It’s unusual that a book on a film director should actually evoke its subject’s oeuvre, but this long-awaited and much-anticipated debut trawl through legendary auteur Kubrick’s extraordinarily vast archives impressively does just that. Like Kubrick’s films, it’s immense — it weighs 14 pounds and comes in its own carrying case — imperious, sumptuous, marvellously detailed, consistently fascinating and captivating to look at, ultimately leaving all previous books on the man firmly under its (considerable) shadow.
The pricetag undoubtedly makes it as divisive as a Kubrick film. However, deep-pocketed devotees will be rewarded with a prime piece of “Kubrickiana.” Collectors and fans alike will be particularly enticed by the inclusion of an original 12-frame, 70mm film strip from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
After Kubrick’s death in early 1999, a tantalizing first glimpse at the fabled archives — easily ranked alongside George Lucas’, surely — came three years ago with widow Christiane Kubrick’s “A Life in Pictures.” Made with complete cooperation from the Kubrick estate, this effort from arthouse publisher Taschen — its peerless design smarts stunningly evident — truly finds the doors flung wide open. Collated by film, it offers a magnificent array of 800-odd artifacts: photographs, essays, props, correspondence, facsimiles of Kubrick’s notes, screenplay drafts and storyboards and previously hard-to-find interviews.
Kubrick himself speaks via a CD containing a 70-minute interview conducted in 1966 — back when he could be considered “regular.”
Book is divided into two sections. The first, “The Films,” is driven by Kubrick’s own distinctly highfalutin observation of “2001”: “It’s not a message I ever intended to convey in words. ‘2001’ is a nonverbal experience. I tried to create a visual experience, one that verbalizes pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.”
From this daunting assertion, 800 pristine stills, drawn from original negatives, chronologically represent Kubrick’s 13 films wordlessly, from 1955’s “Killer’s Kiss” to 1999’s Cruise/Kidman starrer “Eyes Wide Shut.” Pretentious? Oh, unquestionably — yet, in a great testament to Kubrick’s astounding visual sense, even in this basic format, it actually works.
As impressive as such eye candy is, the latter half, “The Creative Process,” is where this mighty tome’s real meat — and true value — lies. Again addressing the films chronologically (including his five shorts from 1950-53), the assortment of new and old critical essays alongside interviews from the period lay (relatively) bare a fanatically driven, obsessively perfectionist artist.
Commentary from his longtime assistant Anthony Frewin and producer Jan Harlan provide priceless perspective on the famously private Kubrick, effectively piercing the pervading lazy identification as “eccentric recluse” that dogged him for decades.
Of particular fascination is an appendix devoted to Kubrick’s long-planned but unrealized projects (except for “A.I.,” eventually helmed by Steven Spielberg), most notably “Napoleon,” which he originally intended to follow “2001.” Kubrick scholar Gene D. Phillips’ absorbing essay elucidates the gargantuan extent of Kubrick’s preparatory research: He employed 20 Oxford graduates to summarize the contents of several hundred books on the French leader, resulting in a biographical index so dense that, according to cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick “could virtually tell where Napoleon was every day of his life, as well as everybody who was in his entourage on any given occasion.”
More a highly artful overview of and tribute to a tremendously accomplished career than outright scholarly analysis or biography, this “Archive” is a first-rate production, with kudos due to editor Alison Castle for distilling a veritable mountain of material into a compelling package. (Castle now is working on a book devoted to “Napoleon.”)
Would Kubrick have minded such a piercing glimpse into his fiercely guarded world? More than likely, but one suspects even he could hardly dismiss something that radiates reverence and commitment to his art — and looks like a Kubrick production through and through.