Tony Zierra / USA / 2017 / 94 mins
At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 8 Jun 2018
The life and work of auteur Stanley Kubrick has been consistently fertile ground for the creation of absorbing, quirky and memorable documentaries, with the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008), Room 237 (2012) and S is for Stanley (2015) proving to be manna for cinephiles. Tony Zierra’s Filmworker is no different, offering a wry but sensitively-rendered portrait of Kubrick’s eccentric right-hand man and devoted disciple, Leon Vitali.
For the last 25 years of Kubrick’s life, Vitali served as a sort of jack-of-all-trades assistant to the Maestro. Vitali’s dedication to the demanding, obsessive and autocratic Kubrick, and his willingness to perform an impossibly diverse range of creative, practical and administrative roles, seems like an almost masochistic self-sacrifice, and is described by one commentator in the film as “a crucifixion”.
A central enigma presented in Filmworker is the question of why Leon Vitali, a talented actor who came to prominence with his celebrated performance in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), gave up the glamour and inevitable prestige of a promising career in front of the camera, in order to devote his life to helping to realise someone else’s creative vision. This path was evidently to the detriment of every other aspect of Vitali’s life: his children describe him as a largely absent father, their distant relationships perhaps further evidenced by the fact they all refer to him as “Leon”. The film tells how he slept on the doormat in the hallway of his house so that he could quickly respond to a call into work, and how at various points his health was badly affected by stress and overwork – at one stage his weight plummeted to 65lbs. We hear of significant financial difficulties he has faced, despite living a very modest lifestyle.
One explanation for Vitali’s choices offered by the film is his relationship with his own abusive father. Having adopted an appeasing role in childhood in order to survive his father’s dogmatic, mercurial personality and violent outbursts, he is now able to articulate how these formative experiences caused him to seek validation from a surrogate patriarch. His ingrained coping mechanisms enabled him to endure Kubrick’s notorious temper and the terrifying capriciousness that other people in the director’s orbit found breakdown-inducing. He states: “I handled myself so that I could exist in Stanley’s world.”
It’s difficult not to be struck by the irony that their relationship started when Vitali was playing Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, the antagonistic step-son determined to destroy the father figure. The role is so profoundly Oedipal that you have to wonder which parts of himself he was accessing, under Kubrick’s tutelage, to make his performance so compelling.
Despite this, Vitali appears in no way regretful. His commitment to Kubrick and his unwavering faith in the director’s genius remain uncompromised to this day. He is proud, at 69, to still work tirelessly for Kubrick’s estate.
The film’s title, Filmworker, is the word Vitali has used to describe his occupation on official documentation. It is appropriately ill-defined and all-encompassing. Ultimately, Filmworker is a love song to the film-making industry and a tribute to the many Leon Vitali-types in the business – the behind-the-scenes workers whose passion, dedication and self-sacrifice all too often go under-celebrated or unrecognised.