Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes


Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes is a documentary about the thousand plus large boxes of research material the eccentric genius film director left behind when he died.

The contents include everything from screen tests to photographs to letters from the public. It took years to go through them and get a general idea of what they contain, so you can imagine how time consuming it was to actually collect all this stuff.

Kubrick was increasingly reclusive the older he got. His production rate decreased as his perfectionism increased. He was obsessed with getting every detail of a film exactly as he wanted it.

He spent years researching a potential Holocaust film, only to abandon it before even starting shooting when Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List from start to finish in a fraction of the time Kubrick had been researching his film. Too difficult an act to follow, he concluded.

He apparently kept every letter ever written to him, meticulously catalogued by name, location, and whether it was favorable toward him and his work, unfavorable, or weird and disturbing enough to be labeled as “crank.”

He commissioned thousands of photographs in preparation for his films, wanting to get every visual exactly right. He knew that real life can deviate from the imagination of even the most skilled and experienced set designers. For example, if a shot was going to include a nightstand next to a bed, he didn’t want to have to rely on a set designer’s assumptions about what a typical person would have sitting on such a piece of furniture, but instead wanted to be able to consult countless photos of real people’s bedrooms.

He hired people to read a massive number of books and research other stories, and then to write up summaries and assessments of them for him to review, looking for something—which he virtually never found—that would so inspire him that he’d want to make his next movie about it.

Without a doubt Kubrick was an unconventional guy. The question is whether he was insane. I went back and forth on this as I watched this film.

As a non-conformist myself, I certainly don’t want to infer mental illness from the mere fact that someone differs from the norm, even if they differ hugely from the norm. Maybe it’s the norm that’s problematic, or maybe neither the norm nor the deviation from it are insane.

One thing to consider is whether this obsessive accumulation of material, the anal retentive organizing and cataloguing of it all, the pack rat refusal to ever throw any of it out, was conducive or frustrating to his productivity. Did it enable him to make more and better films or achieve other goals of his, or did he just get so lost in the weeds of it all that he was less functional?

I lean toward the latter. I don’t think this was all effective research from someone willing to work harder and longer on his projects than possibly any other filmmaker in history. I think it was a compulsion that ate up almost all his time, and became much more than a means to an end for him.

There’s just something disturbingly Howard Hughes-ish about the guy.

Or maybe not. I say all that, yet a part of me still hesitates over whether it was instead the attention to detail of a workaholic genius rather than a loon.

As far as my level of interest in the subject matter prior to seeing this film, I’m not some big Kubrick fan. I believe I’ve seen just four of his films, though I’ve seen clips of multiple others and have some familiarity with them. Of the ones I’ve seen, I’d rank Full Metal Jacket the highest. I didn’t love or hate any of the others. Overall I have a more favorable than unfavorable impression of his work, at least the subset of it that I’m familiar with, but like I say he isn’t someone I’d single out as a favorite director of mine, though maybe that would change if I more thoroughly explored his films.

But although my interest in Kubrick is middling, I found Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes quite engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining. I have to think it would be even more appealing to diehard Kubrick fans.

As a final note, I see on IMDB that this documentary—which I believe was originally made for British television—is listed as 48 minutes long. There may be different versions, as what I saw was between 60 and 61 minutes long. Therefore I’m not designating this a “short film,” as the cutoff I’ve been using for that is films of less than an hour.

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