In discussing Stanley Kubrick and his influence, I often point people to three interviews with renown French film critic Michel Ciment. After 2001, Kubrick gave very few interviews and these serve as his only extended statements on Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Recently, audio portions from these conversations turned up.
In 1966 Jeremy Bernstein profiled Kubrick for The New Yorker. The 75-minute audio interview, along with the profile, are now available. This might well be the most candid Kubrick ever was on a recorded device, with the exception of him directing in The Making of Shining. In it, he details his early years–skipping out on school to work as a photographer for Look Magazine, his chess playing days in Washington Square Park, and how he made his first films. (After making his first short, he says: “I thought I’d get millions of offers, of which I got none to do anything.”)
The pivotal exchange in the interview is when Bernstein starts asking about the 1955 film, The Killing. Bernstein confuses the film with The Asphalt Jungle from 1950, which also stars Sterling Hayden. Kubrick quickly figures out that he has not seen the film (one of seven he had directed at that point). Kubrick’s response is as follows:
You probably haven’t seen the picture…You’re thinking of The Asphalt Jungle, that’s why you thought Marilyn Monroe was in it…You’re thinking of the wrong picture. You never saw The Killing. If you want to see it, there’s a print at the Museum of Modern Art.
That last directive is completely Kubrickian. He knew the MOMA film vaults well, as he watched the films they screened over and over again before directing his own.
Stanley Kubrick 1928-1999
Kubrick is the most financially successful maker of art films–something he strove for, vigorously. From overseeing advertising campaigns, as well as the paint color in movie theaters he would never visit, he brandished an inordinate amount of control over his product. Today, there remain thirteen films (plus three shorts) from his nearly 50 years of filmmaking.
On the surface he might not be as blatantly autobiographical as an Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes, but he saw himself in the lead roles of each his final three masterpieces. Barry Lyndon displays the cheating rogue who fights to get to the top of society’s upper echelons, as Kubrick himself had done to become a filmmaker, borrowing money to finance his earliest work. In The Shining, Jack Torrance is a failed writer (Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, had just failed at the box office) as well as a failed husband/father, (Kubrick’s wife and family speak adoringly in interviews but one can never know what happened behind closed doors). Finally, in Eyes Wide Shut, the pompous doctor who is financially independent (Kubrick was regarded as eccentric and pompous by the media, he became very wealthy) but still struggling as a husband–very ignorant of who his wife is.
Because he was able to center his breakout films around such zeitgeist topics as nuclear war and space travel, he secured an audience and close to complete independence, the likes of which no filmmaker ever enjoyed (the five Warner Brothers films after 2001 are the only such motion pictures in post-war Hollywood history where the director had so much control). No other art films (made as an expression of one soul but told through narrative means) have had such an enormous popular appeal.
Kubrick’s world is darkly humorous. Besides the obvious comedies (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange), there is no doubt he was laughing as he constructed HAL’s egotistic banter with the astronauts; Jack Torrance’s screaming to his wife (“Wendy, darling, light of my life, I’m not going to hurt you…I’m just going to bash your brains in, I’m gonna bash ‘em right the fuck in.”); Doctor Bill telling everyone he is a doctor in order to get special treatment; or Barry Lyndon’s fatuous commentary on paintings he might buy with his wife’s money when he has no artistic appreciation about him (“I love the painter’s use of the color blue.”).
After all the presentations of madness in his films (and contrary to the critical catchword “cold” he was so often pigeonholed with), Kubrick did sometimes show humanity as warm and loving. This is best exemplified in the scene where Barry’s son is on his deathbed, while his aggrieved parents stand by. Early in the same film, Kubrick presents Barry’s first meeting and seduction of his soon to be wife.
The establishing shots of the imperial castles punctuate the film (as do the long shots of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining). The fluid dolly shot across the rich garden gives way to a zoom (there are many zooms in the film, but often they start on particulars and back up) as a Schubert Piano Trio and the English narrator’s lilting voice prepare the viewer for the introduction of the main character’s soon-to-be wife. After these introductions, the narrator disappears and Barry and Lady Lyndon exchange desirous glances over cards (in the famous candle-lit scenes, for which Kubrick used the fastest lens in the world, from NASA, to shoot in such low levels of light), a fact that the Reverend to her side soon discovers, to his chagrin.
At 4:16, watch Barry Lyndon saunter behind Lady Lyndon. She has set herself up by announcing her withdrawing for air–she knows exactly what she’s doing and Barry does not miss a beat. I’ve always wondered if the wind ruffling her hat just before the kiss at 5:27 was intentional, if Kubrick had a wind machine ready, because it adds so much to something already so pregnant with provocative meaning. And then, after all that silence, the narrator bursts back in with a detail only God could know: “Six hours after they met, her ladyship fell in love.” Nothing about Barry’s feelings, only about how he “found innumerable occasions to improve his intimacy,” a direct quote from the source material, the Thackeray novel.
This dark and uncompromising look at human beings and how they connive typifies many moments in Kubrick’s films. Barry Lyndon doesn’t care about love and maybe can’t even summon it in himself anymore after his experiences in Ireland, the two armies, and working undercover both for a Minister of the Interior and the Chevalier.
Kubrick’s words to Ciment about this scene are most enlightening: “It’s very romantic, but at the same time, I think it suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow in their relationship.”