Bringing classics by Stanley Kubrick into your living room
You might not have noticed, but Stanley Kubrick's shimmering science-fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey" went back into orbit late last year, returning to wide screens in several cities. This is no oddity. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the logic of relaunching this 1968 classic in the year it was named after.
So why did few moviegoers know about it? Because the studio that owns the picture, Warner Bros., chose to fire this rocket in the dark - giving the event less publicity than it bestows on even the least attention-worthy new release.
The reasons aren't hard to figure out. Film industry watchers say economics is to blame, since a major promotional campaign would have dented the reissue's profit margin.
And that's a shame. While any film is better served by crisp theatrical projectors than living-room video setups, "2001" makes a quantum leap in quality when experienced the way Kubrick intended - on a large screen, in a dark room, with precisely placed speakers to boom out its superb soundtrack.
On a broader level, the "2001" affair could prompt movie-lovers to become more aware of how financial factors affect our choice of Saturday-night entertainment. Even the greatest film relies on distributors and exhibitors to reach its audience, and bottom-line commercialism usually underlies their decisions.
Ironically, the hugely respected Kubrick has suffered more than his share of misfortunes in this regard, and Warner Bros. has played the villain before - keeping journalists from viewing his last completed movie, "Eyes Wide Shut," until a few days before it opened in 1999.
This prevented the possibility of negative reviews before the première. But it also kept critics from writing well-considered evaluations to guide the film's first audiences through its unorthodox structure and unconventional ideas - something the director couldn't do himself, since he died just after completing it.
Taking a cue from Kubrick and looking to the future, what's a "2001" fan to do now that even the reissue has run its course? Happily, consolation is at hand: a splendid DVD set including eight of Kubrick's most important movies. They have diminished impact on a TV screen, but seeing them this way is better than not seeing them at all, especially if you take advantage of the extras on the discs - trailers, commentaries, interviews.
Also included is "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures," a lovingly produced documentary. Directed by Jan Harlan, executive producer of several Kubrick classics, it is a rousing introduction to his work. It also gives a vivid overview of the puzzlement Kubrick posed for his admiring but sometimes baffled public. Even his followers grew frustrated at times, reeling at violence in his movies - the futuristic shocks of "A Clockwork Orange" and horrific jolts of "The Shining" perhaps - or simply wondering how he could spend as long as 12 years conceptualizing, directing, and putting the finishing touches to a single film.
Harlan gives a clue to that last question in the opening moments of his documentary, filling the screen with a cascade of newspaper clippings that appeared during Kubrick's career. Key words appear and reappear with amazing regularity: "eccentric," "obsessive," "meticulous," "reclusive," "perfectionist."
He was all those things, and "controversial" - another journalistic favorite - to boot. He treated projects with fastidious care, supervising tiny details of scenery and costume, and even choosing theaters where his movies would have their first runs. "2001" went to the Cinerama chain because it had the biggest screens and, he decided, the most comfortable seats!
Such painstaking care became his enduring trademark. For a 1990s reissue of the 1964 end-of-the-world comedy "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," he had each frame of the original film freshly re-photographed with his own camera. Punctilious touches like these don't carry through to DVD versions, but they reflect the perfectionism Kubrick put into all his work, even when moviegoers found the end results less perfect than they'd hoped and came to the box office in disappointing numbers.
The nicely packaged DVD set encapsulates the second half of Kubrick's career, from the superbly acted "Lolita" - mighty controversial in 1962, but a model of restraint and insight today - through the eye-dazzling "Barry Lyndon" to "Eyes Wide Shut," an enigmatic movie that still sparks lively debate. To re-view and re-think these films is to undertake a stimulating odyssey through the ever-shifting terrain of modern cinema.