either as his response to the hotel's ghosts, or as simply the development of his own mental instability. If the film has a fault, it is that this "two-level" interpretation is occasionally violated, and only the supernatural explanation is possible. But even at the supernatural level, we are given a powerful metaphor for America: the hotel is built on a graveyard.
Visually, the film is pure Kubrick (the famous tracking shots following the kid around the corridors on his bike; the set-piece "visions", blood pouring out of the elevator) - and there is Kubrick's typical use of classical music, rather than an original score (here it is mainly Bartok).
But the real question which demonstrates the film's strength is simply this: can you think of another horror movie which is even vaguely similar? Poltergiest takes a similar basic idea - the angry spirits of the dead beneath the housing estate; but to compare the films for a moment is to realise how in Kubrick's hands this is not merely a "horror" device, but a statement - something with real meaning. This was Kubrick's greatest skill - to take something familiar and transform it.
Full Metal Jacket does the same thing with the "Vietnam film". Formally, it's unusual, as it is divided into equal halves - first in a training camp, then in battle. (The standard Vietnam film gets you into the jungle a lot earlier.) And this is because, again, of Kubrick's real concern: not just "war" in the abstract, but the relations of power between people. At the film's climax, the Vietnamese sharpshooter who has been scaring the US soldiers to death, and whom they finally kill, turns out to be a teenage girl. The faceless sniper, "the enemy", is just a child. It raises, in very simple dramatic form, the crux of the matter politically: why is a teenage girl prepared to risk her life to fight American soldiers? It might not have the grand epic quality of Apocalypse Now, but it is powerful stuff nonetheless.
Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, will be released later this year. Apparently, it's Kubrick's look into the world of sexual fantasy. In fact many of his films have little or no sexual content at all, which is unusual in itself (some do, of course, most obviously Lolita). It sounds, therefore, like something of a departure. Much has been made of the obsessiveness of Kubrick's demands on the actors (50 odd takes of Cruise coming through a door). The real point, however, is that actors whose standard fee is millions of dollars don't decamp to England for two years and live in near hiding for just anybody. Even Tom Cruise, offered the chance to work with Stanley Kubrick, jumped at it at whatever cost.
A lot was made, in his obituaries, of Kubrick as the last of the "auteurs". This idea, which comes out of 1950s French film theory and the directors who developed it (Jean Luc Goddard, Francois Truffeau), was to do with the director as sole "author" of the work of art. In so far as directors have clear, individual voices, Kubrick was plainly an "auteur"; but the idea has limited meaning. No director is really sole author, as they depend heavily on writers, cinematographers, designers and editors to create their films (not to mention the actors). To detach Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov, or 2001 from Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote it) is stupidly to diminish their contribution.
From Workers Liberty No 55