The Hidden Stanley Kubrick Feature:
Fear and Desire
A haunting image from a phantom film: soldier in the river.
Some thoughts on self-suppression, and the rights of genius.
The one word that best encapsulates Stanley Kubrick is Control. A successful magazine photographer, Kubrick decided to become a great film director from the outset, and unlike so many others, never turned away from that goal. His is just about the leanest, meanest filmography on record. With every new film, Kubrick extended his skills and experience while advancing his career in leaps and bounds. Control freaks usually 'control' themselves right out of their director's chairs, but Kubrick's enormous creativity attracted the best of collaborators from the start, even though he shared little credit for his success with writers and authors.
The desire to control all aspects of his films led Stanley to some unique decisions. The most remarkable was probably his pulling of A Clockwork Orange from release in Great Britain in response to claims it was inspiring juvenile violence, a move he could make only because he had complete contractual control, even over distribution. But even more galling to loyal and reverential Kubrick fans was his almost total eradication of his first feature film, Fear and Desire. With the simple statement that he thought it inferior and amateurish, through his lawyers Kubrick has largely blocked its exhibition in public. Only recently, faithful Kubrick aficionados flocked to an announced screening in Los Angeles, only to be greeted by a note on the door of the theater stating that a lawyer had forced the show to be cancelled at the last minute.
Savant recently had the opportunity to see Fear and Desire, which Kubrick put together almost completely on his own in 1953. It has been discussed at length in several of the books on Kubrick's career, so it needs no detailed description here. For that Savant recommends Vincent LoBrutto's book Stanley Kubrick A Biography, which is pretty specific about its plot and production.
Fear and Desire becomes an especially interesting subject when one tries to rationalize its withdrawal from view. As its maker and complete owner, Kubrick clearly had the legal right to suppress it. Unlike other 'unseeable' movies such as Annie Get Your Gun or the '56 version of 1984, there is no legal roadblock to its Fear's exhibition. The argument isn't one of artist's rights. Stanley's power to decree that no - one was to see his 'embarassing' first film, is purely due to his ownership. It is altogether possible that he might have banned his second movie, Killer's Kiss, for the same reasons, had he also owned it outright. It is said that Paul Newman once took out trade ads to tell people not to see television showings of The Silver Chalice because he felt his performance was so poor. Does this mean that, given the power to do so, he would have an artistic 'right' to keep it from being televised?
At UCLA film school we had a professor named Brokaw who delivered some pretty powerful lectures. One was about an independent underground filmmaker from the sixties who, after a string of notable artistic successes, decided she had become a prisoner of her previous work. Her films had been almost all gritty documentaries of life on the streets. Now she was trying to do something different, but the critical reception of her new films compared them constantly to her previous work and decried her change in subject matter. One particularly influential critic actually seemed to be punishing her for not making the films he thought she should be making: more gritty documentaries. Her filmography compartmentalized her, and she felt pigeonholed.
According to Brokaw she carefully bought back all the prints she had sold of her films, and burned them together with their negatives. We film students all gasped out loud. Since we all wanted desperately to make films, this seemed like heresy. To extend his discussion, Brokaw then told the fable of an Inuit Eskimo artisan who spent years carving beautiful scrimshaw from the ivory of Walrus tusks. Each one took forever, was unique and precious, of a quality unseen in museums. But when the Inuit finished a carving, he tossed it away into the nearest snowbank and went on his way. This, said Brokaw, was a true artist. It was the creation and the craft that mattered. To the Inuit, displaying, hoarding, selling or promoting his art would be vain self-exploitation, and he would not be a prisoner of his own ego.
Kubrick certainly is an artist who made the industry play on his terms. However thoughtless he may have been of the needs of others, it can claimed he never compromised his personal artistic vision, almost like that mythical Eskimo. But the questions remain: did Kubrick suppress Fear and Desire out of artistic purity, or ego? Does the artist have the right to 'revise' his past career by controlling what parts of it the public may see?
Savant expected Fear and Desire to be an embarrassing mess, to justify Kubrick's action. Word was that it was an incredibly pretentious war movie done on an inadequate budget, as if Edward D. Wood, Jr. had attempted to make a movie version of the awful one-act play we see him rhapsodizing over in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.
The surprise for Savant was that the film isn't all that bad, especially given that it is a first film made in '53, before even the example set by low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman. Fear and Desire does have a pretentious script, with dialog and voiceovers full of thudding poetic ramblings, and this is perhaps what embarrassed its maker, whose later works all strove for 'deep meanings,' often successfully. The production can be described as very basic, apparently shot without sync sound. It never approaches the technical minimums established by Corman and his imitators, but it maintains a consistent look, unlike Corman, whose cheaper '50s films could be pretty hit-and-miss. Killer's Kiss is enjoyable because it looks like a living New York newspaper photo, and seems to come from the soul of a Weegee-like still man. Fear and Desire, shot in local mountains around Los Angeles, doesn't have that quality, but it is still very carefully lit and shot, and never looks like what Hollywood types call a 'Griffith Park quickie' (examples: Corman's The Fast and the Furious, It Conquered the World and
Directorially, Fear is pretty interesting, given the 'first-feature' qualifier. There are many expressive camera angles. The action sequences, a handful of ambushes and tense standoffs, are blocked for graphic impact instead of for normal Hollywood action continuity, and are effective in their originality. At one point the soldiers eat the meal of some enemies they have just killed, and the visuals disturbingly compare the victors gobbling food with the staring faces of their victims. The overall direction is almost as distinctive as that of Killer's Kiss.
On the negative side, the limited means Kubrick mustered can't begin to achieve Fear and Desire's high-flung ambitions. The voiceover's insistence that the characters are nonspecific to any war and that the action is taking place 'outside of time,' not only doesn't connect with the realistic story being told, it seems to be an apology for the Poverty Row production values. Even when backed with expressive imagery, as in the finale, the poetic verbiage falls completely flat. Also, Kubrick has little apparent control over his actors. Frank Silvera maintains an effective character, but Paul Mazursky's nutcase is wildly overplayed, and the inexpressive leader of the patrol comes off as aloof and uninvolved. Many of his character cutaways (there are so many closeups the film looks almost like a Sam Fuller film) seem entirely random and unrelated. Clearly the problems of singlehandedly producing, writing, directing, and photographing his film didn't leave Kubrick with much time for finely guiding the performances. To a much lesser extent it's a problem which affects Killer's Kiss as well. On later films the problem seems to have been solved by casting his parts with painstaking care.
Most tellingly, Fear and Desire impresses because it is creatively serious, a work striving to be artistic. Twenty years later, at the height of the film school years, incoherent personal films became commonplace and tiresome, with their own stock elements and cliches (Savant certainly made his share of those). In 1953, independent American filmmakers with 'artistic visions' as individual Stanley's were a rare species.
For all its flaws, Kubrick should have had nothing to be ashamed of in Fear and Desire. If he suppressed it to polish his public image as a genius, well, sometimes it's the prerogative of genius to be egotistically defensive. In a media world overrun by moviemakers trying to create rubbish both commercial and artistic, Fear and Desire is a fascinating chapter in a life obsessed with a real artist's vision.
Source: LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick A Biography, 1997 Donald I. Fine Books, NYC
Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson