Journalists love the device we call “the telling anecdote.” It’s a simple quote, gathered for a story, that reveals much about the subject of that story in just a few sentences.
For instance, many of us who write about film collect tidbits from those who worked with director Stanley Kubrick, the genius who made “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001,” and “The Shining.” Here’s one of mine.
The late John Ireland, who played a sidekick gladiator in Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas vehicle, “Spartacus,” described how Kubrick got the facial expressions for the scene where Ireland, Woody Strode and Douglas, as gladiators about to enter the arena to fight to the death, sit in the closed cage that opens into the ring.
“Only genius I ever worked for,” Ireland recalled, a fact that was most obvious shooting the scene in question. “Rather than just talking and talking and doing retakes, he stopped everything and sent an assistant out to fetch a record and a record player. It was “Love for Three Oranges” (by Prokofiev).
“He gets us back into position, rolls camera, and starts the record. Now, I’ve heard it before and I’m remembering where I’ve heard it. Kirk has heard it, too, but he’s kind of gritting his teeth that the whole shoot (Douglas produced) was halted to go get the record.
“And Woody? He’d never heard it. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to get out of it and has a little panic, concern.
“That’s all registered, without dialogue, just on our faces and in our eyes.”
Ireland, whom I was interviewing before his appearance at an old cowboy actor’s convention, leaned back and smiled.
“THAT’s genius. ”
And that anecdote is better than any in “S is for Stanley,” the Italian-made documentary based on the 30 years onetime race car driver, mechanic and jack of all trades, Emilio D’Alessandro spent as Kubrick’s driver, helper, personal assistant and even, at times, location scout.
As a taxi driver, he once got a can of film to Kubrick on a snowy British night when no other cabs were running in olde London Towne. Kubrick had an assistant look him up (He read newspaper clippings about Emilio’s promising racing career) and hired him — for life — the very next day.
Emilio is not a professional raconteur nor a particularly deep thinker, not a guy who could or would comment on his boss’s artistry. As Kubrick ran him ragged, micro-managing everything from prop deliveries to film sets to caring for, medicating and grooming the man’s cats, dogs and donkey, Emilio never had time to get around to watching the movies which his indentured servitude helped facilitate. And as I say, anybody who’s ever mentioned Kubrick to an Ireland, Nicole Kidman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Matthew Modine or Spielberg has gotten something more telling out of them.
D’Alessandro also makes a humdrum, monotonous interview subject, droning on in labored English as he talks to the camera (and director) in the garage in Cassino, Italy, where he retired.
But Emilio D’Alessandro saved — if not everything, a LOT — from his decades with Stanley. And those typed memos — filled with typos, many concluded with “tear this note up” — and vast sea of hand-written letters (signed “S” for “Stanley”), some personal and almost tender, others pedantic, obsessive and detail-fixated — are a treasure trove for anybody, especially journalist and filmmaker Alex Infascelli.
A dozen written rules greeted any new employee in the Kubrick Kingdom.
“If you turn it on, turn it off. If you break it, repair it…If you borrow it, return it. If you move it, put it back…If it doesn’t concern you, don’t mess with it.”
Kubrick had to be “on the spectrum,” as they say, “Stanley-splaining” (copyright pending) EVERYthing — cat medicine dosages, jacket zippers he needed repaired, never leaving a single detail on ANYthing up to chance. His memos, orders and requests (whisky, jumbo shrimp) reflect this, as do his years-in-the-making, layered and densely packed with mise-en-scene films. (See “Room 237,” or read my review of it.)
Emilio expresses, decades after Kubrick’s death, how exhausting this beloved boss could be. He lets a little twinkle into his eyes when relating how Kubrick could not understand how any employee, or daughter under his roof, would ever want to leave and crave a little distance from him.
Steven Spielberg has often talked of Kubrick’s way of interrogating even his equals in the film world (he regarded Spielberg as perhaps his most close approximation) in relentless, hours-long phone calls, picking their brains utterly clean.
But God forbid you — as Federico Fellini once did after such a grilling — ask Stanley a question. “What are you doing next?” Emilio smirks at how he, as on-the-phone translator, had to finesse the self-absorbed and insanely secretive Kubrick’s impulse to abruptly hang up — on Federico Freaking Fellini!
The conversations with Emilio mostly just reinforce, with delicacy and omissions of REAL dirt about Kubrick’s on-set tyranny, the picture of Kubrick that many others have painted over the years.
But the notes, generously sampled in D’Alessandro and Infascelli’s book and film, are must-see for any Kubrick “completist.” Here is the man who prepared for a film of Napoleon (never made) more meticulously than Napoleon prepared for war, a filmmaker who, in pulling together “AI” years removed from the state of the art in film special effects, interrogated his new “friend” Spielberg without pity, trying to figure out how to create a robot who looked like a real boy (Haley Joel Osment). Spielberg ended up making the film on Kubrick’s behalf after Stanley died.
“S is for Stanley” is not a particularly compelling piece of cinema. But it does fill in a few more blanks in the Stanley psyche profile. And Emilio D’Alessandro, who got his own life back as Stanley reached the end of his, has his memories (guarded) and his mementos, and his own place within the Kubrick legend, thanks to them.
MPAA Rating: unrated, PG-worthy
Cast: Emilio D’Alessandro, Janette Woolmore, Alex Infascelli
Running time: 1:18