Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Seafarers: Watch out for the Water

A little forgotten today, Stanley Kubrick’s The Seafarers (1953) is worth returning towards and closely studying for a better understanding of the director’s oeuvre. Made after his other short-docs Flying Padre and Day of the Fight, and even his first, and disowned, film, Fear and Desire, which is about a wartime invasion in an anonymous country; The Seafarers stands above the rest, by, along with being his first experiment with color, exploring many important themes that Kubrick would later develop. Where Padre and Fight build on his Look photography background, and then more explicitly his Weegee affinity and Dassin’s The Naked City (which he worked on as a street photographer) with The Killer’s Kiss and The Killing; The Seafarers stands out as an anomaly.

A bit of context, The Seafarers is a commissioned thirty-minute promotional industrial film for the Seafarers International Union, written by Will Chasan, and is filmed at the offices at the Atlantic and Gulf Coast District of the American Federation of Labor. It is generally seen as a minor work in Kubrick’s career (if it is even known), but, as Vincent LoBrutto writes, it is actually note-worthy. "In tone the project was an extension of the positive-spin material he had done for Look magazine," writes LoBrutto, but "if The Seafarers had been directed by any of the hundred of professionals working on these meat-and-potatoes films, it would probably be of little note to film history. But the short subject as directed contains the DNA to identify it as a Stanley Kubrick film." What exactly does this mean?

In The Seafarers Kubrick creates some very striking images. There are scenes of groups of men in high activity and at rest, a striking close-up of a photograph of a naked young woman in a barbershop, a bravura long-take in the cafeteria etc. The themes that emerge here are the conflict between humanity and technology, and self-interest against collective good. Kubrick even has a way to undermine the purely promotional value of the film through its subjects and editing. There is a reason why in Full Metal Jacket Joker plays a marine photographer! Something happened on this ship that Kubrick is trying to highlight. I suspect, if Laurent Vachaud’s brilliant thesis that Eyes Wide Shut is a critique of the Illuminati is correct - through its compassion towards the couple’s daughter (which he suggest might get abducted at the end) - then The Seafarers anticipates the marine that Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) fantasizes about. Could all this be a reference to L. Ron Hubbard? What exactly happened on the ship? Not to get all The Crying of Lot 49 about this, but if one scrutinizes beyond the surfaces, there are also many connections between The Seafarers and other films like, say, the war-time USS Ship reference in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws or even the more direct critique of scientology in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

And water actually plays an important role in Kubrick’s cinema. The Sterling Hayden general of Dr. Strangelove worries that the Russians are going to contaminate the American drinking water supplies and Jack Torrance gets frozen, stuck in ice, at the end The Shining. Take this as one Kubrick’s most devastating warnings: Watch out for the water and seas! Who knows what’s going there!

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