Contemporary Jewish Museum Hosts Touring Stanley Kubrick Retrospective
“Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film knows that … it can be like writing ‘War and Peace’ in a bumper car at an amusement park,” the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick once ruefully observed. A notorious perfectionist with big ideas and a methodical process who made a mere 16 films over five decades, Kubrick is widely regarded as a visionary, both for his technical achievements and his propensity for weighty subject matter. The vast archives he maintained at his London home and workspace until his death in 1999 provided a wealth of source material for “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition,” the first comprehensive retrospective of his life and work. The touring show, containing over 800 objects from his estate and assorted institutions, is currently on exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Kubrick grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in the West Bronx and lived in New York City during the 1930s and ’40s, “a time of significant anti-Semitism in the United States,” notes CJM executive director Lori Starr. And although Kubrick wasn’t religious, Starr suggests it’s worth considering “how the impact of this atmosphere and coming-of-artistic-age in a post-Holocaust world shaped [his] world view and the films he made, which are rife with danger, war and chaos.”
He tackled a range of genres, tailoring their conventions for his own purposes in films such as the dystopian “A Clockwork Orange” (1971); “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), his most personal film, a philosophical intergalactic epic that’s technically way ahead of its time; “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), a wicked satire of Cold War paranoia with Peter Sellers playing multiple roles; “Lolita,” based on the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov, who also wrote the screenplay; and “The Shining,” a 1980 psychological horror classic that continues to be dissected by fanatical fans. Though Kubrick reinvented his style in each successive project, Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s executive producer for over 25 years, notes that “You know you’re watching a Kubrick film because they’re always about…the failure of power. He was an optimist in daily life but very pessimistic about the future of mankind.” According to Harlan, Kubrick believed that “envy, competition and ego would finish us off.”
Many visitors to CJM will be familiar with Kubrick’s most iconic titles, but this exhibition is foremost a film buff’s paradise. It’s packed with movie-making arcana and emphasizes the director’s approach to shooting, writing, editing and scoring, all of which he oversaw. Rather than delving into what made him tick, the show focuses on the artist at work. Organized into sections examining each of his films—13 features and three docs—it tracks his development and areas of investigation with dozens of production stills, on-set and behind-the scenes photographs, handwritten shooting schedules, call sheets and continuity docs and much more.
At the beginning of the exhibit is a black and white photo of Kubrick, age 26, standing on a city street in an overcoat: an intense young man on the move and ascending fast. He started his career as a photographer, selling his first image when he was 16 to Look Magazine, where he became a staff photographer the following year. He was a natural, and over 900 of his images, with subjects including Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and others, were published during his tenure (1946-51) at the magazine. His first camera, a Graflex, a 13th birthday gift from his father, is also on view. Kubrick’s nascent talent for composition and flair for atmosphere is revealed in these black and white images; one captures a tense moment before a swim meet, competitors poised at the edge of the pool.
“Fear and Desire” (1953), Kubrick’s first war film, was a maiden effort that he disliked and later tried to pull from circulation. It was initiated outside of the studio system, an unusual practice at the time and an early example of the fierce creative autonomy that characterized his career. He borrowed $40,000 from his uncle to fund his next project, “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), a gangster noir that bears traits that would become his signature: long tracking shots likely influenced by Orson Welles and Max Ophuls; hand-held camerawork; strategically planned action sequences and slavish attention to set design. “Paths of Glory” (1957) and “The Killing” (1956), a sensational, fatalistic crime drama shot in L.A. about a robbery sabotaged by betrayal, bad luck and a femme fatale, raised his profile, and he was on his way.
Although one can count on visual beauty and artistic integrity from Kubrick, his movies are not to everyone’s taste. They can be glacially slow, cerebral and easier to admire than to understand (for example, “Barry Lyndon”).
“He’s an extraordinary presence but I think there’s a great deal of doubt and uncertainty and confusion over what the films are about,” says film historian David Thomson. “I don’t think he had any instinct for incisive storytelling…In all his films, there’s a failure to grasp the depth and complexity in human nature. He was very good at assembling complicated worlds. You see that in “‘The Shining,’” which … is probably his best film.” Based on a Stephen King novel (a copy on display has Kubrick’s notes in the margins), it starred Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a frustrated writer who grows increasingly demented and homicidal while serving as caretaker of a mountain hotel during the off-season. In a terrifying climactic scene, a maniacal Torrance, wielding an axe, chases his son through a snowy labyrinth at night. The sequence was actually shot in a studio and a model for the maze is on display here, as is the axe, lodged in a gallery wall, and the manual typewriter and sheaf of yellow papers on which Nicholson’s character repeatedly wrote the phrase: “All work and no play makes Jack a Dull Boy.”\
The exhibition’s concluding section, featuring materials from three unfinished passion projects, is a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. “The Aryan Papers,” a Holocaust drama Kubrick had long wanted to make, was deep into pre-production and the cast already assembled when it had to be shelved because its release would have conflicted with that of “Schindler’s List.” Research photographs of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, location scouting pictures as well as images of the lead actress wearing wardrobe of the period, shot from multiple sides by the costume designer, are on display. Kubrick also spent two years amassing reams of research for “Napoleon”: what Napoleon ate, the weather conditions during certain battles he fought and where he stayed, plus dossiers on important figures in his life. No studio was willing to take on the exorbitant cost of a production of this magnitude, especially after the failure of “Waterloo,” another film about the French Emperor starring Rod Steiger. Kubrick worked on “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a science fiction drama, for a year. After delaying production in hopes that special effects technology would catch up to his vision, he invited Steven Spielberg to direct. Following Kubrick’s sudden death, Spielberg finished the screenplay and shot the film relying on the late filmmaker’s preparatory work.
“All of Stanley’s (completed) films remain,” muses Harlan. “None has disappeared. How many directors are there who could say that? It’s easy to make a film but to make a film other people want to see 40 or even 50 years later, that’s difficult.”
Kubrick’s legacy may be best appreciated in two film series loosely connected to the exhibition: “Kubrick in Black & White,” highlighting his lesser-known works from the 1950s and early ’60s, plays at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through July 31 (ybca.org); “Kubrick in Color” runs Aug. 12-Sept. 24 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater ( www.drafthouse/sf.com).