Salute Your Shorts: Stanley Kubrick's Documentaries
Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
A couple weeks back, some of my colleagues decided to cast a few of the “lost” Stanley Kubrick films because of news that one of his abandoned screenplays, Lunatic at Large, is heading into production. Like most writer/directors, Kubrick worked on a number of scripts and did large amounts of pre-production for films that were never completed (anyone who studies Orson Welles won’t even be able to give you a ballpark of how many he had in various states of completion). That being said, there’s a number of Kubrick’s films that are “lost” as well in the sense that despite their completion they’re rarely shown and almost never considered when people look at his body of work, even by scholars. These films are his documentaries (and fascinatingly terrible first feature film Fear and Desire), which shed light on an apprentice Kubrick that often gets lost in his quick transition from photojournalist to auteur.
Most fans are aware that Kubrick’s first profession was as a photographer, primarily for Look magazine, but also contributing freelance work elsewhere. His increased interest in filmmaking, though, brought him to try his luck making newsreels when his friend Alexander Singer mentioned that his employers at March of Time were paying $40,000 for one-reel documentary shorts. Kubrick had previously worked on a photo essay on the boxer Walter Cartier for Look, which ran in the magazine’s January 18, 1949 issue, 19 photographs long. A true essay, it began with the boxer’s morning and tracked him all the way through his fight. This gave the photos a rudimentary narrative that already showed Kubrick’s interest in photography as a means to storytelling rather than an end unto itself. Even his most avant-garde moments in 2001 are ultimately there at the behest of a narrative.
Kubrick took this same structure and once again decided to even bring back Cartier. Scrounging up money from friends and his savings, he spent roughly $1000 on shooting expenses (largely film, as the short was shot in 35mm) and the rest of his money on post-production. While the director did not write the movie’s narration himself, he did give the film its essential structure and concept. He also worked as cinematographer and sound recorder for the movie, as well as helping with its editing. Even by Kubrick’s borderline fascistic directorial tendencies, he had more control over these documentaries than nearly anything else he made.
When his early films were more difficult to see, it often felt like Kubrick’s unique style suddenly appeared fully formed. As early as Paths of Glory, there’s no mistaking the man behind the camera, but increased access to his earlier works has somewhat changed this viewpoint. Oddly, though, when “Day of the Fight” is considered it’s hard not to see a bit more of the masterful Kubrick of later years, perhaps more than in any of his films for the next decade. The short was shot in high-contrast black and white that immediately recalls his photography in its composition. Despite being hamstrung by the form, Kubrick’s shots are very expressionistic with frequent cutting between centered and uncentered imagery that helps lend the film its rhythmic sense of editing. Best of all is the explosive fight at the end of the short itself, which has been built up throughout.
The sheer filmmaking prowess is already clearly evident, though the short is a bit of a letdown in its narration. Unlike his features, Kubrick’s documentary sounds like every other made-for-a-newsreel piece being done during that era and its frequently inane and unnecessary voice over doesn’t do much to help this. It’s dated (being a newsreel that not a huge sin), and though still surprisingly slick-looking, has a slow pacing that makes an otherwise well-told story drag on. This is reminiscent of his latter works, as is the film’s structure, which in some ways anticipates The Killing. In general, I would say it’s more kinetic than his later works, but this seems most likely just a result of emulating the fast-moving newsreel format than anything else.
Unfortunately, the company that Kubrick was hoping to sell the short to fell under and he sold it for just $4000. Likely some of this was due to the short’s length, as it was two-reels long and offers some evidence that even early on Kubrick had some difficulty editing his works to the expectations of anyone other than himself, for better or worse. But whatever the case, the experience seems to have been positive and despite not being the windfall of money Kubrick expected he continued onward in the same direction. RKO commissioned Kubrick to make another short as part of its “Screenliner” series.
“Flying Padre” isn’t an odd film just because it’s a documentary made by Kubrick, as we’ve seen that those can make sense within his oeuvre. No, it’s an odd film because of the mismatch between its topic and the man putting it together, and is one of the few films Kubrick made that’s clearly a work for hire. Kubrick himself called the piece “silly” years later and he’s, well, spot on in his analysis.
The short is an account of how Reverend Fred Stadmueller spends two days as the priest of 4,000 sq. miles in Harding County, NM. He does this by flying from town to town in his plane, but shots of it taking off are the most drama that we ever see here. There’s a sense that Kubrick doesn’t really feel that he has a story, which is true, so he just goes ahead and records everything about the priest in the hope that it will edit together. This kind of works, but doesn’t produce anything particularly interesting; even when he’s ferrying a mother and her sick child to a hospital there’s no real pathos.
Stylistically, it’s not immediately evident that this was made by Kubrick. The unity of time is similar in some ways to “Day of the Fight,” but it’s done less elegantly here and seems more of a format used because there were no other options available. Particularly odd are the close-ups of the peasant faces, which doesn’t feel like very sophisticated filmmaking for 1951. The only shots that really harken to work Kubrick would do later are the shots he takes from inside the plane, which are repeated in Dr. Strangelove. Other than that, it seems like even the priest who’s being reported on is bored with going on and there’s little to recommend “Flying Padre” other than as a historical curiosity—it’s far from a missing link for Kubrick.
Following “Flying Padre” Kubrick felt that he’d learned enough from his brief time behind the camera to attempt a feature. It was rather unsuccessful, and though it has some moments that seem signaled out for greatness overall it’s pretty much a huge mess. Kubrick was able to get distribution for the film, but filming and post-production bankrupted him and necessitated that he find some other work. He’d quit his job at Look to pursue a career in filmmaking, but without Fear and Desire being an unmitigated success he needed. For help raising money, he directed the industry film “The Seafareres” for the Seafarers International union, which after years of obscurity made its way onto DVD two years ago (a legal one available on Netflix, unlike the bootlegs floating around for Fear and Desire).
There’s no two ways about it, “Seafarers” is a propaganda movie made by and for seafarers, though when it was actually shown I’m uncertain. This is clear from the long monologues given to the movie’s narrator Don Hollenbeck in a blank room doing nothing more than talking to the camera. Again, Kubrick acted not just as director but also cinematographer, and with this he takes several long, sweeping vista shots, but they don’t seem particularly Kubrickian. In general, it’s quite well shot, but done in the blandly straightforward manner of its genre and like “Flying Padre” is frequently quaint and naïve in ways that are extremely unlike any of the features Kubrick would come to make. The movie’s last real shot, from an expressive angle with silhouetted figures and a man moving up a staircase, is the only part of the film that feels like it couldn’t have been made by anyone, but before things get too interesting it’s immediately cut into by more of Hollenbeck speaking to the camera about seafarers.
Killer’s Kiss, though extremely low-budget and in many ways a clichéd noir film, was much more successful than Fear and Desire before it and with that film Kubrick was able to continue his career as a feature filmmaker, never returning to either documentaries or anything short form at all during his life. Whether or not these shorts are of particular interest to fans of Kubrick The Enigmatic Auteur is debatable. Especially the later two only offer of glimpses of the man and while they show him developing his craft, they’re more historical curiosities than anything else. “Day of the Fight” still holds up pretty well, though, and while it’s by no means Raging Bull it’s also surprisingly personal for a human interest news story. Everyone’s got to start somewhere, but even with just these few films it’s clear that Kubrick had really nothing else to gain by making these sort of newsreel/for hire pieces, which may lack distinction but are far better than first films like these had any right to be. Turns out, Kubrick’s ideas that he was destined for bigger and better were correct.