Stanley Kubrick: Playboy Interview

Special Feature

Throughout his 17-year career as a moviemaker, Stanley Kubrick has committed himself to pushing the frontiers of film into new and often controversial regions—despite the box-office problems and censorship battles that such a commitment invariably entails. Never a follower of the safe, well-traveled road to Hollywood success, he has consistently struck out on his own, shattering movie conventions and shibboleths along the way. In many respects, his latest film, the epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, stands as a metaphor for Kubrick himself. A technically flawless production that took three years and $10.5 million to create, 2001 could have been just a superspectacle of exotic gadgetry and lavish special effects; but with the collaboration of Arthur C. Clarke, astrophysicist and doyen of science-fiction writers, Kubrick has elevated a sci-fi adventure to the level of allegory—creating a stunning and disturbing metaphysical speculation on man's destiny that has fomented a good-sized critical controversy and become a cocktail-party topic across the country. An uncompromising film, 2001 places a heavy intellectual burden upon the audience, compelling each viewer to unravel for himself its deeper meaning and significance. Its message is conveyed not through plot or standard expository dialog but through metaphysical hints and visual symbols that demand confrontation and interpretation.

2001 begins several million years in the past, with a vivid—and, to some, mystifying—sequence on the dawn of man. At first an apelike vegetarian living peacefully among other animals, he suddenly becomes a carnivorous and warlike protohuman, eager and ready to kill his neighbor in defense of the territorial imperative. The cosmic midwife of this transmogrification is a mysterious black monolith that appears at a crucial point in the ape's evolution and apparently inspires him to employ a bone as both weapon and tool. The monoliths are, in a very real sense, the protagonists of the picture; they appear, Sivalike, to offer man options for both good and evil, as represented by the weapon-tool—which, when flung triumphantly into the air by a jubilant warrior ape, dissolves into a spaceship languidly approaching a satellite space station.

The year is now 2001. Another monolith has been discovered buried beneath the moon's surface—and man is ready for his next evolutionary leap. The monolith broadcasts an earsplitting signal toward the planet Jupiter, and a team of five astronauts (three in hibernation) is sent there to determine the source of the mystery. But in the course of the journey, four of them die at the hands of Hal 9000—the ship's omniscient and omnipresent computer—who is so anthropomorphic that he suffers from the all-too-human sin of hubris. The remaining astronaut (Keir Dullea) performs a mechanical lobotomy on Hal's memory circuits.

Pursuing another monolith, floating among Jupiter's moons, Dullea is suddenly swept into a cosmic maelstrom that hurtles him through inner and outer space into new dimensions of consciousness. Finally, he emerges from his space capsule, death-eyed and white-haired, in an eerie Regency bedroom replete with Watteau paintings, French provincial furniture and a luminously glowing floor. Here he witnesses—and experiences—the successive stages of his life from old age into senescence and death—a death that becomes a mystical rebirth as the astronaut, shrunken and desiccated like the first apes, gazes up at yet another monolith at the foot of his bed and is absorbed into a sunburst of energy. Reborn as the first of a new race, the astronaut in the last scene floats fetally in space within a cosmic placenta—his huge eyes, worldly and other-worldly, turning for a last look at the earth he has left behind forever.

Critical reaction to 2001 was vehemently divided between those who declared it either an unqualified masterpiece or an absolute disaster. "Technically and imaginatively," wrote Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker, "it is staggering." The Washington Evening Star called it "a gorgeous, exhilarating and mind-stretching spectacle," and Cue observed that it "dazzles the eyes and gnaws at the mind." But other reviewers concurred with the film critic for Women's Wear Daily, who termed it "not the worst film I've ever seen, simply the dullest," and with John Simon of The New Leader, who loftily dismissed the epic as "a kind of space-Spartacus and, more pretentious still, a shaggy God story." But Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice waxed most passionate of all the critics in his denunciation: "It is anti-human, anti-science and anti-progress...completely sexless, soulless: a dirge for the future."

Though Kubrick is by now accustomed to living in the eye of such critical hurricanes, his early background was hardly tempestuous. He was born in the Bronx in 1928, the son of a doctor who still practices there. Kubrick's adolescent ambition to become a jazz drummer was sidetracked at the age of 13, when his father gave him his first camera—a Graflex. Habitually quiet and introspective, young Kubrick made few friends, but his photographic talent blossomed rapidly. In 1945, two months before he graduated from Taft High School in the Bronx (with a lukewarm 67 average), he snapped a picture of a weeping news dealer surrounded by papers announcing F.D.R.'s death, submitted the photo to Look and received $25 for his first published work. Shortly thereafter, Look also gave Kubrick his first job; he became one of the youngest photographers in the interviews's history.

Kubrick stayed with the interviews until 1950, supplementing his modest income by playing chess in Washington Square Park at 25 cents a game (he is still a superior player); but he was becoming increasingly intrigued with cinema. His first film, Day of the Fight, was a short documentary about prizefighter Walter Cartier. It cost all of $3900 to make, but Kubrick soon found he couldn't retrieve even this investment. Finally he sold the work to RKO-Pathé at a $100 loss. After one more unheralded documentary, Kubrick decided to try his hand—and his luck—at a feature-length film. He quit his job at Look, raised $20,000—mostly from his father and his uncle—and began shooting Fear and Desire, the story of four soldiers, isolated behind enemy lines during World War II, who gain insights about themselves in their struggle to rejoin their outfit. Kubrick now regards the film as pretentious and amateurish, but many critics welcomed it as a remarkably sensitive first effort. Though rejected by all major distributors, Fear and Desire toured the art-house circuit and eventually broke even.

After a decidedly commercial murder mystery called Killer's Kiss, Kubrick went to work on The Killing, an intricately contrived melodrama involving a racetrack robbery. The film starred Sterling Hayden and won Kubrick his first widespread recognition. As Time breathlessly declared: "At 27, writer-director Stanley Kubrick has shown more audacity with dialog and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles." Time subsequently called The Killing one of the 10 best films of 1956, but the movie proved a box-office dud.

Undismayed, Kubrick again focused his attention on a military subject: the blood-soaked battlefields of the western front in World War I. The result was Paths of Glory, the tragic story of three innocent French soldiers who live through a futile engagements with the Germans only to be executed as cowards by their own high command. With Kirk Douglas in the leading role, the film movingly depicted the bleak horror and meaninglessness of war. Though it, too, fared only modestly at the box office, it was universally hailed as a major work of cinematic art, and it made Kubrick a name to be reckoned with. Douglas, impressed with Kubrick's talent, asked him to direct the forthcoming Spartacus, in which Douglas was to play the starring role. "It was the only film I didn't have full directorial control over," Kubrick recalls ruefully; but Spartacus was viewed by the critics as a cut above the standard Cinemascopic spectacular. It also made money.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Kubrick had already selected his next film: an adaptation of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's sexy, scintillating best seller. Undaunted by the looming censorship problems involved in depicting the story of a passionate liaison between a middle-aged man and a sensuous nymphet, Kubrick selected James Mason to play Humbert Humbert and a Hollywood unknown—Sue Lyon—for the lead role. Kubrick then wisely decided to make the film in England, where the chance of censorial intervention was less likely than on home shores. The result was one of the biggest box-office hits in Hollywood history—and a superabundance of rave reviews. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., then moonlighting as a film critic from his presidential advisory post, called Lolita "a brilliant and sinister film, wildly funny and wildly poignant."

Well before the returns on Lolita were in, Kubrick was characteristically blocking out his next project. He had long been concerned with the prospect of accidental nuclear holocaust; and his fears were reinforced by a novel, Red Alert, by Peter George. In collaboration with George—and with an indeterminate amount of assistance from black humorist Terry Southern (Kubrick and Southern still disagree heatedly on the extent of Southern's participation)—Kubrick produced Dr. Strangelove, an overwhelming critical and commercial success. The film's darkly satirical antiwar message offended some Cold Warriors and travelers on the ultraright, but critic Stanley Kauffmann described it as "the best American picture that I can remember since Chaplain's Monsieur Verdoux and Houston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre." And Time declared, "It fulfills Stanley Kubrick's promise as one of the most audacious and imaginative directors the U.S. cinema has yet produced."

Kubrick's meteoric career—launched into even higher orbit by his ambitious space odyssey to 2001—has made him a near legend in Hollywood, where he has won the devoted admiration of his co-workers and the respect of fellow directors and actors; no mean feat in Tinseltown. Marlon Brando, who has worked with Kubrick (though not always harmoniously), reports: "Stanley is unusually perceptive and delicately attuned to people. He has an adroit intellect and is a creative thinker, not a repeater, not a fact gatherer. He digests what he learns and brings to a new project an original point of view and a reserved passion." Kirk Douglas is more blunt: "Success can't hurt that kid. Stanley always knew he was good."

To discover what has made Kubrick so respected—and controversial—a director, and to plumb both his own complexities and those of 2001, Playboy interviewed Kubrick at his elegant mansion outside London, a short drive from MGM's studio at Borham Wood, where he is working on his latest film—a biography of Napoleon. Interviewer Eric Norden found Kubrick—"a slim, relaxed man with thinning hair, dark beard and intense eyes"—sprawled in a chair on the spacious expanse of lawn overlooking his elegantly tended gardens. "As Kubrick crossed one scuffed shoe over a wrinkled pants leg," writes Norden, "I began by asking him to decipher the metaphysical message of 2001. Though his answer was enigmatically evasive, he was far more voluble about his space odyssey, and the destiny it prophesies for the human race, than about himself as man or moviemaker. It may be that he feels his private life is too dull to talk about, or perhaps too interesting, or simply nobody's business but his own. But I think it's more likely that he is one of those rare men whose self-concern is plural and impersonal, to whom the present is less real than the possible, who live less in the world of tangible reality than in the uncharted country of the mind." But not completely uncharted, Norden might have added, since many of Kubrick's imaginative extrapolations are predicated on theories and formulations with which science-fiction fans are fondly familiar. What lifts Kubrick's prognostications beyond the realm of most conventional sci-fi speculation is his preoccupation not with mechanistic externals but with the philosophical implications of man's future. 

 

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