Yesterday would have been Stanley Kubrick's 84th birthday. Most people remember him as this brooding and reclusive figure that made polarizing, and often disturbing, films that dared to ask big questions and didn't try to offer any answers. Most film enthusiasts know him as a brilliant innovator -- an ardent perfectionist that made the films he wanted, on his terms. Some films may not be as great as others, but never do they fall short on vision or artistry.
Kubrick was incredibly smart, but also incredibly disinterested in school. He preferred curiosity and interest over traditional learning, and he preferred approaching things from a human perspective instead of an academic one.
"I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker."
He chose to be a freelance photographer over going to college and got his start working for Look magazine. Here he honed his craft, capturing people and showing his knack for composition.
After making a handful of short documentaries, he did something somewhat unheard of at the time, he just picked up a camera and went out to make his first narrative film. This was 6 years before Truffaut, Godard, and the French New Wave would make an appearance and bring this kind of guerilla filmmaking to the masses.
"When I made my first film, I think the thing was probably helped me the most was that it was such an unusual thing to do in the early 50s for someone who actually go and make a film. People thought it was impossible. It really is terribly easy. All anybody needs is a camera, a tape recorder, and some imagination."
Right off the bat, Kubrick would explore the dark side of humanity with his first three feature films: Killer's Kiss, The Killing, and Path's of Glory. The first two being dark, noirish films about the criminal underworld, and the latter being a raw, scathing commentary on the horrors of war.
During the '60s his journey would take us through a historical epic about slavery, a dark comedy dealing with pedophilia, a satire about the nuclear destruction of our planet, and perhaps one of the greatest science fiction masterpieces ever made. All groundbreaking films in their own regard, all completely unique in their design and vision.
"I have always enjoyed dealing with a slightly surrealistic situation and presenting it in a realistic manner. I've always liked fairy tales and myths, magical stories. I think they are somehow closer to the sense of reality one feels today than the equally stylized "realistic" story in which a great deal of selectivity and omission has to occur in order to preserve its "realist" style."
His meticulous attention to detail is what immerses us in each of these worlds. While the characters and their situations may sometimes feel outlandish, the environments are always grounded in reality. 2001: A Space Odyssey is such a bold concept of our future, yet it seems like an entirely plausible path for humanity -- even if we now know the year is off just a bit.
Now it seems only natural that such a man would follow up a grand gesture about the next evolution of humanity, with a dark, ultra-violent, satirical look at our degenerate future. A Clockwork Orange is a completely different visual experience, more of a stylized chaos. A blend of our past and our future in a society that no longer seems to care about either.
Barry Lyndon goes back and explores our past. To recreate the feel of the 18th century, Kubrick used natural lighting, candlelight, and special lenses developed for NASA to get the results he wanted.
"If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed."
The Shining is probably best known for its performances, but the visuals are hauntingly good. Fully utilizing the newly invented Steadicam technology, Kubrick was able to create a visually distinct feel for his horror film. He makes us feel claustrophobic, uneasy. The colors and patterns are bold and intrusive. If you've ever been lucky enough to catch it on the big screen, it's quite the experience.
With Full Metal Jacket he returns to the subject of war, but this is a very different war and a very different film. Split into two distinct halves, the first is sterile and cold as the recruits are slowly dehumanized; the second bringing back color to show us just how ugly war really is.
"I try to photograph things realistically. I try to light them as they really would be lit. On interiors I used natural light and windows and no supplemental lights. I was after a realistic, documentary look in the film, especially in the combat footage."
Eyes Wide Shut explores fidelity through a surreal journey down a really bizarre rabbit hole. Deliberately shot on sound stages instead of on location, the world feels off...artificial, and the film is dreamlike as it toys with the line between fantasy and reality. The luscious, saturated colors only add to the dream effect.
What can we learn from a man like Stanley Kubrick? He was a technical and artistic innovator that never compromised on his vision. He rejected the studios and produced bold projects that, to this day, spark heated discussions around the world. His work shows us just what can happen with a little determination and a lot of imagination.
"The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light."
If you're interested in exploring Kubrick a little further, there's a great collection of links over on Coudal.