Stanley Kubrick never trusted Hollywood or got a star on its Walk of Fame, even after crafting some of the finest movies ever made.
So, it is with a fair amount of irony that Kubrick's career is being celebrated near movie studios he planned so meticulously to work around.
Irony and its creative cousins satire and mockery were always key elements in Kubrick's films: the War Room where fighting wasn't allowed in Dr. Strangelove; a brutal assault set to Singin' in the Rain in A Clockwork Orange; a computer's human survival instinct in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Although born in the Bronx and expatriated to England at his career's apex, Kubrick himself might have paradoxically chosen the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the North American debut of a definitive retrospective of his art.
Previously staged in Europe and Australia, the tribute continues through June 30 with no additional dates confirmed. Certainly it was my best $20 spent during a recent trip to L.A. (including admission to this vibrant museum's other galleries).
It's a small price to browse the mindset of a notoriously private artist, getting close to artifacts in some cases more iconic than the movies' stars: a black monolith, caveman costume and Star Child model from 2001; Pvt. Joker's combat helmet from Full Metal Jacket; lewd furniture from the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange.
Visitors enter and find Kubrick's wood and canvas director's chair, his name stenciled on an attached script box. From there it's literally into the trenches, with a wall-projected loop of footage from his World War I epic Paths of Glory, the camera dollying past soldiers warily staring into the lens.
The exhibit opens to a large foyer, one wall adorned by international movie posters — Spain's La naranja mecaníca (A Clockwork Orange) is a beauty — and others ringed with display cases for Kubrick's other passion, photo technology. Dozens of favored cameras and lenses are presented, including the hand-held Arriflex 35IIc that Kubrick personally used to the end with Eyes Wide Shut.
The best trivia nugget amid this display: Kubrick initially made his mark with a camera in 1945 when, at age 16, he photographed a newspaper vendor slumped next to the day's headline: "F.D.R. dead." Look magazine gave him $25 for the shot, outbidding Life and resulting in his first steady job.
Taking a left turn leads to the noirish roots of Kubrick's cinematic oeuvre and a section dedicated to his fascination with chess. That explains Kubrick's exasperating demand for inordinately multiple takes since he claimed the game teaches discipline to "control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good." Allusions to chess dot Kubrick's films, from games played in 2001 and Lolita to the design of a courtroom floor in Paths of Glory.
Everything so far is prologue to a startling collection of props, scripts, research, photos and costumes from Kubrick's classic films, another completed by Steven Spielberg after his friend's 1999 death (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) — and two more that never went before the cameras.
The latter projects are an untitled biography of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Holocaust drama Aryan Papers, each painstakingly researched before Kubrick abandoned them. In March, Spielberg announced his intention to produce a television miniseries based on Kubrick's Napoleon screenplay.
The Napoleon exhibit clearly evidences Kubrick's intensity of research: exhaustive notes kept on color-coded file cards, hundreds of books he read about the French emperor's era, and a handwritten chronology of scenes he would have filmed — 221 in all, from Napoleon's birth to unmarked grave, bookended by images of a child's stuffed bear. The Aryan Papers display is smaller by comparison, chiefly photographs and writings collected for set, prop and costume designs.
Choosing a favorite among rooms devoted to Kubrick's completed works is made easier simply by volume. There isn't much offered in Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket displays, or surprisingly from Dr. Strangelove besides a model of the War Room. Barry Lyndon and Spartacus mostly show off costumes. Lolita is represented by Sue Lyon photos and letters from clergymen upset than Kubrick would film Vladimir Nabokov's jailbait novel in the early, uptight 1960s, including one from a Presbyterian pastor in Tampa.
The most bountiful collection celebrates The Shining, containing such treasures as its deranged novelist's "all work and no play . . ." typewriter, axes swung by star Jack Nicholson, the dead Grady twins' costumes and a model of the Overlook Hotel's hedge maze. Walls of memorabilia include continuity photos, an unused Stephen King screenplay oddly titled The Shine, and a letter from Kubrick's producer/brother-in-law Jan Harlan exalting "this new contraption for hand-held shots" that turned out to be the film's dread-inducing Steadicam.
Like Kubrick's films, there are insights and surprises nestled in every corner. All you must do is discover, and as the master himself declared, "Observation is a dying art." Unless inspired by this exhibit, in which case observation and its rewards are very much alive.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.