“Kubrick by Kubrick” – Brick by brick [MOVIE REVIEW]

Stanley Kubrick. Photo courtesy of Level 33.

Stanley Kubrick setting up the maze for “The Shining.” Photo courtesy of Level 33.

“Kubrick by Kubrick,” the richly informative documentary by Gregory Monro, is a marvel of information gleaned from interviews of the master himself. Notoriously reclusive and tight-lipped, Kubrick rarely talked about his films and definitely not about himself. But there were exceptions, few as they were, and most of them were made for Michel Ciment, a renowned French journalist who wrote extensively about film and filmmakers. 

A French production helmed by a French director, Gregory Monro, and based on the audio interviews of a French journalist, Ciment, this documentary shines a bright light on a director who may be most widely known for “The Shining” starring Jack Nicholson. But for my generation, it was “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the science fiction opus that predicted long space journeys, AI and robotics before the first moon landing. I’d wager that no one over the age of 65 can hear the opening of Richard Wagner’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” without immediately thinking of that spacecraft floating among the stars.

Stanley Kubrick adjusting the costume of Keir Dullea in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Photo courtesy of Level 33.

Lushly filled with clips from the films under discussion, Ciment’s incisive and intuitive questions reveal the methods behind the madness. Kubrick, himself, could not explain why he made what he made but he did say that he was uninterested in writing original material. It was books that excited him and that there was nothing more wonderful than that first great reading. If he wrote original material, that feeling of first discovery did not exist. In looking at his films, there is no “auteur”-like theme running through them all. He was after a good story with a fundamental conflict because, he said, “If there isn’t a conflict in a story, it isn’t a story.”

It’s not like he didn’t have opinions, it’s just he tired of the often simplistic questions asked by others. The audio tapes of his interviews with Ciment took place over several years for different articles about different films, but there is a thematic similarity. Kubrick may not have been an auteur, in the French interpretation of a unity of theme, but he was definitely the author of his films. He did the research, he framed the shots, he wrote the adaptations, and he edited the movies. Interestingly, he achieved the realistic look of his later films in a studio close to his house in the outskirts of London where he edited them at home on his own equipment. 

Stanley Kubrick editing “Full Metal Jacket.” Photo courtesy of Level 33.

Entranced with cameras at an early age, he began an apprenticeship at “Look” magazine that turned into a full time job as one of their core photojournalists. Learning what the camera could do and how to frame an ordinary shot and make it pop was great training for his upcoming passion for filmmaking. His first movie, “Fear and Desire,” was, as he points out, pompous and rather embarrassing but it shows his facility with setting up interesting shots and it got him attention. Hollywood came calling in the guise of Kirk Douglas and “Spartacus.” A master of the camera, he insisted on setting up the shots through his viewfinder, something that annoyed the cinematographer no end. 

Not a particularly happy experience, he bid farewell to California and moved permanently to England where he shot all of his remaining films, including the Vietnam war epic, “Full Metal Jacket.” Ironically the location substituting for Hue was a burned out tenement close to home. 

Kubrick was very hard on actors with his insistence on take after take after take. As one of his crew pointed out, oftentimes it seemed obvious that the second take was perfect but he would demand dozens, sometimes a hundred more. Sterling Hayden, his star in “The Killing” (1956), relays how terrible his experience was on “Dr. Strangelove or: How Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). With each take, his performance got worse and worse until finally he could do no more. Kubrick resorted to using short coverages to piece together the scenes he was in. 

Always trying to achieve a realistic effect, Kubrick discusses what he used in “Barry Lyndon,” an 18th century period piece. Costumes were not designed but were copied from paintings of the period, pictures he tore from art books. Interiors were lit by candlelight, resulting, in some cases, in the uncomfortable immobility of the actors. But from a production design standpoint, it is a flawless film.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of “Clockwork Orange.” Photo courtesy of Level 33.

Never afraid of controversy, he tackled two of the controversial novels of 20th century literature, “Lolita” and “Clockwork Orange.” So reviled was “Clockwork,” that Kubrick had it removed from Britain cinemas. Kubrick was perplexed by the reaction and horrified that critics of the film thought that it incited violence. He felt that his sympathies always lay with the victims. Malcolm McDowell, star of the film, is adamant, in an interview at the time, that the film was greatly misunderstood. 

Ciment’s questions bring out a depth in Kubrick that enhances our understanding of him and of cinema in general. All of this is underscored by clips of actors interviewed at the time their films were released, offering their understanding of what Kubrick was trying to achieve. Watch for the film clip of a group of French philosophers discussing the significance of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” 

Kubrick made a total of 13 films in his 70 years. His last, “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, was completed just prior to his death in 1999. Cruise, interviewed at the time, discussed the process, the master, and what was lost.

When asked by Ciment about the advances in movie making in the future, Kubrick acknowledged that thus far the art was just being pushed forward little by little. “The real explosion will come when someone liberates the narrative structure.” How prescient that he predicted the advent of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” because that explosion is the key to watching and appreciating the film. 

“Kubrick by Kubrick” is a must-see for anyone in love with the movies, his or anyone else’s.

Primarily in English. Some French with English subtitles.

Now available On Demand.



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