In each genre of art there are certain individuals whose works transcend the eras of their creation to become something more than just art. These pioneers of culture push the boundaries of their respective crafts to deliver masterpieces that are truly timeless. Often times the true impact of their work is not properly recognized until many years after their work is released. Stanley Kubrick is one of these rare individuals. In the craft of making film, Kubrick was a visionary ahead of his time and on the leading edge of pop culture trends that helped define humanity in the 20th century. His abilities and talents as director, in particular, changed the way film was presented and delivered to audiences.
Stanley Kubrick was nominated for 4 Oscars for Best Director. Although he didn’t win any of those nominations, they are less important to his overall legacy as compared to the influence he had on audiences, culture, and other filmmakers in general. Simply put, Kubrick single handedly changed audience’s and critics expectations about what film could be. His successes proved that film could be realistic without being a documentary, they could be silly and serious at the same time, that music could be just as important as the picture, and that attention to detail is worth the extra effort. Kubrick’s films all exude a certain confidence and uncompromising devotion to a singular vision that is rare even among film’s most well known directors.
For the first decade or so of his career, Kubrick worked with small budgets and small casts. While never commercially successful, his early films showcased many of the techniques that he would later perfect and become best known for. In particular, his early films showed that as a director, Kubrick was more than just a man behind the camera. They showed that he was an artist and that he brought new ideas and concepts to film that hadn’t been seen before. Audiences and critics were impressed by his ability to have a hand in so many aspects of production without it ever becoming too overwhelming. Kubrick became one of the first auteur filmmakers and he broke many “traditions” that the previous generation of filmmakers had established in Hollywood.
His 1956 film The Killing showed his fully defined style for the first time. Here was a film where one man had a large influence in more than just where the camera was placed. Kubrick challenged the idea that a film was a collaborative effort among specialists hired by the studio. He showed that a film could belong to one person even if it took many people to make it. The Killing also showcased Kubrick’s abilities as director to make a story transcend its immediate setting. It showed how he would be able to make a film that could influence people across generations. His structure was intuitive and made audiences comfortable with the story that was being told. Paths of Glory continued this trend and used techniques such as one-point perspective, which would later become perhaps the most definitive trademark of his style. In 1960, Kubrick’s proven competence in making compelling films earned him an opportunity to direct a big budget picture. Spartacus proved that even with a larger scope and more things to keep track of, Kubrick’s focus and effort remained. The success of that film, above any other, gave him the freedom to explore further and push the boundaries of filmmaking to the brink.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
1965’s Dr. Strangelove earned Kubrick his first Best Director nomination as well as Best Picture, and Best Writing. This film was one of Kubrick’s first “big leaps” where he used innovation to make the film better. First, he chose to portray a very serious issue as a comedy. This was nearly unheard of at the time. In the post Red Scare era where McCarthyism was fresh in the minds of Americans, Kubrick chose to make fun of the situation. Not only did this decision give him a fresh perspective, but it made the film very effective in getting it’s point across, and then making sure that point remained in audience’s minds long after. Second, Kubrick chose to tell three stories at once. By doing this, he was able to make his point with different perspectives. Without his attention to detail and careful control of the entire production, audiences could have been overwhelmed and the message lost in confusion. Finally, Kubrick created a special group of people whose job was only to work on the special effects of the film. His task to this group was to make the film more impactful despite the rather silly way it was presented. Kubrick showed that he understood the importance of the sensory impact of a film on the audience, and this would be a topic he would expand upon in later films.
2001: A Space Odyssey
For Kubrick’s next big leap, he left orbit completely. 2001 was a monumental achievement in both science fiction and filmmaking in general. Kubrick forever changed what we though science fiction could be and he forever altered where it would go. Previous to 2001, science fiction was a place for cheesy adventures and big, yet silly ideas. This film was none of those things. Instead, it was an artistic expression beyond anything that had ever been seen on the big screen before, or really, since. Ahead of its time is a descriptor that doesn’t even begin to describe what kind of magic Kubrick managed to pull off.
From his previous experiments in visuals, Kubrick knew that science fiction could be more than just easy entertainment. He understood that science fiction afforded him the freedom to explore broader horizons than anyone else had ever dared. He knew that his concept would live or die based on the sensory impact it had on the audience, and therefore, he put nearly all of his effort into creating a film that was an experience. He invented novel techniques to maximize the realism of the environments he created. This included paying special attention to lighting, manipulating the camera to mimic zero gravity environments, and putting incredible effort in getting the details just right. He perfected his one-point perspective, which helped to keep the audience focused even though there was so much that they could have gotten lost in. Most importantly, Kubrick married the masterful visual texture of his film with an equally impressive score.
Ultimately, 2001 paved the way for and inspired films such as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Alien a decade later, which would change film as we know it forever. The fact that science fiction did not suddenly erupt into the mainstream speaks volumes about not only how new Kubrick’s ideas were, but also how other filmmakers were hesitant to push the boundaries of what film could be. The best proof of this point is the fact that Kubrick didn’t win the Best Director award at the 1969 Oscars. While today 2001 is widely considered one of the best if not THE best science fiction film ever made, it took a while for audiences to truly understand it.
A Clockwork Orange
For his next film, Kubrick went in the opposite direction of 2001, yet he was still successful. If 2001 is a celebration of all of the potential that human beings possess, A Clockwork Orange dwelled in our dark sides. Kubrick leaped from awe-inspiring visuals and a sparkling clean vision of our future to one full of horrifying violence, explicit sex, and lots of garbage. Fittingly, the techniques he used as director also changed. He never lost his focus and dedication, but not the film felt less processed. The visual landscape was unsettling, and the lighting became crude, the depiction of the characters almost cartoonish. Back was the dark comedy from Dr. Strangelove but now it was connected with an uncompromised vision of the future. Kubrick continued to use his 3-part storytelling technique, and edited his film so that each of these three parts evoked a new emotion out of the audience. Finally, he once again used music in a way that it was almost as influential as the visuals.
The last of Kubrick’s Oscar nominations for best director was presented for the film Barry Lyndon. Like he did with A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick took the lessons he learned from his previous film and built on them in an unexpected way. Like A Clockwork Orange it tells the detailed story of an individual through a three stage journey, ultimately leaving the true nature of the character up to the audience to decide. He gives the audience three separate “perspectives” of the same person without ever leaving the narrative. However, unlike A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick stepped back in time. Instead of gritty cluttered future landscapes or sweeping space backdrops, Barry Lyndon is filmed as if it were made up of a series of paintings. Many of the scenes start with the characters frozen in a detailed and elaborate backdrop. Slowly the camera moves in closer and the scene begins. This was his big leap, creating an innovative and interesting visual technique within the framework of the era in which the film takes place. The lightning in this respect was also very innovative, featuring impressive low light scenes where the only lighting source is candle light. In doing this, Kubrick essentially transports his audience back in time with him. When the film ends and they return back to their own lives they suddenly see how the ideas and messages presented in this story actually can apply to their own life.
That, if anything, is the most important legacy that Kubrick left us with. Film is not just a method of entertainment. It is a form of art and can be used to influence people and culture. His techniques as director allowed audiences of different generations to extract common meanings and purpose from the same film. That is the sign of a masterful artist, a creator who can inspire people of many different backgrounds and time periods. Stanley Kubrick was a great director not because he made great films, but because his films improved our understanding of film itself.
Check back next week as we honor another Oscar-nomitated director!