kottke.org posts about Michael Herr

Epic profile of KubrickAug 21 2013

From August 1999, a long remembrance of Stanley Kubrick from his friend and colleague, Michael Herr, who co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket.

Stanley Kubrick was a friend of mine, insofar as people like Stanley have friends, and as if there are any people like Stanley now. Famously reclusive, as I'm sure you've heard, he was in fact a complete failure as a recluse, unless you believe that a recluse is simply someone who seldom leaves his house. Stanley saw a lot of people. Sometimes he even went out to see people, but not often, very rarely, hardly ever. Still, he was one of the most gregarious men I ever knew, and it didn't change anything that most of this conviviality went on over the phone. He viewed the telephone the way Mao viewed warfare, as the instrument of a protracted offensive where control of the ground was critical and timing crucial, while time itself was meaningless, except as something to be kept on your side. An hour was nothing, mere overture, or opening move, or gambit, a small taste of his virtuosity. The writer Gustav Hasford claimed that he and Stanley were once on the phone for seven hours, and I went over three with him many times. I've been hearing about all the people who say they talked to Stanley on the last day of his life, and however many of them there were, I believe them all.

Somebody who knew him 45 years ago, when he was starting out, said, "Stanley always acted like he knew something you didn't know," but honestly, he didn't have to act. Not only that, by the time he was through having what he called, in quite another context, "strenuous intercourse" with you, he knew most of what you knew as well. Hasford called him an earwig; he'd go in one ear and not come out the other until he'd eaten clean through your head.

He had the endearing and certainly seductive habit when he talked to you of slipping your name in every few sentences, particularly in the punch line, and there was always a punch line. He had an especially fraternal temperament anyway, but I know quite a few women who found him extremely charming. A few of them were even actresses.

Some Americans move to London and in three weeks they're talking like Denholm Elliott. Stanley picked up the odd English locution, but it didn't take Henry Higgins to place him as pure, almost stainless Bronx. Stanley's speech was very fluent, melodious even. In spite of the Bronx nasal-caustic, perhaps the shadow of some adenoidal trauma long ago, it was as close to the condition of music as speech can get and still be speech, like a very well-read jazz musician talking, with a pleasing and graceful Groucho-like rushing and ebbing of inflection for emphasis and suggested quotation marks to convey amused disdain, over-enunciating phrases that struck him as fabulously banal, with lots of innuendo, and lots of latent sarcasm, and some not so latent, lively tempi, brilliant timing, eloquent silences, and, always, masterful, seamless segues -- "Lemme change the subject for just a minute," or "What were we into before we got into this?" I never heard him try to do other voices, or dialects, even when he was telling Jewish jokes. Stanley quoted other people all the time, people in the industry whom he'd spoken to that morning (Steven and Mike, Warren and Jack, Tom and Nicole), or people who died a thousand years ago, but it was always Stanley speaking.

Kubrick died a few months before the piece was published and his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, came out right around the publication date. And if you don't want to read all 12,000 words in your browser, there's an expanded version of the essay available as a book.

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