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Celebrating Kubrick

Tomorrow La Cinémathèque Française begins a four-month-long retrospective of director Stanley Kubrick’s long and illustrious career. Visitors can expect a comprehensive rotating schedule of screenings as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes looks, documentaries and presentations by historians and critics to flesh out “Stanley Kubrick, The Exhibition.”

For those who don’t plan on visiting Paris by July 31 as well as those who just feel like gushing about one of the best directors in cinematic history, there are plenty of other ways to celebrate Kubrick’s oeuvre, like watching every single one of his films, in chronological order, of course. Die hard fans will want to start with his first film, which is either KILLER’S KISS (1955) or the 72-minute FEAR AND DESIRE (1953), depending on which camp you belong to and what you consider feature-length. Next comes THE KILLING (1956), the film noir race track robbery starring Sterling Hayden, and then the back-to-back Kirk Douglas war epics PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960). From there we move into more familiar Kubrick territory with the controversial Nabokov adaptation LOLITA (1962), followed by the searing but critically successful mad-cap cold war satire DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Many consider the next film in Kubrick’s line up,  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) to be his masterpiece. The abstract, open-ended space saga that spans a huge length of time, from the dawn of man to modern day, stupefied many critics upon its release. However, like most of Kubrick’s work, unenthusiastic box office results eventually gave way to praise and adoration.

Just a few years later Kubrick made A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), based off Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name. Burgess was reportedly displeased with the adaptation (Burgess isn’t credited in the film, with the author credit going to “Kubrick”), and even wrote a musical version of the novel in which a Kubrick-like character is beaten. Like LOLITA, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE sparked a great controversy and was even given an X-rating until four minutes of sexual violence were removed (this footage was subsequently re-inserted). While almost none of Kubrick’s films initially met with the acclaim they now enjoy, BARRY LYNDON (1975) probably met with the most resistance of all his films. Widely panned by critics as slow, cold and self-conscious, BARRY LYNDON is now considered one of Kubrick’s great masterpieces. Roger Ebert said “it must be one of those most beautiful films ever made.”

Kubrick followed up its lukewarm reception with the unrelenting horror film THE SHINING (1980), which initially fared even worse than BARRY LYNDON and left Stephen King feeling just as pleased with the adaptation of his novel as Burgess was with his. THE SHINING did not receive a single Academy Award or Golden Globe nomination, though it did win two Razzies for worst director and worst actress (Shelley Duvall), a fact that seems simply unthinkable now. Seven years later Kubrick made the psychological Vietnam War drama FULL METAL JACKET (1987), followed by the posthumous release of his final film EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), a dreamy retelling of the 1926 novella Traumnovelle. Set at the height of Viennese decadence, Traumnovelle is the story about a young doctor who embarks upon a two-day streak of meditation and revelry after his wife confesses she had a sexual fantasy about a man the previous year.

Kubrick’s films are set in a myriad of times and place, with narratives that range from period drama to war story to science-fiction fantasy. He’s worked with some of the best actors and writers of his day, including legendary and little-known composer, Wendy Carlos, who scored THE SHINING and CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Fanatical, meticulous and precise, Kubrick insisted on performing the primary research himself on each of his films, essentially becoming an expert in several historical periods. It’s easy to go on about his work, but if one thing can be said about the long string of masterpieces he made in his lifetime, it’s that Kubrick made no small films; They are each expansive, far-reaching, and not contained to one single character’s story. He is one of our late great epic filmmakers.