Without question, Stanley Kubrick’s prolific career as a film maker is one of the true originals in the canon of America’s cinema arts. The essence of Kubrick’s artistry is as elusive as the riddle of the Sphinx, as mysterious as the unsolvable and infinite, and as strangely hypnotic as a handsome, though upsetting nightmare. Kubrick, who brought a keen, unusual photographic eye to his many projects; who was not adverse to rewriting or even tossing out the creative aegis of as prominent an author as Stephen King to see his own vision came roaring to life up on the giant screen (aside: King absolutely abhorred Kubrick’s re-imagining of his The Shining), and, in whom a queerly elegant, yet kinetic perversity was always at play, often revealing all sides of our human (and inhumane) condition. Stanley Kubrick’s accomplishments are testimonials to the purity of the art of film. They defy textbook examination, except – perhaps – superficial analyses of the varying parts that went into their collaborative birth. But their modus operandi remains intangible. The genius of Stanley Kubrick is something one cannot label or quantify so easily – if at all – and arguably, can never be duplicated.
Part of Kubrick’s greatness, if not all of his mystique, stems from the fact he was not only a director, but also chiefly responsible for the totality of his movies’ invention as screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, and editor. He toiled – usually in secret – remaining untouchable by the edicts of studio bosses; the one exception, arguably being 1960’s Spartacus, for which star/co-producer, Kirk Douglas had both his say and his way on the final cut. Typically working from great novels or short stories, Kubrick often subverted, distorted or re-conceptualized time-honored literature he reconceived in purely cinematic terms; along the way miraculously creating an enveloping and atmospheric impression he had strictly adhered to the original source materials all along.
Delving into the historical epic, science/fiction, horror and literary adaptations with an envious ease, Kubrick brought his own artistic impressions to bear, rather than heel, to the work itself. His visions have long since eclipsed their source material. Hence, when we think of The Shining, we first conjure Kubrick’s movie rather than Stephen King’s novel, the two bearing little resemblance to one another. William Makepeace Thackery’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ has morphed into Kubrick’s exquisitely photographed – and severely underrated – masterwork. Even when Kubrick was seemingly bound by the stringencies of the reigning production code, as in the case of Lolita (1962), he managed to somehow crystalize and extol with distinction the salaciousness and sexual voracity of Vladimir Nabokov’s trend-setting novel.
Perhaps most astutely of all; Kubrick never professed to be an artist. He simply was one, proving the maxims of genuine artistry over and over again: to impress, startle, inform and, most important of all – entertain with his unique and extraordinary imagination. Here, we draw particular attention to Kubrick’s prophecies of outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) released a full year prior to the first lunar landing, yet uncannily illustrating with exacting precision the awe-inspiring majesty of that un-quantifiable infinite. Space movies since have all taken their cue from 2001. Miraculously, so has interstellar exploration, the space station MIR, as example, bearing an uncannily resemblance to the revolving space station in the movie. Not only did 2001 elevate the overall acceptability of sci-fi as a genre, from B-reel kiddie fodder to A-list SFX-laden viable mainstream entertainment, it legitimized the hypotheses about space itself, put forth by authors like Arthur C. Clarke and later quantified by documented photographic evidence taken in outer space.
Like the man himself, Kubrick’s career is not altogether easy to summarize, chiefly because Kubrick endeavored never to create a template, either for himself or others to deconstruct and follow. His approach to each movie as a unique entity, with its own set of challenges to be worked out, conquered and manipulated, provides some, though not all, of the insight into his creative virtuosity. Arguably, Kubrick was never entirely satisfied with what he created; his perfectionism proving costly to the ever-nervous studio executives who green lit his projects with giddy reluctance and anticipation. Kubrick had the great good fortune to emerge from the undertow of Hollywood’s homogenized collectivism at the tail end of the ‘studio system’, often perceived as the death knell for true artists like Orson Welles. Following the success of Spartacus, Kubrick would live, breathe and operate his film-making empire, calling the shots with uncharacteristic autonomy from his home base; Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, England. As with all truly inspired men, controversy often dogged Kubrick’s greatness; particularly after a series of crimes mimicking those in A Clockwork Orange (1971) were erroneously blamed on the movie; Kubrick receiving death threats that temporarily forced him to go into a self-imposed hibernation to avoid scrutiny. In the U.K. the film was banned until long after Kubrick’s death, while in the U.S. it received the dreaded ‘R’ rating.
Warner Home Video once again brings together the bulk of Kubrick’s career – excluding his early works and Spartacus (the latter, presumably because Universal Home Video remains standoffish about sharing the rights for inclusion herein). For those already having collected Kubrick’s films in one form or another (for they have been resurrected ad nauseam on home video – particularly in hi-def), there are still a few reasons (few being the operative word) to recommend this regurgitation on Blu-ray: more on this later. Our excursion into Kubrick’s genius begins with Lolita (1962). To say Vladimir Nabokov's novel caused a sensation when it was first published is putting things mildly. The subject of a middle-aged man's sexual obsession and dalliances with a precocious twelve year old girl, elevated 'kink' to a whole new level, gripping readers with its frank perversity. In re-envisioning the novel for the big screen, Kubrick assumed a monumental task; mainly, to suggest the crippling sexual addiction of its 40-ish protagonist without actually showing the libidinous relationship in any detail. Circumventing the production code and still maintaining the potency of the piece seems to have been a balancing act at best, one that does not entirely come off in the finished film.
The screenplay by Nabokov, Kubrick and screenwriter, James Harris skips over our hero's predilection for very young girls in Switzerland as well as his failed marriage to a Polish waif. Instead, the narrative begins with a confrontation between Beardsley professor, Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and successful playwright, Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) - a sycophantic chameleon who has currently adopted the façade of a wanton playboy. After a brief verbal altercation, Humbert shoots Quilty dead. We regress in flashback; four years, and Humbert’s arrival in Ramsdale, New Hampshire. He takes up residence, renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) - a blousy sexually-frustrated widow. From the start, Charlotte has her eye on Humbert. But Humbert has his sights fixed on Charlotte's sixteen year old daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyons); a crass, soda-guzzling, gum-chewing tart, promiscuous well beyond her years. Dolores toys with Humbert's affections, writing him mash notes and eventually becoming his lover. Knowing full well what her daughter is capable of, Charlotte sends Lolita off to summer camp to have Humbert all to herself. Charlotte and Humbert are married and shortly thereafter Charlotte informs her new husband she intends to send Dolores away to private school for the remainder of her education.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, Humbert grows more solemn and aloof while writing lurid odes to Dolores in his diary. These are discovered by Charlotte who, in a paralytic fit of disbelief, wanders into the street during a rainstorm and throws herself under the wheels of an oncoming car. Seizing the opportunity to have Dolores for himself, Humbert takes her away from summer camp but does not yet inform her of Charlotte’s demise. For several days, Humbert plots his seduction of the child, strangely unable to bring himself to take complete advantage of the situation. Eventually, Humbert reveals the truth about Charlotte to Dolores who becomes hysterical and grief-stricken. For a time, at least, she agrees to stay with Humbert. Yet, at every turn Humbert and Dolores are pursued by strange men who suggest a sexual relationship is going on between Humbert and 'his stepdaughter'. The first of these clandestine encounters occurs between Humbert and a total stranger (Peter Sellers) in the lobby of the hotel he and Dolores are staying. The second is between Humbert and Dr. Zemph (also Peter Sellers), a psychologist who encourages Humbert to have a talk with Dolores about 'the facts of life'.
Concerned his attachment has become too obvious, Humbert quits Beardsley and takes the girl on the open road. The two are pursued by a mysterious car that never quite catches up to them. By now, Dolores has begun to tire of Humbert's constant need to control her. She becomes severely ill and has to be hospitalized. Humbert comes to visit her every day while she recuperates. But after a cryptic phone call suggests yet another stranger knows of Humbert's truer intensions, he races back to the hospital only to discover Dolores has been discharged earlier that same day and is currently in the care of someone claiming to be her uncle. An irrational Humbert attacks the nurse in charge (Lois Maxwell) and is nearly institutionalized.
Several years pass. Then, out of the blue, Humbert receives a letter from Dolores. She has married Richard Schiller (Gary Cockrell), a boy of her years. Pregnant with Richard’s child and living in squalor not so far away, Dolores begs Humbert for money. She explains that it was Clare Quilty who took her from the hospital with promises of a life of glamour. Instead, he took advantage of her youth and forced her into his depraved 'art house' movies. Dolores further explains to Humbert how Clare and Charlotte were once lovers, prompting his infatuation with her the same way Humbert developed his obsession. Realizing what a fool he has been, Humbert gives Dolores $13,000 from the sale of her mother's estate and departs on route to the murderous rendezvous with Clare Quilty that began our story. An epilogue chronicles Humbert later died of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for Quilty's murder.
Lolita is an odd and sordid film to say the least. The true depth of moral depravity so meticulously described in the novel has been distilled into suggestive flashes in the film. As such, the 'kink' factor – so essential to the novel’s success - is really more speculative than implied. James Mason adds yet another variation to his morally fragile and slightly disturbed leading men. But in this case, he isn't quite as accessible or even as engaging; simpering and struggling with wild-eyed ineptitude and prone to fits of blubbering madness. As for Sue Lyons, she occasionally scales heights as the grittily calculating viper described in Nobokov's novel. However, on the whole Lyons comes across as more an emotionless manipulator than hot-blooded vixen. Peter Sellers has the real plum part (or parts, as the case may be) and his zeal for impersonation is working overtime herein. He is perhaps at his most despicably suggestive and unsettlingly seamy as Dr. Zemph. As Clare Quilty, Sellers is a tad less effective, moreover hampered by the production code that forces him to imagine, rather than live out Quilty's peccadilloes. Without the fulfillment of its anticipated eroticism, Lolita falls short of expectations. Kubrick does his best to insinuate impropriety where ever possible (and I must admit the toenail polishing sequence still carries a slightly unnerving sexual friction about it) but in the end, the film remains a sort of obtuse titillation - a coming attraction for something that never comes.
On the whole, Kubrick is in far better form on his next project. A byproduct of the Cold War erae is that it provided Hollywood with sufficient fodder to explore, and even celebrate, the art of politically subversive espionage. Some movies took the threat of communist infiltration and possible WWIII doomsday scenarios quite seriously, while others chose to embrace the threat of catastrophe as farcical nonsense. Of this latter ilk, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) remains a sobering milestone. Originally intended to be a faithful adaptation of Peter George's dramatic novel 'Red Alert', the screenplay by George, Kubrick and Terry Southern was tailored to suit Kubrick's more aberrant sense of dramatic irony. Perhaps Kubrick had always intended it so - as, he did very little preliminary work on preparing a dramatic script, but rather, jumped headstrong into exploring the demented psychology of warfare. The resultant screenplay is a potpourri for Kubrick’s fascination with this veritable collection of loose cannons; the entire geopolitical future and, in fact, salvation of the planet, resting on one simple push of that proverbial ‘self-destruct’ button.
Ladling absurdity upon hyperbole, our story opens with Brigadier Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) declaring a state of emergency at a high security military base in order to launch his own counteroffensive against communism. It's a private war with very public consequences. Summoning Gen. Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to his office, Gen. Ripper reveals his truer intent to bring about total world annihilation through the use of the atomic bomb. Naturally, the more cool-headed Mandrake is outraged and terrified - but powerless to stop the general in his efforts. Meanwhile, high overhead, a U.S. patrol of B-52 bombers under the command of Major King Kong (Slim Pickens) are ordered to fly toward Russian air space and detonate their nuclear device. Inside the U.S. war counsel room, President Merkin Muffley's (also Peter Sellers) is attended by ensconced feckless stooge, Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), gregarious alcoholic, Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and the mysterious cripple - Dr. Strangelove (also Sellers); an exiled Nazi genius put to work for the U.S. on the secretive doomsday device now threatening the very existence of life on earth.
For the next two hours these models of political inefficiency will endlessly debate the pros and cons of destroying the world before inevitably, though quite accidentally, bringing about an end to civilization. Such was and remains Kubrick's message; that at any point in time our collective fate hangs in the balance of omnipotent powers that may or may not have the most altruistic intensions. Today, some fifty years removed from the movie’s debut, this message remains as ominously relevant as ever. It should be pointed out Peter Sellers gives three of the most startlingly wicked and ambitiously satirical character studies ever conceived for a single film. His Mandrake is a foppish and placid political fool; his Muffley an ineffectual egghead, and finally, his Strangelove, the most sinister, brainwashed demigod known to man. Separately, these characterizations span the gamut of politico hacks: together, they are comedic brilliance, tinged with more than an ounce of sobering reality.
Immediately following Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick was to go into a sort of artistic cocoon for nearly four years, emerging with an extraordinary achievement to round out the decade. Until 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) science fiction had the rather tragic and spotty reputation as B-movie fodder for the Saturday matinee; a realm populated by giant radioactive tarantulas, walking plants, and analogous blobs of purple Jello falling from the farthest reaches of outer space to consume, dominate or otherwise destroy the human population with their one-eyed alien death rays. But after 2001, sci-fi would never be the same again. Kubrick initially approached prolific sci-fi writer, Arthur C. Clark with the prospect of making “the proverbial good science-fiction movie.” Not terribly interested, Clarke suggested Kubrick research his 1948 short story, The Sentinel languishing on bookshelves ever since it failed to place even on the shortlist in the BBC literary competition. Although Kubrick would eventually borrow a pivotal plot point from The Sentinel, the bulk of his sci-fi adventure was actually spawned from his own imagination.
To attempt any vane cohesion between the various narrative threads that make up 2001’s plot seems a pointless waste of space (pun intended) - since even today, audiences and members of the sci-fi elite literati cannot come to a general consensus on how to make sense of it all. Perhaps no such understanding is required or even necessary – certainly, none to appreciate 2001 as the purest form of cinema art. The film is a quantum leap, made presumptuously at a time when space travel was still unattainable. That Kubrick and his SFX specialists hit their mark so precisely remains a testament to Kubrick’s vision - almost as far reaching and infinite as space itself. The narrative is an enigma in service of the visuals; Kubrick’s prediction on man’s dangerous reliance on technology – best embodied by the murderous HAL supercomputer – and; in the film’s finale, when astronaut, Keir Dullea is brought to confront his own immortality in a future embryonic state. Any more profound or concrete meaning derived from viewing the movie is purely speculative and open for discussion; its’ stand-alone images brilliantly juxtaposed to defy simple understanding, comprehension or logic.
Kubrick's inference (that space and man's place in it defy any real understanding) is well represented. As the audience we begin to feel just how small and insignificant we are within this vast and vacuous realm. And yet, as the film progresses there is also a curious sense of claustrophobia pervading; Kubrick’s conflict between inner and outer space battling for supremacy after Dullea's crew have all been murdered by HAL. Kubrick makes us think without becoming pretentiously mired in the particulars or a 'message'. Arguably, there is no 'message' in 2001 but a multiplicity of interpretations that continue to imperfectly justify the film only from a purely narrative perspective. Yet, 2001 is not a narrative film – at least, in any conventional sense...or is it? Perhaps, like all truly memorable works of art, 2001 is an anomaly in the best sense - a clear-headed exploitation of the 'probable' as well as the fantastic, both intermingling in a timeless vacuum of possibilities, forever fueling re-generated, profound reflections. For his own part, author, Arthur Clarke put all speculation to rest most concisely when he declared, “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” Mission accomplished.
Immediately following 2001, Kubrick had planned to delve into a mammoth retelling of the life and times of Napoleon. For several reasons, this project never materialized, Kubrick instead latching onto the opportunity to make A Clockwork Orange (1971). As they say, ‘timing is everything.’ In 1971, A Clockwork Orange became the victim of very ‘bad timing’ when copycat crimes in London’s west end sent its governing board of film censors on a political witch-hunt. For all intent and purposes, the frenzied backlash against the film made Kubrick and his wife prisoners in their own home, subjected to repeated death threats. All the brouhaha eventually died off. But in Britain the film would not be allowed back into cinemas until 2000. A Clockwork Orange is, of course based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novella about a near futuristic British society plagued by an errant youth culture and a political system seeking to anesthetize all free thinking by exploiting such deviancies to its own advantage.
Burgess’ questioning of the state’s authority to manipulate (ergo, further corrupt) society to its own will, was thematically very close to Kubrick’s heart and the resultant film’s main theme of ‘controlling human behavior’ to the detriment of human beings remains relative in our progressively stifling and dumbed down pop culture. In some ways, A Clockwork Orange is very much mired by its time capsule approach to London’s swinging mod scene turned under and ugly in this pseudo-fascist regime of politicos and police out to lynch, then convert a young man to ‘the good’, no matter the ultimate – or ulterior – consequences. Malcolm MacDowell is haunting brilliant as Alex de Large, the leader of a gang of wayward youth who is jailed, then transformed through ‘aversion therapy’ and later pronounced ‘cured’ of his malignant behaviors. He is given a new lease on life and released back into society. One problem: the society that spawned Alex’s aberrant behaviors in the first place is waiting for him to return and become re-assimilated as his old self.
Unable to adjust, Alex is shunned by family and friends. After a near death experience, Alex reverts to his old ways. He joins a ruthless gang who delight in maiming, torturing, raping and murdering the respectable folk of London with great contempt, disdain and relish for the sycophantic thrill of the rush. Perhaps the most viscerally repugnant of these latter slated debaucheries, is a vignette where Alex and his entourage break into the home of a prolific writer, bludgeoning the man and his wife to the tune of Singin’ in the Rain and generally having a jolly good time in their bloody carnage.
The shock and revulsion of these scenes was inherent in Burgess’ prose. Yet, it is in seeing these acts come to life on the screen that they become something of a grotesquely unforgettable attack on the senses; Kubrick’s contribution, adding the most jovial atmospheric touches to augment some of the most socially aggressive and revolting acts of violence. As such, the brutality inherits a queerly ‘amusing’ characteristic. This grows increasingly more disturbing as the movie’s plot unravels to its inevitable conclusion. Cultural brainwashing aside, A Clockwork Orange remains a bitter time capsule of the social morays and vices made all the more acidic by what many critics misperceived as Kubrick’s own perverted enjoyment of the vulgarity.
Kubrick was to step back from film-making after A Clockwork Orange, his follow-up coming nearly four years later. An intricate character study of a rake's progress, Barry Lyndon (1975) is methodical and stylish, often a surreal spectacle; its attention to period detail arguably unsurpassed. Based on William Thackeray's sprawling novel, the film is, in many ways, a throwback to the grandiose big-budget historical epics in vogue throughout the late fifties and early sixties. After 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick became mildly obsessed with making a film about Napoleon. Alas, the like-minded movie launched by Dino De Laurentis, Waterloo (1970) and its spectacular implosion at the box office caused Kubrick's backers to panic and renege on their financing.
Outraged, but unable to find new financiers, Kubrick turned his attentions to A Clockwork Orange instead. Then, in 1972, Kubrick became enamored with Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a book not made into a movie since 1933’s Becky Sharp. Timing again was off, with the BBC beating Kubrick to the punch by producing a television series based on Thackeray's masterwork. At this point, Kubrick took solace in another Thackeray novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon and, in retrospect it is easy to see why. Like most of Kubrick's filmic heroes, the novel's protagonist is a tragically flawed young man whose aspirations bring utter ruination to everything he touches. Kubrick arguably came to Thackeray's novel third best, or perhaps, more accurately, thrice removed. Although the resulting film bears the director’s hallmark for meticulous planning, there is an odd disconnect between the director's style and the film's subject matter.
The screenplay by Kubrick follows the novel's trajectory closely – unusual for Kubrick and in hindsight, perhaps too closely for Kubrick’s liking. It's 1844 and Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is our picaresque Irish rake. His father has been killed in a duel leaving Barry's mother (Marie Kean) devoted to her son's upbringing. During his youth, Barry is tempted into an illicit affair with his cousin, Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton); a ruthless spider who goads his lust until a well-borne English Captain, John Quinn (Leonard Rossiter) proposes marriage. Unable to reconcile his spurned feelings for Nora, Barry demands satisfaction from Quinn in a duel. The game, however, is rigged. Although Barry shoots Quinn in the chest, the gun's ammunition has been switched to mere tow. Quinn, a coward at heart, fakes his own death forcing Barry into exile in Dublin. Regrettably, Barry is held up by a highwayman (Arthur O'Sullivan) along the open road. Penniless, he is forced to join the British Army. There, an old friend of the family, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) informs Barry that Quinn not only survived the duel but has since married Nora.
Barry's regiment is sent to fight the Seven Year's War where Grogan is fatally wounded in a skirmish with the French. His life once again unbearable, Barry decides to steal an officer's uniform and a horse and become a deserter. En route to Holland he encounters Prussian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger) who sees through his disguise and enlists him in the Prussian Army instead. Barry saves Potzdorf's life after another battle and is given a commission in the Prussian Police as his reward. His first assignment is to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee); a professional gambler who is suspected of embezzlement and cheating. Instead, Barry becomes the Chevalier's friend. They escape Holland together and travel the finer spas all over Europe, profiting handsomely by their wicked manipulation of the cards. But Barry's one fascination in life - to become a gentleman - has yet to be fulfilled.
To this end, Barry seduces the wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) under the watchful eye of her elderly and ailing husband, Sir Charles (Frank Middlemass). After Sir Charles' death, Barry marries the Countess and takes her last name for his own. The couple settle in England where Barry's first attempts to ingratiate himself as a stepfather to the Countess ten year old son, Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage) are an unmitigated disaster. The child despises Barry, who proves to live down these low expectations by wantonly spending the Countess's money and eventually becoming unfaithful to her in their marriage with multiple lovers. Barry comes to his senses and realizes how much he loves his wife. The Countess forgives him and gives birth to their only son, Bryan Patrick (David Morley); a loving and affectionate child whom the adult Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) equally comes to loathe. On his seventh birthday, Bryan falls from the horse made a gift to him by his father and is trampled to death. Now Barry's mother advises her son to cultivate an acquaintance with the influential Lord Wendover (Andre Morell), obtaining a nobleman’s title to protect himself from financial ruin. Seeing the purpose of this alliance, Lord Bullingdon publicly assaults Barry's reputation at a concert with accusations he is a debaucher and a deceiver.
Unable to control his wrath, Barry beats and attempts to strangle his stepson in front of the crowd. He is barely restrained, branded a social pariah and loses all of his friendships with Lord Wendover and others in high-standing. Fearing the Countess' spiritual advisor, Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin) is plotting with Lord Bullingdon to dissolve Barry's marriage, Barry's mother dismisses Runt from court. Upon hearing the news, Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel. However, Lord Bullingdon's gun misfires, providing Barry with the opportunity he has been waiting for: to kill his ungrateful stepson. Instead, Barry honorably chooses to spoil his shot. With relish, Lord Bullingdon takes another at Barry, his musket shattering Barry's knee cap. He loses his leg from the knee down as a result. While Barry is convalescing, Bullingdon takes over all the financial concerns of his late father's estate, granting Barry an annuity of 500 guineas for life - if he ends his marriage to the Countess and leaves England forever. Demoralized and ailing, a reluctant Barry accepts the offer.
Barry Lyndon is sumptuous entertainment, buoyed by John Alcott's striking cinematography - shot using only natural and candle light. This extols the breathtaking splendors of the Irish countryside (subbing in for England, Holland and the rest of Europe). Ken Adams and Roy Walker's Art Direction is equally first rate. Unlike other costume epics, the world created for Barry Lyndon looks resplendent but always lived in. Kubrick's casting choices are interesting, though not entirely successful. A former fashion model, Marisa Berenson is undeniably beautiful. But she lacks any sort of genuine character to live and breathe as the tragic countess. Rarely does Berenson defy the window-dressing of her former profession or Milena Canonero’s lavish costumes. These, in fact, dwarf her acting attributes under a mountain of fine woolens and lace. As such, Berenson’s presence utterly fails to elicit anything more than a few quiet sighs from her more ardent male admirers.
Ryan O'Neal does not fare much better; his 70’s rugged handsomeness at odds with the vintage masculinity required of Thackeray's antiheroic um…hero. There is no evolution to O'Neal's technique either as the story progresses. Although his makeup and hair ripen, his acting remains rigidly the same. O'Neal looks the least comfortable or convincing in his period wigs and costumes. When it was released Barry Lyndon was not a success. Critics decried Kubrick’s aloof approach to the narrative. In point of fact, the audience is never invited into these lives on anything more than a superficial level. Kubrick keeps us deliberately at a distance. The scenes unfold with a stately elegance and are painterly in their execution, yet oddly static in their presentation. Kubrick's stylized approach does not harm the story per say and neither does his excruciatingly deliberate pace. But viewed today, Barry Lyndon endures largely as a moving tableau; a magnificent tapestry far removed from the decade in which it was conceived. It has a very Thackeray-esque cadence, married to Kubrick’s masterful touch for impeccable staging to recommend it. When all other aspects fail to gel, Kubrick's overriding vision never allows the film to entirely succumb into an implosion that could otherwise mark it as an artistic failure.
Five years would again pass before Kubrick’s latest venture. Billed as a masterpiece of modern horror today, The Shining (1980) was ill-received at the time of its general release. In fact, it garnered much disdain from author, Stephen King. True, Kubrick’s vision of King’s celebrated novel departs almost entirely from the original source. In fact, Kubrick practically re-conceives the novel from the ground up – keeping only the most superficial aspects and fleshing out the tale with darker cinematic touches. But who could blame Kubrick for improving so maliciously upon an already malignant psycho-drama when what emerged from his exculpatory address was ever nearer to cinematic perfection than even Stephen King might have imagined?
The screenplay by Diane Johnson and Kubrick begins in earnest with The Torrance family’s arrival at the appointed retreat, The Overlook Hotel. Husband Jack (Jack Nicholson) has been hired for the off season daily custodial duties while the hotel is closed to the general public. He also hopes the quiet solitude will afford him the opportunity to work on a novel. Together with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack settles into his daily routine. Alas, and almost from the beginning, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the jovial supervisor, begins to sense strange supernatural rumblings in Danny, channeling psychic energies capable of communicating with the dead. Soon however, Danny’s ‘abilities’ cast a reign of terror on the entire household. He sees visions of slaughtered children, dead guests rising from watery bathtubs and envisions buckets of blood spilling forth from gaping elevator doors. At the same time, Jack begins to experience his own hallucinations, culminating in a demonically possessed insanity.
Traumatized by Danny’s reoccurring nightmares, Wendy’s concerns shift to Jack after she begins to sense his growing psychosis is a threat to their safety. What she initially perceives as his ‘stir craziness’ eventually blossoms into unobstructed madness. What none of the family is aware of yet is that their scenario is nothing new to the history of the Overlook. In fact, it is a perverse exercise in history renewing itself. Decades before, the hotel’s caretaker ran amuck with his own wife and children, slaughtering them with an axe before killing himself.
Chronic rewrites and re-shooting necessitated the removal of The Shining’s original ending in which Wendy is seen lying on a hospital bed while being told Jack’s frozen body could not be located anywhere on the Overlook’s property. At 146 minutes, The Shining is one of the longest horror movies ever made – and, in fact, one of the finest. Alas, the public did not initially take to it as either director or studio had hoped. Cut and re-cut, the version the public eventually saw made back its initial investment, though its’ reputation would take more than a few years to catch on, perhaps partly because Kubrick’s pacing is so unassuming and effortlessly sustainable, it sneaks up with uncharacteristic dread before bursting forth into the more obviously gory details.
An interesting aside: although the Timberline Lodge was used for actual exteriors, virtually all of The Shining was shot on imposing sound stages built at Elstree Studios in London England. Kubrick went way over time and over budget on The Shining - nearly 14 months that strained the patience of his backers. But like most of Kubrick's strokes of genius, the suffrage paid handsome dividends in the long run, though in the short term it only helped to bolster the increasingly unflattering reputation for its director as ‘being difficult’. In hindsight, however, The Shining is a superior work of fright from start to finish. If you haven't seen it - you should. If you don't own it - you must.
Once again, Kubrick took considerable time off to convalesce and regroup. When next he came forth with a project to his own mind and liking, it would tap into yet another iconic genre in an uncharacteristic and thought-provoking way. Deriving its namesake from a bullet with a high muzzle velocity, Full Metal Jacket (1987) began its gestation during an arranged meeting with author, Michael Herr in 1980. Herr had written the Vietnam memoir, Dispatches. Initially, Kubrick wanted Herr’s participation on a film about the holocaust. But this idea held little interest for Herr and eventually gave way to his writing an original screenplay for a Vietnam War movie instead, particularly after Kubrick became fascinated by Gustav Hasford’s novel, The Short-Timers.
Three years later, Kubrick began research on his movie, slowly eroding Herr’s apprehensions and his original creative vision to suit his own. By 1985, Hasford was brought on board to work on the screenplay. Herr wrote a first draft and Kubrick came up with the title ‘Full Metal Jacket’ after coming across the phrase in a gun catalog. To his own detriment, Kubrick kept Hasford and Herr a secret from one another. This created problems later, when both men began vying for sole screenwriting credit on the finished film. Eventually, Hasford was shut out of the production. Kubrick cast his tour of duty veterans from a veritable group of unknowns – screening some 800 video-taped auditions. A former Marine Drill Instructor, R. Lee Ermey was initially hired as a consultant on the project. When Ermey suggested to Kubrick he might be perfect casting for the role of Gny. Stg. Hartman, the director flinched – telling Ermey he lacked the desired level of viciousness. Undaunted, Ermey shot a test for Kubric,k rattling off a fifteen minute diatribe of vulgarities while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls. The test convinced Kubrick Ermey was his Hartman.
Shot entirely in England, Anton Furst’s production design manages to capture the flavor of Vietnam without ever venturing to the Far East. Utilizing discarded buildings at Beckton Gasworks, 200 Spanish palms and over 100,000 rubber and plastic tropical plants imported from Hong Kong, the decimated city of Hue was translated into a startling reality. Kubrick also had Furst acquire M41 tanks and a Sikorsky H-34 Choctow helicopter to lend an air of authenticity. Plot wise, Full Metal Jacket is divided into two distinct episodes: the first, focused on a group of Marine recruits arriving at Parris Island for their basic training. There, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Ermey) relishes breaking their egos and spirits. The Vietnam War is already underway and Hartman’s purpose is both simplistic and diabolical: produce the next round of desensitized professionals who will not break under the extreme pressures of this hellish war.
The physical and psychological dismantling of new recruit, Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) takes up much of the first third of the story. Nicknamed Gomer Pyle by Hartman, the pummeling of Lawrence’s psyche is disquieting to all. In truth, Lawrence is a misfit; slovenly, slow-witted and predisposed to ridicule over his pudgy exterior and seeming inability to follow any rules. After discovering a jelly donut in Lawrence’s locker, Hartman decides any further infractions will result in punishment inflicted on the rest of the recruits with Lawrence forced to watch. Hartman further appoints the sensitive Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) as custodian and mentor over Lawrence’s behavior.
To ensure Lawrence does not misstep his boundaries, the other recruits decide to flog him; the reluctant Joker forced into participating. The assault leaves Lawrence shell-shocked and sobbing in his bunk. However, the beating has adverse psychological side effects. Lawrence withdraws from the platoon and begins a mental spiral into insanity. On the eve before general deployment, Lawrence loses his grip on reality, loads his weapon with live ammunition and murders Hartman before committing suicide as Joker looks on.
The second half of Full Metal Jacket is an intensification of the genuine horrors in hand-to-hand combat. Sergeant Joker is assigned a new partner, photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). He also alerts his superior, Lt. Lockhart (John Terry) of a rumored communist offensive on the base; dismissed by Lockhart, though coming to fruition the next day. Joker is then ordered to the marine base at Hue with Rafterman tagging along. The men meet an insane door gunner (Tim Colceri) who indiscriminately murders any Vietnamese person he sees under the deranged logic they are all Vietcong. Joker is next directed by Lt. Walter Schinowsky (Ed O’Ross) to a massacre of civilians by the North Vietnamese Army. Amidst this turmoil, Joker is also reunited with Cowboy (Arliss Howard) a fellow trainee from boot camp whom he accompanies during the Battle of Hue, along with machine gunner Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). The boys are assaulted in a vicious dogfight and picked off one by one – becoming lost in the city ruins.
The survivors uncover a young Vietnamese girl sniper in a bombed out building. The girl manages to wound Joker, but is shot by Rafterman – while begging for her own death. The mercy killing is eventually granted by Animal Mother and performed by Joker. The film concludes with the men marching into the night, chanting a fractured interpretation of the Mickey Mouse Club march. Full Metal Jacket is brimming with Kubrick’s macabre and inebriated flair for utter chaos; a wholly uncomfortable, yet thought-provoking visualization of the oft’ quoted comparison between ‘war’ and ‘hell.’ The cast is comprised of transient, though very unique personalities. We’re not expected to sympathize or even relate to any of these men, but to find ourselves strangely in their emotionally corrupted psyches. In the final analysis, Full Metal Jacket is a grittier anti-war war movie than most. Then again, given Kubrick’s zeal for shock value – one should have expected no less.
More than a decade would transpire before Kubrick would commit himself to Eyes Wide Shut (1999); a swan song undeniably made under duress. Kubrick’s health had, in fact, been steadily on the decline for some time. Moreover, his various attempts to launch other film projects in the interim had repeatedly failed and collectively had soured him on the whole enterprise of making movies. He should have quit while he was ahead. For in this last experimental venture, something of a minor thematic throwback to A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut is a moody, though generally disastrous misfire; a revisionist romp through the dark and depraved world of the sexually promiscuous and suicidal. Were it not for Kubrick’s reputation, the film would have little saving grace to recommend it; little, except rare glimpses and brief flashes of Kubrick’s usual flair for telling bleak stories compellingly. Based on the brooding and ambiguous novel by Arnold Schnitzler, the film veers wildly between subliminal parody and kooky black comedy; peppered in sickly truncated bits of clichéd melodrama.
Eyes Wide Shut starred 'then' marrieds, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Dr. William Harford and his wife, Alice. The thin veneer of William’s respectability appears - at least on the surface - to hold true to very conservative values, especially within his cloistered circle of upper crust friends, including fellow physician Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). However, alone and behind closed doors ‘Bill’ and Alice indulge in hot sex and recreational drug use after their young daughter, Helena (Madison Eglinton) has tottered off to bed. Now for the wrinkle: Bill’s world is inexplicably turned upside down after Alice confides she once had naughty thoughts about a navy officer she caught a fleeting glimpse of in the lobby of the hotel she and Bill were staying at during their honeymoon. Although Alice never acted upon this impulse to seduce the stranger, Bill decides to ‘get even’ with Alice for her cerebral infidelities. He frequents the seedy part of town and gets into considerable – if flawed – mischief. But his efforts to procure a wild night lead to more sexual frustration than satisfaction.
An awkward dalliance with a prostitute (they don’t have sex) results in the discovery she is dying of AIDS. A group of college kids inexplicably assume Bill is a homosexual and decide to rough him up outside a jazz bar. Inside, Bill learns from an old college buddy, Nick Nightingale (Todd Fields) about a frisky group sex party at an out of the way flashy country estate. But the deal turns sour when the ‘cult leader’ of this private soiree realizes Bill is a party crasher and almost makes him the object of a group rape. Narrowly escaping being sodomized, Bill returns home to discover a mask from the party lying on the bed next to his sleeping wife. He awakens her with his bitter, frightened sobs and is presumably forgiven for his grotesque attempted revenge. However, the next afternoon, while perusing the isles of F.A.O. Schwartz with their daughter, the couple remains at odds; Bill inquiring “Where do we go from here?” to which Alice coolly exclaims, “I don’t know.”
Kubrick's stylistic elements are what stand out the most in Eyes Wide Shut. Alas, style without substance is a poor precursor for solid entertainment – a commodity the film miserably lacks. Then ‘rumors’ of Cruise and Kidman’s crumbling marriage, at least in hindsight, seem glaringly obvious on the screen. Bill and Alice’s supposedly tawdry ‘sex’ scenes have zero chemistry. It’s as though they’re brother and sister rather than husband and wife. Critical opinion on Kubrick's final bow remains split. I would argue, Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s one indisputable artistic flop; the script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, utterly pointless and generally lacking direction. The cryptic nature of Bill and Alice’s relationship punctures not only the balloons of its hypocrisy but also our general understanding of why this couple has remained together.
Here we go again! Warner Home Video’s endless repackaging of Kubrick’s movies has reached the ‘deluxe’ phase with this handsomely appointed metallic cover box set. Please bear in mind no upgrades have been made to any of these transfers. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the same digital scan from 2007; Lolita and Barry Lyndon from 2011; A Clockwork Orange, the 40th anniversary edition, and so on and so forth. So, what are we talking about here? Mostly solid mastering with accurate colors and grain well represented; beautiful contrast and minimal age-related artifacts. Good stuff? You bet! Well…sort of. 2001 still has its problematic edge enhancement in several key sequences. All of the films are represented in anamorphic widescreen. Some will continue to debate the aspect ratio of certain movies; chiefly, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Many will recall Warner’s initial DVD releases of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket were full frame. Supposedly, this is the way Kubrick always intended these movies to be seen, even though each was masked to conform to 1.66:1 screens on their initial theatrical release. Let us simply agree to disagree – or agree – the widescreen transfers look right. To my mind, widescreen is preferred. All of the movies appear accurately framed. Multiple languages are available on all the films in this set; all of the English tracks available in 5.1.
Exclusive to this set are bonus discs with three very comprehensive documentaries. We’re still missing Kubrick's Boxes, a fascinating documentary that was part of the 2012 DVD release of Full Metal Jacket. The other extras are limited to what was available on the stand alone discs. Ergo, Lolita and Barry Lyndon only rate a theatrical trailer – pity that. Thankfully, the other films have substantially more to offer, albeit in standard def. Owing to Sony’s loan out, Dr. Strangelove is jam-packed with fascinating featurettes totaling roughly 2 hrs. along with a picture-in-picture trivia track.
2001: A Space Odyssey contains an audio commentary from Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, plus four individual featurettes: the two best - 2001: The Making of a Myth, an almost hour long BBC documentary by Paul Joyce, and, Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001, running barely a half hour. Each is densely packed with interviews from various participants, as well as commentary and reflections by contemporary film-makers and historians. There’s also a ten minute junket on the film’s SFX and concept art, an even less impressive featurette on Kubrick’s early years as a photographer, with audio only snippets from a 1966 interview.
The extras for A Clockwork Orange border on an embarrassment of riches, covering the same territory. These include an audio track featuring Malcolm McDowell and Nick Redman, Paul Joyce’s Still Tickin’, nearly hour long, densely packed BBC documentary, a half hour ‘making of’ from Gary Leva, another half hour featurette (the only one in HD), analyzing the movie’s violence, and a retrospective ten minutes with McDowell, plus the original theatrical trailer. The Shining gets a commentary from Steadicam inventor/operator, Garrett Brown and historian/author John Baxter; and two more featurettes by Leva: the half hour ‘making of’, View from The Overlook, and The Visions of Stanley Kubrick, running a scant seventeen minutes. Another ‘making of’, this one directed by Vivian Kubrick, runs just a little over a half hour and is the preferred ‘definitive’ of the movie’s documented creation. Last, is an all too brief seven minutes devoted to composer, Wendy Carlos.
Full Metal Jacket rates an audio commentary from Adam Baldwin, Lee Ermey, and Jay Cocks with co-star, Vincent D'Onofrio serving as something of an MC with copious knowledge to share. Between Good and Evil is another Leva directed ‘making of’; running around thirty minutes. Eyes Wide Shut is given a forty-minute BBC documentary by Paul Joyce that covers Kubrick’s entire career in short shrift. We also get twenty minutes of ‘Lost Kubrick’; a sort of ‘what if’ that chronicles the Napoleon movie Kubrick intended to make, but never did. There’s also thirty-five minutes of one-on-one interviews with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg.
Arguably, the bonus discs house the best extras, beginning with the 2001 feature-length documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures directed by Jan Harlan. Here is the first comprehensive stab at telling Kubrick’s story through a critical analysis of his movies, with rare interviews conducted to augment the experience. There’s also, O Lucky Malcolm, another Harlan effort running nearly an hour and a half on Malcolm McDowell, who reminisces about his career and success.
The other bonus disc contains Kubrick Remembered, Gary Khammar’s feature-length documentary (in HD!!!). While the aforementioned ‘Life in Pictures’ was a celebration of Kubrick’s art, ‘Remembered’ is a fairly comprehensive assessment of the man; begun with a tender prologue by his widow and concluding with reflections on his lasting contributions as an artist. Stanley Kubrick in Focus is a thirty minute love-in composed of reflections offered up by Kubrick’s many lifelong collaborators. Wait for it: there’s yet another ode to A Clockwork Orange: Once Upon a Time: a U.K. produced documentary by Antoine de Gaudemar and Michael Ciment. Much of what’s been covered elsewhere about the film gets repeated herein.
Warner’s swag is of its usual glossy, though vacuous caliber; a metallic and psychedelically colored box with a flashy 78 page hardcover book chocked full of archival photos. We also get a reproduction of Christiane Kubrick’s portrait of her husband and a very brief ‘essay’ by Gary Khammar. While I can’t say I was eager to embrace this set, already owning virtually all of the movies in it from various other incarnations offered up over the years (Warner’s weightly price point alone fairly reeking of a triple-dipping cash cow), Warner Home Video has nevertheless done a superior job of repackaging these classics in a smart looking compendium that will surely not disappoint. On the flipside, alas, there’s very little reason to buy if you already own these movies as I do. Now, if we could only get Warner Home Video to start giving us the hundreds of movies in their formidable archive of WB/MGM/RKO libraries, remastered in hi-def and featured in box sets looking as good as this; then, I would have something to truly crow about! Bottom line: if you don’t already own these discs, the ‘Masterpiece Collection’ comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Dr. Strangelove 5+
2001: A Space Odyssey 5+
A Clockwork Orange 4
Barry Lyndon 3.5
The Shining 5+
Full Metal Jacket 4
Eyes Wide Shut 1.5