Stanley Kubrick Directs:  Expanded Edition
Alexander Walker
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ), 1972

A brief internet research about the best books written about the life and works of Stanley Kubrick gave me quite a few results with Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs (Expanded Edition) topping the list. Since there wasn’t any book called Kubrick on Kubrick, I had to go for this one! Stanley Kubrick Directs is literally a page-turner, for it contains more images than text. The book is divided into six sections – The Man and Outlook, Style and Content and four chapters dedicated to four of Kubrick’s most famous films.

stanley_kubrick_directsA friend once remarked that there was spirituality in the way Max Ophüls’ camera moved. I was reminded instantly of Kubrick then. But surely, not for the same reason. Kubrick’s tracking shots are anything but spiritual. I should label them “satanic”. These bewitchingly ominous shots, in my opinion, are the essential sequences from each of the films – be it in the French war trenches, in Korova Milkbar or aboard the Discovery space shuttle. And reading that Kubrick was impressed by Ophüls’ films forced a smile on my face. This is not the only reason that I find the opening section of the book – Stanley Kubrick: The Man and Outlook – fascinating. Walker presents us all of Kubrick’s preoccupations as a child and as a teenager and later establishes how the reverberations of these influences find their way to most of Kubrick’s films. As a film buff, it is rewarding to dig deeper into Kubrick’s films after reading these facts.

But Walker follows it up with the most disappointing of all sections in the book. In this section, titled Kubrick: Style and Content, Walker aims to present us the working methods of Kubrick. Unfortunately, this part turns out to be nothing more than a briefing of Kubrick’s early films, till Lolita (1961), interspersed with elaborations of some obvious facets of Kubrick’s films. Walker’s digresses without hesitation and adulterates the section with facets not in line with the chapter’s objective and analyses that at times seem downright speculative.  As a result, this section seems like a poor excuse for a ramp up to Kubrick’s masterpieces that were to follow.

The book then presents us illustrated analysis of Kubrick’s Big 4 that followed – Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). The first two films here take up two thirds of the analysis section and ironically are the least satisfying. Both the analyses of Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are fraught with screenshots (by Halcyon) that are subsequently verbalized. Having presented the early influences of Kubrick, Walker should have let the audience connect the dots and interpret the film their own way. But he starts deconstructing Kubrick’s mise-en-scene frame by frame and strips us completely of the joy of discovering a film. No, I’m not cribbing, but it is a bit discomforting to see such great films presented cut and dried, preventing further exploration the reader may otherwise be tempted to perform. I know this is an analysis, but why at such grassroots level?

Surprisingly, Kubrick’s most profound film is given the least space. A big positive for this section is that it does not go over the top like many an analysis written on the film. Walker sticks generally to the technical and narrative aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and discusses “2001 that could have been” citing various choices made by Kubrick with respect to the script. However, it is dissatisfying to see the film grossly ignored in comparison to the earlier two films and sidelined to a smaller status. The film by itself warrants elaborate literature and any analysis should most definitely include the higher aspects it tries to encompass. Walker just grazes through those notions and it never looks like it is for the good of the audience.

But, comes the essay on A Clockwork Orange to salvage the book’s pride. This is the best of the four analyses and serves as a grand climax to an otherwise dissatisfactory book. This is one section that respects the complexity of the film but never once shirks discussion. Walker makes a great move by not just diluting the mise-en-scene by deconstructing it to particulars. He seamlessly integrates multiple ideas the film presents and provides us a solid critical analysis that clearly shines in comparison with the previous three. And it is this section that provides a sense of comfort when one closes the pretty ordinary book.

This book is widely considered the best book on Kubrick till date and that worries me. Kubrick’s canvas is visibly vast and if this is the best of literature available on him, there is a long way to go. Stanley Kubrick Directs does present considerable detail for people who are confused why he is the most critical Hollywood director on a technical level, but the treatment of the content of his film leaves a lot to be desired. May be I expected a bit too much.


Note: This is a section where I will be blogging on books on films and filmmakers. The entries will be far and few, but this will at least provide me an opportunity to read text – a thing that I used to hate till now.