Film: Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008)

July 28, 2011 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Documentary / Stanley Kubrick / Film History

Synopsis: Filmmaker Jon Ronson chronicles his rare foray into the Kubrick archives at the family’s estate.

Special Features: n/a




“Anyone who has every been privileged to direct a film also knows that although it can be like trying to write ‘War and Peace’ in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.” — Stanley Kubrick

As recounted at the top of this Channel 4 documentary, in 1996 Jon Ronson received a mysterious phone call from a man called “Tony,” requesting a copy of a Holocaust documentary Ronson had made. After much stalling, Tony eventually confessed his unnamed employer was Stanley Kubrick. Ronson sent a tape, hoping it would lead to a meeting at Kubrick’s compound near St. Albans, but nothing transpired.

A few years after Kubrick’s death, upon reading one of Ronson’s books, the mysterious Tony – Anthony Frewin, the director’s assistant for 31 years – remembered his 1996 phone conversation, and invited Ronson to the family house.

The buildings were in disrepair, and to accommodate an active restoration, key contents were housed in portable cabins. What Ronson saw inside the compact sheds were thousands of boxes, many unopened for decades, and when he asked if he could examine some of their contents, the family agreed.

That opportunity began a 5-year odyssey where Ronson discovered not only the bureaucratic remnants of Kubrick’s film productions, but glimpses into the mind of a methodical, ever-active man who obsessed over infinite details of his films.

Once freed from the studios and allowed to deliver his finished work to Warner Bros., Kubrick could (and did) indulge in extraordinary levels of research, much of which lay packed up in boxes and cabinets after the films had been completed, or a project was either aborted or in stasis.

Although a fan’s treasure trove and a film historian’s heavenly chest of historic goodies, the family was concerned that what emerged through the media could be selectively extracted and exploited into an article or film that could worsen Kubrick’s reputation as a recluse, or turn him into what daughter Anya Kubrick characterized as some kind of “monster.”

What emerged was a 2004 article Ronson penned for The Guardian, and this 2008 doc – both supporting the public’s perception of Kubrick as an eccentric, private man, but also providing a deeper glimpse into the psyche of a remarkable mind whose perfectionism was both baffling, and sometimes amusing.

Frewin reads from vintage memos banged out late at night by Kubrick during the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and while he’s inured to the peculiarity of Kubrick’s odd requests, he does recognize their quirkiness – such as the director wanting the specific barometric pressure readings of an afternoon period from a week prior, and its relation to the monthly average a year earlier.

There’s also the fan letters – all of them – which Kubrick personally read and branded, including “crank” letters, just in case someone ever tried to harm him or his family. Incredibly, Ronson tracked down one ‘crank’ author, and confronted him with his 30+ year old rant.

More fascinating are thousands of stills from which Kubrick selected the ideal set designs for his films. Nephew Manuel Harlan was charged with photographing various gates, streets, doors, and sleazy corners frequented by hookers in Islington – oddly, the same area where Ronson lives – as well as the interiors of certain apartments for the pre-production of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and it’s a methodology, according to Frewin, which began as early as Lolita (1962).

Ronson’s goal wasn’t to make a doc about Kubrick, but rather let the boxes reveal aspects of the film icon. The emerging portrait is funny, surreal, but also humanistic: Kubrick was a beloved father, and like any aging, brilliant mind, certain eccentricities became more enriched.

Examples include the aforementioned memos, Kubrick’s peculiarly keen interest in the newest stationary at his local shop in town, and the custom storage boxes he designed and ordered by the hundreds from a local manufacturer to ensure the lids would come off more easily.

The family ultimately donated the archive of boxes to the University of the Arts in London (profiled here, and here), which will help in their healing process, but there’s no doubt the house will feel strange, knowing large remnants of the family’s patriarch are no longer present in every room.

Ronson covers a fair deal in the doc, and there are film clips, plus a rare snippet from Sue Lyon’s Lolita [M] audition, and a newsreel extract showing valets wearing heart-shaped glasses greeting the VIPs.

There’s also extracts from Vivian’s Kubrick’s 18 hours worth of 16mm film, shot during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987). In one delightfully profane extract, Kubrick and Frewer deal with the crew’s insistence on taking one tea break too many. There’s also an excerpt from a 1998 acceptance speech, where Kubrick thanks (via videotape) members of the Director’s Guild of America for awarding him the D.W. Griffith Award (see quoted extract at top of review).

Most of the archival extracts are seen in brief, and the doc could easily have run a full 90 mins. Perhaps it was a desire to deliver a tight running time or the family’s request to use extracts and samples selectively, but the doc merely whets the appetite for more, and one hopes the archives will spin-off separate documentaries (preferably to beef up future Blu-ray editions), if not books, much in the way the minds of former studio production chiefs Darryl F. Zanuck and David O. Selznick were captured in published collections culled from surviving production memos.

At present, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes is not available on DVD. Director Jon Ronson is also an author, and is best known for the book The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was made into a film in 2009.

In 2010, the Museum of St. Albans housed Kubrick: A Film Makers Odyssey, featuring  materials from the Kubrick archives.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


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