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Stanley Kubrick
(1928 - ) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director,Also: screenwriter, producer /Born: July 26, 1928, New York, NY


One of the most consistently interesting filmmakers of the last 30 years, Stanley Kubrick has seen his work praised and damned with equal vigor. Just as his singularly brilliant visual style has won him great acclaim, his unconventional sense of narrative has often elicited critical scorn. Above all, he has remained a unique artist in a medium dominated by repetition and imitation. If his ambitious vision has at times exceeded his capacity to satisfy the demands of mainstream filmmaking, this chink in his aesthetic armor only serves to highlight the distinctiveness of Kubrick's cinema.

After some success as a photographer for Look magazine in the late 1940s, the young Kubrick produced and sold several documentaries before attempting a pair of self-financed low-budget features&emdash;FEAR AND DESIRE (1953) and KILLER'S KISS (1955). Little in these early efforts suggests the brilliance to come. Working with producer James B. Harris, Kubrick was able to graduate to professional cast and crew with his next effort, THE KILLING (1956), a well-paced, assured drama about a race track heist. At a time when independent filmmakers were rare, critics began to take notice.

PATHS OF GLORY (1957) marked Kubrick's emergence as a major director. This WWI saga is a sharp and intelligent indictment of military practice and psychology. It is also a powerful piece of filmmaking, as Kubrick synthesizes the lessons he has learned about composition and camera movement. He proved that talent could be applied to Hollywood subject matter with SPARTACUS (1960), his first&emdash;and only&emdash;work-for-hire, a widescreen, Technicolor epic typical of the 1950s.

Having proved he could succeed as a Hollywood director, Kubrick left the US for England in 1961. He has worked there ever since, developing and producing only seven films in 30 years, each meticulously crafted, each markedly different from the others.

LOLITA (1962) is an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel about a middle-aged man's infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. Though Kubrick has since complained that overzealous censors kept him from exploring the story in appropriately lubricious detail (two years were even added to Lolita's age), the film stands today as a superb example of understated, double-entendre comedy.

The ironic touch he displayed in LOLITA was blown up to cosmic proportions for his next film, DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), perhaps the most deliciously satirical comedy of the last three decades. (Ironically, the project began as a serious thriller about the possibility of nuclear Armageddon.) Kubrick's dark laughter at man's penchant for destroying himself acquired him a reputation for coldness and inhumanity that has followed him to this day.

Despite some moral backlash, the successes of LOLITA and STRANGELOVE, along with his earlier work as a hired hand on SPARTACUS, earned Kubrick the freedom to choose his own subjects and, more importantly, to exert total control over the filmmaking process, a rare freedom for any filmmaker.

The first product of this arrangement was the science-fiction classic (and quintessential late 60s "head" movie), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Five years in the making, this film redefined the boundaries of the genre and established visual conventions, filmic metaphors and special effects technology that have remained standards for the industry well into the 1990s. As visually hypnotic as it was narratively daring (little dialogue, no final explanations, a timespan of eons), 2001 made Kubrick a cultural hero. Despite mixed reviews at the time of its release, it has proven to be as stylistically influential as any film released in the last 25 years.

Further cementing his anti-establishment reputation, Kubrick followed 2001 with another futuristic work, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), adapted from the novel by Anthony Burgess. No critic could take an uncommitted stance toward this film about a violent and amoral punk, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose ruthless behavior is reconditioned by the&emdash;equally diabolical&emdash;state. Kubrick's camera moved with an audacity unrivaled in contemporary cinema and his reputation as a filmmaker in total control of his craft was firmly established.

BARRY LYNDON (1975) was a bold attempt to bring modern techniques to bear upon a narrative set in the 18th century. Kubrick spent as much technical effort and expertise recreating the lighting and imagery of Thackeray's novel as he had done inventing a future in his two previous films. The commercial failure of BARRY LYNDON may have influenced Kubrick's recent choices for adaptation: Stephen King's horror novel THE SHINING (1980) and Gustav Hasford's tale of Vietnam combat, FULL METAL JACKET (1987). While these films contain memorable sequences and reiterate Kubrick's previous themes of dehumanization and alienation in contemporary society, they failed to arouse the kind of excitement and controversy engendered by his earlier films. The peak Kubrick achieved from STRANGELOVE to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE may be beyond his (or anyone's) reach today.

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