Book Review: Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker (Yale Univ. Press) by David Mikics

Reviewer: Anthony Pomes

I admit, without a shred of shame, that I have watched Stanley Kubrick’s films repeatedly during my nearly five decades rooted to this vast spinning globe. The pattern was set at age 11, when a “pan-scan” VHS copy of his 1968 legendary sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, filled me with such wonderment — and fear — that a week would not go by without me watching it again, scooping up a handful of new things on each viewing. Upon seeing it in proper “widescreen” format on PBS-TV a few years later — and recording that airing on a videotape, of course — the thrill with which I then embraced further the outer edges of the film’s intended frame was equivalent to that of a religious experience. Indeed, the closest that I came to a relatable God concept in my teenage years was Kubrick and co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke’s “four-million-year-old black monolith” — a symbol of remote and transcendent perfection at the core of that film. Being that all Edenic states seem at some point to become corrupted, the sublime majesty of his 2001 vision would later give way for me to Kubrick’s endlessly fascinating 1980 horror epic, The Shining. Having chosen a career in book publishing — first as an editor, and then later in the separate but connected realms of publicity, sales/marketing, and foreign rights — an obsessive embrace of all that Kubrick did with Stephen King’s early-days bestselling novel was a given. For those who have based their lives around the incessant pulse of word wrestling, the specter in Kubrick’s film of failed writer Jack Torrance’s endless pile of typewritten pages all bearing the same single typed sentence “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” remains enough to freeze many of us to our very souls.

It feels so important to point out the deep level of care and devotion that I have taken when it comes to the thirteen canon-worthy feature films of Stanley Kubrick, and the impact they have had and continue to have on my life — because we now seem to be in a time when the cinema’s role in culture has been largely ignored, erased . . . perhaps even deliberately buried. And yet, as captured so deftly by acclaimed writer David Mikics in his new book ($26.00 USD, Yale University Press), the story of Kubrick — not only the filmmaker, but also the son and husband and father and even friend — bespeaks a regard for aesthetic and personal excellence that seems in these times so desperately needed by so many.

As a dedicated “Kubrickian” for decades, I can tell those already interested in this famously elusive movie director that there are not very many new pieces of information provided here. Having read every other published book that has ever been written about Kubrick — starting with French author and journalist Michel Ciment’s outstanding 1980 book, which was the only book on Kubrick that existed back when I was a kid — I can report happily that Mikics has dutifully researched and made wise inclusion of material from every other book that has come out on this great Bronx, NY-born filmmaker up to the present day. (This book’s Notes section is a cornucopia of great and impactful sources to all existing materials, and it is especially worthy in the eBook format — where provided URLs on much of the cited material often brings you directly to the primary source materials with the help of a click.) What makes this new volume from Mikics such a full and pleasurable read is the craft and taut precision with which he explores the entirety of Kubrick’s work, and life, so comprehensively across only around 200 pages.

Whether writing about Kubrick’s early years as a photographer for Look magazine; his struggle to achieve creative autonomy while employed by star actor Kirk Douglas to direct the 1960 blockbuster epic, which he would achieve four years later upon release of his nuclear war black comedy Dr. Strangelove; his still-controversial 1971 adaptation of the dystopian Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange, alongside the abortive attempts to make films both about Napoleon Bonaparte and then the Holocaust (an attempt to make a film of the early ’90s Louis Begley novel, Wartime Lies, cancelled by Kubrick when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was announced at around that same time); or his belief that Eyes Wide Shut — the criminally underrated 1999 film starring then-married stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, which would prove to be his last before he died at age 70 in March 1999 — would be the most important film that he ever made; Mikics succeeds remarkably well at presenting the enduring genius of Stanley Kubrick in a way that is as entertaining and accessible to the longtime obsessed as it is to the first-time impressed.

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Anthony Pomes has worked steadily as a freelance writer/editor and frequent ghost writer for more than two decades.