What brings the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick to our attention today? Certainly the great exhibition Stanley Kubrick, now showing at CCCB in Barcelona, as well as the exhibition Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, which had its closing day in January at the Museum of the City of New York. Also, the fact that he died exactly 20 years ago, and that we in Modern Times Review take a special interest in documentary work and artistic realism. Describing Kubrick’s work as realist may sound misleading to some – having in mind movies like Eyes Wide Shut (1999), his movies from the ‘60s, 2001:A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove, or The Shining (1980), Barry Lyndon (1975) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).
So let me explain: At the exhibition in New York we encountered Kubrick as a young photographer, from the five years he worked for Look Magazine (1945-50). The photographs display his journalistic and reflected approach, the realism of everyday life, where Kubrick’s gaze and visual approach manifests itself as psychologically revealing. This period must have been formative for his later cinematic art.
Kubrick was 13 years old when he got his Graflex camera and by 17 already was contracted as a photographer with Look. Having grown up in Bronx, he had found many photographic opportunities. The exhibition demonstrates how Kubrick used both hidden and observing camera, for instance in his series «Shoeshine boy» about the youngster Mickey, shining shoes on the streets of New York.
As the youngest person on staff, he often created his image series or photographic essays partnering with a senior journalist. Through these years he achieved mastery in the art of composition, lighting and cropping. He would show up with his camera in the wardrobe of celebrities – with a pronounced interest in how they would compose their public personas. He might sneak behind the scenes in television and radio-studios, visit elite universities, describe the life of a boxer or photograph animals in a zoo or a circus. One of his picture series shows a monkey in a cage as it is being watched by a group of people, before the perspective is inverted and we look out between the bars together with the monkey, where the captions read «A monkey watching people». It begs the question of who we really are, the people on the other side of the bars?
Kubrick also staged photo series for Look – visually advanced compositions, with individuals in their social surroundings. Examples are the series about marital jealousy or teenage love-life with captions like «A Ladder of Love Development that Reaches from the Cradle to the Grave», or «What Every Teenager Should Know About Dating». Symmetrical oppositions were typical topics for the coming filmmaker already at this point – as in the picture where a woman scribbles the words «I hate love» with her lipstick.
In contrast with the more spectacular visual magazine Life, Look (which was discontinued in 1971), remained direct and down to earth through the ’40s and ‘50s. Their slogan was «Inform and Entertain» – and they had millions of readers.
Kubrick’s detail-oriented and observing gaze was born with Look magazine but also took shape with the post-war ethos and esthetics as a backdrop. On closer scrutiny, or upon reading Stanley Kubrick at Look Magazine (2013) by Phillippe Mather, you can discern certain photographic techniques from his years in the magazine – like frozen image, inserted photos, zoomed long takes with people at the center, symmetrical compositions, varied depth of focus or natural lighting. Also, in the movies he would create later on, techniques from these years appear – such as montage, didactic voiceovers (captions in Look), the use of signs to denote the action, or advanced pictorial constellations. Kubrick published hundreds of photographs for Look – the museum in New York holds a collection of no less than 12 000 negatives. The selection of 120 images at the exhibition suffices to give an idea of how the policy of Look Magazine influenced his later career aesthetically and ideologically.
Kubrick tried to lift the veil that hides the true nature of things from our gaze
Later on Kubrick also made some documentaries and a couple of feature films (Killer’s Kiss and The Killing). It was only when he started to draw upon the style of a master like Max Ophuls, and employed the filmic slowness of Andrej Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni that he attained fame – and developed into the genius director we all know.
From New York, I later made my way to the CCCB museum in Barcelona (where the Kubrick exhibit is on until March 31.), where the transition from photography to film was made clearer.
Kubrick was an autodidact. On the museum wall [see image] with the montage of videos, interviews and biographical photos of the filmmaker he comments this fact himself: «I think that if I had gone to college, I would never had become a director.»
In our context, I would like to highlight the movies that take the modern, technological society as their topic – especially Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the montage on the wall, Kubrick confesses his fear of the nuclear bomb in the ‘60s. The more he studied, the more involved he got. Dr. Strangelove (1964) came out two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, with the US and Russia giving up the INF-disarmament treaty, the film is regaining relevance. As the song goes at the end of the movie: “We’ll meet again.»
Dr. Strangelove regains its relevance now that USA and Russia has given up the INF disarmament treaty
Based on a lucid, unsentimental and unflinching portrayal of reality, Kubrick created a black nightmarish comedy where Peter Sellers (from The Pink Panther) plays no less than three roles. The film is a satirical depiction of humanity’s capacity to meticulously construct the mechanisms of our own destruction – with no redemption. It is a dark fable of how humans create systems that may unleash total war, but without the means to undo it once it is set in motion – in this case by a madman. In our time we could probably say that the madness is the same, only constructed by complexities of the military-industrial complex led by USA’s arms race. The film’s model of the «The War Room», created by Ken Adam and exhibited in Barcelona [see image], is a last resort, conceived as the last stronghold of history.
The film radically subverts the novel Red Alert (by Peter George) with the aid of the great writer of counterculture, Terry Southern, who wrote the script. Kubrick inserts the satirical element already in the subtitle Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb. The film alternates between the realistic and documentary-like and more stylized parodic scenes. In essence the military-industrial complex itself is epitomized by the movie’s doomsday machine. As Kubrick says in the montage on the museum wall in Barcelona, the film was his realization of total paradox. A line he would pursue in the years following Dr. Strangelove.
Abstraction, realism and details
But did he hold on to realism? Let me refer to the discourse on realism in the aforementioned Kubrick at Look: «Even the most absurd (Dr. Strangelove), supernatural (The Shining) or otherwise estranged (2001: A Space Odyssey) fictional worlds in Kubrick’s works are grounded in an accuracy of detail and documentary realism.» This was equally important since the unknown only could function within an established reality. Despite Kubrick’s seemingly changing aesthetics, the book claims that he never lost his rooting in the photographic projects of the 1930s, nor of John Grierson’s definition of film as a «creative reworking of reality». From Look, he learned the «direct cinema» of the era, where verisimilitude – regardless of genre – was deemed crucial for the audience to identify with what happened on the screen.
For instance, Kubrick said to New York Times in 1958 that the light had to come from natural angles, to attain «a heightened reality-effect». Setting him apart from film noir, perhaps. And in 1980, after the premiere of The Shining, he explains that credibility is achieved by «setting up the lighting almost like a documentary». This is no less than 30 years after he left Look Magazine.
We are in the middle of the most important revolution of our times, which was Kubrick’s great concern at the end of his life
The exhibition in Barcelona clearly conveys Kubrick’s detail-oriented approach to movie-making. He also personally affirmed how scientifically meticulous he performed his work, where he for instance employed «actual elements as a means» to build credibility and to prepare the audience for «more speculative and purely visionary aspects». Throughout, Kubrick was fantastically concerned with details; for the audience to be emotionally captivated by a film, they would first need to believe in the «reality» of a fictional world.
But Kubrick is also an intellectual artist. From the montage on the gallery wall in Barcelona, Kubrick talks to us about abstraction in film in connection to Dr. Strangelove: «You know, abstract ideas, clearly or comically stated – people do not react to abstract ideas. They only react to direct experience.» And he expands further «Very few people are interested in abstractions, and even fewer people can become emotionally involved, or emotionally react to abstraction.» Yet, with film as his medium he wanted to penetrate to a realm beyond everyday appearance.
So how to transmit intellectual abstractions or deeper existential concerns on film? In the anti-war movies Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick seemed to demonstrate that warfare as such always turns against the participants themselves. Kubrick exercised a kind of profound dissolution of our established order. The real machinations of the world are hidden behind a veil of conventions: He tried to pull away the veil that hides from our gaze the real essence or nature of things, their true force. Maybe a kind of «fundamental materialism», eschewing the transcendental world, regarding humans in their nakedness, without a God?
At least he accomplished 12 feature films, before he abruptly passed in 1999. Consulting a solid Norwegian Kubrick anthology, Kubrick: Overblikk og labyrint (Overview and labyrinth) (2001 ed. Arnstein Bjørkly), abstraction and realism is yet again a central topic. As the French critic Philippe Fraisse states in the book, Kubrick tackles the human condition as an «unending spiritual agony, wavering between their drives and their unspeakable fear», which marks all of our enigmatic existence. Thus, realism can also mean distancing oneself from traditions and habits to see with a heightened clarity – more realistic than sleepwalking through our everyday routines.
The journalistic approach from the Look period also makes itself manifest in the way the supernatural, grotesque or the absurd is embedded in a solid reality As the director once said in a 1971 interview with Penelope Huston: «I have always enjoyed dealing with a slightly surrealistic situation and presenting it in a realistic manner.» And the critic Robert Koehler calls Kubrick’s films «docufictions» animated by the documentarian’s «observational advantages of distance, comment and overview.»
2001: A Space Odyssey
But let me pursue the topic of realism a little further: The aforementioned Fraisse also writes that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was reproached for being too abstract – as Kubrick rather than portraying our reality, allows almost symbolic characters to act out fables. But precisely here «we are dealing with a higher form of realism, a more fitting expression of the concrete. And «the concrete is the powers that act in us, beyond all words.»
On the other hand, after the premiere of 2001, the filmmaker Alain Resnais commented (to the film review, Positif) that «Kubrick makes us feel that we are watching a documentary», that this space voyage is real. … After presenting us with a distinctly scientific story, he succeeds in making us accept a ride into the imaginary in the last section.». Kubrick actually planned a ten minute long documentary introduction to 2001, shot in black and white – interviews with scientists about extraterrestrial life – as he worried that the audience would find the film too fanciful.
In 2001 we encounter the «thinking» computer of the spaceship, HAL 9000 who conducts a full blown mutiny, killing four astronauts before the fifth, David Bowman, manages to disconnect it. Bowman tugs out the digital chips while during the lobotomy the machine behind the yellowish red «eye» says: «I can feel it. I can feel it. I am afraid.»
And what power Kubrick demonstrates in the beginning of 2001, where the ape launches the bone up in the air before he cuts millions of years forward to the spaceship with a similar form? Indeed, in 2001 – in its alternation between realism and imagination – we can perhaps find a hope of something beyond the human even in a godless world?
Not only did Kubrick take on the problems of nuclear anguish with Dr Strangelove, or our technological rapture and striving for eternal life in 2001. He also sternly questioned the significance of artificial intelligence, where machines «take over» the human realm. For where is the enormous efforts to produce artificial intelligence taking us? Some years before these two films, Martin Heidegger wrote (In the Question Concerning Technology, 1957) that human life is increasingly dominated by a way of being and thinking where the surroundings and other people are seen as a resource or a standing-reserve to be readily exploited. An instrumentality where we risk becoming objects among objects – like algorithms and money dominate our current world with hardly any room for freedom and alternative interpretations. We are approaching the robot’s machinic way of existence. Our contemporary versions of HAL are ubiquitous virtual machines, «big data» and surveillance (recognition algorithms), where artificial intelligence is used by numerous actors besides Facebook and Google…
Kubrick’s planned film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which he kept reworking through the ‘90s, had to yield to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). A.I. would involve a Pinocchio-like figure with the same yearning to be human. The humanist Kubrick is not alone in taking on the significance of replicants and Frankenstein-like creations. Kubrick’s unfinished film was an enormously ambitious project, as Bjørkly mentions in his anthology: It «could have become a kind of virtual reality-sequel to 2001.» In 1995 Kubrick handed the film over to Steven Spielberg who finished it in 2001.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick begins with the chapter called «Dawn of Man» and he ends with «Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite», where he introduces a kind of eternal recurrence with an astral embryo as a token of transcendence.
Today, with the investments in artificial intelligence and high tech weaponry, we are in the middle of what may well be the most important revolution of our times. In the 20 years since Kubrick passed we have seen new algorithms, the smart phone revolution, internet, automation, drones and possible employment of mini nuclear weapons. What these films essentially depict is a historical development nearly beyond human control. Thus, Kubrick’s relevance today is momentous.