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A Film Odyssey

[whitespace] Dr. Strangelove
Da Bomb: Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove made nuclear war into a screwball comedy.

Stanley Kubrick combined grandeur of vision with grandeur of pessimism.

By Richard von Busack

When the late director Stanley Kubrick released a picture, it came down from the mountain. The extraordinary reclusiveness of the director--who passed away March 7 at the age of 70--fed his tremendous indecision.

This summer, we'll see if Kubrick's laborious fussing over his last picture, Eyes Wide Shut, is worth all of that shooting and reshooting. Or did Kubrick die at the end of one last overreaching experiment?

I'm looking forward to Eyes Wide Shut with a mixture of interest and dread--interest in what could have possibly occupied Kubrick's mind for such a long time; dread of his effort to get something especially different out of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. With those two actors, what you see is what you get. Then again, who besides Kubrick suspected hidden qualities in Barry Lyndon's Ryan O'Neal and 2001's Keir Dullea--"Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow," as Noel Coward's quip had it. (Even if the director was satirizing the blandness of astronauts or the smugness of a dandy, Kubrick went too far. As always.)

Kubrick's best movies were in black-and-white. The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) are all audacious classics, much easier to watch again and again than 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Shining (1980) and, especially, Barry Lyndon (1975).

With the exception of 1960's Spartacus--Kubrick's most solid color film and the smartest gladiator movie ever made--Kubrick's films became longer and more unwieldy as the years went by. The Shining is especially long, considering how relatively short a time it takes Jack Nicholson's character to start boiling. (What a puritanical film it is: shouldn't eternally copulating ghosts be a lot happier than that?)

The point of Full Metal Jacket--how tough it is to perform a mercy killing--was made more deftly and effectively in a short scene in Aliens, released the same summer.

A Clockwork Orange (1971), about horrific gang violence in a bland London of the future, is still Kubrick's most interesting color film. It was The Natural Born Killers of its day, an outrage, an infamy, a confused anti-violence film that sort of liked the idea of violence.

And when I was an adolescent, I adored it. We'd take in A Clockwork Orange like a kid today would take in Star Wars, again and again. We were aghast at the possibility of a future worse than the present, uproarious at the gargoyle caricatures of authority--the idiotic teachers, the thick-headed parents. We'd watch in a state of shock over violence that no one could stop, because no one knew where it began and where it would end.

I wouldn't watch it on a bet now. You couldn't even call A Clockwork Orange one of those most loathsome of films, a rape/revenge movie, although rape/revenge is the essence of the plot. A Clockwork Orange is a part of the morbid '70s, a film that counsels inaction, dropping out.

Malcolm McDowell's hatefully appealing Alec wasn't bad because society had made him bad. He couldn't be made good when society tried to make him good. Whatever it was that made him a monster was walled up so deep inside him that it couldn't be reached by kindness or revenge. So, why bother? The film has the complete nihilism of the adolescent's view of the world: everything sucks and everything is equally worth not doing.

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Kubrick Online:

Richard von Busack's review Kubrick's of Lolita.

Kubrick filmography at the Internet Movie Database.

The Kubrick Site answers frequently asked questions about the director, culled from the usenet group alt.movies.kubrick.

The 2001 Internet Resource Archive has sounds, pictures and other info. about Kubrick's Space Odyssey.

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Tripping the Switch

In Kubrick's films, mysterious outside sources always transformed passive characters. For Alec, it was Beethoven's music. The Droog's criminal career was some sort of hideous misunderstanding of Romanticism. (Instead of celebrating his own indomitable spirit, Alec became a tyrant. Kubrick always wanted to make a film about Napoleon, and in a sense he did.)

In 2001, the monolith is a switch that, when turned on, leads us to the next stage of evolution. In Kubrick's other films, there was always a similar switch--some external force that leads us to ruin, to wars and to extinction. It was a glance from Lolita, a fatal obsession by Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, the screaming orders from R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in the superb first 20 minutes of Full Metal Jacket or the ghosts at The Shining's Overlook Hotel. Something outside always took over, transforming the passive heroes. It was a vegetating view of humanity, from a vegetative artist.

The title of Paths of Glory comes from Gray's "Elegy": "The Paths of Glory lead only to the grave." And Kubrick's work was always elegiac. Lolita was the last great romance, the last film fluent in the clever, elliptical language of the Hollywood Production Code. Dr. Strangelove is the nuclear screwball comedy, and The Shining is to many the monumental horror movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey was to be the last serious science fiction movie, the last one that dared to be about something other than bug-eyed monsters, cops of the future or space fascists.

Terry Southern, who collaborated with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove, once wrote a satiric novel titled Blue Movie, in which a Kubrickian director named Boris Adrian tries to create the ultimate, Kubrick-sized porn movie. It's said that Eyes Wide Shut is about a married couple's illicit sex life; it's rumored that the sexual explicitness of the film is part of its creative tangle. Will Eyes Wide Shut be one last monument?

Kubrick's career was a series of tombstones, films all meant as last words on a subject. Some of the monuments are already crumbled, but there's enough left to show what an enormous talent he had at his best. No one is left who combined such grandeur of vision with such grandeur of pessimism.

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Web extra to the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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