It would be an understatement to say I’m a fan of Stanley Kubrick. A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and The Killing are among my favorite films. And Kubrick is directly responsible for sparking my passion for cinematography.
I found the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition at LACMA a letdown. But I'm worried the exhibition may have done more harm than good to casual visitors. Although it closed last month, the exhibition will travel to other museums over the next several years. I’m going to focus on three specific issues, in the hopes of sparking a discussion on how best to approach a program about Stanley Kubrick.
The exhibition is most successful at the beginning. Visitors enter a pitch-black space, illuminated only by a pair of projected scenes from Kubrick’s films. In the dark, I could make out fellow visitors sitting on benches or leaning against the back wall, taking in the images. After a few moments, I noticed an opening ahead, between the two screens, leading to a large, white-washed room.
Museum-goers are familiar with this type of transitionary space. It functions much like the air gaps on modern airplanes, which physically separate the cockpit’s and passengers’ electronic systems, to reduce the risk of interference. In the Kubrick exhibit, this space serves two essential purposes: 1) To bring visitors into a movie-going-like state of receptiveness; and 2) to create a barrier against the outside world within a relatively small floor plan. It also reminded me a bit of an actual cinema — or, more tangentially, outer space.
But up ahead, in that white-washed room, lies a disastrous design flaw. Upon reaching the Dr. Strangelove junction, my friend Patrick and I faced a conundrum. On the left, the exhibit wound backward and seemed to reach a dead end. On the right, we spotted a sunlight-filled hallway with people milling about. Drawn by the light and movement, we naturally headed to the second hallway.
But there was nothing there but posters for Kubrick’s unfinished Aryan Papers project. Patrick and I stood stupidly in the middle of the stream of people for several long seconds before realizing: Yep, this is the exit. As it turns out, we should have taken a left down that narrower, more circuitous hallway.
This design flaw is the equivalent of a theater’s house lights coming on. It completely destroyed the movie-going-like illusion set up by the opening Air Gap. And it made me begin to question the rest of the exhibition.
Remember that white-washed room I mentioned earlier? On one side, visitors find a wall coated with posters from various Kubrick films. In the middle, visitors can ogle at a glass-covered case, filled with lenses used on Kubrick’s sets. The posters and lenses make it apparent that the curators intend for this exhibition to be all about Kubrick’s work. To put this philosophy another way, Let the artist’s work speak for the artist himself. (There isn't anything inherently wrong with this approach, but I'll talk about the downsides later.)
The exhibition’s superficial quality comes to a head in the Barry Lyndon section. The curators summarize the film’s groundbreaking cinematography in a single sentence (I’m paraphrasing here): "Kubrick used lenses that created a more painterly feel."
I have no idea what this means. Maybe they’re referring to the specially adapted, NASA-made lens that Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott used. That lens could open up to a then unheard of F-Stop of 0.7. This means that, even though Alcott was able to light interior sets with only practical lights, there was essentially no depth of field. If an actor moved, the shot would be out of focus. This method of shooting was just as risky and revolutionary as Gordon Willis’s eye socket-shadow-inducing toplight in The Godfather.
But how does such a lens produce a painterly feel? Perhaps by relying on practical lights that can be seen in the frame, rather than large lamps hung on pipes? Or perhaps because a lens with such a wide aperture is theoretically more likely to flare, resulting in a lower-contrast image. Which maybe some art historians consider a more painterly aesthetic?
The film’s painterly quality doesn’t really have anything to do with the lenses. It has much more to do with the ending compositions of many of the film’s shots, which adhere to real life paintings that Kubrick and Alcott extensively researched and referenced.
The curators’ decision to omit — or, more disturbingly, their ignorance of — any of these details is mind-boggling, especially considering that that special lens is actually in the lens display case near the exhibition’s beginning. This omission is a disservice to visitors, who wouldn’t otherwise know the risks Kubrick and his team took in making Barry Lyndon.
In a recent review, Anthony Lane described the strange costumes and rituals in Eyes Wide Shut as “the asexual’s idea of what sex is meant to look like.” This synopsis seems spot on. To many viewers, sitting through Eyes Wide Shut can be an insufferable experience. Until they realize that Kubrick is telling the story from the perspective of Tom Cruise’s character, who, as an asexual person, can’t comprehend what sex means. (Patrick told me, “‘Let’s fuck’ may be the best closing line in any director’s filmography.”)
I have no idea if Kubrick was asexual or a sociopath. But — it could explain why his films are, well, the way they are. It would explain why HAL 9000, a supercomputer, shows far more emotion than any human. Or why, in The Killing, Marie Windsor’s femme fatale-to-end-all-femme fatales is so capable of manipulating Elisha Cook, Jr.’s milquetoast-to-end-all-milquetoasts. Or why Kubrick seemed drawn to sociopathic characters like Barry Lyndon, or Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
But this is all speculation. Remember that white-washed room? And letting a filmmaker’s work speak for itself? This approach doesn’t work with Kubrick. I suspect visitors would have much better appreciated the Eyes Wide Shut section if the exhibition had talked more about the director's personal life. How did he get along with people? Did he have any family or children?
In the Lolita section, I looked in the margins of a draft of the script, and spotted a fascinating Kubrick-written annotation: "I should love to get hold of a real French girl."
I'm very curious what he meant by that, but I doubt we'll ever know. The only objects in the Eyes Wide Shut section are those “asexual” costumes and a nebulous description on the significance of the color red in Kubrick's films.
So, what is the exhibition’s intended audience? For diehard Kubrick fans, it’s neat to see the actual props, but the superficiality of the exhibition leaves them hanging. I worry casual visitors will feel they’ve learned all they need to know about the filmmaker. After all, they visited a museum exhibit titled STANLEY KUBRICK. It’s a tragedy they won’t know what they’re missing.