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Dan Webster reviews "Kubrick by Kubrick"

Few things are more entertaining than listening to a clique of French film critics sitting around, even without smoking their traditional Gauloises, talking about the work of a specific film auteur. Auteur, by the way, is the French term for author (or creator), which pretty much exhausts my knowledge of that language. Quel domage.

Anyway, it’s clear that documentary filmmaker Gregory Monro is a fan of French critics. Besides being French himself, he bases his film Kubrick by Kubrick on the work of one such critic, Michel Ciment, whose interviews with the late, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick compose the film’s very heart.

Which should be a treat for anyone who appreciates Kubrick, whose entire career amounts to just 13 features (and three short documentaries) made over his 47-year career. Several previous films, of course, have studied Kubrick, his themes and his careful, some would say obsessive, directorial style—Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s 2012 look at Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining being a good example.

What makes Kubrick by Kubrick different is that much of it depends on the hours of tape that Ciment compiled interviewing the filmmaker. And listening to Kubrick respond to questions about his work reveals a far different person than the one represented in much that has been written about him.

Part of that misrepresentation is because Kubrick—who died in 1999 at the age of 70—was reputed to be notoriously reclusive. Though he was American, he spent the last several decades of his life in England. This not only ensured that he would be far from meddling Hollywood executives, but it allowed him—along with the contracts that he negotiated—full artistic control.

Yet, too, because he was so removed from the industry—and, frankly, because he didn’t like explaining himself and so gave few interviews—he earned a reputation for being as aloof and as secretive as Greta Garbo. Yet as more than one person in Monro’s film testifies, most taken from archival footage, personally Kubrick was a gregarious man. Tom Cruise, who starred in Kubrick’s final film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, is particularly complimentary.

That doesn’t mean that Kubrick wasn’t a perfectionist when it came to his movies. “Quintessentially perfectionist,” according to Jack Nicholson, who starred in The Shining.

Conductor Leonard Rosenmann tells a story about Kubrick insisting on doing 105 takes of a scene on the set of 1975’s Barry Lyndon when, Rosenmann insists, “take two was perfect.” It was after the 105th take that Rosenmann threw down his baton and literally attacked the director—which seems perfectly fitting. Echoing Kubrick hero Napoleon Bonaparte, Monro quotes the filmmaker as saying, “battles are like the equivalent of making a film.”

And it fits the statement made by another actor, Malcolm McDowell, star of Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange: “If he trusts you, all right. If he doesn’t, beware.”

Besides his inclusion of the critics—to be fair, not just French but Americans, too, such as Roger Ebert—Monro sets his film in a location reminiscent of one of Kubrick’s greatest achievements, 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

His camera returns again and again to a room decorated like the bedroom in which Keir Dullea’s character ends his life. The walls are decorated with posters of Kubrick’s films, while objects from many of those same films are scattered here and there: the glasses that Sue Lyon wears in 1962’s Lolita, a mask that McDowell wears in A Clockwork Orange, the “Born to Kill” helmet that Matthew Modine wears in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket.

Throughout his brief film, which clocks in at barely 62 minutes, Monro returns to Kubrick himself, sharing with Ciment his film ethos when he talks about the duality of humankind and the shock that people who think they are inherently good feel, he says, “when they are confronted by the shadow side.”

Kubrick never avoided the shadow side. Instead, he courted it. And while doing so, he left behind some of the greatest, most influential cinema the world has ever seen. I’m just sorry that I can’t say all that in French.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for

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