Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series of articles that takes a look at the filmography of a given director, and tries to parse it all in order for a greater understanding not only of the director themselves, but of film in general. Prior projects have included Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, and Paul Thomas Anderson, and hopefully many many more directors in the future. Sure, it’s auteur as hell, but that’s half the fun!
After last season’s Paul Thomas Anderson project, I was ready to dig back into mid-period American film history, the 60s and 70s stuff that is probably the most important segment of film that I know the least about. I have plenty of gaps, and the most glaring ones come from the filmography of a director everybody knows and probably everyone has seen a few of the films of. That director, and the focus of this season, is Stanley Kubrick.
I’ll admit that Kubrick is a potentially strange choice, especially given me professing how much this series is reliant upon certain assumptions of auteur theory. The most obvious objection is that almost all of Kubrick’s movies are adaptations of books. He didn’t write them, he didn’t think it up. It’s not even many times a case of light half-adaptation like P. T. Anderson’s work crafting There Will Be Blood from pieces of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! No, these are in many cases outright adaptations, some of them literal to a fault.
Why I pick Kubrick, then, is because for a director who mainly did adaptations his sense of perfectionism and the care with which he chose all his subjects defined a personality to his work that overrode much of the personality of the people who created the source works. His directorial power simply stamped out, in many cases, the voices of the author. I wouldn’t particularly compare Vladimir Nabokov with Stephen King, but I can easily sense that Lolita and The Shining come from the mind of the same man. There are multiple examples of authors hating the adaptations Kubrick produced, and it’s no wonder why. They are wholly his, for better or worse.
So that’s why I pick him. Not because he is unfit, but because in many ways he’s the prime example of how adaptations can grow to become just as if not more important than their original work, certainly at least Other. And despite all of that, each of those movies landed so forcefully into the history of cinema that I would have to tackle Kubrick sooner or later. He is one of the pillars of film history, his importance and influence undeniably vast regardless of how you want to interpret the quality of individual works. So we’re going to be tackling them all, and if that means I have to kill a few sacred cows, then … well, so be it.
Thankfully we don’t have to go straight into controversy yet. This project kicks off modestly, and strangely, with Kubrick’s very first film, a movie whose history is far more interesting than the movie itself.
Fear and Desire (1953)
There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forrest then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.
That is the narration that opens Kubrick’s first film, a black and white drama about four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines after their plane goes down. The forest seemingly stretches on forever and the men begin to trudge in the direction they feel will take them home, hoping to avoid detection as they struggle for survival.
Kubrick, 24 at the time, creates a movie that in many ways exemplifies the youth of its director. It is an incredibly earnest film, from the outset establishing this concept of humanity unraveling into paranoia and despair, friends turning against each other, and the ultimate futility of war. In that respect, it is a thousand times better than most director’s first projects, especially at that young age where these days you’d likely get a painfully obvious autobiographical mumblecore piece of navel-gazing fluff. If I can say anything resolutely good about Fear and Desire, it’s that it has a theme from the outset and goes about trying to make a movie that supports said theme.
The problem, however, is just how clumsily it goes about doing it. Kubrick is a man known for using voice over, perhaps one of the only directors who managed to turn what any screenwriting book will tell you is an overused cliche into an art all its own. It becomes obvious looking at Fear and Desire that those abilities were hard won, because this movie has a running narration that spills over into the dialog with an obviousness that would be cute if it wasn’t so exhaustive. From that opening narration to lengthy scenes of every soldier contributing his mental state in a cacaphony as they grimly march through the woods, the problem with Fear and Desire isn’t one of conception but of execution. It’s message is stated again and again, browbeaten into every scene in some fashion, telling rather than showing being extended past moralizing into the realm of ritualistic philosophizing.
Which is why the biggest sense one gets of the movie is one of laborious pretension. It’s the kind of messaging you’d expect to find in a poor Twilight Zone imitator, a moral message shoved into the mouths of every character and down the throats of every audience member willing to sit through it long enough to listen. It’s unfortunate, because a little elegance would go a long way towards making the themes poignant (in fact, many of them would show up again in Full Metal Jacket, in vastly more complex and nuanced form). Especially since the rest of the movie contains the early hallmarks of someone with some talent.
The movie is, at its core, an existential horror scenario, with the soldiers dissolving as they trek through the woods. And it’s shot to take advantage of that. Sure, it’s an early film, and as a no-budget, independent film all the way back in the 50s there’s a lack of continuity or even basic filmic language that came from a time when the rules for small productions weren’t really codified yet (the movie is RIFE with close-ups, hiding a lack of coverage with seemingly contextless cutting that gives it an admittedly addled, off-putting feel). But it has moments where it actually achieves its unsettling aspirations: a scene in which the men attack an enemy outpost and devour all their food, feral and gross; an uncomfortable sequence where they come across a peasant woman who can’t speak English and restrain her, leaving the most unstable member of the team to guard her, who ends up pantomiming the enemy general to try to calm her before shooting her when she flees. It’s a mishmash of bad with good, small nuggets of potential mined from what is otherwise a boring slog. It’s unfortunate, not the worst first feature I’ve ever seen but certainly not an auspicious one.
Which brings us to why this film is still infamous despite lacking in nearly every way. The movie was obscure upon release and remained so for some time, until Kubrick became Kubrick and people began seeking out his early works, a thing that was much more difficult in the pre-home video days of movies. Kubrick had managed to collect all of the prints minus a few in private collections once his distributor had gone out of business, with the intent that nobody would ever see the movie again. When prints were finally screened again in the 90s, Kubrick was quick to downplay the movie with full reasoning of what kind of movie it was, calling it “a bumbling, amateur film exercise.” He’s not wrong.
These days the movie remains fairly hard to get a hold of, with no commercial DVD release to speak of. It exists in various bootleg forms online, as there’s no official copyright holder any more, and you can even watch it in bad 10 minute clips on youtube if that’s really your thing. It’s not ideal, to be sure, but in some ways it feels like the fitting monument to what essentially amounts to a historical curiosity. Nobody is going to seek out this movie outside of people who want to see where Kubrick began. Which is perfectly all right, just as I sympathize with his ultimately failed desire that the movie be lost to time. This is not the Kubrick of legend, but a kid who made an overly arty war movie that just isn’t particularly good.
In that way, it’s almost inspiring, as this seems ultimately a very low entry bar to hit for anyone who aspires to grow into a cinematic icon of their own making.