The Auteur Theory is an enticingly convenient way to talk about film, but it’s also a reductive one that dismisses the work of hundreds of collaborators on each picture discussed. Meticulous tyrants like Stanley Kubrick are often praised for the incredible depth of their genius & control in craft, but little attention is paid to the behind-the-scenes collaborators who make that genius achievable. The recent documentary Filmworker is especially illuminating when viewed in the context of The Auteur Theory’s shortcomings, with insight into Kubrick’s tyrannically selfish brand of genius in particular. The film profiles former actor Leon Vitali, who got his big break as the snotty Lord Bulingdon in Kubrick’s infamous production of Barry Lyndon, then immediately dropped everything in his life to follow the director around like a loyal, exhausted lapdog until his master died. Kubrick enthusiasts might find Filmworker of interest for its behind-the-scenes factoids about productions like Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, but they’ll also find a huge moral quandary at the center of the hero worship of that man’s unique genius. Vitali pushed the hagiography of Kubrick as the greatest artist of the 20th Century to the most bizarrely self-destructive extreme imaginable; he’s living proof of The Auteur Theory’s most glaring lie.
Upon seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a wide-eyed youth in the swinging-60s, Vitali knew he wanted to dedicate his life’s work to Kubrick’s genius. As he tells it, he decided not that he wanted to be an actor, but that he wanted to work for Kubrick, regardless of the capacity of that servitude. Landing a role in Barry Lyndon was all he meant to achieve with his acting work, despite establishing a very promising career onstage & BBC television productions to get there. Kubrick took note of his enthusiasm and made extensive use of him behind the camera as a jack-of-all-trades workhouse assistant for the rest of his career. Vitali was left just as little time for acting gigs as he had for eating, sleeping, and raising his children. Calling him a “personal assistant” is insultingly reductive, as he would switch roles form editor, casting director, acting coach, archivist, and so on as Kubrick’s whims & demands dictated. He was essentially an uncredited producer on multiple films that are widely considered to be some of the greatest achievements in cinema, yet Filmworker finds him lonely & sustained mostly by his children’s charity. It’s sad to see, but it’s also oddly sweet. Vitali seems totally content, if not immensely pleased with his life’s work of supporting a Genius Auteur who worked his mind & body into the ground with essentially no reward outside the collaborations they left behind.
As with other behind-the-scenes, low-budget documentaries like DOOMED!, Casting By, or Lost Soul, Filmworker relies heavily on the strength of the story it tells without focusing too much on the craft of telling it. The interviews are cheaply filmed through a sickly digital gauze, as if they were recorded in a supermarket staff breakroom. The editing is unfocused, drawing the story out into redundancy & exhaustion. Other shortcomings, like a lack of female interviewees & Kubrick’s own voice, could be considered reflections of the auteur’s current legacy, but they hurt the film’s entertainment value anyway. There’s a kind of poetic justice in knowing that Kubrick would have been driven insane by the film’s more glaring faults, however, a minor payback for all the stress he crushed Vitali with over decades of tyrannical demands. Regardless of the format’s merits, this is still a vital story that deserves to be heard, not only for the insight it provides into one of cinema’s great auteurs, but for its challenge to our lauding of great auteurs in the first place. Film is a collaborative medium and we can do much better by recognizing the efforts of its lesser known collaborators. No one should need to be as tireless of a martyr as Vitali to earn that recognition, but this is still as good of a place to start as any.