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Non-Review Review: Filmworker

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

What must it be like to surrender a life in service of somebody else pursuing their dreams? It is a challenging and provocative question; very few people are willing to risk everything to chase their own dreams, so what level of devotion must be required to do that in service of somebody else’s aspirations?

This is the central question of Filmworker, the documentary charting the life and times of Leon Vitali, who essentially surrendered his life to director Stanley Kubrick, to help the director fulfill his creative vision and realise his dreams on celluloid. The opening voiceover, lifted from Matthew Modine’s diaries working on Full Metal Jacket, likens Leon Vitali to a moth drawn to Stanley Kubrick’s flame. It’s an apt metaphor, one that plays through Filmworker.

For years, Leon Vitali was Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man, the film offering varying labels; some call him an “assistant”, others a “factotum”, while Leon’s own official classification of his job for paperwork and applications was “filmworker.” Whatever title might have been applied to Leon, the man did everything did everything. The jack-of-all-trades coached actors, he oversaw casting, he restored negatives, he documented decisions, he engaged with distribution. He was essential to the operating of Kubrick’s creative machine, yet he remains mostly anonymous.

Filmworker engages with this relationship, with the sacrificing of an individual’s autonomy to enable another’s creative vision. The film is refreshing frank in some respects about the demands of such a life, of the temperamental impositions made by such artists of these devotees. The film captures the romance of working with genius, but also the toll that it exacts.

The biggest issue with Filmworker is its lack of focus. The film begins and progresses in a linear manner, following Vitali’s early career and how he came into Kubrick’s orbit; it moves in a logical manner through the films on which they worked together. Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket. Each of these segments has a clear flow, demonstrating how deeply Vitali was drawn into Kubrick’s web; working as an actor in Barry Lyndon, working with Jake Lloyd in The Shining, doing almost everything on Full Metal Jacket.

Indeed, the structured framework allows room for digressions and discussions, flavouring the documentary’s arc with revealing stories about the production of these films. Kubrick’s relationship with Vitali as an actor is contrasted with his ruthlessness in dealing with other performers, as illustrated through the firing of Tim Colceri from the role of Drill Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. While most of the anecdotes and details explored in Filmworker are already well known to cinephiles, they make sense in the context of working through Vitali’s relationship to Kubrick.

However, after Filmworker explores these three films, the movie becomes a bit more fractured and discursive. It branches off on tangents that provide rich veins of Kubrick- and Vitali-relates narratives, but never in a manner that seems to be in service of a larger coherent picture. There are wonderful details and stories in here that serve to provide a sense of the texture of the relationship between these two men, particular the push-and-pull of Kubrick’s attitude towards Vitali, but the film seems to lose sight of a larger throughline.

However, the film recovers its focus and drive in its closing scenes, as it moves to the production of Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s last film is divisive and controversial, but the audience’s understanding of the film’s role in the Kubrickian canon adds shades of foreshadowing and nuance to the stories that are told. There is a sense of unfolding tragedy in Vitali’s memories of the film, and in the director’s inevitable passing.

Filmworker avoids the still-raging debates about whether Eyes Wide Shut should be considered a “complete” Kubrick film, but it neatly segues from the production of the film into the aftermath of the director’s death. There is something at once romantic and depressing in Vitali’s continued devotion to Kubrick, reflected in both his willingness to serve as ambassador for the director’s work and in his painstaking maintenance of the masters of Kubrick’s filmography. There is something strangely moving in the idea that this connection extends beyond Kubrick’s death.

Filmworker meanders a little bit in its middle stretch, in the twelve-year lacuna between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. Then again, this is not a fatal flaw. If anything, it would seem to reflect its absent subject, who similarly seemed to get caught up in dead ends and loose threads in that time. Nevertheless, even while meditating upon tangents, Vitali and Kubrick remain fascinating subjects, these small details adding shading and nuance to a relationship spanning a lifetime.

Filmworker documents an unintended and unexpected life’s work, and that messiness seems oddly appropriate.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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