In the last 10 years, there’s been an ever-widening niche of documentaries about Stanley Kubrick. Every one of them has been fascinating, one or two (like “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes”) are as idiosyncratic as the director himself, and the most artful and memorable — “Filmworker” (2017), a portrait of Kubrick’s monkishly devoted gofer and right-hand assistant, Leon Vitali — is an essential artifact. Amid the steady outpouring of Kubrickiana, the 72-minute-long “Kubrick by Kubrick” may be the least exotic, but it still gives any Kubrick believer a heady share of morsels to chew on.
The film is built around a series of tape-recorded interviews that Michel Ciment, the French film critic and editor of Positif, conducted with Kubrick over the course of 20 years. In 1968, Ciment wrote the first major overview of Kubrick’s work to appear in France, and the director got in touch with him. Kubrick, from that point on, virtually never gave interviews (in the U.S. he would launch each new movie by granting access to one critic-reporter from, say, Newsweek). But he and Ciment kept in touch, and in 1982 Ciment published a book, “Kubrick,” based on conversations with the director. The conversations continued, and “Kubrick by Kubrick” lets you eavesdrop on rare audio clips of Kubrick talking about how he made his films, and also doing what he always said he didn’t like to do: explaining them.
The sound of Stanley Kubrick’s voice is a curious thing. He’s spiky and sincere, thoughtful and amused; he also sounds like a tax lawyer from the Bronx. In the period of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange,” when he moved to Britain and grew his beard and became the rare Hollywood filmmaker with a celebrity image, his piercing-eyed, black-haired owlish look fed right into his legend — he resembled some chess-champion version of Paul McCartney. But when you listen to Kubrick, what you hear is the ordinary New York guy inside the visionary brainiac.
Gregory Monro, the director of “Kubrick by Kubrick,” builds out the audio clips of Kubrick with critical riffs on Kubrick’s films, archival interviews with several of the actors who appeared in them (the most telling are Malcolm McDowell and a surprisingly reflective R. Lee Ermey), as well as a doll-house set — a recreation of the royal-court-as-afterlife scenes of “2001” — that he dots, one by one, with iconic props from the Kubrick canon. Early on, there’s a clip of Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, noting that he was nothing like “what the newspapers said about him,” and “Kubrick by Kubrick” is most interesting for the ways that it undercuts the Kubrick mythology.
On the set, the cinema’s most famous control freak actually relished improvisation and was more open than many directors to the heat of the moment. The “Singin’ in the Rain” scene from “A Clockwork Orange” was made up more or less on the spot by Malcolm McDowell, and Peter Sellers came up with Dr. Strangelove’s life-of-its-own Nazi arm. Shooting “2001,” Kubrick couldn’t figure out how HAL would learn about the astronauts’ plot to disconnect him; the notion of having the computer read their lips “just came as a result of a torturous great length of time postponing shooting that scene.” Speaking of torture, Shelley Duvall, famously driven to her wit’s on the set of “The Shining,” offers the best explanation I’ve heard for how Kubrick’s method of endless retakes actually worked. After a while, she says, an actor would go dead inside — for maybe five takes. But then they’d come back to life, “and you forget all reality other than what you’re doing.”
Kubrick is quite up-front discussing his attraction to characters from the dark side (you can hear him grinning when he says, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”). He also says some interestingly off-the-wall things, like his explanation for why he cast Ryan O’Neal as the title cad of “Barry Lyndon” (“I couldn’t think of anybody else, to tell you the truth. Obviously, Barry Lyndon has to be physically attractive. He couldn’t be played by Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson”). In preparation for “Full Metal Jacket,” he watched 100 hours of documentary footage of Vietnam, “including scenes of men dying,” and he owns up to his quirky classicism. “One of the things that characterizes some of the failures of 20th-century art,” says Kubrick, “is an obsession with total originality. Innovation means moving it forward, but not abandoning the classical form, the art form you’re working with.”
He also says something a little misguided that, I think, becomes a clue to the timeless power of his filmmaking. Discussing the controversy over “A Clockwork Orange,” Kubrick declares, “Nobody could believe that one was in favor of Alex. It’s only that in telling a story like that, you want to present Alex as he feels and as he is to himself. Since it’s a satirical story, and since the nature of satire is that you state the opposite of the truth as if it is the truth, I don’t see how anybody of any intelligence, or even any ordinary person, could think that you really thought Alex was a hero.”
Yes, but a great many people did take Alex as a hero; they experienced him as he felt to himself. And maybe they weren’t wrong. “A Clockwork Orange” is shot through with a jaunty sick-joke irony (no, we’re not supposed to approve of what Alex does), yet there’s a devious ambiguity layered into its design. And in “Kubrick by Kubrick,” as Kubrick talks about the spectacular precision with which he made his films, that ambiguity feeds into a grander paradox. When you watch a Kubrick film, the director seems to commune with the audience as an unseen force, hovering in the background like God. Everything in a Kubrick movie is delivered to you; every aspect of it is visually, logically, spatially, metaphysically built. Yet in each case what that exquisite structure contains, in its very concreteness, is a mystery. Kubrick controlled every last dimension of his movies. Except what they meant.