Stanley Kubrick maintained his independence

The Baltimore Sun

There were two Stanley Kubricks. First came the Bronx-bred wunderkind with a chip on his soldier the size of the Triborough Bridge, ready to take on veteran Hollywood craftsmen and even producer-actors such as Kirk Douglas. This fellow came up with a parade of smart, groundbreaking features from The Killing to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wrestling with dominating stars or maneuvering with money-men helped imbue Kubrick's films with uncanny connections to life as it is lived, even when his scenarios went back in time or out of this world.

But the restless, spunky Kubrick, whose work will be celebrated beginning today with an eight-film festival at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, morphed into a bearded cinematic guru who settled permanently in England, maneuvered his way into total independence and made his movies in what one collaborator called a series of cocoons. Cut off from the sources of his creative vitality, he grew ever-more theoretical and virtuosic. This Kubrick fashioned a series of alienated and alienating art objects, culminating in his final film, the chilly erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut. Yet he became known as the "director's director" of his generation for his technical virtuosity and integrity.

The AFI Silver's tribute to Kubrick offers a rare opportunity to see his exciting early works on the big screen while also providing a taste of the "mature" filmmaker's grand if paralyzing manner.

From 1956 to 1968, Kubrick was an inspiration for smart, disaffected urban youths and bored, curious suburban kids. It was an era when they were equally interested in sex, chess, jazz, photography and science fiction -- and Kubrick was ready to answer all their movie needs. He put Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the tragicomic novel of a hyper-literate middle-aged man in love with a teenage American "nymphet," on the screen in 1962, the year when Elvis Presley was cavorting innocently in Girls, Girls, Girls. And at a time when Dr. No and From Russia, With Love epitomized power politics on screen, Kubrick gave us Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a Mad magazine-style burlesque of the arms race.

Readers of cheeky humor mags and racy comic books and paperbacks -- the fellows who walked into English class hiding Terry Southern's Candy behind the cover of George Eliot's Silas Marner -- were the ones who adopted Kubrick as their hero. Embracing Lolita and Dr. Strangelove (cowritten by Southern), they started a groundswell for 2001 (1968) after its initial spotty business and reviews.

The film wasn't just about outer space; it was also about the inner space of dreamers who yearned to mesh science and aesthetics and mixed a love for classical art with hopes for great leaps forward in mind games, utopian visions and hardware. Kubrick never received an Oscar for direction, but when he submitted 2001's special effects for a nomination, he put his own name on the form. And he won.

Some of the most celebrated names in high and low culture thread their way through Kubrick's oeuvre -- straight from his breakthrough caper film, The Killing (1956), which boasted dialogue from the redoubtable lower-depths crime novelist Jim Thompson.

Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have imitated this movie's exploded chronology, which permits us to see separate actions that in plot terms take place simultaneously. But they've rarely matched how Kubrick made the rhythm of the action mesh with the tempo of the dialogue and the heartbeats of the characters. Sterling Hayden portrays the hero, a rugged ex-con who masterminds a racetrack robbery. He brings the film a gnarly tristesse and a hard-knocks intelligence. In one of its distinctive black-comic touches, he argues that killing a horse "is not first-degree murder -- in fact, it's not murder at all. In fact, I don't know what it is."

Set in 1916, Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) generates a hair-raising, heartrending claustrophobia. Adolphe Menjou and George Macready play lordly and ambitious French generals who catalyze an insane attack on a German stronghold called the Ant Hill. Kirk Douglas plays the humane lawyer-colonel who tries to lead his soldiers into battle and defends three who represent the many who refused to fight.

Kubrick's camera encircles the men behind the lines and at the front, tracing the rusty chains of European feudalism as well as the bloody coils of the trenches. The director avoids the traps of fake accents or fancy rhetoric.

He hands the role of a condemned private to clumsy-powerful Timothy Carey, who brings a whiff of Brooklyn to a Gallic chateau. This cult hard-guy actor, who also played the horse executioner in The Killing, enacts a pinnacle of big-screen existentialism. A corporal asks his fellow doomed men, "See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will." Carey crushes the bug and says, "Now you got the edge on him."

Douglas was superb as the morally handcuffed hero of that movie, and he pushed Kubrick into the big time when he recruited him to take over the troubled production of Spartacus. Douglas' potent title character is a miner turned gladiator who sets off the Third Servile War when he and his fellow battlers -- in a liberating surge of action -- break out of gladiator school.

His arrogant patrician foe, Crassus (Laurence Olivier), can't comprehend what the audience understands immediately: Spartacus' greatness comes from his ability to connect with men and women as their brother. He forges a refugee nation to overthrow Roman oppression.

Crassus, in the blend of egomania and patriotism common to tyrants, bases his program on fantasies of mandated order and glory. To him, "Rome is an eternal thought in the mind of God." The dichotomy between Spartacus' grassroots, seat-of-the-pants idealism and Crassus' top-down organization pays off devastatingly well in the final conflict. Crassus arranges his cohorts in a kind of living geometry. It's like marching-band choreography imbued with military might.

It's sobering to move from this adrenaline-charged epic to The Shining (1980), this weekend's other attraction. Kubrick's cripplingly tony version of Stephen King's best-seller is a numbing effort to spook moviegoers by a director who'd lost contact with his audience. Kubrick, like Crassus, had fallen in love with technical power and abstractions. "There's a lot to like about it," King told American Film magazine. "But it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside it."

Still, this Kubrick mini-retrospective mostly showcases the director at his best, in films that leave you agog at how much he did understand. Many a prodigy has flared out. At his peak, Kubrick showed that an enfant terrible could turn into a homme formidable.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

For a complete schedule of the Kubrick retrospective, go to afi.com/silver/new/nowplaying/2007/v4i1/kubrick.aspx.

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