Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures

From the Inpress Magazine archives (2001):

Film Review

Dir. Jan Harlan, 2001

While I was attending summer classes in film, our lecturer made a very interesting point. He said, “There’s a man who was making films around the Greenwich Village area in New York a very long time ago. Many people gave their time to assist him, working very hard for no money and very little return. He has subsequently gone on to be a highly successful and wealthy filmmaker, and has given NOTHING back, not even a penny, to any of the people who helped him. His name is Stanley Kubrick… Don’t be like him.”

That was three years ago and the comment has stuck in my mind; quite possibly because, at the time, I had just finished reading a fabulous and lengthy biography titled Stanley Kubrick by John Baxter. The opinion expressed by my lecturer fit into Baxter’s profile; that of a man who took liberties others may have seen as inhuman and unfair. Moreover, this was the first time I had heard this conviction “from the horse’s mouth” so to speak; someone who had actually met the late Stanley Kubrick and had subsequently formed a negative opinion of a man who was an undisputed cinematic mastermind.

Kubrick was an extremely complicated person who could not be categorised as simply a ‘nice guy’ or a ‘bad man’. His biographies, while eulogising him, play up the sensational aspects of his character – the way he pushed his actors to breaking point, the way he hated travel and refused to drive in a car that exceeded walking speed, the way his private life was carefully guarded to the point of him being labeled a recluse – after all, these make for good reading. In the documentary, Stanley Kubrick – A Life in Pictures, Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, makes a concerted effort to set the record straight. What this documentary is saying is Stanley Kubrick was a ‘difficult’ person but he was also a human being, a husband, a father, and a genius. And, for those reasons, we should be respectful enough to cut him some slack.

Harlan had the good fortune of close, familial contact in compiling his documentary. A young Stanley and his family play up to the camera in The Bronx; Stanley dances and laughs with his sister; surprising images of a man who never seemed to possess any playful, childlike traits, at least as an adult.  A failed academic, Kubrick’s working life began as a chess hustler and then star photographer on Look magazine (Harlan presents us with rare examples of the award-winning stills Kubrick shot while working for Look).  It was only when Kubrick managed to collect together $40,000 from family, friends and associates to shoot, Fear and Desire (a film removed from distribution at Kubrick’s request) that his tenure as a filmmaker really commenced.  With Paths of Glory, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and finally, Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick found his place among cinema’s greats.

A multitude of actors parade through Harlan’s documentary to sing the praises of Kubrick – Jack Nicholson, Malcolm McDowell, Matthew Modine, Sydney Pollack, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise (who also supplies the narration) – all with their own stories of who Kubrick was for them, and what working with Kubrick meant both personally and professionally.  While the accounts are of overwhelming awe and respect, there are some that seem tinged with hurt, even regret.  In particular, Shelley Duvall speaks about her experiences during The Shining, being the target of incessant verbal attacks from Kubrick while her co-star, Jack Nicholson, received only acclamation (footage taken from Vivian Kubrick’s The Making of The Shining visually documents some of these incidents).  Still, Duvall says it was an experience she would not trade, but would be unwilling to repeat.  Yes, Stanley Kubrick was a ‘difficult’ man, but he was a genius, and geniuses get away with more than the average person.

However, it is the visuals (and wonderful film scores) that make Kubrick so supreme, and the fact that Harlan gives his documentary the double entendre title “A Life in Pictures” proves he is very much aware of the value these pictures provide.  As an almost pathologically private person, Stanley Kubrick was inaccessible to his fans, so to have such personal insight is like buried treasure.  Stanley’s wife, Christiane (seen in Paths of Glory as the singing German girl in the finale), is interviewed extensively as part of the narrative, along with his daughters, sister and personal assistants.  “How could he be a misogynist when he was surrounded by women… he loved women,” exclaims Christiane, refuting the speculation of Kubrick’s sexism that seems prevalent in his movies.  Similarly, his daughter talks about the thirty-six pages of instructions on ‘how to care for the family pets’ which he left for her before going away on holidays; a strange example of both his supposedly non-existent nurturing side and his celebrated obsessive-compulsive personality.

Megalomaniac or misunderstood?  The jury is out when it comes to Stanley Kubrick.  One person will love him, the next will loathe him – and the same goes for his films.  A recently released, superbly written book by Michael Herr provides another personal account of the man behind the myth.  While an incessant defender of Kubrick’s films, Herr is honest about the shortcomings of his good friend, one example being his extreme stinginess when it came to money.  Regardless of outside opinion, the cinema of Stanley Kubrick holds a soft spot in my own heart, strengthened by the knowledge there will be no more.  (Maybe it is because I was scared for only the second time in my life when I saw The Shining, or that romance first blossomed with my boyfriend during a Moonlight Cinema screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Despite his death in 1999, Kubrick remains alive thanks to the admiration of cinema lovers the world over.  In my home, I think of him each time I call my cat ‘Stanley’.

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