A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions, and it’s the director’s job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible.” Stanley Kubrick was not the kind of filmmaker who had much time for film theory. His pragmatism contrasted starkly with the quixotic cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, his near contemporary. It is not particularly surprising, then, that when Godard reviewed Kubrick’s 1956 film noir The Killing in the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958, he cattily described it as “the film of a good student, nothing more”.
He was not alone among French critics in finding the self-assured young New Yorker’s work slightly spurious. Kubrick’s next film, Paths of Glory (1957), a story of corrupt French world war one generals unjustly executing three soldiers under court martial (banned in France until 1976) was described by Le Monde’s reviewer as a “mediocrity”, while the critic Henry Chapier wrote acidly about Lolita in 1962 that “pornography would have been preferable to this slow, over talkative, moralising melodrama”.
Yet now all is forgiven, with the Cinémathèque Française in Paris (“cinema’s spiritual home” as film director Martin Scorsese calls it) mounting a travelling exhibition on Kubrick and giving him a complete retrospective (with the exception of his first fiction film, Fear and Desire). This is the Cinémathèque’s version of a 21-gun salute and another indication of the move towards a more populist programme for the Bercy-based institution, under Serge Toubiana, its director since 2003. The approach seems to be paying dividends, if the long queues snaking through the Parc de Bercy are anything to go by.
The show, covering all of the Cinémathèque’s vast two-floor exhibition space, is a formidable undertaking. The completed films are arranged in chronological order, with a mixture of objects displayed (heavily annotated scripts, promotional material, letters, props, lenses, cameras, costumes, shooting schedules, reviews) and extracts from the films themselves, spliced with interviews from Jan Harlan’s eloquent if relentlessly hagiographic 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.
On the top floor, there is a section devoted to Kubrick’s early career as a photographer for Look magazine and to his various unmade projects: Aryan Papers, set during the Holocaust and, notably, his biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, which, he said in 1971 with characteristic assurance, would be “the best movie ever made”.
The exhibition is like an endless audio-visual cabinet de curiosités. For Kubrick aficionados, it can’t be too far from paradise. One passes from the elegantly regimental German shooting plan for Paths of Glory, with its millimetre-wide squares painstakingly coloured red to denote the start of each scene, to the uncomfortably suggestive (never released) promotional photographs of Sue Lyon, who played Lolita in Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.
There’s Alex DeLarge’s sword cane from Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian tale of gang violence, A Clockwork Orange, employed to such devastating effect by Malcolm McDowell in the famous scene where Alex slashes the wrist of a rebellious “droog”. It is unexpectedly small but looks suitably dangerous. Also on show is the Zeiss 50mm camera lens from Kubrick’s 18th-century picaresque epic Barry Lyndon. Designed for Nasa to use on the moon, it was co-opted by Kubrick because it was the only lens that could shoot at a fast enough speed to film by candlelight. The object is less impressive than the tale that goes with it.
Beyond the exhibits themselves, though, the image that emerges from the show is of an obsessive collector of information, a detail junky. The material for Kubrick’s epic Napoleon project is striking mostly for its documentation of an obsession. Kubrick amassed a library of some 500 volumes on Napoleon, assembled a numbered picture index of more than 17,000 contemporary images and employed 20 graduate students to create a complete historical index for every historical character connected with Napoleon’s life. These are all collated in a book, a gargantuan literary folie de grandeur, Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, displayed here.
Kubrick was the same with all his films, from fruition to projection. When Barry Lyndon opened in France in 1976, Kubrick discovered that most cinemas didn’t have the right aperture mask to frame the film correctly, so he sent one to every single cinema. More than once, he re-cut films after they had been theatrically released.
The only serious flaw in this extravaganza of Kubrick paraphernalia is its failure to convey the full complexity of his mental outlook and working practices. Partly because the show has been created by Kubrick’s widow Christiane and his brother-in-law, it is reverential in tone, but you never quite lose the suspicion that almost every sentence written about Kubrick could be followed by an equally true, contradictory parenthesis.
Pick up the informative audioguide, voiced by a sardonic Malcolm McDowell – “your humble narrator” – and you begin to plumb the internal contradictions of Kubrick’s character. He was a loving husband and yet he treated women with contempt on set. He was a loyal friend to some but he drove others – such as the cinematographer John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon) or Sir Ken Adam, designer of Dr Strangelove’s war room – to vow never to work with him again due to the ever-increasing absurdity of his demands (20-hour days, shooting more than 50 takes, filming on Christmas day).
Kubrick was worldly in his interests yet incredibly parochial in his working life, insisting that every film he made after Barry Lyndon be shot as near as possible to his house in Hertfordshire: he even recreated Vietnam in a former gasworks in east London for his penultimate 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket.
In one of the notes in his voluminous folders on Napoleon, Kubrick makes a typically gnomic observation: “Military genius defies analysis, for, as Napoleon himself said, ‘Everything is in the execution.’” For Kubrick too, as this exhibition demonstrates, the execution was all: the apertures, the shooting speeds, the takes, the rushes on the cutting room floor and the final version. As for Kubrick the man, he remains elusive in this show, skulking in the shadows of his shots, forever concealed behind the camera.
‘Stanley Kubrick’, Cinémathèque Française, Paris until July 31. Film retrospective runs until April 18. www.cinematheque.fr