The sign for the Paris leg of the Kubrick exhibition, at Cinémathèque Française, uncannily brought to mind the famous ‘monolith’, the mystery at the heart of his best known and most revered film; 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intentional, no, but it signalled the right note of portent for this extraordinary show which, to date, British film fanatics have not had the chance to see.
I was fortunate enough to stumble across the show in Paris in 2011, and though reviewers should always be sparing with hyperbole, it was a show remarkable enough to get me on a place to see it again, this summer, in Krakow.
For the Kubrick aficionado, the show is a space in which to dream, but even for those less familiar with his work, it delivers something very special. The show was created by Deutsches Filmmuseum, but in association with the Kubrick estate, which means that the curators were able to assemble an unrivalled collection; the sheer quantity and variety of exhibits on display combine to offer multiple pathways into Kubrick’s films.
Extras on the set of Spartacus, each with a number so Kubrick could make miniscule adjustments to every one from behind the camera.
There will be something here to fascinate you; for the technician there’s the installation showing the front projection sequences on 2001were put together, or the specially commissioned Zeiss lens which allowed Kubrick to shoot Barry Lyndon by candlelight. For the screenwriting nerd there are complex diagrams of schedules and shooting scripts annotated in Kubrick’s own hand.
For the design junky, there are the mannequins from the Korova milkbar (A Clockwork Orange), or a model of the war room from Dr Strangelove, the work of Ken Adams, the man responsible for the most stylish of early James Bond sets.
Some of the most engaging items are letters; both from Stanley Kubrick to his many collaborators, and those received by him, often from detractors; a Mrs Dobbs from Florida wrote to express ‘protest, utter dismay and complete disgust after viewing the despicable movie made by you and shown at our local theatre last week’ (and that wasn’t even about A Clockwork Orange as you might expect, but Dr Strangelove).
But it was the ephemera from 2001 that stopped me in my tracks. We’re given the chance to get up close and personal with an ape suit from the Dawn of Man sequences. Completely terrifying: the aggression modelled into the ape’s face brings back memories of that ‘primogenital’ murder, as one of our distant ancestors discovers the first tool, and that tool is a weapon. Next to the ape, the helmet of Dave Bowman’s space suit. It takes an effort of will to look at this icon and remember that it is not real, and that it never went into space. Kubrick employed two ex-NASA scientists on the movie in order to get this, and countless other aspects of space travel, accurate. Such was Kubrick’s drive for perfection.
That perfectionism is legendary; stories about the dictatorial auteur abound. There is a similarity to Hitchcock in this regard; Hitchcock was the British director who went to work in America, Kubrick was the American who came to work in the UK, both shared an absolute belief in control and detail. Hitchcock, for example, claimed never to need to look at a script once shooting had started, he knew it by heart by the time that first day of principal shooting came by. What that allowed him to do was focus on how he was going to get the best from his actors, from his cameraman; he already knew what shots he was going to ask for.
Like all legends there is an element of truth to it, and an element of fiction. What’s clear from the items on display is that Kubrick possessed an intense desire to get it right; to get what he wanted on film. Making films is a complex business, in order to get exactly what he wanted he sometimes went to extreme lengths. He once said that the reason that so many bad films were made in Hollywood was not that people wanted to make bad films, that there were many well-intentioned people trying to make good films. The reason they make bad ones is that the problem, as he put it, ‘lies in their heads, not in their hearts’. By which he meant that it’s the entire structure of Hollywood that mitigate against good film-making. To break through this takes an enormous feat of will.
But what’s also clear from the show is Kubrick’s gentler, human side; for example in utterly polite, considered responses to the Mrs Dobbs of the world. Here is a man, after all, who during the production of 2001 was so concerned that IBM might be offended by what he was doing that he wrote to reassure them of his good intentions.
Like Hitchcock, Kubrick was also intensely aware of the fact that form can create content. The restrictions of a structure, the limitations of budget, far from limiting the artist can paradoxically sometimes lead to greater creativity. To take just one example; the original intention for the sequences at the end of 2001 were for us to actually ‘meet’ the alien presences behind the monolith. As shooting wore on, and overran, there simply became a pressing financial need to finish the movie. Arthur C Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Kubrick put their heads together, and instead of actually seeing these aliens, we are left with the mysterious ‘Star Child’ sequence, which I can’t help feeling is an utterly more successful end that the original might have been (if you felt the anti-climax when little grey men wander out of the awe-inspiring ship in Close Encounters and you might agree).
Kubrick, to the New York Times in 1968 on 2001: A Space Odyssey;
“Essentially the film is mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific literal interpretation.”
I said above that reviewers should avoid unnecessary hyperbole, and yet I still have to say that this is not only the best exhibition about film that I have seen; it’s probably the finest exhibition of any kind I’ve had the chance to experience.
If you’re interested in seeing the show, well, sadly for those on British shores it now moves further away; to Toronto, but even that might be worth the trip. After that, you’ll have to go to Seoul. At some point, surely, it must come to Kubrick’s adoptive home; so write to your MP, Christiane Kubrick, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever it takes to get this most absorbing of shows to come to town, and sooner rather than later.