‘Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures’ Frames Portrait of a Genius

Being a genius brings with it a certain reputation, deserved or otherwise. The opening montage of Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures plays right to that reputation by highlighting words from newspaper stories such as “meticulous,” “megalomania,” “recluse,” “eccentric,” and “perfectionist.” But one word among those is most fitting: “legend.”

Director and producer Jan Harlan worked with Kubrick for more than 30 years, and his film provides a celebratory tribute to that legend. Using extensive archival footage and celebrity interviews, Harlan brings together biography and filmography to represent Kubrick’s life and career.

Kubrick was born in New York City on 26 July 1928. Home video footage shot by father Jack Kubrick in 1938 rolls while his sister Barbara describes growing up with him. At the age of 13, Stanley receives a camera from his father, and this gift becomes the start of a life-long passion. Just three years later, Stanley takes a picture of a newspaper vendor mourning the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and sells the photograph to Look magazine. Two years later he becomes a staff photographer for the periodical.

Kubrick’s youthful passion for still photography leads to an interest in motion picture photography. His first film, Day of the Fight (1950), combines this passion with another interest: boxing. Making the film inspires Kubrick to quit his job at Look and to direct documentaries to bring in money while learning more about production. With money from his father, Kubrick makes Fear and Desire, his first feature, which garners him enough attention to get funding for his next film, Killer’s Kiss.

Kubrick then forms a partnership with James Harris, and they release The Killing in 1956. The film receives a mixed critical reaction and fails commercially, setting a pattern that will follow throughout Kubrick’s career. The film also draws the attention of Hollywood, beginning the long relationship between the director and the industry.

From here, the film elaborates on each of Kubrick’s works in chronological order, starting with Paths of Glory (1957) and ending with Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Harlan includes generous clips from each work, using both well-known and lesser-known scenes. Additional footage provides behind-the-scenes glimpses into several of the productions.

The roster of talking heads in Harlan’s film is a celebrity who’s who: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Ustinov, Woody Allen, Sidney Pollack, Arthur C. Clarke, Keir Dullea, Malcolm McDowell, Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Michael Herr, Matthew Modine, Nicole Kidman, and Tom Cruise. Other interview subjects include Christiana Kubrick, his wife of 40-plus years; Anya Kubrick, one of his daughters; and Louis C. Blau, his attorney of more than 40 years. One brief segment even includes comments from Kubrick’s veterinarian.

All of this commentary attempts to explain different parts of Kubrick’s genius.

One of these aspects is Kubrick’s mastery of cinematography and the construction of his vision. For example, in a confrontation with Lucien Ballard, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, Kubrick establishes an upper hand. Scorsese talks about the tracking camera shot through the trenches in Paths of Glory, which we see onscreen as he talks. Perhaps the most economic form of time compression, the opening shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey features a graphic match of a bone falling to Earth cut to a satellite in space orbiting the Earth.

Another aspect of Kubrick’s genius is his use of classical and contemporary music in his films. The Strauss waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” makes scenes in 2001 unforgettable, and Ligeti’s spare piano compositions make The Shining just that much scarier and Eyes Wide Shut that much eerier. The “William Tell Overture” played at accelerated speed also punctuates a scene in A Clockwork Orange.

Much of Kubrick’s films are adaptations of literary works, such as Stephen King for The Shining, Gustav Hasford for Full Metal Jacket, and even Vladimir Nabakov for Lolita. He often brought these authors to work on the productions, and Arthur C. Clarke (2001) and Michael Herr (Full Metal Jacket) offer their insights on the director. Interestingly enough, Stephen King makes no comment on The Shining in this film.

Kubrick also knew how to work with actors. McDowell recalls playing ping-pong with Kubrick while trying to work through scenes. Others recall playing chess (another of Kubrick’s obsessions) with him or just sitting with him and talking through the scenes. Both Kidman and Cruise expound on their experience during Eyes Wide Shut, which took 14 months to film. Duvall notes, “I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Why? Because of Stanley. […] But I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”

Duvall’s comment hints at Kubrick’s temperament. Daughter Anya talks about her father and his home videos. One clip shows her and another sitting at a piano, and he asks, “Do you often find me in a temper?” The two children scream, “YES!”

Respect for Kubrick runs deep in the Hollywood industry, and this respect gave him quite a bit of personal influence. When A Clockwork Orange was dragged through the press for purportedly igniting teenage violence, Kubrick requested that Warner Bros. pull it from distribution in England in order to protect his family. The studio complied, even though the film had had a profitable 61-week run.

Throughout Harlan’s film, the talking heads try to describe an overarching vision, a general theme, to Kubrick’s films. Pollack comes the closest with this question: “I think that there was a search behind all of those films to say in a way in a world where we know man is capable of the most base, shockingly destructive behavior, is hope and virtue possible?” Wife Christiana raises this same question early in the film when talking about Nabakov’s book: “He thought Lolita was a fantastic book because it clarified the feeling we all have, that good and evil does not come in the expected package.”

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures features a lot of footage from Kubrick’s body of work and from home video and behind-the-scenes shots, but one thing is notably missing: Kubrick speaking for himself. Throughout the entire film everyone else talks about the director, but rarely do we hear his voice. Once is in a brief excerpt from a 1958 CBS Radio interview. Another time is in a brief confrontation with Duvall during the making of The Shining.

Stylistically, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures is conventional in its style with the talking heads, archival footage, and well-timed titles. Tom Cruise’s voiceover eases the transitions between the films, providing additional background information and brief comments, but the voiceover is not overbearing.

But Harlan’s low-key style is appropriate for his larger-than-life subject, who died 7 March 1999. For the curious, this film provides a lot of background and insight into Kubrick’s work. For the fans, this film offers a lot of never-before-seen archival footage and photographs of the private director.

A comment from Jack Nicholson sums it up best: “Everybody pretty much acknowledges he’s the man. And, I still feel that underrates him.”

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