'Kubrick by Kubrick': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

The Stanley Kubrick Archive
'Kubrick by Kubrick'
An elegant distillation.

Twenty-one years after his death, fans of the '2001' director and all-around cinema genius can hear his thoughtful takes on his craft and the paradoxes of human nature in a documentary built upon four wide-ranging audio interviews with French critic Michel Ciment.

[In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]

For his lucid and perceptive look at Stanley Kubrick's unparalleled body of work, Gregory Monro excerpts a number of archival clips. It's not the filmmaker who's at the center of most of them but his collaborators, testifying to his exacting methods. Jack Nicholson anoints him "quintessentially perfectionist," Shelley Duvall marvels at the number of takes he required, Marisa Berenson recalls the long hours of setting up natural candlelight for Barry Lyndon, and Malcolm McDowell, having survived numerous injuries over the seven-month shoot for A Clockwork Orange, lauds the in-the-moment spontaneity of a true artist. They're all memorable, their comments illuminating. But it's the words of Kubrick himself, eloquent and precise, that give this documentary its driving pulse.

Just as he valued artistic ideals over prolificacy — making only 13 features in 46 years, but what a baker's dozen! — Kubrick by Kubrick aims not for sweeping overview or exhaustive chronology. It's a distillation, proceeding organically rather than organized by timeline. Within its brief running time it brings the revered, mythologized and generally press-averse director down to earth and into focus through interviews Kubrick did with French critic Michel Ciment. At times the conversation (heard, not seen) traffics in the obvious; there's nothing earth-shattering about Kubrick's insistence that conflict is a necessary element of narrative and of the moviemaking process. At others the incisiveness is electrifying, as when he delves into the Jungian shadow or condemns the way military leaders and D.C. intellectuals "ran the [Vietnam] war like an advertising campaign."

Whatever the topic, though, his clarity of thought and utter lack of pretension are remarkable, his native Bronx still refreshingly resonant in his voice, even after years of expat life in England. He consistently deflects lines of questioning designed to spark self-reflection; the work is what matters to Kubrick, not his own psyche. Maybe that's why it's weirdly thrilling to hear the decisiveness with which he dismisses his first feature, the 1953 war drama Fear and Desire, as "arrogant, flippant … incompetently done and undramatic." On a certain level it feels like the most personal thing he says. It's certainly the most heated. How he might have looked back on Eyes Wide Shut we'll never know; the film was released posthumously, months after Kubrick's death in 1999 at 70.

Ciment enjoyed rare and often exclusive access to the helmer, specifically regarding his films of the '70s and '80s: A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. With two notable exceptions, Lolita and The Killing, Kubrick's other cinematic accomplishments also figure in this documentary mix. Monro made the film with the support of the Stanley Kubrick Archive, and has curated a fine selection of clips and stills. There's even a glimpse of the director's 1951 nonfiction portrait of a boxer, the short Day of the Fight, whose intimacy and dynamic energy presage the cinematic flair to come.With such rich offerings on tap, and the Kubrick-Ciment convos providing a potent audio component, Monro could have built the visual aspect of his film entirely from existing material, arranged wall-to-wall. But the Paris-based documentarian, whose legendary subjects have included Jerry Lewis and Calamity Jane, instead takes a smart creative leap.

He opens things up: At various points throughout the doc he visits a re-creation of the trippy far-future room from the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Within its unsettling configuration of neoclassical décor he places one-sheets from the movies being discussed, as well as iconic props: the Shining typewriter, the Dr. Strangelove wheelchair, a mask from Eyes Wide Shut. This interior space becomes a sort of home base for the film, a place to breathe and consider. It's also a stand-in for the mystery of creativity and its refusal to be reduced to explanations (or to conspiracy theories about embedded messages in The Shining, explored in the wildly entertaining Room 237). DP Radosław Ładczuk (The Nightingale) moves his camera through the reimagined set with a sure feel for its eerie power as a waystation between the material and metaphysical worlds.

On a more earthbound note, Monro pays tribute to Kubrick's well-honed chops as a photojournalist, having begun his work for Look as a teenage prodigy. (His photos for the magazine were the subject of a terrific exhibit whose run at Los Angeles' Skirball closed just as the world went on coronavirus lockdown.) Kubrick recalls how baffled Spartacus cinematographer Russell Metty was by his interest in image composition and shot setups. In pursuit of his idea of perfection, he bewildered and frustrated many of his creative collaborators. A very bearded Sterling Hayden vividly recounts his struggles making Dr. Strangelove, calling it "the worst time I've ever had on a picture," but without an ounce of rancor toward Kubrick himself. Composer Leonard Rosenman confesses to having grabbed the filmmaker by the neck after he and his orchestra were called upon to do 105 takes of a piece of music for Barry Lyndon, wryly noting that "the second take was perfect."

As a look at Kubrick's methods, madness and burning intelligence, Kubrick by Kubrick is fluent and discerning. Monro shapes the miracle wisely, without imposing "meaning" on any of it and giving center stage to the maestro himself, a man for whom moviemaking was a matter of "working miracles." The ineffable something that Kubrick sought might have eluded many of the people he worked with, but in one dazzling form after another, he managed to put it on the screen.

Production companies: Temps Noir, Arte France, Telemark
Director: Gregory Monro
Based on Michel Ciment's interviews
Producers: Martin Laurent, Jeremy Zelnik
Director of photography: Radosław Ładczuk
Production designer: Natalia Melak
Editor: Philippe Baillon
Music: Vincent Theard
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

International sales: Mediawan

73 minutes