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Doc Corner: In the Shadow of Kubrick with 'Filmworker'

by Glenn Dunks

Sometimes you really can tell a book by its cover. Or in this case, a movie by its poster. The artwork for Tony Zierra’s Filmworker shows a photograph of Stanley Kubrick on set with his long-time yet little-known collaborator Leon Vitali hovering behind him. Kubrick, normally the focus of these sort of non-fiction works, is unusually blurred. Our eye naturally focuses on Vitali despite Kubrick’s appearance that can’t be entirely obscured no matter how hard they try.

It’s fitting for Filmworker, a documentary about Vitaly not Kubrick. Although, as was probably always inevitable about a film about the people around one of cinema’s most commanding and famous names, Kubrick remains a constant presence who is too hard to ignore...

Not that Vitali would care, I am sure. He is, after all, the man who gave up a successful career in front of the camera to undertake a decades-long creative partnership with Stanley Kubrick stretching from his co-starring role in Barry Lyndon to the present day as an archivist and film print supervisor of sorts.

More than a documentary about any one individual though – although Vitali is the predominant figure; “Filmworker” is the job title he gave himself on a Visa application form – Zierra’s quiet yet extremely involving film ultimately becomes more about the two’s collaborative partnership, and the creative process more generally. As one would expect, Zierra (who works additionally as his own editor) has included plenty of film clips that when witnessed on a big screen just remind one of Kubrick’s cinematic prowess. But these excerpts are mere window-dressing for Vitali’s story who lovers of Kubrick owe themselves to learn about. Certainly more so than another glorified DVD extra about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Vitali tells his own story in Filmmaker, allowing us into the same trajectory that he has been on for the past 40 years since Barry Lyndon. Briskly covering his early days as an actor doing the standard British actor trajectory of cop shows and legal dramas, the film quickly moves on to his breakthrough in Lyndon and his almost immediate retiring to instead work in a plethora of roles for Kubrick. From editing assistant to casting to child wrangler, photographer, location scout and general assistant. Filmworker attempts to get inside Vitali’s decision to give up a potentially successful and lucrative acting career to work as an on-set gopher for Stanley Kubrick, successfully painting us a portrait of the allure of such a life-changing decision and the lack of ego it must take to do so for a man who famously pushes those around him to their extremes.

With guest interviews by other Kubrick collaborators including Ryan O’Neal, R. Lee Ermey, Matthew Modine, and even Danny Lloyd (the kid from The Shining), we very quickly appreciate the impact that Vitali’s presence had not just on Kubrick himself, but those around him, and ultimately even the finished product we see on screen (it's unlikely, for instance, that The Shining would work as it does without Vitali's work with Lloyd on set). This is a fascinating way to give a twist to the all-too familiar filmmaker documentary. In much the same way as biopics can often feel fresh simply by being about somebody we know far less about, Filmmaker gets great mileage out of being about somebody whose life is so very interesting, but whom audiences most likely never knew.

In the latter portion of the film, it appears to imply that Vitali’s life was more than just hectic, but instead something of a shambles. It is suggested by his son that he is broke and Vitali not-so-subtly tells of how he feels he has been forgotten by those with power and stakes in the Kubrick legacy. These elements are less well formed within the narrative, although it’s not hard to understand why. Vitali is remarkably candid throughout most of the documentary, and frank about his part in the role of a genius. It ultimately becomes a film about the lengths people will go to for film, which is something certainly all of us can understand if not necessarily the degrees. It is a film about filmmaking as a collaborative project, shining a light on an individual who would have likely been forgotten to history that also manages to provide a rollicking good story about one man’s uniquely singular cinematic journey in the shadow of a legend.

Release: Its theatrical release through Kino Lorber is wrapping up (I just saw it at the Sydney Film Hestival), but will no doubt be on home entertainment later in 2018.

Oscar Chances: As we've noted many times before, the Academy's doc branch is oddly resistent to films about filmmaking. Like last year's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, it may find some love from the occasional critics group.

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Reader Comments (5)

Last week, the Hollywood Theater here in Portland hosted a Q&A with Vitali after a screening of Full Metal Jacket, and it was hands-down the best Q&A I've ever attended. It went on for almost 90 minutes, and I would have stayed all night. He himself is a living archive of Kubrickiana and a quiet force of nature in his own right.

But, for this group, the pull-quote of the evening would have been his full-throated support for Shelley Duvall as a great, underrated actress who has not received full credit for her contributions to cinema.

June 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

Saw it last weekend. I think it's a must for cinephiles.

June 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Corey, that sounds great. Q&As are usually awful, but he seems like somebody who would have plenty to say (much more than what can be put into a 100-minute movie).

June 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Bless him

June 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

I absolutely loved this film when I saw it a couple of weeks back. Hugely inspiring.

June 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEoghanMcQ

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