It is one of the most perfectly realised moments in cinema history. The setting is earth, the subject the dawn of man, and the film is Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Earth lies as a barren wasteland, populated by pre-human apes. A giant black monolith arrives parked in the desert. The apes gather around. The stone emits a strange power that seems to inspire the next stage in evolution. We watch the moment of art being born, a leap of the imagination: an ape looks at a bone and is able to see it in his mind as something else – a weapon. He smashes a skull on the ground and Kubrick cuts to the felling of an animal. It doesn't take long for these pre-human apes to turn the weapons upon themselves. Soon they are killing their own kind. And then the moment: a frenzied simian, mouth agape, hurls with full force a bone-as-weapon into the air. In close-up, it somersaults upwards into the blue sky, and then, as it begins to fall back to earth, Kubrick cuts, magically, to a similar shape, of a space station orbiting the earth. The moment is extraordinary: in a single piece of cinematic shorthand, Kubrick distills one of the most complex ideas of our age – evolution and the advancement of the human species over millions of years – into a single cut.
Kubrick arrived at this point of precision over eight films. But 2001 was a giant leap. Schooled as a street photographer, and having shot almost all his films within the classicism of black and white (the exception was Spartacus, which Kubrick was parachuted into), this was the first Kubrick project that began as a colour film. It would propel him towards his very own kind of cinema.
With colour, Kubrick found an alacrity and an arrest in his images that began to transcend the subject material of his stories. His films were nourished by colour. It enabled him to drill deep, to tap the essence of things. Think of the many images embedded in our minds from The Shining: that torrent of blood pooling about a doorway, bloodier than blood; the whites of Jack Nicholson's eyes in that famous "here's Johnny" scene, madder than madness, whiter than white; or that opening sequence, shot from a helicopter on the alpine journey to the forlorn Overlook Hotel. Those widescreen shots seem to push the natural boundaries of the screen, to absorb every photon of light. Kubrick wanted to do to his audiences what he did to Alex in A Clockwork Orange: to peel back our eyelids until we are forced to see every beam from the projector. He did not want us to blink.
Of course, while Kubrick's images shimmer with a stand-alone intensity, he also used his formidable imagery as a lure. His cinema entices us with beauty, only to unsettle us with a writhing discontent underneath. Think of those steadicam shots (which Kubrick pioneered for The Shining) of the child tunnelling down those corridors on his tricycle in a state of innocent bliss. It's the ultimate kids' playground. Yet the music scratches at our ears and we watch with a mounting sense of dread that this world unfolding is not as the kid sees it. Or Jack Torrence, smashing through the door with his axe: it is the ultimate moment of horror – the father/protector turning on his own family.
And then there's Barry Lyndon (for my money, Kubrick's best film). Watching it is like entering an art museum. The film is stately and mannered, each frame hung on the screen like a standalone work of art – a Vermeer or Hogarth, perhaps. They are crafted with impeccable attention to lighting and composition (once again Kubrick advanced film technique – he used Nasa lenses to allow him to shoot in natural, ultra-low candlelight). Historically, such scenes were often painted as moments of quotidian celebration, a pastoral setting or a gathering at a salon. Yet Kubrick, all the time, is working to undermine such notions. For Ryan O'Neal's Lyndon is a rogue, a liar, a thief and a wastrel. Kurbick is telling us that these images we have held for centuries to be beautiful are a lie: they do not attest to the folly of man.
If Kubrick had a theme, then that may have been it. There is a cold pedantry to his work, an unfeeling, ivory-tower vantage that, when married to the analytical care he took with his craft, can leave you feeling a little cold towards his films. It is hard, too, to ignore the artificiality in his images: those monkeys in 2001 could be Halloween costume apes. And what about those imported pine trees in Full Metal Jacket, a film whose war scenes, shot on location in England, looked anaemic beside the heft and the jungle hue of Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
In his classic 1968 book, The American Cinema, the great film critic Andrew Sarris accused Kubrick of having "a naive faith in the power of images to transcend fuzzy feelings and vague ideas". Sometimes, I think he may have been right. And yet, 10 years after his death, Kubrick's art is still as potent as ever. Yes, there is a chill and an unfeeling disdain that can be hard to ignore. But there is no doubting it is a special kind of pure cinema.
This appreciation will appear as part of 'Stanley Kubrick's Taming Light', an exhibition of 25 new works from Irish and international painters, photographers and illustrators, which will show at the Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin from 1 to 31 October