(There was no week 11 because we were on Spring Break!)

Visual Effects

We watch UFO OVER SANTA CLARITA, a 38-second UFO short on youtube. It is a nice piece of visual effects (I think!) which cleverly disguises itself as phone-type footage, using what in film language we would think of as “mistakes”. The shot goes out of focus, the flying saucer goes out of frame, there are wind noise and extraneous car door sounds: all these things appear unintentional, “real” as part of unedited documentary footage, and so they help to sell the visual effects.

What are visual effects? They used to be called special effects. Special effects are still done – but now that term describes things that happen, apparently for real, on set, courtesy of the special effects crew. A lot of exciting things that used to happen on set – explosions, bullet hits, smoke and flames (remember the smoke machine in LIVING IN OBLIVION?), the images on a TV or computer screen – are today more likely to be added in post-production, in software, as visual effects.

(UFO OVER SANTA CLARITA is 100% CGI — not only UFOs, but the car and the highway exterior are digital animations. You can see the VFX breakdown here)

Today almost any VFX can be done in software, in post-production. Visual effects aren’t expensive — if they involve a large crew, or a lot of work (turning a 2-D picture into a 3-D one, for example) all the visual effects work can be off-shored, in done entirely in India, or Korea, or China. It was not always thus. Before the digital age, visual effects had to be physically created. Sometimes, when money was no object, an amazing set would be built, full size. More often, a fantastical location would be built in miniature. We saw this in KING KONG, and in BLADE RUNNER. The jungle on Skull Island, the exteriors of the Tyrell corporate headquarters, these were model shots.  Often, models, or paintings, would be combined with real actors in what was called a “process” or “composite” or “matte” shot. A static shot, where the actors stayed within one defined area, was the cheapest way to do this. If the camera was moving, it became a “travelling matte” and was much more expensive, as the relationship between live action and miniature had to be readjusted with each new frame.

We look at an early example of these techniques in THE LOST WORLD (USA, 1925). Its model work and animation were done by Willis O’Brien, who ten years later would create King Kong. The wide shots in which the explorers chop down a tree so as to create a bridge to the dinosaur plateau are mattes: a painting of a finger of rock and the edge of the plateau, bridged by the tree, and the upper right area of the frame, where we see live actors preparing to cross the bridge (and earlier saw a pteranodon eating its prey)

LOST_WORLD_stillThe jungle on the prehistoric plateau, like the dinosaur and pterosaur, are miniatures. The trees and rivers were created on tabletops; the giant animals were models with wood-and-metal skeletons, painstakingly manouvered by Willis O’Brien and his team, one frame at a time: a process called stop-motion animation. In silent film days, frame rates varied, and THE LOST WORLD was probably screened at 18 frames per second. With the coming of sound, a frame rate of 24 frames per second became the norm. Either way stop-motion animation sequences involved thousands of frames, with those slight changes in position giving the models the illusion of motion.

This way of doing visual effects – matting live action with animated models, against a miniature background – would be the norm in visual effects for forty or fifty years. It produced art of great beauty. But it was also very time-consuming. In the 1950s the Japanese director Ishiro Honda came up with an alternative visual effects strategy to challenge the classic stop-motion miniature: make the background models bigger, and have the dinosaurs played by stuntmen in monster suits.

The Godzilla vs. Machagodzilla Medley gives a good introduction to this form. It is a fair-use, youtube mashup of GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (Japan, 1974), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (Japan, 1975), GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (Japan, 1993), GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (Japan, 2002), and GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (Japan, 2003), set to the song It’s All About the Pentiums by Weird Al Yankovic.

Genre cinema like this may not be the apex of the Seventh Art Form, but it was, and is, very popular: Viacom are more than happy with profits and deals related to the TRANSFORMERS franchise. This transition from miniatures to men in monster suits, and from them to hard drives, has not been without its critics. JURASSIC PARK (USA, 1993) was criticized for the “computery” look of its dinosaurs, compared to the anthropomorphic detail of animated models and even wrestlers in suits. Visual effects designer Phil Tippett remains in demand, in part, because he began his career as a stop-motion animator on STAR WARS (USA 1977), and STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (USA, 1980).  The MECHAGODZILLA franchise, the STAR WARS franchise, and 2001 are in many ways different: yet all are in love with technology, with machines, with visual effects.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (USA/UK, 1968) is one of the last of the miniature-based, analogue visual effects movies – and some of its “miniatures” were 30 feet long.

Ray Chang Picture of Kubrick model

Ray Chang Picture of Kubrick model

Both STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (USA, 1977) are miniature-based VFX movies, but they have been substantially revisited, and visually altered, by the directors, with the arrival of digital technology. And what digital technology can achieve, in terms of a film, is incomparable. Promotional videos for the Hollywood action movie, WHITE HOUSE DOWN (USA, 2013) show numerous tracking or crane shots with multiple visual effects elements. Little was done in the way of actual set construction. Only the facade of the White House was physically built. Otherwise the mise-en-scene is a multi-layered image, created in post-production, by software. WHITE HOUSE DOWN is an example of Monoform filmmaking in which once routine background shots have become visual effects – partially because VFX are now relatively cheap, and also because big features today are shot far from the intended location, due to production incentives or security issues.

Visual effects, used this way, become part of the palate of any Hollywood or independent film. They don’t necessarily entail science fiction-style subject matter. Indeed, Musicals, Westerns, almost all genres have long used visual effects, often for establishing shots. VFX can also involve enhancing the image, perhaps by increasing its dynamic range. On the internet you can find test footage, in which the HDR concept – high dynamic range, often used in digital still photography – is applied to video footage. In HDR, a certain number of different exposures of the same still image – 3, or 5, say – are combined by software to increase the image’s dynamic range — revealing more detail in the shadows, and losing fewer pixels to overexposure. Here’s one HDR video test.

And then, there are VFX at the service of science fiction! 2001 takes place in the prehistoric past, on Earth, and in 2001 and 2003, in space: it is alternative history, imagined back in 1965. It features no visions of an alien city (ICARUS XB1), nor the urban future of Earth (METROPOLIS, BLADE RUNNER). Yet it relies on visual effects’ traditional tool – compositing! In 2001 “a typical effects shot might include (1) miniature models of spacecraft shot in extreme slow motion, (2) front or rear projected film for the moving images in the spacecraft’s window, (3) a separately photographed astronaut or pod tumbling in space (both suspended by wires during shooting) matted in by hand, (4) a field of moving stars in the background shot on the animation stand along with (5) the Moon (a series of actual astronomical plates) and/or an appropriate planet (usually a large painting).”
(Production Calendar, Carolyn Geduld, The Making of 2001, Modern Library, 2000)

There is digital compositing in our own film BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO (USA, 2014), of a more modest kind: for example, in the firing range scene, the actors in spacesuits were filmed in 35mm; their target environment was a miniature; and their death ray beams are lightning bolts, which still must be composited, frame by frame, so that the bottom of each bolt connects to the barrel of the death-ray gun.

Uncomplicated visual effects can make an enormous contribution to a narrative. John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE (USA, 1988) is an unusual, overtly political SF film which uses VFX sparingly, to make its most dramatic points — when the hero dons a special set of sunglasses and suddenly sees propaganda messages (SUBMIT, OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE) behind the advertising signs. In THEY LIVE the VFX succeed because they have been long delayed. Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (USA, 1963) works the same way, taking an hour to set up its human characters before getting to the airborne mayhem suggested by the title.  In Monoform filmmaking, as VFX become “part” of the narrative, do they risk losing their power and significance? If every scene can look like a Salvador Dali dream sequence, what is our interest in that dream?
Visual effects can rescue a mediocre film but cannot make a bad film good. VFX can be banal, but they can also be extraordinary and sublime. On rare occasions, they can even tell a story better than the actors can — as in Terrence Malick’s film TREE OF LIFE (USA, 2011), 139 minutes of bland family drama with 15 minutes of gem-like digital visual effects set in the middle of it, telling the same story – of birth, death, and coexistence – more economically.

A director’s odyssey: Stanley Kubrick

We screen scenes from THE KILLING (USA, 1956) a Film Noir by a young director named Stanley Kubrick. He was around 27 – a couple of years older than Orson Welles when he directed CITIZEN KANE. Welles, as you know, spent the rest of his life struggling to find money to direct features, and struggling with the process when the money came. Kubrick, on the other hand, had no problem with the filmmaking process – was extremely interested in almost every part of it, from the screenplay to the trailer – and led something of a charmed career.

THE KILLING was Kubrick’s third feature, his best so far. It did poorly at the box office, and received mediocre reviews in general, but very good reviews from The New York Times and Time magazine. The NYT reviewer went so far as to compare Kubrick to Welles, writing that he “has shown more audacity with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town on an exhibitor’s poll.”

Kirk Douglas, the actor and aspiring producer, saw THE KILLING and liked it. He writes in his book The Ragman’s Son, “I saw a small picture called THE KILLING. It was made for very little money and it made very little money. It was an unusual picture, and the studio had no faith in it and handled it poorly. I was intrigued by the film and wanted to meet the director, Stanley Kubrick. He had started out as a photographer for Look magazine when he was 17; he was 28 now, but he looked much younger. I asked him if he had any other projects. He said he had a script called Paths of Glory, by Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel about the greed for fame in the high command in World War 1 France that led to the needless deaths of so many men. Stanley told me he’d had no success setting the picture up, but he’d be glad to let me see it. I read the script and fell in love with it. ‘Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it’.”  (pg. 273)

Those are wonderful words for a director to hear – especially when they are spoken by a movie star. Kirk Douglas was something rare – a smart movie star – and he had a good relationship with United Artists, the studio originally set up by star actors and directors. Douglas told them about Paths of Glory, indicated that he might take it to MGM, whereupon UA offered him $3 million to make and star in it.

Locations were chosen in Germany. Douglas recalls, “When I arrived … in Munich, I was greeted by Stanley and a completely rewritten script. He had revised it on his own… It was a catastrophe, a cheapened version of what I thought had been a beautiful script. The dialogue was atrocious … right up to the happy ending, when the general’s car arrives screeching to halt the firing squad and he changes the men’s death sentence to 30 days in the guardhouse …

“I called Stanley and Harris [his producing partner] to my room. “Stanley, did you write this?” “Yes.” Kubrick always had a calm way about him. I never heard him raise his voice, never saw him get excited or reveal anything. He just looked at you through those big, wide eyes. I said, “Stanley, why would you do that?” He very calmly said, “To make it commercial. I want to make money.”

“I hit the ceiling. I called him every four-letter word I could think of. “You came to me with a script written by other people. It was based on a book. I love that script. I told you I didn’t think this would be commercial, but I want to make it. You left it in my hands to put the picture together. I got the money, based on that script. Not this shit!” I threw the script across the room. “We’re going back to the original script, or we’re not making the picture”.”  (pp. 274-275)

In this conversation, Douglas introduced Kubrick to the notion of a prestige production — a film which might not make all its money back, but which – like THE WIZARD OF OZ or CITIZEN KANE – brought good reviews and respect to the studio and the film’s producer and director.

It was a very good lesson, since with three exceptions all of Kubrick’s features thereafter would be in the prestige, rather than the commercial, category. PATHS OF GLORY (USA, 1957) was a beautifully composed and realized film. It got Kubrick his next assignment – again, thanks to the actor Kirk Douglas. Douglas was producing and starring in a Roman epic, SPARTACUS (USA, 1960). He had hired the blacklisted writer (and University of Colorado alumnus) Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. After a week of shooting, the studio, Universal, decided to fire its chosen director, Anthony Mann. Douglas recommended Stanley Kubrick take over the picture. Kubrick read the script and got up to speed in the course of a weekend. The following Monday, without any shutdown, SPARTACUS had a new director. Kubrick finished the film on time, and on budget. But he had another battle brewing with his star, this time over the screenplay credit.

Douglas and his producer, Eddie Lewis, were struggling to find someone to credit the screenplay to. Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter, was still blacklisted by the studios and couldn’t be named. Eddie Lewis refused to accept the credit. The false name on the script, “Sam Jackson”, had problems of its own. Douglas wrote:

“Eddie Lewis was a real person. Sam Jackson didn’t exist. We would have to fabricate a string of lies about him, the way the producers did when Dalton wrote THE BRAVE ONE [USA, 1956 — and won the Academy Award!]. And besides, it fooled no one. What to do? Kubrick jumped in with his solution. “Use my name.” Eddie and I looked at each other, horrified. I said, “Stanley, wouldn’t you feel embarrassed to put your name on a script that someone else wrote?” He looked at me as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. “No.” He would have been delighted to take the credit.” (pg. 323)

Douglas and Lewis decided to give Trumbo the credit, thereby officially taking him off the studio blacklist. Kubrick went on to direct a fine adaptation of LOLITA (USA/UK, 1962), whose script was written by its author, Vladimir Nabokov. Kubrick insisted on shooting the film in England. A second unit shot American driving exteriors and rear-projection footage for the car interiors. The rest was shot in and around London, doubling uneasily for the Midwestern USA. LOLITA was followed by a cautionary comedy about nuclear war, also shot in England, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (USA/UK, 1964), written by Terry Southern. Kubrick had originally planned to make a serious film about the subject, but realized that pitching the project as a comedy was the only way to raise the budget — all this thanks to the popularity of Peter Sellers, one of the co-stars of LOLITA. A studio agreed to finance DR. STRANGELOVE on condition that it would star Sellers, in at least four different roles. The film went ahead, though Sellers ended up playing only three parts after he broke his ankle. Though the studio doubted, the film was very popular with the public, and it gave Kubrick the leverage to raise funding for a big science-fiction film with no stars or comedians, Journey Beyond The Stars – or, as we now know it, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.


In March 2015, Variety reported that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had purchased one of the models from the film for a substantial $344,000. It is the Aries 1B Trans-Lunar space shuttle, 27″ wide, and 32 inches high, and will be part of the collection of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Variety said that, according to the auction house, Stanley Kubrick had deliberately destroyed most of the props, sets, models and costumes from 2001 so that they could not be used in other films.

In his article Shipbuilding (written for the book The Making of 2001), Piers Bizony describes the model in greater detail. “The three foot diameter Aries Lunar shuttle vehicle had motorized legs which extended as they came in to land… compressed air jets in the exhaust nozzles kicked up dust on touchdown, to convincing effect.”

This was a big model for a science fiction film, where these things were normally done on tabletops. But it was by no means the largest — for the spacecraft Discovery, which goes to Jupiter, two models were made – one 15 feet, one 54 feet long. Why were the models so big? Focus. When our eyes see large things, they are seen in focus. A big thing, like a multi-storey Lunar shuttle, in bright sunlight, will be entirely in focus to our eyes. So, with the models. A tiny model, shot up close, will be betrayed by the shallow depth of field.  The front will be in focus, but the back will be soft. The idea of the spaceship Discovery is that it’s about half a mile long, so as to separate the human living area from the giant, radioactive nuclear motors. Kubrick shoots Discovery to emphasize this — the great length of the space craft, how the humans live in a rotating hull which replicates gravity, at one end. Hence the big models, one of which is seen here at the Kubrick exhibition at the LA County Museum.


Clearly some models survived, so perhaps the story of the director destroying the props and costumes is apocryphal.

A film is, or should be, about more than its special effects. I first saw 2001 when it came out — I was 14 years old, and I wanted to see space craft, and aliens. I’ve seen it many times since then, and continue to be amazed by the visual effects, and intrigued by the story – or the three stories, and what, together, they mean.

Kubrick’s principal collaborator was the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, whose short story The Sentinel was the inspiration for the picture. The film was to be called Journey Beyond The Stars. There was no script, at first. Clarke began working on the project as a novel, which Kubrick would collaborate on, or adapt as a film. On the basis of a 50,000-word first draft of the novel, by Clarke, MGM gave the picture the green light, and a budget of $6 million. Actors were hired, sets were built, and shooting began on December 29, 1965, at Shepperton Studios outside London.

Shooting continued throughout 1966. Clarke flew to Los Angeles to promote the film and placate the MGM executives, who had not yet seen a script. This document, which Kubrick’s former assistant, Tony Frewin, kindly gave us, was prepared as an offering for the studio executives. But its form is unique: extracts from a novel, written in the past tense, and a columnar format where dialogue and description run in parallel.

2001 was a landmark of visual effects photography. The job was all analogue, meticulously planned, slowly photographed, painstakingly composited. No wonder the studio was anxious as months went by, and costs rose. The film was originally meant to be finished, and released, in December 1966. But it clearly wasn’t ready. in February 1967, Kubrick fired his composer and concentrated on the visual effects. In March 1968, he returned to Los Angeles. He had lived in England full-time since shooting LOLITA, but his film was very over budget – having cost more than ten million dollars – and his presence no doubt reassured the studio… a little. After a screening for MGM executives, Kubrick cut a prologue and a voiceover narration from the film.

The film premiered in April 1968, in New York and Los Angeles. A day after the premiere Kubrick cut 19 minutes out, bringing the running time down to 2 hours 22 minutes. The shortened version opened the next day at the Cinerama Theater on Broadway in New York, sixteen months late, and $4.5 million over budget.

It is a great film, in many ways. So much attention is paid to the VFX, so let us remember the cast, all of whom play their parts so well: Daniel Richter, who endured the monkey suit, as Moonwatcher; William Sylvester, as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd, astronaut-as-bureaucrat; Leonard Rossiter, as Dr. Smyslov; Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood as the two most-alienated and repressed protagonists of any American film; and Douglas Rain, as the voice of their likeable onboard computer, HAL.

Sixteen months late! $4.5 million over budget! And well worth it.

Did Kubrick see ICARUS XB1 – a deep-space mission which also ends with an encounter with alien life, and a big-close-up of a star child? We do not know, but Kubrick, holed up in his country house outside London, was a voracious reader and watcher of films. He made a point of watching space exploration films before he made 2001, and it is unlikely that he would have missed ICARUS, which had been released in England, and won the Hugo Award for the best science fiction film.

Kubrick followed 2001 with a very different kind of science fiction film, based on Anthony Burgess’ futuristic novel of juvenile violence and political brainwashing, A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick wrote the script himself and did an excellent job, remaining very close to the original material. The resulting picture is hard to watch in its entirety. It is very violent. It is also a very well made, observant film. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is a film set in England, about the English – and Kubrick, who had lived in England for more than ten years now – got it exactly right. The world he depicts is depressing, dark, always cloudy, angry, isolated, trapped by aristocratic hierarchy and brutal tendencies in a meaningless, greedy, violent stasis. Very few films get England so right: Tony Richardson’s LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (UK, 1962) and Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN (USA/UK, 2006) are also heartfelt, personal nightmare visions of my native land.

BARRY LYNDON, which Kubrick made after A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, is a remarkable contrast, being the director’s most overtly beautiful work. This is the film he shot by candlelight. The images, quite deliberately, recall the paintings of old masters; skies are always dramatic, landscapes marvelously pastoral. The film relies on a voice-over narration, something its director does seem to default to – but as in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE it is beneficial, and has a fine ironic tone. The studio didn’t understand the film at all, and Kubrick – who no longer travelled by aircraft and preferred to remain in England – did little to promote his most expensive project. BARRY LYNDON died at the box office, but remains one of his most fascinating pictures, and certainly the best-looking. It was the last film which involved Kubrick in foreign location work, being shot in Ireland and Germany.

After BARRY LYNDON, Kubrick came to a fork in the road. Some critics consider all his work excellent, but I think that the popular (and to some extent critical) rejection of BARRY LYNDON led him to rethink what he had been doing. He could continue to pursue literary and intellectual subjects, or he could play it more safely, and  make choices that were based on his conception of popular demand. In other words, it was the same decision he had confronted in 1957, when he and Kirk Douglas fought over the creative direction (and likely box office) of PATHS OF GLORY.

PATHS OF GLORY, LOLITA, DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and BARRY LYNDON had all been original, unpredictable projects. For his next project, Kubrick went in a deliberately commercial direction by adapting The Shining, a bulky horror-novel written by Steven King. Four years earlier, Brian diPalma had made a very successful horror movie based on a Steven King book, CARRIE (USA, 1976). The previous year had seen a successful, King-based TV miniseries, SALEM’S LOT (USA, 1979). THE SHINING (USA/UK, 1980) would be Stanley Kubrick’s contribution to a Steven King cycle of studio films which included CREEPSHOW (USA, 1982), CUJO (USA, 1983), THE DEAD ZONE (USA, 1983), CHRISTINE (USA, 1983), and CHILDREN OF THE CORN (USA, 1984).

THE SHINING, for me, is an OK horror film. Some critics and some Kubrick fans consider it a masterwork. Colorado has, of course, a local connection, in the form of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, which apparently inspired Steven King to write a book about a vast, ghost-haunted, sinister hotel, and which hosts an annual festival of horror films. There is also a fascinating conspiracy theory involving Stanley Kubrick, the Moon landings, and THE SHINING.

There is nothing inherently wrong with conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy? It is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. Conspiracies happen all the time, and we can certainly theorize about them. One conspiracy theory popular on the Internet is that the US did not send live astronauts to the Moon, but instead faked the Lunar landings. As this theory developed, one variant suggested that Stanley Kubrick was involved, as the technical genius behind the visual fakery. Is there evidence to support either of these theories? You can do the research and decide. But a similar fascination has arisen around THE SHINING. We can’t call this a conspiracy theory, since no crime is involved. Various Kubrick enthusiasts are convinced that THE SHINING contains secret messages or puzzles, hidden in the dialogue or in the art direction, or only visible when the film is watched backwards. One of these theories suggests that THE SHINING is Kubrick’s confession that he faked the Moon landing, decodable via certain symbols in the film.

This is one of the theses of a feature length documentary, ROOM 237 (USA, 2012), which depicts various interpretations Kubrick enthusiasts have placed on THE SHINING: cryptically revealing the faking of the Moon landings being only one of them. I’m not seriously suggesting that Kubrick did fake the Apollo program. What I find interesting is that, even where Kubrick clearly made a commercial horror movie, and did it with less than his usual conviction or energy, die-hard Kubrick enthusiasts were determined to make more of it: for them, the fact that Kubrick made the film meant it must have deep significance, even if the evidence is minimal, and the thesis ludicrous.

All this stems from the notion that Kubrick, a professional news photographer at age 17, an avid chess player, a talented, meticulous filmmaker, was – beyond that – a profound genius in his own right. The press he got around the time of 2001, reinforced by the Playboy interview and other interviews he gave, reinforce this notion. But it wasn’t necessarily so. Kubrick was a clever man and a brilliant filmmaker. But some of the stuff he says in that Playboy interview – how death is just a curable disease, like diptheria or smallpox, how he would be cryogenically frozen if the technology was in place – seem silly and inappropriate in 2015, in a world threatened by population growth, widespread drought, food and water shortages and the ever-present threat of nuclear war.

To his credit, Kubrick was seriously concerned about the danger of thermonuclear warfare and made the very best movie about it, DR. STRANGELOVE. His mid-career was a run of intelligent, original, disturbing films which no other director could have made. His late career showed less originality. After THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET (USA/UK, 1987) was Kubrick’s contribution to the Hollywood Viet Nam cycle of war films. It differs from the others in that it was shot almost entirely in England (second unit was done in Asia). Its “message” is one of astonishment that there were women in the North Vietnamese Army. Kubrick’s mystique, still strong in the wake of his science fiction films and BARRY LYNDON, continued to accord him seriousness – until the release of EYES WIDE SHUT (USA/UK, 1999), a soft-porn sex thriller set in New York, but shot in London. The filming of EYES WIDE SHUT was troubled, and ran late. When Kubrick asked one of the cast, Harvey Keitel, to return to London for additional re-shoots, Keitel declined. Kubrick fired his actor, re-cast a film director, Sydney Pollack, in his role, and re-shot all Keitel’s scenes. Unsatisfied with the material (which revealed reflections of the camera and crew in shiny surfaces), Kubrick was planning further re-shoots when he died, in March 1999. He was 70 years old. The film was released in July 1999.

When I was young, Kubrick was like a god. He was the Auteur filmmaker. All young filmmakers loved Kubrick, and wished that we could make pictures of such originality and technical brilliance. In retrospect, in terms of their philosophical content, I think only one of his 13 features achieves philosophical gravitas. That film is 2001. Its message, obscure at first, has become clear over the years, after repeated viewings: to become human, one must be a murderer. The monolith inspires Moonwatcher to use tools to kill his own kind; HAL becomes convinced he can save the mission only by killing its human components – in his illogical madness, has he not become human, too? And to become the “star child”, Bowman must first kill HAL, by depriving him of the consciousness he values so piteously.

This is a pessimistic and original message. It sits well with Kubrick’s recurring themes: hierarchy; military and quasi-military systems of control, and discipline; crazy rebellion against those systems – by human and non-human rebels, all of which end in failure, if not disaster.

For my class at CU, I wanted to pick a scene from EYES WIDE SHUT but couldn’t find anything I really wanted to watch with the students. So we returned to that early Film Noir which got young Stanley his break: THE KILLING. By the end of the picture, alll the characters, save for the hero and his girl, have met grisly fates. Now Johnny (played by Sterling Hayden) and Fay (Coleen Gray) are making their getaway with a suitcase full of money. And they make a mistake none of us would make today: they take that suitcase to the airport. We watch the finale of THE KILLING.

Further reading:

Shipbuilding, by Piers Bizony, The Making of 2001, Modern Library, 2000

The Ragman’s Son, by Kirk Douglas, Simon and Schuster, 1988

Stanley Kubrick, Playboy Interview, Sept 1968