The cult of Stan­ley Kubrick: sub­ver­sion, sci-fi and control

A landmark exhibition at London’s Design Museum reveals the story of a man who is as much an enigma as his work.

Nev­er has a com­mit­tee writ­ten a sym­pho­ny,” said the man behind some of cinema’s most icon­ic films, Stan­ley Kubrick. The cult direc­tor con­trolled the film­mak­ing process from start to fin­ish, becom­ing as much a source of fas­ci­na­tion and intrigue as his work. From The Shin­ing to 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clock­work Orange to Loli­ta, his mas­tery of the medi­um has cement­ed his films in our cul­tur­al con­scious­ness – whether we like it or not. 

Assem­bled from a vast archive the New York-born Kubrick built at his home in Hert­ford­shire, south­ern Eng­land, The Design Museum’s cur­rent Stan­ley Kubrick: The Exhi­bi­tion sets out to explore that mas­tery. From a desk of index cards doc­u­ment­ing every day in Napoléon Bonaparte’s life (for a film that, famous­ly, was nev­er made); to scrawled notes for design­er Saul Bass, cri­tiquing his posters for The Shin­ing, the exhi­bi­tion does lit­tle to allay Kubrick’s rep­u­ta­tion as an obses­sive who demand­ed com­plete con­trol. But at what cost? 

Per­fec­tion­ism for Kubrick meant, most of all, the chance to do things over and over again, no mat­ter what, until he found what he felt was right for a par­tic­u­lar scene,” says Fil­ip­po Ulivieri, co-author of Stan­ley Kubrick and Me. Kubrick val­ued time most of all: time is gold,‘ as he repeat­ed­ly said to Nicole Kid­man dur­ing the mak­ing of Eyes Wide Shut.”

Recog­nised by the Guin­ness World Records as the longest run­ning film shoot in his­to­ry, Kubrick painstak­ing­ly re-cre­at­ed down­town New York on the streets of Lon­don for the film, and the exhi­bi­tion con­tains panora­ma pho­tographs of Com­mer­cial Road, tak­en by Kubrick’s nephew and stuck care­ful­ly togeth­er with Sel­l­otape when he was loca­tion scout­ing for the movie. A fear of fly­ing meant that Kubrick shot almost exclu­sive­ly in the UK, includ­ing a re-cre­ation of Viet­namese war scenes in a gas works in Beck­ton for Full Met­al Jack­et.

While both the Design Museum’s direc­tor Deyan Sud­jic and co-cura­tor of the exhi­bi­tion Adri­enne Groen high­light the care that went into each of his films – Groen point­ing to the exhibition’s inclu­sion of prop sta­tion­ary that Kubrick test­ed with a pen and a type­writer to see how it would take ink’ – his no mat­ter what” atti­tude has left a lega­cy of both genius and ruthlessness.

He had a habit of bend­ing his col­leagues to his will. Set design­er Ken Adams had a ner­vous break­down on set, trig­gered by exhaus­tion. He told the press that their rela­tion­ship was too close… like a mar­riage”, call­ing him unbe­liev­ably pos­ses­sive”. Like­wise, Kubrick report­ed­ly mis­treat­ed actor Shel­ley Duval, who played Wendy Tor­rance in The Shin­ing, telling crew mem­bers not to sym­pa­thise with Shel­ley”, who spoke of cry­ing 12 hours a day, all day long… nine months straight, five or six days a week”. The film’s famous base­ball bat scene, fea­tur­ing a mon­u­men­tal and hys­ter­i­cal per­for­mance from Duval, took 127 takes. Stephen King, who wrote the nov­el on which the film is based, called the film ver­sion of his char­ac­ter misog­y­nis­tic”, explain­ing that Kubrick’s Wendy is basi­cal­ly just there to scream and be stu­pid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about”. It is as heart-break­ing and uncom­fort­able to watch, as Kubrick intended. 

The treat­ment of women in his films appears to be no more favourable than in pro­duc­tion. No woman attempt­ing to rewatch his entire fil­mog­ra­phy in a week could fail to notice, amongst the obvi­ous prowess, gra­tu­itous num­bers of female nudes and scenes of sex­u­al vio­lence. The fre­quent­ly silent or fren­zied per­for­mances demand­ed of his few female leads ren­ders them props; voice­less women seen through a male lens. Eyes Wide Shut is at once mes­meris­ing and also akin to a porno, full of naked, face­less female bod­ies whose sole pur­pos­es in life seem to be fuck­ing and self-sacrifice. 

It is strange to be at once thrilled and dis­turbed to be told by film crit­ic, and OG Face writer, Phil Hoad that Mal­colm McDow­ell recent­ly shared with him how Kubrick didn’t know how to stage the Singing in the Rain rape sequence in A Clock­work Orange, so he had his actors sit­ting around for five days on the set, com­ing up with stuff.

He appar­ent­ly switched around the fur­ni­ture and the actress play­ing the writer’s wife. After five days of this tedi­um, get­ting nowhere, he asked McDow­ell if he could sing, and he instant­ly broke out into Singing in the Rain, whack­ing the writer on one beat, kick­ing him on the next. Kubrick was in hys­ter­ics and knew they’d nailed it.” For Hoad, it illus­trates the true nature of Kubrick’s genius and per­fec­tion­ism, which I think is often mis­un­der­stood as being the fas­tid­i­ous exe­cu­tion of the mas­ter­plan in the great man’s mind. In fact, Kubrick often didn’t know what he want­ed at the outset.”

In 1987, Kubrick told Rolling Stone mag­a­zine that part of my prob­lem is that I can­not dis­pel the myths that have some­how accu­mu­lat­ed [about me] over the years”. Through­out his career and in the 20 years since his death, the myths have con­tin­ued to grow. He has alter­nate­ly been hailed as a cre­ative genius, a neu­rot­ic recluse, a great auteur and a prop­a­ga­tor of deprav­i­ty. His sub­ject mat­ter is unde­ni­ably provoca­tive. As the famous film posters cried: How did they ever make a movie of Loli­ta?”. If his trans­gres­sive themes were cho­sen to gal­vanise his audi­ence, you can’t help but feel that he failed in his quest to rouse them from their lan­guorous dis­en­gage­ment when you hear the fanat­i­cal eulo­gis­ing of his work, and, at the oth­er end of the spec­trum, wit­ness stu­dents dressed up as Alex and the Droogs for Hal­loween, igno­rant of their con­text. A cult has grown up around Kubrick. Both he and his films have become potent sym­bols whose pow­er extends far beyond the con­fines of their audi­ence, leav­ing those who are crit­i­cal to won­der at the mes­sage and the means, and those who aren’t to con­sume them super­fi­cial­ly. For any­one hop­ing to learn more, Stan­ley Kubrick: The Exhi­bi­tion, is a good place to start. 

Stan­ley Kubrick: The Exhi­bi­tion is run­ning at London’s Design Muse­um until 15th Sep­tem­ber 2019.

00:00 / 00:00