Director, producer, writer, micro-manager of cinematographers and editors - Stanley Kubrick was one of the most auteur theory friendly of all auteurs, for more than virtually any other filmmaker in history, he was fully and emphatically in control of every visual and sonic element in nearly all of his mature film work. I highly doubt that I'm alone in having come to many of my tastes and ideas about what cinema can and should be based on a young enthusiasm for Kubrick's filmography above all directors, and for that reason I am pleased to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his death on 7 March, 1999, by revisiting his career from the days when he was a hotshot kid with a keen photographic eye, all the way up to the end when he was one of the great mythic figure of world cinema. We start with the three short documentaries Kubrick made in his early 20s, when he was still just a photographer for Look magazine, and felt that the only place to continue developing his visual art was to move into the world of moving pictures.

The first and easily the best of these, from 1951, was Day of the Fight, a cinematic expansion of a photospread Kubrick shot in 1949 for Look, concerning small fry boxer Walter Cartier. It's all there in the title: the film wakes up with Cartier and his twin brother Vincent on the morning of the latest in a long line of make-it or break-it bouts that Cartier hoped would boost him to a title fight. Kubrick followed the brothers around New York, as Walter first tried to keep himself distracted and then tried to get himself revved up for a fight that would mean little if he won and could mean the end of his career if he lost.

Irrespective of quality, the thing that comes through loudest and clearest about Day of the Fight is that the young man who put it together worked for a general-interest photojournalism magazine. But also that he was damn good at his job. The images in Day of the Fight are almost without fail beautiful and shot with an innate instinct for composition and graphic quality; I think it's not claiming anything for the 22-year-old Kubrick that wasn't entirely true to suggest that there are a few shots which clearly suggest, if not the exact career he'd ultimately have, then anyway that he would have some future in finding ways to put striking imagery in front of viewers. The kid, as they say, 'sgot talent.

That there is a flipside comes, I hope, as no surprise, and it's that at this point, Kubrick had a still photographer's eye. A good one. Look at that fucking boxing ring. But Day of the Fight feels for every second of its duration like a series of photos linked by explanatory captions, and it's more a matter of accident that the photos move and the captions, written by Robert Rein, are spoken instead of read, by the hilariously straitlaced Douglas Edwards. I hope it's not just snarky 21st Century provincialism that leads me to believe a line like "Meat is vital to Walter. It gives him the raw energy need for fighting" is gloriously ridiculous in both conception and certainly in execution.

The point being that while Day of the Fight shows up Kubrick's visual sensibility to magnificent effect and proves him an able entrepreneur (it was self-financed for $3900 and sold to RKO for $4000) and ambitious kid, it's not really all that informative. It clips along, gets us invested in Walter's struggle, and shows off mid-century New York to good effect, but it's not the case that we'd be inclined to regard the film as a documentary classic if the director hadn't gone on to make some of the key films of the 20th Century. That said, it's a promising and ridiculously self-assured start.

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On the other hand, we could force ourselves to deal with something like Flying Padre, in comparison with which Day of the Fight looks like the work of an unprecedented precocious genius. It's the result of an assignment RKO tossed Kubrick's way to see if the independent boxing documentary was proof that they had a decent talent on their hands; it was a profile piece for their RKO-Pathe Screenliner newsreel series. Specifically, a profile of Father Fred Stadtmuller, a New Mexico priest whose parishioners were frequently found in remote geographic locations,and could only reap the benefits of the priest's ministrations if he traveled to them himself, on his little prop plane Spirit of St. Joseph.

Years later, a bona-fide master filmmaker Kubrick would deride the short as "silly", which isn't entirely fair. Really, it's just trivial, and it does to remember that this was after all a frothy human interest story to be quickly digested for a dose of immediate uplift, and just as quickly forgotten. It is the exact 1951 equivalent to the local TV news doing a segment on a beauty shop owner who set up a ski-ball arcade in the back room so kids can keep themselves entertained while Mom is getting her hair done. It's easy to see why the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey would prefer not to dwell on its existence, but a 23-year-old kid looking to prove that he was a safe investment needn't make any such apologies.

That being said, if Day of the Fight is a surprisingly accomplished and engaging little film that we only really care about because its director grew up to be famous, Flying Padre cuts out the first half of that equation: the reason to watch it is morbid curiosity as to Kubrick's ephemera. There are a couple decently creative shots - a weirdly wide-angle lens of a little girl's face is patently Kubrick - but I'm not being idle in comparing it to a TV news piece. It is generic as hell, with a madly peppy script that finds nothing interesting to say about Father Fred beyond the fact that he exists. And without even crossing the nine-minute mark, the film still feels dubiously padded by a ginned-up "plot" involving a trip to take a baby to the doctor. A good example of the padre's mission in action, I guess, but I'd rather have gotten even the vaguest inkling of who this man is, instead of just seeing a bunch of shots of him flying a plane intercut with shots of a baby. Short enough to justify itself as a curiosity watch, but don't anticipate the germ of a great or even moderately entertaining film artist.

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And now we skip ahead: the young Kubrick's first film in color (and the last for several more years), 1953's The Seafarers, is in fact his fourth; it followed the arduous and marriage-destroying shoot of his first feature, earlier that year, Fear and Desire. But as we're still firmly in the director's work-for-hire juvenalia phase, and since he made no more non-fiction films after The Seafarers, I see no reason not to discuss it now, especially since like Flying Padre, it offers very little meat. There is a right-to-left tracking shot inside a cafeteria that leaps off the screen as a clear example of fluid, stately camera movement as practiced by a man who clearly knew his Jean Renoir and his Max Ophuls, but filtered through the detached, God's-eye-view perspective that would become one of the director's most prominent stylistic traits. Other than that I can't think of a single visual moment that feels like more than competent day laborer work with some really fine lighting that tends to make the colors look a bit richer than they should, given what I'm sure was no kind of high budget.

There is a moment when when the camera glances through a gallery of amateur paintings, landing on one particularly garish portrait just at the moment that the narrator (CBS newsman Don Hollenbeck) rhapsodises about how the best of these could stand up to be displayed in any gallery, and perhaps this was a quiet bit of the unforced sarcastic humor that the future director Lolita and Dr. Strangelove would do so well. But I am perhaps giving the benefit of the doubt where it should not exist.

The Seafarers, at any rate, is functionally an infomercial for the Seafarer's International Union, with a focus on the services that the SIU provided (and for all I know still does, but these are leaner times for trade unions than the 1950s were) in its on-land union halls for off-duty commercial mariners. "We have restaurants, and game rooms" says Will Chasen's thoroughly flat and informative script (admittedly, in far less impersonal terms than I just put it), with economic details being more alluded to than spelled out. But I suppose for that matter, economics would be a bit outside the purview of a generically gung-ho advertisement like this.

With a 29-minute running time that makes it longer than Day of the Fight and Flying Padre combined, The Seafarers is definitely on the long side even for a historical curiosity, but I have to confess a certain gratitude to Kubrick for having taken the job anyway: this kind of random historical detritus makes for a fascinating sociological relic, a glimpse into living history of a kind that fiction films from the same time aren't able to do in the same way, but by virtue of having so little value other than sociology, it's not the kind of project that would ever present itself to casual viewing if it wasn't a make-work job for an otherwise important artist. Does The Seafarers tell me much of anything about Stanley Kubrick, film director? Only that he was trying to be a real pro and knew how to get a job done with just enough classy-looking visuals to avoid embarrassing himself. But it does tell me a little something or other about the 1950s that I didn't know (although nothing much at all about life as a mariner, since the target audience already knows about that life, and is here simply being sold a product), and at any rate, I am not ungrateful for that.

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Day of the Fight can be seen on YouTube here. Flying Padre can be seen on YouTube here. The Seafarers can be seen on YouTube here, or on the 2012 Kino DVD and Blu-ray release of Fear and Desire.