Stanley Kubrick – The Beginning
Anyone who knows me or accompanies the Square Table knows that I’m a Stanley Kubrick fan. And you know I promise and postpone, and promise again, to make a thorough analysis of my favorite director’s work. Well, the time has come to deal with the phobia of analyzing one of the most complex, influential, and analyzed directors of all time.
There will be 14 texts, some probably divided into more than one part. One for each feature length of the director, and another this, where I will comment on the beginning of his career and his three short documentary films. Kubrick has always been averse to becoming a celebrity, and he wanted his films to be notorious, not his person. So I will not stick to the details of the director’s biography unless they are relevant to the analysis of the films. Anyone interested in the biography, I suggest watching the documentary Stanley Kubrick: Pictures of a Life. Let’s get right to the point: movies.
Day of the Fight (1951)
In 1949 Stanley Kubrick published a photographic essay titled Prizefighter. It was a photographic profile of Walter Cartier, a rising middleweight boxing fighter. Fascinated by the character and the world of boxing, Kubrick decides to abandon the career of photographer and to dedicate himself to the cinema. Two years after the publication of the photographic essay Kubrick ends Day of the Fight.
The 12-minute short chronicles the day of a Walter Cartier fight. The narrative is divided into three parts. First we have footage of Walter Cartier and his identical twin getting ready for fight day. They go to mass, they have breakfast with their dog, etc. These are clearly staged scenes for the camera, and some are somewhat artificial. Then we have Cartier’s entry into the gym where the fight will take place, and his transformation from ordinary person into fighter. And finally the fight itself.
The choice not to use dialogues, just a voice over and soundtrack, takes away much of the character, and gives a somewhat fanciful tone to the film. And the staged scenes from the first part are somewhat amateurish. On the other hand, we noticed a good edition, and a good use of the soundtrack. We have a growing tension between the music of the first part and the second. During the fight, the voiceover narrative is clipped just like the music. We only have the ambient sound, emphasizing the crudity and violence. And in the end, the return of narrative and music gives a triumphant tone.
But the main merit of this irregular short is photography. Kubrick already demonstrates knowing where to put the camera and get the most out of it. As well as great use of lighting. The fight scene is especially creative, even more so if we remember that it had to be filmed in real time without interruptions. If there are some questionable choices of narrative, the photographic part already gives us a glimpse of the enormous talent yet to mature. But most importantly, because the film was funded from Stanley Kubrick’s own pocket, and because of a lack of resources, the director accumulated directing, sound effects, editing, camera-men, and so on. It was a learning of almost everything about the craft of making movies.
Flying Father (1951)
Kubrick sold Day of the Fight to RKO for $ 4,000 (which, according to the director, represented a profit of $ 100). In addition, the studio raised US $ 1,500 for the production of the second film. Unfortunately the theme of the second documentary was not chosen by the director, but by the RKO. Flying Padre tells the story of two days in the life of Fred Stadtmueller, a Catholic priest from a New Mexico parish. As his parish covered a very large area, Fred Stadtmueller used a plane to service his flock.
Many of the defects and qualities of Day of the Fight are repeated in Flying Father. We have again the option for the absence of dialogues, and the use of a voiceover over the whole movie. If in Day of the Fight the choice for not giving voice to the character did not have so much importance, due to the construction of the drama of the fight, now the choice empties almost all dramatic impact. We finished the short without hearing, knowing and caring about Fred Stadtmueller.
The scenes staged are much more embarrassing than in the previous film. Especially the time when a girl will knock on the door of the protagonist’s house. The shame of the young actors is clear, perhaps because it is something real, that had to be re-enacted for the camera. The story is weak and without salt, to the point that Kubrick himself describes Flying Padre as a silly thing in a 1969 interview.
But we also noticed the quality of the photograph, especially in the priest’s scenes on the plane. The burial scene, and the close-up cut for some faces was also well done, giving the film’s most moving moment. Here the photographer’s ability to recognize dramatic faces has left its mark. If the narrator Kubrick did not get so involved in this film, the photographer was still present. But surely, if it were not for Stanley Kubrick’s work, Flying Father would be forgotten in time and space.
Seafarers was a film sponsored by the International Seamen’s Union in 1953. It’s not really a documentary, it’s more for an institutional film, to publicize the union to the sailors. There is no cinematic intent here. It’s a bit unfair to make movie reviews for this video.
The footage is totally conventional and linear, with no artistic or narrative concerns. We have again the use of narrative in voice over, with brief interruptions. And 30 minutes of boredom, unless you’re a 1950s American sailor, a historian with very specific interests, or a pervert by Kubrick.
In any case, it is Kubrick’s first colored film, and the first one in which he extensively uses the travel, a very present feature throughout his work. Other than that, it’s a really annoying video. If you persist with watchful eyes, you may notice one or another composition of really interesting images. But that’s all.