An enigma wrapped in a mystery
wrapped in an anorak...

by Quentin Curtis

Copyright ©1996 The Daily Telegraph (London), All Rights Reserved

Being a genius is not the most gregarious of occupations -- or destinies. In Stanley Kubrick's film Lolita, the nymphet recalls her idol, Quilty: "He wasn't like you and me. He wasn't a normal person. He was a genius." They have been saying similar things about the film's director for years. Holed up in Hertfordshire, never talking to the press, and rarely filming, Kubrick has been a cinematic equivalent of the great American literary recluses J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. The more he absents himself, the more his mystique grows. Having always stood out from the crowd, he now shuns it altogether. This summer, though, Kubrick is more visible than he has been for a long while. Next month he is set to shoot his first new film in nearly a decade, at the re-opened Elstree Studios -- a romance called Eyes Wide Shut, written by Frederic Raphael and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Next week, Channel 4 starts a season of classic Kubrick films. It opens, on June 20, with Paul Joyce's fascinating documentary, Stanley Kubrick: The Invisible Man, which includes rare footage of Kubrick directing -- from his daughter Vivian's The Making of The Shining -- and imports a new irreverence, not to say hostility, into Kubrickology. Former colleagues suggest the genius may be an "enslaver", inhuman, and close to insane. Joyce's documentary is more balanced than that suggests. But it crystallises a view of Kubrick that has been growing during his years of inactivity, a kind of counter-myth to the myth of genius. It is that through his isolation and his perfectionism Kubrick has lost touch with what films are meant to be about: people. In a recent essay, the American novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote: "The great voices of Art never mean only Art; they also mean Life, they always mean Life." Kubrick's detractors say he has shut himself off from the world in a closet of Art. They charge him with films against humanity.

To find the real Stanley Kubrick, what you need to do is not to doorstep his mansion, as many journalists seem to think, but to study his films. The earlier you can catch him, the better. Born in New York in 1928, Kubrick started out as a photographer, gaining a staff post on Look magazine in the late 1940s. In 1951, he made two documentary shorts, Flying Padre and The Day of the Fight. Both are magnificently shot and edited, and the latter, a grim but oddly tender portrait of a middleweight boxer, foreshadows a career-long interest in time and fate. "Tonight at 10 o'clock," intones the narrator (another Kubrick staple), "will be one of the moments that justify his difficult life." Channel 4's season opens with Kubrick's 1953 second feature, Killer's Kiss. Kubrick himself wrote this pulp tale of a boxer who falls for the wrong girl ("I was in too deep, but I didn't care"). He regarded it as little more than a calling card. But there are moments that feel from the heart. The girl, who turns out to be a gangster's moll, tells a long anecdote about her sister, a talented ballerina (played by Kubrick's second wife, the dancer Ruth Sobotka) who had to choose between dance and marriage. That stark choice -- between the unyielding discipline of a vocation and personal happiness -- is at the heart of Kubrick's work, and perhaps also his life. Kubrick may also dislike Killer's Kiss for its happy ending -- the last in his work (so far).

More characteristic is the frightening, yet almost comic, climactic fight in a room full of mutilated mannequins. Kubrick's work often shows human beings at their most extreme, terrifying, and silly. Little should be said about Kubrick's next movie, The Killing, since it has one of the most achingly clever surprise endings in film history. You have seen the imitation in Reservoir Dogs, now see the real thing. A perfect heist at a race-track goes wrong when one of the gang (a nervy Elisha Cook Jr) lets slip the plan to his girl. Not for the last time in Kubrick, it is human error that throws a spanner into the orderly works of the universe. In Kubrick's next film, Paths of Glory, it is the idiocy and intransigence of the officer class that sends the men of the French army to their deaths in the First World War. It is often described as an anti-war film. What it is, in fact, is anti-pride and anti-stupidity: in short, anti-inhumanity. By now a pattern is emerging: we can make out the lineaments of Kubrick's world, a place blighted by human folly and cruelty. It can be viewed as the creation of a haughty misanthrope. But isn't the opposite true -- that Kubrick is a great humanist? Accusing Kubrick of inhumanity is like seeing only the savagery in Swift, and not the sanity it springs from. Kubrick is like Kirk Douglas, in Paths of Glory, who, when a general describes the soldiers' fear as "kind of a lower animal sort of thing", replies: "Kind of a human sort of thing, I'd have thought." Remember too that Kubrick's tone is not always sombre. He followed Paths of Glory with the studio project Spartacus in 1960, and then two comedies, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Lolita is a wry and perceptive study of one man's very Kubrickean need to control his world. Dr. Strangelove is quite simply one of the funniest films ever made. If you give all the credit to its writer, Terry Southern, you have to wonder why he was never quite as good again. The same could be said of many Kubrick collaborators, especially actors such as Lolita's Sue Lyon and A Clockwork Orange's Malcolm McDowell (one of Kubrick's chief chastisers in The Invisible Man).

Kubrick went colour with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you could argue that his work went queasy -- though the monumental if stodgy 2001, the virtuoso but dangerous A Clockwork Orange, the painterly, rather staid Barry Lyndon, and the gloriously insane The Shining represent a decline many directors would rank as a triumph. Violence and derangement run through them all. Whether in the 18th century or the 21st, Kubrick is concerned with the pressures that the search for discipline imposes on a society or an individual. His themes tie his vastly varied subjects as neatly as the famous cut in 2001, which links a bone tossed in the air and a floating spaceship, three million years apart. Kubrick's most recent film, Full Metal Jacket (1987), returned to the killing fields, to Vietnam, and a Jungian exploration of the duality of man -- his division between violence and nurture. It was shot, like all his films since Spartacus, in England, which to some showed an Olympian detachment. Michael Herr, its co-screenwriter, sees it, in Joyce's TV documentary, more as an attempt to universalise -- this one really was an "anti-war" film. He feels Kubrick was deliberately displaying a "tact that didn't particularise the characteristics of Vietnam". Tact is a useful word when considering Kubrick. An expert chess-player in his youth, he operates by stealth, both as a director and as a man. Emotion is implied by his movies, but rarely stated; feeling is there, but at the edges. Maybe Eyes Wide Shut, said to be about sexual jealousy, will bring it to the centre -- though it is hard to imagine Cruise or Kidman matching James Mason, blinking with desire for Lolita. More of a new departure -- even than his long-mooted artificial intelligence project, AI -- might be Louis Begley's Wartime Lies, a novel Kubrick has optioned, the moving story of a Jewish child's flight from the Holocaust.

Tact has turned to silence in Kubrick's dealing with the press. He is resented for his aloofness -- and there is certainly a steely control there. In the footage we see of him directing The Shining, he is a cajoling but not unsympathetic figure: an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an anorak. Leonard Rosenman, composer on Barry Lyndon, recalls trying to strangle Kubrick, after Kubrick had put the film's orchestra through over 100 unnecessary takes. Kubrick told him: "You're crazy." But is Kubrick's conduct so bizarre when you think of the fate of his great influence, in composition and camera movement, Orson Welles? Welles had nearly every film after Citizen Kane taken away from him. That may account for Kubrick's insanely tenacious grasp. Welles squandered his genius in talk. Kubrick has saved his talent for a less ephemeral form. He has the most consistent record of any American film-maker since the war. He has kept his mouth shut but opened his audience's eyes. It may be that he is the sane one after all.