One of the most celebrated yet controversial filmmakers of our time was Stanley Kubrick. He is well known for his impeccable translation of literary works to the silver screen and, as David Bordwell explains, “if there is a consistency to a filmmaker’s decisions in how he creates his work, that is his style” (Bordwell 303). Stanley Kubrick made his mark in the film industry for his iconic movies. His work is incredibly recognizable as pop culture is speckled with the twins in the hallway to the orange astronaut walking through the space station. Kubrick achieves this through his brilliant use of unrestricted narration, relevant themes about humanity and morality, distinctive cinematography, as well as purposeful manipulation of time through editing. All of these work together to create an atmosphere that is distinctly intellectual and enjoyable.
Beginning with the storyline, or narrative, Kubrick was a master of the page to screen adaptations. He understood how to set the tone of the film through images alone. Take the opening of Dr. Strangelove, with its refueling of the B-52 bomber in mid flight. The imagery that we are first introduced to is overtly phallic by nature. It foreshadows the oncoming themes of sex and absurdity. Kubrick takes the tense correspondence between the Soviet Union and the United States and morphs it into a sexual relationship. He amplifies this absurdity by cutting off lines of communication between pivotal characters through unrestricted narration, something Kubrick is very fond of. This lack of communication between characters can also be seen in The Shining, where the Overlook hotel is cut off from the world for a period of time. This lack of communication in Kubrick’s work allows for a perfect conflict to unfold (Doman). As with unrestricted narration, someone knows something but is unwilling or unable to communicate with others. It creates a compelling conflict that we as spectators become active participants in. Most of Stanley Kubrick’s works entail a chronological and consistent plotline, however, time is greatly emphasized. This is deliberately done by Kubrick to emphasize the conflict at hand. In the case of The Shining, we are shown the timeline of events leading up to Jack’s psychotic break. Whereas in Dr. Strangelove we are given a timeline before the bomb is to be dropped. In both cases, time is utilized to create a sense of suspense and dread. Kubrick’s fascination with narrative time can also be seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey where we are shown the timeline of human evolution from ape to man to star child. These narrative techniques push the plotline forward and force the spectators to think constructively about the meaning behind the basic story.
Kubrick is also known for utilizing consistent themes of mortality throughout his work. They “speak to us at our most human level” (Kantilaftis). His films explore the human psyche and each and every character is deep and interactive with the audience. A Clockwork Orange, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, implore us to look into society’s role on how it shapes us as humans into who we are. Every single one of Kubrick’s films causes us to introspect into the art we are interacting with. Even Dr. Strangelove, which at first appears to be a comedy, contains a double meaning. Like his other works, it commentates on society, specifically figures of authority, and how the destruction of humankind is so carelessly thrown about.
One of the reasons why a Kubrick film is so recognizable lies within the camerawork. He was an auteur, and lead almost every single creative process in the making of his films. Think of the iconic scene in The Shining with the two twins standing in the hallway. That scene, like many others, was shot in a one-point perspective, meaning there is a singular vanishing point. It not only creates a dynamic sense of space and atmosphere but it makes the spectator feel as though they are witnessing the action take place right there. Kubrick uses symmetry in his filmography to provoke a certain emotion within us. Whether it be the true horror at the sight of the murders in the Overlook hotel, or Dave Bowman trying to destroy HAL 9000, the framing is used to deliberately elicit those feelings and direness of the situation. To aid in the symmetrical framing, wide-angle lenses were often used by Kubrick to achieve a wider frame. He pioneered the use of the Steadicam in The Shining which resulted in phenomenal tracking shots of Danny wandering through the Overlook hotel (Kantilaftis). Tracking shots became another staple of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography. He utilized them to elicit very specific emotions. In the scene in Dr. Strangelove where Major Kong rides the bomb, it is shot and edited to simulate a “forward tracking shot” that makes us as viewers feel “as if we are riding piggyback behind the US Major as the missile drops to ground zero” (London).
The visual patterns in Kubrick’s films are just as important as the narrative itself. Kubrick spent long hours editing and piecing his films together to achieve a specific effect. In The Shining there is a scene in particular where Grady spills a drink on Jack and they converse in the restroom. Kubrick deliberately broke the 180° rule to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer as we later find out that Grady is supernatural. The hard cuts and multiple angles are intentionally sliced together to confuse both the spectator and Jack. It is after this cinematic rule is broken that the rest of the film descends into utter chaos and violence (Jacobs). Kubrick was also a fan of L cuts for a variety of purposes. In Dr. Strangelove L cuts are used to show the reactions of the characters like General Buck to the absurdly useless phone call the president takes with the Soviet Union. It connects the scene together for comic effect and aids in the ever-impending suspense of the Doomsday device. However, L cuts are used in The Shining for a completely different effect. When Danny first shines in the pantry with Dick an L cut is used to switch from Dick speaking to a close-up of Danny experiencing the shining. It is a similar technique but the resulting emotion is more sinister and supernatural.
Sound design is another salient quality attained in Kubrick’s filmography. From the eerie operatic choirs that seep from the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the screeching ring echoing off the walls in the Overlook hotel, sound was essential to designing the recognizable atmosphere in Kubrick’s works. While Kubrick utilized both diegetic and non-diegetic sound, he mostly favored diegetic. The lack of music during Dave’s confrontation with HAL 9000 is terribly frightening as we are only given the monotonous voice eerily reminiscent of our modern Siri admitting heinous and violent philosophies. Sound is incredibly important as it “engages a distinct sense mode” (Bordwell 264) and therefore the lack of it elicits a discomforting feeling. Likewise, the shrill ringing Danny hears as he shines gives the spectator an understanding that this is an unnatural phenomenon occurring.
After watching a Kubrick film it is almost expected of the spectator to sit for a good 10 minutes or so with a mind full of questions. Stanley Kubrick was at heart a perfectionist who had his hands on every single design process. It is what makes his style so prominent and unforgettable. A Stanley Kubrick film provokes us to ask questions about our existence and ponder what it means to truly be human. He was a true auteur, able to combine stunning cinematography with a well-developed narrative. And although his entire filmography spans only 13 feature-length productions, they are some of the most recognizable paragons of the twentieth century.
- Bordwell, D., Thompson, K. M., & Smith, J. (2020). Chapter 8: Style and Film Form. In Film Art: An Introduction (12th ed., p. 303, p.264). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
- Chiasson, D., & Bernstein, J. (2018, April 18). “2001: A Space Odyssey”: What It Means, and How It Was Made. Retrieved November 29, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/23/2001-a-space-odyssey-what-it-means-and-how-it-was-made
- Doman, D., & About Don DomanDon Doman: Professional writer and author. Ideas and Training – Human Resources/business training products for modern business. PublicDoman – Video production. (2018, July 11). A Shining Example of Communication and Conflict. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://thesubtimes.com/2018/07/16/a-shining-example-of-communication-and-conflict/
- Jacobs, D. (2018, March 19). Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the Subversion of Normalcy. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://plotandtheme.com/2018/03/19/stanley-kubricks-the-shining-and-the-subversion-of-normalcy/
- Kantilaftis, H. (2020, October 21). Stanley Kubrick. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/stanley-kubrick/
- London, M. (2019, May 11). Kubrick, the reverse tracking shot and the enigmatic fluidity of identity. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://mialondonblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/kubrick-the-reverse-tracking-shot-and-the-enigmatic-fluidity-of-identity/