Saturday, 2 June 2018

Master and servant: "Filmworker"

The cult of Kubrick endures. We've already had the thoughts of producer Jan Harlan on working with Stanley, and an entire Jon Ronson documentary on the many boxes of notes the filmmaker left behind in his wake. Filmworker, a functional new documentary by Tony Zietta, comes at Kubrick from the perspective of an employee and potential apprentice. Its subject is Leon Vitali, a jobbing British character actor (and Look In cover star for this work on TV's The Fenn Street Gang) on whom Kubrick first called to play Lord Bullingdon in 1975's Barry Lyndon, then - upon seeing the actor's curiosity for the art and craft of making movies - recruited to serve as his personal assistant. It was Vitali who found Danny Lloyd to play Danny Torrance in The Shining, which would be enough in itself to secure a place in cinema legend; yet he also played a part in the mammoth logistical operation required to convert Beckton Gas Works into Vietnam for 1987's Full Metal Jacket, and became full-time Kubrick staff during the years of seclusion between that project and Eyes Wide Shut.

Early on in Filmworker, an effects shot from the newly reissued 2001 - the teenage Vitali's introduction to Stan the Man - is used to describe the process whereby the actor fell into this director's orbit, but much of what follows suggests Vitali was more like a moth drawn to an especially volatile flame. Kubrick's temperament and on-set behaviour has been so well-documented over the years that some of this testimony will hardly come as a surprise. The director could be brusque with actors, and drove at least one of his collaborators towards a full nervous breakdown; at one point, Vitali compares his former boss to Gordon Ramsay for his effusive effing-and-jeffing and tendency to get in his underlings' faces; and at every turn, this decidedly pre-Time's Up production defers to its subject's position that such behaviour could be tolerated or excused because the work it generated was across-the-board great.

Zierra finds yet more evidence of the meticulous attention to detail that made Kubrick's films what they were and are: his camera alights upon page after page of the notes the filmmaker passed down to Vitali and his fellow minions. Yet the Kubrick-Vitali story (bromance?) risks appearing as absurd to non-devotees as a Film Twitter rewrite of Fifty Shades of Grey: as framed here, it's ninety minutes of dominant Stanley punishing ever-pliable sub Leon with reams of instructions on colour grading and cleaning his personal screening room. Hardcore Kubrick auteurists will doubtless be sated, but Filmworker has a major limitation in Zierra's rough-hewn images - slapped together from a series of interviews with Vitali and other Kubrick associates - which pale further still when set alongside the crystalline precision of the clips from those films Vitali has spent the best part of four decades polishing up.

It is, in short, a work about great works of cinema that has the look of a common-or-garden DVD extra, basic in its combination of archive and talking heads, and prone to exactly the kind of disorganisation and fuzzy thinking Kubrick couldn't tolerate: what feels like the most revealing material here - on Vitali's relationship with his cultured yet distant father - is tucked away in the final half-hour, where it's afforded roughly the same editorial weight as the poor quality DVDs issued by Warner Bros. in the immediate wake of the master's passing. By then, Filmworker has provided, in its own, haphazard fashion, an effective reflection of the sometimes fraught push-me-pull-you of collective creation. You'll likely come away in little doubt that Kubrick was a nightmare to work for, and with your own thoughts on whether or not those nightmares were worth it. ("So, it's a happy ending?," Zierra can be heard asking, somewhat optimistically, late on.) You may, however, also be left wondering whether a documentary on such a towering, complex figure needed a tyrant of Kubrick's standing, or at least a firmer critical hand on the tiller, to bring Vitali's anecdotes into the sharper focus Kubrick deserves - and would surely have demanded.

Filmworker is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream through Curzon Home Cinema.

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