There’s something perfect about the title Filmworker: it’s direct, honest, and without pretension, all words that, likewise, can be attributed to this documentary’s eponymous subject, Leon Vitali. A self-ascribed “filmworker”, Vitali, now 69, spent the majority of the 1970s thru the 1990s working under one of the medium’s most revered and controversial artists, Stanley Kubrick. Moreover, the title, Filmworker, indicates an underlying thread lurking throughout, that being the assistant’s acknowledged subservience to the man in the director’s chair, an insinuation that’s nonexistent in the more democratic synonym, “filmmaker”. On a more curious note, here’s a documentary wherein many of the interviewees, regardless of whether they figure Kubrick a meticulous visionary or deranged obsessive (or a bit of both), appear to endorse the idea of the director-as-auteur, that all-powerful, authorial entity first expounded by the Cahiers critics in 1950s France. If film-making is to be considered a collaborative medium, then Stanley Kubrick, the Man and his ever-perpetuating Myth, is certainly one of the foremost counterarguments.
A classically trained actor, working on both the stage and screen, Leon Vitali’s initial encounter with Kubrick was through his movies, first the groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey and then the cause célèbre-cum-cult classic A Clockwork Orange; it was at a screening of the latter where Vitali turned to his seatmate and declared that one day he was going to work for “that man”. That day would come in 1974, when Vitali found himself cast, alongside Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, as the abused and, later, vengeful Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s picaresque novel, Barry Lyndon. In spite of the ensuing gig offers, Vitali, intrigued more by the mechanics of filmmaking, withdrew from acting full-time and began an assistantship under Kubrick’s wing; initially taking on the task of casting the Danny role for Kubrick’s production of The Shining, for which he would first earn his trademark credit of “Personal Assistant to the Director”, he eventually found himself entrusted with an increasingly demanding checklist of duties, running the gamut from the critical (supervising cast members on-set, running lines between takes, etc.) to the thankless (maintaining the tidiness of Kubrick’s estate).
Directed by Tony Zierra, who’s currently at work on another Kubrick-centric doc titled SK13 (focusing on the director’s thirteenth and final feature, Eyes Wide Shut), Filmworker doesn’t do much to formally distinguish itself from the traditional “talking-head” doc aesthetic. In addition to Vitali, there are appearances from Warner Bros. suits and veteran actors such as the aforementioned O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) and Danny Lloyd (Danny in The Shining), as well as a surprise appearance by Stellan Skarsgård. Running the ever-familiar visual playbook of juxtaposing interviews with archival footage and photographs, Zierra’s perfunctory approach rarely goes beyond the aesthetic of a Blu-ray supplement. But does this really matter? The decision to release this theatrically, and the primary appeal for those going to see it, is most likely sourced from the viewer’s inherent interest in the towering enigma of Kubrick, whose legendary status has hardly waned in the years since his demise.
Yet, per the title, the central focus here is Mr. Vitali. Like many other talking-head docs, Filmworker lives or dies by the nature of its subject, and there’s a good deal to glean from Vitali’s musings on his longtime superior, both for their informative value and the dubious implications they inspire. At one point, Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine opines that Vitali was a “slave”, whereas Kubrick’s own words, via Vitali, intimate that Leon was less an assistant and more an extension of the director, both a kindred spirit and necessary appendage. Furthermore, Kubrick’s shadow loomed so large that Vitali’s role as father was inevitably cut short due to the extensive work schedule, with Leon’s grown children’s confirming that Kubrick was a nucleus of their daily lives. Throughout, the legendary filmmaker is characterized as a man of contradictions: genial and hostile, level-headed and erratic, gracious and oppressive, trusting and suspicious. At one point, Vitali recounts an instance when Kubrick, possibly fearing his colleague’s potential abandonment, queried Leon about his fidelity to the higher-ups at WB, to which Vitali responded: “do I look corporate to you?” (It’s up to you to determine whether that inquiry is rooted in jocularity or paranoia.)
Director Zierra’s insistence on merely letting Vitali’s wistful reflections speak for themselves, hardly proffering much of his own perspective on matters, constitutes both the movie’s ultimate strength and weakness. More deficient is the sometimes choppy editing, which includes several overstayed welcomes and extraneous asides. If there’s an element of triumph in Filmworker, it could lie in the delayed recognition of Vitali and his essential contributions to the development of Kubrick’s late-career works, but, as presented here, there’s not much more to Leon’s life beyond Stanley. Despite the times of anguish and turmoil, which reached their peak during the shooting of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali’s recollections convey that the man wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, with his continued devotion to the cause and emphasis on precision suggesting that he effectively inherited Kubrick’s perfectionist tendencies. But there’s very little interrogative prods in Zierra’s methods, nothing to probe the master’s behavioral aberrations or the concept of the artist’s commitment to their craft knowing no bounds, let alone whether or not Vitali has any personal perspective on them. In the end, Kubrick’s role (and importance) as director seems to have no end, ultimately affirming the Myth behind the Man. Vitali, himself, who continues to oversee the handling of Kubrick’s films, often seeing no pay for his efforts, remains somewhat elusive, chiefly cause he’s sacrificed much of his own life in service to the vision of another. But, ultimately, he’s happy, and we see that. He’s still working.
Fieldworker opens today at the Ritz Bourse.