After a lifetime of waiting, I was finally able to catch up with a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s infamous first narrative feature film FEAR AND DESIRE. Made at the youthful age of 23, after having shot and directed a few short documentaries and having been a photographer for LOOK magazine for a number of years, Stanley Kubrick embarked on what would turn out to be the beginning of a lifelong passion. Today, FEAR AND DESIRE is best known as the film Stanley Kubrick didn’t want anyone to see.
Rumors persist that Kubrick tracked down prints, as well as the negative, and had them burned. Not true. Or so says Eastman House Motion Picture Curator Caroline Frick Page. Turns out Kubrick never owned the rights to the film, but did request on numerous occasions –and quite adamantly– that Eastman House not show the print of the film residing in their permanent collection. But now that Kubrick has passed on to the world beyond (the infinite?), Eastman House seems to be a bit more open to screening their print. Though don’t expect to see much of it as this is, apparently, the only known surviving 35mm print in the world. Some (though not all) of the negative has been found and, according once again to the very gracious and articulate Caroline Frick Page, a collaboration may soon be undertaken to restore FEAR AND DESIRE for wider public consumption, though nothing official is as yet in the works.
What to say about the film itself… Well, it’s easy to understand why Kubrick felt this production to be amateurish and why he was embarrassed by it. At least when viewed beside his other works. However… while it is true that the acting is at times quite bad (and at other times quite passable or, at least, fascinating), and the script rather portentous and amateur, the visuals are nothing shy of a feast. Shot by Kubrick himself, the black and white photography is stunning and the compositions exceptionally potent. The editing isn’t always as strong as it could be, but there are times when it is oddly effective and certainly the inception of concepts to come. But it’s the imagery that is without question the film’s strongest element and more than enough of an excuse for seeing this first narrative work by one of the world’s master filmmakers.
And while there’s no fixing the script, the themes and concepts explored are ones that Kubrick would return to repeatedly in his later work. This is, as well as the visuals, another strong argument for the film being seen. Add to this actor/director Paul Mazursky’s acting debut (a very strange and disturbing performance) and I truly think the argument to show the film outweighs Kubrick’s desire to have it hidden. At the same time, part of me wants to honor Kubrick’s wishes, while the other part of me is just thrilled beyond measure that Eastman House chose to screen this print. As a filmmaker and film-lover, seeing FEAR AND DESIRE was and is a rather big moment in my ongoing experience of cinema. It is also a fantastic insight into the early creative mind of a filmmaker who helped sculpt how I see cinema and opened artistic doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. And despite its many flaws and imperfections, FEAR AND DESIRE is a film worth seeing. And one that sticks with you (at least it did me). Kubrick once said that film should be more like music than like fiction. Well, FEAR AND DESIRE may not be Kubrick’s master composition, but it certainly shows an artist who had already formed that notion very early on, regardless of whether or not he was aware of it at the time.
The screening at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood was followed by a Q&A with Paul Mazursky and Eastman House’s Caroline Frick Page. Below you will find audio for that Q&A (not professionally recorded, but quite listenable nonetheless). Please note that several Melies shorts were shown before FEAR AND DESIRE and are referenced in the Q&A. The Q&A is presented in three parts:
Below is an audio segment from an interview with Stanley Kubrick done in 1966. In this segment, Kubrick discusses the making of FEAR AND DESIRE and his feelings about the film: