Directed by Tony Zierra (2017)
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
I love Kubrick. He’s one of the filmmakers I consider a true Master, along with Ozu, Ramsay, Godard, Fellini, Fassbinder, Spike Lee (the American Godard, after all) and maybe Roy Andersson. I know I’m not alone in this. But my level of obsession has, at times, threatened to overtake even my more generalized over-arching love of Cinema itself. I have every biography, have read and heard every interview, listened to every commentary track by his collaborators, read and re-read all the Rob Ager articles, sat through the pretty dismal and pointless Room 237 (for the record, it’s not that Kubrick wasn’t encoding his films with hidden narratives, it’s that the theories in that doc have nothing to do with anything he was actually getting at), have seen his stuff in theaters every chance I’ve gotten to do so. I’ve read most of the books his films are based on (I’ve tried but have never been able to get through The Luck of Barry Lyndon despite it being short as hell - Red Alert and Clockwork Orange are the best ones). I love Kubrick. I know Kubrick. So I’ve always wanted a documentary about Leon Vitali.
The first article I ever wrote for what would become my first aborted attempt at a movie zine back in high school was about wanting to interview Vitali for a documentary. I knew that if anyone would be able to cut through the bullshit and get to the point of what Kubrick was really all about, it would be him. I never finished that article just like I never finished that zine (it was called Roxy Zine, since I’d sort of planned to approach the owner of the Roxy, my local one-screen theater, about some kind of symbiotic distro deal) but I wish I had, because, at least from what I gather after having seen Filmworker, Vitali is surprisingly easy to get to…but now that I think of it, he probably wasn’t back then. He was probably mask-deep in production of Eyes Wide Shut. Okay, so good thing I never reached out to him.
Filmworker jumps right in and starts at the beginning, tracing Vitali’s path from making what looks to me like a bunch of absolutely unwatchable 60s and 70s British tv bullshit to finding himself in the theater seeing 2001 and, later, A Clockwork Orange for the first time and deciding then and there, “I want to work for that man.” It reminded me a lot of the story PTA tells of the first time he saw Philip Seymour Hoffman onscreen - “I’m for him and he’s for me. I just knew.” It’s that thing of willing yourself into existence, of seeing an impossible future and simply deciding there’s no other way. It also kind of has to be said that it’s possible Vitali was seeing the writing on the wall and figured, eh, this whole acting thing kind of sucks. May as well go work for the best.
In telling his story and revealing the whole history of his time working with Kubrick, Vitali always seems a little surprised at all that’s happened to him. He would appear to think of himself as not so much the man behind the man, but more of a necessary gear in the works. And as he says in the film, “I liked being there.” If Kubrick was really and truly only able to function by grace of some poor fucker who was gonna have to give up his entire life to make sure everything was always in its right place, it sure makes sense that it better have been someone who wanted it just as much as he did. It’s all good to simply hire an assistant. But assistants are people, and people have their own needs and hopes and ambitions. Why settle for that when you have Leon Vitali?
Again, it’s important to note that, while most books and other media on the subject of the Kubrick / Vitali relationship might make it seem like a case of simple indentured servitude, Vitali actually loved every second of his working and personal life alongside the director. He gave up everything. He chose to devote his life to making Kubrick’s visions into realities. This is a man who took The Oath to Cinema that so many lay claim to but so few can be said to even barely live up to. He became Film.
Probably the most interesting revelation of the film is that it finally lets us in on the biggest secret of all - that for all of that famous Kubrick The Perfectionist Control Freak we’ve heard about, he was actually very free with most aspects of his creative process and was almost too accommodating when it came to delegating tasks - that is, so long as the person responsible was Leon. My favorite little detail of the film is Vitali relating Kubrick’s habit of assigning a task that his assistant had no idea about. Leon would say, “But Stanley, I don’t know how to do that.” And Kubrick would always say, “Sure you do!” And he’d just go off and kinda figure it out somehow.
To think that this was the process behind all these Towering Masterpieces of Cinema is eye-opening. Not because it reveals how messy and goofy the filmmaking process really is - we already knew that. But because it pokes an important hole in the Myth. We want our Cinematic Heroes to be who we want them to be, and we want our geniuses to only (and always) be godlike in their endeavors and in the use of their powers. But, c’mon. Kubrick was, yes, one of the few true American (I’m calling him American, fuck it) Master Filmmakers, a true all-time great whose importance and legacy are absolutely set in stone...but he was also an annoying little weirdo from the Bronx. He was just some guy.
Filmworker is an important look at what it truly means to devote yourself to your art. Because the truth is that’s what he did. He wasn’t devoted to the art of Stanley Kubrick, not exactly. He was devoted to the work of making that art, those films. Vitali reminds me so much of one of the subjects of another great documentary on the subject of holy devotion, Into Great Silence. In that film, the monks are spoken of as giving themselves up not to god, but to the study and worship of god, and they make clear that there is a difference.
The film eventually gets to the point of Kubrick’s death and beyond, and in doing so presents a chilling but also pretty typical experience of what it’s like to have created something and been so integral to producing art so beloved by so many but to be cast aside as a result of being overshadowed. Obviously, when you’re overshadowed by someone like Kubrick, there’s not much you can do, and Vitali is realistic about his current lot in life. He lived in that Cinema Monastery for twenty-six years. If no one wants to give him credit, well, he seems to not really give much of a shit. He’s here, telling his story. Finally.
I hope he inspires more people to throw themselves into Cinema. We need more Leons out there. People get up every day and go to work starring in whatever batshit fucking sitcom is on these days. Imagine if one of the idiots from The Big Bang Theory just decided one day to call up PTA or Lynne Ramsay and say, “I work for you now. I’m yours. Lets go to work.” It would be because they know the truth: Movies are all that matter.