7. Kubrick’s Formal Visual Style of One-Point Perspective and Reverse Tracking Shots
Perhaps no visual signature is more prominent in Kubrick’s oeuvre than the one-point perspective – perfect symmetrical framing – and its corollary, the reverse tracking shot.
Kubrick employed that technique fairly regularly (starting mainly in Paths of Glory) long before Wes Anderson’s affectionate revival. Mr. Anderson has extended this use almost through entire films (not even Kubrick did that!), but that is a different subject for a different day.
In Kubrick’s hands, the use was quite jarring since no director alive at the time framed this way. As a result, it became a type of visual, Brechtian distancing device to awaken and assault the viewer’s senses that became a deliberately self-referential directorial tick. It meant something was about to happen. It meant pay attention and drew significant attention because it often screamed look at me!
This style infuriated critics for years. To them, directors should remain in the background and not demonstrate their presence through gimmicky framing. The director as a self-referential auteur was not a role to be taken lightly, and then only after a lifelong career, and only then minimally – or so the prevailing critics opined. Leave visual promiscuity to the French and the nouvelle vague or to John Ford or Hitchcock who earned it. Kubrick? What arrogance!
In Paths of Glory, the transcendence of the reverse tracking shot was in stark counterpoint to the death and gore of the battle trenches; in 2001, the one-point perspective signified a Deity, or a brief shining moment before death or discovery. In other films, such as A Clockwork Orange, it was sensualized – the beauty of the framing was often in sharp, ironic contrast to the unfolding, sexual tension of the Alice-in-Wonderland narrative, and almost always foretold a horror to come, no matter how bright or sunny the scene.
The long, big Wheel excursions down endless hallways and forbidden rooms in The Shining was a unique antithesis to the reverse track. The forward, aggressive thrust of the big wheel by a peddling Danny – a Kubrickian anti-hero in the making – with the camera following close behind, like the ghosts of the Overlook tracking their prey, is now such an iconic image it almost distracts from its perfection.
You may forget the film in general, but you will always remember the Big Wheel and the endless hallways. There is motion. There is stasis. There are points in-between the two. When we aren’t frozen in perfect, sinister alignment, we were swirling in a fugue-state, our mind recoiling from almost certain madness.
The reverse/forward thrust brings into mind Eastern philosophy and yin/yang. It converts positive space into negative space, subverting ego for intention, narrative for dialectic. It is a powerful tool and every one of Kubrick’s male heroes experienced both ends of this visual sword, from their greatest heights to their lowly depths. It is arrogance personified, power visualized, and death foretold.
8. Kubrick’s Use of The Reliable/Unreliable Narrator
Kubrick employed narration almost from the beginning of his career. Only a few don’t have it – The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and 2001 are the big ones, although two of the three have titles cards instead (a benign type of narration, to be sure).
In most film schools, one is taught never to use narration – that it’s the lazy way out of telling a story – and there is some validity in this judgment. Early Kubrick films use narration somewhat clumsily and not too convincingly. And then there is A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and to some extent Full Metal Jacket, some of cinema’s finest examples.
Narration in those films transformed and added complexity. It deepened the symbiotic relationship the audience experienced with the main character’s plight in ways difficult to explain. The unreliable narrator is one of cinema’s most effective tools – being a crass envoy between reality and fiction, action and inaction, motivation and result – that doesn’t always tell the truth by design.
It is difficult to pull off successfully and the writing has to be precise. What failed in Blade Runner, an otherwise perfect film, worked to a most brilliant, mesmerizing effect in Apocalypse Now. What was plodding, mediocre, and not really that engaging in American Beauty, was transcendent and active in Goodfellas.
Barry Lyndon’s narrator is not a character within the film, like the other examples – he is omniscient and aware of the ending – almost like a Greek chorus. His droll delivery, tinged not with a small amount of ironic intercourse, relates detail and fates before we actually see it happen. This is Hitchcockian in concept – who always let the audience know who the murderer was long before it was revealed to the characters – but what works in a crime drama is a great risk in a period piece.
Let me just say Barry Lyndon is an underappreciated, epic masterpiece whose full acceptance is long past due. Even amongst Kubrickphiles, it is seen more as a failure than a success, and that is a sad thing.
If, after reading this , you take away one thing, it’s to reassess Barry Lyndon fairly. Barry Lyndon is a stately, refined, hauntingly beautiful, incredibly sad, and extremely well-made film. It was Kubrick at the top of his game, pushing structural and technological boundaries with comparative ease, and firing on all cylinders.
9. Kubrick’s Very Strict Formalism of His Screenplays and The Very Particular (Some Would Say Peculiar) Style of Acting by His Cast
Over the years, there has been much written about Kubrick’s screenplays and the quixotic, distanced styles of acting.
As Wes Anderson’s current popularity attests, when other factors are involved, removing the conventionalities of the typical three-act-play structure – something Kubrick vociferously wanted to do and said as much in his interviews – and allowing the director freer reign to tell his story, makes for exciting, didactic, stimulating cinema. The drama is not as important as the lessons learned. This is pure Brecht.
Kubrick’s cold, distanced, synthesized approach can only be understood on an increasingly intellectual level that requires considerably more thought and context than a typical film drama. One needs to learn what Kubrick knows, experience what Kubrick experienced, and dive deep into many areas of study that Kubrick had.
For the viewer, by choosing not to do this and stubbornly cling to one’s own surface preconceptions of how it ought to be or what the director should have done, one denies themselves a portal into one of the greatest artistic intellectuals the world has ever known.
Formalism becomes a motif. Characters become metaphors. Plots become enigmatic mazes of point and counterpoint. Life becomes death and truth is subverted to nightmare. None of this is real.
All of this must be seen through the hazy lens of disinformation, as though they is seeing the film as directed by the flawed persona of the main character – a nihilistic Oz pulling all the strings and levers behind the black curtain of uncertainty. Kubrick is a conduit, a mythmaker, an incomparable artist, who creates opportunities to see things anew.
Kubrick works best when the viewer’s intellectual curiosity matches his own. It is simply thus.
10. And Lastly, Kubrick’s Career as a Whole
Only Akira Kurosawa, Woody Allen, Hitchcock, and perhaps John Ford have as many masterpieces (denoted by a ★) sprinkled throughout their career. Kubrick certainly has the highest percentage – an extraordinary 60% – compared to total feature output than anyone who ever sat in a director’s chair.
1951 Day of the Fight (documentary)
Flying Padre (documentary)
1953 Fear and Desire (featurette)
The Seafarers (documentary)
1955 Killer’s Kiss (feature)
1956 The Killing (feature)
1957 Paths of Glory (feature) ★
1960 Spartacus (feature)
1962 Lolita (feature)
1964 Dr. Strangelove (feature) ★
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (feature) ★
1971 A Clockwork Orange (feature) ★
1975 Barry Lyndon (feature) ★
1980 The Shining (feature) ★
1987 Full Metal Jacket (feature) ★
1999 Eyes Wide Shut (feature)
Author Bio: Mark Krasselt is a writer, designer, and all-around creative who reads too much and has seen too many movies. He has been fascinated with Stanley Kubrick since his first saw 2001: a space odyssey at age 8, and this fascination has never abated. He has even written a long thesis on the famous director, titled “Stanley Kubrick: lessons of a Sentient,” which he hopes to expand into an even longer book.