American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest of film directors, and perhaps the most independent and self-contained, is dead at 71. The creator of "2001: A Space Odyssey" died early Sunday morning at his country home north of London.
Even in a century when film directors fashioned images as strong-willed visionaries, Kubrick stood out from the crowd. He became legendary for his total independence, his disdain for studio interference, and his indifference to publicity and "image." He made great films entirely outside conventional commercial formulas. At the time of his death he had just completed "Eyes Wide Shut," an erotic thriller starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who devoted more than a year of their careers to his exacting demands. Kubrick had been working on it for a long time, brushing off Warner Brothers' hopes that it could be released last year.
But "he had finished it," his friend Joe Hyams told me Sunday. "A print was shown on Thursday night in New York to just four people--Tom, Nicole, and [studio executives] Terry Semel and Bob Daly. They loved it."
Kubrick's death "was a bolt from the blue," said Hyams, an executive vice president at the studio. "He had been working every day, those 18-hour days. He was such a perfectionist." Pending a coroner's report, Hyams said, it was assumed that the cause of death was a heart attack while the director slept.
In recent decades Kubrick's contract with Warner Brothers specified simply that he would make a film of his own choice, at a cost to be determined, and the studio would release it exactly as he supplied it to them. Even at a time when powerful directors have the right of "final cut," this arrangement was extraordinary; at Warner's, only Kubrick and Clint Eastwood enjoyed it. "Whatever those guys want, they get," Hyams said.
Kubrick was rarely photographed and had not given an interview in years. He did most of his business dealings by phone. His estate in the English countryside included editing and sound facilities, and he was famous for creating his own locations instead of traveling to them; his Vietnam movie "Full Metal Jacket" was shot entirely in England, and of course so was "2001," which took place in space. Some have called "2001" the greatest film of the century.
Certainly it was the most inimitable -- an epic with little dialog for much of its length, special effects that have not been surpassed for their grandeur, an enigmatic ending that is still argued about, and human characters so wooden they were upstaged by a talking computer. When orbiting American astronauts were asked what the view was like, they replied, "Like in '2001'."
Kubrick worked slowly in recent years, marching to the sound of his own drum. His prestige was so great that he could command the services of top stars like Cruise and Jack Nicholson, who put other projects on hold to accommodate Kubrick's lengthy shooting schedules and demands for many takes of every shot.
Matthew Modine, who starred in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," told me that after he questioned the director's high number of takes, "He told me that on 'The Shining' Jack Nicholson would arrive on the set sort of knowing his lines. After six takes he would know them. After 20 takes he would know what they meant. After 50 takes he would start to play around with them in interesting ways. And after 100 takes, he began to really feel them."
"He was the ultimate perfectionist," recalled the director Gregory Nava, who consulted with Kubrick on the Spanish-language version of "Eyes Wide Shut." "He would call a dozen times a day. No detail was too small."
Indeed, Kubrick was said to have his own computer database of the theaters where his movies were shown, and it was not unheard-of for the phone in a projection booth to ring if Kubrick heard reports that his work was being shown out of focus, or at the wrong brightness.
"I screamed for months and months," Shelly Duvall once told me, about her work in Kubrick's "The Shining." "I thought I'd lose my mind. He wanted to get it just right. There was a scene where the camera preceded [actor] Roberts Blossom in a long tracking shot around three legs of a hotel corridor, and he did it maybe 90 times--because he wanted the crosshairs in the viewfinder to be exactly on the actor's forehead at every moment."
Born in the Bronx in 1928, Kubrick was a fast starter; he got his first job, as a staff photographer for Look magazine, when he was only 17, and had made two short documentaries by the age of 22. Kubrick's desire for control may have had its beginnings then: Glossy magazine photographers in those days were free-ranging buccaneers who called their own shots, and Kubrick brought the same approach to his first two features, which he financed himself: "Fear and Desire" (1953), which he later suppressed, and "Killer's Kiss" (1955).
"Kiss" has its admirers, but with his next two films Kubrick emerged as a distinctive talent. "The Killing' (1956) starred Sterling Hayden in the story of a racetrack robbery, and "Paths of Glory" (1957) starred Kirk Douglas in what is considered one of the greatest of anti-war films. Three years later, Douglas insisted on Kubrick as director of the epic "Spartacus" (1960), which Kubrick later said he disliked, although it has many defenders.
Kubrick moved to England in 1961, partly to isolate himself from Hollywood interference, and in 1962 made "Lolita," with James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, and Sue Lyon as the "nymphet" of the title. Many believed the Vladimir Nabokov novel could not be filmed; Kubrick made the heroine 15 instead of 12, and had a critical and popular success.
But it was with "Dr. Strangelove" (1963) that he had his greatest early hit. Starring Sellers again, in three roles, and Hayden as "Gen. Jack D. Ripper," the film treated nuclear war as fodder for a black comedy. It still seems fresh and new today.
The film's success allowed Kubrick to write his own ticket for the rest of his career, and in 1968 years he produced his masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," which is on most lists of the 10 greatest films. Its success was all the more extraordinary because it was plotless -- a frankly experimental film that traced man's evolution from the first tool-using apes to the ultimate tool -- a space ship to escape our birth planet.
Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) starred Malcolm McDowell as a violent lout in a fearsome world of the near future; its prophetic vision was so disturbing that the movie is banned in Britain to this day. "Barry Lyndon" (1975), a period piece based on a Thackery novel and starring Ryan O'Neal, was one of his less successful films. Then came Nicholson in the horror film "The Shining" (1980), based on a Stephen King novel and including the star's trademark line, "Heeeere's Johnny!"
"Full Metal Jacket" (1987) began with Marine basic training (he hired a real drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey, to play himself) and continued with combat footage set in Vietnam. And then there was a long hiatus as the director worked on various projects that never went before the cameras. One, titled "A.I.," was about artificial intelligence, and would have returned to the world of HAL 9000, the computer in "2001."
Now there is one more title: "Eyes Wide Shut." Filmed in complete secrecy, it is said to be unusually explicit in its sex scenes. Before Thursday's screenings, Warner's executives had seen no footage except for a two-minute trailer that was so bold, I was told, that one exec said, "I don't know whether to be angry or relieved that Stanley left off the studio logo."
At a time when major movies can cost $50,000 to $100,000 a day to shoot, Kubrick's shooting schedules of many months were possible because he knew exactly what he wanted, and used the smallest possible crews.
"He doesn't believe in waste," Modine told me. "On 'Full Metal Jacket,' sometimes he had only six people. One day he had a set lit, and he told the electrician, 'Okay, this set is lit and it's not going to change, so I don't need you here anymore.' So he sent the guy over to work on the wiring on his house."
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