Saturday 5 November 2022

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema - Bruce Hodsdon continues his series - 6 (4) ‘New York’ filmmakers (2): Stanley Kubrick - Creator of Forms

Stanley Kubrick (2nd left) directing
Dr Strangelove

The series on the 60 years international of art cinema 1960-2020 by Bruce Hodsdon continues with the second essay on New York film-makers. It follows the notes on Elia Kazan and Shirley Clarke, a link to which is provided at the end of the essay


These notes are accompanied by a set of summary table and decadal lists of art film directors 1970-2020 (click to link)  which contain 5 lists 1970-2020 including a list of women art film directors over the full 60 years from 1960),  


The sixties is the subject of an on-going separately annotated listing of directors in part 6 divided by nation-states in multiple sections.  



6 (4)   Three ‘New York’ filmmakers (2): Stanley Kubrick - Creator of Forms

Stanley Kubrick (1928-99) was a director of extremes, according to Elsaesser extremes in his person as a control freak, in Kubrick’s own words a “demented perfectionist” with an obsessive demand for privacy and security confounded by a habit of interminable phone conversations with friends, intimates and collaborators*. 


Kubrick’s “mythology of self-contradictions and extremes” should be viewed in his decision c1962 to become a one-man studio locating to Britain where the industry was then undergoing a modest revival to be outlined here in part 6 (7). Kubrick’s intention, however, was to be an American mainstream director rather than a European art cinema director (214). 


2001: A Space Odyssey

The steep decline in the studio system was already underway. His move did not leave Kubrick unaffected as the demise of MGM, under whose umbrella he produced and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), meant the abandonment of his long planned film about Napoleon. The deal he struck with Warner Brothers-Seven Arts was almost unprecedented - complete freedom to choose his subjects, unlimited time and almost unlimited funding to develop them, retaining total control over the execution, final shape and manner of distribution of the finished film - has to be seen Elsaesser suggests within the context of the transformation of American mainstream filmmaking between 1968-75 (ibid). 

As Elseasser explains in more detail, Kubrick was following in the footsteps of the first generation of auteur-producers such as Preminger and Hitchcock after the decartelisation of the studios (the Paramount decree of 1948), Kubrick becoming one of the next generation who along with actors such as Beatty and Redford, established long term professional relationships in Hollywood through their own companies. “It made Kubrick’s apparent eccentricity of filming [initially Lolita and Dr Strangelove] in London as part of a sound Hollywood economic strategy, and put him in this respect level with director-producer- superstars such as Spielberg and George Lucas” (ibid 215).

Above: Kubrick directs Sterling Hayden
Below: Elisha Cook Jr, Marie Windsor
The Killing

Kubrick’s experience of working in classical Hollywood genres: film noir (The Killing), period epic (Spartacus), and terminated after 6 months work on script development on a western with Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks), determined him to continue on an independent course. He found himself at odds with the notion of creativity confined within a tradition, originality requiring breaking with a form simply for the sake of it. This extended to his refusal to invest a work with individual biography and personal touches. Kubrick is quoted as saying that “a truly original mind will not be able to function in the old form and will simply do something different” (ibid 218). While Kubrick didn’t specifically acknowledge it, in addition to his mentor Orson Welles, this determination fits fellow ‘New Yorker’ John Cassavetes  .

Kubrick was a voracious reader and a substantial part of the decade between each ‘one-off’ was devoted to the search for original material on which to base his next film. Eleven of Kubrick’s 13 features are adaptations from novels or, in the case of 2001, a short story. Only his first two features Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss were based on original scripts, the second co-written with a school friend, Howard Sackler, a poet playwright who later wrote The Great White Hope and a notable surrealist one act play about suburban impotence, The Nine O’Clock Mail. “Both films show a jejune fondness for exploring states of “fear and desire” within loosely conceived and allegorical structures, which, however, provided Kubrick opportunities for technical experimentation and technical overreaching not untypical of 1950s underground film” (Nelson 21). 

Irene Kane, Jamie Smith
Killer's Kiss

Kubrick said that the “writer-director” is really the perfect dramatic instrument and that the combination of those two functions “produced the most consistently fine work.” Nelson adds that “his films stand as testaments to a meticulous architronics in the organisation of their temporal rhetoric,” i.e. using the ‘architecture’ of the images and sound to fully engage the audience through the way time is being experienced (eg by withholding key information). This can greatly affect the viewer’s response to ideas or arguments and narratives. Nelson further notes that “significantly Kubrick, in the course of his career, gained an increasing control and mastery over the two distinct but related phases - the preparation of the screenplay and the editing - in the temporal aesthetics of film.” Nelson cites “the carefully orchestrated and classical structures of 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon [serving as] overt and grandiloquent extensions of a Kubrickian trademark that can be traced back to The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Dr Strangelove" (ibid 8).

Bill Krohn identifies Kubrick's formative influence up to 2001:A Space Odyssey, as Welles. "While Citizen Kane asks the question: what made Charles Foster Kane the man he was, 2001 asks what made Man what he is? (48) Welles opens with the enigma of Rosebud, Kubrick with that of the black monolith. The demarcation line from black and white to colour is initially discreet: “space is black, the spaceship is white.” The film doesn't look like Citizen Kane but “the blocks of time used to tell the story of Kane inspired the form” (ibid). 

Kubrick's 'one-offs', beginning with 2001, as a new phase in his career were in the forefront of new Hollywood's realignment of the notion of the director as auteur in the studio system, which had been, in Elsaesser's words, “a way of valorizing American commercial directors...that had peaked in the mid sixties”(215). Elsaesser then links this to another “crisis of the Old-New Hollywood.”

Extremes also inhabit Kubrick’s films, each of which probe the limits of some aspect of the human condition. He has been described as a cold, clinical, misanthropic filmmaker. Pauline Kael went so far as to refer to their “arctic character”. This is reinforced by Kubrick’s  fondness for the wide angle lens like Orson Welles to create an unusually dynamic, even caricatured, sense of space, and at times bizarre angles afforded by the use of a hand-held camera particularly chosen in filming action. The influence of Welles and Max Ophuls on Kubrick is apparent in his use of the tracking camera but for him having the purpose of creating “a more rigid geometric feeling.” The camera movement is used in “ways echoed in the performance of the actors.” James Naremore suggests that these formal and thematic traits in Kubrick’s films need to be placed in the wider modernist perspective of the grotesque in the history of art. 


Kirk Douglas, Kubrick
Paths of Glory

Drawing on scholarly attempts to explore its implications, Naremore explains the grotesque as a broader category than the medieval carnivalesque and the terrifying in its association with the monstrous, the uncanny and the supernatural. There is a dual aspect, “something in common with such rhetorical figures as ambiguity, irony, and paradox.” Naremore quotes Philip Thompson (The Grotesque) on what Thompson sees as its defining feature:an“unresolved” tension between laughter and some unpleasant emotion such as disgust and fear.” According to Naremore, most writers on the subject see the grotesque as exclusively visual, rendered through pictures or descriptive language.

Returning to Kubrick, Naremore notes that his work was “shaped by the artistic modernism he absorbed in New York during the late 1940s and 50s, at the very moment when black humour and the theater of the absurd were profoundly influencing American culture” (7).  Naremore also notes that Kubrick was the first American director to contribute to the postwar boom in art cinema with his family-financed first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), as already noted, a heavily allegorical drama which showed many signs characteristic of emerging art cinema practice including expressive realism that depends on ambiguity, alienation, angst and absurdity. “What makes the film “artistic “ in a specifically Kubrickian sense however, Naremore concludes, “is its fascination with the grotesque.” 


Irene Kane, Frank Silvera
Killer's Kiss

Kubrick’s next film, the low budget thriller Killer’s Kiss makes the tendency to the grotesque even more apparent. In his first Hollywood genre film, The Killing (1956) there are signs, for example, of Kubrick’s use of ironic contrast between the ‘functional’ v.o. narration providing the time scheme, and the bizarre imagery. The disconcertingly incongruous relation between the comic and the mechanical that has preoccupied Kubrick throughout his career is present in the figure of the mad scientist, part man part puppet, in Dr Strangelove and HAL the computer with an uncannily human voice in 2001. In A Clockwork Orange the very title “indicates a grotesque combination of the organic and the mechanical.”


Naremore observes that “in Welles, the grotesque is Shakespearean, inflected with affectionate, sentimental, and even tragic emotions…Kubrick almost never ventures into that territory. For him it is as if the body is the source of a horror that can be held in check only with a kind of radical, derisive humour” (11).

In 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968) Kubrick brought to the fore his method of “precise deployment of information expressed through control, strategy, and project as in a game of chess” (Paolo Cherci Usai, Nowell-Smith ed. 458) - Kubrick partly supported himself as a chess master in New York in the 50s. In the late sixties, in a time of high uncertainty in Hollywood, Kubrick with carte blanche to continue as he had chosen rather than being made an outcast in the Wellesian mould, was firmly embedded in the UK with his seeming extremes in working methods and treatment of themes and subject matter

The reaction of the MGM suits at the initial preview of Kubrick’s reinvention of the sci-fi genre as a self-described “mythological documentary” was such that through a sleepless night that followed Kubrick feared that he had a disaster on his hands. The critical and blockbuster commercial success of 2001 confirmed him in his abandonment of the structured narrative and dialogue of classical cinema, transforming intellectual ambiguity into sensual abstraction through a modernist immersion in forms.

"...innovatively low lit interiors..."
Barry Lyndon


Less successful with the public was the expressive transformation of genre, Barry Lyndon (1975)a period literary adaptation. Critically recognised in some quarters as one of Kubrick's most personal and complex films, the picaresque epic was mounted in a coldly abstract style in which the grotesque unexpectedly occurs for example in the figure of the grossly made-up Chevalier de Balibari. Filmed in a range of Irish and English landscapes and innovatively low-lit interiors in carefully mounted tableaux, the compositions are designed to evoke 18th Century portraiture and landscape painting. Camera movement is structured into a series of mounted wide angle, slowly backward zoom shots of exterior action and close-ups in interiors deploying a telephoto lens, are integrated into the whole to “suggest the rigidly ordered sociopolitical landscape” enclosing the rise and fall of the title character (David Cook Lost Illusions American Cinema UCLA History vol 9). 

In The Shining (1980) “Kubrick had no interest in satisfying expectations such as are ritualised in the horror film or fairytale.” A major portion of the cinema-going public was unimpressed. After a record first week in America, box office returns fell by more than 50 per cent. “The heterogeneous elements he brought together in The Shining are assembled in such a fashion as to push the temporal rhetoric, referred to above, to another level, “the elements tending to cancel each other out, precluding logical explanation, frustrating interpretation and generally upsetting the audience's accustomed way of reading a film narrative.” Coursodon further suggests that “the motif of labyrinth, central to the film, is an apt symbol for both the film itself and the spectator's predicament...No distinction is made between the rational and the irrational, the normal and the supernatural; the latter must be taken on face value” (188). Instead of being merely self cancelling, Kubrick the creator of forms, is issuing an invitation to the viewer to clean the slate on entry.  

The Shining

In reviewing The Shining on its release in ‘Film Comment’ (16/4 1980) Richard Jameson noted a conceptual resemblance at play between the Kubrick’s ambiguous final image and the one in Michael Snow’s experimental film, Wavelength (1967), a 45 min. slow zoom shot moving from one end of a room to the other exploring time and space in such a way as to directly confront the 'essence of cinema'. Having myself seen Snow’s film more than once, on my viewing of The Shining I agreed with Jameson’s belief that Kubrick would almost certainly have viewed the seminal ‘structuralist’ work. The zoom in Wavelength ends up on the frozen shot of a wave in the ocean hypnotically held while consuming the whole screen, Snow cryptically described the image of the wave as timelessly carrying what he called “an implication of universal continuity.” 


The Shining is full of smooth vertiginous forward motion beginning with sweeping helicopter shots later matching the Steadicam’s inexorable tracking of Danny Torrance on his Big Wheel tricycle manically seeking the ghosts around the next corner of the Overlook Hotel. In an epilogue, in a final visual tour of the Overlook, Kubrick’s camera, like Snow’s in Wavelength, asserts film time and reaffirms the camera’s omniscience and its freedom to travel through space. It picks a picture hanging on the wall and slow zooms into a photograph of the participants in the Overlook’s July 4 Ball in 1921. “But the twenties Jack Torrance, like most of the self-invented Gatsbys that pepper American history, is really just an image,” concludes David Mikics, “not lived reality…Cinema, like the Overlook, promises [Jack]a ghostly immortality” (160). 

Eyes Wide Shut


As the subsequent critical history of The Shining shows and as one of his contemporary collaborators observed : Kubrick's films can, opposite to the blockbuster “seem to be out of time” (Elsaesser 217). His best films, Coursodon concludes, “are first and foremost sensory experiences to be enjoyed and, if possible, discussed as such,” in other words for the viewer to give herself over to the enactment of the vision to be explored.  Of his contemporaries, Kubrick “had the best understanding of the technical possibilities of modern filmmaking and of the ways to translate them into a totally controlled, thoroughly individual vision” (188 Coursodon vol II). It is also a striking doubling down (Kubrick’s ‘Rosebud’) to Torrance’s frozen death mask in the hedge maze that ends the film, not so much a clue as a metaphor for reincarnation with its suggestion of endless repetition, in tune with Kubrick’s ‘youthful’ pessimism.

If there is some suggestion that Kubrick’s films are at least in part post modern in their distancing from humanism, they somehow reject the form of superficial nihilism in their multifarious intensity. When Coursodon reached his conclusion on The Shining Kubrick still had two films to make. He clearly knew that Eyes Wide Shut would be his testament. David Mikics writes that “a new intimacy steals into Kubrick’s work just as it ends with the conclusion of Eyes Wide Shut… which exorcises Kubrick’s earlier pessimism about the chances of individual humans when they are up against the powers that be” (200).                                           

Jonathan Rosenbaum contests the general application of the label ‘perfectionist’ to Kubrick which was only plausible in some areas such as choice of lenses and obsession with checking the quality of individual prints and their projection through his staff. His habit of demanding multiple drafts from writers and his notorious demand for multiple takes Rosenbaum attributes “mostly to Kubrick not deciding what he wanted” leading to “improvisation with actors to great effect” (266). Rosenbaum continues that “the dialectic between control and lack of control eventually becomes not only Kubrick’s method but part of his subject. Both Rosenbaum and Krohn draw on ‘Cinema 2 The Time Image’ in which Gilles Deleuze suggests that “to Kubrick the world itself is a brain, there is an identity of the brain and the world.” This applies to all his films from The Killing in which the brain is the racetrack,in Strangelove it is the War Room, in 2001 HAL’s computer circuits, in The Shining the Overlook Hotel, in Barry Lyndon the bodyand the training camp in Full Metal Jacket. “In each film the brain, the world, and the system connecting the two, starts to break down from internal and external causes, resulting in some form of dissolution (The Killing), annihilation (of the world in Dr Strangelove and HAL’s brain in 2001) or mutilation (of the brain in A Clockwork Orange and the body in BarryLyndon), or madness (The Shining and Full Metal Jacket), which also chart respectively the dissolution of a family and a fighting unit” (267). The only film in which there is no such  breakdown, as Rosenbaum points out, is Eyes Wide Shut “which proceeds with a conventional linear fashion throughout…In this case the brain belongs neither to a single character (like HAL) but to a happily married couple” (ibid).                                                                                               

Christiane Kubrick says of Eyes Wide Shut “that it was a good film for an older person to make. You become more honest with yourself as you grow older…Stanley was much more pessimistic, much more cynical, as a young man.”

 budget  X  gbo as a multiple of budget =  N.American gbo unless otherwise indicated           Lolita 2m X 4 = 8 gbo   Dr Strangelove  2m X 5 = 10 gbo   2001 11m X 26 = 286 (world gbo)    A Clockwork Orange 1.3m X  88 = 114 (world gbo)                Barry Lyndon  12m X 2 = 24 gbo   The Shining 19m X 3 = 57 gbo    Full Metal Jacket  25m X 5 = 125 gbo   Eyes Wide Shut  65m X 2.5 = 163 gbo    




 In 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001, the BFI published a speculative short piece  nominating 5 films that may have influenced Kubrick and Clarke’s vision. The two most likely from the  evidence are several short films Universe (1967), and Jordan Belson’s experimental Allures(1961) and Re-Entry(1964). “Although not as technologically sophisticated as Kubrick’s enterprise, Belson’s films achieve a sense of cosmic consciousness only hinted at in 2001, and levels of design with far greater integrity and vision.” (Gene Youngblood Expanded Cinema 1970 p.156)                                                                                                                               


Thomas Elsaesser, “Stanley Kubrick's Prototypes: The Author as World-Maker” The Persistence of Hollywood 2012 

Bill Krohn, Masters of Cinema: Stanley Kubrick Cahiers du Cinéma 2010 ducinéma  2010                                                     

Jean Paul Coursodon   American Directors vol. II McGraw-Hill 1983  pp182-9 9                                                          

Thomas Allen Nelson  Kubrick Inside a Master’s Maze 1982 Maze  1982                                                 

Michel Ciment Kubrick 1983 Ciment  Kubrick  1983                                                                                           

David Mimies  Stanley Kubrick American Filmmaker 2020 Filmmaker  2020                                                                          

James Naremore  “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque” Film Quarterly vol 60/1 1986 pp.4-15 15                  

Adrian Martin “Eyes Wide Shut”

Jonathan Rosenbaum  “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in Essential Cinema 2004 pp.262-70.



Previous entries in this series can be found at the following links

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke

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