Stanley Kubrick made Fear and Desire, his first feature film, in 1953 at age 24. He subsequently called it a "bumbling amateur film exercise" and tried to buy up all existing prints in the hopes that it never be screened. Tonight at 8PM ET, Turner Classic Movies will screen the film as part of their George Eastman House Tribute.
We live in a seriously privileged time for film lovers, as access has never been greater. And holy shit, is "access has never been greater" a monstrous understatement. Consider: in 2008 a single print of the most complete version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis was found in South America. Today, just three years later, you could click off this page and be watching that print - in HD - in less than sixty seconds. Less famous "lost" films are unearthed every year, and it's exciting to consider that something like Lon Chaney's London After Midnight, lost for so long that there's likely no one alive who has ever seen the film, could (within months of a print turning up somewhere) be just a click away.
Even without such events, there's a century of cinema at our fingertips, and it's an amazing, fragile gift, brought into vivid focus recently in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The only limits on what we can see boil down to whether a film is lost, or whether it has been vaulted by its creator. Hugo illustrated the former wonderfully, and there are a handful of notorious examples of the latter. Jerry Lewis' infamous (and according to Harry Shearer, catastrophically terrible) Holocaust drama The Day The Clown Cried is probably on every hardcore cinephile's wish list, but locked away, forever stuck in rough cut form like a misguided fly in amber. John Cassavetes' Shadows, heralded as the vanguard of American independent film, is actually the director's second version of the movie; he made the entire film twice, and his widow attempted to destroy the only known print of the original version, leading to a weird legal tug of war with film scholar Ray Carney over the print.
And so it was with Kubrick's first feature - until tonight. Though it's been screened publicly a handful of times, and is available as a bootleg online, Turner Classic Movies premiering Fear and Desire, complete with Robert Osborne intro, feels...different, somehow. If Kubrick didn't want it shown, should they be showing it? Should we be watching it? On the one hand, there's that very visceral "thrill of the hunt"-type satisfaction of seeing a film denied us for so long, and given the vast access rhapsodized about earlier in the article, moments like this are few and far between. On the other hand, shouldn't it be up to the artist to define his or her body of work, up to and including willful omission?
The argument is not new, and George Lucas' obsessive and seemingly endless tinkering with his own legacy has helped fuel the conversation in recent years. To whom does a film "belong" after it's completed? (And I mean "belong" in a basic, ethical sense, not some arbitrary copyright or public domain ruling.) Should our priorities lie with an artists' wishes, however stubborn and/or detrimental to the considerable cause of film history and preservation? Or do we pull an Indiana Jones and pillage those sealed vaults in the name of knowledge and academia?
In thinking on it, I feel kind of hypocritical having lambasted Lucas for mucking up his older films while feeling that Kubrick's wishes should be preserved posthumously. But I do feel conflicted about the Kubrick situation in a way that never occurred to me with Lucas. And while I'm not really interested in declaring some final conclusion about right or wrong here, I recognize this as a unique moment, and one worth examining.