This month, the Byrd Theatre is holding Stanley Kubrick Tuesdays, with screenings of the director's "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Eyes Wide Shut." That means that it's a good time to re-evaluate the filmmaker's sensibility while reveling in the sheer vastness of Kubrick's aural-visual imagination.
Kubrick's films feel both obvious and bottomless, over-explicit and mysterious. The Bronx-raised director was less interested in rendering characters and narratives than in collectively fashioning a stylized realm so tactile that one feels they could personally navigate it. Call this realm the Kubrick Zone.
The Kubrick Zone is first fully visible in "2001: a Space Odyssey," which imagines humankind's past and future with a casualness that remains unmatched by any other film. The revolutionary special effects appear to be happened upon, as star-shaped vehicles dance in space to the accompaniment of classical music. Kubrick's otherworldly sonatas are punctuated with drab scenes of workplace routine, including one heartbreaking phone conversation between a space traveler and his little daughter. The extraordinary and the ordinary mingle, yielding ecstasy — a vision of human humbling and transcendence in the face of an intelligence that appears to have gone beyond binaries of good and evil.
"2001" was Kubrick's eighth feature-length film, and the Kubrick Zone — a realm of terrifyingly awesome symmetrical images, of studiously unspontaneous dialogue delivered by actors in musically droning punctuations, and of faces twisted in parodies of lust, violence, and insanity — was arrived upon gradually.
Kubrick's early films, including "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory," have a precise, hyper-controlled quality that foreshadows the filmmaker's future enterprises, but the actors are allowed to be zesty and chaotic, displaying a docu-dramatic vivacity that Kubrick would later spend hundreds of takes stamping out.
"Lolita," Kubrick's sixth film, an adaptation of Vladmir Nabokov's classic and notorious novel about a man's undying love for a young girl, is a pivotal step in the formation of the Kubrick Zone, despite the control the actors still possess.
The war for control that's evident in "Lolita" — between the perfection of unified formalism and the messiness of improvisational invention — is daring and exhilarating. The baroque imagery and surreal dialogue suggest an intensely fashioned world unto itself that's nevertheless allowed to be populated by recognizable humans. "Lolita" is one of Kubrick's finest films.
During the lengthy process of shooting "2001," which required the invention of special effects, the filmmaker crystallized into the auteur that we think of today, the source of much speculation and gossip who's infamous for gestating projects over a course of decades. Such perfectionism resulted in the films now playing at the Byrd.
There's a pained, strangled sense of humanity in these films, which are obsessed with the act of withholding, with what's not there. After "2001," Kubrick appears to be terrified of giving an audience what it wants, taking established genres such as the horror film and the war picture and leaching them of conventional emotional stimulation while maintaining the rigid simplicity of formula narratives. So much effort is expended in the name of perversity, for the sake of maintaining the legend of Kubrick.
"The Shining" couldn't merely be an adaptation of one of Stephen King's best books — it must be a terrifyingly flat and hopeless rumination on the timelessness of human evil, suggesting the deranged doppelganger of the essentially optimistic "2001." "Eyes Wide Shut" exhausts itself in its efforts to not be the titillating erotic drama that many expected from a secretive pairing of then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who spend most of the narrative separated and respectively not getting laid, while learning embarrassingly simple lessons of intimacy.
Kubrick's control freakiness reduces the uncanny to the manageable, often ironically, granting the audience a sense of control by extension — yet there's fear and hesitation in said control. "Barry Lyndon," Kubrick's greatest and most staggeringly beautiful film, allows us to feel the pain of humans whose lives devolve into half-remembered legends, via the filmmaker's insistence on turning every image into a flamboyant living tableau. The stiffness of much of the acting has an intensity, a stifled longing, that most standard emoting couldn't hope to achieve. The Vietnam of "Full Metal Jacket" is a hauntingly obvious bombed-out set, governed by a narrative that's as symmetrical as the imagery, with two acts that each end in a persona-altering murder. The film is less about the Vietnam War than an ongoing war of our nightmares.
The Kubrick Zone suggests the ultimate domination that an artist can achieve: the forging and proffering of a distinctive style. Yet the pointed void of Kubrick's late work is emotional via the counterpoint of its absence, suggesting the pain of expression oxymoronically via inexpression. S
Byrd Theatre holds Tuesday screenings of legendary filmmaker's work at 7:15 p.m.. Tickets cost $5. May 22 screening is "Full Metal Jacket." Visit byrdtheatre.com.
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect an incorrect date for one of Kubrick's films. Thanks to the reader below for pointing out].