The Expert Watcher Watched: Images of Kubrick at Work

Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis , by Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti. W.W. Norton, 374 pages, $35.

Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick , by Frederic Raphael. Ballantine Books, 190 pages, $12.

There’s major irony in writing a book called Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis , in trying to put into words Kubrick’s films and images. Kubrick had a totally visual imagination. When I was working for him on a script for the film he tried to make for nearly 20 years and never did, the so-called A.I. Project (Artificial Intelligence), he used to boast to me that there was no sentence in the English language that he could not make into film. It became a game we played–I would try to think of unfilmable sentences (“She perfectly concealed her anger”; “Although his eyes were open, he could not see anything at all”) and Kubrick would work out ways of making them into visual images. That was his job and his genius.

As far as the Kubrick industry goes, there seems to be rather a lot of making hay now the sun isn’t shining. This certainly includes me, and me reviewing these books, Stanley Kubrick, Director and Eyes Wide Open , a memoir by Kubrick’s last script writer, and so I have no criticism of the enterprise. It’s inevitable: Since no one working for, or even around, Kubrick would have wanted to risk offending him, and publishing almost any- thing about him would have offended him, there was quite a lot of anecdote, commentary, explication, even admiration and devotion waiting in the wings. Moreover, he managed to die just when he had finished a new film–a rare enough event in itself. Interest in Stanley Kubrick has maximum focus.

Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis is mistitled, or at least mis-subtitled, as it is not an analysis of anything much and certainly not a visual one, despite the many stills and other pictures. It’s a detailed and careful description of each of the films in chronological order. It’s also a fanzine: I do not think it contains a single critical or even interrogative comment on any of the films from Paths of Glory to Eyes Wide Shut . As it happens, I share with the authors their view that Stanley Kubrick was some sort of genius. The last of the great film auteurs , a man out of his “natural time”–and simultaneously the maker of some extraordinary, ground-breaking films, which managed to say something so of their moment that they never lost touch with the box-office; and, moreover, a perfectionist for whom nothing was too much trouble. However, as matter of fact, Barry Lyndon has its longueurs , The Shining can’t find its way to its own end, Full Metal Jacket cannot redeem or justify the massive fraction in the middle, and even its maker wanted A Clockwork Orange out of the video shops and into oblivion. And all that is before you start on a detailed shot-by-shot exploration. The authors are so keen to justify Kubrick’s every move that they seem to forget that some of the things they seek elaborate explanations for may, more simply, have been minor (or even major) errors of judgment.

Stanley Kubrick, Director is a reissue: Some of the material in it was published as early as 1972; and it has been revised several times to keep up with Kubrick’s film output. Now, in what sadly will be its final update, it has another new chapter on Eyes Wide Shut . A pre-existing chapter on Kubrick’s use of color has been updated. And Alexander Walker has added a couple of thousand words to his “personal memoir.” These last are actually a very touching description of Kubrick’s death and funeral.

It’s hard to review an account of a film that no member of the public (including this reviewer) has seen; but, reading the Eyes Wide Shut chapter, one gets the impression that it’s also hard to write about a film that has not yet been released and that was the last work of a personal friend. The new chapter is less formal and even more enthusiastic than the rest of the book, more focused on the emotional interpretation. (The only person I have met who has seen the film remarked that it felt different from other Kubrick films in being completely humorless and irony-free, a point that Mr. Walker does not address.) Mr. Walker concentrates on the magnificent performances of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and the strange effect of watching a very famous married couple play a very sexy married couple. The thrust of the chapter is to demonstrate that despite critical suggestions that Kubrick could not film sympathetic human warmth, he has finally achieved this. By the time this latest version of Stanley Kubrick, Director is published in September, it will be possible to assess the film and assess Mr. Walker’s description of it more fully.

As for the balance of the book, within its own terms it’s intelligent and engaging–mostly when it’s addressing other issues than its purported one. The authors have made a bold stab at finding connecting and congruent themes to unite 10 almost bizarrely different films. They are particularly convincing in their suggestion that Kubrick was never a realist filmmaker; and that his sometimes extraordinary elaboration of realist detail was but the well-laid foundation for hyperrealist or magic-realist approaches to theme and narrative. From there they lead very helpfully into the crucial way that Kubrick, although he talked a lot about story, was actually a myth maker. Rather than being engaged with the psychological motivations of novelistic plot, he was pursuing the mythological dimensions of film itself.

This meant that he had to wait very attentively for images to film; for concepts that he could see. In Eyes Wide Open , Frederic Raphael repeatedly expresses his surprise that Kubrick didn’t seem to know what he wanted, that he seemed “passive,” attentive but inert, that he wouldn’t give the writer “clues.” Mr. Raphael apparently feels that either Kubrick was withholding information from him deliberately, as part of a perverse power game, or was revealing a kind of stupidity.

My own experience was the same but my interpretation of it very different–Kubrick was waiting to see what the writer would say. He was on the watch, so to speak, for the writer to present Kubrick’s concept in sentences or images that he could then visualize. I suspect this is why Kubrick always worked through and explored scenes at every level with his actors before he set up the shot. He was looking for the “moment,” the visual image that would concretize his idea. Although he was a highly photographic filmmaker, he still needed to explore the ideas, the concepts, the emotions as a way of visualizing them. So, what the authors of Stanley Kubrick, Director are trying to do is precisely the reverse of Kubrick’s own process–they are trying to put back into words what Kubrick had laboriously taken out of words and made into film. The fatuity of the project becomes horribly evident as the book “analyzes” 2001: A Space Odyssey : “[F]inding the meaning is a matter not of verbalizing but of feeling it in the images.”

Precisely. The book gives up: We get eight pages of stills from 2001 . Even then they are only stills , and Kubrick made movies. Is it possible to write about something if your argument is that words cannot express it, contain it or explain it and that is why it is how it is? This is made more complicated by the fact that so many of Kubrick’s films– Lolita , A Clockwork Orange , Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut –were all made from highly literary novels; an issue not addressed here. The naked admiration the authors have for Kubrick has blinded their critical faculties more widely.

If, however, the weakness of the book is its overwhelming respect for Kubrick, this is also curiously its strength. Too much of what has been written in the months since Kubrick died has seemed driven by a need, that many of us who worked for him have, to recover from the damage he inflicted on our egos: This is most easily done by telling stories, sometimes very funny, about his eccentricities and brutality. The writers of Stanley Kubrick, Director are free to concentrate on his work: Even the personal memoir that ends the book is both affectionate and respectful–you get the impression that they liked Kubrick and loved his films.

With Frederic Raphael’s Eyes Wide Open you get exactly the opposite impression. Again it’s wrongly subtitled; this is not A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick , it’s a memoir of Frederic Raphael working for the late Stanley Kubrick, and retrospectively wreaking some petty revenge. I worked for the great man, too, and a great deal less successfully than Raphael (yes, of course, I’m jealous). I am aware of all the frustrations and humiliations and aggravations of the job. But Kubrick was not stupid nor humorless and suggesting he was is disedifying. Too much of this memoir reads like a point-scoring ego contest that Mr. Raphael can win since Kubrick has been forced to “withdraw.” This is the sort of book that no one would write (and no one would read) unless the supposed subject of it was both very famous and dead. Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer and Kubrick’s script writer for 2001: A Space Odyssey , wrote an account of his collaboration with Kubrick–but while Kubrick was still alive–and the result is more balanced and therefore more interesting; as well as being a more accurate portrait of a very remarkable man at work.