THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE SEAFARERS”

BOOTLEG FILES 218: “The Seafarers” (1953 industrial film directed by Stanley Kubrick).

LAST SEEN: Available on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There was a brief VHS release in the 1990s.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An announced DVD release never happened.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It doesn’t seem likely.

Some filmmakers seem to hit the ground running with bold, provocative debut movies. But there are also filmmakers who require time to perfect their craft, and they need to get a few movies under their belts before they secure a distinctive style. Stanley Kubrick (that’s his self-portrait accompanying this article) belonged in that second category.

Kubrick’s early work is not memorable, and Kubrick was freely aware of the shortcomings – to the point of trying to keep those early films out of circulation. Needless to say, Kubrick addicts have found ways to pry those elusive titles out of hiding and into bootleg distribution.

“The Seafarers” is perhaps the strangest film from Kubrick’s early period. It was his third film, following the shorts “The Day of the Fight” and “The Flying Padre.” Based on his success at getting those shorts into theatrical release (RKO picked them up for a paltry fee). But RKO’s financial problems prevented future sales of short films, so Kubrick was able to secure a commission from the independent Lester Cooper Productions to create a 30-minute color industrial film promoting the Atlantic and Gulf Coast District of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), a labor organization representing the workers in the maritime trade.

Watching “The Seafarers” can be an unsatisfactory experience if you are trying to shoehorn the film into the Kubrick canon. Quite frankly, no one would ever guess it was a Kubrick work if one saw “The Seafarers” cold without its tell-tale opening credits. That being said, “The Seafarers” is a decent industrial production that offers an interesting glimpse of the SIU’s operations in the early 1950s. As presented here, the SIU is a combination labor union-hospitality industry-employment agency-surrogate mother to the hearty salts who work the world’s freighters, tankers and commercial seagoing fleets.

Strangely, the film opens with an on-camera narration by CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck, who looks somewhat disheveled and uncomfortable. After about three minutes of talking to the camera, Hollenbeck retreats to the safety of off-screen narration – returning very briefly for an on-screen farewell before the closing credits.

“The Seafarers” crams a great deal into a half-hour. We are treated to the maritime equivalent of a job fair, where the SIU members bid for plum assignments on the shipping lines. There is a visit to the SIU recreational center, complete with a cafeteria to bring out the glutton in any man and a bar that will keep the old salts well-soaked. SIU-run barbershops, pool hall, continuing education classrooms, art galleries and lending libraries also fill the free time of the union’s members.

But it’s not all fun and games. The SIU is shown to be active in maintaining communication with its members via a broadsheet newspaper called The Seafarers Log, which Hollenbeck describes as being airmailed to ships around the world (I don’t know how you can send airmail to a ship, but never mind). Hollenbeck also informs the viewer that the SIU plays a crucial role in labor negotiation with the shipping company management, but we never get to see that. We are witness to a vote on union leadership, where the pensive and quizzical seafarers look on as a union bigwig talks about solidarity, brotherhood, and all sorts of vague concepts one expects from labor leaders.

The film occasionally dips into emotionalism – when a seafarer kisses his photogenic family goodbye before heading off to the ocean, and when a union representative visits elderly SIU members at a convalescent home to share some talk and provide their union pension payments.

“The Seafarers” has very little dialogue. For most of the film, Hollenbeck does all of the talk while the camera silently records everything (including a pair of drawing of topless women, which Hollenbeck never acknowledges). In two brief scenes, however, we get to hear the seafarers themselves – in the continuing education classroom and the union election meeting. However, the relative inarticulateness of the seafarers suggests Hollenbeck’s chatter was a good idea.

It is not clear what creative control Kubrick enjoyed in making the film. The screenplay is credited to Will Chasen, who has no additional known screen credits (he may have been an SIU officer). Kubrick had cinematography credit as well as directing credit, and this may explain an unexpected and sophisticated dolly shot across the length of an SIU cafeteria. But for the most part, the cinematography is strictly functional, with occasional panning shots tossed in to establish new locations in the storyline.

But Kubrick clearly didn’t intend “The Seafarers” to be a serious artistic statement. Most likely, he took this assignment to help finance his first feature production, “Fear and Desire,” which was produced later in 1953. He never spoke publicly about the film and seemed to disown it as soon as it was completed.

There is no record of “The Seafarers” having a theatrical release. Most likely, it was screened at SIU halls for the potential members of the union. How long the film was shown is also unclear, particularly since Hollenbeck committed suicide the year after the film’s completion and his death (following a McCarthy-inspired smear campaign) was a major news story.

The film has turned up in a few film society retrospectives of Kubrick’s work, and a company called Pietrzak Filmways released it on VHS in the 1990s. A DVD release was annouced by Pietrzak Filmways, but as of this writing it has yet to occur.

Bootlegs of “The Seafarers” are circulating, though the film’s obscurity has prevented it from enjoying a higher visibility. One enterprising Kubrick lover split the film into three clips that can be seen on YouTube, so the Kubrick-loving Net surfer can enjoy it at the comfort of his computer.

“The Seafarers” is ideal for Kubrick completists or anyone interested in a maritime career. But beyond those audiences, this bootleg is strictly of curio value.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on February 1, 2008 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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