I grew up loving black and white films: dramas, romances, musicals and mysteries. I loved films from the 30’s and 40’s and also the MGM Technicolor films. They were so bright and bold, and transported me to what felt like another dimension. Long before I knew anything about design or film, musicals like Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ from 1952 completely filled me up aesthetically, and the section in Charles Walters’ 1948 ‘Easter Parade’ featuring the incredible costumes by Irene for ‘The Girl I Love is on the Cover of a Magazine’ is one of my all time favourites. In my late teens I discovered Spaghetti Westerns, again shot in Technicolor, but this time they filled me with a passion for themes more representative of reality. The aesthetics were still there, but this time what stood out was the composition of shots and bold close-ups; it absolutely thrilled me. The opening sequence from ‘Once Upon A time in The West‘ directed by Sergio Leone in 1969 is an absolute masterpiece. Even if you don’t enjoy Westerns, it is an brilliant piece of filmmaking where images, music and sounds are woven perfectly together.
But it was the simple ‘Let’s do the show right here’ storylines in the MGM musicals which probably influenced the direction of my career. I wanted to perform on stage and I wanted to be in those films. The notion of a director, DOP, designer or composer being behind the camera didn’t even register in my early teens. Fast forward to my 3 year acting course at RADA in the early 1990’s. I had now very much embraced a love of theatre design and costume and had developed a much greater understanding of all that went on behind the scenes as well as wanting to be on stage. Theatre was my thing, not film, and unfortunately my appreciation of film began to subside.
Growing up near Stratford-Upon-Avon I had been able to see masses of theatre plays; Shakespeare, Restoration, Jacobean, comedy, tragedy, contemporary: I could talk about stage actors, designers, directors even composers for hours, but film…that was something I had not immersed myself in. I had put in the hours standing at the back of the stalls in theatres on Saturday matinees, but I had definitely not put in the hours watching films every weekend. Back at RADA I would hear passionate conversations in the common room about ‘The Shining’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ but I decided that rather than investigating these films myself, these were ‘boy’ films; films which were obviously meant to worry and intimidate women. And boys talking films just got on my nerves; it all seemed so exclusive and they never even mentioned ‘Easter Parade’! One of them did concur that I knew ‘Singin in the Rain’ inside out and we both used to exchange quotes and a few of them seemed vaguely impressed, yet slightly bemused at my ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ insights. But I had no knowledge of this Stanley Kubrick man they all held up as some sort of god. That quiet humiliation of my cinematic ignorance, and, if I’m honest, my own fears, compounded my resistance in engaging with anything ‘Kubrick’ until 2014. By 2014 my son had already been a film nerd for the large part of his 14 year old life. With the abundance of DVD’s, films on iTunes and films on Youtube he has done what I was never able to do…he has gorged himself on films of every kind, and is now about to study Filmmaking at uni. I’ve taken him to lots of theatre too, which he loves, but film is his thing and I feel rather proud that he would definitely be able to hold his own in a 1990’s RADA common room.
In the Summer of 2014 my son and I had a short holiday in Cornwall and he suggested that we pick two science fiction films, one each, and watch them as a holiday treat. I wanted to show him an old film I’d remembered called ‘The Fantastic Voyage’ from 1966 about people shrinking then floating around inside someone’s body. He chose ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ from 1968. I wasn’t keen; I thought it was going to be a bit un-original and along the lines of the 60’s Star Trek series. We watched my film first, which went down quite well, even though it was very dated, and then we settled down to watch the film which was to become one of the most inspiring pieces of work I’ve ever seen. This was my first Stanley Kubrick experience, and any resistance I had previously experienced towards watching his films immediately dissolved. ‘2001; A Space Odyssey’ changed everything. This was a film which was nearly 50 years old yet felt utterly modern. My son had led me into the incredible world of film maker and artist Stanley Kubrick and I will always be indebted to him for that. Watching Kubrick films are such a pure cinematic experience. They are cinema as an art form. They are films made because Stanley Kubrick was compelled to make them, they are not films to please a studio. They are concepts and complete works of art whether you enjoy them or not. ‘Barry Lyndon’, a film I had never heard of until a few years ago, is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema I have ever watched. Scene after scene is like a painting complete with Hogarth ‘Marriage a la Mode’ set-ups. It runs at 3hrs 23mins but I could have watched it for so much longer. There’s a great little 3 min film showing the art Kubrick used as inspiration for ‘Barry Lyndon’ here
And then there’s ‘The Shining’… When my son was evidently desperate to watch it I was still against it. I said he had to read the book first, and then he could only watch the film on a Saturday morning, when it was light…if he still wanted to. He diligently read the book to earn the film viewing and so I watched it with him. And again I was completely blown away; I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, how perfect the shots were and how original the design. The film isn’t the macho horror I thought it was going to be, it is something far deeper. Yes, it’s frightening, freaky and upsetting, but to just dwell on those elements only serves to undermine the film as a whole.
By 2016 we were both ardent fans and went twice to visit the ‘Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick’ exhibition at Somerset House. Artists had created work in direct response to Kubrick films and to see how one man’s body of cinematic work was responsible for inspiring new ideas and art was not only fascinating but very motivating. We’ve also been to the BFI in London a couple of times to see screenings of ‘The Shining’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ which were absolutely fantastic. ( I got a bit over excited at the ‘2001’ screening as Björk was sitting a couple of rows behind us! )
So when I was asked by The Design Museum last month if I would like to come to the Press morning for their ‘Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition’ can you imagine a) How excited I was, and b) How excited my son was when I told him that he could come too?!
We visited the exhibition about 3 weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it so much ever since. Different areas focus on each film and each area lets you feel like you can really enter the world and working processes, with relevant sections of the films shown on screens in darkened spaces. It allows you to follow the development of the man as artist, from ‘Killers Kiss’ in 1955 ( if you want to see the extraordinary fight sequence which clearly metaphors the two men’s relationships to women, watch this clip ) to ‘Paths of Glory’ in 1957, which is one of the most moving and upsetting representations of World War I I’ve ever seen ( It’s not an easy watch but this is an incredible clip led by Kirk Douglas ) and stretching all the way to the 1999 with ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. There are so many details to look at and read about, so many drawings, notes, costumes and cameras. To see the level of detail and perfection Kubrick demanded not only in filming but in researching all his projects is extraordinary considering it was at a time before Google. You can see Kubrick’s personal filing cabinet full of cards on which he detailed each day of Napoleon’s life, for a film which didn’t even get made due to his financial backers pulling out. There’s the haunting Don McCullin portrait which inspired the design aesthetic for ‘Full Metal Jacket’, a model of the ‘Dr Strangelove’ War Room, costumes from many of the films including ‘Barry Lyndon’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘The Shining’. And a couple of my personal highlights, clichéd as they may be, was seeing HAL from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and walking on the carpet from ‘The Shining’. We were there for about 3 hours; my son took his time, watched all the clips, read all the facts and completely immersed himself in his hero’s life.
It’s a really great exhibition whether you’re a die hard Kubrick fan, curious about discovering his work, or just have an interest in filmic design and how a director works. However, If you want to buy merchandise in the shop afterwards, be prepared to go loaded with a bulging wallet because ‘Full Metal Jacket’ enamel mugs are £15 and the army style wash bag will set you back £60! I succumbed to buying a T-shirt for £20 along with a pen and pencil and the DVD of ‘Film Worker’ ( about Kubrick’s right hand man, Leon Vitali ) which was only £5 and we were also given a ‘Discover Kubrick’ tote bag each.
I now have a massive appreciation of all sorts of films thanks to my son and I can’t believe I spent so many years dismissing Stanley Kubrick films as being a ‘boy’ thing. I don’t think I ever even said that to anyone, but they were just always films I silently avoided. Thankfully now that there is much greater access to film of all kinds, there’s perhaps not quite the same gender divide in cinematic appreciation as there was when I was in my teens. However if you are still someone put off by talk of ‘The Shining’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’ don’t be. There are some scenes in Kubrick’s films which are definitely very difficult viewing, but these films are meant to affect you, they are meant to make you feel something deep inside you which is not always a nice something; that is their whole purpose and like all brilliant art they resonate beyond their time. Kubrick’s films manage to show us who we are as human beings and what monsters we are capable of becoming; rarely a comfortable reminder, but in my opinion, an integral one.
‘Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition’ is on at The Design Museum until September 15th. Tickets are £16 ( concessions and family tickets are also available ) and selling fast so you should book ahead online here
You can see more of my films and photos from the exhibition in my Instagram Stories Highlights if you go to my account here