Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on the ‘Paths of Glory’ set.
There are many talented people in this world but there are few creatives who are really able to produce magic, whether we be talking literature, film, art or music.
The ‘magic’ I am talking about is the tingling experience one gets when presented with a masterpiece. Of course people do not always agree on what constitutes a work of genius. In my case, it is a Rothko painting, Glen Gould’s interpretation of J.S Bach, Brendel’s Mozart Piano Sonatas and Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Imagine my joy when I saw that The Design Museum were putting on a show to mark the 20th anniversary of his death!
The exhibition, taking up the ground floor of the Design Museum, has several themed rooms dedicated to Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut, and Dr Stangelove.
‘If you want to step inside the mind of one of the greatest film directors of all time, this exhibition will take you there,’ says Alan Yentob.
The first port of call was the film Napoleon. Napoleon you say? But I haven’t heard of that one! Well you’d be right because it was never made!
I stare at Stanley Kubrick’s library, old bookshelves, containing rows of leather-bound biographies on the little French General himself, his good wife Josephine, the famous politician Paul Barras, who Napoleon deposed in his Coup d’Etat, and military literature, lots on Waterloo!
Evidently Kubrick not only read these hefty volumes but developed his own personal colour coding system for ease of research. Napoleon books with green stripes, Josephine, orange if my memory serves me well. All this points to a meticulous approach which Stanley needed in a pre-Google era.
With Napoleon he hoped to make the ‘best movie every made’. Jack Nicholson or Oscar Werner were being considered for the role, Audrey Hepburn for Josephine. I peered into a class case containing an enigmatic letter to a Mrs Kubrick. In it Hepburn says she is in Switzerland and that at the moment she isn’t free and that she didn’t know when she would be available in the future! I take it the actress wasn’t interested!
Kubrick had gone as far as to negotiate with the Romanian army: 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry soldiers! Was he trying to emulate Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace – a Russian masterpiece of 8 hours duration! I say it’s a masterpiece – Kubrick however wasn’t overly keen on it!
Kubrick’s fascination with war, with the psychology of the soldier as being both victim and perpetrator, had already been seen in his Paths of Glory, a black and white film he made in 1957 starring Kirk Douglas. Also in Full Metal Jacket filmed thirty years later, set during the Vietnam War.
In the screening room for Paths of Glory (1957) I watch an incredible scene, where Kirk Douglas, playing the part of a WW1 French Officer, makes his way through a long trench, lined with soldiers, packed in like sardines. Deafening explosions made me cower like the poor soldiers in their trench. I stayed on to watch a later scene. French soldiers, considered traitors, are lined up before a firing squad. In amongst the building tension, Kubrick injects some unexpected humour. A dead man, strapped in a stretcher is propped up vertically to face his killers. This shouldn’t be funny but it was. This anti-war film was banned in France for many years.
Trench scene in ‘Paths of Glory’ at exhibition
Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket also takes on the plight of soldiers, this time focussing on a marine outfit fighting in Vietnam. Dark humour abounds and the picture is made all the more atmospheric with pop tracks from the era. Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made for Walking are used ironically as we see a young Vietnamese woman strutting her stuff in cheap shoes. The song is also a foreshadowing of what is going to happen subsequently, when young women who have survived as prostitutes, join the North Vietnamese soldiers.
At the exhibition a large, black and white photograph by Don McCullin’s Shell-shocked Marine Vietnam Hue 1968’ reminds us that Kubrick used McCullin’s photography for research. In a display cabinet we see Private Joker’s helmet (played by Matthew Modine) with its mixed messages; ‘Born to Kill’ and the CND symbol of peace.
In Clockwork Orange (1971) violence and sexual exploitation has become the norm in a futuristic society. I learnt that Kubrick had to work closely with the American Censorship board to tone down sexual content. The film was still criticised for glorifying violence. Taken from the Anthony Burgess book, it was Kubrick’s first screenplay. When Kubrick received death threats against his family, Stanley pulled the film from UK distribution.
At the show naked female mannikins bend over backwards and use their bodies as tables to serve ‘milk plus’ to their male clients. Overtly sexual and immensely provocative! We also see the locations Kubrick used for the bleak movie. Concrete tunnels, concrete everything. The brutalist architecture of the 1960s is the perfect backdrop to the cold, alien world he is depicting of marauding gangs.
It was astonishing to see all these iconic films under one roof. It was necessary however to fully emphasise the huge amount of preparation work, of research, of man hours spent filming and editing each epic movie. I was particularly interested in Kubrick’s record of scenes, of actors, all written down by hand. His attention to detail in the lighting in Barry Lyndon for example. He insisted on natural lighting to give the film a more authentic feel. And the locations, photographic stills and index cards abounded.
At the end of the show, you just wonder how Kubrick managed to turn his hand to so many different film genres and to pull them off. Some films were maddeningly slow at first. But with Kubrick – patient pays off!
In 2001: A Space Odyssey there are moments of silence, of stillness. The depiction of space, of its terrifying beauty and strangeness (made all the more so by György Ligeti’s unnerving avant-garde musical score) is never forgotten. It is quite extraordinary to think that Kubrick made the film a year before the astronauts landed on the moon.
In one of the final scenes, the astronaut, floating in what resembles the insides of a glowing-red toaster, is filmed from above. From this angle, he seems to have lost his head and we see him morph into robotic insect. De-humanising, unnerving and quite brilliant!
I often wonder what it was like growing up with an obsessive genius like Kubrick. After all, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, was made to walk through a door 92 times until he provided the look Kubrick was searching for! What a hard task-master he was! Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman broke down after the film. I doubt however that Kubrick was to blame!
Masks from ‘Eyes Wide Shut’
On the press day I attended, Kubrick’s daughter speaking of her parents said: ‘It was like living with impressive over-achievers. Home was a combination of art college and art studio.’
Good or bad I ask myself? Hard to tell. The fact that she and her artist mother Christiane turned up at the show to honour papa Kubrick’s films, leans mostly towards the good methinks.
Not to be missed if you are a Kubrick fan!
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is on until 15 September 2019