Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Film of Stanley Kubrick: Three Early Shorts

Day of the Fight (1951)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Robert Rein.
Narrator: Douglas Edwards.

Flying Padre (1951)
Directed by:  Stanley Kubrick.
Written by:  Stanley Kubrick.
Narrator: Bob Hite.

The Searfarers (1953)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Will Chasen.
Narrator: Don Hollenbeck.

Early in his career, Stanley Kubrick directed three short documentaries – basically short newsreels that for a long time remained unseen – but are now viewable to all on Youtube or other locations. Kubrick is one of the most distinctive of directors – you can always tell a Kubrick film from the work of anyone else – so I was curious to see what he did in these first three films. After the first of the three, I had high hopes for the other two, only to be disappointed to find out that I had already seen the high-water mark of the three shorts – and the only one that feels anything at all like a Kubrick film.

That film is Day of the Fight (1951) – a New York set documentary about a boxer going through his fight day preparations. It’s interesting to see Kubrick – a native New Yorker – filming on the streets of his hometown, since he left America fairly early in his career, and filmed the rest of his movies in England – no matter where they were actually set. It was also interesting to see him go to church with the fighter for his pre-game prayer, given the normal Kubrick attitude towards religion. When the fight finally gets onscreen, Kubrick finds some interesting ways to shoot it – including one great low angle shot where they camera seems like it’s on the floor of the ring, before it twists away. At only 13 minutes, with an ever present narrator, Day of the Fight isn’t a particularly great short – there is no reason for anyone not interested in Kubrick to really see it – but given that it is his first directing credit – and it shows some real talent, and a few moments that show what he is capable of, it’s still fascinating.

His next film, Flying Padre (also 1951), is nowhere near as interesting. It’s even shorter than that Day of the Fight – about 9 minutes – but really has nothing of interest to offer. The film follows a priest from Arizona, who is responsible for a large geographical area. In order to get from one location to another, he takes his small single engine plane. The film, again with an omnipresent narrator, shows the priest as he conducts mass, presides over a funeral – and in the “climax” goes on an emergency call where a mother needs his help to get her sick infant to the hospital – although this is clearly staged, as Kubrick has footage of the woman making the call, and waiting on the priest. If Day of the Fight had some interest – given its New York locations, and some of Kubrick’s shots, Flying Padre doesn’t offer much of interest – a completely forgettable – and worse, generic – short that doesn’t show anything resembling what we associate with a Kubrick film.

The longest of the three documentary shorts – at nearly 30 minutes is 1953’s The Seafarers – and it’s the least interesting of the three shorts (probably because it’s as dull as Flying Padre, but three times as long). The film is basically an infomercial for the benefits of being a part of the Seafarer International Union (SIU) – telling us about all the benefits Seafarers have because of the SIU – like access to a cafeteria where you get good food for cheap prices when on shore and protection from harsh working conditions. Basically, what the message boils down to is that the SIU is a brotherhood of men – who when they stand together are stronger than if they didn’t. It’s an obvious message, and one that Kubrick doesn’t seem too interested in. It’s a completely forgettable and dull movie – where Kubrick seems to just being going through the motions, and delivering what’s expected from him. If Kubrick hadn’t directed it, it would be completely forgotten by now – instead of almost completely forgotten.

In short, unlike some filmmakers whose early shorts shine a light on a brilliant talent, I don’t think these three Kubrick shorts really do that. These are paycheck gigs – he seemed more interested in Day of the Fight – perhaps because he was a producer, and it was based on his photographic essay for Look Magazine. The other two however you can easily skip and not worry about missing out on any real insight into Kubrick.

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