A filmmaker as calculating and artistic as Stanley Kubrick deserves a career exhibition that reflects the precise nature of his art. That’s precisely what the TIFF Bell Lightbox has delivered with their version of the touring artifacts, art work, and curiosities in Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition (kicking off October 31st and running to January 25th). A massive undertaking for TIFF, this only Canadian stop for the exhibition (after previous engagements that started in Frankfurt before heading to Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Los Angeles, and Sao Paolo) has been over a year in the making, and a largely collaborative process between TIFF Director of Exhibitions Laurel MacMillan, Director of Film Programmes Jesse Wente, Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick, and Stanley’s long time producer Jan Harlan.
During a media unveiling earlier this week, MacMillan explained that the mounting of the exhibition – which includes nearly 1,000 artifacts from the filmmaker’s sparse, but astounding filmography that span a total of 7,000 square feet of the Lightbox – was designed to be an immersive experience designed to take patrons and fans chronologically through the evolution of Kubrick’s career.
It’s an exhibition that Harlan says has to appeal to the many ways people have responded to Kubrick’s work.
“If you create an exhibition like this, you have to cater to all sorts of interests.” Harlan said at the preview. “ There will be people who remember Kubrick’s films and say, ‘Oh! I remember this and I remember this,’ and it takes them about half an hour to an hour and they go home and that’s that. Then there are others, particularly young filmmakers and producers, who want to know that. They want to know what the secret is to becoming a great artist. They all know it’s easy to make a film, but that’s it’s very difficult to make a great film. And a great film, like any great work of art, is almost a miracle.”
Christiane Kubrick would also lovingly add: “Stanley had such intensity about life in general, not just films, that when I met him I thought everything else was really boring. He produced an entirely different climate in the world.”
The entry to the gallery on the main floor combines a lot of Kubrick’s early works in the first room. Stills from early shorts and early features Fear and Desire, Killers Kiss, and The Killing line the walls, with some early budget breakdowns and notes in a case.
It was actually The Killing that got Wente interested in Kubrick in the first place.
“The Killing was what made me fall in love with Kubrick.” Wente told me following a walkthrough of the exhibit. “They showed The Killing on Saturday Night at the Movies in a double bill with The Killers. I used to record movies every Saturday night on my Betamax, and that one I wore out because I was just fascinated by the construction of the film. Luckily, my parents never really cared what I saw, so I think I saw Lolita and Spartacus next because I couldn’t get Clockwork Orange.”
Things start to get interesting in the next room devoted to Kubrick’s first truly major release, the World War II drama Paths of Glory. In this room, featuring video projections and walls lined with bunker appropriate sandbags, that one starts to get an early sense of Stanley’s meticulous nature. Thoroughly detailed battle plans and schematics show just how early into his career Kubrick was able to craft a grand and thoughtful vision of warfare.
From there it’s onto the blood orange coloured Spartacus room, and although Kubrick would have his issues with that production personally and professionally (he was only brought in at the request of star Kirk Douglas, star of Paths of Glory), but there are still some great documents and costumes on display. Be sure to note in the call sheets in one of the showcases that thousands of extras had to be on set every morning by no later than nine in the morning.
Next up, the pop art of the Lolita room, the most controversial film of Kubrick’s career to that point and based on the firebrand novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Artfully arranged with stills that capture the feeling of its 1962 release, the room looks almost like a tunnel of love. The main attraction in here that can’t be missed, however, are letters from the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, who condemned the film to such a degree that any Catholic who saw the film would be committing a mortal sin. And yet, the film (which was banned in some countries) passed through the MPAA with fewer problems than most of Kubrick’s later productions.
In the centre of the adjoining room for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (which found the auteur once again collaborating with Lolita actor Peter Sellers to a more memorable degree), there’s also an interesting letter from the Portuguese government saying they were banning the satirical comedy for being too political. The letter declines to give further reasons, but it really underlines the point of the film quite well. The neatest things in this room are a notebook where Kubrick was unsuccessfully trying to sketch out potential alternate titles from the film, and the original maquette of the famous war room.
It’s hard not to notice the intoning of the score from 2001: A Space Odyssey throughout the entire exhibit, but it also might be Kubrick’s gutsiest, most openly impressionistic film. Granted two rooms inside the gallery to speak to the film’s earthbound elements (a replication of the famed monolith, the original star child, ape costumes) and celestial elements (the model of the centrifuge, costume designs, the overseeing eye of HAL-9000), the staging of the various artifacts naturally lends itself to the greatest space within the main hall of the exhibition.
In this room, it becomes apparent just how meticulous and open to artistic interpretation Kubrick was, and how unafraid he was to leave things purposefully opaque. Even standing next to props, notebooks, and meticulously researched and well loved books used to prepare the film, there still aren’t easy answers, but definitely a better understanding. It’s these two rooms more than any others in the exhibit that really speak to Kubrick’s place as a boundary pushing visual artist, and not just a movie-maker.
“Kind of like the Burton exhibition [we did], this one is really about an artist, and the process, and how they ultimately arrived at their work.” Wente said. “I think this is perhaps more special of an exhibition than we’ve had yet because Kubrick rarely gave interviews. You’ve probably already read every interview he’s ever done. They would fit in a very small volume. He was always hesitant to give answers he always wanted the audience to figure his films out on his own. Even when he did, we never got a look into the process of how these films are made. I’m excited to see it here because I think that’s what this building was made to do; to bring these kinds of shows. Kubrick has been one of those fuels that got me interested in cinema, so I’m really excited for this a lot. It’s a gold mine. It’s a candy store.”
Harlan would be inclined to agree, especially given how long he spent around Kubrick’s meticulous style of filmmaking.
“It’s like being in love. We all know what it’s like being in love with a person, but with a true artist, they’re like that with a project.” Harlan said during his opening remarks. “When you’re in love with something, all priorities change. There comes an element of obsession. A filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick doesn’t just let go. He’s enormously sel-critical. It isn’t easy for him to be very pleased with himself. He double checks and double checks. I understand where he could seem like he was self-destructing because of his personality and because of his ego, but he was also incredibly gifted as a strategist. Then, finally, he would say about himself, ‘When I know it’s right, I’m like a woman in labour.’”
It’s not surprising that there’s not a lot that can be photographed and published in a “family publication” inside of the room devoted to Kubrick’s incendiary and anarchistic A Clockwork Orange. Repicas of the statues from the Korova Milk Bar are front and centre, confronting exhibition patrons in the same fashion Kubrick wanted to confront the audience. Again, there’s plenty of evidence in the room that speaks to the controversies surrounding the film (which was pulled from UK cinemas not by censors, but because Kubrick’s family had received threats to their safety and well being), but also to the equally retro and futuristic design of the film that gives this Anthony Burgess adaptation a timeless quality.
It’s surprising being in the exhibit how easy it is mentally (and physically) to make the jump from Burgess to The Shining’s Overlook Hotel themed next room. Possibly filled with more iconic props than any of the previous rooms (the original outfits worn by the twins, the axe, the typewriter, Shelly Duvall’s knife) and bearing a REDRUM scribbled-on door and the signature carpet along the floor, this is the room that feels most eerily like a stepping onto a film set. But perhaps most interesting are annotated texts of Stephen King’s source novel, which Kubrick clearly puzzled over and critique in his notes, that underline Kubrick’s conflicted nature with the source material.
Between those two rooms, however, is the room dedicated to Kubrick’s most unjustly slept on film, Barry Lyndon. The result of one of many botched attempts by Kubrick to make his famed Napoleon biopic, his adaptation of William Thackerary’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon remains one of the most opulent costume dramas and one of the most boundary pushing technical achievements of the 1970s. Highlighting the stellar production design of Ken Adam (who outdoes his previously stunning achievement on Dr. Strangelove here) and the costumes of the period piece (which too eighteen months to create), this room speaks to Kubrick’s image as a consummate perfectionist.
That attention to detail is what Harlan remembers admiring most about Kubrick as an artist when I speak with him following the tour of the exhibit.
“I see all of the hard work and how hard it was to get it all right; to observe a man who made compromises when necessary, but doubled everything else in exchange. I really liked that.” Harlan stated. “I worked with him for thirty years for a reason. He was a great guy. Everything with him remains relevant and nothing disappears. Look at Lolita. Look at Dr. Strangelove, that’s just as relevant as ever! This is a great artist, and I love an artist, and I love my role to serve an artist.”
A linoleum floor and uncomfortable looking barracks bunks are the sparse decor for the Full Metal Jacket portion of the exhibition. Featuring books that inspired the film, the infamous “Born to Kill” helmet, and the Mickey Mouse wristwatch, this might be the film most underrepresented in the exhibition, but the important bits are there and the sparseness fits the film’s no-nonsense portrait of basic training and modern warfare wonderfully.
From the war-torn jungle to the urban jungle, the proper tour concludes as one passes through black velvet curtains into the psychosexualized world of New York City in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s longest gestating production to finally get made. Completed after his death, the film would divide critics and audiences. Then again, so did every Kubrick film upon their initial release, with many often only gaining acclaim in hindsight. The room features an enormous amount of stills from the set, costumes, and some of the masks used during the film’s noteworthy orgy sequence – all of which were handpicked by Harlan while shopping in Venice.
But the tour doesn’t end with the run through the gallery. Upon entering and exiting the gallery, patrons can catch a screening of Perpetual Check, a seventeen minute highlight reel created by Wente to showcase Kubrick’s love of patterns and repeating shots. Also, on the fourth floor of the Lightbox in the gallery adjacent to the Film Reference Library, patrons can get a firsthand look at Kubrick’s technical mastery and marvel with an astounding collection of the filmmaker’s lenses. (Be sure to marvel at the NASA created lens used to shoot Barry Lyndon.)
The fourth floor of the Lightbox also includes a collection of posters from Kubrick’s films, and most importantly, comprehensive looks at the films Kubrick attempted to make, but never got the chance. There’s a wall of production design schematics for A.I. – which would be made by Steven Spielberg after Kubrick’s death – next to an entire room devoted to Kubrick’s meticulous documentation of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte – including a card catalogue that houses notes the filmmaker took on every single day of Napoleon’s life. Perhaps rarest of all, however, are notes, tests, and schematics for Kubrick’s little talked about Aryan Papers, a deeply personal film about the holocaust that was scrapped in 1991.
It’s as visually comprehensive and up close of a look as people are likely to get about Stanley Kubrick, and is likely something that won’t come back around in our lifetimes, much in the same way it takes comets hundreds of years to circle the Earth. Which is appropriate since Kubrick is essentially the filmmaking equivalent of a shooting star. He only made movies at the rate of one or two per decade, but they were always notable, and people stopped to take them all in.
If only Kubrick had known he was this appreciated in his lifetime.
Or as Christiane pointed out in her introduction:
“I’m so proud and thrilled with what’s here and to see it in Canada because each stop for the exhibition has been much shaped by the country it is in. It’s always a new point of view, especially from young people who are absorbing these stories that I know so well. It has been a great blessing, and I wish I could tell Stanley much he was appreciated because he didn’t really know that. He would be absolutely thrilled.”
For tickets to Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, operating hours, more information, and a complete list of film programmes throughout the next several month to tie into the exhibit, please visit the TIFF website.