Within the pantheon of idiosyncratic American film artists, Stanley Kubrick (1928-99) was — and in many ways still is — unusually successful at capturing the public's attention.
LACMA is launching the North American debut of an eight-month-long exhibition about the filmmaker, originally curated by Frankfurt's Deutsches Filmmuseum, featuring hundreds of items from the Kubrick estate. One of the museum's largest exhibits in recent years, it clarifies and enriches aspects of the filmmaker's work for his fans while providing an encyclopedic introduction for the uninitiated.
Never a blockbuster moviemaker, Kubrick attracted a devoted audience of trendy urban youth who flocked to transgressive milestones such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Each film stamped images into the cultural landscape: Slim Pickens whooping it up astride an atomic bomb; prehistoric man cavorting in front of a black monolith; Malcolm McDowell singin' in the rain during a bout of ultraviolence; Jack Nicholson screeching "Here's Johnny!" through a pulverized door.
Kubrick's images provoke complex, conflicting feelings, as over-the-top performances and colorful dialogue often clash with somnambulist acting and intentionally banal conversations.
Text in LACMA's exhibit suggests his style mixed the exaggerated emotions of German expressionism with the urban clarity of American realism, but leading critics have made other connections: James Naremore situates Kubrick's style in the mode of the grotesque (an unresolved tension among laughter, disgust and fear); Bill Krohn reads it as a series of uncanny doubles, motifs and repetitions.
Like his films, Kubrick himself often seemed at cross-purposes: a powerful Hollywood producer-director who lived permanently in London; a showman directly involved with the promotion of his films who sought to undercut expectations; an obsessive planner who would spend years — even decades — developing films down to the minutest detail, yet encouraged on-set improvisation.
The difficulties in explaining or even categorizing Kubrick's work, along with his avoidance of the press, helped form a mystique around him that continues today. Case in point: the mesmerizingly muddled documentary Room 237, one of this year's most popular films on the festival circuit, which claims to unveil arcane messages in The Shining, including how the moon landing was faked. (It screens this week at AFI Fest, which we cover in Film.) LACMA's exhibit pushes through this caricature of Kubrick as a bearded, gnostic mastermind imparting profundities and regards him in all his notational, archival, packrat fervor.
After beginning with two large, side-by-side screens featuring a montage of clips from Kubrick's films (one with superimposed quotes), the exhibit opens into large spaces that summarize the filmmaker's early career. On display are rare Look magazines, for which a teenage Kubrick was a staff photographer; an epic matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw and vivid Saul Bass storyboards for Spartacus (1960); correspondence with irate pastors and church leaders regarding the production of Lolita (1962); production sketches from Dr. Strangelove by Ken Adam, who also designed early Bond sets and lent Kubrick's War Room a maniacal majesty, the circular lighting suggestive of an ironic halo.
A highlight is the large collection of Kubrick's personal camera equipment, including the enormous, NASA-designed lenses that allowed him to film the painterly, candlelit interiors of his masterful Barry Lyndon (1975).
Strangelove's War Room also is re-created as one of several highly detailed, miniature models in the exhibit, many of them from the innovative production of 2001, including the Discovery spaceship and the museumlike Baroque Room of the finale, with its unnerving light emanating from the floor.
Seeing the physical models allows the viewer to move back and forth and study these movie spaces in three shifting dimensions. The most fascinating is a model of 2001's spacecraft centrifuge, a rotating stage with trap doors that allowed Kubrick to film from strategic vantage points.
Unfortunately, not all of the prop reconstructions in the exhibit are as interesting as the models; life-size replicas of the erotic mannequins in the Korova Milk Bar of A Clockwork Orange seem inauthentic and merely decorative.
The exhibit continues through a series of smaller spaces, each devoted to Kubrick's later works. Especially rare and fascinating are exhibits devoted to two of his most cherished unrealized projects: the stalled Napoleon production and the Holocause drama Aryan Papers. Hundreds of photos — contemporary Slovakian streets and archival research courtesy of Ealing Studios — reveal possible locations for the latter, and the experimental 16mm short film Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009), by Jane and Louise Wilson, revisits wardrobe tests Kubrick photographed in 1993 with actress Johanna ter Steege. (See sidebar for more on these projects.)
Throughout the exhibit are copies of Kubrick's screenplays marked with his personal revisions. The inclusion of his chess set is a reminder of his lifelong interest in the game. It also reinforces the portrait of an artist who was in a constant state of study and negotiation, with research and preparation giving way to lengthy shooting schedules and refinements of dialogue in conversation with his actors.
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The exhibit's inclusion of his handwritten critiques of poster designs for The Shining and clippings from the British press that linked violent crimes with A Clockwork Orange (resulting in Kubrick pulling the film from distribution in the United Kingdom until after his death) attest to his exacting control of every stage of his films' public life, guiding his work as if in a careful dance with its audience.
Wandering through the exhibit, one is reminded of the filmmaker's beloved tracking shots, which accompany protagonists through trenches, corridors and hedges, influenced by filmmaker Max Ophüls, whose death, the exhibit notes, Kubrick memorialized on the set of 1957's Paths of Glory. Intensified by the filmmaker's fondness for wide-angle lenses, they emphasize the singular travels of his protagonists moving through time and space.
As a similarly slow-reveal sojourn, the engrossing exhibit — which will include LACMA's "2012: A Kubrick Odyssey" screening series (one of the last places you can still see 2001 in 70mm), starting Nov. 7, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' satellite exhibition, "Stanley Kubrick: The Ultimate Trip," beginning Nov. 8 in its Beverly Hills lobby gallery — is an experience Angelenos won't want to miss.
STANLEY KUBRICK | LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile | Through June 30 | lacma.org