It’s hard to escape Stanley Kubrick at the moment. But why would you want to? That is a question, perhaps, for Leon Vitali, who fell into the director’s orbit when he was cast as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, and remained there as his right-hand man, emissary and consigliere for the rest of his life. As the disquieting new documentary Filmworker shows, Vitali’s contributions were both momentous (they included finding and then coaching the young Danny Lloyd, who played Danny in The Shining) and life-sappingly trivial (he set up a network of cameras within the Kubrick house to monitor an ailing pet). Nor did they end with the director’s death in 1999. How could they when Vitali had devoted everything to this master? I covered the picture in more detail when it played in last year’s London Film Festival. Now this engrossing and disturbing study of limitless devotion is on release. Approach with care.
Also arriving this month is a handsome new slab of a book, Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, which brings together the 300-odd assignments that Kubrick completed in his five years at Look magazine, beginning in 1945 when he was just 17. The earlier stories are stiff and often staged (“What Every Teenager Should Know About Dating”) but this soon gives way to a seam of American anthropology marked by verve and wit. The pictures show the public on the subway, in the dentists’ waiting room and at the zoo. In a supermarket, a bored child squeezed into the front of a trolley, one arm dangling down, is hypnotised by some unseen delight that lies beyond the edge of the frame. At a funfair, male customers try to prove their strong-man credentials by swinging the mallet at the Ring the Bell stall, while a nearby serviceman is touchingly smitten with the woman at the handwriting booth.
As Kubrick gains in experience, celebrities are drawn to his lens. He shoots the future president Dwight D. Eisenhower and the comic actor Zero Mostel, and goes on set for Jules Dassin’s 1948 film noir The Naked City. The boxer Rocky Graziano eats breakfast in a cluttered kitchen while his young son sits in a high-chair taking a call on a toy phone; Montgomery Clift oozes sadness and style in a series of white t-shirts and floppy quiffs and fringes.
In the light of Kubrick’s heist movie The Killing, there is some interest to be had in the shots of the racetrack grounds carpeted with discarded betting slips. The standout section, though, focuses on a young shoeshine boy named Mickey, whom Kubrick captures on his daily beat: trying to charm customers, munching hotdogs from a cart, lugging sacks of laundry or ascending to the rooftops to tend to his pigeons. In my favourite of these pictures, Mickey is shown rummaging in his shoeshine box while a friend slumps against it, eyes cast dreamily skywards. Perhaps it is our awareness of Kubrick’s own dreams that makes this image doubly poignant. “In his spare time,” reads one of the accompanying newspaper clippings, “Stanley experiments with cinematography and dreams of the day when he can make documentary films.”
Twenty years after those pictures of Mickey were taken, Kubrick was deep into production on 2001: A Space Odyssey, his eighth feature. As Dan Chiasson pointed out recently in the New Yorker, 2001 is where the Kubrick movie as we now know it was first solidified: “2001 established the phenomenon of the Kubrick film: much rumoured, long delayed, always a little disappointing… [It] established the aesthetic and thematic palette that he used in all his subsequent films. The spaciousness of its too perfectly constructed sets, the subjugation of story and theme to abstract compositional balance, the precision choreography, even – especially – in scenes of violence and chaos, the entire repertoire of colours, angles, fonts, and textures: these were constants… So was the languorous editing of 2001, which, when paired with abrupt temporal leaps, made eons seem short and moments seem endless, and its brilliant deployment of music to organise, and often ironise, action and character. These elements were present in some form in Kubrick’s earlier films, particularly Dr. Strangelove, but it was all perfected in 2001.”
The movie is now on release in an “unrestored” 70mm Cinerama roadshow version unveiled last week in Cannes: that is, in a print struck from the original camera negative (and overseen by Christopher Nolan) without any digital updating, remastering or revision. A version, in other words, as near as is possible without the benefit of time travel to the one experienced by audiences 50 years ago. There is the cacophonous overture which plays in the auditorium before the screen has been revealed, prompting some audience members to swivel in their seats and peer up at the projection booth, concerned that the film has already started behind the curtains. There’s the expertly-judged timing of the 15-minute intermission, maximising the mid-point cliffhanger. And most of all there is the celluloid itself, which has depth and richness and those all-important flaws, analogous to the crackles on a vinyl album, as opposed to sleek digital smoothness. If only cinemas could be persuaded to run advertisements of the same vintage before the film, the illusion of 1968 would be complete.
I’ve attended two screenings of 2001 in the past four days, and I have to admit to experiencing a strange jolt of joy at one of them when the shadow of the projectionist’s finger became briefly visible during the “Dawn of Man” sequence. It showed that there was a real human being back there. You don’t get that with DCPs—the Digital Cinema Packages by which films are shown these days. It all seemed very fitting given the emphasis in 2001 on distinctions between human and computer, and HAL 9000’s insistence that any mistake in the system can only be attributable to human error.
It is the little inbuilt idiosyncrasies and mysteries which now stand out for me in 2001 as much as the technological accomplishments that overwhelmed me as a teenager. Who does the ladies’ blue cashmere sweater, reported as having been found at the space station, actually belong to? Was it ever claimed or is it still up there? What precisely is the relationship between Dr Floyd (William Sylvester) and the man whose shoulder he squeezes on his way to give a speech to the Clavius Base personnel ahead of their mission? Are they lovers? Old schoolmates? Rivals who have reached a rapprochement? And with all the advances in science, was “ham” or “cheese” really the best choice of sandwich that Kubrick and his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke could envisage? They imagined a mind-blowing journey through the Star Gate and into infinity. But of halloumi and chipotle, of smashed avocado and chorizo on sourdough, they remained forever ignorant.
Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs is published by Taschen; 2001: A Space Odyssey and Filmworker are on release.