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'Filmworker' Is About Stanley Kubrick, But Not Quite


Maybe the smartest thing in Tony Zierra’s documentary Filmworker is that the movie never tries to explain. It shows plenty, but leaves the why to the audience, and the reason for that may be that for some things there is no explanation possible during a film, if ever.

The subject is a man little known outside just one part of the world of film. Leon Vitali is an English former actor. He was a young man in 1975 when Stanley Kubrick chose him for a major role in Barry Lyndon. Vitali had already become devoted to Kubrick’s work, so getting this part was a happy event. But afterwards Vitali quit acting to work with Kubrick in whatever way possible. For the next 25 years, Vitali was Kubrick’s assistant, and to this day Vitali works for the Kubrick estate preparing restorations of the films and solving technical problems.

He was far more than Kubrick’s assistant, though, and Vitali chose for himself the inclusive word “filmworker.” It’s likely that no one on Earth knows more about Kubrick and about the films than Leon Vitali.

Filmworker is a stunning film, but it takes a while to see its genius. Vitali looks like a strung out old rocker from the 1960s. He’s either in a ski cap or he wears a bandana covering his hair; little wisps hang out like old strings. He’s grizzled and gaunt, and for a time – if you don’t already know about Vitali – you wonder why the film isn’t just about Kubrick himself. After all, Kubrick is the celebrity; he’s the great fastidious, seductive, tyrannical maker of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket.

There are tons of stories – some fantasies, some accurate – about how the great master painter or filmmaker so and so really didn’t do x, y or z. It was really the ever-devoted loyal retainer who wrote that great line of dialogue or directed that stunning sequence.

But Filmworker is not about how Kubrick didn’t do the brilliant work; the documentary doesn’t claim that Leon Vitali really did all the great, magical sequences in the Kubrick pictures, and neither does Vitali himself claim greatness. He’s modest and matter-of-fact. But as actors and studio executives insist, Kubrick could not have done so many great things without Leon Vitali helping with virtually every aspect of the making of those films. Vitali chose actors for small but critical roles; he worked with actors on their performances; he directed the last parts of Eyes Wide Shut after Kubrick died.

Vitali really does seem unlikely. Sitting back on a sofa, his head covered by the bandana, Vitali looks like he might not have the energy to pick up a script. He’s exhausted, like a guy drained by whatever it is he’s been doing. And from what people say about him, he simply might be used up from his years working for Stanley Kubrick. Actor Ryan O’Neal, star of Barry Lyndon, says that Kubrick ran Vitali without mercy. He constantly had more jobs for him – Kubrick supposedly was a very harsh taskmaster, and not a whole lot of fun to work with.

One wonder is what Leon Vitali got – and gets – out of his devotion to Stanley Kubrick and the films. Vitali says he loved Kubrick, but that word that can mean all sorts of things. Vitali gave up acting – and he was well-trained and good at it – so that he could work nearly anonymously, although for a legendary artist. So, Vitali gave up fame – and probably fortune also – to be the guy supporting it all. His contribution seems enormous, but at a major Kubrick celebration a couple of years ago, Vitali was neither invited nor mentioned. He seems not to mind. Perhaps he doesn’t need to be acknowledged. The movie Filmworker leaves it to the world to speculate on the meaning of devotion.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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