This essay is part of Lewton Bus KubrickWeek – check out the link to keep up with all of our content to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There have been many titans of cinema, directors, producers, actors, editors, and writers, etc. who have been instrumental in shaping the history and aesthetics of film, but few have garnered the intense following and study as Stanley Kubrick. He is the ubiquitous auteur, the difficult genius accepting nothing less than perfection, the recluse, and the bully.1 His greatest appreciators are filmmakers, film scholars, and film nerds – those folks who obsess about his films nearly as much as he did, and argue endlessly about their meaning, about their style, about their import.
If you are one of these, which considering you are here reading this you probably are, you have almost certainly used, or at least heard, the term “Kubrickian” to describe a film or filmmaker. It is applied to those showing a particularly obsessive quality; a penchant for obscured meaning and dense theme; a love of idiosyncratic framing and camera moves built around stillness and exacting placement.
But what does it mean to call a film or filmmaker “Kubrickian”? What qualities must be fulfilled or avoided in order for it to apply? And where do these ideals come from?
What is it that made Kubrick Kubrick?
“There is such a total sense of demoralization if you say you don’t care. From start to finish on a film, the only limitations I observe are those imposed on me by the amount of money I have to spend and the amount of sleep I need. You either care or you don’t, and I simply don’t know where to draw the line between those two points.” – Stanley Kubrick (The Stanley Kubrick Archives, published by Taschen)
Perhaps one of Kubrick’s best known and least understood traits was the obsessive nature with which he made his films. His intense attention to the details of all aspects of production is well documented, and was always for the better of the film, though not always for the better of his cast and crew – I love The Shining, but feel eternally bad for poor, put-upon Shelley Duvall, whom I adore.
Kubrick was as complex as his work, and often romanticized (as are most difficult geniuses), though I think the above quote gets at the heart of the matter: it was on or off. You either cared or didn’t. Did he inspire others? Often yes, and sometimes no. Many people adored him, and others hated him, vowing never to work with him again. He pushed his actors and his crew to do their best work, to find something beyond what they thought was possible.
On perhaps no film was this more evident than Eyes Wide Shut.
With the backing of a studio that was hungry to get back in the Kubrick business after a 12 year absence, and two leads who were game to play by his rules in the world he was creating, the film shot for 52 weeks. It was an exercise in patience as Kubrick not only focused on every detail from the set decoration to costume design to camera, but as he painstakingly built the film layer by layer from the blueprint of the script into something more. In the end he delivered his final masterpiece, and by all accounts was delighted with the result.
Few directors working today are afforded that luxury, though some certainly take it. David Fincher is (in)famous for massive numbers of takes, also in search of that perfect spark to ignite his film. Peter Jackson pushed for incredible detail on The Lord of the Rings films, and James Cameron is known for being difficult and exacting on his sets, and now looks for ultimate control within digital worlds.2
Is this attention to detail, often called obsessive or perfectionist in a pejorative way, a Kubrickian trait? Is it something that is unique to only him and a handful of others, or is it merely the trait of an impassioned director, and it is those who are content to say “good enough” who are the outsiders and the oddballs?
Film is sound and vision. Movement, light, shadow, music, and sound effects combine alchemically to become something greater. Directors are the mad scientists, often defined by the way in which they use the camera, their choice of framing to tell their stories, and, I would argue, the knowledge they bring to their decisions. Kubrick was famously meticulous in his use of these tools, and often employed the same techniques throughout his career, using them to keep the audience right where he wanted them – not too close, but not too far, either.
Kubrick’s camera rarely stepped outside of its own POV. It is not often that you are unaware of the camera in a Kubrick film, not because it is undisciplined or indulgent, but the opposite. It is controlled, and it plants the audience firmly as an outsider, even beyond the outsiders who are at the centers of his films.
This makes sense when you consider where he got his start – as a stills photographer, both as an amateur, and as a professional for LOOK! Magazine. The job of the photographer is often, in my opinion anyway, to close the distance between viewer and subject, and yet we are always separated by the camera itself. It is an impartial instrument used in the pursuit of intimacy.
Over and over again his motion picture camera does the same, embracing the barrier of the lens to distance us from the actions and viewpoints of his characters in much the same way they are distanced from the world around them. It is not the perspective of god, but of a spirit, perhaps.
In long tracking shots we travel with the protagonist at eye level as they pass through the world, or as the world passes over them, firmly planted in their small sphere and yet never invited inside, doomed to remain helpless witnesses to their terror, or joy.
In Paths of Glory, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket Kubrick uses this technique to very different effect. In Paths of Glory it illustrates the way Col Dax’s rank has separated and isolated him from his men; they part before him like the Red Sea before Moses, respectful of the symbol he represents, but with little understanding of the man who carries it.
In The Shining it moves the Overlook around the Torrances, illustrating that they are not in it, but that it surrounds them. It has engulfed and devoured them, and they are merely moving through it, as though being digested. It also puts us near to Danny, a silent observer to the horrors the hotel shows him again and again, unable to look away – there is no respite as we either face it directly along with young Danny, or are shown the effect it has on him.
In Full Metal Jacket Gny. Sgt. Hartman commands the frame as he walks around and around the room, sizing up his recruits and imposing his will, pushing his frame into their space. He has built his isolation from his men purposefully, and uses it to intimidate.
Aronofsky famously uses a lot of tracking and steadicam shots, though his camera often remains behind the character (especially in The Wrestler) and sometimes over the shoulder, working to create intimacy. Matt Reeves explicitly reproduces the shot from Paths of Glory in War for the Planet of the Apes as Caesar moves through his ape troops on the frontline to evoke the same idea – that Caesar is revered, and forever separate from those he leads despite his desire to be a part of them. And like Douglas’ character, he must learn to accept his position, to accept that he will forever remain outside of the lives of those he leads.
Kubrick also used tableaus, sometimes combined with long slow zooms or dollies in or out as characters remain almost perfectly still. Again, he demonstrates the “otherness” of his protagonists. They are often observers of the world as it moves past them. They are caught in stasis and helpless, able only to watch as the world continues on without concern for them, or effect on them.
Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange feature some of Kubrick’s most famous tableaus, especially the Lady Lyndon with her young children, and the famous Milkbar dolly out on Alex and his Droogs. Lady Lyndon has been put under glass by Barry, little more than a possession and a curio for him to trot out when he so desires.
And where many of Kubrick’s protagonists are pushed to the outside through circumstance or consequence, Alex and his Droogs sit jeering at society from the comfort of the Milkbar, unconcerned with its rules or morals, content to indulge in their basest natures, taking from the world what they desire or need.
You can see echoes of A Clockwork Orange in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, especially in the way he shoots post-rehab Renton. It is not 1:1, but it has the same flavours as Kubrick’s film and techniques, especially in the way it uses the stillness of the main character in a world that continues to move around him as visual metaphor for outsiderism, of observing without the ability (or desire) to participate. There are many crossovers between the two films, as it feels very much like Boyle modeled his film on Kubrick’s classic in terms of the journey of the protagonist, and the way they interact with the world around them.
There are a million stories about outsiders, and so that in itself is not Kubrickian, but I would argue that few filmmakers embrace the objective nature of the camera in the same way as Kubrick. Instead they attempt to impose a subjective, or at least empathetic, viewpoint on the camera, attempting to break down that barrier between character and viewer.
Kubrick often ruminated on projects for years or even decades before he tackled them, and expressed regret in later life that he had not made more films. But his approach to story was one that not only needed, but took the time to digest and explore the themes and character that drew him to a work, and to make it his own, whether it was 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, or Eyes Wide Shut, and likewise audiences and critics tend to need time to digest and explore his resultant films. They are dense and multi-layered, with meaning in every frame and every line of dialogue. Certainly this study of his films can and has been taken too far, as in the very entertaining, but bonkers Room 237,3 but the nature of his films certainly invites this deep analysis.
He almost exclusively adapted previously published works, but preferred to mold the ideas, images, and themes that interested him into something that was wholly his own, and not beholden to the original work, sometimes to the chagrin of the work’s original author….
Adaptation is a tricky business at the best of times, and there is always some measure of controversy when famous or well-loved books are made into movies. Christopher Nolan is a modern director who, while he tends to write original films, took the character of Batman and molded him into something that he responded to on a much deeper level than mere superheroic fantasy. He used the character to explore themes of responsibility, of fear and chaos, and ultimately, hope. They were films that resonated with audiences worldwide, helped to usher in a golden age of superhero cinema, and The Dark Knight in particular remains a high water mark in the genre because of the personal vision behind it.
Paul Thomas Anderson is also no stranger to adapting material in order to suit his needs as a filmmaker, most particularly with There Will Be Blood, based on the novel OIL!, though he used it as little more than inspiration for his script.
It is far from unheard of for filmmakers to adapt with impunity, moving and changing and creating wholesale to birth something marked with their authorial stamp, often taking years or decades to bring it to the screen. So while it is certainly a defining aspect of Kubrick’s work, it is hardly singularly Kubrickian.
Often classified as a cold, misanthropic filmmaker, his films cynical and bereft of emotion, Kubrick used style and story to keep the audience at a distance, and obfuscated his intentions through layers of both meaning and meaninglessness. He was not content to rely on a single tone, and much like the complexity of the humanity that he explored, his films defied simple categorization.
Within his work is a man who is clearly wrestling with a great admiration for the heights that humanity can possibly reach, and a deep disdain for the depths to which we can plunge. He is attempting to reconcile our nature, hoping for some epiphany or clarity, if not in the world then in his work. But as always, it is not the answers that are important, but the questions.
Kubrick’s understanding that we as a species are both great and terrible is present in every frame of his films, and often causes audiences to reject his films for being difficult and impenetrable. He manages to exist in both utter sincerity and utter absurdity at the same moment, but always with precise control. And I think that it is this duality that inspires continued obsession with his films from some, and stubborn dismissal by others.
There are few other directors who seem to even approach this level of thematic and tonal complexity, often falling into the easier, “colder” aesthetic. Fincher is a filmmaker who is often seen as distant and impersonal, often eschewing sentimentality to explore the same dark corners of the human soul as Kubrick did, and often with the same mischievous satirical humour.
Wes Anderson leans further into the absurdity paradigm, preferring to paper over the emotion of his films with a storybook veneer that heightens reality.
So a Kubrickian tone is not as easy or prevalent as one might think, despite many filmmakers seeming to ostensibly follow his lead.
Stanley Kubrick was a singular voice in cinema, one of the few directors who commanded great critical and commercial acclaim for the majority of his films, even while courting controversy. His eye for, and dedication to, the fine detail that made up the worlds of his films is infamous, and his command of the tools of his art is legendary. He is both overblown and dismissed, revered and reviled.
His films continue to inspire and provoke, and draw comparisons almost constantly to those filmmakers who chase his ghost across celluloid. But he was more than a collection of tics, or tricks; he was more than a creator of intricate puzzle boxes carved from the human soul; more than a genius and a madman.
He was Stanley Kubrick, and no matter your opinion of him, he was one of a kind.
- He was a far more complex human than any of these words suggest, as are we all.
- I wonder sometimes how Kubrick would have reacted to digital filmmaking technology had he lived long enough and been well enough to use it – he was a notorious early-adopter, using networked computers in the 1970s to communicate with his collaborators and staff and to organize his notes. I think he would have loved it.
- Though there are two things to be said about this: 1) I think that it was 100% purposeful, and indeed the point of the film that these theories are ridiculous, and 2) I also think that Kubrick would have taken great delight in the way that people see things that (I presume) aren’t there in the film – one of the many things layered into his films is a mischievous sense of humour, a subtle satire that colours all of his work.