Film

Beyond the Monolith: A Kubrick Retrospective Introduces a New Documentary on the Man Behind the Myth

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It isn’t every day that you’re asked to drive a giant dick across London. But for Emilio D’Alessandro, a young Italian émigré, erstwhile race-car driver, and full-time cabbie, it was just another job: It was December of 1970, a blizzard was on, nobody else was around, and the object — a massive sculpture of a phallus — had to be delivered quickly to a company called Hawk Films on the other side of town. Speedy, careful, and prompt, D’Alessandro got it there safely and on time. The recipient, impressed, offered him a regular job. And that’s how Emilio D’Alessandro became Stanley Kubrick’s personal chauffeur.

He was, in truth, more than that. Transporting the director around, and being the guy responsible for getting things to and from him, effectively made D’Alessandro a personal assistant and even secret sharer for Kubrick, who saw the car as an extension of his office and his work as an extension of his life. Alex Infascelli’s documentary S Is for Stanley foregrounds the engaging D’Alessandro himself as he talks about both his fondness for and frustration with Kubrick, who needed him constantly and for all sorts of tasks.

One of the film’s odd pleasures is seeing and hearing Kubrick’s many, many memos — sometimes handwritten, often typed via a variety of newfangled machines — requesting things like birthday party supplies for his kids, thermometers for every room, and medications and food for his many pets. (Clive Riche’s vocal impression of Kubrick doesn’t quite sound like the director, but it does have the right gentle authority.) And while Kubrick’s death in 1999 took everyone by surprise, D’Alessandro reveals that the director was in poor health beforehand, occasionally needing oxygen tanks and sometimes faltering physically; one of the film’s most touching moments comes when Emilio recalls the difficulty Stanley had, just prior to his death, breaking a tablet for one of his cats.

It’s a subtle but important strength of S Is for Stanley that D’Alessandro’s reminiscences reflect on both the bad and the good; the movie is neither hagiography nor exposé. Kubrick was, no doubt, the kind of boss whose demands would consume you. During the production of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, D’Alessandro was often flying four times a day, transporting key items between the set and London, never even getting holidays or weekends off. Things got bad enough that he came close to splitting with his wife, Janette, who was concerned that the job left him no time to be with his own family. D’Alessandro also tearfully recalls his retirement in the early 1990s; he gave Kubrick three years’ notice, and even then it was impossible to let go. Just a couple of years into retirement, he wound up returning to work — and even got a cameo in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Infascelli’s film manages to stake compelling ground between the matter-of-fact and the full-on geek-out. D’Alessandro and his wife live in Italy now, and somewhere in their home they have a meticulously kept collection of Kubrickiana — not just the memos, but a small trove of items accrued over a lifetime of work. (The driver even has one of the director’s signature green jackets.) But D’Alessandro is the furthest thing from a film buff; he reveals that he and his wife didn’t catch up on viewing his boss’s actual movies until late in life, and it was only then that the man’s genius became apparent to them. That refreshingly undaunted spirit may have helped attract Kubrick to D’Alessandro in the first place; it’s also what makes this modest driver such a captivating guide through a career working for one of history’s great artists.

S Is for Stanley is but one of a number of works that have focused on Kubrick the man since his death. We’ve had personal reminiscences from friends, family, collaborators, and others. These films and books may be of varying levels of artistry — S Is for Stanley is one of the more accomplished — but they have all helped to demystify the filmmaker in certain ways. It’s remarkable to think back to how private Kubrick was in life: You could go a decade without hearing a word about what he was working on, or with whom, and his sets were shrouded in national-security-level secrecy. All of that helped feed the myth of the cool, calculating artist, the Great Mind always thinking several moves ahead of the studios, audiences, critics. It fed skepticism about him, too: To some, the secrecy was a sign of pretension and grandiosity, proof that Kubrick made films less like an artist and more like a general or politician.

That impression may have helped turn Kubrick into a mythic figure, but it also clouded many critics’ ability to see the personal in his work. A new retrospective of his films at IFC Center, coinciding with the release of S Is for Stanley, may help correct this misguided notion. For lurking beneath the careful surfaces of these movies lies a distinctly personal stamp.

Kubrick never fell prey to sentiment, but he understood emotion. He knew that it was something that occurred not necessarily on the screen, but between the viewer and the film itself. Some took the calm, robotic voice of the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to be, spiritually speaking, the voice of the director, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Observe the melancholy mood of that film, the sense of slow-motion bewilderment and outrage at a world where humans had become alienated from their feelings and from one another — that’s Kubrick, as both artist and human, speaking to us, intimately and subtly. Look beneath the Olympian satire of Dr. Strangelove and you’ll see something similar: The movie asks us to laugh at the spectacle of nuclear annihilation, but it knows that we will soon be choking on that laughter, that at some point — either during the film or on the way out of the theater, or maybe even later, in the middle of the night — we will break out in a cold sweat at the monstrous plausibility of it all. (And anyone who doubts that film’s prescience may want to take a gander at the news nowadays.)

And there’s a case to be made that many of Kubrick’s later films are attempts to work out issues of personal significance. Is it so far-fetched to see a connection between his being the father of three young girls in a society that was becoming more and more depraved and violent, and his decision to make A Clockwork Orange? Or to look at Barry Lyndon‘s Irish renegade trying to insinuate himself into the upper levels of British society and not sense an echo of Kubrick himself, a Jew from the Bronx who wound up living among the landed gentry? And what to make of The Shining‘s portrait of isolation and creative crisis causing a writer to go mad, to say nothing of Eyes Wide Shut and its portrait of a marriage derailed by jealousy and lust? The movies may endure long after the man, but it’s sometimes through the movies that we get a true picture of the man. Through its subject’s unique recollections, S Is for Stanley helps contribute to that conversation by re-establishing that vital connection between Stanley the human and Kubrick the god.

‘Stanley Kubrick’

IFC Center

Through February 2

S Is for Stanley

Directed by Alex Infascelli

Opens January 27, IFC Center

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