Monday, February 16, 2009

Eyes Wide Open

Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.

On my first trip to California, I went with my family on the Universal Studios tour. We saw a lot of cool stuff, like the set from Rear Window, a mock battle between miniature battleships, the house from Psycho, and a huge pair of scissors from the TV show Land of the Giants. At one point on the tram ride around the backlot, our guide told us about a scene that was shot there in which hundreds of UCLA students dressed as Roman centurions charged up a hill and into the back yards of the unsuspecting citizens whose homes bordered the studio property.

The film was Spartacus and the director in command of those Californian legions was Stanley Kubrick.

I never did see Spartacus until many years later. It wasn't a typical Kubrick movie, but one he took over after producer and star Kirk Douglas fired the original director due to creative differences. Supposedly Douglas, who had worked with Kubrick on Paths of Glory, thought the newcomer Kubrick was young and inexperienced enough to push around and would give him the movie he wanted.

He couldn't have been more wrong.

Kubrick took charge like a general. There was only one way to do things: his way. When he and the film's cinematographer clashed over lighting issues, Kubrick basically ordered the man to sit on the sidelines while Kubrick took over the lighting and camerawork. The sidelined cinematographer eventually won an Oscar for what was essentially Kubrick's work.

Kirk Douglas summed his experience with Kubrick neatly, saying, "Kubrick is a talented shit."

The first Stanley Kubrick movie I ever heard of was playing at the Alpha 3 Cinema in our neighborhood. I was way too young to go see it, but I do remember the title on the marquee: DR. STRANGELOVE. I couldn't figure out what the hell it meant. I asked my Mom. She and my Dad had seen the movie. She tried to tell me who Dr. Strangelove was, but I'm not so sure she understood it all that well herself.

A few years later, another Kubrick movie came out called 2001: A Space Odyssey. I didn't know what the hell that meant either, but I knew it had spaceships in it. And spaceships were cool. I didn't see 2001: A Space Odyssey in its original release, either. My best friend's older brothers saw it one day and they said it was boring, but little kids like us might like it.

I did get to see a documentary called The Making of 2001. I was fascinated by the clever methods used to portray life in a zero-gravity environment, like the rotating set that allowed the actor to jog all the way around the inside of the spherical spaceship. I also loved the models of the spaceships and how the camera moved past the model, instead of the other way around, to give the illusion of gliding through space.

And then there was the enigmatic man behind all of this magic. Owl-eyed and bearded, he hovered over the camera with a gaze so intent it seemed the fate of the earth depended on getting the shot just right. That was my first glimpse of Stanley Kubrick.

Some years later I went to a midnight showing of 2001, which had been marketed in the late sixties as "The Ultimate Trip." The movie was quite popular at midnight shows where the theater was always dense with pot smoke. I loved the movie. It was flawless. I read the companion book written by Arthur C. Clarke and bought the soundtrack album. The Blue Danube Waltz became one of my favorite pieces of music.

I thought Stanley was a genius.

I don't think my Mom agreed with me. She and my Dad had gone to see Stanley's follow-up to 2001, also at the Alpha 3. It was called A Clockwork Orange and was notorious for its graphic scenes of sex and violence. My Mom walked out on it. Apparently my Dad stayed and saw the whole thing. I found it a little troubling at the time that Stanley would make a movie so disturbing as to cause my Mom to walk out. On the other hand, my Dad seemed to like it.

My parents aren't exactly cut from the same cloth.

My Mom wasn't alone, though. The film drew a lot of criticism for its use of violence. It was the first film to get blamed for inciting 'copy-cat' crimes, although in most cases the perpetrators of those crimes hadn't actually seen the movie. In England, where Kubrick lived, the film's reputation became so maligned that he ordered it to be pulled from distribution altogether and banned all future screenings.

It wasn't until A Clockwork Orange came around to our local revival house, The Vogue, that I finally saw what all of the fuss was about. Even after several years had gone by, some of the scenes of violence were pretty disturbing. Of course, that was the point. Violence should be disturbing. A culture that has become desensitized to violence needs to be shaken up a little every now and then.

I bet if you showed the movie now, however, it would seem tame compared to the never-ending parade of horror and mayhem that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis.

I saw Dr. Strangelove when I was in college. And, though the movie was almost fifteen years old, it was as sharp and funny as the day it came out. I watched it just the other day and it still works beautifully.

By the way, how many people, on seeing outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney attending the inauguration in a wheelchair, made the eerie connection to the half-crazed, ex-Nazi weapons expert who seems perversely ecstatic about the possibility of nuclear annihilation?

Part of the beauty of Dr. Strangelove comes from the amazing triple performance by Peter Sellers. Kubrick worked with Sellers on a previous movie as well, an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's provocative novel, Lolita. Like A Clockwork Orange, the movie was steeped in controversy, telling the story of an affair between a middle-aged man and a fourteen-year-old girl. Yet, rather than focus on the prurient nature of the relationship, Kubrick made his film about the foibles and frustrations of the hapless Humbert Humbert whose desire for the young Lolita lures him down the dark path of his own destruction.

While I was busy catching up on Kubrick's past works, he was ensconced in his own English Manor, developing a reputation as an eccentric recluse and making the movie he hoped would be his 'masterpiece.'

I remember reading about Barry Lyndon in Time magazine. Kubrick was determined to film the story of an 18th century rogue, recreating as faithfully as possible the details of the period. That included shooting certain indoor scenes using only candlelight. In order to do so, new lenses had to be invented and thousands of beeswax candles manufactured. Barry Lyndon is so authentic, it is like a time machine that transports the audience to another era.

But the stately pace and lavish look failed to enthrall American audiences. I never saw Barry Lyndon on the big screen, though I would love to. I watched it on video on my parent's big-screen TV, marveling nevertheless at the beauty and perfection Kubrick had achieved.

Having passed up The Exorcist and hoping for a box-office hit, Kubrick now set his sights on Stephen King's The Shining. I was not a fan of Stephen King or the horror genre in general. I was a huge Jack Nicholson fan, but that was not enough to get me into the theater to see The Shining. Eventually I worked up the courage to rent the video.

Once again I watched it on my parents TV -- late at night, all alone, scared shitless.

As with Lolita, Kubrick did not religiously adhere to the text, using the book more as a jumping off point from which to craft his film. He shifted the focus of the story from the haunted hotel to the haunted character played by Nicholson. In doing so, he angered Stephen King, but in my opinion created a much more terrifying reality.

Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick's next film, tells the story of a squad of Marines that is sent to Vietnam in 1968. I missed seeing this one when it was in theaters, too. Which seems to be the pattern for me with Kubrick's films. Somehow I always end up seeing them after the fact. Watching Full Metal Jacket on video, I felt like I was seeing two different films. The first half, dealing with the young recruits in boot camp, was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. But the second half, which takes place during the Tet Offensive, did not work for me. I don't remember why. I guess I need to go back and watch it again.

The only Kubrick movie I actually did see during its original release was his last one, Eyes Wide Shut. I know a lot of people were disappointed by it, but I thought it was brilliant. I walked out of the theater thinking, "I've got to see that again." I never did, though -- at least not in the theater. I recently watched Eyes Wide Shut on DVD several times in a row, and each time I found something that I hadn't noticed before. There are so many things going on in that movie that I could watch it a hundred times and still enjoy it.

Seeing Eyes Wide Shut again, opened my eyes to the tremendous effect Kubrick's films have had on me. Because so much of the information in them is visual, it is easy to miss what is going on. But the images sink into your unconscious and inform you in ways you may not even understand.

As with most of his movies, Kubrick began with an existing story. But the story is only a seed of an idea. That seed then germinates in Kubrick's mind as he seeks to understand what the story is truly about, what it means, why it works or doesn't work. He draws on innumerable sources to feed his imagination: books, films, art, fiction, current events, psychology, science, politics, sociology...

Everything is filtered through the lens of the story and viewed from every possible angle.

This passionate technique of endless examination and curiosity is mirrored in his style of directing. Scenes may be shot over and over from different angles, always exploring, alway pushing to see what else might be lurking between the words, or hidden in the shadows.

The owl-eyed genius behind the camera shares his vision with us through the stories he has chosen to tell. Each story is different, but all share a common perspective. Stanley made movies, but they weren't just for entertainment. They were windows to the world the exists beneath the surface, behind the screen, beyond the horizon.

Stanley's movies taught me how to see.