Stan­ley Kubrick: Amer­i­can Filmmaker

  • Review
By – September 28, 2020

Stan­ley Kubrick fell in love with movies when he was a teenag­er, and it was a life­long affair. He some­times for­sook school for one of the splen­did the­aters near the Grand Con­course, the grassy Bronx neigh­bor­hood where he grew up, and he spent the last part of his life on an estate in Eng­land that was both his home and his stu­dio, allow­ing him full con­trol of his films.

Note the sub­ti­tle—Amer­i­can Film­mak­er—of this com­pact biog­ra­phy by David Mikics, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton and a colum­nist for Tablet Mag­a­zine. Stan­ley Kubrick did not make pop­u­lar movies. He cre­at­ed dis­tinc­tive films based on his wide and eclec­tic read­ing and his intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests, films over which he demand­ed com­plete con­trol and which were marked by his obses­sive atten­tion to detail. Kubrick chose the music for his films, often draw­ing on the works of clas­sic com­posers — Beethoven in A Clock­work Orange—and intro­duc­ing the avant-garde com­pos­er Györ­gy Ligeti. He used the Steadicam, recent­ly invent­ed, to dra­mat­ic effect, and he even tried to improve the qual­i­ty of the pro­jec­tors used in movie the­aters. Most notably, he shot and reshot takes end­less­ly — eighty retakes in one instance.

Kubrick’s films are a win­dow into his fas­ci­na­tion with vio­lence, rebel­lion, war, and the undo­ing of the best-laid plans. Mikics orga­nizes the book around the films, under­lin­ing these themes. Each chap­ter is a deep inside look into the mak­ing of the films — Kubrick’s work with the writ­ers, his tech­nique and rela­tions with the actors, the cre­ation of the locales, the takes and the retakes. When he made a film, it became, in great part, Kubrick’s life, some­times reveal­ing much about him. He had hours-long con­ver­sa­tions with his col­lab­o­ra­tors. He often enter­tained the actors in his home.

As with oth­er books in the Yale/​Jewish Lives series, Stan­ley Kubrick is more a biog­ra­phy of the subject’s work than the subject’s life. Mikics does give an overview of Kubrick’s life, but not in any for­mal way. The read­er gets a nice pic­ture of the Kubricks’ full and com­pan­ion­able life on the estate in Eng­land in glimpses, between the detailed accounts of the films. He enter­tained reg­u­lar­ly, often serv­ing as chef; his estate abound­ed with cats and dogs, which he watched over care­ful­ly. In the twelve years between his two last films he enjoyed life with his grand­chil­dren, read, watched his wife paint, kept up with the film indus­try and new movies, and spent hours on the phone. But his rela­tions with his daugh­ters and step­daugh­ter sug­gest prob­lems of con­trol that are men­tioned only in passing.

Twen­ty years after Kubrick’s death, his films still exer­cise an influ­ence both for their pow­er­ful visions and their cin­e­mat­ic skill. For seri­ous fol­low­ers of film, par­tic­u­lar­ly of Kubrick’s films, Stan­ley Kubrick is a reward­ing and reveal­ing biography.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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