Kubrick gets a Herr piece

Michael Herr remembers Stanley Kubrick.

By Craig Offman
July 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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"Dispatches" author Michael Herr, whose work hasn't been seen in print for nearly a decade, has returned with a 12,000-word appreciation of director Stanley Kubrick, who died in March at the age of 70. In the August issue of Vanity Fair, due out on the stands Wednesday, the former Esquire writer and author of the 1990 book "Walter Winchell: A Novel" gives a colorful and balanced view of the eccentric creator of such films as "Dr. Strangelove" and "A Clockwork Orange."

Herr was introduced to Kubrick in 1980 by John Le Carri, and eventually wrote the screenplay for Kubrick's 1987 film "Full Metal Jacket." His take on the director is somewhat revisionist. Though Kubrick had a reputation as a recluse, Herr describes him as "one of the most gregarious men I ever knew" -- although his gregariousness manifested itself in odd ways. Kubrick loved talking on the phone for hours on end. A friend called him an earwig: "He'd go in one ear and not come out the other until he had eaten clean through your head."

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Though it was widely believed that a rabid anti-American streak was responsible for Kubrick's move to England in the early '60s, the director was nostalgic enough to have friends videotape American football games and commercials for him. He was also a big fan of "Roseanne," "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons." And he considered leaving England, if only briefly. "He once asked me if I'd mind moving with my family to Vancouver for a year to check it out for him," Herr recalls; "and he heard Sydney was a great place, maybe I could try that out for him, too."

In the early '80s, Kubrick, a voracious reader, was grappling with two books that he wanted to use as the basis for films: Raul Hilberg's landmark study "The Destruction of the European Jews" and turn-of-the-century Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler's "Traumnovelle," or "Dream Novella." The latter became the basis of Kubrick's about-to-be-released "Eyes Wide Shut," which the director initially envisioned as a dark sex comedy with Steve Martin in the lead. (He was a big fan of "The Jerk.")

Throughout their friendship, Kubrick and Herr discussed authors as diverse as Herodotus and Ciline (whom Kubrick called "my favorite anti-Semite"). Herr also reveals that Kubrick wrote an adaptation of Louis Begley's 1997 Holocaust novel "Wartime Lies," and talked to both Uma Thurman and Julia Roberts about appearing in the movie.

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Unlike Frederic Raphael (the author of the "Eyes Wide Shut" screenplay, which Herr polished), whose controversial memoir of Kubrick, "Eyes Wide Open," came out last month, Herr doesn't portray a man completely at odds with his Jewish origins. (After the New Yorker excerpted the Raphael book, the New York Post ran the headline "Stanley Kubrick: Self-Hating Jew.") Kubrick, who loved telling Jewish jokes, told Herr, "Gentiles don't know how to worry."

Herr used to lived in England, too, but these days he makes his home in upstate New York, where he's at work on the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola's movie version of Jack Kerouac's 1957 classic, "On the Road."


Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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