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Stanley Kubrick, Extending the Boundaries of Mainstream Commercial Filmmaking

Stanley Kubrick the Studio Auteur

Throughout the 1960s-early 1970s, a combination of financial desperation, creative daring, and an adventurous movie-going public had produced a creative detonation in mainstream American movies not seen before or since. Each year of the period seemed to bring at least one mightily ambitious visual experiment by a new contributor to the commercial movie scene, the “look” of that effort being as much a part of its identity as its characters and story. One could pick no better representative of the trend than Stanley Kubrick, for no director of the time so extended the boundaries of mainstream commercial filmmaking, or what it meant to be a mainstream commercial filmmaker.

For the most part, Kubrick’s professional ascent was built on the taking of standard genres – the war story, science fiction tale, sword-and-sandal epic – and twisting them into shapes so singular that each Kubrick outing became an acknowledged one-of-a-kind classic. Paths of Glory (1957) deglamorized war in the most emotionally brutalizing of fashions; Spartacus (1960) gave a bittersweet soulfulness to the sword-and-sandal epic as well as – finally — a dramatic heft to match the genre’s grand scale; Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964) turned the Cold War nuclear thriller into an acrid, black-humored joke; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) vaulted the sci fi “space opera” from juvenile status to that of cinematic poetry; A Clockwork Orange (1971) dispensed with the awe and gadgetry of most futuristic fantasies and, instead, delivered a disturbing portrait of a graffiti-marred, violence-ridden dystopia; The Shining (1980) took Steven King’s haunted hotel novel and re-worked it into Hollywood’s first intellectual horror tale, a sensory – rather than narrative – rendering of a “rotten spot” in the spiritual fabric of the world where evil seeps into this existence through the psychological fault lines of its main character, the ambivalently depicted apparitions perhaps being only the psychotic delusions of its protagonist.

A one-time photojournalist, Kubrick had begun his career with a series of small-scale, independently-produced movies the most notable of which was the time-fractured caper thriller The Killing (1956). Paths of Glory brought him to the attention of the majors, and the impressive critical and box office reception of Spartacus provided him with the latitude to initiate his own projects at the studio level. After directing an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove and 2001 followed demonstrating his ability to turn in pictures which, however idiosyncratic and intellectually demanding, still connected with the mainstream audience (with rentals of $21.5 million, 2001 was the 16th highest-grossing movie 1961-1970).

2001 was Kubrick – and major studio moviemaking – at its most courageous, the movie being a complete rejection of typical narrative mechanisms. The story – which Kubrick wrote in collaboration with noted sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke – spans millions of years, from simian pre-humans to a future where mankind takes a quantum evolutionary leap into near-godhood, always under the tutelage of never-seen alien forces. Within the grand scope of the story, the movie is virtually plotless, lacks any meaningful characters, and much of its sparse dialogue is intentionally banal and disposable. Kubrick himself described 2001 as, “…a non-verbal experience…,” conveying its story in the same abstract, oblique manner of, say, a poem or piece of music; hinting, inferring, suggesting, but never explaining. One academic perhaps best described the dynamic of 2001 in a comparison with the more conventional and light-hearted Star Wars (1977): “Star Wars is like rock ‘n’ roll; 2001 is like a piece of classical music, a ‘tone poem,’ like Also Sprach Zarathustra,” referring to the Richard Strauss composition which became the movie’s signature piece of music.

Kubrick’s relationship with Warners remains unique because Kubrick and his work remain unique.

Kubrick continued to test non-traditional narrative forms throughout the remainder of his career, though he would not make another movie as non-linear as 2001 (although Vietnam War-set Full Metal Jacket [1987] would come close). Still, his subsequent movies remained a cross-breeding of mainstream Hollywood and avant-garde film, with the narrative and emotional “information” in his films conveyed by visuals at least equal – if not superior – to the conventional mechanisms of plot, character, and dialogue.

After the success of 2001, then Warners production chief John Calley, intrigued by Kubrick’s growing artistic prestige (and also, no doubt, by the consistent returns of the director’s projects since Spartacus), offered the filmmaker a permanent home at the studio along with complete creative autonomy. Kubrick was allowed to develop whatever projects he chose, take as long as he wanted to bring them to fruition – which ran years in some cases — and even dictate the details of the marketing campaigns for his releases. Even amid Hollywood’s creative explosion of the 1960s/1970s, it was an investment of studio faith and largesse in a maverick talent on a scale yet to be equaled, producing some of the most unique high-profile releases ever turned out by a major studio: A Clockwork Orange, period piece Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining. Although Calley left Warners in 1981, the studio continued to provide Kubrick a production home, giving him the opportunity to complete Full Metal Jacket, and erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut (1999), released just after the director’s death at age 70 of a heart attack.

Other filmmakers have had the box office muscle to demand the kind of autonomy Kubrick retained (DeMille, Hitchcock), or buy it for themselves through exemplary commercial success (Lucas, Spielberg), but Kubrick’s relationship with Warners remains unique because Kubrick and his work remain unique. Warners/Kubrick was a one-of-a-kind wedding – an oddity from its first day – between an art-house sensibility and the production capabilities of what remains one of the biggest production/distribution entities in the world; a daring partnership only made practical by a mass audience’s appetite for cinema that entertained by being challenging, even difficult. It’s entirely possible, nay, probable, that such a partnership could only have happened when it happened, and is not likely to ever happen again.

– Bill Mesce

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press). You can find his work at the link below.

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