Fare Thee Well

Speaking of directors visually communicating an awareness of the cinematic manipulation at play in their movies:

The upside to propaganda: funding, opportunity. 

The downside to propaganda: everything else about it?

But those two upsides can be key for artists forever looking for their next financially-backed project, and directors can manage to appease the agenda of their backers while also telegraphing to the audience subversive commentary that calls their attention to the propagandist nature of what they’re watching.

Case in point: Stanley Kubrick’s The Seafarers, a “documentary” short about — and funded by — The Seafarers International Union of North America. Granted, the movie isn’t shy about owning its lack of objectivity; there’s an individual title card in the opening credits devoted to explicating the SIU’s intimate involvement in the final product. But Kubrick deploys his language of choice — imagery — to remind the audience of the doc’s base intent.

Most of The Seafarers plays like a typical promo reel to convince seafarers to join the union (and thus pay the dues the organization subsists on). Midway through, we learn about The Seafarers Log, the union’s official newspaper. True to period fashion, an assortment of front-page headlines are thrown at us one after another, all of which — unsurprisingly — boast about the union’s accomplishments. Even if the headlines speak truth to combat the power of anti-union hegemony, there’s still a propagandist slant to what they deem fit to print.  

Which Kubrick not only seems to know, he also wants the audience to realize his own movie is basically an extension of the newspaper. The shot immediately following the headlines-montage is inside the union office; instead of focusing on the action in the room, we start by looking at, in the center of the frame, a pile of the newspapers, located in a forgotten corner of the office, with a camera on top. We then pan over to the actual action: union employees hard at work, one of whom holds another camera.

The visual storytelling appears clear to me: Kubrick’s camera — a symbol of The Seafarers itself — is stacked on top of the union’s newspapers; they’re one and the same pile. And by showing one of the employees operating a camera on screen, he’s telling us who’s really in charge of the images projected in front of us. 

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