The films of Stanley Kubrick on DVD: Triumph or tragedy?

Warner Home Video recently released its new Stanley Kubrick video and DVD collection -- and already the purists are pointing out its imperfections.

By Bill Wyman
July 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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The latest filmic scandal to be bruited about the Internet involves
a new collection of the later films of Stanley Kubrick on videotape and
DVD. The seven-film set -- which includes "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove,"
"2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining" and "Full
Metal Jacket" -- was released on Warner Home Video June 26. Shortly
after that, the howls were heard.

Purists found some of the prints to be in less-than-pristine shape, and
found corners cut in any number of places. "This long-awaited collection
just about fails on all counts," wrote Peter M. Bracke on Dvdfile.com.
"A basic perusing of the set as a whole reveals a surprising, even
shocking, lack of effort expended by all parties involved."

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Indeed, there are noticeable scratches and specs on the DVD versions of
"Dr. Strangelove" and "The Shining." More scandalous in some quarters is
the fact that "The Shining" and "Full Metal Jacket" are not letterboxed
-- which is to say they are made almost square to fit on a TV screen
instead of having the rectangular format moviegoers would have seen in
the original releases. Soundwise, most of the films are in anachronistic
mono. The digital-compression technology used on the package creates
distracting effects on the slower films, particularly the sedately paced
"Barry Lyndon." And finally, there are some content and housekeeping
issues: A minor line infamously dropped from the laser disc version of
"2001" is not rectified; also, while theatrical trailers are included
with some of the films, by laser disc and DVD standards, the supporting
material is skimpy for the definitive collection from such an important
filmmaker.

The DVD presentation is still riveting: The widescreen effects of "2001"
and "Barry Lyndon" are aesthetically fulfilling; you do get trailers on
several of the films, most spectacularly for "The Shining," surely
moviedom's most spine-tingling preview; and in addition to the "Making
of 'The Shining'" documentary, directed by Vivian Kubrick, the
director's daughter, there's also a taped speech by Arthur C. Clarke on
the "2001" disc. And the digital sound allows Kubrick's use of music --
perhaps the most under-appreciated part of his cinematic approach -- to
come alive in its savagery.

But what of the problems? Salon Arts & Entertainment spoke with a Warner Home Video technical
expert of some 20 years, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He noted
first of all that the collection and its added features were put
together by Kubrick himself over a four-year period. He implied that
fans were lucky with what they had: While repeatedly noting that he
could not speak for Kubrick, he said he knew that the director "as a
rule would prefer to have his films presented without distraction."

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The scratches on some prints, he said, were the best the company could
do. "Film processing in the 1970s was quite poor," he said. "A lot of
the dirt was processed into the original. It's interesting," he said
dryly, "that most directors don't remember their films that way." Some
debris, he said, was eliminated electronically from the prints.

The format -- or "aspect ratio" -- controversy is the most complicated.
Kubrick, one of the film world's most meticulous experts on cameras,
cinematography and projection, decided how his films should be formatted
for home viewing. "He basically recomposed for video," the tech expert
said flatly. Beyond that, there is this issue, troubling for purists:
With the possible exception of "Dr. Strangelove," which was deliberately
released with two varying aspect ratios (an idiosyncrasy preserved on
the DVD release), no Kubrick film has a "correct" presentation, not even
the epochal "2001." Because projection standards for widescreen films
varied between England and the U.S., Kubrick shot his films in a way
that anticipated various projection formats, or "mattes."

The most trenchant examples of this are the DVD versions of "The
Shining" and "Full Metal Jacket." Both fill the TV screen fully. Some
Internet complainers have charged that they are "panned and scanned" --
i.e. presented with the main action of the frame centered on the TV
screen, even though the subject (a person talking, say) might have
originally been far on one side or the other of the screen version.
Panning and scanning is a travesty: Viewers are both cheated of the
director's original composition and denied a great deal of screen
content.

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But that is not the case here. It turns out that Kubrick's
unconventional solution was actually to "unmatte" the two later films.
Consumers are in fact getting more, rather than less, of the
image: Sharp eyes on the newsgroup alt.kubrick have spotted a helicopter
shadow in the lower right-hand corner of the opening aerial scenes of
"The Shining," for example.

Warner's technician conceded that "2001" has a missing line, and that
there were compression-technology flaws on "Barry Lyndon" as well. To
fit the extraordinary amount of visual information on a movie onto a
small disc, he explained, DVD technology identifies unchanging parts of
the image and encodes them for continuous use. In "Barry Lyndon," a
droll, static film considered a cinematic landmark for its candle-lit
cinematography, you can see stationary planes of color shimmering
eerily. It's a distraction, and an unpleasant one. The Warner
explanation: Movies in the '70s were sometimes shot on film that
shook almost imperceptibly as it moved through the camera. This, when
digitized, creates the annoying surreality. The Warner rep said the
"Barry Lyndon" disc was rejected five times by the company. Still, here
I thought the critics have a point: If the compression creates such a
distracting side-effect it should not have been used.

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Finally, the technician said the mono sound on most of the films came
not from Kubrick's storied dislike of stereo but rather the director's
distrust of certain sound processes. In a theater in Detroit, say, the
dialogue might end up coming out of the wrong speaker. To combat this
possibility, Kubrick stuck largely with mono. The one exception, of
course, was "2001," which was originally recorded in six channels,
easily handled by the extravagant audio capabilities of DVD. "There was
very little to be done" (on "2001"), the tech said.

Kubrick's control freakery is of a different sort than that of more
optimistic filmmakers like George Lucas. The Marin County mogul's THX
certification gently prods theater owners to provide audiences with
better film presentation; for "The Phantom Menace" he made myriad
technical demands as well, dangling his movie's popularity as a carrot.
Kubrick's approach was less rosy-eyed about basic human nature. Wherever
the precision of his vision might be compromised, he took steps to
eliminate the possibility of human interference. It's a Manichaean
worldview precisely in step with that of his films; and ironically,
it's that rigidity that produced the DVDs now causing so much
controversy among his most die-hard fans.


Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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