Kubrick’s World

 

THIS profile of film director Stanley Kubrick was written for GQ magazine, and then filed away in editor Michael VerMeulen’s ‘maybe’ drawer. “I like it,” he said, “but …”.

 

No doubt the editor thought I should have tried harder to persuade Mr Kubrick to come to the interview table – and no doubt he was right. In earlier years Kubrick had given several lengthy interviews, like this rather boring one. But after complicated trans-Atlantic negotiations (with Kubrick’s US representatives) the director decided not to play ball with me. However, interviews are not always the most revealing way of approaching a subject.

The profile was written a little before Kubrick’s death, and thus before the posthumous release of Eyes Wide Shut, the feature film that made a sorry end to a remarkable career. Nevertheless I have left references to persons now dead in the present tense – the temptation to tinker with old pieces is just about impossible to resist, but I try to draw the line somewhere.  

AT FIRST sight the location is not promising. We are in an anonymous side-road just a little to the north of Oxford Street. It’s one of those streets where odd companies live, outfits with double glass doors and opaque names like ADT Inc or Praxis Services. But we have no business with these companies.

This is our destination, spliced in among the funny companies. It’s a magistrates court. A magistrates court, with its seasonless striplighting and its dismal linoleum. You should take a deep breath before you step in here. Even the air is guilty here – it tastes of sellotape and condensation, offering a promise of life with an infinite absence of savour. You can see why they call prison porridge. Yet the place is packed.

And everyone present has come to this place to catch a glimpse of someone who isn’t here, and who isn’t going to be here. It is appropriate since the man in question, the film director Stanley Kubrick, has cultivated a kind of invisibility for the last twenty years – the twenty years since Kubrick, in an unparalleled act of artistic self-mutilation, suppressed his own film, A Clockwork Orange, one of the most controversial and discussed movies of the period. Since then Stanley Kubrick has achieved the remarkable feat of removing himself from the public arena while continuing to make big and influential movies, Hollywood movies made in Britain.

But here in the magistrate’s court you can sense the expectation that Kubrick’s cloak of invisibility is about to be pierced. What has happened is that the suppression of A Clockwork Orange has unexpectedly become a matter of law. Last year a London repertory cinema, the Scala, screened Kubrick’s film as a ‘surprise’ item one slack weekday afternoon. Within twenty-four hours the fact had been reported to Warner Brothers, the production company that is joint owner (with Kubrick) of the copyright in A Clockwork Orange.  Warner Brothers is still Kubrick’s production company; an executive in the London office speaks to Kubrick several times a week as a matter of routine.

Almost immediately the owners of the film’s copyright turned the matter over to an industry organization with the unfriendly name of FACT, the Federation Against Copyright Theft. This is the investigative body that companies use when they suspect that their copyright might have been infringed, and it employs detectives. The detectives investigated. Interviews were written up. Lawyers consulted other lawyers. And as a result of these machinations, FACT brought a charge of copyright theft against the 27-year-old former programmer of the Scala cinema, Jane Giles.

As it happens copyright theft is a criminal offence. It could mean a prison sentence for Jane Giles.

The courtroom is very small, and therefore full and uncomfortable. As always in any court, and particularly a small magistrates court, you notice the  contrast between the dreary legal routine of question and answer and objection and clarification, and the importance of what is at stake. If someone had offered you the chance to show A Clockwork Orange to a tiny audience of film fans, you might well have guessed that you were risking something, but would you guess prison? So it was not only the invisible presence of Kubrick that drew the journalists to this trial; it was also the equally haunting possibility of a prison sentence for the crime of showing a Stanley Kubrick film.

In practice, a prison sentence was considered unlikely. However, one should never gamble lightly on what courts might or might not do. As the records unambiguously show, they might do anything at all, including imprisoning a young woman for showing a film.

In the streets outside you could buy tabloids that were running rehashes of the Clockwork Orange controversy. The Today newspaper, for example, presented a reformed hooligan who explained that the film had definitely inspired him to go out and commit GBH. But I would guess that few of those inside the courtroom were following closely the details of the case, which was a fairly technical one turning on whether the defendant did or did not have an intention to infringe copyright. It was the Kubrick question that had brought people to court. Here was a case that suggested that Stanley Kubrick is a man willing to play for high stakes – jail stakes. And what kind of a man – let alone what kind of an artist – would do a thing like that?

*

To understand the sudden revival of this controversy it is necessary to understand not only something about Stanley Kubrick, but also something about A Clockwork Orange. First, the film.

Kubrick made this movie in 1970, and released it the following year. It is a close adaptation of a novella by Anthony Burgess, which follows the fortunes of a thug called Alex Burgess
(“coincidental” said the author) as he commits various acts of ‘ultraviolence’, is captured, imprisoned, brainwashed, then reverses the brainwashing, and sets off to enjoy more
ultraviolence … This is from the shortened US version of the book. In the original version Alex reforms and settles down to a life of domestic responsibility. According to Anthony Burgess, Kubrick never knew this original version existed. If he had, Kubrick might well have had a much less controversial career.

As it stands, Kubrick’s film is an extraordinary blend of high style and coarse violence, a style that captured some of the tense humour of the book. Even today the film is highly disturbing, as it plunges the viewer without any explanation at all into a world of weirdly ordered viciousness. The film critic Adrian Turner says “There is no gushing blood, none of the things you associate with modern screen violence. But the violence in the film is psychologically very disturbing, especially in the two rape scenes. Kubrick shot them in a very leering sort of a way, and I think that is something he may well now regret.” These scenes do indeed leave the viewer feeling extremely uneasy. One of them is shot with a hand-held camera, in a way that seems to suggest viewer participation.

The film was an immediate hit, and an immediate scandal. Adrian Turner adds “You have to remember that the film came out in the early seventies, a time when there was a lot of press hysteria about violence in the cinema – rather like today. It came out at the same time as films like The Devils, The Omen and Straw Dogs, and Kubrick just became the whipping boy for all those worries.” Indeed, the film was soon being accused of providing a model for real life violence. Distinguished lawyers were heard explaining that their granny-bashing clients were really fundamentally good people who had just been unlucky enough to see A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick, an American citizen who has been a resident of Britain since the early sixties, and always a private man, became a reviled figure.

Then A Clockwork Orange was suddenly withdrawn from distribution in Britain. Although Kubrick has never gone on the record about the matter (and some have even suggested that murky political pressures were secretively applied), the accepted explanation is that Kubrick as joint owner of the copyright asked Warner Brothers to suppress the film. It has not been possible legally to exhibit the film since then, even though it remains freely available in cinemas and on videocassette in the rest of Europe and the US. In the rest of the world its notoriety has evaporated. Recently I saw it in a Stockholm cinema, where it played to an audience of four, including myself.

In Britain things are different. We have an invisible film, and we have an invisible man. If the private and elusive Mr Kubrick had wanted to excite curiosity, he could not have arranged things better. For Stanley Kubrick the man has always been the object of considerable interest, an intriguing and vaguely oppressive figure on the edge of popular consciousness. Can you remember who directed The Omen, say? Somebody must have, but I’ll lay money you can’t remember who. But you’ll know who made 2001, or The Shining, or Full Metal Jacket.

Broadly speaking there are two Stanley Kubricks — depending on who you speak to. His friends tend to be admiring and unswervingly loyal. But those who have worked for him in the making of films sometimes harbour resentments that verge on the far side of dislike. This other Kubrick is the movie monster, the man who wastes millions building sets that cannot be used, the man who reduces actors and technicians to collapse with endless, pointless retakes, the man who is so neurotic that he wears a crash helmet to drive his Porsche.

The writer Penelope Gilliat, a passionate defender of Kubrick, says “No. He’s not dictatorial. He’s not tyrannical. He’s a rare one … a genius, I think. But he’s a lonely man as well as a solitary man, and he’s a little harsh on himself in his loneliness.” Penelope Gilliat exemplifies the many friends who testify to Kubrick’s hospitality, and his attention to the small details of friendship — a medical bill paid, a needed book suddenly arriving through the post.

So where do the other stories come from? Some of them come from eyewitnesses, and are true. Scatman Crothers, who played the unfortunate cook in The Shining, said in an interview with Vincent LoBrutto: “In one scene I had to get out of the Sno-Cat and walk across the street, no dialogue, forty takes. He had Jack Nicholson walk across the street, no dialogue, fifty takes. He had Shelley, Jack and the kid walk across the street: eighty-seven takes. Man he always wants something new, and he doesn’t stop until he gets it.”

One of the most experienced British cinematographers alive is Gil Taylor. He has worked with Kubrick on several films, including shooting all of Dr Strangelove, Kubrick’s black nuclear satire. He says “One trouble with Stanley is he won’t rehearse the actors and get the dialogue right before we come to shoot. He’s only interested in the set, you see, and he doesn’t care about the actors. So by the time you do come to shoot you can hardly stand up any more, and of course he says ‘that’s no good’. But you can’t do that with actors. You can’t just say to an actor ‘do another one’ and not tell him why. Films are about people. That’s why all his films are cold.”

On the other hand, Kubrick does not wear a crash helmet while driving. (The origin of this story – which has often been repeated – is probably the occasion when Kubrick once asked his production designer Ken Adam to slow down while being driven to the studio in an E-type Jaguar). These sorts of stories are not facts, but rumours that are supposed to embody a general truth. They are the sorts of stories that do circulate about driven, obsessional individuals, especially when they work in a big arena like Hollywood film-making, especially when they have no taste or talent for compromises, and especially when their work is so exceptionally frightening. As Penelope Gilliat says “All Stanley’s films are frightening. All of them. Real fear.”

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Stanley Kubrick is sixty-four years old and films have made him a millionaire. His background was a comfortable New York City middle class one, but his academic results were poor enough to leave him without a place at college. So he became a self-taught man, an autodidact. He bought a camera and sold news photographs to magazines, and when he had taught himself enough about still photography he graduated to short documentary films. In the same way (by doing the job) he taught himself documentary film making, and graduated to feature films.

His first feature (Fear and Desire) was a crude shoestring effort. The next (Killer’s Kiss) was a little more expensive but less interesting. But it drummed up the money for Kubrick’s first big project, The Killing, a film that New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael admired as ‘an expert suspense film’. The Killing didn’t make any money, but crucially it didn’t lose any either. And once Kubrick managed to get Kirk Douglas interested in his next project, a film called Paths of Glory, he was on his way.

First, though, there was a hitch. Kubrick’s next employment was directing a pet project of Marlon Brando’s, One-Eyed Jacks, and after six months Kubrick was fired. Brando’s minder Carlo Fiore later wrote an account of this period, depicting Kubrick as somewhat vain, pernickity, and excessively concerned with money. To be fair, Kubrick was seriously in debt and professionally blocked. But then he got the job of directing Spartacus, a genre epic with a cast of over 10,000, among them Laurence Olivier, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Kubrick had arrived in Hollywood. And having arrived, he immediately set about leaving town, for good.

“Stanley detests Hollywood”, says a friend. Certainly, in the films that have followed these apprentice works, he has cultivated a unique relationship with the Hollywood system. It is now more than thirty years since Kubrick came to England to shoot his adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita; almost all his subsequent work has been completed in England, where Kubrick now lives in a large manor house near St Albans. For his horror film The Shining, an enormous mock up of the Colorado location, the Overlook Hotel, was built on a sound stage at Elstree Studios, while the exterior was recreated in the ‘back lot’. For the Vietnam adventure Full Metal Jacket, the Vietnamese town of Hue was recreated (and then de-created) in the Docklands area of Beckton. And although shooting began in Ireland for Kubrick’s eighteenth century historical-sartorial drama Barry Lyndon, it was abandoned after ten weeks and later resumed in England. Although the story put about was that the shooting crew had received telephoned threats while on location in Ireland, the better explanation is that Kubrick needed to rethink the whole film once he had realised his mistake in casting Ryan O’Neal and Marissa Berenson.

But if working in England shields Kubrick from harassment by studio executives, it also exposes him to other pressures. British film crews are used to well-defined responsibilities on the production. Designers do the designs. Cameramen work the cameras. And directors direct the actors. Kubrick brought a very different attitude to his English productions, an obsessive attention to every detail of film-making, and as a result the making of his films has been marked by extreme tension.

“Stanley has got a lot to be proud of as a film-maker, but I felt he never respected his crew,” says Gil Taylor. “For example he would be going around with his Polaroid camera, and saying ‘Have you got enough fill light?’ or ‘You’ve got too much fill’ and so on. He didn’t understand that Polaroids are nothing to do with movie film. He always thought he knew better.”

While working relationships on Kubrick’s sets were being strained to the limit, Kubrick’s relationship with his public – especially his British public – was at first extremely gratifying. Having got through the ticklish business of filming Nabokov’s Lolita (perhaps Kubrick was drawn to Nabokov as one chess-playing and index-card-writing stylist to another), his next film Dr Strangelove established him as a cultural figure of importance. And then 2001: A Space Odyssey elevated Kubrick even higher. This science fiction film set the standard for all science fiction films to follow, and even twenty years on it has escaped the almost instant obsolescence that is the fate of most sci-fi efforts. On release it had an extraordinary impact, causing a kind of global gasp of admiration. Books were published discussing the making and the meaning of the film. Kubrick was being treated as a kind of contemporary philosopher-visionary. But then he made A Clockwork Orange.

*

“He’s not the sort of man you can make friends with,” says a colleague. “Stanley’s got no sense of humour whatsoever.” In truth, the storm that followed A Clockwork Orange would diminish anyone’s sense of humour. Kubrick stood his ground – he did not leave England, as he must have been sorely tempted to do. He did however suffer a crisis of artistic confidence, from which he has not yet recovered. The films that followed – Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket have tended to magnify Kubrick’s weaknesses as a film-maker. All of Kubrick’s films are about the relationship between men and their environment, and for Kubrick the human environment is always pictured as an inflexible and destructive system. But as his films have become progressively more and more controlled, more measured, more oppressively deliberate, it has been at the expense of the larger artistic purpose. Kubrick is after all a self-taught man, with the autodidact’s obsession for detail, for triple-checking. “Everything he does has to be measured,” says Gil Taylor. “So I might set up a marvellous scene that I knew would really work, and Stanley would come to me and say ‘No, you can’t do it. You’ve got eight-to-one contrast.’ But I say, fuck the contrast.  Film-making is not something you can measure, it’s something you feel, and Stanley doesn’t feel it. It can’t be measured.”

Post-Clockwork Orange something else has also happened, something that may well be a result of having undergone the subsequent controversy. The scenes of relentless repetition and pursuit that figure even in Kubrick’s earliest films have now come to overwhelm the screen. The actors are dwarfed by the atmosphere. It’s the atmosphere of the eighty-seventh take, the atmosphere of total exhaustion. The actors are no longer acting. They are sleepwalking.

Kubrick is now in ‘pre-production’ on his next film, which is the story of a young woman and a child set in the Nazi era and due to be filmed in Eastern Europe. “He has”, says Penelope Gilliat, “a special feeling for children, and how to release their fears. Like The Shining, which is really about a child’s fear.” He will be doubtless be working on this film in the web of information technology he has installed at Chidwickbury Manor, the house he shares with his wife Cristina, a painter. Outside there are a hundred security-patrolled acres. Why does he live behind such high walls? A friend says “He needs solitude. He needs music, and silence. He needs to be able to shut the door on conversation. He is not actually a suspicious man. A modest man, in fact.”

But sometimes modesty can be born of self-regard. Kubrick has always courted as much publicity as he has shunned. Colleagues testify to his assiduous attention to publicity during shooting; the publicity never gives away anything about the film itself, but concentrates on the magnificent authenticity of the sets, the dedication of the director. It is always Stanley Kubrick who is shown behind the camera, never the cameraman. Kubrick, after all, is an artist.

“Directors are a strange species, and often the biggest shits in the world,” says Gil Taylor. “Like Polanski, Polanski always has to be right too. But Roman trusts you which Stanley never does, Roman inspires you … It’s a funny thing. Two months on any film is like five years in a bank manager’s life. But after working with Stanley I did nothing for nine months. That’s never happened to me before or since. I shut myself away. It drained me – although he was never rude, I never had an argument with him – but he made me doubt myself.”

*

Jane Giles, film programmer at the Scala cinema, was found guilty. She stood up to hear the comments of the magistrate. When she  replied, the whole court could hear that her voice was not steady. Immediately I was reminded of a scene in Full Metal Jacket where the military journalist comes under fire for the first time. The journalist tries to take a picture, but he finds himself shaking so much that he cannot hold his camera still. It is a frightening scene, because it shows art being overwhelmed by an inhuman system.

Jane Giles received a conditional discharge, and a large legal bill. This time, no one had to eat porridge.

 

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