All Work And No Play…
DIRECTED BY: TONY ZIERRA/2018 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 16, 2021/KINO LORBER
You get the creeping sense as you watch this documentary that its subject might be slightly unhinged – and I don’t mean the famously obsessive Stanley Kubrick. The “filmworker” of the title is actually the director’s long-time right hand man, Leon Vitali, the unlikeliest of assistants. He’d been a successful television actor in England when he snagged the role of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. Already a fan, Vitali ingratiated himself to Kubrick, eventually abandoning his acting career in favor of a permanent post as the director’s jack-of-all-trades.
Vitali’s quick absorption into Kubrick’s small cadre of in-house creatives reads eerily like falling into a religious cult, bonded by extreme loyalty to a dominating personality, ever ready to do any bidding by the never-flagging authoritarian. But if his testimony is to be believed, Vitali is, in his own mind at least, less Patty Hearst than he is John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. And yet, across the next three decades and three films (The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut), with seemingly bottomless energy, Vitali happily packed his résumé with newfound skills in casting, location scouting, set photography, sound design, and all things post production and marketing, all at the insistent pressing of his boss, the most notoriously exacting, emotionally volatile auteurs in film history. It’s a relationship that’s depicted here as most assuredly not equal, often verbally abusive… and strangely paternal. Vitali’s disposition, almost preternaturally accommodating, seemed to magnet-lock with Kubrick’s weirdly avuncular megalomania, and the symbiosis – healthy or not – became Kubrick’s necessary add-on appendage.
A brief detour into Vitali’s childhood late in the film reveals the abuse his father heaped upon him and his siblings, triggering for the audience any number of passages from the Psychology 101 text, especially bolding the Stockholmy contours of his loyalty. But the sense-defying facts of Vitali’s trajectory from actor to assistant belie the deep – and ultimately innocent – devotion that is naturally engendered within a person who is in love with filmmaking and who, while forswearing all 24/7 of his own life, has the rare chance to work alongside one of the greatest geniuses of the art form.
Beyond rank loyalty, though, one of the unsung facts about Vitali, even in this documentary, is how lethally smart he had to be to keep up with the voracious polymath at the helm. The documentary takes its tonal cue on such things from its subject, who often presents himself as simple, if beleaguered, background help. But the cascading volume of research and detail, and the capacity for whiplash-inducing 180’s inherent in his capricious boss, required a mind and constitution of monolithic fortitude.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray upgrade of its 2018 DVD release retains the scant extras, only featuring an eleven-minute post-screening Q&A with Vitali and the documentary’s director, Tony Zierra. The film is a short ride, ninety-four minutes, but the cruel, relentless lifestyle described is so anxiety-inducing as to make it feel much longer. By the end, as Kubrick’s death becomes imminent, and as Vitali’s visage has morphed from young London swinger to eviscerated Iggy Pop, viewers might find themselves rooting for the director’s eyes to widely shut just to give poor Leon a break.