Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
CINEMA: In the presence of a god of cinema: Kubrick by Kubrick

(Translated from English by Google Gtranslate)

Gregory Monro’s Kubrick By Kubrick is an hour or so of bliss for any cineaste, for whom Stanley Kubrick needs no introduction.

Famously reluctant to talk to the press, Kubrick – who spent much of his adult life working from a rambling old mansion set in the Hertfordshire countryside northwest of London – in 1980 granted a lengthy interview to prominent French film critic Michel Ciment.

Monro’s masterfully crafted film builds its story of Kubrick’s development around the spine of Ciment’s tape, adding contemporary interviews with those who worked with Kubrick and well-chosen clips from his films (including rare footage of his first, rarely seen feature Fear and Desire (1953) about four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, as well as an early documentary, Day of the Fight (1951) which demonstrates that his eye for composition and lighting was already well established from his four-year stint as a photographer at New York’s Look magazine.

One of the greatest

It is a cliché to say that Kubrick, who died aged 70 in 1999, exerted a powerful influence on cinema; as one of the world’s greatest film directors, his genius is often taken for granted. Monro’s gift is to dissect that genius, showing us the sheer determination and almost pathological perfectionism that went into Kubrick’s craft, without dismantling the mystique of a director who tackled all the major genres of cinema during his career.

For those of us growing up in the post-war world, in the smoke and mirrors of the ubiquitous threat of nuclear war and the gender-bending confusion of cultural revolution, Kubrick was a presence even before we’d heard of him: Dr. Strangelove was the fearful vision behind a thousand anti-nuclear or anti-war demonstrations; A Clockwork Orange a haunting vision that presaged punk and the cultural confusion of the 1970s. Barry Lyndon – a perfect example of Kubrick’s perfectionism where only contemporary lighting (daylight or candlelight) was permitted – about an amoral character making his way up in society over the bodies of those he uses to climb, was produced in 1975, just four years before Margaret Thatcher’s landslide election victory changed the face of British politics and society forever.

as one of the world’s greatest film directors, his genius is often taken for granted.

Kubrick was an obsessive researcher, accumulating literally thousands of images and references for each of his films (his research for his unrealised Napoleon film, published a few years ago weighs in at some five kilos). It is perhaps this aspect of his character that goes some way to explain his reluctance to give interviews, where – as he remarks on the Ciment tape – «one always feels under the obligation to say something strange or witty.»

Ciment’s interview is important because it plumbs the depths of Kubrick’s approach to his art; it is more about the structure than the content of his films. He presses Kubrick on the conflict that is at the heart of all his films – be it Spartacus, Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket. «In a work of fiction you have to have conflict,» Kubrick remarks. «How many happy marriages are there? How many stepfathers love their stepsons?»

Kubrick by Kubrick-stanley Kubrick-documentary-MTR1
Kubrick by Kubrick, a film by Gregory Monro

Research

Kubrick’s obsession in researching his films did not only extend to ensuring verisimilitude. His actors had to be the right fit for the role too – never mind the Hollywood star system. He cast Ryan O’Neil in Barry Lyndon because «I could not think of anybody else – it could not have been Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson.»

Of course, for The Shining it had to be Nicholson. Nobody else would have been the right fit.

Despite the perfectionism (those legendary 75 or even 105 takes – with the best take being the second – actually did happen) and obsessive research, Kubrick was always open to what happened on set. He explained that only through such thorough preparation that his instinctive reactions while filming – when there was little or no time to think, could he be sure to make the right decisions.

Kubrick by Kubrick-stanley Kubrick-documentary-MTR2
Kubrick by Kubrick, a film by Gregory Monro

Film history

Malcolm McDowell recalls that many of the now-iconic moments in A Clockwork Orange – such as the prison hospital feeding scene where his character mechanically opens his mouth to be fed – simply emerged on the day. Similarly, Lee Emery, who will forever define the film version of a military martinet for his phenomenal role in Full Metal Jacket as the marine corps drill instructor, was actually a military advisor who Kubrick swiftly realised was the only man qualified to play the part.

Peter Sellers notes in an interview taped after Dr. Strangelove was released that his eponymous German character could not be a «cartoon» Nazi. Sellers – another man of clear genius – was ad-libbing and realised that his gloved hand, which represented Nazism, should become a character in its own right – hence the uncontrollable Hitler salutes he is given to performing as his right arm spastically shoots upwards from the wheelchair.

Despite the perfectionism…Kubrick was always open to what happened on set

Other plot devices that seem entirely natural now, emerged after only much agonising: how does HAL9000, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey know the crew are plotting to turn it off? Kubrick dismissed clunky exposition such as having HAL overhear the two astronauts talking. Finally, someone came up with the idea that the computer sees the two men talking and reads their lips. The rest is film history.

There is such a wealth of material in Kubrick By Kubrick that one viewing is not enough. This is a film you will want to come back to time and again if only to feel the reflected genius of a true master of his craft.

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