The story of Leon Vitali is difficult to pinpoint. On the one hand he lived a sad life ruled by a maniacal tyrant, who happened to be one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, a certain Stanley Kubrick. On the other, he seemed a willing disciple to the mentor he came to adore, enthusiastically performing the role of bag carrier, handy man, acting coach, set scout and filmography restorer – the “filmworker” of the title. In fact, this is a reduced description of his full duties. Leon seems genuinely fulfilled by his life’s work and to that end it is hard to castigate him for his devotion. Yet there is something fundamentally wrong with his treatment and ultimate self-abuse, and this suggestive picture gleefully plays to the chorus, one that loves to conflate genius with sociopath while excusing being a bastard for being a talent.
Through interviews with crew members, distributors, marketers and family – essentially anyone who ever worked with Vitali – the relationship between the pair is revealed. But only partly. The documentary is politely diplomatic on Kubrick’s behaviour. It suggests that he was often bad, and gives some examples of his eccentric demands, including his wish that Leon complete a three-hour round car trip to find out what the words “in perpetuity” mean. Matthew Modine, star of Full Metal Jacket, comes closest to indicating the brutality of Leon’s treatment, unsentimentally remembering him as an “Igor” figure. The film holds back on this, ultimately. We are given numerous clips of Kubrick’s movies and some context of Leon’s involvement (most interestingly in Barry Lyndon, in which Leon stars and which initiated his companionship with Kubrick). We are then invited to soak in the perfectionism and brilliance of their creator. Observing the gaunt Leon in the audience, it was easy to marvel but hard to swallow.
Vitali’s work ethic and commitment to Kubrick is the running theme of the documentary, and the schedule he kept to meet his master’s whims was phenomenal. Near the end, Leon speaks of working 36-hour sessions to check the prints on Kubrick’s last picture, Eyes Wide Shut, stopping only to go outside and vomit. Wearing a permanent bandana and with facial hair unkempt, Leon’s articulateness is striking and shines through regardless of his shaky temperament and nervous disposition. Recollections of his line rehearsals with drill sergeant R Lee Ermey leave quite the image. Overall, this documentary was a hit with the Kubrick fan-boys, shedding light on the dark side of the legendary director, but it needed a little more curiosity and clarity to justify Leon’s hard luck since the death of his idol.