Stanley Kubrick

From Vietnam to Jupiter: John Westbrooke admires the work of a great film director

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At first glance it might seem odd to celebrate the work of a film director in London’s Design Museum, but anyone who’s watched the opening scenes of A Clockwork Orange will realise why it’s there.

Alex in his bowler hat, decorative fake lashes under his right eye, the camera pulling slowly back to reveal the black and white costumes and decor, the lurid nude women statues acting as tables, and Malcolm McDowell’s voice crooning about his droogs and ultra-violence. That’s a memorable milk bar.

Kubrick, who died 20 years ago this year, had worked as a photographer and documentary-maker, and he kept his eye for telling a tale visually. Even his first feature, Fear and Desire, though it’s hampered by clunking poetic dialogue that was recorded later, features some striking landscape photography.

The director handled the camera himself, and the editing, but soon gave these tasks over to others for his later films. In theory, anyway. In practice he had a reputation as a control freak – “For all practical purposes, I cut my own film” – and the exhibits reinforce this.

His Napoleon project, for instance: he never got to make the film, but in the course of his research he drew up a file for every day in the emperor’s life. (“April 26th 1799: Seringapatam stormed, troops and followers plundered for a week.”) Nearby are his handwritten comments on proposals for posters advertising The Shining: “I don’t like the dots for the logo. It will not look good small.” There’s a collection of his cameras and lenses, and notes on which films they were used for. No doubt his cinematographers held them, but also no doubt who decided what to shoot.

Barry Lyndon, his most handsome-looking film, also saw him at his most inventive. It’s set in the 18th century, and he wanted it to look that way, using candles and natural light rather than electricity. But ordinary lenses couldn’t cope with such low light.

Instead, he turned to Zeiss, which had created some lenses for the Apollo space programme. Zeiss made only 25, and Kubrick’s producer bought three of them, to be fitted to the director’s own camera. When electricity did have to be used for outside light shining into a window, he reduced the glare by taping tracing paper over the glass.

The sets for Barry Lyndon posed problems too. Kubrick had long since relocated from his native New York to St Albans. He seems to have cultivated a reputation as a recluse; though his family insist you could see him in Marks and Spencer on Saturday like anyone else, it did make it more difficult for bigwigs at Warner Brothers to tell him what to do. (He’d made Spartacus as a Hollywood director for hire, didn’t like the experience, and insisted on creative control over his own films after that.)

He didn’t much like travelling, so he hoped that the stately homes of Hertfordshire would do, but it wasn’t to be; in the end, sites all over the south of England were used, with a few as far away as Germany (shot by a second unit under art director Ken Adam), while Irish properties provided interiors.

For his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, set in New York, he had London scouted for appropriate-looking streets, even commissioning a panorama of Commercial Road – which doesn’t look very much like Manhattan – before opting for sets at Pinewood Studios. The facade of an Oregon hotel was also recreated at the studios for The Shining. But, most famously, he did succeed in shooting the Vietnam War, for Full Metal Jacket, at the disused Beckton gasworks in East London.

The exhibition also pays tribute to the people who worked alongside Kubrick. Ken Adam was best known for his James Bond sets (Fort Knox, for example) but he also created the dramatic war room in Dr Strangelove, which Steven Spielberg thought was the best set ever designed. There’s only a small model on display, alas.

2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrated his quest for authenticity. Hardy Amies designed the crew uniforms; the spaceships were the work of Harry Lange, who’d worked with Wernher von Braun, the man behind Hitler’s V-2 missiles. A single pen floating in zero gravity, an astronaut jogging round an endless corridor, were striking and economical illustrations of the strangeness of living in space. By contrast, special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull took six months to create the psychedelic Jupiter stargate sequence at the end: it looked real because everything else did.

There’s a huge collection of artefacts on display in the exhibition, some 700 of them. A script for Lolita; a letter from Kirk Douglas signed “Spartacus” and Laurence Olivier’s leather armour from the same film; a shelf of books on Napoleon; a taped interview with the director; a shooting schedule for Paths of Glory; an editing table from Full Metal Jacket; Philip Castle’s aggressively stylish Clockwork Orange poster; figures from the Korova milk bar; masks from Eyes Wide Shut; and Shelley Duvall’s knife from The Shining – after doing 125 takes for one scene she must have felt like using it on Kubrick.

All that and substantial clips from most of his films. Kubrick was one of the most admired directors of the 20th century, making personal projects yet on a Hollywood scale. No two were the same: he made science fiction, black comedy, horror, film noir, historical epics and war films, almost all of them here in London. His meticulousness was legendary, and the sheer breadth and detail of this exhibition from his archives do him proud.

Stanley Kubrick: the Exhibition runs at the Design Museum until 15 September 2019. Adults £16, concessions available