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Stanley Kubrick

Videophiled Collection: ‘Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection’

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection (Warner, Blu-ray) – There are no remastered editions or new-to-Blu-ray discs in this box set of eight Kubrick classics, from the 1962 Lolita to his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but this ten-disc set does include the previously-released supplements on each film plus it features two new-to-disc documentaries and one new-to-Blu-ray featurette, along with a lovely 78-page book of stills, storyboards, production art, script pages, and other production paraphernalia from the featured films. Which makes it, if not exactly essential (if you’ve already invested in past Kubrick box sets), at least a terrific cinephile gift set. Here’s the skinny on the films and the extras, which is currently available as an Amazon Exclusive.

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You have to admire the audacity of Kubrick to adapt Lolita (1962), Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young teenage girl in the age of pre-ratings censorship. (The ad campaign turned that into a selling point, with the tag line: “Can you believe they made a movie of Lolita?”) Kubrick and Nabokov (who adapted is own novel) raised the age of the grade school “temptress” and left most of the seduction to suggestion, and still made a more provocative and sensitive film than the 1997 remake. James Mason is almost pathetic as the repressed author Humbert Humbert who continues to justify his infatuation with teenage Lolita, yet he’s never less than human. Sue Lyon is Lolita, Shelley Winters her blowsy mother and Peter Sellers (soon to be cast by Kubrick in multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove) is the creepy Clare Quilty.

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‘Room 237’: Kubrick Scholars Go Wild!

It’s all in the design

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So goes the quote so often attributed to Freud, but it’s hard to make that case for coincidence and happenstance in the films of Stanley Kubrick. You can’t completely remove chance from cinema, with all its actors and technicians and moving parts, but the detail-oriented, notorious micromanager Kubrick came close. What appears to be a continuity error may in fact be a carefully placed clue for the observant viewer.

That argument is made in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which explores five uniquely different and obsessively catalogued perspectives on Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining. It’s about the genocide of the American Indian, argues Bill Blakemore, pointing to the prominence of Native American art (and Calumet baking powder) in certain frames. Geoffrey Cocks sees it as a metaphor for the Holocaust. According to Jay Weidner, it’s Kubrick’s surreptitious confession about faking the moon landing. (2001 was supposedly his “research and development project for the Apollo footage.”)

That last theory is easily dismissed, but that’s part of Ascher’s design. He doesn’t make fun of his Shinologists, who lay out their theses in voiceover (no talking heads here), or the five detailed, obsessively catalogued exegeses under consideration. Each obsessive interpreter is granted their own area of expertise in the Kubrickian details.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Barry Lyndon

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a film in which the expected always happens—but usually in quite an unexpected way, much as a detail in a painting will surprise and delight, regardless of the ordinariness of its context. The world of Barry Lyndon, first of all, is not the 18th-century Europe of historical reality; it is the 18th-century Europe of Art—of the literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, costume, and design of the period. That’s as it should be for a film from a picaresque novel about a rudely reared, would-be gentleman’s striving after the elegance befitting what he feels to be his rightful station. And it’s as it should be for Kubrick, whose preference for the realm of art and ideas over that of natural, historical, quotidian reality is evident, and whose cinematic studies of Manipulated Man, even at their rawest, have always been couched in idealistic terms: tidy sets, tidy costumes, tidy makeup, and tight, impeccably composed shots. I’ve never seen quite so many absolutely symmetrical frame compositions in such a short time as during the running of Barry Lyndon; and no form-for-form’s-sake, either—the symmetry of individual shots and of montage directly reflects the symmetry of the story of Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall.

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Spartacus on Blu-ray — Just what is “good enough”?

Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus: Do I look waxy to you?

But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.

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Kubrick’s Shining

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1980]

Camera comes in low over an immense Western lake, its destination apparently a small island at center that seems to consist of nothing but treetops. Draw nearer, then sweep over and pass the island, skewing slightly now in search of a central focus at the juncture of lake surface and the surrounding escarpment, glowing in J.M.W. Turner sunlight. Cut to God’s-eye view of a yellow Volkswagen far below, winding up a mountain road through an infinite stand of tall pines and long, early-morning shadows; climbing for the top of the frame and gaining no ground. Subsequent cuts, angling us down nearer the horizontal trajectory of the car as it moves along the face of the mountainside. Thrilling near-lineup of camera vector and roadway, then the shot sheers off on a course all its own and a valley drops away beneath us. More cuts, more views, miles of terrain; bleak magnificence. Aerial approach to a snow-covered mountain crest and, below it, a vast resort hotel, The Overlook. Screen goes black.

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A country drive with the Torrance family

Did Stanley Kubrick really say that The Shining, his film of Stephen King’s novel, would be the scariest horror movie of all time? He shouldn’t have. On one very important level, the remark may be true. But that isn’t the first level people are going to consider (even though it’s right there in front of us on the movie screen). What people hear when somebody drops a catchphrase like “the scariest horror movie of all time” is: You joined the summer crowds flocking to The Amityville Horror, you writhed and jumped through Alien, you watched half of Halloween from behind your fingers, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! And a response: OK, zap me, make me flinch, gross me out. And they find that, mostly, Kubrick’s long, underpopulated, deliberately paced telling of an unremarkable story with a Twilight Zone twist at the end doesn’t do it for them—although it may do a lot of other things to them while they’re waiting.

So Kubrick, who is celebrated for controlling the publicity for his films as closely as the various aspects of their creation, is largely to blame for the initial, strongly negative feedback to his movie. Maybe he didn’t know, when The Shining started its way to the screen several years back, that the horror genre would be in full cry, the most marketable field in filmmaking, by the time his movie was ready for delivery. But he could have seen that, say, a year ago. And still he pressed on with the horror sales hook, counting on it—along with his own eminence—to fill theaters, and to pay off the $18 million cost of the most expensive Underground movie ever made.

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Review: Making “The Shining”

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Time flies. The six-year-old brat in quest of an intergalactic bushbaby in 2001 is now all grown up and directing her own documentary film about what is only the third movie her father has directed since that 1968 masterwork. Televised by the BBC at a length of 35 minutes on October 4, 1980, just two days after The Shining‘s London opening, this documentary is utterly intriguing without being terribly substantial.

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Review: The Shining

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Stephen King’s The Shining is basically a novel of character: Isolated with his family for a winter at a snowed-in resort hotel, Jack Torrance faces the collapse of his own mind from an overload of alcoholism, suppressed violence, writer’s block, and personal failure. His son’s clairvoyance—the titular “shine”—is the mechanism whereby the boy is able to save himself and his mother, though not, alas, his father. Well, characterization and warmth have never been the hallmark of Stanley Kubrick’s work, so it’s no wonder that his film of The Shining is ultimately more Kubrick than King. No satisfactory relationship is ever established between the boy’s “shining” and the rest of the plot; and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), far from fighting against a gradual crumbling of his reason, seems prone to it from the outset. The fatalism of the film’s approach to Jack—underscored by Kubrick’s relentless use of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer variations on the Dies Irae—serves perfectly the Swiftian misanthropy of the creator of Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s view of man is as characteristically 18th-century as his devotion to stylistic formalism. No romantic Roderick Usher disintegration for Kubrick’s Jack Torrance: it’s strictly “Orders from the House.” Milieu, not character, is the basis of the madness and of the film itself. The Shining might be (like The Omen, The Exorcist, and their host of imitators) a “Devil made me do it” movie, where lack of responsibility for one’s actions is “explained” by supernatural intervention; but Kubrick is more concrete about the identity of his Devil.

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