The 10 Most Significant Artistic and Philosophical Influences to Stanley Kubrick
Everyone has to start somewhere.
Geniuses are not born with knowledge, but come to it by their ability to absorb, retain, and apply that which they learned. We all know Kubrick was the typical ne’er-do-well who did poorly in school. His loathing for institutionalized learning was legendary. Home movies show he was affable — even attention-grabbing — but few thought he would amount to much and what aptitude he did harbor was kept well hidden except for his hobbies — chess, jazz drumming, and photography.
The gift of a camera and his aptitude in the darkroom changed him, as it does for many shy boys who suddenly find independence through their interests. Something clicked. Becoming the high school photographer brought him out of his homebound shell. Gaining access to an extraordinary world beyond the frame caused the young boy not only to blossom but also find early success and notoriety. The rest, as they say, is history.
Geniuses also tend to have a preternatural fear of being different, although many hide it very well through various means. They have great talent, think differently than everyone, and usually accompanied by larger-than-life personalities yearning to break free but often all they want is to be just like everyone else. Sometimes they find their passion.
Other times their passion finds them. I suspect for most, time and tide passes many by who have great potential to fly but are grounded by bad luck or bad choices into a life of mediocrity. Kubrick was one of the chosen few and an early opportunity was self-willed into a lasting career. “Will” is a key ingredient. Genius is earned — it is not applied for or altruistically given.
Kubrick was of Austrian, Romanian and Polish descent and first lived in the Bronx, New York. By his own admission, he never “learned anything at all in school and didn’t read a book for pleasure until [he] was 19 years old.” He was sickly and attendance at school was extremely spotty. He was home-schooled for long periods of time. He generally performed poorly in school – graduating with a D+ (or C-) average — which prevented any thought of college.
Kubrick was raised in an upper-middle class environment and showered with attention but suffered difficulty in social circles, especially in school. He was sent to California at least once as a type of coping mechanism for him and his parents, thinking the light and space would do the young man good. Even though he often described his IQ as “low,” this is clearly not the case. In reality, it was stratospheric and he was probably just bored.
Kubrick was a modest man, mostly, and differentiated himself by wearing a black jacket and tie to the movie set. He ruled his dominion with quiet certitude. By A Clockwork Orange, scruffy overalls and an unkempt beard replaced his black jacket in the early 70s and he would rarely be seen in public again. Unless he was sleeping, which was less and less, he never stopped working on films. His workaholic nature most likely killed him in the end.
We can already see how aspects of his young life would form a basis of experience for later films. By all accounts, Kubrick was a mellow, contemplative, an emotionally distant youngster and adolescent. Most of the main characters that populated his films were similar in mood and temperament — you write about what you know, right? A keen, steady gaze and a knack for solid decision-making hewn from 1000s of hours playing chess prepared him early for life as a director. Freed from school, his intellect blossomed. He was always described as intense. He read constantly and his life became all filmmaking all the time.
All geniuses must have a cadre of other geniuses who influence their thinking and methodologies, or inspire them to veer left when going right would have been more conventional. This article is an attempt to discuss 10 of Stanley Kubrick’s most significant influencers and how they relate to his career, his work, and his personality. Interestingly, unlike most of the names in this list, Kubrick did not have a middle name.
1. Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein and 2. Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin
Editing and Acting Theory
I put these two together because there is much overlap. Both were great originators, both were great directors, both developed theories of montage that became an indispensible part of the Soviet Montage Theory, both wrote books and essays that became landmark publications on film, and both have been repeatedly mentioned by name by Kubrick.
One of the first great Russian film directors was the Sergei Eisenstein. He directed several features, the most famous being the silent films Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927), and later, the sound film Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944). His major writings include Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (1949) and The Film Sense (1942).
Vsevolod Pudovkin was best known for further developing theories of montage and his book, Film Technique and Film Acting (1958). It is his best-known work and has remained a seminal resource to young, budding filmmakers yearning to learn the craft.
Eisenstein and Pudovkin were the masters of Soviet propaganda cinema for decades and often were in direct competition for attention and accolades. While Eisenstein used montage to bolster power to the masses in large, stupendous set-pieces, Pudovkin preferred a quieter, gentler approach that concentrated on individual courage in the face of overwhelming oppression.
Without a doubt, there are bits and pieces of both Russian directors littered throughout Kubrick’s work. A Clockwork Orange was a complete, grand homage to Eisensteinian cinema as much as Paths of Glory was to Pudovkin. The cut from bone to spacecraft in 2001 – and a jump in time of millions of years – was pure Eisenstein. Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut were closer to Pudovkin’s individual struggle against social forces beyond their control.
That Kubrick’s films have always retained a Russian reliance on cinematic tropes, odd structures, and hard, distant characters is no accident and has often been misunderstood. Critics railed against Kubrick’s cool detachedness, his odd juxtapositions, and his infernally intellectual and obscure references. Little did anyone suspect this was not an accident but a deliberate form following function, based on theories first developed by the coolest, hardest, most detached filmmakers on the planet.
It is interesting that Kubrick would attach himself to Russian filmmakers and not to the titular father of cinema, American D. W. Griffith. Kubrick was a great admirer of Griffith’s films but that is largely where the connection ends.
Griffith humanized story and gave it warmth, artistry, subtlety, and an epic quality distinctly American. With Lillian Gish, he created a legendary film star that centered on relationships, love, despair, hope, and last-minute rescues, her blossoming womanhood a perfect foil for his brand of populism.
Where the Russians were technical, aggressively didactic and propagandistic, not to mention lacking any semblance of story, Griffith was a humanist and from his humanism and gift for dramatically expanding the language of cinema, he single-handedly created an industry 10 years before Eisenstein learned the craft.
Orson Wells said “…no town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.” Kubrick’s affinity for all things European drove his professional curiosity out of country to outlier, even renegade filmmakers and philosophers. Telling a conventional story warmly was far from his mind.
3. Maximillian Oppenheimer (aka Max Ophüls)
Kubrick admired a great many filmmakers but was influenced by a relative few. Aside from the Russians, he was influenced by none more so than Max Ophüls (who changed his name after immigration to America) — a Jewish, German-born filmmaker from Sarrbrücken known principally for sweeping, complicated camera movement at a time when cameras and their sound-proof housings were the size of Volkswagens and very difficult to move.
Ophüls became fascinated with camera movement as a young assistant to Anatole Litvak — a Ukrainian-born filmmaker — who, prior to Ophüls, was a great practitioner of this technique. Ophüls made 25 features, none more important than Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), La Ronde (1950, Roundabout), La Plaisir (1952, House of Pleasure), The Earings of Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montès (1955).
Other than Unknown Woman, the rest were made after he returned to France a few years after end of the WWII. Similar to Kubrick’s experience much later, Ophüls’ Hollywood apprenticeship was not to his liking and he left it at first availability. It is unknown if the two masters ever met either in Hollywood or Europe.
Camera technique and movement isn’t the only thing Kubrick borrowed from Ophüls to provide a framework. Kubrick also used waltzes as a stylistic trend in three films in particular — Paths of Glory, 2001, and Eyes Wide Shut.
The waltz is a ritualized, formal German dance, and waltz music is primarily associated with Vienna, Austria. Despite its highbrow nature, in any dance, the closeness of the couple masks an undercurrent of sexual tension, dominance, and submissiveness done in a setting that is controlled, chaperoned, and publicly acceptable. Some liken it to a paradox. Sociologically, it’s a way for evolved societies to temper their frustrations and suppress the libidinous ways. Violent societies, after the great fall, usually become very polite ones.
For Kubrick, as they were with Ophüls, waltzes and camera movement made a kind of push-me-pull-you leitmotif that can be seen as a variety of different metaphors and meaning, depending on the situation. Kubrick, obsessed with the family unit, of manners and morals, repression and aggression, and the empty space in-between, borrowed many film techniques to visualize this inner space. Always the innovator, he took a benign technique and made it a life force.
James Mason worked on two Ophüls and one Kubrick film. He admired Ophüls enough to write this short poem. History does not show he was similarly inspired about Kubrick.
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.