Movies

‘2001’ is a space odyssey, but 2018 is a Kubrick moment

Stanley Kubrick in 1950, as seen in a picture the then-photojournalist took of actress Faye Emerson looking in a mirror and fixing her hair.
Stanley Kubrick in 1950, as seen in a picture the then-photojournalist took of actress Faye Emerson looking in a mirror and fixing her hair.

Stanley Kubrick, that most imperial of filmmakers, began as nothing grander than a photojournalist. It was just him and a Rolleiflex against the world. A show of his photojournalism, “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick’s Photographs,” opened earlier this month at the Museum of the City of New York.

Already, though, the world was being put on notice. A photograph Kubrick took in 1950 hints at what lies ahead. It’s a Kubrick moment we’re seeing. Ostensibly an image of the actress Faye Emerson looking in a mirror and fixing her hair, it’s actually an image of the mirror. That bit of (Kubrickian) visual trickeration means we also glimpse the photographer. You can see what a terrific eye he had, barely in his 20s. Note the raised eyebrows and intentness of gaze. More important, note who’s clearly in charge.

Right now, it’s a larger Kubrick moment we’re in. There’s the exhibition, which runs through Oct. 28. There’s the sequence in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” where the movie enters Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). There’s “Filmworker,” a documentary about Kubrick’s longtime assistant, Leon Vitali. It opens at the Kendall on May 25.

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A wonderfully compelling figure, Vitali is the documentary’s focus. It also offers a revealing look at Kubrick. He was endlessly demanding as a boss, but you can see why Vitali would put up with the demands. Nearly two decades after Kubrick’s death, Vitali remains devoted to Kubrick’s memory. They first met when Vitali acted in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975). Later he went to work for Kubrick behind the scenes, starting with “The Shining.” The ghostly twins (“Hello, Danny”)? They were Vitali’s idea.

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The twins appear in “Ready Player One,” as do many other bits of “Shining”-iana: the blood streaming from the elevators, the maze, Room 237, the beautiful woman in the bathtub (who turns out to be not so beautiful). The sequence, which was Spielberg’s idea, is meta-movie bliss: clever, loving, witty, knowing, at once surprising and familiar. The only annoying thing is that all this raises an unanswered question: What does Jack think?

Vitali stayed on as Kubrick’s right-hand man until the director’s death, months before the release of “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). Vitali had come full circle, since among numerous other tasks on the movie he also acted in it. That’s Vitali behind the mask as Master of the Revels.

R. Lee Ermey, who made such a phenomenal debut as the Marine drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), says in “Filmworker” that he owes his career to Kubrick. News of his death last month also contributes to this being a Kubrick moment. You can see Ermey’s performance on the big screen, when the Kendall observes the arrival of “Filmworker” with 11 a.m. screenings of Kubrick’s last four features: “Jacket,” May 25; “The Shining,” May 26; “Barry Lyndon,” May 27; and “Eyes Wide Shut,” May 28.

Even better, a new 70mm print of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) screens at not one but two venues: the Somerville, June 1-14; and the Coolidge, June 15-24. On June 23, Keir Dullea, HAL’s nemesis as astronaut Dave Bowman, will be on hand after the 7 p.m. screening for a discussion. This is sci-fi Valhalla on Harvard Street. Perhaps the audience will serenade him with “Daisy Bell,” the “Bicycle Built for Two” song.

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The reason for all the “2001” screenings is the biggest factor in this being a Kubrick moment. It’s the 50th anniversary of what is arguably the most enduring, surely the most monumental, and easily the most ambitious of Kubrick’s 13 features.

Not that there’s anything easy about “2001.” Its two hours and 29 minutes are bombastic, grandiose, often dull, at times laughable. “The Dawn of Man” reads one title card. Really? “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” reads another. OK, if you say so.

“2001” almost dares viewers to dismiss it. The movie’s unhurried, very nearly stately rhythm keeps the audience at arm’s length. There are no name actors. In fact, the first “actors” the audience sees are wearing ape suits. The movie’s biggest stars are HAL, the computer, and the classical composers Richard and Johann Strauss. Truly, classical music — maybe music, period — has never been used on screen to more spectacular effect. No less effective is Kubrick’s use of sound generally, everything from silence to breathing to machine noises.

It’s 25 minutes before a word is spoken in “2001”; and other than HAL’s gloriously wan monotone, the use of dialogue is incidental. A highly episodic structure means that narrative drive barely exists until HAL starts getting big ideas. All sorts of games are played with genre. Kubrick is using science fiction as a vehicle for philosophical deep think in an unprecedented fashion. In fact, you could argue that “2001” is only superficially science fiction. It’s really a mystery story, only this mystery’s MacGuffin goes unexplained: So what exactly is that black monolith?

Ultimately, though, “2001” is like that black monolith (which looks a bit like the Hancock tower). It’s very much out there and it’s not going away: dense, solid, unmistakable, if also inscrutable (inscrutability is no small part of the package). Very quickly, “2001” became part of the culture as few movies have.

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Fifty years later, it’s easy to miss that it also altered the culture of movies as few other films have. Science fiction on the screen had been pinched, gimcrack, borderline laughable. “2001” revealed what vast possibilities the genre had to offer — even if no film has even yet begun to confront those possibilities as Kubrick did. The Stargate sequence goes to visual places not previously seen outside of the human skull, if there; and the concluding shot, of the Starchild, is one of the great visionary images of the 20th century.

Among other things, “2001” concerns itself with the roots of violence, the wonder/danger of technology, the nature of consciousness, the riddle of mortality, even (possibly) the very meaning of life. These are not matters movies deal with, let alone movies about spaceships. Hollywood’s idea of seriousness, profundity, prestige (prestige above all) had been something like “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965). That was a movie about Jesus. It lasted an epic three hours and 45 minutes, with a no-less-epic cast, right down to the bit parts (Pat Boone plays an angel, John Wayne a Roman centurion). Forget the title, though. Fifty years later, it’s plain that in “2001” Kubrick wanted to make the greatest story ever told by a movie. Who knows, maybe he actually did.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.