Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Pondering Stanley Kubrick
On Tuesday, Warner Bros. (yes, part of the same Time Warner empire that also owns CNN) put out a Stanley Kubrick box, containing five of the last six Kubrick films -- "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide Shut" -- and the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures." ("Barry Lyndon" is not included. Sorry, Ryan O'Neal fans. The DVD is scheduled for release at a later date.) The packaging is fairly bare-bones: Though there are bonus DVDs with everything but "Jacket," there are no booklets, no notes, not even a chapter-guide flyer accompanying each film. The DVDs have restored and remastered.

I find I have mixed feelings about Kubrick nowadays. When I was a teenager immersing myself in movies, I idolized the man. I saw "2001" several times in revival houses (I know, the very concept of a "revival house" dates me) and "Clockwork Orange" was a favorite midnight movie.

"The Shining," though not as frightening as the Stephen King novel on which it's based, nevertheless contains one of the most chilling scenes I've ever seen, when Shelley Duvall stumbles across the novel Jack Nicholson has been working on for weeks and discovers (SPOILER!) that the thick manuscript contains nothing but one sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over. There are few more effective illustrations of a broken mind in movie history.

But "Full Metal Jacket" is only half-good, I think (the film loses its way in Vietnam) and I was bored by "Eyes Wide Shut." The nimble early filmmaker of "Paths of Glory," "Spartacus," "Lolita" and "Dr. Strangelove" had become mannered, frozen.

Still, Kubrick films always provide food for thought. I wrestle most with "Clockwork Orange," which seemed colorfully exciting to an angry teenager. Now, 25 years after I first saw it, I can't bear to watch the movie's violence. That's one of Kubrick's points, I know -- except the film appears to revel in that violence at times. (Star Malcolm McDowell offers commentary on the DVD.)

By the time he made "Full Metal Jacket," Kubrick had become an almost mythical figure: the definitive auteur, a perceived perfectionist tyrant who took forever between films. (Seven years elapsed between "The Shining" and "Jacket"; another 12 before "Eyes Wide Shut" came out.) Which makes the documentary, originally released in 2001, all the more valuable.

The documentary returns Kubrick's humanity. There's the hotshot photographer, selling photographs to Look before he was 18, and the youthful filmmaker, who made "Paths of Glory," "Spartacus" and "Dr. Strangelove" before he turned 40. He's more soft-spoken than I'd imagined -- for some reason, I'd always imagined him sounding like an Otto Preminger-like martinet -- and there are plenty of pictures of the man smiling.

Kubrick, smiling. That's worth watching right there.

If you want an instant Kubrick collection, the box will fill the bill. But if you want to pick and choose, go with "Strangelove" (released in its latest DVD edition three years ago), "2001" and "Clockwork." And, if you haven't seen it already, check out "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures."
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Where have all the movie stars gone?
Interesting pair of articles about the alleged decline of the movie star: David Denby's piece in the October 22 New Yorker (unfortunately, not available online) and Kim Masters' Slate piece about George Clooney's ability as a box office draw.

Denby's article observes that movie stars were once untouchable figures, written about (and pictured) as happy, bigger-than-life fantasy figures. (Indeed, they fulfilled a fantasy -- that of the boy or girl from the middle of nowhere who won a lottery and became the idol of millions.) Now, celebrities -- in the famous title of an Us magazine column -- are "just like us." Worse than most of us, if you believe all the scuttlebutt in the gossip magazines. Regardless, the aura is gone.

(Of course, it's not like the movie stars of old MGM were glorious figures -- in some cases, their behavior was uglier than anything Paris Hilton could imagine. But perceptions -- and coverage -- have changed.)

Which brings up Clooney, who -- in an age when a tangential character on an MTV reality show can be considered a "celebrity" -- may be one of the few movie stars out there, the closest thing we have to Cary Grant. But movie stars are supposed to be able to "open" movies -- that is, bring in big box office. As Masters notes, "Michael Clayton," despite good reviews and a great cast, hasn't been packing them in. (In "Clayton's" defense, it's already made its alleged $25 million budget back.)

But do we even need movie stars anymore? Lately, the biggest box-office successes, as Denby points out, have been the huge summer and Christmas special-effects extravaganzas, along with a handful of comedies. Yes, some of them may feature Johnny Depp or Tobey Maguire, along with other fine performers, but the attraction isn't about the lead's charisma -- the movie star's trump card. It's the spectacle, the entire package.

What do you think? Are movie stars still necessary, or are we past all that in this Age of Celebrity?

(Incidentally, Denby's article makes frequent reference to an interesting new book, Jeanine Basinger's "The Star Machine." And I always like to recommend the excellent history of the studio system, Thomas Schatz's "The Genius of the System.")
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