45 years ago, when I was a teenager enthralled by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick was not only the greatest living filmmaker, but the greatest filmmaker of all time (I didn’t know much film history back then). Today, I see him as a flawed genius–a brilliant visual artist lacking the warmth and empathy needed to be a great auteur.
The first Stanley Kubrick film I ever saw was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the title links in this article point to the webpages for the films’ upcoming PFA screenings). I must have been about ten, and I didn’t know it was a Stanley Kubrick film; I didn’t know what director was back then. I but liked this dark satire about the cold war and the fear of nuclear Armageddon very much. I still do. I discussed the movie in more detail last year.
I was not quite 14 when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Warner Cinerama on Hollywood Blvd. On the huge, deeply-curved screen, it blew me away. I felt like I was in space. This was my first confrontation with film as a serious art form. I instantly became a ardent fan of Stanley Kubrick (and screenplay collaborator Arthur C. Clarke).
But over the years, with each new long-awaited release, I lost my affection for Kubrick’s work. A Clockwork Orange was interesting, but flawed. Barry Lyndon was an unbearable bore. I didn’t bother to see The Shining, despite–or perhaps because–I loved Stephen King’s novel so much. The book worked because King made you care deeply about Jack and his family. By 1980, I had realized that Kubrick didn’t care, and didn’t want you to care, about any of his characters.
Sometimes, not caring about the characters helped the film. If we had cared about anyone in Strangelove, we wouldn’t have laughed. And the shallow, barely-emotional astronauts of 2001 suggested a dehumanized future.
Kubrick’s best work, in my opinion, came early in his career, before the coldness really took hold. His first Hollywood film, The Killing–easily one of his best–is cool, but not too cold. A brilliant noir about a complex robbery, it’s precise and distant, like much of Kubrick’s work. But the movie seems to like its ill-fated crooks, especially Sterling Hayden as the brains behind the heist.
His next, Paths of Glory, is to my mind his absolute best. A brilliant war and anti-war film, it shows not only the hell of battle but the corruption and heartlessness at the top. But now, for the first time, Kubrick had a really big star–Kirk Douglas. Douglas wasn’t about to play someone that the audience wouldn’t root for, and Kubrick had to alter his screenplay to make the star’s character more of a conventional movie hero. Yes, this was Hollywood commercialism, but in this case, it worked for the quality of the picture.
Kubrick’s other collaboration with Douglas, Spartacus, is easily his warmest work. It doesn’t feel at all like a Stanley Kubrick film. And that’s not surprising, because it really wasn’t one. It wasn’t Kubrick’s idea. He came in a week into production to replace a fired director. He had no say in the screenplay or the casting. At the risk of offending hardcore auteurists, Spartacus was directed by Stanley Kubrick, but it is not a Stanley Kubrick film. And frankly, I think it’s all the better for it.
In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant, young, promising filmmaker. But a decade later, he seemed to have lost his touch with humanity. He had become a photographer.