Inside the mind of a visionary filmmaker
An exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image
A summary of my visit and some extra thoughts
Karim D. Ghantous
As if the Stanley Kubrick Archives, that huge hardcover book by Taschen, released earlier this year was not enough, Kubrick's estate and other parties bring the world an exhibition that takes us through Kubrick's life, mind and career.
Kubrick can be described as the most imposing name in cinema. For sure, he may not be the best director to ever live. In fact there is no such thing as best anyway. And he is by no means everyone's favourite director (mine is David Lynch). And yet he stands alone. There is no film directors' pyramid on top of which Kubrick stands but he still remains truly Great - and he is unique in his greatness.
For anyone who is interested in movies in general or Kubrick himself this exhibition is a must-see. If you can spare the time and money to see a movie a few times a month then you certainly can afford the time and money for this selective but thorough event. I haven't been to a cinema more than once this year, such are my priorities. But if you're like me this exhibition is simply too seductive, too important to miss even if you're busy or very selective in what you see.
My friend Sol and I went past the ACMI on Sunday the 27th. Federation Square, the complex where the ACMI is housed, was flooded with people. For reasons of time we decided to wait until Tuesday the 29th to see the Kubrick show. The crowds were not as great and I wondered whether or not the exhibition would be better seen among a larger, more energised crowd or a more relaxed, smaller one.
So we arrived at about 11:00 (after grabbing a traditional coffee at our favouite Greek café, International Cakes on Lonsdale Street). The foyer contained two items of interest that could be viewed without so much as lining up to buy a ticket. The first items of interest were production sketches from Kubrick's never-to-be completed project, A.I. which Steven Spielberg eventually made. Nearby were a couple of free-standing displays under glass. One contained the covers for the LP soundtrack for 2001 and the widescreen edition LaserDisc of the film.
Around the corner in between the escalators was a four-wheeled dolly with a tripod mounted Arriflex 35mm camera. The body of the vehicle was made of wood and it was drying out. It was used for Barry Lyndon.
After handing in our bags to the security counter we descended downstairs. There's a sign warning visitors to take some time to allow our eyes to adjust to the dimmer light levels. This is a nice touch, having the overall light level set low so as to better highlight the displays.
The first section deals with his Look assignments. On the walls are framed photographic prints of some of his work at the magazine. Also framed are several contact sheets. From the contact sheets we can see that Kubrick used 35mm Super-XX film. Under glass are actual issues of Look opened to pages where his photos appear.
Also in this section are free-standing displays under glass including Kubrick's personal chess board and Graflex Pacemaker 4"x5" press camera that Kubrick would have used in his assignments.
Around from the end of this display, behind the stairs is a solitary object: in very dim ambient light, lit by small spotlights above for dramatic effect is a mounted Arriflex camera on a section of metal track. The effect is somewhat haunting. I felt, in this space, that I was standing in the presence of greatness - despite the fact that Kubrick would never again stand by this or any other camera. But that is the point: his 'presence' was there.
Each section is discrete enough, with partitions politely keeping the sections separated. But it's not too rigid. Not only are the partitions placed at different angles (see the plan) but the whole exhibition space is at the same time 'open' so that you can easily slip between sections. There are always at least two ways to enter a given section.
Moving on through, we're greeted with a large painting of Kubrick (1972, 122 x 183cm, oil on canvas) by his wife, Christiane. The overriding palette of this picture is orange: orange chair, orange walls. The main subject did not get the orange treatment however.
Walking into the main section of the show we're greeted with a simple yet effective display: a Mitchell BNC camera, tripod mounted, in a glass box. The lens on the camera is the famous Zeiss f/0.7 unit that he used to film the candle-lit scenes in Barry Lyndon. Above the box is a neon sign of Kubrick's signature - another of many nice touches that populate this exhibition. Fetishists only: A piece of masking tape over the lens mount of the camera reads 'A' CAM.
Here and there are TVs and LCD projectors showing clips of Kubrick's films. On the walls are quotes, printed in a white, sans-serif font. The TVs are far enough apart so that the audio from the others doesn't interfere significantly with the one you're watching.
Many of those who love Kubrick's films eventually come to notice certain elements of his style. The wall plaque next to the images from his documentary The Seafarers reads, "... the film portrays the director's distinctive style: his predilection for calculated and conscious arrangements of people in space." Me, I would have just said "he's very deliberate" but that would have been simplifying things a bit.
One of Kubrick's personal cameras was on display, an Eyemo. It's a compact unit that works off a spring motor (or that's what I remember reading about it). It was placed sitting on top of its case. The label reads,
Property of STANLEY KUBRICK
PO BOX 123
This camera was used for Killer's Kiss. I stupidly asked myself why the address label was an English one if the camera was used to film a film that was shot in the USA. Duh! - when he moved to England he took the thing with him.
Moving along the timeline we go through the Paths of Glory section. A couple of notable objects on display: a hand-written production schedule, about a metre wide; a copy of the third draft of the screenplay, covered with Kubrick's notes and sketches; callsheets from early to mid 1957. If only patrons were granted physical access to such original documents. To feel the pages of such history through your fingers would be a nice indulgence. Perhaps they will do that one day to small, selected groups of visitors.
One interesting fact about PoG was that it was shot in Germany due to the favourable exchange rates. This of course happens today but this got my attention for some reason.
Also noteworthy is a reproduction of Otto Dix's painting, Der Krieg. It's a terrifying and disturbing work. I was so entranced by this picture that I forgot to note its relevance to Kubrick. Next time I'll know better.
The Spartacus section held some interesting pieces. Alongside the screenplay copies and such were continuity breakdown sheets, costumes and storyboard sketches. One sketch was done on Universal-International Pictures letterhead paper. Fetishists only: On the upper left corner was printed,
TELEPHONE STANLEY 7-1211
On the upper right-hand corner of this sheet is printed
CABLE ADDRESS: UNFILMIN
Now days we know what we mean when we're asked "Do you have cable?".
There were two costumes on display also. One was "Leather armour with tunic and coat worn by Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licinius Crassus" and the other, "Tunic and toga of a Latin senator".
Napoleon was a film that may well have been great had it been made. But would there have been an audience for it? Someone else beat Kubrick to the punch and that film didn't go very far. Perhaps Kubrick's film, had it gone with no competition, would have done better. But Kubrick, whatever his reasons, dropped the project. In this section were some original letters to and from Kubrick; framed colour sketches of costume designs by David Walker; a card index, made of oak, holding four drawers across by three down, each holding numerous index cards (like the ones libraries used to have) which held various, detailed information about Napoleon; a stack of books (including 'Napoleon' by Vincent Cronin, Collins publishers); a huge shooting schedule; facsimiles of Napoleon's letters and handwritten notes; 35mms slides taken for location scouting. Fetishists only: these slides were taken on three emulsions which were Agfacolor, Ektachrome and Kodachrome.
The A Clockwork Orange section included a slate that SK gave to his parents (signed), a transcriptor turntable (a lovely object) designed by David Gammon, large production schedules, a wheelchair mounted camera (also used in The Shining) and a bunch of newspapers with headlines pertaining to the controversy that the film generated.
The Dr. Strangelove section was great and it is among the films of his that I like more. However I was not paying as much attention here as I did in others. I did get a look at everything but I was somewhat more taken with the Lolita exhibits (you see, some parts were not as discretely separated from the others, and I stand by my opinion that it was well laid out). Among other things were frames pictures by Weegee (famous news photographer Arthur Fellig) and a scale model of the war room, about head-height, under glass (or perspex, whatever they use these days) on a trolly stand.
Lolita was a film which included noteworthy performances and if there isn't anything else that interest you in this picture, the actors' work is worth it alone. But of course it is a very good film (though not one of my ultimate favourites) and the production material is just as intriguing. In a free-standing display were several objects, including a curious 'cube' which had pictures from the film on each of its six sides. It must have been a promotional item - given away as a net (mathematical term for unfolded, solid polygon) printed flat, you would cut it out and glue the sides together. It kind of reminded me of an iPod box for some reason. But it was about half the height of the cubic iPod boxes (now they're not perfect cubes though).
Most noteworthy was the two rows, placed next to each other, of backlit slides. Imagine planter boxes made of wood, facing more or less 45 degrees towards the viewer, with a flat surface out of which is cut out apertures to fit slides behind. The left row had 27 35mm slides of Sue Lyon (who played Lolita) that Kubrick probably took in pre-production. She was in various poses, most of them I remember being out of doors. The right row contained 16 on-set photos from the film but these were shot on 120 film in 6x6 format. These were a little more faded though as I remember. I couldn't tell whether all these were the original slides or duplicates printed on a good laser printer. All were in colour. A sliding magnifying glass was attached but I prefered to look at the images with the naked eye.
A Clockwork Orange is not an easy film to digest but in my view an important work from a social aspect. I can't say it's one of my favourites but as with most of Kubrick's films it shows his brilliance and distinct style. Here we are shown a series of still images supplied by a Panasonic LCD projector. Too bad a Kodak Carousel wasn't used here because there seemed no advantage to the electronic display. Anyway, the little slide show was called 'Women as Furniture' and included sketches and photos of the sculptures that were used in the Korova Milk Bar. I gave it only a passing glance.
I counted two free standing, unprotected displays that contained reproductions of documents belonging to the Stanley Kubrick Estate. These were bound in folders and visitors were invited to flick through them. This, then, is the closest an ordinary person might get to looking at Kubrick's papers and photos with his own hands and his own eyes.
I'll repeat my hope that one day there might be an opportunity for the general public to handle some of Kubrick's actual documents. Goodness knows there are enough of them and should some be damaged it wouldn't be of any great loss.
Anyway, one interesting document was a letter to Her Majesty's Customs & Excise from Hawk Films. It asked for "temporary import" for certain items including the special Zeiss lenses and the BNC and Arri 2C cameras. If I had more time I would have looked through them in more detail. Maybe if I visit again I will take in more of their contents.
Kubrick's most underrated film is Barry Lyndon. Yet maybe not as much today as it had been. Heaven forbid that a film be labelled as 'slow'. As if slow should imply uninteresting. I bet that when you are kissing your boy- or girlfriend you aren't complaining that it's 'slow'. This film and 2001 share a lot in in terms of how they're paced, but by Jove are they effective.
While I appreciate much of the film it is not one that I feel I need to revisit as a whole. This was the reason I didn't spend too long a time taking in the exhibits. Again, it's a case of finding the time to visit the show again to get what I missed the first time (and to appreciate more what I liked on first viewing). The one display which I noted down was of two military uniforms contemporary to the story, one British and one French. These were in front of a large backdrop of a battle scene from the film.
Despite the fact that The Shining did not achieve what it set out to do (scare people - at least it didn't scare me nearly as much as King's novel) it still remains one of my favourites of Kubrick's movies. The music was terrific and the subtext is fascinating. Perhaps what can be said about this film makes up a large part of why it's so great.
On display: one of the ten Adler typewriters that were purchased (alongside it was an in-tray partly filled with sheets of paper reading "All work and no play [etc.]"); a slate from the film (fetishists only: 06/10/1979, Slate 875, Take 1); a screenplay; a copy of the novel with notes by Kubrick; a copy of Stephen King's screenplay book with notes by Kubrick; framed production photos (one of which shows his daughter Vivian in a 1920s outift holding her film camera over her right shoulder - she was an extra in one of the scenes and she filmed a documentary about the making of the movie); two rectangluar light boxes, one vertical and one horizontal - the former backlighting a large colour transparency of the two young twins who haunt the hotel, the latter bringing to life (again, backlit) their light blue dresses).
One of Kubrick's projects that never saw the light of day was Aryan Papers, based on the novel Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. Like Spielberg's Schindler's List, it is a holocaust story. However it was because of the fact that Speilberg's film was on schedule to be released before Kubrick's could be completed, Kubrick let this one go. He had grand ambitions for Napoleon (and yes, Napoleon is a fascinating subject) but it's this one that has me more curious (maybe because Kubrick could be more personal with such a story).
A great deal of preparation had gone into this picture before it was finally cancelled. Evidence of this: a poster-sized, detailed production schedule, headshots of Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, location scouting photos from Slovakia and a stack of books including a copy of Wartime Lies (sans dust jacket) with pink sticky notes peeking out from the bottom edge. For the fetishists: this was written directly on the front cover:
Another note for the detail fiends: the contact sheets of the portraits of Johanna ter Steege were printed in black and white - however the film was Ektar 1000 (Kodak 5110), a colour negative film (now discontinued).
If Kubrick is famous for one film alone it is probably 2001. That shouldn't be a surprise as it is the most obvious of his works that can be appreciated for its broad and deep vision (remember, the exhibition is about the mind of a 'visionary filmmaker'). It is, among many who love Kubricks' films, frequently seen as one of his finest pictures. And it is with this picture more than any other that even a half-interested film-goer can tell that nobody will ever be able to know just how much physical material this film has produced. There must have been a huge amount of stuff created for this film.
On display: a settee by Oliver Morgue, several of which were used in the space station (though the display model was a hot pink while in the film they appear as red) - these organic pieces of furniture ; Georg Jensen cutlery designed by Arne Jacobsen - these slender pieces were of one-piece steel, with the ends gently and organically emerging from the end of the handles; a helmet as worn by Bowman; a rough model of the Starchild; scripts; a box full of Sasco system cards that were used to organise special effects sequences; paintings which included the monolith floating in space shaped like a pyramid; test film strips (35mm anamorphic) for visual effects sequences with each stip consisting of two frames; surreal paintings for "possible look of the Jupiter flight sequence"; a Hamilton wrist watch and clock (apparently never actually seen in the actual film).
In between Full Metal Jacket and the pre-production of Aryan Papers was about five or six years - too long for impatient Kubrick fans. Then there was the possibility of A.I being made but that was put on the backburner. Finally Kubrick decided on what came to be called Eyes Wide Shut. It was based on a the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur schnitzler, published in 1926. Kubrick had thoughts about adapting the story into a screenplay as early as the late '60s. Finally, after years of waiting, the world would be given another Kubrick film.
One of the best displayed objects is the cape that is worn by Tom Cruise's character, Bill Harford. It stands vertically, on top of a large, rectangular light box. Behind it is another, identical light box, standing vertically. The effect is ghostly - the gentle glare from the diffused light from behind and below the cape acts almost like a partial barrier between your eyes and the cape. This lighting set-up gives the cape an eerie presence, not dissimilar to the the mood at the mansion's orgy scene.
Other displays in the EWS section: a free standing display under glass containing the mask that Bill Harford wore to the mansion; several masks used in the film along one wall inside pigeon-holes, covered by glass; the napkin with FIDELIO written on it; the newspapers bearing the headlines 'LUCKY TO BE ALIVE' and 'EX-BEAUTY QUEEN IN HOTEL DRUGS OVERDOSE'; production stills and so forth.
And for the fetishists, here's a diagram of a slate used in the film's production:
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ "EYES WIDE SHUT"
T2.8 2/3 DIR: STANLEY KUBRICK
CAM: LARRY SMITH
DATE: 3-6-98 STUDIO-INT.
Right down at the end of the exhibition space in a narrow corridor is the technical equipment section. There is placed a solitary flat panel TV on which is shown a presentation by British director of photography (cinematographer), Joe Dunton. Here, Dunton is placed in an empty theatre. In a simple yet informataive presentation, he shows us in turn several of Kubrick's favourite lenses and explains a little about each one and why they were important. This would be of interest to photographers of all kinds, not just DOPs. Dunton states that Kubrick was a "great collector of lenses" and took great care in their selection and use.
On the opposite wall are enclosed cases displaying some of Kubrick's lenses. These include several makes such as Zeiss, Cooke, Novoflex, Schneider, Taylor-Hobson, Canon, Nikkor, Asahi and others. It was interesting to note that some of the lenses from the '50s and '60s did not have properly circular diaphragms, i.e. the blades did not always match up smoothly, giving the appearance of little 'cuts'. This was unusual as cinematic lenses are made for applications where mediocre features like five-bladed diaphragms are laughed at.
Particularly noteworthy were the high-speed (a misnomer that means 'large maximum aperture') Zeiss lenses including an 18mm f/1.2 and a 50mm f/1.3 (yes, f/1.3). Here are the details for these lenses (all T*):
Focal length Type Widest aperture Serial No. 25mm Distagon f/1.2 5769324 18mm Distagon f/1.2 6008060 50mm Planar f/1.3 5767721 35mm Distagon f/1.2 5768008 85mm Planar f/1.4 5765145
Also displayed is a huge wide-angle attachment for the Zeiss 50mm f/0.7 (the ultra 'high-speed' lens used to film candle-lit interiors in Barry Lyndon). The Mutar 0.5x attachment was eventually discarded in favour of a unit that gave better optical quality.
One of the highlights of the show was a 30 minute presentation about music in Kubrick's films. In fact we almost missed seeing it because the sign did not make it immediately obvious that on the other side of the long section of wall (there to help isolate the sound from the rest of the exhibition space) was an entrance to a sparsely ornamented theaterette. The seating comprised of long, relatively soft blocks with no backs. The screen was, as far as I remember, about 2-2.5m wide and probably projected onto from the back.
The narration was concise, letting the films and their music do the 'talking' as it were. Quite fitting seeing as Kubrick expressed ideas in his films that he didn't feel words could do justice to. Clips of most of his films were shown, including good examples of the typical way Kubrick used music.
We learn a few interesting points about Kubrick's distinct approach. For example, in most films, music backs up the mood of the story. But in Kubrick's films it often interrupts and distracts, thus not complementing the action but contrasting with it. And there are subtle points, too, about how the director uses sounds and abstractions of music, particularly electronic instruments. He draws a relatively distinct line between traditional instrumentation and synthetic audio effects.
In a practical arrangement, the video loops. So you just walk in part of the way through, watch until the end, wait until it restarts and watch to the point where you walked in. This is better, I think, than having restricted access with a rigid timetable. By being able to just walk in whenever you wanted to it was consistent with the relative open-ness of the whole exhibition.
After spending three hours inside the exhibition I came out needing to sit down. It's not that you will mind walking and standing for long periods while you're taking it all in, but when you leave you will come back to Earth and feel the need to sit down, relax, have a drink or something.
It's a show that one might want to visit again. I certainly have plans to do this, perhaps in its last weeks. You will note that I did not make any comments on Full Metal Jacket or The Killing. This is because I wasn't as interested in these films as I was with the others. However if I go again I'll give those sections a look. It's a shame that photography isn't allowed but at least you can concentrate on savouring the moment, the environment. Even while taking notes I am sure I missed certain details. I was so absorbed in writing down notes that one of the staff approached me and said that if "interested in learning more about Stanley Kubrick" I might like to browse a display copy of the catalogue. I simply replied that I was going to buy one before I left. She replied that she hoped I enjoyed the show. And I did of course purchase a copy of the (rather substantial) catalogue.
For further reading have a look at The Kubrick Site which contains links to various articles about Kubrick and his films.
Postscript: thanks to a knowledgable reader, I've deleted a comment stating that the text on Kubrick's stationery, TELEPHONE STANLEY 7-1211, was a typographical error. As the reader explains, "STanley 7" or "ST7" was a telephone exchange that covered parts of Los Angeles and North Hollywood.