Past a certain point, what you are looking at when you look at the rows and rows of boxes in the 48-minute documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes is fear. Maybe, well, fear and desire. The desire is for knowledge. The fear is, perhaps, of walking onto a film set on day one without knowing everything there is to know about the film’s subject.
In 2001, documentarian Jon Ronson was invited to the Kubrick estate to browse through the thousands of boxes, filled with research, memos, keepsakes, and sundry other items dating from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick never threw away anything (except for outtakes from his films, which he ordered incinerated). In a 2004 article for the Guardian titled “Citizen Kubrick,” Ronson writes about opening one box and discovering “an extremely lifelike and completely disgusting disembodied head of a young Vietnamese girl, the veins in her neck protruding horribly, her eyes staring out, her lips slightly open, her tongue just visible.” This is, I think, from the unused ending of Full Metal Jacket, wherein the Marines play soccer with the female sniper’s head. We don’t see this head in Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes — I was a little disappointed.
We see a great many other things. Fan letters to Kubrick were immaculately filed according to geographical origin; crank letters were separated from the rest. Ronson tracks down one such “crank,” frustrated playwright Vincent Tilsley, who wrote to express his disappointment with 2001. Today Tilsley is a psychotherapist. What would he have to say about the highly OCD mind laid bare by the acres of dusty boxes? Ronson tells us that as the gap between Kubrick’s films grew wider (four years between 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, four between Clockwork and Barry Lyndon, five between Barry Lyndon and The Shining, seven between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, twelve between FMJ and Eyes Wide Shut), the amount of sheer stuff grew more vast. Partly, we’re told, this was due to Kubrick’s increasing difficulty finding a story he wanted to tell. (Several years of research went into his unmade Holocaust project Wartime Lies, and Kubrick accumulated massive data on Napoleon for that unmade film.)
Partly, I have to assume, Kubrick was a control freak who felt the pressure of his own reputation as, to paraphrase David Denby, a lordly ditherer. Kubrick couldn’t just go out and crank out a flick on the fly. I think his first couple of features (Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, neither of which pleased him) inoculated him against fast, cheap efforts, and I think his experience on Spartacus forever doomed him to need — demand — absolute control over everything, from the years of research (the hundreds of photos snapped of London streets for Eyes Wide Shut, when there’s maybe ten minutes’ worth of exterior footage in the entire film, all of it shot on a studio lot) to the micromanagement of newspaper ads (this ad is a few millimeters smaller than it’s supposed to be; let’s get on the phone and find out why).
The comedic highlight here is a painstaking memo from 1968 asking an assistant to determine the barometric pressure in London on such and such a date, and whether said barometric pressure is normal for the season. Why did Kubrick want to know this? Nobody remembers. The equally amusing subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes deals with a bunch of devoted (if sometimes baffled) Brits skittering back and forth catering to the whims of a transplanted New York Jew. The vague implication is that Kubrick moved to England because he could sense that the English genetically know how to placate royalty. King Kubrick’s earthly leavings are pored through by Ronson (also British) like an archaeologist peering into a pharaoh’s tomb. Ronson even uncovers some footage of Kubrick on the set of Full Metal Jacket (shot by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian); the maestro complains about the crew taking too many tea breaks, and we see various extras coated with lime for the famous “The dead know only one thing” zoom shot.
The dead may only know one thing, but the insatiably curious Kubrick wanted to know everything before he could only know one thing. My suspicion is that, as Kubrick got older, he didn’t do research so that he could make movies; he made movies (or ended up not making them) so that he could do research. The proof is in all those boxes. Kubrick is my favorite director, and although his assistant Tony Frewin says in the film that Kubrick couldn’t make movies any other way, I look at all that stuff and I see a lot of wasted potential, wasted time.
Kubrick now only knows one thing, and we will never have more than fourteen of his feature films to savor. It’s undeniably fascinating to look inside a few of the cardboard cells in the massive brain that became his archives. But being left with a warehouse of almost-films and memorabilia is somewhat cold comfort.