‘Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition’ – The Design Museum

Detail and craftsmanship: Inside the working practices of Stanley’s encyclopaedic mind.

“We didn’t design film, we designed a world,” one of the 2001 production team is quoted as saying, and that’s exactly what Kubrick did – he designed worlds that his films inhabited, which perhaps explains why they have such resonance and power.

When I was four years old, my Dad took me to see Thunderbird 6 (1968). It had futuristic aircraft, gunfights, explosions, was very ‘space age’ and afterwards I was a very happy young chap. A little while later, looking around for another film to take me to, father alighted on another prospective film in the paper – it sounded very space age; in fact, with a title like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Fairclough senior reckoned it was the very definition of space age. The only people in the cinema were me, Dad and a stoned hippy in the front row… In the car on the way home, Pa Fairclough didn’t say a word. He also didn’t take me to many more films. (Ironically enough, the last one was Star Wars (1977). He fell asleep).

Imagine seeing 2001 when you’re four years old: The Dawn of Man. The monolith. That terrifying soundscape. HAL 9000 going mad and singing ‘Daisy, Daisy’. The Stargate… My God, the Stargate! When you’re four.

All these years later, I don’t really know what long term effect my exposure so young to Stanley Kubrick’s iconoclastic style of film making had on me – though I do remember being frightened and mesmerised at the same time – but I was left with an overriding sense of wonder, fascination and fear.

That’s pretty much how my feelings towards his films have remained over the years. Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) can entrance and terrify in the same scene, both with their visual artistry – if there’s a continuing theme, Kubrick had a thing for symmetry and virtuoso lighting – and emotional rawness. I haven’t liked everything he’s done; I’ve seen Lolita (1962) but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Neither did Eyes Wide Shut (1999), his last film. For some reason, I’ve never got round to watching Barry Lyndon (1975).

Which is why, even if you’ve only got a passing interest in Kubrick or film making generally, Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, running at The Design Museum in London between April and September 2019 – that’s an event which was on for nearly SIX MONTHS, dedicated to one film director – was well worth a pilgrimage. A quote from Steven Spielberg, who directed the sci-fi film A.I. (2001, appropriately enough), based on a vast amount of preparation by Stanley, adorned the poster: “Don’t miss this wonderful exhibition.” Steven, if ever you had a gift for understatement, there was it in full effect.

Like Kubrick’s oeuvre, the exhibition is astonishing. A director friend who worked at Pinewood Studios at the same time as the New York-born Stanley, told me that he possessed such a meticulous archive, he still had a copy of a letter he’d written when he was seven years old. Looking at the first exhibition area, after you’ve walked through the audio-visual equivalent of the Stargate which shows clips from Kubrick’s movies, you could believe it, as I was overawed by the sheer amount of research he put into his never realised film about Napoleon. There were books and books and notes and notes on and about the subject, all read and written at Stanley’s Hertfordshire home Chidwickbury Manor, where he lived from 1961 until his death in 1999.

As well as inviting you inside the working practices of Stanley’s encyclopaedic mind, the first display section filled in crucial information on his early work in the American film industry, on short documentaries, the independently made war drama Fear and Desire (1953) and the film noir thrillers Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). Thereafter, the exhibition was themed around each of Kubrick’s subsequent and best-known films. A wise and rather wonderful strategy, as all of them have their own, distinct identity.

Spartacus, the first of Kubrick’s three 1960s movies, is an odd one: the only film he was hired in to direct – after star and executive producer Kirk Douglas, who’d taken the lead role in Paths of Glory, fired the original director, Anthony Mann – it has indications of the greatness to come tempered by the typical Hollywood gloss of the time. It’s in the battle sequences, filmed in Spain, that Kubrick’s methodical, almost mechanised approach to ambitious film making can be seen. A massively enlarged photograph sums this approach up well – each of the extras, cut down in battle, has their own number on a placard, which runs as high as 300. On a more human level, I marvelled at the detail and craftmanship that went into the uniform worn by Laurence Olivier’s General Crassus.

Detail and craftsmanship: those words kept coming back to me as I walked around. Most of the bizarre elements in A Clockwork Orange already existed in the real world; Alex and his droogs’ codpieces were usually worn by cricketers inside their clothing for protection, the orange typewriter was made by Olivetti and the bizarre sculptures, Christ Unlimited and Rocking Machine, were produced in 1969 by the Dutch artist Herman Makkink. The groovy shop Alex visits also existed, as the Chelsea Drugstore in Kensington (immortalised by the Rolling Stones in ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’).

Elsewhere, there were pages and typewritten pages of Jack Torrance’s ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ manuscript from The Shining; for Barry Lyndon, Kubrick used lenses developed by the optics company Zeiss for NASA to use in space flight, so he could film sequences lit by candlelight; on 2001: A Space Odyssey, a panel for a ‘Zero Gravity Toilet’ has ten detailed instructions on how to use it.

“We didn’t design film, we designed a world,” one of the 2001 production team is quoted as saying, and that’s exactly what Kubrick did – he designed worlds that his films inhabited, which perhaps explains why they have such resonance and power. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the prime example and, fittingly, is the last film featured in the exhibition. Companies such as Parker Pen, Nikon and Hamilton contributed writing utensils, cameras and watches; architect Ame Jacobsen’s cutlery and furniture designer Olivier Mourgue’s chairs populated Kubrick’s space vehicles, while NASA advised on spacecraft propulsion and cryogenic suspension.

Such a combination of authentic, futuristic mise en scene, set against the total visual mind fuckery of the Stargate sequence, confirm 2001 as Kubrick’s most enduring masterpiece, if not perhaps his best film. For me, that’s probably Dr. Strangelove. Stanley was brilliant with actors, and that’s not stated often enough. In 2001 the technical brilliance – illustrated in the exhibition by a stunning array of spacecraft – sometimes overshadows the human story, which is ironic given what the film is about.

As I walked out of the door aptly signposted ‘The End’ and was lured to the gift shop, mind blown once again, I conjectured that Kubrick used cameras, lighting and an editing suite like a painter uses a palette of colours – in short, like an artist. Stanley Kubrick was cinema, and cinema is exactly what Stanley Kubrick was for.

Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

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