Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum
Georgina Bartlett reviews an exhibition celebrating the work of one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century
When searching for words to describe the late Stanley Kubrick, fastidious, calculating, and masterful all come to mind. The most overused label, though, would undoubtedly be ‘perfectionist’ – though unlike many perfectionists, Kubrick did not appear to care what others thought of him.
At least, many anecdotes back up how tunnel vision and dogged determination impacted his closest working peers. He certainly didn’t care about Shelley Duvall’s excruciating on-set experience during The Shining (1980), stress-induced hair loss and all. And it’s fair to assume he didn’t care when, in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), his leads entered a dreamlike state through a never-ending slew of repeated takes. As the Design Museum’s exhibition demonstrates, Kubrick’s high standards extended to every step and cog within the filmmaking process, from performances to props, and it’s this expression of meticulous control which sets him apart from other filmmakers. The Shining’s iconic Adler typewriter, one of the exhibition’s most famous treasures, is also the most emblematic: stacks of sheets reading “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” were painstakingly typed out by Kubrick’s secretary.
The director’s obsession currently leaves its paper trail – a 700-object strong archive – in Kensington’s Design Museum, at an internationally acclaimed and comprehensive exhibition. It’s about time, too, as Kubrick’s career has a longstanding place in London’s cultural legacy, just as the city leaves its mark on the director’s work. You need only look to his final cut: for the fantastically sinister Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick’s last picture released just before his death, New York’s Greenwich Village is recreated by a collage of London streets. Eyes Wide Shut, along with nine other of Kubrick’s films, are paid tribute with their own colour-coded section, complete with cinema rooms and plenty of context for film fans at any level of familiarity.
While its opening focuses on Kubrick’s signature one-point perspective, his early years, and his remarkable commitment to perfecting editing and research, most of the exhibition is mapped on Kubrick’s filmography. The finale is, expectedly, a rather larger display centred on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where the technological and design demands reached their apex. Landmark films such as these are paid substantially more attention than others but, taken together, we are presented with a thematic bundle of scandal, violence, and standout craftsmanship. Move from the battleground of Full Metal Jacket (1987) to a snapshot of press fervour surrounding Lolita (1962), then through to the more jarring display for A Clockwork Orange (1971), featuring overtly sexual mannequins and details on London’s brutalist architecture. After the bans and boycotts comes the Shining centrepiece, with its cubic, labyrinthine model of the Overlook Hotel’s maze and the matching blue dresses horror fans would recognise anywhere. And that baseball bat confrontation, shot in a record 127 takes, playing on loop in the background.
Through each step in Kubrick’s career, the art of filmmaking is traced through note-ridden scripts to shooting schedules and sketches to pieces of sets. More specifically, it is a record of the turbulent creative process and stringent dedication. Kubrick’s professed favourite stage of filmmaking may have been editing, but the depths of research he commanded is a far more interesting aspect of the showcase. Though Kubrick travelled very little himself, a vast, pre-Google network was in place to influence and contribute to his work on an international scale; the best biopic never made, Napoleon, was informed by a flurry of index cards recording each day of the general’s life. Such ridiculous stories build a brilliant character study – a physical history of the grind rather than a shallow trawl through recognisable memorabilia. For an indication of the exhibition’s ultimate message, see the wall-size image of bloody extras on the set of Spartacus (1960), each and every one labelled with a number and thorough instructions. It is just one example of Kubrick’s ability to keep everyone and everything in line with his specific vision, to dominate pre- and post-production as much as the director’s chair. He had a hand in every cut. Changes of heart resulted in reshoots. Kubrick’s command was the bottom line.
The exhibition doesn’t necessarily ignore Kubrick’s collaborators and influences, however. There’s Allen Jones, for example, the artist behind A Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milk Bar and its waitresses’ costumes. And in the green splinter dedicated to Full Metal Jacket, photographer Don McCullin displays his shots of the Vietnam War. Piecing together the exhibition’s entirety, though, it’s patently clear that it was Kubrick’s dedication that coloured page, screen and everything in-between. It should be a given, but the hard work on the technical side, that behind the camerawork and design for example, are best comprehended after watching as many Kubrick films as possible. To fully appreciate the Zeiss Planar film lens used to shoot Barry Lyndon, of course, you had better have witnessed the period drama’s candlelit conditions; based on a NASA camera of the 1960s, such an innovation allowed for the visual quality of a delicate 18th-century painting.
First and foremost, the exhibition celebrates Kubrick’s tendency to dabble in extremes. The takeaway message, at least in my experience, is that the ends justify the means when a ‘genius’ takes the driver’s seat. It isn’t particularly nuanced. Just as Duvall noted to Roger Ebert in 1980, often a “star director”, one placed on an even steeper pedestal by touring exhibitions such as these, outshines those who help write his work into history. We are certainly led to accept the presence of self-evident genius, and to brush aside the questionable morality of enacting ‘perfectionism’. Put simply, the obsession with Kubrick’s obsession can become a little bemusing after some contemplation. But if we accept the championing trumpets for an hour or so, there is much to enjoy at this exhibition. Detached from their beautifully crafted universes of each of his films, it’s fair to lose interest in prop after prop, but the recreation of an intricate, inventive process will capture many imaginations. Those interested in the man – or at least, one man – behind the curtain will spend their money wisely here.
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is open at the Design Museum until 15 September 2019. For more information, visit the website here.