Filmworker works best when poking holes in the altar of genius men whose attention to detail is almost always inexplicably tethered to being an outright bastard.
In making a documentary about the decades-long relationship between Stanley Kubrick and his assistant Leon Vitali, director Tony Zierra has inadvertently captured a damning argument against prevailing auteur theory. Filmworker, although an incomplete and at times unfocused documentary, works best when poking holes in the altar of genius men whose attention to detail is almost always inexplicably tethered to being an outright bastard.
Vitali started his career in film as an actor, most notably in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, before transitioning out of his old role and into a nebulously defined post as Kubrick’s right-hand man. The film’s first half is a whirlwind, painting the beginnings of this relationship with hurried strokes like a romantic comedy, from Vitali first watching A Clockwork Orange to actually working under Kubrick in Lyndon. Vitali quickly goes from impressing Kubrick with his preternatural dedication to following him on a trip to cast The Shining, and before long he’s pulling double and triple duty as whatever the legendary director needs.
During his time with Kubrick, Vitali was an archivist, an editor, an acting coach, a note-taker, a devoted confidante and more. The documentary’s title comes from what Vitali would write down on paperwork when it called for his vocation. The account of this promising young actor abandoning his career to follow his favorite filmmaker around the world begins to read like the ultimate proof of Kubrick’s cinematic genius. How great and talented must one man be for another to sublimate his life in pursuit of that man’s works?
But the tenor of the talking-head interviews slowly turns for the worse, both from Vitali’s own recollections leaving a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth and from more objective interjections from the likes of Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine and other Kubrick collaborators loudly proclaiming how they could never do what Vitali had done. Once the film passes Full Metal Jacket in Kubrick’s chronology, it becomes less organized and devolves into a smattering of unrelated anecdotes, each individually important, but not coalescing together as well as in the first half.
As the film begins, it’s easy to get caught up in this inside view of Kubrick’s process and to marvel at his obsessive eye for detail. The fact that we’re hearing it all from Vitali, who speaks of Kubrick with the same holy intonations Janosz does of Vigo in Ghostbusters II, further makes this feel like a paean to the work of a celebrated auteur. But when the film begins to show the wear and tear on Vitali over the years—firsthand accounts from his own children of his waning health and repetitive documentation of Kubrick’s assholish tendencies—it seems to be making an altogether different statement.
Movies aren’t actually made by singular geniuses with all-encompassing visions, but by vast teams of workers sacrificing their time and effort in the pursuit of telling a powerful story. This documentary grows too scattershot to be as effective as it could be, truly petering out by its end as it discusses Kubrick’s death and legacy, but in its final form it will most likely have two dueling outcomes: Some will marvel at Vitali’s boundless selflessness and how totally one can give oneself over to film work, while others will only find solace in the towering mythos of Kubrick himself. That latter group may go to film school and chase the broken, fascistic desire of being a director, thinking themselves unassailable and brilliant in their vision. The rest may be more inclined to become filmworkers; the industry could sure use more of them.