With thanks to Rod for making this available
A tribute to Stanley Kubrick which appeared in this years BAFTA programme, by Frederic Raphael, novelist, screenwriter and one of the collaborators with Kubrick on the script for “Eyes Wide Shut.”
That Stanley Kubrick was the most remarkable film-maker of his generation should not need saying. He was an innovator for whom conventional formulae and habits were never appealing. He liked to succeed but success was never enough to justify bad work; nor was good work rendered less worthwhile by lack of applause. He knew failure - and humiliation - as well as success; he had often been frustrated by the system which, by his guile and brilliance, he seemed - in the end, at least - to have transcended.
The master of many genres, he was the slave of none. Repetition was not Kubrick’s style; his integrity was expressed in the variety of his work. He liked the unknown; the problems he wanted to solve were those beyond the common reach. He was fascinated by new techniques (in “The Shining” he was the first to use, and modify, Steady-Cam) but only in order that new methods should serve his new ideas. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was made without the special effects which has made it so easy to procure astonishment, but it remains more astonishing than what followed.
His work was exquisitely finished, but it defied standard narrative principles. The mysterious plot of “2001”... was never fully resolved; the Odysseus who went to Clavius, and beyond, was less its hero than man himself, the cunning, shameless, restless, ingenious venturer and voyager of whom Homer’s Odysseus was the founding instance and Stanley himself - as restless a man as ever loved to stay at home - was the cinematic inheritor.
Vladimir Nabakov one said to me, “Mr Kubrick is an artist”. It was not a title which Nabakov threw about recklessly. His respect for Stanley came of the experience of working with him on “Lolita”, which was not, I suspect, an unalloyed pleasure to Nabakov: many of the elements which gave the novel its scandalous charm were beyond even Kubrick’s shocking ability to reproduce.
I have no doubt that Stanley would have preferred to dispense with his collaborators. Although he liked the game of intellectual chess, his writers were also his opponents; without them, there was no game, but they still had to be put in their (second) place. Writers were there to supply what he wanted, and could not do himself. He sometimes said to me, ruefully but almost angrily, “I’m not a writer”. like so many directors, he resented his dependence on a screenplay; unlike nearly all of them he had great respect for books. He tended to choose writers who had earned their reputations outside the cinema: Calder Willingham, Terry Southern, Michael Herr, Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss and others who had interests, and abilities, which gave them the capacity not to be subservient to the industry or even to him.
For all his alleged vanities, Stanley’s least likely and most touching quality was his modesty. His friend and great admirer Stanley Donen is the only director with whom I have worked who constantly drew one’s attention to the merits of other film-makers. During the two years when we were working together, Kubrick would constantly ask if I had seen this or that movie and whether - for instance in the case of Tarantino - there weren’t things that we had to take in to account there.
Before I began the first draft of the screenplay of “Eyes Wide Shut,” he sent me Kieslowski’s “Dekalog.” For a man who was always alleged to be a stickler for formal qualities and for technical perfection Kieslowski might seem an unlikely target for admiration. Kubrick wondered at the often almost unendurable harshness of The Dekalog, the heroic refusal of the director to see the world through any but an unblinking (and certainly unwinking) eye. In the light of his famous reluctance to work quickly, it may seem surprising that he greatly admired Kieslowski’s speed of shooting and creative fertility. “Can you imagine,” he said, “he did all that work in one year?” I pointed out that The Dekalog was done for TV and offered to write him ten screenplays/stories. My condition was that I should write them for nothing, so that I would not be inhibited by an obligation to please. He thought about it and then he said, “We’ll do this one first OK?”
Over four years later he had only just finished “Eyes Wide Shut.” A few days later, after showing it to the stars and to the studio which had remained obstinately faithful to his genius, he died in his sleep. Death must have been cunning to catch him that night: he was usually awake in the small hours.
I first saw a Kubrick movie in the King’s Road in Chelsea, in 1958. I walked in off the street to see a double bill of “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory.” My work experience of movies was limited to a degrading, if providential, stint at Pinewood (my salary enabled me to write novels), I was stunned by the wit and pitilessness of Kubrick’s direction. Even now, it’s hard to realise that “Paths of Glory” is scarcely more than 90 minutes long. Yet it says everything, and more, than today’s most grandiose war movies manage to convey in double the time. “Paths of Glory” was taken from a stage play, and re-written for Kirk Douglas, who, if we are to believed certain sources, may have been brave in insisting on the uncompromising ending which so traumatised audiences that the film was a success without being a hit. Stanley fell out with Kirk, as he did with so many who tried to dominate him, but he still spoke of him, and his legendary charm with gruff affection.
Kubrick’s lack of sentimentality (you will find desire in his movies, but never love) was not evidence of a lack of feeling. He may have feared displays of sentiment because they could corrode and falsify his vision Unlike the films of most directors, even good ones, his work has an alarming durability. Its agelessness depends upon imperishable qualities, both in the conception and, more importantly, the elaboration of the images. His composition deserves and demands renewed attention; even on a second and third viewing you seem to see new things in the frame. His experience of still photography enabled him as “Barry Lyndon” proved, to make movies approximate to immobility. No one was ever less hurried a master of relentless progression. His movies moved like Zeno’s arrow, apparently in an unstoppable arc and yet little by little.
With Kubrick, even the sound seemed part of what you see. It is sometimes said that he was without humour, this is true neither of the man himself nor, I think, of his work. “Dr Strangelove” is so funny it hurts; it goes on hurting, which is why it goes on being funny. Stanley told me he had intended to make a serious movie out of the novel Red Alert, but the more he worked on it, the more appealingly absurd it became, because the whole business of nuclear deterrence appeared. The horrible farce of a man’s desire for security, and the self destruction which it implies, runs through his work like a cruel streak.
It is not the task of an artist to be agreeable or accessible whether to the inquisitive or to parasites. Kubrick must be judged for the quality of what he did. Too much greatness is clamed for too many people in a business where publicity is too often as good as achievement. Kubrick was like a great games player, whose eye was always, always on the ball. He liked tennis, but his game of games was chess, his eye was on the board, where the pieces were, where the pieces might be. He looked for the brilliant solution and for the move that was beyond the merely talented.
Might he not have made more films, more quickly? Of course. Might he have made better films? No doubt someone might, but I do not think that Stanley Kubrick can be accused of not doing his best; rank him as you will, he did the best he could do, and no-one will easily do anything better. “Talk to you tomorrow,” he used to say. I wish.