PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Stanley Kubrick Biography Goes Beyond Rumors and Mystique

From the cover of Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker (2020) (colorized)

David Mikics casts Kubrick as a kind of modernist tragedian in this biography, showing how meticulous planning often gives way to vanity, error, or random chaos.

Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker
David Mikics

Yale University Press

August 2020


Stanley Kubrick has acquired a mystique that began to accrue while he was still working: increasingly wild rumors abounded that he was a semi-reclusive tyrannical bully, that he helped fake the moon landings for NASA, and that his films were encrypted with coded messages about everything from the Holocaust to the illuminati. More importantly, his films have gained an even greater mystique: undoubtedly an auteur, Kubrick has created a body of work consisting of unique films, unified yet distinct from each other.

Kubrick's films seem to function as a Rorschach test for viewers, feeling and meaning something different with each rewatch. They are endlessly analyzable, and remain unassailable fixtures on 'greatest films' lists. Beginning with Phillip Lobrutto's lengthy Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (1995), and followed quickly by John Baxter's typically gossipy book, also titled Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, plus memoirs by collaborators such as Michael Herr (Kubrick) and Frederic Raphael (Eyes Wide Open), Kubrick's life and work have provided inspiration for reams of biographically-inclined writing.

Though David Mikics' Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker is part of Yale University Press's Jewish Lives imprint, Kubrick's Jewishness isn't addressed head-on throughout this book. Readers interested in a systematic dissection of how Jewish themes are coded in Kubrick's work are directed to Nathan Abrams' Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual.

Mikics' analysis is, of course, heavily informed by Kubrick's Jewishness, especially when parsing Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but not obsessively so as in Abrams' work. Mikics recognizes Kubrick's ethnoreligious background as crucial to his development as a filmmaker, but he also foregrounds many other influences: his early career as a photographer, his years spent methodically seeing every movie shown in his Bronx neighbourhood, his voracious appetite for literature, and his love of chess.

Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Mikics presents Kubrick as an exacting auteur, often difficult to work with, but capable of warmth and humour. Despite Kubrick's perfectionism he "had a sense of how to use chaos". Chaos has a further role in the biography, as Mikics casts Kubrick as a kind of modernist tragedian, showing how meticulous planning often gives way to vanity, error, or random chaos: "the split between reason's all-controlling plans and the blunders and chaos that mark actual life". The coldness apparent in Kubrick's films, often seen as a failing, is here seen as a deliberate strategy, a "rejection of Hollywood pathos".

At times the book reads like less of a traditional biography than a chronological, biographically-centered study of Kubrick's films. Each film Kubrick worked on is dealt with in turn, including a detailed account of production and an extended commentary on the film's themes. Though the focus is on the films, there are some fascinating biographical tidbits, such as Kubrick's experience with German drinking culture and his meeting with Nazi-era actress Kristina Söderbaum after marrying into her family. But Mikics' approach means the trivia is sidelined and the bulk is taken up with analysis of the films.

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (IMDB)

After briefly outlining Kubrick's early life, the book starts with his work for Look magazine and his journeyman film work, showing how the New York photography scene influenced his low-budget noir Killer's Kiss (1955) and positing Paths of Glory (1957) as the moment when Kubrick "vaults into the pantheon". Later, drawing parallels between 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) , its near-namesake by Homer and ultimately the Bible, Mikics evocatively describes the film's world as a non-verbal future, where design takes precedence over language. He cites a cryptic note scrawled by Kubrick in the margins of a Kafka book: "The tower of Babel was the start of the space age."

The unmade Kubrick projects, which have now achieved near-mythic status, are discussed too. His Napoleon project would have hinged, like the battles Napoleon fought, upon the terrain, and contrasted the formal beauty of the planned warfare with the brutal reality faced by the soldiers on the ground. The Aryan Papers, cancelled due to Steven Spielberg's similar project Schindler's List (1993), and as Mikics seems to hint, due to Kubrick's uncertainty about dealing with such a daunting topic as the Holocaust.

Mikics' judgements on some of the films are utterly different from my own. He says of AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), the project Kubrick worked on before Spielberg ended up directing it: "Of all the films I have seen, it is the hardest for me to watch without crying." I couldn't have had a more opposite reaction to the film, especially its mawkish conclusion. At other times it feels as though Mikics' evident admiration for Kubrick can cloud his judgements. Though we should try to view films in the context they were made, he glosses over some of the more unsavoury intentions Kubrick had when working on Lolita (1962).

Sue Lyon in Lolita (1962) (IMDB)

Mikics' readings of the films are never dry or bogged down with academic terminology. They are sensitive to the fact that while Kubrick's films are the product of a singleminded vision, that vision is collaboratively realised. Thus, he notes how Spartacus (1960) features expressive camerawork masterminded by Kubrick, and populist sentiment from star Kirk Douglas and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. This is a welcome change from the typical auteurist lamentation that Kubrick didn't have full creative control over what (in this reviewer's opinion) was one of his most interesting films.

Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, we learn, was something he had planned to make since at least the early '60s. Mikics' reading of this film as a comedy of remarriage that affirms monogamous family life (rather than a paranoid nightmare with a too-easy resolution that leaves conspiracies lingering in the mind) seems somewhat over-schematic, yet it rounds off the book neatly. It is in keeping with the author's opinion that many of the films advocate a "mature bond born of hard experiences".

In the conclusion, Mikics lists Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), and Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017) as three recent films that bear Kubrick's influence. As good though each of these three films are, it's an exiguous legacy for Kubrick, and also reminds us the kind of resources that need to be available to make films on a Kubrickian scale.

It's difficult to see evidence of a school of Kubrick-inspired filmmakers today. But that's precisely because he has been so influential: traces of his influence are everywhere in popular culture, from The Simpsons cutaway gags to Lady Gaga videos. Kubrick continues to inspire and fascinate because, as Mikics reminds us, his exacting artistic perfectionism is always in the service of representing a chaotic and uncertain world.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.