Today: February 28, 2024

Fear And Desire

Many contemporary Hollywood actors talk about the need to do one film ‘for us’ and one film for ‘the them’ in order to strike a balance between artistic credibility and economic prosperity.

Many contemporary Hollywood actors
talk about the need to do one film ‘for us’ and one film for ‘the them’ in
order to strike a balance between artistic credibility and economic prosperity.

The reason for this distinction is that many people view the Hollywood machine
as an institution that is fundamentally ill suited to the creation of serious
art. One great counterexample to this perception is Stanley Kubrick, a director who spent his entire career inside the
Hollywood machine without ever compromising the uniqueness of his vision. Indeed,
films such as 2001, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut are not just singularly
Kubrickian they are also recognisably mainstream Hollywood productions. Given
how perfectly Kubrick’s films demonstrate what the Hollywood machine can
achieve, it is interesting to ponder how Kubrick’s career might have unfolded
had he continued to make films in the style of his first feature Fear and Desire.

Independently financed and made for
very little money, Fear and Desire tells of a group of soldiers attempting to
make their way home after crashing behind enemy lines. Surrounded by enemy
troops and hamstrung by an unpleasant rivalry between an ineffectual officer (Kenneth Harp) and a murderously
ambitious sergeant (Frank Silvera),
the group find themselves distracted by a series of increasingly surreal
psychodramas that somehow manage to get in the way of them actually making good
their escape.

Unlike many of Kubrick’s other
films, Fear and Desire is unapologetically ‘arty’. The film opens with a
voice-over informing us that the film is set neither in the past, nor the
present but in the mind. Having situated us in a register that is more
metaphorical than it is realistic, the film gets progressively stranger as poetic
language and stilted physical performances combine with dialogue that was added
in post-production to lend the film a sense of hysterical and dream-like
unreality. Unfortunately, while the style of Fear and Desire is incredibly rich
and evocative, its actual thematic content is almost impenetrable beyond the
suggestion that the various characters might represent the different forces at
work in a soldier’s mind. A case could be made for suggesting that the film’s
meditation on man’s inhumanity to man pre-empts Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket but a more helpful comparison would be to think
of the trippy bits in Francis Ford
Coppola
’s Apocalypse Now.

While much of the film’s dream-like
character is down to Howard Sackler’s striking dialogue, Kubrick shows hints of
future brilliance in his tendency to shoot not the faces of the people talking
but those of the people listening and reacting to what is being said. This focus
on subtle displays of negative emotion transforms a group of soldiers working together
into network of isolated psychological worlds filled with resentment,
unhappiness and delusion. This sense of psychological claustrophobia pays off
brilliantly in a pair of terrifyingly cathartic nighttime raids in which the
soldiers attempt to channel their fear and desire into something heroic and/or
meaningful.

Though Fear and Desire itself is
little more than an hour long, Masters
of Cinema
have bundled it with a number of Kubrick’s early films and a
fascinating piece by the noted critic and Kubrick scholar Bill Krohn. As we have come to expect from Masters of Cinema, the audio-visual
elements are of the highest quality and the disc ships with a booklet of
accompanying materials. While the inclusion of the early short films will
doubtless make this a must-buy for serious Kubrick fans, the feature itself is
substantial enough to appeal to anyone with a fondness for hallucinatory and
poetic visions of war.

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