Today is the birthday (1928) of Stanley Kubrick, often called one of the greatest and most influential directors in cinematic history by directors themselves. His films, which are mostly adaptations of novels or short stories, cover a wide range of genres, and are noted for their realism, dark humor, unique cinematography, extensive set designs, and evocative use of music. A bit of biography first, then I will weigh in with personal comments, and some foodie stuff.
Kubrick was raised in the Bronx in New York City, and attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945. Although he received only average grades, Kubrick displayed a keen interest in literature, photography, and film from a young age, and taught himself all aspects of film production and directing after graduating from high school. After working as a photographer for Look magazine in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he began making short films on a shoestring budget, and made his first major Hollywood film, The Killing, for United Artists in 1956. This was followed by two collaborations with Kirk Douglas, the war picture Paths of Glory (1957) and the historical epic Spartacus (1960). His reputation as a filmmaker in Hollywood grew, and he was approached by Marlon Brando to film what would become One-Eyed Jacks (1961), though Brando eventually decided to direct it himself.
Creative differences arising from his work with Douglas and the film studios, a dislike of the Hollywood industry, and a growing concern about crime in the US prompted Kubrick to move to the United Kingdom in 1961, where he spent most of the remainder of his life and career. His home at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, which he shared with his wife Christiane, became his workplace, where he did his writing, research, editing, and management of production details. This allowed him to have almost complete artistic control over his films, but with the rare advantage of having financial support from major Hollywood studios. His first British productions were two films with Peter Sellers, Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Kubrick, because he was a manic perfectionist, assumed control over most aspects of the filmmaking process, from direction and writing to editing, and took painstaking care with researching his films and staging scenes, working in close coordination with his actors and other collaborators. He often asked for several dozen retakes of the same scene in a movie, which resulted in many conflicts with his casts. Despite the resulting notoriety among actors, many of Kubrick’s films broke new ground in cinematography. The scientific realism and innovative special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were without precedent in the history of cinema, and the film earned him his only personal Oscar, for Best Visual Effects. For the 18th-century period film Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick obtained lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA, to film scenes under natural candlelight. With The Shining (1980), he became one of the first directors to make use of a Steadicam for stabilized and fluid tracking shots. While many of Kubrick’s films were controversial and initially received mixed reviews upon release—particularly A Clockwork Orange (1971), which Kubrick pulled from circulation in the UK following a mass media frenzy—most were nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, or BAFTA Awards, and underwent critical reevaluations. His last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was completed shortly before his death in 1999 at the age of 70.
In the 60s and 70s I was pretty clueless about the names of movie directors, but I had watched a number of Kubrick’s movies without realizing that they were all directed by the same guy because they were so fundamentally different. I saw Dr Strangelove, 2001, and Clockwork Orange, more or less when they were first released, and I saw The Killing and Paths of Glory on television around the same time. By the time Clockwork Orange came out, I was in college and my friends, who were much more savvy than I was, alerted me to the fact that Kubrick was the director and that he was responsible for 2001. It was not until I saw a retrospective of all of Kubrick’s films (to date) in 1981 at Purchase College, where I was teaching (and which has a well-known conservatory of Theater Arts and Film), that I was able to fit all of the pieces of the puzzle together, and marvel at his extraordinary range and depth of cinematic ideas.
Around the time that I saw the retrospective, I used the original book of Clockwork Orange in my Freshman Studies class, and screened the movie alongside reading the book. That was another eye-opening experience because Kubrick’s film follows the book quite closely, although the endings are fundamentally different (no spoilers – read the book). If all you know of Kubrick are Clockwork Orange and 2001, you will recognize the skill with which he melds image and music in the two. I will break with the critics in saying that I found 2001 highly tedious. In my ever-humble opinion, special effects trump story in the movie, and we have been paying for this triumph ever since. All my friends loved seeing docking at the space station to the Blue Danube, and plunging through a kaleidoscopic vortex hooked on to the monolith, quite possibly because they were smoking something other than tobacco (back in the days when cinemas allowed smoking). I found them then, and found them now, a big yawn. I’m not happy with special effects that do not advance the story line, even though they are impressive. I did like HAL and there is a post here to prove that: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/hal-9000/ At the time I was also a fan of Richard Strauss’s music, although I occasionally wish that people knew more about Thus Spake Zarathustra than the opening bars. I did wonder at the time, also, whether the pairing of the music of Johann and Richard was a wink to those in the know.
For me, Dr Strangelove will always stand as his masterpiece, not least because of the tour de force of Peter Sellers’ acting – played perfectly straight in all three parts, yet so comprehensively different – and the sheer genius of casting Slim Pickens as the bomber pilot. I don’t know how many times I have seen the movie, but I’ll put it on again once I finish this post. It cracks me up every time I watch. Pair it with Paths of Glory and you see Kubrick’s anti-war stance from completely different angles.
Kubrick’s curtain call, Eyes Wide Shut, produced 12 years after his previous movie, was much anticipated, and I, like many critics, ended up being disappointed after the long wait and endless fanfare. To be fair, I find Cruise and Kidman to be underwhelming as actors to begin with, but there seemed to be way too much Kubrick stagecraft, and way too little in the way of a coherent story line (with a seemingly pointless need to try to tie up loose threads at the end). For a supposedly erotic tale, it’s not even all that sexy. Maybe, again, that’s because I think of Tom Cruise as a short, funny-looking scientologist with a fat ego and not much else.
I am impressed by the fact that Kubrick features dining scenes in many of his movies. In 2001, for example, every situation – including the opening with the hominids – features eating prominently. Perhaps it’s just my proclivities as a cook, but quite often I leave a movie thinking: “How did we spend so much time with these characters, and yet never saw them eating once?” I never ask that question after a Kubrick movie. Given that Kubrick is well known for insisting on dozens of takes for scenes, I’m more inclined to wonder how many spit buckets the actors needed whenever they had to film eating sequences. “My Dinner with Stanley: Kubrick, Food, and the Logic of Images” by Mervyn Nicholson, is much too heavy handed overall – almost amusingly so – but it does point out how life itself and the act of eating are inextricably interwoven in Kubrick’s films.
Given all of the above, it is certainly discouraging to discover that Kubrick’s own food tastes were screamingly generic. It is reported, for example, that throughout the filming of The Shining he lived almost exclusively on Big Macs, and his daughter noted that he enjoyed egg rolls in what seems to have been a highly forgettable Chinese-American restaurant they frequented. I am most emphatically not going to recommend either for a celebratory meal. The actual meals in Kubrick’s movies offer little help either. The generals in the chateau at the end of Paths of Glory are breakfasting on boiled eggs and croissants; the meals on arrival at the lunar colony in 2001 are either the liquid mush of actual lunar trips of the 1960s or rather ordinary, manufactured chicken sandwiches, and while Dave Bowman’s final dining scene at the end of his journey to Jupiter is set elegantly, the meal itself (not clearly visible) seems to be salad and grilled meat with a dinner roll that could be a reject from a cheap diner. I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that, while Kubrick showcased food and eating as vital to life itself, he treated food as fuel for the body rather than a delight.
Rather than recommend that you eat anything that works as fuel I have chosen a Hertfordshire recipe in honor of the fact that Kubrick lived and worked for most of his adult life at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, and is buried there along with his daughter. His widow still lives there. Hertfordshire is hardly the culinary Mecca of England, but it has numerous local recipes, mostly from the 19th century when it was a rural county rather than a dormitory for commuters to London. This is a local recipe for a cream soup of cucumber and green peas.
Hertfordshire Green Pea and Cucumber Soup
1 lb cucumber, seeded and diced
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 ½ pints chicken stock
1 lb fresh green peas
1 oz butter
¼ pint cream
salt and pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion and sauté over medium heat until transparent.
Add the carrot, cucumber, and peas and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the stock and grated nutmeg to taste, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook for 30 minutes
Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool enough so that you can process it. Put the soup in a blender (in batches if necessary), and process until thoroughly smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Put the blended soup and half the cream in a clean saucepan, and heat almost to boiling. Serve in deep bowls with some cream swirled into each, and garnished with chopped chives.