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Kubrick's Longtime Assistant Comes In From The Cold In 'Filmworker'

<em>Filmworker </em>is a documentary about Leon Vitali, who was Stanley Kubrick's assistant for more than two decades.
Kino Lorber
Filmworker is a documentary about Leon Vitali, who was Stanley Kubrick's assistant for more than two decades.

Leon Vitali was a young and talented British actor on the rise when he signed his soul away to Stanley Kubrick. He'd just given a magnetic performance as the spoiled, seething yet sensitive Lord Bullingdon in the director's droll period epic Barry Lyndon (1975), and offers were pouring in. Instead of acting on them, Vitali decided he'd rather become Kubrick's devoted assistant. He had been lucky enough to earn the good graces of a true master, he reasoned, and you don't let true masters out of your life. Instead, Vitali allowed Kubrick to subsume him into his.

The documentary Filmworker presents itself as a kind of tribute to Vitali's breed: Jacks-of-all-trades on movie sets who do a little bit of everything for their bosses, from location scouting to color correction, for at most a tiny nod of acknowledgment at the film's end. There's a clever spin on the end credit sequence to that effect. But as the movie details the kind of absurdly time-consuming, frequently degrading tasks that Kubrick demanded his young protégé perform in order to remain in his favor, it also becomes a dark meditation on the cost that an artistic temperament can exert on a life. Sure, we all say we'd like to be in the presence of genius. But what if genius demands that you run around London looking for video stores promoting their movies, recut different trailers for every international market and rig a closed-circuit TV to broadcast their dying pets in every room of their house?

On the other hand, if your only metric for a life well spent is artistic output, then Vitali has been blessed. From the time he joined Kubrick's company in 1975 to the master's death in 1999, he aided in the production of three masterpieces, each a testament to their creator's cold and remorseless view of human nature: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

Filmworker dutifully devotes passages to all three, and includes plenty of trivia for Kubrickians to obsess over, including details on how Vitali coached the young Danny Lloyd on the set of The Shiningand helped promote R. Lee Ermey from a consultant on Jacketto its spittle-flecked centerpiece as the explosive insult king Sergeant Hartman. (Ermey pops up, too, shortly before his death.) Plus, guess who was under some of those masks in the Eyes Wide Shutorgy sequence.

Director Tony Zierra uses the film-nerd bait to Trojan Horse the melancholy and despair these works and their maker visited upon Vitali over the years. We can't help but see our hero through Kubrick's eyes, as an awestruck and easily manipulated young soul whose full-throttle passion — a passion that clearly distinguished him from most of the bone-dry leading men in Kubrick's films — could be easily channeled into cult-like devotion. There was a bit of prophecy to their first time on set together, when Kubrick instructed Barry Lyndonstar Ryan O'Neal to actually hit Vitali, hard, during a fight scene.

Such line-crossing would become common. Sixteen-hour days, working through weekends, phone calls at all hours of the night: These were the normal state of affairs, while compliments and apologies were doled out so rarely that today Vitali fondly remembers every small head nod. All to keep him in check, to make him believe he was only good enough to serve the director. Kubrick's treatment also alienated Vitali socially: Other cast and crew interviewed here attest that they treated him like a spy on set, and Kubrick sometimes sent him to fire people in his stead.

As an interviewee, Vitali is a curious breed. Gaunt and fidgety, often adorned with a bandanna, he waxes endlessly about Kubrick's films but doesn't offer much in the way of introspection — he believes in his career choice wholeheartedly, never bothering to wonder if perhaps he'd been treated unfairly by either Kubrick himself or the larger film-industry apparatus that completely overlooked his part in the director's enshrinement. So it is that, in the two decades since Kubrick's death, Vitali has had little else to do but safeguard his former boss's legacy, continuing to supervise new transfers and special screenings of his back catalog; a cycle that could continue, theoretically, until the end of time. He has to borrow money from his children to make ends' meet because working night and day for Kubrick had failed to secure him a livable savings.

Vitali's reward for decades of devotion? A complete cold shoulder from Hollywood: First, when Warner Brothers slapped together an unauthorized DVD transfer of the Kubrick catalog to cash in on his death, and then in 2012 when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put together a "complete" Kubrick retrospective without so much as phoning him. Watching Filmworkeras a cinephile, it's easy to be awed by the Zen-like devotion of Vitali's life's work. But it's also possible to be simultaneously filled with rage at the way people like him are simply left to run endlessly on their hamster wheels. You get the sense that had Kubrick so much as taken a passing interest in his assistant's affairs, Vitali might be leveraging his vast knowledge of every corner of the production experience to make films on his own today.

The fact that Filmworkeritself is rather shoddily made, with poor sound mixing and most interviews conducted in less-than-ideal conditions, is either yet another insult to Vitali or a perversely fitting framework for the story of someone who gave his life in service of an unattainable perfection. One thing the film doesn't tell us, though, is whether Kubrick himself would have enjoyed watching it.

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