The works of Stanley Kubrick never failed to generate debate and, at times, deep-seeded controversy when they arrived in theaters, so it’s no surprise that they have generated almost as much debate (though for entirely different reasons) in their home video releases.
Kubrick was a perfectionist in all areas of his filmmaking, including presentation, the one arena over which he had very little control. He could and did set the desired specifications for proper projection but couldn’t enforce them or, given the realities of projection standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, even always count on theaters being conducive to following them. His preferred aspect ratio for his post-“2001” releases was 1.66:1, a standard format in Europe but not in the U.S., where most theaters routinely set non-anamorphic films at the 1.85:1 standard.
While Kubrick was alive, he insisted the DVD releases of his films be formatted at his preferred specifications. Even so, Warner Bros. was raked over the coals for their initial DVD release of his films, which simply reused old laserdisc transfers rather than freshly-mastered high-definition editions. Now there is a hue and cry from a small but vocal sector of the critical community over the Blu-ray release of “Barry Lyndon.” And the debate, not surprisingly, has gotten very passionate and a little personal.
A Clockwork Orange: 40th Anniversary Edition (Warner) Lolita (Warner) Barry Lyndon (Warner) Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection (Warner)
Few film directors have generated as much partisan devotion as Stanley Kubrick, a demanding creator whose control reaches to every detail of the finished film and his coolly removed style and exacting methods resulted in one masterpiece after another, many of them critically hammered upon release, all of them grown in stature with time and distance. He’s the perfectionist’s perfectionist and a director whose films offer a portrait of mankind as an animal defined by our capacity for violence, cruelty and destruction.
So it’s always news when his films are given an upgrade, be it a new special edition or format debut. This week we get both.
A Clockwork Orange (Warner), Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s futuristic satire, was the most controversial film in a career defined by pushing the envelope of controversy. With its ultraviolence, wicked black humor, cynicism and darkly compelling hedonistic bully as the anti-hero (a hearty, energetic Malcolm McDowell), the film’s portrait of a society spiraled into slums and roving bands of violence hooligans provoked an outcry from politicians and social critics who suggested that the film was responsible for real-life violence in the wake of the film. In fact, it turned out to be quite prescient of gang culture, but that wasn’t necessarily Kubrick’s intent. He was grappling with the idea of free within society, even while suggesting that the primitive violence of sadistic street thugs is somehow a more pure state of being than the repression of destructive impulses that social living demands.
Those issues got lost in the media controversy that in Britain became so heated that, fearing for the safety of his family, prompted Kubrick to withdraw the film from circulation in that country. It remained unavailable in any form in Britain for 28 years.