For most of his artistic life, Stanley Kubrick was a willful enigma. He was a New Yorker but lived and worked in England. He labored for a major Hollywood studio but created his art slowly, painfully, turning out difficult films on difficult subjects on no one’s timetable but his own. At their best, they revealed bitter truths about the human condition (or at least the male condition) — where we came from and where we are headed. Yet, as he aged, Kubrick sometimes felt more affinity with his gadgets than with other people.
Kubrick’s films, often shrouded in secrecy until the day of their release offered few concessions to audiences but were intended for mass consumption. They were shot through with mystery and anxiety, what New Yorker critic Penelope Gilliatt once called Kubrick’s “particular disquiet”, and filled with expertly rendered images and sequences that burrowed into your unconscious. For all his quirks, up until his death in 1999, a new film from Stanley Kubrick meant something. It mattered.
In their new book, Kubrick: An Odyssey, authors Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams set out to give a clearer and more complete picture of Kubrick than previously available. They sometimes affirm the myths that have clung to him, even more than 20 years after his death, and sometimes puncture them. Both are respected professors of cinema and are very well-versed in their subject. They co-authored 2019’s Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film and have individually published a number of journal essays on Kubrick’s work.
Kubrick: An Odyssey, with its over 600 pages of densely packed bits of information, some quite illuminating, some less so, feels like their grand final word on the filmmaker they’ve spent much of their careers dissecting. It benefits not only from their deep research into the Stanley Kubrick Archive, located at the University of the Arts London, but also from new interviews with Kubrick’s family members, including his long-time wife Christiane, his stepdaughter, Katharina Kubrick, and his brother-in-law and producing partner, Jan Harlan. The biography allows us to get closer to the compulsively private director than many may have thought was possible. It’s a thorough, mostly engaging take on the famously thorny artist. At its best, you can almost imagine Kubrick rushing around the set, lording it over his crew, or combing through his vast piles of research, furiously trying to unlock the ideas buried somewhere in his restless mind.
Kubrick: An Odyssey proceeds chronologically. Kubrick is most endearing and the mood most electric in the sections dealing with his years trying to survive as a young photographer for Look magazine and an aspiring director. He was gifted with an enormous sense of self-confidence and determination. His early career is defined by his sternly held belief that it was impossible for him to fail. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said of making his first short film, 1951’s Day of the Fight, “but I knew that I could not make films any worse than the run-of-the-mill Hollywood movies I was seeing at the time. In fact, I felt that I could do them a lot better.”
He was right, of course. By the release of his third feature, 1956’s masterful The Killing (for my money, still Stanley Kubrick’s most enjoyable film), he was drawing comparisons to legends like Orson Welles and John Huston. He followed that film with 1957’s wrenching anti-war drama Paths of Glory and, in the years that followed, completed a run of nine films that cemented his standing as an unquestioned master of the medium: Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut.
Kolker and Abrams track the making of each film in varying levels of detail. As Kubrick struggles early on to establish his artistic independence, they tend to focus more on his business dealings and personal life. They dig into his research and technique for his later films and offer critical readings that can crackle with insight. The Shining is about “the ineluctable eruption of madness in closed spaces.” Full Metal Jacket has a “sense of everything already always being lost.”
Where Kubrick: An Odyssey struggles most is in its assessment of Kubrick’s behavior on set and sometimes off. He could be unnecessarily tough when it came to cutting deals with his collaborators, even those he most wanted to work with, and locked some into onerous contracts that he enforced mercilessly. “Stanley was a good friend, and wonderful to work with, but he was a terrible man to do business with, terrible,” said Full Metal Jacket co-writer Michael Herr. Kubrick had a nasty tendency to burn through and burn out members of his film crews and personal staff and could be demanding and obsessive in his need to control all aspects of his work.
Much more problematic are Stanley Kubrick’s well-documented actions while filming. He could be careless not just about people’s feelings but also about their safety. Malcolm McDowell endured brutal, sometimes dangerous conditions while making A Clockwork Orange. Stuntman Bill Weston almost suffocated inside an airtight spacesuit while filming one of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s dazzling sequences. “One of the great things about Stanley was that he had an incredible, tremendous artistic integrity,” Weston later remarked. “I think morally he was a little bit weaker.”
On the set of The Shining, besides his notoriously awful treatment of actress Shelley Duvall, he was alleged to have grabbed a crew member by the throat and pushed him against a wall for suggesting a particular shot. After cooling off, Kubrick adopted the idea. “He didn’t have a lot of respect for any of us,” remembered Full Metal Jacket actor Adam Baldwin. “He would have us crawl in the asbestos and the coal dust and not care if we got hurt.”
Complicating much of this is that even some of the people Stanley Kubrick treated the worst tended to look back on their time working with him fondly. A part of Kubrick undoubtedly felt they were lucky to be in his presence. Is it possible that they were? To their credit, Kolker and Abrams present more than ample evidence for readers to draw their own conclusions. However, throughout Kubrick: An Odyssey, they are much too quick to forgive the worst parts of Kubrick’s story. His abuse of actors is too easily dismissed as part of his search for what he deemed the perfect take. His treatment of collaborators is presented as simply the actions of a man trying to protect his family’s financial well-being. His disregard for safety on the film set is a necessary evil in his quest for the shot he felt was needed.
Kubrick: An Odyssey is an ambitious, thorough, and important new take on Kubrick’s life. It is loaded with enough detail to satisfy Stanley Kubrick obsessives and is organized in such a way that those who may be less familiar with his work can zero in on a specific section while watching the corresponding film with which it deals. The book’s ultimate strength is that the authors’ deep respect for Kubrick’s work so clearly shines through. It will send you back to each of his films with a broader understanding of the insatiable urge for perfection that drove their creation and a deeper appreciation for the man who worked so tirelessly to create them.
Even casual fans of Stanley Kubrick’s work have a particular moment that they cherish above all others. That moment is bound to change because there are too many to pick from. For me, at this writing, it’s Sterling Hayden’s character, Johnny Clay, watching his cash blow away on an airport runway at the end of The Killing. But talk to me next week, and it might be Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance, walking backward up a flight of stairs and swinging a baseball bat at her advancing husband, Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, in The Shining. Or the heartless execution of three soldiers, one unconscious and strapped to a stretcher, in Paths of Glory. Or any of the countless others that populate his work. “Once embraced,” Kolker and Abrams conclude, “the films never leave.”