Hidden Histories of Film and Media
James Fenwick discusses the concepts of unmade / unseen films and creative failure, which are central to his forthcoming book Stanley Kubrick Produces (Rutgers University Press) and his co-edited volume Shadow Cinema: Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (Bloomsbury).
July 2019. I was in an overcrowded airport café in Amsterdam returning from a conference and desperately attempting to connect to the free Wi-Fi. I’d caught sight some hours earlier of an email from an archivist in the USA, subject heading: World Assembly of Youth. My heart pace had quickened with the arrival of this email, which I had been anticipating for some days. As I impatiently shuffled through airport security, my mind raced with the possibilities of what the email might mean.
World Assembly of Youth was a project that had long been assumed to be a ‘lost’ film by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, produced sometime in the early 1950s. There were passing references to it in several archival documents, not least a CV put together by Kubrick himself, but nothing concrete as to what the film was about or Kubrick’s role. The expectation was that Kubrick had potentially directed the film, which meant it would have been the fourth short film of his career (Kubrick’s other short films, in order of release, are Flying Padre , Day of the Fight , and The Seafarers ).
After undertaking archival research in early 2019, I had come to realise that a film existed within the Richard de Rochemont Papers at the American Heritage Center (AHC), University of Wyoming, that could potentially be World Assembly of Youth. But I could not be certain. The archivists at the AHC were not sure what the film was, stored away in a temperature-controlled ‘cold vault’. After conversations with the archivists, it was agreed that they would digitize the film and send it me as an MP4 file in due course, along with some surrounding documentation that looked to be associated with the film reel.
And so, after weeks of anticipation, the moment had finally arrived to see if this film was a lost Stanley Kubrick project. I put on my headphones to drown out the noise of the busy airport café, opened the file, and clicked play. The screen remained black for what seemed an eternity, during which time my thoughts raced with the prospect of being the first person to watch this potential lost Kubrick film in nearly 70 years. Then a series of blurs on screen, spectral images engrained on the film reel, followed by the countdown: 10, 9, 8…
This is it, I thought. The moment of truth.
But as the film unfolded for thirty minutes, I found myself increasingly bored. It was a documentary of sorts, recording the arrival of young people to a general assembly of the World Assembly of Youth, an international youth council (eventually uncovered as being CIA sponsored) meeting that was taking place at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In turns dull and uninspiring, I was left deflated. The film was hardly the moment of truth I had anticipated. Worse still, there was no sign of Kubrick’s name anywhere on the film. The credits listed the news reel company News of the Day as the production outfit.
What was this film?
I opened the corresponding PDFs that had come with the MP4 file, a series of on-set photographs detailing the production and a script with a list of the film crew. Kubrick’s name was absent from the latter. The film had been directed by D. Corbit Curtis and Richard Millet and produced by Kubrick’s then mentor, Richard de Rochemont. Kubrick was also absent from the on-set photographs, 53 of them in total.
And then it dawned on me: World Assembly of Youth was not a Kubrick film after all. Nor had he worked on it in any obvious production capacity based on the available evidence. At best, I deduced, he had served as a stills photographer, potentially being the one responsible for the on-set photographs. Kubrick had after all started out his career as a photographer for the photo-journalist magazine Look.
I felt utter disappointment on my flight home to the UK, ordering wine to try and shift my mood of deflation. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the research I had been conducting was altogether different. While the film wasn’t what I had hoped, it did still tell me a lot: World Assembly of Youth wasn’t a lost Kubrick film, nor even a film he even probably worked on. But it did reveal the level of self-promotion Kubrick was involved in, placing the film on his CV and mentioning it in interviews as a means of ‘bigging up’ his career profile at a time when he was struggling to break into filmmaking. And it was still a ‘lost’ film: hidden, unseen, and largely forgotten, apart from a few Kubrick fanatics that referenced its title (me included).
I recall this lengthy anecdote in a bid to think through the value of archival artefacts and the concept of hidden histories. For the archives that I have worked with across the world, from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the Margaret Herrick Library, to the British Film Institute and the Stanley Kubrick Archive, each contain the material evidence of unmade, unseen, and unreleased films from across film history. These archives contain an alternative history of film, one that is about failure, marginalisation, and cultural privilege.
These are ideas that are at the heart of my own ongoing research, including in Stanley Kubrick Produces and Shadow Cinema. I am trying to uncover a shadow history of the film and media industries to understand the cultural logic of failure, with archival evidence making it clear that far more film (and television) projects fail than succeed. But archival researchers (me included) ascribe cultural value by the archival collections we consult and the histories that we write, thereby intentional or not often erasing or avoiding particular collections and, as such, particular histories.
The study of the unmade, unseen, and unreleased, and of creative failure, offers the potential to reveal counter histories, to challenge the canonical history of film and media, and to unveil the gatekeepers and structural forces that drive the cultural and industrial logic of failure. It can bring to light marginalised figures and films and empower the voices of those that have been forgotten, even erased (for whatever reason) from existing histories.
In the meantime, if you want to listen to more about my archival research, my book launch talk for Stanley Kubrick Produces can be accessed here:
And if you are interested in viewing World Assembly of Youth, it can be accessed here:
Uploaded with permission of World Assembly of Youth, Richard de Rochemont Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.