On the Edge
The Michigan's Kubrick retrospective
Each of Stanley Kubrick's films is distinctive in theme and style. Their only commonality is that this great director completely understands each genre he is working in and holds back nothing. His films are consistently masterful yet astonishingly unique. Great art always involves risk taking, and Kubrick was never afraid to take risks. An ongoing twelve-week Monday night Kubrick retrospective at the Michigan Theater wraps up in November and early December.
After such audacious landmark films as Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, the trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey (October 31) and A Clockwork Orange, no one expected Kubrick to come out with something like 1975's Barry Lyndon (November 7), a period costume drama. Like many fans of the time, I dismissed it as a bore, but in fact it is a lush, lustrous, and canny film for the patient viewer.
It is only a short distance between at the top and over the top, and Kubrick's films always balance precariously near that cliff edge. None teeters so daringly as 1971's A Clockwork Orange (November 14). Many films can be carelessly described as groundbreaking, but this movie about a charming psychopath (Malcolm McDowell) presages a slew of cinematic knockoffs about nihilistic youth gang culture violence and chilling institutional retribution. None matches the intensity and audacity of A Clockwork Orange; none is nearly as disturbing nor as can't-stop-watching entertaining. And forty years later, one still wonders in amazement how Kubrick was so prescient about the "ultraviolent" future yet to unfold.
Next to this cult classic, The Shining (November 21) is more of an excursion into mainstream moviemaking, but on its own terms it is more potent than any horror movie. Who but Kubrick could have realized the crazed manic potential of Jack Nicholson or so perfectly exploited the trope of evil twin kids? The Shining showed Kubrick knew not just how to make a supremely entertaining thriller out of a schlocky Steven King novel but to have immense fun in doing so.
Full Metal Jacket (November 28), Kubrick returns for the first time to a previously visited genre-the war movie (1957's Paths of Glory was a WW1 drama). But since this film is about Vietnam, it isn't just a standard war-is-hell turn. It more grippingly and horrifyingly depicts the guts of a grunt's life than Platoon.
Eyes Wide Shut (December 5) is a descent into the underworld of sexual extremism that mines the dark recesses of grand conspiracy theory in a manner that would make Dan Brown flee in horror. Not everyone's cup of tea, but as always with Kubrick, it's served hot and undiluted.
The series should have ended there, yet it inexplicably continues December 12 with a film Kubrick co-wrote that passed on to Stephen Spielberg after his death, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It's a Spielberg film, not a Kubrick film, and that's an entirely different animal.
[Originally published in November, 2011.]