The films of Stanley Kubrick seem ideal for an exhibition – less commercial productions and more intricately created works of obsessive art, by a filmmaker who throughout his life and beyond was the subject of wild claims of eccentricity and reclusiveness (some more valid than others, but all ultimately exaggerations), the detail and research involved in his films was guaranteed to provide much food for thought. And so it is at the Design Museums’s current exhibition, though I can’t help thinking that the perfectionist Kubrick might have been appalled by a few moments of sloppiness – of which more shortly.
Through a series of rooms, Kubrick’s film career is plotted – oddly not chronologically – with a mix of archive materials – screenplays, research notes, props and costumes – and recreations (mostly of the Clockwork Orange sets and props), alongside related materials (the books he based his screenplays on, mostly taken from his own collection; Don McCullin’s Vietnam photography that helped inform Full Metal Jacket) and technical stuff – a whole bunch of increasingly huge cameras and lenses, his editing suite and so on. The early works – Fear and Desire, The Killing and Killer’s Kiss – are unfortunately but predictably glossed over somewhat, while the unfilled Napoleon and AI are given plenty of space (though there’s no mention of other unfilled projects like Blue Movie), but the bulk of the exhibition offers a great insight into the main movies. There are costumes from Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, models from 2001, assorted art concepts for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, as well as correspondence (a sweet letter from Lolita star Sue Lyons) and designs by the likes of Saul Bass and Ken Adams, and details of how he turned parts of London into everywhere from rural USA to downtown New York to war torn Vietnam. A little space is given to the public outrage over both A Clockwork Orange and Lolita, though it might have been interesting to see this explored further, and there’s a lot of pre-production planning on paper – the daily shot lists and locations showing an almost autistic obsessiveness.
Seeing this stuff in the flesh is pretty extraordinary, and if the idea is to demystify and humanise Kubrick, then the exhibition does a good job – wall quotes have him dismissing some of the madder claims made about him, and we can see from the behind the scenes photos and the correspondence that he was a normal, agreeable, likeable chap. This might disappoint some people. But as a way into his head and his mindset, this exhibition does a grand job.
The layout is not without flaws, even if you are less anal than me about things being in the right order. The first room has a section dealing with music, but the sound is drowned out by audio bleeding in from two or three other sections – a bit more sound control might have helped. And it seems as though a few captions (or photos, depending on your point of view) are misplaced – one referencing photographer Weegee is definitely pointing at the wrong image. These are minor details, perhaps, but they are a bit irksome.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and inspiring exhibition of the works of one of our favourite directors, and one that spills out into the rest of the building – the Clockwork Orange car sits centre-stage in the Design museum entrance, and if you go upstairs, you can enjoy a display of Kubrick’s pre-filmmaking photography for Look magazine. We’ll definitely be checking it out again before it closes in September.