So I tried to do research on the Kubrick Stare. I somehow knew it to be a thing from I can’t remember when. We talked about it at parties with movie buff friends and I remember reading somewhere about it, something, I dunno … Cuz’, sure thing, I can’t find it now, fuck the nasty google goblin. Was it there at all, ever? I dunno. I guess if you want a good read about something a bit exotic, you gotta write it yourself. So ok, let’s.
What is it?
This is it:
(1987, Full Metal Jacket, Vincent D’Onofrio as Pvt. Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence.)
It’s the single best way to shoot an actor in a guy-goes-batshit-in-a-movie type of situation. You set up a camera way high above eye level, ask the guy to move his talentless ass close to the lens and look into it under the eyebrows. Open the mouth a bit, pop the jaw out for some dental work display and voilá, you got yourself a menacing maniac or a village idiot staring you down the lens, depending on your casting abilities. (Note that some actors/tresses simply do not look menacing whichever way you turn, move, light or shoot them. As a director you’re fucked, you should’ve considered this before you drilled and hired the goddamn blonde.) The term “Kubrick Crazy Stare” was reportedly coined by Kubrick’s DP Doug Milsome, if the Kubrick FAQ is to be trusted.
The shot above is from Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate movie Full Metal Jacket where D’Onofrio plays Gomer Pyle, a timid overweight young soldier pushed beyond his limits by his drill sergeant. Instead of going on the all-American shootout rampage, Gomer goes eerily silent for a while, acknowledges the apparent collapse od humanity, withdraws at night to a spotless army toilet and blows his brains out with a named rifle after mowing down the commanding officer. Fuck you! Once you get beaten by your closest pals, you surely gotta know you’re at the end of the line.
In not so many words, it’s an emotional moment. A creepy, scary moment. A mad moment. That’s what the Kubrick Stare is all about. Now let’s take a look at how coolcat Jack does it in The Shining:
(1980, The Shining, Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance.)
Jack plays a writer gone berserk from all the supernatural sauces flowing in a haunted house. (How’s this for a movie summary? Way under 140 chars, am I good or WHAT?) Proves my point (later on) that The Stare, if done right, implies some creepiness. Like with A Clockwork Orange’s tormented hero Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell:
(1971, A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell as Alex.)
Now that is creepy! Sure, I hear you, it’s all about casting, you say. Point taken, I wouldn’t trust McDowell with my kid either, he’s just that kind of a guy. But you do get my drift, don’t ya? This is a great, probably best way to shoot a psychopath in a movie. It gives the picture that, … well, … je-ne-sais-quoi psychopathish look & feel.
What about 2001?, I hear you protest, trying to fuck up my train of thought. The psychopath here is the computer, so how do you shoot The Stare with no eyebrows? Here’s how:
(1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000 computer.)
You do it with movie magic. Don’t ask me how, cuz’ I have no fucking idea how. What I do know is that by the time HAL goes bonkers I’m already scared shitless. Maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s the implied void behind that red eye, I can’t tell. Kubrick is jerking me around per his will like a cow on a ring through it’s nose.
Then there’s this shot:
(1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Keir Dullea as Dr. Dave Bowman.)
No madness here. Just a guy climbing a ladder in space going into a fistfight. Still, it’s 99.99 on the awesome meter. Maybe the suit does it.
What it is not!
Some folks would have you believe this is a Kubrick Stare:
(1975, Barry Lyndon, Ryan O’Neil as Barry Lyndon.)
Fuck no! Yes, it’s a Kubrick movie, but no, this is no stare! It’s just Ryan O’Neal sitting with a stick up his ass pondering where did the make-up lady stash his Jack Daniels and when did she snatch it up. There’s little emotion, no eyebrows and no maniacal rage. I have no idea why this is being passed as The Stare. Same here:
(1999, Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise as Dr. William Harford.)
Come on, really!
In closing, here’s a quote from Roger Ebert reviewing Full Metal Jacket:
In that showdown, and at several other times in the film, Kubrick indulges his favorite closeup, a shot of a man glowering up at the camera from beneath lowered brows. This was the trademark visual in “A Clockwork Orange,” and Jack Nicholson practiced it in “The Shining.” What does it mean? That Kubrick thinks it’s an interesting angle from which to shoot the face, I think.
(Stanley Kubrick. The man.)