A new documentary on Stanley Kubrick uses, for the first time, the audio of interviews conducted by French critic Michel Ciment. The result serves as a good introduction to his oeuvre, with the ‘final room’ from 2001 working as a clever focus point.
“I […] don’t particularly enjoy the interviews, because one always feels under the obligation to say some witty brilliant summary of the intentions of the film,” director Stanley Kubrick complained to Michel Ciment, chief editor of French film magazine Positif. It’s not that Kubrick never gave interviews – he did, but fewer and fewer as his career progressed.
Ciment, a renowned Kubrick expert, is something of an exception in that he interviewed Kubrick four times, for the releases of A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). The recordings of these conversations form the basis of the documentary Kubrick by Kubrick, directed by Gregory Monro (Michel Legrand, Let the Music Play, 2018; Toulouse Lautrec, 2019).
Ciment used these materials previously (see also his reference book Kubrick, 1980), so no surprises are to be expected. The real treat is to hear his master’s voice – which is a rarity, as most of Kubrick’s comments only appeared in print.
That voice, as we hear it, sounds calm and measured, never irritated or ill at ease. So what is most interesting are those moments when the specific way that Kubrick says something influences our interpretation. Such as his misplaced enthusiasm when speaking of Full Metal Jacket: “I had thousands of stills, and as much documentary footage as we could get from archives. There was so much wonderful documentary material in Vietnam, you know, that had not been shot in any other war, including scenes of men dying.”
When he subsequently adds, “So, looking at a hundred hours of documentary film actually probably tells you more than if you were there and didn’t actually have combat,” he sounds quite pleased, befitting his reputation as a recluse who’d rather have the world come to him. Which makes the certainty with which he claims, “In Hue, we could never have achieved this vision of hell, that [was] actually [what] Hue looked like,” (when speaking of recreating the war-torn Vietnamese city in London) sound more like self-justification.
Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t just stick with Kubrick’s voice – its main attraction – but also shows excerpts from his films, some behind the scenes footage and home movies, and archival interview fragments from such Kubrick collaborators as Malcom McDowell, Jack Nicholson, and Shelley Duvall, and even some of Barry Norman’s reviews for BBC’s Film… TV series.
The material touches upon familiar topics such as Kubrick being, in Nicholson’s words, “quintessentially perfectionist”, the many retakes he demanded (which drove some people crazy), as well as well-known anecdotes surrounding his films. Coming in at a lean 75 minutes, the total amount of time we actually get to hear Kubrick speak is therefore limited.
Still, no fan will want to miss it, and Monro has found a great way to visually bring the film together. He faithfully recreated the famous final room from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and added various props to match the films under discussion, from Peter Sellers’ wheelchair in Dr. Strangelove (1964) to the Venetian masks from Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
DoP Radosław Ładczuk (known for Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, 2014, and The Nightingale, 2018) glides his camera through the room, zooming in and out, and changing from close-up to top shot, while clever cutting sometimes blurs the boundaries between the room and Kubrick’s films, so that actors Marisa Berenson and Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndonseem to be watching an old television set on which Berenson is discussing her role – while the actors and the TV set are all surrounded by burning candles.
Of course, some of Kubrick’s quotes stand out. On filming existing books: “If somebody else has written a story, you have the one, great, first reading. You never again [can] have that experience.” On machine intelligence: “You could say that man’s survival depends on the ultra-intelligent machine. I can’t think of any reason why it’s a frightening prospect, because intelligence seems to me to be something which is good.” On innovation in film: “The real explosion will come when someone finally liberates the narrative structure.”
Although Kubrick personally evades questions about why he made certain films, claiming it’s “indefinable”, late set-designer Ken Adam, who created Dr. Strangelove’s War Room, recalls: “Every line – which, after all, are very often instinctive impulses, or artistic impulses – had to be justified. He wants to understand, he wants to know. Which can be very trying, because in the end, you become insecure.”
Which suggests that in his interviews with Ciment, Kubrick doesn’t bare all. It is surprising enough that Kubrick at one point, when only lightly prodded, answers with a full plot outline of Barry Lyndon (just as he provided a synopsis of 2001, in a recently resurfaced recording). But those are superficial descriptions that anybody could have offered up. As usual, Kubrick doesn’t want to explain his films. He leaves that up to us. (Rodney Ascher 2012 documentary Room 237 did a good job of dissecting The Shining, whose real subject matter, of course, is the genocide of Native Americans).
Kubrick by Kubrick is more of an introduction than a rigorous analysis. Towards the end, however, it does converge on what Ciment rightly sees as Kubrick’s (and thus the documentary’s) main recurring theme: the thin veneer of civilization, beneath which hides a pulsating core of animalistic, blood-thirsty violence that may erupt at any moment.