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The legacy of Stanley Kubrick and the Kubrick Archives

Stanley Kubrick would be 89 this year. It’s quite possible were he still alive that he would have made more films. At his death in 1999, he left a legacy of just twelve works of extraordinary cinema, as well as a few interesting early short films. This is a small output by the usual standards of filmmaking, but it reflects the intensity of care that went into each film and his willingness to abandon a project if he could not get funding for it or could not get a working script—as was the case for his Holocaust project, Aryan Papers, and his science fiction film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which was subsequently made by his friend, Steven Spielberg.

The extraordinary thing about the past 18 years since Kubrick’s death is that his reputation has grown, interest in his films is as strong as it has ever been, and critical writing about his films is not only on the increase, but has taken something of a spectacular turn.

During his life–at least since the 1960s–Kubrick gained the reputation as a recluse, living in seclusion in his manor house in the north of London. He was so little seen that, in the 1990s, an impostor appeared in London, convincing people that he was Stanley Kubrick. The fact is that Kubrick simply kept to himself with his family, eschewing publicity, always reading and preparing films, carefully, sometimes obsessively. Little was known about his life. He would allow one carefully vetted interview after the release of a new film with only silence in between. Shortly after his death, the family began talking about the life of the mysterious director and went some distance in humanizing him, despite the nasty memoir by Frederic Raphael, his scriptwriter on his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. His collaborators gave informative interviews and there were moving documentaries appended to the DVD releases of his films. But much more important than these was the donation of his papers, records, and scripts to the University of the Arts in London. Now there are, available to scholars, documents providing insights into the work, the preparations, preproduction, production, and distribution of Kubrick’s films.

One can trace, for example, the scriptwriting process of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle), and discover, among other things, what drove screenwriter Frederic Raphael to write that bitter memoir about working with Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open. The successive scripts are filled with Kubrick’s handwritten notes and post-its: “Follow Schnitzler,” “Keep it as short as Schnitzler,” “I don’t like the imagery,” “No wisecracks.” Even once: “Good line.” Raphael grew impatient. Annoyed faxes were sent. Eventually, Kubrick graciously took the script and wrote it to fit his vision, while giving Raphael full onscreen credit. And this is an important thing to understand about Kubrick’s creative process: he needed a head start from someone, whether a screenwriter or his actors. He needed to see, to understand what he needed, and pushed, sometimes relentlessly, to get it. The archives offer Kubrick scholars a way for them to see how the process of coming-to-be came to be.

The archives are certainly not complete. Kubrick’s favorite modes of communication were faxes, not all of which are preserved, and the phone, those long, late night phone calls that tried the patience of Kubrick’s collaborators. These, of course, were not recorded and therefore are not archived, meaning that a large part of the creative process is still left unknown.

The Kubrick Archives present yet another problem to the critical process itself. What does their existence mean to the interpretation of the canon? There are scholars who believe no serious work on Kubrick can be done without the appropriate archival research, that criticism and analysis must be tethered to the known facts that exist on the archived paper records. But does that mean that textual analysis—readings of the films as self-contained entities—is no longer valid? Not every film scholar will have the opportunity to make it to London.

As the novelty of the Archives wears off a bit, a balance will be reached. The depth of detail that can enable us to understand the minute particulars of the making of a particular film will be balanced, ideally combined with, intelligent readings of the films themselves, along with the background material gleaned from the Archives, that extraordinary collection of the work of an extraordinary cinematic mind.

Featured Image credit: Posters of Stanley Kubrick’s films, LACMA Dec 2012. Jane Rahman, CC BY 2.0 vie flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Damon Taylor

    How was Frederic Raphael’s memoir about working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut ‘nasty’? It was actually very interesting, and showed us a little about Kubrick’s work habits. It also revealed, along the way, that although Kubrick shared writing credit on that film with Raphael, his input to the script was a handful of conversations but no actual writing. Not sure how Raphael – or the WGA – was okay with that.

  2. Robert Kolker

    Raphael’s memoir is in the long tradition of screenwriters complaining about how their work was ruined or ignored or changed for the worse. In the case of “Eyes Wide Shut,” Kubrick finally took Raphael’s work and fashioned it to suit his needs. Michael Herr’s memoir about working with Kubrick is a much more reliable source.

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