Nitrate Online Feature
Contents | Features | Reviews | News | Archives | Store

Stanley Kubrick: "Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

by Gregory Avery

Posted 12 March 1999

f it had not been for a visit to a movie theater at the Treasure Island Naval Base, in San Francisco, California in 1969, you would not be reading these words.

Of course, I had already had exposure to the movies. My parents actively went to see the latest pictures before I came along. My older sister Marge pestered them to take her to see a drive-in showing of A Hard Day's Night, in Norfolk, Virginia, sometime around 1964, and of which I remember almost nothing. (For years, I mistakenly thought that the second feature, which screened first, before the Beatles movie, was Fall of the Roman Empire, of which my folks made many jokes about it needing to be retitled My Son, the Emperor. It was actually My Son, The Hero, a French/Italian peplum flick produced by Ariane Mnoushkine, much shorter than the Anthony Mann picture, and also released by U.A., the same company handling Hard Day's Night.)

And there were the "de rigueur" trips to see Disney movies. The Memrose, in Norfolk, was the premiere Disney cinema, and to get to the auditorium, you had to walk down a long mezzanine, with mirrors set in the walls on both sides, and a vaulting, domed ceiling that was painted pale white and blue, with little silver stars set into it. Inside the auditorium, the curtains over the screen were black velvet with gold decoration on the bottom which, when lit from below, gave a magical, empirical effect. This was back at a time when people in the audience politely applauded, as a matter of show, at the conclusion of a motion picture showing.

The Memrose also once showed a European-made live-action version of Snow White, where I was terrified from having to stand in-line outside the theater next to the poster for Bunny Lake is Missing. (Naturally, I later became a fan and collector of Saul Bass' work.) There was also the time when my mother went to take us to see a movie, there, and the ticket lady, who had apparently come to recognize us by-sight, told Mom, no, no, you don't want to take your kids to see this picture. Take them to see Billie, which was playing at another, probably rival, theater. We did, and while Marge and Mom loved it, I don't remember what my impressions at the time were at all. When I saw it, 30 years later, on Cinemax, I can scarcely imagine how we made it all the way through it.

When my Dad served on the officer staff of the U.S.S. "Lexington", we would go for officers' dinner on Sundays in the wardroom, where we were served on tables with white linen and formal settings. After dessert, the movie screen would be lowered, and we would see a film, which Dad selected from a group of cards listing several current movies that were available to be shown on-board ship. This was 1967 - 68, so we saw the innocuous ones, like Bullwhip Griffin, and the Travelling Saleslady movie with Phyllis Diller, still sitting in the same places where we had just been served dinner. The naughtier movies were screened for the crew, elsewhere, on the ship. One time, I got fed-up with Elizabeth Hartman yelling in A Patch of Blue, and asked Dad if I could go on-rounds with him when he was scheduled to do so. I got to walk the deck of one of the last wooden-decked aircraft carriers in-commission, and later got to sit in the captain's seat on-bridge. Almost 10 years later, Dad and I took in Midway, which we had heard used the "Lexington" for some scenes. I was shocked and surprised when Henry Fonda, sitting on a ship's bridge in one scene, turned around in his chair: it had the same markings, on the back, as the one I'd sat in.

And, I was a "child of television", as Gabriel Kaplan put it, so there I was, planted nose-to-nose in front of the tube, as per every other kid in America, every Saturday morning starting around 6 a.m. I was a "Batman" fan and got a Batman haircut, while Marge had switched from the Beatles to the Monkees after the Beatles let their hair grow long and, it was rumored, were indulging in drugs. I saw all the scare pictures shown on "The Big Show", which was broadcast every weekday afternoon, around 3 p.m., to Pensacola from a TV station in Mobile. The only one that scared the peatwadding out of me was "Mill of the Stone Women"---don't ask why. There was also the time I was confined to bed with the flu, unable to get-up, the same week the T.V. began being blitzed with ads for Night of the Living Dead. I remember it well: " a night...of sheer HORROR!...'A-HH-HH-HH!'" "Afternoon" was more like it. But that's another story.

It was not until we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, while living in the Bay Area, that I suddenly had what could be called my awakening: So this is what movies can do! It can open your eyes, your ears, your senses. It can stir powerful emotions in you. It can take you to places you've never been before. It can give you a look at the mysteries of the universe. It can sometimes do all these things all at once.

Afterwards, we repaired to a restaurant at the El Ceritto Plaza, and, over ice cream sundaes, me, Marge and Dad (an avid moviegoer himself, by the way, since Nanna, his mother, took him to see Disney's Snow White in Boston, as well as being a science-fiction fan) talked excitedly about the movie. I was jazzed about it for days, weeks, months, years. I am jazzed by it to this day. I bought the soundtrack album, and played it. A lot. I got the "Making of Kubrick's '2001'" book. (Which contained a full reprint of the instructions for the operation and use of the "Zero Gravity Toilet" on the Pan-Am space airliner.) I caught the movie again, around 1980-81, when it played the Salt Lake City/Provo area as part of M.G.M.'s four "roadshow" films, which included Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, and the mutilated "widescreen" version of Gone With the Wind. I prepared 2001 for airing at KDRV-TV, in Medford, Oregon, where I had my first full-time "industry" job right after college. My gruff, hard-bitten production manager, Tom Craven, who had worked at one time as a ranchhand in the Midwest, would stick his head in the tiny room where I screened the 16 mm. prints to check them and decide on where to best place the commercial breaks, and his leathery face would break into a beautiful grin, and he'd say, "I love that movie!" Inexorably, anyone else who was free at the time drifted in to watch the film unreel, enraptured and drawn as if by some unspoken force. However, television is subservient to the dollar, so you have to have a certain amount of commercial breaks in anything that is being run and hasn't been paid for in advance. Film prints, before they were replaced by tape, were as a rule circulated from one station to the next, so it came as no surprise that when I next had to prepare "2001" for airing, some dunce who had handled the print before me had scissored apart one of the most famous edits in film history to plunk in the first commercial break. (For the record, I always placed the first break BEFORE the edit.)

When Kubrick's next movie, Clockwork Orange, came out, I was just dying to see it. It was supposed to be another science-fiction movie! Alas! it was rated "X". How was I to know, then, why? I bought the soundtrack album to that film, too, and became familiar with Beethoven and Walter (later, Wendy) Carlos' work at the same time. As it so happened, the picture happened to be among the first batch scheduled to be shown by the S.O.S.C. Student Program Board during my freshman year of college, in 1978 - 79. And I went. (Since the movie had originally been released at about the same time that I first became a teenager, with all the attendant changes therein.)

In between, I'd caught "Barry Lyndon", almost by accident. I and Marge and a friend of hers were out doing something, one night, and I suggested, "Let's go see 'Barry Lyndon'." I think Marge and her friend went because it had Ryan O'Neal. Only after we were well into the movie, though, did Marge lean over and say to me, sotto voce, "GOOD MOVIE!"

In the meantime, I made the first of many super-8 films, the first of which won an award from the Rogue Valley Art Association. I wrote, produced and directed a one-act play during my high school senior year, and wrote another that was produced by a friend at S.O.S.C. After some fruitless years at the Y, I returned to Southern Oregon and took a film-editing class, which led to the first of several jobs working, alternately, in video and film production. I also worked in journalism, during which I freelanced and wrote the first of several monthly articles on film for an Ashland publication whose editor first heard about me from a teacher at S.O.S.C. who told him that I had written papers in my senior year, there, on Godard and Hitchcock. The rest, as they say, is history.

I remember the hot anticipation over The Shining. I'd read the novel---still my favorite of the Stephen King novels that I've read. And there were so many people involved with it and so many reasons to want to like the film. But there was also that nagging feeling of, why did Kubrick make these alterations to the story, alterations which weren't very good, and which certainly wouldn't have helped any movie, let alone this one. And there were the rumors that the seven minutes that Kubrick cut from the film, after its New York City opening, would have really set everything in the film to rights.

By the time Full Metal Jacket came out, I had read some of Gustav Hasfeld's novel "The Short Timers", before pitching it into the wastebasket. One could see why Kubrick was drawn to this material: a new soldier in boot camp is driven crazy by his drill sergeant, then, later, a Vietnamese woman begs to have one of the men shoot her and put her out of her misery. I don't know if the latter episode is in Hasfeld's book, but the former was. The willowy, straw-haired, sweet-tempered kid from Kentucky who was in the boot camp sequences was changed into a huge, wheezing, wild-eyed monster by Kubrick, regarding us with the same evil, glowering, lowered-head look that Jack Nicholson used to suggest total evil in The Shining. It was a crashingly disappointing film, almost dismissable, but, hey, this was the guy who made 2001. There was always the chance that he could very well blow our minds once more.

Eyes Wide Shut, a psycho-sexual thriller set in New York City but made in Britain, complete with imported "Village Voice" vending machines, has been filming, and filming, and filming for over a year. Before the cameras, for the moment, stopped, it was said that this might very well be Kubrick's last one, even though there talk about his communicating, via satellite, with Industrial Light and Magic about pre-production for A.I., a film which was supposed to be based on Philip K. Dick's novel "Martian Time Slip", a psychological thriller set on the first Earth colony on Mars. Several years back, there was to have been a film of Louis Begley's brilliant novel, "Wartime Lies", about a Jewish aunt and her nephew hiding under assumed identities in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the effects it has on them during the occupation and, most tellingly, afterwards. Joseph Mazzello would play the young boy, but Kubrick kept dithering over who to cast as the aunt. Julia Roberts? Uma Thurman? Jodie Foster? Surely, one of these ladies could play the part, but who could say what Kubrick had in mind? Then, the film vanished, replaced by A.I., then said to be set during a second Ice Age on Earth. The "Hollywood Reporter" carried it in their "In Production" listing, but Kubrick was said to be dissatisfied with the sample visual FX he was shown (this was just about the time digital FX, on the scale of Jurassic Park, were fully beginning to come into being). And no cast announced, either; further, no screenwriter.

So, when Eyes Wide Shut was announced, and then actually went before the cameras in full-fledged principal photography, the old flame of my experience of first seeing 2001 was rekindled. Who cares if it's lousy? I'm gonna see it anyway!! It's like being a baseball fan in Boston and not going to see the Red Sox season opener. It's a kind of duty. It's something you feel is owed. It's one of those things that makes you the person you are, today, instead of someone else with some other differentiations and tastes altogether.

Kubrick's passing is, in some ways, not a surprise. He has stayed a semi-recluse in Britain for over 20 years. Who knows how well he has been taking care of himself. And there is the troubling aspect of his not seemingly being able to bring himself to halt the principal photography on his current movie, surely one of the maddest production shoots in movie history, surely the only one since Cleopatra that has generated so many pages of speculation, inside rumors, and reports of what might or might not be going on at the set. Who knows if it's even really finished. Along with the cuts on The Shining, Kubrick also trimmed some footage from Clockwork Orange, after its release. That was the movie which Kubrick himself took out of circulation in Great Britain, after an occurrence took place there, in connection with the movie, around the late Seventies. Bootleg copies of the film on video are supposed to be a hot commodity, and when the Royal Shakespeare Company put on a stage adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel, starring Phil Daniels and with incidental music by Bono and The Edge, Londoners reportedly could see folks riding the Underground dressed just like one of Alex's droogs in Kubrick's movie.

"Refrigerated" is one term that keeps coming to mind about Clockwork Orange. But although Kubrick's films could be morose, or pessimistic, there was also the fact that they could be quite funny. "The Premier is a Man of the People," says Peter Bull's Russian ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, which Kubrick co-wrote with Terry Southern and Peter George, "but he is also a man." Whereupon, we hear Peter Sellers' U.S. president, having finally located the leader of the Soviet Union, asking him over the telephone, "Dimitri? Could you turn the music down a little...?" Kubrick also used Sellers to good effect in his film version of "Lolita", where he apparently figured that, if you were going to approach a story about two maundering middle-aged men chasing after a very young girl and her Coke bottle, it might be a good idea to do so while using some levity. The characters on-screen in Barry Lyndon may look and act a little glaceed, but the running narration commentary was anything but. There's the oddly comic quality to the moment in The Killing where a public brawl breaks out, on cue, before the climatic robbery starts. Dr. Heywood Floyd, in 2001, calling his daughter by public phone, to ask what she wants for her birthday ("I want a bushbaby!" she replies), from the space station---and the, er, astronomical cost for the call, afterwards. Jack Torrance's wife, in The Shining, discovering what her husband has really been spending all of his time writing at the typewriter. And one of the things that, still, most vividly comes to mind about Paths of Glory was the way Ralph Meeker sounded when his character, imprisoned and facing an imminent firing squad, blurts out, "You know, I haven't had one sexual thought since I've been in here...."

Kubrick wrote the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut with the British writer Frederic Raphael, and it is supposed to be based on Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler's 1925 novel "Traumnovelle" (which was published, in the U.S., as "Rhapsody: A Dream Novel"). But it may also be based on a novel Raphael published in 1971, entitled "Who Were You With Last Night". Both novels bear comparison. They both feature a protagonist who is a married man and father---in Schnitzler's novel, it is a young, upper-class doctor; in Raphael's, a suburban, middle-aged industrial park executive. Both experience sudden disillusionment, even loathing, towards their wives. And both have encounters with other woman, about which their wives know nothing. The doctor in "Traumnovelle" meets a woman at a "secret club" where everyone in attendance is masked. The executive in "Who Were You With..." meets, and begins an affair with, a young secretary, and they rendezvous in the as-yet untenanted executive offices of a new office building. An episode where they are interrupted by a gun-toting intruder, who thinks what they are doing is wrong but doesn't know what to do about it, is supposed to have had its origins in discussions Kubrick had with Raphael over an earlier version of Eyes Wide Shut.

In "Traumnovelle", the protagonist flirts with the idea of whether to distrust women, as well as whether some ideas or concepts of behavior which society labels as "wrong" are really all that "wrong", after all. ("Isn't it strange how we are misled by words, how we give names to states, events, and people, and form judgments about them, just because we are too lazy to change our habits?") Raphael's novel reveals, rather elegantly, in the very last pages that we have been reading about a man who has been a full-fledged misogynist all along. ("The trouble with women is, give them a chance and they think they own you.") Kubrick himself has never seemed to be all that crazy about women in his films. He has gotten good performances from women---Marie Windsor in The Killing, Shelley Winters in Lolita, Shelley Duvall in The Shining. But three of his films have featured a husband who either commits, or threatens to commit, violence upon his spouse; a fourth has a woman pleading with a man to do so. Even neurasthenic Lady Lyndon turns out to be the victim of a man who marries her only for wealth and position. (Two men also fight over her, with mortifying results.) And Alex, in Clockwork Orange, is sent to prison---and, eventually, the Ludovico Treatment---after killing a woman, in rather bizarre circumstances. (Kubrick's marriage to his current wife, Christiane, is his fourth; he is the father of three daughters.) This is also a film which asks us to identify with a pathological lead character who lives in a debased society where pleasure is derived from sex, violence, or both. Some sources at the time of the film's release said that Clockwork Orange took place at the end of the 1970s, not all that far off from the time when Kubrick's previous film, a film that depicted man appearing to achieve his most highest aspirations and potentials, was set.

Eyes Wide Shut may turn out to be the humbinger of the lot. I have heard a LOT about this picture---everything from the reason for Harvey Keitel's departure (not what you heard, or heard after that), to the possible M.P.A.A. rating (plan on leaving the kiddies at home) and even the distribution of "false" scripts (one of which may be in the hands of a famous Internet movie journalist). Within 24 hours of Kubrick's passing, Warner Brothers executive Terry Semel assured the public, "But, soft...", and announced that Kubrick had screened a final cut of the film only five days before. (To the last, the screening for Semel, a second Warners executive, and Tom and Nicole, was held with the projectionist facing away from the screen.) Semel also reported that the music score was in place---mostly "classical", with "a few beats" added to it (possibly the original rap music score by U.K. musician Goldie?); and that two versions of advertising for the film were prepared and ready to be used. The "few tweaks" that Semel referred to in-passing will probably not significantly affect our appreciation of the film. Kubrick was very particular about the look he wanted for his films. He and the cinematographer John Alcott developed a special lens whereby they could film Barry Lyndon using candlelight. Later, they developed a special Stedicam that allowed them capture the particular effect of little Danny pedaling his Big Wheel across the floors and carpets of the Overlook Hotel, for long, uninterrupted periods at a time, in The Shining. (On my 20th birthday, I accompanied my friend Tim Hansen, who had not yet seen Clockwork Orange, to a screening of the film at the Cinema 21 in Portland, where it was being shown on a double-bill with Performance, the 1970 film which had been photographed and co-directed by the cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Seeing those two films together was a definite experience, I can tell you.)

The most telling story of all I've heard is the one that may be the most apocryphal: Sometime in the Seventies, Kubrick and Terry Southern were watching an adult picture, back when it was fashionable to do so, when Kubrick was to have turned to Southern at one point and said, "What would happen if somebody who really knew how to make movies made a film like this?"

What if I had not seen 2001 when I was nine? What if I had not seen Citizen Kane when I was 12? (Before I was exposed to its being taught as an "institution" of a film in film classes.) The results of the latter incident were that all of cinema, to me, eventually became pre-"Kane" and post-"Kane". And as for the former experience, I was turned on like an electric light by a film and the way it was made and the way it took me away to places, literally setting my heart to flight. There were two things I most wanted to do between 1984 and 1999: Walk into a theater one night---the Lumiere in San Francisco, I have always thought---and sit down to see a showing of Orson Welles' completed The Other Side of the Wind. And to see a few more Stanley Kubrick films before the big clock turns over to two-zero-zero-zero, and we find out if that vision of life that had been implanted in our brains by Kubrick when we were young would, indeed, be our reality. Well, the space station is going up, as I write these words. The world, though, seems a more sordid, more disappointing place than I imagined. And I am reminded of Neil Gabler---a writer I have never really thought much of, by the way---and his book, "Life: The Movie", published this last year, about how life has turned into Entertainment, and we are all performers in one great big movie, instead of real life. Is it a bad thing or a good thing to want to be living in a film like 2001?

Which brings us to our final scene, which is an anecdote and which I include because it involves Kubrick, and the dichotomy of life. When I was trying, without much success, to get schooling to make films at B.Y.U., there was an unspoken rule that L.D.S. students were not to see any films that were rated "R" or above. Unspoken, but taken by many as doctrine. This was a continual sore point among film students who had chosen to attend the university, since it put them in a bind, as students, church members, and artists, to seriously discuss the comparative merits of, for example, Coming Home (rated "R") and Grease (rated "PG", but, arguably, in some ways more lascivious and amoral than Coming Home). In 1981, I took a class in French and Italian cinema, in which one of the two teachers (who, I will say right now, was an idiot), spoke in class one day about the use of music in motion pictures. Part of his lecture was based on a scene from Clockwork Orange. What, an "X"-rated film, being discussed on the campus of an L.D.S. school, where we aren't supposed to see anything further than a "PG"? Anyway, the professor was citing, as an example, the scene in the film where Adrianna Asti's character is being..."interfered with", brutally, by Alex and his droogs. "And then," he said, with appropriately poignant dramatic emphasis quavering in his voice, "we see this close up, of the woman's anguished face, while the 'Ode to Joy' plays on the soundtrack...!" Well, they didn't use Beethoven's choral from the Ninth Symphony in that scene, the music they used was "Singin' in the Rain", and, anyway, what he was talking about wasn't in the film, which meant he hadn't seen it. What he probably saw was a copy of the published screenplay for Clockwork Orange, which did have a close-up---photograph, that is---of Adrianna Asti's face in that scene. That was probably what this nitwit had seen, not the movie, and although he may have thought he was adhering to Church precepts, which forbade members seeing anything over a "PG" rating, he was talking about something he didn't know about while trying to presume, to the class, that he did. And probably thinking that, since nobody in the class would have the presumption to have seen an "X"-rated film, nobody would correct him on his error. Which is where I should have stepped in. The problem was, in so doing, I would have been admitting that I had gone against Church conduct---applying for admission to B.Y.U. requires that you sign a statement attesting that you will adhere to Church conduct and principles while attending classes, there---and admit that I had seen an "X"-rated film, and therefore be looked upon, accordingly. I was also, at the time, shy, in ways that I am not, now. I should have called him on it. But I didn't. I was silent. And 18 years later, it still doesn't feel any better. You'd like to think you'd always do the right thing, that you would stand up on-principle and for the people who mean something to you, whom you respect, who have given you something that's valuable. It doesn't always work that way every single time that you would want it to: hindsight is a luxury. I am now no longer L.D.S., for reasons which don't have anything to do with the movies. I also have a video of the film-in-question, letterboxed, and I'm not proud, or boastful. But, oh, my friends, I wish, for Stanley's sake, that I had spoken out in class that day.

Contents | Features | Reviews | News | Archives | Store

Copyright 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.