It was 45 years ago this weekend that Stanley Kubrick gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey, a vision of the future that still beckons, even if the title is out of date. Something similar can be said about the extraordinary artist who made the masterpiece. History tells us that Kubrick died in 1999 at the age of 70, but our current pop culture tells us that his singular genius remains relevant and challenging to those who make movies, those who consume movies, and those who write about movies for a living. We see homages to The Shining in NBC’s new horror drama Hannibal and to Dr. Strangelove in JJ Abrams’ forthcoming sci-fi adventure Star Trek Into Darkness. We see his influence on an array of filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle, who tells EW that his 1996 dark comedy Trainspotting about desperate, druggy British droogs was an attempt “to make a more accessible version of A Clockwork Orange.” Steven Spielberg — who has already expressed his intense Kubrickianism by taking on one of Kubrick’s legendary unmade/abandoned projects, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) — recently announced his intention to raise up another Kubrick orphan by producing a TV mini-series based on Kubrick’s screenplay about the life and times of Napoleon. “Stanley Kubrick,” a major exhibition exploring the filmmaker’s life and career, is currently enjoying a long, popular run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In death as he did in life, Stanley Kubrick abides. For better…
And weirder. Now in select theaters (and slowly expanding nationwide): Room 237, an engrossing documentary about the richly odd legacy inspired by a horror movie now considered an all-timer, but which left critics more cold than chilled upon its release 33 years ago. Did you know that Stanley Kubrick shot The Shining to make a secret statement about the Holocaust? To cryptically confess his participation in a NASA conspiracy to produce fake film footage of the first moon landing? To slyly criticize American consumerism and superficial pop culture? But he did! The signs and symbols are there! It’s all true… according to a subculture of armchair semioticians and Kubrick aficionados who insist the cabin fever creepshow about a really bad husband, father, and writer driven to be worse by a haunted hotel is dense with hidden narratives. “The Shining presents itself like puzzle to be solved, albeit a puzzle missing a piece or two,” says Room 237 director Rodney Ascher. “It lodges in your mind like a pebble in your shoe and invites inquiry and obsession.”
Which is something you can say about almost any movie made by Kubrick, who specialized in thematically rich, intricately constructed, fascinating-frustrating elliptical cinema. A photographer before he became a filmmaker, Kubrick had a natural knack honed by careful practice for making indelible images and iconic moments. Kirk Douglas strutting the trenches of Paths of Glory (1957). Sue Lyon sucking on a lollipop in Lolita (1962). Slim Pickens bronco-riding an A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Malcolm McDowell’s pried-open eyelids in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Moon Watcher’s bone throw jump cut in 2001. “I. AM. SPARTACUS!” “Danny isn’t here, Mrs. Torrance.” “I … am … in a world… of sh-t.” This. (Thank you, Stanley Kubrick, for the only reason most of us know 2 Live Crew.)
Kubrick was a maverick who made most of his movies for Hollywood studios yet for most of his career stayed far away from them. In the early sixties, the New York native moved to England to shoot Lolita (1962) and never left. He set up a proverbial one-man filmmaking operation (supported greatly by his wife, Christiane, and her brother, Jan Harlan) and got tagged as a recluse. Control-freak perfectionism contributed to this image. So did his utterly unreasonable, absolutely outrageous, and really rather unforgivable desire to limit his interaction with journalists. (Kubrick was a canny marketer, too, who understood that the scarcity of himself made his brand and products more valuable.) Warner Bros. released his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999, shortly after his death. Kubrick — who never won an Oscar for directing (he was nominated four times) — was a notoriously meticulous craftsman and incomparable innovator who pined for humanity’s improvement through stories, which, paradoxically, were often skeptical if not plainly cynical about our ability to change. He sought to make cinema that first dazzled your senses, then stirred your mind to deep thought as you wrestled with the ideas embedded in strong, clean graphics and expressed through carefully constructed scenes. Accepting the Directors Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 via a videotaped speech, Kubrick connected with the mythic tale of Daedalus, the wise, ingenious artificer who built the Labyrinth, and a certain pair of wings that were improperly employed by his haughty son: “I have never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.’”
For filmmakers who aspire to use Hollywood money to finance their personal visions, Kubrick is the career role model. Says Christopher Nolan, the director of Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, who’s about to embark on his own space odyssey with his next opus, Interstellar, due next year: “I think anyone who is working [for the studios] looks to Kubrick as the great example of someone who is able to make films that were very personal to him, very idiosyncratic, with a great degree of passion, while collaborating with the studios and making what he did fit within the economic models of their times.”
NEXT: To touch the Monolith… or not.