I suppose you could consider it a twisted sort of valentine: The Museum of Fine Arts is using February to mount a career retrospective of Stanley Kubrick, the most revered and enigmatic director of his generation and an artist whose vision was both rigorously controlled and unyieldingly bleak. Starting Friday and running through Feb. 24, “The Films of Stanley Kubrick” series covers all the features, from 1953’s “Fear and Desire” to 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” skipping only a handful of early shorts. (Individual playdates can be found on the MFA’s website, www.mfa.org/programs/film.) This is the place to introduce yourself to the director’s work on the big screen — which matters with Kubrick — or to revisit favorite touchstones, or simply to come to terms with a filmmaker so encrusted with controversy and adoration that it can be difficult to see him straight.
It’s the latter chance that intrigues this film critic, who has — horrors — always been a Kubrick agnostic. As a movie lover who came of age in the late 1970s, after the dogfights over “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) had been fought in theater lobbies and in the writings of such critics as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, I remained unconvinced. In part that was because my micro-generation ended up with “Barry Lyndon” (1975) and “The Shining” (1980), works that were hailed as masterpieces without the weight (it seemed to me then) to back them up. “Full Metal Jacket,” in 1987, looked like a Vietnam movie made in a hermetic tube, blithely unconcerned with critical realities of time and place. Was it me, or was it Kubrick?
As you might expect, there’s not one answer but many. Revisiting Kubrick’s oeuvre in chronological order confirms the greatness of some movies and the brilliant emptiness of others. There’s at least one film that’s much better than I realized at the time — “Full Metal Jacket,” sorry, Stanley — and a few that have aged poorly. Above all, “The Films of Stanley Kubrick” makes an argument that this iconic filmography sorts itself into four distinct phases: the Amateur, the Professional, the Master, and the Dilettante.
The first phase covers Kubrick’s earliest work, when he was remaking himself from a teen-prodigy photographer for Look magazine into a serious filmmaker. “Fear and Desire,” recently released on DVD after years in obscurity, is the work of a visually gifted, fatally earnest young artist burning to Say Something. An hourlong drama about a squadron of soldiers behind enemy lines in an unnamed war, the film features “poetic” dialogue (written by Howard Sackler) out of an adolescent’s journal and an awesomely terrible performance by the young director-to-be Paul Mazursky. More than anything, “Fear” plays like a student production of Terrence Malick’s later “The Thin Red Line.”
The next two films, “Killer’s Kiss” (1955) and “The Killing” (1956) are also apprentice works, but they show Kubrick coming into a sense of his talents and a knowledge of when to pull back. (They also continue the young filmmaker’s reliance on overbearing musical scores and bad narrative voice-overs.) “Kiss” is a weird midnight crime-romance-boxing melodrama, overwritten and overplayed but visually striking — the kid’s on to something. “The Killing” is Kubrick’s first real movie, a fine racetrack heist noir with actual stars (Sterling Hayden), richly strange performances, and a brooding fascination with the way things can and will go wrong.
With “Paths of Glory” (1957), Kubrick became a professional, working with a major star (Kirk Douglas) and re-creating the horrors of World War I with a full complement of extras and ordnance. A cry of rage against a class system that sacrifices individual soldiers to satisfy the pride of generals, “Paths” is a major work, and the director (only 29 at the time) handles the bigger canvas with breathtaking finesse. Yet the film’s didacticism dates it: For all the astonishing and influential tracking shots through the trenches, “Paths of Glory” tells rather than shows. It’s a mistake Kubrick wouldn’t make again.
He was entrusted with a major studio project: “Spartacus” (1960), a sprawling epic of ancient Rome that could arguably have been made by any reasonably talented director of the time. “Lolita” (1962), an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s lightning-rod bestseller, is something different: a coolly perverse black comedy that’s the first evidence Kubrick had a sense of humor. Still, Peter Sellers’s Clare Quilty seems to belong to another movie entirely, and the parody of America’s shallow cultural pretensions is heavy-handed next to the charmed satire of the book. It’s the difference between an Old World novelist amused by his newfound land and an American filmmaker who can’t wait to leave home.
By then, Kubrick had relocated to England, creating his increasingly imaginary worlds in the womb of British studio facilities and, after 1978, his home of Chidwickbury Manor. At first, the isolation only focused his talents. “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “A Clockwork Orange” are films made by a director in total control of his vision. By now Kubrick was sui generis: No one else would dare to make a satire about nuclear Armageddon that ends with the end of the world, or a sci-fi head-trip about human evolution and modern soullessness, or a future-shock meditation on free will and violence. These three movies were ahead of their time and now seem timeless; even if aspects of “Orange” seem stuck in the ’70s, its unpleasant but necessary debate remains relevant.
And then? Kubrick retreated into genre. “Barry Lyndon” is a ravishingly shot period film — if you have to see it, do so on the MFA’s big screen — that follows the rise and fall of an 18th-century rake (Ryan O’Neal). For the first time, the director’s jaundiced view of human nature seems glib, and the film’s stateliness renders it nearly bloodless. Kubrick appeared to be drawn more to technical challenges than emotional ones: the candle-lit photography of “Barry Lyndon,” the endless Steadicam shots of “The Shining” (1980).
That latter film was a hit and it remains ghoulishly entertaining, especially for Jack Nicholson’s showboat performance. But it reveals a filmmaker condescending to the horror genre without really understanding it. As ponderous as it is eerie, the film strings genuinely unsettling images along a simplistic plot and fetishizes visual perfection at the expense of engagement with its characters. The most frightening scene is every writer’s nightmare: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Other than that, it’s a skillful film with nothing particular to say — a first for this director.
Maybe I just don’t get it, in the same way that “Full Metal Jacket” now looks to me like not only a masterpiece but also the culmination of Kubrick’s career-long fascination with men at war. The unusual two-part structure — hell in boot camp, hell on the battleground — frees the director up to hint at macrocosmic concerns, and the film’s as much a catalog of mankind’s metaphysical damage as it is a war movie. The patently non-Asian locations that bothered me (and others) in 1987 — we were coming off a long cycle of Vietnam films — are now revelatory, placing the drama firmly in the landscape of metaphor and myth. And at last the finger-waving poetics and antimilitary diatribes of “Fear and Desire,” “Paths of Glory,” even “Barry Lyndon” are replaced by a great filmmaker’s unwavering gaze. “Full Metal Jacket” shows rather than tells, and what it shows is unflinching in its tragedy and pessimism.
Which makes “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) a comedown, really. Kubrick had long wanted to make a modern-dress adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 “Traumnovelle,” and he died just four days after completing the final cut. The temptation is there to view “Eyes” as a career summation. But the film, which isn’t really an erotic drama but an inquisition into issues of marriage and fidelity, teeters between the profound and the laughable. The dialogue tends toward the purple, the much-vaunted orgy scenes are both pompous and silly — whatever adjectives you ascribe to Kubrick, “sexy” isn’t one of them — and, most fatally, Tom Cruise is miscast in the lead.
Kubrick had used callow pretty-boy actors to interesting effect in earlier films: Keir Dullea in “2001,” O’Neal in “Barry Lyndon.” But Cruise’s can-do directness short-circuits the hoped-for ambiguities of “Eyes Wide Shut” — he and the director just aren’t speaking the same language. Nicole Kidman is, though, and her handful of monologues are the best things about the film, pregnant with erotic desire and an undertow of deep, deep dread. Her performance makes you realize how male the films of Stanley Kubrick are, how lacking in interesting women — what, Lolita? Wendy Torrance? — and how, at the very end of the day, the director at last came through with a female character who was neither victim nor predator but a three-dimensional human struggling through the same existential swamp as the men.
It makes you really curious about what he might have done next.