Much has been made of Stanley Kubrick’s trademarks (such as the Oedipus complex or various manisfestations of chess), but some don’t get mentioned (or barely) because other trademarks are more easily observed through cursory detection. The neglected recurrences are…
1) Characters who sing during moments of danger and/or vulnerability, whether it be theirs or others.
Before jeering foreign troops, the captured German girl tearfully performs a traditional German melody at the end of Paths of Glory. Hal sings a Harry Dacre song when Dave is disconnecting him in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alex sings an Arthur Freed song prior to raping a woman in A Clockwork Orange. The platoon survivors chanting the Mickey Mouse March in Full Metal Jacket.
I believe that Stanley had obsessive-compulsive disorder, which explains why he had such an eye for detail. Those who are diagonosed with OCD disorder are usually quite obsessed with writing lists. Examples in Stanley’s oeuvre are the lists of survival kit items in Dr. Strangelove, and food items in The Shining.
3) Positional overlap.
Stanley likes to cut between two shots in a way where a character occupies the same position as the other character. The intention being that you could overlap one shot over the other and there would be a startling symmetry. The most striking example is in The Shining during the scene between Jack and Grady. The purpose is obvious – Grady is reshaping Jack in his murderous image, and Jack takes Grady’s place in the frame. John Woo did a similar framing technique in The Killer so as to show how similar that the titular anti-hero is to the cop.
4) Roundness in his last film.
I wonder what Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman made of Eyes Wide Shut being centered around rings and circles. The film took a long time to get made, so maybe Stanley did this as some sort of a therapy session. It ended up being the third and last film that Tom acted with Nicole in (they divorced two years after the film’s release). Even though many film analysts have remarked how the film’s structure is symmetrical, I’d say that it is more like a wedding ring.
It comes back around on itself, with the final scene like the diamond on top. Look at the first party, see how Alice has her ring on display. She brandishes it at the Hungarian to prove that she is married. Bill however can be seen nervously fingering his wedding band while he is flirting with the two models at the same party. Who is more comfortable with their marriage here?
But what of the other rings in the film? At the ball, the masked girls parade in a ring, on the edge of a circle of light. Breaking off from this ring, they select their partners for the orgy. The camera wheels and circles throughout, and there’s also a great shot of Bill walking through some revolving doors to visit the dead girl in the hospital morgue.
5) Age abuse.
This takes on many forms such as the statutory rape relationship in Lolita, the statutory rape threesome in A Clockwork Orange, the suggestion of paternal molestation in The Shining, and the titular character in Barry Lyndon getting away with beating a young boy because he is the stepfather. Lastly, a young boy forming an allegiance with a gigolo in A.I. even though they are both androids. Granted, Stanley didn’t write the screenplay but he was involved with the project during the nucleus stage before resigning his reins to Steven Spielberg.
The following is an unintentional epitaph about Stanley as delivered by Gordon Stainforth (one of his editors):
Extraordinarily contradictory in character: both tough and gentle at the same time. Well, not always! He was as strange, singular and interesting as any person that I have ever met. Right wing ideas are more guided by the left brain, and left wing ideas by the right. As such, his world belongs to both hemispheres. Ultimately, like all art, his work is concerned primarily with the right hemisphere.
Someone else said (rightly) how contradictory that his films are. They are very much about man’s inhumanity and absurd self-destructiveness but also something more which people rarely mention. There is still a kind of childlike wonder and yearning for something more, but nothing like in a Spielberg vein. Certainly a sort of intense fascination for the whole mystery of what it is to be human – right on the edge of the inhuman and supernatural.