Playing hard to get

Almost 2001: A Kubrick odyssey.

CAN'T BEAR TO DRAG yourself to the multiplex to see end-of-summer dregs like Godzilla 2000 and Coyote Ugly? This six-film, one-week Kubrick fest has a cure: triumphs like Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and A Clockwork Orange (1971); controversial late-career epics Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999); as well as The Shining (1980), one of the creepiest movies ever made.


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Chock full of symbolism and undeniably beautiful, Kubrick's works range across a dizzying array of genres. Here we have horror (Shining), Cold War satire (Strangelove), war movie (Full Metal), psychosexual thriller (Eyes), twisted love story (Lolita), and apocalyptic satire/black comedy/what-have-you (Clockwork).

His eclectic r鳵m頩s unified by the theme of dehumanization. Main characters, all men, find themselves brought down, demoralized, unhinged, by an amorphous greater force, whether it's the government (Strangelove), society in general (Clockwork), the class system (Barry Lyndon), technology (2001), sex (Eyes, Lolita), the military (Full Metal), or even one's own brain (Shining).

His obsessiveness (like shooting up to 50 takes of the same scene), quirky personality, and long residence in England transformed Kubrick the filmmaker into Kubrick the legend. Reclusiveness and long hiatuses between projects only stirred up interest for each new work. In the wake of his death, however, we're starting to hear how he was anything but cut off from the world at large. His mania for control—which his characters are never able to achieve—extended to the Hollywood minutiae of marketing, grosses, and theatrical exhibition. Revered by some as an uncompromising artist, he was also a hard-bargaining professional.

THE KUBRICK CONUNDRUM is that he combined art-house credentials with commercial success (usually), making studio-produced, avant-garde films. He was a zeitgeist definer who, in later years, seemed out of touch. (Full Metal and Eyes both seem curiously unspecific in terms of time and place.) He was a self-indulgent genius who was further indulged by Hollywood. Tom and Nicole famously allowed themselves to be incarcerated for almost two years for the privilege of being in a Kubrick movie.

So is Kubrick overrated or what? No . . . and yes. He's a master at establishing an atmosphere of dread through subtle—and not so subtle—details, and his aesthetic innovations astonish. Signature touches include saturated colors, bizarre camera angles, startling lighting, ominous tracking shots, and vast interiors that are simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic. 2001, perhaps his best film, is primarily visual—a series of striking set pieces where sound and music play vital roles. Indeed, Kubrick earned his one and only Oscar for 2001's effects.

It's as a screenwriter and actor-wrangler that Kubrick falters. His dogged pursuit of the "big message" and deliberate opacity lend a preachy tone and maddening elusiveness to even his strongest films. He was fond of chess, and his later films often feel like tournaments, with characters given certain key traits to move the game along. The more Kubrick explores variations on his cynical worldview, the less dimensional his characters become. Just compare the vibrancy of James Mason and Shelley Winters in Lolita with the mannered, oddly enervated performances of Cruise and Kidman in Eyes, which is—let's face it— a disappointing work that's as boring as counting linoleum tiles at the DMV.

Still, even Kubrick's lesser films have flashes of vitality. Eyes has its topsy-turvy costume shop scenes, while Full Metal's grotesquely funny military training sequences almost stand alone as a movie. When Kubrick occasionally allowed his actors a little room, the result is great cinema, where performances match his visual flair and confident scene-setting. Think McDowell in Clockwork, Sellers in Strangelove, and—most deliciously of all—Nicholson in the Shining. Such moments make one wish that Kubrick hadn't been told he was a genius quite so many times.

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