Things I Learned at the Kubrick LACMA Exhibit, from Weegee to NASA Technology

Things I Learned at the Kubrick LACMA Exhibit, from Weegee to NASA Technology
Things I Learned the Kubrick LACMA Exhibit, from Weegee NASA Technology

Give yourself plenty of time to check out the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s huge. And it rewards drilling into the details. There’s a room devoted to each film, and they wouldn’t let me take pictures (although @BrettRatner managed to sneak a few on Twitter). My appointment for the exhibit was set for 5:30 PM, with the museum set to close at 7 PM. I had barely started “2001: A Space Odyssey” with its giant gimble and 38-ton centrifuge created by space engineers when they announced the museum was closing in five minutes.

I raced through rooms for “Napoleon,” with a library of research books complete with card catalogue; another movie he never made called “The Aryan Papers,” canceled because of “Schindler’s List”; sculptural explicit body furniture from “A Clockwork Orange”; the styrofoam model of the maze from “The Shining”; period costumes from “Barry Lyndon”; the masks from “Eyes Wide Shut”; the “Born to Kill” helmet and Mickey Mouse watch from “Full Metal Jacket”; “A.I.”–one of my favorite Spielberg films, originally developed by Kubrick– and more.

You start out with a collection of cameras. The Eyemo combat camera used on “Killer’s Kiss.” A zoom lens from the 70s that was last used on “Eyes Wide Shut.” He liked the Arriflex 35 iic handheld camera with Cooke Speed Pancho Prime lenses in an Arri standard mount. Not to mention the infamous Zeiss 50 mm candlelight lens from “Barry Lyndon” (see clip below), also used in NASA space photography. Kubrick used the Graflex Pacemaker Special Graphic press camera as a staff photographer for Look Magazine. (He liked to use natural light, no flash for his doc-style candids.)  The young New York photographer started his career at 16 in 1945 with a shot of a newspaper headline “FDR Dead” and admired tabloid photographer Weegee. At Look Kubrick photographed Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, among many others, and took set stills for Jules Dassin’s “Naked City” in 1948. 

Kubrick never matriculated at any college, but audited classes at Columbia. He read the Russians on film and acting: Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Stanislavsky. He admired film noir, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen and Man Ray.

An ongoing Kubrick retrospective is under way at LACMA (TOH reviews “Killer’s Kiss” and “Fear and Desire” here). Writer-director Paul Mazursky recalls working as a young actor on 1953’s “Fear and Desire,” a movie Kubrick himself regarded as a learning exercise, an amateur film; it was not included in the LACMA collection out of respect for his wishes. “He had a vision for where he was going,” Mazursky recalls in a video interview. “He was a kid from the Bronx who didn’t know how to work with actors.” From there Kubrick went on to “Killer’s Kiss” in 1955 and the magnificent “Paths of Glory” in 1957, which reveals his admiration for the smooth sliding camera moves of Max Ophuls. He used an Arriflex with a zoom lens on Kirk Douglas. And he hired his future wife Christiane to play a German waitress who sings to the troops.

I got a kick out of the archaic technology used by this most advanced filmmaker. Not only is there the original “all work and no play” letter in the typewriter from “The Shining,” but typed letters from church groups protesting “Lolita,” and an articulate letter from an Academic at Cornell admiring “Dr. Strangelove” with such intelligence–she called it “pop art,” and recognized Kubrick’s use of sexual metaphor– that Kubrick wrote her back inviting her for a drink. There’s a sweet letter from Sue Lyon, the teen actress in the provocative “Lolita,” updating the filmmaker on her new life with non-pro husband and children. Nabokov got a Western Union telegram from Kubrick, stops and all, alerting him of good early “Lolita” reviews.

Scripts, continuity reports, call sheets, and notes are smeared with different colored pencils, erasures, scotch tape, pasted paper, cross-outs, carbon copies and later, whiteout.  The list of alternate titles for “Dr. Strangelove” included “Doctor Doomsday,” “The Bomb of Bombs,” “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Passion of Dr. Strangelove.” We learn of a pie fight scene deleted from the film. Weegee not only took set photos, but inspired Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove accent. The floor of the war room set was so shiny that everyone had to wear special felt slippers.

From 1956 through 1962, producer James B. Harris helped Kubrick to get things done: he optioned the 1935 Humphrey Cobb novel “Paths of Glory,” which Kubrick adapted with novelists Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham. At Douglas’s behest, Kubrick took over “Spartacus”from Anthony Mann, right before after filming. It was to be the first on-screen credit Hollywood Ten writer Dalton Trumbo received after ten years on the blacklist, until Otto Preminger got there first. Kubrick was not happy that he lacked final cut and didn’t let that happen again. He became known as a control freak; at Warner Bros., his studio for many years, he bored into box office bookings and marketing, even sending back notes to Saul Bass on his ad art for “The Shining.”

We learn that the monolith in “2001” was inspired by the art of John McKracken, such as “Nine Planks,” in polyester, resin and wood. And there’s a chart showing how Kubrick used the color red throughout his work. Indeed. I can’t wait to go back for more. For more details on Kubrick I recommend John Baxter’s biography and “Kubrick,” by Michael Herr.

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