In 1998, film director Jon Ronson was asked to provide a copy of a documentary he had made about the holocaust. He later discovered that the request had come from Stanley Kubrick who was planning a holocaust movie, until Spielberg pipped him to the post with Schindler’s List. Ronson planned to interview the director, but Kubrick died after editing Eyes Wide Shut.
Ronson was surprised to be invited to Kubrick’s house near St Albans in England at a later date by Kubrick’s widow and was shown about a thousand large boxes that contained huge quantities of memorabilia related to Kubrick’s filmmaking – collated and classified by Kubrick himself and supplied by an army of faithful researchers and photographers who worked for him, including dozens of readers (most of whom did not know who they were working for) who would write reports on new novels, as part of the increasingly impossible task of finding a true coup de coeur story for the next Kubrick masterpiece.
One somewhat bemused regular collaborator was asked to photograph the whole of the Commercial Road in London from a twelve-foot stepladder at twelve-foot intervals – it is a very long street – to avoid the leaning effect on buildings of photographing from street level and tape the photographs together into a huge chain for Kubrick’s perusal. Another assistant was charged with implementing a stream of highly detailed memos, which go from stipulating how many melons should be in the house at any one time to requests for information concerning barometric pressure readings in London at a precise hour on a precise day.
There are boxes of demo films sent by people who wanted to work with him, which Kubrick watched with interest, and thousands of fan letters categorised as F-P (positive), F-N (negative) or Crank, and filed according to the home town of the writer so that the person could be used as a « field agent » in that locality at a later date. They also include meticulous research for all of his films, from the kind of stately home gateway that should appear in Eyes Wide Shut to the hats Alex and his droogs should wear in Clockwork Orange.
It is common knowledge that Kubrick paid a fanatical attention to detail, and Ronson’s four-year rummage through these methodically organised boxes produces ample concrete and anecdotal evidence of this. The attention to detail also includes the boxes themselves, which were custom-made to his precise specifications. Touchingly, Kubrick had a passion for stationery and was a regular visitor to Ryman’s in St Albans, ever on the look-out for new notebooks or files.
One of the pleasures of this film is hearing what his closest associates, his wife and daughter thought of him – the intensity of their admiration and their amusement at his quirks and caprices.
A book-end companion piece for Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes is the documentary Room 237 (2012) which looks at Kubrick’s meticulous detailing from the movie-goer’s perspective, with multiple interpretations of the movie The Shining that range from the ingenious to the downright insane.
It is also interesting to compare it with the 1997 documentary Pretty As a Picture – The Art of David Lynch in that both documentaries grapple with what goes into making outstanding movies. In other words, passion, vision, rigour, artistic vision, obsessiveness and sheer hard graft. Though very different directors, Kubrick and Lynch are both remarkable for their visual sense.
When will Nicolas Roeg, the consummate visual artist of British cinema, get the documentary he deserves? In the meantime, he’s about to get a remake of Don’t Look Now (a film of such total artistic integrity that it simply cannot be improved on) by none other than the makers of Scary Movie 3 – Yea verily, fools rush in where angels fear to tread…