In terms of the above criteria Kubrick is arguably the greatest director English-speaking earth has ever seen. His control of the medium, especially on larger productions, has never been matched: he steered his figurative ‘bumper cars’ with precision while writing War and Peace in calligraphy, backwards, in Old Latin.
Spielberg called Kubrick the “greatest film craftsman in history”, and in spite of some recalcitrant attitudes towards his micro-management and perfectionism, every cast and crew member he worked with refers to him with exceptional regard, if not awe. His methodology and craftsmanship made him the tallest artistic poppy in Hollywood, but it was also his intellect that elevated him to legend. Arthur C. Clarke himself said Kubrick was “perhaps the most intelligent person [he’d] ever met”. But this isn’t an article about Kubrick the filmmaker; it’s an article about Kubrick the genius, so before delving too deeply into his life as a director, let’s roll back the tape and explore Kubrick before he made his mark on cinema.
Schooling, Chess and Photography
From a young age Kubrick was bored by the standard schooling curriculum, refusing to commit to study on the basis he “wasn’t interested” (though he didn’t mind physics). His father Jacques, a doctor, was keenly aware of his son’s intellectual prowess and rather than take a disciplinary route, introduced the young Kubrick to chess and then purchased him his first camera. If there’s ever been a case for dynamic and progressive parenting, Kubrick’s life is it.
Kubrick took to the chess board with aptitude, regularly playing his father while studying different techniques, but didn’t take the game seriously until he was 17, when he joined a local chess club. Incidentally, 17 was also the age his photography career took off. He’d taught himself camera assembly and how to develop pictures over the previous few years, taking hundreds of photos of New York City and developing them in his own self-made darkroom. Completely disenfranchised with his schooling—with grades to match—he’d begun networking within the photography industry, in particular the prestigious Look magazine, where he eventually landed a job as a staff photographer. His breakthrough came following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. The entire city devastated, Kubrick captured the cultural impact with a single shot:
That a barely 17 year-old high school dropout had the artistic maturity to produce a photo of this calibre is, well, you be the judge. He sold the picture to Look for a decent fee and was working for the magazine full-time by mid 1946, where he stayed until producing his first documentary in 1951. Look had a readership of nearly 3 million people at the time.
It’s clear the young artist had some incredible visual talent, but how good a chess player was he? He claims he was only ‘decent’ and that he wasn’t ranked especially highly at his chess club, which even as a modesty is probably an indication that his cognition was different to the likes of Garry Kasparov. That being said, if Kubrick had been trained from a younger age and practiced with ongoing discipline and training, who knows. He certainly ended up good enough to support himself financially hustling top players in central park, which is renowned as being home to some of the most deceptively competitive players in America. Playing for 12 hours a day while waiting between productions, he earned a reputation as one of the best. He was no patzer that’s for sure (though he was quick to call-out others for the dishonour).
Chess played a central role in the filmmaker’s life. While he never ascended to the standards of the elite on the board, he applied the principles of the game to his working life with staggering effect. He once said “Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” That he was able to conceptualise the game philosophically for real-world application, with such awesome success, signifies a mind primed for abstract thinking with a pragmatic benefit. This would become a hallmark of his career.
Kubrick as a Filmmaker (2)
Kubrick’s filmmaking career and its various highlights has been detailed ad nauseam so there won’t be any more biographical description here. If you’re looking for a chronological account of his life and work then it’s well worth checking out Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. It’s a stellar documentary. Here though, let’s get to the intellectual meat: outside of his finished films, what gave the guy a reputation as being one of the smartest people (if not the smartest) in the industry’s history?
Aiming to shoot his period drama Barry Lyndon with natural candle light—an apparent impossibility in 1973—and to give it the visual impression of a painting with no visual depth, Kubrick contacted NASA, aware they’d used a specialised ultra high aperture Carl Zeiss lens (the Planer 50mm f/0.7) for the Apollo moon landings. Kubrick was savvy enough to figure out the technical requirements for the pioneering effect, leading to a landmark technique being born (the specifics of which are beyond my meagre comprehension to explain). Take a look:
The foreground and background can be ascertained, but there’s virtually zero depth of field between them, giving the impression of a two-dimensional painting from the same period. The film industry legally requires an appointed cinematographer on a film production—a requisite that had led to a 27 year-old Kubrick forcibly dominating a 48 year-old Lucien Ballard when he condescendingly defied a request while shooting The Killing—so John Alcott was given credit and awarded an Oscar, but it was all Kubrick. A similar thing happened on the set of Spartacus: Kubrick had been hired mid-shoot by Kirk Douglas when the original director didn’t work out, and the incumbent cinematographer Russell Metty complained that Kubrick had poor camera judgement and was taking over his role, to which he was told by the director to “sit there and do nothing”. Metty was also awarded an Oscar; his first and last. Ironically, Kubrick never won one himself.
Kubrick also conceptualised and pioneered the now done-to-death steady cam technique first seen in The Shining, used most famously in this sequence:
Outside of technical innovations (there are numerous others) he pioneered several filming techniques: from extreme and oblique camera perspective; to ultra wide-angle lenses; to employing slow and brooding, protracted sequences; to extended tracking shots; to framing perfect symmetry mise èn scene:
2. Cultural Impact
An assessment of the cultural sensitivities of Kubrick’s work could liberally take an essay in its own right, so in keeping with your interest (and awakeness) this article will only explore Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)
Initially planned as a drama until Kubrick realised how unintentionally funny it was, Dr. Strangelove satirised Cold War tensions so effectively it managed to change the nuclear discourse in America. It’s important to note just how real the threat of nuclear war was back in the 60’s; most Americans genuinely believed an apocalypse to be imminent or precariously balanced on thin diplomacy. Recognising the need for an artistic commentary, Kubrick sought to adapt the novel Two Hours to Doom (aka Red Alert). The book ended up being little more than an inspiration and the movie took on a satirical, stage-like tone that would still be original if released today. It made the political unrest at the time seem socially ridiculous, and by many accounts helped push the public narrative back into the realm of reason, quelling many people’s fear in the process.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
And so it began.
Aside from being a landmark sensory experience in cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey sparked a whole generation’s interest in space and catapulted science fiction into a new era. Literally every major space-based sci-fi film that followed was directly influenced by it: from Tarkovsky’s Solaris; to Star Wars; to Interstellar—all replicate the same majestic and authentic take on the universe to varying degrees. Prior to 2001 the public had a warped perception of how space looked, and following its release there was a significant social shift towards science and technology, bolstering an adolescent NASA. Spielberg called it his generation’s “big bang” and many commentators (including fellow directors) claimed it annihilated all preconceptions of the genre. It’s highly likely that the ripple-effect of 2001’s influence extended deep into the scientific consciousness, forming the basis of the recent resurgence in scientific interest we’re experiencing today.
It’s also one of the most cerebral mainstream films ever released. The plot imagines a race of alien life-forms that’s evolved beyond physical matter and can harness energy and spacetime at will, that accelerated the evolution of our ancestors to eventually allow the transcendence of our species in similar fashion to their own. When an exploration finds an alien monolith on the moon it communicates to the creatures that our species had evolved enough to take the next step.
In an effort to keep interpretations as organic and broad as possible, Kubrick opted to use a vague narrative and an absorptive, mesmerising tone; triggering public dialogues about the origins of our species and the nature of the cosmos that are still being had today (in some form or another).
3. Cognitive Ability
When Steven Spielberg first saw The Shining he didn’t like it very much. Not long after its release, Kubrick asked him for his opinion over dinner. After Spielberg tried to give a diplomatic answer glossing over the things he did like, Kubrick saw straight through it, and according to Spielberg the conversation went like this:
Kubrick: “Well Steven you obviously didn’t like my picture very much.”
Spielberg: “Well, there’s a lot of things I love about it…”
Kubrick: “But there’s a lot of things you didn’t like, probably more than what you did. Tell me what you didn’t like about it.”
Spielberg: “Well, the thing is, I think Jack Nicholson’s a great actor, and I thought it was a great performance, but it was almost a great kabuki performance. It’s like kabuki theatre.”
Kubrick: “You mean you think Jack went over-the-top?”
Spielberg: “Yeah, yeah I kinda did.”
Kubrick: “Okay. Quickly, without thinking, who are your top five favourite actors of all time, and I don’t want you to think; just name off some names.”
Spielberg: “Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Carey Grant, Clarke Gabel…”
Kubrick: “Stop. Okay, where was James Cagney on that list?”
Spielberg: “Um well he’s up there high…”
Kubrick: “But he’s not in the top five. You don’t consider James Cagney to be one of the five best actors around. You see, I do; this is why Jack Nicholson’s performance is a great one.”
In case you’re unfamiliar: James Cagney was known for his high-energy showman-like performances, much like a ‘good-guy’ version of Nicholson in The Shining, and was one of Hollywood’s leading stars for two generations. He starred in well over 100 films, won an Oscar, and was held in universally high regard by his peers, directors and critics alike. Kubrick knew that if Spielberg didn’t like Nicholson’s performance, he also wouldn’t think that much of Cagney, and that would put him at extreme odds with the majority opinion. By cornering him into admitting Cagney wasn’t on his radar, Kubrick marginalised Spielberg’s opinion on Nicholson to a small minority, rendering his opinion moot. He thought of all this in a split-second.
Spielberg has since watched The Shining over 25 times and now calls it one of his favourite movies.
With the strategy of a winning chess move, Kubrick was immediately able to both answer and influence his fellow director with ease. This kind of razor-sharp-terminal-velocity wit allowed him to consistently influence his actors and crew exactly as he wanted. Can you imagine handling an objection with a layered, strategic and influential line of reasoning so quickly? It’s probably light-years beyond most political and intellectual debates you’ll come across (Christopher Hitchens is the closest I’ve found).
Kubrick’s memory was just as incredible. When he was working on preproduction for the aborted epic Napoleon he had an assistant purchase every available book on the emperor, which ended up being more than 100. He quickly digested them all, and apparently astonished his associates when he was able to recall every detail of them in the planning process, right down to knowing the weather patterns on the day of each battlefield scene based on the sky in paintings he’d looked at.
Not long after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Kubrick gave Playboy the most illuminating and extensive interview of his career. He eventually became notoriously reclusive and refused to do many afterwards—something he’d planned to change following the release of Eyes Wide Shut, but was tragically never given the chance. The interview gave an acute sense of his supreme intellect; he answered the interviewer’s questions with such intricacy and detail it’s hard to imagine they weren’t typed with the benefit of prolonged consideration. Here’s a random example:
Playboy: “Have you ever used LSD or other so-called consciousness expanding drugs?”
Kubrick: “No. I believe that drugs are basically of more use to the audience than to the artist. I think that the illusion of oneness with the universe, and absorption with the significance of every object in your environment, and the pervasive aura of peace and contentment is not the ideal state for an artist. It tranquillises the creative personality, which thrives on conflict and ferment of ideas. The artist’s transcendence must be within his own work; he should not impose any artificial barriers between himself and the mainspring of his subconscious. One of the things that’s turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss the drug induces on a “good” trip. They seem to completely lose their critical faculties and disengage themselves from some of the most stimulating areas of life. Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.”
Stanley Kubrick was never self-conscious about his intellect; he knew he was smart and that he had the ability to make important pictures, but he never showboated his mind unnecessarily. For that reason it’s possible he’s even smarter than this article has indicated. Some have claimed his IQ to be over 200—which is a feasible figure—but given Kubrick’s humble and professional personality, it’s highly unlikely he’d ever have made his IQ known publicly (not that IQ has much to do with genius on the whole anyway). He was an exceptionally organised and hard worker, storing every single planning and preproduction item, fan letter and professional correspondence in hundreds of neatly arranged boxes at his home. He also reportedly slept less than a few hours a night. As he grew older he gradually developed numerous eccentricities and some profoundly obsessive behaviour-patterns; including (but not limited to): extreme perfectionism—some scenes in Eyes Wide Shut took over 100 takes; an irrational fear of flying (though he did try to rationalise it in the Playboy interview); extreme task-mastery of his staff and crew; calling friends and colleagues with bizarre requests irrespective of the time; an extreme attention to detail (Eyes Wide Shut was set in New York but filmed in London; Kubrick had every road sign, window and physical aesthetic made to identically match the real thing, even though the audience would never know the difference had they been less accurate).
His cognitive and creative abilities seem widely spread among many aspects of human functionality. He was equally gifted with information processing as he was with visualisation; equally talented with leadership as he was with broad abstraction. He also had an immense talent for problem solving, something he strongly advocated for in schooling. He made culturally significant films in starkly contrasting genres, and never once produced a failed work—critically or financially.
When we daydream about the world from our homely vantage-points it’s easy to judge the failures of those who rise to society’s upper echelons, believing we’d be able to make better decisions given the chance (Josh Trank’s direction of Fantastic Four, for example). We rarely consider the pressures of the elite in our idealistic fantasies. When it comes to being a film director, the pressures rise like wind-resistance: the larger the scale of a project or ambitious the vision, the more difficult it becomes to accomplish. That’s what made Stanley Kubrick so amazing—he managed to formulate a system and method that allowed him to function in a volatile and pressure-riddled industry with the controlled demeanour of a mindfulness meditation guru. The results speak for themselves. As Martin Scorsese said: “One Kubrick film is worth ten of anyone else’s.”
Towards the end of the Playboy interview the conversation drifted into the prospects of alien life and human existentialism, and Kubrick was asked by the interviewer: “If life is so purposeless, do you feel that it’s worth living?”
Kubrick: Yes, for those of us who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaningless of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism—and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in faith and in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong—and lucky—he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death—however mutable man may be able to make them—our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.