The Visual Genius of Stanley Kubrick

Or, Kubrick for absolute beginners…

Despite a relatively modest directorial filmography of just sixteen films (including both shorts and full features), Stanley Kubrick continues to influence an entire era of filmmakers. Perhaps the only successful film maker to interweave mainstream cinema with “independent” visual aesthetics, he brought an intellectualism and philosophical narrative to a mass audience; brought dynamism to even the most static camera work, and had such a distinctive visual syntax that critics have referred to as “kubrickisms” (Paul Duncan, Stanley Kubrick: The Incomparable Career of a Cinematic Genius). These motifs and Kubrickian aesthetics were so ahead of their time that even in 2013, his films have yet to age.

 “The way he told stories was sometimes antithetical to the way we were accustomed to receiving them.” – John Baxter

2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably still his most influential work to date. This was his first colour masterpiece in which he gets to gratuitously explore some of his favourite themes – humans & machines – as well as tackling monumental new ideas such as space travel, in a gloriously surreal 141 minutes. Kubrick described his work as “[Unlike Dr. Strangelove] basically a visual, non-verbal experience”. It is effectively a silent film for the sound era. The lack of intelligible answers to the progressive philosophical questions it asks is perhaps a reason why 1968 audiences found it so difficult to absorb, particularly as it precedes an era of men reaching the moon.

2001 is overwhelming in scale with an immense production value – even its self-celebratory tagline states, “An epic drama of adventure and exploration”. Kubrick utilized an extensive crew and sourced advice from NASA to make his vision of the year 2001 as scientifically legitimate as possible. All this considered, it could be hard to see how Kubrick could possibly have made such an original and visually personal, significant work without a broad outside influence from the people with whom he worked, as well as MGM – but 2001 is true compendium of what we could call “kubrickisms”.

Everyone today probably knows the opening scene, even if you haven’t watched 2001 in its entirety. It has been widely recreated, parodied, paid homage to, and the music is a regarded classic (Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Richard Strauss). Like the rest of the film the enforced slow paced with little camera movement forces you to consider yourself, your existence (alluding to another regular Kubrick theme of existentialism) and your intellectual insignificance amongst this grandeur. Kubrick’s affinity with the harmonious linking of music with picture even extends to the opening credits, which only appear in sync with the sound.

Act I: Life in the earliest days of our ancestors. Barren, alien landscape. Animals and skeletons. Ape violence. A mysterious monolith appears, overlaid with an unsettling monosyllabic score. This section is entirely ambiguous and without spoken word, but we know one thing. This is the moment when the first ape realises a bone can be used as a weapon and forms the catalyst for an industrial level advancement for mankind. This leads to one of the most famous match cuts in the history of film, the bone being thrown into the air cutting to a spacecraft floating silently past the earth. Kubrick had found a way of jumping 4 million years in time, clearly and logically and entirely visually.

Act II: the Future. We are treated to utterly convincing, dreamy but crisp scenes of spacecraft spinning rhythmically to music in the vacuum of space. The use of non-diegetic sound (in the form of more classical music) here is crucial and dictates each and every cut, forming the start of a pattern carried through later films. You feel a part of something beautiful, something futuristic and something surreal, absorbed in this fictional but strangely plausible world. It is important to note that for a lot of the film, the scenes aren’t regular studio set scenes – they are fictional, visual FX of space.

 

 

The on-ship scenes (intercut with the rhythmic space visuals) come to be distinctly Kubrickian, his idiosyncratic characteristic locked up in carefully arranged and minimal mise-en-scène in screen space and symmetry. Geometric and expressionistic looking sets, plenty of light and clean lines, characters pleasingly framed within these; everything you’ve previously seen in Dr. Strangelove. In some places he also uses geometrical sets to distort perspective of space and size, and doing this also connects with areas of existentialist thought (i.e. what do we mean, amongst all of this advancement?).
He also makes use of colour to emphasize the futuristic era – extreme pinks and blacks and whites, with space beyond the windows having a blue tinge. Dialogue (although sparse) doesn’t immediately make much sense, but Kubrick creates such photographically glossy visuals that you can convince yourself you aren’t missing anything.

But what really sets Kubrick apart from other filmmakers is his wholly intentional framing – framing to tell a story, something seemingly forgotten in the “talkie” era preceeding 2001. His photographic background and therefore accomplished understanding of the specific dialect of photography affords him freedom from classical, language-based narrative.
Particularly in on-ship scenes with actors he employs wide-angle lenses and large depth of field that add to the sense of insignificance and loss in space.
Some of his most groundbreaking and intriguing shots come from the fact the audience couldn’t quite work out how they had been shot.

Post-2001, Kubrick returned his focus to earth on A Clockwork Orange (1971). Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange is set in a utopian England of the very near future, in the corrupt society surrounding Alex Delarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang (aka his droogs). The society is advanced enough that it could easily be the earthly equivalent of Kubrick’s forecast for the year 2001. Clockwork deals with morality and goodness in a developed world, as well as contemporary youth culture and public order. Its main agenda is the title – A Clockwork Orange; a mechanical human/organic being. Are we still human beings if we are stripped of free will? Is it better for “bad” to be eradicated by depriving humanity of its right to choose, or its right to desire? Kubrick retains the verbal mannerisms of Burgess’ book, but thoroughly maintains his visual storytelling.

One of the most obvious things you notice about A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s indulgent use of colour. Although he had obviously used colour in 2001, here he uses it to represent specific ideas.

If he (Alex) can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange – meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the State.
– Anthony Burgess (The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick)

The lovely colours at the beginning of the film fade as it progresses, and the palette grows muddy once Alex has lost his human ability to choose. Colour here for Kubrick signifies life, blood, humanity and passion.

 

We also see a return to symmetrical and highly
stylized sets, and monochrome set against sparse bold colour. The opening tracking shot, pulling away from Alex’s staring face and out into the Korova Milk Bar, with distinctive music (A Clockwork Orange sees a mix of
classical and electronic, the convergence of future and past, another thematic motif) is a camera move we saw explicitly developed on the spaceship of 2001, and later in the hotel corridor scenes of The Shining (1981).

Still one of the most memorable scenes is the horrific first incident of ultraviolence. Here are all the Kubrickian hallmarks neatly arranged in one harrowing act.  Perfectly framed characters in bold sets, heavy with parallel lines. Only when the writer turns his head do we move slowly across the room in another tracking shot, directly into another part of the set, ready to focus on the next character.

The uncomfortable viewing of the next part is enhanced by a switch to handheld camera work and low angles so extreme that in some shots we are on the floor with the victims, the droogies faces right up against ours unlike a voyeuristic third party view action cinema usually offers. At no time do we see anything explicit take place but the mix of silence, diegetic music (sung on screen by Alex, improvised by McDowell) and then a transition into non-diegetic music along with extremely close up reaction shots are enough to make you feel you shouldn’t even be there.

Through just two of his best-known films you can see how Kubrick singlehandedly changed the aesthetic of contemporary cinema. Glossy, high budget productions could suddenly go hand in hand with experimental and avant-garde abstraction. He taught us how to break from suffocating laws of logic and reason just through visual style, without leaving anyone behind in intimidating topics. In 2010 critics argued that Christopher Nolan had shattered the glass ceiling of the film industry by making Inception – a populist movie with a complicated narrative that, surprise surprise, proved audiences didn’t need to be patronised into following coherently. Kubrick was doing this 42 years previously in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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