LACMA’s dazzling Stanley Kubrick exhibit

A museum show for sophistos, as Alex might say.

The L.A. County Museum of Art’s exhibit about the films of Stanley Kubrick (1928–99) is sprawling, almost overwhelming. It’s also a lot of fun. Strolling through this show will remind even the grumpiest cineaste of what he or she loves about movies. It might also leave museumgoers feeling a little wistful, too, about the kinds of films that Hollywood studios used to bankroll, once upon a time.

The exhibit opens with a darkened foyer where a loop of spectacular shots from each Kubrick feature plays on twin screens. It can be hard to tear yourself away from this primer on Kubrick’s oeuvre: mesmerizing moments from Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining remind us that Kubrick was a guy who knew how to put across a vision on the screen, and that those visions demanded a big screen. We are served notice that the memorabilia we’re about to see hails from a heroic age of moviemaking.

Just a few of the threads on display for BARRY LYNDON.

(And then the incessant, maddening piano motif from 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut comes on the PA, and suddenly the viewer is compelled to get up and check out the exhibit proper.)

LACMA has given the show a huge amount of space, but Kubrick’s movies deserve it: room after room of costumes, storyboards, LCD screens playing clips from the films, large backlit stills, original props and more. When it comes to props, the room devoted to The Shining (1980) takes the prize: Jack Torrance’s typewriter gets a place of honor, near the axe that Jack used to chop down the door in the famous “He-e-ere’s Johnny!” moment, along with the knife that poor Wendy (Shelly Duvall) used to defend herself.

I’m glad they didn’t put the lady in the bathtub from Room 237 on the walls.

I’ve been to the exhibit twice; the crowds (and there are crowds — time your visit carefully) are enthused through all of it, but the buzz picks up noticeably in the room for The Shining, Kubrick’s last great film and one of the best horror movies ever made. LACMA has relaxed its policy about picture taking for this exhibit, a wise move because everyone wants to take photos in here — near Jack’s typewriter, under the axe hanging on the wall, and especially under the image of the two creepy little girls from the Overlook Hotel that has been blown up on one wall.

Letting you know that this exhibit is going to be fun.

Among the other items on display for The Shining, I was also particularly fascinated to see a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s 1977 novel marked up with Kubrick’s notes in the margins, as well as a 1976 letter from a producer advising Kubrick to buy “this new contraption for hand-held shots in action” for $30,000 — that would be the Steadicam, and we all know how important that turned out to be for The Shining.

Beginning when he was just 16 years old, Kubrick had more than 900 photos published in Look magazine from 1946 into the early ‘50s. The teenage shutterbug audited film courses at Columbia University, but most likely the tens of thousands of photos Kubrick took during these years were his real schooling. The generous selection of pics in the exhibit, covering boxers, strippers, jazz clubs, and colorful bits of business on the New York streets, suggest that Kubrick was drawn to noir subject matter early on. His pungent, pulpy second feature Killer’s Kiss (1955), shot on the streets of NYC in ’53 for a buck and change, plays like a natural extension of his Look photos.

Sadly, the exhibit doesn’t tell us anything about the guy who made THE MALE BRUTE.

In contrast, the stills and the accompanying description for Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire (also ’53), shot in the San Gabriel Mountains outside L.A., suggest a stiff and self-conscious Statement about war. (Anyone lured in by the comically misleading poster at left would have been in for a big disappointment.) It’s no wonder Kubrick later disowned the movie as a “bumbling” amateur exercise.

Spartacus (1960) taught Kubrick how to stage widescreen spectacles in international locations, but the clips playing in the exhibit nevertheless have the air of a leaden old-school blockbuster, the sort of inert pageant that was Hollywood’s response to the rise of television. My eye was drawn more to Saul Bass’s energetic storyboards for Spartacus than the movie itself.

The last days of the old Production Code: LOLITA (1962).

Spartacus was Kubrick’s only film where he didn’t have final cut, so it’s no surprise that it’s of lesser interest. Diminished interest isn’t an issue when the exhibit gets to Lolita (1962): the wealth of interesting material on view includes the inevitable outraged letters from Legion of Decency types, Polaroids of 14-year-old actress Sue Lyon that look demure today but which must have required careful handling in 1962, and artifacts from a publicity campaign that assumed a certain amount of literacy on the public’s part (“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”).

Most intriguing are letters from Vladimir Nabokov to Kubrick and a celebratory telegram from Kubrick to Nabokov, letting him know that the first few critics to see Kubrick’s adaptation all remarked on how accurately the novel had been translated to film. Nabokov would ultimately agree, calling it a “a first-rate film.” It’s fascinating to see a photo from the premiere, with the Russian-born novelist, Kubrick, Lyon and James Mason standing together.

Among the exhibit’s trove of materials for Dr. Strangelove (1964) are Ken Adam’s sketches for the set designs. Equally of note for cineastes, the exhibit has stills from a climactic pie fight in the War Room that was axed from the final cut. The stills were shot by none other than Weegee, a.k.a. Arthur Fellig, the Austrian-born photographer best known for his work for New York tabloids. An illuminating bit of trivia is that when Peter Sellers met Weegee, he adopted Weegee’s accent for Dr. Strangelove’s speech patterns — a peculiar compliment if ever there was one.

Set-design grooviness from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Even the monolith enjoyed relaxing in one of these chairs.

2001 (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) are the centerpieces of the LACMA show, with room after room of arresting costumes (including the original “Moonwatcher” ape suit), groovy furniture, spaceship models, drawings, etc. In between 2001 and A Clockwork Orange Kubrick embarked on a grand biopic about Napoleon, which got as far as location scouting and shooting schedules, but never got made. (Last week Steven Spielberg announced plans to use Kubrick’s script as the basis for a TV miniseries.) In a side room at LACMA devoted to this project, the most interesting item is a charming handwritten note from Audrey Hepburn to Kubrick, apologizing that she would have to pass on a role in Napoleon because she didn’t feel like working just then.

And this is the ‘clean’ part of the room devoted to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

The LACMA show is the best museum exhibit I’ve ever seen devoted to a filmmaker’s career. But there are some gaps. The exhibition nods to cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott, but makes surprisingly little mention of editors or Kubrick’s editing processes. There’s very little about the movies’ critical reception apart from mentions of Oscar nominations (yawn). And if Kubrick had any thoughts about the changing nature of Hollywood in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as the studios became overtaken by a more corporate mentality and driven by franchises, we don’t read a word about it here. Maybe LACMA didn’t want to risk upsetting any local visitors to the show, or potential donors.

It’s also disappointing, and puzzling, that an exhibit this ambitious has no online complement on LACMA’s website. In the show there are video clips of Spielberg and — rather more unexpected — Woody Allen, offering tributes to Kubrick’s work, but due to louder, competing screens nearby, you can barely hear the audio. It would have been helpful if someone had thought to post those clips online, so we could actually hear what these guys have to say.

For a few words from Stanley Kubrick in the LACMA show, click here.

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