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Recycle Bin: The Kubrick Monoliths

May 20, 2009

(It’s Wayback Wednesday! Today’s entry comes from the late, lamented Shuffleboil. The archives are gone, but I’ve still got the t-shirt. By the way, since the time I wrote this, I have acquired the Twin Peaks Gold Box. So set your mind at ease.)

A few months ago, I had an Amazon.com gift card burning a hole in my pocket. My usual policy in these situations is to order something I want but would prefer not to spend my own money on. In this case, the item I selected was the then-newly released DVD box set of “Twin Peaks: The Complete Second Season.” I love “Twin Peaks,” and there’s some great stuff in the second season, but at least half the episodes are marred with irredeemable nonsense and a handful are nigh on unwatchable. Hence my reluctance to part with my own coin, but hey, on someone else’s nickel – why not?

Not even a week passed after the set arrived in the mail before I saw an announcement for the upcoming release of “Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition,” containing not only digitally remastered versions of every episode from both seasons, but the never before officially released pilot episode, along with a cornucopia of documentaries and deleted scenes. To this day, my second season set remains, like Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic.

I mention this for two reasons. First, in the hopes that someone from Paramount Home Video sees this and sends me a free Gold Box to get on my good side. And second, as a segue into another edition of the Recycle Bin – a bin full of Kubrick in this case.

Stanley Kubrick movies are like Ted Williams rookie cards – they ain’t making any more of ’em. There are still plenty of Kubrick fans, however, so you’ve gotta sell ’em something. That’s the Warner Bros. philosophy, and Kubrick’s longtime studio has responded to this marketing challenge by packaging and repackaging the director’s existing work into a series of boxed sets.

The first such set appeared in the summer of 1999, scant months after Kubrick’s death and timed in a rather unseemly way to the release of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” I say ‘unseemly’ because the set was not met with a particularly enthusiastic response from the filmmaker’s many devotees. The prints were reportedly shoddy, the extras nearly nonexistent, and the studio’s repeated claims that all of this was in accordance with Kubrick’s wishes rang hollow.

The ringing got even hollower when the set was re-issued the following year. This collection represented an upgrade on the first in several ways: it now included “Eyes Wide Shut,” along with a new feature-length documentary on Kubrick’s life and work. The no-frills “Dr. Strangelove” disc was replaced by a special edition, and new, vibrant prints of “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket” gave the lie to the studio’s original assertions.

Still there was room for improvement. Besides the new features on the “Strangelove” disc, the only notable extra was Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute documentary “Making ‘The Shining,’” a rare, fascinating glimpse behind the reclusive filmmaker’s curtain of secrecy. The most common consumer complaint involved the presentation of “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket” in full-screen rather than letterbox format. Again Warner Bros. insisted that this was Kubrick’s plan all along, pointing to the fact that the movies had been shot with an eye towards their TV afterlife. Apparently even the renowned visionary didn’t foresee the HD widescreen televisions of today. Still, this was the set available when I first entered the DVD age, and it served my needs as a lapsed Kubrick fanatic, if not all my heart’s fondest wishes.

Years passed and I didn’t think much about my old pal Stanley. Then one day recently a friend informed me that a present was en route to my world headquarters – the new Warner Bros. “Director’s Series: Stanley Kubrick” DVD collection. In keeping with my philosophy, this was the perfect gift – I could hardly justify buying another box set consisting of movies I already owned, yet the abundance of new supplements tantalized the dormant Kubrick buff within.

The new box doesn’t disappoint, nor does it render the previous version irrelevant. The most immediately noticeable difference is the absence of three movies: “Lolita,” “Strangelove” and “Barry Lyndon.” (There are already three DVD versions of “Strangelove,” most recently a 40th anniversary double-disc edition, but let’s not complicate this any further.) Of these omissions, “Lyndon” is the most curious; obviously the box is aimed at fans of the later, baroque Kubrick, and not the purists who insist he peaked with 1956’s “The Killing.” In fact, a single-disc edition of “Lyndon” was released simultaneously with the new box, but all reports indicate it is identical to the previous version. Maybe they’re holding back a spiffed-up “Lyndon” for yet another new-and-improved Ultimate Kubrick Platinum Collection in a year or so.

For now, though, let’s get to the goodies on the current set. The crown jewel is the double-disc edition of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” packed with oodles of juicy extras, including documentaries on the making of the film, its special effects and its enduring legacy. There’s also a bizarre clip of Keir Dullea foppishly reading a series of quotes from great thinkers on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Dullea and co-star Gary Lockwood also contribute a commentary track.) The most impressive find is an audio-only interview with Kubrick running more than an hour – it’s certainly the most extensive sit-down with the notoriously tight-lipped auteur available, almost like eavesdropping on his conversation at a cocktail party.

If I have one quibble, it would be that the documentary on the influence of “2001” cites only the most obvious cases. I don’t need any more “Star Wars” techies enthusing about the groundbreaking special effects; I’d rather hear about the film’s visual and textural impact on everything from “Twin Peaks” to “The Sopranos” to Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” Some mention of the ill-advised sequel “2010” and the peculiar, short-lived Jack Kirby comic book series would also have been welcome, but again, I’m nitpicking.

“A Clockwork Orange” gets the double-disc treatment as well, though the package of extras isn’t quite as lavish. A documentary on the film’s return to screens in England after an absence of nearly 30 years (Kubrick pulled it from circulation after several incidents of copycat violence) treads some familiar ground, but a 90-minute retrospective on the career of star Malcolm McDowell is more entertaining than you might think. Along with McDowell’s audio commentary (prodded by film historian Nick Redman), it’s a treasure trove of anecdotes on Kubrick and other matters, delightfully related by a master show-biz raconteur.

“The Shining” features Vivian Kubrick’s invaluable making-of film and a commentary from Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who provides more insight into the technical methods to Kubrick’s madness. “Full Metal Jacket” is a single-disc offering, with a perfunctory documentary (the same talking head interviews were chopped up and dispersed throughout the set, and by now they’ve run out of things to say), and a spliced-together commentary by Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio, among others. Oddly, both movies are now presented in widescreen, despite the earlier claims that Kubrick always intended otherwise. Apparently he is now relaying his wishes to the Warner Bros. brass through a medium.

Finally, there is “Eyes Wide Shut,” available now for the first time in its uncensored version. You may recall that the “orgy scene” from the original U.S. release was digitally altered, with strategically-placed figures blocking the more sexually explicit images. Now you’re free to enjoy the unobstructed writhing, heaving and grunting as Kubrick intended.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, somewhere among all these bells and whistles, the actual movies are included as well. Immersing myself in the dazzling, outsized imagery of “Clockwork” and “The Shining” once again, I thought back to my very first Kubrick collection – the one consisting of fuzzy, homemade second-generation VHS dubs. I brought those tapes with me to college, where they seemed to play on a weekly basis to a rotating cast of dorm mates. It was only 20 years ago, but the “Director’s Series: Stanley Kubrick” DVD box would have looked as alien and wondrous to us then as the monolith appeared to the ape-man Moonwatcher in “2001.” But time is speeding up, and today’s shiny new object is tomorrow’s obsolete paperweight.

Someday soon, though, all of this bellyaching will be irrelevant. You’ll simply step up to the giant entertainment-o-tron in your living room, tell it you want to watch “A Clockwork Orange” in whatever format you like, with the commentary of your choice, an ala carte selection of bonus features and a side of chili cheese fries, and it will happen. The studios’ endless attempts at repackaging the same material will finally be neutralized. The only thing you’ll never be able to get again is a new Stanley Kubrick movie.

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