Stanley Kubrick, whose psychological thriller "Eyes Wide Shut" has been stirring comment and controversy for weeks before its release today, was an artist of many contradictions.
He was an American who lived in England for much of his career. He was an ivory-tower intellectual who craved a mass audience, and a high-tech wizard who enjoyed adapting literary works. He was at once the genial philosopher who lifted his thoughts to the heavens for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the fiery provocateur who etched nightmarish evil in "A Clockwork Orange" - which he personally withdrew from English theaters when its horrors were imitated in real-life crimes.
Not the least of his contradictions was his double life within the film industry. To countless admirers, he was Kubrick The Genius, spending years to conceptualize his projects, then shooting and editing them with obsessive attention to the tiniest details.
But he was also Kubrick The Businessman, releasing his movies through major Hollywood studios, keeping close tabs on promotion. In a recent article, screenwriter Frederick Raphael recalls him checking the size of "Full Metal Jacket" ads in an Indonesian newspaper. Kubrick took celebrity-struck pleasure in working with big stars.
Ironically and perhaps inevitably, the release of Kubrick's final film, which he completed just before his death last March, has now been snared in a final conflict between artistic aspirations and commercial realities.
Advance buzz over "Eyes Wide Shut" has been swelling steadily, and it's easy to see why. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are two of Hollywood's most talked-about personalities; early reports have stressed the picture's sexual content, always effective for sparking curiosity and concern; and Kubrick's name still carries a magical charge among moviegoers.
Yet the studio releasing it in American theaters, Warner Bros., refused to preview it for critics and other journalists until the last possible moment before its premire. This surprised reviewers who recalled how differently Twentieth Century Fox handled the summer's previous must-see movie, "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," screening it almost two weeks in advance so the press could evaluate it thoughtfully.
While it's not rare for a distributor to withhold a new picture as long as possible, this usually signals a lack of confidence in the movie's quality - a fact noted by the influential New York Times, which jumped into print with an item speculating that "Eyes Wide Shut" might be "a disappointment, despite all the hoopla."
Why, then, would a competently run studio hide an eagerly awaited work by a cinematic giant? Two answers spring to mind, both linked to Kubrick's offbeat relationship with the motion-picture establishment. One is that Warner Bros. was displaying the arrogance of a major studio that thinks it has a critic-proof movie on its hands, certain to make millions (at least on its first weekend or two) whether pundits like it, hate it, or write about it at all.
The other is that Kubrick would have handled things exactly the same way. His penchant for secrecy was legendary - he tore the covers off books he wanted to adapt, so even his collaborators were sometimes mystified about their source material - and it's possible he would have orchestrated the film's unveiling just as Warner Bros. did, holding his cards close to his vest as long as he could.
This scenario brings Kubrick The Genius and Kubrick The Businessman into a harmonious whole, since both insisted on Making Things Perfect before displaying their artistry to a waiting world.
Looking back over Kubrick's life and work, it's clear that his willingness to embrace contradictions - savoring their mysteries rather than laboring to resolve them - made him a far deeper filmmaker than most of his contemporaries. This approach goes back to early successes like "The Killing," with its postmodern scrambling of time and space, and "Paths of Glory," with its antiwar message in a war-movie setting.
His boldness picked up steam as time went by. Filming the controversial "Lolita" at a time of strong censorship, he used mordant humor and poignant performances to circumscribe the novel's pervasive sexual content. The unique "2001" accompanies forward-looking visions with old-fashioned music, leading to a boldly mysterious finale. Stephen King's horror yarn "The Shining" becomes an internalized journey through the unconscious mind. "A Clockwork Orange" makes intellectual mincemeat of social doctrines from every point on the political spectrum. "Full Metal Jacket" has a hero who wears both a dove's-foot peace symbol and a button blaring "Born to kill."
Paradoxes galore. Indeed, the most memorable movies by Kubrick The Genius are so bold and self-challenging that they might never have been completed - much less released, debated, revived, and debated some more - if Kubrick The Businessman hadn't been around to guide them through the production process and into the marketplace.
This is especially true given the technical audacity of pictures like "2001" and "Barry Lyndon," which reinvented the special effects of the science-fiction and historical-epic genres. But he never tired of experimentation, as he proved with the moving-camera pyrotechnics of "The Shining" and the narrative innovations of "Full Metal Jacket," which probes "the duality of man" through two contrasting stories about the folly of war. Stymied by technical obstacles to a long-cherished project called "AI," for "artificial intelligence," he plunged into the dream-like terrain of "Eyes Wide Shut" as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Neither audiences nor critics have cheered every phase of Kubrick's career. His movies have brought varying results at the box office, and while some reviewers have praised him at every turn, he has also received many a pungent pan. John Simon dismissed "2001" as a "shaggy god story," for a notorious example. Although she lauded "Lolita" as "marvelously enjoyable," the respected Pauline Kael likened "A Clockwork Orange" to "the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy."
Kubrick evidently took such skirmishes in stride, but their sting may have encouraged the passion for privacy and secrecy that shrouded many of his activities and continues to surround his last, posthumous release. He was a dedicated chess player, and his filmmaking mirrors this hobby in the precision of its formal qualities, and in the pleasure it takes in confronting other people - be they skeptical critics, art-film connoisseurs, or Saturday-night movie buffs - with moves and countermoves that nobody could possibly have expected.
Whatever verdict emerges on "Eyes Wide Shut" in coming days and weeks, his legacy as one of cinema's most stimulating artists will remain secure.
The films of Stanley Kubrick:
Day of the Fight, 1950
Flying Padre, 1951
Fear and Desire, 1953
Killer's Kiss, 1955
The Killing, 1956
Paths of Glory, 1957
Dr. Strangelove, 1964
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
A Clockwork Orange, 1971
Barry Lyndon, 1975
The Shining, 1980
Full Metal Jacket, 1987
Eyes Wide Shut, 1999
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society