If the devil is in the details, then Stanley Kubrick had a fruitful pact with Mephistopheles, judging by “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.” Left-of-field docu by confessed fan Jon Ronson reveals yet another of the mythomaniac director’s eccentricities: a huge collection of cardboard boxes in which he saved every memo, fan letter and piece of production trivia, mostly from “2001: A Space Odyssey” on. Packed with some new, and some familiar, insights into Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive mind, and revealing a very human side of the reclusive helmer, pic deserves extensive fest play as well as cable airings.
Docu aired, under the “True Stories” docu strand, as part of an extensive tribute to the late helmer by U.K. digi-web More4, part of Channel 4, in July.
None of Kubrick’s family and associates knew exactly how many boxes were stored around the rambling country manse in Hertfordshire, outside London, where he lived and worked. Brother-in-law Jan Harlan estimates “over a thousand”; Kubrick’s assistant of 31 years, Tony Frewin, simply says, “There were boxes everywhere.” Prior to Ronson’s excavation, some hadn’t been opened for decades.
Frewin first contacted Ronson in 1996 when Kubrick wanted a copy of a docu Ronson had made on the Holocaust. A few years after Kubrick’s death in 1999, Ronson was invited to the estate by Frewin, heard about the boxes and was given permission to start going through them.
Ronson started with a box marked “Islington” — the London nabe he lived in — and found a massive collection of location stills cataloguing doorways, cafes, apartment interiors and gates for preproduction on “Eyes Wide Shut.” Kubrick’s nephew, Manuel Harlan, recalls how he spent a year just taking photos — at one point even documenting an entire road, stitching the pics together into a 6-meter-long roll for his uncle’s delectation. “Beats going there,” said Kubrick.
Irony was that Kubrick often didn’t use the tons of research he gathered: like any obsessive-compulsive, he found the journey more important than the destination.
The boxes reveal memos to assistants on everything from researching precise barometric pressures to developing a breakaway cat leash, as well as (more fascinatingly for movie buffs) screen tests for “Lolita” and 18 hours of docu footage shot by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, during the making of “Full Metal Jacket.” (Latter is extensively excerpted, showing a surprisingly patient, genial helmer at work.) But no outtakes from his movies: Per Ronson, Kubrick incinerated them all.
The boxes also reveal what Kubrick did during the increasingly long periods between movies. Under a dummy company, to preserve anonymity, Frewin ran a network of readers who scoured thousands of novels for movie ideas — to find for Kubrick “the magic moment of falling in love with a story,” per his widow, Christiane.
Weirdest find is that Kubrick kept every single fan letter, cataloguing them as either “positive,” “negative” or “crank.” In one inspired moment, Ronson tracks down one writer, former TV scripter Vincent Tilsley, 35 years after he penned a critique of “2001.”
Ronson’s commentary, which takes an objective look at his own nerdiness while providing insights into his hero’s mind, finally concludes that, if Kubrick’s method was precision and detail, the boxes contain “the rhythm of genius.” His own Rosebud in the cardboard warehouse is a video of Kubrick’s touching acceptance speech upon receiving the Directors Guild of America’s D.W. Griffith Award in 1998, a few months before his death.
Technically, docu is basic stuff, though copious clips are well integrated and Kieran Smyth’s photo montages pack in a lot of archival detail. Simon Fisher Turner’s atmospheric score builds an air of mystery and discovery.
For the record, the boxes are now stored in a custom-built, climate-controlled archive in London’s U. of the Arts, catalogued by Bernd Eichhorn. As Christiane notes, it was “time to let go and move on.”