Like Orson Welles, another great film director, Stanley Kubrick was not prolific in his career, making less than a dozen feature films and a few documentaries. Kubrick’s movie projects were always meticulously chosen. (His secretary remembers jumping whenever Kubrick rejected novels as movie projects by hurling them at his office wall one after another.)
Whether he was aware of it or not, Stanley Kubrick did seem to have a preoccupation with violence and its origins. The obvious starting point are the ape-men sequences at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where we seem to witness one of the first murders in history. Kubrick’s 1951 documentary, The Big Fight, is about a boxing match. Then we come to depictions of violent crime in The Killing (1956) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). There is also the sexual violence of the rape scenes in A Clockwork Orange and what would today be called paedophilia and toxic masculinity in Lolita (1962). The violence of war in Paths of Glory (!957), Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964), Barry Lyndon (1975), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). And the violence of relationships in The Shining (1980) (physical, psychological and emotional) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) (emotional). Even HAL, the spaceship’s computer in 2001, has homicidal tendencies.
Kubrick was also interested in exploring how violence affects the mind. We see that more in his later films like A Clockwork Orange, where we almost feel sympathy for the amoral thug Alex when he gets mentally and physically tortured by the future state he lives in to recondition him to be “normal.” “I was cured all right!” Alex quips sarcastically at the end of it all.
Then there is the descent into madness of Jack Torrance in The Shining and Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. When all three characters are at their most evil, they do the infamous Kubrick Gaze or Stare.
I also have a theory that Kubrick was doing his versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Spartacus being his Henry V (featuring the star and director of the 1944 Henry V movie, Laurence Olivier), A Clockwork Orange his Richard III, and The Shining his Macbeth. You could also argue that Eyes Wide Shut and its themes of marital jealousy and perceived female infidelity echo Othello and The Winter’s Tale. (Let’s not forget that Shakespeare was another artist interested in exploring violence as evidenced in the bloodbath of Titus Andronicus and the putting out of the old man Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear: “Out, vile jelly!”) It’s such a pity we never got to see an actual Kubrick adaptation of Shakespeare. What would have resulted from this meeting of great minds? We’ll never know, and it probably wouldn’t have interested Kubrick to go over such well-trodden ground as The Bard’s plays.
In another similarity with Orson Welles, he and Kubrick died at 70. By being spartan in their output, they never gave us a chance to get bored with them. They always left us wanting more (in the grand showbiz tradition). I think of them smoking cigars and watching and critiquing films together in the Great Movie Theatre in the sky.