The very last scene in director Stanley Kubrick's very last film, "Eyes Wide Shut," takes place in a Manhattan toy store, where Bill and Alice Harford (played by then-real-life husband and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) shop for their daughter's Christmas presents. It feels weirdly fitting, then, that in the months ramping up to this year's holidays a slew of books have been released tracing the career of the man behind "The Shining," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Paths of Glory" and so many other classic, genre-busting films.
From a portrait of the artist as a young photographer to a colleague's (some might say victim's) personal chronicle of the master's demanding ways on the set, it seems that every step of Kubrick's visionary career has been captured from every conceivable angle — and it's all primed for placement under the nearest available tree.
In what is surely, if nothing else, the weightiest of the bunch, Kubrick's life behind the camera is tackled with painstaking devotion in "The Stanley Kubrick Archives" (Taschen, $200) — a 544-page, 15-pound coffee-table behemoth that's as much an exhaustive ode to its subject's notorious compulsiveness as a tribute to his genius. (Click here for some examples of the book's layout and imagery.) Using color-coded tabs to cross-reference the dozen films that cemented the director's reputation — his first feature, 1953's "Fear and Desire," has been omitted — "Archives" is divided into two illuminating sections.
"Part One: The Films" features roughly 800 enlarged frames, allowing the reader to appreciate Kubrick's eye for composition as well as catch often overlooked (but hardly haphazard) details. In "The Shining," Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) flips through a copy of "Catcher in the Rye." The twin little girls who haunt the Outlook Hotel, scary when seen onscreen, are positively bone-chilling in the full-page shot of their butchered bodies strewn across a hallway. And that odd, flitting moment when Wendy, running through the hotel, glances into one of the rooms and barely catches sight of something going on between an older man in a tuxedo and someone in a dog suit? That image is here, too.
"Part 2: The Creative Process" is expertly crammed with behind-the-scenes photos, storyboards, script revisions, promotional artwork and other enlightening curiosities, including Kubrick's annotated copy of Stephen King's horror masterpiece and a Western Union telegram from "Lolita" author Vladimir Nabokov. Most noteworthy, however, are the numerous interviews with and articles by the director, including an angry letter to the New York Times in response to the paper's critique of "A Clockwork Orange" — a letter that, editor Alison Castle writes in her introduction, refutes "the popular misconception that Kubrick was a recluse who didn't or wouldn't talk about his work."
While the image of an eternally misanthropic Kubrick might not be entirely accurate, his reputation for perfectionism could hardly be exaggerated, as verified by the entries in Matthew Modine's serial-numbered, stainless-steel-bound "Full Metal Jacket Diary" (Rugged Land, $29.95). Modine, who was all of 24 years old when he was cast as the lead in Kubrick's Vietnam War epic, portrays the director as nothing if not autocratic, insisting his young star return to the set mere hours after the birth of Modine's first child and, in order to retain a scene's realism, forcing the cast to eat canned rations left over from the war. The book also features hundreds of candid photographs snapped by Modine's large-format Rolleiflex — a camera, incidentally, similar to the one favored by Kubrick during his stint in the late 1940s at Look magazine.
For a look at the work of that Kubrick, before he was "Kubrick," fans can follow the early visual artist from the moment when, in 1945, a month shy of his 17th birthday, he sold his first photograph to Look. After graduating from high school in the Bronx, he opted to bypass college and instead took a job at Look, where he remained for the next four years. The portfolio he amassed while shooting for the now-long-defunct, fondly remembered magazine is the basis for "Stanley Kubrick: Drama and Shadows" (Phaidon, $69.95). In hundreds of photos, including celebrity profiles (Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift), slice-of-life assignments — including one titled "Life and Love on the New York Subway" — and artfully composed set pieces, the book showcases Kubrick's uncanny ability to tell a story in images and thrillingly anticipates his inevitable shift to filmmaking.
In a brief essay titled "Words and Movies" that appears in the "Lolita" segment of the "Archives" book, Kubrick writes: "The quality of the writing is one of the elements that make a novel great. But this quality is a result of the quality of the writer's obsession with his subject." Judged by that benchmark, all three of the aforementioned books might even have appealed to their contrary, obsessive, inimitable subject.
If, by now, you've somehow gotten your fill of Kubrick — or have appeased all the Kubrickians on your list — there are still a few other recent film-centric volumes out there that are worth a serious look. "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" (Barron's Educational Press, $35) offers a list of ... well, just that. The book spans more than a century's worth of filmmaking ("The Great Train Robbery" is from 1903), and this newest edition, published in October, sees the addition of "Lord of the Rings," "Mystic River," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Million Dollar Baby."
Another addictive guide is "Best Movies of the '80s," the latest in Taschen's flashy, inexpensive ($12.99) and smart line of chronological collections, featuring 140 of the most influential movies from that much-maligned decade of excess, as well as film stills and tech trivia.
Finally, as pretty much everyone on the planet either knows or is a "Star Wars" geek, there's the lush, strange, hang-out-with-it-for-days-on-end gloriousness of "Dressing a Galaxy" (Abrams, $50). With insights from the "prequel trilogy" costume designer Trish Biggar, as well as thoughts on the whole "Star Wars" costume universe from Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson and George Lucas himself, "Dressing a Galaxy" is, without a doubt, the only book about clothes that the sulky Darth Vader-obsessed teen in your life will ever thank you for.
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