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Intricate Designs: Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

An insight into the man behind some of the most famous cult classics of film

Walking around the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the London Design Museum in South Kensington, the overwhelming impression you get is of a man meticulous to a fault. Intricately planned schedules, hundreds of notecards of research and excruciating attention paid to the final edit of his films. Kubrick, for all his imagination and creativity for which his films are known, was truly a man of detailed planning and preparation. The exhibition provides a deep and insightful exploration into Kubrick’s now renowned films and the man himself.

The exhibition marks twenty years since Stanley Kubrick’s death and is the first time that the internationally acclaimed touring exhibition about his life and work is coming to Britain. This is only fitting since Kubrick worked and lived in Britain for forty years. Often cited as one of the most influential filmmakers in cinematic history, Kubrick was born in 1928 and raised in the Bronx in New York City. He first began work as a photographer for Look Magazine in the late 40s and early 50s which then evolved into making short films, and then his first major Hollywood film, The Killing in 1956. Evidently, this wasn’t a one-time foray into filmmaking for Kubrick, who went on to produce a number of now classics such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980).

The exhibition starts with a room dedicated to Kubrick’s creative process. A demanding perfectionist, Kubrick asserted his vision and control over many aspects of the creative process. Kubrick’s attention to detail and fascination with all the aspects of stage design is evident from the beginning; the exhibition brings to the fore the in-depth detail he put into each of his projects. The exhibition features about 700 objects, films and interviews but a personal standout was the model of centrifuge-set that Kubrick had built for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Exquisite attention to detail for this set is clear (the actual set being 38 feet in diameter and 10 feet wide) even in just the model. My friend who accompanied me, he himself an engineer, was delighted at not only the detail but its conceivable functionality, explaining why the space travel in the film seems so possible. The juxtaposition of art and film with technical aspects of design and science was interesting to see since so often artists are portrayed as ‘bohemian’, lax creatives. Kubrick was far from this stereotype. Case in point, hundreds of notecards of research about Napoleon including what he ate and said, where and when. The exhibition shows this attention to detail was nigh on obsessive; the film about Napoleon was never actually made!

Moving through the next rooms of the exhibition, you walk through a series of rooms, each dedicated to one of Kubrick’s films. Now we see what Kubrick is so well known for: his innovation, creativity, and unique cinematography. Kubrick’s films spanned a variety of genres from Spartacus (1960) which tells the story of the real historical figure Spartacus and the events of the Third Sevile War to Lolita (1962), a controversial film after the Nabokov novel about an adult man courting a young girl. Fans of his films will be delighted by props included in the exhibition including helmets from Full Metal Jacket and parts of the space station set from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The exhibition also includes some short film excerpts so that people can familiarise themselves with pieces they don’t know. As his filmmaking progressed he ventured from realistic portrayal of events (e.g. Spartacus) to more surrealism. As Kubrick’s experience and status grew, Kubrick became more explorative with his ideas and the stories that he took on, which is evident as we move through the exhibition. His films are well known for their stunning visuals, often encapsulating the entire mood and atmosphere of the film and becoming famous beyond the film itself. A Clockwork Orange, for example, while controversial for its violent themes, had a very ardent following who took fashion inspiration from the costumes.

Super fans of his films will delight in the rooms dedicated to these films with many of the original props on display. It is interesting for any budding filmmaker or anyone interested in filmography to see how he worked. Evidently, his well-thought out plans and attention to detail is really what underpinned the success of his movies and allowed his extensive imagination to take shape in a way that has really stood the test of time.

See the exhibition at The Design Museum until 17th September.

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