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What better or more effective method of encomium is there than initiating one’s adulation with a simple act of earnest avowal? None really worth mentioning I would think, so let us begin at the beginning. It is my firm belief that no cineaste would or more importantly even could mount any cinematographic inquiry with out first dealing with the insurmountable and regnant aura of Stanley Kubrick. I will freely admit to you now that I am one of the those film elitists who touts Mr. Kubrick as the acme of cinematic genius. The rebuff most often given to any individual who finds some dubiety in this assertion (or feel that there is too much cult-like admiration for this man, I know, a foolish notion) is rooted in exemplifying Kubrick’s early adolescent genius in the art of photography. In fact, when anyone is involved in a critique of Kubrick films very often most of the attention is given to his technical visual sagacity—this being the quality which his films most epitomize—which had its antecedent source in his early career as a photographic journalist for Look magazine.
Coming from a photographic family myself, I too could endlessly analyze and opine on Kubrick’s stylistic eye and acumen along with his place in cinematic history—yet this is not what I wish to discuss. I would instead like to examine the often neglected area of Kubrick’s own philosophy, as best culled from his filmography and the images there in. I feel that this philosophy is found and best examined within the visual and intellectual motifs of my four favorite (they are my favorite for this reason) Kubrick films—those films being A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lydon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket.
In reaction to my nearly twenty year study of Kubrick the man and his work, I have come to the conclusion that he was philosophically some sort of atheistic existentialist, in the Sartean vein. I feel quite confident in stating that I would have found much coincidence with Mr. Kubrick concerning views on human existence. This conclusion can be easily gleaned from interviews that he gave starting from the nineteen fifties onward, but what does this philosophy exactly entail when seen through the lens of this man’s art? To garner a satisfactory answer to this query, it is easy and even more intellectually satisfying to gain this insight from examining his meticulous and visually plenipotentiary film work. If you start with the stoic acceptance of the inherent moral ambiguity and intersubjective nature of human existence as well as acknowledging the mostly losing struggle of man to find meaning within an absurd, ironic, and contingent universe, you will see this thematic string running throughout most of Kubrick’s films, starting most saliently with the film The Killing (1956).
Yet it is not until A Clockwork Orange (1971) that Kubrick’s sophist understanding began to show maturity. In retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious that after completing his numinous inquest into the possibilities of human evolution (2001: A Space Odyssey) that Kubrick would have been ready to fully explore his cardinal existential preoccupation—the idiosyncratic proclivities and erratum of what Gore Vidal called the half-tamed creature, this being the animal more commonly known as Homo sapien. Clockwork definitely offered Kubrick this opportunity. Though, one still laments not being able to have experienced Kubrick’s (failed) attempt at a cinematic biopic of Napoleon to have achieved the same aim.
Owing to his autodidactic nature and literary expertise, it is no wonder at all that Kubrick became the master of the cinematic translation of literature–in most cases transcending the source material in noetic complexity. Being that all of his films had their locus in books, it appears that Kubrick also fully understood that ethical notions and dilemmas were best investigated in literature. So in consideration of A Clockwork Orange, it is quite interesting to note the similarities and divergences in both Burgess’s and Kubrick’s conception of the character Alex. Both men criticized the reductionist makeup of B.F Skinner’s Behaviorism which they viewed as rendering humans casuistic automatons. As Burgess’s cleric in the novel succinctly puts it, a man ceases to be human when he is incapable of making a moral choice. But where Burgess was intent on promulgating his Augustinian view of free will (not to forget the more general christian view of the intrinsically wicked nature of man), Kubrick was more interested in showing how man reacts and makes moral decisions within the crossroads of option and contingency.
Within this psychological case study, Kubrick also outshines Burgess in the central theme of both the novel and film. Kubrick is able to induce pathos for Alex even though he is a sociopathic monster because he shows how Alex is the only true human in a clockwork state. He is the only character imbued with imagination and passion for life, even if that passion is promiscuously violent and immoral—he still is exercising his free choice and imagination. This is made more explicit when we see how utterly dehumanized and wretched Alex becomes after the completion of the Ludovico Technique. And through our pathos and identification, we too can rejoice when Alex is renewed and ostensibly cured at the end of the film. Thankfully Kubrick was using the American edition of this novel which did not include Burgess’s superfluous and moralizing happy ending. Thus Kubrick’s film ends exactly as it should in a contingent universe, ambiguous and uncertain.
When we get to Barry Lyndon (1975) we encounter yet another sublime psychological inquiry issuing from the Kubrickian philosophy so far laid bare. Unlike the character of Alex, Redmond Barry does not entreat us with a intense and subjective analysis of human existence. What this character does achieve though, is making it ostensibly plain to us Kubrick’s interest in the philosophy of Heidegger. What I am alluding to by using the term the philosophy of Heidegger is not his fundamental ontology but instead is his notions on the human preoccupation with death and the overarching force of time which unceasingly drags us towards oblivion. After all, this is the unique dilemma of human existence; only death can ever give relief and scope to our life (as soon as we’re born, we are quite literally, dying).
Kubrick achieves this existentialism by literally taking us back in time to an era often described as an essential Kubrickian leitmotif, that being the eighteenth century. Why the eighteenth century then? One obvious answer would have to be that this century was the one most marked in human history for its flagrant obsession with the ordering of every aspect of human existence by pure reason and intellect in an attempt to distract from the inevitable annihilation of death. Thus giving a patina of false consolation to the idea that man was finally gaining control over his destiny—that free will actually existed independent of any theological grounding.
Kubrick can be seen exemplifying this throughout Barry Lydon by continually illustrating the minutia of human ritual which we give so much importance to even though within the gaze of time and the universe, these endeavors are negligible and meaningless. Within the film’s visual language, Kubrick best illustrates this behavior through games of chance—this being just one of the ways in which Kubrick makes it plain that all of human existence can be visually rendered a mise-en-scene (or is this a natual state of being?). After all, all of the trivial, nonsensical, and tragic ensnarements of human life are what make history what it is and running through out all of this uncertainty is the omnipresent force of irony. This becomes apparent against all of the futile attempts of man to escape this fate. In failing to recognize this contingent reality and state of life, as a character Redmond Barry shows us the audience that man is ultimately (more often than we would like to admit) doomed from the start to failure, misery, and isolation within bounds of the unfathomable vastness of time and space.
With the conception of Fate, I could very easily slide into the psychology of the Shining (1980), but that would be facile and would also blight the value of this film within the Kubrickian canon. Far beyond being Kubrick’s first and only “horror” film, the Shining represents his most developed psychological inquiry. Those who were disappointed with Kubrick’s and Diane Johnson’s version of the story for going so astray from the Stephen King novel missed the point entirely. Kubrick’s version was and is far more intellectually dense than the King novel could ever hope to be. It took me a long time and many viewings to fully understand the major psychological theme of the film—that being the Jungian concept of duality and the notion of the doppelganger. The Shining is easily Kubrick’s most visually massed film and is exhaustively rife with symbolic dyads and dichotomies reinforcing the main psychological concern of duality. For my own philosophy, I see this film as showcasing the dual nature of every human as we are, as has been already mentioned, a half-tamed animal. And even though it may be to our chagrin to acknowledge, there nonetheless is darkness and madness latent within us all. It is this reality that our culture does not like to admit to partly because it so irrefutably shows us to be a still evolving primate species; undeniably an animal.
Even though Kubrick does not entirely elide the supernatural elements of the story, he nonetheless makes it quite limpid that his endeavor is anything but a mere horror film. It is very much a study of madness and of the psychic break down and cannibalizing of the family unit but it is also a brilliant existential consideration of the caliginous nature of man. And by doing this the film clearly warns us that when we deny this aspect of our existence, we throw wide open the Blakean doors of perception and invite the always lurking monsters to come inside and play.
Finally we come to what I now feel in adulthood is my most cherished Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket (1987). To begin this examination I feel I must first dispense with a common misperception concerning this film. It is an all too regular occurrence for the majority of film critics and lovers to group this film in with the other great Vietnam war movies of the era, usually Apocalypse Now and Platoon. This assumption is wrong on its face. Full Metal Jacket is not a Vietnam war film but is instead a film set in Vietnam during that conflict—a distinction that must be fully understood in order to grasp the full philosophic intent of this film. It is what can be simply termed an existential war film, neither pro nor antiwar in its ethical stance. It is a wonderfully stylized, surreal, and objective consideration of the human (male) phenomena of war and forces you the viewer to make up your own moral mind on the ramifications of the behavior on display throughout the film. The first half comically and horrifyingly shows us the dehumanizing reality and objective of martial conditioning. We are first obliged to consider the character of Joker by his failure of preventing and complicity in the eventual mental break down of his charge Leonard Lawrence (private Pyle). The haunting image of Leonard’s suicide comes back to Joker in the last act of the film (the sniper scene) when he too realizes that he also resides in an existential world of shit.
The second half then proceeds to let us see how these soldiers (who are the finished products of this conditioning) will react in the moral chaos of war. With the character of Joker, Kubrick successfully maintains a balance between ironic detachment, sardonic criticism, and poignant pathos as this character develops ethically through the course of events in the film. With this character he also again explores the ideation of human duality this time from a more singularly Jungian perspective than in The Shining—this is best exemplified by Joker’s Born to Kill motto on his helmet juxtaposed with his wearing of a peace button (as Joker explains to his stupefied general, it’s “the duality of man, the Jungian thing Sir”). By the end, Joker shows us how humanity and probity are the precious commodities which a soldier must struggle to keep intact within the madness and barbarity of war where all else is smashed beyond human recognition. As a tangential point of interest, it is no wonder at all that men who survive such tribulation together manifest a form of fraternity not achievable by any other means. By maintaining his trademark ambiguity, intellectual curiosity, and portentous use of images, Kubrick imbues this film with a power that transforms human consciousness like few films ever will let alone ever do.
We have been discussing the aspects contained and evinced by genius, and the creative genius at that. This area of human consciousness is quite distinctive in its particular ineffability. Yet our intellectual curiosity always seems to push us into this amorphous land of human quiddity. Philosophy will continue to be our guide in this essential and noumenal frontier, with poetry and literature being sources of shepherding illumination. In the end…if there is to be one, Stanley Kubrick is yet another aureate example of the transcendent power of cinema as well as proving to us that the only means with which to achieve immortality are through artistic and intellectual travails. For Kubrick, our continuing and unending wonder, our sated aestheticism, our eternal awe in the face of true genius, these attainments are his final and lasting testament of the epicure.