- Movie Rating -

Kubrick by Kubrick (2020)

| August 29, 2021

[This review is part of my ongoing coverage of the films screened at Birmingham Alabama’s 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival]

Walking into the new documentary Kubrick by Kubrick, it was hard not to be cynical.  I mean, what can the movie show me that I haven’t already seen before?  After in-depth studies of Stanley Kubrick’s work in Stanley Kubrick: The Invisible Man (1996), A la Recherche de Stanley Kubrick (1999), The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove (2000), Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick (2007), The Visions of Stanley Kubrick (2007) and Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008) it was hard to imagine that this new film wouldn’t trod over familiar ground.

Well, it kind of does, but the difference is that this time you’re getting it from the man himself. Kubrick was famous for his refusal to grant interviews and that’s what makes Kubrick by Kubrick so unique.  The interview is compiled mainly of audio interviews conducted by the French critic Michel Ciment over at least 20 years.  For his own reasons, the illusive director would sparsely grant an interview but somehow kept in touch with Ciment who published these conversations in a 1982 book simply called “Kubrick” featuring a cover that is about as cryptic as the man himself.  This new documentary allows us access to those audio recordings of Kubrick giving us a rare insight into his process. 

What emerges from these recordings is kind of unexpected.  What we see in those old photographs, particularly after 2001 when he grew his beard and became more and more elusive, is the image of a man possibly with a bend in the brain.  He looks as crazy and is distance as the films that he is famous for.  Yet, what we hear from him is the voice of a man who is deeply in love with his work, not necessarily in how it will be perceived, but in how he has presented it.  There’s a distance to his voice but not that of an artist without a soul.  He loves his work, he loves his process, but what becomes clear is that he was often frustrated by his need for sheer perfection.  And yet, he understood the difficult relationship that he had with his films.  “In a work of fiction, you have to have conflict,” he says, “How many happy marriages are there?”

What these interviews create in your mind is a contrast to the legend that has been built about Stanley Kubrick.  You know that he was a difficult director, a difficult man, but hearing his words you know that he was not a sweaty-toothed madman without purpose.  There was a geometry to his work, and there was a reason that it came off as well as it did.  One doesn’t create a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey without a little frustration.  What surprises us are the moments when we learn that he was not against ad-libbing.  Malcolm McDowell reveals that the particulars of the feeding scene in A Clockwork Orange were dreamed up at the moment.

McDowell’s interview is one of many with Kubrick’s actors relating what it was like working with him.  We know that his obsession with doing 100+ takes wore his actors down, particularly Shelley Duvall, but it is interesting to hear from Sterling Hayden who hated making Dr. Strangelove and actually apologized to Kubrick because he assumed that the 38 takes meant that he was giving a bad performance when in reality the director was actually wearing Hayden down and using his nervousness to accentuate General Ripper’s paranoia.  Another is a surprising interview with R. Lee Ermey on CBS Midday in which the actor reveals how and why his Drill Instructor character in Full Metal Jacket was built the way that it was – that it was out of step with the Marines but in step with what the character was trying to create.  Kubrick was a director who cast according to whether or not the actor fit the part and Ermey, who had been hired as a consultant, was so good that Kubrick gave him the role.

There is such a wealth of information here that, frankly, I didn’t know.  I thought by this point I had heard it all, mostly because the other documentaries come to Kubrick’s work second-hand.  Here we get a rare insider glimpse of what he thought about his films, what he thought about his actors and what he thought about his process.  It’s as close as we’re likely to ever get, and that’s gold to any cinemphile.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary