BOSTON — To me, the discussion about the greatest filmmaker in history begins and ends with Stanley Kubrick. From the distinctive cinematography – high-resolution before there was such a thing – to the thematic mysteries of each film, I could spend untold time on my desert island exploring the overt grandeur and subtle probing that make him king of the cinematic world.
But no need for a desert island in February. The Museum of Fine Arts is showing every feature film by Kubrick, from his rarely shown first feature “Fear and Desire” (recently digitized and released on DVD) to his grossly underrated 1999 finale, “Eyes Wide Shut.”
The two early films, “Fear and Desire” (1953) and “Killer’s Kiss” (1955) are pretty much for completists and cinephiles because of Howard Sackler’s clunky ‘50s screenplays, but they’re certainly worth seeing for the evolution of Kubrick’s style, along with the witty visual sexuality of “Killer’s Kiss.” He came to films from doing still photography for Look magazine and others. (If you’re really interested in his evolution, there’s a wonderful out-of-print, book, “Drama & Shadows: Photographs 1945-1950,” selling for a fortune on the Internet, but you might be able to track it down at a library.)
True to his training, the early black and whites are all exquisitely framed. You could say that as his art grew, the filmmaking went from the photographic to the painterly, though that’s making too much of a distinction between the two.
His third film, “The Killing” (1956), written with hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson, is when word and image came together. Sterling Hayden, who would later play General Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove,” plays Johnny Clay, a crook hoping to hit it big with the help of the Mission Impossible team of bad guys he puts together, played by a smorgasbord of excellent character actors of the ‘50s. The mousiest of them (Elisha Cook) is married to a femme fatale (Marie Windsor) who all but steals the movie.
Aside from the riveting plot, which unfurls in Walter Winchellesque narration, Kubrick’s storytelling style announces itself with great tracking shots, close-ups that border on the surreal, dramatic use of lighting and music (Gerald Fried) and meticulous storyboarding. From this movie on Kubrick’s films are the cinematic equivalent of books that are impossible to put down. Channel surfing ends when you come to a Kubrick movie on television, or at least when I do. The imagery tells a complete story in itself. You could turn the sound off in “The Killing” and know what’s going on, though you’d miss Thompson’s trademark dialogue (“You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”)
“Paths of Glory” (1957) with its antiwar sheen set in World War I, made him a respectable artist and its touchy star, Kirk Douglas, enlisted him to finish “Spartacus” (1960) a great epic of the time that established his Hollywood bona fides, but made him go the anti-Hollywood route of insisting on complete control thereafter.
So off to England and back to black and white he went for two iconic films, the scandalous (for its time) “Lolita” (1962) and the astounding end of the world nuclear war satire “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) both featuring the comic genius of Peter Sellers (playing four memorable roles in the two films).
The two movies made Kubrick, almost like Hitchcock, a household word and he could pretty much do what he wanted. All he wanted to do with his next film was write the history of man – past, present and future – as well as take cinema to its next level with the giant-screen Cinerama film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).
Not only did Kubrick leave black and white behind, he expanded the palette beyond anything feature films were dealing with at the time with a hallucinogenic mix of colors that took the species from the dawn of man to Jupiter and beyond. He scrapped the score by Alex North, who wrote the music for “Spartacus” but whose music couldn’t keep up with Kubrick’s revolutionary filmmaking. For that he had to go to the Strauss boys, Richard and Johann, for the beginning of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz.” He also brought the great but then little known Polish contemporary composer, György Ligeti, to prominence for the eerily futuristic but ultimately spiritual elements of the film.
Filmmaker Tony Palmer, in the excellent documentary “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Films,” said that when he saw the movie he thought, “I’m hearing things. This can’t possibly be Ligeti in a Hollywood film, but of course it was. And it makes the sequence [of Keir Dullea hurtling through space] unforgettable.”
Talk about telling a story visually, there’s no dialogue for almost the first half-hour of the film as it took a while for the sentinel to land that would take the man-apes to the next level, represented by the evolutionary bone slowly turning into a space ship. And it took even longer for the astronaut to turn into the star child returning to Earth.
As savior or destructor? The former, I think, though you couldn’t prove it by his next films starting with “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). Now every Kubrick film was an event, not only because the duration was growing longer between them, but also for the dazzling visuals, the often controversial subject matter, and the thematic ambiguity. What the hell did I just see? What’s it all about, Stanley?
Contains violent shots
Each of the last five films is an odyssey in its own right for the main character – through the intermingling themes of violence and social planning in “A Clockwork Orange,” the social deck stacked against the individual in “Barry Lyndon” (1975), mysticism somehow tuned to personal and family devolution in “The Shining” (1980), war in “Full Metal Jacket”(1987), and romantic, sexual and existential longing in “Eyes Wide Shut,” his final film in 1999.
None of these films are for the faint of heart or the politically correct. We are closer to the ape man and sexual amoralist than the star child in all of them, and yet there’s an off-center kind of optimism in them, too, even in “Dr. Strangelove” but particularly in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Through all the black humor there’s a sense that if we embrace a life lived without illusion we can move toward some semblance of love and humanity. Or as Sydney Pollack said of the thematic question in the Kubrick documentary, “In a world where we know man is capable of the most base, shockingly destructive behavior, is hope and virtue possible?”
I think Kubrick’s answer is yes, though a yes with all manner of qualification. And if the answer is no, then at least we’ll have all these glorious Kubrickian images and stories to take with us to the apocalypse.
The theatrical experience
That all his films are on DVD and most are on Blu-Ray begs the question of why the MFA festival is a big deal as we are all now our own repertory houses. Here’s what Carter Long, Katharine Stone White Curator of Film and Video at the MFA, had to say.
“One issue is a matter of authorial intent. Stanley Kubrick didn’t make any of his films to be seen on television. He created images and composed everything for the immersive experience of the cinema, on as large a screen as possible. With all the incredible advances in home television, even in the best of environments, it can’t come close to the full immersion of the cinema experience.”
(It’s probably an apocryphal story, but it was said that a young man on one hallucinogen or another watching “2001” in Cinerama, tried to immerse himself in the movie by running through the screen. That probably won’t happen at the M.F.A.)
Long said that most of the films are being shown on 35-millimeter prints at the M.F.A, though in some cases like “2001,” DVDs are used because they’re either better than existing prints or good prints couldn’t be located. “It looks fantastic,” he said.
Long also said that the movie-house experience is also the way to go because of Kubrick’s great use of sound, particicularly music. “You can kind of get close to it at home with surround sound. But it just doesn’t have the depth of sound when the audio is moving around in a large room.”
The digital revolution is something of a two-edged sword. It allows for some fairly pristine cuts of films, like “Fear and Desire.” On the other hand, I remember being shocked when I got my high-definition television and put in a DVD of “The Shining,” only to find that it looked like videotape.
This is what’s called soap-opera effect and I learned how to shut it off, though I’m amazed that some people actually prefer watching old movies like this and say this is the way that Kubrick or other filmmakers would want their films to be seen.
“It goes back to authorial intent,” says Long. “These days some professionals are shooting on high-definition and that’s wonderful if the film is meant to be seen this way. It’s hard to say what Kubrick would have done. You mention soap-opera effect. There’s an immediacy that’s really apparent when it’s been processed through digital. It doesn’t flatter the effect of a 35-millimeter film. Thirty-five millimeter films, to me, distance you from what you’re seeing and it adds to the fantasy. You’re in a fantasy world in a way, and you don’t’ get that from hi-def. There’s something very realistic about hi-def.”
So forget about Blu-Ray and your home theater. Watch Kubrick be Kubrick at the M.F.A.