Kubrick Fan? Check Out ‘Filmworker’

filmworker photo from dogwoof.com
Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali. Photo from dogwoof.com.

I’m a bit late to the party on this film, since it came out in October of 2017, but in case you’ve missed it too — if you love the work of Stanley Kubrick, and you haven’t watched Filmworker yet, you’ll want to.  It’s a riveting documentary about Leon Vitali, a British actor who gave up a thriving career on stage and screen in the mid-1970s to subsume himself in the work of Stanley Kubrick, becoming the director’s apprentice, right-hand man, and, at times, whipping boy.

Vitali was still at drama school when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and declared it the best movie he’d ever seen. He was likewise impressed with A Clockwork Orange, and he decided he wanted to work for Kubrick. Vitali’s agent arranged an audition for Barry Lyndon, and the actor scored a role as Lord Bullingdon. His time working with Kubrick on that film (Vitali stayed on after shooting was finished to watch how the editing was done) sparked a desire to work with the celebrated director behind the scenes. Kubrick recommended the young actor get some more experience, which Vitali did by helping out in the editing room of a Swedish movie called Terror of Frankenstein (in which he also starred as Victor Frankenstein). Then Vitali contacted Kubrick, who sent him Stephen King’s novel The Shining and asked him what he thought. Vitali told the director he thought it would make a great movie, and the rest is history — albeit a history of which moviegoers were largely unaware until this film was released, and a history that sheds new light on Kubrick’s status as a loner genius.

Vitali took on a wide range of duties for the director, including traveling to the U.S. and auditioning roughly 4,000 children to play Danny in The Shining. He also helped cast R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and he served as on-set acting coach for both those actors. To hear Vitali tell it, his duties over the years were endless; he helped Kubrick on set, but he also took copious notes for the director, handled correspondence and phone calls, arranged logistics — and often took the brunt of Kubrick’s mercurial temper.

Vitali worked for the famously meticulous Kubrick 14 or so hours a day, seven days a week, yet still somehow had time for a marriage and three children. His kids, now grown, recall their father as a loving but mostly absent presence who was constantly working. One failing of the documentary is that it barely skims Vitali’s personal life; his ex-wife is never mentioned, let alone interviewed, and the toll his devotion to Kubrick took on his relationships and his health is noted only briefly.

(I should mention that I greatly admire Kubrick’s work, but not without some reservations; he was incredibly talented, but he falls short — or maybe wasn’t interested — in realistic depictions of female characters. He sometimes softened the harsher details of his source material, making despicable figures such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange more palatable. He also seems to have been a bit of a perv, always finding a way to include at least one scene of a scantily-clad or nude woman in most of his films. That said, I think The Shining is the quintessential horror film, and it’s one of my top five favorite movies.)

Since Kubrick’s death in 1999, Vitali has dedicated himself to securing Kubrick’s legacy, overseeing the restoration of most of the director’s films with the same perfectionist attention to detail that was Kubrick’s hallmark. Watching Vitali’s complete sacrifice of his own ambitions in the service of Kubrick’s creative vision, you’re struck by all the Leons — in varying degrees of self-sacrifice — who make the grand artistic statements of others possible.

What Leon did was a selfless act, a kind of crucifixion of himself.

— Matthew Modine, Filmworker


Three Identical Strangers

Photo courtesy of Neon

Dash out and see the fascinating and moving Three Identical Strangers as soon as you can, before you’ve heard a lot about it. It would be criminal to reveal too much, but suffice to say it’s a documentary about Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Bobby Shafran, identical triplets who were separated at birth and adopted by different families. They discovered each other in 1980, when Eddy and Bobby went to the same college in upstate New York. Eddy went one year, and the next year, when Bobby arrived as a freshman, he was startled to be greeted by complete strangers as an old friend. The two boys met, and the media picked up on the incredible feel-good story. Soon the third triplet, David, saw his own face on two strangers grinning at him from a newspaper, and he got in touch. As one of the adoptive mothers said, “They’re coming out of the woodwork!” The three boys became instant and inseparable soulmates.

All the above happens in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, with the help of some re-enactments (I’m not usually a fan of re-enactments in a documentary, but these are minimal and unobtrusive). After that, as one family friend says, things “kinda got funky.” The rest of the narrative is told through interviews with the brothers, their loved ones, and other key players, supplemented with terrific archival photos and video footage. The plot thickens, twists, and twists a few more times, right up to the end, so strap on your seat belt, and maybe bring a hankie.

Bobby Shafran: This is like Nazi sh**.

—  Three Identical Strangers

Wild Wild Country


Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers in India. Photo: Netflix.

One of my guilty pleasures is the true crime documentary, and some excellent examples of the genre recently have been Making a Murderer, The Keepers, and Wormwood (all streaming on Netflix). Wild Wild Country is not true crime per se; it’s more a historical documentary series, but there are certainly some crimes mixed in with the history. It is absolutely fascinating. Although the fairly shocking events that form the series’ focus happened in my lifetime, in the early 1980s, I don’t remember hearing a thing about them. I’ll chalk that up to being a self-absorbed teenager who wasn’t paying attention to anything outside her own life yet. If you, too, were alive but oblivious — or if you’re too young to have heard the story of the Rolls Royce guru and his followers — do yourself a favor: stay away from Google and set aside some viewing time.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian guru who had started an ashram in Poona, India, in the 1970s. After running afoul of Indian authorities, he moved his operation to rural Oregon. There, with the help of his fearless right-hand woman, a force of nature named Ma Anand Sheela, his movement attracted more followers, built a city, and managed to get involved in power struggles over land use and autonomy that escalated to the point where the feds got interested.

I’ll leave the recap there, because I don’t want to give any spoilers. The series has its drawbacks: if you want context about Rajneesh and his movement, you’ll need to consult the Internet, but do so after watching. The series tries very hard not to play favorites or cast anyone as the villain — a choice that’s commendable for its objectivity, but perhaps a bit irresponsible. I’ll let you decide.

And Caleb Blood, if you’re reading this: I think the music is really good. It’s by someone named Brocker Way. Check it out.

Ma Anand Sheela: I have been accused of a laundry list of heinous crimes — of course, all of them attempted. Normally, I succeed in what I do. That is a joke.

— Wild Wild Country