Jan. 7, 2009

Stanley Kubrick's Boxes (2008)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Jon Ronson
Stars: Stanley Kubrick, Christiane Kubrick, Anthony Frewin

What it's about. When legendary film director Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, he left behind him more than just 11 fascinating films (we won't count his first five movies, made prior to The Killing.) Kubrick also left behind approximately one thousand boxes.

Kubrick, apparently, saved everything about his films except rejected takes. Location shots, screen tests, advertisements, and letters from fans, amateur critics, and cranks. All this and more was filed away in boxes. Kubrick became reclusive by the 1970s, and to an extent, the outside world, as it related to his film projects, was represented by the growing stacks of boxes.

Independent filmmaker Jon Ronson was tasked by Christiane Kubrick, Stanley's widow, to make a documentary about his boxes. And here it is. Ronson was selected partly for his great admiration for Kubrick's films. This makes Ronson biased in favor of Kubrick, particularly since his interviews consist mainly of people within Kubrick's inner circle, such as his widow, his brother-in-law and producer Jan Harlan, and longtime assistant Tony Frewin.

On the other hand, since Ronson is a fan as well as a scholar, that also means Ronson has a strong interest in his assignment. There must be something in the stacks of boxes that reveals, like the Rosebud sled of Citizen Kane, the secret of what made Kubrick's films so great.

How I felt about it. And indeed, Kubrick was a great director. Perhaps only Alfred Hitchcock was better. But unlike Kubrick, Hitchcock was prolific. He was also less consistent than Kubrick, and far more conventional. Kubrick's movies, while fewer and farther between, continued to capture the public's imagination, while Hitchcock's post-Birds output disappointed most fans.

Of course, popularity and quality are not strictly related. Kubrick's more understated efforts, such as Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, are underrated relative to his more strange and violent films, particularly The Shining.

Ronson presents a theory, based on the boxes. And it seems plausible. Kubrick's greatness came from an attention to detail. The backdrops, costumes, casting, and story are all meticulously selected from thousands of alternatives.

But Ronson also misses a salient point, something that can't be concluded from the contents of boxes. Many of Kubrick's films are highly imaginative. And they are stocked with characters that are magnificently eccentric. For example, his best film, Dr. Strangelove, has Peter Sellers' mad scientist title character, Slim Pickens' bomb-riding cowboy, and Sterling Hayden's lunatic general and his obsession with precious bodily fluids. The envelope-pushing characters and script are, in the end, much more important to the quality of his films than the backdrops and settings, not to mention his stationary supplies.

How others will see it. Fans of Stanley Kubrick's films, which include practically every cinephile, will enjoy this documentary, if only for the well edited highlights from his later films, and the interesting clips of Kubrick directing scenes from Full Metal Jacket.