Issue 82 April 2004 RSS

Information Man


Exhibited for the first time in Frankfurt, Stanley Kubrick's archive reveals the working methods of a director obsessed with detail and veracity.


In his popular work of non-fiction on the evolution of early man, African Genesis (1967) Robert Ardrey describes culture and technology as achievements that emerged from the struggle for survival among animals. Ardrey wrote vividly in the historical present of a fictitious eye-witness: ‘When two groups sight each other, each on the fringe of its territory, all break into total rage.’ It’s a sentence that could have been written straight into the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the prologue of which is set in Africa and features scenes that could have served as illustrations for Ardrey’s book.

And indeed Kubrick, who died in 1999, owned a copy of African Genesis - he studied it carefully, underlining numerous passages. It is only one of the many sources for his films revealed for the first time in an exhibition of the Kubrick Estate at the German Film Museum in Frankfurt until 4 July. The book was characteristic reading matter for the director, illustrating the importance for this most meticulous of filmmakers of processing information, and in particular a specific form of non-fiction, into narrative cinema. What fascinated him about the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the short story on which 2001 was based, was that its extrapolations implied scientific plausibility.

Ardrey’s book is of a related genre. His conjectures on the social life of apes are brought to life by the imagination of someone forced to flesh out meagre facts. Kubrick was in his element with such texts. In 2001 Dave Bowman, the astronaut, is a more brilliant data processor than the faulty computer HAL. At the end of the film when Bowman dives through time and space, it is no coincidence that he wakes up in a Louis XVI-style interior - conceivably a room that evokes Kubrick’s own home in England.

The director’s spacious property near St Albans still houses Kubrick’s estate, some of it painstakingly archived, some simply stored away and forgotten. The cataloguing of this mass of material has only just begun, with the German Film Museum playing a key role, thanks to links with Kubrick’s heirs, established during an exhibition of the production designer Ken Adam. Although the material available so far does not encourage a revision of our understanding of Kubrick as an artist, it does afford interesting insights into the progressive historicism of his work after 1968. For his unrealized project on Napoleon, for example, the director collected no less than 18,000 images and commissioned a day-by-day chronicle of the Emperor’s life, as well as keeping copies of the 1970s board games that allowed amateur strategists to reconstruct famous battles. This mix of data positivism and photographic memory is characteristic of all of Kubrick’s important later works, from the tableau vivant banquets in Barry Lyndon (1975) to the orgies in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

The oldest note in the archive, about a film version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (Dream Story, 1925), the novel on which Eyes Wide Shut is based, dates from 1968, the year 2001 premiered. It reads ‘Rhapsody - 5/22 J. Cocks - agent says 40,000 but obviously high’. Although this handwritten entry probably only refers to an initial version f the script, for which Jay Cocks was being considered, it shows the patience with which Kubrick worked on his ideas. Once all of his estate has been systematically viewed, it should allow a more detailed understanding of the metamorphoses of the last film Kubrick completed before his death, assuming that versions written without Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in mind can be reconstructed.

The Hollywood stars set strict limits from the outset for the representation of sexual experience in Eyes Wide Shut. As a result, Kubrick was forced into the same kind of self-censorship as Schnitzler was when writing the original novella. But it was a state of affairs that worked in his interest, as his take on cultural history reflected little difference between fin de siècle Vienna and the New York of a century later. Seduction is based not on physical allure but on a system of inclusion that hides behind a slightly ridiculous mask. Kubrick understood sexuality (and war) not in dynamic terms, but on the basis of ordering principles derived from his research. What interested him about Vietnam was a similar ritual of horde formation and exclusion he had already read about in African Genesis. Kubrick’s films are closer to the diorama, the theatrical presentation of knowledge as a time capsule, than to the conventional experience of time.

Kubrick never lost his interest in state-of-the-art technology. He made early use of the computer, sought contact with Apple’s Steve Jobs, and read Hans Moravec’s M.I.N.D. Children (1988) before its author become one of the stars of ‘Third Culture’. But he remained a man of the 19th century, oriented towards an anthropology of visibility that expected the unconscious to manifest itself through signs in the real world. It is no coincidence that he read ‘all the books on the Holocaust in English’ without ever making a film on the subject. His project for an adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies (1991), under the working title Aryan Lies, was the closest he came to such a film. But here too, the typical delaying tactics are apparent, with Kubrick ordering photographs from the set of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) to fine-tune the period character of the production. Not a centimetre of film was ever shot.

The Kubrick aporia is illustrated particularly well by A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), a science fiction project based on a story by Brian Aldiss. In its visual form, the film was more or less ready, and all Steven Spielberg had to do was to ‘humanize’ it to fit his own oedipal psychology, so different from Kubrick’s. While Spielberg was able to film even Auschwitz without major scruples, Kubrick’s Aryan Lies project was hobbled by his hunger for information. Ideally, he would have liked to adapt Raul Hilberg’s book The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) for the screen - a wealth of material that can hardly be communicated via a visual medium. But he never advanced beyond fundamental questions. ‘The how and why did it happen seems to me the most interesting question,’ he noted on a card found between the pages of his copy of Hilberg’s book: ‘Is there a concentration camp stories [sic] which together says something worth saying?’ He seems to have sensed that his method of ahistorical realism trained on historical representations was unable to do justice to the Nazi death machine. In this way, the ongoing study of Kubrick’s estate brings to light a trace of doubt in an oeuvre marked by visual confidence.

George Pendle

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Issue 82, April 2004

by George Pendle

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