“DAY OF THE FIGHT” (1951)
(Originally posted on Feb. 14, 2014)
Stanley Kubrick’s first attempt at motion picture movie making is this short film inspired by his own photo essay on middleweight boxer Walter Cartier published when he was a young staff photographer at Look magazine. It may be unfair to judge a basically homemade inaugural effort of a film maker by the same standards of sophistication through which his later filmography might be appraised, especially a director as artistically esteemed as Kubrick, however, what one can do is to note any seeds of thematic or visual content which may find expansion or reoccurrence in his later works; both of which can be found in “Day of the Fight”, especially in certain elements which find significant revisitation in Kubrick’s second feature “Killer’s Kiss”. It is also quite obvious, that of his initial trio of short films, including the 1951 RKO Pathé Screenliner short subject “Flying Padre” and the 1953 short documentary “The Seafarers”, “Day of the Fight” is by far the most interesting, acting less as a strictly informational documentary than as a psychologically ingrained docudrama, attempting to elicit a particularly intimate point of view within the larger- more familiar -framework of following a fighter’s training for his match; eschewing the usual intensity of physical seasoning by concentrating on the more meditative- almost spiritual -end of a fighter’s preparatory process: the agonizing waiting game.
Kubrick emphasizes the specificity of the film’s perspective by skimming over the broader arena of the boxing world in a rapid opening sequence which (in a voiceover narration written by Robert Rein and spoken by newscaster Douglas Edwards that contains more than a hint of the colorfully hyperbole as moralizing observation which later became standard practice in Ed Wood films) touches on the world of prizefighting from a spectator and fighter’s point of view, though quickly focusing on the latter, and then becoming specific to the perspective of Walter Cartier to the point that the film ungenerously excludes any consideration that his opponent, Bobby James, might be experiencing similar gnawing feelings of anticipatory anxieties, thus Kubrick mentally isolates his subject (despite the close proximity of sincere moral support from both his eerily identical twin brother Vincent and Walter’s dog, the latter focused on with lingering cuteness attempting a heartfelt sentimentality at odds with the brooding- almost noirish -nature in which Kubrick expresses his story, and a quality at this formative stage of his career already seems alien to his emerging artistic sensibility) from a broader fraternity of like-minded modern-day gladiators, into a Sisyphean figure condemned to anguish over the absurdist task of perpetually seeking to win matches which will elevate his professional career standing while each match brings a harrowing repetition of the agonizing waiting process through which he must suffer. (Is it any wonder that during a scene of pre-bout communion, Kubrick attaches a distorted Dutch tilt to a shot of a witnessing statue of the Madonna and Christ, as if to italicize the idea of Cartier, by way of a martyrdom that sates the appetites of the boxing fanatics, enters a consecrated state of sanctity?)
The film’s length opening expository section, cheaply philosophizing about the world of boxing, betrays the impatient excitement of the first-time film maker, ambitiously attempting to cover far too widespread a range of concerns, by raising far too many points than his film is capable of adequately addressing; asking interesting questions which are then dismissed, or worse yet, contradicted by explanations undermining the script’s initial assertions: Edwards’ narration informs us that the reason men drop their livelihoods to enter the ring is economic yet immediately details the depressingly minute numbers of men who actually make a living salary from the profession. In an earlier series of observations, the attractive nature of the sport to the fan (rather openly designated as “fanatics” as if the matches feed a primal bloodlust) by “hammering each other with upholstered fists” to satisfy “the primitive, vicarious, visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another” in an arena “where matched pairs of men will get up on a canvas covered platform and commit legal assault and lawful battery” is a subject which merits intense exploration, yet once the unbridled violent psychopathy inherent in the sport of boxing is delineated, the subject is abruptly abandoned as if the director is assuming the awarding of brownie points merely for the acknowledgement of the possibility of a more profound exploration that his film is willing to fulfill. Clearly with the rich dichotomy between the solemnity with which Cartier is shown to approach his task (remembering that Kubrick deliberately chooses to narrow the film’s attention to the quietude inherent in a relentless waiting game rather than the more kinetic atmosphere of physical preparation) and the unreasoned ferocity which rules the boxing audience’s behavior, there appears to be an initially richer vein of thematic ambition intended to be mined, though in conceding to the limitations of both format and resources, Kubrick’s skill with.the necessary discipline of conceptual blue penciling is not yet matured. The opening salvo (approximately the first four minutes) of the film seems constructed of mostly stock footage, and is briskly edited with the staccato rhythms associated with newsreels, but when the film shifts from a general overview of boxing to the story of Walter Cartier, the film immediately changes visual and editing styles and transmogrifies from informational document to sedate, faux arty docudrama. Kubrick’s attempts to capture the artistry of the still frame into that of the motion picture are waylaid by a lack of consideration that the aesthetics of each art form differs. Yet there is a psychological inquisitiveness about the subject which extends its intentions beyond the mere recording of the background of a sports event into a thumbnail portrait with literary pretensions. It is here where the seeds of the young filmmaker’s career long thematic interests begin to find first legitimate expression. In “Day of the Fight”, Kubrick is less interested in the process of the physical training (thus the rather perfunctory overview characterizing the preparatory portion of the film) than in the psychological, in the tensions between thought and action- there is no real interest in the physical toll of the profession -and in a bold move for a first-time film maker, Kubrick subverts the visceral excitement of his subject into an almost placid waiting game-it’s certainly the most serene boxing film you’re likely to see. It is the anticipation of action which becomes the subject at hand. Kubrick cannily undercuts the anticipation of his audience from the traditions of boxing films with their hyperbolic drive toward violent climax; the finishing punch actually comes so quickly it virtually escapes notice. The film ends without an exultant fanfare, but only the realization that the end is but another beginning, a finale which might suggest existential leanings but actually addresses earlier notations concerning the numbers game in boxing; that only one out of a hundred aspirants may make a living in the profession, and thus admitting the field of prolonged competitive competition as a general exercise in futility.
This is a subject which reoccurs in different forms throughout Kubrick’s career, though as his became less intimate with the psychological particulars of his characters in favor of matters of distancing formalism. There are few if any characters in Kubrick’s later films who make psychological sense; a fault disguised by the hokum of visually expressed ambiguity as long as his scenarios are removed from a greater interaction with “normal” socialization. Kubrick’s films have the inescapable feel of unfolding within a bell jar, alterations of representative social situations in miniature whose rules of behavior exist only within the narrow confines of his character’s isolation. (Even “Full Metal Jacket” gives the feeling of a chamber piece in the midst of an event of grandiose design. The ultimate failure of that particular film- among many -is that particular sense of isolation which diminishes the film into a not particularly fresh anti-war- it is instead dishearteningly transparent in the limitations of its lack of emboldened ideological conception -instead of having the artistic courage display an intuitive intelligence which might impart ideas specific to the moral quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Kubrick’s platoon could be dogfaces in any war, even one of his own invention. Indeed, his view of Vietnam is simply yet another sterile Kubickian exercise on Man’s inhuman nature than an artistic expression specific to the nature of that particular conflict.)
If there is a major flaw in “Day of the Fight” it is that is succumbs to the coldness of Kubrick’s overall design; there is a feeling of a lack of spontaneity; peculiar in what is passed as a non-fiction piece. In the end, Walter Cartier is merely the first of a succession of men-as-chess-pieces in which his full humanity is subsumed by the director’s need for his appropriate visual effect. Still, there are some interesting touches, exhibiting Kubrick’s experience as a skilled photo journalist in capturing a dramatic moment: a shot of Cartier as seen through the legs of his opponent’s stool in the ring, the deliberate tightness of framing in the pre-bout waiting room, suggesting the previously mentioned claustrophobic atmosphere (including one powerful shot of Walter’s bandaged hand in the foreground flexing in the foreground, his brother sitting in the distance, the hand seeming to be reaching for salvation) and a quiet but moving moment of Walter studying his face in the mirror in wonderment as to what his damaged face might resemble the next day; though one wonders whether or not each of these are not deliberately staged as a calculated dramatic directorial effects rather than recorded by a fortunate and observant photographic eye, (the peculiar shot of Cartier and James exchanging punches from ground level is a particularly artificial moment unless one entertains the possibility of Kubrick laying on his back in the middle of the ring during the fight!) not an inconsequential question as it goes straight to the heart of the director’s integrity insofar as his willingness to eclipse reality to fit his own variant vision of that reality. It is not insignificant that despite his obsessive career-long desire to film non-fictional subjects, most importantly Napoleon, all but his earliest films were sourced from published novels and one short story. This exploiting of the psychodramatic tools of literature into an embellished documentary form is what separates “Day of the Fight” from Kubrick’s two other short subjects; blurring the dividing barrier between truth and an interpretive suggestion of that truth (interestingly, the scripting, Kubrick’s despairing tone and the scoring all reveal the heavy influence of film noir). Hints of the later, more mature director’s footprints are in stark evidence.