There’s always a certain high degree of fascination with how artists work…
what’s their process?
What’s their inspiration?
Where do their ideas come from?
What concepts are they mulling over and the distilling down into the work that they decide to show to the public?
We might secretly believe that we can either understand their work better by knowing how it was done or (more insidiously) think we can increase our own ability at artistic expression by knowing how someone that we admire achieved their success. After Picasso was famous for saying, “if there’s something to steal, I steal!”
Our media is bursting at the seams with these banal types of peeks inside the devil’s workshop, whether it’s the behind-the-scene extras on DVDs to supplicant-esque documentaries that follow artists around asking pedestrian questions to the old standby: the unauthorized biography; or a clever critical appreciation by some scholar in a university press book… oh, and let’s not forget the scholarly commentaries on DVDs (although no one buys DVDs these days, do they?). One would think there’s not much that we, as interested parties, can’t learn or discover about artists that we happen to be interested in.
Yet some enigmas still remain and they still carry the complete power to captivate us.
When Stanley Kubrick abruptly died in the final stages of completing post production on the overly-maligned EYES WIDE SHUT (it’s a fascinating film on many levels, even if just the way he uses color), he left a disturbing amount of material from his Pandemonium-inspired workshop — ephemera from all of his produced films — and research, film tests and other machinations for aborted projects or projects he planned but never got around to (e.g. NAPOLEON and THE ARYAN PAPERS). The amount of detail and material is more than overwhelming, and when Taschen put out a coffee table book “The Stanley Kubrick Archives” about 6 or 7 years ago, it raised a lot of questions for me — exploring his methodology, there was something to learn about his “technique”… because Kubrick was one of the most technically proficient filmmakers that we’ve seen (and will probably ever see as the medium is now becoming something else). Testing, testing, testing… is part of his process, like Rembrandt’s underpaintings or Rodan’s maquettes.
Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producing partner) and Christianne Kubrick (his widow) donated (disposed of) a sizable amount of Kubrick’s idiosyncratic passions & perversions to the University of the Arts in London…but he was too enigmatic of personality for the myriad of captivating material to remain in a climate controlled archive for too long.
Thus was born the art exhibition that first premiered in Paris, and now the quixotic remains and head-scratching artifacts of Stanley Kubrick’s mythic process are on display in a groundbreaking exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until June 30th — which means you have about two weeks to go see this (if you live in LA county or somewhere in SoCal).
Kubrick wasn’t just a cinematic master and luminary in pop culture, his images left an indelible scar on your mind’s eye (think about all the men and women who dress up as Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE for Halloween EVERY year… it never gets old)… and the creation process of this mad genius is no doubt fascinating; all the horror stories about his quest for a kind of perfection, an exacting, uncompromising and dismal view of humanity that is borne out in the films begs tremendous questions… but the gestation of those ideas and that singular vision can be glimpsed in the curios found at the exhibit (like all the camera lenses he personally kept, so he could use them over and over again throughout the decades and obtain the specific image qualities that he was after).
Artists of Kubrick’s staggering nature fixate on a style, a technique and an expression for their preoccupations and expertly weave those obsessions throughout their creative output. Here’s an interesting video about One-Point Perspective that startling reveals one of Kubrick’s predilections/obsessions.
After recently watching HELVETICA, the extraordinary film about modern typeface, I was reminded that Kubrick primarily used Futura Extra Bold for the main titles on:
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE,
FULL METAL JACKET and,
EYES WIDE SHUT — when approaching the exhibit hall, Kubrick’s name is etched into frosted glass to signify the exhibit and the font LACMA uses is Futura Extra Bold; hats of the exhibit designers.
The one thing you discover from trawling through the trove (give yourself about two hours) is how flexible he actually was when it came to altering the script to get to the emotional truth that he was after — you see handwritten script notes to the PATHS OF GLORY script, the eye-opening BTS photos of the infamous and excised Pie Fight from DR. STRANGELOVE to a shocking amount of period-look location photos for THE ARYAN PAPERS and wily correspondence with all manner of people and collaborators — all in the service of his vision, which was very much defined and exacting.
Unlikely someone like Hitchcock, who had the entire movie planned prior to shooting and went through the motion of executing his predetermined vision on the set, Kubrick, you begin to understand that the rigidness that is apparent in all his films post 2001, he actually allowed for malleability — why else go through 50, 60 or 70 takes on a scene? Perhaps because the true essence of the moment could only be revealed after everything was exhaustively stripped away… all the artifice and pretense, which probably included his own notions of what the scene was about, that obfuscated his unarticulated, but clear vision could be dashed if and when a more true idea presented itself.
Kubrick, it was said, was somewhat of a recluse (or that’s the public myth that he cultivated)… and his inexhaustible fascinations with a given subject (like chess) are the thing of legend; his near-manic and therefore indexable knowledge on the subjects that he decided to make films about would fill boxes and boxes of information and reference material (see the video about his boxes) — and by all accounts he did just that (see the index card life reference photo BELOW that he and his assistants put together that chronicles the daily whereabouts of Bonaparte throughout his fabled and tumultuous life!).
You’ll also be surprised to know that he was an imp (how else could he have made LOLITA or DR. STRANGELOVE or THE SHINING?) by something as simple as his return correspondence to a conservative christian leader who wrote Kubrick a letter beseeching him not to make LOLITA; the response is that of droll wit!
The abandoned projects — THE ARYAN PAPERS, NAPOLEON and his vision for A.I. (still much different than Spielberg’s even though Spielberg followed what was preserved) — leave you with a sense of wonder… there’s no manner of predicting what he would have gifted to us.
Ultimately, one can’t know what another person is thinking or even what their intentions are — and Kubrick was quite adamant about not giving hints on what to think of his films’s meanings. Even as clinical and chilling and misanthropic as one concludes that his films are, there is a very telling quote during one of the video installations – [I’m paraphrasing] One shouldn’t attempt to appeal to the audience’s intelligence, because that ranges wildly and you can’t control for that, but everyone understands emotion…
Not what you’d expect from this so-called “cold” film artist.