Kubrick reigns supreme. He is the top of the pantheon. His is a unique, irreplaceable vision and he died before his time, leaving an incomparable legacy of films that have stood the test for generations.
As inscrutable he may outwardly be, he is not a complete cipher. Many internal themes and visual leitmotifs that remained almost constant throughout his career can be easily gleaned with a little exploration.
Here then, are Top 10 Reasons why Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived:
1. He Was a Photographer First
Stanley Kubrick moved quickly from high school to immediately become one of the youngest staff photographers at Look magazine (at that time Life magazine’s major competitor). As a result, he developed a keen sense of a single image telling an epic story. Many of his still photographs became quite famous and to look at them today, one bears early witness to a genius in the making. He especially excelled at photographic . It was an easy step to go from ist to filmmaker.
It is curious he almost became – or at least seriously contemplated – a chess grandmaster. It was only after he realized that creativity on a chessboard, opposed to the visual acuity of a photographer, while distantly related, meant isolation, anonymity, and decades of solitary study before getting a shot at the title (Bobby Fisher was decades away from putting the word “chess” on the lips of many-a youngster). He yearned for something greater.
The logic and organizational battle of the chessboard was put to good use while directing films – often he did both – as famous photographs with Arthur C. Clarke and George C. Scott attest! In chess, as well as film directing, moves are made and pieces pushed for a result not immediately known or clear, as part of a 1000 decisions one can make before choosing only one.
Capturing the King, as well as fulfilling an artistic vision, require leaps of “faith” based on knowledge, presumption, and desired outcome. Talent, luck, and ambition go a long way, as well as strategy, logic, and a gift for seeing life in pictures – tools of the trade and a golden ticket to Willy Wonka and the dream factory.
2. He Approached His Craft Differently Than Most
He did this by becoming an auteur – something almost unheard of in Hollywood at the time. There were certainly no lack of great directors in Hollywood. But great directors that were historically relevant was another story altogether. Kubrick had work to do.
The failure of Spartacus – after the relative critical and commercial success of Paths of Glory – marked a career low point. His directorial career in Hollywood had stalemated. He rebelled at being “director for hire.” His reputation amongst insiders was not stellar. He realized it was time to make a radical move and soon.
Taking a risk, he capitalized on the opportunity to shoot Lolita in England. He loved the isolation, the English countryside, and the incredibly different working conditions. He would never make another film in America again.
This move gave him unprecedented freedom to develop, shoot, and participate in a more active and exciting way. He was artistically rejuvenated. Other than highly scheduled “tea” breaks, the European guilds were far more amenable to auteurs and their quirks. The director/cameraman, a fairly common title in the UK, was all but prohibited in the US, and he exploited this advantage and was often on camera for hand-held shots.
From Lolita on, he emphatically embraced the role of auteur, and thus began a string of masterpieces that would not end until his death. Gone were the undue star influences of Kirk Douglas or incessant studio meddling. He was responsible for it all and rose to the challenge.
Over time, he developed a very streamlined way of making films which reduced costs and the size of film crews in measurable ways, giving him greater opportunity to concentrate on infinitesimal nuances of performance.
Far from the rumor of vast budget overruns, his films are a testament to efficiency – the hundreds of takes notwithstanding! Look at a still from almost any one of his sets and you will see comparatively few people, as opposed to typical Hollywood productions that employ hundreds on set.
Kubrick went back to the studio that had produced Lolita – Warner Bros. – after ten years with MGM, for A Clockwork Orange. Its studio head, Terry Semel, gave Kubrick carte blanche to pursue any project he so desired, regardless of genre. They left him alone no matter how long it took.
Sometimes, and only for a chosen few, a genie enters your life and grants your every wish no matter how farfetched. Semel was Kubrick’s King Ludwig II – the man who rescued Richard Wagner from crushing debt, jail, and almost certain obscurity – and, like Wagner, this patron gave leave to Kubrick to blossom into the greatest filmmaker, in the same way Wagner became the greatest opera composer, the world has ever known.
Kubrick had, remarkably and against odds, achieved his goals and enjoyed a status only a handful of directors ever, ever enjoyed. Of any pure film director alive today (as opposed to oligarchs like Spielberg or Lucas, formerly, who are studios unto themselves), only Woody Allen currently enjoys this type of financial freedom and artistic assurance to make what he wills, no matter how trifling or significant.
Semel recognized genius and Kubrick delivered in spades. Kubrick rewarded loyalty and produced masterpiece after masterpiece until his unexpected (to the public, anyway) death.
What makes the Kubrick experience partly so unique was his breathless, breathtaking, epic visual style – it wasn’t all pretty images. His Gesamtkunstwerk – a German word meaning “total work of art” – sought, like Wagner, to synthesize the visual, dramatic, and musical form into a fully realized, cohesive, symbolic whole, wrapped in subtext, metaphor, and irony that were not easily deduced and so very often completely misunderstood.
Additionally, everything else about structure and production of his films were different too – from script, to acting styles, to editing, to the use of music. His films were chess and boxing matches structured like opera, filmed like ballet, unified into a coherent, Picassian whole that subverted every preconception of the way things were “supposed” to be.
They were as deeply intellectual as they were thrilling, intricately laced with voluminous, heady, obscure literary, theatrical, and psychological references from dozens of genres and philosophies. They were dazzling displays of technical virtuoso that stupefied the viewer into awe, taking them down the metaphorical rabbit hole of directorial invention.
He was a filmmaker’s filmmaker who never pandered to his audience. He was driven by a curiosity rarely seen in motion pictures, and, thankfully, given the freedom to pursue this insatiable curiosity.
Certainly, we are the better for it and no one was ever the same after seeing any of his films. He inspired many to become filmmakers themselves. This fact alone grants him status to the pantheon.