Professional Maverick

By Steyn, Mark | The Spectator, March 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Professional Maverick


Steyn, Mark, The Spectator


What did the picture editor of Look see in the Bronx teenager's photograph? A weeping city news vendor surrounded by front pages announcing the death of President Roosevelt - and the small, tenderly caught moment that humanises great events. It got its 17-year-old snapper, Stanley Kubrick, a staff job at the magazine, and he never did anything like it again -- unless you count the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in which the computer HAL, the picture's only really human character, gets dismantled in what's easily the most moving death scene in the Kubrick oeuvre.

Stanley Kubrick is an important filmmaker because he established the definition of the job. In 1950, when he quit Look to sell his first documentary to RKO, a good movie director made as many movies as a bad movie director, it's just that some were better: in 1951 and 1952, for example, Raoul Walsh made eight pictures, which is as many as Kubrick made in the last 37 years. But in those days movie-going was still a habit: we went to the pictures with little more thought than we now go to the supermarket; if you liked westerns, you saw not just the great ones but the crummy ones, and, if there was no western that week, you saw a thriller. When TV put an end to routine movie-going, the theory was that now the adult audience was pickier, choosier, more discriminating. And no one was better at anticipating the kind of films that a discriminating audience would discriminate in favour of than Stanley Kubrick. Towards the end - which is to say, the last three decades - he nailed the process to a T, advertising the project's importance in the years of preparation, the hundreds of re-takes and the groaning weight of its theme, all of which effortlessly flattered the audience's sense of itself. One tiny example: the Peter Sellers gay pick-up scene with the motel clerk, in Kubrick's 1962 Lolita. What's it doing there? It's not in the book, it's nothing to do with the plot, and it doesn't even obliquely contribute to the story's broader environment, its mood and style. Given that Kubrick misses so much of the novel, you can't but wonder how this scene ever wound up in the picture. With hindsight, it may be the earliest extant cinematic example of gay chic and in that, as in so much else, he was way ahead of the game.

Dr Strangelove (1963) planted two phrases in the language - the title and the sub-title, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. The quaintly dated Sixties paranoia notwithstanding, I can testify to their enduring potency: on the day he died the New York Times coincidentally reprinted excerpts of a Canuck column of mine under a paraphrased headline (`How Canadians Stopped Worrying...', etc) and with an intro referring to `Dr Strangelove scenarios'. The film had nothing very useful to say about our nuclear future but it eerily foretold our cinematic one: think of its signature scene - the Armaggedonouttahere mushroom cloud, accompanied on the soundtrack by Vera Lynn singing `We'll Meet Again'. Irony, they call it in Hollywood. It was new in 1963, but it's compulsory today: Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, baying 'Singin' In The Rain' while battering the crap out of his hapless victim, has dwindled down to Quentin Tarantino using silly Seventies pop for the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Still, Kubrick appreciated the importance of those moments better than anyone: even as his once-a-decade pictures stood loftily above the fray, they were among the first to foretell pop culture's descent into circular self-reference. …

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