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The 10 Most Distinct Traits of Stanley Kubrick’s Cinema

03 March 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Keith LaFountaine

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Stanley Kubrick is one of the most celebrated directors in cinematic history. His demand for perfection on screen, his incessant amount of retakes, and his incredible intelligence helped create some of the best films ever made.

More than that, though, since his death in 1999, his films have only grown in popularity. Looking at his entire canon, it’s easy to see some very distinct traits in his work.

 

1. One point perspective

There is an excellent video on Vimeo that illustrates Kubrick’s usage of one point perspective. Put simply for the layman, one-point perspective is an image that has only one vanishing point. It is most noticeable in images that involve long roads, buildings, hallways, and tunnels.

One point perspective is all over Kubrick’s filmography. It’s in The Shining, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut, and Paths of Glory.

The shot composition is not only incredibly versatile in terms of atmosphere (it was used to show the famous “come play with us, Danny” hallway scene in The Shining, the jogging scene in 2001, and Alex slurping spaghetti in A Clockwork Orange) but it is also interesting to look at. Since there is only one vanishing point, there’s a lot to take in as a viewer.

Take the aforementioned hallway scene from The Shining: not only do we get the incredibly cramped width of the hallway, we also see the bloodied girls, the axe, the overturned chair, the painting that is slightly tilted, and the lone window. If that scene had been shot with close-ups, the viewer would have been unable to take in the true wreckage of the murder.

In this way, one-point perspective is one of the most important aspects of Kubrick’s films. He went out of his way to use this type of shot constantly, and because of this a viewer now associates that type of image with Kubrick.

 

2. Complicated tracking shots

paths of glory

Most of Kubrick’s films involve some complicated tracking shots. As soldiers run alongside tanks, rubble, burning buildings, and destroyed cars in Full Metal Jacket, the camera follows behind them for a minute and twenty seconds without cutting.

In the beginning of the same film there is the more famous example with Hartman yelling at the soldiers in a one minute and fourteen second long tracking shot.

In The Shining, the camera follows many characters, especially Danny as he rides around in his tricycle. In Eyes Wide Shut, the camera follows Dr. Hartford as he walks the cold streets of New York City. In 2001, the camera follows the protagonist as he jogs around the spaceship.

Again, this trait is in most of Kubrick’s films. It lends a certain amount of realism to the image. Since human beings’ eyes don’t “cut” (we are living life in one constant shot, if necessary to put it in such terms) a long tracking shot is the closest thing to “real” a film can present. It breaks down the barrier between film and viewer and adds an interesting dimension to the viewing experience.

 

3. Similar themes

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Kubrick only chose films and themes that he wanted to make. It’s no surprise, then, that he often chose similar topics and themes throughout his filmography.

He’s explored war a number of times (Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), human connection/love/interaction – generally lumping these things is frowned upon, but Kubrick didn’t make “love” films, or films about love, he made “human” films – (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon), human nature (A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, 2001) and further.

Kubrick was obsessed with people, above all else, and so it’s not surprising that all of his films are centered on the characters in them.

A Clockwork Orange is about many things, but it is mostly about human action, violence, and impulse. 2001 is all about human evolution, especially in contrast with other life forms and the machines humans have made. Lolita is about human perversions and interests.

Society often plays a role in Kubrick’s films as well. It’s visible more as a growth of the previous notion of human interaction. Society is, after all, a group of individuals that generally share a collective idea of morality, beliefs, and ideas (though this is certainly not a universal, or completely accepted, concept).

Emile Durkheim coined the term “collective consciousness” to illustrate this concept. In Eyes Wide Shut, society is very much in focus (both the “secret society” wherein the ritual takes place, and the surrounding people in society as Dr. Hartford walks the streets of New York City).

 

4. Subtlety in the presentation of his narratives

eyes-wide-shut

Speaking of Eyes Wide Shut, there is no more perfect example than it to illustrate Kubrick’s subtlety and usage of symbolism when presenting his narratives.

The ritual scene is perhaps one of the most jarring, confusing, and symbolic scenes Kubrick ever filmed. Between the masks everyone wears, to the increasingly odd presentation of sexual liberation and/or entrapment, Kubrick never overtly explains what is actually happening in that scene, or what that scene is supposed to mean it the context of his film.

Kubrick challenged his audience to think, to dissect film, and to be as much of a storyteller as he was. The ending of The Shining still perplexes some because of its seemingly incongruent nature in the context of the film. But there is an answer as to why it’s there.

The ending of 2001 (or even the entirety of it) takes a lot of time and thought to decipher. But there is a reason it’s there. If there’s one thing Kubrick wasn’t, it’s shallow. The man was a perfectionist, and if something was in his frame, it was meant to be there.

Kubrick could have held his audiences’ hands, walking them to the end of the film, while pointing out the imagery and symbolism and also entertaining them. But he didn’t, and that’s part of the reason why he’s as prolific as he is, even almost 20 years after his death. His films are like large steaks – you need time to chew the meat and savor the flavor before you swallow.

 

5. Focus on music/image relationship

Kubrick loved to toy with the relationship between music and image. Long before Tarantino and Scorsese made their way into the film industry using popular music to bolster their imagery, Kubrick was using Strauss to add dimension and intrigue to the opening of 2001, and Beethoven to add depth to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

Tony Palmer, director of “Stanley Kubrick: Life in Pictures” explained it best when he said: “Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in film as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music in particular, it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive, of the film.”

In this respect, Kubrick understood the usage of compositions for film in a way many others didn’t at the time. He understood that music was a natural sibling of the image, and one didn’t need to be subservient to the other.

Music can create similar feelings, and express similar themes and ideas, as visuals can. Kubrick essentially leveled the playing field, and in doing so created an entirely new approach to the craft of filmmaking.

 

 

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  • V.C. Privitera

    Great Article and very well written…nice examples as well.

    I’m surprised that within the “pivotal scenes take place in the bathroom” selection, there’s not a mention of “Eyes Wide Shut” with Tom Cruise’s character helping Sydney Pollack’s character with the overdosed Hooker in the Bathroom during the Party in the beginning of the film….granted, it’s not really what anyone would call “pivotal,” but when I saw the title to this section, my mind went right to that scene.

    SPOILERS BELOW:

    The things that come to mind just now though, that explain maybe what makes this is a pivotal scene:
    – I guess you could say the fact that the Escort is somewhat a “pivotal” character to the story in that she plays a part within each the beginning, middle, and end of the film’s plot and story.

    – We go from meeting Sydney Pollack’s character with his wife greeting Cruise & Kidman once they enter the Party, to Pollack scrambling to put his pants on to open the door in the bathroom for Cruise to examine the Escort’s near-fatal condition.
    This scene is interesting, cause we go from this upscale-upperclass conservative view of Pollack’s character to finding him a bit of a mess after he happens to take some escort during the same party, to his upstairs bathroom to have sex with her after she takes drugs…this sort of sets the scale for the rest of the story as we’re seeing these completely different sides to these characters.

    – If you watch Cruise when he’s examining the Escort, specifically and more attentively look at how his demeanor shows he’s totally focused on the Escort as a sort of actual patient of his…if you think about it, he has this highly-attractive fully nude model in front of him and Cruise (or his Character) never once lowers his eye contact down torwards the Escort’s breasts or the rest of her body…..while sure, I may be over-examining the scene itself, but I find this to say to the audience that Cruise is & has been a completely trustworthy husband to his wife, played by Kidman, while she goes on within the next scene in the bedroom describing her past-lust-filled sexually driven thoughts about some officer in the Navy at a Hotel at a time when Cruise had expressed his upmost love for Kidman. It’s interesting how Kidman has this sense of “jealousy” torwards Cruise, questioning his talking to a couple of models at the party, ironically while he had attended the Escort-Matter in the bathroom, not to mention her dancing with the older aristocratic-type that had been hitting on her aggressively during such.

    ****Unknowingly, we meet the Escort during the “Mysterious” Secret-Society Ritualistic “Gathering,” she sacrifices herself and Cruise is dumbfounded as to know who she is & why she’s doing this for him.
    At the same time, Cruise finds himself being notice by another “masked” attendee during Ritual performance and we soon find out that this is Sydney Pollack.
    Cruise reads the newspaper to find an article about a former-beauty queen had passed away…so suspiciously, Cruise takes it upon himself to visit the morgue to view her body to see if this is the same Over-dosed Escort from the Bathroom.
    After the Morgue, Cruise visits Pollack’s home again and they discuss the events of the Escort, her death and everything else involved….even though Pollack doesn’t give any real clear answers.

    I think it’s interesting that all this can tie into just this one “Bathroom” scene with these characters…..it’s also interesting that this Article or one selection within had brought this interpretation from myself just this moment….so yup, this is a rambling of “stream of consciousness”
    🙂

    • Kenneth Paul Koelling

      enjoyed your comments very much, and agree my mind went to the bathroom scene in Eyes Wide Shut.

      • V.C. Privitera

        thanks man…pretty cool you had the same instant of thought I had when reading the headline to the Article itself!
        Either way, just rereading what I wrote awhile back, since you said you liked my comments…I wanted to remind myself or see what I had originally written and within seconds, I remembered “yup, I definitely recall this article striking my interests!”
        “Eyes Wide Shut” is also just a complete underrated masterpiece of Cinema…I think people just didn’t jump on it or get into immediately, cause the film itself came out in the year 1999, which I also recall or have mentioned in other articles
        on this very site that “1999” was one over-flooded, but consistent year of great Films being released one after another.
        I would say, personally, “Eyes Wide Shut” is my all-time favorite Kubrick film…even though his other films are of unquestionable value in being Masterpieces themselves…but “Eyes Wide Shut” has continuously, since it’s release, been a film that reveals more & more details I’ve seemingly missed.
        And that is artistic-quality that suits my Personal-Taste more than anything!

  • bathroomtile

    This might sound strange. But there’s something that always catches my eye and I’ve never seen anyone address it, in regards to Kubrick’s style. I don’t know how to put it, but I guess a description would be shiny walls. I don’t know how coincidental this is, but there are several Kubrick movies in which it would seem that the walls have been waxed so as to reflect ceiling lights or windows horizontally accross the wall’s surface. Off the top of my head, you see it in the dormitory in Full Metal Jacket and in the main hallway of The Shining. Pretty sure I’ve seen it in Clockwork as well.