9 August 1999

Where the art lies in the challenge





BURNING QUESTION: Why can't Sydney support a contemporary art museum? 

SYDNEY'S declining reputation as a favourable environment for contemporary art, lagging behind not only that of Melbourne but increasingly Brisbane and Perth, is clearly illustrated by the Museum of Contemporary Art's near-death experience.

On Friday, Premier Bob Carr finally came to the party, announcing a $750,000 bail-out which will see the MCA clear to the turn of the millennium. And Sydney University, the MCA's parent body, has deferred a $600,000 debt.

The 11th-hour reprieve had much to do with incoming director Elizabeth Macgregor. But as usual, the politics of arts funding always comes with strings attached.

Describing Macgregor as "energetic" and "renowned for popularising contemporary art", Carr also set out the criteria by which his Government will judge her tenure at the museum: "Her task will be to attract new audiences to contemporary art in Sydney."

Macgregor, a Scottish arts administrator who starts next month, inherits an organisation characterised as an economic basket case and a cultural failure.

Born out of private bequest and public sector largesse, the MCA has always laboured under the unreal expectation that it could pay its own way as a self-funding commercial enterprise.

Its job should have been to develop a balanced program which would bring the true diversity of Australian contemporary art to a wider public, but instead of developing a grass-roots support base it was out chasing corporate dollars or seeking to entice social-climbing yuppies with free champagne.

Meanwhile, back at Sydney Cove, the most congested public precinct in the nation, the general public preferred the free views of the Opera House to the MCA's $9 admission fee.

Of course, there's a popular view that the problem is simply contemporary art itself. Making art isn't illegal yet, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that our artists stand guilty of crimes against culture, such is the dismissive vitriol heaped by conservative critics over the years.

Controversy-seeking philistines will always be ready to peddle the view that contemporary art is a sick joke pulled at the public's expense by a crew of talentless, shameless shysters.

There's no denying it can be mighty puzzling if you turn up expecting pretty pictures and are confronted with a room full of bored half-naked women, or a 30m puppy made out of shrubs. But challenging our expectations is what the best art has always done.

Sydney can support a museum of contemporary art, but it needs more champions of the art itself; more critics who actually like and understand contemporary art, and are able to convey their passion and insight to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Macgregor is being hyped as the art-world equivalent of Police Commissioner Peter Ryan. But it beggars belief that an Australian with local knowledge, a passion for art and a talent for business could not be found.

We can host an Olympics but we can't run our own art galleries.

MICHAEL HUTAK (editor of Australian Art Collector Magazine)


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Date: 08/08/1999

Words: 535
Publication: Sun Herald
Section: News
Page: 46

6 August 1999

Interview: Kidman on Kubrick and 'Eyes Wide Shut'

So just who was Stanley Kubrick and why should you care? What’s so special about this filmmaker that he commanded such awe and respect in the movie business and could indulge his cinematic vision like no other director before or since? Nicole Kidman spoke exclusively to Juice a week before the Australian premiere of her latest, and by far most eagerly anticipated movie, the late Mr Kubrick's sexual sayonara to the cinema, EYES WIDE SHUT.

We began by asking why do Kidman and husband Tom Cruise, two of the most sought after stars in Hollywood, give over 3 years at the height of their careers to participate in what is, despite the somewhat deceivingly raunchy marketing, an intellectual art film in the European mould?

"People have said 'How could you do this?'" says Kidman. "My answer, of course, was why not? I would have been mad to turn it down. There are very few times as an actor when you think I will be forever proud of this work - that it is timeless work - just in terms of the director. I can never be objective about my work. But I am so honoured to have been a part of Stanley's body of work. Full stop."

Based on "Traumnovelle", an obsure 1926 novel by an obcure Viennese novelist Arthur Schnitzler, the film stars Kidman and Cruise as two psychiatrists whose marriage is cast adrift when they embark on a series of torrid sexual adventures and experiments. Kubrick had held the rights to the novel for over two decades. In development for four years and produced under typically paranoid secrecy, it took 15 months to shoot in, according to Kubrick's biographer, "the longest continuous shoot in motion picture history."

From the opening scene of a naked Kidman, EYES WIDE SHUT is "truly the riskiest film of Kubrick's career", according to respected critic Janet Maslin, of the New York Times. "The man who could create a whole new universe with each undertaking chose the bedroom as the last frontier."

Less charitable commentators have dubbed the film "Eyes Glaze Over". The film relies heavily on the believe-ability of Kidman and Cruise's on-screen relationship, and Hollywood's hottest couple have a lot of credibility riding on the film's success. Past efforts don't augur well. The cars were more riveting than the acting in DAYS OF THUNDER while the most memorable thing about FAR & AWAY was watching the stellar pair struggle with working class Irish accents.
But the buzz is that it's Oscar time for Kidman at least. That she broke her schedule to talk to Juice testifies more to the weight of responsibility she feels to Kubrick and the film, than her own image. When the enigmatic auteur died just after completing the film, the burden of explaining to the public the master's intentions in the complex and dark project fell entirely to its stars. With an evangelistic zeal, she appears to be reveling in the task.

"Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini - they were the great masters of the cinema - and anyone who is interested in films thatchallenge the way they think should see this film. You know Scorsese, (Sidney) Pollack and Gus Van Sant all saw the film thesame night and each of them came up after and hugged us. Scorsese said 'Can I hug you nowbecause you worked with the master and you have made one of the great films' -and coming from Martin Scorsese - also one of the great film makers of ourcentury - I thought 'Wow!'"

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Stanley Kubrick was born into a on July 26, 1928, in the Bronx. A brilliant but bored underachiever at school, Kubrick got his first break at 17, scoring a job as a still photographer for Look magazine. But the cinema was always where he was headed and between 1951 and 1953 he set about producing, directing, writing, shooting and editing three short documentaries. A brilliant chess player, he financed the films by hustling on the streets of New York, plus a relentless pursuit of the funds of friends and family. He would later say that making a movie is like chess: "It is a series of steps that you take one at a time, and it's balancing resources against the problem, which in chess is time and in movies is time and money."

One-time beatnik, jazz drummer, and self-appointed expert on every subject from flying to poker to making hamburgers, it was Kubrick's know-all personality that set him on the road to filmmaking. "I didn't know anything about making films, but I knew I couldn't make them any worse than the majority of films I was seeing," quotes John Baxter in his excellent Stanley Kubrick: A Biography.

His uncompromising one-man-band approach would only realise 13 feature-length films over the next 40 years, but, apart from SPARTACUS (1960) where he was brought in to take over directing after shooting began by executive producer and star Kirk Douglas, each film has the irrefutable mark of its director. Film is a collaborative medium but with a Stanley Kubrick film, it is the director who is always the real star. But while his films - to date - have won 8 Oscars, none were for Best Director.

In 1954 Kubrick teamed up with producer James B Harris and moved to LA where the pair would make the three films which would establish Kubrick's reputation as one of Hollywood's brightest and most daring talents: the noir racetrack heist, THE KILLING (1956), the moving anti-war drama PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and the controversial LOLITA (1961), Nabakov's dry tale of illicit sexual obsession. LOLITA begins Kubrick's most successful quartet of films. The black comedy, DR STANGELOVE OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), released in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy Assassination, is the ultimate expression of Cold War nihilism in the form of high farce. It ends with images of the atom bomb accompanied by Vera Lynn's wartime standard, "We'll Meet Again." The film was branded by the New York Times critic of the day as "beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across". With Peter Sellars in three roles, it was a huge hit.

In 1968 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was also panned by the critics on release as just a ponderous light-show with a few futuristic riddles thrown in for diversion. It too went on to box office glory, lauded in the age of psychedelia as the ultimate trip movie, a hyper-philosophical mind fuck.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) opens with a youthful Malcolm McDowell kicking a drunken tramp to death while giving a caustic rendition of "Singing In The Rain". Orange is arguably the most subversive youth culture movie yet made, and certainly a most prophetic vision of aliented urban youth which predicted the punk revolution by at least 5 years. David Bowie said that with Ziggy Stardust he "wanted to 'deviolence' the look of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE." Meanwhile The Times was holding Kubrick personally responsible for the unravelling of Britain's social fabric: "The cases of rape, murder and beatings attributed to the film's influence are too numerous to be dismissed as tabloid hyperbole. Tramps were killed, girls were assaulted and beatings were dished out as Kubrick's symphony of violence rang in then head of the perpetrators."

Kubrick was always mistrustful of Hollywood and had settled permanently in England in 1974. But he wasn't doing the Welles thing; he wasn't banished or in some self-imposed exile. He just liked England better. But after the violent reaction to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, he became so reclusive for a period that an Englishman impersonated him for several months before being discovered.

In another recent biography, Vincent LoBrutto pins down all the essential elements of the Kubrick myth: "a cool, misanthropic cinematic genius who obsesses over every detail, lives a hermetic existence, doesn't travel and is consumed with phobic neuroses."

As is usual with myths, Kubrick the man was something quite different. "People always think he was this idiotic dictator," said Christiane Kubrick, his third and last wife of 40 years, after his death. "But he was always asking everyone's opinion on most things. What do you think of this? What do you think of that? Do you think I should have done this different?"

It's true he demanded take after take from actors, sometimes running to over a hundred takes. The reason? Because actors didn't know their lines. "If people don't do their homework, the only thing I can do is spend time doing multiple takes while they learn what their job is supposed to be." Aperfectionist to the last, but as Kirk Douglas would say to him after SPARTACUS: "That doesn't make you perfect!"
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To cinephiles Kubrick is the director's director, certainly one of the key artists of the cinema's second 50 years. Ever since the furore that greeted the release of Lolita, every new Kubrick film has been greeted as a landmark cultural event. But while he made seven features in his first decade, he took over 30 to make the final six. Many reading this may not have seen any of his films.

icole Kidman is right to think Marty Scorcese makes a fine contemporary referee, but Hollywood hugging aside itÕs been twelve years since Kubrick's last film, the searing Vietnam War drama, FULL METAL JACKET (1987), briefly burnt up the screen then was pretty much forgotten.

You have to go back another seven to find THE SHINING, Kubrick's chilling adaptation of a Stephen King horror story and his most openly commercial film, but then clearly the work of a director treading water. Go back five years more and you hit BARRY LYNDON, a beautiful but boring 18th century period drama which picked up four Oscars (for music, cinematography, art direction, costume design) but recouped only $9.5 million of its $30 million production cost.
So it's still not surprising that Variety tagged EYES WIDE SHUT as having "questionable appeal for under-25s". It will "captivate older audiences more than it will mainstream Tom Cruise die-hards", said the movie industry bible. Bums on seats at EYES WIDE SHUT have more cellulite per square centimetre than those that sat through, for instance, AMERICAN PIE, the latest hit teen sex comedy which EYES WIDE SHUT ironically displaced from No.1 when it opened in July with a first weekend box office of over US$21million, a record for any Kubrick film.

Both films were rated 'R' in the US, for "strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material", but while American Pie is a funny but forgettable farce about "losin' it", EYES WIDE SHUT is an art film in the European mould which Variety called "a deeply inquisitive consideration of the extent of trust and mutual knowledge possible between a man and a woman."

Thus for Juice, Kidman is keen to dispel the vibe that this is 'adult fare' that's not really gonna be 'dope with the kids'.

"To underestimate the intelligence of a younger audience is patronising," counters Kidman. "I know when I was 16, l8 and l9 I remember seeing DR. STRANGELOVE, then LOLITA and then 2001. Then, when I was twenty-one, I saw A Clockwork ORANGE and it really shocked me and awed me - you know? All of Kubrick's films have that ability to shake the groundwork that you have, to shake it up and challenge you philosophically and I think young people today desperately want to see that - it's just they aren't given it that often.

"Kubrick was oneof the masters and this is his last film and I think young people are interested. Anyone who is interested in sex, jealousy andobsession will relate to this film, so of course it is a film for youngeraudiences as well as older audiences."

In the US, the film was heading for a dreaded NC17 rating which translates roughly into Box-office poison. In order to secure a R rating Kubrick agreed to alter 65 seconds of the orgy scene which is the centre piece of the film by adding digitally created figures to obscure the 'action'. Kubrick wasn't averse to such compromises, having gone through similar negotiations with censors on both Lolita and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Still The Los Angeles Times put to Tom Cruise that if Kubrick was such an uncompromising filmmaker, why didn't he have the courage to say with Eyes Wide Shut: "this film is unsuitable for a 15-year-old kid".

"Stanley knew he had to deliver an R-rated film," Cruise replied. "And he didn't think it hurt the integrity of the film. If I was 15, I'd like to have the opportunity to see the movie, even if I didn't comprehend everything.

"I don't think it's offensive to see people having sex, but that's just me."

The final irony is that although the uncensored version is screening in Australia, an R rating here means only 18 year olds and up can view the film without risk of prosecution.

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"I am in a world of shit," declares Private Joker (Matthew Modine) in the final moments of Stanley Kubrick's second-last film, the 1987 war drama FULL METAL JACKET. "But I am still alive. And I am not afraid."
Sadly, Kubrick ain't alive anymore. But when you look back at his canon of thirteen dazzling, incredibly diverse features, you find he wasn't afraid to depict thirteen worlds that are indeed full of shit. Lightning rods of the popular cinema they may be, but they span four million years of dubious progress of the human race.
It's not easy to be light and breezy about Kubrick. Variously regarded as a pefectionist, myogynist, nihilist, anarchist, genius and visionary, Kubrick isn't about providing easily consumed entertainment, despite the fact that his films are immensely entertaining. Instead he is about spectacle, seduction, voyeurism, horror, atrocity, indifference, hypocrisy, madness, obsession, lust, suspense, anxiety, emotion, and ideas. No easy answers in that list, only uneasy questions.
His films are populated with common criminals, sexual deviants, juvenile psychopaths, insane purveyors of mass destruction, even computers that kill. The Shining, about "an ordinary guy who just wants to murder his family" according to Jack Nicholson, is typical Kubrick fare. Not a frame out of place, not a plot-point astray, not a moment of suspense or horror wasted, not a punter in the house that isn't scared witless. Nicholson himself couldn't wait to get off the film: "Glad to be off that one," he said at the time. "That was rough duty."
Not merely powerful stories brilliantly told, Kubrick's films created new benchmarks in their use of advances in filmmaking technology. In production design and art direction, 2001 on the big screen today feels more like a documentary from the future than science fiction. Many interior scenes in Barry Lyndon, his picaresque tale set in Georgian England, are lit with candlelight.
More than a director or technician, Kubrick was the complete filmmaker who took meticulous control of every stage of production from script through to marketing. "I know how to do virtually every job on a movie," he said in an interview in 70s. "I can light, I can record sound, I know where mikes go. I don't know how to act. But I'll tell you this, we will get the best shot."
One of the few American directors who had the prestige to make big-budget movies while working outside the Hollywood mainstream Kubrick was "the one person in the film industry who knew how the industry worked in every country in the world, remembers one Warner Brothers executive. "He knew all of the dubbing people, the dubbing directors, the actors, he had relationships with foreign directors who would supervise his work because he couldn't be there to supervise himself. We had to go around to every cinema to make sure the projection lights were right, the sound was correct, the ratios were right, the screens were clean."
Warners have released nine of his features on home video to coincide with the local release of Eyes Wide Shut. All his major films are in the collection except for A Clockwork Orange, which the director decreed be exhibited in theatres only.
As we write Clockwork Orange was playing in its 234th consecutive week of late night weekend screenings at Village's cineplex on Sydney's George Street movie strip.
"About 18 months ago we had to replace the print," says George Livery, general manager of Village Cinemas. "So we had to apply to Stanley to get hold of a new print, and he gratefully signed off on a new one. Of course also he had to approve of us showing the film in the first place.
"We get a lot film students at the screenings. ItÕs been running so long I canÕt remember why we decided to bring it back in the first place, although itÕs been in repertory really ever since its original release."
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It's understandable that EYES WIDE SHUT has been hailed - like John Huston's THE DEAD - to be Kubrick's 'last will and testament', the crowning acheivment of an extraordinary career. But the one thing the cinema's most famous control freak couldn't schedule was the timing of his own exit and he never intended Eyes Wide Shut to be a swan-song. That honour was to go to AI (artificial intelligence), based on a Brian Aldiss short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long". Wanting to top 2001, which he believed was his most complete film, Kubrick spent seven years this decade developing AI. Throughout the early 90s he wrote several drafts with Aldiss and made exhaustive use of George LucasÕs peak special effects house Industrial Light & Magic but with Kubrick calling on ILMÕs resources to conduct more and more obscure and intricate experiments, Lucas eventually called a halt to work on the project, telling Kubrick they were too busy working on another film called JURASSIC PARK.
Warner Bros had originally agreed to give Kubrick carte blanche on AI on condition that he first produce 'a quickie'.
Four years later that quickie - EYES WIDE SHUT - was in the can. Four days later, Kubrick died in his sleep in his English home.
But its clear that Kubrick has bought himself life after death - his films will remain to speak for him literally till doomsday. They will be there to remind us that movies can be more than just money making exercises in niche marketing, demographics, and manufactured entertainment.
Of course, with the exception for BARRY LYNDON, his films DID make money, which means he could keep making them. Kubrick proved that you can have it all - creative, critical and commercial success. His films have cost millions, made millions, and been watched by millions. But as he told his accountant after closing a lucrative deal with a major studio to make a picture: "You know, I'm glad they don't know I would do this thing for nothing if I had to."
Says Kidman: "He had a great belief in the cinema as an art form - so when you work with somebody like that, you say: 'I am willing totake the journey with you. I am privileged and honoured to take the journey with you.'"

- MICHAEL HUTAK

First published in Juice magazine