The Genius of Kubrick and the EYE

I think I’ve found film heaven. Perched on the bank of lake Ij, a free 5-minute ferry ride from central Amsterdam, is the EYE film museum. Newly relocated from its previous, more austere, location on the edge of the Vondelpark, the EYE is a stunning building upon first sight. The sloping white roof angles up, parallel to the bank, and almost the entire ground floor is bordered by windows offering stunning panoramic views across the lake. Before I’ve even set foot inside, I’m impressed.

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It feels fitting that I’m here to visit the Stanley Kubrick exhibition, with the building’s architecture perfectly suited to the bold, futuristic design of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This exhibition ran all summer, and closes on the 9th September, but there is much more to entertain any visitor inside. There are several screens showing what I assume to be a fairly typical mix of films for the Netherlands with Ice Age: Continental Drift sitting pretty beside indecipherable (for me) Dutch fare. The basement contains several video art installations and, most impressively, five video pods that seemed to contain a library of hundreds of films, from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of these films are free to watch at your leisure, and unsurprisingly, they were all occupied every time I walked past. Even the café is worth mentioning here. It occupies the central atrium of the building with a grand wooden staircase surrounding it on most sides and its tables spilling out onto the balcony, just above the lake. On a beautiful sunny day I can think of few cooler places to be.

All of this is just a small but impressive prelude to the star of the EYE museum this summer, Mr Stanley Kubrick. As my family and I entered the exhibition we were warned in broken English that, “it’s quite long inside. You will need at least…one hour to really look.” I pushed open the door dubiously. One hour? Sure it was a big place but how much stuff could they really have? An hour and a half later we emerged for lunch. We were barely halfway. Now I’d like to make a small confession. Looking through Kubrick’s filmography, which is being screened in its entirety by the EYE this summer, I can reluctantly say that I have seen almost none of his films. I know, I’m sorry; I’m working on it as you read this. Now if I was engrossed by the offerings of the exhibition for a grand total of three and a half hours, just imagine what fun you could have if you’ve actually seen his films.

The exhibition travels chronologically through Kubrick’s works, starting with his humble beginnings as a photographer for the now defunct Look magazine, amongst others. The first room is humbly presented too, with examples of his work as Look’s youngest photographer sitting beside two small screens showing his first films: Day of the Fight and Flying Padre. Both of these are short documentaries following the lives of two boxers before a fight and a New Mexico priest as he flies across his rural parish to visit his congregation.

From the next room onwards every one of Kubrick’s feature films is covered in depth with photos, shooting schedules, props and huge arrays of screens. Each room is in fact a partitioned section of a long warehouse-like space and each contains a giant screen playing long, looped sections from every one of his films. Just imagine it: eleven giant rooms with cinematic genius seeping out of every corner. It’s really quite disconcerting at times as you watch Danny from The Shining cycle through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel and hear explosions of noise echo from the neighbouring rooms. From your left come the grand operatic swells from 2001, and to your right the chilling single piano note from Eyes Wide Shut. In the background are the barked shouts of the Mickey Mouse Club song from Full Metal Jacket, and those screams coming from behind you? That sounds like Alex De Large dishing out “lashings of the old ultra-violence”. If there was one thing the layout emphasised it was the chilling suspense achieved in so many of Kubrick’s films.

Two other well-known aspects of Kubrick’s personality were made clear in the exhibition: his perfectionism and the controversial nature of his films. Every room also had a short documentary running below the main screen, providing insights from the likes of Scorsese, Allen, Spielberg, McDowell, Duvall and countless other people who knew Kubrick. Shelly Duvall’s input in particular proved how difficult he could be to work with. A behind-the-scenes clip from The Shining showed the pair bickering about how she was missing her cue, keeping the rest of the cast and crew frozen outside in the snow. She retaliated in voiceover that he didn’t realise how draining it was to spend the film running around, hyperventilating and dragging a child whilst screaming her lungs out. A subsequent montage proved she may have had a point. Malcolm McDowell spoke bitterly of the intense connection he forged with Kubrick on set which was then severed when he didn’t return any of McDowell’s calls. Tom Cruise spoke about the filming of Eyes Wide Shut, breaking down into disbelieving laughter as he recalled just how much of a perfectionist Kubrick was. The simplest take of someone opening a door was repeated countless times with direction like: “a little slower this time”, and “a little bit more anxious”. Who knows how long the dialogue scenes took. The one thing that is clear is that Kubrick always got what he wanted, no matter how long it took, and the actors put up with him because they knew they were working with a genius who they all clearly adored. Apart from McDowell-he seemed pretty pissed.

Another talking head pointed out that “I don’t think Stanley released a film that didn’t cause some controversy” and the letters adorning the exhibition attest to that. Complaints about the sexualisation of children, unpatriotic anti-war sentiments and graphic violence are proudly displayed as if to say: “hey, look how many people he pissed off”. To his credit, all the letters are displayed beside Kubrick’s diplomatic replies, calmly attempting to dispel any fears. It’s obvious Kubrick wasn’t a shock-jock plying the audience with sex and violence in exchange for box-office success. He believed in every film he made and was constantly searching for the answers to life’s biggest mysteries. Most of all he asked uncomfortable questions about the dark duality of human nature. For him it was never ‘good or evil’ but ‘good and evil’.

Kubrick was an inspiring and meticulous director, throwing everything he could into each new film. As someone from the Full Metal Jacket documentary said: “everyone in the production earned their money when they worked with him, but no one earned it more than Stanley.” The EYE museum has done a magnificent job of exhibiting his work, exploring each film with respect and admiration. Even if you’re new to the films of Stanley Kubrick or the EYE museum, after this exhibition you’ll definitely want to revisit both.

Tom Bond

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