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.


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