Stanley Kubrick’s career contained such multitudes that, over 20 years after his death, cinema is still sorting through the scope of his genius. There have been enough Kubrick documentaries in recent years to suggest a burgeoning subgenre based around his appeal, from the conventional overview “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” to “The Shining” conspiracy-theory deep dive “Room 237,” and “Filmworker,” a portrait of Kubrick righthand man Leon Vitali. The stories behind the storyteller have just gotten started.
Compared to these entries, the 72-minute French production “Kubrick by Kubrick” might look like a relatively minor addition to the canon, a concise assemblage of rare audio clips from Kubrick interviews in which he addresses his work in general terms. At the same, it may be the closest most of us can get to hearing the master explain himself, and provides a delightful excuse to revisit his creative prowess.
Director Grégory Monro, who has made nonfiction portraits of film artists ranging from Michel Legrand to Jerry Lewis, draws from one key source to justify yet another Kubrick appreciation project: The filmmaker rarely did interviews, but sat down for extended conversations with Positif editor Michel Ciment over the course of a decade, which the French critic assembled into a 1982 book. Audio snippets from those interviews form the backbone of the documentary, with Kubrick’s observations on his filmmaking and philosophies elaborating on the profundity of his work.
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The publication of Ciment’s book marked a kind of editorial one-upmanship for Positif, which has engaged in amusing turf wars with opposing critics at Cahiers du Cinema for generations. Early Cahiers critic-turned-filmmaker François Truffaut fired the first shot with his 1966 tome “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” setting the standard for book-length filmmaker Q&As. Like “Kubrick by Kubrick,” Truffaut’s book birthed a documentary adaptation, with Kent Jones’ ruminative 2015 effort.
While Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut” pads out its own audio tapes with modern-day auteurs assessing Hitchcock’s genius, “Kubrick by Kubrick” has little patience for extra voices. The movie turns on a playful framing device, with media clips screening in the sterile hospital set famous from the climax of “2001.” Beyond that, however, it cedes control to the central material, relying on Kubrick as he talks through his complex sensibilities. The resulting experience fixates on the mentality driving the work rather than attempting yet another behind-the-scenes peek.
That means newcomers to Kubrick (whoever you are!) or those seeking new trivia about his career won’t find a lot to chew on, but “Kubrick by Kubrick” follows the filmmaker’s own desire to avoid any precise breakdown of his process. In one clip, he voices a disinterest in offering “some witty summary” of his intentions, and Ciment compliments that desire by focusing on abstract questions throughout.
Early on, he asks the filmmaker if it’s accurate to say that “the more realistic” his work gets, “the more the illusion” settles in, so he can dig into otherworldly situations with some measure of familiarity. It’s that sort of highbrow prodding that leads Kubrick — heard in measured, unassuming audio throughout — to talk through his main interests: Jungian philosophy, governmental control, technocratic dangers, and other revealing topics come and go over the course of a rich collage of clips from his entire filmography.
Much has been made about Kubrick’s obsessive production style, the endless takes that drove his actors insane, and his meticulous attention to detail onset. “Kubrick by Kubrick” occasionally stumbles on rehashing these observations, tossing in distracting archival interviews with collaborators who get in the way of the main gimmick in play. For most part, the movie turns on the fundamental intrigue of hearing Kubrick explain himself — and, as his widow Christiane puts it early on, “He was not everything the newspapers said.”
So who was he? Like his films, Kubrick contained multitudes. “Kubrick by Kubrick” finds the filmmaker touching on the value of his photography roots in understanding human motion, and then zips through his filmography: A few minutes on his naturalistic approach to “Barry Lyndon” (including a hilarious observation that Ryan O’Neal’s attractiveness made him a better leading man than Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson), another few on the moral relativism at the center of “A Clockwork Orange,” and straight into meditations on humanity’s instinctive drive toward conflict, themes at the core of “Dr. Strangelove and “Paths of Glory” alike. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick projects a degree of confidence in tune with the mythology that surrounds his work. He embraces the aura of the all-powerful visionary, going so far as to compare his directing process with Napoleon’s calculated approach to the battlefield.
If Kubrick saw himself as a warrior, it raises the question of who he considered his enemy. With time, the movie arrives at one alluring possibility, as the filmmaker discusses his potential to craft popular work while avoiding the trappings of “hollow entertainments.” Instead, his movies unfold as a series of cautionary tales, whether it’s his prescient desire to grapple with “a sensuous aesthetic about machines” in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the “vision of hell” in “Full Metal Jacket.”
No matter the thrill of revisiting these masterworks, there’s just enough appeal to the passing observations about them to make one yearn for a deeper dive. The limitations of the material become more pronounced as the movie arrives at “Eyes Wide Shut,” relying on Tom Cruise interviews in the absence of Kubrick himself to answer for it. No matter the gaps, however, Kubrick’s bleak assessments about the nature of civilization hold constant interest. “Man seems to lack the intelligence to think his way out of the present trap we seem to be in,” he says, summing up years of work in a single sentence.
“Kubrick by Kubrick” is best appreciated as a kind of psychological meditation on Kubrick’s investment in his art. As Ciment observes in one passing TV interview, the filmmaker edited from his home, wrestling a vast commercial process into his private domain. But he wasn’t a total anarchist. The documentary finds him musing on a cultural “obsession with originality” getting in the way of pushing the art form to new heights. Instead, Kubrick wanted to build on existing classical frameworks to find the true nature of cinema beyond the restrictions of the narrative form.
In that respect, “Kubrick by Kubrick” lingers in the restless ingenuity at the heart of the filmmaker’s work — a palpable desire to find new storytelling possibilities each time out. He may not have formulated every aspect his genius in his own words, but the movies he made speak for themselves, and this reverential documentary is another welcome excuse to revisit them.
“Kubrick By Kubrick” was scheduled to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.