Cian Geoghegan puts on his Apollo 11 jumper for Gregory Monro’s documentary about the film director Stanley Kubrick.
The life of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was once shrouded in mystery. Tabloid journalists characterised him as a reclusive hermit, to little response from the man himself. Film audiences only caught glimpses of the man’s inner life through his work, which released at an ever slower, methodical pace. The obsessive (over-) interpretation of many Kubrick fans came as a result of this elusiveness, which lent his work a strange aura.
In 2021, Kubrick’s life story has been told to death by biographers, historians and documentary filmmakers. If one wants to know anything about Kubrick, they can find it on a DVD screener or in a dog-eared manuscript somewhere. Jon Ronson’s short film Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes tells you all you would want to know about Kubrick’s home filing system. Stanley Kubrick and Me: Thirty Years at His Side is an autobiography written by Emilio D’Alessandro, Stanley Kubrick’s personal driver. Tony Zierra’s 2017 Filmworker tells the story of Leon Vitali, who served Kubrick by playing Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon and continued to serve him as a personal assistant until the filmmaker’s death in 1999.
These sources, all worth a look for their personal insight into the filmmaker, leave viewers stumped for things to still find mysterious about Kubrick. Enter Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick, a film that attempts to stand out from these other docs by letting Kubrick speak for himself. A daunting task, as audio interviews with the director are rare. Morno turns to previously unheard conversations between Kubrick and Michel Ciment, recorded for his Ciment’s Kubrick biography.
Kubrick speaks on the crafts of filmmaking and storytelling – his cold, clinical insight shining through in each section. “Directing a movie, if you try to do it properly, is not always fun”, he says, attached to the typical stories of endless takes anyone who’s seen a film on Kubrick knows to expect. There’s a novelty in hearing Kubrick’s own voice alongside familiar stories. His Brooklyn accent was unshaken by forty years of living in England, and his early years as a scrappy photographer for Look Magazine are reflected in his snappy, no-filler speaking style.
The director’s own testimony is backed by supporting material – archival footage of Tom Cruise, Malcolm McDowell and Jack Nicholson (to name just a few), all heaping awestruck, but sometimes critical, praise on Stanley. This is necessary context, but it veers too close to the setup of a DVD featurette at points.
Intriguing visuals help bring the viewer back into a cinematic space, as Kubrick’s own interviews play against the backdrop of a miniature version of 2001’s hotel room, where Dave Bowman passes on into the infinite. These segments are charming and interesting, with oversized prop posters, sunglasses and helmets littering the scene. The camera glides to each whenever relevant. The documentary could have been all the better had it leaned more into this approach. As many of these Kubrick docs struggle for an identity, usually by taking a personal angle, Kubrick by Kubrick seems to forge half an identity for itself and settle for formula to fill the gaps.
The narrativization of Kubrick’s life is interesting. We chart his early life, but once his artistic vision becomes fully formed around the 1960s, the film seems to take on his oeuvre as a whole. It discards irrelevant asides, opting for a logical rather than chronological approach. His 1962 misfire Lolita is practically ignored, perhaps a wise move. However, one can’t help but see some of Lolita’s mistakes in Monro’s film. In the film of the book, Nabokov’s frantic prose is sapped of all energy by Kubrick’s omnipotent camera. The film only comes alive when Peter Sellers swings by to deliver monologues, which feel like rough drafts of his funnier, later characters in Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick by Kubrick is too conservative in its use of televisual talking heads, while its creative use of Kubrick’s own interviews should clearly be centre stage. Despite these formal setbacks, which feel born out of genre limitations more than anything else, Kubrick by Kubrick is full of worthwhile insight from one of the cinema’s great artists.
Kubrick by Kubrick screened at the Dublin International Film Festival