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By Michael E. Ross Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 6/23/2004 9:51:49 PM ET 2004-06-24T01:51:49

He had a glower worthy of Rasputin; an impish sense of humor; a chess player's feel for logic, strategy and order; and a vision he wouldn't compromise for anyone. And in 13 feature films made over nearly 50 years — three of them among the top 100 American movies picked by the American Film Institute — Stanley Kubrick secured his reputation as the enigmatic, irascible, reclusive maverick of the movies.

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It's fitting that "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures" (Warner Bros.) a new documentary now out on DVD as part of a digitally remastered collection of his films, would require friends and family to pull back the veil of one of film's most controversial figures. In interviews with colleagues and family, a portrait emerges of a Kubrick few knew: the devoted (if demanding) father; the eccentric director fascinated by TV ads' for their narrative arc; the New York City native turned wary country squire in England.

This is Stanley Kubrick without tears — as frank and unsentimental a view of the director as his own bleak assessment of the human condition, but also emotionally generous, funny and revealing to a degree Kubrick himself would certainly not have approved.

The genius at play
Directed by Jan Harlan — a longtime Kubrick colleague and the director's brother-in-law — the film takes a straight-ahead approach that keeps things moving nicely. Despite the film's 141-minute length, there are few distractions or detours that have you looking at your watch.

Harlan exhibits a charitable intelligence in his choice of images from the director's distant past. Kubrick, who died March 7, 1999, at the age of 70, is seen in home movies during his childhood. We see the future enfant terrible on a New York City playground, at the piano with his sister, madly dancing by himself, or beaming proudly in his Boy Scout uniform.

A variety of childhood interests gave way to his passion for still photography. Kubrick announced himself and his visual talents to the world with a photograph of an elderly man mourning the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. Kubrick sold the photo to Look magazine, and began his career as a freelance photojournalist at the age of 16.

The kid from the Bronx kept at it — taking pictures, doing photo spreads of stars like Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra, and hustling chess games in New York City's Washington Square Park to make ends meet. That passion for the static visual evolved into a love of film. His first, "Day of the Fight" (1950), documenting a day in the life of a young middleweight prizefighter, got him the attention he needed to make his first feature film, "Fear and Desire" (1953).

Friends and colleagues
Since those earliest films are long out of print at Kubrick's insistence (a fine example of Kubrick's uncommon autonomy), this documentary is even more valuable, not just for giving us the Kubrick we can rent at Blockbuster, but also for providing us with glimpses of his work we're not likely to see in their entirety.

Harlan's lean, crisp documentary style gets an assist from several actors and directors who weigh in with various stories. Sydney Pollack, who starred in "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), noted that Kubrick "was fascinated with Nescafe commercials, because they told stories."

Woody Allen required three viewings of "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) to decide on its brilliance as an anti-war statement ("It was so bravura, so superb, it was just a knockout"). And Steven Spielberg debated with Kubrick over which of them would direct a film of a Brian Aldiss short story -- the story that became Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (opening in theaters June 29).

For those last two directors, there's some consensus that "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) represented  Kubrick at his best as a director. For Allen, who said he saw it several times, the film was "one of the first times that I realized that the artist was well ahead of me." Spielberg, whose own otherworldly visions would result in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.," said that Kubrick's epic "wasn't documentary, it wasn't drama, it wasn't really science fiction — it was really science eventuality."

Others have their say: a smitten Martin Scorsese; Malcolm McDowell; Keir Dullea; Arthur C. Clarke; a rather weatherbeaten Jack Nicholson; Ken Adam, one of Kubrick's designers; and Christiane Kubrick, who starred in a bit role as a frightened singer in a scene in "Paths of Glory" (1957), and married the director a short while after.

Woody Allen subs for Tom Cruise?
Harlan shows how tantalizingly close we were to witnessing two other projects dear to Kubrick's heart. The director had long dreamed of doing a film on the life of Napoleon — a project scuttled when Kubrick's backers were scared off by the theatrical release of another movie about Bonaparte.

And another long-cherished Kubrick project, "Aryan Papers," his adaptation of "Wartime Lies," a Louis Begley novel of Jews in the Nazi terrors of World War II, was dropped in the wake of another film then developing on the same subject — Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

Some wonderful curiosities never made the final cut. Harlan, speaking recently at a film festival screening of the documentary, mentioned how Kubrick toyed with the mind-boggling notion of casting Woody Allen as the lead character in "Eyes Wide Shut" — the role played by Tom Cruise (who narrates this film).

The ‘existential pragmatist’
It's anyone's guess what other arresting surprises Kubrick might have visited on the unsuspecting public if he'd lived. We're left with the surprises of his body of work, eight films of which comprise the "Stanley Kubrick Collection," a just-released package of Kubrick films.

The collection includes "Lolita" (1962) in a remastered widescreen edition; interviews and special features appended to "The Shining" (1980), "Dr. Strangelove" and "Eyes Wide Shut"; and versions of "2001," "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), "Barry Lyndon" (1975), "The Shining" and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) with newly digitzed sound.

The documentary, which is exclusive to the collection, is a fitting coda, a heartfelt goodbye to the movies' "existential pragmatist," (as one friend called him), an artist whose flights of fancy still inspire, and confound.

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