David Mikics: ‘Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker’

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Writer and professor David Mikics. Photo courtesy of Judah S. Harris.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with writer and professor David Mikics whose newest book is ‘Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker.” Mikics’ other books include “Bellow’s People” and “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.” On the program, he discusses how Kubrick’s stable, third marriage contributed to the director’s taking on increasingly complex films as his career matured. He talks about what people tend to get wrong about Kubrick’s final film “Eyes Wide Shut” and how Kubrick’s use of classical music and avant garde composers in films was groundbreaking.

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Stanley Kubrick. Photo by IMA Neuquen (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, The Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, scholar and writer David Mikics, has made quite a name for himself writing about obsessives in the culture. His new book is "Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker." So many of Kubrick's obsessions really emerge and then submerge and then re-emerge. I'm thinking about his interest in Stefan Zweig, and how that became a thing from very early on, and then he continued to go back to him until the very end of his career.

David Mikics: Zweig was a big influence on him. He wanted to do a wonderful novela by Zweig called "Burning Secret." He wanted to make that in the late 50s but that never got made. He was really taken by a very similar writer, also Viennese Jewish writer Arthur Schnitzler, who wrote "Dream Story," which is the basis for "Eyes Wide Shut." Kubrick wanted to make a movie based on "Dream Story" for about 40 years, so it was very long in the making. At the beginning, he was frightened of making it. He had just gotten married, and he would remain married to Christiane, his third wife, for the next 40 years, until the end of his life. But at the beginning of that relationship, they were both very afraid of making a movie out of this novel. 

KCRW: In the book, you allude to the fact that he would be attracted to these things that scared him, and sometimes he can follow through on them, which he does with Schnitzler, but in other cases like trying to make the movie about the Holocaust, he was never able to do it.

Mikics: He found a wonderful book "Wartime Lies" by Louis Begley, and he was all set to make a movie from it. It was to be called the "Aryan Papers." He had an actress in mind; he had an actor for the young boy in the movie; he had the locations; he had the costumes; he had everything. One of the things that happened was that he found out that Spielberg, who was a good friend of his, was about to make "Schindler's List" or had already started to make "Schindler's List," and he didn't want to compete with Spielberg. 

But there was a larger issue, too, which is that he had been reading so much about the Holocaust, had been so immersed in this historical subject matter that it was just weighing on him. And he said something like, "Well, you know, if we make this movie, it's gonna kill me, it's going to kill the actors, and it's going to kill the audience, too." 

KCRW: You also mention in that section of the book that he really couldn't ask actors to do that kind of thing.

Mikics: It would have been a tremendous strain on the actors. I mean, there's one scene in the script, which depicts a mass rape of Jewish women by Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis. It's impossible to think how one could film that or what an actor would have to go through in order to act that role, but the Louis Begley book itself does not contain that scene. The book is about a boy and his aunt who masquerade as gentiles in Nazi occupied Poland, and it's somewhat similar in many ways to Polanski's "The Pianist." It's possible that Kubrick could have made it along those lines, but I think he wanted to do something that would really grapple with the full enormity of the Holocaust and all of its terror.

 It was an evil that was more inhuman and more impersonal than any that he had described in his movies before. So although he certainly depicts worlds that are about controlling humans, manipulating them, sucking them into a system, this is one of his one of his key themes, but something as devastating as the Holocaust, he could not approach, I think.

KCRW: In the book, you deal with the fact that he's often attracted to these kinds of larger evils. You write about his immersion in "Spartacus" and even the early film noirs, where there's this kind of implacable evil that his protagonists have to come up against and always find themselves falling short.

Mikics: I'm thinking of The Killing," which is a very accomplished film noir, with Sterling Hayden, as the leader of a very amateurish criminal gang. It's a heist movie. And really, they're undone by their own bad planning, by their own stupidity. But starting from "Paths of Glory" in 1957, Kubrick does begin to depict worlds that seem quite chilling and inhuman at times, or systematically oppressive.

 In "Paths of Glory," it's about World War I. And it's about the absurd situation in which thousands of men are sent to their deaths in the trenches, just so a general can wear a feather in its cap. In that movie, Kirk Douglas is the heroic central figure who's up against this military machine. But, later movies, I think, also have themes like this. We have the aristocracy in "Barry Lyndon," which is ruled by rigid customs. We have a hotel that possesses its inhabitants in "The Shining." We have the behaviorism of "Clockwork Orange." We have the mad generals in "Dr. Strangelove." We have the secret society in "Eyes Wide Shut." So a lot of these movies I think are about the power of these social systems to manipulate and control people.

KCRW: I think, too, that there's some kind of larger, almost vague evil, in some cases, but certainly an institutional evil. And the battles or the efforts of the protagonist often don't matter. I mean, the fight doesn't matter in "Day of the Fight." And so the beginning of his career, that seems to be the theme that emerges, doesn't it? 

Mikics: I think that's true. "Day of the Fight" was a short; it was the first real movie that Kubrick made. Kubrick, very unusually for a director, actually taught himself how to make movies. He would go to the movies incessantly. He grew up in the Bronx, so he would go to the great palatial movie theaters of the day. He would see everything and he'd say to himself, well, I could do better than that. So he read a few books and talked to a few people. He raised some money from relatives, and he made a newsreel short about a boxer Walter Cartier. It still holds up; I think it's an affecting movie. But you're absolutely right that the fight itself doesn't matter. It's the strain on this boxer. As he goes through his day, the tension in his face and in his body, you really feel him going through this test.

KCRW: I find myself tickled by the end of the book where you bring us back to his last movie. The last scene is kind of hopeful, which, generally, the last scenes in Kubrick movies are not.

Mikics: My take on "Eyes Wide Shut" is that we have finally in those final moments of Kubrick's last movie--he died just a few days after completing it-- what we have is a happy marriage, the recovery of the marriage. It's a comedy of remarriage. It's a sharp contrast to the nightmare marriages that you see in other Kubrick works like "Barry Lyndon," and certainly "The Shining." I think "The Shining" would qualify as a bad marriage.

So in "Eyes Wide Shut," we have something that's the antidote to those earlier movies. Just as Kubrick's relationship with his third wife, Christiane, was an antidote to his nightmarish marriage that preceded it in the 1950s with a very interesting artist and intellectual Ruth Sobotka, but it was a very Dostoyevsky-an marriage, that one.

KCRW: So often too, in these bleak moments there are moments of comedy. With the exception of "Dr. Strangelove” and some parts of "Lolita," people tend to not think of him as a filmmaker with a sense of humor, but you revisit that pretty regularly in the book.

Mikics: Well, you know, there are different forms of humor. And certainly Kubrick's humor is pitch black in, for example, "A Clockwork Orange" or "The Shining." Everybody remembers the "here's Johnny" moment from "The Shining." I mean, that's very funny, but it's when Jack Torrance is making his way through the bathroom door to get at Wendy with his axe. And in "Clockwork Orange," for example, the humor makes the viewer very disconcerted. Kubrick is very subversive in that movie as he frequently is, because we think Alex is quite funny in "Clockwork Orange," but we also find him quite disturbing to say the least. He is absolutely toxic. This is “toxic masculinity,” to use a common phrase.

KCRW: I'm glad you brought up the watchwords “toxic masculinity” because in the introduction of the book, you bring up an anecdote that Kubrick tells about man and wife. That anecdote informs what we nowadays would call a “toxic masculinity” that runs throughout the entire body of the man-woman relationships. And that's why, again, I found myself so amused and touched that he managed to go out refuting that story.

Mikics: Yes, it is a touching movie, "Eyes Wide Shut." Although many people don't feel that way. I have to tell you that one of the most prevalent comments I got when I told people I was writing a book about Stanley Kubrick; one of the first reactions that came up more than a few times was, "what was that last movie?" 

My first response to "Eyes Wide Shut” was rather indifferent. I mean, it was gorgeous, I thought, but it seemed quite stiff. But then after seeing it a few more times, I began being inducted into the "Eyes Wide Shut" cult a little bit. And so I got to see how wonderful it really is and how subtle it is and how this seeming stiffness or artificiality of the Tom Cruise character really is part of the movie. So yeah, I do think that he's working through a series of images of masculinity in his movies, that's for sure, some of them quite frightening. And some of them, quite anxious. 

KCRW: You made a point of comparison, near the end of the book, with "Eyes Wide Shut," that kind of encapsulates it, that it's chasing the way that “Don Giovanni” is. 

Mikics: Yeah. Because “Don Giovanni,” well, in the opera, at least, he never actually succeeds in seducing anyone, so that's a funny comparison. But there is something Mozart-ean about "Eyes Wide Shut." I do think that's true. 

The things that people don't like about the movie, for example, the orgy scene, which people have complained about. Somebody said, oh, whose idea of an orgy is this? The Catholic Church's? Meaning, oh, this seems pompous and silly. But the real point is that it's a dream. It's a dream, and our dreams are both sinister and silly at the same time. And so this is what Kubrick is trying to do. In that scene, he's not trying to make it sexy. He's not trying to make it enticing, but rather to give it that sort of hallucinatory quality, both sinister and silly. 

KCRW: The thing that you allude to, in so many ways in the book, is that a lot of these stories are like fairy tales in the Teutonic sense of fairy tales, not the American sense of fairy tales. But these characters have to kind of wander through the psychological woods to get to someplace that looks like home, and sometimes it's not a good thing. Mostly, it's not a good thing. But finally, it is.

Mikics: I like that. I wish I'd said that in the book. Yeah, the Germanic fairy tale, you know, "The Shining" I'm thinking of and also "Full Metal Jacket." When we have that strange ending with Joker who claims that he's happy. How are we to take that? So the character has gone through the woods, and he's marching out or marching on, and his mind is free. There's some sense in which he seems free or feels free at the end. But yeah, in a dark sense, in a very dark sense. And of course, Danny at the end of "The Shining" the six-year-old son is very much like a fairytale character as he escapes from the gruesome father.

KCRW: You were mentioning Mozart, and there's a great musical aspect to the book, too. I was also thinking about your recent piece on Alex Ross. And that opening talking about Wagner, the way you make the point of comparison, that so often Kubrick is doing Mozart better than Wagner, which I think is really interesting because I think many of us tend to think of him in Wagnerian terms. But the movies themselves are not like that.

Mikics: This was Kubrick's own comparison. He was talking about Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," and he said, "Well, 'Apocalypse Now' is Wagner. I'm Mozart." He was describing "Full Metal Jacket," in contrast to the more epic "Apocalypse Now." And of course, "Apocalypse Now" also uses "The Ride of the Valkyries." So there's an explicit reference to Wagner. 

One thing about "Full Metal Jacket" that I think also disconcerted people a bit at the beginning was the fact that it seemed very minor scale somehow, after that tremendous opening: the boot camp brutality, which is like theater of the absurd, with this drill instructor, Hartman, shouting down the throats of the maggots, the marine recruits. After that point, the movie seems wandering. But, in fact, it is quite tightly constructed. Kubrick wanted to do something that is just focused on this small group of men, this squad of men who, once again, they are lost. They're wandering. 

KCRW: You do something that a lot of the people writing about Kubrick don't do: you write about his connection to Gerald Fried and what those collaborations are like and how there's an implicit musicality in all these Kubrick movies.

Mikics: Yeah, the score for "Paths of Glory," which was made by Gerald Fried, is an all percussion score. And it works fabulously. I mean, those scenes in which Kirk Douglas is going into no man's land, through the trenches. And then, of course, "2001." One of the path breaking things about the film was his use of these classical composers in such a superb way that you have the Strauss waltz in space, everything revolves in space, and it's truly magisterial. Then the avant garde music of Gyorgy Ligeti when the monolith appears, and the man-apes are sort of dancing around it. 

"The Shining" also was pathbreaking. That was the first horror movie that used Penderecki's avant garde music. And Kubrick really layered the sound in that film. At one point, he's playing several different pieces, I think three different pieces at the same time. That's the scene in which Wendy discovers what Jack has been writing on his typewriter. Same line over and over and over. 

KCRW: There are so many books about Kubrick. So many people find themselves dealing with, as Michael Hare put it, that predatory intelligence of Kubrick's. Your textural analysis of him is something that really makes this a different kind of book. You were talking about the kind of expectation that Kubrick can engender in people, and I'm wondering if you felt that you had to sort of work against that in the same way, as he was fighting people's expectations.

Mikics: The way I approached this project was: what ties these movies together? What makes a movie a Kubrick movie? Because at first glance, it seems that the movies seem quite different. It's the case with very few directors, I think, but it is the case with Kubrick that he presents us with a kind of puzzle. What unites these films, which are so different in style? 

"Barry Lyndon" and "Clockwork Orange" are movies made within four years of each other. But "Barry Lyndon" is very poised and sumptuous. And "Clockwork Orange" is exactly the reverse. I mean, it's a juvenile delinquent movie, filtered through ‘70s Hollywood, rough and ready, and very aggressive. So yeah, I wanted to think about what his preoccupations were, what unites it all together.  

I wanted also to think about what it was about him that made him create these films. What was the Kubrick personality? It's a complicated personality, because he was very talkative, very genial; he talked for hours and hours on the phone to a select group of friends. He was a family man, in his grand estate outside London, always surrounded by his wife and his daughters. But when you think of the genial Kubrick, how did he make these movies? Diane Johnson, who collaborated on "The Shining," said, you know, knowing Stanley, it astounded me that he wrote the part of Jack so well, this murderous ogre. The gentle Stanley was able to evoke this character. So there are some depths there for sure.

KCRW: The book is bifurcated between Kubrick until his third marriage, and what that did for him, and then the movies actually started getting more psychologically complex as he's in this happy marriage. We're basically talking about around the time of "Lolita," he's working out these things that were probably part of his life before his marriage to Christiane. 

But he needed that stable foundation, he needed that security and that stability, in order to create.

 And of course, that's one of the reasons why he hated Hollywood, he hated LA; he had to be on his own turf. And that was England. He first went to England when he made "Lolita," and that had to do with it was less expensive to make a movie there if you use British actors. It seemed like a good opportunity. But increasingly, he found that he needed the distance; he needed that kind of moat around him, that security. So the marriage was a central part of that, for sure; family life was a central part of that. So it speaks to Kubrick's need to remain in control, to be the one who manages everything, not in an insidious way, but in a way that let him create these remarkable films.

KCRW: He so often worked with movie stars. I wondered what you thought that relationship was about, especially beginning with the relationship with Kirk Douglas, and then there's the aborted thing that happens with Marlon Brando, but for the most part with the exception of "2001," he's making movie star movies. He even turns Malcolm McDowell into a movie star in "Clockwork Orange." 

Mikics: The relationship with Douglas to start with; that was a somewhat rocky one. On "Spartacus," Kubrick said, well, you know, I kept complaining about things in the script. I told Kirk, this is stupid, and that's stupid. And then Kirk said, Yeah, I'll change it. And he never changed it. So that was the one project, on which Kubrick did not have complete creative control. But after that, he did, and you have these wonderful collaborations. 

For example, with Peter Sellars, on "Lolita" and "Dr. Strangelove" in which Kubrick just was really gassed by Sellers' genius abilities for improvisation and comic invention. Sellers would improvise, and then they'd write it down, and they'd do it again the next day. At least in a couple of cases, you have characters who are deliberately, well, I guess you could say solid or plain somehow: Keir Dullea in "2001," and Ryan O'Neal, in "Barry Lyndon," he knew what he was looking for there. He knew he wanted characters that were not too flavorful, not too flamboyant, but the contrary: plain characters, and he returned to that in the end with "Eyes Wide Shut" with the choice of Tom Cruise. Of course, he wanted the real life couple of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kidman is absolutely extraordinary in that film, She really steals the movie in a way but he wanted an actor like Cruise, who was something of a blank slate and an anxious blank slate at that. 



Rebecca Mooney