Over the years, Stanley Kubrick developed a reputation as a distant, tyrannical, reclusive and monomaniacal person. I don’t think Kubrick nurtured these concepts, but the slow rate at which he worked and his virtual refusal to grant interviews or perform publicity tasks for his films meant that the public at large knew little about the man. As such, the myths took hold, and his stature grew to be larger than life in both positive and negative manners.
On the more upbeat side of the street, Kubrick’s unusual work habits made him that much more of a legend among filmmakers, critics, and fans alike. Because he took so long to make his movies and they appeared so infrequently, Kubrick’s flicks became events for these folks. While the average Joe lacked much interest in Kubrick, more film-obsessed people saw him as one of the greatest moviemakers of all-time.
During a new documentary called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, we get much more information from the latter crowd than from the former group. The program sheds some light on Kubrick’s private life, and it also occasionally discusses his reputation as a mad recluse, but the emphasis remains firmly on his public works and various folks’ reactions to them.
I thought this was both good and bad. In the positive area, we get a variety of perspectives. During this program, we hear from a very long roster of interview subjects. These folks can be split into a few different categories. Note that some of them span groupings because of various roles they played during Kubrick’s life:
ACTORS: Chris Chase; Marie Windsor; Christiane Kubrick Peter Ustinov; Keir Dullea; Malcolm McDowell; Steven Berkoff; Leon Vitali; Jack Nicholson; Shelley Duvall; Matthew Modine; Tom Cruise; Sydney Pollack; Nicole Kidman.
COLLABORATORS: Producer James B. Harris; former Warner Bros. Vice President John Calley; Production Designer Ken Adam; Writer Arthur C. Clarke; Writer Brian Aldiss; Special Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull; Composer György Ligeti; Executive Producer Jan Harlan; Former WB Chairman Terry Semel; Cinematographer Allen Daviau; Costume Designer Milena Canonero; Composer Wendy Carlos; Writer Michael Herr; Coproducer Philip Hobbs; Cinematographer Doug Milsome.
FAMILY, FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES: Sister Barbara Kroner; School Friend Professor Steven Marcus; School Friend Alex Singer; School Friend Sybil Taylor; Wife Christiane Kubrick; Attorney Louis C. Blau; Assistant Anthony Frewin; Daughter Anya Kubrick; Assistant Leon Vitali; Daughter Katharina Kubrick-Hobbs; Veterinarian Mike Herrtage; Assistant Margaret Adams.
CRITICS AND NOTABLE ADMIRERS: Time Magazine Writer Richard Schickel; Director Martin Scorsese; Director Steven Spielberg; Director Alex Cox; Documentarian Paul Lashmar; Director Sydney Pollack; Director Tony Palmer; Director Woody Allen; Director Alan Parker; BBC Creative Director Alan Yentob.
Obviously, that’s a terrific group of people, and it leaves out very few notable participants. Except for the cases in which none of the stars survive - such as Dr. Strangelove - we hear from at least one main actor involved in all of Kubrick’s flicks. Jack Nicholson’s inclusion seems to be the biggest coup, as he doesn’t frequently appear in this kind of program. However, a few significant folks fail to appear. I would surmise that Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters from Lolita could have shown up, and the absence of Ryan O’Neal from Barry Lyndon seems surprising. While the program didn’t really suffer without these people and others, I think it might have been more complete if they’d been here.
Still, the show offers a very strong roster of commentators, and much of the time I learned interesting information. Life follows a resolutely chronological pace as it starts with Kubrick’s childhood and goes to his death in 1999. We see a very nice mix of stills and home movies from his youth, and we hear a few reminiscences from early friends. These add a decent layer of depth to the proceedings, though we don’t get terrific insight into Kubrick’s early years.
Once Kubrick became a filmmaker, the show provided a consistent framework. We’d go from movie to movie and learn a little about each. Life might tell us how Kubrick got involved in the project, or it’d cover current thoughts about the film, or we’d get some anecdotes from the set. Frankly, I thought the show seemed a bit drab through 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Up to and including that seminal work, the details are largely superficial, and we gain little understanding of the man or his films. Sure, there are some decent details along the way, but the whole thing felt like it didn’t provide much depth.
Happily, the proceedings start to improve with Kubrick’s next flick, 1971’s A Clockwork Orange. With that film, we learn a lot more about the behind-the-scenes workings, mainly due to the participation of lead actor Malcolm McDowell. He adds excellent notes about his relationship with Kubrick and makes the documentary seem truly personal for the first time.
Other highlights that follow involve a discussion of the camerawork from Barry Lyndon plus information about other elements of that film. I also really like the interviews with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall of The Shining. They are two of the more informative and frank subjects, and their remarks provide some of the show’s best elements. In addition, some of Kubrick’s later films - most notably The Shining and 1987’s Full Metal Jacket - feature solid behind the scenes footage from their sets; these snippets were too brief, but I liked this extra look at the proceedings.
One positive aspect of Life stems from its chronological nature. Kubrick sometimes took many years between movies, and the program shows what he did with his time. We learn of aborted projects like Napoleon and The Aryan Papers, and we also hear more about AI, the collaboration between Kubrick and Steven Spielberg that will hit screens soon. In addition, we see clips from rarely-shown works like Day of the Fight - a very early short - and Fear and Desire, the only feature-length Kubrick flick not available on DVD.
Although the majority of the program shows film clips or interview snippets with various interested parties, we do find a smidgen of archival segments with Kubrick himself. Among others, there’s an audio piece from the early Sixties and we get a home movie made by Kubrick that took place in the late Sixties. No, we don’t learn a lot about him from these snippets, but they’re interesting to see. I was particularly surprised to note that Peter Sellers apparently based the American accent he used in Dr. Strangelove on Kubrick himself. Compare the two and you’ll notice a tremendous similarity.
Although A Life In Pictures definitely provided a lot of good components, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole ultimately didn’t succeed as well as it should. Yes, there were some terrific tidbits, but I never thought that we really got inside the Kubrick mystique. At times, it seemed like the program wanted to break down barriers and show us the “real” Kubrick, but this never occurred.
Instead, most of the discussions remained fairly superficial. During some of the occasions listed earlier, we got into nice detail, but an awful lot of the show consisted of general praise for Kubrick. We hear many comments about his greatness, and at times the participants relate precisely why they feel that way; the inclusion of notables like Spielberg, Scorsese and Woody Allen is good in this regard. However, I tended to think that Life often was more of a hagiography than a biography.
As a whole, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures offered a reasonably complete and often compelling look at the great director. It provided comments from a remarkable array of participants, and it added a lot of solid, rarely-seen footage. However, for all of its positives, the show lacked the depth and nuance to become a great documentary. The best programs of that sort seem complete and leave you with a feeling that you really understand their subjects. Although I enjoyed this look at Stanley Kubrick’s life, I don’t feel like I have any greater comprehension of his talents than I possessed before I watched it. I enjoyed the show but honestly, I didn’t learn a tremendous amount from it.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures appears in a variety of aspect ratios on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. During the program, the new interview clips were presented in a 1.85:1 ratio, and many photos and other pieces were also shown in those dimensions. Clips from Kubrick’s films approximate the same aspect ratios that we find on their DVDs, so those parts of Life vary from 1.33:1 to 1.66:1 to 2.20:1.
Because Life compiled material from such a wide variety of sources, it was virtually inevitable that the quality would be erratic. Most of the show mixed new interviews with clips from Kubrick’s features and other archival footage. The interview snippets provided the most satisfying visuals. These consistently appeared clear and accurate, without many genuine concerns. At times they looked mildly fuzzy; for some reason, the shots of Malcolm McDowell were a little shakier than most of the rest. However, the interviews generally seemed sharp and distinct.
As for the other components, they were less consistent. It appeared that the various film clips came from the boxed set’s new remasters, as they all looked very good. It was the other materials that displayed greater flaws. We see some very old footage, such as home movies made by Kubrick’s family, and we also witness parts of his earliest films. These displayed a mix of different defects. Scratches, grain, speckles, blotches, and grit popped up at times. However, I wasn’t particularly bothered by these concerns. Documentaries of this sort always show varied quality, especially when the events happened many decades ago. None of these problems affected the impact of the show, and I thought Life generally offered a very solid picture.
Because most of the audio heard during Life came from the interviews and narration, it was more consistent than the picture. Even when archival footage appeared, we usually heard contemporary voice-overs. The program’s soundfield seemed appropriately modest. All speech emanated from the center. The show’s score mainly used music from Kubrick’s films, and these generally offered the same mixes found on the new DVDs. As such, the music displayed very satisfying and broad stereo imaging that complemented the action.
Audio quality appeared fine. Of course, the occasional archival elements were erratic and could sound scratchy, but the new interviews came across as warm and distinct. A few lines were slightly edgy, but they usually seemed natural and they always lacked problems related to intelligibility. The music appeared nicely bright and dynamic, and the score showed good range. Bass seemed low and rich, and highs were clean and crisp. With this kind of program, I don’t require stellar sound elements; as long as the piece seems consistently clear and intelligible, I’m happy. Life easily managed to maintain those standards, and the soundtrack was a solid piece of work.
Because Life is essentially an “extra” itself, I didn’t expect to find any supplements on this disc. That’s good, because there aren’t any. Actually, the DVD does provide a listing of the documentary’s cast and crew, but since this doesn’t link to any biographies or other additional information, it seems useless.
While Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures could have added some supplements like biographies of actors and other participants in Kubrick’s films, I won’t fault it because it doesn’t provide these elements. The documentary itself was a fairly interesting look at the life and career of a successful director, and I thought it was consistently watchable. Life lacked tremendous depth, but it had enough solid information to merit a viewing. The DVD provided more than acceptable picture and sound.
Note that Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures currently appears only as part of the nine-DVD “New Stanley Kubrick Collection”. In addition to Life, that package includes newly-remastered DVDs of Lolita, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket plus a repackaged issue of Eyes Wide Shut. All of the movies are available separately, but the documentary appears only in the boxed set. List price for the package is $199.92, which almost matches the $199.84 the DVDs would cost separately. If you want all of the films, the “Kubrick Collection” is a great deal; fans should be more than happy to pay eight cents for the documentary disc. However, if you’re not enamored of Kubrick’s oeuvre, I don’t think that A Life In Pictures should push you to spend a ton of money just to get it. You really need to desire the vast majority of the other DVDs, or else the boxed set doesn’t become a very good deal.