There’s always been a cult of celebrity surrounding movie directors. At least, once movies became commercial. Take Charlie Chaplin: He started as a star working for Mack Sennett but then wanted artistic freedom. So, he started working for himself. Audience-goers certainly knew who Sennett was and recognized his name, but not like Chaplin. Actor and director: A combustible combination destined for fame.
The cult continued: Cecil B. DeMille announced his upcoming movies like P.T. Barnum. Alfred Hitchcock became a franchise onto himself through cameos and his TV show. The French elevated the position of the director to auteur, likening film directors to authors and painters. The Movie Brats of the New Hollywood—Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, et al.—became as popular as their movies. Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, the list goes on. Thanks to interviews, gossip magazines, entertainment-themed TV shows, etc., the celebrity of the director became one of the biggest discourses surrounding cinema study. In some cases, it’s fair to say that the average American is more aware of the director than they are of the director’s films.
There is one significant exception: Stanley Kubrick. The director of 13 features over four decades, Kubrick is mostly known to be a reclusive intellectual who wouldn’t stoop so low to pander to the press. Stories from his sets tell of an obsessive man. Others talk about his distance and detachment. What his movies meant to him and where his reference points came from was left up to speculation.
But a little over a decade ago, a 76-minute audio interview with Kubrick conducted by New Yorker writer Jeremy Bernstein surfaced thanks to the internet (the title of Bernstein’s article, “How About a Little Game?” hit stands Nov. 5, 1966—two years before 2001: A Space Odyssey changed the game.
In Bernstein’s interview, Kubrick discusses making movies, editing approaches, the importance of photographic composition, hustling chess, and his previous films: Dr. Strangelove back to The Killing. The new documentary, Kubrick on Kubrick, essentially picks up where Bernstein’s interviews leave off, this time with audio interviews conducted by French film writer Michel Ciement.
Now playing the Denver Film Festival, Kubrick on Kubrick focuses primarily on Kubrick’s ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s output. The Killing and Lolita aren’t discussed at all, and Spartacus, Fear and Desire, and The Killer’s Kiss are mentioned only in passing.
Instead, director Gregory Monro focuses on the big ones: Strangelove, 2001, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut (Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory are present but underrepresented). Monro constructs a replica of the bedroom beyond Jupiter and inserts a TV in the place of the monolith. On the TV plays a televised interview with Ciment from decades ago.
There are more archival interviews: Malcolm McDowell, Tom Cruise, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey—good stuff. It’s a slick piece of work, engaging and fun, but I’m not sure it’s illuminating. Kubrick is comfortable when he’s talking about the moviemaking process in general, not so much when he’s talking about his movies. Ciment manages to pull out some worthy nuggets in his interview with Kubrick, but the success of Monro’s doc lies in the clips used and how they are incorporated. Sure, the material is good, but Monro’s highlighter makes them all the more impressive.
If there are cineastes that doubt Kubrick’s technical and artistic prowess, then Kubrick By Kubrick could dispel that notion. But why would they watch? I’d bet those who do will already be in the bag for Kubrick. And this may not add a lot.
But Kubrick By Kubrick would make for a nice bonus feature on a Blu-ray or streaming service— ideally for someone who is just discovering Barry Lyndon or 2001. Imagine watching one of those movies for the first time and not knowing who this Stanley Kubrick is. Then you flip on the doc, and a whole world opens up before you. Aren’t cinema grand?
Kubrick By Kubrick (2020)
Written and directed by Gregory Monro
Produced by Martin Laurent, Jeremy Zelnik
ARTE, Not rated, Running time 73 minutes.