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Kubrick’s Small Worlds/Big Ideas
by David Karren
Stanley Kubrick did not like being photographed but this rare image captured him in action with his steadycam operator on 'Barry Lyndon' (1975). photo: courtesy S. Kubrick
Environment is a key element in all feature films, as I endeavored to establish in my 2011 Cinesource essay, “
Big Ideas in a Small World: Trapped by Alfred Hitchcock
”. Whatever its size, scope or director;s intentions, a film's setting and sets help define its story, theme and characters.
Alfred Hitchcock and many equally talented filmmakers have intentionally used limited environments to enhance the drama while still exploring large themes. Even though circumscribed locations and small casts can out a movie as low budget or second rate, if that film has a powerful concept coupled with good writing it can present an experience more substantial than films with far larger budgets and casts.
Stanley Kubrick, one of our greatest directors, took advantage of this approach in several of his films to explore some of his key themes, some might say obsessions: the alienation and dehumanization of human beings through circumstance, tragic flaw or dictatorship. The locations of Kubrick’s films “assume a dynamic role as part of the total concept, usually a role that is hostile or cynically disposed to the human fates that are being settled under their shadow,” as Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor, and Ulrich Richti write in their definitive book on Kubrick (p 106-107).
Throughout Kubrick’s filmography, we can watch how environment reflects character. In the low budget "Killer’s Kiss" (1955), “The young boxer, at the start as captive as his own goldfish in the bowl in his dingy tenement room, sits out the last hour or two before his big fight; across the courtyard a lighted window reveals a girl getting ready for her night’s stint at some treadmill job. One life can look through the New York darkness into another life, yet the two lighted squares of glass only emphasize the couple’s apartness. They are unaware of each other to the point of invisibility, each self-isolated, virtually imprisoned in lives that are soon revealed as humiliating and hopeless.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti, p 45)
Even in his most ambitious projects, such as "Paths of Glory" (1957), "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), and "2001" (1968), “the principal setting is one in which the dominant regime has constructed in its own image, rather in the way that Hitler’s growing pretensions to extend his rule over space and time in his “Thousand-Year Reich” were encapsulated in the architecture designed and, in some cases, built for him by Albert Speer… the chateau in 'Paths of Glory', the War Room in 'Dr. Strangelove', and the Wheel space station in '2001,' represent Kubrick’s most distinctive ways of using a created environment to contain, define, and dominate the protagonists.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti, p 107).
Peter Sellers wails on the character modeled after Werner von Braun in the thrilling climax to Kubrick's orgy of confined space, 'Dr. Strangelove' (1962). photo: courtesy S. Kubrick
In "Paths of Glory", Kubrick contrasts the general staff, led by the heartless General Mireau, as they confer complacently in a large, perfectly appointed chateau, with their frightened, exhausted troops, led by the compassionate Colonel Dax, as they huddle in narrow, muddy trenches. “The gap between leaders and led is implicit in the film’s settings.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti, p 83)
How "Paths of Glory"’s characters interact with their environments also helps define them. “When General Mireau visits Dax in his dugout, he moves, ill at ease, through the torturous trench system, stiffly complimenting soldiers with hollow exhortations to valor; but Dax, taking this same route before the attack, moves like a man among his fellow men.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti 73-74)
The irony is that, while "Paths of Glory" offers some amazing battle scenes and a sense of epic scope; the project was actually shot on a relatively low budget. In focusing his story on two principal locations, the chateaus of the generals and the trenches of their troops, Kubrick was able to effectively manage the costs of his film. A side benefit of the big idea/small world concept is that the universe presented to the audience can appear far more substantial than what was actually produced.
Even when a Kubrick film dramatized the destruction of all human existence, the director would focus his story on a relatively tiny slice of it. "Dr. Strangelove" is a satiric examination; one could argue the best of its kind, of the end of civilization through nuclear annihilation. However, despite the film’s thematic ambitions, the world it presents on screen is surprisingly limited in time, space, and characters.
“What happens in 'Dr. Strangelove' is confined to a few hours and to three highly localized settings. Each setting, moreover, is sealed off from the others. One is a locked office on an air base commanded by a psychotic general; another is in the cabin of a B-52 H-bomber captained by a moronic pilot; and the third is the underground War Room at the Pentagon, dominated by a manic war monger and his malignant counterpart, a power-mad nuclear strategist. Insanity is sealed in with the characters; they are locked into their “cells,” just as the fate of the people they rule or represent is locked into the events… for a picture that illustrates the end of the world, the actual areas involved are absurdly small.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti, p 116)
Kubrick's '2001' is lousy with ever reducing confined space, from the space station to the Mars module to just a space suit. photo: courtesy S. Kubrick
In "Barry Lyndon" (1975), the title character travels from his isolated country home to experience a series of adventures on the battlefield and in the bedroom until he settles into a foredoomed life in a sprawling estate as an ersatz English gentleman. In this cold, judgmental world, “a sense of architecture closes in on Barry.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti 257) No matter the size or comfort of the rooms Barry may occupy in his wife’s mansion, he is still a prisoner of his class and his own damaged personality. “Kubrick makes space seem oppressive even when Barry is sharing an intimate moment with his son.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti, p 256)
It’s in "The Shining" (1980) that Kubrick’s understanding of how environment serves character is illustrated in the most frightening sense. As the film begins over a helicopter shot of a mountain range, “an unsettling presence intrudes: Jack Torrance’s tiny automobile, seen from above, moves like a grub through paradise, toward the massive bastion of the Overlook Hotel. Such awesome space as the Rocky Mountains—crucial in a story where hostile weather is a conspiratorial agent of entrapment—turns naturally into the walled architecture of physical confinement in the Overlook.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti 283)
On the surface, this movie is nothing more than an expensively produced horror film based on a Stephen King novel. The cast is tiny; most of the action focuses on three characters, Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their young son Danny. However, as Jack surrenders his humanity to the sinister influence of the Overlook Hotel where his family is sequestered for a very long and cold winter, we witness the man’s destruction in the most appalling manner. The vast interiors of the place dwarf Jack as if he were a bug in a bathtub, emphasizing how lost the character is, physically and emotionally. In the huge, empty Overlook, Jack loses his soul as well as his way; we see the inner life of this man while he abandons it. This is a film “constructed around the reality of physical “space,” and what happens to the sanity of an individual afflicted by too much of it.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti 312)
Kubrick pushes "The Shining" far beyond the simple-minded plot of a crazed father beguiled by malignant ghosts available in the source material. “In King’s novel, Torrance is a pawn of the past, incited to kill by those whose own lives are extinct. In Kubrick’s version, he becomes his own past, unable to escape from it.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti 293)
While it’s true that Kubrick, for the bulk of his career, helmed projects that were blessed with healthy budgets and lengthy schedules, today’s filmmakers should still take note. With every project, the director proved definitively that big ideas in a small world can make for captivating drama. If a story is developed properly with a strong theme and deeply felt characters, budget and schedule be damned.
Walker, Alexander, Taylor, Sybil, Ruchti, Ulrich. Stanley Kubrick, Director. New
York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Film Guide. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Kubrick, Stanley, Willingham, Calder, Thompson, Jim, screenwriters. Paths of
Glory. 1957. DVD. MGM/UA, 2001.
Stanley Kubrick Collection, various dates. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. various.
DVD. Warners, 2004.
Posted on Oct 29, 2012 - 08:10 PM