Ah, a morning off! Much as I delight in the opportunity to watch the excellent movies at this year's Venice Film Festival (oh, and The Town), it is still a novelty to spend a few hours outside the darkened theatres of the Lido. But while you can take the film nerd out of the cinema, you cannot take the cinema out of the film nerd. Hence my decision to spend my nugget of free time taking in a Stanley Kubrick exhibition.
It was during one of the many and interminable aquabus rides either to or from the Lido when I first became aware that Kubrick – probably as close to a worshipped deity as modern cinema has produced – was a lurking presence in Venice. As I chugged down the Grand Canal on one of the sluggish hulks that passes for public transport in the moist metropolis*, my vacant outwards gaze was suddenly met by an intense stare from a crewcutted young man, a compact photographic camera clasped slightly awkwardly between his hands.
*Seriously Venice, there are discarded fucking coke cans which traverse your waterways more swiftly than the motherchugging aquabuses. Although to be fair I am yet to have an experience on the nautical snails as grotesquely traumatic as that endured by Indie Movies editor, Emma, the other day, when she had to contend with a geriatric making kissy faces at her across the deck for the duration of one journey. For the record, she did not reciprocate.
Recognising this face as the youthful self of the man who would go on to make Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, arguably not far from being some kind of all-time best-of list just by themselves, my interest was immediately piqued. Marshalling my ever-wandering attentions, I observed that this picture of the young Stanley was situated within a banner dangling from the side of a sizeable building of a fairly garish yellow hue. The comely text beneath the portrait told of delights inside this structure for Kubrick fans – something I would classify myself as, even if I am left nauseated by the vertiginous heights of pomposity many commentators mystifyingly scale in their assessments of films which are rife with entertaining incident and could scarcely be described as tough watches. It read:
'World's premier of more than 200 photographs of the young genious'
Making the assumption that English grammar was as much a blind spot as spelling for whoever penned that blurb (hey, I ain't judging; I have been responsible for as many crimes against the Italian tongue in the last eight days as Rod Stewart has been for crimes against fashion over the course of his entire career), I guessed – correctly, as it transpired – that they didn't mean, as was implied, that the multitude of snapshots would be of Kubrick himself, but rather pictures taken by the 'genious', who I did recall reading had worked as a photographer before breaking into movies. I immediately made a mental note to check out the heralded exhibition, curious to find out what these photographs might say about the artistic sensibility of the nascent storyteller. Having made this mental note, I then quickly made a physical note, so as not to forget the whole thing as soon as visual contact with it was severed. Truth be told, my mental notes aren't worth the paper they're not written on.
As much as I dig Kubrick's flicks, there was another very good reason to visit the exhibition bearing his name on my morning off, and that was that the building in which it was taking place (the Istituto Veneto di Scienze ed Arti, as it happens) was situated within lazybones easy-reach of the apartment that the Indie Movies team have been calling home for the duration of our stay in Venice. So on the morning designated as being free of reviewing activity, I set off on my awfully big adventure; en-route to my destination swinging past the Church of San Barnaba used by Spielberg in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The church was disappointingly light on middle-aged Americans being pursued by angry middle-eastern stereotypes, although as any piece mentioning both Spielberg and Kubrick is in danger of touching upon the abomination that was A.I., perhaps it is best we refrain from ruminating on such matters and instead move swiftly on.
My quarry was in sight by the time I traversed the wooden Ponte dell Accademia bridge, on which tourists station themselves like the inert monoliths of Easter Island as they look dumbly out on the Grand Canal, zapping away with their digital cameras – behaviour that forces the locals to act like runaway juggernauts, battering all and sundry out of their path as they attempt to negotiate the speediest crossing possible. Safely inside the yellow peril on the other side, I proceeded up the wide white staircase to the first floor where the exhibition was apparently situated. A leaflet swiped from the desk downstairs on my way in informed me that the New York-born Kubrick had undertaken assignments for Look magazine (that's Look, not Look-in) between 1945, when he was aged just 17, and 1950, with the pictures that I clapped eyes upon coming from the even briefer period of 1947 to 1950.
However before I got the chance to see any Kubrick-taken photographs at all, I still had to gain access to the gallery – a task rendered far more difficult than expected courtesy of the intervention of a late-20s/early-30s British couple, who were quibbling at the ticket desk as I arrived, ten euro note hopefully clutched in my paw. This note went untouched by any member of staff for several minutes, as the female half of the aforementioned twosome was kicking up a minor stink about needing a receipt for her paid entry, she announcing to everyone within earshot (i.e., me) that “this is for work”. Though the ticket machine was malfunctioning, a marked slip of paper was eventually supplied and adjudged sufficient, and they, swiftly followed by me, entered the exhibition.
It was immediately apparent that my proximity to this duo was to going to impinge on my enjoyment of the displayed pictures. Impinging on my enjoyment like the beheading of Marie Antoinette impinged on her chances of being named Hat Wearer of the Year. To toss out a mild generalisation, there are essentially two types of people who talk as they walk round galleries. The first loudly gush with a punchable over-seriousness, saying things like “God, this is so amazing, god, look at the intensity of this one, god, isn't it incredible?”, thereby making everyone else aware that, firstly, they are colossal brainboxes, and secondly, that they and they alone are perfectly attuned to the creator of whichever works they are publicly creaming themselves in appreciation of.
The other type say far less, merely offering the occasional snigger at a particular piece, beckon over their friend and in a gleeful hissed whisper remark, “Look at this one! You can see his doodle! It's tiny!”. Suffice to say the couple I found myself saddled with fell into the former category. By the time I'd made it round the first room, having been unfairly subjected to their puffed-up wittering, my reserves of tolerance had been completely exhausted. Taking desperate evasive action, I simply stationed myself next to one photograph and silently waited there till a safe distance, a forbidden zone of the ear, had been established between my and my talkative countryfolk.
Finally liberated to contemplate the exhibits and the exhibits alone, it was immensely pleasing to find that there was plenty to appreciate in the compositions crafted by the young Kubrick. Selected from over 12,000 negatives stored in the Library of Congress of Washington and the Museum of the City of New York (it says here, again referring to the ever-helpful leaflet), it made for a striking collection, if one sometimes infused by an all-American cornballishness perhaps characteristic of the cultural times in a soon-to-be-booming postwar United States.
The first room was actually a good one in which to stage my silent sit-in, it containing a number of superb shots from a 1948 assignment in Portugal. The photos detailed two different areas: one selection dealing with rural beach folk, the men all dressed in patchwork harlequin pantaloons, the other featuring a seemingly well-to-do couple. Of the more bucolic snaps, a pair featuring an elderly woman enveloped in a dark shroud were the most interesting. For a man whose final professional project would see him meticulously recreate New York City on an English soundstage, it is curious how much the beach looks like a film set, the sand glittering as if sprinkled with tiny light-catching gems by the art department, the sheen of the sea looking like an immobile sheet of foil, and the sketchy streaks in the sky resembling a matte painting.
Of the pictures of the couple, two stand out. A hotel room scene could almost be mistaken for a still from Kubrick's 1956 heist drama The Killing, depicting as it does the man stood up in shirtsleeves, phone pressed to his ear, while the woman lounges naked on the bed, a sheet wrapped round her to preserve her modesty, a plume of cigarette smoke emerging upwards from the 'O' formed by her lips. Another photograph of the same two captures them walking down a cobbled village street and being confronted by a pair of young girls in floral dresses, pressed shoulder to shoulder like the ghostly twins from The Shining (a chilling creation which famously took direct inspiration from another photograph, Identical Twins by Diane Arbus).
The pleasures are more sporadic around much of the rest of the exhibition. I was very taken with a fantastical bit of framing in one of a series of stills based around a circus. In a juxtaposition that could have graced René Clair's Dada scenester short, Entr'acte, we see a man in suit, hat and tie in the foreground, hand up to his mouth as if hailing a cab on a Manhattan street corner, while in the open air behind him a topless cyclist is traversing a tightrope, balance beam clutched in his hands, two female acrobats dangling from each of his wheels.
Fascinating too is the pictorial chronicle Kubrick fashions from a sojourn to Columbia University, a visit made in May 1948. What is most arresting is the contrast the then-19-year-old photographer establishes across his series of snapshots between the curiously juvenile traditions and pastimes of this old money establishment and its position at the forefront of research into freshly-harnessed forces that had seemed the stuff of science fiction only a few years previously. On the one hand, we see the camp of the stage productions, a young man in Wee Willy Winky nightgown, a woman astride a Roman chariot, and the bristling eroticism of the wrestling team, rows and rows of bare backs enshrining the knot of limbs on the mat. On the other, we see the shot of Columbia physicists standing in front of their four-million volt cyclotron particle accelerator, it looking every bit like an example of the Krell alien machinery used but barely comprehended by Walter Pidgeon's doomed scientist, Morbius, in Forbidden Planet.
With such simple-minded silliness and almost cosmic power in so close a proximity to one another, is it too fanciful to imagine that Kubrick's decision a decade-and-a-half later to amend Peter George's Red Alert from downbeat doomsday warning to the merciless black comedy of Dr. Strangelove was in some small way influenced by this odd dichotomy captured in his photographs of Columbia? Something to ponder perhaps, though not for me today. Nope, it's back to movie-reviewing duty. Now, when's that next aquabus due?