The 10 Greatest Mythologies of Stanley Kubrick
Let’s try to set the record straight.
More has been written about Kubrick – on his films, about his person, extracting his methods – than any other motion picture director in history. The Shining has in fact sparked a fervent cottage industry of books, blogs, and documentary films all to its own. There are dozens and dozens of fan sites in many different languages that measure into the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of pages. Some of it is pretty good. Most less so. And some off-the-wall kooky.
That he is the greatest American-born director ever is incontrovertible, and a extremely good case can be made he is the greatest director the world has ever seen in the 125 years of this industry (please read my post “The 10 reasons why Kubrick is the greatest film director ever” on Taste of Cinema.)
He is certainly the most controversial and galvanizing mainstream director, and everyone will have an opinion. He sparks interest. He changes the paradigm. He influences the world filmmaking, even 16 years after his death. His modern, dystopian, dynamic vision probably inspired more youngsters to pursue film directing than anyone else in the craft, for he showed us sights unseen and worlds unknown and unfathomable lower depths.
Kubrick was the first modern director of the post-Hayes Code era and kick-started the birth of a remarkable American filmmaking renaissance.
At no other time did the director’s craft reign so supreme than the 70s, and at no other time did so many great directors come to fruition and produce masterpiece after masterpiece – Woody Allen, Scorsese, Fosse, Ashby, Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, Herzog, Pakula, Roeg, Bunuel, and Ridley Scott, just to name a few. With the director as superstar, no one held back. Kubrick’s wild style gave them leave.
This era of unbridled creativity and unchecked expense ended, more or less, with the release of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1982), a film so expensive at the time (compared to earnings) it nearly bankrupted it’s small, director-focused studio – United Artists – and the ripple effect caused a major reshuffling amongst the power mongers. Directors were out or at least reeled in.
With fame comes baggage – a lot of it – part of the unintended consequence of being in demand was much written or speculated about Kubrick that was simply wrong or untrue. And much was written or speculated that turned out to be (somewhat) true years later!
Simply, Kubrick was different than anyone else, approached his craft different than anyone else, and directed films unlike anything anybody had ever seen. Kubrick’s quest for privacy while accomplishing all that, however well meaning and work-related, caused idle minds to broadcast loudly and write feverishly, turning fiction into gossip and gossip into truth, which was ultimately mythologized into a lonely, forlorn, man bereft of friends who made his films singlehandedly.
NOTHING could be further from the truth.
Here we will cherry pick some of the more interesting or infamous Kubrick mythologies – some points from the Internet as well as several of my own ideas and musings to keep it interesting and new – admittedly acknowledging this list is vastly incomplete and subject to my own predilections. Some items have less to do about discounting a rumor than elevating a directorial ‘tic’ into the realm of the mythological.
Kubrick was, for lack of a better analogy, “the most interesting man in the world,” a titan in his field, and an extremely intelligent, inquisitive person, not to mention a worthy leading light to the highest pantheon, who was not afraid to combine this intelligence and his obsessions into the making of his films.
That’s what makes him very unique and unusual in the annals of film history. Not bad for a youngster who showed little aptitude, barely graduated from High School if at all, left home at 17, never went to college except for a couple of courses and never, ever looked back.
As always, whether the category is mythological or real, the analysis and commentary are mine alone unless otherwise specifically referenced or footnoted.
1. Kubrick, bathroom fetishist
Kubrick is the master of cinematic fetishism.
His films exhibit such a wanton promiscuity that they can’t help but becoming cinematic porn for the cineaste than entertainment for the masses. Time and time again, Kubrick focuses on the grotesqueries of mankind and their bad habits. He never lost the zeal for the iconic image – the glory shot – that anchored his photographic essays.
His films became a series of glory shots and sensory overload. He shied away from nothing. The Kubrick stare and one-point perspective framing became his resume and aptly visualized his wicked, fetishistic sense of humor and ironic detachment. His film’s literary pretensions only increased his stock amongst his acolytes.
Many found this style frustrating in that Kubrick was less interested in story than the journey. This is important – the words are carefully chosen. Decades after his death, we realize now what genius this was.
Without a new Kubrick films to look forward to, which was always an event, we see now with the primrose gift of hindsight, how truly gifted – and unusual – he really was. His genius comes not from telling a story straightly but crookedly. Sidebars with any other director are whole themes with Kubrick. The stare becomes a cry. The straight angle becomes a cage. Camera movement becomes a malevolent fugue state. The repetition becomes a fetish.
From Spartacus on, many critical scenes have taken place in bathrooms. This obsession started early, in a way. As a young photographer working on a photo essay for Look, he had unlimited access to Rocky Graziano, the famous fighter. There is a shot of Rocky, naked, in the shower standing with his back partially toward the lens, his private area turned away, his look one of resigned fatigue.
In films, the Hayes code – a self-regulated set of instructions –severely limited artistic license. Filmmakers were always pushing the limits most of the time without success. Occasionally, filmmakers could get away with bathroom suites and sometimes real bathrooms, like Hitchcock’s Psycho, which is the Holy Grail of Hayes Codes violations (it breaks 9 of the 10 precepts), accomplished, no doubt, by Hitchcock’s highly elevated stature in the industry.
Kubrick’s Spartacus, released the same year, pushed the envelope a little further and showed a provocative male-on-male scene between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier in the general’s private baths, the homoerotic overtones palpable. Much of the dialog, extremely suggestive but allegorical, where body parts were referred to as ‘oysters’ or ‘snails,’ was cut from its first release. It was later restored with Anthony Hopkins supplying Olivier’s voice (alas, the scene was found but not the audio.)
Lolita – the first for Kubrick – has actual scenes that take place in a real, live bathroom. James Mason as Humbert Humbert is sitting on a toilet (mostly shielded) in his robe to get away from his well-meaning but stifling wife. Dr. Strangelove virtually starts in the bathroom and later there is a suicide in one. 2001 famously made fun of the fetish with the posted “zero gravity toilet instructions” (which included details to take a shower.)
Alex gives himself away by reprising ‘Singing in the Rain’ while taking a bath in A Clockwork Orange. The Shining goes all in and proudly displays its art deco fetishism masquerading as metaphor. The film also has the greatest variety of toilets for a Kubrick film – 3.
There is Alice peeing in Eyes Wide Shut. Even A.I., later directed by Spielberg (but long-developed by Kubrick), has Monica peeing on the toilet while David, their new Mecha, explores his boundaries as a man-child and surprisingly opens the door, thinking he is playing a game.
But to me, there is something kingly and throne-like in the resplendent all-exposed porcelain-and-tile sanctum sanctorum from the Marine barracks on Parris Island in Full Metal Jacket Bathrooms a memory palaces were secrets are revealed, sex requested, identity repressed, and where people are killed.
IMHO, psychologically, most of us think of the toilet as a sanctuary of sorts – a safe haven free from the flotsam of life. Equally, the space as an entity really does know all of our basest secrets as humans – we pee, we defecate, we vomit.
It is the Yin and Yang of any household. Hitchcock destroys this womb-like safety net in 60 seconds and with it, prophetically, our innocence. The 60s would never be the same. Filmmaking would never be the same and the Hayes Codes was increasingly abandoned and discarded altogether by 1968.
Kubrick’s use was more akin to semiotics, as symbols of communicative behavior, as places of the ultimate truth that have less to do with Oedipal obsessions than Faustian bargains that start and end in the bathroom. The bathroom gives us our release and, conversely, it is our cage, our solitary confinement, and woe to those that listen to their inner demons while confined within it.
What is most interesting is even though Hitchcock flaunted the Hayes Codes with almost religious abandon and perhaps was the original cinematic fetishist, his methodical, meticulous way couldn’t survive in its demise – total freedom was too much for someone who required rules and etiquette to deconstruct to produce drama. In an anything-goes society, those who required permission were out of a job.
After The Birds in 1963 and certainly by the late 60s he was eclipsed and out of fashion. It no small way, it was Kubrick who took up the Hitchcockian mantle (their largely cool, micromanaging style was very similar as are many other things which would take a book to explore.) Kubrick, rather new, still, and unafraid, unleashed his dyspeptic imagination on the world, and cinema was really never the same. Good bye, Hitchcock. Enter Kubrick.
2. Kubrick, the originator
It’s been oft repeated he never made the same film twice. Well, that’s not quite true, strictly speaking.
While it is true he never repeated the same PLOT, he repeated the same GENRE pretty often. Directors get into a grove and they know what the want to do. Repetition of genre is pretty regular occurrence in the film industry.
Let’s chart out the genres:
1953 Fear and Desire – WAR
1955 Killer’s Kiss – CRIME
1956 The Killing – CRIME
1957 Paths of Glory – WAR
1960 Spartacus – WAR
1962 Lolita – DRAMA
1964 Dr. Strangelove – WAR
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey – SCI-FI
1971 A Clockwork Orange – SCI-FI
1975 Barry Lyndon – DRAMA
1980 The Shining – HORROR
1987 Full Metal Jacket – WAR
1999 Eyes Wide Shut – DRAMA
2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence – SCI-FI (I include this because A.I. was to be his next film had he lived – pre-production was well on its way and a finished script was in hand.)
WAR = 5
SCI-FI = 3
DRAMA = 3
CRIME = 2
HORROR = 1
Charting it out, one can see Kubrick preferred certain genres to others. That WAR made the top of the list is unsurprising. It is one of Hollywood’s main staples, along with ACTION, ADVENTURE, COMEDY, CRIME, DRAMA, HISTORICAL, HORROR, MUSICAL, SCI FI, and WESTERNS.
Kubrick described his interest in WAR and CRIME films (over half of his output as a director) thusly: “…one of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual of our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation.
Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallize and come out into the open.”
What is more surprising, perhaps, is what’s left out – boxing films (a sub-genre of DRAMA.) Kubrick loved to document boxers. They were part of his early photo essays and the main character from Killer’s Kiss was a boxer, not to mention Dave Bowman’s shadow boxing in the centrifuge of the Discovery spacecraft.
I hardly think those few instances thoroughly mined Kubrick’s thoughts and obsessions of the subject. Boxing films continue to this day to attract high-powered stars and directors. Still, it was interesting to find out, of all unproduced screenplays that remained as such, a boxing film was not among them.
While Barry Lyndon is rightfully a DRAMA, it also features battle sequences of considerable heft. Indeed, Barry Lyndon’s very fortune rises and falls with whims and vicissitudes of battle, so I could, with some fudging, put it in WAR, increasing that category to 6, if I had the mind.
More appropriately, however, Barry Lyndon, Lolita, and Eyes Wide Shut – brothers and sisters to the sub-genre of LITERARY DRAMAS – a genre Kubrick was definitely drawn to time and time again in story development although most did not come to fruition.
Even though Kubrick had the freedom to make any film he wanted, he still had difficulty making any film he wanted! He left more unrealized projects are on the table than realized. And the 12-year absence of any films between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut is a mark difficult to comprehend.
Having written and made films, I know better than most that making movies is a very, very difficult. The stars really have to align and your idea has to flow cohesively and rather quickly, and a million other details have to be sorted out.
If not, a director can struggle for years trying to make it ‘work’ only to abandon after creative exhaustion sets in years later or a better project comes along. That is a lot of time lost. And if you go through several of those phases, as Kubrick did, years can turn into decades. Just ask Terrence Malick.