Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1953)

As a young film fan, who was just beginning to learn and had so much left to see, Stanley Kubrick was one of the few directors above criticism. This was me purely parroting the words of other writers I respected, as I had only seen a few of the director's movies by that point. Yet, even to my youthful eyes, it was apparent how influential and important Kubrick, a viable candidate for Greatest Director Who Ever Lived, was. The internet probably doesn't need another series dissecting Kubrick's films but there's no way I wasn't going to cover him in time. Stanley Kubrick made some of my favorites and each of his projects are worth exactly as much discussion as his rabid fan base suggests.

1. Fear and Desire

In the early fifties, Stanley Kubrick was not the iconic filmmaker, the auteur's auteur, he is known as today. Instead, his day job was as a photographer for “Look” magazine. He had spun this career into directing two documentary short films. Figuring he had enough experience, he decided to make a feature. “Fear and Desire” was funded by friends and family of Kubrick. It was made with a small crew and an even tinier cast. It was shot without sound, dialogue being dubbed in during post-production. The film was picked up by an art house distributor. It received positive reviews but was seen by few people. Later, Kubrick would pull the film out of distribution himself, “Fear and Desire” becoming a rare object of fascination for the filmmaker's rabid fans.

The film is set in the forest during an unspecified war. A plane has crashed, stranding four soldiers behind enemy lines. It's only a six mile walk back into friendly territory but the woods are spotted with hostile soldiers. Lt. Corby tries to keep the spirits high but is uncertain of his own leadership. Sgt. Mac is more angry about the situation while the stress is getting too Privates Fletcher and Sidney. Soon, the group decide to build a raft and float down river. Along the way, they encounter a foreign woman and a camp occupied by enemy soldiers. As the day goes on, none of them become certain that they'll survive.

“Fear and Desire” is almost self-consciously arty at times. The film begins with a narrator pointing out that this could be any war, the conflict explicitly remaining undefined. We have no idea which country the different soldiers are fighting for. This penchant for narration continues throughout the film's brief one hour run time. Characters' thoughts often fill the soundtrack, expounding on the nature of their situation. The film is loosely plotted, essentially being a series of random encounters between the different characters. The dialogue tends towards the verbose, the themes frequently spelled out. The film was made for the art house, an intentionally vague experience attempting to hint at some deeper meaning.

So what meaning can one grasp from “Fear and Desire?” Kubrick's debut is obviously an anti-war piece. It focuses on the philosophical quandaries the soldiers feel as they face death, both killing and being killed. The weaker among them are driven mad. Even the stronger ones grapple with their own mortality. The film concludes with only two of the boys making it home. They are sent to search for their missing comrades, wondering if any man is made for war. We get it: War is insanity, a cruel act that makes men mad. You can look deeper, the central river becoming a metaphorical River Styx, leading two of the cast members to their graves. Over all, Kubrick's intentions are not subtle.

Even this early in his career, Kubrick had a precise, keen eye for visuals. He creates some striking images throughout “Fear and Desire.” Early on, the quartet of soldiers come upon a cabin, occupied by two enemy men eating a meal. Kubrick films the attack in close angles. He focuses on the faces, of the attackers and the soon-to-be-dead. He repeatedly cuts to a clenched fist, squeezing a loaf of bread apart. Later, the stillness of the dead bodies are emphasized, in a haunting shot of the corpses on the floor. (This is but one scene where Kubrick's past as a photographer becomes apparent.) Later scenes, like the shoulders wandering through the fog or a man standing in the center of a river, are impressive. The use of lighting, the black and white photography, is strong for such a piecemeal production.

For a war film, “Fear and Desire” is short on combat. The director keeps practically all blood off-screen. The approach to violence is nevertheless blunt. A stabbing scene focuses on the unseen impact of the blade, on the twitching eyes of the dying. Later, shots from a rifle throws a man backwards violently. One of the more memorable moments has a dying soldier crawl through a door. After his last breath leaves his body, his head falls to the wooden floor with a thud. Kubrick was clearly attempting to portray how cold, sudden, and senseless the violence of war is without becoming exploitative. He's somewhat successful, as the death scenes are generally effective.

As half of the title suggests, death isn't the only thing on the film's mind. Desire and sex comes up too. There's no discussion of sweethearts back home however. Instead, midway through the film, the gang of four come upon a group of women working in the river. They capture one of the women, tying her to a tree. That image of casual bondage is only the beginning. After being left alone with the girl, Pvt. Sidney begins to romance her. The problem is, he's gone totally around the end by this point. The threat of rape hangs in the air, making the audience increasingly uncomfortable as Sidney's mad ramblings become more violent. Kubrick doesn't go there and the episode ends without much satisfaction. Yet the sequence was obviously inserted into the film to comment on the push and pull between sex and death, creation and destruction, another theme clearly on the movie's mind.

Of the six credited actors in “Fear and Desire,” the film was the debut performance of four of them. Only Frank Silvera and Stephen Coit had prior credits. This was clearly a green cast. The performances are uneven. Silvera, as the hardened Mac, is clearly the stand-out role, coming off as crusty and confident. Virginia Leath, who would later gain cult movie infamy as Jan in a Pan from “The Brain That Wouldn't Die,” appears as the girl tied to a tree. She has little dialogue but Leath's panicked eyes manage to say a lot. The rest of the cast is less certain. Coit and Kenneth Hart have dual roles, also playing enemy soldiers that appear later in the film. Coit and Hart aren't strong enough performers to disguise the change. Hart does alright as the heroic Corby but Coit as Pvt. Fletcher is less well defined. Paul Mazursky, who would later become a notable director, plays Pvt. Sidney. Mazursky's performance is wild-eyed and manic yet also oddly stiff.

As a loosely plotted film, “Fear and Desire” frequently digresses from its main point. Sometimes, these shifts are more interesting than others. The men eating the cold stew they stole from the soldiers they just murdered is intriguing. As is a brief encounter with a dog, who later runs home to the enemy head-quarters. The canine seems to be another element the film hopes to endow with a deeper, symbolic meaning. The dog is unaware of the lines of combating nation. He only seeks comfort where he can find it. These moments are intriguing, even if they don't quite justify the film's rambling pace.

However, other digressions come off as ponderous and unnecessary. After being reunited with their pooch, the enemy general launches into a long monologue about the nature of war. This is the moment in “Fear and Desire” that most tested my patience. The film is not only hammering home its own point, it's doing so with characters we aren't even invested in. There's other stuff in “Fear and Desire” that probably could've been cut without loosing too much. Like the men leaping back and forth onto a road, seeing if it's occupied. Even the encounter with the girl ends up having little effect on the overall story. This frequently feels like a short that was expanded to feature length.

“Fear and Desire” was obviously put together on a low budget. The film's soundtrack is loud and thundering, at odds with the introspective tone. I doubt this was library music – Gerald Fried, who would score Kubrick's next three movies, is credited with composing the score – but it certainly sounds like it. Most of the scenes take place within the same small stretch of forest. The sets and cast are minimal. You can see the future filmmaker Kubrick would become in a few scenes but “Fear and Desire” is still clearly the work of a beginner, made with limited funds and a small production team.

Considering the perfectionist he would grow into, it's not surprising to read that Kubrick would quickly disown “Fear and Desire.” You can easily imagining him turning his nose up at an occasionally rough first effort like this. The story behind the film's withdraw from circulation is arguably more interesting than the actual movie. The distributor died in an airplane crash a few months after the film's initial release. Afterwards, Kubrick would attempt to buy up every commercially available copy, destroying them personally, determined to bury what he considered an embarrassing debut. For years, the only way to see “Fear and Desire” were via scratchy bootlegs or rare theatrical screenings at the occasional festival. The film had fallen into the public domain by this point but the director still went out of his way to discourage people from seeing it.  In 2011, long after Kubrick's death, a print was restored and “Fear and Desire” was released on DVD and Blu-Ray the next year, for all to see.

The film's present day wide-spread availability – thanks to Youtube, it's just a click away – would probably infuriate Kubrick. Watching “Fear and Desire” after years of speculating about its content, is an interesting experience. Yes, it's something of an amateur effort. However, the film still provides interesting glimpses at the enormous talent to come. This is ultimately the primary reason to see “Fear and Desire,” to witness an embryonic Kubrick, forging his first work as a serious filmmaker. It's not like someone who isn't a Kubrick fan is going to stumble upon this. [Grade: C+]

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