Prior to meeting Kubrick, Vitali was a young British actor during the 1970’s. He was born to a quick-tempered war veteran of a father who died young. Later, he would gain near worldwide fame in Kubrick’s 1975 film, Barry Lyndon: a film that’s still a needed study in non-artificial lighting and score-based classical music. And if there is a cult around Kubrick, Vitali must have been the first card carrying member. He even exclaims that after seeing a Clockwork Orange, he turned to a friend and said, “I want to work for that man.”
In the last 5 years, we’ve seen many “minor player” in a larger story documentaries. Some subjects deserve their due, others are little more than footnotes. Leon Vitali, collaborator and sometimes serf to Stanley Kubrick, falls in the former.
Many in Tony Zierra‘s documentary note Vitali’s selflessness to give up his career to work with Kubrick. And while Matthew Modine and Stellan Skarsgård are correct to note that it does take a fair bit of selflessness, we never get that feeling from Vitali. He describes working with the “master” as a drug, a habit he couldn’t kick, never feeling downtrodden that he didn’t. Kubrick was a narcotic that put Vitali in a catatonic state, a state that bordered on both masochistic and self-destructive devotion.
Most humans like Vitali would never engender empathy or admiration from their self-made plight. That is, Vitali never said “no” to Kubrick when the auteur asked him to travel to America and interview 5,000 children to find Danny Lloyd. He never said “no” when Kubrick ordered Vitali to scour the earth to find a negative print of Dr. Strangelove or to get the lighting correct for a new 70mm cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey or to review hours of footage to hone R. Lee Ermey‘s dialogue in Full Metal Jacket.
Yet, it is the kindness Vitali performs these duties with and the immense pressure over his “filmworking” that causes him to become endearing to us. It’s the now 40-year old Danny Lloyd explaining how Vitali coached the young actor, even running with him when he ran, to complete his scenes during The Shining. It is the comparison between the 35mm and the 70mm cut of 2001 that would have remained butchered if not for Vitali’s tireless work. It’s the gratitude Emery exudes when recounting Vitali tutoring the first-time actor. And it’s the near ruthlessness and obsessiveness Kubrick instituted during the creation and maintaining of his films, even having Vitali doctor time sheets of Lloyd to avoid children’s rights issues, that makes the tired “filmworker” near sanctified.
Nevertheless, it’s also the change in Vitali’s appearance and the treatment by Kubrick that gives the film its emotional center. As shots of Barry Lyndon, a film released in 1975, and Full Metal Jacket, produced 12 years later, scroll across, the filmworker’s appearance becomes shocking. A once vibrant 27-year old looks like he’s in his late 50’s upon Full Metal Jacket‘s release (he was only 39). Balding with lines across his face, the deterioration of his youth in only a span of a “peak” decade from sleep deprivation, anxiety, and smoking is striking. It’s even more startling how quickly many forgot that Vitali even acted. He transitions from a celebrated young talent to, at one point, Matthew Modine thinking he’s a narc. The steady decline in Kubrick’s politeness to Vitali bears similar response, as the director transforms from kind mentor to whip-steady overseer.
And while every overly-exposed-after-overly-exposed interview streams by, seriously the natural lighting is sometimes overbearing, we’re treated to wonder, confusion, and amazement that Vitali stuck around for so long.
Much like Vitali we stick around too, even after the wonder of the first half fades. Filmworker is certainly stronger in its first interval than its second. The film suffers from the same weaknesses that almost every “minor player” documentary does, generating as much interest in the subject as who the subject once worked for.
In any documentary associated with Kubrick, we want to know about the man, his method, and his work. Filmworker steadily balances the behind the scene workings of Kubrick, from The Shining, to Barry Lyndon, to Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, in conjunction with Vitali’s role in them. It’s when the documentary tries to make a late audible in its second half to solely focus on Vitali’s family and what he’s done since Kubrick’s 1999 death that causes the film to stall. In that sense, a 2017 documentary about Kubrick’s driver entitled: S is for Stanley more adeptly switches between the cog, the personal, and the auteur than Zierra’s recounting.
Nevertheless, Filmworker is a more than satisfying installment to an immense figure. More significantly, if you’re watching a 70mm cut, or a restoration of 2001, or any one of Kubrick’s later films, you can believe that they would not exist as we know them without the steady and loyal hands of Leon Vitali.