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FIR’S 2007 DVD STOCKING-STUFFER LIST

By • Dec 15th, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5

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With contributions from Glen Andreiev, Mark Gross and David Del Valle

I’m told everyone is waiting for the last minute to scramble for Xmas gifts. Well consider these handsome DVD releases: either collections or special editions, with lovely packaging, good supplements, and shelf-worthy subject matter. The reviews are supplied by your editor and some of his gallant writers.

WARNER DIRECTOR SERIES: STANLEY KUBRICK

I once knew a therapist, my ex-wife’s therapist, to be specific, who said he went to high school with Stanley Kubrick. “It was in the Bathgate section of the Bronx.,” he said. “Stanley was always playing hooky and going to the movies. I used to tell him if he kept going to the movies he’d never amount to anything.” Then my ex-wife’s therapist sighed. “I guess Stanley had the right idea after all.”
As for me, I find myself in a somewhat paradoxical position recommending this set as a Xmas gift. To be honest, I don’t necessarily like most of Stanley Kubrick’s films. It’s possible I may be kvetching a little, for I must confess I love this new Kubrick set, both for the glorious transfers and terrific new extras. This includes three documentaries of extraordinary depth and subtle artistry (on 2001, CLOCKWORK ORANGE and EYES WIDE SHUT, respectively) commissioned by the BBC, not to mention some great commentary tracks, which makes seeing these films again fairly revelatory.
This set contains the original widescreen theatrical presentations of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT (in its unrated version) for the first time on home video. Although Kubrick apparently insisted on 1:33 as the preferred aspect ratio of these films except 2001 (which was shot in 70mm Super Panavision), the previous standard releases had way too much floor and ceiling so, for instance, in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Alex and his droogs seem to be floating in this amniotic fluid of hazy reddish grain. The hellish color is because the source material appears to be taken from badly faded television prints.
All this has now been corrected. The widescreen compositions are much sharper and also more involving without that empty space around the actors. (According to Garrett Brown, Kubrick’s operator, he always shot in 1:66, which means slightly cutting off the frame if one goes to 1:85, although these new transfers look perfectly centered to me).Warners’ immaculate transfers, combined with Kubrick’s impeccable technique and quest for perfection, have combined to create images that are hypnotic in their ability to dazzle the eye, with nary a trace of edge enhancement or any defects whatsoever.
I’ve been looking at Kubrick’s films all my adult life, feeling simultaneously frustrated and elated. Unlike many of the directors I admire, such as Sam Fuller or Jean-Marie Straub, Kubrick did not toil in obscurity. He worked in many genres, from horror to the historical epic, yet continually made the same film – a supremely elegant, ironic meditation on power and individual meaning, with a gliding camera simultaneously detached yet drawing us into the depths of the unknown, transforming space with a sardonic yet terrifying beauty, the tone poised somewhere between Kierkegaard and Mad Magazine.
In many of these films, the camera isn’t telling a story so much as creating a series of almost abstract images that runs parallel to the narrative. This method works best in 2001, but in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE SHINING, which deal with a character in crisis, it’s more problematic. There’s an aspect of Kubrick’s style that’s overly fastidious, not to mention self-consciously cartoonish, especially the way he takes complex literary works and pares the characters down to stereotypes, with broad acting and almost banana-peel like humor. Kubrick’s tendency to use symmetrical narratives of opposing yet complementary scenes reinforces for me this feeling of two-dimensionality, as the characters seem trapped in a circle from which they cannot escape, a trap not of their own devising but rather due to the director’s imperious vision. (In CLOCKWORK, for instance, the circular structure implies that Alex’s spontaneous violence is just as machine-like as the totalitarian state that oppresses him, which is the exact opposite meaning of Burgess’ novel.) Another problem is Kubrick’s sense of time. It may be sublime (as in the extended takes of 2001) but it’s also inherently static, similar to someone looking at a painting. (Compare the long takes in Welles’ MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, for instance, where you can almost hear the performers hearts beat, to those in THE SHINING, where the camera seems to be moving through a terrain that is inaccessible to us, unchanged and inviolate.)
The first Kubrick film I saw was 2001, on opening day at the Capitol Theatre in New York City. I can’t remember if I, like Stanley before me, was playing hooky from high school or if it was the beginning of summer vacation. I do recall wearing shirt-sleeves. On the way to the theatre, I noticed the new Truffaut book of Hitchcock interviews in the window of Doubleday on Fifth Avenue and bought it. During intermission, I read the book with the word “Hitchcock” emblazoned in blue across the front and got a number of approving nods from a group of serious young men who were sitting in the front row. Hardly anyone else was there.
I love 2001, possibly because I saw it at such an impressionable age. But for me, the film still holds up, and even more, has new revelations in store every time I plop the disc in. Yes, the picture has plenty of flaws, although I wouldn’t use it to prove, as Andrew Sarris has tried to do, that Kubrick is unable to tell a story, for I think 2001 is one of Kubrick’s best achievements in storytelling.
At the beginning of time, ape-men discover a monolith and by touching it are able to learn how to develop skills to survive. A few millions years later, explorers on the moon dig up the same monolith which emits a radio signal in the direction of Jupiter. A spaceship manned by astronauts Bowman and Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) as well as a neurotic, overconfident computer named HAL (Douglas Rain) are sent to investigate.
This new transfer goes a long way towards recreating the experience of seeing 2001 in a theatre. What’s particularly important is the color, which has a density and detail that almost seems three-dimensional. In the Dawn of Man and Spaceship Discovery sequences, for instance, there’s all these shades of red–fuschia, magenta, and hot pink–that bring to mind the fauve canvases of Maurice de Vlaminck, and also evokes the sense of nostalgia for things that have not yet come to pass, which is an important part of screenplay author Arthur C. Clarke’s sensibility.
I remember the Dawn of Man sequence as being deeply emotional and densely entertaining, with lots of interactions between the ape-men. Now it seems very spare. Listening to the commentary by Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea on the first disc, I discovered this wasn’t a hallucination on my part, as Kubrick cut more than ten minutes out of the sequence after the premiere. I particularly remember a scene where Moonwatcher, the head man-ape (played by Daniel Richter) teaches a child how to eat raw meat, as well as a sequence of ape men pushing each other in play that turns to violence. I would love to see that footage again, but apparently it no longer exists.
I also saw A CLOCKWORK ORANGE on opening day, at the Cinema I, to be specific, directly across from Bloomingdale’s where I was working at the time. Although it’s beautifully made, not to mention a classic example on how to adapt an “unfilmable” novel to the screen (the original was written first person in an invented language called “nadsat”, a mixture of Russian and cockney rhyming slang), I’m afraid I can muster little enthusiasm for the film, even while I find its technical mastery awe-inspiring.
In the near future, Alex and his droogs, Georgie, Pete and Dim (Malcolm Mc Dowell, James Marcus, Michael Tarn and Warren Clarke) “go in for a bit of the old ultraviolence” by breaking into people’s homes. One such foray ends in murder, and Alex is set up by his mates and turned over to the police. In prison, Alex is introduced to the tender ministrations of the Ludovico method, which will apparently turn him into a model citizen.
This transfer, in my opinion, is the most dazzling of the entire set, and goes a long way to correcting the poor impression left by the abysmal versions that have been available previously. The imagery is almost crystalline, sharp yet spare, the colors minimal yet suddenly confronted by blazing red, like Andrienne Corri’s frock in the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene. It’s impossible not to watch the darn thing, even while one is completely repelled by the actions on screen. Clearly, that was Kubrick’s intention, and on some level, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, with its vistas of gang violence in the near future, haphazardly vicious yet ironically beautiful, is a masterpiece. But it’s such a cold, calculated construction of a film, with outright borrowings from other contemporary movies, it’s difficult for me to have much affection for the thing. (This is not entirely a criticism, as the cinematic polyglot of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, referencing everything from Bunuel to Minnelli, creates a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints that is similar to reading the Burgess novel.)
Unlike Nick Redman, though (whose commentary with Malcolm McDowell is consistently fascinating), I do not find the film’s violence “pre-feminist.” Through the use of tracking shots and various forms of performance stylization, Kubrick is able to place an audience simultaneously inside Alex’s head, while remaining objective about the reprehensible meaning of his actions. It’s an amazing performance, evocative of the late prose style of Henry James, somehow transferred to the cinema. Unfortunately, because Alex never changes, the process that both he and the audience goes through– Kubrick uses an editing technique of identification and repulsion that is similar to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO–ultimately seems, to me, anyway, a waste of time. Although I can’t help watching the opening shot set at the Korova milkbar, with McDowell wearing one false eyelash and a derby, the camera slowly tracking backward until his supine figure and that of his mates becomes suffused with light.
What I find most interesting about A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is how Burgess’ novel, which was based on a real event (the author’s wife was raped by hooligans) after being made into a film caused the possibility of that violation to be revitalized (the Kubricks were inundated by threatening letters after the film was released). In a weird case of art imitating life and then looping back again, Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation in the UK due to those threats and it was unseen there for 25 years.(This is covered, in fascinating detail, in the BBC documentary.)

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