Review: Stanley Kubrick - American Filmmaker

David Mikics tracks Kubrick’s progress with the assiduity of a scholar and the warmth of a fan


Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker by David Mikics (Yale University Press, £16.99)

If genius in the Romantic sense could claim a modern, American, artistic exemplar, Stanley Kubrick would be a leading candidate. A man of fanatic commitment, his is a rare instance in which personality and profession are perfectly matched. A Jew from the Bronx who never went to college, he became a photographer for Look magazine at the age of 17. He stepped up into film-making at a time when television seemed to have brought down the curtain on the great era of Hollywood. Living in the beat counter-culture of Greenwich Village, he immersed himself in European art-house productions and, by his early thirties, was one of a handful of directors leading American cinema into a new age of the auteur. 

Like Francis Coppola, ten years his junior, Kubrick revered Bergman and Antonioni and had Shakespeare in the bones. Unlike the contracted director of The Godfather, however, Kubrick had broken free of studio strictures by the early 1970s. Having captured the spirit of the later ’60s in Lolita, Dr Strangelove and, above all, the transcendent 2001, he was able to move quickly on to menacing, ironical, post-flower-child, new ground with A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. 

Kubrick’s instincts appealed to a changing zeitgeist without ever self-consciously tracking it. His oeuvre proceeded without repetition, each work being wholly of itself. He created from within, out of thematic compulsion and a vast range of interests. Who but, say, a Visconti could have equalled the period gorgeousness and exactitude of Barry Lyndon? Yet what Visconti could then have gone on to render such a contemporary nightmare as Full Metal Jacket? 

David Mikics tracks Kubrick’s progress with the assiduity of a scholar and the warmth of a fan. His book is another triumph in the Yale University Press series on Jewish Lives. Tantalising details emerge, such as that Kubrick was married throughout his four decades of success to a niece of German director Veit Harlan, whose Jud Süss had morphed a philosemitic novel by the Jewish émigré Lion Feuchtwanger into an antisemitic blockbuster beloved by Nazis. 

Kubrick spent years contemplating a film about the Holocaust, yet found his wife’s Munich-based family of opera and theatre bohemians “real fun”. He spent much of his career in England, on a manorial estate near St Albans, despite continuing to make films on American topics, albeit based on European inspirations. A story that had long haunted him by the Viennese Jew Arthur Schnitzler provided the plot of his swansong, the fantasia on sex in marriage, Eyes Wide Shut. 

These anomalies signal a life that defied category. They raise questions, and there are others that escape answer, too, such as how this absolute master managed repeatedly to muster the cash necessary to make art on such a Wagnerian scale. Mikics nails the work but, as so often in cases of genius, we are left to wonder about the mysteries of the creator. 

Stoddard Martin is an American-born  writer, critic and publisher

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