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STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES & A.I.

By • Jul 1st, 2001 • Pages: 1 2

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Stanley Kubrick’s career did not end on March 7, 1999 when he suddenly died of a heart attack at age 70. EYES WIDE SHUT, his thirteenth feature, was complete barring some minor aspects of the sound mixing process and the final color grading. His producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan saw the physical and emotional toll the film took on him. Kubrick was drained but, as he had for his entire career there was always planning, research, shooting, editing and marketing to do – a life cycle connected to his family life in England. Kubrick was buried on his land and his immediate and corporate family at Warner Bros. continued on guided by the master’s instructions, plans and legacy.

When A.I. opened on June 29, 2001, the year Kubrick immortalized in his landmark work 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the cycle that began with his first still photographs and first film, DAY OF THE FIGHT was completed. There was much to do when Kubrick died and the Kubrick family pressed on until the job was done and the results show Stanley Kubrick proud. EYES WIDE SHUT did not get the attention and respect it deserved here in the states but most Kubrick films took years to catch up with because he was so ahead of his time. Americans are just now appreciating BARRY LYNDON, released in 1975. The dream-state of EYES WIDE SHUT will get its turn one day, long after the pre-release gossip about sexual high-jinx, hired and fired actors, and the second-guessing of the superstar casting of Cruise and Kidman has passed and the movie stands on its own.

Kubrick’s instructions were followed and EYES WIDE SHUT ran its theatrical course. Still much to do. Jan Harlan with the good graces of Christiane Kubrick and her daughters, Katherina Kubrick-Hobb, Anya and Vivian stayed on course as rumors doubts and miss-facts filled the information superhighway.

The day Stanley Kubrick died hit home. As Kubrick’s biographer it was as if a member of the family died. The day was filled with media requests. I had a duty to do, The next day, in-between television, print and radio interviews, where I tried my best to give this great filmmaker his proper respect, I had two editing classes to teach at the School of Visual Arts, Department of Film, Video and Animation. Someone had put up the New York Times Obituary on the editing room wall. Students and faculty came up all afternoon to share condolences and stand in front of the story of Kubrick’s life. The last words I heard as I left for home was from a first year student, “The whole school is sad.”

Months went by, a friend from Variety called to inform me he had heard Jan Harlan was producing and directing a feature-length documentary on the life of Stanley Kubrick. My wife Harriet calmly explained to me how I should not expect to be a part of it. Kubrick, through his demand for secrecy during his life, wouldn’t embrace a biographer who put this very private life out there for all to see. The family would have to obey those wishes, she explained.

   Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers share an uncomfortable moment with Cary Grant.

My father passed on a little over a month after Kubrick and since the book had been published he had constantly complained with great indignation, “Can’t that guy acknowledge what you’ve done!” I always explained with patience and inner conflict, “Kubrick is very secretive and to acknowledge my book would be to endorse the contents and facts of his life.” I am a pragmatist. I never expected to meet Stanley Kubrick – it was not to be. My role was to document his achievements and be one of the many representatives he had around the globe to spread the word so he could be on his estate outside of London and be Stanley Kubrick.

I was never to tell my dad about Kubrick’s reaction to my book, but it did come. Since I wrote Kubrick a letter informing him I was writing the biography in 1996, I quietly hoped that phone call would one day come. Several months after learning about the Jan Harlan documentary project I was in my office when the phone rang. The dream call arrived, “Hello, this message is for Vincent LoBrutto. This is Anthony Frewin, from Stanley Kubrick’s office.” I picked it up, heart pounding, mind focused, voice cool and friendly. Tony Frewin had been Kubrick’s right hand man for over thirty years. I knew exactly who he was and that he had called for a reason. A charming, friendly man with deep knowledge about everything from the cinema to jazz history to politics, we spoke for some time. Kubrick was famous for not getting to his point until the second or third conversation. After much small talk Tony said, “You know Stanley read your book and quite liked it.” “Oh”, I replied, that’s so nice.” “Yeah, he would read it and say ‘That guy knows more about me than I do.’ I fell into hysterical laughter. “What he liked about it”, Tony continued, “was he said, ‘It wasn’t a typical show business biography.” I could envision those words on the back jacket but they would have to remain within me. Then Tony got to his assigned mission. Jan Harlan wanted to come to my apartment and interview me for the documentary. Tony who was the producer, writer and researcher of the project had been going over my book word by word. I was told no one knew about Kubrick’s life prior to meeting and marrying Christine in the late fifties, even his wife of over forty years didn’t know about her husband’s life in the Bronx. Jan Harlan who once went through Europe to procure tanks for FULL METAL JACKET knew I lived at the edge of the Bronx in Westchester.

It was on a Sunday, we prepared a breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, lox, fruit, cheese and orange juice for our European guests. They arrived as instant friends, Jan, Kubrick’s daughter Anya, an opera singer and Jan’s son Manuel, the digital videographer for the project.

After noshing and getting acquainted talk, Jan sitting at the head of our table addressed his intent. “You have written about Stanley and know so much about him that we didn’t. We lived with him and know things about him that no one else knows. What would you like to know about Stanley that you were not able to find out?” All eyes were on me. “I’ve always asked myself what questions I would ask him if I had the opportunity.” I thought for a time as they watched. “I have three questions. What did Stanley Kubrick eat? Did he believe in God. Did he sleep, how did he work? “Good!”, Jan said. “I will interview you first, then we will switch seats with the camera still rolling and you will ask me those questions on camera.” As I shifted from subject to interviewer Jan answered “Stanley ate when he could, enjoyed lavish dinner parties with invited quests and loved New York food, especially deli.” Kubrick and Jan often talked about the existence of God. Kubrick, an existentialist who studied many of man’s evils, did discuss the belief in a higher being. Kubrick did make 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which ends in rebirth, and the god thing resurfaces in A.I. Jan’s answer was articulate but I somehow felt Kubrick took this one with him. The answer about work and sleep came in anecdotes about all night work sessions, cat-naps and a lifetime average of 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night.

copyright© 1969 MAD Magazine.

Later we made a pilgrimage to the Bronx in a car provided by Warner Brothers. I did “stand-ups” in front of William Howard Taft High School and several Kubrick family homes. Like film history’s answer to Peter Jennings I stood authoritatively in front of each landmark and spoke, “Behind me is William Howard Taft High School, where Stanley Kubrick took photographs for the Taft Literary Review.” Jan was interested in pursuing the questions I could never ask Kubrick. With Manuel Harlan chasing behind me I walked past one of the many places Kubrick and his family lived, talking about it with my back to the camera. When I was told to stop, I turned and peered into the lens and said, “Did Stanley Kubrick believe in god?” Jan learned well at the side of the master. He kept telling me every take was good but he called for another. I felt I was inside of my own book trying to explain why Kubrick shot so many takes – and this was digital video! The end was finally in sight and this special afternoon ended with lunch. I suggested one of Westchester’s fine pubs. After a polite silence from my British company who have been pubbed out in the UK, they unanimously clamored for American food.

They were in seventh heaven at the mega-diner we suggested. Manuel chomped on an American burger, Anya, a blue plate chicken special and Jan yearned for pot roast. The only dissatisfaction came with tea as Jan dunked the second rate tea bag rapidly up and down in the tepid water like a pogo stick in warp speed mode.

We said goodbye to our friends and they flew back. I returned to another book project. A month later Tony Frewin called to chat and to launch one of his classic teases, beloved by Kubrick. “You’re going to be in the trailer, we see you traipsing in the Bronx and you dramatically turn to the camera in slo-mo, your face filling the screen. “Did Kubrick believe in god?”

Jan was originally given a running time of one hour and a half by Warner Bros. Distribution plans were not locked in, maybe a TV air, a possible theatrical run, video, DVD. Tony Frewin worked tirelessly on the script while Jan and Manuel interviewed and filmed a host of film directors, family members and collaborators. When Jan and the highly skilled editor, Melanie Viner Cuneo, who worked on the post-production of EYES WIDE SHUT sat in front of the Avid, they were overwhelmed with the gift of so much good material. Jan asked Warner’s for another forty-five minutes and got it.

Jan shuttled back and forth during the making of the documentary perfectly titled STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES, to the secretive set of A.I. on which he was an executive producer. Spielberg worked sub rosa with an info blackout worthy of his now silent partner. As with EYES WIDE SHUT, rumors persisted. Could Spielberg be trusted? Would he Disneyfy Kubrick’s icy view. Few listened when it was accurately reported that the two men planned the film together after decades of Kubrick’s solitary work with writers and designers and his search for visual effects that were not yet available until he saw Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK. It was then that A.I. went back on the Kubrick project slate, to follow EYES WIDE SHUT.

Jan and Viner Cuneo edited, Spielberg stayed in the public eye with numerous appearances for other projects while taking on his toughest assignment, a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in a duel that can be categorized as HAL meets E.T.

2001 was Kubrick’s year, he owned it by bringing it to us in 1968 with his vanguard movie. I woke early on New Year’s day. I surfed from morning show to morning show. They were all playing Zarathurasta or celebrating images of the movie that the calendar finally caught up with. It would be an exciting year. I was scheduled to teach a tribute course of Kubrick’s career at SVA and another celebrating 2001 – a six week odyssey with the film. 2001 was to be released in a restored print. The Stanley Kubrick collection with its paucity of special features, inferior transfers and incorrect aspect ratios would be redone. The transfers Kubrick approved before his death were for video release only, not DVD. This recently released fact by Leon Vitali, longtime Kubrick assistant who played Lord Bullingdon in BARRY LYNDON, ended two years of complaints, attacks and misinformation. STANLEY KUBRICK was to arrive followed by a large format book with photographs from the Kubrick family private collection. Another call from Tony Frewin brought a request from Christiane Kubrick for me to write the chronology of Kubrick’s life and work. They had started but again the silence concerning his past left too many gaps. I was honored. A.I. was set for a summer release. The always dependable Spielberg didn’t have the Kubrickian luxury of setting back the date as Kubrick did several times with EYES WIDE SHUT. 2001 was the first year of the new millenium. Kubrick knew that back in 1964.

From the deleted final section of Dr. Strangelove. copyright© 1963 Columbia Pictures Corporation.

STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES is a documentary tribute to the private man only family friends and collaborators saw. From the perspective of the narrator, Tom Cruise, and interviews with family, Frewin and Vitali we see around the myth that Kubrick was unemotional, neurotic, phobic and reclusive. These witnesses tell us about a man who was open with the trust of a trusted few. Intimate home movies of a pre-teen Kubrick and photos from his earliest days show a fun-loving, playful if not intense boy. Black-and-white home movies of Stanley, Christiane and the girls are priceless in eliminating the image of Stanley Kubrick the cold, obsessed perfectionist by adding a look at a caring family man never shown to the public or even hinted at in his thirteen feature films. A camera tour of the magnificent grounds and interior look at his homey country estate communicate why Kubrick never wanted to leave. A traveling camera moving down their road sends the viewer into environmental bliss.

The intimacy achieved by Stanley Kubrick in actors is the intimacy of Harlan’s camera as it lovingly pans over Kubrick’s personal research and books, one on Napoleon and a video tape labeled, “The History of Recording”. We listen to Christiane talk about her husband, comfortably sitting in her painting studio, unfinished work behind her appearing as if she’s taken a break to talk to a close friend. Kubrick’s ineffective attempt at directing young Vivian and Anya at the piano in a home movie clip reveals his humor and the reality of a man who loves women – living with the statistics of 4 to 1. The director who has been called a misogynist and a misanthrope is shown and described as a content, if not demanding, man who loved his family. He was loyal to those loyal to him. This was not a recluse but a man whose world revolved around his work as a film director. Kubrick’s early life in the Bronx is told briefly but there is no smoking gun or Rosebud here. In the four years of my own intensive research and the intimate years spent with him by his inner circle, none of us have found the evidence the public clamors for.

Stanley Kubrick was born Jewish but his parents were not religious. Kubrick didn’t reveal much at all to his wife and family. In fact my book was their consultant that gave them a fact trail. For me, the man I’ve studied since I was 14 is no longer a myth. There are no secrets. The documentary gives many insights behind the mysterious exterior. Kubrick really isn’t that hard to figure out if you drop the myth he helped to create with his solitude and reluctance to reveal himself. Many film artists leave sign posts of who they are in their work. Kubrick was a man of high intellect and imagination with the ability to separate his life from his art. To Stanley Kubrick, movies were a dream-state. In that spirit his movies take us into the subconscious of a humanity who saw the black heart of man and just once showed us the glory of a higher power in the form of a Star Child. He would revisit that quest for existence once again but he would not be here when we saw it in A.I.

STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES puts Kubrick’s work in a context that celebrates his consistency as a cinema artist. Harlan goes through each of the features, one at a time intercutting interviews with collaborators and moments from the films. These are not clips; technically they are, but in the hands of Harlan and Viner Cuneo they reveal a singular vision and show the greatness of each film, capturing its essence. The films are here not for illustration or recognition or to sate the appetite for more. The images, sequences and cinematic moments are the art of Stanley Kubrick. The title takes on the gravity of Harlan’s accomplishments. Kubrick’s life was in the pictures both still and moving because that’s how Stanley Kubrick spent his life, with family and work.

Audiences loved Kubrick’s films, critics rarely got it. Richard Schickel, author, critic and a man who had Kubrick’s ear over the decades explains the phenomena of why critics don’t get it. In a spectacular opening and throughout the documentary Harlan playfully gets revenge for his subject and brother-in-law by presenting the text of vitriolic reviews and articles that spoke to themselves and not to the films or those who admire Kubrick’s work. The words that created the myth dance on the screen in an editorial montage to music from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and are dismantled by Harlan’s presentation of Kubrick’s work and the testament of those who knew him, not the language of a jaundiced critical establishment.

Harlan interviews a range of film directors, Alex Cox, Alan Parker, Sidney Pollack, Woody Allen and Spielberg who pay homage and give understanding into Kubrick’s cinematic achievements. But Martin Scorsese, our national film historian, speaks not as a fellow director but as a man whose passion for cinema is a well of knowledge explaining and sharing the glories of these great films.

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One Response »

  1. Thank you for the deeply engaging review/article. Rekindles my own dream-like fascination and can’t-shake-it curiosity about this great visual artist/conceptual tinkerer. I was never the Farrah-or-Star-Wars-posters-on-my-wall type of teen, but if I had been, Stanley Kubrick would have been up there. Your review inspires the dormant ‘Kubrick geek’ inside me to re-birth. Perhaps the first sign of my supernova will be a nice poster of thoughtful Stanley on my man-cave wall (garage, where else?). When my wife asks, I’ll just send her to this link.

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