From Fear and Desire in 1953 to 1999’s pre-50 Shades of Grey fetish movie Eyes Wide Shut via cranky computers and brutal gangs bearing ceramic penises, Stanley Kubrick is an unparalleled filmmaker who rewrote the rulebook while traversing genres.
As the retrospective Stanley Kubrick Film Festival prepares to showcase his entire oeuvre at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova and Sydney’s Hayden Orpheum, we asked several Australian filmmakers to share their personal favourites.
The director of Balibo was around ten years old and living in the Blue Mountains when his mum took him and his brother into Sydney to see a documentary about the bible, but he was about to be exposed to a very different kind of religious experience.
“We were good young catholic boys but it was the most boring documentary you could imagine,” he laughs. “2001: A Space Odyssey was playing down the road, she was so sorry for how boring it was that that she took us to it afterwards. It turned out to be the most significant spiritual experience of my life, long before I ever even contemplated a career in cinema.”
"It turned out to be the most significant spiritual experience of my life, long before I ever even contemplated a career in cinema."
He’s not joking. Speaking in reverential tones about the great director and regularly breaking off on anecdotal tangents, the grandly philosophical musings of 2001, encompassing the very nature of humanity, was revelatory.
“2001 was like a cryptic puzzle you had to unlock, and that’s part of the joy of it. I started to believe storytelling could be structurally bold and adventurous. It’s kind of a counter, really, to where contemporary cinema is at, where it just assumes everyone’s an idiot and everything has to be explained.”
Though Connolly hasn’t had an opportunity to make his own sci-fi movies as yet, something he dreams of doing one day, Kubrick’s embracing everything from period dramas to war movies gave him the courage to take on wildly successful children’s movie Paper Planes, confusing some critics.
He did sneak a 2001 reference into his 2001 film The Bank, starring David Wenham and Anthony LaPaglia, with its artificial intelligence computer B.T.S.E, voiced by Kate Crawford.
“Kubrick understood something about audiences and the captive nature of cinema,” he adds. “He knew that once you had them in that darkened space, you could confront and surprise them, or even infuriate.”
Novelist Stephen King infamously wasn’t a fan of Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 best seller. Nevertheless, 1980s The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, remains an iconic horror movie for many, including Down Under director Abe Forsythe.
Though his first experience was far from cinematic, catching it on VHS at home, he pints out that Kubrick shot the film pretty close to a TV’s aspect ratio. “From the opening aerial shots of that beautiful countryside paired with the disquieting music, you instantly knew something bad was coming,” he says. “I was too young to articulate what it was, but it was clear that whoever made this film was completely in control of how they were telling this story.”
Admitting the twin girl apparitions, “fucking terrified me,” he taps into that same primal fear every re-watch. ‘The final shot of Jack in the photo is as close to perfect as you can end a movie. It’s such a departure from the book, which I also appreciate on its own merits. Has Jack become part of the hotel or maybe he’s never left it? It doesn’t spell things out, which is one of Kubrick’s defining traits, but it doesn’t matter because the mood is so affecting and clear. That music too, so celebratory and sad at the same time.”
One of the things Forsythe most appreciates about Kubrick’s career is his dark sense of humour. “Dr Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange are prime examples and, for all its terror, The Shining has some unbelievably mordant moments of humour weaved throughout, most notably with how in your face Jack Nicholson’s performance is when he’s operating at full flight. He’s terrifying, but there are moments that you can’t help and laugh at how brutally over the top it is. Horror and comedy work in the same way, you’re setting up beats and then paying them off. And you can only do that successfully if you’re in control of the overall tone.
“The meticulous nature of Kubrick as a storyteller has never been matched and his films are timeless because of it.”
The director of queer redemption mystery Downriver first caught Kubrick’s final, unfairly maligned Eyes Wide Shut, starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a couple struggling with the spectre of infidelity, at the Newtown Cinema while studying film in Sydney. Its poetic structure had a profound effect on his understanding of the medium.
“It was an odyssey into unfaithfulness unfolding in dream logic, the likes of which I'd never seen before,” he says. “It was so mysterious and mercurial, I was gobsmacked. It’s poetic. It strikes a tone and it holds it so precisely, just like The Shining does, just like they all do, constantly confounding and satisfying.”
"It was an odyssey into unfaithfulness unfolding in dream logic, the likes of which I'd never seen before. It was so mysterious and mercurial, I was gobsmacked."
Scicluna rushed out and bought the Kubrick set shortly after, also revelling in Malcolm McDowell’s terrifying turn in 1971s violent dystopia A Clockwork Orange, but it’s Eyes Wide Shut that keeps on dragging him back in. “Every time I sneak it on just to watch a scene or two, I’ll end up watching the whole thing.”
When pressed to pick a favourite scene, Scicluna jumps ship and admits it’s actually Christiane Kubrick, the director’s wife, singing at the close of war movie Paths of Glory that has affected him most. “That innocence in the face of war is so heartbreaking.”
Kubrick’s use of music in film is key, Scicluna adds. “I don't think another filmmaker has made more impact on me with the clash and harmony of music. I've heard it said that Christiane was a big influence on Kubrick in this field. She'd suggest pieces of music he'd never heard of. Behind every good man is a good woman, hey?”
Finnish import Saara Lamberg, whose debut feature Innuendo releases next year, recalls watching Eyes Wide Shut sneakily on TV late at night hoping that her parents wouldn’t bust her. "It’s such a memorable story with beautiful performances and it’s also an interesting take on fragility of male egos," she says.
Recalling the scene where Tom Cruise’s Dr. William Harford first walks in on the ritualistic acts of the clandestine sexual cult he has infiltrated, she was hooked in. “His reaction to it all, the intrigue and the feeling of it being so wrong and right at the same time, and the internal conflict with the beautiful images, is gripping.”
Eyes Wide Shut is aesthetically alluring too. “It’s one of Kubrick’s more ‘beautiful’ works, nearly so much so that it becomes self-indulgent but, as a viewer, I enjoyed that journey,” she says.
Lamberg’s drawn to the auteur’s approach and the authenticity that allows. “The uncompromising vision and holistic approach to filmmaking, much more interesting work comes out of it when the director doesn't have to compromise with anyone. Kubrick doesn't steer away from subjects that may seem risky or edgy, and this is when filmmaking is at its best.”