Review: Filmworker profiles Kubrick’s most devoted acolyte

Documentary on cinema icon's personal assistant is fascinating and disconcerting

FILMWORKER (Tony Zierra). 94 minutes. Opens Friday (July 13). See listing. Rating: NNNN 

Leon Vitali first met Stanley Kubrick when the director cast him as Ryan O’Neal’s nemesis Lord Bullingdon in his production of Barry Lyndon. It would be the last time Vitali worked in front of a camera again until Kubrick asked him to play one of Eyes Wide Shut’s masked orgy facilitators, almost a quarter of a century later.

Nearly two decades after that, and 19 years after Kubrick’s death, Vitali remains the filmmaker’s most devoted acolyte and protector, having given up a promising career in film and television to work exclusively as Kubrick’s assistant. It was, he says in Tony Zierra’s new documentary Filmworker, nothing less than a calling – the thing he simply knew he had to do.

Cinephiles seeking insight into Kubrick’s personality and process will find plenty of it here, as Vitali spins stories of Stanley’s mercurial temperament, technological expertise and devotion to his pets. Barry Lyndon’s O’Neal, The Shining’s Danny Lloyd and Full Metal Jacket’s Matthew Modine and R. Lee Ermey turn up as character witnesses to Vitali’s thoughtfulness and work ethic. 

There’s some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage from those productions, and a general sense of goodwill toward Vitali, who comes across as a very pleasant zealot but a zealot nonetheless, having devoted himself so completely to Kubrick that he became more serf than assistant.

It’s more than a little disconcerting to watch Vitali, who in his lanky, bespectacled scraggliness resembles a lankier version of Warren Zevon, tell story after story about what amounts to decades of abuse by his mercurial, increasingly eccentric boss while slowly positioning himself as the artistic collaborator who made those masterworks possible. 

I have met Vitali, and I believe he believes his own stories. I’m also aware of how often his gospel of What Stanley Would Have Wanted has shifted and changed over time on various issues, not the least of which are the home-video versions of Kubrick’s films for Warner Bros. – an issue Filmworker investigates in its wonkiest moment.

Zierra and producer Elizabeth Yoffe are somewhat more credulous. Indeed, they seem so enthralled by Vitali as a subject that they let larger questions about Kubrick’s demanding auteurship and the toll of creative work slide past them.

Filmworker proceeds from the assumption that working with Stanley Kubrick was worth whatever it took out of Vitali – but then, of course, its subject can’t possibly allow himself to wonder if it wasn’t. | @normwilner

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