Vincent LoBrutto's Stanley Kubrick: A Biography

Reviewed by Brian Siano

Stanley Kubrick: A Biography

by Vincent LoBrutto
New York: Donald J. Fine Books, 1995
610 pages, Illustrations. Hardcover $29.95

Film critic David Denby once compared Stanley Kubrick to the enigmatic black slab of his landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey; "A force of supernatural intelligence, appearing at great intervals amid high-pitched shrieks, who gives the world a violent kick up the next rung of the evolutionary ladder." While it's an apt comparison, it still doesn't quite capture the strangeness of Kubrick's career. Consider...

Other directors of Kubrick's generation, such as Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, have passed through periods of genius and decline, relevance and irrelevance, top-dollar productions and second-tier scripts. Most directors make a reputation with consistent themes or subjects; the gangsters of Coppola or Scorcese, Lumet's feel for New York City, Speilberg's boys' tales, Woody Allen's Manhattan aesthetes. Oliver Stone and Spike Lee maintain their reputations by staying newsworthy. Kubrick, living in comparative seclusion in St. Albans, England, earned the title "the invisible man" in a recent BBC documentary.

A major film director can turn out a film every two years, provided he works steady and can get the studio backing. Stanley Kubrick has commanded our interest since 1956's The Killing; and in the forty years since then, he has turned out only ten films.

And apart from two war films, Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, each of these films is utterly unique. Two are science fiction; one awe-inspiring and optimistic, the other horrifying and deeply cynical about the human condition. There's an historical epic done within the Hollywood system (which Kubrick has disowned), and a deliberately-paced tale of a failed rake of the 18th century. And then there's Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and The Shining...

And not even the enigmatic black slab could have negotiated Kubrick's contract with Warner Brothers which, I suspect, is at least half the reason why Hollywood respects him so much. The new project, Eyes Wide Shut, includes Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Harvey Keitel, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh in the cast -- and Kubrick has allowed not one word of its plot to be leaked to the press. (The best guess is that it's an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1928 novel Rhapsody, a long-time Kubrick favorite.) And as for that fabled right of Final Cut... the studio doesn't even see Kubrick's films until he's finished with them.

Vincent LoBrutto's book is the first in-depth biography of Kubrick and, given the length and impact of its subject's career, it's long overdue. (And it will apparently be doing competition with John Baxter's upcoming Kubrick biography, due out in 1997.) Until now, Kubrickophiles knew only the basics of his early years: the fascination with chess and photography, the staff job at Look while still in his teens, and the eventual shift in interest to motion pictures that brought forth documentaries and low-budget, independent thrillers like Killer's Kiss and The Killing. LoBrutto has managed to flesh out the Young Kubrick, and by more than a little.

It's heartening to know that Kubrick didn't spring up as a full-blown genius all by himself; he and Alexander Singer, now a respected television director, enjoyed a friendship of mutual interests, inspirations, and support. Other acquaintances at the Bronx's Taft High School, such as composer Gerald Fried, writer Howard Sackler, and actor-director Paul Mazursky, moved in and out of Kubrick's circle as well. His tenure at Look is covered in exhaustive detail, with nearly every photo spread of Kubrick's catalogued and described. LoBrutto has even managed to track down such lost items as Kubrick's industrial documentary The Seafarers and his second-unit work on a 1950's TV biography of Lincoln. LoBrutto has given us, for the first time, an account of how the awkward but intense photography buff grew into Stanley Kubrick the Film Artist.

We do learn that the picture of "crazy Stanley," encouraged through rumors and gossip columns, is pretty much untrue. No, dear reader, he doesn't drive at ten miles an hour wearing a football helmet, and he doesn't put his actors through eighty-five takes of every scene. Kubrick is very much the "control freak par excellence," as screenwriter Michael Herr called him, but no more so than Oliver Stone or David Lean: he always has a good reason for making some pretty extreme demands. Yes, he did send a three-foot-long Telex to a lens developer, explaining how to build a mount for a super-powerful zoom lens that wouldn't lose as much light as other lenses. Yes, he did personally select which theatres would show Full Metal Jacket, citing a Lucasfilm study on crappy film projection conditions. This is a man who, by transatlantic telephone, arranged for a New York theater to be repainted for the first run of A Clockwork Orange. And the section on Kubrick's aborted Napoleon project is priceless; one can't help but smile at the thought of Kubrick estimating the costs of flu vaccines and barracks construction for the projected 50,000 extras required for the massive battle scenes. (One wishes Kubrick would take advantage of computer technology to restart this dream project.)

LoBrutto has acquired many terrific interviews with Kubrick's early associates, and these are among the liveliest of the book. But he was hobbled by the inaccessibility of his subject, and I suspect that many of the people with whom Kubrick has worked with -- especially in later years -- may not have been available or willing to be interviewed at length. So, apart from several extremely good interviews, later chapters read less like a narrative, and more like a very well-summarized scrapbook. The reader will notice a lot of source-citing phrases in the quotes, such as "Kubrick told Tim Cahill," and "Douglas Milsome told Ron Magid" and "Christiane Kubrick told Valerie Jenkins of the Evening Standard." The passages from Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis on Spartacus are taken from their respective autobiographies, and there's little on the making of 2001 that isn't in Piers Bizony's fine book 2001: Filming the Future.

Now, sometimes a biographer can make these arrangements read well, as Frank Brady did in Citizen Welles, but a really good writer can make it read like a novel -- like Philip Norman did in Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation. But a lot of biographies of filmmakers are written by buffs who may have encyclopedic knowledge of films and pop culture, but of little else; one gets a sense from many authors that the only world that matters is one of classic scenes and innovative techniques. LoBrutto isn't a groupie or a fanboy, and he's more clear-headed than most film biographers, but one reads Stanley Kubrick: A Biography while imagining ways to improve it. We learn what Kubrick did, and sometimes we get the how, but the only whys we get are those explicitly stated in LoBrutto's source materials. LoBrutto hasn't managed to put himself into the intellectual climate of the time, and Kubrick winds up as a kind of enigmatic black box with a gargantuan talent.

This is a shame, because Kubrick's uniqueness as a filmmaker comes from his intellectual engagement with the rest of the world. The chapter on Dr. Strangelove needs a background on nuclear deterrence theories of the time. (My own suspect for Strangelove's model was Rand strategist Herman Kahn: try reading On Thermonuclear War, or Fred Kaplan's wonderful study The Wizards of Armageddon, and you'll see why). How did Kubrick's research into the 18th century influence the pacing of Barry Lyndon? What did novelist and critic Diane Johnson, not exactly known as a horror-film scriptwriter, bring to the screenplay of The Shining? And as far as Spartacus goes, it's difficult to read a child's-primer passage like "Dalton Trumbo did not like Howard Fast. In their only face-to-face meeting, Fast berated the screenwriter for not holding Marxism classes while in prison," without feeling that something's been summarized a tad too hastily. I wish LoBrutto had traded notes with film historian Duncan Cooper, whose series of Spartacus articles in Cineaste (Vol. XVIII, No.3, 1991; et al.) are indispensable.

LoBrutto's Stanley Kubrick: A Biography is clearly a work of love. To serious Kubrick fans, it may not be quite as satisfying as other, more analytical studies, such as Alexander Walker's Stanley Kubrick Directs or Michael Ciment's indispensable Kubrick. But the qualities of LoBrutto's book far outweigh the shortcomings I've described, and it will probably stand as the definitive biography of one of our greatest living film artists.