Stanley Kubrick Framing Perfection – Design Museum – Zoltan Alexander




Kubrick’s renaissance is undoubtedly in full swing. The Design Museum opened last week one of the most compelling exhibitions of the year “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition”. No, it isn’t a controversial statement. Kubrick is a grand master of the film industry: he probably wouldn’t have become an iconic and such an influential film director without his compelling stories, visuals and perfection of working. He directed 13 ground-breaking films throughout the course of his 60-year career.

“Nobody could craft a movie better than Stanley. He was a chameleon with the astonishing ability to reinvent himself.” – Steven Spielberg

Kubrick lived and worked in the UK for over 40 years, which gave him space and time to develop each of his films very carefully, as well as many great sources of architecture. He moved to the countryside to Hertfordshire during the filming of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and lived there for 28 years with his family until his death in 1999.

London was a true inspiration for him. Some of his most iconic scenes from “The Shining” (1980), “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) were filmed in the city. Kubrick created the battlefields of Vietnam for “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) at Beckton Gasworks, near the Isle of Dogs, an orbiting space station for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and a war room for “Dr Strangelove” (1964).

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Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” space suite / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

The Design Museum’s exhibition features over 500 objects and several themed areas; each built around a designated film and tells the story of “Stanley Kubrick, The Obsessive Genius”. It is a brilliant work of a small team of curators showing step by step how Kubrick created his worlds for his films to the finest detail and how London was his endlessly inventive canvas. Each time, for each of his films he managed to morph the city into something entirely new and significantly different.

When the visitor steps on the famous orange replica carpet from “The Shining” and walks into the first room filled with large-size video screens, a typical OPP “one-point-perspective” corridor, mirroring Kubrick’s famous camera technique, the exhibition has already crawled up on the visitor.

There are many surprises. Amongst his personal objects, archives, movie props, production documents, set designs, storyboards, clapperboards and his amazing cameras visitors are able to relive key scenes from several of his films, and listen to personal anecdotes to get closer to who Stanley Kubrick was as a person, how he used innovative techniques to create his films.

That famous Kubrick perfectionism extended even as far as his bespoke storage boxes marked with his precise instructions “Lids to be not too tight, not too loose, just perfect”.

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“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” camera / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

I think, for his perfectionism “Kubrick” should be either a verb or at least an adjective. His philosophy and his ability to create complete worlds through his immaculately detailed, painstaking research for each film are beautifully installed throughout the exhibition. He also had a great sense of art, contemporary design and technology. His fetishist attitude to objects comes through in “A Clockwork Orange” whether it is an Olivetti typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass or the “Christ Unlimited” sculptures alongside a rocking phallus designed by Herman Makkink.

“Nobody could craft a movie better than Stanley. He was a chameleon with the astonishing ability to reinvent himself with each new story he told.” Steven Spielberg

Alan Yentob, the English television executive and presenter who has spent his entire career at the BBC, who is also the Special Advisor of the exhibition has joined the creative team of the Design Museum, curator Adriënne Groen and the director Deyan Sudjic. He said about the exhibition very enthusiastically:

“If you want to step inside the mind of one of the greatest film directors of all time, this exhibition will take you there. Kubrick’s imagination was boundless and his mastery of every aspect of filmmaking will be on display at the Design Museum bringing his innovative spirit and fascination with all aspects of design, depicting the in-depth level of detail that he put into each of his films.”

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“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” one-point-perspective corridor / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

A few days after the opening I had the pleasure to sit down with Adriënne Groen at the Design Museum for a talk. Groen not only paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of Kubrick’s death but created a highly emotional exhibition. Her attention to details is just mind-blowing and provoked my first question:

Z+ “Were you a terrible child or a self-disciplined one?”

AG is so surprised by my question, she laughs: “Wow, straight to the personal level? Well, I was … hmmm, that’s a difficult one. I loved having fun but was also disciplined, never got into trouble. What more, I even wanted to be a dentist and I think I was about nine when I went home from my dentist’s surgery with a huge bag of old casts of teeth to finish off my school homework. It was fascinating, but I also loved stories, storytelling which eventually grew into history and art. I always loved finding out how things work.”

Z+ “The reason I asked you whether you were self-disciplined was, that here we are, 20 years after Kubrick’s death; you worked on a very complex installation … did you feel in any way that he was, after all this time, still influencing you, making you even more disciplined, more perfectionist? Did you feel that tiny pressure?”

AG “Not really. Most people described him as painfully perfectionist man and I am one, myself, a perfectionist, so I can relate. People think that being a perfectionist has a negative connotation, but what I see in him is the “care”. Care for the details, care for each object, each movement, each setting, each person. Malcolm McDowell once said about Kubrick that he never knew what he wanted but always knew what he did not want.

I am still amazed by the level of detailed research that Kubrick compiled for each of his films and how he was always looking for something to be “just right”. His approach was rigorous and meticulous which continues to amaze audiences today. You can see this very clearly with his Napoleon project, which I see as a blueprint for his way of working.”

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“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” cameras / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Z+ “How about Josephine?”

AG “Kubrick has spent two intense years with a team about 20 assistants, collecting over 17,000 reference images for the Napoleon project. Having worked on this exhibition I understand his hunger for knowledge. He would spend years immersing himself in the subject until he knew every detail, which makes the process very difficult but I have an epic admiration for his way of working.

Next, to his old director’s chair we put shelves stocked with the books he used to research his never-made Napoleon epic, a letter sent to Audrey Hepburn to turn down the role of Josephine, and the filing cabinet he filled with cards charting every day of Napoleon’s life, his activities like a living encyclopedia. It was purely obsessional or was “an analogue Wikipedia” as museum director, curator Deyan Sudjic put it.”

Z+ “How did you get involved with the show? How did it emerge?”

AG “I previously worked on the show, the one in Amsterdam. It was in a different capacity, assisting the production manager. That was a perfect moment when I watched all of Kubrick films.”

Z+ “How did you begin? You had to go through an immense archive, I believe.”

AG “You know the exhibition is based on a touring show. It’s been going around in the past 15 years and it is the 19th venue in London. The first one was in Frankfurt in 2004, set together with the family and by the Deutscher Film Museum.”

Z+ “How much have you changed in the original concept?”

AG “Every venue makes up its own story, so we changed quite a lot, focused on his way of working, the way he did his research, to find the man behind Kubrick, basically creating a personal story. For instance, the scripts in London are shown together although they were always separated with each film’s designated room. They archived everything online and I went through thousands of images. For “Barry Lyndon” alone there were at least 120 archive boxes.”

Z+ “I noticed that the films were not presented in chronological order.”

AG “The films themselves are organised in loose thematic order rather than a chronological one. We made changes and gentle grouping. “Lolita” for instance with “A Clockwork Orange” were his two controversy magnets, and still have quite a lot of censorship around them. It was interesting to see how Kubrick dealt with all these issues. “2001: A Space Odyssey” provides a final stage of the exhibition not far from a giant phallus from “A Clockwork Orange”. Even the preparation of certain films was not in chronological order. The novel for “Eyes Wide Shut” was brought in the 70s but the film wasn’t made until the very late 90s.

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“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” portraits of Stanley Kubrick / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Z+ “Now let’s talk about his love about architecture and London.”

AG “Kubrick spent over 40 years in the UK and made many of his films here. “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut” focused on London architecture.

These films worked really well together in our installation. Mixing different genre, eventually making his own. For “A Clockwork Orange’s” dystopian future the mid-60s London brutalist architecture, especially the social housing estate Thamesmead was a perfect setting. It is fascinating to see how his films responded to architecture.”

Z+ “……. so”

AG “Wait, there is some more. For the film “Full Metal Jacket” he transformed Beckton Gas station in London into the Vietnamese city of Huế, using 200 living palm trees flown in from Spain and hundreds of thousands of plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong.

For the film “Eyes Wide Shut”, he wanted to recreate Greenwich Village in New York from a collage of streets in London. He had photographed the entire length of Commercial Road and created a surreal map of Manhattan. That project showed the immense effort of finding locations. What happened was Kubrick attempted to recreate New York’s Greenwich Village from a collage of streets in London. He dispatched his longtime assistant and brother-in-law Jan Harlan’s son Manuel to assiduously photograph the entire length of Commercial Road and created a surreal map of Manhattan. Manuel photographed all the house, thousands of doors, fire hydrants, traffic signs, and Manhattan was mapped and labeled, each area named London streets.”

Z+ “I am Speechless …”

AG “Probably the most striking fact is that Kubrick was scared of flying, so the majority of his films were shot in the UK. As he wouldn’t travel the rest of the world was brought to him.”

Z+ “Everything always started with research, painstaking research.”

AG “Yes. He would spend years immersing himself in his subjects until he knew every single detail about the film from the characters to all the events. Kubrick’s level of accuracy was simply crazy. During all his filmmaking he came off as an omnipotent character, he enjoyed complete control over every aspect of his production.”

“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” “Christ Unlimited” and the rocking phallus by Herman Makkink / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Z+ “It’s true, however, Kubrick successfully collaborated with many designers.”

AG “He had many creative hats; being a photographer, editor, film-director, he was so involved with the production, everything from pre to post, but also worked with the best people and we wanted to give voices to them, designers like Saul Bass for his graphics and incredible title sequence designs, to costumier Hardy Amies, set designer Ken Adam and Philip Castle for his iconic posters and title designs.

Kubrick also worked with artist Allen Jones, whose provocative furniture made from submissive female mannequins had caught Kubrick’s eye, but the two artists couldn’t agree and Jones eventually pulled out, unlike costume designer Milena Canonero, who first collaborated with Kubrick on “A Clockwork Orange”, then “Barry Lyndon” and finally on “The Shining”, who now does a lot of costumes for Wes Anderson.

We also collaborated with new designers like Pentagram who designed the entire exhibition and developed the entrance film for the OPP “one-point-perspective” corridor, Kubrick’s famous camera technique, but also worked with the London based Studio Waldemeyer for a special light-installation for the “Barry Lyndon” section. They created stunning digital candles, where we can see the whole board of the circuit. They simply loved that Kubrick had his own candles produced for three weeks.”

Z+ “I saw their installation, so let’s improvise, let’s call them to find out about their Kubrick-experience, shall we?”

“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” costumes of “Barry Lyndon” with light installation of Moritz Waldemeyer / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

The phone rings, Moritz Waldemeyer picks up.

MW “Hello, hello, but what are you two doing there in my absence? Indeed, it was a great honour to be invited with my creative partner Nazanin Farahbod to contribute to the exhibition. We took the time to revisit all of Kubrick’s films and “Barry Lyndon” had to be the one for our collaboration, especially the Vermeer inspired infamous candle scene.”

Z+ “You’re right, the film was inspired by many 18th century painters like Hogarth, Gainsborough, Watteau, Reynolds.”

MW “You know, Kubrick wanted to preserve the natural patina and feeling of these stately homes at night as they actually were … and following that idea we created a series of naked LED candles for the installation, using playful experimentation of a completely unique digital image of a flame as animation.”

AG pours some coffee to herself and adds … “Kubrick obsessively researched the problem and discovered that NASA had commissioned Carl Zeiss to build ten Planar lenses, which were used to take photos of the dark side of the moon. That was all in the sixties. Anyway, Kubrick promptly bought three of these Zeiss Planars. He liked to own the equipment himself, rather than hiring. He eventually used a lens specifically designed by NASA and the perfectionism of “Barry Lyndon” captured the exquisite fragility of the flickering candlelight. The result was stunning and here we are, 42 years later, the images are still unique and captivating.”

Z+ “A true work of art.”

Z+ “In fact, I was talking about this scene with Marisa Berenson when she was here in London playing at the Garrick Theatre. There aren’t too many films we still talk about and remember so vividly. Marisa said that Barry Lyndon is still present in every day of her life. She added: “Stanley said, that part would be the most important thing that ever happened in my career. He was right although there have been times when I have wanted to break free from it.”

“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” the candle scene from “Barry Lyndon” / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Z+ “Barry Lyndon was filmed at more than 12 stately homes throughout the UK, is that right.”

 

AG “In fact, it was filmed at many UK and European locations. His team had searched England, Ireland and Germany to find the perfect stately home, then eventually they pieced a mythical house together from more than 12 different sites. There is a wall piece in the exhibitions with photographs of all major locations used for the film. They started filming in Ireland then moved around.  Blenheim Palace and Petworth House were just a few locations out of many. They put together 7-8 locations to make up one single set. I also loved the slow-paced film locations.”

Z+ “Finally, can I have a one-line anecdote?”

AG “Easy. We were invited to Hertfordshire to the private estate for lunch and although I sat at the “The Shining” table it was a very friendly meeting with the family. We also picked up a few objects for the exhibition like his editing table and played with the dogs. There were so many dogs … Katharina can confirm that.”

“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey” / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Literally, a few hours before my deadline, the phone rang. Message from Katharina Kubrick: “When can we talk?”

She has been having a crazy time since the exhibition opened, the press, the BBC, the international media, and me on the top. Anyway, I couldn’t have completed the article without her kindness and radiating energy.

Z+ “It was great to see you again after a few years, after Kubrick’s exhibition at Somerset House. It was designed around his work and spirit, while this one at the Design Museum is an on-going and highly emotional retrospective. What are your thoughts about his heritage?”

KK “I loved that exhibition at Somerset House. It was a very emotional experience for me, realising just how much Stanley’s art inspired others. It was quite brilliant.”

Z+ “So how was your father’s relationship-love-affair with London? When did you all move here?”

KK “Stanley and the rest of us came to the UK when he made “Lolita”. He loved working here, with the relative peace in comparison to Hollywood and New York. He thought the British film technicians were excellent.”

Z+ “How was your father at home as during day-time he was undoubtedly the most demanding and most perfectionist man. How was the transition once he was with his family?”

KK “His favourite mantra was “You either care, or you don’t“. Whether he was working, which was pretty much all the time, or with family, the same care and attention were paid. That’s why he had his life so sorted. He worked from home. He had everything he needed around him and was even relatively easy to disturb to ask homework questions. His level of concentration was enviable. I think he found having teenage daughters rather difficult and I’m VERY glad that mobile phones didn’t exist in those days. He was quite strict with me (skirt length, makeup, boys etc.), a typical Dad of Daughters, I guess.”

Z+ “What is the link between his filmmaking and art?”

KK “Huge. Art of all kinds was very important in his and our lives. He was endlessly driven to search for exactly the right form of art (paintings, music, architecture) to inform and inspire him. He was experimental and open to new ideas.”

Z+ “Where were you in 1968, the time when “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released?”

KK “We were living in Elstree when he was making 2001. We travelled back to the US for its release then back to the UK and back to Elstree after a month or two.”

Z+ “There are 33 years between 1968 and 2001. Kubrick gave an accurate representation of what the future of space travel might take from the rotating giant wheel to artificial gravity using objects and technology that were available at the time. How do you envision life in 33 years from now, in 2052?”

KK “I think technology is moving at such a pace right now that I think we cannot imagine it. If the politicians haven’t blown us up and there’s any breathable air or drinkable water left I will be very surprised. There might be moon colonies or orbiting Wall-E type Ark ships, but who knows? I hope it won’t be as grim as I fear. Certainly, mankind hasn’t achieved what was in 1968 envisioned for 2001.”

“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” is a glimpse of Kubrick’s uncompromising and relentless perfectionism and obsessive attention to detail. He was a stubborn man, but even after his death he still goes strong and continues to influence us on all possible levels.

I certainly learnt a lot from him. Thank you, Maestro!

“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” sports car / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Index of some of Kubrick’s most significant movies:

2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 epic science fiction film, which follows a voyage to Jupiter with the highly sentient computer HAL after the discovery of a mysterious black monolith affecting the human evolution, technology and artificial intelligence. The film is noted for its scientifically accurate depiction of spaceflight, pioneering special effects, and ambiguous imagery with the eerie music of György Ligeti, also with Richard and Johann Strauss.

A Clockwork Orange, a 1971 dystopian crime film based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, employs disturbing, violent images on psychiatry, juvenile delinquency, youth gangs, and other social, political, and economic subjects in a dystopian near-future Britain and brutalist architecture, such as Thamesmead neighbourhood in South-East London. The central character (Malcolm McDowell) is a charismatic, antisocial delinquent who love classical music, rape and violence. The film even now is appropriate.

Barry Lyndon is a 1975 period drama based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray. The film recounts the exploits and unravelling of a fictional 18th-century Irish opportunist (Ryan O’Neal) who marries a rich widow (Marisa Berenson) to climb the social ladder and assume her late husband’s aristocratic position. Kubrick used a ground-breaking technic to film the candlelit scenes.

The Shining is a 1980 horror film based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel. The film is about an aspiring writer and alcoholic (Jack Nicholson) who accepts a position as a caretaker with his family in an isolated Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. Danny, his son, possesses “the shining”, psychic abilities that enable him to see into the hotel’s horrific past of its previous caretaker who went crazy and killed his family and himself.

Full Metal Jacket is a 1987 war film. The storyline follows a platoon of U.S. Marines through their training, focusing on two privates struggling through their abusive instructor during the Vietnam War.

Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 erotic mystery psychological drama. The film follows the sexually charged adventures of Dr Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) who is shocked when his wife (Nicole Kidman) reveals that she had an affair a year earlier. They decide to embark on a one-night adventure, during a massive masked orgy of an unnamed secret society. Kubrick died six days after showing his final cut to Warner Bros.

The Design Museum, interior / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Special Programmes:

A two-month Kubrick season at BFI Southbank will run from 1 April – 31 May 2019

The Design Museum will also have a number of events held at the museum as part of the Kubrick Now Events Programme.

The BFI will re-release A Clockwork Orange in cinemas UK-wide from 5 April 2019.

Kubrick’s archives are now housed at the University of Arts in London.

Acknowledgements:

Interviews, a special thank you to the Curator of the exhibition, Adriënne Groen, the Director of the Design Museum Deyan Sudjic, the Special Advisor, Alan Yentob, and to Katharina Kubrick of KubrickArt.

DESIGN MUSEUM / 224-238 Kensington High Street W8 6AG London

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition / 26 April 2019 – 15 September 2019 / Ticket £16

01-PHOTO-COVER

TOP PHOTO: “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition” one-point-perspective corridor / Photo © Courtesy ZOLTAN+

Text and photos courtesy of Zoltan Alexander © ZOLTAN+ London © ArtLyst

www.zoltanplus.com

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