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A clockwork Kubrick

The cold brilliance of Stanley Kubrick's filmmaking is on ample display in a new box set

No one understands a great director as well as another great director. Which may explain why Robert Altman was so ticked off six years ago.

Altman was in Boston to promote "Gosford Park." The Globe was supposed to have the first interview with him that morning, but the publicist asked a favor. Public radio wanted five minutes for a feature on what famous filmmakers in 2001 thought of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Sure, I said, no problem.

Well, it was a problem for Altman. "I've never even seen it," he grumbled as I came in, "and I don't give a damn about it." I attributed his ire to having had to waste time talking about a film other than his own - that, or the effects of the bottle of wine he'd polished off the night before during an onstage Q & A at the Museum of Fine Arts.

In retrospect, I suspect what so offended Altman was something quite different. It was being asked to discuss a filmmaker so utterly alien to his own sensibility. Who better to appreciate that Kubrick was the anti-Altman: not actor-friendly, not improvisational, not prolific, neither slapdash nor shaggy.

The only thing shaggy about Stanley Kubrick was his beard. He was the control freak's control freak, the engineer of human souls as filmmaker. All art, the Victorian critic Walter Pater said, aspires to the condition of music. No film director, as it happens, has consistently used music to better effect than Kubrick did. Even so, what his films aspire to is the condition of geometry. They are theorems of seeing: chill, superior, pitiless.

On Tuesday, Warner Home Video releases what must qualify as the ultimate geometry lesson. "Warner Directors Series - Stanley Kubrick." The box set includes two-disc editions of "2001," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," "Eyes Wide Shut," a one-disc "Full Metal Jacket," and a documentary about Kubrick, "A Life in Pictures." In addition, Warner is reissuing separately "Lolita" (Kubrick and Nabokov: a marriage made in mandarin heaven) and "Barry Lyndon." Only "Dr. Strangelove" is missing from Kubrick's post-"Spartacus" filmography.

The DVD experience does even more of a disservice to Kubrick's work than to that of most directors. Watching "2001" on a small screen is like eating a Big Mac with a knife and fork: It's doable, but a very different experience from what its maker intended. That said, Kubrick was the sort of filmmaker extra features were invented for: an artist who gloried in technique and lent himself to multiple meanings and lofty explication.

"2001" is the right film to commence a final-phase Kubrick collection. It's where the director's penchant for grandiosity became unmistakable. It's also where the debate justifiably begins whether "genius" and "megalomania" are synonyms or antonyms.

The late phase looms so large in Kubrick's career - literally as well as figuratively - that it's easy to forget what a mastery of taut, tightly concentrated filmmaking he had previously demonstrated. Kubrick started out as a photographer for Look magazine, and early movies like "Killer's Kiss" and "The Killing" have a journalistic snap and focus. They carry not an ounce of either fat or pretension.

True, there's "Spartacus." But that was really a Kirk Douglas project (he produced as well as starred). "Lolita" verges on chamber work, almost as indebted to Strindberg as Nabokov. And no small part of the astonishment that is "Dr. Strangelove" lies in Kubrick's ability to ignite Armageddon using just three main sets: General Ripper's office, the errant B-52's cabin, and the Pentagon war room. The movie's so brilliantly made viewers don't notice that what they're watching is, basically, cross-cutting among a trio of linked one-act plays.

With "2001," in 1968, inflation has set in. Kubrick, who for decades yearned to make a movie about Napoleon, is revealed as an artist of imperial ambition. And the accouterments of artistic empire here take on unforgettable, if also overbearing, form: murderous apes, power-mad computers, screen-filling psychedelics, black monoliths, and not forgetting the mythic use to which he put both Johann and Richard Strauss on the soundtrack.

As others have pointed out, the most interesting character in "2001" isn't human. It's HAL 9000, the computer. HAL marks the emergence of a recurring figure in Kubrick's films: the dictator, either aspiring or actual. There had been predecessors, of course: Sterling Hayden's criminal mastermind in "The Killing"; Adolphe Menjou's martinet general in "Paths of Glory"; James Mason's Humbert Humbert in "Lolita," who embodies three versions of dictator: lover, father, teacher. Hayden's General Ripper is a sort of dictator in "Doctor Strangelove," although the funniest joke in the movie is what a milquetoast - an un-dictator - Peter Sellers's President Muffley is.

With HAL, this dictator figure emerges full blown. Sometimes it's a person: R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in "Full Metal Jacket," or the master of the, uh, revels in "Eyes Wide Shut." Just as often, though, the dictator takes a form that's no less potent for being abstract. All society, in effect, plays that role in "A Clockwork Orange," seeking total behavioral control over Malcolm McDowell's Alex (not unlike the way Wendy Carlos's synthesizer imposes itself on Beethoven and Rossini). In "The Shining," what destroys Jack Nicholson is his failure to realize that it's supernatural powers that dictate what happens at the Overlook Hotel.

"Overlook": It's the perfect vantage point for a dictator. Or director. The similarity between the two words is more than just alphabetical. Clearly, something in Kubrick thrilled to the idea of total authority. It both fired his imagination and informed his working methods (by all accounts, the meticulousness of his moviemaking verged on not-so-benevolent despotism). Surely, the failure of "Barry Lyndon" - so stunningly beautiful, so numbingly listless - owes not a little to the absence of any dictatorial force. Remove its engine, and even the most splendid chassis is just going to sit there.

If one way of seeing Kubrick is as the anti-Altman, another could be as the reverse Hitchcock - another director celebrated (or notorious) for his desire to exert total control over what the viewer saw.

Hitchcock left England for America a third of the way into his career. Kubrick went in the opposite direction at a comparable point in his. Hitchcock made a fetish of his own celebrity, not only making cameos in his movies but hosting his own television series. Kubrick, in contrast, became an aloof, even secretive figure. Hitchcock may have called actors "cattle," but at least cattle are living creatures. Kubrick used actors as if they were flesh-colored Legos, playthings to be arranged to best suit his own designs.

Above all, the reversal is in the very different ends to which they put such similar means. Where Hitchcock saw himself as a sort of aesthetic technician, out to shock and entertain audiences, Kubrick increasingly assumed the role of philosopher-filmmaker, seeking profundity in mise-en-scenes as calculated as timetables (if far more photogenic). The scary thing about Kubrick's final half-dozen films isn't their airlessness. It's the way they pride themselves on it.

In "Eyes Wide Shut," Kubrick might even have acknowledged the affinity with Hitchcock. The pivotal event in the movie is an elaborate orgy, which takes place in a mansion in Glen Cove, on Long Island. It's in a similar Glen Cove mansion that Cary Grant first runs afoul of James Mason in "North by Northwest." Call it a happy coincidence if you like. But just as few things in Kubrick films can be termed happy, even fewer are coincidental.

Martin Scorsese concluded his multipart 1995 documentary history of American film with Kubrick and "Barry Lyndon." After that, Scorsese explained, the directors became his contemporaries, which would make analysis problematic. It was a shrewd decision, as well as an ethical one. There really is an anomalous, school-of-one quality to Kubrick. He stands apart: no figure of studio Hollywood (not hardly!), but no indie forebear, either. It's John Cassavetes punk bands have named themselves after, not Kubrick.

Yet for all Kubrick had no artistic children, he does have grandchildren - grandsons, to be precise, a pair of them - the Coen brothers. Consider the characteristics they have in common: icy detachment; freeze-dried wit; self-regarding intelligence; a reveling in technical prowess.

Above all, there's a shared love of genre. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Coens realizes their filmography might double as a syllabus (a very self-conscious syllabus) for a genre-appreciation course. Kubrick's aesthetic lordliness, his commitment to making movies that were Art with a capital "A," has obscured how genre-driven he was, too. Look at the DVD reissues: adaptations of literary classics ("Lolita," "Barry Lyndon," "Eyes Wide Shut"), science fiction ("2001," "A Clockwork Orange"), costume epic ("Barry Lyndon"), horror ("The Shining"), war picture ("Full Metal Jacket"). He also made film noir ("Killer's Kiss"), would have made a western if Marlon Brando hadn't driven him crazy ("One-Eyed Jacks"), and so many of his movies flirt with turning into musicals.

What separates the Coens from Kubrick is the brothers' immersion in movies. Even when they strive to be literary, in "Barton Fink," it's a very movie literariness. For them, movies are no less end than means. Nothing could be more different from Kubrick. For him, in this final, elephantine phase of his career the DVDs trace, the end was something so much grander and deeper, if also almost lunatic. Kubrick sought nothing less than to plumb the very nature of human behavior: the ineluctability of violence, the transitoriness of love, how much the past determines (and damns?) the future. His ambition was breathtaking. It's one reason why his movies grew airless. It's also why they endure.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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