Jesse Wente on Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey


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Jesse Wente on Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is coming to TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 31, alongside a retrospective of Kubrick's filmography. Jesse Wente offers a brief overview of the master filmmaker's life and career.

For info on Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition and the accompanying retrospective, and to buy tickets, visit

A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey

"He gave me as much if not more than I feel I ever, ever could possibly give him. First he gave me all his films, and then he gave me his friendship, which meant he gave me his time" — Steven Spielberg

Whether rushing into photojournalism and then filmmaking as a precocious wunderkind, taking years or even decades to nurture his film projects, creating worlds past or yet to come, or expanding the boundaries of temporality on screen, for Stanley Kubrick time was always of the essence. An intensely private, family-oriented man who revolutionized the imagination of the filmgoing public, he seemed to exist outside the hustle and hurly-burly of Hollywood; and his films, even as they were widely and passionately debated conversation pieces at the times of their release, were built to last. Comprised of extraordinary materials made available by the Kubrick estate, the expansive exhibition Stanley Kubrick provides an invaluable glimpse into the creative process of one of cinema's most enigmatic and essential artists.

Born in the Bronx in 1928, the young Stanley Kubrick was clearly an intelligent child, if rather distracted when actually in the classroom — a situation that became increasingly infrequent, as the burgeoning young chess player seized any opportunity to play hooky and trade pawns in New York's parks and chess clubs. (Chess would frequently figure in Kubrick's films, and the director claimed that the game taught him "patience and discipline" — two properties that would remain very much in evidence in both his life and his work.) Given a still camera by his father at the age of fourteen, Kubrick developed a passion for photography, and by the age of seventeen he was selling shots to Look Magazine.

Already an avid filmgoer, during his time with Look Kubrick became a regular attendee of art and foreign films at local theatres and the Museum of Modern Art. Determined to break into filmmaking, Kubrick rented a camera and set out to make his first documentary short Day of the Fight, inspired by a previous Look assignment that had sent him to photograph a local boxing match. Even in this neophyte effort Kubrick evinced the visual dynamism that would mark his subsequent work, particularly in a staged shot from inside the ring that adopted the upward-looking POV of a fighter knocked flat on his back on the canvas. Day of the Fight, along with his following shorts Flying Padre(about a pilot priest and his expansive New Mexico parish) and The Seafarers (his first colour film, a commissioned portrait of the Seafarers International Union), provided an invaluable training ground for Kubrick. Despite their necessarily short production time, they allowed him to function in almost every key on-set and post-production role (lighting, camera operation, directing, and editing), giving him a craft knowledge that he would bring to bear in his extraordinarily hands-on approach to his later, professional feature films.

After selling Day of the Fight and Flying Padre to RKO, Kubrick sought to attract further Hollywood attention by independently producing and directing a narrative feature. Hastily financed with funds raised from family and friends, the allegorical war picture Fear and Desire(scripted by Kubrick's former high-school classmate and eventual Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Howard Sackler, and starring future filmmaker Paul Mazursky) marked Kubrick's feature-film debut, but after a brief, unsuccessful release it fell into obscurity — not least through the efforts of Kubrick himself, who actively sought to discourage the planned re-release of the obviously imperfect (but nonetheless fascinating) film in the early 1990s.

A still from Killer's Kiss 

Following his second independently financed feature, the cut-rate but strikingly designed noir thriller Killer's Kiss — a tale of a pug fighter on the run from gangsters, which saw Kubrick once again making use of his knowledge of the boxing milieu (including a re-use of 

Day of the Fight's skyward-gazing canvas shot) — Kubrick found entrée to the studios with the terrific, time-jumping heist thriller The Killing, which was co-financed by United Artists and Kubrick's producing partner James B. Harris. Though the film was not a box-office success, it attracted enough critical attention that Kubrick and Harris were able to convince UA to produce the ambitious anti-war film 

Paths of Glory, with mega-star Kirk Douglas in the lead. A gritty vision of WWI trench warfare — whose savage attack on the inhumanity and authoritarianism of military high command led to its being effectively banned in France for nearly two decades — the film not only showed Kubrick's idiosyncratic artistry truly coming into its own, but confirmed the centrality of war in his cinema. Of his thirteen features, nearly half (Fear and DesirePaths of GlorySpartacusDr. StrangeloveBarry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket) deal in some way with combat, while his most famous unrealized project, Napoleon, dealt of course with one of history's most legendary military leaders.

Paths of Glory, in addition to marking a milestone in Kubrick's personal life — as it introduced him to his future wife Christiane Harlan, who has a brief but unforgettable role in the film's emotional finale — also changed the course of Kubrick's career, as its star Douglas shortly thereafter hired Kubrick to replace Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus. The big-budget sword-and-sandal epic was Kubrick's real introduction to the Hollywood system, and the pressures and constraints on creative control that come with it. Feeling railroaded by producer-star Douglas (who later famously asserted that "Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit"), Kubrick relocated to England to film his American-set adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious bestseller Lolita — a move that ultimately became permanent.

All smiles in the War Room. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Following the enormous critical and box-office success of his apocalyptic nuclear-war comedy Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick used his new commercial clout and his own physical distance from Hollywood to secure an almost unprecedented amount of time and (studio) money to develop his next project — a situation that most American directors of any era could only dream of. The nearly three years it took to produce 2001: A Space Odyssey — whose massive cultural impact and commercial success secured Kubrick's artistic and commercial bona fides almost for perpetuity — set the template for Kubrick's working process going forward. Years would pass between features as Kubrick dedicated himself to meticulous research on every facet of his subjects, and devised revolutionary technological innovations to realize his visions. And just as the time between pictures became longer, so too did the actual production process on the films. Fully invested in every aspect of his films' creation, Kubrick famously placed great pressures on both his actors and crew; his willingness to shoot fifty or more takes of even the seemingly simplest scenes attests to his determination to realize his vision as perfectly as possible, regardless of the time required to do so.

On the screen as well, the prolongation of time became a key element of the Kubrickian style. Often making use of long takes, unafraid of silence or seeming inaction, drawing out scenes where another director would have cut away, Kubrick helped bring an expanded notion of "screen time" into mainstream cinema; as the director's Full Metal Jacket collaborator (and long time friend) Michael Herr attests, Kubrick's films make "a powerful assertion that pace is story as surely as character is destiny." That unique use of duration, the felt sensation of time passing, was paradoxically accompanied by a sense of timelessness in the film worlds Kubrick created. The placelessness of Fear and Desire's unspecified war zone would find echoes in the supposedly contemporary but strangely disembodied worlds of LolitaDr. StrangeloveThe Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, while the recreated pasts of Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket are nearly as otherworldly as the speculative futures of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange.

This uncanny feeling of being "outside of time" fits in with Kubrick's reluctance to discuss the meanings of his movies. As Kubrick himself said, "How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.' This would shackle the viewer to reality." It is the films' openness to interpretation, the seemingly infinite range of meanings and reactions they evoke, that has allowed them to transcend their time of release and remain a living part of contemporary culture. In terms of reputation, few filmmakers have benefited from the passage of time as much as Kubrick: the often contentious reception of his films upon their initial release has given way to an ongoing process of rethinking and reclamation on the part of both critics and audiences. As both this astounding exhibition and our accompanying film retrospective attest, it will always be Kubrick's time.

— Jesse Wente

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