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Kubrick: The Cabinet of Dr. Strangelove 

Wednesday, Jul 6 2016
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As you walk up the stairs towards "Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition," you might miss an anteroom on your right. Separated from the main gallery of Kubrick film paraphernalia, this waiting room, at a passing glance, registers as a blank space. All the walls are unadorned and white. Once you step through the glass doors, a small model of the spacecraft Discovery One from 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs lifelessly from the center of the ceiling. While I perused the two large, coffin-length cases filled with black cameras and lenses, music from his movie soundtracks played overhead. One muted television screen played scenes from Full Metal Jacket.

This celestial foyer is suggestive of that eerie rococo chamber in 2001, the random one that appears and disconcerts viewers so jarringly at the end of the film. All that white space registers an absence: Stanley Kubrick, the man himself. The Exhibition is less a tribute to him per se than to the enigmatic filmmaker named "Stanley Kubrick." We don't find out who he was by reading the letters he wrote and received, poring over his set and costume designs, or analyzing his penciled-in script notes. The man may remain unknowable, but that's beside the point. In our era of cultural vulture-ism, picking through artifacts of the famous dead is just part of the fun.

The exhibit is arranged like the hedgerow maze in The Shining. Each time you turn a corner, there's an element of surprise in finding altar after altar devoted to each of Kubrick's films. To give A Clockwork Orange a sense of illicitness and to mirror back the film's content, black walls surround a rectangular room. Remember those provocatively posed mannequins from the Korova Milk Bar? (One couple taking selfies with them sure did.) With a lascivious smile on her face, a woman stuck out her tongue close to the mannequin's mons pubis. She posed for her companion as if to demonstrate the act of cunnilingus. Immersive art, indeed.

Someone in The Shining space managed a not-so-indecent photo with the fading blue dresses worn by the Arbus-esque twin sisters, looking like antique escapees from the Victoria & Albert Museum. "Jack's Axe" was embedded in the wall. And not only was the Adler typewriter on display, but its carriage held a yellowed piece of paper with a repetition of those mad words: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." A model of the famous maze sat unmoving, encased in glass. This must be how a director sees the worlds he creates. It could be studied from all angles, from the heights to its hidden depths.

The amount of memorabilia and minutiae for each film is staggering, like a typewritten letter from Kirk Douglas to Kubrick signed "Sincerely, Spartacus," and a magazine ad that offers a quotation from the actress who played Lolita, Sue Lyon: "I never read the book — I don't think I could get through it, I made the movie instead." The costume designs for 2001 are represented by neat colored-pencil illustrations. And the entrance hall is arrayed with vintage framed movie posters. You could spend the entire length of a Kubrick film examining the details that went into the making of it.

But the origins and intentions of the exhibit are designed with one objective: to serve as inspiration for new audiences to seek out Kubrick's films, and for aficionados to revisit them. The Exhibition was first organized in 2004 by the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt. According to Tim Heptner, a Filmmuseum curator and the exhibit's tour manager who was on hand at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Kubrick's vast archives were organized when the team initially approached the estate. According to an essay in the exhibit's catalogue written by Bernd Eichhorn, the initial curator, he "opened more than 1,000 boxes and cartons; I read parts of screenplays, notes, letters; I viewed photographs and slides, listened to sound recordings, and forwarded and rewound videos." He even held the Starchild baby in his arms. It, too, is on display, spectacularly creepy, floating in a clear Plexiglass case, eyes bulging and minatory.

Since 2004, "Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition" has toured Berlin, Melbourne, Rome, Paris, and São Paulo. The organizing principles have remained intact now that it's arrived at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. All that sensory information is immensely digestible. Moving from film to film, you can read for awhile then don headphones to tune out passersby to watch film clips. One observer commented, surprising herself, that she'd seen every one of his films. I doubt that she was a particular enthusiast of Kubrick's oeuvre but, until his death in 1999, the release of one of his films was de rigueur for filmgoers everywhere.

At the museum, I spoke briefly with Jan Harlan, the executive producer of many of Kubrick's films. Harlan, sporting crimson glasses, is a fount of the charming — if possibly well-rehearsed — anecdote. Asked if he had a favorite film, he replied without hesitation: Eyes Wide Shut. He explained that it did well in Japan and was largely misunderstood everywhere else. Did he see any current directors as possible heirs to Kubrick's aesthetic? He named the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski and his film Ida, singling out a scene that makes poignant use of Bach. He remembered Kubrick's impeccable and exacting taste in music. And what about the visual imagination of the director? Harlan wasn't about to divulge anything personal that would demystify the enigma of Kubrick himself. He suggested we go see the films instead.

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