It’s been a weird year to be a Stanley Kubrick fan. On one hand, it’s the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which premiered right here at The Uptown. On the other hand, Netflix’s popular, terrible teen drama 13 Reasons Why has an entire episode where teens talking about how much they hate 2001 is a fully formed subplot (at least, as fully formed as anything can be on that show). Knowing (and loving) Kubrick doesn’t make you a film nerd anymore; the real nerds are all hiding away on Letterboxd writing reviews about their friends low budget shorts. In 2018, being a Kubrick fanatic just makes you a stereotype of a film nerd, and a lazy one at that.
Part of it is because in this day and age, Kubrick is well-worn territory. If you haven’t seen 2001, you’ve seen A Clockwork Orange; if you haven’t seen that, you’ve seen Full Metal Jacket, etc. And if you haven’t seen any of those movies, you probably know well enough to pretend you have at parties. Because of Kubrick’s controversial methods, and in depth documentaries about him like Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, even people who don’t give a damn about the cinema know about his high strung temperament, his abusive tendencies and his obsession with nailing every single detail. As mysterious as Kubrick can seem, we know a lot about how the man worked, because there was a camera trained on him almost as often as he was siccing one on someone else.
Which begs the question, do we need another Kubrick documentary? There are plenty of other things you can watch (and read) if you want to get a grasp on how the master worked. Do we really need someone to rehash the same stories?
Filmworker kicks off with a stroll down that road most traveled. It relishes in Kubrick’s quirks, going over the same stories we’ve heard again and again, but around the 20 minute mark, things get interesting. With surprising subtlety, the movie stops being about Kubrick and starts focusing more deeply on Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s almost constant collaborator, and his harrowing job. For the rest of the film’s 70 minutes, you’re treated to a documentary on the purest definition of Stockholm syndrome. Vitali did the work of a whole team of men, often times working 15 hour days, just to go home and continue to make telephone calls on Kubrick’s behalf. His kids share stories about watching their dad sleep on the floor for an hour or two before getting up and going back to work. He was a casting agent, an acting coach, an editor, a marketer, and a million other roles all wrapped up into one.
While Vitali candidly goes over the backbreaking labor that went into assisting Kubrick, it’s hard not to cringe. Vitali is old and so clearly tired, yet his love for Kubrick is everlasting. Filmworker paints a picture of a man who was pushed to the edge for 30 years straight and never once got the recognition he deserves. It’s beyond heartbreaking, but it does thoroughly argue that Vitali was a necessary creative component of some of the most important films of the century. Filmworker might be Vitali’s love letter to Kubrick, but it’s also an assassination of the auteur theory. The Shining wouldn’t be The Shining if Vitali didn’t discover Danny Lloyd and Full Metal Jacket wouldn’t be Full Metal Jacket if Vitali hadn’t personally coached R. Lee Ermey.
And speaking of Ermey, he proves to be one of the more electric interviews, bringing the high energy and turn-it-up-to-11 charisma he so often brought to his roles. Other standouts include Danny Lloyd, who had a very close relationship to Vitali as a child, and Ryan O’Neal, who worked with him on Barry Lyndon, but the real emotion of the documentary comes out when you’re one on one with Vitali. With a few exceptions, director Tony Zierra makes it seem like there’s nothing Vitali won’t talk about, and that pure honestly is a breath of fresh air, even if it does give you sympathetic stress dreams.
Kubrick might have boosted Vitali’s career by casting him in Barry Lyndon, but Filmworker makes it clear who the lucky one was in this relationship.