Between the psychological and the extreme

Sally Marlow visits Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum.

This was my first visit to the Design Museum since it moved from Shad Thames to its new Kensington home, and I couldn’t help but wonder why a Design Museum would host an exhibition on a film director. Moreover, what should you expect when you visit an exhibition which has a genius as its subject? Kubrick’s work ranges from war movies to science fiction, with horror, psychological explorations, and period drama along the way. How can such an extensive body of work be represented in an exhibition in a way that captures the obsessive detail Kubrick was so famous for?

The answer is, you probably need more than one visit. This is an excellent exhibition, but good lord, it’s dense, overwhelming even in its detail. You pass through an entrance of a montage of film clips (what else), and as I picked out highlights from 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, The Shining, Lolita, Full Metal Jacket etc… already I was noticing those I hadn’t seen before (Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, the latter absence in my viewing repertoire fuelled by an irrational dislike of Tom Cruise).

The exhibition starts with Kubrick’s craft. Those of us who are researchers, as well I am guessing as those of us who are designers, cannot fail to be impressed by his methodological approach and attention to detail. Kubrick’s archives on a film on Napoleon stretch to over 250 books, systematic index lists, meticulously kept alphabetical cards in boxes, trunks full of copious papers, sketches, photos – all this for a film which was never actually made. The setting of the Design Museum starts to make sense. Kubrick was of course a director and a screenplay writer, but this exhibition demonstrates clearly how he designed his films, and was involved in every aspect of them, translating his overarching vision into the minute components, and bringing those components together to communicate that vision.

This micromanagement stretched to testing his personalised letterhead by typing ‘this is how it types’, and writing ‘this is how it takes ink’ – the proof is there in a glass cabinet in Kensington. This is not to say he neglected the macro – he preferred to create his big, ambitious worlds in studios, where he could control the environment, and when he had to venture further afield huge amounts of time and energy were spent researching locations and settings. The film was his in its entirety, from conception to finish. Nothing was edited without him, and again, he speaks to the researcher in me (as well as to designers) when he says: ‘Is it good or bad? Is it necessary? Can I get rid of it? Does it work? When you’re editing you want to get rid of everything that isn’t essential.’

The exhibition then takes you through, film by film, starting with low budget B-movie film noir type movies made in the 1950s, with names like The Killing, and Killer’s Kiss. In 1957, however, Paths of Glory was the film which established Kubrick as a film maker of note, with its tale of French soldiers in World War One executed by their superiors for so-called cowardice. A showreel of key scenes shows that this is a director who understood people, power, frailties, but above all was humane. It’s extraordinary to think that the same director could also make A Clockwork Orange, with its shocking brutality. It is worth pointing out Kubrick was devastated by claims that A Clockwork Orange had incited acts of violence, and even though the causal link was never proven, Kubrick himself withdrew the film in 1973, and said it could not be shown in the UK in his lifetime.   

A Clockwork Orange had first been screened in 1971, and 2001 A Space Odyssey was screened before it in 1968. Looking at them now in 2019 they are incredibly modern and relevant – the stylising that was futuristic then remains futuristic now. The glossy, highly sexualised Korova Milk Bar visited by Alex DeLarge and his Droogs before heading out looking for ‘a bit of the old ultra-violence’ would not be out of place in New York’s SoHo, or in London’s Mayfair. The space age ferris wheel cum gyroscope in 2001 A Space Odyssey, in which a woman walks around and around, still mesmerises over 50 years later.

As I reached the section on The Shining, a note on the wall caught my eye, in which the film was described as ‘an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural, in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural world will eventually be explained by the psychological’. Except of course it’s not. ‘Jack is mad’ is a neat explanation for the film, but it’s only partial. That balance between the psychological and the extreme, be it war in Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory, or future imagined worlds in 2001 A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, or the supernatural in The Shining, or even paedophilia in Lolita, is what makes Kubrick’s work so compelling.  

That is why it was disappointing that I understood very little of the man in this exhibition. There are the obligatory interviews in film, audio and print, but beyond ‘I really was in love with movies’, there was no detail of who he was, and what drove him. We learn that he played chess obsessively, but even that comes back to the movies, as he describes how chess strengthened the mental discipline required for his films: chess, he explains, is about controlling initial excitement, and understanding that something that looks good at first glance may have repercussions which are not so good. Back to the design aspect again perhaps – this exhibition is not about Kubrick, it’s about his work as a director, a screenwriter, a researcher, and a designer. We see his craft, and we see his products. The man himself, however, remains elusive.  

Reviewed by Sally Marlow, Associate Editor for Culture. The exhibition runs until 15 September. See https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/stanley-kubrick-the-exhibition

Picture: Ed Reeve for the Design Museum

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