Sunday, November 4, 2012
Fear and Desire
Fear and Desire, the 1953 cinematic debut of Stanley Kubrick, was famously derided by its director years later as “a bumbling amateur film exercise.” Made when its young auteur was a mere 24 years old, the film certainly bears all the hallmarks of juvenilia—clumsy construction, overreaching ideas, and a desperate need to be taken seriously above all else. One can scarcely see the film’s true face, boyishly round and acne-riddled, presumably, behind the thick veil of portentous voiceovers and literary allusions (mostly John Donne and The Tempest, for those keeping track). Yet there are also unnervingly powerful moments where Kubrick’s talent exceeds the thin material and his strengths slam into his limitations. If only all amateurs could be so brilliantly inept.
The greatest liability is the script, which is as vague and abstract as the title. A group of soldiers crash behind enemy lines, winding their way through an eerily bright and calm forest on a journey back to safe ground. Inevitably, there are encounters along the way: a friendly guard dog, a silent young woman, an enemy camp housing a general who will become the target of an improvised assassination attempt by the lost soldiers. Individual scenes sometimes resonate, even if the film feels disjointed and disconnected from any real-world concerns. This is that most dreaded of all war films—not war-is-hell or war-is-work but war-is-metaphor, which translates into a lot of rambling about islands in this case. Pay it little mind, and you may yet find pleasure in this mess.
Stylistically, Kubrick is still decades removed from the gilded long takes of Eyes Wide Shut or prowling tracking shots of The Shining, instead bearing the influence of Soviet montage. (A fight scene punctuated by stew dripping to the floor in a viscid splatter even directly quotes from Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law.) Perhaps this is simply a result of the director leaning heavily on his experiences as a photographer, privileging lighting and dynamic compositions over camera movement. Certainly one of the strongest features of the film—which is never less than gorgeous, for all its other flaws—is the soulful close-ups regularly afforded of the cast. In fact, this tendency also gives birth to one of this solemn film’s best jokes: as the enemy general scolds his dog for going AWOL, Kubrick cuts to a reaction shot of the moping pooch, looking embarrassed in a sorry-I-shit-the-carpet way.
Equally notable—although markedly less funny—is Kubrick’s use of point-of-view shots to rattle viewers. Rather than show the perspective of the lost soldiers, the film instead slips into the eyes of enemy combatants and civilians who suffer at the hands of our supposed heroes. A covert raid of an enemy guardhouse is punctuated with shots of the soldiers jabbing the camera lens with their bayonets, for instance. Even more unsettling is the film’s centerpiece—a feverish sequence where the men capture a local village girl, tie her to a tree, and leave her to be guarded by the youngest soldier (a wild performance from future director Paul Mazursky). As the other soldiers build a raft and hatch their assassination plot, the young soldier desperately tries to make the silent girl like him, pantomiming pompous generals in the hope of making her laugh. Confused and distressed, she just stares at him, and Kubrick slips into her perspective from time to time, aligning the audience with her helpless terror at the young man’s rapid descent into madness. Everything reaches a kinky peak when he holds up a handful of water for her to lap out of his hand like a kitten, and from there it’s a quick jump into sex-and-death land.
Alternately clunky and powerful, beautiful and fumbling, Fear and Desire remains too potent to dismiss even as it frustrates with its youthful stumbling. Its charms wage close combat with its failings, but it’s never less than fascinating. There’s a rare pleasure in seeing a top talent like Kubrick thrashing through ideas, learning what works through the time-honoured art school of falling on your face once in a while. But it’s certainly no surprise that the director would be embarrassed by the film (or even, as some rumours suggest, might try to suppress it by buying up all the prints he could get his hands on). So much of Kubrick’s later work is distinguished by an aura of all-consuming mastery, where even bad ideas can become plausible because they are pursued with such confident force and executed with such careful control. Yet here he is in his clumsy youth, as careless as he is calculating, as reckless as he is ambitious. This is the film that contains Kubrick’s darkest secret—it turns out he was human after all.