LOS ANGELES — Often, I find museum exhibitions that have to do with celebrity or Hollywood culture to be a shameless attempt to generate a blockbuster-sized crowd who, flocking to the museum in droves, boost attendance numbers for the year. That being said, the massive installation Stanley Kubrick at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) transcends the sticky landscape of vapid popular culture and embraces a filmmaker that many would term an artist. The exhibition, which was originally curated by the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt was brought to LACMA in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The influence that Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) had on filmmaking and, to a broader extent, visual culture is undeniable. The visual imagery that he imparted on the viewer permanently burned images into the optic nerve of generations of moviegoers. His story telling was unique, delving into heady investigations on topics of death, social order, sexuality, and the human condition. Kubrick’s fastidious attention to detail and demand for perfection gave him a godlike power over his projects, as he often served as cinematographer, writer, and editor, alongside directing responsibilities. The revolutionary advances Kubrick made in the art of film make him a seminal figure in the landscape of not only the motion picture industry, but in the broader context of 20th century art.
The exhibition begins the way one would hope — with film. Upon entering the gallery space, the visitor is greeted with stereo film screens playing clips from iconic Kubrick films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980). This dark, theater-like room primes the viewer for the deconstruction of each film that takes place throughout the museum presentation. This approach to crafting a transcendental experience to take the viewer into a wonderland of Kubrickian design is somewhat clumsy and does not facilitate the intended effect; many who enter the exhibition do not stay to absorb the filmic representations projected on the wall due to the lack of seating and standing room.
The journey tracing the evolution of Kubrick’s career fully begins in the main gallery following the antechamber. This portion of the exhibition serves as groundwork for the visual abundance that waits in the subsequent galleries. Large movie posters adorn the walls along with annotated scripts of Kubrick’s films. Images from films like Spartacus (1960) and Lolita (1962) are featured on the walls, accompanied by corresponding text-based memorabilia and ephemera from the Kubrick archives. The curatorial remit for this portion of the exhibition is more information driven than visually stimulating.
The heavy inclusion of text and the presentation of Kubrick’s camera collection, along with early images from his teenage days as a staff photographer at Look Magazine contribute to the impression of a dry archive. Yet there is a glimmer of curatorial genius hidden among the sea of material in these first galleries with the presentation of a personal chess set that belonged to Kubrick. The visuality of the chess set is mirrored in the projection of film stills from Kubrick’s 1957 masterpiece Paths to Glory, starring Kirk Douglas. The chess set’s grid is echoed in the stills, which feature a marble floor of the same pattern. Chess was an immensely important facet of Kubrick’s life, as his father taught him the game during his youth, and it remained a major recurring theme throughout many of Kubrick’s works.
Moving onward into the exhibition, one encounters 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), complete with production stills, pieces of the set furnishings, and one of the famous ape suits. The non-verbal masterpiece relied on the visual and auditory senses to relay the narrative to the filmgoer, which is clearly echoed in the exhibition via the bright illumination of the space, the futuristic props, and the elegant treatment of images from the film. Progressing through the galleries, the next film on the menu is Barry Lyndon. This part of the exhibition I found to be less successful. Whereas some of Kubrick’s more prominent cult films such as The Shining are given only one gallery to inhabit, Barry Lyndon is over-presented in two large spaces, creating a lull in the visual and narrative flow of the installation worsened by an awkward, petite homage to Kubrick’s influence and illustrations for Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The result is a disruptive presence in the exhibition as a whole.
This lull is more than compensated for once you make it into the visually arresting suite of A Clockwork Orange. The deep saturated orange wall offsets the faded ensemble donned by Malcolm McDowell in the 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel. The ‘clockwork’ room does a good job of not only representing the quasi horror-phantasy imagery prevalent the film, but also demonstrates through news headlines, magazine covers, and various articles about the exploration of violence and criminal psychotherapy treatments that took place in the film, kicking off a furor following its release.
Setting the stage for more disturbing imagery, the next stop for the viewer is The Shining. The blood-red carpet that stretches from wall to wall in this portion of the exhibition is compounded in its creepiness by the two dresses worn by the film’s iconic twins, the typewriter Jack Nicholson used in the filming, a replica of the maze, and (let us not forget) the two axes plunged into sheetrock. Despite its famous props, this room lacks the gravitas to engage the viewer in a meaningful way. It simply feels like a scrapbook of various memorabilia.
Moving on to the final chambers of the exhibition, you encounter an extremely small corner highlighting the sexual exposé that was Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The focuses mainly on Full Metal Jacket (1987). The film, which was an adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, dove head first into the psychological trauma of war. The film had all the trappings of a Kubrick spectacular, with steady panning shots, gritty violence, and complex story development. The staging of the film in the museum context features behind-the-scenes footage from the filming as well as the illustrious helmet donned by Matthew Modine emblazoned with the phrase “born to kill.” The final room you enter before exiting the exhibition features works that remained uncompleted after Kubrick’s death in 1999, including Napoleon and his Holocaust drama titled Aryan Papers. But by this point in the journey the gallery goer will likely be too exhausted by the immensity of the show to fully appreciate the significance of these projects that were cherished by Kubrick.
Stanley Kubrick at LACMA flirts with greatness but suffers a few indiscretions along its narrative brick road. The exhibition does achieve a timbre and reverence to a man who forever left his mark on the visual vocabulary of the world. There is a complex aesthetic richness that resonates with the visitor long after they leave the museum.
Stanley Kubrick will be on view through July 30 at LACMA (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles).
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