American artists are supposed to be voluptuously engaged with the world. The crabbed, cloistered types are okay for the Europeans, but we want our geniuses to go fifteen rounds with the Zeitgeist. Stanley Kubrick, who died at 70 on March 7, was a king-size anomaly in the genius-artist annals. He was an American – Bronx-born, no less – who lived out his last four decades in England. Notoriously reclusive, he nevertheless made movies – especially Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange – that functioned as tuning forks for an entire generation. His films picked up the vibrations in the national static, and so he was dubbed a seer, even when, as in 2001, it wasn’t at all clear what he was seeing. Just what was that black slab supposed to symbolize anyway? Was the Star Child really meant to look like Keir Dullea, or was it just a lucky coincidence that Keir Dullea looked like a fetus?
Maybe obfuscation was the point: With his unprecedented freedom from studio interference and his commandant’s temperament, Kubrick was the control freak as guru, yet he allowed his audiences to design their own meanings from his movies. And so Dr. Strangelove could be discussed with equal conviction as an antiwar screed or as a great big nihilistic cackle for people who really had learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. 2001 became the ultimate head-trip movie because it made everybody think they were dreaming their own trip right alongside Kubrick’s – it made you think you were a guru, too. A Clockwork Orange was framed as a freaky indictment of totalitarian thuggery, but Kubrick made the savagery in it the most delicious item on the menu.
For much of his career, Kubrick was hailed for the fierce misanthropy of his vision. But the true misanthrope still connects to the idea of human possibilities, if only to reject it, whereas Kubrick, at least post-Strangelove, was enraged by the realization that human beings aren’t as perfectible as machines. (One of his aborted projects, along with a Napoleon epic that would have starred Jack Nicholson, was a movie about artificial intelligence called AI.) He had the distinctly modern gift of making hardware seem oracular. Sensuality for him would not be found in coital couplings but rather in the sweet lubrications of high tech. What you feel close to in his later movies is not the people but the production design, the tracking shots, the fanatic detailing, the doomy abstractions. There is more sex in the docking of the spaceships in 2001 than in all the rest of his oeuvre. His just-completed final film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, is rumored to be intensely erotic. May I eat my words.
Movie directors often become famous for the films that set them apart from mere mortals. The Fellini who made La Dolce Vita and Satyricon and all those other apocalyptic orgies is the certified genius-visionary, but the Fellini who made I Vitelloni and La Strada and Nights of Cabiria is the true artist. Kubrick is perhaps the greatest exemplar in movies of the director as oracle, but some of his prophesying – like Barry Lyndon and The Shining and Full Metal Jacket – is smoke and mirrors. The Kubrick I love is the early one – the prodigy who made the crackerjack caper The Killing; the almost scarily intense pacifist World War I movie Paths of Glory; the stirring Spartacus, still the best of the Roman epics; and the two greatest and most original larks of the sixties, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Lolita is like a compendium of everything that had been done in comedy up to that time: a screwball romantic farce crossed with slapstick tragedy and presided over by Peter Sellers’s hepcat scattershot torments. Dr. Strangelove may be the lead-in to Kubrick’s subsequent dystopian funk, but it’s the funniest dystopia on record, with some kind of classic scene going on every minute. Kubrick’s mystique should not be allowed to obscure the great and good work he did when he was being just a plain old artist-entertainer.