Those who call Kubrick the greatest director in the history of cinema really do have a point
Not least of the pleasures afforded by this heroically concise biography of Stanley Kubrick, a man who neither embraced brevity nor encouraged it, is that it all but compels you to revisit his wonderful films.
As soon as I’d finished it, I rewatched Dr. Strangelove and The Shining pretty much back to back, both for the first time in a decade or more, and was reminded anew that those who call Kubrick the greatest director in the history of cinema really do have a point.
He made only 13 features in well over 40 years but consider his astounding range: between his first great film, the 1957 anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, and the erotic psycho-drama Eyes Wide Shut, posthumously released in 1999, he gave us Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. For versatility, maybe only his good friend and self-confessed disciple, Steven Spielberg, bears comparison.
Mind you, even though the abundance of quality compensates for the dearth of quantity, it’s still hard not to regret all the films he didn’t make, such as a life of Napoleon, for which he completed a screenplay in the late 1960s, envisaging Jack Nicholson as the lead with Audrey Hepburn as Josephine. The mind boggles, but he’d surely have made it work. Likewise the Holocaust movie he long dreamt of directing, which was shelved in the early 1990s when he found out that Spielberg was working on Schindler’s List. Kubrick decided they should not compete.
Had he ploughed on, one thumping family irony was not lost on him. Though he left New York for good when his children were young, playing the English squire on a sprawling Hertfordshire estate, Kubrick remained a Bronx Jew to his fingertips. Yet his German third wife Christiane, who was really the love of his life, was also the niece of Veit Harlan, the German director who made Jud Süss (1940), one of the most powerfully grotesque of all the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda films.
David Mikics, an American academic, has gathered much of his material from interviews with Christiane, Kubrick’s widow since March 1999, and with others who were close to the great man. The result, unlike most other books about Kubrick, is neither a comprehensive life nor a detailed deconstruction of his work but a beguiling blend of the two, exploring the myriad ways in which his experiences and personality shaped his films.
At times, Mikics is a little fanciful: for instance by contriving a weird parallel between the way the pubescent Lolita escaped her predatory lover Humbert Humbert, and Kubrick’s own later abandonment, as he saw it, by his beloved younger daughter Vivian—who left England for Los Angeles and became a Scientologist. The two situations were hardly analogous, as the author himself acknowledges by emphasising the gulf between Kubrick’s entirely proper paternal love and the infatuated Humbert’s paedophilia. So why bother connecting them?
Mikics is on much stronger ground when examining the significance of Kubrick’s cultural Jewishness, and also detailing how his precocious skill as a photographer went on to influence the way he made films. One Friday in April 1945, while still a schoolboy, he cajoled a newspaper vendor into looking dejected next to the headline announcing the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He took the photo to the offices of Look magazine, and soon he was on the staff, snapping the likes of Frank Sinatra and Leonard Bernstein, though what he really loved were visual parables, such as a crowd of people mindlessly gazing into a monkey house at the zoo, with the monkeys off camera.
Kubrick also adored chess, because it appealed to his passion for problem solving. As a filmmaker, he felt that chess had taught him not to get carried away when a situation looked good, and also to stay calm and logical when confronted with a challenge. For 2001, he engaged Harry Lange, a German scientist at Nasa who had been an acolyte of Wernher von Braun and kept a model of a V-2 rocket in his office. When the British crew saw it they threatened to walk out. That would have enraged some directors. But Kubrick the chess player just asked Lange to remove it. Problem solved.
A maddening perfectionist who engendered not just loyalty, but love, among those who worked for him; the perceived recluse who was a gregarious host; the space-travel nut who refused to fly; the eloquent genius who wouldn’t give interviews; the Jew related by marriage to a Goebbels protege, Kubrick was nothing if not a man of contradictions. They all emerge in this excellent book, which helps us to understand how the man was indivisible from his art.
Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker
By David Mikics
Yale University Press, 248pp, £16.99