After directing a pair of short newsreel-styled documentaries for RKO in 1951 – Day of the Fight [M], and Flying Padre [M] – Stanley Kubrick reportedly answered an ad to direct a film for the Seafarers International Union [SIU], essentially a union representing seaman for work, to settle disputes, and provide assorted social assistance.
In spite of the mystique surrounding this rarely seen short, The Seafarers is pure propaganda – a blatant recruitment film to entice non-unioners to join the SIU because everything about the SIU is simply awesome. The script is laughable at times because the narration (supplied by CBS anchor Don Hollenbeck) prattles on and on about all the wonderful free things members enjoy when they join the SIU.
The meeting hall was built by SIU members; the cafeteria is catered to SIU needs; the bar welcomes SIU travelers from far off places; voting is wholly democratic and SIU members can take the floor and ask any question from their concerned noggin; jobs are first-come-first-served, and SIU members can examine the job cards to ensure everything is fair and swell; and SIU reps doll out $50 cheques and goodies to ailing members, be it for a day, a week, months, or even years.
Many of the scenes dramatize the dissemination of benefits, and scenes involving money tend to drag on, as though its makers felt seeing wads of cash and bowls of coinage would bring men over to their team. It’s a worker’s paradise, and the union takes care of its own from sign-up to interring. In almost every sentence Hollenbeck is forced to say “SIU” and the bludgeoning effect on newbies couldn’t possibly have worked as well as the SIU felt. There’s even a hysterical dock scene where non-members are given ‘a warm greeting’ by SIU members bearing pamphlets, which is terribly stagy.
Kubrick’s association with the film is notable because it was his first colour production, and like his prior shorts, he acted as director and cameraman. As generally plodding as the film’s script certain is, there are specific shots that reflect the perfection Kubrick assigned to his still photography and cinematography.
A telling example is an extravagant slow tracking sequence where the camera moves along the front of a cafeteria, capturing the hustle, bustle, and leisurely socializing among members and non-members. Figures were clearly prompted to move and fill-in dead spaces in the background, while others were pre-cued to discuss, turn their heads or do something animated until the camera passed. A pool game in a later scene has one man leaning to the side not for a better view, but likely due to Kubrick probably telling him to ease over and cover up a blank wall. It’s all carefully blocked, which may not help the SIU’s vain attempt in wanting a docu-styled recruitment film, but for Kubrick's benefit, the film looks polished.
Curiously, the exterior scenes aren’t interesting and feel like stock shots, if not perfunctory establishing images. Kubrick’s eye found more to play with using SIU members and their families inside buildings, and once in a while there’s a cheeky moment that either flew past the SIU’s morality committee, or they were deliberately included because the target audience was hungry male sailors fresh off the boat. To that end, the first shot that accompanies Hollenbeck’s narration of SIU leisure facilities and a letter-writing room is a topless figure in a SIU wall calendar, and drawings by SIU members (‘just as good as anything in a gallery’) that veer into erotica.
There’s just a handful of synch sound in the film; most of the edited footage is layered with evocative sound effects, and overly triumphant stock music cues.
As an ephemeral industrial promo film or an artifact from Kubrick’s canon, Seafarers is fascinating, and this legit DVD release (produced by the film’s current owner, Alexander Pietrzak, with the blessing of Kubrick’s Estate) includes a running commentary track by directors Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) and Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead, and co-star in John Carpenter’s Christine).
The directors are an unlikely choice to comment on Kubrick’s short, but they poke fun at their presence, and admit to being ardent Kubrick fans: their bonding film is A Clockwork Orange (1971), and they provide a generally decent discussion of Kubrick’s involvement with the project, and images that perhaps foreshadow elements in later films, such as The Killing (1956).
They also hypothesize that Kubrick may have been dissatisfied with colour film – both in Seafarers, and in Spartacus (1960) – and that sentiment may have yielded his almost exclusive use of black & white stock until 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which mandated an elaborate colour scheme.
Also included with the DVD is an insert card featuring a pair of period Kubrick stills, and separate text Q&As with daughter Katharina Kubrick, and Avary, both largely dealing with Kubrick’s dilemma at being constantly pegged as cold perfectionist. Kubrick’s daughter also mentions how her father’s humour and speech patterns often made their way into the films he officially co-wrote and those he re-wrote – loquacious familiars the family characterize as “Daddyisms.”
The DVD’s 16mm film transfer is decent, but it is taken from what’s clearly a well-worn surviving print with several splices at the beginning of each reel (particularly the first).
Industrials and promos are clear-cut corporate ephemera, so like any surviving short film on facial cream, bad driving habits, or in this case a pro-union recruitment film, their current condition reflects their use – and this particular print clearly went through the projector many times, fulfilling its creators’ wishes. Only qualms: another source print used for an older video transfer that previously circulated on YouTube contained a less damaged audiotrack, so this isn’t the film’s definitive DVD version.
One sad note is the subsequent fate of narrator Hollenbeck, whose wonderful voice and brief onscreen appearances in the film’s bookend scenes were among his last. As dramatized in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Hollenbeck was hounded by Hearst columnist Jack O’Brien for alleged communist sympathies, and he committed suicide in 1954. One wonders if the film was part of the ‘evidence’ his witch-hunters used in their dreadful quest.
Whether the short was filmed before, after, or during the making of Kubrick’s first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953), isn’t clear, but Kubrick eventually locked into a series of feature projects after a two-year break: The Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1957).
The Seafarers is exclusively available via Amazon.com, and there’s also a Facebook page.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan