Documentary Review: “Kubrick by Kubrick,” a press-shy filmmaker almost explains himself

Let’s begin with first principles. We are never going to get a “definitive” documentary that takes in everything, talks to everyone and tells us all we need or could possibly want to know about the inscrutable genius, Stanley Kubrick.

Consider just what’s available for a fan or fanatic’s perusal on Youtube at this writing. There’s “Lost Kubrick,” a pretty good “unfinished films” doc made for TV. A fan has pieced together all the film footage — including childhood home movies, much of it with sound — “All Video Footage of Stanley Kubrick.” Somebody else uploaded a “rare” hour long taped interview with him. There are collections of actors and directors talking about him, “behind the scenes” footage from any number of his films also archived there.

And that’s on top of the many other fine documentaries on him, about him, or deep diving into this or that movie, the most famous of which is “Room 237,” which gets at the obsession this most obsessive filmmaker feeds among his most devoted fans. Everybody in his life, it seems, has been in a film about him — family, colleagues, even his driver.

But here’s a new brick in the video wall of Kubrick scholarship. Gregory Monro’s “Kubrick by Kubrick” made the rounds of film festivals during the pandemic, and earns its official release Mar. 23. It’s built around one of the “rare” interviews Kubrick gave, this one to the French critic and longtime Kubrick enthusiast and expert Michel Ciment.

Is it the last word? Can’t be.

Is it even complete? The documentary was 13 minutes longer when it played festivals. Now, it lacks any mention at all of “The Killing,” “Killer’s Kiss” or “Lolita,” and only Sterling Hayden’s apologetic explanation of why Kubrick beat him down with 38 takes of one shot and few seconds of “Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” turn up here. So something happened — rights or otherwise — between 2020 and now.

But it’s still a must-see for Kubrick fans, because here he is, exploring his themes of “evil” and “the duality of man” and “intelligence” and control — talking about his photography background, making his favorite Napoleon as a movie director analogies.

Little seen footage of Kubrick frolicking with his kids has him griping/joking about what Napoleon would think of “Lew Wasserman and David Picker” (moguls who put the brakes on Kubrick’s eventually-canceled “Napoleon” epic) controlling his fate.

He addresses one thing this film and all the other audio and footage of him talking punctures, his reputation as a “recluse.” There was even a John Malkovich movie about a guy who got away (sort of) with posing as Kubrick, “Color Me Kubrick,” remember.

“I just don’t particularly enjoy interviews,” Kubrick tells Ciment, who is interviewing him. He did lots of those through the 1960s and a few again in the ’80s, when “Full Metal Jacket” came out. He famously eschewed “explaining” or talking about his 13 finished films, but he does a bit of that here. If you take into account one infamous 1960s profile, which Kubrick agreed to when “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out, but which he demanded final approval of, you get a feel for what he didn’t come out and say to Ciment or anybody else.

The poor 1960s interviewer could only publish a single “approved” line from Kubrick, “I really prefer to let the films speak for themselves.” The journalist had to fill the page with a Jack Torrance (a decade before “The Shining,” mind you) sentence endlessly repeated. “I just spent three hours interviewing Stanley Kubrick. I just spent three hours interviewing Stanley Kubrick.”

What Stanley insisted on ALWAYS was “control.”

Ciment gets in a few pearls about Kubrick’s love of “the detective work” of research, which he’d dive into for years. His mania for “realism” in “2001” and most of his other films is legendary, and he goes into some depth explaining how he bought every book on 18th century European art in existence and cut pages out to get the costumes, colors and light of “Barry Lyndon” perfect.

But he cast “Love Story” star Ryan O’Neal as the lead for that film because “I couldn’t think of anybody else.”

He made “military consultant” R. Lee Ermey a star when he realized the man he was letting berate actors auditioning for roles in the film as an exercise was exactly the Drill Instructor as Profane Poet that “Full Metal Jacket” needed.

His mania for research, years of it wasted on “Napoleon” and “The Aryan Papers,” may have reached its zenith with “Full Metal Jacket,” a Vietnam War epic that takes Marines from basic training into combat, with Kubrick perusing through “100 hours” of documentary footage (TV, films movies like “The Anderson Platoon,” filmed in-country in the ’60s) to end up faking Parris Island and The Tet Offensive Battle of Hue in the U.K. because the Brooklyn-born Kubrick refused to film far away from his English home once he gained the clout to demand that.

No, a few palm trees and ruined “buildings from the same era” don’t look like Vietnam and Hue, no matter what he said. But who would correct him?

The title here is something of a misnomer. There’s a lot of archival TV coverage of Kubrick’s death, as well as video of vintage TV reviews and even roundtable discussions of his films, his life and his work, footage from France, the UK and even the U.S. That reinforces the reasons he is important, a still-revered creator of motion picture “events,” and just how thin the material the in-the-know Ciment actually gathered from this long sit-down.

Monro also artfully recreates the modernist bedroom with 18th century furniture from “2001,” and shows us slate/clapper images as he cuts to a homely 1960s cassette deck to reflect that medium the interview was done on.

There’s a nice sampling of film people who were ill-used by Kubrick, and almost to a one they decline to judge him or even analyze why he’d demand “45 takes” of his Steadicam operator on “The Shining,” or 38 takes of the great Sterling Hayden. Composer Leonard Rosenman is the only one here to at least label this as “insane” to the man’s face. But when Kubrick demanded “105 takes, when the second was perfect” in a piece of Rosenman’s period-instruments “Barry Lyndon” score, Rosenman stormed into the engineering booth to ream him out. Then again, he had a whole orchestra ready to back him up.

The famous footage of Shelly Duvall abused and berated on the set of “The Shining” isn’t here, nor is a more obscure clip I’ve seen recently, in which Kubrick blamed his many takes on “lazy” and “unprofessional” actors “not staying at home” the night before a scene “and learning their lines.”

That’s nonsense, of course. Kubrick beat his players down in an effort to get exactly what he wanted. There’s got to be a middle ground between the “one take,” no matter how far short of perfect it is Clint Eastwood approach, the “Jaws” conditioned “get the perfectly-framed shot” and move on Spielberg, who also brushes off actors’ desired retakes, and Kubrick’s on-the-spectrum OCD approach.

If you love movies, you can’t help but get into Ford and Hitchcock, Welles and Kubrick, artists and manipulative control freaks that the great ones — not just the men — often are. But I’ve been making laps around the Kubrick star for ages, and my view of him changes almost annually.

The first film book I bought was Alexander Walker’s “Stanley Kubrick Directs.” I saw “The Shining” in 70mm several times when it came out while I was in college. But by the time “Full Metal Jacket” rolled around, in grad school, I was cooling on him.

His beautiful but often stiff and always arch later films led me to believe he’s a filmmaker you can outgrow, like a love of heavy metal or a mania for the fiction of Ayn Rand.

But here I am, reviewing another documentary about him. Yes, it was pitched just days ago, when I was fresh off watching more youtube collections of the Wit and Wisdom of Stanley Kubrick and other analyses of his work. Kubrick is a film buff’s ultimate rabbit hole. Watch “Room 237” if you don’t think so.

We may never get that “last word” book or film on him, his obsessions, his art, his finished films and the “Napoleon” mini-series that Spielberg just renewed his pledge to make (he first promised that, according to a post on this very blog, ten years ago. That’s a measure of Kubrick’s hold on any film fan’s imagination.

I’ve interviewed several actors who’ve worked for him over the decades, but the favorite anecdote I collected is one I won’t repeat here, as I used it in my review of “S is for Stanley” some years back. But I will repeat his “Spartacus” player John Ireland’s punchline for what he witnessed, the extent Kubrick went to in order to get that perfect look from actors, reacting exactly how wanted them to for a single shot in that film, something which Ireland laid out to me back in the ’80s.

“THAT’S genius!”

Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: The voice of Stanley Kubrick, Michel Ciment, with archival interviews with Malcolm McDowell, Jack Nicholson, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Marissa Bernenson, Leonard Rosenman and Sterling Hayden.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Gregory Monro. A Level 33 release.

Running time: 1:01


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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