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A Filmmaker’s Odyssey: Wexner Center to Screen All of Meticulous Director’s Features

July 6, 2008

By Frank Gabrenya, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jul. 6–The relatively meager output of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick during a 46-year career has played right into the hands of the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Because Kubrick completed only 13 features from 1953 until his death in 1999, the center can present a full retrospective of a major director’s works. Every other filmmaker of Kubrick’s stature would require months to cover all of his titles. John Ford, for example, directed almost twice that many features in the 1930s alone.

Kubrick made seven features in the first 11 years of his career. The six others took the next 35 years.

The lineup promises rarely seen works as well as some of his most famous and hotly debated films, crammed with images of enduring impact and controversy.

The Wexner will screen Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire, which he removed from circulation because he found it amateurish and embarrassing. On the famous end, the series will be highlighted by a 70 mm screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the Wexner previously showed in 2002. (Three short films he made in the early ’50s — Day of the Fight, Flying Padre and The Seafarers — are not included.)

Anyone who signs on for the complete odyssey will be able to sample intimate dramas and grand epics, mad farce and somber drama, leaps of visual imagination and thuds of self-indulgent excess.

The casts rate marquee status: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But Kubrick, the eccentric American who fled into voluntary exile in England, strides over all of his films to the point that the actors were as manipulated as the props and costumes.

Kubrick was an obsessed stylist who could use slowness and inaction as potently as movement. He was an intensely cerebral and analytical controller who, in his later films, put his high-priced stars through dozens of takes of the same shot, until no one could understand his purpose, other than proving that he was in charge. A passionate chess player, he enjoyed moving people in the same calculated way.

He was fascinated by technology and terrified of its threat. His third wife, Christianne, once said: “Stanley would be happy with eight tape recorders and one pair of pants.”

He had an appetite for epic visions crossed with an artist’s esoteric taste. It is no coincidence that the subject of the project he always wanted to make and never did was Napoleon.

His characters seemed to reflect a lack of interest in honest emotion. Malcolm McDowell, the star of A Clockwork Orange, summed him up: “Stanley can never understand the human element. If he could eliminate that, he could make the perfect movie.”

Kubrick never made the perfect movie, judging by the critics who have never tired of ripping his efforts. Pauline Kael was particularly suspicious of the intentions behind A Clockwork Orange: “How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?”

British film historian David Thomson has particular ill will for 2001: “The ridiculous labor on 2001, the cavernous sets and the special lenses, ride upon a half-baked notion of the origins and purpose of life that a first-year student ought to have been ashamed of.”

On the other hand, Thomson beams over The Shining as Kubrick’s “one great film, so rich and comic that it offsets his several large failures.”

Wexner audiences will be able to sample all of the triumphs and failures (there is little in between) from Thursday to Aug. 22. Here are snapshots of the films in the order Kubrick made them.

–Fear and Desire (1953): Kubrick was an established photographer for Look magazine when he borrowed money from his uncle to finance the war drama about four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. The film was thought lost until a print turned up in the Kodak archives in Rochester, N.Y. Future filmmaker Paul Mazursky plays one of the soldiers.

–Killer’s Kiss (1955): A boxer on the skids finds possible redemption with a prostitute, but he has to deal with her dangerous employer. Real New York locations add strongly to the seedy story’s air of film noir.

–The Killing (1956): Sterling Hayden plans a robbery at a racetrack in one of those dark heist dramas in which you know no one will get away with anything. Novelist Jim Thompson sharpened the dialogue for an edgy film that was dumped onto double-feature bills by its distributor but began to stir Kubrick’s reputation as a filmmaker of promise.

–Paths of Glory (1957): Kubrick’s first major work is a grim anti-war story set in the deadly trenches of World War I, as a haughty French general covers up his incompetence by forcing the trial and execution of innocent soldiers. Kirk Douglas plays the officer who defends the doomed soldiers in a powerful pacifist statement that was understandably banned in France.

–Spartacus (1960): Douglas produced and starred in the epic about the gladiator who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire. Anthony Mann was the original director, but Douglas soon fired him and brought in Kubrick, who inherited a cast that included Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis. The highly praised script was credited to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, helping to end that dark era. Although Kubrick pulled the production together and made an impressive film, Spartacus really belongs to its producer.

–Lolita (1962): Kubrick eagerly courted controversy with his comic film of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a middle-aged man who falls obsessively in love with an underage girl. James Mason brought British urbanity to the role of the besotted professor, but Peter Sellers either saved or ruined the film (depending on which critic you consult) as Quilty, the man who stalks Mason’s Humbert Humbert.

–Dr. Strangelove (1964): The funniest movie about nuclear Armageddon began as a serious drama until Kubrick could no longer keep a straight face about the madness. Peter Sellers played three roles, and the director forced everyone to overact to make his points. The casual sacrifice of millions for strategic advantage still delivers a punch to our faith in government.

–2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Thanks to screeching monoliths buried eons before by superior creatures, primitive man learns to commit violence with a purpose, then spans the stars in search of rebirth. Technically groundbreaking, dramatically sluggish and metaphysically loopy, the sci-fi epic still astounds and confounds audiences. But, really, isn’t the HAL 9000 the most human character in the second half of Kubrick’s career?

–A Clockwork Orange (1971): Malcolm McDowell and his brutish buddies wreak stylized mayhem until the government steps in to teach them an unpleasant lesson in behavior modification. Is McDowell’s Alex a villain or a victim? Was the violence meant to be attractive or repellent? And can anyone hear Singin’ in the Rain in the same way after this film? It was rated X, then became R as the times caught up with it.

–Barry Lyndon (1975): Kubrick’s film of Thackeray’s novel is long, slow and illuminated almost entirely by candles. The costumes are lavish, and the sets are impressive, but was Ryan O’Neal the only actor available for the title role? This might qualify as the Kubrick film most people have seen only once.

–The Shining (1980): Stephen King wrote the novel, but Kubrick had his own way with the chilly story of a deranged man who stalks his wife and son in a snow-buried hotel. Jack Nicholson’s manic edge and that image of a flood of blood pouring out of the elevators trump whatever scariness King might have intended. Some see this as a twisted comedy, and they might be right.

–Full Metal Jacket (1987): Kubrick restaged America’s Vietnam folly in England with mixed results. The film divides too cleanly into distinct halves, like a double feature in search of a unifying voice. One thing is clear: This is the film least likely to be embraced by the U.S. Marines as a recruiting tool.

–Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Kubrick’s last film, released after his death, was a dream project for decades. The casting of a married couple was supposed to give it extra dimension, but Tom Cruise’s weak performance only underscored Kubrick’s own confusion about sexual fidelity.

fgabrenya@dispatch.com

The lineup

Thursday: Barry Lyndon

Friday: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Saturday: Spartacus

July 17: Paths of Glory

July 24: Lolita

July 31: Dr. Strangelove and The Killing (8:45 p.m.)

Aug. 5: Eyes Wide Shut

Aug. 7: Full Metal Jacket and Killer’s Kiss (9:10 p.m.)

Aug. 14: Fear and Desire and A Clockwork Orange (8:15 p.m.)

Aug. 22: The Shining

The movies will be shown at 7 p.m., unless otherwise noted, in the film/video theater of the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. Tickets cost $7, or $5 for members, students and senior citizens. Call 614-292-0330 or visit www.wexarts.org.

Anyone who signs on for the complete series will be able to sample intimate dramas and grand epics, mad farce and somber drama, leaps of visual imagination and thuds of self-indulgent excess.

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