Suddenly dead Sunday at the age of 70, Stanley Kubrick was more than a filmmaker— he was a major manufacturer of the last half of the 20th century, a hermit CEO of hip public culture. His death was a shock in a way show business deaths rarely are; Kubrick had been there, in the darkness, for so long, always noodling around with some eagerly awaited, long-delayed project, that it’s startling to ponder the film landscape without his looming presence. It’s difficult to quantify his influence— who has dared to make a self-
evidently Kubrickian movie, and what in any event would that be?— but his reign over the imagination of serious and semiserious filmgoers is unchallenged. Everyone has at least one memory of where they were, how old they were, and what perverse, youthful ideas about art they held dear when they first saw a Kubrick movie. Whatever else they may or may not be, they are experiences that mark your memory like lightning marking the core rings of tree.
Actually, Kubrick the Filmmaker overshadows Kubrick the Films. Certainly, he had in many ways the most remarkable career of any director. That is, no other filmmaker has ever at-
tracted (or produced himself) such a seductively mythic profile. Nero-like in his laziness yet superhumanly obsessive, world-famous yet reclusive, accessible to the hoi polloi yet maddeningly mysterious to academe, Kubrick was closer to an auteurist Charles Foster Kane than Welles ever was, building his Xanadu-like castle of indolence anew with each new film. After 2001, it
wasn’t the films that awed us so much as the knowledge that there was such a filmmaker, a silent, implacable, megalomanic titan using any earthly matter he wished to re-create reality every six years or so, at his own pace and whim. The films may still feel sui generis, but if they lack in hindsight the blinding power of the defining moment in which Kubrick handed them down to us, then remember Kubrick as a factor in our cinematic development, not as the visionary he probably doubted himself as being.
Famously, he started out a Bronx Jew, a doctor’s son and a sufficiently gifted photographer to have been assigned a staff position at Look magazine before he graduated high school. He became a seat-of-the-pants indie director in 1953, with the abstracted war saga Fear and Desire, at a time when independently financed films were exploitation alone. From there, he was a noiriste (with Jim Thompson’s The Killing), an epic-maker (Spartacus), a conflicted Hollywood auteur (walking off One-Eyed Jacks when Marlon
Brando said, in reply to Kubrick’s question about what in hell the movie might be about, “It’s about the money I already owe Karl Malden”). Then, with the stunning, and stunningly manifold combo of Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick became something altogether new, a da Vinci of pop cinema.
After that, movies for Kubrick were a monstrous ship at sea, and he its only captain. Often pursuing his private aesthetic prey to the cliff edge and beyond, Kubrick knew no fashion, no practical bounds. It also should be said that Kubrick made his largest dent in the public skull as the art-film master for people who cannot tolerate art films— his trademarked surfaces and rhythms were always unique and bewitching, even as his themes and tone ranged from simplistic to incomprehensible. Why he made the films he made, no one knows— which makes a convincing case for Kubrick as a befuddled artist whose befuddlement worsened with age and sovereignty, and whose galvanic visual sense made it not matter. The stories of his filmmaking methods— the massive (and self-
insured) overruns, the millions spent while Kubrick wandered his set, requesting hundreds of identical takes or, often, not shooting anything at all, the years of editing-room tinkering— add decaying glamour to his image, but too often the films themselves bore out too much lethargy, indecision, surface, and a fascination with gadgets. Perfunctory motifs aside, Kubrick’s films share only his clinical, indifferent-God-like POV, and many of the movies turn out to be secretly autobio, portraits of a monarchial ego struggling for control of its universe. (That could include One-Eyed Jacks.) It’s the central theme of films by many domineering sensibilities, but Kubrick is a different sort of Zeus: if Godard plays God in his video chalet, how many care? For Kubrick, nothing was too large to exercise his might over, not even the international blockbuster system of the ’90s, and the eight-figures-per-film power-career of Tom Cruise.
It’s not clear to what extent Kubrick had completed Eyes Wide Shut. He never seemed to finish his films, only abandon them— how to anticipate a Kubrick film fiddled with by others? Hopes are wild for it, as they always have been for Kubrick’s every step into the breach, however much he had deliberately baited us by taking so many, presumably necessary, years between films. One can be forgiven, I think, at the climax of the 35-year-long Age of Kubrick, for having doubts about the coherency of 2001, the bizarre ethics of A Clockwork Orange, the turgid irony of Barry Lyndon, the corrosive confusion of The Shining, the structural uneasiness of Full Metal
Jacket, not to mention Kubrick’s otherworldly handling of actors. But they are, all of them, films made as if from the troubled sleep of a compacted genius living alone at the top of the world. (About The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove, there need be little doubt, at least, about their energy, clarity, and genre-beauty.) Kubrick’s films have an extrahuman glow they may not retain in years to come, and Kubrick himself was a self-possessed earthmover in a way not even James Cameron can hope to approach, but the melancholy of pop culture is such that movies, meaning we, must now continue without him, his pregnant career gaps, his odd visions. Surely, there will never be another.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 9, 1999