Following my hugely popular post on Steven Spielberg’s film techniques, here are my thoughts on Stanley Kubrick’s film techniques.The same disclaimer applies: one cannot do justice to any decent artist in writing, but at the same time I cannot help spotting trends, and I enjoy writing about them.
1. Slow, protracted scenes
One of the hallmarks of Stanley Kubrick’s films were his protracted, uncompromisingly slow scenes. With any other filmmaker I would dismiss such scenes as tedious and self-indulgent, and I do generally prefer breezy pacing, but I must admit that these slow scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s films have really grown on me and have an undeniable charm of their own.
2001: A Space Odyssey – The scene in which Bowman disconnects HAL (the computer). There is no montage here, no time-compressing cutting techniques: instead, Kubrick shows us Bowman disconnecting the computer one module at a time, with absolutely no shortcuts to make the scene more palatable. If you don’t warm to this scene the first time you watch it, don’t worry: it is quite likely that you will like it eventually — and this comes from someone who really likes fast pacing! It is of enormous credit to Stanley Kubrick that he successfully seduced people who normally like a cinematic style that is completely the opposite of his, and I can assure you that his fame makes absolutely no difference to my assessment. He really did have an intangible talent.
Barry Lyndon – the card game and seduction scene:
The Shining – the scene with Jack Nicholson and the butler in the bathroom:
2. Extreme camera angles
I remember watching the scene in “The Shining” in which Shelley Duvall locks Jack Nicholson in the pantry and he does his best to persuade her to let him out. At one point he is framed from directly below, in a camera angle that is almost perfectly vertical, and I felt so disorientated that it took me several seconds to work out precisely what I was seeing. It is not self-indulgent: this particular extreme angle in this scene really works, being fully consistent with the character and the tone of the scene.
3. Extreme wide-angle lenses
Stanley Kubrick was one of the first filmmakers (perhaps the first) to make a very bold use of extreme wide-angle lenses — so extreme that they cause barrel distortion. The first example that comes to mind is A Clockwork Orange, in which he used extreme wide-angle lenses in both dolly shots and handheld shots.
Again, the use of wide-angle lenses was not pointless and self-indulgent: rather, it was absolutely consistent with the tone of the film as a whole. Can you imagine “A Clockwork Orange” filmed with bland camerawork? Impressive camerawork has undeniable merits, particularly when it really serves to enhance the effect of a particular story. Stanley Kubrick’s use of lenses in “A Clockwork Orange” is a fine example of this:
4. Long tracking shots
Every single one of Stanley Kubrick’s films has at least one long, uncut tracking shot, usually with the camera “pulling” the character (this means that the camera moves backwards, with the actor walking facing the camera).
“A Clockwork Orange” — the record shop scene (see above), in which the camera pulls Alex as he walks around the shop (this is also a fine example of the use of extreme wide-angle lenses described above).
“The Shining” — very long Steadicam shots of Danny riding his tricycle along the corridors in the hotel (in this case we call it “pushing”, because the camera is moving forwards, following the character moving away).
“Full Metal Jacket” — long Steadicam shots pulling Sgt. Hartman as he marches around the dormitory.
“Paths of Glory” — long dolly shots in the trench.
5. Extreme coldness
I will end with what is perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s most famed characteristic: the legendary coldness of his films. Every film Stanley Kubrick made after “Spartacus” has characters that we are simply not supposed to warm to, and the coldness extends to the overall tone and execution of his films. This was of course entirely deliberate. Speculation abounds on the reason behind the coldness of Kubrick’s films. Some have argued that Kubrick had a deep contempt for humans; others argue that he simply cared a lot about making the viewers think instead of ingratiating himself with them and giving them easy answers. Whatever the truth is, I think we can all agree that nobody did cinematic coldness better than Kubrick.
Just like his interminable scenes, the coldness of his films does not immediately appeal to my cinematic tastes, but his films have grown on me, and here I am writing about them — a clear sign that they have affected me on some level.