Kubrick was born in 1928 into a middle-class Jewish-American family in New York. He became a professional magazine photographer at the age of 17, and for four years he was on the staff of Look magazine. He worked as a member of production teams, contributing pictures for photo-essays aimed at a mass market readership; in doing so, he developed stylistic and thematic preoccupations which he would later return to in his films.
In 1950, he used one of his picture stories from the previous year on the boxer Walter Cartier as the basis for his first, self-financed film, the 16-minute black-and-white documentary Day of the Fight, released by RKO in 1951. This was followed by three more short documentaries: Flying Padre (1951), financed through an advance from RKO; The Seafarers (1953), a colour film commissioned by the Seafarers’ International Union, and a short film on the World Assembly of Youth for the US State Department, 1952 (title and length unknown). In 1952, Kubrick also worked as a second-unit director for the five-part television drama Mr. Lincoln. While he initiated the first two of the above films, and often took on several credited as well as uncredited roles during the production process (direction, cinematography, script, sound etc), he was by no means in control of the final product.
In 1953, Kubrick found a distributor for his first feature film, the black-and-white war movie Fear and Desire, which he co-wrote (although he was not credited for this), directed and produced, with funding coming from friends and relatives. The film was reasonably well received during its independent release by the art house distributor Joseph Burstyn, but Kubrick later rejected Fear and Desire because it was, in his view, an amateurish piece of work. The recent restoration of Fear and Desire has revealed it to be a beautifully shot, dynamically edited and richly allegorical film.
From 1955 to 1999 Kubrick made 12 feature films, all of which were released by the major Hollywood studios. With the exception of the privately funded Killer’s Kiss (1955), and Lolita (1962), which was funded by Seven Arts, they were also all financed by the majors. From A Clockwork Orange (1971) onwards he worked exclusively with Warner Bros. In all but one of these projects, Kubrick managed to maintain an extremely high level of creative control, the exception being Spartacus (1960) on which he replaced the director Anthony Mann, having less power and making more compromises than usual.
Apart from Spartacus, Kubrick initiated his own feature film projects, conducted extensive research on the subjects of his films, wrote the scripts or worked closely with the scriptwriters, acted as his own producer or worked closely with the producer, dominated the set during shooting while also involving himself deeply in all aspects of pre- and post-production. He often worked with friends, family members and people who became regular contributors to his work, and he saw film production as a very fluid, to some extent unpredictable, collaborative process.
The novels (and the novella) Kubrick adapted range from 19th century and early 20th century classics to contemporary genre fiction, from historical novels to erotic stories, thrillers, horror and science fiction. In addition to the text he adapted, Kubrick also made use of a wide range of other sources in the development of his films, including, for example, non-fiction books, scholarly articles, paintings, as well as exchanges with historians, engineers and scientists. Kubrick was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the historical and scientific accuracy of his films, yet, rather than seeing this as an end in itself, he did so with the intention of facilitating the viewer’s sensual and emotional engagement in the world depicted on the screen. A perhaps somewhat underrated consequence of his eagerness to engage audiences is the (often wicked) humour of his work.
While Kubrick is usually identified as an American filmmaker, a look at the source material he used, the subject matter he covered and the locations where he shot his films quickly reveals this to be a simplification. Much of his work as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker was indeed focused on the United States, especially New York, and most of his initial film collaborators were high school friends and acquaintances from this city which also provided an intellectually and artistically vibrant background for his work. New York was the setting of his second feature film and the location where this film was shot.
However, his first feature had been shot in California and set in an unidentified war which clearly evoked the European theatre of war in the Second World War, and Paths of Glory (1957) was set at the Franco-German front of the First World War and shot in Germany. Spartacus was set in Ancient Rome and partly shot in Spain. From Lolita onwards, all of Kubrick’s films were made in the UK, with some location shooting, often by second units, in a range of other countries. Indeed, during the shooting of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) he and his family permanently moved to the UK.
From Spartacus onwards Kubrick frequently worked with British actors, from Lolita onwards his films had largely British crews, and from Dr. Strangelove (1964) onwards he was particularly close to British authors who had written the novels he adapted, or worked on treatments and screenplays with him. Indeed, many filmographies identify Kubrick’s films after Spartacus as British or as Anglo-American co-productions. So it might be best not to characterise Kubrick exclusively as an American filmmaker; he is also a British, an Anglo-American, or simply an international filmmaker.
Whatever nationality is assigned to him, Kubrick is highly regarded as a stylist and a technological innovator. Yet, arguably, his stylistic choices and technological innovations were mostly employed in the service of the stories he wanted to tell and the themes he intended to develop. If there is one dominant thematic concern in his films it is the exploration of male violence – in crime and war, in sexual, familial and other personal relationships. On several occasions, this thematic concern generated considerable controversy and caused the intervention of censors, especially where sexual violence (A Clockwork Orange), the conduct of war (Paths of Glory) and sex with inappropriately young girls (Lolita) were concerned.
Several of Kubrick’s films tackled topical issues (the Cold War, the space race, the sexual revolution etc.), in some cases while they were still hotly debated in the media (eg Dr. Strangelove and 2001), in others (eg Full Metal Jacket) with a few years’ delay. At the same time, Kubrick’s films raise questions about ‘timeless’ and in places philosophically or religiously inflected issues: the end of the world, the evolution of humankind, the importance of free will, the nature of war, the relationship between man and machine. Acknowledging both the films’ timeliness and their timelessness, the aim of Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives is to locate them within their historical contexts, and thus to encourage and enable readers to experience, and engage with, their aesthetic qualities and thematic complexities in new ways.
Read Stanley Kubrick’s letter to designer Saul Bass regarding his unused designs for The Shining
This is an edited extract from the introduction to Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (ed. Tatjana Ljujic, Peter Krämer and Richard Daniels). Published by Black Dog Publishing.
Productions documents, stills and behind the scenes photographs from Lolita; Eyes Wide Shut; and The Shining are presented courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and are trademarks of and copyright © by Turner Entertainment Co.
The Stanley Kubrick Archive is housed in the special collections centre at University of the Arts London.
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