Kubrick By Kubrick | 2020 Tribeca Film Festival
By: Ali Moosavi
I have been an avid Stanley Kubrick fan ever since, as a teenager, I watched A Clockwork Orange in a London cinema in 1972. I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey before that but was too young to understand it. Watching Barry Lyndon, in the same London cinema in 1975, firmly established Kubrick as my favourite director and cemented a passionate lifelong appreciation and fascination for his work.
I have bought every book that I could find on Kubrick. I have all of his films in various formats and restorations and continuously re-watch them. I have also seen every documentary that I could find about him; from Vivian Kubrick’s home video style Making of The Shining (1980) to Jan Harlan’s Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) , Rodney Ascher’s weird and wonderful Room 237 (2012) and countless others on various packages of Kubrick DVDs. Therefore, when faced with yet another Kubrick documentary, I asked myself: does it offer anything new or is it just flogging a dead horse?
I’m happy to report that Gregory Monro’s Kubrick By Kubrick (2020), screened in the Spotlight Documentary section of 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, is probably the best documentary so far about the late master. It is very informative, highly entertaining, but most of all, more revealing about Kubrick than the other documentaries.
Up until 2001, the best book that I had read about Kubrick was French critic Michel Ciment’s book simply titled Kubrick. In addition to a wealth of beautiful stills from all his films from Fear and Desire up to and including The Shining, and critical analysis of the films, it had three excellent interviews with Kubrick, conducted after A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Then, in 2001 Ciment bettered himself with what was called “The Definitive Edition” of the book. It had added another interview with Kubrick conducted after Full Metal Jacket, updated the stills and critical analysis to include both Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, and added a new section of Interviews with Collaborators.
Kubrick by Kubrick used the tapes of the Ciment interviews as its basis. When one reads the interviews in Ciment’s book, Kubrick comes across as a very serious, no-nonsense kind of guy. Hearing the words spoken by him, in his soft New York accent, humanizes him and adds another dimension to the words. He comes across as a very gentle and thoughtful man. The family home movies of him playing with his children show a side of him rarely seen; a very warm and kind family man.
Kubrick started his career as a photographer. He tells Ciment: “how can you make a film if you don’t know anything about photography?” Kubrick generally shunned interviews because he did not like to talk about his films. He wanted the audience to discover the films for themselves and make their own interpretation of their meaning. He wanted his films to retain a certain enigma. As he says to Michel Ciment: “I’m not comparing myself to Leonardo da Vinci, but if beneath the Mona Lisa da Vinci had written: ‘I smiled because I cheated on my husband this afternoon,’ the painting would have lost a lot of its mystery.”
Kubrick by Kubrick contains interviews with many of Kubrick’s collaborators; including Marisa Berenson, Malcolm McDowell, Sterling Hayden (looking uncannily like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn!), Shelly Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, Peter Sellers, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Ken Adam who designed the War Room in Dr. Strangelove and Leonard Rosenman who adapted the music for Barry Lyndon. Malcolm McDowell talks about Kubrick’s penchant for spontaneity and not always sticking to the script. He cites the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene in A Clockwork Orange as being something that happened unscripted, on the spur of the moment. Kubrick reinforces this assertion by explaining that they had to sit and think for days on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey to come up with a scene that worked and was not cliché to show how HAL found out that the two astronauts were planning his demise.
After Killer’s Kiss (1955), which had an original script written by Kubrick, he made all of his films based on already published books. On the subject of originality, he tells Ciment “One of the faults in 20th Century art, in all art forms, is obsession with total originality. Innovation must be conscience of tradition.”
A Clockwork Orange was Kubrick’s most controversial film. After an onslaught of media attacks, which accused the film for promoting violence, Kubrick withdrew it from exhibition and it remained unshown in the UK, except clandestinely, till Kubrick’s death. People used to travel from the UK to Paris, where A Clockwork Orange was continuously being shown. McDowell rejects the media claims and opines that “you see more violence in a John Wayne movie!” Kubrick himself discusses the “strange duality” of Alex’s character in the film. He also dismisses the utopian belief that if you destroy authority, something good will come out of it. Kubrick adds that it is also a dilemma for authorities that how they can maintain authority without being repressive.
The “duality of man” is a favourite theme of Kubrick’s. This is exemplified in Full Metal Jacket where the Mathew Modine character has “Born to Kill” written on his helmet and sports a peace pin on his jacket. To a question from Ciment regarding the film’s title, Kubrick also explains that Full Metal Jacket is a “more humane” type of bullet which, unlike lead which explodes and makes a mess, makes a nice clean hole!
Kubrick always tried to avoid melodrama in which, after trials and tribulations, the essential message is that people are fundamentally good and right will prevail. He tells Ciment “If you make certain assumptions about nature of man and you build a social situation on false assumptions, if you assume that man is fundamentally good, it will disappoint you.”
Towards the end of his interviews with Kubrick, Ciment asks him if he plans to make a film based on the book Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler that Kubrick had mentioned reading it. Kubrick replies “I’m not sure, I might, it is interesting”. Of course, he made what turned out to be his last film, Eyes Wide Shut based on that novel. Sadly, he did not live to make, what I believe is the greatest movie never made, and Kubrick’s passion project, Napoleon.
Monro has kept an absolute gem for the end. It is a home movie of Kubrick as a child, playing with his sister. It makes the whole documentary seem to resemble the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a return to childhood after gaining a lifetime of experience. For Kubrick fans, and anybody interested in the works of this undisputed master of the seventh art, Kubrick by Kubrick is essential viewing.