“We’re all children of Kubrick, aren’t we? Is there anything you can do that he hasn’t done?”
Paul Thomas Anderson
Stanley Kubrick (1927-1999) passed away twenty years ago – on March 7, 1999 – while in the process of completing post-production on Eyes Wide Shut (1999), leaving his grand oeuvre somewhat unfinished.1 In essence, the fabled perfectionist and obsessive master had worked himself to death. But his death also came just as the ‘reunited’ world was lapsing, faster and faster, into globalization, a far cry from the prophecies of 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) – for better or for worse. Kubrick’s chiselled-out yet endlessly open and “visionary” filmography has since its inception kept asking crucial questions, making a lasting impression on a large number of people, from the regular cinemagoer to the global film auteur. As such, he is one of the very few directors to have straddled the line of critical praise as auteur and mainstream success. Following the market logic, the director’s legacy is fetishized and vigorously exploited commercially, not least with last year’s fiftieth anniversary of 2001’s release and this year’s commemorations. Sometimes, these celebrations are conducted in a mode bordering on the reverent or even panegyric, while elsewhere Kubrick is treated with contempt if not hatred.2 Hardly ever eliciting sheer indifference, the master and his films lay probably at the crossroads of these many portraits and assessments: infinitely rich, complex, and not devoid of shadows. This complexity and contradictory quality only fuels the mystery and fascination that the oeuvre continues to arouse.
To be sure, if, before his death, the number of publications dedicated to him was on a par with those devoted to Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles or Charlie Chaplin, Kubrick has since overtaken his “competitors” in this regard (also courtesy of innumerable blogs, vlogs and other online publications).3 The director sits today at the top of a mount Olympus of analysis, interpretation, but also speculation and fanciful if not outright demented conspiracy theories, as the documentary Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) demonstrates. Like his fellow major filmmakers (to the names above, let us add a few others: S.M. Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman and Howard Hawks), Kubrick has impressed and inspired a large number of directors who, to honour and pay homage to him, or to channel his greatness, quote him more or less explicitly, in a spectrum of attitudes ranging from awe and deference to immature referencing and morbid fetishism, from Ridley Scott and James Cameron to Jonathan Glazer and Yorgos Lanthimos.
Kubrick’s haunting echo
The enfant terrible of the Greek ‘weird wave’, Lanthimos has been hailed by the mainstream global media as a channeller of Kubrick only recently, when The Favourite (2018) drew attention to its costumes, décors, cinematography and narrative of an upstart’s ambitions to power, all very reminiscent of Barry Lyndon (1975), and thus ‘post-Kubrickian’. Yet Lanthimos had been peppering his films with unambiguous Kubrickian quotations for a while: think of the two sisters from Kynodonthas (Dogtooth, 2009) posing in a similar way to the Grady twin ghosts in The Shining (1979); the monochrome, silhouetted, black and white posters to The Lobster (2015), which evokes The Shining’s black and yellow ones; or, most pointedly, the use of Nicole Kidman and the steadicam tracking shots in The Killing of the Sacred Deer (2017),4 whose medical convention scene is lit and shot in a way reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut’s new year’s party at the Zieglers’. Lanthimos’ biggest concession to the mainstream and most readily consumable film, The Favourite (a kind of quality demographics ‘upgrading’ of those British TV shows about the royalty such as, say, Victoria), also boasts, next to the ‘Lyndonian’ setting, the slow cross-dissolves that rendered space and time ambiguous and uncanny in The Shining (1979), and the wide-angle lens shots that reinforced A Clockwork Orange’s (1971) psychedelic pop art aesthetic and spirit of cool. Yet, in what constitutes a clear sign of the times, with its entertaining critique of parliamentary politics, representing a principled but perfidious right-wing (Rachel Weisz) opposed to a wanton upstart left (Emma Stone) vying to control a decaying figure of power (Olivia Colman), the film owes its satirical bent more to Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Lolita (1962), than to the humanism of Paths of Glory (1958) and the simple yet deep philosophical questions (on life, on art, on expenditure) of Barry Lyndon.
Ridley Scott never came close to summoning Kubrick’s humanism, let alone his politics or philosophy, in any compelling way, but this did not prevent him from being probably the first mainstream filmmaker to pay homage to his idol with another take on the painterly universe of Barry Lyndon, The Duellists (1977). Acknowledging his debt to the Master, Scott explored a variety of genres5, for instance in the 2001: a Space Odyssey-influenced Blade Runner (1982). In the latter film, Scott enlisted Joe Turkel, who had played in three of Kubrick’s films: The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory and most memorably the part of Lloyd the bartender in The Shining.6
Scott also resorted to footage from that film’s opening credits (Jack’s drive to the Overlook hotel) for the closing scene of the original theatrical release of Blade Runner – when Harrison Ford and Sean Young elope into idyllic, misty landscapes of the American wilderness (these scenes were later suppressed in the director’s cuts releases). As for the aseptic, white interiors of the space-ship and hibernation pods of 2001, they had been already incorporated as a defining feature – next to Hans Rudi Giger’s dark and organic designs – of Scott’s Alien (1979), whose blending of sci-fi and horror echoed the prototypical work with genre that Kubrick had made his signature.7
While Alien’s release predates the experiment in the mechanisms of fear that was The Shining (so that Kubrick could have scarcely watched it in the process of preparation to the film, as he did countless other films and texts, including Robert Wise’s The Haunting from 1963 and Richard Donner’s The Omen from 1976), the mix of science-fiction and horror, both genres Kubrick redefined, influenced other major genre filmmakers: John Carpenter’s debut, Dark Star (1974), features a clear parody of 2001’s super computer HAL 9000. And in his horror-sci-fi masterpiece The Thing (1982), as Rick Warner identifies,8 Carpenter references 2001 and The Shining, both in an overall sense of Kubrickian dread, but also in literal quotes: the chess game between MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the computer; the scientists standing around the rectangular hole in the ice; the breaking through the door with the axe by Childs (Keith David), etc.. Following his smash hit B-movie The Terminator (1984), with its apocalyptic vision of the consequences of singularity, James Cameron’s made Aliens (1986), the sequel to Scott’s classic, a direct and clear homage to Kubrick, if only in its score by James Horner: the film’s opening title is accompanied by dark chords that pastiche those of Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘The Awakening of Jacob’ (used to memorable effect in The Shining), before introducing loving quotes of 2001’s spaceship travels and the adagio from Aram Khachaturian Gayaneh ballet suite – almost to the point of plagiarism. Aliens’ combination of war movie, sci-fi and horror, furthermore, is another nod to Kubrick’s redefinition of genre, just as its representations of the Marine Corps anticipate some aspects of Full Metal Jacket (1987). However, the most ‘pregnant’ Kubrickian moment in the film remains not the direct quotations, but a scene, early on, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens from her hibernation, only to be plagued by nightmares, caused by the ordeal she went through in the original film. As an alien makes its way through her belly, Ripley looks on in abomination. The use of slow motion here condenses two unforgettable moments from The Shining: the horror registering (indeed, spilling over) on Wendy’s (Shelley Duvall) face as Jack’s axe bursts through the bathroom door, and hectolitres of blood gushing out of the Overlook’s elevators. Two elements deserve attention, here: the complex and layered meanings behind Kubrick’s representations, and his play on cinematic time. In subtle ways elucidated by Pansy Duncan in her essay,9 blood can be equated with oil in Kubrick (later Paul Thomas Anderson will replay this analogy literally), the gore of the film becoming a commentary on the economic crisis of the 1970s. This element resonates with an undercurrent motif in Cameron’s films: a populist denunciation of corporate greed and the military-industrial complex, where the alien species is coveted as a potential military weapon. Of course the creatures turn against humans, and commingling of various substances (oil, blood, alien slime, acid) ensues. As for slow-motion, which Kubrick used so deliberately (The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange), it is not meant only to underscore the intensity of the moment and suggest psychological time: when combined with galactic travel, human cryonics and the infinite expanses of outer space, it opens up avenues of consideration into zones of uncertainty and considerations broaching both the realms of commercial cinema and quantum physics, hence the other experiments with chronology in Kubrick (the jumbled narration of The Killing and the dissolution of a referential, ‘calendar’ time in The Shining).10
Kubrick’s cinematic laboratory
Kubrick’s influence spans multiple areas of filmmaking as is plain to see. Like Hitchcock, he played and experimented with genre cinema to transcend or deflect it – a desire that can be found subverted in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1996), which combines and revisits the space opera of 2001 and the military training of Full Metal Jacket and filters them through an ironic, misanthropic lens. But whereas the most gifted of Hitchcockian inheritors (suffice it to think of the takes on Vertigo (1958) by Michelangelo Antonioni, Chris Marker and the flamboyant Brian De Palma) managed to appropriate his films’ deeper meanings and lessons in filmmaking, all the while borrowing on his motifs (the vanishing woman, the blonde/brunette nexus, the trope of voyeurism, etc.), to do the same with Kubrick seems a daunting task. The reason, here as elsewhere, is of a historical nature. Indeed, the aforementioned filmmakers borrowing on Hitchcock, still operated within an ‘industrial’ (if technically already post-industrial, late capitalist) world, their act of borrowing and citation already tainted with the implications of postmodernity but still attached to a pragmatic dimension of sorts and capable of articulating a dialogue between the pre-WWII sensibility Hitchcock carried from Europe to the US, all the while addressing the zeitgeist of post-War Europe and America. As Fredric Jameson writes, “in a post-industrial world, as the sheer difference of increasingly distinct and eccentric individualities turns under its own momentum into repetition and sameness, as the logical permutations of stylistic innovation become exhausted, the quest for a uniquely distinctive style and the very category of “style” come to seem old-fashioned. (…) The result, in the area of high culture, was the moment of pastiche in which energetic artists who now lack both forms and content cannibalize the museum and wear the masks of extinct mannerisms.”11 And indeed, those craftsmen who still borrowed on Hitchcock in the 1980s and 1990s (the neo-noir, Phil Joanou’s Final Analysis from 1992, etc.) were too far removed, too entrenched already in the neoliberal moment, to summon in any productive way the philosophy of the master of suspense, indulging instead in a score of clichés. Kubrick’s followers, coming themselves at least twenty, and usually thirty, forty or fifty years later, handle cliché et pastiche from an entirely different position. Some, indeed like the Hitchcockian epigones of the 1990s, indulged very much in gestures of empty citation and blank parody (Jameson’s definition of pastiche) of themes and subjects. Others, however, attempted somehow to go deeper, trying to summon Kubrick’s ghost, spirit, and worldview. Doing both, however, proves nigh unattainable: Matt Reeves’ over-ambitious reflection on evolution and survival, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), blends 2001’s evolving apes, The Shining’s snowy Overlook hotel-like mountain resort, and the militarist, de-humanizing imagery of Full Metal Jacket, among others, all the while attempting to convey a deeper message about the future of mankind. Still, Reeves fares better than those who stick to a vapid motivic/citational approach, exemplified in such grotesque and derivative films as Kung: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017) (apparently, you must quote Kubrick one way or the other when making a film involving weapon wielding apes!); or Panos Cosmatos’ obsessive, nightmarish trip into 2001’s imagery, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) – all style and no substance whatever, except of course if we consider goo and slime to constitute substance indeed.12
A photographer himself before he became a film director, influenced by the works of Weegee and Diane Arbus, Kubrick was the author of unforgettable images whose unsettling strangeness remains imprinted in the minds of film directors and informs their aesthetics, accounting for this vapid or sterile attempts at quoting them. Those filmmakers and film students who do this are often oblivious to the fact that the power of images such as Arbus’ and Kubrick’s does not come from the striking physical appearance of their subjects or uncanny emotion they summon, but from their oblique teachings. As Arbus put it, “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Kubrick understood this, who refused clear cut endings and, in true modernist fashion, cultivated polysemousness and obliqueness in his films. In this sense, perhaps the most productive work of recycling and quotation of Kubrick’s imagery has been carried out by Jonathan Glazer, who moved from the world of commercial and music videos into the cutting edge, arthouse feature film scene, injecting most of his productions with a dose of obscure Kubrickian imagery – from the jogging in the snow at the onset of Birth (2004) (which evokes Frank Poole’s jogging in low gravity inside the spacecraft in 2001) to the opening scene of Under the Skin (2014), depicting the creation of Scarlett Johansson’s human skin and eyeball. “I’ve picked (Kubrick’s) pockets, really,” Glazer freely admits. “People politely say ‘homage,’ but I probably stole his wallet.”13
Christopher Nolan’s films – although they suffer from severe screenwriting deficiencies – remain another impressive testament, for their bravura and quixotic ambition, of the lasting power of Kubrick’s films. This is found not least in the way Nolan engages and plays with cinematic time, owing to Kubrick in this respect. With Interstellar (2014) the British filmmaker seems to have wanted to update 2001 for the 21st century,14 with its narrative of salvation of mankind from the brink of extinction. As Hans Zimmer’s score lifts the final organ chord of Richard Strauss’ ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ and lets its linger on the soundtrack, it is as though the echo of 2001 reaches us from a distant, faraway galaxy, light-years away – a no longer retrievable world. This does not seem far-fetched a theory: as John MacKay has observed,15 the film (whose effects are in great part practical as opposed to computer generated and shot on film, not digital) offers an allegorical take on the shift from 35mm to the digital world in a ‘redemption’ of a cinema on the brink of technological obsolescence and limitations, or outright redundancy. In this sense, it is both logical and ironic that Nolan was involved in the restoration of 2001, a brand new print of which was supposed to screen in great pomp at Cannes 2018 for the film’s 50th anniversary. The ambition misfired: the 70mm print ended up being a formerly circulated copy, and a slightly scratched one, at that.
Such Icarus-like vying for the status of Kubrick’s epigone primo, and eventually failing for excess of hubris is not Nolan’s province alone, and quite a few of the directors mentioned here probably wish they could receive this (rather dubious, when all is said and done) badge of honour. Here it is impossible not to identify a fetishist desire, reifying a legacy and even a human relation, as is very much the case of Steven Spielberg: a self-proclaimed friend of Kubrick’s, the New Hollywood erstwhile wonder boy not only took it upon himself to egregiously adapt Brian Aldiss’ ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ into his A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Spielberg returned to Kubrick recently, finding inspiration in 3D computer game experiments and repurposing the space of the Overlook Hotel as a VR ‘ultimate horror’ location, in a very odd yet intriguing scene of Ready Player One (2018). While the two men no doubt maintained a close correspondence over the years, and both revolutionized Hollywood cinema through the 1970s, it is fair to say that their sensibilities and idioms were entirely different – like water and oil.
Kubrick’s vanguard work with artificial intelligence, from HAL 9000 to the unrealized brilliance of A.I., has spawned countless narratives on singularity, cybernetics, and transhumanism, often in their more dystopian, pop and B instantiations, from Cameron’s aforementioned The Terminator and Verhoeven’s (and Ed Neumeier’s) Robocop (1987) to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) and its mainstream updating of the Turing test. Tracing this lineage of artificial intelligence, Marta Figlerowicz notes the intersubjective and ‘interspecies’ dialogue proposed by Kubrick: “In Kubrick’s work and in the work of later directors influenced by him, such as Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Glazer and Alex Garland, thinking machines are challenged to deepen their immersion in the human sensory field. Such embodied computers critique naïve views of thinking and awareness as associated with disembodied autonomy, a release from social ties and inborn wants. Indeed, they suggest that a great part of our alienation from ourselves comes not simply from the machines we create, but from the misguided hopes of detachment we place in them.”16 Surely the spate of films dealing with artificial intelligence released over the last fifty years found a putative progenitor in HAL 9000… even as it is rather, as recent research has come to realize (and the darkest speculation on the subject has quickly made grist for its dystopian mill, too), the inscrutability of the black monolith’s ‘signal’ which may define the real relationship between humans and algorithms, once the latter create their own mode of communication and turn the human brain from highest echelon of cognitive and analytical ability, to the scrap yard of evolutionary history. Yet therein lies perhaps the central contradiction of Kubrick’s cinema, for all the irony and humour of the master: the tension between the terrifying need to overcome humanity’s limitations (the imperative of technological progress) and the attachment to humanist values.
The sound of (Kubrick’s films’) music
The use of music as motif and as a strong carrier of philosophy and affect has distinguished Kubrick in many ways from his contemporaries. His work with temp tracks – pre-existing pieces of classical or pop music – is a case in point of this approach, as Adrian Daub illustrates 17. Retaining these older pieces meant to be replaced by an original score, allowed Kubrick to endow the final soundtrack, and film as a whole, with a choreographic, sometimes operatic, and even epic quality – a method which has inspired countless filmmakers since, be it in its ‘cool’ referentiality or deeper implications vis-à-vis various traditions and modes of thought.
To name but a few examples of this (ranging from the apt but artless craftsmanship to the quirky, ironic artistry), we find the operatic opening of Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011), staging in slow motion the deadly ballet of planets to the sound of Richard Wagner, a clear riff on the spaceship ballet of 2001. Back on earth, exciting drums of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ and the beats of Blondie and Damon Albarn animate Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), a film which quotes and tries to update A Clockwork Orange’s disaffected youth for 1990s’ Scotland, minus the deep philosophical questionings about free will that the original raised.18 And the beauty – sometimes sublime, sometimes kitschy – and Emersonian ambitions of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line from 1998, The Tree of Life from 2011) are reinforced by a mix of classical tunes very much in keeping with the tradition of the temp track championed by Kubrick. It should also be noted that both Boyle and Malick resorted to the voice over(s) in ways that also owe much to Kubrick’s work with reinventing what had become, by the 1960s and 1970s, a hackneyed technique. And while David Lynch references Hitchcock more than Kubrick (his obsession with the blonde-brunette motif a case in point), he was thrilled that Kubrick commended his Eraserhead (1977), and has since kept on discreetly quoting the master. This can be seen for instance in the atom bomb mushroom and Penderecki’s music in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), but also in Wild at Heart (1990). In one scene, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd) plasters her face with red lipstick to an ominous, rumbling tune alludes to The Shining’s ‘REDRUM’ scene, also channelling the demented vibe of the film’s last act. As for Bobby Peru’s (Willem Dafoe) seduction of Lula (Laura Dern) in a seedy motel room, it obliquely evokes the encounter and ‘seduction’ of Grady and Jack, two characters from two different realms – the sort of interpenetration which Lynch’s cinema has made its ‘dread and mutter’.
Reverent nods to Kubrick’s unforgettable work with music are also reprised in the form of pastiche, as we saw in the case of James Horner’s slavish pastiche of Penderecki and Khachaturian on Aliens. Faring much better in this respect, Johnny Greenwood, in his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, has endowed his scores with powerful echoes of the music of composers Kubrick helped popularize, György Ligeti and Penderecki (whom he uses in 2001; The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut). Greenwood summons them in scenes inspired by the same films: the opening of There Will Be Blood (2007), with its Pendereckian screeches (themselves from an earlier, original string piece by Greenwood owing much to the Polish composer) evokes the barren landscapes of the ‘Dawn of Man’ segment in 2001, and its protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), growling, pin-wielding and limping, regresses to the state of beast when clubbing Eli (Paul Dano) to death, in a bowling room reminiscent of the Overlook hotel’s interiors.
Greenwood hardly contents himself with delivering mere musical pastiche, instead creating tunes and sounds which evoke a bygone era, yet stand alone as original compositions: the main theme from Phantom Thread from 2017, ‘House of Woodcock’, for instance, is a remarkable improvement upon Bob Harris’ maudlin theme for Lolita (which sounds like Liberace playing Saint-Saëns). Both tunes carry a strong Hollywood classic piano concerto-y feel, crescendoing mellifluously to their central melody, so that it seems fair to assume that Anderson used the Harris piece as inspiration, or even as a temp track, for this film. But Greenwood endows his composition with wit and whimsy that makes it irresistible. Likewise, Phantom Thread can be seen as an improved version of the relationship of an older man and younger woman, set against the backdrop of a bourgeois world hell-bent on decorum and obsessed with the question of fading beauty. It constitutes, in my view, the greatest among Kubrickian homages, a love letter to the admirable but capricious and unlovable master, opening onto existential and philosophical considerations which share the depth and poignancy – as well as the sheer simplicity – of Barry Lyndon’s ending.19 Both Anderson’s and Kubrick’s films demonstrate how a vast, immense expenditure of energy and human work need to be invested in order to allow, as Alex Nemerov puts it, a single, singular “Moment of Truth”20 to emerge.
The master of the abstract
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we find the legacy of Kubrick’s phenomenological import to cinema, particularly the psychedelic, abstract imagery of 2001, and its correlation to hallucinogenic drugs intake. The latter is correlated with another motif dear to Kubrick, as Thomas Elsaesser indicates,21 that of characters confronted with radical dilemmas and extreme situations (and the violence implicit to cinema). Ken Russell’s flawed but intriguing Altered States (1980) conducted a similar experiment, following in Kubrick’s footsteps – but in reverse, showing the protagonist not evolving into a Star Child, but rather regressing to the state of ape-man at first. More recently, Gaspar Noé, who holds 2001 above any other film (as he confessed in an interview), has eagerly recreated the film’s psychedelic journey throughout his filmography, which constitutes a vast enterprise in narcotics phenomenology and probing of the limits: Irreversible from 2002, Enter the Void released in 2009, Climax from 2018, all feature direct quotes of 2001, including one of the film’s posters and an aborted foetus meant to evoke the Star Child. The psychedelic dimension of Kubrick’s film is also referred to in Ciro Guerra’s El Abrazo della serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent, 2015), a somewhat glossy and derivative, but not altogether uninteresting evocation of experiential limits. In its final sequence, the film abandons its Herzogian tale of a European man lost in the Latin American wilderness for a hallucinatory scene: following the consumption of some potent drugs, the explorer’s soul leaves his body, and the film moves from black and white cinematography to a smorgasbord of colourful, kaleidoscopic aerial shots.
As Gilles Deleuze indicated,22 some filmmakers lay on the side of the body, while others do on the brain – Kubrick serving of course as the epitome of the latter tendency. This points to the lineage between his oeuvre and the work of all cerebral or hyper intellectual filmmakers, and their shared love of systems and algorithmic thinking, which push the very limits of human cognitive abilities (think of Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) and Upstream Colors (2013)). But the cerebral all too often carries associations of coldness, a charge which has been levelled (quite inaccurately, I think) against Kubrick and his films, and led to mistaken alignments of his oeuvre with that of, say, David Cronenberg. On the other hand, it would also be a mistake to detect an influence of Kubrick’s on filmmakers on the ‘body’ side, such as Quentin Tarantino.23 Conversely, obsessiveness and systemic, mathematical (and Kabbalistic) approaches, inspired by Kubrick among others, can be detected in Darren Aronofsky’s early work – the ‘systems’ of Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). And while Steven Soderbergh, besides his constant and stimulating experimenting with genre (the director is fascinated by new technologies and often driven by a thirst for problem-solving and quasi-scientific innovation in his mise-en-scenes and storytelling), cannot directly be correlated to Kubrick, he ranks nonetheless among the most cerebral contemporary mainstream auteurs, whose experiment in re-editing 2001 (The Return of W. De Rijk from 2015)24 is in itself as strong a testament to a deep investment in and obsession with the film as one could think of.
There is a dark side to the brain, as there is to any celestial orbs, no doubt: the systemic, technological, ‘Kabbalistic’ intricacy of his cinema, coupled with the wish for privacy (and aura of secrecy) around his life, have led, as pointed out already, to a score of conspiracy theories surrounding Kubrick’s oeuvre, attributable to the mystery, complexity or obscurity of the films, which feeble or paranoid minds see as part of some secret project, or hidden message for the initiated about said project. Room 237 offers a small digest of these theories, from the faux moon landing of the Apollo spacecraft presumably directed by Kubrick on a studio set, to the ‘code’ revealing, in The Shining, the director’s ‘deal’ with the US government to do so, to the disturbing secret societies imagery of Eyes Wide Shut, as Daniel Fairfax elucidates.25 This conspiratorial spirit has been replayed in two very different ways of late: Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Michell, 2018) channels numerous Kubrickian (but also Hitchcockian, Lynchian, and many other) tropes and motifs to represent a paranoid character (a brilliant Andrew Garfield) slowly losing his mind in a sea of signs misinterpreted as codes – an interesting postmodern riff, if anything, on the conundrum of dealing with the human mind’s failing to deal with the internet, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, rather than on the misdeeds of some obscure ‘evil force’. Much the opposite happens in the case of Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018), a film which attempts to reiterate the feats of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Shining at reinventing the horror genre, and which endorses a dark conspiratorial worldview, wherein simple folk are merely pawns in the hands of a Satanic cult, and sacrificed for the realization of the latter’s dark project, a ‘new world order’ of sorts (“Hail Paimon!”). But there too the film may evoke the anxiety procured, in our restless global political unconscious, by the supplanting of humanism by trans-human and non-human agencies.
Shortly after his death, Kubrick’s family and estate hurried to dispel the image of the paranoid artist surrounded by conspiracy theories, endeavouring to celebrate his life and legacy through the re-release of his films, editing lavish volumes (including selections from photo albums revealing Kubrick as a family man), and touring the world with the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition, which displays a large amount of props, documents, annotated scripts, archival notes and equipment the filmmaker worked with. In this context, it is worth pointing out that Kubrick, like a few other masters of cinema, has been an inspiration for several video and installation artists’ works, as Jihoon Kim identifies. In her interactive digital installation Stiffs (1999) Jennifer Steinkamp uses six projectors to recreate the monolith from 2001 in 3D animation and with added sound effects, “positioning its symbolic meanings, including its allusion to the obelisks from Europe, South America, North Africa, and the Middle East.” Jane and Louise Wilson’s Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009, single-channel video with three mirrors) reconfigures Kubrick’s extensive archive from his work on the Louis Begley Wartime Lies adaptation as “open-ended, marked by the dialogue between the documents and photographs, Kubrick’s unrealized idea on the film, and the artists’ imaginary reconstruction of it.” As for Body Double 22 (2010), by French artist Brice Dellsperger, it is a performance/remake of Eyes Wide Shut, re-enacting scenes from the film: “Not only do male actors frequently play female characters, but they also occasionally switch back to male characters while still wearing the wigs and fake breasts they donned for the female roles. In some instances, multiple male and female actors play the same character in succession.”26
Kubrick’s imprint, as many of the above examples suggest, has been elevated and commodified, translated into musical or visual quotes, or considerations on power, the military, biopolitics, the media and new technologies, but also, more surreptitiously, into a mood, tone, or worldview. Such is no doubt the case with the cruel and acerbic humour of the Coen brothers, whom Rodney Hill considers as perhaps the clearest heirs to Kubrick, pointing to direct quotations of The Shining in Barton Fink (1991), of Dr. Strangelove in Raising Arizona (1987), and whose misanthropic humour can be found in films as different as A Serious Man (2007), Burn After Reading (2009) or Hail, Caesar! (2016).
“And while the Coens – and Stanley Kubrick for that matter – have generally avoided, even spurned, questions regarding philosophy or any other ‘deep meanings’ in their films, those elements are unmistakably present throughout both bodies of work. These philosophical similarities,” Hill writes, “arguably the most substantial connection between the Coens and Kubrick, relate back to the other ties,[such as] the grotesque and such willingness to question and revise one’s attitude or outlook is at the heart of the philosophical enterprise. Furthermore, the uncommon level of independence achieved by Kubrick and the Coen Brothers in their respective careers is the very quality that has allowed their distinctive aesthetics and world-views to emerge.”27 It is also worth noting how, as secular Jewish artists, the Coens share with Kubrick their status as cultural outsiders in a predominantly Christian America. This ‘disconnect’ contributes to their ironic, distanced approaches to humour and absurdity; it further manifests itself in a wary distrust of authority and power structures (perhaps also stemming from their Jewish roots and the historical precedent of prosecution against Jewish immigrant populations), evident not only in their plots, but also in their relationships to the mainstream film industry. The resulting parallel is found in an ethos of artistic and intellectual independence, yet commercial viability. As a result, Kubrick and the Coens have managed the feat of creating distinctive cinematic works of art across various genres, with consistent aesthetic and philosophical leanings. The caveat, in the case of the Coens being that their overpowering misanthropy and cynicism all too often overtake and obscure the deeper implications of their films.
Another inheritor of Kubrick’s mood and worldview, albeit a more discreet one than the Coens, is Alexander Payne, whose disenchanted yet bittersweet humanism counterbalances cynicism and has been a staple of his films, some of which having on occasions directly referenced Kubrick’s heritage: About Schmidt (2002) rekindled an image of Jack Nicholson as an actor worthy of attention (a status he lost after The Shining, the remainder of his career degenerating into a vast enterprise in self-indulgent pastiche); while the flawed but no less under-appreciated Downsizing (2017) quotes The Shining (the aerial view of the car ride), Full Metal Jacket (the shaving of Matt Damon’s head) and 2001 (the dome protecting the downsized community, seen from ground level, evocative of the worm-eye view shots of the monolith), as undergirding reference points, or beacons, in Payne’s ironic re-evaluation of environmentalist doctrine, precarious labour, the shortcomings of a philosophy of progress and the neoliberal myth of a classless society.
Stanley Kubrick was at one and the same time a consummate businessman, filmmaker, disenchanted humanist and modern master evolving in an increasingly postmodern and neoliberal environment. His roots stemmed from the America of the New Deal, of industrial capitalism, and the form of entrepreneurship attached to it. His life as a young adult (and ‘New York Jewish intellectual’ to borrow on the title of Nathan Abrams’ recent and remarkably insightful book published by Rutgers University Press in 2018) was marked by the dual heritage of world war II and the allies’ victory: the deep fascination with war, the horror of the Holocaust witnessed from afar, the miracles and dangers of an accelerating, computerized and automated society, the geopolitical East-West binary structure of the Cold War, and the euphoria of economic growth in the Western bloc under the constant threat of all-out nuclear war. From this complex substrate, coupled with superior intellectual abilities (his fabled IQ of 200), Kubrick derived a series of films, which remain points of reference in cinematic and technical accomplishment, and portraits of an era at one and the same time. In more way than one, he set standards of technological innovation and excellence, probing limits in a way that was awe-inspiring to some, who attempted to revive his modernist experiments in genre cinema, and cool to others, who pastiched him in postmodern fashion.
Born into quite a different world (that of neoliberal economy, increasing degradation of the planet’s resources, and disillusionment, in short), tired of postmodernity but marked by it, or conversely, riding the wave of neoliberal aesthetics, the contemporary filmmakers mentioned above indulge thus with more or less ambition in gestures of pastiche, tribute, even invocation, both to the genius or outright mystery of Kubrick’s films, or, through his films, of a bygone era in which they emerged. Some of these directors desperately grapple with Kubrickian motifs in search of some answer to some obscure question. Perhaps some of them were trapped at an early age, in front of their TV set, in the metaphorical labyrinth, from which they could never extricate themselves: being exposed to Kubrick’s maze-like genius is no small matter, as no revelation is necessarily ever a gift. In this sense, even if there is always value in expanding one’s purview, the danger of reverence or idolizing (or some sort of sublime-induced awe, distrust and dread) is never far when engaging in Kubrickian exegesis.
In essence, and barring a few exceptions, these filmmakers quoting Kubrick are for the most part performing a nostalgic, and ultimately reactionary gesture, even as yearning for good cinema in times of deep crisis of the medium is understandable, and laudable to a point. But what they also broach, albeit unwittingly and sometimes negatively, at a time when artificial algorithms and intelligences threaten to put an end to humanist ideology, are the questions posed by Kubrick’s cinema – about human beings, their place in the world, their potential and limits, which are more relevant and timely than ever.
In this context, it is unsurprising to note the very masculine character of the range of figures covered here, as Kubrick does not seem to have inspired women filmmakers hitherto. Even those who started out in horror and exploitation film in the 1980s and 1990s (there is a spate of them, but let us mention Amy Holden Jones, Deborah Brock, Doris Wishman, Genie Joseph, Jackie Kong, Mary Lambert, Rachel Talalay); or those attached to Kubrickian filmmakers mentioned in this piece (Jennifer Chambers Lynch or Kathryn Bigelow) were found more keenly referencing the suspense and slasher of Hitchcock and the gore of body-horror filmmakers rather than The Shining. The politics mentioned above are surely a part of the reason for this state of things. This does not prevent the actresses seen in Kubrick’s films to shine indeed, and carry the greater share of wisdom, courage and humanity – but they remain, of course, trapped under the gaze of the (male) world maker. The master may have been cold, calculating and cerebral to the extreme, he privileged cinematic emotion over pure ratiocination on the one hand, and was far too sophisticated and informed a mind to propose a simplistic or misogynistic worldview. Still, not all consider themselves children of Kubrick: many, including those from minorities, will frown, for instance, at Kubrick’s perceived homophobia, the cruelty his filmic situations puts people in, and the rather implacable and systemically imprisoning worldview his cinema instantiates.
Through this overview,28 the reader can measure the gap between the followers and the “god” at the top of his Olympus and appreciate the extent to which Kubrick has penetrated the collective cinematic unconscious. With each passing decade, his films can be viewed in a new light, a sign of their rich and multi-layered nature. Many of the questions they asked, to be sure, still await an answer, while other ones appear in a new light, probing our society’s needs and concerns. For instance, watching The Shining today puts the emphasis on neoliberal precarious and fluid labour, burnout and domestic violence, more than ever before.
This assessment of Kubrick’s legacy, and of a certain idea of cinema, also happens at a moment when VOD platforms such as Netflix are causing commercial cinema to rethink its implications, in a challenge greater even perhaps than that posed by commercial television in the 1960s, which was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the studio system. But this past year also marked the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le livre d’image (2018), a paean to life, cinema and the Arab world in equal parts. Godard, an admirer of the early Kubrick, then a cautious sceptic of his later works, closes this film with a quote of the notorious dance scene from Le Plaisir (1952), where an older man dons a mask to pretend he can still cavort like his younger self, before collapsing to the floor in exhaustion. The implied reference is of course to Godard himself, but also, I like to think, an indirect nod to Kubrick, who much admired Max Ophüls. An artistic, stylistic, and philosophical legacy is measured as much in the achievements of the children as it is by the shadow of the (sometimes half-forgotten) forebears, whose actual height may be properly assessed only once they have fallen down. In this sense, Kubrick’s legacy has reached its apex, its most conspicuous and timely level (his films acknowledged as masterpieces and generating ample emulation among his peers, among critics, and film students). Only time will tell if this is actually a good thing and a symptom of promising future for cinema – or, conversely, if the master’s legacy is a dangerous, poisonous or sterile one. Once Kubrick joins Ophüls and becomes absorbed and diluted into a socio-cultural substrate, operating from there in more removed, subtle ways, having at last entered a geological, sediment-like status, can the legacy be properly assessed at last.
For now, Stanley Kubrick and his oeuvre seem to live on and shine more than ever before. The cracks we may detect in them, upon the umpteenth viewing, the way some of their effects have aged, are more than a mere patina which time endows all texts with: they are rather a symptom of how the global market and its aesthetic rules have made us grown distant from the ideals of the second half of the twentieth century. Pessimistic as though one may be entitled to be in these dark times, the renewal of cinema (and society, which it is bound to reflect) lies elsewhere altogether. The time has come, perhaps, to lay the great master to rest.
- Luckily, Kubrick found in Leon Vitali a brilliant assistant of indefatigable loyalty who ensured that his vision be respected. Vitali was instrumental in bringing the film to completion and continues to protect/oversee the master’s legacy. The recent documentary Filmworker (Tony Zierra, 2017) serves as a worthy document of the two men’s relationship and collaborations, and of the devouring and vampiric nature of genius. ↩
- It is hard to forget Louis Skorecki’s review of Eyes Wide Shut in Libération (16 January 2003), reducing Kubrick to a lecherous old man obsessed with the intersection of commerce and technology (“Eyes Wide Shut is a demo for home cinema store clerks”) and Nicole Kidman’s private parts (“Is she wiping her ass or her cunt?,” Skorecki asked). While more civil, Pauline Kael was another staunch detractor of Kubrick’s through the years. ↩
- See for instance the Shining-devoted database http://www.theoverlookhotel.com/. This website not only posts rare production stills and little-known pieces of information about the film, but also documents all kinds of paraphernalia – toys, items of clothing, video games, art projects… – related to it, thus attesting to its cult status and lasting influence in popular culture and the Western world, which came to discover the film in “great waves of terror” – through its releases in theaters, on television and home video. ↩
- On the subject of tracking shots, it is worth noting that David Fincher’s signature tracking shots at ground level, perhaps the most interesting feature of his films, owe a great deal to Kubrick’s camera movements from Paths of Glory and The Shining. In both directors, the camera movement denotes a pointed sense of anticipation, or even dread, correlated as they are with a sense of revelation and sometimes transgression. ↩
- Gladiator (2000) of course echoes Spartacus (1960), and comparing the two sums up the nature of the problem of Ridley Scott’s entire oeuvre: self-aware only in the most counter-productive ways, incoherent and dreadfully paced, and perhaps indeed ignorant of the nature and philosophy of the medium it utilizes. ↩
- Steven Spielberg did something similar a few years later, when, in his own masterpiece, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he cast Philip Stone, most memorable for his roles as Alex’s father in A Clockwork Orange and Delbert Grady in The Shining. ↩
- Scott was of course not the only filmmaker to borrow on the revolutionary aesthetics and effects of 2001: the vast majority of ‘serious’ sci-fi films made since is informed by Kubrick’s film, from the recent Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) or Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), all the way back to classics of the 1970s of the New Hollywood – think of George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971), who would later enlist several of Kubrick’s collaborators, including Colin Cantwell, on Star Wars (1977). ↩
- Rick Warner, “Kubrickian Dread: Echoes of 2001 and The Shining in Works by Jonathan Glazer, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Lynch” in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- “Fade to Crude: Petro-Horror in Kubrick’s The Shining” in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- In this sense, the multiple experiments with cinematic time in Gaspar Noé’s and Christopher Nolan’s films, including of course the reverse structure of Memento (1999) and Irréversible (Irreversible, 2002) are eminently Kubrickian. ↩
- Fredric Jameson, Fredric Jameson, “Historicism in The Shining” (1981), in Signatures of the Visible (New York & London: Routledge, 1990), 82-83. ↩
- Here, the notion, oft encountered in failed student films, is that a wink to the audience through an audio-visual reference of a masterpiece creates some sort of community of cinephiles, a badge of good taste or of being with the in crowd, for all the garishness and immaturity of the material otherwise. But the indirect statements about the horizons of cinema and humanism which these empty and dark films perform are of a most sobering nature. ↩
- Jack Giroux, “Jonathan Glazer On ‘Under the Skin,’ Kubrick’s Influence and How the Easiest Part of It Was Getting…”, Film School Rejects, April 4, 2014. https://filmschoolrejects.com/jonathan-glazer-on-under-the-skin-kubrick-s-influence-and-how-the-easiest-part-of-it-was-getting-c7a3383e78e3/ ↩
- The film features also the very pointed and inverted in-joke to the moon landing conspiracy theory. ↩
- John MacKay, “On Interstellar (2014)” https://www.academia.edu/9240536/On_INTERSTELLAR_2014_ ↩
- Marta Figlerowicz, “Excessive and Incomplete: Kubrick’s Turing”, in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- Adrian Daub, “Thus Spoke Kubrick: ‘Guide Pieces’, Modes of Citation and the Rise of the Temp Track”, in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019) ↩
- It is probably best not to say anything about Boyle’s other clear Kubrick homage, Sunshine (2007) ↩
- At the same time, Anderson injects the film with stylistic references to A Clockwork Orange (the driving scenes) and the cinematography of the indoor scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. ↩
- Alexander Nemerov, “The Dead Kitten: Sacrifice in Barry Lyndon” in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Stanley Kubrick’s Prototypes: the Author as World-Maker” in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: Time Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989 (chapter 8 : ‘Cinema, Body and Brain, Thought’ pp. 189-224). ↩
- Even if the jumbled chronological narration and male communities evolving in a spirit of ‘cool’ of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) are both features of Kubrick’s The Killing and A Clockwork Orange respectively. However, it suffices to confront the indulgence of Tarantino and his use of music to see that the two filmmakers, besides their egos perhaps, have nothing in common. ↩
- As Rick Warner puts it: “Soderbergh streamlines things, while offering a more fragmented structure. HAL appears intermittently throughout and is more directly linked to the monolith.” (email exchange with the author) The film sadly was removed from Soderbergh’s website because of copyright complaints. ↩
- Daniel Fairfax, “The Anxiety of Interpretation: The Shining, Room 237 and Film Criticism” in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- Jihoon Kim, “Kubrick at the Museum: Post-Cinematic Conditions, Limitations, Possibilities” in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- Rodney Hill, “ Kubrick’s Inheritors: Aesthetics, Independence and Philosophy in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen”, in After Kubrick: a Filmmaker’s Legacy, Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. (New York and London, Bloomsbury: 2019). ↩
- I almost exclusively mentioned Anglo-American filmmakers, but surely Kubrick’s influence spans wider territories, as, for instance, when a direct musical quote from The Shining (one of the 1920s white jazz tunes heard during the ball scene) resonates in the highly allegorical train-wreck of a film that is Bong Jon-Hoo’s Snowpiercer (2013). ↩