The Kubrick Variations


We are all the children of DW Griffith and Stanley Kubrick.”

Martin Scorsese


On the Saturday before Christmas, I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do but had never gotten round to: I sat down and watched all of Stanley Kubrick’s final six movies in a row, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and, to conclude finally, hours and hours later, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

I was shortly to turn sixteen when Kubrick died, and, being both great film buffs, my Dad took me to see Eyes Wide Shut in Beckenham Odeon. After it ended, both of us uneasy, my Dad finally told me:

“You’ll understand it better when you’re married.”

As research for this article I purchased The Complete Kubrick (2000) by David Hughes, which features a beautifully nuanced introduction from Peter Bogdanovich, the director of The Last Picture Show (1971). He didn’t claim to know Kubrick well, he only ever spoke to him a couple of times on the phone in the early 70s (the only time when the two artists would communicate). Kubrick was considering Ryan O’ Neal for Barry Lyndon.  O’ Neal had starred in Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972), and Kubrick’s two young daughters were lobbying their father to hire him. Born in New York in 1928,  in the early days of 70s New Hollywood, he was living in a strange, private world of enormous power in a compound in the English countryside, far away from America, his curiosity as a filmmaker never wavering, but his celebrity protected in a way that could never be replicated after his death. Full Metal Jacket co-writer (and Vietnam veteran) Michael Herr once said that Kubrick had told him that The Godfather (1972) was his favourite film, that he’d watched it at least ten times. Herr said also that if he hadn’t been a film director, Stanley Kubrick would have been “a revolutionary war General.”

A chess prodigy and photographer for Look magazine by the age of 17, apparently reading at least one book a day, Kubrick’s reputation as a filmmaker of genius was widely held even before the time he co-wrote, produced and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey at the tender age of 38. A classic movie for the LSD hippie movement, it was his second real financial success (after Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which was later compounded by the enormous fascination with, and huge profits of A Clockwork Orange, enabling him to live and work with both a galactic and unique artistic freedom. After accusations of copycat crimes, Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange in the UK until after his death in 1999.

Certainly nowadays his 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining remains his deeply obsessive fanbase’s most analysed film. Online, the bizarre (but remarkably popular) conspiracy theory that The Shining is a coded confession that Kubrick faked the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing for the CIA is always on some level a global, viral discussion point.

It took a little under fourteen hours to watch all six movies, from nine in the morning until one am the next day. For the first time I was able to see how many self referential flourishes Kubrick had woven into them, for example the blanket party attack on Gomer Pile in Full Metal Jacket was clearly a reference to the apes in 2001 attacking one of their opposing gang with the bone that they had learnt to use, as well as Alex and his droogs beating the homeless drunk in A Clockwork Orange.

Or take the sequence in which Alex skips school and goes to the record shop in Clockwork, where the steadicam stops (just by a record of the 2001 soundtrack) where to seduce the two beautiful girls sucking ice lollies, he leans down and provocatively licks the lolly of one of them. Midway in Barry Lyndon, Mr Toole provokes Barry into a fight by drinking his beaker of mead. In the opening party in Eyes Wide Shut the vampiric Hungarian deliberately downs Nicole Kidman’s glass of champagne in order to seduce her.  The great thing about Kubrick and his legacy is that the fascination with the movies will presumably only get more intense as time passes. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with the most tantalising bit of trivia I discovered in The Complete Kubrick.  At one point, the planned title for 2001: A Space Odyssey was going to be How the Solar System Was Won. When it comes to the inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding this great director’s body of work, that should be just interesting enough for any film fan to mull over for a very long time.