The first time I saw Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, in early 1972, I remember thinking as I walked out of the Brentwood theater that it was as close to perfection as any movie I'd ever seen. I'm not sure that I'd make so grand a claim for it today (I was only 14 and bluffed my way past the X rating by holding up a long line at the box office while I pretended to look for my ID), but it's easy to see how an impressionable young movie lover could be overwhelmed into such a thought by the sheer force of Kubrick's pre-punk, anti-authoritarian spectacle.
Kubrick, who died last weekend at the age of 70, was -- is -- a giant among directors, respected even by those who resist his consistent bleak view of humanity, and his films, which include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, Lolita, The Shining, were a genre unto themselves, free of national identity or commercial concern. Not since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane has any filmmaker enjoyed the full resources of film technology while wielding an absolute control over every aspect of production. At a time when even the most respected directors are subject to the whims of the marketplace and the studio executive, Kubrick's perfectionism, his passion for secrecy and his obsessive-compulsive behavior -- the legendary retakes and ever-lengthening gestation periods for each new project -- only added to his stature.
Kubrick's films were a dour, ironic portrait of a dual-natured humanity, its abilities to create and discover always dangerously balanced --even overwhelmed -- by its passion for cruelty and war. In Kubrick's world, the only truly joyful moments come from destruction, often on a cosmic scale: Alex's ballets of rape and violence in A Clockwork Orange, Slim Pickens straddling the atomic bomb in Strangelove. (It's worth noting that Kubrick once considered ending 2001 with the newborn Star Child innocently destroying the earth and that Strangelove's apocalyptic ending was originally to be set against a prolonged pie fight in the War Room). Equally memorable, however, are the recurring images of failure and loss: the broken Barry Lyndon sadly stepping into a carriage, the plaintive voice of HAL 9000 -- the most human character in 2001 -- signing off with a sad blur of preprogrammed memories. Monstrous victories and spiritual defeats trail though Kubrick's work in almost equal proportions.
Kubrick's passing adds yet another layer of mystery to his much-delayed, much-discussed Eyes Wide Shut, a story of sexual obsession and experimentation based on Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle and the director's first film in more than a decade, currently in postproduction and scheduled for a July release. Though Kubrick's final work will undoubtedly see the light of day (multimillion-dollar productions with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman -- even potentially X-rated ones -- are not likely to stay on the studio shelf for long), pity the poor editor who faces the task of second-guessing the absent director, the specter of the cinema's greatest control freak lurking over his shoulder.
-- Robert Hunt