There is a peculiar rumor circulating that Stanley Kubrick expired while clutching a fax from a top Warner Bros. executive congratulating him on his recently screened Eyes Wide Shut. That this was a favorable missive is what makes the report so mordant, so mysterious. Caustic rumors about Kubrick are at the heart of his legacy–especially his modern legacy, since his films of the last two decades have come so many years apart and have been so not-worth-the-wait. His name has become an adjective for overcontrol. It is said that Kubrick sent his scripts–or pages thereof–around in plastic bags, to be read by the intended recipient and then returned via hovering messengers. Security around Eyes Wide Shut was likened to Los Alamos, except we now know that the Chinese penetrated Los Alamos. No one outside Warners knows much about the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman thriller set to be released on July 16 after an eyes-wide-opening 15 months of shoots and reshoots.
Paranoia isn’t the worst vice a director can have. Nor is ruthless perfectionism, although Kubrick tested that theory. On The Shining, after the 70-somethingth take of a simple shot in which Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall did little more than cross a busy street, Nicholson reportedly approached the director and said, “Er, Stanley, I normally peak on the 63rd take.” There were apparently no accidents, happy or unhappy, on a late Kubrick movie–no messy intrusions of life, no funk. These were giant, hermetically sealed constructions. And they were all Kubrick. Acquaintances in the English film industry report that on days when Kubrick didn’t feel like directing, production of Eyes Wide Shut shut down. What would be the point of coming in?
Those who’ve had experiences with amphetamines can recognize some characteristics of Kubrick’s oeuvre: the brilliance and exactitude of individual sequences in what was often a sour, fuzzy whole. The upshot of such control, however, is that each film is sui generis, each with its own unique architecture, its own singular–and vastly influential–cinematic metaphor. The tight, clockwork construction of his early masterpiece, the heist drama The Killing, is gloriously in sync–and then bitterly at odds–with the robbery’s unraveling. The waltzing impersonality and blurriness of 2001 make the dismantling of its most human character–the computer HAL–more vivid than any other death in modern movies.
Even those of us who think The Shining was a botch can appreciate its Steadicam tricycle treks around that huge, empty hotel, which capture indelibly the circular, labyrinthine evil at the heart of the story. Even those of us who despise Full Metal Jacket will not shake off the effects of its formally brilliant, 45-minute opening boot-camp sequence, in which men are mechanistically stripped of their individuality to prepare them to go forth and kill. I’ll despise Kubrick forever for associating Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Singin’ in the Rain,” and some of the most glorious works of Handel and Purcell with sadomasochism and man’s inhumanity to man. But even at his most glibly nihilistic, in AClockwork Orange, Kubrick foresaw the punk movement in a way that makes the overused term visionary seem an understatement.
An omniscient spellbinder who was also cynical and limited–that’s not the worst legacy a filmmaker can have, especially one who gave us some of our culture’s most enduring visions of the absurdity of war, both satirical (Dr. Strangelove) and gruelingly earnest (Paths of Glory).
In an autobiography, Kirk Douglas–who worked with the director on Spartacus and Pathsof Glory–remembered a nasty, credit-hogging character, less noble and more commercially ambitious than he has subsequently been depicted. That’s at odds with the portrait of a man who was, for better or worse, a pinnacle of integrity. While his movies are thought of as huge (they are certainly hugely expensive), Kubrick’s crews were legendarily tiny–in many cases no more than 15 people–and the director himself would go around arranging the lights in the manner not of a deity but of an electrician or plumber. Where most people think of Kubrick’s films as having been storyboarded to death–predigested–others report that he often wandered his sets with a camera lens, groping for shots on the spot. He spoke in an engaging nebbishy Bronx-Jewish accent that was always a shock to hear–like the voice of the unmasked Wizard of Oz, it didn’t belong. On his sets he wore the same outfits; it is said that, like Einstein, he had five or more of each lined up on hangers. The act of making choices was clearly excruciating to him; that’s why the choices he made are so memorable.
There’s a fear of greatness in American pop culture–of artists who outlast their moment of young promise and insist on developing a personality. I can’t think of any other explanation for the cruel tone that has entered into the obituaries for Stanley Kubrick, one of the last filmmakers who painted images in a grand style. An obituary in the New York Times used the word cold three times, and for good measure added chilly, icy, bleak, and grim. Kubrick the Cold is a cliché that cropped up in the columns of Pauline Kael and now serves as a comfy sofa for those who don’t want to deal with Kubrick’s ambition. Certainly, he was not a warm, cuddly director, but what great director ever has been? The best of his films–The Killing, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and The Shining are wearing especially well–provide a peculiar kind of exhilaration. They make me happy, they make me laugh. I’m responding not only to the director’s generous wit but also to his bravado. These movies are visual, musical, and verbal dances in which even the most minor player and the tiniest detail move to the main tune. If this was cold, then so was Fred Astaire.
The question is: What is art supposed to do for us? Should it make us feel better about our lives, show us friendly mirrors? In that case, Kubrick was no good. But if art is supposed to open up strange vistas, make us think twice about the ordinary, then Kubrick was a big deal. His most uncanny disclosures came not in the obvious transcendentalism of 2001 but in TheShining–which, barring some last miracle in the forthcoming Eyes WideShut, ought to be his masterpiece. (Eyes Wide Shut is already a conceptual masterpiece insofar as it locked up Tom Cruise for years on end and lost Hollywood millions of dollars.) Here Kubrick took a seemingly worn-out genre, the haunted-house chiller, and found dozens of new corridors. Look at it again and see it how pins down formulas of everyday life. Nicholson shouts workplace banalities while waving his bat: “Have you ever thought for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers?” The TV keeps up an endless, sinister JonBenet chatter: “The search is still on for that missing Aspen woman.” Just the light in the movie is amazing: all that blinding snow, all those fades to white. (Edmund Burke’s “light which is converted into a species of darkness.”) How many pretentious, earth-toned hotels catering to “all the best people” remind you of The Shining? It’s cold out there, sometimes.