Against Kubrick 1

A dear friend of mine, with whom I have shared countless discussions and arguments over art, literature, and film, once referred to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a humanist.

My first and only thought: I will NOT let him get away with this.

I imagine that your first thought after hearing this is: Why should I care? Well, here’s why.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius, perhaps one of three or four most gifted filmmakers who ever lived. The following films of his are almost universally considered great works of art: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings. To literate cineastes, academics, and critics everywhere, Stanley Kubrick is The Man. He has changed us all. And it’s true. He has.

My argument is that A) he changed us for the worse, and B) he did it by being anything but a humanist.

A dear friend of mine, with whom I have shared countless discussions and arguments over art, literature, and film, once referred to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a humanist. My first and only thought: I will NOT let him get away with this. I imagine that your first thought after hearing this is: Why should I care? Well, here’s why. Stanley Kubrick was a genius, perhaps one of three or four most gifted filmmakers who ever lived. The following films of his are almost universally considered great works of art: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings. To literate cineastes, academics, and critics everywhere, Stanley Kubrick is The Man. He has changed us all. And it’s true. He has. My argument is that A) he changed us for the worse, and B) he did it by being anything but a humanist. First, we’ll start with what Kubrick films we won’t consider. Prior to 1964, they tend to be good but uneven and non-representative of the man’s abilities. Few will argue that Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Spartacus (1960), and Lolita (1962) represent the man at the top of his game. My personal pick from this era (and one of my all time favorites), Paths of Glory (1957), is the lone exception, a true humanist film. And we will discuss it as such at the conclusion of this series. Barry Lyndon (1974) is fairly obscure, and loooong. Over 3 hours. This is the only Kubrick film I have not seen. You can make arguments for the inclusion of The Shining (1978), but this film remains limited by its genre and tends not to represent things beyond than itself unless you believe in ghosts. It’s a great ride, but that’s about all it is. As for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), A) it occurred after Kubrick had already cemented his legacy, B) it lacks the ruthless mathematical vision and breathtaking intellectual scope of Kubrick’s best work, and C) it is frankly too prurient to fit in with the great Kubrick films. So let’s begin with a definition of humanism. Of course, there are many kinds of humanism lending to many definitions. But I would guess the following would suffice for how we use the word today. From Wiktionary: “An ethical system that centers on humans and their values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom; especially used for a secular one, as an alternative to religious values.” If Kubrick had been a humanist he would have, you know, included more humanists in his films. But what character of his can be described this way? What characters of his are truly sympathetic? Characters embodying the dignity of man are rare in the great Kubrick films, and when you can find them, they are not intelligent, passionate, or likable but rather weighted down with platitudes or hypocrisy, or are simply annoying or obnoxious. In fact, his films constantly place humanity in a negative light and cause us to either smirk at it condescendingly or almost wish we weren’t a part of it. These may seem pretty extreme responses. But I’ll argue that

Kubrick was good enough to engender such responses. Keep in mind, however, that this is all apart from marveling at the man’s craft and imagination. The stark lighting and set design in Dr. Strangelove. Alex’s ironic relationship with classical music in A Clockwork Orange. The “Beautiful Blue Danube” as the music of the spheres in 2001. These and a lot of other things are what make each Kubrick film a truly singular experience. Like I said: Genius. My friend’s big argument against my position is that the geometric brilliance and perfection of Kubrick films are the result of a fierce and shimmering rationalism and affirm man’s noble struggle against ignorance and chaos. And he would have a point if…all of Kubrick’s films were silent. But when Kubrick’s actors open their mouths to speak, well, to paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, there is “such a deal of stinking breath” we dare not open our mouths for all the bad air. Is this an overstatement? Sometimes it isn’t. And more times than you would realize. I’m writing this mostly because it needs to be written. Someone has to show the world that it is okay to oppose Kubrick and to reveal that the paths he led us down were not good paths. And despite Robert Frost’s concern about how “way leads on to way”, we should definitely consider going back. We will be better for it. In my next posts I will take Stanley Kubrick apart film by film to show that the man was no humanist. He was something else entirely.

Author: rcspeck

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I'm a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I'm finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don't be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

7 thoughts on “Against Kubrick 1”

  1. “Few will argue that Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Spartacus (1960), and Lolita (1962) represent the man at the top of his game.”

    Great films nevertheless, the Killing being one of the greatest noir/heist films. Spartacus is conventional, but a conventional sword-and-sandals epic done as well as possible without severe script overhauls.

    “Barry Lyndon (1974) is also fairly obscure, and loooong. Over 3 hours. This is the only Kubrick film I have not seen.”

    And regarded as his best film by many, including numerous artists, musicians and directors. I suggest you see it. As a writer, it may appeal to you in the way each line says so much indirectly (like Antonioni, Kubrick’s dialogue is always hinting). Visually it is sublime, of course, but also profoundly moving. Thematically, amongst many things, it is about what Schopenhauer called man’s state of “continual becoming whilst never being”. Man’s unquenchable drive for “satisfaction”, the tyranny of such drives, and the unequality it breeds.

    “You can make arguments for the inclusion of The Shining (1978), but this film remains limited by its genre and tends not to represent things beyond than itself unless you believe in ghosts. It’s a great ride, but that’s about all it is.”

    The Shining was released in 1980 (maybe the book was 1978?)Regardless, the film is not about ghosts, Kubrick does not believe in ghosts and it is about much more than “rides”. There are many papers, books and websites exploring the film, if you wish to look. Ironically, the film is about The Overlooked, the act of overlooking, of not seeing, of having one’s eyes shut to history’s rhymes, palindromes (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xhiprx_the-shining-backwards-forwards_creation) and echoes, both in microcosm (child abuse, paedophillia etc), and macrocosm (genocide, capitalism’s wiping out and reappropriating of cultures etc – think the way the blue dresses of the girls bleed into and become the hotel’s benign walls). Or, to paraphrase Lacan, it is about how man “thinks he repeats beacause he forgets his past mistakes”, when in reality “he forgets both so he can repeat and because he does repeat”. In other words, it is about the horrors of historicism, and how history haunts, echoes and influences. The film shows how to retrace one’s steps, break this cycle and get out of the maze. Indeed, Danny’s profession is yours: one must learn to navigate text and “shine”, where “shining” is the role of the artist. A deleted scene, however, had Danny returning to the Hotel, his lessons (and escape) not unlearned, but feeble in the face of history’s march.

    Of course The Shining is about much more. For example, just focussing on one consistent Kubrick obsession – how Power abuses Power – Barry Lyndon to Shining to Full Metal Jacket to Eyes Wide shut represents a movement from the birth of bourgeoisie capitalism, to colonialisation to neo-imperialism to today’s brand of Doctor “dollar” Bill like blind obedience to “the way things are” ( http://i54.tinypic.com/20h6lgx.jpg ). I agree the films are “cold”. But the very structures of power being explored are cold and inhumane.

    “As for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), A) it occurred after Kubrick had already cemented his legacy, B) it lacks the ruthless mathematical vision and breathtaking intellectual scope of Kubrick’s best work, and C) it is frankly too prurient to fit in with the great Kubrick films.”

    Too sexual? Lacks intellectual scope and yet Michael Chion calls it a film “about everything”? Isn’t saying it lacks scope the same as saying it’s a dumb movie. Hasn’t history shown that what critics “think” a Kubrick movie is about is demonstratively always not what the film “is actually about”?

    “From Wiktionary: “An ethical system that centers on humans and their values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom; especially used for a secular one, as an alternative to religious values.” If Kubrick had been a humanist he would have, you know, included more humanists in his films.”

    Does this mean that his films do not centre on the values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom of humans? Isn’t it true that most of his films deal with “freedom” in some way or the other? Isn’t it true that his entire ethical system is based on the (correct) understanding that it is man’s overpriveledging of the ego which leads to “inhumanity” (an absurd word; humans are not humans, are contingent, are always in flux, have no “essense”, are more machine than anything)? That “dignity” is impossible because all our systems and structures (and very socio-economic order) are founded on huge paradoxes/contradictions/hypocracies, are grounded in the most base human drives and that Power is inherently neurotic (Freud believed that neuroses stem from man’s desire to order/control chaos).

    “Characters embodying the dignity of man are rare in the great Kubrick films”

    Portraying characters with “dignity” has nothing to do with “humanism”, most supposedly dignified people are absolutely abominable (and often they and others are unaware of this) and the very point of these films is that external forces shape behaviour. Kubrick’s films may not have what you call “dignified characters” (they do), but they are implicitly asking man to be dignified (“Have you no sense of decency!” – Millich screams), and are delving into precisely why he is not.

    “…and when you can find them, they are not intelligent, passionate, or likable but rather weighted down with platitudes or hypocrisy, or are simply annoying or obnoxious. In fact, his films constantly place humanity in a negative light and cause us to either smirk at it condescendingly or almost wish we weren’t a part of it.”

    His last four films are tragedies, and invite you to sympathise, and more importantly understand, the forces which are acting on these characters. There is no misanthropic smirking. Indeed, the figure of Joker in Full Metal Jacket embodies such a postmodern, ironic distance. This “smirking or cynical attitude” many youths have towards war. As such, the film is about the complicity of those who smirk and spectate. Of those who view themselves as being enlightened, aloof and “outside” the problem, like so many, for example, who sat at home denouncing the Iraq War (“I know it’s wrong, but I’m not a part of it. I’m on the outside. I’m not a killer, I’m a writer, you see”).

    “In my next posts I will take Stanley Kubrick apart film by film to show that the man was no humanist. He was something else entirely.”

    Perhaps an on-topic quote by the director:

    “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
    — Stanley Kubrick

    1. Thank you for your responses. I will get to them one by one, but it will take time since you gave me so much to go over.

      All right, I’ll watch Barry Lyndon. And if I come up with enough ideas about it, I’ll include it in this series.

      As for The Shining, I know it’s a masterwork of horror, but it just never resonated with me. All the intricacies you describe I really have no interest in exploring. To me, the Shining is a fantasy with little to no relation to the real world. Sure, if you think hard enough and read enough you can find connections all over the place because that’s what Kubrick liked to do with his zealous perfectionism. But so what? This seems like analysis for the sake of analysis. I’d rather shave. As for “The Overlooked, the act of overlooking, of not seeing, of having one’s eyes shut to history’s rhymes” I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I also googled “The Shining” and “Pedophilia” and found nothing. As for the palindrome and all the neat symmetry you describe, I’m reminded about how Brahms used to complain about how other composers would include coded messages in their music like spelling their lovers’ names in musical notation and otherwise making clever innuendo or symmetry in their works that only other musicians or musicologists would understand. Regular people don’t have the time or the expertise to tease out all these intricacies.. Further, who’s to say that after doing all this work analyzing a film that you may end up disagreeing with the author or director? Wouldn’t that be a let down. For example, you seem to think that one of the things Kubrick comments on here is “capitalism’s wiping out and reappropriating of cultures”. Well, I disagree with that. Not that Kubrick may have wanted to touch upon such a theme (he may well have), but the very idea that capitalism wipes out cultures. I’ve read Friedman and Hayek. I support captialism and believe it brings about the best way to live. So if Kubrick wants to dispute that, I’d rather read a proper essay about it than decipher it from a movie that I’m paying ten bucks to enjoy.

      This is not a knock on The Shining, or you, it’s just my taste: Movies or novels that are like complex puzzles containing all sorts of neat references here and there and perhaps a message or two, but ultimately are not about Man on Earth are not for me. I just don’t get them. I put down The Master and Marguerita after three chapters. The Shining could very well be the greatest horror movie ever, and I still won’t have anything interesting to say about it. I mean, sure, I can include it in the series and bash it. But that wouldn’t be fair because what it does well (and it does a lot very well) I just don’t care about.

      As for Eyes Wide Shut. Saw it once in the theater. Yes, I thought it was prurient. Yes, I thought it was ultimately kind of a waste of time. It made very little impression on me at all. I guess I could watch it again and comment on it, but I just don’t care to.

      So then you ask me this:

      “Does this mean that his films do not centre on the values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom of humans?” Some do (e.g., Paths of Glory and 2001), but I think the others are more about Kubrick’s own brilliance and perfectionism, his contempt for people, and his juvenile political ideology.

      “Isn’t it true that most of his films deal with “freedom” in some way or the other?” Ummm, no? Look, I’m sure if you pore over Madam Bovary long enough you can dream up some convoluted argument saying that it also deals with freedom. But so what? The only film of his that deals explicitly with the concept of freedom is A Clockwork Orange. To make the same argument for the others, you would have to bring more to the table than Kubrick did. And that is never convincing.

      “Isn’t it true that his entire ethical system is based on the (correct) understanding that it is man’s overpriveledging of the ego which leads to “inhumanity””? So this is a fancy way of saying that “power corrupts.” I think I remember this theme running through Spider-Man comics. If you want to do Stanley Kubrick the disservice of claiming that “his entire ethical system” is based on something so trite, cool. You’re only making my job easier.

      “(an absurd word; humans are not humans, are contingent, are always in flux, have no “essense”, are more machine than anything)” You lost me here.

      “That “dignity” is impossible because all our systems and structures (and very socio-economic order) are founded on huge paradoxes/contradictions/hypocracies, are grounded in the most base human drives and that Power is inherently neurotic (Freud believed that neuroses stem from man’s desire to order/control chaos)?” In a word, no. I think “all our systems and structures” in America are either fine the way they are or are a big improvement over any other system and structure people have dreamed up throughout history.

      As for your brief treatment on Full Metal Jacket, I will keep your thoughts in mind when I get to that post. Thanks.

  2. I assume the author has seen Barry Lyndon now (arguable Kubrick’s best, after Eyes Wide Shut) and read up on The Shining (which he dismisses as “meaningless” and which, in recent times, has been accepted as hugely symbollic).

    In any case, Kubrick is a humanist. Historically, it’s the satirists and pessimists who are the most deep feeling humanists.

  3. “In a word, no. I think “all our systems and structures” in America are either fine the way they are or are a big improvement over any other system and structure people have dreamed up throughout history.”

    The great Immanuel Wallerstein has a massive six hundred paged historical thesis where he details the lack of differences between feudalism, monrachism and late capitalism – you know, that “fine system” where over 80 percent of the world lives on less than 10 dollars and where there are now more slaves than 1872.

    1. Hi Trent. First, you neglect to mention the large numbers of slaves forced to work in gulags in the Soviet Union (14 million before 1953) or on laogai camps in Maoist China (50 million in the last 50 years) or in Vietnam (309,000 since 2000) or God knows how many in North Korea. Were they caused by capitalism? I would argue that there were more slaves created by communism than by Capitalism in the 20th century. Second, your statement about the $10/day neglects to mention that expenses in many parts of the world are much much lower than in America, and so that $10 can go a lot further there than here. Further, when you compare it to what the poor got per day before the advent of modern capitalism, it is quite a lot. Also consider populations and life expectancies have increased in the age of global capitalism. That should factor into your reasoning, no? Third, your comparison of slave counts in absolute terms between now and 1872 is ridiculous. There were (we think) around 1.5 billion people on the planet then, and almost 7 billion now. OK. So there are 30 million slaves today? Yes, that’s bad. But that is also 3 out of every 700 people, or 0.42%. Supposing there were only 10 million slaves in 1872 (couldn’t find the real number, but it is probably way higher than this). That would be 1 out of every 150, or 0.66% See? That’s an improvement, and we have modern capitalism and Christianity to thank for it. Finally, how can you pin slavery on capitalism when slavery existed during pre-history?

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