Filmworker

Studio: Kino Lorber
Directed by Tony Zierra

May 11, 2018 Web Exclusive
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There’s something that’s deeply compelling about people who walk away from success. Living in a culture that prizes the accumulation of wealth and fame as the ultimate good, the idea that someone who has become Somebody would abandon that status is perversely fascinating. It’s why we still talk about Dave Chappelle going to Africa at the peak of his powers or cult musicians like Jeff Mangum dropping out of the public eye right when it seems like they could have broke out into the mainstream. To spurn Lady Luck’s affection when she offers you a seat at the adult table is one of the fastest ways to become a living legend.

On the surface, Leon Vitali seems like one of those figures. The subject of Tony Zierra’s documentary Filmworker, Leon started off as a hard-working actor. Getting his big break as Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Vitali was poised to become a breakout star. But instead of accepting the prestigious acting job offers he got in the wake of Barry Lyndon, he opted to do a Frankenstein movie so he could learn how to edit film when he wasn’t on set. Inspired by working with Kubrick, he was determined to work for the legendary director. Vitali turned his back on his acting career, spending thirty years working with Kubrick as the director’s tireless right-hand man.

Unlike other famous renouncers, Vitali didn’t abandon his promising career out of a desire for privacy or more control over his own life. He subsumed his own artistic interests in order to devote himself to helping someone else realize their vision. It’s a rare and remarkable thing, to become a “crucifixion of himself” for the sake of someone else’s art.

The film reveals Vitali as a jack-of-all-trades “filmworker”: the kind of guy who can effortlessly shift from casting director to film editor, who knows as much about color grading and film preservation as he does about coaching actors and designing home video packaging. It takes care to give him his due, pointing out how essential he was to Kubrick’s work and to the lives of his collaborators. The late R. Lee Ermey credits his casting and performance in Full Metal Jacket to Vitali, who personally coached Ermey and helped him with his lines throughout the production. It also talks about how Vitali found and cast Danny Lloyd for The Shining, working closely with the child actor to help him cope with the film’s grueling production schedule.

Zierra’s documentary also makes a great argument for Vitali’s eligibility to be canonized as a film saint. The man’s worked himself to the bone in his attempts to preserve Kubrick’s films so that restorations and prints of his work remain as close as possible to his original vision. Future generations will be able to experience films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange the way Kubrick intended because people like Vitali are around to make sure that the master’s high standards are being maintained.

Vitali makes for a sympathetic and intriguing subject. He’s got a soft voice that’s fluid yet rough, like river water wearing down a stone. Years of 16 hour work days have clearly done a number on his body, yet he still comes across as an energetic and enthused man. The march of time hasn’t dulled his passion for Kubrick’s work or his mind: he’s full of fun behind the scene anecdotes, and on several occasions shows off his impressive technical knowledge.

While the film focuses on Vitali, it’s other subject is Kubrick. The film doesn’t go into biographical details about Stanley’s film; those looking to get a deeper insight into his life won’t find it in Filmworker. The film is about their working relationship, which began on the set of Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s reputation for being a harsh taskmaster on set is confirmed by hair-raising stories of feeding Vitali semi-raw chicken and eggs to get him to vomit on-camera, or encouraging co-star Ryan O’Neal to get extra rough with Leon. “You’re not hitting him hard enough,” O’Neal recalls on-camera, still visibly guilt-ridden about the experience.

Matthew Modine likens Vitali to Igor, and the film does paint a picture that supports that image: Kubrick as mad scientist, with Vitali as his haggard & loyal henchman (the fact that Vitali got the job working for Kubrick after playing Dr. Frankenstein on film is an interesting synchronicity). Filmworker is a testament to Kubrick’s obsessive nature, showing off how deeply he and Vitali would sweat over every detail.

There’s a question that hangs over the movie: was it all worth it? Vitali gave up his own promising career to pivot into a new trade, spent a good portion of his life away from his own family, and didn’t even have the consolation prize of a retirement fund: after Kubrick’s death, Vitali had to turn to his own son for financial support. Despite being an incredibly skilled filmworker, Vitali has trouble finding work in a modern film industry where everybody’s jobs are compartmentalized. He’s a footnote in film history. Was it all worth it?

Vitali thinks so. Part of what makes his story of sacrifice and servitude so intriguing is Vitali seems to have no regrets about it. He got a chance to work alongside one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, and that’s more than most of us can say about our own lives. Is refusing the opportunity to become a star so you can orbit around a sun a tragic decision or a noble calling? Filmworker leaves you to be the judge of that.

www.kinolorber.com/film/filmworker

Author rating: 7/10

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