Cinematic Taste Buds

Why Kubrick?

What is it about his work that excites so many?

Click the picture for a larger look.
Photo: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

I came across the following video in which a visitor to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's (LACMA) Stanley Kubrick exhibit edited down the photos they took into a one-minute, film-by-film montage. It's a fun, brief look at the exhibit set to the "William Tell Overture", but it got me to wondering, Why exactly are we so drawn to the work of Stanley Kubrick?

People, myself included, are continually drawn to behind-the-scenes images, read his scripts, are fascinated by his lost projects and the myth that was the man to the point they are able to come up with ridiculous theories behind his films such as those discussed in Rodney Ascher's Room 237.

Personally I love the man's work and am drawn to it from a visual, emotional and cerebral perspective as well as a pure fascination with his filmmaking techniques and approach to storytelling. Are others drawn to him for the same reasons and how many people have essentially found themselves almost forced to love Kubrick out of a fear of not wanting to be left out?

I don't think there are many people that can sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time and feel as if they have just seen the greatest movie ever. It's a film that takes time and many a director and film critic has said as much. In fact, of Kubrick's films I'd honestly say I only enjoyed Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket the first time I saw them. My love and/or appreciation for the others have come out of a series of multiple viewings and I'm still not the biggest fan of The Shining, despite loving so many aspects of it.

Eyes Wide Shut I didn't enjoy much at all the first time I saw it and on any random day I may now consider it my favorite Kubrick film. I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was very young and didn't understand much at all of what I was seeing, but over the years and an intense interest and want to return to so many of his movies, whether realized or not, has caused me to simply love them.

The fact he made a film in damn near every genre, short of directing something along the lines of a Kate Hudson rom-com, is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the quality of each. Today's directors so often get shoe-horned into the same genre and when they do branch out it so often ends up being a throwaway blockbuster rather than something of their own vision while Kubrick brought himself to everything he worked on, more than most anyone I can think of working today.

Tell me, what is it about Kubrick that makes him so appealing to so many? Do you think it is a matter of people almost being forced to like his work or do you think it's genuine interest?

Just below is a gallery of images from the LACMA exhibit (click on any one of the thumbnails to browse the images), which ended back in June, along with the video from Vince Di Meglio and a couple others beyond that.

Additionally, here's an interview with Sir Ken Adam, set designer on Dr. Strangelove as well as a 55-minute documentary titled "Staircases to Nowhere: Making Stanley Kubrick's The Shining".

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  • SmartFilm

    I know what you mean, Brad. I feel like he is every cinephiles go to, but for good reason. I think what you said about his ability to extend his hand earnestly that all realms of film shows his mastery of the art form rather than just a talent for one particular bit. Anyone who is able to see so broad and yet genius draws people into his work because there is never a sense of staleness to what they are doing. Everything is new and exciting in some way. In that sense, watching one Kubrick film doesn't tire you of his filmmaking, it inspires you to watch another of his films, approached in a different manner.

  • Pedro

    Hi Brad,
    I really like Kubrick for a number of reasons, but primarilly because he knew so much about the medium he used to tell stories. He used his moviemaking skills for narrative like no one else ever did or probably ever will. The way that he shot every scene, in his framings, composition of the picture, and every take, in his way of working with the actors, experimenting and trying to figure out what works best and what suprised him every time.
    For exemple, it's amazing the way he shot Barry Lyndon like every frame was an 18th century painting, and it works both visually and narratively. In The Shining, he messes with our minds in every cut, every inch of every frame just to make us feel unconfortable.
    I think he was essencially the best director of all time, just because he knew exactly the best way to say what he had to say using film as the medium for that.

  • Winchester

    Kubrick isn't in fairness one of my go to directors (in fact I've yet to see many of his films and to this day I cannot watch more than an hour of 'Eyes Wide Shut') but I do love 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.

    Using those two as references then I think once you get to the point where a certain level of understanding creeps in there's really a cumulative layering effect in those two films that means you can watch them on essentially a kind of surface level but also examine them more deeply.

    Kubrick isn't the only director who necessarily this applies to but you can appreciate watching those films that Kubrick was always in seeming control of his films. He innovated as well as created, he constructed enigmas out of puzzles but always had the commitment to visual scope and technical excellence on top of the story.

    The sheer level of work that went into 2001 alone is just huge for the time it was made. It's just a level of dedication that most general movies don't have within them most of the time. That isn't to knock them, a lot of films don't NEED a Kubrick helming them, but it's something he possessed regardless when he worked.

  • Verbal

    Film had not yet reached great heights as an art form at the time Kubrick showed up on the scene. He took what Rosselini and Bergman were doing in Europe and combined it with a visual style that hadn't been seen since Max Ophuls. He redefined every genre he worked in. 2001 paved the way not only for future blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws, but basically every movie we love from the 70's. The four best filmmakers working today,IMO, PT Anderson, Martin Scoresese, and the Coen Brothers, are all direct decendents of Stanley Kubrick and all of them have said so at one point or another. With each new film he touched on a different aspect of what it means to be human and he did it in such a way that mirrored the complexity of being alive. He didn't spell things out for the audience because that is not how life presents itself. He really was one of the first film philosophers.

    • GobleGableOneOfUs

      replace Ethan Coen with Tarantino, who I would definitely say mirrors Kubrick at times in his work

      • Aleonardis

        But Tarantino, notoriously, doesn't like Kubrick much.

        • Criterion10

          Nor does he like Welles.

        • Verbal

          Yeah, I found that strange. Tarantino also didn't have great things to say about Robert Altman, who Kubrick loved and admired. Oh well, Tarantino movies are still really fun to watch.

        • Ron Oneal Fresh

          If that's true I don't really get that seeing how Reservior Dogs steal a lot from City on Fire and Kubrick "The Killling" and the infamous slow motion walk taken from "A Clockwork Orange"

  • Aleonardis

    That exhibit that was at LACMA needs to go on a nationwide tour. One of the best experiences of my life and every cinephile and Kubrick admirer NEEDS to see all this stuff. I spent close to two hours in there...

  • Ron Oneal Fresh

    Why exactly are we so drawn to the work of Stanley Kubrick?

    I love the visual composition of his works.

    I love that high concepts he presented as well as the social questions he asked and challenged.

    I respect the hell out of the detail and meticulousness of his work.

    I love how he never repeated himself or tried to pander to the mainstream.

    I love how he never talked about how awesome or smart his films were as well as not explaining them, leaving us the audience too decide.

    It's probably the person we know we very little about that draws us to his films and the challenging nature of watching it that feels rewarding even if we only understand a kernel of it.

  • Satish

    Simple because Kubrick is some kind of a teenager's wet dream. Here is an excerpt from one of our best film critics, Michael Sicinski -

    "One of the things that makes Stanley Kubrick such a fertile test-case for a project like this is that, like Nolan, he is a director who is revered by a certain fanboy cult. Paul Thomas Anderson gets this; David Fincher is another one. It’s not surprising, really, since these directors, like Hitchcock before them, differ from, say, a Renoirian strain of moviemaking. These guys were/are techies, they are known for having exacted almost fanatical control over every aspect of every frame (or pixel) of each and every film, and they produce films that make even chance elements appear preordained. At the risk of engaging in dime-store psychology, I think this kind of control-freak aesthetic holds a certain appeal for young men at a certain stage in their lives, when so much can feel uncertain and urge-driven. What’s more, a western capitalist mentality that inculcates means-end thinking and results-driven attitudes, as well as masculinity as the power to control “things,” can seep into artistic preference."

  • Aleonardis

    I must say though, the Kubrick we know today would not be the same Kubrick if he was in his heyday around now. Internet changed SO much about film appreciation. He checked out before the internet got it's hands on cinema.

  • andyluvsfilms

    I'll be the token grunt here and say I didn't like 2001 aside from the last twenty minutes and I only liked Full Metal Jacket when they were training. I do love Clockwork Orange though and watch it once or twice a year. We're all different, folks.

    • Adu

      I'm with you on not being a big fan of 2001; there is much to appreciate, but not something I was blown away by. I consider The Shining & Eyes Wide Shut his best films. His flms are so amazingly atmopspheric, and those two encapsulate that skill better than any other in my opinion.

  • Lukas Mix

    You already answered the question for me.This quote from your article summarizes my fascination perfectly "...visual, emotional and cerebral perspective as well as a pure fascination with his filmmaking techniques and approach to storytelling. " Kubrick produced classics (at least for me) in nearly every genre. In my eyes he's the greatest director that ever lived, but strangely he is not my favorite director.


  • navaneethks

    I think his movies are given higher ratings because of HIM and not the actual WORK.

    • Verbal

      He is his work

  • Criterion10

    Kubrick is without a doubt my favorite director. There are many great directors out there, yet Kubrick will always remain one of a kind. I could go on about his perfectionism, his attention to detail, the way in which he uses the camera to paint a visual picture...

    I once spoke with someone who claimed that he felt Kubrick was the best at creating arthouse pictures disguised as commercial blockbusters, most notably evident through his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. And I think this really says something about the legend and his body of work.

    Kubrick claimed Max Ophuls, Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, and many other famous, esteemed directors as being among his favorite. Knowing this, it seems pretty evident that Kubrick managed to combine his artistry with essentially mainstream audiences that could attract a wide appeal. I don't think any director has been able to do this on the level of Kubrick since.

    My favorite film of all time is A Clockwork Orange, but I also really love both Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the exception of Fear and Desire, which he famously later disowned, Kubrick never made a bad film.

    • Verbal

      The Coen's and Scorsese I think have gotten to the point of meshing art and a wide appeal. More recently than their earlier stuff. PT came close with TWBB, unfortunetly The Master didn't hook with the general public, heres hoping Inherent Vice will catch people's attention.

      • Criterion10

        In terms of box office though, the Coens and Scorsese are still very hit or miss. Some hits, some failures. And there are many of their films that haven't attracted mainstream audiences. All of Kubrick's films fared well in the box office, and received a wide variety of public attention. I mean, Eyes Wide Shut was a media sensation for numerous reasons.

        • Verbal

          I know Barry Lyndon lost a bunch of money. I think the Shining didn't do as well as anticipated. I'm not so sure about FMJ. Since the Departed Scoresese has been really consistent in the BO. Since NCFOM the Coen's have been consistent (with the exception of A Serious Man), I'll be interested to see how Llwen Davis does money-wise, same with Wolf of Wall Street. I gotta believe the latter will make more money.

          • Criterion10

            Hugo was a flop.

            FMJ did pretty well I believe, and I don't think Barry Lyndon lost money, but rather it just wasn't as well received as anticipated.

            • Verbal

              Damn, you're right. I didn't realize that Hugo cost 170 mil to make. Wow. As far as Lyndon, you may be right too. I just know it's reception depressed Kubrick a lot.

              • Pedro

                I don't really think box office should be a factor in this discussion. I get that it kind of shows appeal to mass audience, but that's not always the case. I think box office can be a point in the short run, but since we're talking about decades of filmmaking isn't it kind of irrelevant now?

              • Criterion10

                @Verbal Reviews on Lyndon were certainly mixed, despite it receiving numerous accolades.

                @Pedro All I was getting at was that Kubrick knew how to make a film in his own artistic manner and yet still have it be a financial success for his studio, WB. He beautifully merged both artistry and commerce like no other director has been able to do since.

              • Pedro

                @Criterion10: You certainly have a point there. He had access to some money to make his movies and he worked with the best actors of the time. For sure some of his results had something to do with that. I guess he learned how to do that the hard way in Spartacus...

              • Verbal

                I guess the only reason I thought Barry Lyndon lost money is because of they way they talk about the reaction to that movie in the Kubrick documentary. You would think that movie didn't make a dime the way they talk about the reaction.

  • Verbal

    Apichatpong Weerasethakul also makes very Kubrickian films. He's from Thailand and I guess they just call him Joe in the States. If you haven't seen Syndromes and a Century you should check it out, the last 20min are super crazy.

  • Verbal

    Yeah it's true BO shouldn't matter but we were just discussing how rare it was that he was able to make art movies and still make money doing it. I was trying to make the case that scorsese and the coen's might be in that range, but now I know nobody can match Kubrick.

  • John Wao

    Why Kubrick? I think part of it is his mystique that seems to have increased with each passing year and part of it is that it seems as he's doing something totally different than other filmmakers.

  • Howard Berry

    Dear Brad, I just wanted to thank you for sharing two of my videos in your article. There are many wonderful documentaries about Stanley - especially A Life in Pictures by Kubrick's producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan - and so I am very honoured that you picked the films we have made as part of our work in The Elstree Project.

  • Hudsucker

    I wonder if Kubrick ever thought about affecting cinema forever.

  • Tom Beet

    I remembered about 2 years ago I was really hesitated to watch his movies (also happened with Bergman's) because I myself knew that I was not ready to fully understand his films. Now I can say that I am ready to watch and at least understand his intention and not thrown off by his bold, bleak style. The point being Kubrick's and Bergman's films take times to really get into you and when they do, they are the best cinematic experience you'll ever had. But be careful to approach them without knowing what to expect.