Stanley Kubrick: big-screen master with a personal vision
NEW YORK — Stanley Kubrick was one of the rare filmmakers to achieve both widespread popular acclaim and deep respect from critics with aesthetic and intellectual interests.
In his best-known movies, he combined box-office success with innovation on artistic and even philosophical levels, earning worldwide fame while expressing a personal vision that was complex, self-questioning, and distinctly unromantic in its view of human nature. He also exerted far-flung influence on other directors through his persistent efforts to expand the vocabulary of moviemaking via technical experiments and thematic audacity.
The American-born Kubrick died in London Sunday. His importance as a cultural figure is summed up in the fact that he earned fame with a body of work that defies simple characterization. The violent pessimism of "A Clockwork Orange" is balanced by the radiant optimism of "2001: A Space Odyssey," and even a single work may fly in seemingly contradictory directions, as when "Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" concludes its knockabout satire of military thinking with a jolting depiction of nuclear apocalypse. (For a complete list of Kubrick's films, see page 20.)
Few filmmakers have matched Kubrick's ability to make such uncompromising statements while maintaining rapport with a large audience. His career had its share of downturns, as when the 1975 historical epic "Barry Lyndon" proved a financial failure despite its astonishing visual beauty. Kubrick was deeply troubled when copycat crimes followed the release of "A Clockwork Orange" in Britain, his adopted country, leading him to withdraw the movie from distribution there. Yet a taste for socially provocative material is one of his trademarks, from his 1962 adaptation of "Lolita" to his 1987 condemnation of the Vietnam War, "Full Metal Jacket."
Kubrick started his career as a photographer for Look magazine, which encouraged his interest in topical subjects and communication with a mass audience. Attracted to film by a desire to tell stories and explore moving images, he made three nonfiction shorts in the early 1950s, followed by two feature films that provide glimpses of his artistry. "The Killing," a melodrama released in 1956, is still noteworthy for its chronologically complex narrative and hard-driving atmosphere.
But it was a pair of antiwar dramas, "Paths of Glory" in 1957 and "Spartacus" in 1960, that established him as a major talent. His move to Britain was prompted in part by his wish to avoid artistic interference after "Spartacus" was shortened and softened by its distributor.
Although a look at Kubrick's filmography reveals a wide variety of movies, certain types of cinema attracted him more than others, most notably science fiction and fantasy, which he often endowed with the melancholy moods that marked even his comically inclined productions. The diversity of his achievements within these areas is illustrated by the ratings given to his pictures when they arrived on American screens, from the G of "2001" to the X of "A Clockwork Orange," which was later reedited to merit a milder R.
His outlook appeared to grow gloomier as the years passed. While he tempered the savagery of "Dr. Strangelove" with antic comedy, and offered a glowingly redemptive view of the future in "2001," the horrors of "A Clockwork Orange" were followed by the downbeat psychological dynamics of "Barry Lyndon," the explosive violence of "The Shining," and the wartime absurdities of "Full Metal Jacket."
The popularity and respect he gathered allowed him to operate with an independence almost unheard-of in the film industry, and he chose to veil his projects in utmost secrecy until the day they arrived in theaters. Little is known about "Eyes Wide Shut," his last film, except that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as married psychiatrists who become sexually involved with their patients. The film is rumored to contain explicit sexual material, but its content won't be known until Warner Bros. releases it this summer.
Kubrick was an obsessive perfectionist who spent extraordinary amounts of time on the most minute details of his films, right down to the physical characteristics of the theaters in which they had their first engagements. His passion for the particular was a quality that lifted his career above the ordinary. Even those who disagreed with his world view respected the depth and breadth of his utterly original approach to moviemaking.