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Duality of a Young Man: Stanley Kubrick’s Fear And Desire (1953) – Masters of Cinema Blu-ray review

January 22, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Before they were famous: ‘genius auteur’ edition.  This glimpse into Kubrick’s halcyon days strips away the mystique to show ambitious, callow promise.

Fear And Desire
(Stanley Kubrick, 1953)

Stanley Kubrick was such a perfectionist he would write to projectionists to ensure they screened his films in the correct ratio, so when he didn’t want something shown at all, people listened. A Clockwork Orange wasn’t made available again in the UK until after his death; similarly, it’s only now, sixty years on, that Fear And Desire gets its home entertainment premiere.

Kubrick reportedly hated his first feature, dismissing it as “a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” Harsh words – but some of them are fair. It’s certainly an oddity, with its abstracted study of “any war,” in which the same actors play soldiers on both sides, Dr Strangelove-style, to express that Jungian idea of the duality of man. Even at 61 minutes, the pace flags; and the screenplay by Howard Shackler contains enough howlers to keep Pseud’s Corner in business for months. But inept? Far from it.

It’s gauche, and clearly the work of a beginner, but Kubrick is already finding his voice and, in the best sequences, devising a means of showing it. The themes are the same as those which he’d perfect in Paths Of Glory, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket – man’s propensity for violence; the all-consuming sexual urge; the thin veneer of civilisation. In a repeated line, the character remark that just because they’re in the woods, that doesn’t mean they should stop being civilised – and you can practically hear the director’s sardonic laughter at the very idea that man could ever be anything more than a beast.

While much of this is filmed in the standard 1950s men-on-a-mission format, the low budget forces a weird austerity to proceedings.  With all that daft dialogue, it feels like an off-Broadway piece transferred to a forest, but Kubrick makes a virtue of the minimalism by encouraging that deliberate, mannered style of performance that would soon because his trademark.  And he’s already thinking in terms of bold juxtapositions of imagery, notably in a massacre where spilled stew stands in for the blood of the murdered soldiers.  Meanwhile, the most striking sequence swaps forest warfare for another kind of battle, as a deranged soldier (played by noted future director Paul Mazursky) tries to take advantage of a female prisoner. Brusquely edited and balefully shot, it is confrontational and uncomfortable – qualities that Kubrick would never lose.

Under normal circumstances, that probably wouldn’t be enough to recommend Fear And Desire as a good watch. But this is cinematic archaeology, not least because Masters Of Cinema have taken the time to compile all three of Kubrick’s early-50s shorts to provide a comprehensive survey of the director’s formative years. Documentaries Day Of The Flight and Flying Padre (both 1951) and corporate promotional film The Seafarers (1953) are a reminder that Kubrick wasn’t foremost a storyteller but a photographer – the first two films are subjects he’d shot while working for Life magazine.

Yet, at the same time, there’s a sleek control to proceedings. This is something more aloof than verite, with Kubrick blatantly rigging a key sequence in Flying Padre and showcasing some elaborate, obviously carefully planned compositions. In this light, The Seafarers (including a stupendous, unnecessarily bravura tracking shot along a cafeteria) highlights Kubrick’s attitude to life, repurposing reality through a specific worldview. Here, it’s a trade union’s worldview; in time, though, it would be his own.

And while the light-hearted banalities of these shorts’ voiceovers are anything but Kubrickian, look again at the emphasis on systems and processes. In Day Of The Flight, the titular bout is almost incidental; it’s a film about a boxer’s daily rituals and rhythms. The Seafarers, too, surveys a seafarer’s world not by hitting the water but by examining its bureaucracy. It’s exactly the same logic that spent half of Full Metal Jacket in boot camp.

Ultimately, Fear And Desire is grasping towards future greatness, in the way that Kubrick denounces realism to get at more eternal truths. Just as 2001 or Barry Lyndon would attempt to film the future or the past, this is a brave, if flawed, attempt to film the ‘inner life’ of warfare. But his other films of the period prove that Kubrick had at least spent time in the real world before beginning his retreat into pure art; his imitators would be well served to watch this package to show that even geniuses have to take the odd corporate gig to learn their trade.

Fear And Desire is released on Blu-ray (for the first time ever) by Masters of Cinema on Monday 28th January.

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