The Kubrick Appreciation Project: Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1953)

Flying Padre

Stanley Kubrick’s sophomore short documentary was an eight-minute-long human-interest piece titled Flying Padre about a priest living in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and taking care of a parish so large that it required him to use an aeroplane to discharge his duties, such as performing funeral services, mediating between parishioners or even serving as an air ambulance. In spite of its brevity and perceived insignificance as a work of cinema, it is nonetheless an important milestone in Kubrick’s career, perhaps even the most crucial of all. 

Having produced Day Of The Fight, the production company convinced Kubrick to make another short. It was at this point, or maybe during shooting and editing what later became Flying Padre, Kubrick decided that filmmaking was something he wanted to devote more attention to. Up to that point it had been more of a sideshow to his primary passion of still photography. Therefore, while you’re watching this seemingly workaday piece about a priest and his little Piper Cub, be mindful of the fact that somewhere in between its frames you could find the spark that lit the bonfire of Kubrick’s genius. 

However, if there is anything else this short should be remembered for, it may be a single shot that one could see as a herald of budding Kubrickian style, i.e. the very final shot of the film in which we see the titular priest standing beside his plane – smack in the centre of the frame – as the camera slowly withdraws presumably in a vehicle while keeping its subject perfectly in place. I suppose without the hindsight knowledge of where Kubrick’s career went and what his filmmaking style evolved into afterwards this little shot could be easily overlooked, but just as the shot from Day Of The Fight where Kubrick framed one of the boxers between the legs of a stool, this one should be remembered as well as a sign of raw talent being ever so slowly polished into what later became known as unparalleled filmmaking expertise.

The Seafarers

The Seafarers, a documentary short released shortly after Kubrick’s feature debut Fear And Desire, was his first ever film shot in colour as well as his last documentary before leaping full-on into the ocean of narrative storytelling. And that’s pretty much the only two things this movie is worth mentioning for. 

Without devolving into crass remarks, this isn’t a great film and I suppose it would require one to apply a lot of mental gymnastics to see it as anything more than a hired gig commissioned by the Seafarers International Union, a labour union protecting the rights of people working as crew on ships. It is basically an info dump narrated by Don Hollenbeck created for the sole purpose of informing the audiences about the wonderful notion of banding together into trade unions and thus exerting influence on corporate employers who would otherwise bleed their staff white while paying them the absolute minimum. 

That’s it. Contrary to Kubrick’s two previous documentary shorts, Day Of The Fight and Flying PadreThe Seafarers doesn’t really have anything to latch onto in the context of Kubrick’s artistic development. It’s a bog standard newsreel documentary filmed using utilitarian techniques, as though to reflect its utilitarian purpose.

Published originally on Letterboxd

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