The Banal and the Bizarre: A Kubrick Design Compendium


Tomorrow would be the 84th birthday of the late, great Stanley Kubrick. To honor his remarkable contributions to film, we’ve taken a look back at the mind-bending aesthetic of the body of his work, beginning with his first color film, The Seafarers, a documentary short that he shot and directed in 1953, to his last, the sexual odyssey starring our favorite controversial but exceedingly talented Scientologist, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut. As adept at depicting the mundane in painstakingly perfect detail as he was at representing fantastical, freakish worlds beyond the imagination, Kubrick often said that “if it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” The Kubrick catalogue is a testament to this brave declaration. Illustrating his exceptional understanding of humanity and the dark depths of the human psyche, click through to revisit his masterful oeuvre through the lens of a brilliant balance between the banal and bizarre design that shows up in every film he ever made.

The Seafarers, 1953

Image credit: Seafarers International Union

Created to explain the benefits of membership in an organization of labor unions of mariners, fishermen, and boatmen, Kubrick’s first color film is the third in a series of documentary shorts that represent an early fascination with the mundane, including the depiction of basic meals and austere institutional locations — two elements that would show up again and again.

Killer’s Kiss, 1955

Image credit: United Artists

The hero of this humble film noir masterpiece is a champion defeated, as evidenced by the shabby detail of his tiny New York apartment. It’s not all low rent American vernacular though, the story culminates in a showdown at a creepy warehouse filled with mannequins, showing shades of the Kubrick to come.

Killing, 1956

Image credit: United Artists

Kubrick’s father taught him the game of chess when he was 12, and it appears in many scenes of his films, this being the first. The majority of his second noir feature is set at a racetrack. The shabby apartment also makes a cameo. The bizarre is introduced here in the form of a creepy clown masked criminal. Again, shades of films to follow.

Paths of Glory, 1957

Image credit: United Artists

Kubrick’s first foray into the war genre, Paths of Glory is a stunning look at a troupe of French soldiers who refused to continue on a suicide attack mission during World War I, and in turn were executed for mutiny. The beautifully-rendered but devastating scenes in the trenches are an interesting counter to the lavish, over-the-top Eyes-Wide-Shut-esque opulence of the government palaces.

Spartacus, 1960

Image credit: United Artists

Kubrick’s second color film and first Hollywood blockbuster was a major turning point in his career. Establishing a tableau vivant technique that would appear in one way or another in every film to come, this epic historical drama is at once a blasé classical picturesque painting and a bugged out depiction of a primal homoerotic rituals. A Roman prequel to The Clockwork Orange?

Lolita, 1962

Image credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

If this isn’t the most perfectly art directed film ever made, we don’t know what is. Somehow Kubrick makes the banal bizarre, as illustrated by the second shot. Major props for representing a disturbed teenage girl’s room so perfectly.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb , 1964

Image credit: Columbia Pictures

Aside from the fact that the title design has been copied by everyone from Geoff McFetridge for Spike Jonze in Where the Wild Things Are, and, most recently, Urban Outfitters, this visual opus harkens back to his early days documenting the workers’ unions and foreshadows his epic space odyssey to come.

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Image credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

This entire film offers a bizarre look at the banal of the future. ie. Howard Johnson’s, PicturePhone, TV dinners, ATM machines, chess.

A Clockwork Orange, 1971

Image credit: Warner Brothers

We could write a book on the brilliant but insane design of this film. In keeping with our theme, we’ll point out the commonplace setup of tea, toast, and two jars of jam, and then leave it at this: a red-haired woman doing the splits in a green leotard and white tights surrounded by at least 10 cats and possibly a small anteater in a wallpapered room covered with bold, contemporary art depicting nude women in various suggestive positions.

Barry Lyndon, 1975

Image credit: Warner Brothers

Interestingly enough, Kubrick followed up arguably the most bizarre film ever made with his tamest. Maybe even his far out mind needed a break. Two words for this one: tableau vivant.

The Shining, 1980

Image credit: Warner Brothers

A seemingly normal (perfectly art directed) food storage room compared to the creepiest of identical twins in the most supernatural remote hotel ever represented on film.

Full Metal Jacket, 1987

Image credit: Warner Brothers

Quite possibly Wes Anderson’s inspiration for the perfectly symmetrical art directed scene, and then maybe Kathryn Bigelow and Alfonso Cuarón’s reference for representing a ravaged world at war. We’re beginning to think that it might just be possible to trace every film made in the last 20 years back to Stanley Kubrick.

Eyes Wide Shut, 1999

Image credit: Warner Brothers

His last film perfectly traces the arc of his illustrious filmmaking career. Grounded in the everyday of a New York existence, the dark sexual underbelly magnificently represents perhaps the underlying theme throughout his body of work: an ongoing duel between the conscious and the unconscious, illustrated — in our opinion — by the juxtaposition of the banal and the bizarre in every one of his films.