From The New York Times
"Farewell to a Fearless Imagination" by Janet Maslin
WHEN Stanley Kubrick died a week ago, he left behind the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey" as the single most salient image of his career. This (who could forget?) was the dark, austere object that arrived in the midst of primitive ape-men. It drove them into a state of high anxiety as they rallied around the thing, touched it, recoiled, tried to fathom it, sensed its intense power without quite grasping what that power might mean. The arrival of each new mind-blowing Kubrick film was much the same.
Kubrick's small (only eight films after 1960) but amazingly varied body of work was unified not only by bizarre brilliance but also by its rare ability to disturb. He anticipated, even prophesied, all manner of assaults on the soul of mankind, and he gave voice to its most insidious fears, about the corruption of "vital bodily fluids" and so much worse. From the stylized amoral thugs of "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) to the brutalizing military discipline of "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) and the rogue technology of "2001" (1968), he sensed profound menace even when he satirized it with that diabolical, priceless "Strangelove" glee.
Though this earned him the reputation of a misanthrope, the trenchant warnings that he sounded made him a backhanded humanist. As he once told Gene Siskel, "You don't have to make Frank Capra movies to like people." So he preferred an eerie formal elegance, a detached and chill-inducing fascination with detail, to more familiar means of capturing an audience's attention. Not for him the feel-good mode; not even feel-bad for the most sobering junctures of his stories. The Kubrick style was defiantly, mesmerizingly feel-strange, whether in Thackeray's England by intricate candlelight ("Barry Lyndon," 1975) or amid the quintessential case of cabin fever ("The Shining," 1980).
I'm ashamed to admit that my first response to the news of Kubrick's death was not sorrow, although his is a devastating loss. Instead, it was a flash of hope that he had been far enough along with his film in progress, "Eyes Wide Shut," to leave his full imprint on the screen. That is some measure of the anticipation that heralded each rare surfacing of a Kubrick vision. Each film arrived with its own brave new world for audiences to explore, its own spell to cast and its own dark, playful affinity for the cryptic. These were bona fide event movies, ones that wrought havoc on the imagination and daringly glimpsed the ineffable. They never failed to stun, and they were irresistible intellectual catnip for the viewer.
He delivered these landmark films at a safe, stately distance from Hollywood whims. "We can measure Stanley Kubrick's magnificent, enigmatic retreat," the critic David Thomson wrote in 1996, "by the fact that after 35 years in the English provinces, with a diminishing flow of work, some of it perilously free from 'genius,' his authority seems none the less." And Kubrick noticed more from this Oz about mass culture than his work ever revealed.
The director Sydney Pollack, who has an acting role in his friend and colleague's final film, said Kubrick had lately become fascinated with several Nescafé coffee commercials on English television, admiring their economy of style and even tinkering with their editing. "He had such tremendous curiosity about everything," Mr. Pollack said by telephone last week. "It's very hard to believe he was 70 years old. There was nothing old about him. Emotionally, he was a very young man."
He also was intrigued by the plot conventions of popular fiction (he liked finding "good narrative structures buried by bad writing," Mr. Pollack said), as someone who sought strong stories but never wrote original material. Adapting books by authors as varied as Thackeray, Nabokov and Arthur C. Clarke, he often chose to reinvent narrative on his own terms, which reached far beyond words in the ability to conjure mystery. There are certainly unforgettable lines of dialogue in Kubrick films (who can forget George C. Scott's "Strangelove" general, Buck Turgidson, acknowledging, of nuclear warfare, "I don't say we wouldn't get our hair mussed."), and unforgettable voices, too (the soothing duplicity of H.A.L the computer.) But above all, it's the immaculate otherworldly images that linger.
The man whose perfectionism even entailed re-shooting every frame of a "Dr. Strangelove" print with his Nikon (to make a pristine version for its 30th anniversary re- release in 1994) captured the eye as overwhelmingly as he captured the imagination. His glimpses of the psychic abyss, fierce and devilish as they are, resemble no one else's. And neither do his films' rare views of unabashed beauty (as in the groundbreaking space ballet of "2001" and in the droll, ravishing "Barry Lyndon" ).
However different their contexts, these images are part of a fearless overarching vision. The "2001" foretelling of mankind's antiseptic future and the hatefully jolly "Clockwork Orange" rape are forever linked with the spooky domestic hell of "The Shining," the military nightmare of "Full Metal Jacket" and the cavernous, much-imitated "Strangelove" war room; they are joined in their chilling anticipation of a cruel, dehumanized world. If Kubrick told one basic story it was a cautionary tale, laced with doomsday thoughts but brightened by wild, outrageous humor. From Jack Nicholson on the ax-wielding rampage to the absurd torment of James Mason's Humbert Humbert in "Lolita" (1962) to the unfortunate little missile mishap of "Strangelove," he was as savagely funny as he was conceptually bold.
Among Kubrick's mature films, he never made one — not even 1960's "Spartacus" — that failed to stagger audiences, one way or another. And on the evidence of "Dream Story," the psychologically astute, fiercely erotic Arthur Schnitzler novella upon which "Eyes Wide Shut" is based, he was on the verge of what, even by Kubrick standards, sounds like extraordinarily daring work. But when it arrives, no matter what, its reception must be bittersweet. Stanley Kubrick is irreplaceable. A truly poetic imagination is gone.