Jan Harlan, brother-in-law of the late Stanley Kubrick, has come up with what is, for the time being at least, the definitive documentary on the mercurial, immensely gifted, challenging and usually controversial filmmaker. With full cooperation from Kubrick’s family, friends and collaborators, Harlan portrays him as a devoted family man who, though a lifelong New Yorker, lived for 40 years in Britain and whose complete perfectionism gave him the reputation for being difficult, unreachable or, in the words of one British tabloid, “barking mad.”
Filled with carefully chosen clips from the films, and with a star roster of Hollywood names willing to talk on the record, “A Life in Pictures” is a useful starting point for anyone wanting to know more about one of the cinema’s most significant talents.
Lack of analysis of the films themselves may frustrate those wishing to delve further, however. Aimed at television transmission, pic preemed at the Berlin Film Festival in three episodes of 47 minutes apiece, each bookended by credits.
Kubrick was born in New York City in 1928. His father, Jack, was a passionate photographer, and one of the most enjoyable discoveries of Harlan’s film are the black and white home movies the proud father shot of young Stanley, and his kid sister Barbara.
As a child, Kubrick seems to have been an extrovert, cheerfully playing to the camera, jitterbugging, performing at the piano. School friends describe the gifted boy’s boredom with formal education and his passion for photography.
At the age of 16, Kubrick shot a still memorable photograph of a weeping street vendor selling newspapers announcing the death of President Roosevelt. He sold the photograph to Look magazine and was hired as staff photographer.
His photographs for Look included portraits of Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, as well as images of jazz bands and boxing bouts. It was his friendship with boxer Walter Carter that led Kubrick to the production of his first short, the docu “Day of the Fight” (1950), which is excerpted.
In 1953, Jack Kubrick cashed in a life insurance policy to enable his 25-year-old son to make his first indie feature, “Fear and Desire,” a gritty, visually inventive war pic, which was reasonably well received.
During the making of his next low-budgeter, “Killer’s Kiss,” Kubrick was collecting $30 per week unemployment. But the modest success of that film led to a partnership with James B. Harris, who bought the pulp fiction tale “Clean Break,” which Kubrick memorably transformed into “The Killing” (1956).
Harris recalls that, on that film’s first day of shooting, d.p. Lucien Ballard, a highly regarded Hollywood craftsman, argued with Kubrick over a shot, and Kubrick won. Marie Windsor, who played a faithless wife in the film, recalls Kubrick as “a kid with tremendous confidence.”
Kubrick’s breakthrough came with “Paths of Glory” (1957), a devastating anti-war film featuring Kirk Douglas as a French army officer in WWI. Martin Scorsese recalls seeing the film as a teenager and being amazed by its honesty, while Steven Spielberg notes the pic’s blend of delicacy and power.
Christiane Kubrick, who was cast to play the role of the tearful German girl who sings to the French troops in the film’s unforgettable closing scene, recalls that when she met Kubrick, who was 28 at the time, “I thought he looked extraordinary. He beamed at me. I beamed back.” They soon married.
Harris recalls Douglas approaching him about Kubrick taking over from Anthony Mann on the epic “Spartacus”; Peter Ustinov, one of the stars of the film, was pleased because he thought “Paths of Glory” was one of the best films he’d ever seen. He admired the way the young American handled celebrated British thesps like Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton who hated one another, according to Ustinov.
Ustinov jokes that “the great virtue of the film was that it was the only epic of its kind that didn’t have Jesus,” and he points out that to make a film on that scale without Jesus, but with Kubrick, was certainly brave.
Kubrick’s attorney, Louis C. Blau, confirms that, from his experience shooting “Spartacus,” during which he and Douglas often clashed, Kubrick determined always to have the right to final cut in the future.
Moving to Britain, Kubrick and Harris next tackled Vladimir Nabakov’s controversial novel, “Lolita.” Pic was condemned by the Legion of Decency.
From this point on, every Kubrick film proved controversial in one way or another upon initial release. Of “Dr. Strangelove” one American newspaper declared, “Moscow gold could not have produced better propaganda,” yet young people flocked to the outrageous cold war comedy.
On the later films, “A Life in Pictures” successfully packages what this kind of biographical documentary does best — excellent clips, with comments from collaborators, other directors and members of Kubrick’s extended family.
Tony Palmer talks about the intellectual use of music in the films from “2001” onwards, while composer Gyorgy Ligeti is full of praise for the way his work was used, especially in “Eyes Wide Shut.”
There was a dark side to Kubrick. Malcolm McDowell rather touchingly describes his friendship with the director when he starred for him in “A Clockwork Orange,” but recounts that after the film was completed, Kubrick rejected McDowell’s attempts to continue the friendship on a permanent basis. Shelley Duvall, who bore the brunt of the director’s anger at times during production of “The Shining,” admits that “he could do some pretty cruel things.” And even his great supporter, Jack Nicholson, admits that “he could be brutal.”
Pic’s later sections include recollections by Kubrick’s widow and mentions of three cherished, but unmade projects, “Napoleon, “The Aryan Papers” and “A.I.,” which Spielberg ultimately directed for release this summer.
“A Life in Pictures” is full of insights about the man. One of the most appealing is Nicholson’s revelation that Kubrick saw “The Shining,” a very dark, grim gothic thriller, as an optimistic film because it dealt with ghosts: For Kubrick, anything that suggested there was some kind of life after death had to be optimistic.
Harlan doesn’t attempt to analyze the films in any meaningful way, though the clips selected raise many questions, like why are so many key scenes in Kubrick films set in bathrooms or toilets? He also seems to have acceded to the director’s rather eccentric wish to have the last three films presented full frame, not in the 1.88 ratio, though the films up to and including “Barry Lyndon” are correctly framed.
Woody Allen, who links Kubrick and Orson Welles as the two great American directors, candidly admits that when he first saw “2001,” he didn’t like it, and that it was only after repeated viewings that he came to admire the film. In fact, just about every Kubrick film was initially greeted with reservation by many critics and commentators, and only after a period of time did their status as something truly special emerge.