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.