Stanley Kubrick Retrospective: Be very afraid
Everyone was 24 once. There's nothing shameful about that. And part of the privilege of being 24 is having the absolute certainty that one is smart enough and capable enough to conquer the world, with the right break. So it was in the case of 24-year-old Stanley Kubrick, who in 1953 had only two short documentaries - Day of the Fight and Flying Padre, both from 1951 - and a few years as photojournalist for Look magazine under his belt, and concluded that was enough experience to make it safe for him to roll the dice with money from his family, and make a short feature that would prove he had what it takes. Spoiler: he did not.
Of course, we can look from the perspective of a whole career later and conclude that Fear and Desire - for that was the 1953 feature's name - was just the movie that Kubrick had to get out of his system, the learning curve movie that put him on the right track that eventually led to one of the most masterpiece-heavy careers in the history of English-language cinema. But hindsight should not blind us to the grim reality that young Kubrick's first full-length work of fiction is awful. We can occasionally look at the early, bad works of future great filmmakers and see the sprouts of their future artistic success; and to be fair, there are shots in Fear and Desire that prove the director/cinematographer knew how to frame a composition and wasn't afraid to do some unexpected, challenging things with lighting. We would expect no less of a professional photographer. But that's absolutely as far as it goes: the film is a dismal expression of a lousy script (it's one of two films out of the thirteen in Kubrick's filmography for which he received absolutely no writing credit; it instead is blamed upon Howard Sackler, who'd have quite a sprawling career when all was said and done), feeling every bit the work of a young kid with lots of ideas and no clue what to do with them. I acutely hate the word "pretentious", which is mis-used in any number of colorful and short-sighted ways, but Fear and Desire is, by the very strictest definition, among the most wholly pretentious films I think I have ever seen.
It doesn't take a whole lot of time before the bottom falls out, either: the film opens with a somewhat bossy and imperious narrator (David Allen) telling us in somewhat detail that we are not watching real soldiers in a real war scenario, but abstract representations of Everysoldier in a conflict just nondescript enough to stand-in for all international strife, though by the time late in the movie that the bad guys get lengthy dialogue passages, it's obvious as all hell that Sackler had the Germans in mind. The point being, anyway, is the film's very first gesture is to insist that it's an editorial cartoon given life, and we had damn well only respond to it on an intellectual level. Of course, one of the defining elements of Kubrick's later career was to keep the action and characters at a steely remove from the viewer, making the film more a game of thinking about people than watching them. So it's not an outlier as much as all that. Still, when that's the tack a film is taking, it really doesn't do to open it up with rank purple prose spelling it out, providing a thesis statement on what we're about to watch.
It's the first of many moments that makes Fear and Desire feel unpleasantly like a cheap '50s B-picture; which it is, in fact. It is exactly a '50s B-picture, from the location shooting in an obviously Californian wilderness trying to pretend that it's everywhere else in the world on down. But as one runs through the overbaked, "let me spell out the theme" cheapjack indies of 1953, one desperately does not wish to find Stanley Kubrick's name on that list rubbing shoulders with Phil Tucker and his notorious Robot Monster. Obviously, Kubrick is the better filmmaker even at his worst, but it's still not a mental connection one wishes to have made at any point while watching anything with his name on it.
On we move, anyway, from the hectoring, florid opening, to the hectoring, florid middle and end. Four soldiers from an unidentified country - represented as Americans, we are told, mostly for our ease in understanding them - have crash-landed in enemy-occupied forest: Sgt. Mca (Frank Silvera), Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), Pvt. Sidney (future director Paul Mazursky), and Pvt. Fletcher (Steve Coit). Their overriding goal is to get back to safe territory, but this quickly gets swamped by the smaller goal of not dying and finding food; it involves killing quite a few enemy combatants to get to that point, as well as figuring out what to do with a woman (Virginia Leith) of the enemy nation who ends up serving as hostage, though what the soldiers hope to gain from having a hostage seems unclear even to them. Pvt. Sidney, unhinged from the moment the film started, only gets worse and worse, hallucinating fantastic visions and symbolically raping the captor before literally killing her. Then the soldiers go back to trying to figure out a way home, hoping their handmade raft will be sturdy enough to support their escape without rousing enemy attention
It's a film mostly without a conflict, or even a plot: at a mere 61 minutes (the length of the only print left in America and finally restored and released to the public in the 2010s), its ambling nature doesn't really hurt it, though this isn't a case of something like the director's later Barry Lyndon where a consistent refusal to let the plot kick in is part of a deliberate strategy of viewer frustration. It's more that the film is so eager to show off its philsophisin' and let its characters Represent the Faces of Man's Inhumanity During War that it doesn't care if they register as actual people or if the plot involving them has actual stakes. I'm all for that - one of the director's last and most underrated films returns to almost exactly the same themes and aesthetic concepts and does great things with them. But it takes a lot of artistic cunning and control to put that kind of thing over, and Fear and Desire possesses neither of those.
In fact, the opposite: the film is saturated with artistry conducted at a level of absolutely no finesse or sophistication: when I call it pretentious, this is what I'm chiefly referring to. Young Kubrick had ideas by the dozen to bend cinema to his will, but there was no filter there to determine which ideas worked, which didn't, which could be massaged into something useful. He clearly thought that he was doing brilliant things, but he was punching well above his weight, and the concepts tend to overwhelm the movie. Two examples off the top of my head, both early on: there is a marching scene, in which each of the soldier's inner thoughts are expressed in voiceover, but all at the same time, so she hear a cacophony of words spilling out all over, and while it's clear enough what this was meant to get at (the desperate inner life of the soldier in wartime), the effect is sloppy as hell. The other moment involves the soldiers ambushing a cabin full of enemies to take their food and shelter: one moment finds the camera adopting the POV of a nameless combatant on the ground s one of the protagonists stabs at the lens with a knife, and every time the knife is about to make contact, Kubrick cuts to a shot of the stew being slopped onto the floor. Because it's all gooey-looking, y'see. Played for sarcastic black humor, that might go over, but there's not the slightest hint that this is meant to be anything but deadly serious, and it's a miscalculation both tonally and aesthetically, playing like somebody's feverish attempt to "do an Eisenstein" without a moment of reflection.
All of which is above and beyond the simple fact that Fear and Desire is a cheap amateur indie that never bothers trying to make a virtue of its limited production. Or perhaps it tries, and fails: the conspicuous use of dubbed dialogue (we rarely see the mouths of whomever is speaking in a given moment; so in addition to thinking of Robot Monster, the film put me in mind of the even dodger Beast of Yucca Flats) seems like it's trying to be smart about divorcing thoughts from the people expressing them, but it doesn't land. The acting is across-the-board rough, of the sort that happens when there's no time to get the actors into a solid place with the material; a lot of the performances, Mazursky's tedious, noisy attempt to play "crazy" especially, feel like improv riffs rather than anything polished and complete.
The overall effect is of a particularly dismal and particularly pandering episode of The Twilight Zone; with that show hitting TV six years after this film came out, that perhaps means that Kubrick and Sackler were simply ahead of their time, but it's likelier that their work represents the kind of overblown self-conscious artsiness that was bubbling around the cinema underground before Rod Serling found a way to refine into a pop-friendly state. This is beyond question the work of earnest and ambitious people, but also people who started in over their head, and only went deeper as they moved on. We can laugh about it now, knowing that the masterful thriller The Killing was only three years into the future, but stuck in 1953, with just the one film making up the whole of the Kubrick corpus, it's pretty dire and unpromising stuff. The director's later quest to destroy every last print of the film have been petty and dictatorial, but I certainly can't pretend that I don't understand why he was so embarrassed by this one almost from the moment it was complete.