Art Was His Fragile Fortress

  • One thing we ought to clear up right away: Stanley Kubrick was not, as careless journalism always insisted, reclusive. Elusive was a better word for him; seclusive the best one, implying, one hopes, that his refusal of fame's odious and stupefying obligations was a conscious, clarifying choice he had embraced, not a neurotic compulsion to which he had surrendered.

    For the truth about this alleged anchorite was that he was a constant presence in dozens of lives, in touch via phone, fax and Internet--and, indeed, in person, if you happened near the admittedly narrow British realm where he had sequestered himself since 1961. Among this group in the days after his sudden death, at 70, on March 7, there was a more powerful need than usual to talk fondly about Kubrick, as if by so doing they could fill the sudden silence that had descended on their lives.

    He was, everyone agreed, one of the planet's best dinner companions. At once sardonic and curiously boyish, he was both autodidact and polymath--his curiosity and his information equally boundless. To a film critic he might recommend some recondite movie that he had caught but that the latter had carelessly missed. To a filmmaker desperately behind schedule, he might offer to share his state-of-the-art editing suite to speed things up. To a harried studio executive, he might provide an evening of baseball nostalgia, centered on the New York Yankees, beloved since Kubrick's Bronx boyhood. Maybe Warren Beatty caught the delicious dynamic of those encounters best when he observed, "You always assumed Stanley knew something you didn't know."

    That was clearly true of many facts and ideas. But the significant thing about Kubrick was that he built his life-style and life's work around a few simple, widely acknowledged verities: that our universe is ruled by chance, that life is too short, that movies are, or ought to be, primarily a visual medium. The difference between him and us was that he didn't regard these as mere talking points. He acted on them. Obsessively.

    Take the question of chance, for instance, and recall The Killing (1956), the first true Kubrick movie. The elaborate heist of the day's handle at a race track, a model of rational planning, goes perfectly. And then, at the last moment, the sappy lady and her yappy little dog appear--mischance absurdly personified--and ruin everything. Remember 1964's Dr. Strangelove as well. How delicately the title character and his ilk poised the balance of terror, how little they considered the possibility that there might be someone out there like General Jack D. Ripper. Best of all, think of heedless Barry Lyndon, sparing no thought for mischievous mischance, which ever haunts him and which too soon brings him to his foolish end.

    Kubrick was his opposite, haunted by life's brevity, by the hopelessness of transcending the blighted human condition within the short span allotted us. Hence the desperate cosmic rebellion of Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), leading to his rebirth as the starchild. Hence the doomed struggle to reform vicious Alex in 1971's A Clockwork Orange--our technology, our social arrangements just aren't up to the task. Hence Strangelove's conclusion. Armageddon having happened, we hear the plaintive strains, "We'll meet again, somehow..." Kubrick was saying we'd have to start over again at the amoeba stage if we were ever going to get this evolutionary thing right.

    Meantime, though, there was art, that fragile fortress men like him erect against mortality. If one could just build it carefully enough. If one could tell one's tales mainly through the universally comprehensible language of imagery. Which is why Kubrick made only six films in the past 35 years, why 20 years passed since he first asked a few of his friends, including me, to read Arthur Schnitzler's obscure Dream Story with an eye to its movie possibilities, and why principal photography on his adaptation of it, Eyes Wide Shut, consumed an unprecedented 15 months.

    The virtually finished film was screened for its stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and Warner Bros. chairmen Robert Daly and Terry Semel, just five days before Kubrick died. There was, of course, consolation of a kind in the fact that the fate he had for so long, so carefully tried to placate did not claim him until his work was basically over. But clearly Kubrick had pushed himself to the limit, and Semel saw in the film "that sense of danger" that Kubrick always projected, that sense that he carried within his own nature the whole disordered cosmos from which he tried to wall himself off--wayward, willful, driven by wild and bestartling surmise.