Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Introduction
Treating filmmaking as a Rorschach test
Ever since his abrupt death on March 7th, 1999, Stanley Kubrick has managed to remain a fresh artist that every new generation has come to admire in sublime and cultish ways. It was ironic that the man who produced a vision of the future so breathtaking four decades prior was unable to see the vast technological progress that took place a few years after his death, the progress that led to more people discussing his work in the confines of the internet. His movies are regular features on streaming services, and they are heavily analyzed on social media forums among devoted admirers.
There are many factors that have contributed to Kubrick’s appeal, but the most noteworthy was his distinct style when approaching a film. Kubrick’s movies were not your typical Hollywood production. There were meaning and purpose behind every frame, and his perfectionism resulted in a very particular look and feel to his films. A Kubrick picture is different from that of its contemporaries. He was not interested in capturing the standard emotions of filmmaking. He was trying to find a subliminal and sub-conscious experience that offered a powerful insight into an aspect of our humanity.
The path that Kubrick took to recognition was unorthodox, to say the least. He never graduated high school and his only real interests were photography and chess. He worked for Look magazine for over six years, and his experiences gave him enough confidence to make his own film. The subject of his first film was a boxer getting ready for a fight. It was a work of non-fiction, a documentary. The film sold well, and a young Kubrick was able to make friends that would help him in other ventures. He went straight to work on his first feature film, Fear and Desire, in 1952. Kubrick handled most of the technical aspects of the film, as it only had enough budget for 15 people. He was not pleased with the results. During an interview, he recalled his emotions at the time, expressing affirmatively that the experience changed him. Despite the perceived failure, the film gathered enough interest to give Kubrick another chance, one that he took full advantage of for the rest of his career.
Kubrick’s filmography consists of thirteen full-length films and three short documentaries. His work spans five decades. It is rare to see an artist produce so little work yet be so universally praised at the same time. It is an honor bestowed to the very best filmmakers and novelists. As previously mentioned, Kubrick was very intricate and obsessive in the perfection of his work. He would spend years into pre-production on some projects and months filming pass the expected schedule if need be. The amount of takes he would do for a scene ranged in the dozens, and many actors felt uncomfortable and exhausted after filming.
With this kind of attention to detail and reputation, it is of no surprise to learn that Kubrick prepared every scene up to its smallest observation. The effort is noticed in each of his productions. However, it is interesting to observe that throughout his filmography, Kubrick took a simplistic approach in the introduction of his movies.
The start of a film is one of the most important aspects of a film’s creation. It has the task of setting the tone for the rest of the narrative, and give a good reason to keep the viewer interested in what’s ahead. In a way, the beginning’s job is to hypnotize the viewer into a state of complete interest for a specific period of time. Kubrick understood this as much as any filmmaker does, but he added his own twist and method to the idea.
Kubrick used two contrasting concepts to begin every film he made from Dr. Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut: silence and music. Every opening scene, with the exception of Barry Lyndon’s, was silent, accompanied by background music. The silent image was juxtaposed with the music, and together it created an ideal tone and setting for the film. It elicits a reaction from its viewers. As each of his films differed in tone, style, and genre, each shot captured a different feeling. What they all have in common is their success in capturing the essence of their respective films.
In Dr. Strangelove, the title cards are shown as a B-52 airplane is being fueled while the song Try a Little Tenderness plays in the background. It is a soft melody that soothes the ears, and it perfectly captures the absurdity of the events that followed. His next film is considered by many to be his magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is one of the most iconic film intros in history. The movie begins with a 2 minutes black screen as the song Overture: Atmosphere plays in the background. This is subsequently followed by a fade reveal of the moon. The camera begins to move up, revealing that the moon, the Earth and the sun are lined up perfectly. While this is taking place, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra plays in a spectacular rendition. Kubrick’s intentions were to capture the wonder of space through the use of visuals and music.
While his next two films bend the use of silence, both tweaks serve the narrative to great effect. A Clockwork Orange begins with a sinister tone. A synthesizer plays a rendition of Music for the Funeral March of Queen Mary, arranged by Wendy Carlos. The recording gives the song a robotic and mechanical feeling to its existence. The song continues after the title cards, and the first frame we see is of Alex staring viciously and malignantly at the camera. The camera zooms out and begins to move across the hall, revealing Alex’s companions and an exotic background. Alex’s narrative is introduced about halfway to the scene, offering a description of the place while giving us a glimpse of what’s to come. Kubrick captured the tone of the story by constructing a slowly paced visual to unease the viewer but fill him with intrigue.
His approach for Barry Lyndon was similar, but it was set up to capture a different tone. For this film, Kubrick wanted to capture the aura of Victorian-era England. To do so, he presented the main titles with the composition of Sarabande by Georg Haendel. He used natural instruments for this occasion. The song is cut when the title sequence ends, and we are swiftly introduced to a gorgeous landscape in which two men are preparing to duel. We hear the sounds of each man present all while the narrator begins to explain what is taking place. After preparations, the shots were fired, and one of the men fell to the ground. The narrator reveals that the man who died was Barry’s father, setting up the long string of events that led to Barry’s journey into nobility. For all intents and purposes, it is Kubrick’s most standard opening.
The same cannot be said about his next film, The Shining. By far his most analyzed work, to many it is just as iconic as 2001, as it adequately gets its viewers in a state of unnerving tension right from the very start. This emotion is captured through the use of music, which gives the visual a sense of horror. The film begins with a gorgeous tracking shot of the Colorado landscape. The main theme, arranged by Wendy Carlos, plays at the very instant the scene is introduced. The song has distinct and eerie noises plastered throughout. You feel like they’re part of the visuals. Instead of admiring the cinematography, the music infects the image and turns it into a journey of danger and mystery. The scene is moving all across the mountains, and appears to be stalking a yellow Volkswagen Beetle moving up. The final shot we see is that of the hotel, giving us a feeling that the camera is alive and watching over it. This is a feeling that repeats itself for the rest of the film.
Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, are his most simplistic introductions, but they are very effective in capturing the attention of its viewer. Full Metal Jacket begins with a contemporary song, Tom T. Halls’ Hello Vietnam. It is accompanied by a collection of teenagers and young adults getting their heads shaved en route to basic training. What’s striking about this scene is the look each individual gives as their hair is being removed. You see their fear and vulnerability in full display, and the ironic lyrics being sung give the scene the tone that differs from most movies about the Vietnam War. Eyes Wide Shut begins with a rendition of the Second Waltz by Dimitri Shostakovich, and follows Nicole Kidman’s character, Alice Hartford, undressing and preparing to attend a Christmas party. It is subtle and erotic, but also calm and dreamy. It captures our attention by revealing our impulses. Its purpose was to make us uncomfortable yet relaxed, almost as if being in a dream.
Throughout most of his work, Kubrick was interested in capturing a sense of profound euphoria and satisfaction from the viewer. He treated filmmaking like a Rorschach test, constantly pursuing a story that forces its viewers to interpret the meaning behind some actions and objects. The introduction of his films gives us an insight into his intentions. This is just one aspect of his work that shows why he is one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. The construction of his stories and the themes they discuss are even more dense and captivating. He belongs in the same class of the rarest of artists as an original visionary that understood all too well the power of a moving image. This was Kubrick’s gift to the cinema.
Thank you very much for reading my work. If you enjoyed this, here are more essays:
On William S. Burroughs
Plenty of things have been said about William Seward Burroughs over the course of his life and after. He was a shamble…
Franz Kafka On Existence
A recent discussion in my Western Culture class course has caused me to re-visit the world-view of surrealist author…
A new online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling, STORIUS is a publication for everyone interested in how stories are created, discovered, distributed, and consumed.