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Stanley Kubrick

by Karen Jaehne

He was the great American auteur - as grandly heroic as Visconti, as politically astute as Rossellini, as ironic as Fellini, and as visionary as Bertolucci. That's why Europeans latched onto him very early. And why he wandered off to Europe and settled down in England, a place where his privacy and eccentricity would be honored instead of misinterpreted as the "no" of so many Hollywood celebrities with their phoney modesty.

Kubrick was anything but modest. In fact, his arrogance had epic dimensions and generated many rumors for the Hollywood grapevine. As for many directors in his generation, his films were more popular in Europe than in the U.S. Perhaps that's why the best book about Kubrick was written by a French critic, Michele Ciment, who mapped out the artistic choices that allowed someone to speak of Kubrick's style. Ciment's book was translated into English, and is not only the authoritative work on Kubrick; the book sets a high standard for auteurist appreciation, because Kubrick consistently refused to cooperate with any kind of press hype and vigilently protected his privacy.

Ciment agreed to restrict his work to Kubrick's films and leave his life alone; the result is a masterpiece that honors both men. Ciment shows how certain camera angles are used in film after film, and how Kubrick came to virtually invent the steadicam, out of the necessity for a low, smooth take with the p.o.v. of a child on a tricycle. The irony of his narratives and perfectionism in each detail, which set Kubrick apart, are traced with a thoroughness and dedication that characterize Ciment's own critical studies. His book on Kubrick was a courageous thing, particularly in light of Kubrick's disdain for critics.

Talking to Kubrick was tantamount to talking to Garbo. For that reason, I must tell you about the time I talked to him. I was in England working on something in 1977, and met a friend for dinner, first at his flat. After a long day of watching Japanese movies, I was a little bleary and not exactly focused on the here and now. While I waited for my friend to get dressed, a strange bell jangled, then jangled again, and slowly I realized it was one of those odd English telephones. So I answered it. "May I speak to Mike?" came a voice. I made one of those helpless noises like "Uh?", because I realized I shouldn't have picked up, and then I didn't know if in England, it's appropriate to say someone is in the shower.

I think I said "Uh" a second time, when a voice said, "Tell him Stanley called" - the line hung open for a minute while I deciphered what that meant. I didn't want to say, "Stanley Kubrick?...quack, quack." And you can't ask for an autograph over the phone, which I wouldn't do anyway, since I don't collect anything but years. The other thing was the voice. It was not the masculine boom I expected from the director of Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was high - almost squeeky. It sounded almost like an Englishman imitating a New York cabbie.

In due course, I relayed the news: Stanley called. "Stanley Kubrick?" asked my friend above a tie resisting its inevitable knot. I confessed to being an idiot and, for the first time in my life, star-struck. I mean, the whole world knows that Kubrick talks to nobody.

Yet he communicated with my friend, because I had spied a neat stack of letters from Kubrick, which Mike patted, as he consoled me. "He just has nothing to say to most people."

"Oh." I felt demoted to a subhuman species, and I resented it. (I was much younger then.) "I wish I had told him that I hated 'Barry Lyndon'." I was not the inventor of vindictive criticism, of course. John Simon had perfected it to a fine art form.

"What? You don't like 'Barry Lyndon'?" That determined the destiny of our evening and our friendship. My friend insisted that 'Barry Lyndon' was a masterpiece, primarily for its glowing candlelight and for having been shot without any artificial lighting, and then there was the socio-political perspective that tracks the arc of Barry's rise and fall. But most important, he had managed to recreate the 17th century on film. Blah, blah, blah - how he drove his crew and any 20th century Englishmen crazy, as he insisted on real light, real costumes, real thatched roofs, everything that betrayed our time had to be wrapped, removed, relegated to some cine-attic, where stuff you don't need gets put. Nevertheless, we had wine with dinner, so I promised to see 'Barry Lyndon' again to revise my opinion.

I was cornered. The next morning when I arrived at the British Film Institute to do some research, someone had reserved 'Barry Lyndon' for me to see. I conceded, and as I came out of the screening room and down to Dean Street for lunch, my friend was eager to know what I had discovered.

Over lunch, I wrote a few postcards and, inspired by Mike's further critical analyses of Kubrick (who never knows when to stop beating his dead horse), I decided to send a lovely card with a Gainsborough damsel on it to Mr. Kubrick. I confessed my admiration for all his work, but especially for "Barry Lyndon," a film that lost nothing by the existence of that TV antennae, which, after all, could only be seen for a few seconds in one scene. Mike laughed and shared my vision of Kubrick getting the card, believing it, then sitting down in the editing room he had in his own house, and combing through "Barry Lyndon" frame by frame, looking for the dread anachronism. Searching, searching, frame after frame...going nuts.

After lunch, we headed back up Dean Street for more viewing and I plunked all my cards in a mailbox. "What are you doing?" cried my friend - or rather, Stanley's friend. "You can't send that!"

Too late. "Mr. Kubrick doesn't like practical jokes?"

Probably not. He did, after all, move to England to get away from people like me. Mike treated me to another long lecture on the virtues of Stanley Kubrick. How could I disagree?

So why did I want to make a joke out of his fastidious perfectionism? Besides my own childishness - and the reactionary anti-intellectual stance so typical of American criticism - I was jealous. His dedication to the art form he loves has both raised him to the pinnacle of a career and also cost him a career. He believed he had to go into self-imposed exile to protect his own integrity from the film factory of Hollywood. He was probably right, but that cost him, too..

Would I go live in quiet, verdant England in order to protect myself from my own fame? Probably not. That's undoubtedly the hardest temptation: to live large and loud because you've made it - and you're a player! Isn't that what they call it?

Should Kubrick have stayed in America? Would he have been protected by somebody in the way Woody Allen is? Probably not. Maybe he should have played the Hollywood game to get to make his Napoleon movie, which is something I always looked forward to seeing. Imagine Napoleon as the ancestor of the Major in "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." War held a perverse fascination for Kubrick, and his understanding of conflict evolved from "Paths of Glory" to "2001" where war is a psychic battle, and ended with the strange two-dimensional version of Vietnam in "Full Metal Jacket," made to look like TV news footage. And the revolution of "Spartacus" had a corny plot, but it had a truly Roman sense of heroism.

It's the vision and the strength and confidence that such a vision brings. Of that, we should all be jealous. In "The Shining" Kubrick stamped an indelible scene in the minds of all artists, when the self-acclaimed writer Jack Nicholson proves to have been writing the same sentence over and over and over and over.... The sheer horror and waste that it represents is even greater than the actual physical threat that follows, with Jack chasing his wife into the bathroom with an ax: "Here comes Johnny!"

How many of us are artists repeating ourselves over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over....

And calling it art? May he rest in peace.

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