Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum
Step inside the world of the iconic film director.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
London’s Design Museum continues its high calibre exhibition programme with its latest iteration, an exhibition dedicated to the life, philosophy and career of the revered and controversial film director, Stanley Kubrick.
As a disclaimer, I am not a massive film fan; I rarely visit the cinema or browse Netflix for the latest releases but I am interested in the history of visual arts and it is hard to speak about the history of film and cinema without mentioning Kubrick. As a director he is widely regarded as one of the best and is mentioned amongst the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock and Ridley Scott.
Before visiting the exhibition I had only seen a few of Kubrick’s films: A Clockwork Orange (1962), The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) but from these, I had some prior knowledge of his style of film and story-lines. After the exhibition I decided to watch the rest of the films featured: Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). I definitely think that this exhibition favours those who have watched these films prior, however it was still possible to appreciate the imagery, props, words and context of the exhibition without knowing the full film.
The exhibition is in two halves with the first being about Kubrick’s early life, career and his unique creative process. He is known for the lengthy preparation he put into each film; spending months and years researching details in search of true authenticity with his films exploring a range of genres from war and horror to science fiction and satire. The design of this part of the exhibition has a feeling of a backstage room filled with lots of photographs, notes, scripts, imagery, research, planning and design of every aspect of his films in his meticulous style.
His films are known for being quite controversial for their treatments of sexual themes, violence, warfare and such; however they are now seen as defining landmarks in modern film. Kubrick was a director who also collaborated with designers and he used the latest technology to create his films in obsessive detail, the exhibition at the Design Museum specifically is the first exploration of the importance of design in Kubrick’s work.
“A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions, and it’s the directors job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible.”
Something I didn’t know was that all but one of Kubrick’s films are based on books written by other authors and writers. Kubrick said “What I like about not writing original material — which I’m not even certain I could do—is that you have this tremendous advantage of reading something for the first time. You never have this experience again with the story. You have a reaction to it: it’s a kind of falling in love reaction”.
With the existing story-line established it allowed Kubrick to imagine the context in which it could come to life, researching historical details and appropriate locations. Many of these details were kept in extensive files near London and after his death his estate was turned into a meticulously organised and index catalogue now housed at the University of the Arts London where many of the artefacts for this exhibition are loaned from.
As a director Kubrick loved the editing room, for him it was what really mattered as this was where he could concentrate without distractions, putting together scenes he had filmed, at great length. He explains “I think I enjoy editing the most. It’s the nearest thing to some reasonable environment to do creative work. Nothing is cut without me. I’m in there every second, and for all practical purposes I cut my own film. I mark every frame, select each segment and have everything done exactly the way I want it.”
“When I'm editing, I’m only concerned with the questions of is it good or bad? Is it necessary? Can I get rid of it? Does it work? I am never concerned with how much difficulty there was to shoot something, how much it cost and so forth. I’m never troubled losing material.”
Film posters are an important selling point for a film, it’s what encourages people to go and see the film and many of Kubrick’s films have posters as iconic as the films themselves such as the image of a single, adorned helmet of Full Metal Jacket, the emerging figure from a triangle of A Clockwork Orange or the slightly terrifying face of The Shining; famously designed by the iconic film poster designer Saul Bass. For 40 years Bass and his wife Elaine worked in every aspect of film from title credits to posters and storyboards, directing sequences and even making their own film. The exhibition shows the design process, with comments from Kubrick, for the design of The Shining film poster.
The second half of the exhibition is in sections with each dedicated to one of the ten films featured. It is hard to go into detail of each film as they are visual things and are best experienced first hand or by simply watching each film; however each section and film had some interesting facts which are easier to share. Each film is presented in its own world with its own colour and idiosyncrasies; the result being an experience which highlights the diverse interests of Kubrick.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Paths of Glory is considered Kubrick’s first masterpiece, adapted from a novel from WWI veteran Humphrey Cobb, it tells the story of a group of French soldiers facing execution for so-called cowardice. The film’s portrayal of heartless and incompetent officers and their brutal treatment of ordinary soldiers infuriated French authorities and it was banned in France until 1975.
Spartacus was Kubrick’s only attempt at making a traditional Hollywood film. Lead actor Kirk Douglas had fallen out with the original director Anthony Mann and hired Kubrick as a replacement. The film tells the story of a failed slave rebellion against Rome. Despite receiving four Academy Awards, Kubrick remained dissatisfied and always demanded complete creative control over his future productions.
A Clockwork Orange (1962)
A Clockwork Orange is based on the novel by the prolific British writer Anthony Burgess, published 1962, which portrays a violent youth gang with their own language. This was the first screenplay that Kubrick had written himself, adopting the novel’s slang and the protagonist Alex’s first-person narrative. In 1974 Kubrick received threats against his family due to the film’s controversial celebration of violence and sexual abuse and he pulled the film from UK distribution and it wasn’t officially screened again until after his death. Featured here are the original erotic furniture found in the Korova Milk Bar.
The book Lolita was published in 1958 by Vladamir Nabokov and tells the story of a mature man’s attraction towards an underage girl; a bestseller but also controversial. Kubrick’s film adaptation was equally as controversial, he was determined to ensure it would reach cinemas, replacing the book’s overt depictions of sexual desire with more subtle feelings by the main actors. Sensual scenes were offset with ironic pop music for slapstick content.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
At the height of the cold war, Kubrick sought a story to highlight the madness of the nuclear arms race between the USA and the USSR, he found it in Peter George’s novel Red Alert (1958) in which a US general high-handedly orders an atomic bomb to be dropped on the Soviet Union. The film’s black humour originates between the main actor’s grotesque and absurd characterisations and the serious historical context. The film’s actions take place in real time to imply that the world could be destroyed within 90 minutes.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick’s most famous and technically demanding film was the culmination of years of research into how intelligence evolved. 2001: A Space Odyssey offers a experience of space and time. Kubrick combined aspects of experimental and narrative film-making to create a fresh concept of what cinema could be. Initially unpopular with audiences, the film paved the way for many science fiction films including Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), Star Trek (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).
Barry Lyndon (1975)
William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) was the inspiration for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon film, turning the novel into a ravishingly beautiful journey through art and architectural history. Shot mostly in daylight or candlelight, the cinematography requires both technical innovation and traditional techniques to reproduce the conditions of the 1700s, using camera lenses originally designed for NASA.
The Shining (1980)
An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1977) features performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as well as the scene itself, the Overlook Hotel. The film was notable for the use of Steadicam which had recently been invented; Kubrick used it extensively throughout the year-long shoot to achieve flowing scenes that would have otherwise been impossible. Kubrick’s multiple takes resulted in almost 400km of film and pushed the actors to the edge of exhaustion.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s vision of war’s madness, reflected in the film split into two parts; the first dominated by a drill sergeant who aims a relentless barrage towards new recruits preparing us for the second half which takes place on a chaotic battlefield. The film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Short-Timers (1979) by former marine and war correspondent Gustav Hasford. Featured here is the original ‘Born to Kill’ helmet worn by Private Joker.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Warner Brothers first announced Kubrick’s forthcoming production of an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Rhapsody: A Dream Novel/Dream Story/Traumnovelle (1926) in 1971, however Kubrick was more interested in A Clockwork Orange. It was finally released shortly after Kubrick’s death in 1999. Kubrick offered the two lead parts to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, two of Hollywood’s most successful actors at the time, and a married couple; as the film deals with the nature of desire and jealousy in marriage, this was a strong factor in the casting.
The Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum runs until the 15th September 2019 and is well worth the visit.