Review: ‘Filmworker’

Kubrick stans, rejoice!

4 mins read

(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Tony Zierra

The mad artistry of Stanley Kubrick gets the doc treatment in Filmworker. This documentary is supposed to be a film about Kubrick’s devoted assistant Leon Vitali, but, by the midpoint, it becomes apparent that Vitali isn’t as interesting a subject as Kubrick is, so director Tony Zierra inevitably shifts his gaze towards the bigger prize. Vitali remains the Igor to Kubrick’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein years after the filmmaker’s death in 1999. Vitali continue to work on Kubrick’s films, having just overseen a new restoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so he’s devoted as many years of his life to Kubrick’s films as the director did. This story has the premise for a great documentary, but while Zierra delivers some nuggets on Kubrick’s oeuvre, he loses sight of the film’s deeper meaning.

Zierra questions Vitali in a range of interviews that lets the self-ascribed “filmworker” recall his career as Kubrick’s jack-of-all-trades. Vitali speaks about landing a job on Kubrick’s lavish production of Barry Lyndon and finding himself amazed by the director’s bravado, artistry, and dedication to the moving image. Filmworker gives a brisk insider’s overview of Vitali’s decision to walk away from a promising acting career. Step behind the camera as the right hand man for an auteur tells all about the master.

It’s obvious that Zierra spent ample time with Vitali since the interviews, all of which are awkwardly framed and drably shot, see the subject in a range of set-ups and outfits. However, the discussion isn’t especially immersive. Vitali hides behind his sunglasses and refuses to let Zierra into his head as he tells about working behind the scenes on The ShiningFull Metal JacketEyes Wide Shut, and the restorations of Kubrick’s work. That’s all fine since Kubrick is a great filmmaker, but there’s also a tragedy to Vitali’s sacrifice that Zierra doesn’t adequately penetrate.

There’s also something awkward about the celebratory tone Filmworker takes towards Stanley Kubrick’s behaviour. Vitali and other interviewees describe Kubrick as an unrelentingly difficult creative force, a demanding and ruthless perfectionist who could wear down seasoned professionals. Conflating tyranny with genius is a bit passé. Was Vitali the Eve Harrington to Kubrick’s Margo Channing? There’s no real sense of Vitali’s stake in devoting his life to Kubrick beyond catering to the filmmaker’s success. After a while, the anecdotes amount to Kubrick stanning—“stanning” being a kind of stalkery fervent fandom—as the assistant gushes about the artist’s work without end.

However, Vitali’s proximity to Kubrick illuminates much of the art that transcended the filmmaker’s personality and demanding character. There is value to this oral history of an insider’s view of great filmmaking. Vitali is humble and willing to live in Kubrick’s shadow—it’s just too bad the film about him overshadows his contributions to Kubrick’s success. Always a bridesmaid, they say.

Filmworker opens Friday, July 13 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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